Random Thoughts

Just Keep Swimming: Pandemic Edition

This is my first blog post since everything has changed. Everything. So where to start? To begin with, today I am not going to talk about the politics of it all. I wanted to lay out the sequence of events so that I can remember them–where I was, what I was doing. Reflections will come later.

In February, we heard the word Wuhan for the first time. I recall Sarah mentioned it in passing, and I remember replying, “Oh, ok, uh-huh,” without stopping what I was doing. Throughout that month and into March, I may or may not have clicked on updates from China that came across my news feed, but since it was not a topic yet related to U.S. politics (my preferred topic), I likely kept scrolling. Then came March.

On March 1, there were 75 confirmed cases in the U.S. On March 9, the day Sarah was to drive to South Florida for a math conference, there were 704. On March 10, we cancelled a cruise we had booked with Sarah’s family and church pals. Then on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. By March 12, the day she decided to come home early, the number was 1,697 (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/ ). By the way, COVID-19 is the specific strain of coronavirus (a general group of viruses); to call it the Chinese coronavirus is not only inaccurate, it’s racist. Yep. You may not care for the Chinese government, but those folks over there got sick like us folks over here. See? 

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By mid-March–which sounds and feels like a decade ago as I write it–online news sources had special COVID-19 pages/links, where you could see all news updates related to the virus in one place. The 2020 Democratic primary was affected. Super Tuesday was pretty much overshadowed. Candidates and other politicians–including the president, who thrives on rallys–began cancelling. The last Democratic debate–like all late night shows–were held without live audiences. I must admit I approve of the format for debates–for Stephen Colbert, not so much. As early as Saturday, March 7th, Kennesaw State University had begun to develop a “continuity plan” in the event face-to-face classes were suspended. It was essentially a plan for all courses to go online.

Unexpected issues started cropping up, too. For example, what would students do if dorms and dining halls were closed? What about homeless students (and all universities have them)? What about students who did not have computers or notebooks, but only their smartphones? The news channels began to have question and answer programming where viewers sent in questions for experts to answer. We submitted our plan to the university president by March 10th, and then we waited. It truly felt like a calm before the storm, eerie silence and all. By the evening of Friday the 13th, announcements came that public schools and universities would go online the following week. Church services across the country scrambled to find ways to make virtual worship meaningful. This was also the day that everyone in America went to the grocery stores for toilet paper.

Monday, March 16, was the day the stock market had its worst day since 1987. It was also the day we started setting up our home offices. Sarah had worked all weekend preparing to teach three in-person classes completely online–and have office hours virtually. I brought home monitors and books from the office after having one virtual meeting on my laptop. Honestly, I need the 2 monitors so I can do other things during the meeting, like look for social distancing staples online. You know you do it too, which is why it is on one of the 10,000 blog posts called, “Good Virtual Meeting Etiquette.” I have so far had five virtual meetings this week. It got so bad, one group had trouble finding a time–from home during social distancing!–to schedule our next meeting. A well-meaning colleague suggested meeting early–8:30 or 9:00 am–so that people would be free. I told him it was obscene to start that early. Because we are at home does not mean we are always “on,” which he was NOT suggesting. But it’s something to think about.

virtualmeetings

So, it is Friday, March 20, and we are caught up with the basics. I have learned how to change my Zoom background and so far have been at the Grassy Knoll, the White House, Graceland, and inside the Tardis. We have cooked more this week. Sarah has started an outdoor garden–so far with mainly carrot tops from our increased vegetable consumption. My office is a thing of beauty, and I am about to run out of diversionary tactics related to rearranging it. I have so far ventured out twice–both times to the office and thrift shop. I took wipes and sanitizer. I have taken a walk. We are ahead of the laundry. I have read Scripture and Sister Joan Chittister’s take on The Rule of Benedict every morning.

The other pandemic task I worked on this week was connecting. I realized that part of my own continuity plan should include staying in contact with people. As an introvert, it’s saying a lot that I should have that as my concern, but I am aware that I self-isolate enough anyway–imagine when it is mandatory! So, I hit the Facebook and made “Friends” with people from all parts of my life: colleagues, church folks, family, old classmates, scholar friends. I paid attention as people started setting up “Hangouts” and various groups and web meet ups. There have also been plenty of news and blogs encouraging people to take precautions to avoid loneliness, which will be very real as this thing goes along. Speaking of blogging, it’s another way I feel connected, and I’m planning on doing it more. There should be plenty to write about. One thought I had this week, during my containment prep, was how aptly named the blog is, Just Keep Swimming. If it was appropriate up to now, it sure is as we move forward. It is, for me, a hope-full idea: hang on, keep going, do the best you can. That’s the plan, anyway. 

dolphinhope

 

A Parenting Psalm: Wisdom Prayer for My Children

I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.

Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.

Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.

This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.

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I Heart Blogging, or, Thank You Dorothy Allison

Here’s what you’ll see on my About page now.

When Sam Phillips’ secretary at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, asked Elvis who he sounded like, he replied, “I don’t sound like nobody, ma’am.” Writing can be such an isolating activity, that I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like I don’t write like anybody else does. I sure don’t feel like my writing is a neat fit in most other places. Blog writing feels right. First, it isn’t traditional academic writing like I’m required to do as a professor. I cheat at that usually–it’s such a formulaic, forced disciplinary exercise. When I do it, I write my narrative first and then sprinkle in the theory. Don’t laugh~~it earned me a Ph.D. and tenure. Thing is, the narrative is all I ever want to write.

For the purpose of categorizing it, I’m going to call it personal essay and memoir writing. It’s personal, and it’s narrative.

It’s not exactly essay, if by essay we prescribe more gatekeeping formulas. Same with memoir. It’s not storytelling exactly either, not like fiction. It is storying, though.  For example, here’s a true one. Back in around 2003, Miss Dorothy Allison came to LSU while I was working on a doctorate in education. I just love Dorothy Allison, especially her Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature. I was lucky enough to participate in a writing workshop one evening, lucky because most of the spots were taken by English majors.

One of the exercises was to free write for a few minutes. She asked for volunteers to share, and I, having a huge student crush, shot my hand up. I truly think my writing is not half bad, and have been told as much. So I shared. Did I mention that almost every other participant was an English major? English majors take their critiques of writing very seriously. The most scathing was from a very serious woman who accused me of attempting to replicate Miss Allison’s style, which honest to God, had never crossed my mind. You know how crushing it is to the soul when someone looks at you–and you recognize the look as one of pity? Miss Dorothy Allison looked at me like that.

Still, it’s–this–is the kind of writing I want to do. The kind that, try as I might, is what comes out. I still don’t think it’s half bad. That’s why I’m putting it out here. If not another soul reads it–or if English majors do and snicker like the Prufrockian Eternal Footman–I like seeing it here.

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Me and Miss Dorothy Allison, 2003. Before the English majors got a hold of me….

Thoughts on Prayer Following the Christchurch Massacre

As I write this, another heinous mass shooting has taken place by white supremacists, this time in New Zealand. Almost 50 of our Muslim neighbors were murdered and 20 seriously injured, killed while they were praying. This attack is on my mind and heart as I contemplate this week’s Core Forum on prayer. As one public figure tweeted this morning, “Whether it is antisemitism in Pittsburgh, racism in Charlottesville, or the xenophobia and Islamophobia to day, violent hate is on the march at home and abroad….Silence is complicity.” I include this because the connection is made to multiple groups that are targeted for no other reason than hatred of any particular difference. The city where this atrocity occurred is called, ironically or not, Christchurch.

I have a chaplet that has inspired my prayer this week. If any of you are like I was and do not know what a chaplet is, it is a kind of small rosary–a prayer object–that usually has a saint medallion/object attached to the beads. Mine has two medallions. The first is St. Francis, whose prayer I have always loved, and the other, newer one is Julian of Norwich, whose mystical experiences inspire me. Julian’s words also comfort me like a gentle voice and touch soothes a child: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. I also made this quote my phone wallpaper–a postmodern engagement with the 15th century mystic. Still, when I see the words, I pray them. I’m thinking Fundamentalist Evangelicals do not a rule pray chaplets or contemplate icons in our prayer life. That’s unfortunate because for me it has deepened my prayers. Henri Nouwen says, “Icons…lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God” (p. 61). Whether icons are kinesthetic like mine, or natural, they open us to the Mystery of God’s presence.

The politician’s quote, above, suggests to us that the end to hatred and violence–peace–comes at a great price: our psychological, emotional, and embodied engagement. I am reminded that when the messages of MLK, JFK, and RFK turned from civil rights to peace, their lives were extinguished. The work of peace is a work of justice, and justice is the nature of God. Thoughts and prayers are not acts of peace in the world; prayer is that place of mystery where we might know that all will be well. Prayer is the interior castle (Teresa of Avila) where we are lost with and strengthened by our Beloved. Prayer is not what we do for the oppressed; prayer is what we do for ourselves so that we can have the strength to do the hard work of justice. God waits for us.

Coda: When John Lennon’s “Imagine” was released in 1971, it scared people–Christians who feared the new peaceful, global social order it suggested. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said that Dick Gregory had given Ono and him a Christian prayer book, which inspired the concept behind “Imagine.” A prayer book. He said,

The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true … the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea. (Wikipedia).

They were right to be scared, for it calls for an end of systems of domination, by definition the domain of the dominant culture. I wonder if we are any more willing to pray it today.

Imagine (a Prayer)

The lyrics are below.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today (ah ah ah)
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
post This is a place for peaceful contemplation inspired by story. What is spiritual mindfulness? For me, it is remembering to feed my spirit. This blog is a spiritual practice~~storying the soul, if you will. Most sites I find on either one of these topics focuses on meditative and wellness practices. Maybe that’s what you are expecting here. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised as instead you find a narrative approach to exploring spirituality, mindful of the everyday. That’s what I do–I write. For almost two decades I dedicated my time and energies (a lot of mental energy, i.e. worry) to academic writing. Here’s how I did it: I would write my narrative essays about place, religion, gender, sexuality, white privilege, etc., and then cite the requisite sources (that’s the academic part). But a funny thing kept happening. People would approach me after a panel presentation and say, “You know, you really ought to write a book with just your stories.” Which is exactly what I wanted to be doing. The problem is, I am an academic; thus, the academic writing.  This is a period of discernment and transformation in my life. Of course, that’s part of what you’ll find here too. I started to seminary and had to make some life choices. One was to step back from academic writing and do the kind of writing I really do enjoy–and that’s what you are reading now. I invite you to come along on my journey as I nourish my own spirit through story telling, being mindful of every, every minute, as Emily in Our Town would say. It is my hope that my stories offer you nourishment of some kind too.  The writing here comes from observations that dawn on me as I go about living life with as much intentionality as I can muster. That’s the mindfulness part. What makes it spiritual? Well, that’s the part of me where the words come from—the part that hopes to connect us to, as Paul Tillich would put it, the ground of our being. One.

Lessons from My Face

Prompt from Mindfulness: A Journal (Price, 2016)
Make a list of ten everyday activities that you find relaxing or soothing–even those as small as calling a friend or making a cup of your favorite tea. Try it! Do one of the activities on your list and write about your experience. 

The List, in no particular order:
1. read–theology, queer theology, JFK assassination theories
2. watch television–documentaries, period pieces, docu-dramas, biographies
3. having my afternoon cup of espresso made with my luxury-item coffee maker
4. playing piano
5. tidying up
6. singing
7. listening to music, which kind of music depends on my mood
8. reverie, including porch time with close friends
9. meditating with my Calm app

I realize this is probably a sad little list for many people. I can’t even think of a last item offhand. But I think my simple list hints at my capacity for finding joy in the simplest of experiences, noticing a blue bird, for example. This capacity, in turn, points to my state of being generally, happy. I have, though, always had a facial expression that belies this inner state; I found out it has a name: bitchy- or angry-resting face.  Challenge enough, without the surly-resting face that Bells Palsy begat. These days I have to work to put my best face forward.

It has almost been a year since Bell’s Palsy took over the left side of my face. I’ve written about it~the depression and frustration and then hope-full-ness. So, after a year I realize that I have some important takeaways from the experience. The most important is when God wants to get your attention, God finds a way.

What else have I learned? Well first, people look instinctively at the face for a clue as to how any given interaction is going to go, whether it is saying hello or engaging in conversation. I have learned to flex my smile muscles when I’m walking down the hall or into someone’s office or into a meeting. Otherwise, I can see in their eyes that they’re bracing themselves. This is different than before the BP~~now I can actually feel the muscles pull when I try to look pleasant, or when I smile. If, as the author of The Surprising Psychology of Smiling, below, is correct and smiles tell you something important about the wearer, I must intentionally craft a message of authentic friendliness if I expect folks to tell my important thing!

The Surprising Psychology of Smiling

I don’t have a poker face; I cannot remain neutral whether I am pleased or aggravated. The other day I learned the term for this: microexpressions. A microexpression is an involuntary facial expression that occurs in around 1/25 of a second and exposes one’s true emotions. Wikipedia tells us that they occur when a person is trying to conceal all signs of how they feel about an interaction or situation. Microexpressions seem to be universal; everybody has them. People with good social skills learn how to recover from them faster than others. Still, I am not sure there is much “micro” about my expressions. They go directly to macro. Now I actively practice relaxing my face so that it can achieve a neutral expression, and I savor the feeling of the muscles at peace.

My face isn’t always doing what I think it is. This is particularly noticeable in the morning when my face is waking up with the rest of me. It takes a second of extra effort to raise my left eye completely. One morning I looked at myself in the mirror while I was singing. The sound was coming out as usual–I sounded like myself. But only one side of my face was animated and expressive; the left side was still lagging behind. My mouth looked more like a “D” than an “O.” I’ve really had to practice this one. During choir, I have to work those same smile muscles in both my mouth and my eye while singing. And while it feels from the inside like I have a pageant smile on my face, it’s actually forming my old singing face. This reminds me of how you have to exaggerate expressions and voice on the stage during a play. It may feel like over acting, but it comes out sounding natural.

I have learned to take cues from my face. When I become frustrated or irritated, I can feel the large muscle in my cheek–the one that runs from my eye to my mouth, which makes it a serendipitous mindfulness check. Stress almost certainly triggered the BP in the first place, so I use its manifestation to my advantage. And, I continue to search for a spiritual meaning in it all.  For example, one charge to Christians is to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet, which is another kind of mindfulness cue~~one toward compassionate service, of love. I like the thought of this, of seeing the face of Christ in ourselves and others, but Jesus’s expressions were not just happy ones. He suffered from emotional, psychological, and physical wounds. Jesus got mad; he too was under stress. I guess that is really an important lesson I had not thought of~~to accept my new natural face. If ultimately this is the most muscle control I ever recover, which I reckon to be around 87% (when I can whistle properly, I’ll round it up to 90%), then I must lovingly cherish my face, deliberately, as I have not had to do before. I mean, of course I used to wish that my nose were pointer and my smile bigger, but it was my face and I loved it. I am learning to love it again now, and in the process I am learning so much more.

Billy Joel “The Stranger”

Where Have You Gone, Jed Bartlet?

Sarah and I have recently taken to binge watching The West Wing. She’d never seen the entire series; I had, but after this presidential election, I wanted to watch it again. That doesn’t really capture it. I felt compelled to watch it again. Even during the presidential debates, I started getting the feeling that in some way reality was slipping away from me and my country. Here was the heir apparent, the presumptive winner of the whole shebang, Hillary Clinton. She looked like a president; she talked like a president; she had all the experience and credentials one (well, a democrat one) would expect and hope for in a president. She appeared in debates with Nondescript White Guy and Bernie Sanders, a socialist senator from Vermont. A socialist senator from Vermont??? But, Bernie kept her–and us–honest.  I never for one minute thought he was electable, but we need politicians like Bernie Sanders to influence the Democrat platform toward equity and access.

On the Republican side there were more candidates than a stage could hold. The thing is, I’m a firm democrat, but there were a few Republicans that I could have resigned myself into voting for if, say, it was uncovered that Hillary had broken the law or was indicted before the election. As I’m writing this, I find it incredible that I just talked about a voting option pending my candidate being indicted for a felony. The signs, you see, were always already there. Anyway, one by one TV celebrity and real estate tycoon Donald Trump picked off credible Republican candidates. He bullied, he lied, he badgered, he mocked, he was dismissive, until at last, there was only him. He was the Celebrity Apprentice host!!!

Election night at our house looked a lot like the SNL skit the following week. Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/SHG0ezLiVGc. We had barely gotten our election night snacks out before the tide started to turn. The story that night, for me, was less that our highly qualified candidate lost, or even that the unfit, unqualified, unprepared, and undesirous candidate won. The story was the shock and despair of the commentators and pundits. When James Carville and Rachel Maddow tell us we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble. Like the (white) people in the skit, our night devolved as it went on.

Then came the 75 days of blissful collective denial. Never have I heard so little talk–so little acknowledgement–of the transition of presidential power. We were a country living a Diana Ross song: just walk away in the cold morning light but let us have the warmth of this long, last night.

And then the inauguration happened. So we turned to our president for solace and wisdom–our president of choice, that is. As we watch our nightly West Wing episodes, astonishingly, the “current” events of the show are again and again eerily similar to current events in our new un-reality. I understand that WW characters are blessed with good scripts–smart, educated, professional, savvy, clever, introspective, commanding–and the genius of Aaron Sorkin.  It’s when I turn it to MSNBC that the badly scripted please-don’t-let-this-be-real-reality show begins. It’s not that a television series presents a more desired reality, it presents a more realistic reality.

Yesterday, I found a Buzzfeed post from one year ago this week, 28 Jed Bartlet Moments We All Need To Be Reminded of Right Now (www.buzzfeed.com/robinedds/let-bartlet-be-bartle). Now that I think about it, it’s not that I need to be reminded of Jed Bartlett moments, it’s that I just so badly want to be. And, I’m not the only one. I’ve mentioned my realistic reality hypothesis to several friends, and they often reply that they too are re-watching the series seeking their own Jed Bartlet moments. These moments model statesmanship and diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. They show a flawed president, his seat-of-the-pants staff, a nettlesome press, and an entrenched, polarized congress–making government work. Making democracy work. I think here’s the part that makes the realities so stark for me: when called upon to make certain very hard decisions, Bartlet grapples with his integrity, his ethical compass. He makes the decision but he does so loathsomely. Our current president shows no sign of grappling–in fact, no sign of an ethical compass. There is no sign, even, of an acknowledgement that any decision was difficult. We do not know how this president comes to a decision, and how one comes to a decision is sometimes as significant as the decision itself.

Where Bartlet feels such a profound sense of accountability to Americans that it visibly weighs on him, there is no evidence of such a sense on our current president. So I will end this post with the obvious: if he doesn’t have one, we’ll provide it for him. We must not normalize this unrealistic character who has crafted the most elaborate reality show in U.S. history, and we must hold him accountable–by insisting that the press call him on every word, every move. In one marvelous scene (of many), Jed’s Chief of Staff reminds senior staff of a core maxim by writing on a yellow pad, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet. Leo knew that Bartlet’s character was an intangible asset to be factored into the hard work of governing. So I say Let Trump Be Trump, for his character, too, will manifest so that its effect upon government can no longer be ignored.

Below is a YouTube link to the Feckless Thug scene of Two Cathedrals. Enjoy.

https://youtu.be/dVgK5HKj3P4

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