Great and Small

(As I expect we will have some new readers shortly, this is both a new post and a guide to some of my recent thinking. Most of the links connect to earlier posts I’ve made.)

It’s quiet in my apartment this week. My partner Adrian is gone on work business, and it’s the first time we’ve been separated since we moved in together, so the daily rhythm that we’d begun to get accustomed to is suddenly gone. I’m not alone in the place, however; our cat, Hannah, is with me. Hannah is a tiny cat—in fact, her official nickname here is “Small One.”

I decided to take advantage of the quiet, and of Adrian’s library, by doing some reading and then some meditation. I picked up a book on alternatives to capitalism, a topic much in my mind of late. The theme dominated my thoughts as I tried to balance on my exercise ball and enter meditation.

I put the query out to the Spirit: “What would you want the economy to look like?”

And the Spirit answered, quite promptly: “Listen, and I’ll tell you.” So I listened. And the Spirit said:

“The great take care of the small.”

Ah, I thought. That makes sense—those with the greatest resources should take care of those with the least. Very Biblical, really. But how is that to be enforced? After all, there are many mechanisms in today’s society where the powerful and wealthy are supposed to look after the weak and poor, but too often they don’t seem to be doing it, or seem to do it so selectively that it’s not generally helpful for most people.

As I pondered this, a plaintive noise intruded on my thoughts. I looked down and saw the cat, trying to climb up into my lap. But since I was sitting on the exercise ball, I didn’t really have a lap, and Hannah was mewing with dismay. Oh, right, I realized. The great take care of the small. And here was the Small One, asking for some help. So I moved to the couch to generate a lap for her.

At first she decided she didn’t want it, after all, and roamed about the apartment for a bit—but before long she came back over and settled down, purring up a storm as we helped keep each other warm. Then the second piece of the lesson fell into place. “The great take care of the small” isn’t just an instruction—it’s a definition. If you don’t take care of others, you’re not great. Simple as that.

Which reminded me of many things: the idea of asking and giving rather than buying and selling; my thoughts on heaven and hell; how you get into heaven, according to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46; the laborers in the vineyard; and the story, probably apocryphal but still containing much truth, of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to recite the whole of Hebrew Law while standing on one foot. Hillel promptly stood on one foot, recited “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), put his foot down, and said, “The rest is commentary.”

What should the economy look like, according to the Holy Spirit? One where people take care of each other. The rest is less critical.

“Ten Thousand Hours”

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint,
The greats were great because they paint a lot.”

—Macklemore, “Ten Thousand Hours”

Some of you know Macklemore because of “Thrift Shop.” Some know him because of “Same Love,” his ballad in support of gay marriage. I fell in love with his work some years ago when I encountered his early song “White Privilege.” In the quote above, he’s not saying anything new—the title of the song and other lyrics make his debt to Malcolm Gladwell plain. The point is that if you want to be good at anything, you have to practice it a long, long time, and due to his long hours of work, Macklemore figured out a way to say it well—so well that the words grip me and refuse to let go.

In his book Outliers: the Story of Success (2008), Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything. To put that in perspective, if you started on January 1st, 2014, and worked at one single skill for ten hours a day, seven days a week, you’d be a true master of the skill on October 7th, 2016. Gladwell invented his number, of course, and everyone varies, but Gladwell has his reasons, and his central point is entirely sound. There are vanishingly few Mozarts in the world, child prodigies—and even Mozart reached the pinnacle of his genius because he took his talents and used them constantly. Macklemore works eighty-hour weeks.

So, Friends, let’s consider: if it would take nearly three years to master a skill while working at it non-stop, how long do you think it would take to master a skill only practicing it once a week? For an hour on Sunday mornings, say? Continue reading

The Economy of Love

Trust and Abundance

Some years ago, I lived in a house with several other young Quakers, and we often pooled our resources for buying food. This meant that people often thought whatever was in the fridge was up for grabs. Once I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and discovered that the loaf of bread that I’d been planning on using had vanished.

At first, I was irked. If anyone had asked me for the bread I would have gladly given it to them, I thought, but this was going too far. I had plans for that bread, after all, plans which were now ruined. But as I calmed myself down, I realized how ridiculous this was. For starters, there was plenty of food that I was welcome to eat, and before long I was munching on leftovers. Secondly, it occurred to me that a lot of my irritation was from having my plans thwarted, despite the fact that the food I was eating now was probably rather healthier and tastier than what I’d intended to eat. And finally, I remembered that it was just bread: not worth arguing about.

That lesson has come back to me recently. Last week I was eying my rather minuscule paycheck before I tried to settle into my daily worship. My mind would not let go of financial worries until I heard, “Don’t worry about the money. All will be attended to.” Later that day, an unexpected check from my grandmother turned up in the mail.

That was plain enough… but soon thereafter, I stumbled on the video of a TED talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but briefly, she makes two points about our modern-day economy: one, there is more value in the world than capitalism has measured with money, and two, there is an astonishing power in asking for money rather than charging, relying on love and generosity.

Then I visited the new-grown farm of some friends—including two Quakers who had lived with me in the house I mentioned earlier—and again got the sense that the universe was telling me something. Though I hadn’t planned on staying so long, they persuaded me to linger three days, with abundant hospitality. I initially demurred because I didn’t want to be a drain on their resources, but I earned my keep by helping with a few chores and with the spring planting—and by simply being a friendly face from outside the small and busy world they now inhabit.

There are two ways we can interpret all this: either I have figured out a high-concept way to justify my mooching, or the Spirit has just handed down a clear and lovely reminder of an old lesson: “You cannot serve both God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.24b-25).

Or, to put it another way: let go of that loaf of bread, and let yourself be fed. Continue reading

An Example

Once there was a good Quaker. She subscribed to Friends Journal and read all the FCNL action emails. She served as clerk of Coffee and Oversight Committee when asked to, and gave regularly to AFSC. She had raised all her children as Quakers, and one still even went to meeting! In short she was an exemplary Friend. And the Light came to her and gave her a powerful leading to wear a bright-orange traffic cone on her head as a hat. Continue reading

Quiet

Keen-eyed observers of this blog have no doubt noticed that it has gone silent. All five of you might be interested in an explanation.

I began this blog because I have something to say… but to be honest, mostly I felt like I had to do something. I felt powerless and unheeded, and I felt a fire in my bones—a fire which threatened to explode and break me, if I did not find some way of taking action. So I howled my thoughts into the internet, and occasionally people paid heed!

My life is changing, however. After a rough winter and a rough spring, I was finally persuaded to deal with my depression through medication. My suspicions about putting chemicals in my head were eroded by the experience and counsel of friends. Moreover, for years I had felt a simple leading: “Be yourself!” To which I always responded, “But I’m terrible.” Finally I came to realize that I am not my illness, and that to be truly me, I had to face my depression down.

The medication I am taking seems to be working quite well. The real test shall be this winter, but for the past few months I have felt somewhat more energetic and significantly more in control. So far the side effects appear to be making my bed and writing to my grandmother. But I also began—virtually spontaneously, which I find telling—to set aside some time each day for silence and worship. I’d tried and failed to develop this habit in the past, but now it is part of my daily life. I have no set length of time or time day for this practice; in fact, I have felt the call to silence at almost any time: walking in the park, reading the news. I center myself through quiet and slow breathing, or through my “mantras”: “Thy will be done.” “Thank you.” “Make wide my soul.” Sometimes the Spirit lends a hand, and I am told in no uncertain terms, “Be Still.”

This new practice has deepened my spiritual life considerably, not that it was altogether shallow before. I have felt the presence of the Light in my life quite strongly in the past weeks—I feel it as I type this now. This has steered me to finally act on some leadings I only toyed with in the past, such as giving up playing war games (and thus giving up a major part of some friendships). It has led me to speak in meeting several times, and other times led me to help deepen the silence.

Most significantly, this greater silence in my life and my new clarity of mind has led me to look again at my course. I find that while most of the essays I have posted in this blog are valuable, only a few rise to the level of messages. So I have slowed my writing, waiting for true Inspiration instead of being motivated to write by my anger—or even by my compassion. I have also seen that I do not need a blog to build an audience for my words: in fact, many Quakers seem to be seeking my opinion! So I begin to see that instead of shouting into the Internet abyss, perhaps my true calling is to speak into the silence of Meeting for Worship, and Meeting for Worship for Business.

At least for a time, my calling is to work in the Society of Friends. How I shall do that remains to be seen, and in many ways depends on how well I fare through the bleak winter months. But I know my course. It passes through all my meetings, and through next summer’s Friends General Conference gathering in Colorado. Beyond that I am not sure where I go, but knowing where to start is enough, and it makes a nice change. I have some inklings as to where I might go, however; I have some projects in the works. One, at least, is written; I am seasoning it for a long time, due to its weight. Other projects are more communal, for instance my attendance at other regional monthly meetings and some trips down to Portland for a young-Quakers potluck.

It has been months since I felt helpless, and months since I felt the fire in my bones burning its way out. I do not think this is because my medication has made me so mellow that I simply don’t notice or simply don’t care; nor do I think the fire was just a symptom of my disease. Rather, I think I no longer burn because I am finally on my way.

I am far from finished with this blog. Among other things I still have some essays waiting to be posted. I also have some ideas for future commentary, and I might sometimes write on some of my spoken ministry (as I have done occasionally before). But the Generous Grasp is no longer my primary means of speech or action in this world, though it will remain one of my tools. Expect new posts when you see them, but keep your eyes open; there is probably more that needs to be said.

No Second Coming

A whisper came into my soul and said, “Write!” And I asked, “What shall I write?” And the whisper said, “Write the words that are given to you, write the law that I wrote in your heart.” The whisper said, “Write of the world you live in, not of the next.” The whisper said, “Write of love and justice.”

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; because for the wealth of one we have beggared a thousand, and for the feast of ten we have let a million starve. The wealth of the great was a gift given that it might be given again, a blessing to be handed on for the blessing of all, but out of greed and pride and luxury it has been held back. Therefore all luxury shall pass away, and its passage will not be peaceful.

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; for what the One gave open-handed has been taken and consumed, and the fingers and the hand as well, and now we gnaw the wrist! The streams and the trees of the mountains are stripped and fouled, and the mountains themselves are thrown down, and not by faith but greed. The sea has been poisoned, and the air itself, and all the bounty that was once called limitless draws near to its end. Continue reading

One in Seven Billion

We are one.

It’s a frail and fragile solution I offer to the problems of the world; its only virtue is that it is the only possible permanent fix. In the old Quaker phrasing, it runs, “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” The voice out of Nazareth had it as “Love your neighbor.” In more modern terms, it might be, “You’ve got to be kind.” Give all people what you would ask for yourself and for your own family. Because we are all one kin, one people — we are all one. Continue reading

Love and Justice

Why am I here?

Well, they say that the Army teaches you to never volunteer. I was never in the Army.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, on Christmas Eve, I was reading one of my favorite books. After finishing the most powerful part, I stood up in my pajamas, emptied my mind, and said to the One Who Is Existence, “I pledge myself to your service.” The One took me at my word.

It goes a bit further back, maybe; I’d talked to my deity before, and on a few occasions my deity had said something in return. I can’t even remember the earliest conversations, or so my mom reports. She took me to silent Quaker worship from birth, and she tells a story about it: once a friend asked me about silent worship; I said, in classic four-year-old fashion, “We sit on our chairs in a circle and wait for God to talk to us.”

“And does he?” asked our practical friend.

As my mother tells it, I replied, “Oh yeah” — totally matter-of-fact.

Suffice it to say: I’ve had a long relationship with the Light and Spirit, to use Quaker terminology, quite possibly as long as my life. And I volunteered to serve. I did not specify the method of service, and that was chosen for me. Continue reading

The Storm

From June to September, I have a regular practice of checking the National Hurricane Center webpage to watch for storms. I’ve done this a few years now, and every time I see another hurricane coming, I find myself wondering: is this the one? Is this the holy storm that will hit us so hard that we’ll finally see the light? Katrina shone some light, made us see the wretchedness our society has papered over, made us see the poverty and contempt that creeps through our culture like a cancer. Then Katrina blew itself out and we looked away. So every time another alert goes up on the NHC website, I ask: will the wrath of a wronged, forsaken god finally come down on us? Will heaven finally stop pulling punches, truly lay us out, make us change?

And then I do this: I hope. I whisper, “Make it this one. Do it. Break us. Shatter our cities, open our eyes, make us see. Hit us. Hurt us.”

There’s a storm brewing; I hear there hasn’t been a storm like this since Gloria, or Bob, or the “Long Island Express.” This one is called Irene. It could tear up the whole coast, whack every city from Savannah to Boston, roll right into New York Harbor and hit that city as it has not been assailed in generations… no, not even ten years ago.

I was talking with my friend Jay, of whom I’ve written before. She lives in DC, and I said to her, “I’m glad you don’t live in New York.”

Saying this, I stopped. Jay’s not in New York, but Phoebe is; she’s an old flame of mine, I’d hate to see her hurt. And Jo, to whom I owe so much, is in Boston, which may suffer just as badly. In fact Irene is going to pass over every woman I’ve loved in the last five years.

Which made me wonder: do I only care if someone I’ve had a crush on is in danger? I actually have people all along that coast. Friends. Family. So many people I love in so many ways, from Atlanta north.

It hit me then: every single person in the storm-path is loved by someone.

If even one person dies, then someone’s heart will be broken.

I was ashamed then. I still am. Ashamed of quietly calling for a killer storm on everyone else, whispering prayers for divine judgment so long as they didn’t touch me or mine, not seeing or not caring that any deaths would rend someone as much as I would be rent if Jay or Jo or Phoebe or anyone else were hurt. Here I was, just months ago, saying how we are all connected. Here I was, just days ago, teaching myself to see everyone as people, so I can take the next step and love them as neighbors. And here I am today rooting for a city-breaking, world-changing storm to hit the next town over from my friends. I’ve drawn a circle around the people who matter to me and said, “Take the rest.”

We all do it, of course, not that it excuses me. Everyone has that circle, and beyond it we rarely raise a finger. Oh, sometimes we do, when a quake hits Haiti or a storm smashes New Orleans. But we don’t care enough to change the world’s ways — our ways — that put those people in the path of the storm to begin with. They are outside the circle.

But Christianity is about drawing one big circle around everyone ever created and saying, “This is who we care for. No one gets left out. No one is unloved.”

Hard, yeah. Likely impossible. But it’s written plain right there in the law: “Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Love your enemy.” If we don’t… well, then, the man from Galilee won’t even want to know us.

Then I remember that the One I follow is mercy and forgiveness incarnate, and that we absolutely get points for trying.

Irene is not the wrath of the One. If there’s anything heavenly in this hurricane, it’s in the hope that people will help each other. Not just this week or this year but all the time, in advance and ever after.

And if there’s no such thing as god, then absolutely nothing changes. If there’s no one watching us, we’re still watching each other. If there’s no reward, then helping just for helping’s sake is all the more beautiful and selfless.

Hurricanes will come. They aren’t the wrath of a heaven too long ignored. There won’t be a god-storm that opens eyes. If I want eyes opened, then I have to speak up.

So.

What will it be? Will we turn away from each other? Will we leave each other in the lurch again, forever look the other way?

Or will we face this storm and all storms? Face it together? Together as a community, as a country, as one people? Shall we again disappoint, or shall we rise to meet our promise?

Take my hand. Make the circle. Bring everyone in.

Giving

I am depressed.

I mean that both about my life in general and about me, today. It’s genetic; I can see traces of problems on both sides of my family. I could also attribute it to a biological father who left me and my mother when I was young, or a stepfather who meant to teach me to avoid ego and instead taught me to avoid self-worth. I can blame brain chemistry, an awkward and isolated childhood, my social life, lack of light in Seattle winters. But ultimately blame leads nowhere, least of all to solutions.

For me depression means lack of energy, lack of interest, feelings of hopelessness, and above all a bitter self-loathing and self-sabotage. I can remember feeling sad with no cause when I was very young, and I can remember taking out my frustrations against myself. I learned emotional masochism, making myself feel worse through guilt or making my life more difficult, so that at least I would be in control of the amount of pain I was feeling. Since I was a storyteller from almost my first word, this meant my heroes would all prevail against vicious odds, but pay the price, suffering serious wounds in the moment of victory. They would then live out the rest of their lives maimed and meaningless.

It took twenty-odd years, but eventually I went from telling stories about it to doing it myself. I was a cutter for a year and a half, and I have nearly a score of scars visible on my arm.

One night I tried to go further. I knew a high place, and I intended to jump off it. Something or Someone stopped me, but it was a struggle. I contemplate suicide to this day. I won’t do it. But I think about it. Living is not easy; it’s like going through life in heavy chains, forever constrained by the bonds and by the sheer weight. Everything is a little harder, a little worse, a little more painful, and self-destruction to one degree or another is my constant companion. This is what depression is.

Yet for all this, my case is light. Many days I have no symptoms, and I can live like anyone else. My case is sufficiently mild and sufficiently idiosyncratic that I have never considered medication. I have never trusted any method that would rely on me alone. I am too good at self-sabotage to be solely responsible for my own health. If I chose to take medication, I could just as easily choose to not take it, and frankly, knowing myself, I would stop at the worst possible time.

Besides, I have a cure.

It is not a quick fix; nothing is. My cure is more Sisyphus than silver bullet (and while it works for my mind it couldn’t possibly work for all mental illness). And it is less easily weighed, measured, and dosed than any pill. My cure is other people.

When I look into a mirror, I see flaws, failures, a useless lump of flesh that cannot–will not–accomplish anything that is worth the oxygen it consumes. This is because mirrors lie. We look into them and see what we expect, out of our pride, our misery, or our mediocrity. It takes someone else, someone who loves us for who we really are, to tell us the truth and do what no mirror can: show us our real selves.

Sometimes one person is a strong enough force in my life to bring my mind into balance for a time, by herself. I’ve already written of Jay, who helped me through my addiction to cutting. She didn’t do it herself; she couldn’t have helped me unless I was willing to be helped. And I could not have done it without her to help me. So we owe each other the victory. And Jay isn’t the only one who’s been so stabilizing for me.

Hanging my sanity on one person works, if it’s the right person… but only for a time. If nothing else it’s tiring for them. I try to give back, but I can’t always, not at the right time or in the right way. And even strong relationships of mutual support will eventually end, one way or another, because everyone dies. So the only way I can make my cure work is by drawing on many people, and the only way it’s fair is if I use the strength and stability they’ve given me to help them in return.

I have often wondered why, in the One’s big plan, I was born under such a shadow of depression. And if there is no grand plan, I’ve wondered what use I can make of my illness, how I can make it serve me rather than the reverse.

Now I know.

My cure is the world’s cure, or the beginnings of one. The support I need–and the support I hope I can in turn give others–is the support we all need. I just need a little more of it. No one can go through life alone. Every great hero we’ve ever heard of had a hundred helpers; even Jesus of Nazareth needed family and friends. I have said, “We are one.” This is what I meant. People supporting other people and being supported in turn. Those who have–be it money, power, or in my case just a better view of who I am–supporting those who have not. And then, as all such stories go, the balance shifts, and those who were needy become those who give. Many times it is love and truth, as with me. Sometimes it may be a larger act, perhaps those who have money and power giving to those who need it more, and getting back what they most need: forgiveness.

It all begins in weakness. It begins by saying that we need help, then by asking as I have asked. It is a renunciation of power, a confession of vulnerability, and for many of us it is the most terrifying act of our lives. But do as I have done. Say, in your weakness, “Please. I need help.”

You’ll be amazed, as I have been amazed, at who comes to your aid, and how. Then in time you will become the one to give, so listen to your neighbor’s whispered cry–“Please. I need help”–remember your own weakness, and give to them in the same measure as someone gave to you. And so our weakness becomes our strength.

This is the story of all family, of all community, of every union and every alliance, the story of all democracy, of all humanity. Asking for help and giving it, not once but always, giving back what’s been given, day in and day out. It is the story of all hope.

Give and ask and give again, world without end, forever and amen.