Other People’s Sacred Space

Work sent me to Salt Lake City so that I could present at a conference. My hotel turned out to be four blocks from the Latter Day Saints Temple Square, so of course I walked there. After laying my eyes on the enormous, very American temple, curiosity shuffled me over to the visitor center. Wearing black and Dr. Martens, I felt like all eyes that laid back on me read “trespasser”, despite that I was a visitor, and it was a center for that sort of thing. I passed through almost invisible. I felt more out of place than anyone made me to feel; seemed like hardly anyone took notice though I felt very visibly out of place. The sister missionaries were remarkably beautiful young women, so beautiful that I googled “Are missionaries at Temple Square selected for their looks?” when I got back to the hotel room.

It’s not my first foray into someone else’s sacred space. From the outside, it probably looks like it’s a hobby of mine, going to churches that I don’t belong to. I’ve lost track of how many Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Buddhist or Unitarian houses of worships I’ve been to. I am not gawking but looking for something, in a way my gut gets more so than one I can articulate. I stand in the back or outside of a church, empathizing with how it must feel to see the gorgeous murals and frescoes and statues of graphic scenes, having these be renditions of your beliefs. I’m a person of faith myself, but my faith is not so specific with one creation story, and it doesn’t privilege one message from God over others (or even if there is God to be doing the messaging) These are parts of the story of humanity, making them mine as well. But groups have boundaries and criteria for belonging. I am usually on the other side, even within my own religion.

Salt Lake City is a gorgeous city. The hills and mountains surrounding it give that sense of being hugged by heaven because the sky always seems closer when there are mountains around. With the thin, cool mountain air, the mountains in the background, I often walked by myself but I did not feel existentially alone. That sounds crazy. Maybe it is. Every placard I bumped into had some piece of history about Mormon settlers – they settled there seeking God. They built it to be sacred to their selves and to God. That was when a thing I knew became a thing my heart figured out too – sacredness is a decision that someone, somewhere made. I realized that, on some levels, I had been going through life looking for the things that felt authentically sacred to me in a way concordant to in my non-specific faith. Sacredness is like love: make a decision and commit.

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No further

I walk alone at night to resist the patriarchy, and all of the discourse that suggests my most feminine trait is being a target for violence. These memes create expectations. Fear becomes the expected behavior, couched in folk wisdom; of course you wouldn’t walk outside at night. Of course you should stay inside. It’s safe. I refuse to be a damsel in distress, locking herself in a castle. I’m not naive; I am more familiar with how much stronger men are than I’d like. I regularly read the police maps to see what happened that was worth attempting to bother our local precinct. But I’ve walked these and those streets at 10PM and midnight and during daylight in the weather-battered neighborhoods people call “bad”. I’d be FDR’s star student, fearing fear more than anything else. Knock on wood, none of my problems have arisen from this habit.

Some of them have been solved, actually. I walk because I need some quiet time, time to think, and time to be alone. This has been a habit since I was a teenager, one I discontinued when my children were born. Kids, you know, they don’t sleep well at first. I resumed it a couple months ago when I temporarily stop drinking. I dried out because I just need to figure out why was I drinking so often. Answer? Numbing, an old human story. Anyway, I kept the habit because fuck the patriarchy and here’s to helpful coping skills.

I cross the boundary out of my neighborhood. One foot after the other, down the street, over the bridge, down another road. If I continue long enough, I get to a park. It’s closed. That doesn’t stop too many people. I see joggers and college students among the lights and the historic features. There’s a pond. It’s a fraught pond, a metaphor-for-Buffalo pond, where it looks lovely on the surface but it’s complicated below. I turn off the music and walk the path. It was quiet, the birds were singing, and the stars were ever slightly more visible. I’d have bottled the calm, if I could, and brought it to you when you told me you were distressed.

I hiked to this point, quiet and beautiful. Something in my gut told me to go no further. I heard only wind and leaves. I saw nothing. I couldn’t tell if it was because nothing was there or because it was so dark I would not see it. I paused. I scanned as far as I could see.

There was nothing apparent but this uneasy feeling in my stomach. “Am I afraid of the dark?” I asked myself, What is dark but uncertainly. What is fear, but speculation about uncertainty? I do not want to be afraid of nothing. The only so-called resistance work I do right now is the rebellious choice to be calm, to be blasted by the winds of outrage – outrage that I feel too – and stay still.

There is a such thing as stupid risks. With little to gain but a few hundred yards in that direction, I respected the feeling and turned around. Walking away left me curious, and nothing more. Yet odds are, walking through likely would have resulted in me being unscathed and curious at the anxiousness in my gut. Is it a socialized fear? Did I overrun my propensity towards risk? I don’t know. And I don’t get to find out with the decisions I made.

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My love for you is water, and I am not sure that is good. It flows, it rushes, and it makes up most of what am I am and facilitates all of what I do. It has beauty. It can be destructive. It tastes like life and smells like death and sounds like an calm spring evening, falling to the ground. It looks and feels differently as the seasons change. There to quench, there to overwhelm, or to be a scenic backdrop for something else. Forgive me, love, as I’m steady in the cool, calm in the warmth, but when it gets cold, I’m sharp and hard. In heat I disappear into the air, only to fall back when the circumstances are favorable, and that’s not fair at all. All these failed efforts at climate control; you need me more lake than puddle, more river than stream, more faucet than leak when we’re tossed about that which we cannot control. All of these impurities, I left them on the bottom in my failed efforts pretend they were not there at all. I considered dredging them up to be more pure. I considered capping them with concrete to keep them safe. I want to show you perfection, I want to be perfection, as we conspire to make a mirage pretending we’re all better than we are. Alas. I own these flaws, and it’s high time I dissolved them into the rest of me in the name of sticking around better when it’s hot, staying fluid in the cold. It took me too long to understand that my love is useless distilled.

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“And if we’ve come a long way
Then I suspect it’s sideways
Further from our origin
No closer to our destination.”
-Dessa, “Mineshaft”

We want the road we’re walking on to be the one that leads to where we go. Trouble is, we make the road as we walk it. You cannot ask for a map for that which does not exist.

Are you all familiar with Dessa? Even if you’re not into rap, it’s worth your time to go to genius.com and look up her lyrics for the poetry. “Mineshaft” is where she introduces herself to you. “The list of things I used to be, is longer than the list of things I am.” She’s largely lamenting herself or things she’s done. The hook is, “I’ve been here before / I know where it goes / It goes down”. I have noticed a few thematic loops in my own life coming full circle. I’m standing in new places feeling like the reflections in the windows are all familiar. I’ve been here before. I’m not so sure where it goes, but I have my suspicions.

Not all movement is progress. Not all motion is forward. You can work towards something with all your heart, and fail. Righteousness does not guarantee success. The universe has no arc, it’s just a myth to reassure us. I’m not knocking it – we need all the reassurance we can get. History is largely a list of all the times we were nasty to each other. That’s what makes this hard.

Rev. Alison Miller said, in an episode of the VUU (may the puns never end), a lot of stuff, but one idea that stayed with me is that leadership now is a matter of who you choose to follow. She was describing how white people need to pay attention to people of color and how people in power need to draw their gaze towards the marginalized. It’s wise advice. If you are going to take someone else’s directions, best to see what their road looked like for them. If it is completely uncharted territory, sharpen your compass, make sure you don’t lose sight of that horizon.

I confess: I don’t trust the narrative of “resistance”. I don’t trust those who enthusiastically embrace the identity. It’s like when someone identifies their self as being a good person in a social media bio – really? Since when was that for you to decide? All of this seems more like it should be a matter of show and not tell. I can string a few convincing sentences together too. I can declare commitments. It is all about the follow-through. It is about what you do about what you see.

I stepped back from the fight but didn’t leave the ring. You’ll find me leaning on the ropes, watching the punches everyone else is throwing. Cowardly? Maybe? Bets are looking like they’d make better hedges lately, at least with the landscape in front of me. I don’t fight just to bleed, I don’t pick roses for their thorns, and my efforts towards social change were feeling that way. Picking fights for the sake of demonstrating I’m willing to do it. Risking a (metaphoric) punch to show I can wear the bruises. I went along because others said it was the right path to the destination I seek, but you know? It took time to admit it to myself, because getting there mattered so much to me, but I didn’t trust them. Reasons. Is it me? Is it them? Reasons. I’m walking on my own. That is a recipe for failure too. There’s few guides where I am trying to go. Time to be brave. Time to be wise. Time to be ready to reconcile how bravery and wisdom have conflicting pre-requisites.

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Power in my religious community

White supremacy is like a field: easier to recognize when you’re looking at it from far away, harder to see it when you’re hopping from blade of grass to blade of grass. Is this just grass, or is this part of the field?

I was asked to write about the hiring controversy in the Unitarian Universalist Association. This is a thorough summary with lots of play-by-play details. If you read my blog from UUpdates.net, you’re privy to what was going on. If you are one of my friends or you read my blog from Twitter, this is the Too-Long; Didn’t Read version: OK, y’all know I’m Unitarian Universalist, right? Right. There was a hiring controversy within the organization that, for lack of a better term, organizes the congregations of my religion. It went to regionalization, and there are leads for every region. Leads don’t have to live in the region. A person of color was overlooked for a position in favor of someone white for reasons of “fit”. “Fit” is often used as a term meaning one’s conforming to pre-existing norms and relationships. So a qualified person of color being overlooked for a position otherwise entirely populated by white people is the sort of thing you’d expect to see when you’re seeing white supremacy. The president of the UUA made comments, not terribly helpful ones. Active UUs, who tend to be very passionate about anti-racist efforts, rallyed and spoke out to advocate for more people of color in leadership and unraveling white supremacy within the leadership of the faith. Ultimately, UUA president Rev. Peter Morales resigned, saying that his words had done more harm than good and he felt he was not the person to lead the UUA out of it.

I watched this like I am watching most things right now: quietly.

On one hand, I am a white person who feels strongly that we need to disassemble white supremacy and supremacy ideology in general.

On the other hand, I felt it wasn’t my place to comment. Listen: I’m out of covenant with the UU community. I care about it. I feel like I belong there more than I belong in any other religious community. It’s that I don’t show up. I give very little energy to UU-specific endeavors, feeling spent after the work I do in the city and the labor of love that is my family. I am not disconnected- I am a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and I do occasionally darken the door of my local congregations. But how often am I actually physically around other UUs? Uuuuh. Does it count that my neighbor, two doors down, is UU? No? How about that time at SURJ, that other time, or that other time? Not a religious-enough thing? Well… There were at least four of us at another neighbor’s Orthodox Christmas celebration, does that count?

No, no it does not. If I’m not an outright outsider, I’m standing in the entrance-way, holding open the door. What right to I have to peak in and comment? Well, turns out I’ve now been asked twice to do it, by people I respect. So here goes:

This is what I understand: Power has a habit of reproducing itself. Power takes what is already seen as legitimate and excludes all else. Power makes its norms ubiquitous. You know how we don’t know what oxygen smells like? That we rarely stop to think about it? Power is like that. Power is the thread that holds together narratives about what is normmal, and proper, and what should be. If you knew nothing at all about the UUA, it’s existence in this context means it’s very unlikely to be unscathed by prevailing power dynamics: white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, heterosexism, and the list goes on. People who know stuff about the UUA have details. Supremacy, if you’re not actually looking for it, if you’re in the group that it favors, can feel pretty subtle. It is what normal tastes like if you’re not in the habit of being critical. So hiring a white person over a qualified person of color in a mostly white staff? Hiring a minister over a director of religious education? Yeah. That is the sort of thing you would expect from institutions reinforcing their norms.

The UUA, like many professional institutions, relies upon a socialization process that most frequently includes getting a master’s degree, a few internships, and the approval of a committee before someone becomes a fellowshipped minister. I am told that fellowshipped ministers tend to be favored for leadership over let’s say ordained non-fellowshipped ministers or directors of religious education or lay people. The training that one gets in that process is what is considered most legitimate. Regardless of whatever the content matter of that training (I mean, I don’t know that much about it), the process ensures that there will be a certain homogeneity of people who become fellowshipped. On the most basic level, they will be the people who can tolerate the process. They will have the resources to take the years to pass through, the financial support to eat at the same time, and the cultural and social capital to pass through without alienating so many folks that they can’t get approval. That’s how these sorts of things work. There will be certain types of knowledge privileged. There will be certain types of experiences preferred. It’s credentialism, and it does a bang-up job of maintaining the status quo of power and influence.

As I am here, kind of far away from the UU community, understanding this… I think the people of color in the UU denomination who have defied norms to speak up about it have a point and that we should listen. I think the religious educators who have decried their marginalization deserve to be listened to. I think that moving beyond reinforcing current structures of power will require completely changing how people in my religious community conceive of legitimate authority. That is much harder than staring closely at one brick and wondering if the building it belongs to is white supremacy. It probably does. May we be brave enough to reimagine our faith institutions so they may become the beacons of equity and models of dignity we so strongly aspire towards.

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Don’t follow me on Instagram

Right now, in the flesh, I’m wearing a lot of makeup and constantly drawing the curtains. I’m fine, it’ll pass. But you can still catch me in a highly censored way on social media, that is, when I’m not busy ducking that too.

Twitter. Argh, Twitter. It feels like my native platform, though that dubious honor belongs to blogging. I will never hate Twitter. It would be like hating the pavement of the street your formerly favorite bars are on. Formerly favorite because they went from being really chill places to this place where everyone is now just panicked and screaming at each other all the time. It’s like your neighbors moved away and sold their house to a doomsday cult. Oh, and the neighbors that did not move away? They joined the cult too. You’re cognizant that there is, ALAS, always a chance that the doomsday cult is right. It’s not the street itself, for the most part. It’s everybody on it. That’s Twitter right now. I’ll never hate it though, because some of the people there became my friends – real ones! They’ve been to my house and I’ve fed many of them!

When I moved to Buffalo, Twitter helped anchor me to the city in ways beyond just standing in my front yard waiting for my gregarious neighbors to talk to me could. Which, by the way, I do live in the City of Good Neighbors, that strategy will more or less work. At least until the population of gregarious neighbors declines because the renters become homeowners somewhere else. Then YOU have to be the gregarious neighbor. “Could you just crawl out of your ennui long enough to say hi to the kind people who live around you,” I ask myself, as I duck behind the curtains, again. There goes the neighborhood. I digress. The point is that social networks can take suggestions from stock brokers: diversify. Go meet people in different contexts.

So! Hey! Diversify! Let’s talk those other internet networks. I’m already on the amazing universal baby photo album that is known as Facebook (READ: I WANT TO SEE MORE PHOTOS OF YOUR GORGEOUS INFANTS), and that too comes with a bonus of existential political dread! Dread, just what I need on my already excessively-taxed emotional resources. So I take it in the way one takes medication with really terrible side effects: just enough and not a drop more. I’ll never fully hate Facebook. Listen: I got friends all over the world, and I get to know en mass what is going on. I can banter about grammar! A friend just had her adorable son yesterday. She lives on pretty much the direct opposite side of the world. Thanks to Facebook and the internet, I can tell you – he’s really, really cute. I can’t hold him, but those photos are better than no awareness at all.

I have an Instagram account. I think I started using it more or less when I found myself trapped under nursing or milk-drunk infants, snuggling their selves to blissful unconsciousness against my breasts and stomach. When I forget that I constantly subsisted on less than 4-5 hours of sleep, I miss those days. In any case, you’re trapped, and probably tired, but not really in a great position to sleep most of the time (because, if you were, you’d already be blissfully unconscious too), so why not mess around on the internet? As vast as the internet is, when you’re, let’s say, not working with a brain firing all its cylinders because of exhaustion… you run out of creative ways to find more. Also, you have this adorable little human and like a gazillion pictures of them. Why not mess around with them? And so that was my account. I rarely looked at other people’s photos.

I rarely used it as a social network until around the New Year. I do mostly like it. So I got friends there, and did you know that there are artists on Instagram? Did you know that pulling my phone out of my pocket is an even lower rent activity than meandering one block to the Western New York Artists Group gallery on my lunchbreak? Did you know that scrolling through my phone is 100% less likely to have one of my toddlers damage an original Burchfield than walking to the Burchfield-Penney will? (Related: shoutout to the Burchfield-Penney for having amazingly child-friendly policies. I can strap one kid into stroller and another onto a ergo carrier and show them art until I bore them to sleep. And make the docents laugh at my unconscious cargo.) What I’m trying to say is that even though I have stupid-easy access to a lot of art, the good capitalist in me always wants more and I appreciate the ability to do that. Thanks Instagram!

But you know what’s weird, to me, about Instagram? THE WHOLE PLATFORM IS LIKE AN ART GALLERY. It feels like a performance? I feel like I should be performing too? Seriously. The captions are so short, commenting is atypical, I feel like, since using it more, I am posting 75% of all non-hashtagged words on the website. Every social network has its norms, and I feel like I’m some elephant that’s charged through using it all wrong. I also don’t get the norms of meeting strangers? My inclination is… not to? I feel like more than any other platform, Instagram is the Durkheimian front stage. Listen: I know I ruined a semi-tolerable essay by bringing in dead French sociologists. It seems even more polished, presentation-wise, than any other medium. The creation thereof is hidden. The grit is usually hidden. Maybe that’s the purpose? Is it because we use our eyes? Is it the whole idea of a picture being worth a thousand words? Are you thinking you could have spared yourself this long essay with one photo? Maybe Instagram is your thing.

In more disclosure than you will usually get out of me, I have been thinking a lot about vulnerability and openness, and how much of one’s self you open to the world and for what purpose. There are reasons. I have what some friends have described as unreasonably tight boundaries. My desire for privacy has hindered my ability to write about personal experiences. In that pursuit, words are a precision tool. I can be as specific or vague as I wish. How do I show you my soul (Unitarian Universalist reflexive caveat: if there is such a thing) with a photo? My Instagram shows pictures in a lot of intimate-to-me settings: my home, my street, and the places I frequent. There are some of the people I love in them. Maybe this is a lack of skill, but there is more missing than even I meant.

My preferred expressive medium is words. I just want to string a few sentences together and dangle them in a way that hopefully gets the point across. It is also possible that I just am not a great photographer, I don’t have the eyes for color, and the sights most precious to me are mundane to everyone else. I am OK with that. I’m going to keep breaking the norms, because I am awkward and thus incredibly practiced at doing so. In all seriousness, I feel like the encroachment of “best practices” into social media contributes to why they can feel so sterile. At first I was thinking, “Eh, maybe I’m not great at this.” My next thought: maybe I should not be. Social media, as a social institution, seems to thrive on idea you are a brand, the way that you can use these tools of bulk interpersonal interaction to commodify yourself in hopes of being a commodity to even more people. I’ll be damned. It’s possible that feeling awkward in this post-modern era of social interaction is also a very normal thing for a human being to do. The world is changing so fast, all of the time. Relationships and interaction come in bulk now, of course that will be overwhelming. We want to be our best, of course we polish our presentation. This is just the public showing up in my pocket, the low-rent way to get the equivalent of going out dressed nicely. I suspect my Instagram burnout will be less fear of encroaching dystopia driving me away from other platforms and more fatigue of being in another place where I ought to look good.

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Every now and then I imagine how it could be so different.

Word on the internet is that we have a military-heavier, social welfare-lighter budget. I’m dismayed with the HUD cuts. I’m dismayed with the arts cuts. I’m dismayed by the cuts to meals for children and elderly and things that stated, as a society, that we cared for one another. If budgets are moral documents, as the participatory budgeting folks insist, I am dismayed that our top moral is dominance. More money to towards death of other human beings – literally. We’ll be building more weapons. Couple that with how capitalism is a competitive system, and when you cut the things that would make being on the losing end less painful, you assert the supposed-morality of dominance. Supremacy becomes righteousness. We could be so different.

As a society, we could do more to prioritize being human. Arts, mercy, charity, kindness, stuff like that. I am Unitarian Universalist. We disagree about a lot but we hold sacred the inherent worth and the dignity of every person. Being is enough. Inherent worth does not require that one’s body or abilities meets the metrics of what is useful or that one has lived their lives perfectly however society chooses to define “perfectly”. Inherent worth does not require a certain faith, ethnicity, or cultural heritage. I live in a society that often acts directly against that, in that we’ve distributed the things required for living on a basis of this competitive system, which ensures that some will go without. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of excellence but no one should forgo the means of survival when there are enough resources for everyone. There will always be people doing well and people doing badly under capitalism – shuffle the deck and see how it will go. The only thing that changes are your personal odds of landing in various parts of the deck – someone will always be at the bottom.

How you spend your time, energy, and treasure says a lot about your values. “Your” can be a person, group, country, or culture. I feel such sadness watching us devote so many of our resources to war. The military of my country inflicts so much death in the name of pro-active safety for us, and only us. It is wrong and I feel powerless. We do this to maintain our dominance meanwhile we dial back the support of some of the people within the country that dominance is suppose to befall on. It is not that we care about us, it’s about how much we valorize strength and the morality of winning.

Being human is sacred. We’re so bad at respecting that. We reflexively retreat to tribalism of whatever our favorite defining characteristic is. We’re struggling (to put it mildly) to make the space necessary to let different people just be, to let the fact that we’re all people be the overriding factor. We do not look at each other with eyes seeking affinity.

Supremacy is a cruel ideology. Things like immigration bans, turning away refugees, ending meals on wheels and the Community Development Block Grants in the name of more military spending and tax breaks for the rich make a lot of sense if your belief is in supremacy. Refugees are people who lost. Immigrants are people who lost. If you believe in the importance of winning, then turning your back on the suffering of others is easy to do. You win by eliminating your competition in supremacy, not by empathizing with them. At some point, the targets are just details. I see the bigger fight as a radical effort against the logic of supremacy and dominance. Making it normal for the so-called losers in our society to be dignified members of it, that undermines supremacy. The president of my country rose to power decrying “losers”. He’s so directly into supremacy. I see people of my ideological affinity tearing apart the details of what he does when most problems come down to this pathological need to win, win, win. Think about the prosperity gospels. Think about the rags to riches story. Think about the fact that so many people see civil rights as a zero sum game.

It is not even just rights – people see life itself as a zero-sum game, acting like others are inherently our competitors. We act like we’ve cheated death if someone else dies first, and if their death makes us believe in our own triumph, so be it. We act as if the grim reaper isn’t standing in the doorway, thumbing her way through a list that we just haven’t been called up yet. As humanity, we could decide to make death our common enemy, put down our weapons, and decide we want to sink our energy into the collective pursuit and preservation of the sacred: life of human beings. We don’t. We never have, at least not in a complete way that doesn’t talk about of both sides of our mouth. We could be so different. Yet, here we are.

I work in homelessness alleviation as a way to defy the norms of supremacy. I advocate anti-racist ideology to undermine supremacy. I do my best to practice generosity as way to erode the cultural ethos that states acquisition and dominance is the most important thing. I don’t have it right. I think I have it better though, than living by the capitalist ethics of power. I think about it constantly – how do we level power? And how do I show other people my vision of how we could be. I think the way that I do largely due to religion – both the Catholicism of my youth and the Unitarian Universalist humanism that I practice now. That’s hardly universal. People of faith are the most radical dissenters and ardent enforcers of supremacy. So how do I go about making this better until my name shows up at the top of the grim reaper’s to-do list?

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Filed under Dystopia, Social Justice Commentary