Anger Management

It’s much better than it was—the tight, furious ugliness that I learned to call “my temper” when I was a child and “my anger” when I was older.  Screw that—it’s rage, pure and simple.

People who believe one can “get rid” of anger do not know what rage is.  They think this is a choice, this storm of energy that fills the spaces and caverns in the soul.  They believe I can turn on and off the violent winds of self-loathing, self-hatred, self-contempt—the voices living in my head that tell me over and over that I’m ugly, stupid, lazy, fat.

“Ugly” is the earliest of these voices, and it speaks in the tones of the older women in my family.  When I was not yet in school they sat with me, talking to each other over my head while I played with a baby doll—the kind with yellow curly hair and blue eyes that opened and closed.  “She’ll have to wear bangs to make that big nose look smaller” and “I don’t know how much makeup it will take to cover those moles” and many other comments on what it would take to “fix”—not fix up, but repair—my face.  After all, I was a good Catholic girl—it was my job to find a husband and have babies.  How I looked was important, and my looks were not good enough.  I can still see my own hands on the doll as my grandmother lifted and placed my hair, trying to see which was the most remedial style.  Today I can’t stand those dolls.

“Stupid” and “lazy” are intertwined, and the voices are also.  I used to hear these two vocal tracks in my father’s voice until I spent enough time in therapy to understand that my mother was also speaking.  My first year in school I brought home perfect marks every time—straight A’s.  My second year I got lesser marks—these were all B’s.  Now I wasn’t living up to my potential because I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I was too bright to waste my time and energy.  Didn’t I know I had a responsibility to use the gifts I was given?  Clearly I was lazy and undisciplined, and not bright enough to understand what I was doing.

And there is a corollary—a vocal counterpoint—to being “stupid” and “lazy”: don’t look too smart.  Men don’t like smart women.  Don’t hide it, just don’t show off.  After all, it’s only some men, and maybe you’ll be lucky and find a man who appreciates you for your brains as well as…well, for your personality.  (The voice of my grandmother “fixing” my face enters here.)  It took a very long time to understand how much my mother was telling me her own story, and how little appreciation she found in my father’s long, cold silences. 

My father’s voice is clearest in that last of the quartet: I am “fat.”  I will always be fat.  I cannot avoid being fat—and I should try harder to lose weight.  As a child I was a dancer, and I was far from overweight.  But mom tended to eat her anger, anxiety, fear, and depression, so my early example was that food solves problems.  And there was my father’s voice—very clearly his voice—lecturing her about her weight while standing there with a box from the bakery.  He would buy half a dozen of whatever he liked, eat one, and leave the box sitting there for a week.  When mom had one, the lecture would play like a recording.  Then he would do it again in a couple of weeks. 

It was dad who told me the story of my mom’s mother—she had “died on the table” when her appendix burst because “she was so overweight the surgeons couldn’t find it.”  I never knew that grandmother; she died before my parents were married.   But the shadow of her bulk looms over me. 

So as a girl approaching puberty, I understood that fat was a horrible condition that was genetic in my mother’s family and that I would most certainly inherit.  It could only be avoided by a life of self-denial and pain—and it must be avoided, or I would never be attractive to anyone.  Since food was the medication I had learned to use for anxiety and pain, it was the treatment for the side effects of the “cure” for the disease that was food that was the treatment for the side effects…

Many, many years of therapy—all of it wrapped around the damage my rage did to myself and others—and I have learned how to manage and use the energy that rises from the structures of brokenness deposited in my personality by well-meaning relatives.  I still get angry, but I don’t throw things.  I still scream once in a while, but much less often and rarely at anyone.  Occasionally I still binge on food, but my body is older now and doesn’t take the abuse without consequences, and I can and do learn from my body.  Unlike the voices embedded in my circuitry, my body tells typically reliable truth.

Most helpful in recent years have been the many friends and colleagues who have, often unintentionally, given me versions of myself that do not match any of my inner voices.  Affirmations do not quell or vanquish the demons, but I have learned to compare the two, and there are (by now) many more positive images—strong, competent, smart, wise, beautiful, compassionate, hardworking, talented, dedicated, e.g.—than there are ugly, stupid, lazy, fat ones.  And the rage is more useful and less volcanic.

And yet.  Today an old acquaintance whom I was just getting to know again after almost a decade of absence decided to teach me how to live my life.  She did this in a public forum—and when a couple of my closest friends called her on it, she told them that “we’ve known each other for years” and that I would understand the point.  It seemed to really bother her when I did understand all too well; I called her out on the issue of talking down to me and patronizing me—implying that I’m stupid.  My responses were sharp, and I tried to keep them civil.  She offered a public “my bad” and a private non-apology (in the “sorry you’re so sensitive” style) and posted an indirect chastisement of me on a public forum.  After some back and forth in private messaging, where I pointed out that she did not have the right to say that she and I had “known each other for years,” she is not speaking to me.  To be sure, this is not much of a loss, but it’s a slap in the face—several, actually—and it hurts. 

And I’m angry.  I can’t sleep, I want to throw things, I want to scream.  None of those obvious, superficial responses will do more than take a tiny edge off the blade and make it too dull for effective use.  So I write, wondering if I will publish this, knowing that part of me, in the most petty and vengeful way, really wants to threaten my erstwhile acquaintance with some dire outcome from treating me badly—her business will fail, all my friends will despise her—something.  And I spend time running possible conversations in which I triumph over her rhetorical inadequacies. 

All of which is fantasy that benefits me not at all.  It wouldn’t benefit her or benefit the world around us—the place where all our children live.  So instead I use the energy to write, I stay up too late, and I mourn the delusional arrogance—mine as much as anyone’s—that keeps open the chasm between people in all kinds of cultures and circumstances.  In the other side of the fantasy, I really do want us to all get along and more or less like each other.

One minor, negative personal interaction, and the volume on those early voices spikes.  My anger is not about her thoughtless and unaware insults.  My anger is the outward expression of the self-contempt, self-hatred, self-loathing that grew from those voices.  The anger is not about her or her actions; it’s about me and my own history.

My hurt feelings at being treated unjustly will scab over.  The voices in my head that feed my rage will never be gone—they are integrated circuits in my identity.  All I can do is remember to use the energy wisely, and try to keep the volume low.

Posted in Anger, Body image, Ethics, Self image, Social Commentary, Social interaction, Uncategorized, Weight management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Losing it, and not…

In the past three years, I’ve gained too much weight. Some of this is a normal result of aging, but not by any means all of it. I’ve spent the past three years carrying a load of stress that I would not wish on anyone, and I’ve “managed” this stress with food.

On January 3, I checked my weight for the first time in several months, and I was three pounds heavier than on the day my daughter was born. For basic health I have to lose at least 40 pounds, and 50 would be better.

I changed my eating habits and lost seven pounds in five days. This is too much too fast, and in the following weeks I put a pound on, took it off, and then began to lose more sanely. After thirty days, I have lost nine pounds altogether.

My birthday fell in this period, and I was taken out to dinner and lunch by friends and family on several occasions. In addition, a very attractive colleague asked me to dinner to discuss diction issues and generally hang out, and I had a wonderful time. The food was good too.

And I still lost nine pounds.

I’ve started monitoring my protein to carbs ratio; ideally for me to lose weight I want that ratio to lie between 1:2 to 1:4 most of the time. In one of my blank books (see February 2011) I started a journal of what I consume and when. I recognized that I would have to find ways to eat less without being self-punitive; that is a trial in itself. But the biggest challenge is not punching people in the face.

To stave off social offers of snacks, I let people know that I’m working to lose weight. Generally, I get some kind of polite acknowledgement which is entirely appropriate. Much too often, however, I have to deal people who want to tell me how to lose weight. They tend to fall into two groups: those with fad diets that worked for them, and those with “tricks” that are based on faulty science. These folks don’t know anything about my medical history or my activity level. They don’t ask me what I need—they simply tell me what to do.

I have struggles with food addictions, and I have struggles with depression, and I have struggles with self-image that have nothing to do with my weight. I don’t really need to also struggle with my community for the right to self-determination.

They don’t mean to be patronizing or controlling. They aren’t asking me to correct their ignorance of basic nutritional chemistry, and they are not really volunteering to be punched in the face. So I listen politely with my hands otherwise occupied.  And I try to keep my angry shame to myself.

Please know this: If I want help, I know how to ask. If I don’t ask you, it’s not because I don’t value you, it’s because I’ve chosen another resource for this particular struggle. Thanks.

Posted in Body image, Ethics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized, Weight management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Labels and Meaning: “Christian”

A friend recently suggested that it seems disloyal for someone ordained or seeking ordination in a Christian denomination to publicly say, as I have several times, that I am uncomfortable using the term “Christian” to describe myself. I’ve discussed this with other ordained persons, and while I know others who agree with me, I may be one of only a few who will say so publicly. I don’t know if it’s really about “loyalty” or just about my own choice to enact my religious trust in my own way, but here is an explanation for those who have questioned me and those who have their own struggles with religious labels.

In recent years, I have seen the terms “Muslims” and “Islam” used as synonyms for “terrorist.” Even though most of my friends recognized this as an over-generalization, very, very few in society at large actually challenged the equation of the labels themselves. Terrorists are not people fighting for a particular religion, they are people who use fear as a weapon to feel powerful. There is no religion that advocates this as theological tenet. (There are lots of writings–scriptures–that suggest it as a tactic, and some of those scriptures are used in Christian traditions.)

I started thinking about what a religious label is and what it does. When it became allowable to label an entire spectrum of religious tradition as violent and primitive and misogynist based on the public actions and speech of a few leaders, I stepped back and tried to apply the same standards to Christian public presentations. I did not like what I found.

I realized that it was allowable to equate a religion with a murderous tactic, as long as it’s not “our” religion. But it’s horribly inaccurate, biased, and out of balance to do so. Christians have used the scriptures of our traditions for thousands of years as justification for terrorist actions, including enslaving people, destroying whole towns, attacking clinics, murdering doctors, blowing up buildings (McVeigh’s theological statements were, for the most part ignored), and threatening family members at funerals. “Christian” interpretation of scripture is used as a justification for “conversion rape” of lesbians and for beatings and bullyings of GLBTQ youth and adults. Christianity is used as a political tool in every election cycle in the United States, in direct contrast to Article Six of the U. S. Constitution. And Christians have very little to be proud of historically in our treatment of women.

Yet the rhetorical response “This is NOT acceptable behavior for Christians”–or the more definitive “Such people are not true Christians”–is rarely made and even more rarely published. Instead, we have the quiet, personal response: “everyone knows that’s not what it really means to be Christian.” And “these are only a few extremists. They don’t represent Christians.” Everyone knows that, we are told.

Does everyone know? It turns out that, as a conservative research tank recently discovered, the most common understanding (over 90% of responses) of what it means to be Christian is “anti-gay” or “anti-homosexual.” Atheist organizations can, with some justice, point out on Facebook that 25,000 children starved to death worldwide during the period of the recent North Carolina referendum on marriage equality while self-proclaimed “Christians” argued both sides of the issue.

Christians also worked to feed, house, clothe, and support people all over the world during this same period. The word no longer carries a clear meaning, if ever it did. “The” church does not exist. Instead, we have many different kinds of Christian, and the elements we hold in common are rarely explored. The assumptions of commonality are endemic, and they are mostly wrong.

I am a member of the United Church of Christ, which was formed from four different denominations in 1957 and has added other theological streams since. We are composed of difference, and we uphold and respect and recognize the need for difference. Yet–the actions and theologies that impel the members of Westboro Baptist Church to harass the families of dead military men and women are not welcome or recognized in the UCC. But the word “Christian” covers all of us together…apparently. This bothers me.

I have clergy friends who have chosen not to sign marriage licenses–some because they are not comfortable acting as agents of the state, and some because they will not participate in the inequality of access to marriage. I respect this choice, even as I choose to continue to sign licenses when I act as a wedding celebrant.

In this same vein, I have made a choice about how I identify myself. I am not willing to be confused with those who target (physically or politically) women’s health clinics. I am not willing to be identified with those Westboro Baptists who attack the funerals of military personnel. I am not willing to be aligned with many of the political individuals who use their “Christianity” to sway voters. So I choose to describe my religious practice rather than use a convenient label that means both too little and too much.

I am a student of the teachings of Jesus. I’m happy and proud to say that I will preach Jesus as I understand his words and works, and I will do my best to follow Jesus and learn from Jesus. But Jesus the Nazarene never called himself a Christian.

So for now, at least until we find a way to reclaim the word, I don’t feel comfortable calling myself one either.

Blessings to those who do.

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Why I am single

I recently had an exchange with a friend about finding the right man. I’ve had this exchange with more than one person, and for reasons passing understanding, some women will not take me at my word. (I have no idea what men think; at least they are not trying to set me up with unknowns on the internet.)

The issue is that relationships take time. I know how to find a pretty face on the web. Then what? I’m not going to fall into bed with—or even seriously date—someone I don’t know. So the next step is taking the time to get acquainted. Which takes, you know, time.

Some women friends have tried to point me to the right bar or the best music venue to pick up guys. Last year, a woman I worked for—I had thought of her as a friend for several years—made it very clear that I was merely a utility. At the end of a project, she discarded me like a used paper towel. In addition to dealing with the confusion and hurt, I had to re-examine the entire relationship. One huge warning flag I missed was her perpetual desire to get me to use an internet dating service. I had spent a significant portion of our conversation time saying more than once I said I wasn’t willing to spend the time to develop a relationship. Yet, when we were traveling together, she crawled into bed with me and took my laptop to show me how easy it was to find “a boyfriend” on the internet. Her refusal to hear that “I don’t have time right now” really means “I don’t have time right now” should have been an indicator that she wasn’t paying any attention to me as a person. Friends who don’t listen are probably not friends.

I had spent a lot of conversation explaining my life to this woman, but she couldn’t hear past her own viewpoint. Although she claims to be a feminist, she evidently thinks that finding a man is important for women, and she’s not my only “feminist” friend who thinks like this.

My life is not focused that way.  Right now, and for the past several years, I have been working several part-time jobs at once in pursuit of career development and in an effort to stay above water financially. My goal is to be settled in a primary career by—well, by now, was the idea—and have a secondary career going as well. None of my career fields will pay a living wage, so I will always be bi-vocational at least. Such is the nature of careers in public service work and creative arenas.

In addition, I have a history of being dismissed. I’ve been ignored by some of the men in my family as well as by partners—and the occasional “friend.” So if I have to ask for or demand your attention, why would I trust that your interest in me is real? Why would I hang out with a man who’s not really interested? Why would I hunt for one?

If a gentleman is interested in me and shows me that, I’m likely to respond. If things look promising, I’ll make the time. But I have a life, and while I miss sex and intimacy and partnership, I know I don’t have the time to mount a search. And because I’ve been dismissed more than once, I’m not likely to trust anyone I would have to pursue.

I’m single because I can’t have what’s not there, and I can’t take what’s not offered. Show me a connection is there, offer me an opportunity—I’ll clear the time. But I have too much life to live—too much interesting work to do—to spend my time hunting.

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Poverty and identity

A few days ago I met with my ex. He bought me breakfast, and we talked about our 18 year old, and as we separated in the parking lot, he started to tear up. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “If there’s anything you need, you know you can just ask, right?”
I responded as gently as I could, “I tried that for 20 years and it didn’t work, did it? I asked for contact and communication and I never got it.” I was a little angry and I felt sorry for him.

I was also being a little cruel; his offer was sincere. He was offering help because I’m living below poverty and I’m on food stamps. Some part of his social identity is offended that his child’s mother is living “this way,” which is a code for “beneath me.” Sadly, he has no idea that he means anything like this; he was offering added support, and he meant it, and he feels sorry for me.

I pointed out to him that it’s hard to hear those offers of support when one is at the bottom, and all one heard on the way down were warnings and silence. Sympathy, pity, and charity are hard things to need and harder to depend on. They wear out and go away. One must live always with the sense that this support is unearned.

In middle-class white America, one is supposed to “earn” and “deserve” everything. This is oddly un-Christian and certainly un-Protestant. Grace, in Protestant theology, is never earned or deserved. Yet one of the oldest Protestant theologies, often attributed to John Knox, is based on the idea that favor (good things) is bestowed by God on the elect, on those who are chosen, who therefore “deserve” favor.

Poverty in America is often labeled as the result of laziness, stupidity, poor judgment, lack of ambition. Mine is in part the result of choosing to do what is right in my life and seeing money as secondary. As a result, much of my work (50-60 hours in a given week) is unpaid or underpaid. Because I don’t have a “career” job, one that I can stick with for 20+ years, I’m also seen as a dilettante. All of my jobs are interconnected; it’s what one friend calls a patchwork career. And all of them are about communication and pastoral support. But they are not “regular” jobs with predictable paychecks and benefits, and this lack of dependability reduces the level of respect I receive from many people.

Now I find myself at the low end of the income scale, yet still partaking of the privileges that being middle class, white, and highly educated convey. These privileges come with expectations, and failing to fulfill the expectations leads to judgment manifesting as disappointment from some and disdain from others.

One has to wonder if this judgment contributes to the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s not only money that separates segments of culture; it’s also the expectations placed upon us by ourselves and others. Those expectations reflect class and status; they are unconscious triggers of social placement. Our expectations of ourselves and others place us in relation to one another. It’s important to question those relational realities from time to time, even in parking lots turning down charity from the ex.

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Choosing Rebirth

There is a stone at the heart of Ireland called Aille na Muirean [EL na MIRren], the stone of division. It sits on the side of the Hill of Uisneach [OOSH-nach], and it is the point, more or less, where Ireland’s four provinces come together. Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht [KONaht] are large, general regions, in which there are many counties, towns, parishes, and villages. Each province is the realm of a goddess—Macha, Bride [BREEDjuh], Áine [AWNyah], and Mebh [maev] respectively.

There is a fifth province, a place of the heart and spirit. Located in the sacred realm, it interconnects and participates in the other four, just as they look to it for continuity and balance. This province is the realm of Eriu [EY-roo], the goddess of the whole island and for whom Ireland is named.

Aille na Muirean is the connection point of the five. The stone has been a ritual site for many thousands of years; a man-made berm of earth and stone surrounds and focuses the energy. Under the rock is a narrow passageway, a sort of tunnel from east to west. It is said that to make the journey through the rock is to invite spiritual rebirth—or to risk it, depending on your point of view. It can also be done symbolically by walking sunwise around the rock from the east to the west.

Aille na Muirean

On a day near Bealtaine, the sacred celebration of the lighting of new fire that begins May, I stood facing the stone and its passageway. Our group of 19 had been there for about 15 minutes, simply being aware of the space and its energy. I felt summoned into the journey of the passageway, and I was waiting for something—I didn’t know what. At around noon two musicians began to play from a suite that celebrates all five goddesses. As they started the fifth movement, Eriu’s movement, I began to crawl under Aille na Muirean.

At first I could go on hands and knees—difficult enough. Then I had to go flat on my belly over rocks that turned me sideways and tugged at my clothing. Oh, well, I thought, one should be born naked. I knew I was not allowed to move the rocks—I don’t know how I knew, I just did. Perhaps for someone else it would be acceptable, but I was not supposed to “manage” my own rebirth that way.

At a transitional point in the music, I emerged into the sunlight and stood up, walking up out of the hollow and onto the circular ridge that surrounds the stone.

The well-known so-called “passage tombs” in Ireland—Newgrange and her sisters Knowth and Dowth—have been dated to several hundred years earlier than the great pyramid and a couple thousand earlier than Stonehenge. And they are the younger sites. Some of the cairns in Ireland may be several thousand years older still. Age alone does not make the spirit of a place stronger; that is the work of renewing spiritual energy in the continuing dance of heart and soul. Of the famous sites, Knowth has been managed to quiescence; it is possible that one day she will re-awaken to the fullness of her inner power. Newgrange retains her inner strength; Dowth is sequestered. This management is a little sad; many other sites have kept their power open and clean and free for those whose hearts and minds are receptive to it.

Aille na Muirean sits on the side of hill, visible from a roadway. Most people haven’t a clue about what is there; they just see another rock. They would feel her absence, I suspect, and more and more of us are learning about her power. But she does not need us to know her to be her self, to continue weaving her energies throughout the realms of land and spirit. Aille na Muirean is pulsing with Eriu’s own strength; she is the quietly beating heart of Ireland. I knew this even as she hovered above me—several tons of rock—while I made the journey from the place of beginnings to the place of new continuings.

Some of that strength is mine now.

The passage under Aille na Muirean

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She changes everything she touches…

There is a chant often used among those who worship the divine feminine:

She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes.

Yesterday, Gaia shrugged.  Earth shuddered and the blanket we call the crust folded and slipped and twisted, and the bowl of liquid resting on her lap sloshed over the counterpane. 

I have watched and heard many reports on the loss of life and devastation in Japan.  I have great respect for the tremendous strength of the Japanese people and culture; they have lived on the edge of the Ring of Fire for longer than most current European cultures have existed.  The Japanese standards for building construction are amazing; an 8.9 quake in or near any U.S. population center would have flattened entire cities and killed thousands.  And earthquakes are not new to us, and the technologies are not that new either.  We just don’t see the need.  We have options that the people of Japan do not have–more land elsewhere, an enormous economy, e.g.–and we are relentlessly practical when it comes to the bottom line.  If it won’t make a profit in the next quarterly or annual report, why do it?

It’s interesting that the coverage a few weeks ago about the massive quake in New Zealand did not seem to receive quite as much, or quite as thorough, coverage.  There were very few live reports (I actually saw none, but I give the entire U.S. broadcast spectrum the benefit of the doubt) on the national media.  The quake in New Zealand did not threaten a major trading partner or a fellow northern hemispherean, but perhaps more pertinently, did not threaten a tsunami that might make landfall on U.S. territory.   

We are, consciously or not, drawn to tragedies that look like they will affect us, and we are relieved when they do not.  We have the balcony seat in the theatre, eating our popcorn while we watch.  Many individuals jump in to help; many organizations are designed to respond, and often we support them.  Still, mostly we watch. 

We also analyze, complain, pray, beseech, discuss, and otherwise process the experience–even the vicarious experience.  We are creatures of the Earth, creatures of both viscera and intellect,  and we must process our experiences.  Some use art, music, movement, violence–and some use voice.  When we discuss, often enough the conversation is about the uncertainty that this twitching of the Mother’s Body brings into our lives.  We usually recognize that the uncertainty is far greater for those at the center of any natural disaster, but we want some sense of stability for ourselves.  

We can’t have it.  We can have the illusion we create for ourselves, but we cannot have certainty. 

The Earth shrugs her shoulder and reminds us that we don’t control as much as we want to believe we do.  She turns under the blanket of the landscape, tumbling us like toys.  And we remember that we do not define the environment–we are not in charge. 

She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes.

Just sayin’.

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