Thinking back

My uncle Bob died late last month. I’ve been thinking about him a lot. I talked to my younger sister about him, even wound up talking to some cousins I haven’t talked to in a long time. Thinking back about parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and great-grandparents. All the things I don’t know, the people in old photographs we’ll never be able to identify because there’s no one we can ask, “Who was that? and who’s that next to them?…”

A short film on Vimeo by twenty-something filmmaker Devon Blackwell captures some of these feelings. As she looks at old family photographs, Blackwell says: “It’s frustrating, longing to talk to people I’ve never met….”

That’s the feeling I get when I look the old photo sitting on the desk next to my laptop, a picture of my great-grandparents Bessie and Lew Harper. I know almost nothing about them; the only way I know they are the people in the photo is because my grandmother wrote their names on the back. The last time my sister and I talked with our Uncle Lee, he told us how Bessie, his grandmother, had lived with our grandparents before she died. “I was probably her best friend in those years,” Uncle Lee said. I never knew that before. It was after Uncle Lee died that I found the photo of Bessie and Lew Harper, so I couldn’t ask him about it.

Inscription on reverse reads, “Bessie and Lew Harper, Early 1890s”

I had a videoconference call with Uncle Bob the week before he died. He looked good and sounded great. In my head, I was making plans to visit him this summer, assuming COVID would allow. I had some questions I wanted to ask him….

Fishy carols

Peter Kasin, the coordinator of the monthly sea chantey singing from San Francisco Maritime Historical Park, sent out a holiday greeting filled with fish puns.

I love fish puns. Even though they give some people a haddock, and other people carp about them, and still others say that puns are crappie — I love fish puns.

What I liked best about Peter Kasin’s fish-pun-laden holiday greeting were the fishy Christmas carols: “Cod Rest Ye Moray, Gentlemenhaden,” “Shark, the Herring Angelfish Sing,” and “Koi to the World.”

I trout you can come up with any more fishy carols….

What doesn’t kill you….

Sometimes when I’m talking to someone who has just been through a major life disaster, they will say, “Well, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ right?” They find it comforting to think that life will turn out all right in the end.

When I’m doing pastoral counseling, my job is mostly to listen, and maybe to help people find at least a little hope in their lives. If the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”gives them hope, then of course I agree with them.

But I can’t help thinking about all the people who have suffered through one of life’s disasters, and come out of the other end weaker, rather than stronger. And I think to myself: “What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you.” That can still be an expression of hope, just maybe a little more true to more people’s actual experiences.

So I was pleased to read about Kate Bowler’s new book, No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Needed To Hear). Bowler’s earlier book, Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) gently showed up the mistakes of the Prosperity Gospel, that strange vaguely Christian theology which interprets any misfortune as some kind of personal failing that has invoked God’s disfavor.

Bowler’s new book continues in the same vein. Religion News Service says the book “is a broadside against a culture obsessed with the power of positive thinking.” Bowler is a professor at Duke University who has written academic studies of the Prosperity Gospel. And she survived stage 4 colon cancer while in her thirties, and “her health is fragile and will likely remain so.” So she is someone who can see just how damaging the prosperity gospel can be. And she’s out to provide a popular, friendly, optimistic alternative.

And boy, do we need an alternative to the Prosperity Gospel. Because it’s not just Christians who believe in the Prosperity Gospel. I have atheist friends who think this is the best of all possible worlds, that you can improve your life by making more money and “taking care of yourself,” that if anything goes wrong in your life it’s your own fault. I have Buddhist friends who believe that you wouldn’t suffer if you’d just meditate more, so if you feel bad it’s your own fault. And I have Pagan friends who are convinced that it’s negative thinking that causes life’s problems, meaning if you have any problems, it’s your own fault.

But of course it isn’t your fault. When bad things happen to you, more often than not it just means that bad things have happened to you. (Of course, if you do something foolish like storming the Capitol building and you find yourself in jail, then yes it actually is your fault.) I’m glad there are people like Kate Bowler who are willing to point out that the Prosperity Gospel in any form — Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Pagan — is wrong. There’s a better way: learn to live with life as it is, and instead of manufacturing fake hope, find real hope instead.

Anesthesia

Update, October 10: Turns out when I wrote this, the anesthesia was still clouding my brain — my prose is even more confused and incoherent than usual. I’ll leave it up as written, so to show what anesthesia can do to you.

In college, I took a class with Lucius Outlaw, Jr., in which we read Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Husserl’s book opened up the possibility of observing the stream of one’s own consciousness, something I’ve been interested in, and have practiced, ever since. So when I went in for a colonoscopy yesterday, I decided to take the opportunity to try to observe what happened as I was given anesthesia, and later how I came out of anesthesia

Thinking back to a previous colonoscopy, I realized that I simply couldn’t remember some things I knew had happened after coming out of the anesthesia. I couldn’t, for example, remember getting dressed, though I knew I had done so. Before I underwent anesthesia yesterday, I wanted to see what I could retain in memory from the time I went under anesthesia until I arrived back at home.

I have a clear memory of when I lost consciousness. One of the nurses asked me to settle myself slightly differently on the gurney, which I did, and then — nothing.

Continue reading “Anesthesia”

One feminist’s view of non-binary gender

I became aware of feminism as a teenager, back in the 1970s. After some initial resistance, feminism wound up appealing to me not only because it held out the hope of equality for women, but also because it challenged existing gender norms and gender roles. I’ve never been comfortable with the stereotypical gender norms for men in the United States. I’m not the strong silent type. I’ve always liked working with children. I kinda like doing housework (except cooking, I’m bad at cooking). I didn’t know the term “toxic masculinity” back then, but I knew what toxic masculinity was, I knew it was hurting me, and I wanted to change it.

But we mostly remained stuck with the old gender norms throughout the 1980s, and the 1990s, and the 2000s. In 2002, I took a battery of psychological tests as part of my preparation for ministry. On one of those tests, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), I scored well out of the normal range on gender identity. Worried that I had some kind of pathology, I asked the psychologist who administered the test what that score meant. Oh, the psychologist said, don’t worry about that, men going into ministry often test out of the normal range on that scale. I found the psychologist’s reply even more disturbing than the thought that I might have a pathology — because the psychologist’s reply meant that men trained to be empathetic, caring, and group-oriented were considered pathological by society.

So when non-binary gender finally emerged as a viable option, I felt we were taking a step in the right direction. Biological females who happened to be assertive and articulate and willing to talk over men didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be deferential and self-deprecating. Biological males who happened to be caring and empathetic didn’t have to get pushed into a gender role that required them to be strong, silent, and unemotional. Non-binary gender gave the promise of allowing a wide range of gender expression, far beyond these two examples.

Non-binary gender is a step in the right direction. It has opened a tiny and fragile space between male and female gender roles. But across the U.S., only a small percentage of people now consider themselves non-binary gender. For most people in the U.S., the old gender norms remain intact. I feel hopeful about that fragile open space where non-binary gender exists. But I’m discouraged that the old gender norms still wall in that tiny open space. I’m discouraged that non-binary gender has to be a matter of individual choice for just a few people, rather than a change in the way society understands gender. I’m discouraged at the thought that as a man, I’d still probably test as pathological on the MMPI. And I’m especially discouraged that non-binary gender people face wide social discrimination.

When non-binary people are discriminated against in much the same way the women are discriminated against, it seems to me that we’re still stuck with toxic masculinity running the show. We have taken a step in the right direction, but from my feminist perspective, it’s only a baby step; I wish we could grow up, and take adult-sized steps.

Neighborhood pilgrimages

So we’re still stuck in lockdown, and maybe you’re getting bored with your daily walks. The British Pilgrimage Trust has a suggestion: turn your walks into mini-pilgrimages. Their Web site has a list of “holy places” in the U.K. that you can walk to. Next you set a spiritual “intention,” then treat your walk as a kind of “focused meditation.” In an interview with Religion News Service, Guy Hayward, director of the Pilgrimage Trust, says more about those “intentions”:

“Pilgrimage is about traveling, about being a stranger in a strange land, according to [Hayward]. The pandemic flips that on its head. ” ‘Staying still is actually even more of a strange experience,’ he said. ‘It’s like, how do you make yourself be a stranger in a place you know really, really well? How do you make yourself see it fresh and see it in a new way?’ “

This, by the way, sounds a lot like Henry Thoreau’s essay on “Walking.”

For us Unitarian Universalists, what might constitute a “holy place” to which we might make a micro-pilgrimage? Back when we lived in downtown San Mateo, I would walk to different houses of worship. As is true of many small American cities these days, San Mateo has quite a diversity of faith communities, so from our old apartment I could walk to a Hindu temple, an Islamic masjid, a couple of historically Black churches, a Pure Land Buddhist Temple, a UCC church, a Catholic church, a Pentecostal storefront church, and several other places of worship. I’d think about — maybe I should say, do “focused meditation” on — the religious diversity of the world, and my place in that diversity. It proved to be both uplifting (“A masjid? how cool is that!”) and humbling (“Gee, Unitarian Universalism is not as important in the world as I’d like to believe”).

Now I live next to a cemetery. Walking in cemeteries was something of a tradition in New England, in part because they plow the roads in cemeteries in winter so it’s one of the few places you can walk safely without skis or snowshoes. But it was also a meditative practice: you’d read the inscriptions and wonder about the person who had died. This is another exercise in humility, and a lesson in perspective. How well am I living my life now, knowing that I’m as mortal as that person lying under the gravestone? But perhaps you have to be from New England, with that grim New England worldview, to appreciate this kind of micro-pilgrimage.

You can also follow Thoreau’s lead, and look at the world of nature around you. Even when you live in the city, or in the inner suburbs, places where humans utterly dominate the landscape, there are still plenty of non-human organisms worthy of human attention. Recently, I find myself looking for flowering weeds, like this chickweed:

Or this flower, which is not a dandelion, but a related flower from the Cichorieae tribe (probably a Sow Thistle):

Why do I look for weeds? Maybe because of the same sentiment that Malvina Reynolds expressed in her song, “God Bless the Grass”:

God bless the grass that grows through the crack,
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back….
God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it, and think that it is done….

The real point in all this is that any walk, even a walk around your neighborhood, can become more than just a walk. It can become a spiritual journey, where even though you stay in your neighborhood, you travel very far in spirit.

Ellen Sturgis Hooper

Last night, our congregation hosted an online class by John Buehrens on the women of Transcendentalism. John’s stimulating talk prompted me to go read some poetry by Transcendentalist women. I remembered some of the Transcendentalists I knew in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1990s talked in glowing terms of the Sturgis sisters — Ellen Sturgis Hooper and Caroline Sturgis Dall — so I started with Ellen Sturgis’ poetry. And came across this:

Beauty may be the path to highest good,
And some successfully have it pursued.
Thou, who wouldst follow, be well warned to see
That way prove not a curvèd road to thee.
The straightest path perhaps which may be sought,
Lies through the great highway men [sic] call “I ought.”

This short Transcendentalist poem directly contradicts today’s typical notion that the Transcendentalists were a bunch of wild-eyed hyper-individualistic proto-hippies, bent on “doing their own thing.” Actually, none of them was; a few of them, like Emerson himself, pursued beauty as “the path to the highest good,” but that is quite different than being a hyper-individualist. From what I can tell, most of the nineteenth century Transcendentalists followed the path of duty, rather than beauty; these are the Transcendentalists who fought for abolition of slavery and women’s rights, and fought against poverty; they are better described as disciples of Immanuel Kant and his moral imperatives. I’d prefer to group myself with the Transcendentalists who follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Another of Ellen Sturgis Hooper’s poem struck me:

Hymn of a Spirit Shrouded

O God, who, in thy dear still heaven,
Dost sit, and wait to see
The errors, sufferings, and crimes
Of our humanity,
How deep must be thy causal love!
How whole thy final care!
Since Thou, who rulest over all,
Canst see, and yet canst bear.

Though Ellen was a Unitarian, this strikes me as a Universalist poem, because the phrase “thy final care” implies to me that Ellen Sturgis’s God plans to bring all souls into God’s embrace. Yet Sturgis also confronts head on the hardest thing to understand about universal salvation: there are certain people whom I would not want to extend ultimate salvation — such as the police officer who killed George Floyd, thus betraying both his public trust as a police officer, and his humanity — or the people who commit domestic violence — or the plutocrats who, to defend their ill-gotten wealth, fund and stir up Christian nationalists and white supremacists to destabilize U.S. democracy. Yet Ellen Sturgis’s God has a love for humanity that is so deep, that God can see humanity’s “errors, sufferings, and crimes,” and bear them, and still love. That’s well beyond my limited power, and I suppose that’s why people like me need to follow “the great highway [of] ‘I ought’.”

Ellen Sturgis Hooper died of tuberculosis in 1848, at the age of 36. Her poems were published in Transcendentalist periodicals during her lifetime. After her death, her son Ned printed her poems for private distribution, in an edition of just 8 copies. Several of her poems were also included in hymnals and anthologies.

I found little biographical information about her, aside from mentions of her marriage to physician Robert William Hooper, and her friendship with Margaret Fuller, and her relationship to famous men like William Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr. However, there is a book-length biography of her daughter, Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, Natalie Dykstra (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) which offers a brief but insightful biography of Ellen (see pp. 3-15).

Ellen’s father was a sea captain and co-owner of a large merchant trading firm; her mother was the daughter of a judge. At age fourteen, Ellen’s beloved older brother died in a tragic accident, an event that completely unhinged her mother, who in her grief was no longer care for Ellen and her other children. Ellen, as the second oldest child, wound up being mother to her younger siblings. At age 25, she was married to Robert Hooper in King’s Chapel, Boston, by Rev. Ephraim Peabody. Peabody said it was “one of the happy marriages,” and Dykstra writes, “Robert’s caution and his more retiring nature might have seemed dull to Caroline Sturgis [Ellen’s sister] and Margaret Fuller but appealing to Ellen, promising ballast after a tumultuous childhood.” She and Robert settled in Boston, living close to her father’s mansion, and close to her sister Anne who had married Robert’s brother, Sam. In 1839, Ellen and her sisters Caroline and Anne were part of the first of Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations.” Ellen lived close to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Transcendentalist bookstore where the “Conversations” were held. Further connections to Transcendentalism came after both of the Hooper families joined James Freeman Clarke’s Church of the Disciples, when it was founded in 1841.

Although many other Transcendentalists became active in various social justice causes, such as abolition, Ellen followed her duty in another direction; according to Dykstra, “Ellen’s husband and three children were the heart of her life.” This makes sense, given Ellen’s experience of her own mother, who had in grief over the death of one child abandoned all her other children. After her third child and favorite child, Clover, was born in 1843, Ellen’s tuberculosis again grew worse. Ellen died in 1848, when Clover was only five years old, and before her death Ellen must have wondered and worried about what would happen to her children after she died. Who would be a mother to them, once she was dead? She found no easy religious or spiritual answer to such a difficult question. Ephraim Peabody, minister of King’s Chapel, who officiated at her funeral, wrote that in her last year of life she had become “almost a mystic.”

I’ll close with one final poem, which is undated, but perhaps came from the end of Ellen’s life:

One about To Die

Oh, melancholy liberty
Of one about to die —
When friends, with a sad smile,
And aching heart the while,
Every caprice allow,
Nor deem it worth while now
To check the restless will
Which death so soon shall still.

Christmas Eve

It was a strange Christmas Eve. We did the usual Christmas Eve candlelight service in the Main Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) — but the only people there were Amy, the senior minister; Paul, the camera operator; and me. The music all had to be pre-recorded, and I set up my laptop next to my lectern (Amy and I each had our own lectern, about twenty feet apart from each other) so that I could join the Zoom call and be able to hear the music. The strangest part was not being able to see anyone: the whole point of Christmas Eve for me is seeing being able to see people, including the young adults who come back to Silicon Valley for the holidays.

Yes, it was a strange Christmas Eve.

But something that happened in the afternoon made the rest of the day bearable. I was taking a break from checking email, and walked out to the edge of UUCPA’s campus to look down into Adobe Creek, which is routed into a large concrete channel for the last mile or two before it reaches the Bay. By fall, there’s always sediment that has accumulated during the summer, when not much water flows through the channel. This year, there was a luxuriant growth of what was probably water cress, and the last rain had been enough to cut some winding channels through the greenery, without washing everything down stream. The usual Mallards were paddling around, and then I noticed a Snowy Egret crouched behind a thicket of greenery; it lashed out with its bill, and appeared to spear something from the water.

I know Snowy Egrets are good at finding food anywhere, but I was a little bit surprised to see one in that particular urban channelized stream. There must have been enough prey to make it worth the bird’s time and effort; it’s a fairly sterile environment, so perhaps it was finding organisms washed down from upstream. Whatever drew it there, it certainly gave me a lift to see it.

Diversity

Because I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, I’m spending more time than usual looking at and photographing various organisms. I’m astonished at the diversity of organisms that I saw this week within a 45 minute drive of our house. I managed to see organisms from four kingdoms — plants, animals, fungi, and Chromista (which includes brown algae). Going down one taxonomic level, I saw organisms from over a dozen different phyla (for animals) or divisions (for the other three kingdoms).

This represents an astonishing evolutionary diversity: green algae, red algae, vascular plants; sac fungi and allies, mushrooms and allies; brown algae; sea anemones and allies, molluscs, sea stars and allies, arthropods, ringed worms, flatworms, chordates. And I saw eight of these taxonomic groupings within a five minute walk from my desk.

I have a tendency to focus on flowering plants and vertebrates, while ignoring other organisms. Sometimes it’s good to remind myself how much biological diversity is in my own back yard.

Ochre Sea Star (sea stars and allies), Sea Lettuce (green algae), Surf Grass (vascular plant), and unidentified red algae at Pescadero State Beach on Friday — that’s four phyla/divisions in one photograph.

Field journal

I’m currently taking the California Certified Naturalist class, with a curriculum developed by the University of California, and offered through a local environmental nonprofit, Grassroots Ecology. One of the ongoing assignments is to keep a field journal of observations of the natural world.

Keeping a field journal feels like a kind of spiritual practice to me. It’s a way to keep connected with the non-human organisms around us, and helps me pay attention to the abiotic components on which life depends. It forces me to get away from the computer and get outdoors, which is something I need to do more of. And it’s very calming, probably because I stop thinking about myself, and think about something larger than myself.