Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fire and Ice - What Brings About Lasting Change?

Fire and ice.  Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Courageous love and righteous anger.  We're entering a campaign season at a time when much is being said about the vitriol and polarity of our political discourse.  Many decry the angry rants that characterize both sides over certain divisive issues such as abortion and gay marriage.  People tend to say you should not address prejudice from anger but rather from a more reasoned position.  I'm writing today to make a case for the occasional value of anger in bringing about change.

This is the story of two women I knew in college, two women whose very different actions played  a pivotal role in bringing about a change in my own attitudes about an issue that was divisive in my faith community at the time, the issue of homosexuality.  One of the women was a respected leader in the campus religious group that was my spiritual family.  Her senior year, she spoke out at several of the group's meetings, two in particular that I remember, taking a stand in love and compassion against the homophobia on campus and for the notion that gays and lesbians were loved and welcomed in God's eyes.  In taking this public stand, she sacrificed her place in the group.  She became something of an outcast.  She lost her position of leadership and respect.  She shook the community to its core.  And she pushed me to question where I stood on this issue, to question where others stood, to question where God stood.  I doubt any of us knew how hard that must have been for her.

The second woman wasn't part of that group.  I knew her through other activities on campus.  She confronted me one day about this same issue.  There was a sit-in at the campus library in support of the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance, which had disbanded due to the homophobic climate on campus.  As a result of the first woman's actions, and her participation in the sit-in, I had gone to check it out.  I don't remember how the confrontation with the second woman started, or even what was said, but the intensity and power of her anger towards people of my religious faith who contributed to homophobia left an intense and lasting impression on me.  That day, when I returned to my dorm room, I spent hours hunting down every single biblical reference to homosexuality, determined to understand once and for all, to reconcile what my conscience was saying and what my faith and my spiritual community said.

These two women, together with two incredibly courageous men in our religious group who chose to come out of the closet  my senior year, were instrumental in bringing about a fundamental change in my point of view, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they brought about a fundamental self-examination that helped me find my point of view.  I don't know if they have any idea what an impact they made on me.  Both of them.  Fire and ice.  Courageous love and righteous anger.  Lasting change.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Responding to Horrors in the World

When something horrible, disturbing, senseless or incomprehensible happens in the news, we try to make sense of it.  We can't.  We want to do something, to fix it, to prevent it from happening again.  But we are not all-powerful, and we can't control the acts of others now or in the future.  We feel compelled to talk about it and analyze it to the point of wallowing or desensitization because we are struggling to make sense of it and thereby, we hope, gain back the control and sense of security that we have lost.

Some believe the answer to horrors is legislation or political action.  But for those who are creatively inclined, or those who feel politics and legislation can only go so far, I say "Create things of beauty and meaning, and generate laughter."  

The world has more than its fair share of senseless violence, destruction and ugliness.  I think there is value in the act of creation.  I think creation should combat the world's tendency towards cruelty and chaos.  Sometimes, an artist must shine a light on those darker things.  But we must do so with meaning and purpose lest we risk adding to the cruelty and violence or worse, feeding it, fanning its destructive flame.

I was going through my student teaching program when 9-11 happened.  I'll never forget how our Educational Psychology professor handled that day.  He threw out his lesson plan.  He put building materials on our tables - LEGOs, connecting cubes, tinker toys.  He told us to work with our table groups to build something, build a city.  That's all.  Later, we walked in a garden, reflected and talked.  But the most memorable part of that day was the act of communal creation in the face of a destruction.  For me, it was a powerful model of how to respond to real-world horror.

So, today, if the news has left you feeling hollow, disturbed, worried for the state of our society, create things of beauty and meaning, and generate laughter.  Work in your garden.  Knit.  Paint.  Draw.  Write.  Read poetry to someone you love.  Rearrange your furniture to make the space you share with friends more beautiful.  Tell a joke.  Build a LEGO village or a pillow fort.  Decorate a cake.  Bake bread.  Sculpt something from clay or playdough or sand.  Visit with a friend.  Make funny faces at your baby.  Blow bubbles with your child.  Make the world, for one small moment in one small way, a little bit better place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Omens, Metaphors and Parables - Seeking the Spiritual in the Physical

This weekend, I had an experience that could make you believe in augury.  Or at least make you understand it.  I was at a dragon boat race with my team, the Mighty Women.  We were waiting for information on our next race.  Suddenly, a dragonfly as big as my fist, riding astride the back of the prey it was devouring, perched and clung to the left breast of one of my team mates.  It stayed there for several minutes, while the rest of us took pictures and gasped in awe, not only at the sight, but at our team mate's incredibly calm and unruffled demeanor.  (I would post a picture, but I think I should ask her permission first!)

The moment was so strange, the sight so bizarre, it was impossible not to seek for significance in it.  A dragonfly at the dragon boat race.  Devouring its prey as we prepared for our finals.  On a woman's left breast, the breast that the legendary Amazon warriors of old reputedly sliced off in order to improve their archery skills.  It was so loaded with the aura of significance that my own ability to apply meaning to it actually left me.  The image itself was the meaning.  Imagine what some ancient high priestess might have made of it.

This morning, as I was swimming in the pool at the gym, I found myself thinking back on that moment.  Why?  Because I found myself thinking in metaphor.  Swimming does that to me.  One moment, my head is submerged under water in a world where outside sounds are muted to near-silence and outside visions are seen only in refraction and reflection.  The next moment, I emerge into the full clamor of the external life.  "It's a metaphor for human existence," I thought.  "The internal life and the external life and the need for balance between them."

Now, admittedly, as a writer, I may be more prone to these musings of metaphor-meets-mysticism.  But I think it's built into our human consciousness.  If it weren't, we wouldn't have so many words for it - metaphor, allegory, symbolism, parable.  We seek for inner meaning in the world around us.

And why not?  The dance between the tangible and intangible, the visible and invisible is at the core of some of the most awe-inspiring aspects of our universe - from atoms to sound waves to the human mind.  Perhaps it's not only inevitable that we should seek meaning in the physical world.  Perhaps it is imperative.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Make Peace with Your Body

I am 46 years old and I have finally made peace with my body, though, like any peace that comes upon a ravaged battlefield, it comes with an uneasiness, and it cannot wipe away the past.  Still, I am celebrating this victory.

Girls in our society are at war with their bodies practically from pre-adolescence.  It's been this way for a long, long time.  We want to be thinner; we want to have more curves; we check every passing mirror for validation because we think our outer appearance defines our inner value; we battle against physical changes that come from month to month and year to year, furious that our body is not a fixed sculpture in marble but something that ebbs and flows and shifts over time.

Our bodies are inextricably linked with our spirits and our minds.  It takes us a long time to understand that connection.  The world doesn't help, using that feminine mind-body link to minimize what we think and feel and to justify excluding us.

Our bodies mark the passage of time for us, and we battle that, as if we could somehow stop time, as if we would rather not know where we are in our journey.

There are some wonderful signs of hope for today's girls.  There was a time when we didn't even talk to one another about our bodies, so we couldn't help each other understand what was happening to us.  That has changed, thanks to some amazing women pioneers, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, who blasted through the cones of silence that surrounded the health issues unique to women.  Trailblazing women entered the medical profession and started actually studying the physical differences in women.  The book OUR BODIES, OURSELVES revolutionized women's access to information about their own bodies.  Today's young women take for granted the incredible knowledge base that now exists, and their own freedom to talk openly about their bodies and to educate themselves.

When Title IX passed, it not only changed the face of women's athletics, it changed the way the world viewed exercise for women.  There's still a ton of pressure around exercising to look good and lose weight, but the world of sports and athletics has been thrown open as never before and now, a healthy female body has muscles, and women have access to all sorts of sports and athletics.  Not just some women, but all women, as part of our every day lives.

Mind you, when I went shopping for hiking boots just a few years ago, the main shoe stores I visited didn't carry ANY women's hiking boots.  I had to buy a pair in a boy's size.  This in Portland, Oregon, a hiking town if ever there was one.  On the other hand, the girls I teach in elementary school throw themselves into physical exercise with a joy that can only come from inclusion, and from the certainty that this is their right.  Sports are no longer seen as something just for jocks and tomboys.

The reason I'm pointing my lens especially at sports and exercise is this: I am making peace with my body because of sports.  And I was never an athlete.  I was the one no one wanted on their team.  I was the one they tried to keep the ball away from because they didn't think I could catch it.  So of course I hated sports.  Then, in high school, I started biking, on my own, and it felt good.  Sadly, at that time, exercise for me was so wrapped up in my obsession with weight and looks that it served as a weapon against my body more often than not.  Cut to college, where I dabbled in swimming and ice skating, as long as nobody was looking.  Self-consciousness was still such a strong presence.  Later, hiking and long walks came into play, allowing for a detente of sorts.

I turned a kind of corner when I was battling depression and learned that exercise was as effective with my level of depression as medication in some patients.  I joined the gym.  Exercise wasn't a tool for weight loss for me any more.  It was a prescription for mental and emotional health.

But it wasn't until I started paddling with a dragon boat team that a true and lasting peace with my body seemed possible.  In dragon boats, for those who don't know, a team of 16-20 people (depending on the type of boat) work together to paddle in time with power and speed.  It is the essence of team sport.  You are surrounded by the supportive energy of your team mates.  You CANNOT win unless you work together.

On the dragon boat team, I am surrounded by women of all ages and body types, all strong and powerful and beautiful in their might.  We practice 3 times a week.  I push myself further than I ever thought I could because of that powerful supportive energy.  And my body delivers.  It shows me over and over again what it's capable of.  That supportive energy has become something I share with my body.  I believe in it.  I am proud of what it is capable of.  I celebrate it.  To me, after over 30 years of being at war with my body, this is nothing short of a miracle.

Here's to sports and physical activity.  May today's young women find ever more reasons to celebrate their bodies, instead of being at war with them.