Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Faith Is A Practice.

Faith is a practice, not a belief. That is the tenet from which my cosmology, my religion, flows. Faith is not a static belief that you settle on and then forget. Faith is a practice. It is an active engagement, and not a passive surrender. To have faith is not to take the easy way out, because to have faith means to constantly wrestle with the world as it is and the world as you think it should be and the utopias presented by other people.

One must practice faith. One must practice the act of belief, or credulity, of saying "I don't know, so I will trust." Faith is also the practice of determining who and what to trust. It takes work.

One must practice faith. This means that one must put into practice the ideals of the faith. If you believe in radical love, you must not only profess it but live it. If you believe in nonviolence, you must not only profess it, you must live it. If you believe in respect, you must not only profess it, you must live it. You must practice these things, over and over again, because they are hard and you are human and you will screw up. Faith as a practice demands that we continue trying after screwing up. You do not get to be a child throwing a temper tantrum. "I can't do this! It's too hard! I give up!" after a try or two or even five.

Faith is a practice, and you have to keep practicing it knowing full well that no amount of practice will ever, ever make perfect. That is the faith of the practice of faith. Moving toward a goal you can feel but not see, blind but not groping because when you swing wildly you often hit things you weren't intending to.

Somehow this idea of faith as a practice was excised from American strands of Christianity. I'm not a religious scholar; I can't tell you when or how or why that happened, but I can tell you that it happened because I can look around at all the people claiming faith without ever putting it into practice. I can look at the ways that people find satisfaction in appropriating other faiths (Buddhism springs to mind, the appropriation of Buddhism by Americans is a real thing) and I can point to this idea of a practice that has gone missing from so many American churches. People want to practice; they find meditation and the active act of engaging to seek something to be more satisfying than passively consuming what is spoon fed to them.

But all faith is a practice, not just "exotic" Buddhism, not just Zen, or Taoism. All faith is a practice.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is a powerful, powerful season. Lent is the lynchpin of Christian faith. And we all have some idea of faith as a practice, still. We practice self-control during Lent: we give something up, we stop eating meat on Fridays. These are simple practices. They are children's practices. It is a shame that these are as deep as our practices go, because there is so much more. Do you know why paczki, why pancake day, came to be? Because Lent is a time of paring down and focusing on necessities, and those necessities do not include the richness of butter. Do you know why meat is prohibited? Because Lent is a time of necessities and those necessities do not include the flesh of animals. We can live without these things, and so we purge our homes of them for 40 days. Eat your paczki, enjoy it, savor it, but then put it away for the season.

There are actually three practices for Lent, a tridium, like God itself. Fasting, justice towards the self, is the practice that has survived in our world, although only just. It seems somehow ironic, and also somehow utterly fitting, that in America the only spiritual practice that would survive is a bastardized version of justice towards the self. But there are other practices, for Lent, that we are called to redouble our efforts toward: Justice toward God and justice toward neighbors.

So fast, and be just to yourself. But also give alms, or cook for your neighbors, or volunteer. Practice justice towards your neighbors, those other human beings that inhabit the spaces you do. Practice. It takes practice to treat other human beings justly, it takes practice to de-center the self in interactions with others. So take this time to practice.

And also pray. Or meditate. Practice justice towards God, or the divine. Have you ever contemplated the beauty of a wood violet in the dark of a forest floor? Or the sun as it breaks a horizon line? These sound very Buddhist, right? Have you ever prayed a rosary? Or walked the Stations of the Cross? The feeling I access when I look at the wood violet, or finger a rosary bead, is the same. Marvel at creation, and also your fellow beings. Hold them in your thoughts, and honor them. Meditate. Ask he interwoven strands of life to hold you up. Pray.

Faith is a practice, and now at the start of this season I will redouble my efforts to practice my faith.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"Never Forget"

Every year around this time, people always bandy about the phrase "Never Forget."

"Never forget," they say with wistful sadness or a steely undercurrent of yet-unresolved anger. "Never Forget" gets emblazoned across pictures of flags and rubble. Never forget, the news people tell us.

I always want to ask everyone that says this what they remember. What is it you are not forgetting? Do you know? Can you tell me?

These are the things I will never forget:

I will never forget watching people jump from impossibly high windows on a grainy-screened tube television in my high school history class. We took turns holding the antenna out the window of the steel-reinforced building to get a signal strong enough to see anything more than snow.

I will never forget being at work that evening, the two cops that walked in to my corner drugstore, just to buy water, and the way everyone made space for them, the way everyone looked at them out of the corners of their eyes, until the cops stood in front of the registers and announced to the store that everything was okay, they were just buying water.

I will never forget this picture.

But most of all, what I will never forget is a young man I knew a year later, when I went off to college, a fancy liberal arts college that I did not graduate from. I was deeply unhappy there for a long laundry list of reasons, and I was an insomniac. I couldn't sleep at night, only during the day, when I had other things to be doing.

This young man, he was also an insomniac. He couldn't sleep. So we took to hanging out, in the wee hours of the morning, when even the hardest partiers had passed out. The two of us, sitting in his room, smoking joint after joint, stereo on so low we could barely hear it, lying together in his bed staring at the ceiling, only touching incidentally.

It was comforting to be with someone else during those hours. So we were together.

Once, I asked him why he couldn't sleep. It was probably 5 am. We were both tired. The sun was due to come up soon; it was almost time for us to separate and sleep what little we could. This is what he told me.

"I'm from New York City," he said. "I'm from Manhattan. And I slept through 9/11. The whole thing. I didn't wake up until after midnight, until 9/12. I feel like I haven't slept since. I can't. What if it happens again."

I will never forget this young man, irrationally convinced his sleep had caused the world to fall apart around him. I wonder how many others there are, like him. I will never forget the pit that opened up in my stomach when I realized what kind of darkness he was stuck in, and that I had no way to help him, other than to keep sitting with him, there in his room, when the rest of the world was asleep, and neither of us could.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

This Is Defiance

For more than two years, people have gathered every week day in the Rotunda of the Wisconsin Capitol at noon to sing. Every day, Monday through Friday, for more than two years, they've been there. Singing. For five weeks, the Capitol Police have been randomly arresting an arbitrary number of participants each day. The justification for these arrests are new administrative rules that require gatherings of more than 20 people in the Capitol building to obtain a permit. These new rules ignore that the Wisconsin State Constitution designates the Capitol as a public building. These new administrative rules upend the basic right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

I went to the Solidarity Sing Along on Monday, August 26, the day that this and this both happened. The Capitol Police reached for new levels of low, and brutality, and they achieved them. Spectacularly. Damon Terrrell is (as I write this, on my lunch break on Wednesday, August 28, with the livestream of today's sing playing in the background) still in the Dane County jail, having neither been charged nor released. The blatant racism on display is breathtaking. The more than 150 arrests in five weeks (and counting) is chilling, and is intended to have a chilling effect on the exercise of speech.

But you know what? It's not working.

The Solidarity Sing Along has swelled in the five weeks since arrests started. What was 25 or 30 people has grown to hundreds.

This is defiance. "Arrest Us And We Multiply," said a homemade t-shirt. The new rules prohibit the holding of signs on sticks or poles or standards; a woman was arrested for carrying a sign in her hand and was told that she, herself, was the standard, and thus in violation of the rules.

Signs declaring "I Am The Standard" have appeared. Signs demanding the release of Damon Terrell. Signs decrying the brutality used against CJ Terrell. Signs demanding Medicaid expansion. On 8/26, signs in support of Planned Parenthood as participants in the Women's Equality Day rally outside the building came in for the sing along. Signs quoting the Wisconsin State Constitution. A homemade t-shirt denouncing ALEC.

This is defiance. We are the standard. Our bodies are the pike on which we will raise our demands, our
bodies are the ground for our voices, and we will raise them up with our fists and we will defy you. You do not govern by fiat, no matter who you are. You do have to listen to us. You will not shut us up with money, you will not shut us up with violence.

We demand the right for everyone to live. We demand the right to petition our government without reprisal. We demand that every person be recognized a person. We demand the right to economic security.

And if you attempt it? We will sing louder. More of us will be the standard. There will be more bodies, there will be more voices. Courage is contagious, and this is as evident in the Solidarity Sing Along as it is in the Fight For 15 strikes, as it is in the Energy Exodus marchers, as it is in fight for reproductive justice, as it is in the antiwar movement in the wake of Chelsea Manning's bravery and incarceration.

This is defiance, and we are the standard.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Revolution of Nonmonogamy

There's been a lot of talk about nonmonogamy recently, what with Laurie Penny's piece in the Guardian and this somewhat horrifying bit of commodification at Jezebel. As earnest and elegantly stated and nuanced as Penny's piece is, it still presents nonmonogamy in light of the heteronormative standard: "Just another way of organizing life, love, and who does the dishes" which replaces old relationship problems with new ones, of terminology and how to "make sure you're spending enough time with each of your partners."

Penny herself acknowledges that this isn't the point of nonmonogamous relationships: "The truth is that there is no magic set of rules for love, sex and home economics that works for everyone – and that's why it's so important that there are other options out there." Presenting nonmonogamy as just another set of rules to follow is severely limiting in its possibilities. "Polyamorists and monogamists alike," she notes, "fall prey to the delusion that their rules are the only proper way to organize relationships[.]"

The revolutionary nature of nonmonogamy comes not from being a new and exotic, esoteric set of rules to follow (because, let's face it, that's vaguely racist) but in the idea of creating your own rules. Creating your own rules *in concert with other people.* Creating rules that work mutually for both of you, so that everyone gets what they need. It's not about doing "whatever you want" because no one wants to hurt people that they care about. But it's never assuming the emotional state of someone else; it's always letting them tell you whether they're ok or whether they're hurt, and then listening to the answer. It's respecting the answer. It's working towards a better way of doing things if hurt happens. Between the two of you, to the benefit of both of you so that no one gets hurt and no one unintentionally hurts anyone else.

All of this sounds like some pretty standard, run-of-the-mill couples therapy stuff. Because I keep saying "the two of you" as if it is a couple, two people, and that's not nonmonogamy, right? As if relationships between just two people didn't exist in nonmonogamy. But that's not true. I say between the two of you because no matter how many people are in your relationship, or in a relationship with you, you have to think of them as just themselves, each one person, an individual being with thoughts and feelings and features unlike any other that are completely irreplaceable because this person is a person, a whole person, a single person.

(sidebar: You should view everyone this way, not just people you're sleeping with. Being sexually attracted to someone shouldn't be the deciding factory in whether that someone is a complete human being, because everyone is, regardless of whether you want to sleep with them.)
(secondary sidebar: You have to view yourself this way, too. You, also, are a unique and complete human being that deserves a complete life like any other, in ways that make you happy.)

If you start to falter in this unassailable belief that each of your partners is a whole person, a complete person, an individual human being with feelings and thoughts and dreams unlike any other, what happens is that you gradually cease to weigh their own feelings and pains equally with yours and then you end up "doing whatever you want" which (inevitably) causes pain and suffering for someone, usually not yourself the worst. You cease to care about your partner, because they're not a whole person, just a thing you use. And maybe you're sorry about that thing becoming worn because you're using it because it's not a person anymore, it's an it.

The thing about pre-made rules for interacting with people is they create whole systems that revolve around people not being people, not being individual and complete human beings.They replace individuals with characters, with scripts to follow. You're supposed to wait three days before calling. You're not supposed to talk about your dreams. Or your period. Be thin, white, symmetrical, of normal neuro-functionality, secure in your gender and seeking an opposite gender as if gender were binary. Find one mate to raise children with according to those nonexistent gender binaries. Make lots of money.

These are the rules, right? Those are the people that are held up as beacons of success, of stability, of doing-it-right-ness. This is the script. There are so many people that don't even *get to be in the play* because they're not thin or white or symmetrical or neurotypical or cis or hetero or rich. So, like, hey, even if you're thinking about nonmonogamy as a way to be all those things because you think it's possible to play out the script, that's cool. I guess. I'd sort of like to meet you, because it must be nice to never feel as if there are parts of yourself that just don't fit and that's got to be a weird experience because I don't think I know anyone that wouldn't cop to feeling like a square peg in a round hole sometimes no matter how wedged into their round holes they are.

But inevitably, some people don't follow the script. And rules mean that even when the script doesn't work for you, you're supposed to follow it instead of change it. Rules mean that when you're not in the script at all, you're not supposed to trod the stage of life, complete life, fully human life.

How terrible. Terrorizing.

So throw out the rules. Throw out the roles. Work out your own rules. Be nonmonogamous.

And then, when you've tried that for awhile, you can start to blow apart all your relationships. Monogamy and nonmonogamy are for sexual partners, specifically. But what are the other things we're supposed to be doing with sexual partners? Or not doing with them? Raising children, living together, working. Why should those be tied to who you sleep with? Why should you have to live with someone you're fucking? Why should you have to live with someone you're raising kids with? Why should you have to raise kids with the person you're fucking? Why shouldn't you work with a sexual partner? Does the kind of work matter? What about the rules for relationships between work and parenting? 

Pick all of your relationships apart and put them back together in the ways that work best for you. And demand a system that lets everyone do that. Pretty revolutionary, that.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Words Are Harder Than Images

This past weekend, I went to see an artist I admire greatly perform. It was a spur-of-the-moment, oh-shit-this-is-happening-tonight?! sort of decision and I rushed through my evening parental duties and drove across the city and sat in the backroom of a bar and listened.

The music this artist creates, the sound poems or stories or the intricate weaving of noises, are meditative. Someone once told me that it's "not the most accessible" music, and I was very quietly surprised. It's not what you hear on the radio, any radio, no matter how indie, but I find it instantly accessible because of that meditative quality. The sound wraps you up and engages the attention-paying parts of your brain; I sink into it like a sensory deprivation tank, and suddenly images come into the other parts of my brain, unbidden, uncontrollable. I find the music instantly accessible in ways that most of what I hear is not.

What happened when I sat in the back of that bar with 30 or so other people paying rapt attention was this:

I had a conversation in my head with this artist that I admire greatly. And he asked me why I hadn't been writing.

And, in my head, I said to him, "I've been taking a lot of pictures lately, I've been focusing on that, I guess."

And, in my head, he looked at me quizzically, expectantly. "But you're better with words than images," he said to me in my head.

And without thinking about it, in my head, I made this confession to him:

"Words are harder than images. I've been too lazy for words."

So here I am. Pushing past the laziness. Telling stories in words.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Focus On Your Empathy, Not Your Anger

Early yesterday morning, this picture crossed my feed and I thought about it. Then a different image of the same event popped up yesterday evening. And I want to talk about it.

The background here: on Tuesday, a right wing nationalist in Paris shot himself at the altar of Notre Dame. He had been a member of a militant nationalist group in France, had recently been focused on France's recently passed law legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption, and left a suicide note on the altar that was "political," and is quoted as saying,

"I believe it is necessary to sacrifice myself to break with the lethargy that is overwhelming us. I am killing myself to awaken slumbering consciences."

Yesterday, a FEMEN activist was arrested at Notre Dame. FEMEN says the act was a call for the death of fascism, and that "It is a message addressed to all those who support fascism and those who have expressed sympathy for the extreme-right militant who killed himself in Notre Dame[.]" I was uncomfortable when the image appeared in my timeline because it felt wrong. It felt exploitative and as if the point was merely to get attention. But then I read and realized there was a point, and the point was far worse: that expressing sympathy at the sad loss of another person, even a vile person, makes one a fascist. Sympathy makes one a fascist? I wonder what empathy makes one.

Three days ago a massive, mile-wide, utterly devastating tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma. Very quickly I started seeing tweets about Oklahoma's senators, conservatives both, that opposed relief packages after Hurricane Sandy. Some were neutral; some were taunting. And then today I saw a blog that literally spelled out, "No relief funds for Oklahoma. If they can't help, they don't get help." The author even acknowledged that people would see that as cruel, although he had some clever reason why it didn't actually apply to him.

I guess "an eye for an eye" is a popular idea. The thing about it, though, is that it's not justice. It's retribution, but retribution and justice are not the same thing. The people of Oklahoma didn't cause the destruction wrought by Sandy any more than they caused the destruction they're facing now. Some of them didn't even vote for these senators, and even the ones that did are still people, still living breathing utterly devastated people. How does not helping them solve anything? How does not helping them make anything better? It doesn't. It might make you feel better about not being able to control the world. It might make you feel as if you can control it. It might make your anger lessen. But it doesn't help

The progression, from pointing out the votes of Oklahoma's senators in a seemingly neutral way, to taunting Oklahomans about their senators, to advocating for denying aid is so clear to me. They grew out of each other. I watched it happen. I tried to tell someone why it was wrong to be talking about the votes of the senators instead of any number of other things, why can't you talk about the importance of fully funding the National Weather Service or promote mutual aid relief efforts or anything constructive, why this wasn't helpful, and I don't think I made myself understood because I'm sometimes not eloquent at all, but I did try. 

Hurting people helps no one, whether you're hurting one person or a thousand people or a million people, whether you're torturing them or bruising their feelings. Clearly, there are worse hurts and minor hurts, but even the smallest ones matter. The big ones should make you sick. The small ones should make you stop. And when you've stopped, you should think about what you're doing. Let the knowledge you're hurting someone wash over you, and you'll feel sick then, too. 

Hurting people is never okay.

I can also see a line from this "an eye for an eye" conception to FEMEN's comment. "Anyone expressing sympathy at the death Dominique Venner." Anyone expressing sympathy for suicide. For feeling so trapped you see no other way than to end your life. If you're not with us, if you don't hate our enemies, you are against us, and you are our enemy. It's the same feeling fueling Islamaphobia and the EDL and the American media's narrative of everything. If you aren't with us, completely and in all things, you're against us. You will conform in all things or we will destroy you. Sounds like fascism, doesn't it?

So FEMEN employed the tactics of fascism to denounce it. Because sometimes you internalize all the awfulness of the world and to protect yourself you get angry and lash out. You become harder than the thing that's trying to crush you and end up crushing everything in your path. But the point shouldn't be to crush anything. The point is to live, and be happy, and for everyone to have that same experience. To live. And be happy. Without fear. Without reprisal. Without being hurt.

Hurting people is never ok, whether a large hurt or a small hurt, whether they've hurt you or someone else or never hurt anyone at all. Deliberate harm is never ok. 

Don't hurt each other. Don't destroy. Be gentle. Be patient. Help. Build. Heal. Offer comfort. These are the things worth doing. Focus on your empathy, and not your anger.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"I Do It For Me"

This morning, for no good reason, I shaved my legs. And then I put lotion on them. I almost never manage to  do both of these things at the same time; I'm too easily distracted and there are a lot of shiny things in my living space. So I'm generally either hairy and well-moisturized or clean-shaven and ashy as hell.

Sometimes this bothers me. Like, yesterday. Riding my bike in all my shorts-wearing glory I was pretty embarrassed about my legs. So this morning I shaved AND moisturized.

And then I got to work and was all, "Fucking patriarchy."

It's real easy to say that it's "totally fine" for women to go through grooming procedures "for themselves" but how, exactly, do you tell what you're doing for yourself when everything you do and don't do is scrutinized and judged? I was embarrassed about the state of my legs so I did something to relieve that embarrassment and that is certainly making me more comfortable and confident today rocking out in my bright orange dress but the real question here is "Why was I uncomfortable in the first place?"

Fucking patriarchy, that's why.

My somewhat stubbly legs with their scratches of white against the fading tan I picked up over a week of vacation are NOT ATTRACTIVE. Doesn't matter that they're sort of oddly proportioned with all the muscles I've built up by using them combined with my weirdly tiny joint structures. Doesn't matter that they're my legs and I use them for things. Doesn't matter at all. All that matters is hairlessness and consistent color and making a dude think that rubbing on them would be a pleasant aesthetic experience.

My vanity is well-documented. The fact of the matter is that I am more comfortable when I know that I can be considered attractive, so I do things to be attractive. I'm more comfortable this way, so it can be argued that I'm doing them "for me." But I'm also doing them to be more comfortable in a system and a culture that will always judge me on my appearance, so it's impossible to actually do anything "for me."

This is the inherent problem of patriarchy. No matter what you do, you're in it and you can't get out. Any choice you make is influenced by it, whether you conform or rebel, because you have no way of knowing how you'd feel about anything without the constant and omnipresent system indoctrinating you.

I cannot define myself without patriarchy. And that makes me so depressed I sit and stare slackly at my computer screen for awhile until someone walks by and I realize I'm at work.

Apparently, even self-medication methods are subject to patriarchy, because smoking weed makes you skinny, and we all know that skinny is desirable. Now there will be hordes of neurotic girls toking up to get skinny instead of enjoying their lives. And if you can't even get high without pressure, what do we have left in the world? I ask you. WHAT IS LEFT.