Thanksgiving, a practice of gratitude and grief

We are watching the parade this morning, snuggled up all cozy on our couch while the cinnamon rolls rise in the oven. The announcer wears big fuzzy ear muffs, sitting at a desk covered in flowers. She flashes a brilliantly white smile and says “Friends, family, love. That’s what thanksgiving is all about. A time to think about where we came from, how we’re all connected. Did you know you can learn about your ancestors with this easy kit…” *cue ancestry dna advertisement* This fades into commercials advertising all the black friday deals, then zooms back to a close up of giant Tom Turkey and two jolly looking people dressed up as pilgrims.
Sigh. Today I am struggling with the tension. The chasm between the wonderful family memories I have of this holiday, the joyful moments I am sharing with my own children, and the horrible and ongoing slaughter, oppression, and erasure of the 567 indigenous tribal nations this holiday commemorates invading. Our colonizing mythology runs so deep sometimes it’s hard for me to learn the truth – not just because it’s uncomfortable but mostly because I have such a hard time dismantling the american myths I’ve always believed to be true.  It’s all confusing and complicated and I don’t know how to hold it.
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Yesterday we escaped to the mountains and spent the afternoon in wonder. We marveled at the power of water to carve out the amazing natural bridge and the towering rock walls. The trees that stretched hundreds of feet from the mossy floor up towards the sun. The filtered light. The quiet. It was like descending into another world. Another time. A thin place. We stopped and sat on some fallen, moss covered logs and imagined the people who called this land home hundreds and thousands of years before us.
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We read aloud this piece by Layli Long Solider. She taught us about the Dakota 38. How Lincoln slaughtered them the same week he signed the emancipation proclamation. Another piece of the history I am complicit in, but did not know. Her words hung like the mist, seeping into our pores.
But then the kids were expiring and we still had almost a mile of ground to cover so snacks were doled out and jackets re-zipped and step by step we carried this complicated, painful story and our questions back up out of the canyon, back across the beautiful Kentucky hills, back home.
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I don’t know how to hold these stories. That is my privilege. I carry only my own grief, tell only my own history. That is the way of my people – our culture the definition of egocentric. Slowly, with humility and with practice, I am learning to submit to the voices of those who have been living on the margins for generations. I am learning from their wisdom, their rich traditions of storytelling, their healing practices, their communal rituals of remembering and lament.
Today I hold the tension. I teach my children to hold it too. Today we will cook recipes that share our family history, and we will cook recipes that share the story of the Sioux. We will tell them stories about the dark history of our nation and the people who lived here before us. We will play with legos and ride bikes and watch movies and do crafts. We will pause and light candles and hold space for remembering and lamenting.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful benediction I read this morning.

“May you remember we are all on stolen Indigenous land and speak truthfully of the past and present.

May you lean into hard table conversations about white supremacy, LGBTQ affirmation, feminism, and more.

May you honor your own needs.

May you practice engaged patience for sustainable change-making in the areas of your privilege.

May you not food shame yourself nor anyone else.

May you bring in those who are left out.

May you be nourished in body and soul, whether alone, with friends, or with family.

May all the sources of love, delight, and sacredness in your life draw near and fill your spirit with gratitude for the good that persists.

May you remember you are loved. That your worth is ineffable.

Blessed be your day, 
whether it’s hard or perfect or messy or ordinary
whether you’re lonely or surrounded by beloveds
whether you’re angry, grieving, or content.”

And this gift:  Layli Long Soldier’s powerful words, spoken here in her own voice.
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let them lead us

We waited nearly an hour
fidgeting with phones
rehearsing answers
wearily at attention
to the future

While we inched forward
the children wasted no time organizing themselves
learning names and giggling games

I wondered what they thought of us
(probably nothing)
civically queuing to solve the BIG PROBLEMS
with one silent push of a button

For weeks I have been drilling into them
the importance of our vote
of RESISTANCE, PERSISTENCE, PROTEST and HOPE

But in the time it took us to reach our holy purpose
I watched these little humans
stranger neighbors
negotiate fierce fights with grace
even as their bodies vibrate with the intensity of their desire

They move like water,
like something more alive together than apart
a school of glittered fish, a flock of small, wiry birds
undulating
clashing, retreating, returning
compromising
improvising, really
the way to peace
and then breaking again and again
listening, rolling,
childish forms trusting the process
surrendered and sustained

Instead of battle lines,
a holy posture
of hope
inclusion
trust

Maybe
if we let them lead the way
we can learn it too

I am hopeful.

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If you’d like to listen to this poem, click on the image below.

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curiosity in the face of fear

I grew up in an conservative christian community, proudly intolerant of all outsiders. From a young age I learned to look at these “others” with a mix of fear and pity – fear that their “lifestyles” would infect mine if given the slightest chance, pity that they were so committed to their hell-bound “worldly” ways. This attitude covered over everything from religious and cultural differences to sexual orientation and gender expression, even the smallest things like clothing, makeup, music, and people who let their kids do youth sports on sundays.

Their allegiance was clear, I was taught. They have put their desires, their interests, their very selves before the will of almighty. They were doomed. We would be too, if not for the grace of God and the prick of the holy spirit keeping us from listening to Evanescence and shopping at Hot Topic. (What? You didn’t also confess that sin of worldliness in your prayer journal numerous times between 2001 and 2003? Well. The Lord knows your heart.)

We weren’t without compassion. Like any person convinced everyone around us was going to burn alive for eternity, we did our part to rescue them. We had VBS programs and summer mission trips and I even went to public school so I could get a great free education while witnessing to my friends. In fact, our public school attendance was quite controversial in our church because the truly holy families sent their kids to our church christian school. I made up for this by starting bible studies at lunch and doing prayer walks before school with several other zealous and painfully awkward teenagers. To my memory, we weren’t angry or hostile towards others. But we didn’t really have any contact with people who didn’t share our beliefs. We were happily settled into a world of sameness.

It wasn’t until adulthood when I began to encounter these “others” as more than caricatures. They became my colleagues and neighbors and friends. We swapped stories about our weekends and lines from our favorite shows. We cared for clients and neighbors and friends. We planned a community garden. I babysat their children. Slowly, my horizons expanded. I learned about the diverse city I was making a home in, the people who were so different from me, until they weren’t. Until the differences gave way to a surprising amount of common ground, similar desires, values, dreams.

But all this stretching and learning and listening doesn’t happen quickly or come easily. Podcasts became my refuge – a powerful but safe, introvert-friendly way to explore other worlds while I worked up the courage to actually set foot in them.

There’s this intimacy to storytelling via podcast – a sense that there is no distance between the storyteller and the listener. I am not some faceless member of an audience, watching a performer on a stage. No, with the help of my ear buds I am sitting right across from this brave soul. They are speaking their beautiful life right into my heart.

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There are a few important things that happen when we learn to really listen to each other’s stories.

First, we gain valuable practical information to help us understand another’s world. That might be terminology or maybe an overview of cultural practices, it might even be historical data that we’ve never heard before. This information serves to fill in gaps in our most basic understanding of others – what sort of culture shaped this person to be who they are? What are the terms they use to describe their world, and what do they mean?

Second, storytelling humanizes. It’s easy to be afraid of someone, to allow the shadows in our understanding to become menacing and intentional. Luckily, it’s just as easy to adopt a posture of curiosity and wonder. When I listen to someone tell a story about their life, I am instantly transported into their shoes. When they share what the heartache felt like after their mother died, I feel a pang too. When I hear a story about a personal triumph, I share in their joy. But here’s the thing: if we do not practice empathy, our capacity for it atrophies. Luckily, the reverse is true: the more we practice this posture of curiosity and active listening, the more natural it becomes, and fear loses power.

Third, storytelling offers a safe environment to encounter and consider new ideas. From the safety of my own earbuds I can can learn about people who live very different lives, have very different values, and want very different things. No response required. I don’t have to mask my emotions if I am shocked or disgusted or confused. I don’t have to draw any conclusions or make any judgments. Stories have softened me. They’ve evaporated my fear.

Somewhere along the way I realized that the fear was self-imposed. No one was ever trying to take apart my beliefs, to win me over to some dark side. That nervous feeling I felt, the feeling I relied on and believed was telling me something dangerous was happening – that’s just the feeling of growing. The feeling of opening to new ideas, new questions, new possibilities. If we lean into it gently, patiently, there is no limit to what we will discover about the world, and about ourselves. Isn’t that wonderful?

Now I can’t wait to tell people about the fascinating worlds I’m discovering through my headphones. I’m no longer afraid of the harsh light that black and white thinking casts on the world because these stories have helped me to see the vibrant spectrum of hues that were invisible to me before.

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The phrase “I wonder…” has served me so well on this journey. It helps me to turn my quick judgments into opportunities for growth. I wonder what it’s like to be a refugee, fleeing on a flimsy rubber boat.   I wonder what it would feel like to live in a body that didn’t reflect how I felt on the inside. I wonder what it’s like to be Muslim in america. I wonder what it will be like to look back on my life at 50 or 75 or 90. I wonder what it would be like to live as an immigrant in a big city, or a small, rural town. I wonder.

But even with that posture, we live in an exhausting time. In the era of soundbites, it is easy, necessary even, to keep our guard up against the onslaught of polarizing opinions and extreme reactions. We learn to filter out everything we disagree with because we just do not have the energy to deal with it. Storytelling, a practice as old as human civilization, reminds us we are bound together by our humanity and helps us to process these complexities together.

If you’re afraid, cautious, too principled to wonder about how another lives as they do, I encourage you to try listening to a story told by someone in the group you fear. I love This American Life and The Moth for short, powerful glimpses into the lives other people lead. If a podcast feels like too much, you might try reading some of the short interviews on Humans of New York. That prickle of discomfort is the itch of growing pains. The stretch of becoming, making room for more love and understanding. Preparing you to see and flourish in a more colorful, vibrant world.

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I’m preparing to attend a conference this weekend. A christian conference. My first foray back into christian culture in some time. The group hosting it has created a sort of counter culture that challenges every exclusive, dualistic fiber of conservative Christianity, re-imagining the faith with love and hope and plenty of space for a spectrum of beliefs and questions. They are the loveliest people. But I am terrified. I am so anxious about exposing myself to “church people” again. So nervous about our differences of experience and beliefs. Dreading what conclusions my friends at both ends of the spectrum will draw about me attending something like this. It’s all fear.

So I’m taking some time this week to practice this meditation of wonder. To consider and breathe space for the possibilities. To listen for the stories, let go of judgments, and just be present to the experience.

It is through listening that we gain eyes to see more than what is visible – to understand what has been and imagine what can be.

 

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