After several years of drawing almost entirely with charcoal, I decided to take the plunge and try two new things: color, and a brush. I have a couple of brushes, but I couldn’t find them this morning, and just grabbed one of my eight-year-old daughter’s, with plastic bristles (Poor child! We must treat her to some proper brushes). I recently bought a few bottles of ink in shades of reddish brown for another project, so I brought those, and also the watercolor tubes I haven’t opened in five years.

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I brought my box of charcoal just in case, but I didn’t use it. But I was tempted. So tempted, because . . .

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. . . This was hard! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was figuring out the media as I went: how does ink spread? How do you judge the color when it’s in the dish? How much liquid does the brush hold? What happens if you paint over a place that’s already been painted and dried? I felt like I was back in kindergarten. It was less playful than scary.

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That fear was a humbling reminder of something I wish were not true of me, but often is: I do not like to do things I’m not good at.

imageHuh? What am I in the studio for, if not to do something I haven’t done before? Am I really playing it that safe most weeks? I hadn’t thought so–each session is certainly challenging and exciting, just trying to draw with the charcoal–but the way I felt today was unmistakable. It was what I feel when I’m doing something new and scary.

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As a result, it was also the most exciting session in a long time. The drawings are messy but (rather, and) full of novelty. In every one, I was trying something I literally haven’t done in decades, if ever. I even got my playfulness back.

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As Munchkin was looking at the drawings, she said, “I like these. You can tell you were really looking at the light.” I demurred, saying, “Sometimes I was, but mostly I was just making it up as I went along.”

imageShe looked at me and said, “That’s what art is.” My daughter, my teacher.

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Every Sunday my eight-year-old daughter asks, “Is today a Navigators Day?” She loves church and Children’s Religious Education, but the best Sundays of all are the weeks she puts on her green kerchief and goes to Navigators. She wouldn’t have those if it weren’t for Nathan Harris.

Nathan started coming to our church three years ago when he and his then-seven-year-old daughter, Sage, were new to the area and looking for a community they could call home. They found it at our church, and what they didn’t find ready-made, Nathan helped create. He started a unicycle club, and we soon saw UU Unicyclists all over the parking lots and paths of the church. He learned about Navigators USA, a bias-free, co-ed scouting program, and asked our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, how to go about starting a chapter. It wasn’t long before Chapter 42 was born, and my daughter and a dozen other kids were camping on the church grounds, hiking, learning how to split wood and build a fire, geocaching, cooking, sending up rockets, you name it.

Now Nathan is about to leave the area. He doesn’t want to; he likes his job as a school psychologist in East Palo Alto, the church community, the friends he and his daughter have made. But the rent on their tiny apartment–he calls it “the hotel room”–is rising by 10%, and he can’t find anything else.

When he moves away, someone else will have to co-lead Our Whole Lives (OWL), our sexuality education program for middle schoolers in and beyond our congregation—or maybe we won’t be able to find a replacement. Someone else will have to lead the five-mile hike, if they can keep up with an energetic bunch of 7-10-year-olds. Sage’s friend who looks so much like her that we call them doppelgangers will have to say goodbye to his twin.

This has happened in our church more times than I can count. Someone who is a small-group leader, a teacher, a friend, a mentor, a singer in the choir, a Board member, reluctantly pulls up roots and moves to somewhere with affordable housing. It happens to property owners, though more often to renters; it happens to professionals like Nathan, though more often to those with lower-paying or part-time jobs. They want to stay, and we want them to, but they can’t. Our public policies are forcing them to leave, hitting our community with loss upon loss.

In our church, our big annual fundraiser is an auction of goods, services, and hosted events. An auction makes a great fundraiser. It makes a terrible system for delivering the necessities of life.

Yet that is how we sell and rent housing: to the highest bidder. And the highest bidders around here have such deep pockets that those who manage to offer what the seller is asking have little chance of winning the bid. Think of all the times you’ve heard of a would-be buyer offering considerably more than was asked, yet losing out to someone who could pay cash. And renters: when has your rent gone down, or even simply kept pace with inflation? In the past year, Bay Area average rents have risen over 14%. Those of us who didn’t get a 14% pay raise, such as Nathan: where are they supposed to live?

The answer we’ve given is clear: they’re supposed to go away.

And when they’ve gone, who will be the psychologists in our schools? Who will be the teachers, the police officers, the store managers, much less the gardeners, the cooks, the janitors? Who will create our scouting programs or volunteer in our schools?

With our housing-only-for-the-highest-bidder system, we have made our community increasingly hostile to anyone in the mere 99%. That is not sustainable for our families, our earth (many people burn fossil fuels for 20 or more hours every week driving to work here from their affordable homes in the Central Valley), or the quality of life of our communities.

These market forces aren’t all to the bad, and in many times and places, they have served most people. They aren’t serving us. They are ripping us apart. We need cities to stabilize rents and preserve enough housing that’s affordable to the people who make our communities run—who are our communities.

My daughter was hoping Nathan would teach her to ride a unicycle. She’s got a few more weeks to learn. Then he and Sage are off to Sacramento. I wish them luck. And I wish us luck too. But we’ll have to make our own luck, by summoning the political will to make some changes, now, before the next Nathan and Sage are driven out of our lives.

Note: I wrote this in May, 2015, and submitted it as an op-ed piece to various newspapers in our housing-strapped region. I’m sure many other local communities, from workplace teams to PTAs to altar guilds, experience similar losses and stresses as their members are forced to be transient, but alas, none of the papers chose to run it. So here it is, a bit past the time. Nathan and Sage are now settled in to their new lives in a home they can afford and that has a lot more space; our loss, Sacramento’s gain. Someone else will have to teach Munchkin to ride a unicycle, if they know how.

I was walking around a pond in a development in Louisville, Colorado, yesterday afternoon when I saw a fluffy black and white flag wiggling above the foot-tall grass. Then another appeared. Before I caught a glimpse of the bodies that went with the tails, I knew they had to be skunks.

I hesitated for a moment, thinking of their reputation even though I know it’s exaggerated, but reasoned that even if they noticed me, they wouldn’t be frightened into spraying, with me several yards away and easy escape routes all around. So I watched for several minutes as they moved between partial and complete concealment. I am not sure I have ever seen a living skunk in the wild, and I wouldn’t have expected to see one before dark. As best as I could tell, one was larger than the other and both were nosing along the ground or close to the roots of the grasses.

They disappeared into the high reeds closer to the edge of the pond, and I watched for another three minutes or so but didn’t see them again. I reluctantly headed back to the house, feeling so elated that sighting a rabbit hop ahead of me and across the road a few minutes later seemed ordinary.

I said I would be happy to read a shopping list written by Harper Lee. I might have gotten my wish. This is not a novel: a story. It is an essay trying to become a story and not really succeeding in being a story or an essay.

I’m sure a lot of new writers have manuscripts like this in boxes under their beds, which is where they should stay. You have to write a lot of dreck to learn to write the great stuff, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of–don’t I post my own drawings here, bad as most of them are? You can see a common phenomenon here: a talented, deeply thoughtful novice has some ideas she wants to explore, and by God she’s going to explore them, and story be damned.

I was going to describe what happens to the story after Jean Louise discovers that her boyfriend and, far more crushingly, her father are members of a Citizens’ Council, but I can’t improve on Adam Gopnik’s concise summary in The New Yorker (July 27, 2015: 68): “Shocked, she confronts [Atticus], and starts on a series of static and prosy debates–first with her uncle Jack . . . and then with Atticus himself–about integration, the N.A.A.C.P., the Tenth Amendment, and other fifties-era subjects, all offered mechanically as set pieces, accented with oaths and ‘Honey, use your head!’s to make them sound a little more like dialogue.” Gopnik left out the boyfriend and aunt; she goes a few rounds with them too.

There are interesting ideas in there, even 60 years later, though they’re most interesting to me as a window into that period of our racial struggles–they are social history. But, as I said: not a novel. At this point in her writing life, Lee hasn’t figured out how to embody ideas in plot and character yet. They’re just air.

It’s a joy to see her terrific descriptions of characters and places. You can tell that this writer has a lot of talent. She has a lot to learn about dialogue and pacing, but those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird know that she will quickly learn it, and superlatively. Reading Go Set a Watchman, though, is like skipping along through a meadow of interesting characters and then suddenly finding oneself knee-deep in mud, unable to move. The characters stop talking to each other and start lecturing the reader through each other. The drama of their relationships grinds to a halt as we’re forced to listen in on an improbable family dispute that reads like an op-ed page. The most interesting dramas from the point of view of a Mockingbird reader–the confrontations with Calpurnia and Atticus–don’t make much sense because we don’t know these characters well enough to have a context for the conflict. (As readers of the previous book, we can interpret them as the characters by the same name–but, as I wrote in my previous post, that doesn’t quite work; the backstory is too altered. We don’t know this Cal or this Atticus–but, not to dodge the central issue raised by this book, I’ll write more about him in my next post about this book.)

The best parts of Go Set a Watchman are flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, and you can see the seeds of Mockingbird there, in incidents that didn’t make it into that book, such as the revival and baptism she, Jem and Dill put on in the yard, or her countdown to suicide when as a hopelessly naive twelve-year-old, she is sure she’s been impregnated by an unwanted French kiss. Lee’s astounding ability to convey what’s in the mind of a young girl comes through even in third person, and even with an omniscient narrator, which is used as clunkily here as inexpert writers do tend to use it, the reader popping suddenly into a secondary character’s head and popping out again. By the time she writes To Kill a Mockingbird, just a couple of years later, she is in masterful control of voice and point of view, and those portraits of places and people have become the verbal equivalents of Constable landscapes and Rembrandt faces. Sadly, that book remains her only successful novel.

Go Set a Watchman has been described as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, we see Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, her father Atticus, her uncle and aunt Jack and Alexandra, in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. But “sequel” is a misnomer, because a sequel is the continuation of a story. It becomes clear almost right away that the past of the characters in Watchman is not the past told about the characters with the same names in To Kill a Mockingbird. The editor of Watchman, Jonathan Burnham of Harper, qualifies it as “Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel,” and the many ways in which it is not a sequel have a significant impact on our interpretation of each book (more on that in post 4). The experiences of Scout1 are so different than the experiences of Scout2 that it’s best to read Go Set a Watchman as alternative history.

I’m not talking about minor changes and absences. Watchman can’t refer to every incident, even every important incident, in Mockingbird; that would be silly. And one key character who almost certainly did not exist in the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, Henry Clinton, remains in Go Set a Watchman because Lee needs him there. That’s not what makes it an alternative history novel.

Rather, I’m looking at three core events of To Kill a Mockingbird, events so central to the story that their omission makes the adult Jean Louise of Watchman a different person than the grown-up Scout who narrates Mockingbird.

First, at one point in Go Set a Watchman she strolls toward her childhood house and “steels herself for Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s onslaught” (112). I read the passage several times to see if it were perhaps meant as a flashback, and I’m pretty sure it’s not. The idea of putting Mrs. Dubose at the center of one of the most important events of a novel simply hadn’t occurred to Lee yet. And so we have an adult Jean Louise who did not sit with her brother afternoon upon afternoon while he read to an old woman who piled racist abuse on their family as, unbeknownst to the children, she fought to free herself from morphine. The incident with Mrs. Dubose ends Book I of Mockingbird. It is the experience that Atticus hopes will prepare them for an unwinnable fight in the courthouse, and it parallels it. But this Scout never had that experience.

Second, there is no Boo Radley in Watchman. Oh, I know he could well be dead by then, with no Radleys remaining in that house by the time Scout is a woman of 26. But even so, it is hard to imagine that an adult Scout, returning to her hometown and walking down memory lane in her old neighborhood, would not spare a thought for Boo Radley–unless he hadn’t been invented yet in her creator’s mind. Boo is the title character of Mockingbird (a designation he shares, of course, with Tom Robinson, and by extension with black people in general). His story frames the novel; it begins and ends it; it shapes Scout’s entire adult consciousness. How can there be a grown-up Scout who reflects on the summer of the trial without Boo Radley crossing her mind? Answer: this is a different Scout.

And finally, the Jean Louise of Go Set a Watchman is a woman who never saw Tom Robinson unjustly convicted. The story she identifies as pivotal to Atticus–pivotal to her understanding of who her father was and is–is similar enough that we know it’s the seed of Mockingbird, yet crucially changed.

Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.

Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. (109)

Need any reader of To Kill a Mockingbird be reminded how important it is to the story, and to the development of Jem and Scout as characters, that Tom was not acquitted, but was convicted? Here are a few passages in case it’s been a while:

   “Aw, Atticus, let us come back,” pleaded Jem. “Please let us hear the verdict, please sir.”
“The jury might be out and back in a minute, we don’t know–” but we could tell Atticus was relenting. “Well, you’ve heard it all, so you might as well hear the rest. Tell you what, you all can come back when you’ve eaten your supper–eat slowly, now, you won’t miss anything important–and if the jury’s still out, you can wait with us. But I expect it’ll be over before you get back.”
“You think they’ll acquit him that fast?” asked Jem.
Atticus opened his mouth to answer, but shut it and left us. (210)

I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty .. . guilty . . . ” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them. (214)

“Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it–seems that only children weep. Good night.” (215)

Although “things are always better in the morning” (215), that despair soaks into the novel and forms the narrator Scout’s account. Remember the haunting terms in which she recounts the moment of the verdict, linking it to the crisis of the rabid dog that Atticus had to shoot?:

   What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty. (213)

What was devastating was not just the conviction of a man who was obviously innocent, but the realization that it had been inevitable: that it was surprising to no one but themselves. Miss Maudie tells them, “[A]s I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that” (218). They learned from the verdict what every adult already knew: that under the comfortable exterior of Maycomb was the vicious impenetrability of a lynch mob. That disillusionment was what made the “children’s heart break” (282). And the Jean Louise of Watchman never experienced it.

I wish that Go Set a Watchman were a sequel, so that I could spend more time with the woman who emerged from these experiences. But the Jean Louise of Watchman isn’t her. She had a different childhood.

Next post: a novel or an essay?

When the news broke that another Harper Lee novel was to be released, like millions I felt excitement and trepidation. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) when I was twelve and have reread it every few years ever since. The characters live in my consciousness like people I have actually met. One time my sister and I were talking about the book and I said something about Miss Maudie Atkinson. “Oh, Maudie’s great,” Erika said, exactly as if we were talking about a favorite neighbor of our own. So the question of “What the hell happened to Atticus in the next twenty years?” is important and (despite internet scoffing about people’s being upset about a fictional character) anything but trivial. It’s at the core of Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) and very relevant to our lives in the United States in 2015. But it’ll be the subject of my fourth post on this book. This post is about something different.

The trepidation I felt had mostly to do with the circumstances of publication. Lee is deaf and blind now, and the communiques about this new book–actually written before TKAM and set aside–came entirely from her executor. Was someone just cashing in on an old draft that Lee never wanted to see the light? She had been asked, of course, why she’d only published one book (to which she once answered that she’d said all that she had to say); she could have had GSAW published anytime; why wasn’t it published until after she was incapacitated? It was suspicious.

As soon as I began the new book, my suspicions grew. Whole descriptions were almost identical in the two books: not the fleeting descriptions such as one expects in a series (“Harry had jet-black hair that was always untidy, bright green eyes, and a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt”–repeat seven times), but vivid portraits such as no writer would deliberately use twice. For one of the most obvious examples, here are two portraits of Scout and Jem’s Aunt Alexandra:

To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, however, Alexandra was the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was a disapprover; she was an incurable gossip.

When Aunt Alexandra went to finishing school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning; she was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn.  (Go Set a Watchman, page 28)

. . . . To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Popular Library paperback edition, page 131)

The reason for the similarity is obvious: when writing her second book, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee mined her earlier draft for some of its best passages. That makes complete sense.

Surely, then, if she decided to take GSAW out of her file cabinet 50 years later, she would read it for such repetitions and rewrite these passages. The most likely explanation for the fact that they keep appearing is that Harper Lee was not involved in the publication of this book. This is a deeply sad and disturbing fact. When people wondered whether Go Set a Watchman could possibly attain the standard set by To Kill a Mockingbird, I said I didn’t care; I would read Harper Lee’s shopping list. But damn it, only if she wanted me to. (It’s also possible that she gave the go-ahead but did not reread or edit it for publication. Given the craftswomanship she put into TKAM, I don’t give it serious credence. But who knows.)

I’ve had it happen to me: a mix-up in the editing process led to an earlier draft of an essay I wrote (this one, in fact) being included for publication. Later printings corrected the error, but I wince at the knowledge that the half-formed, awkwardly-stated thoughts that I and the editors wisely removed are out there on people’s bookshelves.

It was not easy to read Go Set a Watchman, and one reason was my growing remorse as I felt as if I were peeking into someone’s private papers. Harper Lee has given me so much, and it appears I have repaid her by reading an inferior draft that she never meant anyone to see.

Next post: Not the same Scout

Ten minutes each:

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Twenty minutes each:

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So much frustration. But mostly only when I look at them afterwards. While I’m drawing, I’m at peace.

Dear Maria,

I read your very thoughtful blog entry, UUA, Why Aren’t You Nurturing My Spirit? right after General Assembly. I hadn’t attended, myself, and I had plans to listen to the Service of the Living Tradition and Sunday morning service and Ware Lecture and other treats from the week. As a humanist, I read your piece with growing trepidation, especially when I got to your characterization of Marlin Lavanhar’s sermon in the Service of the Living Tradition.

In Marlin’s story . . . I am the oppressor. I am his oppressor because he did not feel comfortable being open about his authentic self.

After that, I was braced for a rough half an hour watching his sermon. But instead, in what I agree with you was a wonderful sermon, I didn’t hear “you are the oppressor” at all. I heard his discomfort, but I didn’t hear him blaming it on anything but his own failures of courage and integrity. I do think, and it’s clearly implied by Marlin’s sermon as well, that there is some blame to go around. It falls on each of us when we let it show in our faces: “you believe that?

We are each other’s oppressors. We can try to stuff each other in the closet with a look, with a roll of the eyes, with a “maybe you should try the UCC church down the street,” or “the Buddhist temple,” or “the Unity church,” or “the Humanist community.” There’s plenty of blame to go around, sadly. But I was looking hard for a finger pointing at humanists for shooting down theists, and what I saw was a little different from this:

What is wrong with Unitarian Universalism and what is holding us back from growth is our failure to embrace those who embrace God.

I really tried, I really expected it, but I didn’t see quite what you saw. Marlin did focus particularly on how hard our congregations are for those who embrace God; we do focus on it quite a bit these days, and there’s a good reason for that. If I may use an even more loaded metaphor than the closet (Marlin used it glancingly also), affirming God-believing UUs is like affirming the value of black lives.

“Black Lives Matter!” a person declares.

“Why do you say ‘black lives matter’?” the reply shoots back. “Don’t all lives matter?”

Yes, all lives matter, and since our judicial system and so much else about our country keep saying that black lives don’t count in that “all,” I’m gently, persistently pointing out that they do. And I am saying “We need to embrace those who embrace God” (lovely phrase, by the way) because in my congregation, although we say all theologies are welcome, we do convey, too often, that theist theologies, in particular, aren’t included in that “all.”

Thus the pendulum. Though I’m pretty tired of it too. I agree that it would be lovely if the pendulum were to stop swinging. Where would we like it to stop?

When I discovered Unitarian Universalism after decades of being a “None”, I was amazed and happy. It truly was amazing to this former Catholic — a place where I could take my authentic self and my Humanist family and be loved and supported in ways that I thought were only available to theists or others who could accept the supernatural.

My experience too! It sounds to me like we’re in a pretty good stopping place for humanists. What else do we need to do to nurture your spirit? Well, you spell some of it out.

So, where are the GA sessions on Grief Beyond Belief? Where are the services that take their inspiration from our creation story, the universe story, and the truth that we are star stuff and part of a grand, magnificent, messy, wondrous, interconnected world? Where is the advice for what to tell my son when he can’t sleep because he’s afraid that he is going to die some day, or that I might die and leave him alone? Where is the training in UU seminaries of how to minister to people like me who need to rely on human hands and human love to find hope and purpose? Where is the sense of mission to reach out to people like me who have nowhere else to turn for solace and inspiration and community because we don’t fit the religious norm? Where is the joy, and the celebration of life and love from a humanist perspective?

 

I know the answer to your question, and I hope it makes you happy: these things are to be found in UU congregations. I don’t know about the GA workshops—I haven’t done more than scan those for a couple of years—so maybe we do need more distinctly humanist presentations at GA. But the rest? Either I am particularly lucky, or you are particularly unlucky, because I have found those everywhere. Not only in my own congregation, not only in my collegial gatherings with ministers whose theologies do not all agree with mine by a long shot, and in the nondenominational Christian seminary I attended, but in every UU congregation I’ve belonged to. In fact, I’ve never attended a UU congregation that made me feel as if my theology were unwelcome. They might have said the Lord’s Prayer or mentioned God, they might have sung a hymn whose theology I find irksome, but I’ve always found lots of room for my beliefs and my preferred language and symbols. And I know for a fact that the ministers were not always of my theological stripe.

In fact, we have very few congregations in which the dominant theology is liberal Christianity. I’m glad they’re there, anyway—King’s Chapel should remain its badass high-church Christian self—even though I wouldn’t want to attend every week and they would certainly not want me as their minister, nor would I want to serve there. It’s fine that we have a few congregations that are explicitly atheist, pagan or Christian. But all in all, I much prefer the ones that try to be a home to all of those folks and more, and that is the kind in which I always hope to serve.

Will all humanists feel welcome in such a multitheological congregation? I fear not, because what I hear from a few humanists—not most—is that what they need for their spirit to be nurtured is to be in a place where everyone appears to believe as they do. I’m sorry to report this, because I’m a humanist myself, I don’t believe in God except in the sense of religious naturalism, and I most emphatically do not want people like us to die out. But from a few, particularly outspoken folks, I hear: “You have to stop using that ‘language of reverence’ or I don’t feel welcome here.” “Why use words like ‘God’ or ‘spirituality’ at all? Why not just use words we can all agree with?” “That was a great sermon except for the bit about Indra’s net. I don’t know why you need to talk about gods.” In other words, in order for these folks to feel “nurtured” in our congregations, we must all act like humanists all the time—and, more than that, we must act like a very particular strain of humanist, one who does not use any term that sounds “religious,” including the term “religious,” and also “sin,” “grace,” “redemption,” and indeed, “spirit.”

Like the great humanist Universalist Kenneth Patton, I like all those words and find them deeply meaningful. Others, I would rather leave out. You may not like any of them, and I’m not going to compel you to. But Maria, when you ask, “Where is the nurturing of my spirit that is in my language of poetry and nature and human relation that isn’t based on traditional religious words and symbols that have no meaning for me?” I have a question to ask you in response. It is “Why is your spirit only nurtured when you are spared all words and symbols that have no meaning for you?”

See, I get the nurturing of my spirit in the language of poetry and nature and human relation in a place where it’s mixed right in with the traditional religious words and symbols that have meaning for other UUs. That mix is how it has always been—which doesn’t mean it’s how it has to remain, of course, but let’s not rewrite history. The mythical time when you could spend a lifetime in Unitarian Universalism without ever hearing the words “Jesus Christ” except when the sexton tripped over his bucket, is just that: a myth. It never happened.

And even if it had, all those words and symbols belong in our congregations because all of us belong in our congregations. Oh sure, there are theologies that will probably never belong there. But do you flunk the UU test because you believe that there is a creator of this universe who can appear to us in human form and save us from our worst tendencies? Do you flunk out for believing that there is some kind of life after this one? Do you flunk out for believing that the universe is just, an idea I criticized in no uncertain terms in my most recent sermon? I hope to _______________ not (fill in the blank with the term of your choice). I want to be in community with all those people. I’ll come back to why in a few paragraphs.

I love that you want an option besides “organs and pews, hymns and sermons.” We might need to set them aside for liturgical reasons—that they don’t resonate with the practices people find most inspiring. However, we don’t need to set them aside for theological ones. There is nothing, nothing at all about a sermon or a pew that is incompatible with humanism or atheism.

And I love this: “You are not serving my needs, UUA, by having the only two options be gospel or classical, speaking in tongues or reading a science journal, listening to a sermon or listening to NPR.” Amen! These wouldn’t serve my needs either. But are these really the only two options you’ve found at UU churches? Please, come to services at my congregation. But more than that, come to services in Santa Monica, CA, Brewster, MA, San Francisco, CA, Warrington, PA . . . all of them have offered me a third alternative.

Most of all, what they offer me is connection to other people, whose hearts are so close to mine even when their theologies, practices, and beliefs are not. There’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut—then honorary president of the American Humanist Association–that’s been rising up in my heart recently, and so when Marlin began his sermon, my eyes welled up as I recalled it again. It’s from Timequake, in which Vonnegut appears a great deal as a character—the author as Himself–and he is speaking of his real-life first wife, to whom he remained close all of their lives, even after their divorce. She was a devout Episcopalian and she died of cancer. He writes, “She died believing in the Trinity and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it. I’m so glad. Why? Because I loved her.”

I am so glad Marlin walks with God. Why? Because I love him. I would like to hear about his experiences, his attempt to have just a closer walk with his god, for many reasons: because they would undoubtedly illuminate my own spiritual path, because I would learn so much to help me in my own struggles to walk more closely with my own deepest highest realest best thing (which I do not call God except when translating to another’s theological language). I hope he will preach from that experience and that longing, because when preachers preach from their longing, I hear my own and that helps me. But most of all, I want it because I love him. I want him to be able to bring his full spirit for its own sake: that he may thrive, that he may live fully, that our congregation may be a place of wondrous transformation for him.

Sometimes I don’t feel quite so welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with others’ longings. Oh dear. Marlin walks with God? Is he going to be telling me he speaks in tongues, too? Or believes that there’s a grand design to this universe and that there’s a starring role for our species? I worry that I won’t be able to listen to those cherished beliefs with an open heart. I worry that my inner judgment will appear on my face.

But there’s one thing I don’t worry about; I don’t worry that Marlin is going to tell me that I should believe in a God who walks with us, that I should speak of my longing for the holy with the anthropomorophic language that he uses himself, because it’s all over that sermon and his ministry that he doesn’t want to do any such thing. Bless him, he wants to welcome me exactly as I am. So what’s really uncomfortable is the challenge to me as a minister, as a Unitarian Universalist, as a humanist, as a person trying to live out the promise of love: will I do the same for everyone who crosses our threshold with a thirsting spirit?

Let’s keep talking. I hope to meet you in person sometime soon.

Be well,

Amy

My wife and daughter put their heads together for a really excellent birthday present for me: bringing our collection of Agatha Christie books to completion, including her memoirs and the so-called “romances” published under the name Mary Westmacott.

I left the latter unread for years, thinking of Harlequin romances, but they’re not romances in that sense, nor even all primarily about a romantic relationship, and when I finally picked up Absent in the Spring I was delighted. I’ve read two more since, and like Absent, they contain some of her best writing. In them she goes into all the detail of characterization that she usually skips in the mysteries. With her whodunnits, she relies heavily on types–often playing them up in order to pull the wool over our eyes, but still, there they are: the likeable rake, the bright young career woman, the buttoned-up solicitor, the taciturn retired Army officer from the far reaches of the empire, the maid named Gladys with bad adenoids and nothing much upstairs. Writing as Mary Westmacott, she delves into character with surprising subtlety. Absent in the Spring remains my favorite of these so far, as it was Christie’s; she described it as “The one book that has satisfied me completely.” The Rose and the Yew Tree stands out for its treatment of politics, an area of life that, in her mysteries, Christie usually gives a comically cursory treatment. In the spy novels, especially, you can almost hear her shrugging her shoulders (“Must give them a bad guy”) as she dashes off a description of some dastardly (and unlikely) coalition of Communists, Fascists, and international drug runners. In The Rose and the Yew Tree,she actually gets into the dynamics of a political campaign, and seems to both respect those inner workings and know what she’s talking about.

We owned almost all of the mysteries already, but many were cheap paperbacks so decrepit that the covers came away in your hand and you would occasionally get to the final pages only to discover that they’d gotten lost. Munchkin helped Joy work through the list and pulled out books that needed to be replaced. She is so pleased with her role in this drama.

Instead of presenting me with the gift, they appropriately gave me a puzzle: “Your present is hidden in plain sight in the house.” It took a few hints for me to get there (“Okay, which room?”), and then I noticed something that I was pretty sure hadn’t been there before.

“Wait, did you buy all the missing Westmacott books?” I asked. “Is that my present?”

Joy said, “It’s not so much a book as a concept . . . ,” and the penny dropped.

So now I’m enjoying reading classics I had been reluctant to pick up because the pages didn’t stay put, and marveling at her genius. Often, some minor weakness obscures the excellence of the book; rereading it reminds me just how good the book is as a whole. Yes, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! relies on a Marple ex machina to extract a confession from the killer, so that the book ends on a whimper more than a bang, but the mystery keeps you guessing right up until that moment, leading us down the garden path and giving us one of Christie’s many pleasing non-recurring main characters, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Yes, Poirot is incapable of going on vacation without stumbling over a corpse, but at least The Labors of Hercules does show that he is actually a private detective who occasionally learns about crimes from being hired to solve them. I love her short stories, and these are funny, full of twists, and completely devoid of Hastings. Hastings is such a Watson that he makes Watson look like a genius. Christie so longed to be done with the “insufferable” Poirot that she wrote the account of his death in the late ’30s, putting the resulting novel into a vault to be published posthumously (in fact it was published shortly before her death); I wish that she had given Hastings the push at the same time. It would have been a great gift to her devoted fans for us to see him die, preferably from his own thickheadedness, the same quality that inflicted so much pain on us. But again, the small weakness can make me forget, in retrospect, how great the book is. Even while I’m rolling my eyes at Hastings, his creator is doing some of her best stuff, as in Peril at End House and Lord Edgware Dies.

And as I’m reading, I’m noticing how many different ways she goes about the problem of narration, adapting it to the mystery at hand. Maybe she ditched Hastings early on (he doesn’t appear for 35 years) because, once having broken away from the tyranny of Arthur Conan Doyle, she realized she seldom needed a first-person narrator. She elevated the unreliable first-person narrator to the status of legend–anyone who thinks it’s “cheating” for the narrator to deceive the reader would be happiest staying away from Christie–but third-person narration also serves the aim of deception. In And Then There Were None, with no detective and every character very actively a suspect, being able to move from one character’s point of view to another, as third-person narration makes possible, allows her to suggest multiple red herrings (it’s also by far the best use of one of her favorite tropes, the nursery rhyme). Cat Among the Pigeons, which I recently reread, also moves quickly from one point of view to another, creating a sensation of having the magician flash a card just a bit too fast to be properly read. You know the evidence is right before your eyes, but you can’t quite see it. By the time I found out who’d dunnit, my paranoia had reached fever levels. It made the solution deeply satisfying.

And now we have them all (minus a couple of hard-to-find holdouts that the family detectives are still tracking down). Now, which one to read next . . . ?

White supremacy is maintained this way: An African-American family saves for years. They move into a nice apartment in a better part of town. Some white people are outraged. They threaten the family, they destroy their possessions, they torch the building, they riot in the streets. The message goes out far and wide: Don’t challenge white supremacy, black people. If you do, it will strike back with double force and worse.

Or it is maintained this way: Millions of black people leave Southern states for better opportunities than a sharecropper’s life permits. Some years later, one of the children of these families comes back to visit the ones who stayed behind. A white person makes a deadly accusation against him: he has addressed a white woman inappropriately. The mob doesn’t allow an inquiry, or ask the boy what he did, or heaven forbid consider that whistling at a woman is not actually a punishable offense, because the people in the mob are not concerned with the truth but with keeping black people in their place, and they know how to do that. They kill him, first torturing him to the point that his corpse is barely recognizable as a human body, to send the message: We say when you leave. We say when you come back. We say how you act. Dare to do otherwise, and we will punish you with every brutality the human mind can invent.

Or it is maintained this way: A bus full of Freedom Riders is attacked, and the police let it be known that not only will they not pursue the perpetrators, they’re on the side of the perpetrators. The white supremacists are the community’s police, firefighters, sheriffs, and judges. In seeking justice, African-Americans have no recourse but to appeal to the very people who committed the crimes. With the criminals as prosecution and defense, judge and jury, the reign of terror is complete.

Or this way: A white supremacist murders nine people in a historically black, historically resisting church, reportedly attempting to start a race war. Things have progressed to the point that the police arrest the perpetrator and charge him with murder. The story is told all over the country, and far from a race war, the overwhelming response from white people is sympathy for the victims and solidarity with their black neighbors. The president of the United States delivers the eulogy for the minister. The outrage against the symbol beloved by the killer, the Confederate flag, is so intense that the states of South Carolina and Alabama stop flying theirs, at least to some extent. The white supremacists cannot let this kind of resistance stand. Once again, they exert their power of intimidation and terror, this time burning black churches, one after another. In the span of ten days, it appears from initial investigation, at least half a dozen are torched.

The arsons we have been grieving are not a coincidence nor an isolated tragedy, and wringing our hands is not enough. They are the latest chapter of a long history of white supremacy wielding power through murder, rape, bombings, and burnings, and it will not change until white people change. If black people did not have to stand alone–if the wider community, especially the wider white community, stood with them against the powers of white supremacy, then the supremacists would eventually lose. But often, the wider white community has been complicit and cowardly.

In my congregation, we don’t hold special collections except on Christmas Eve. When an extraordinary disaster comes along, I simply send an e-mail encouraging the people to give to a relief fund such as is frequently set up by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. But these arsons demand a different response. It is past time for all of us, and especially a mostly-white church in a mostly-white denomination, to stand with historically black churches and the communities they serve. I asked our Finance Committee for a green light for an offering this Sunday devoted entirely to the rebuilding of these churches, and got an enthusiastic “Yes, please, thank you!” the very next time I checked my e-mail. I love these people.

If you won’t be at the service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, you can give directly to the Rebuilding Churches Fund. (At the time of this writing, UUCPA isn’t yet listed among the congregations holding special collections, no doubt because the web manager is overwhelmed with requests.) We’ll be taking other action as well–more on that later today.

We can change the sad story of white supremacy in our country–end it at last–by us non-black people responding as too few of us have done so far: linking arms with black communities and saying, fearlessly, unceasingly, if you want to beat them into submission, you’re going to have to fight us too.

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