I took up regular walking because I needed to tend my physical self better. Most weeks, I walk five days, and usually, I’m walking around San Francisco. I took it up as exercise for the body, but it’s turned out to be an important spiritual practice too.

Walking brings things into focus that just aren’t visible from a car or bus, or even a bike. I start to wonder: why is there so much trash in the street in this neighborhood, and not in that neighborhood? Do the street cleaners skip this block sometimes? Do people just throw more stuff onto the sidewalk here? The city trash cans are often overflowing on this block–why is that?

A street planted with trees feels completely different than an otherwise identical street one block over.

The city’s many murals become intricate paintings at a walking pace. I’m in an art gallery now.

Walking creates enough small encounters to fill a Jim Jarmusch movie. One afternoon as dark was falling, I passed an apartment building and heard a woman in the stairway crying as if her heart were breaking. I paused for a long time, pulled between sympathy and respect for the privacy so hard to come by in city dwelling, unsure whether to venture up the steps and ask if she was okay. I resumed walking; my own heart stayed at that building for the rest of the evening. Another time I passed a couple standing still on the sidewalk, holding each other, eyes open, not speaking, not kissing.

Walking along the San Jose Expressway, where walking is not encouraged (the sidewalk ran out), I could peek into back yards that are a few meters from rushing traffic. Some houses predate the expressway and clearly used to have a quieter yard; others were built later than the road. One of these has a balcony; its view is four busy lanes, and I wonder whether anyone has ever sat out there.

On that walk, I discovered a pathway that meanders behind the houses for a few blocks along the expressway. I had had no idea. It was like entering a secret world. That was the kind of walk I like best: I set out in a new direction, just taking streets as the names took my fancy, allowing myself to get lost and then find my way back home. I can’t get lost for long before I come to a street with a familiar name, but I feel like an explorer anyway. One house has its Christmas tree up in the front window (it’s November 15). This whole block has a sweet, Hobbiton feel to it, and I muse a while before I figure out why: to enter a house, you pass through an archway and up a roofed set of steps. It makes everything feel cozy.

Behind these walls, people are sleeping, talking, watching television, eating, making love, worrying, reading. It seems both odd and fitting that each of these stories is playing out just feet from another one, with nothing separating them but a wall and almost complete ignorance of the other’s existence. Sometimes I think about the beings in the houses; sometimes I speak a prayer in my mind for each one, wishing them well. Other times I’m miles away, listening to the podcast that comes through the earbuds into my head. Those stories aren’t really any farther than the ones right here.

I walk a tiny circuit, a few miles of this planet, a twisted line beginning and ending at my own house, all on a bit of concrete someone poured and called the sidewalks of San Francisco. When I get to the end of my journey, I’ve traveled in more than space.

A colleague just asked me if a sermon I gave to our chapter two years ago is online. It wasn’t, until now. I sent the text to chapter members right after the retreat at which I gave the sermon, but it felt too tender at the time to put on this blog. Now I’ve added it to the sermons page.

What can’t be conveyed is the joy of singing “Rocky Ground” with a band of colleagues on that occasion. I gave another, very different sermon in my congregation two months later, using the same song, which several members of my congregation, and guest musicians Be’eri Moalem and Yuri Liberzon, performed beautifully.

Well, this was an ironic little nugget to find in my news feed this morning, of all mornings: Gender-Neutral Alternatives to “Boyfriend” and “Girlfriend”

The words Maddie McClouskey suggests are fine (though I’m not referring to anyone over ten as my Boo outside the walls of my own home, thank you). Gender-neutral language is great. But her aim, as she says ad nauseam, is to help people stay in the closet about being gay, trans or bi–not to avoid getting fired or arrested or beaten up, but just to keep from rocking the boat with relatives. Oh, she doesn’t say it in so many words. She says,

“some of your family may not feel comfortable referring to your boyfriend or girlfriend as your ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend.’”

“if you’re a queer person who doesn’t feel the need to go into details at the moment”

“gender-neutral dating words might be easier for everyone to stomach”

The possibility that gender-neutral terms are useful if one’s partner doesn’t identify as male or female gets a brief mention, then it’s back to McClouskey’s main concern.

Hi, I’m Amy, it’s Coming Out Day, and I cry an end to euphemisms for “hide who you are so others won’t have to deal with their discomfort.”

It may take some practice to get comfortable with the questions that do arise. So why not practice, instead of disguising your loved one in hopes that the questions won’t come up? By the way, they will, anyway. Say “My sweetie’s coming to visit,” and the person is likely to ask, “Oh, where does he live?” What are you going to do then, if your sweetie’s a woman? Play along? How would that work, exactly? Rather than get into a tired sitcom situation where you invent elaborate lies to keep from deflating a simple misunderstanding, why not be ready to say, “She, actually–and she lives in Chicago”?

If you’re a bi man, you mention your boyfriend, and someone asks you, “Wait, weren’t you straight before?” there are some good responses. “Nope, bi then, bi now,” if you want to give the facts and educate them a bit about the existence of bisexuality. “I thought I was, but then I fell in love with Mike,” if they’re a good friend and you’re willing to share some intimate history. “That’s a rather personal question,” if they’re an acquaintance and really have no business knowing any more about your personal life than what you volunteer. “Oh, I’m sure there are more interesting things for us to talk about than my sexual orientation. How about those Giants?” if you want a more polite way to say MYOB. See? The question isn’t so scary if you have a response ready.

If you’re a lesbian and that relative or devout person (by which the author means a particular brand of religion) responds to your referring to your girlfriend by saying, “I hope you’re not one of those gay-marriage people, because I just think that’s wrong,” and you “really don’t want to start a debate on same-sex marriage,” you can answer, “I really don’t want to start a debate on same-sex marriage. You wanted to know what I’m doing this weekend. As I said, I’m going to the coast with my girlfriend. How about you? Do you and Aunt Helen have some plans?”

This is what it means to be out of the closet. It’s uncomfortable for others sometimes. It’s uncomfortable for you, the LGBTQIA person, sometimes. But the solution is not to go quietly back inside. A closet by any other name still stinks.

Outside my office in Palo Alto, California, is a pleasant green area where squirrels chase each other up and down a tree, run along the walkways outside the office, search for food in the gutters of the walkway roofs, and scamper on the lawn. Some are gray, and some are black; I’m told they’re all one species that simply comes in a range of colors, the way humans do. I have reason to doubt this.

You see, I have seen black squirrels before, in two and only two other cities: Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

If the previous sentence does not cause ominous music to begin to play in your interior soundtrack, I hope the paragraph break will. Let me repeat.

I have seen black squirrels before, in two and only two other cities: Hanover, New Hampshire, and Princeton, New Jersey.

Paragraph break. Ominous pause. Music rises.

photo: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK

photo: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK

Do you see the pattern here? Hanover, home of Dartmouth College; Princeton, home of Princeton University; and now Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. Top-flight research institutions all, with biological research underway. Yes, I will say it, and you may scoff but I know the truth: someone in a white lab coat is messing with our squirrels. And once in a while, a black squirrel escapes from the lab that created it and mixes with the local population of boring old gray squirrels, or as a neighbor of mine in Connecticut used to call them, “rats with bushy tails.” They vandalized her lilies, so her resentment was understandable. And I do mean “vandalized,” not “ate”; they would bite off the buds and leave them there, a vicious reminder that they and they alone controlled the fate of her garden. I have not caught the black squirrels or the gray squirrels in an act of vandalism, although I came in one morning to find the pot where I planted new agave shoots turned on its side and emptied of plants. At least that thief did something with them.

But I digress. My point is, black squirrels do not show up in East Podunk, Illinois, or Nowhere Center, Mississippi (until ten people add comments telling me the places they’ve seen them). They appear, mysteriously, in the hometowns of Ivy League and only-outside-Ivy-League-because-they’re-too-new-and-Western universities. They are the squirrel equivalent of the rats of NIMH, the hyperintelligent counterparts to the not-so-bright grays.

I shared this theory with Dan, our minister of religious education, and he has added a terrifying wrinkle. According to one report, black squirrels have been known to attack dogs. You read that right. Fatally, if the rumor’s true, so don’t click if you’re a dog lover.

It’s been warm this week and I’d normally prop my door open and let in the summer breeze. But the squirrels keep pausing outside my office door, having a peek through the glass. Once, I caught two of them looking at me at the same time. What happens if the black squirrels’ intelligence marshals the power of the gray army? If they organize, I and the peanut butter in my desk don’t stand a chance.

This morning I was behind a car whose bumper sticker read,

IMAM AZIZ MUHAMMAD HIGH SCHOOL
Home of the Jihadis

As I got closer and we waited at the light, I realized I’d misread it. It said,

ARCHBISHOP RIORDAN HIGH SCHOOL
Home of the Crusaders

Whew. That’s all right, then.

Without net neutrality, this post might still be loading.

Just this, for so long that you got tired of it and went somewhere else. That’s what big ISPs want, which is why they’re pushing the FCC to approve “slow lanes” for sites that don’t pay a premium.

I have loved living in this age, seeing the internet grow from nonexistent, to a seldom-used novelty, to the central part of our lives it is now. It’s how I do research, meet new people, share my daughter’s childhood with faraway family and friends; it’s my ongoing university, workshop, and studio; it’s how I met my wife. I hate to picture looking back on this as the long-gone heyday of the internet. I don’t want to tell my daughter, as she works with a much different network of channeled and ranked information, “Let me tell you about 2014, when the internet was still neutral.”

Let your members of Congress know we want our net to stay neutral (that’s a great site to bookmark, by the way). Ask them, “Please have the FCC classify internet as a Title Two common carrier.” And call the FCC itself:

1. Dial 888-225-5322
2. Push 1, 4, 0
3. A person will answer.
4. They will ask for your name and address.
5. “I’m calling to ask the FCC to reclassify Internet Service Providers as Title Two Common Carriers.”
6. They’ll ask if there is anything else you would like to add.
7. “No, thank you for your time.”
8. Hang up. (This helpful information courtesy of Blog.Reddit)

If you’re not in the US, you can help this way.

That was about the most exciting thing about drawing this week. I’ve been focusing on faces more often. Pleasingly, I liked the second better than the first, and the third better than the second.

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I got so fed up with my own style  that I decided I needed to do something very different and started using pencils only, no charcoal sticks, no broad edges (with the middle drawing, above). All shading done in scribbles and lines laid close together. That helped. I was getting down in the dumps.

It’s a tough issue, this matter of style. For a long time, I felt the same way about my voice as a writer. I just didn’t like it, didn’t feel at home with it, was even embarrassed by it. Over time and many, many weekly deadlines, I grew, or grew into, into a voice that feels authentic and that I usually like. How much of that is development of my writing ability and how much might be better called growth of the soul? Isn’t it essentially about being comfortable with who I am?

If so, am I not comfortable with who I am as an artist? I don’t think that’s it. I think that I have a vision in my mind that I’m not able to realize on paper yet. But how to get from inner vision to charcoal-and-paper reality isn’t just a matter of technical prowess, either. Ira Glass, in advice beautifully illustrated by Gavin Aung Than of Zen Pencils, says it’s mostly about already having good taste–knowing what “good” looks like–and making a huge volume of work, i.e., gradually honing your craft. In the meantime, you keep making things that disappoint you. I think that’s true, and also that there’s something more about the process that isn’t expressed in what he says, but I can’t put my finger on it. Anyway, here are some more disappointments along the way to what I hope will be work that matches my vision.

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What do you call the anniversary date of a marriage that ended long ago? It’s a marker of some kind, but whether a gravestone or a bunch of balloons, it’s hard to say.

I’ve been divorced from the man I married on August 11, 1991 for as long as we were married. I have had not a twinge of regret or doubt since the moment we called it quits. Sadness, certainly, but there was no question in my mind, then or since, that divorce was the best decision. So when this date comes around, my primary feeling about its now being an un-anniversary is profound relief. So many of the twelve anniversaries we shared were racked with worry, often crises, that it’s hard to imagine that if we’d stayed married, this would be an unreservedly happy day.

And, of course, I have a wonderful spouse who wouldn’t be in my life if my first marriage had muddled on, and a daughter, the light of our lives, who wouldn’t exist. So, no regrets.

Just the same, a form of sorrow shadows this date each year, an existential wistfulness: that dreams do die, that something as hope-filled as a wedding can lead into a dead end of disappointment, that time and other inexorable forces can render people we once knew (including ourselves) almost unrecognizable, that love is sometimes not all you need.

This summer’s soundtrack seems to be Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken”: “Seems like every time you stop and turn around, something else has just hit the ground.” I’d like to take a page from my soon-to-be-colleague Lauren Way and ask, “What’s good in your life? What’s bringing you joy? What are your victories, small or large?” As she says, we could sure use some good news right now. The comments form is at your disposal.

Renee Ruchotzke wrote about them well:  services that cruelly promise inspiration but deliver a lecture and inexpert music instead. People come seeking spiritual sustenance and, after hearing an address on beekeeping, “cross this church off [their] list.” Unitarian Universalist congregations have a bad habit of giving people time in the pulpit as an act of kindness–kindness to the speaker, but not to the listeners–and letting their concerns for quality go by the wayside, especially in summer.

This summer, I was a spiritual seeker far from home and eager to go to church while on vacation, and from that experience I gained a nugget to add to Renee’s wisdom. It isn’t enough to offer a service full of inspiration; you have to make it clear, from your publicity, that that’s what it’s going to be.

I was in a city where I know nothing about the congregation, and what I saw on the website was an address by the director of a local community organization, talking about . . . the work of his organization. The title didn’t pose a question or suggest that the sermon was going to try to answer any. Now, it’s possible that his address was deeply spiritual. The blurb describing the service said something about the way we all need the arts, and that could be the heart of a heart-centered sermon, but  it sounded an awful lot like a standard spiel by a passionate advocate of a good cause. We all know them. Once in a while they are terrific, which is to say, they think about the audience and address their needs. More often, they are barely disguised appeals for funds, or just general support for their cause. No matter how excellent the cause, this is not the kind of thing I want to hear at the best of times (just send me your brochure, please; I can read it in two minutes, rather than listen to the 20-minute equivalent), and certainly not in lieu of spiritual reflection and guidance for my life. There is a time and place at church for community organizations to talk about their work: Wednesday evening, in the Emerson Room. Not Sunday at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary.

If I’d been a few minutes away, I might have risked it. But to get there, I was going to have to negotiate the bus system of an unfamiliar system and travel 50 minutes each way, and I just wasn’t willing to put that kind of effort into attending a lecture. So if it wasn’t a lecture, I’m sorry. I hope whoever writes the newsletter the next time will remember that what they are about to write is all their visitors know about that Sunday’s service. Ask yourselves: is this really a worship service? If it isn’t, please reschedule it for a different time. If it is, make sure it sounds like it from the publicity. Because if it isn’t enticing, many of us are just going to stay home.

 

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