An instant classic by William Haefeli in The New Yorker, 2011

The attempt at re-envisioning Mothers’ (or Mother’s or Mothers) Day by calling it Mama’s (or Mamas or Mamas’) Day, by the organization Strong Families and now by the Unitarian Universalist Association, just goes to illustrate how one person’s broadening is another’s narrowing. A good question about any proposal for change is “What problem is this trying to solve?” I get the problems they are trying to address, and agree that they are problems: the exclusion of queer, immigrant, disabled, poor, step-, foster, adoptive, single, and many other mothers from our implicit concept of motherhood. I’m glad we are being urged to celebrate all kind of mothers. What I don’t see is how the term “Mother’s Day” contributes to these problems nor how the term “Mama’s Day” mitigates them. More to the point, like many queer families, we’re actually better served by the term “mother.”

In our family, there are two mothers, although neither of us is called “Mother” (though one day, the munchkin may haul it out to use in a moment of pique–”MOtherrrr!”–give her time).  One of us is called “Mama”–that’s me–and the other is called “Mommy”–that’s my wife.  If you suggested to the munchkin that she has two mamas, she would correct you. She has one. If you suggested that May 11 was going to be Mama’s Day, she’d probably want to know when Mommy’s Day was going to be. While “Mother’s Day” is inclusive in our family, “Mama’s Day” is exclusive.

No big deal, so far; we call it what we call it. But if people made a serious push for renaming the day, I’d push back on the grounds of its excluding every two-mother family in which one, and only one, person is called Mama, which is a lot of us. Right now, my religious tradition is saying “May 11 is Mama’s Day!” and I want them to know: if you’re trying to be inclusive, you are accomplishing the opposite for this Unitarian Universalist household, where the term “Mama’s Day” would be insulting to Mommy and confusing to Mommy’s daughter.

My morning of drawing this week. I was enjoying the newsprint so much that I never moved on to charcoal paper. I like the smoothness and may try out some smooth white paper, like Bristol.

A few of the two-minute gestures:


Three seven-minute:




Two ten-minute–the second looks like watercolor to me, a nice effect I now want to try to recreate deliberately:





And 45, still not enough time this time:

A brief prayer from The Left Hand of Darkness comes to me often. On the planet Gethen, in the book, it’s from the Handdara; here on Earth, it sounds like something from process theology. I was moved to say it by today’s photo on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:

“Praise Creation unfinished!”



I keep wanting to write about the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, and am intimidated by the number and variety of things I want to say, and frankly by the depth of emotion involved. So I’m just going to write a little chunk at a time.

LeGuin wrote the only Taoist novel I know of, The Lathe of Heaven. (I hope if you know others, you’ll name them in the comments.) Taoism arises in The Left Hand of Darkness, also–most explicitly in the scene from which the title is taken, when Genly draws a yin/yang for Estraven, and Estraven shares a poem from the Handdara tradition, a paradox-drenched religion she creates for the novel:

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

More broadly, the complex balance, the dance of dualities, that is of such concern to the Taoist sages is clearly one of LeGuin’s abiding concerns as well; we see it in work from Earthsea to Searoad. Still, The Lathe of Heaven engages the question most directly, not because it quotes liberally from Taoist sources (though it does, including in the title), but because it looks at it ethically: when should we act and when should we refrain from action? If you could change the world with a wave of a wand, or in her protagonist’s case, with a few minutes of dreaming, would you? Or would it depend–and in that case, on what? Are we really supposed to live by Lao-Tzu’s teaching, “The Sage occupies himself with inaction”–is that the height of moral responsibility or the abdication of it?

George Orr has dreams that change reality, retroactively and invisibly to anyone except him. He dreams that his aunt dies in a car crash and when he wakes, she has died in a car crash. The awesome power and, to his mind, responsibility, of his dreaming self are tormenting him, so he seeks the help of Dr. Haber, a psychiatrist who specializes in dreams. Once Haber begins to believe George’s claims, he starts suggesting improvements to the world that George then makes, unwillingly, while asleep.

PBS made a movie of the novel, a rather low-budget affair, as PBS movies generally are. Given the spending constraints they were under, they did an admirable job, and there’s excellent acting, but one thing the adapters got badly wrong, in my view, was the character of Dr. Haber. They turned him into an evil scientist, but he’s not. He’s a humanitarian; he wants to use George’s power to end hunger, poverty, and racism. His noble motives are all mixed up with base ones–he gets himself promoted in dream after dream, until he has risen from unknown Portland shrink to special advisor to the world government–but that’s not the main reason he goes wrong. He goes wrong because he utterly lacks awareness of himself and, most of all,  a sense of connection to anyone or anything outside himself. To him, dreams are just a tool to manipulate reality, whereas to George they’re a seamless part of the whole, as are (in some fashion) the ills he’s redressing, and as is George himself. Haber is about as far from the ideal of the Taoist master as you can get:  at one point George privately observes that the psychiatrist seems not to know the uses of silence, and it’s just as clear that he doesn’t know the uses of inaction.

Making him a bad guy misses a very deep point of the novel, about how our best intentions go awry if we live in the illusory belief that we are separable from the interdependent web of all things. It’s easy to fall into that illusion. I can even see myself, potentially, in Haber: the do-gooder gone off the rails. What’s the solution? Not to refrain from doing good, certainly. That would be nihilistic. Nor to use every tool at our disposal to fix the world. We need a certain kind of harmony that “Mr. Either Or,” the somewhat passive, somewhat uncertain and indefinite, hero has, and that his dynamic doctor lacks.  How to find that harmony seems to be the key. I can’t state the key in one sentence, or even sum it up to myself, but when I read Chuang-Tzu, or Lao-Tzu, or The Lathe of Heaven, I start to feel as if it really exists.

One could write a book (and I’m sure many have) on Emily Dickinson’s complex attitude toward prayer. I’m reading all of her poems in order, and the one I read today, #576, is more straightforward than many in its treatment of prayer:

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to –
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me –

If I believed God looked around,Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty –

And told him what I’d like, today,And parts of his far plan
That baffled me –
The mingled side
Of his Divinity –

And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise –
And then — it doesn’t stay –

She no longer believes in the God of her childhood, but she feels the lack. It’s interesting that the way it feels to live without that strong God isn’t expressed as pain, fear, sorrow, loss, or even uncertainty, but lack of balance. Maybe this poem isn’t as straightforward as I thought at first. Dickinson has a way of doing that. Whatever poise a reader possesses, she disturbs it, almost as if she set out on purpose to do it.

When the new College for Social Justice (CSJ) was announced, a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), I was wary but hopeful. Wary because the “Just Works” program, which sent UUs to do short-term volunteer work, had already dwindled to “Just Journeys,” which sounded like tourism with some education and a bit of charitable hammer work thrown in, and the prospectus made the CSJ sound likely to be more of the same. Hopeful because new initiatives sound, well, new, and I was even more hopeful when the Rev. Kathleen McTigue became its first director. I have a lot of respect for her, as well as an affection and gratitude that will be with me always because of her compassionate care for me one time when I was a stranger and in great distress.

(Note: I have written a private letter to Kathleen telling her the same concerns I share here. We’re all part of one small faith and we can talk directly to each other, not just send our missives out onto the internet as if there were no real people concerned. I sent it a little over a year ago; she wrote back within two days and was gracious and thoughtful in her response. I’ve written to one of the program leaders of the least expensive youth justice trainings to ask how many youth get financial aid and what percentage does it cover, so I will edit this entry if I am being too pessimistic. I’m also a big supporter of the UUSC and urge every UU to join and give generously; I am speaking here of a particular program.)

The College of Social Justice has now been in place for a year and a half, and I am really disappointed. One of the slogans is “Don’t just learn about justice–do justice!” but the people being addressed are only the wealthy, because the least expensive learning opportunity being offered costs $525 plus airfare to the location. I had hoped that UUSC was finally getting away from its justice-tourism model, and Kathleen urged me to be patient. I do hope that things will change. However, along with “organizations have to begin somewhere, and can branch off from there,” a sound principle, there’s also the principle “begin as you mean to go on,” and things look pretty much the same as they did a year ago. The College of Social Justice appears under “Take Action” on the UUSC’s website, but in what way is it action? There’s some, sure, but that’s a lot of money to spend on something that is a tiny part action, a big part education, an even bigger part tourism. After all, isn’t that why people sign up for a program in Seattle or New Orleans instead of staying home where there are plenty of places to do and learn justice?

When I heard of a college of social justice, other than cringing slightly at the privilege suggested by “college” (“school” would be preferable), I liked the sound of a program that would teach me and other UUs what we really need to know about organizing and advocacy if we are to turn the world around. I understand that one can learn a lot in a week of service and listening. I’m not dismissing it; it’s better than going to Cancun for a week on the beach or staying home for a week in front of the telly, and I applaud those who do it. But I also know that those experiences are easy to come by for America’s wealthy, who already get all, every single one, of the unpaid internships and justice-tourism experiences on offer, because only the rich can take off for a summer and work for free, or travel at their own expense. Most people have to work.

There are things I need to learn, but I’m not seeing them at the CSJ. Is this the organizing model we want to teach to another generation of UUs, in the 21st century: noblesse oblige? I am here in wealthy Palo Alto, slowly helping my mostly-upper-class, mostly-white congregation to organize with poor communities, communities of recent immigrants and undocumented immigrants, communities of people of color. I could use some help. We are trying to learn to follow the lead of our less privileged partners, such as only happens when a variety of people is in the room. How is a young person to learn that lesson when everyone in her program can afford a $1000+ summer program, and most, who are not on scholarship, can afford much more, and not a single one has to earn some money that summer?

Here’s what we offer in the way of internships. Emphasis is mine.

Internships are unpaid, but interns are eligible to apply for a cost-of-living stipend from UUCSJ, intended to cover basic living expenses and local public transit. However, availability may be limited. Housing is also available, subsidized by UUCSJ and/or the partner organizations. Interns must cover the cost of travel to and from their internship location, and in some cases are asked to share in the cost of room and board.

Prospective interns are strongly encouraged to explore funding opportunities from other sources, such as their colleges and faith communities. Many colleges offer grants for summer internship placements, or the opportunity to receive academic credit. UUCSJ will work with applicants to accommodate outside guidelines for funding.

For most locations, interns will be scheduled to work no more than 25 hours per week, to allow the option of seeking an additional part-time job. (from the page Global Justice Summer Internships)

Contrast the Changemaker Fellowships offered by the Pacific School of Religion, which I probably couldn’t even receive because at least 2/3 of the spots are to be taken by people of color. We white people are, after all, well under 1/3 of the world’s population. So this program and its membership sound exactly right.

This Fellowship provides a full-tuition scholarship for the new Certificate of Spirituality and Social Change, an immersive course of study, integrating theological reflection and spiritual formation with leadership for social change.  It also covers expenses for exciting immersion opportunities, leadership retreats, spiritual formation, and faculty mentoring.  Changemaker Fellows are talented individuals who have demonstrated their skills to lead justice-driven change in churches, organizations, communities, and individual lives.

In this year-long program, Changemaker Fellows will:

  • Integrate formative theological study with a deeper understanding of their vocations as social change leaders or Changemakers;
  • Develop a greater understanding of transformative leadership practices and how to integrate these practices into their own social change work;
  • Take part in a variety of offerings including cohort and immersion learning experiences, faculty mentorship, and regular group meetings for engaged theological reflection and spiritual formation;
  • Enjoy a richly diverse learning experience while enriching the entire PSR community with their unique perspectives, skills, and gifts;
  • Earn the new Certificate in Spirituality and Social Change.  (The Fellowship covers the cost of tuition for this exciting new course of study!

This is an apples-to-oranges comparison, obviously; the goal of the Changemaker Fellowship program is quite different from the CSJ’s. But despite a heavily academic emphasis, it sees the diversity of the group as absolutely essential. It sees its work as so important that it must not be directed only toward those who can pay.

I don’t expect or want the College of Social Justice to create a certificate in social change; I just wish it would put its resources into trainings that are accessible to most people instead of a wealthy few. In the past year and a half, under Kathleen’s leadership, the CSJ has taken some steps in that direction. When she wrote to me, she spoke of instituting domestic programs in Boston and New Orleans, and they have; there are others in the US as well, and they are less expensive than a trip to Haiti or India.

There are ways to reduce the costs by a couple of orders of magnitude, however, that are being neglected, perhaps because they just aren’t as much fun for those among us who can afford a $1000 vacation. Flying trainers from Boston to our own communities, for example, would open the door to hundreds of interested activists; the cost per person could easily be lowered to $20-50, making the job of finding sufficient scholarship money easier. Mark Hicks is involved in the creation of the curricula, I understand, and that’s wonderful news–but why not bring his teachings to us where we are, instead of reserving them for those who can afford a flight across the country or the ocean? (And consider the carbon savings!) Technology has enabled us to meet faraway people for the price of an internet connection and a computer, and such meetings could be very inspiring and educational. In the meantime, the activists themselves might be encouraged to put their money into justice-making, rather than a fun, albeit challenging, trip for themselves.

I know the hope is that when the participants come home, they’ll bring what they learned to their local community. The question is, what will they have learned?

When I arrived at drawing this morning, I felt stressed out and grumpy. Drawing straightened me out. It offers two of the best remedies for the blues: work and beauty.

For the warmup one- and two-minute gestures, the model mostly chose poses with a lot of twist, heart-meltingly lovely:




Something good was happening in my drawings of the ten-minute poses, and the last one here (20 min) has some of the best drawing I’ve done in a long time, if not ever. In them, and especially in the last two, I used a slightly different approach to get the edges of the shadows. It’s so obvious that I don’t know why (a) I didn’t do it before, and (b) it makes such a difference, but I didn’t and it does.




A card stuck to a bookcase in my childhood home had this quote (more or less)  from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King typed on it.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn . . . “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. . .. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

When I was a teenager, I discovered that if I substituted “creative work” for “learning,” this rang even more true for me. Maybe they’re the same thing. Throw in some contemplation of beauty, too, and a bad mood doesn’t stand a chance.

Wow, posting every day is hard. I even posted twice on Tuesday to make up for my lack of posting on Monday, then promptly failed to post Wednesday.

I do have a post today, but this isn’t it. (Paradox!) What I want to write about is really the stuff of Mookie’s Mama, my blog about my daughter and all things parenting-related, so please click here to read Dreaming of a UU day camp.

So Fred Phelps is dying. Few will mourn him. I’m sure he doesn’t care. He has said countless times that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks or feels about him, and I’m sure it isn’t bravado. He cut himself off from other people a long time ago.

I have great pity for that man. It doesn’t take any effort of will or empathy on my part. Every snippet of video, quote and photo of him has shown a man in the grip of rage and hatred. I think of my most out of control, seething moments and try to imagine feeling like that all the time, and I see a soul in torment. I would not want to be a person dealing with grief and facing Fred and Company at the funeral of someone I loved, nor would I want to be one of his abused family members, but neither would I want to be Phelps himself.

I believe heaven and hell are what we make here in this life, and as far as I can see, this man has been living in hell, and making every encounter with him hell for others, for decades. I don’t believe that any punishment or reward awaits him, just that soon his pain will stop, and I am glad for him.

(Sorry for the misfire. An earlier version meant to be saved as a draft got published instead.)

The San Francisco Chronicle poses a fun question: given that some bands took a while to hit their stride, which are the bands that didn’t? What are some great debut albums?

I don’t know their answers, but I’d love to know yours: whose debut albums blew your mind?

For me:

Suzanne Vega. Every song is so good.

The Roches. Ditto.

GP, Gram Parsons. He’d done a lot of recording already, but this album is more exciting than anything he did with the Byrds or Flying Burrito Brothers, in my opinion.

Talking Heads: 77. It’s not even my favorite Talking Heads album–Remain in Light and Little Creatures are particular favorites of mine, probably because I listened to them constantly during high school–but it’s a hell of a debut.

Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Bruce Springsteen. Again, immediately topped by The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle . . . but “Blinded by the Light”! “For You”! First album!

Horses, Patti Smith. Her utter confidence as a singer is even more amazing when you realize this was her first album and “Gloria” was her way of introducing herself to listeners. She just gets right out there and in your face.

Over to you. Remind me of the 20 great debut albums I’ve forgotten.

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