Virginia Woolf famously noted how unusual it was to find accounts in literature of women being friends–not rivals, sisters, mother and daughter, etc., and not in their relationship to men,  but friends with one another. Paging through a new novel by Mary Carmichael,

‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. 

So much of women’s lives had been obscured, and so much lost to literature, as we would have lost Julius Caesar and Hamlet and Prince Hal if writers had not seen  the friendships between men as a worthy subject. (She goes into much more detail, and if you haven’t read “A Room of One’s Own,” do! It’s indispensable.)

Something just as troubling, or more, seems to be true in our time and place, not in literature but in real life, and it’s signaled by the trending term “bromance.” “Bromance” refers to a non-sexual, close relationship between unrelated men, as in “the thriving bromance between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen,” who’ve clearly enjoyed spending lots of off-stage time together during their tour as co-stars in a couple of plays. “Brother,” “bro,” “romance”: get it?

In our culture, we don’t need a special name to describe the relationship between two women who love each other, love to spend time together, and are not romantically involved together nor seeking to be. We already have a term: friendship. What disturbs me about the embrace of the “bromance” term is the shunning of the obvious, available word.

Is there something so extraordinary about a close, loving, non-romantic relationship between men that we need a cute, arch term for it? Do men in our culture not feel comfortable calling each other friends? Is it difficult in real life, as it once was in literature for Chloe to like Olivia, for Patrick to like Ian?

Men, what’s your experience?

I got back to the drawing studio yesterday after the June hiatus. I like the foot here:


and the foot and right hand here, as well as the shadow falling on the shoulder:


I had no idea the patch of light on the buttocks was working here until I saw it today:


Nothing much here, though I enjoyed working on that hand (it ended up out of scale, as things do when I focus too much on one part):


So I really tried to work all over the paper here, not staying in any one spot too long (my teacher in Mexico, Silvia Velasquez, always reminded us of that and I’m aware of her voice 80% of the time I’m drawing, because that’s how much of the time I’m ignoring that advice, often to my regret):


I did it more on this one:


On this one I just went really dark, too dark on the back but it’s okay–I wanted to stay loose and I mostly did:


Every time abortion is debated I have this wish, this longing, which, forgive me, I’m going to articulate as a list. As with many polarizing debates, people tend to hunker down in their camps pointing at the most extreme versions of their opponents’ views (possibly fictional): “She had a ninth-month abortion so she could fit into her prom dress!” / “He thinks people shouldn’t even use contraception!” We know the stereotypes: Pro-choice people are just callous and selfish and eschew personal responsibility. Anti-abortion people just hate women and fear sex.

I believe (and fervently hope) that there is a vast realm of people who do not all agree about the ethics of reproduction but do share the following values, or strive for them, even though we get very nervous about how others might exploit them to ends we don’t share:

(1) We think sex is a valuable and precious part of adult life and should be enabled and celebrated. We want people to rejoice in their sexuality, not be ashamed.

(2) We value the lives of people living in the “fourth trimester” and beyond.

(3) We believe that somewhere between conception and birth, the human zygote / embryo / fetus takes on qualities that obligate us to it in ways that we are not obligated to our appendix or spleen. This does not necessarily mean that it has the same moral claims as an infant, just that it is not the moral equivalent of an object.

(4) We believe that women’s autonomy is as important as men’s.

(5) We believe that the person whose body nourishes and is inextricably bound up with a growing fetus has a unique relationship to that fetus and the issues surrounding it that is not equivalent to the biological father’s, other parent’s/parents’, or anyone else’s–which is not to suggest that others have no relationship or obligations to that being.

(6) We harbor deep questions and uncertainty about where the dividing line is between not-living and living, about what and who has moral claims on whom, and about how much some frequently-debated questions even matter to the question of abortion.

(7) We believe in two principles that are often in tension with each other: people have a moral obligation to accept the consequences of their actions, and people need the space to start afresh after mistakes. We want to live honestly with this tension and seek neither irresponsibility nor punitive rigidity.

(8) We believe that in an ideal world, people would choose if and when they want to reproduce, be enabled to reproduce when they wish it, be able to enjoy their sexuality without unwanted pregnancy, and be supported in raising wanted children. We commit to work together toward such a world.

(9) While recognizing that pregnancy is too often a sorrow and a burden, indeed sometimes a tragedy, we also see the profundity and beauty in it and feel a deep sadness about the loss of a pregnancy, however it comes about.

(10) We recognize that legality and morality are not exactly the same, nor can they be, nor should they be. There may be illegal actions that are morally right. There may be immoral actions that are perfectly legal. This will always be so in anything other than a totalitarian society.

(11) We would like to move beyond rhetoric and dismissively pat solutions and slogans.

(12) We believe these issues are important and difficult.

(13) We wish to talk with others who struggle with these issues, not in order to concede to intolerable positions nor make peace with every opponent, but because they matter to us, and it is the duty both of a government and a civilization to grapple honestly with such questions.

I would love to attend a forum where people engage with these issues, respectfully, setting aside fear and righteousness as much as possible in order to come to a deeper understanding for ourselves, which may help our public policies be wiser as well. At our best, we Unitarian Universalists have a commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of all people, embrace moral complexity, trust that reason and relationship can get us to a better society, and believe that it is our calling to help make that better society. And we are currently working, as a denomination, on the issue of reproductive justice. So what better time to host such forums?

Please comment respectfully.

I can’t stand roller coasters, but I guess I have a similar craving for experiencing fear and suffering from a safe position, because I have been reading books that make me writhe with anxiety. Right now I’m reading The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. The only people in danger are creations of Collins’s imagination, but I’m gripping my seat and occasionally yelping “Oh no!” and “Don’t do that!”

Is this bad for my blood pressure, do you think, or is vicarious terror good for us?

Shopping inspires all sorts of ethical questions for me. For example, is there a special place in hell for people who spend $425 on a lace t-shirt in a world where they could use that money to feed a hungry family for a month? And if so, am I going there too for spending $65 on a jacket? There’s a line between conspicuous consumption and possessing nice things. I walk it uneasily. I would love to hear how others weigh these choices.


The gun nuts–oh, I mean lovers of the Constitution–are at it again. The response to the latest mass murder included the comment, “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED.” Clearly the author thought this settled the matter.

I’m pretty passionate about the Constitution, myself. So let’s look at a different amendment, the First.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty strong language. “No law . . . abridging.”

Have the courts determined that the First Amendment entirely prohibits any overlap between religion and state functions?

No. It is acceptable, for example, for the Congress to invite clergy to give an opening prayer. Some argue that this constitutes establishment of religion; the court finds that it doesn’t.

Have the courts determined that we the people have an absolute right to exercise our religion?

No. If our exercise of religion conflicts with other responsibilities of the state, such as the protection of children, it may be restricted. People have been convicted of child abuse for denying their children medicine on religious grounds, and the Supreme Court has concurred in this “abridgement” of their religious freedom.

Have the courts determined that the press may print absolutely anything?

No. Libel and pornography may be held illegal. Is that abridgement of the freedom of the press? Sure it is. And yet it seems to be acceptable. First Amendment activists believe in balancing freedom of the press with freedom from defamation, not dismissing the latter.

Have the courts determined that freedom of assembly is absolute? It says right here it can’t be abridged.

And yet a crowd may not walk down Market Street at midday without a permit, or even gather in a public park in large numbers without prior permission. It turns out that in consideration of other important principles, such as people being able to move freely around the city, the government may reasonably abridge a right, even one stated as baldly as those of the First Amendment. Even the ACLU doesn’t disagree. It will argue that parade fees can’t be excessive, and so on, but it doesn’t argue against fees per se.

So, what do you think? May the government put reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, or does the Second Amendment–

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

–mean that everyone must be able to buy any kind of arms, without any restrictions whatsoever? No background checks? No limit on what type of weapon or how many? For example, someone with diagnosed paranoia and a history of making threats cannot constitutionally be prevented from walking into a gun show and buying a weapon of war?

I would like someone to explain to me why not.

I’m reading The Fault in Our Stars, and aside from loving it, I am deeply satisfied that the narrator calls Maslow’s hierarchy of needs “utter horseshit.” I have always thought so, at least if Maslow said what my teachers said he said: that you can’t be concerned with the needs on the top of the pyramid until you’ve satisfied the needs lower down. In fact, the same school that taught me that taught me about the kamikazes, who are an excellent disproof.

But you don’t need to take sophomore-year history to have observed that people who don’t even have shelter or safety still do art and philosophy and concern themselves with self-actualization.

Two years ago I wrote about the call for an increase in the minimum wage in San Jose from $8 to $10. It eventually passed, with excellent results, as reported here in the San Jose Mercury News: “unemployment was reduced, the number of businesses grew, the number of minimum wage jobs expanded, average employee hours remained constant and the economy was stimulated.”

The article doesn’t answer a question raised by a commenter on my earlier post: with the minimum wage still so far below a living wage, especially for workers with dependents, does this do anything to reduce the need for social services? I would really like to know. Wouldn’t it be something to pay people a living wage instead of letting their employers pay them poverty wages and then leaving the taxpayers to make up the difference (or fail to, since social services are rarely adequate)? We’re a long way from that, but it’s good to see successes like San Jose, especially as the argument is made yet again that an increase in wages will doom the economy–at least, if those wages go to the lowest-paid workers.

I came in a bit late to drawing today, because I’d realized a work report hadn’t uploaded and yada yada, had to take care of that–shortchanging my spiritual-practice time is not the way I like to start my Monday sabbath. Then when I got to the studio, I realized I was short on paper and needed to fit the remaining short poses onto one sheet. (I could get more at the break.) But maybe it was coming in late, working small, and starting fast that spurred me to draw only the darkest shadows, no subtle shading, no lines–or maybe it was just something dramatic in the light on the first two-minute pose I saw. I grabbed a small piece of soft charcoal and started in. No lines. Mostly black. Gradually, over the course of the session, I loosened up on both self-imposed rules, as they had the desired effect. This was one of the most satisfying mornings of drawing I’ve ever experienced.

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About once a year I do a Question Box service, when in lieu of the sermon I answer as many questions as I can from among those people have written down earlier in the service. It being impossible to get to all of them in the space of 20 minutes, I promised this year to take them up gradually in such forums as newsletter columns and blogs. This one is in reference to the benediction our choir sings most weeks,

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his/her hand. (The choir alternates, one week singing “her,” the next singing “his.”)

The questioner asked: “Does God have a gender?” Here’s my response, which I also published in the forthcoming edition of our newsletter.

I love this question! In fact, I’ve given this a lot of thought for years. In a Feminist Theology class at Syracuse, we read pieces arguing that in imagining God as male, men—who had shaped most of Jewish and Christian tradition—were creating God in their own image and then worshiping themselves. In other words, committing idolatry.

I agreed with these theo/alogians (if God might be female, then the area of study might better be called thealogy) but thought they needed to go further. I didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic god at all (as you’ll hear in today’s sermon), and I wrote a paper called something like “Anthropomorphism and Idolatry” arguing that describing the divine exclusively in human images was as idolatrous as describing it exclusively in male images. After all, if God created everything, surely it would be a wild coincidence for us to be the one and only creature who resembles the Creator. It’s self-serving and arrogant to assume that’s true.

So, no, God does not have a gender. As feminist theology points out, does God have genitals? Chromosomes? A beard? Of course the answer must be no. It’s a metaphor, and when we start to take it literally, we end up worshiping maleness, and we’ve seen where that leads: misogyny.

And no, God is not a human being. As I pointed out in my long-ago essay, does God have blood? a brain? two arms, two legs? Of course the answer must be no. When we take this metaphor literally, we end up worshiping humanness, and that leads to our despising the rest of nature and destroying the environment.

This doesn’t mean that these images should be tossed aside. The fact is, we humans think in images and metaphors, especially when it comes to great abstractions such as love, peace, and God. Whatever the holy is—power, goodness, creativity—it is beyond simple understanding and beyond anything to which it might be likened. And yet, metaphors help us express what we mean. When people imagine the holy as something that creates life, they may imagine a sculptor working in clay (as in one of the Genesis stories, and many other religions’ creation stories) or a woman giving birth (as in Babylonian religion and others). Neither makes sense literally, but they’re good metaphors for the power of creation. When the choir sings, “May God hold you in the palm of her [or his] hand,” what they are saying doesn’t make sense literally, but it is a good metaphor for this wish: as you move through a life that is often hazardous, we hope that some of the great forces of the universe will carry you safely through.

Because I think metaphors are a necessary aspect of human thought (if I wasn’t convinced already, one of George Lakoff’s early books, Metaphors We Live By, with Mark Johnson,sealed it), I think the remedy to their limitations is not to shun them but to use a wide variety of them. This helps prevent us from taking any of them literally, or limiting our understanding to just a couple of characteristics of, in this case, God, or as I prefer to say, the holy. Maybe the holy is like water; this is a frequent image for the Tao, flexible and ever-changing and powerful. And/or, maybe it’s like a crucible, in which the unimportant aspects of our lives are burned away. And/or, maybe it’s like a healer, curing the illnesses of the soul, the body, even the planet. And/or, maybe it’s like a flower, growing where we tend it and needing our care to flourish. If we have enough of these different metaphors in the mix, then we can safely throw in some human ones too: male, female, and neither.

What metaphors express what you believe is holy?




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