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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:

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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.

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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.

S. is an electric-vehicle (EV) driver, builder of a platinum-LEED home, and all-around passionate environmentalist in my congregation. He lends his EV out to everyone who’s curious (Joy, my wife, calls him an EVangelist), and one Tuesday in October, he brought it to church for me to try it for a week. It’s a Leaf. It was lots of fun. And I promised I’d write it up, which I am finally doing now that I’m making myself blog daily (except for the Weekend from Hell, which we will ignore).

The first thing you need to know is that I have a serious commute. It’s 32-39 miles, depending on the route. A car has to get me that far in heavy traffic with lots of battery charge to spare, or I’m going to be very nervous. The car had plenty of charge for the job.

It did not always have as much charge as it said it did, or maybe it’s vice versa. For example, we took a seven-mile drive to a restaurant one day. The car said it had 35 miles of charge, so that seemed plenty safe. By the time we’d gotten to the restaurant, our cushion had dwindled; the car was reporting it had dropped 14 miles. Ulp. We made it home, no problem, but this erratic behavior could hamper travel.

Plugging into the 110 outlet in our entryway was enough to charge the battery overnight, but it meant running the cable over the sidewalk, which meant taping it down each time. If we owned an electric car, that would get old very fast. We’d need a charging station in the street, or in our garage, or at least we’d want to use the 220 outlet that’s in the garage. (Our garage is not presently accessible to any car that wants to keep its undercarriage attached.)

At work, I could fully charge in 4-6 hours, because our church rocks and puts its money where its Seventh Principle is by having a free charging station. If you had a commute of any significant length and didn’t have access to a charging station while at work, an EV would be pretty impractical; however, more chargers are popping up all the time, many available to anyone who wishes to use them, for free or a small fee. Mobile apps direct EV users to the network, and there’s a great community feel to it, eco-creative types helping each other out. Our church is on the apps’ maps, and we often have visitors who are there to plug in while they’re working, shopping nearby, etc.–or they live in the neighborhood.

The other cool thing about UUCPA’s charger is that, like many Palo Alto locations, we opt for Palo Alto Green, which means that all our electricity is from renewable sources. So after I charged at work, I was driving a truly zero-emissions vehicle. Even charging at home, with plain old Pacific Gas and Electric, I’m running a much cleaner car than one with a gas engine. Joy, who is an energy analyst for the state of California, says that even if you use electricity generated in the dirtiest way available (that would be coal), driving an EV would still generate lower emissions than a hybrid, gas, or diesel engine. (S. takes care to say, “The manufacture of the EV causes emissions,” proving that there is such a thing as a rigorously honest evangelist.)

A factor that surprised me may be a major barrier to widespread acceptance of EVs around the country: they’re cold. A gas engine engenders so much excess heat as a by-product that when you want to warm the interior, you just run a little air off the engine. Okay, all that heat is part of the problem–but in Vermont, you need it. Heck, you need it in Palo Alto. You can turn on the car’s heater, of course, but making heat from electricity takes a lot of energy, and it cuts into the battery’s time quite a lot. The seat warmers, plus some old-fashioned approaches like a blanket over the lap, were good enough in this climate, even for an easily-chilled person like me, but in a cold climate, EVs will need more efficiency to get both a warm interior and a long-lasting battery.

On the other hand, S. is an early adapter and the Leaf has been around a while, so I was driving one of the least efficient EVs. I’m sure this aspect of the technology will keep improving, as will the infrastructure that is currently reminiscent of the earliest days of ATMs, when they were few and far between and of so many formats that most of them didn’t take your card. Standardization will come soon, as it usually does in technology.

Joy got to go on a tour of the Tesla factory last week–don’t ever let anyone tell you that the job of State of California Regulatory Analyst lacks in glamour and excitement–and reports that they plan to offer an EV for under $30,000 in 2017. Our Prius will be pushing 200k miles by then. Hmmm . . .

The munchkin recited a poem at dinner: “Hug o’ War,” by Shel Silverstein, which she had memorized just because it was up on a wall at school and she liked it. It was a treat. I went and got one of our books of his poems, which she likes (though we don’t have Where the Sidewalk Ends) and she read us another.

Getting into the spirit, I got a book of Frost poems and hunted for one that would be accessible to a seven-year-old. “Design,” which I love, is too difficult. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” would have filled the bill, but I’m glad I didn’t think of it, because having to skim several poems brought me to this one that I had never encountered. I defined “rued” for Munchkin and read aloud:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Today was already a day unrued,but this poem added an Ahhhhh . . . that made it even more sweet. Maybe the next time a day needs a sprinkling of grace, the thought of “The Dust of Snow” will be the  crow that changes my mood. And maybe it’s a good poem to meet at the age of seven; maybe Munchkin hasn’t noticed yet that if she’s open to them, moments like this can turn her heart around on a hard day–or maybe she has. I think I’ll ask her in the morning.

If you see this photo under the headline, “Local Couple Apprehended in 2 a.m. Sign Theft Attempt,” you’ll know who they are.

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“Despite the late hour, the pair enlisted their seven-year-old daughter to steady the ladder. One explained, ‘Well, we couldn’t leave her home alone,’ and the other added, ‘Besides, she needs to learn grammar too–and understand what we’re up against.’ Charges are not being filed in the child’s case. ‘Its not the daughters fault,’ the store owner said. ‘None of us can choose our parent’s.’

“The adults plan to plead for leniency on the grounds of performing a public service, and have filed a civil suit against the alleged offending grocer and the sign company he employed. ‘If I’d had to look at it one more time, I’d be pleading innocent by reason of insanity,’ one said.

“The couple is being represented pro bono by counsel for the Guerrilla Grammarians Collective. One, a Ms. Mary Jennings, told the press briskly, ‘Please stop portraying this as sign theft. They were removing one piece of punctuation, which didn’t belong there in the first place.’ Their other lawyer, a Ms. Amanda Lewanski, said, ‘In Texas, they’d have just shot the thing down. And they’d get off, too.’

“Early responses to the incident suggest that San Franciscans may share this sentiment. The family has received several dozen bouquets at their Bernal Heights home (ed. note–double-check punctuation before going to press) and they are rumored to have been nominated for a Community Heroes Award by the SF United School District.”

I’d been braced for Pete Seeger’s passing for years, but I was still very sad several weeks ago when the news came that he had died, at age 94. I was a little stunned when, within 24 hours, a stern warning came over social media from a colleague: if we sang too many Pete Seeger songs in church that Sunday, we’d be alienating Generation X and Millennial congregation members.

The author, who is just about my age, has since stepped back from that rigid recommendation, acknowledging that the 140-character limit of the format she’d chosen had cost her message some nuance. We all know how that is. (A warning to the Twitter generation?) But I was no longer concerned only with that one statement. The chorus of agreement that met it—mixed, to be sure, with many younger-than-Boomer voices protesting that they know and love Pete Seeger’s music—showed how badly these generational concerns can deepen the ruts we get into. We UUs clearly aren’t ready to move beyond our brother UU, Pete Seeger. On the contrary, we’d better run if we’re ever going to catch up with him.

I understand the exasperation with Baby Boomer domination of our culture, especially UU culture. I think the phenomenon is real, and I appreciate people’s reminding us that there are other generations, and not to get stuck in nostalgia for the boomers’ heyday, that is to say, the 1960s. And there are other people who have died in the last month who deserve our honor but don’t get much attention, such as Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba.

Still, not to lift up Pete Seeger’s work and life would be to cut off our nose to spite our face.

First of all, it’s important to remember that Seeger was not a boomer. He wasn’t even just a bit older than the boomers, like boomer icon Bob Dylan (born 1941). Seeger was born in 1919 and served in World War II. My colleague Dan Harper pointed out exactly why Seeger began playing the college circuit in middle age: because his thriving career as a performer and recording artist was throttled by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when it blacklisted him for insisting on his, and his associates’, First Amendment right to the freedom of assembly.

Which brings us to another reason we need to memorialize Seeger. No U. S. citizen can understand their country without knowing about the Red Scare. If you don’t know much about HUAC, reading the transcript of Pete Seeger’s testimony is a good introduction.

Seeger was a die-hard union supporter, and we don’t pay much respect to the labor movement in Unitarian Universalism. My congregation has its old lefties of Seeger’s generation, bless their rabble-rousing souls, but on the whole, we UUs have settled into a comfortable liberalism. The demands of the labor movement—now as in the 40s and 50s when his Almanac Singers and (to a lesser extent) Weavers were singing its songs—aren’t liberal, but radical, and they’re not comfortable. They shake up the system. It needs shaking up. Remember working 9 to 5? Weren’t those the good old days? In this and so many other ways, working people are going backwards, and Pete Seeger was one who kept pushing against that tide.

Another trend Seeger’s example helps us buck is that of receiving (consuming), rather than making, music. His concerts were always participatory and he never missed a chance to remind us that we are born to be music makers. He once said,

Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in this world, sang while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Can we begin to make our lives once more all of a piece? Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.

I mostly listen to music; my guitar languishes in a closet and my fingers have lost their calluses, and I rarely gather with friends to make music, except in church. I want to change that. He’s a gentle prophet nudging us to make that change.

The most chilling comments in the wake of Seeger’s death were the ones dismissing music of 25, 50, and 75 years ago as ancient history. One way that Unitarian Universalists are totally mainstream, completely in the sway of U. S. American culture, is in our disdain for the past. We revel in our refusal to look back, as if focusing on the future is the secret to being progressive. I don’t buy it. I still think that those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. We’re repeating it now, as those who have been thrown into poverty by others’ mismanagement of the economy are reviled as lazy spongers, as were those of Seeger’s childhood, the Bonus Army. We’re fighting battles that labor organizers of two generations ago thought they had won for us (workplace fatalities, for example, have plateaued after years of welcome decline). We’re struggling to keep our rivers clean—Seeger worked with the Clearwater efforts on the Hudson for almost 50 years—and maybe if we want to prevent poisonous spills such as we’ve seen in West Virginia and North Carolina in the past couple of months, we should look to the environmental strategies of 50 years ago, instead of trying to start from scratch every time. Maybe we give up so easily because we don’t know that we stand in a long heritage of struggle for true progress. As another UU singer, Utah Phillips, said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in this country” (Thanks, Dan Schatz, for that timely quote.)

Pete Seeger never stopped raising his voice, even decades after he insisted that he couldn’t sing anymore. It was never about the quality of his voice anyway—it was about heart and commitment. We still need them, and when I find someone who devoted himself to making a better world long after most people retire or give into cynicism, I’m really happy for his example. So as soon as the news of his death came, I scheduled a Pete Seeger Memorial Singalong Celebration, and we’ll be raising our voices tomorrow, March 8, at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

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