Cat Herding

This is a quick chain of thoughts that, honestly, probably belongs on Facebook or something.

It’s June. I’m fried. I’m not at UUA General Assembly, and I’m going to work the night shift tonight. I’d rather be home snuggling my new cat and eating ice cream.

I’m also thinking about humans, and human systems. About anxiety in individuals and systems. About how when you squeeze fear hard enough it comes out as anger.

Watching our new cat and our old cat figure out what to do with each other in the same house has been a reminder of that. Folks used to think cats were selfish and solitary creatures – constantly on the prowl, seeking only to fulfill their own needs – and arguably they CAN be that way when in an environment of scarcity and threat. They are small predators after all. They do take good care of themselves when they have to.

But then I learned about feral cat colonies when I started watching kitten rescue video last year, and it’s more complicated than that. In an environment of low threat and relative abundance, cats become incredibly social creatures – bonding with same- or opposite-sex partners (I have no idea how gender theory applies to cats, and they aren’t telling); mamas adopting orphaned kittens and co-parenting with other mom cats; self-selecting for relationships with humans and each other.

After we brought Tilly home, we looked at her vet records (she was an owner-surrendered cat) and saw a laundry list of behavior issues that had led her previous human to give her up — nearly all of them the sorts of fear-based behavior that happens under chronic stress, scarcity and threat or competition.

So we have gone out of our way to make our home a place of abundance, at least as far as the cats are concerned: lots of places to sleep, food to eat, litter-boxes to use; and lots of human attention and reassurance that we love both of our cats, there’s plenty of love in this house, and the occasional reminder to knock it off and not be jerks.

And it’s working.

I wish humans were as easy as cats.

Without pointing fingers, I’m looking at three different human systems that I’m embedded in, and noticing patterns of reactivity, fear-based responses to the unknown that squeeze out as anger. Watching leaders make bold decisions that call people to be accountable to one another and to the systems that bind us, and watching people react with anxiety and mistrust. It is true that in so many ways, so many of our leaders and systems have not been accountable, have caused harm — and will likely cause harm again.

That is after all how western culture has taken shape – internalizing models of competition rather than cooperation, scarcity rather than abundance, litigation and hierarchy over reconciliation and relationship. I am thinking specifically about the adjustment of understanding, of imagination that comes with the shift from “what can this system do to/for me?” to “what can I do within this system?” — the shift from centering the individual to perceiving the individual within the system as a whole.

That is the common thread that I am noticing among all these various unrelated systems that I’m in right now. And the shift is so unfamiliar — especially to those of us who have internalized white-western (academic, patriarchal, etc) culture — that to even contemplate not just doing different things but fundamentally reorienting and doing all the things differently feels like an existential threat.

But y’all. There’s plenty of love in this house.

There’s plenty of love in this house.

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Whups.

Hello, 2019. I did not see you coming. I was busy. These things happen.

One of the things that I have let fall by the wayside these last few months is writing: private journaling, writing sermons, writing papers, and down at the bottom of the list writing this blog.

It’s not that I don’t want to do it, or want not to do it; it’s just that it’s fallen to the wayside, into the bucket of “ultimately important but not immediately urgent” things that can be done later. Deferred maintenance if you will.

I have mostly been spending my time on the “operating expenses” of my life: going to work, being at work, coming home from work and sleeping between nights at work took up an unexpected amount of my time since graduation. Also washing laundry, because outside of a naturalist resort I cannot imagine Naked Chaplain to be a good thing (and the climate around here does not suit baring oneself to the elements this time of year.) And putting gas in the car.

Gas, work and laundry. And vegging away on the internet – social media, casual games, kitten videos…

Not that there’s anything wrong with some vegging. It’s been a year of hard work – finishing the degree in May, then completing the UUA credentialing process; I was admitted to preliminary fellowship in early December and am now… what? In the liminal space after credentialing and before ordination. Sticking with the financial metaphor, that’s been a major capital investment.

But I am coming to the self-knowing that there is a lot of “deferred maintenance” in my life right now, especially my spiritual life. And it seems prudent – or maybe even wise – to catch up on some of this reflection, this spirit work, this re-engagement with the Holy Mystery that called me to this vocation. I am doing the things I wanted to do, and I love doing them, and I have lost touch with why. But I know it’s still there — I just need to give it room.

So my goals? ambitions? resolutions? what word shall I use? My best intentions, subject to further development — to get back to artmaking on a regular basis. To read books, interesting books and not all of them about ministry things. To cook more.

Perhaps this year I will do some real work in the garden, which is sadly overgrown because April is when the snow melted and also when my work life got very busy and plants… happen.

I will need to tend my career prospects; I have some possibilities to explore but no solid plans right now. That can come later, after I tend to some of the untended things before they become major recovery projects. After I get the deferred maintenance caught up, I can start looking at the next phase of capital projects: progress toward board certification, perhaps, or finding a permanent position somewhere.

In the meantime, please excuse me. I have a small, elderly cat to cuddle. It’s been a little too long…. or at least she thinks so.

Posted in Reflections

The Edge of Winter

I was talking to someone the other day – a friend, maybe, or a colleague – about the whirlwind of headlines these last couple of weeks:

  • Executive orders to delegitimize trans, nonbinary and gender-variant identities;
    some kind of fiasco with one of the ongoing federal investigations;
  • the brutal assassination of a journalist in Saudi Arabia;
  • the xenophobic frenzy about a mass migration of Central American refugees a thousand miles from the US border;
  • the murder in a grocery store of two African-American shoppers by a white supremacist who was unable to get into a nearby Black church;
  • the mass shooting last Saturday of worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, where eleven people died;

…and some other thing I couldn’t remember.

It was wild, I said. If you’d been writing near-future speculative dystopian fantasy in 1998 and you tried to publish this week it would have been sent back as too implausible. You couldn’t have made this sh–tuff up.

The next morning I woke up and said, “The pipe bombs! I forgot about the pipe bombs!”

Because I’d forgotten about pipe bombs, mailed (and intercepted before receipt) to a dozen high-profile Democrats including two former presidents, like they were toilet paper at the grocery.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

By the time I post this, it will be obsolete. Something else will have happened; it seems like every day something else does, a firehose of catastrophe gushing faster than anyone can drink it in. Here in the middle of things, what do we do with it? What do we do with it?

I want to write a little bit about crisis and trauma here; about the human bodymind and how we are wired and plumbed to respond to thread. We are animals after all, made of MEAT! as the story goes, of sinew and bone and biochemical instinct as well as intellect. We are adaptable; this is both a strength and a liability in the long run. When we are too terrified, we freeze. When we are too comfortable, we relax. Somewhere in between, alert to threat but not overwhelmed by it, we are best capable of choosing and taking action.

So I do not want to minimize this week’s cultural trauma. One thing after the next after the next. The threat – to safety and sanity – is real for some of us (and therefore for all of us, if my liberation is bound up in yours.) So we cannot ignore or dismiss the effect of direct attacks on identified populations – by race, religion, gender, profession or political affiliation. To dismiss the individual dots is to obliterate the larger pattern. We cannot afford to be complacent.

In avoiding complacency, also, there is the risk of becoming panicked into inaction, overwhelmed by grief or burned up by fury with no vital outlet. I wonder about this and see it in the urgent messages not to forget about this atrocity, or that one, or the other one or the one from last week or last month or last year. “Never forget!” the signs proclaim – and yet we do; there is only so much anyone can remember at once time.

I am not sure I agree with the premise that we must all be at maximum outrage about everything all the time; in fact, I am very sure I do not agree with that.

The human system does not function very well under chronic stress. Among other things, our capacity to make decisions, especially considered ones, is impaired by high levels of stress hormones. Some times we just can. not. do. the. thing. (I’ve personally experienced this, the inability to make an otherwise decision when overwhelmed. Probably a lot of readers have as well.)

So I am mindful that – by chance or by design – America right now is turned up to 11 on anxiety and outrage, with a side order of helplessness and violence for many of us who are invested in building a kinder, fairer, sustainable way of being with one another. We are being goaded in the run up to an election whose processes we may or may not trust, by a political system in the hands of people who thrive on others’ pain and fear.

I am not going to tell anyone not to be afraid, or hurt, or angry. But strong emotion is strong power, and I am going to ask each of us to consider who is using our power, and to what end.

Posted in Reflections

Drive By Posting

There is a funny thing that happens when you are approaching a milestone achievement, something like graduation or your first real job. (Some people think this way about finding a partner, or moving out, or losing an arbitrary amount of weight, or whatever.)

Somehow you imagine that once you Do The Thing, all the messy part is going to be over with.

Those readers who are smiling know how this really works.

I had such plans for this summer, after graduation. There was going to be art! and gardening! and finally putting the house into some semblance of order! and FINISHING ALL THE PROJECTS!

You can imagine exactly how this played out.

And it is now September Again, the August humidity tattering on the first breath of cooler, drier autumn air; the sun still warm against the windows; the grass in the flowerbeds long gone to seed; the maples once again blushing at the first coy suggestion of fall to come. There will be apples soon, then pumpkin, then the cleaning of the garden, then frost on the windowpanes and studded tires on the car.

And some time after winter, it will be spring again, then summer, and the odds are that I will STILL have wall-to-wall piles of books and unfinished projects in every corner.

I am learning, slowly. I am learning that my need for spaciousness and silence runs counter to my partner’s need for busyness and order. He is uneasy when the days are not filled with doing; I yearn for those precious windows of opportunity to just be, to soak up the stillness and absorb any given moment of nothing in particular.

It is September Again.

Posted in Reflections

Hold My Hand

One of the things I have been doing, particularly since graduation and finishing my internship, is working per-diem as a hospital chaplain. “Per-diem” is by the day, as needed; what it means is that I have a job, working anything from one night a month to several nights a week, at the Big Hospital that is 57 miles, mostly interstate highway, from the ol’ Sand Hill where I live.

It’s a long drive, one that I have become well acquainted with over these last two years, over two units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at the Big Hospital, and two years of parish internship at a church in a town halfway between home and hospital. It is, as I am fond of saying, not a bad drive in the good weather… and not a good drive in the bad weather.

When you drive the same stretch of highway over and over, you get to know it in an intimate way: that particular overpass where the sun is right in your eyes at certain times of the day and year; the wide curve by the bog where the geese nest in the grass verges in the spring time; the patch of wildflowers that turn a road cut purple for a few short weeks; that one stretch of nondescript road, halfway between somewhere and somewhere else, where you inevitably remember whatever it was you forgot that you are going to need at your destination. (For me, this stretch is I-295 through Bowdoinham, ME. Sorry, Bowdoinham.)

Dead dog on the highway… Median cats are growling at me,
I turn my lights on brighter…. I’m counting through the night ride.

You notice the road kill: deer, turkeys, smaller creatures beyond identification. The skid marks. The bent guardrails. The deep rut marks in the grass verges. The occasional twisted piece of plastic or metal on the shoulder, surrounded by glittering shards of broken glass.

One more life for the taker (chickenman… chickenman…)
One more song for the maker (chickenman… chickenman…)

Some weeks ago, I was heading down to work and noticed the aftermath of an accident I’d heard about on the radio earlier in the day. Only the bent guardrail and the fresh ruts in the grass remained, mute testimony to the power of physics to transform a life – or to end one.

one more life for the taker (chickenman… chickenman…)
one more song for the maker (chickenman… chickenman…)

There are basically three things that will land a person in the emergency room, and we learned about them all in high school: biology, chemistry, and physics. I think about this a lot when I am on duty, and when I am on the road.

Physics is falling off of things, or onto things, or into them. Physics is also behind the pager shorthand for all the kinds of collisions: bike vs pedestrian, car vs bike, ATV vs tree, sled vs rock. It’s brutally succinct, this communication: agent vs object, along with some patient identifiers that are protected by privacy laws, but it gives us an idea about who’s coming to the door.

An aside: Please do come to the emergency room if you’re having a medical emergency, or if you think you might be having one. If you’re really not sure, go to Urgent Care if there’s one near you, and they can help you figure it out. If you come to the emergency room, and it turns out that you are not having an emergency, you will probably be asked to wait behind the people who are (or might be) having an emergency.

Part of my job includes reassuring folks that if they are waiting, it’s a good sign that they are less sick than the person who is being rushed through.

Part of my job includes waiting, with family and friends as well as patients, while they find out how bad their day just got.

Part of my job includes just being there when things are very bad indeed.

one more life for the taker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)
one more song for the maker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)

Four years ago, I did not foresee the possibility that chaplaincy would turn out to be my vocation. I was pretty well convinced otherwise. The universe is full of surprises, not always pleasant ones, but this curve in the road has led to an unexpectedly good place for my ministry to unfold.

Sometimes I am asked, “What do chaplains do?”  and that is a surprisingly tough question to answer.  We do a little bit of a lot of things, and much of the value of a professionally trained chaplain is in the things we do not, or should not do: we don’t proselytize, or push our own religious views on others – that would be a violation of professional ethics.  We aren’t there to fix anything, or to present medical news, good or bad.   We are there to accompany folks through the process of being in the hospital, to listen compassionately and without judgment, and to help patients and their families figure out how their experience fits into the rest of their lives – which includes, but isn’t limited to, any religious or spiritual beliefs and practices a person has.

It’s a fuzzy edged job in a science-driven system.  We try.

darkness into darkness, all the carnage of my journey
makes it harder to be livin’
(he said) it’s a long road to be forgiven… 

one more life for the taker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)
one more song for the maker
(chickenman, chickenman, chickenman, hold my hand)

Lyrics are quoted from the Indigo Girls, “Chickenman”

* * * * *

Edited to add:

I am on call tonight. I posted this before I left home.

On the way down, I was the middle vehicle in a near-miss with a flock of turkeys. No accident happened. This time.  All is well, or at least well enough for now.

one more life for the taker…
chickenman, hold my hand….

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June Already

I went four months again without blogging. Oops.

These things happen. My purposeful reflection – and my writing time and my personal energy – have been tied up in a mix of transitional things: finishing my last semester of seminary, winding up my parish internship, picking up extra hours as a per-diem chaplain at my former CPE site…

About graduation. It is very strange not to be in seminary any more, especially as not much has changed, at least superficially. But I am now in possession of a very expensive piece of paper that proclaims me a “Master of Divinity.” I do not believe it for an instant; I have mastered nothing. I am a rank apprentice and will ever be. I refer to it as my certificate of professional cat-herding. That, at least, is plausible.

Or maybe “Master of Divinity” means simply that I can document basic proficiency in lingering on the edge of not having a blessed clue what is going to happen next, or what on earth I am doing there, or why any of this is happening, and being more or less okay with being nose-to-amorphous-ambiguity with the Great Mystery. That is, maybe, also plausible.

I am curious to find out what happens next.

Posted in Reflections

Homecoming

The suitcases are unpacked. One of them isn’t back in the basement yet, but they are unpacked.

I have washed three loads of laundry today. One of them is still in the dryer.

I put some of my “travel kitchen” stuff back in the real kitchen, since I do not plan to be cooking at the hostel any time soon.

The little black cat is still mad at me, but I imagine that as soon as the Other Human goes back to work tomorrow, she will affix herself to my person for as long as I let her. But this is my busy week, and I will be taking off again tomorrow to get back into the groove of church business.

It is very strange not to be going back to school in Chicago. I got home two days ago from the last academic class of my seminary degree. I owe one sermon, one discussion board reflection, and about ten pages worth of Biblical Interpretation paper to round out the semester; after that, all I have left to do is complete my internship and I will graduate in May.

It has been a long five years.

I have made so little time for life maintenance the last few weeks — even when I put a block of it on my calendar, the last half-year that allotted time has mostly been used to rest, exhausted, or catch up on schoolwork or church work or soul work or to barely smooth over the surface of the chaos. Some deeper order needs to happen.

I need to do some mending. I have things in my life that are worn thin and need to be attended to. That is both literal and metaphorical – the pants with one leg hemmed, the jacket where the seam is pulling out, the coat with the missing buttons.

But also, the dead plant on the windowsill that needs to go into the brush pile out behind the shed, the shoes that need to come in from the porch, the piles of books that need to find a home, some kind of order other than where they landed when last read.

And it will not happen, if I am exhausted, or sick, or stressed out, or overcommitted, or on deadline for something higher priority. And so it hasn’t. Fair enough.

One thing I am still learning, still trying to learn, is the art of making enough space for my self to exist, to breathe, to rest when the need of the world calls me. I know I am not alone in fearing, deep down, that I am too small and too vulnerable and too weak and too flawed to make any difference worth making.

Perhaps this is even true. But I want to remember that I, personally, am not charged with saving the whole of the world singlehandedly; indeed, I am not even solely responsible for saving any small piece of it singlehandedly nor even for completely saving any of it, ever. I am answerable only for doing that piece of the middle of the work which is before me, as much as I can do, as much as I can do it, knowing that it will be insufficient and incomplete — and so will each of the other pieces of the great work, as all of them have always been and will always be.

The great work, after all, is never finished. Like a mathematical limit, we push ever closer toward the beloved community, the kin-dom of God — knowing there is always a measurable gap and infinitely more work to do; it is the doing of the work, not the achieving of some finite end, that is our salvation….

Whatever that means.

I’m feeling unusually contemplative tonight, more so than I have been able to in a long time. Perhaps that means the circle has spiraled round and I am back where I started, only more so. This coming within sight of the end of seminary, it is an ending — but it is a beginning too; not a clear beginning, but the beginning of a beginning, maybe.

Posted in Reflections