Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ghosts in My Machine



You know the story of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but I'm going to retell it anyway:

Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly moneychanger, is visited on Christmas Eve by four ghosts: his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that his stinginess will doom him to a life and afterlife of loneliness and pain; the ghost of Christmas past, who shows him through a montage of memories how he became the man he is; the ghost of Christmas present, who shows him how some are rejoicing at Christmas, while others suffer, all of them grieving or berating the coldness of his heart; and the ghost of Christmas future, a silent specter who shows him how little time he has left, and what a miserable end he will come to, due to his solitary selfishness. The shock of the experience changes him into a man of love and generosity, and both he and the world are better for the transformation.

It's been told and retold, performed on stage, filmed, animated, digitized, updated, glossed, channeled, interpreted, interpolated, and yet it is always recognizable. Frank Capra's film "It's a Wonderful Life," which takes many of the ideas central to it and spins them out in very different, but still consistent, ways has itself become a lodestone to be mined for endless adaptations. As the calendar year draws to a close, both these stories are impossible to avoid.

What keeps us coming back to this theme of spectral visitation at Christmas? Why are we willing to sit through version upon version of the broken-hearted loser being scared straight?

I'm writing about this question because the last forty-eight hours have plugged me into my own seasonal ghosts. I know it's not even Christmas yet, but Thanksgiving gatherings have a similar impact for me. Consider this my own private Advent. You're welcome to join me for the ride.

It starts in trauma. I am the product of my own history, the most evolved form of me. Everything that has ever happened to me remains a part of me. The more traumatic experiences have shaped me more significantly, and remain with me much longer, though even they will fade with time. Holidays bring many of these traumas back to the surface, especially if the event that's influencing me took place on or near a holiday.

Much of Scrooge's memory of Christmas past has to do with the possibility of love in his life which he squandered, choosing money over relationships. Had he chosen a different path--had he chosen marriage and family over wealth--he might still have difficult memories to wrestle with. My own coupled holiday memories stir up both warmth and grief, sweetness and bitterness. There were times when I recaptured much of my childish enthusiasm for Christmas because of who I was with, and how we spent the day. There were also times when the holiday encapsulated all that was wrong about a relationship, and triggered the countdown to its unraveling.

There was a Christmas in Illinois that was my first away from home. I was 26, married for just a year, and everything about it was beautiful: we gave generously to each other, drawing on our meager income as student pastors, attended parties, sang carols, delighted in opening gifts that had been shipped across the country from my family, had the most beautiful Christmas tree I can remember. It was hard taking it down; I wanted it to last forever.

Seven years later, we had our last Christmas together. We were already technically separated, sleeping in different homes at night, but we spent the morning together for the sake of the children. We even managed to be together for my family's Christmas party. But the end was upon us, and the grief I was choking back through that day haunts me.

For years afterward, Christmas was a day for grief. Part of our parenting plan was making sure we both got time with our children on the actual day of Christmas. In retrospect, I believe this decision was all about us, and not in any way about what the children needed. For me it was the beginning of the end for my love of this holiday. Any joy I felt at waking up with my children and unwrapping gifts with them was quickly lost in bundling them off to the rendezvous that would take them to their second round of emptying stockings and opening presents; if, on the other hand, it was my turn to pick them up, I woke up to a feeling of profound emptiness, and knew once I had them with me, that everything we did was a reprise of something they had already experienced earlier that morning. Apart from my own sadness was the grief I felt for them, having this day of giving be forever a symbol of their parents' inability to let go.

In later years, once the children had been moved to Idaho, the back-and-forth aspect of the day relaxed. I had them now for holiday breaks, so they could spend uninterrupted time with me on that day. And then came the year of the blizzard, 2008, a time when I was already reeling from months spent fighting a custody battle, and the weeks I was supposed to have with them shrank to just a few days. I grieved again on that Christmas day, though I found friends to share it with. And then I let go of it.

Since that year, I have been in a relationship that is more mutual and mature than either of my marriages (note that I didn't even mention the tantrum Christmas of 1998, which signaled the beginning of the end for marriage # 2); I have also abandoned many of my nostalgic ideas about what Christmas must be, especially when it comes to the commercial aspects of the holiday. And most recently, perhaps most significantly, I have been volunteering with Amy at the annual holiday dinner her synagogue hosts for the poor and homeless. This has been a piece in the de-Scroogification of my soul. I will still travel to McMinnville at some point during the holidays, as I did for Thanksgiving, because the coming together of my family is a vital and worthwhile aspect of the celebration. I will also be decorating a small tree because it's pretty and gives me joy.

You might be wondering, after this description, what has evoked these thoughts of bygone yule trauma. Overall, you may be thinking, I seem to have evolved to having a mature, realistic set of expectations for holidays. You'd be right: I no longer invest large portions of my emotional wellbeing in having to have the perfect Christmas. And mostly I've been having far better holidays as a result. I'm able to enjoy the celebrations for what they are, rather than what they aren't; to appreciate the people I'm with rather than focusing on those I can't see.

And in fact, the simple act of writing this post has purged many of the holiday ghosts evoked by Thursday's Thanksgiving dinner in McMinnville. The many dinners at which I was present as a single parent, or (in alternating years) just a lone single surrounded by intact families have faded; none of them was as hard to take as the year of the divorce, and even that trauma has lost much of its horror for me, especially in comparison to more recent crises.

But the greatest factor in the taming of the Christmas ghosts is the realization that all these experiences contributed to the creation of the man I am today, and by and large, I like this man, and the life he's built for himself. It's more the lesson of "It's a Wonderful Life" than "A Christmas Carol." Ebenezer Scrooge learned that it was never too late to make a change and begin living well; George Bailey, on the other hand, learned that there was far more to his past than just a catalogue of disappointments. The world was a far better place for his activity in it. The disappointing and troubling holidays I experienced as a young adult and, eventually, a middle-aged adult, are emblematic of the forces at work in my life at those times, forces that shaped me into the man I am today, that led me to this home, this career, this family, these friends, this love.

It seems, then, that the best way to deal with the ghosts of holidays past is not to banish them, not to exorcise them, but to embrace them, to be thankful for them. So in conclusion, I can say, two days late, that I am thankful, truly thankful, for the traumas in my life, whether they came about due to family, marriage, or career. And that, my friends, is my holiday gift to you: quit trying to deny, ignore, or excise those memories. You would not exist without them, and this world would not be what it is without your presence in it, as you are. Which makes me thankful for them, as well.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Captured Moments

 
Thanksgiving? Christmas? 2000-something? Or maybe late 1990s? I'm not sure. It's the only Anderson family dinner shot I have on my computer. From the size of my own kids, and the absence of James and Gail's kids from the table, I think it's probably somewhere around 2000 or 2001. The large bowl of candied yams is a sure sign it's one of the two turkey holidays, though the use of plastic plates makes me think it's probably Christmas. The china has traditionally come out for Thanksgiving, but Christmas is an anything-goes meal as far as dinnerware.
 
I was thinking all day yesterday of doing a photo essay about the giant meals we have on those two holidays. It's a tradition that probably goes back to 1991, the first holiday that my parents were well-established in McMinnville. There are probably pictures like this one scattered amongst the many branches of the family. My father used to set up a tripod to get everyone in, but the pictures he took--all of them slides--are not accessible to me as I write this. I'm sure this poorly-posed shot is not the only one I took, but I also took mostly slides through the 1990s, and don't currently have a slide scanner in the house. I'm a bit disappointed, as I was hoping to have several pictures showing the evolution of the event, and of the people in attendance.
 
This photo does have one advantage over more recent pictures: all the young people in it are now fully grown, so I have no qualms about putting it in a blog.
 
Last night we had yet another iteration of the tradition. It was Thanksgiving in McMinnville again, and my brother David snapped a photo of everyone at the table that I hope he'll share with us. There were four children and one college student present. Three of the five sons of my generation were there with our respective partners. If I had that picture to display, the contrasts would be striking: of the people pictured above, only four were at the table last night. Jon's and Ocean's families were not present (and with Gabe in Chicago, Shawn in San Francisco, and Intaba in New York, there would have been far fewer of them), the foster child who was with Jon and Marci left them soon after, my children are now living adult lives in Idaho Falls, and David's former in-laws are not likely to be with us again. David and I are both with different partners now, and while David and Angela's kids were spending the day with their respective exes, Amy and I had Sarah and Alex with us. All told, there were seven people at the table last night who literally weren't in the picture at that bygone dinner.
 
I would have liked to have several pictures with my father in them. Next to the growth of the children, the changes in him have been the most significant over the last decade. Since broken his hip in 2006, he's been on the decline. He's in a wheelchair now, eating with large-handled flatware. He continues to enjoy family dinners, even if he's not equipped to pose a full-table portrait for his slide album.
 
It occurred to me as David was taking last night's picture that these photographs, if we could gather them together, would be like growth rings for our family. We could chart the evolution of the clan: Anderson red and Richard black going to gray, hairlines receding, babies appearing, growing up, and disappearing, spouses and in-laws arriving and departing, waistlines expanding and shrinking. If we turned them all into a slide show, with fading transitions, the impact would be astonishing. All those hellos and goodbyes, the people we who teased us, delighted us, annoyed us, made us laugh, cry, scream, who've come and gone, some to return to this table, some departed for ever. It would be an amazing show, powerful, moving, and by the time it was over, even total strangers who've never met any of us would be in tears.
 
As a young grad student at the University of Illinois, I took an educational psychology course called "Adult Development and Aging." I took it because I needed an ed psych credit for my major, and there weren't any others that fit my schedule. I wasn't looking forward to it--I wanted to teach children, not adults, once I graduated--but it planted some powerful insights in my psyche, more than any other course I took for that degree. Most significant was the realization that development never ends. Every age is a step on the path from womb to tomb.
 
This blog is about transitions in my life. Every day I am less young, and more old. The same goes for you. Growing up, finding and losing love, making babies, raising them, sending them off, changing careers, losing vitality, gaining wisdom, setting aside passions, acquiring new pursuits, traveling, learning, retiring, remembering, sleeping, dying--every life is an epic. Setting this moment I am in within the sweep of my personal novel, I find cause for both melancholy and excitement. I know the general form of what is to come, but know as well that many of the details will surprise me.
 
This is true of every person at a family gathering, every one of us capturing a snapshot of every other, glimpsing a moment on each respective timeline, all of us intersecting for this meal, then blasting back into our lives until the calendar brings us back together at a completely different moment, the children taller, the adults stronger or feebler, the partnerships and marriages shifted in both subtle and dramatic ways. It's a magnificent thing to behold. There's far more at work in these meals than sweet potatoes and turkey.
 
May your holiday celebrations bring you some semblance of the significance I found in being part of a photograph I haven't even seen.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From My Warm, Gay-Marrying Fingers


Just in case there's any doubt at all about the intent of my last post, the one in which I announced my availability to perform gay weddings: Yes, I know it's against the Discipline (that's the United Methodist Constitution, for you muggles out there); no, I don't wish to do it in secret (no back alley weddings); and yes, I am not only willing, but eager to face whatever penalties may be imposed on me by the church that formed me as a spiritual being, ordained me as first a deacon and then an elder, and ultimately decided it had had enough of me, an antipathy I concluded within a year or two was and is quite mutual.

As Robyn Morrison has eloquently detailed in the blog she shares with her husband, Gerry Hill, the covenant United Methodist elders enter into at ordination is fundamentally twisted. To be true to our vows, we elders must espouse and practice doctrines that few of us believe or consistently apply to our own lives. Elders flaunt their creatively adapted understanding of the vows all the time, whether it is the standard of "celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage" or the directive to never be "in debt so as to embarrass [us] in [our] work." (If anything, the entire denomination ought to be embarrassed at the level of student debt accumulated over the course of a seminary education.) Like any proof-texting fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church is excruciatingly selective in the rules it chooses to enforce. When it comes to the church's attitude toward homosexuality, it has been increasingly strident, but sadly consistent, in that enforcement: perform a gay wedding, go on trial. Be gay and ordained and either spend your entire career in the closet, or go on trial. And still Methodism claims to be a church of open doors, hearts, and minds.

Robyn continues in her blog to point out, as I have on many occasions, the cowardice of church leaders whose hands are "tied" by the Discipline, who claim to disagree with the homophobic rules it contains and the draconian actions taken by the denomination to enforce them while simultaneously, whenever called upon by that denomination, being willing participants in that enforcement. There is a perverse code of silence in conferences like Oregon-Idaho, in which gay pastors or pastors performing gay weddings are told that the Cabinet supports them in who they are or what they are doing, but cannot be explicitly told about it. The hairsplitting literalism of this--I will only be held accountable for my contra-Discipline actions or identity if I confess to a superintendent or bishop using exactly the right language that I am, in fact, "guilty"--provides all involved a convenient work-around, a way to both flaunt and adhere to the letter of the law. And there is simply no integrity in this.

Which is why I am willing and eager to flaunt the anti-marriage rule in as public a way as I can. This corruption needs to be pushed to the breaking point. Part of breaking it is having elders of good character surrender their orders in disgust, as clearly working from the inside is getting us nowhere; as Robyn points out, the denomination has, if anything, retreated even further down the homophobic rabbit hole in the last decade, even as the nation is undergoing a cascading shift in public opinion in favor of greater acceptance of gay marriages. Unless these self-proclaimed insider activists are willing to become missionaries to United Methodist congregations in Africa, and convert them wholesale to pro-gay attitudes, there protestations of support are so much window dressing.

It's time to break this controversy open, to bring it out into public and forswear, once and for all, the cowardly hypocrisy of "I disagree with the position, but my hands are tied." Nothing is tying our hands but fear. And yes, I realize I have nothing to lose but a scrap of paper: I made the break, I'm now a public school teacher, and as much blood, sweat, and tears may have gone into the acquisition of that paper, the stakes are very low for me. I have a career, I have a roof over my head, my children are grown and out of the house. It costs me nothing to put my ordination on the line.

But seriously, you who are my brothers and sisters in the Order of Elders: what about that other vow you took, the one that was not with the institution, but with God? The vow to be a prophetic voice, to "proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) For the gay and lesbian community, this is the year of God's favor. Across America, the walls are coming down. Marriage equality is coming; for many of us, it is already here. When two women who are pillars of your church walk into your office with their marriage license, issued by the county registrar, asking for a wedding in the sanctuary in which they have been worshipping together for years, what are you going to tell them? "I'm sorry, but my hands are tied. You'll have to find a justice of the peace. But I'll continue to work to change this from within, so that someday, perhaps your grandchildren can be married in this building."

Yes, it may cost you job security, may force you to change denominations (the UCC, which employed me for the last two and a half years as a musician, is particularly gay-friendly, and very compatible liturgically), may mean you actually have to look for a job instead of just being appointed to one by the bishop. But how long can you continue in a position which, according to your own stated principles, requires you daily to live within an ethical and theological paradox?

For United Methodism to change, I am convinced, for it to really become a part of the new millennium, it is going to have to break. The unity is a lie. If enough pastors, superintendents and, dare I say, bishops flaunt the Discipline, marrying and ordaining according to the leadings of the Holy Spirit rather than the bigoted parsing of a book of administrative rules, then eventually the system will be so clogged with show trials, and the publicity will be so negative, that the church will either have to change those rules--or finally divide along mostly geographical lines, liberating the West and Northeast from the tyranny of the reactionary majority.

Somebody has to get this ball rolling, and this is why I'm not surrendering my orders, as much as I am sickened by both the bigotry of my denomination and the timidity of my fellow elders and bishops. To any gay or lesbian couple with a state-issued license, I extend the invitation to look me up. I'll marry you. And to the United Methodist Church, I say: You can have my ordination when you pry it from my warm, gay-marrying fingers.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Putting It Out There

A few days ago, my friend Gerry Hill did something wonderful. I wrote about Gerry in my last post, describing his sincerity, integrity, and through-and-through Christianity. Right around the same time, Gerry posted on his own blog a decision he had come to: after decades of living with the hypocrisy of United Methodist acceptance/rejection of gay personhood, he was surrendering his orders.

This is huge. Becoming an elder of the United Methodist Church is akin to becoming a doctor. It took me ten years from the time I entered seminary until the Bishop finally laid hands on me, and considering I only stayed in ministry another four and a half years after that, that's not great value for preparation. Most elders, once they get to that point, stay with the profession a good deal longer than I did. Ordination is not just licensure; it's vocation, and even more than that, it's identity.

There are some elders who embody their ordination so deeply that, even if they keep it completely to themselves, people just know. Gerry is like that. I met him at the very beginning of his ministry, and he had a profound impact on me, to the extent that I would probably not have started on my own ordination track but for his presence in my life. The thought of Gerry not being ordained is jarringly dissonant to me--especially when I hold it up against my own continuing ordination.

Don't get me wrong, my own ordination does mean a lot to me. It took an enormous toll on me, bringing me and, to some extent, costing me my first marriage; plunging me into a cycle of depression and recovery; and keeping me sidelined, for seventeen years, from the profession that really is my vocation. I was already struggling with my faith when I entered seminary, and I continued to wrestle with it throughout my short career. I was lonely, insecure, terrified of losing everything for almost the entire time I was an active minister. In short, that piece of paper cost me more than anything I've ever done, or probably ever will do.

And yet, given all those struggles, given my obvious lack of a number of the "gifts and graces" of ministry (particularly in the area of being the social center of a congregation, but also in my commitment to transcending those inadequacies), I'm still ordained, and Gerry, the most natural pastor I've known, will shortly not be ordained. And he's doing it not because he has to--most pastors who either surrender their ordinations, or have them revoked, do so because they've broken covenant with sexual misconduct, embezzlement, or are shown to be grossly incompetent--but because the church has broken covenant with essential Christianity. By claiming to be fully accepting of sexual minorities while simultaneously refusing to admit them to the rites of marriage and ordination, the United Methodist Church has locked itself into a paradox that cannot be resolved within its current structure. Remaining ordained meant, to Gerry, tacit acceptance of this twisted doctrine, something he had never done, even though at the time of his ordination--as was the case for me, and every other elder of the United Methodist Church--he had sworn to believe and promised to uphold every doctrine of the church. Gerry gave up his orders because he was tired of living this lie.

I'm tired of it, too, and Gerry's example made me think hard about doing the same thing. I've also seen notes from colleagues who are staying in ministry, saying they are choosing to work for change from within the church. I'm not really inside the church anymore. I get the conference newsletter in my email, and once a year I report to a local church conference on my ministerial activity of the previous year--which lately has come down to one or two words, either "none" or "not much"--and that's it. I don't go to a Methodist church; in fact, since leaving my piano job at Parkrose UCC, I don't go to any church at all. My certificate of ordination gathers dust in the hall closet, and my alb and stoles have only come out of the bedroom closet once in the last five years, when I performed a wedding in Washington Park.

And that's why I'm not surrendering my orders just yet: I have decided to offer my services, for as long as I remain ordained, to any gay or lesbian couple wanting a public marriage ceremony with a genuine, fully-authorized ordained Methodist minister. I'm aware that such ceremonies are not yet legally binding in the state of Oregon, though I fully expect that to change once it again comes to a vote. I'm also aware that there are many active Methodist ministers who perform same-sex ceremonies, but do so in ways that grant them some form of deniability should anyone press charges against them. If these ceremonies were to be publicized, the ministers would find their careers on the line.

That's no longer a problem for me. In concrete terms, the stakes for me are low: I'm well-established in a secular career, and even in the event of loss of that work (as happened four years ago), I've developed my skills as a private music teacher and performer to the extent that I could replace a good portion of the lost income without having to resort to resuming ministerial activity.

So I'm putting it out there: if you're looking for someone to perform a same-gender wedding whose got some skills, I'm available. By the way, creating powerful worship experiences is one of the tasks of ministry for which no one ever doubted my gifts and graces, so you can be sure it'll be a well-crafted ceremony. I'm no publicity hound, but I will happily pose with you for any pictures you wish to take, and you may use my name on any social medium or publication.

You might think, upon reading this, that I just don't care about losing my ordination, which could very well be the result of such action. You'd be wrong. I don't run marathons anymore, but the finisher's medals that hang in the same closet where I keep my ordination certificate mean a lot to me. They represent months of preparation culminating in an ordeal that left me lame for weeks. And I did seven of them. In terms of pain and suffering, getting ordained dwarfs those accomplishments. I don't take the potential loss of it lightly.

The conclusion I came to, though, is that I want something good to come of that ordeal. I left ministry on a low note, feeling like I had nothing left to contribute. Today I believe there is, in fact, a way I can be useful, a way I can reach out to people in need and minister to them, providing a service for committed couples who wish to join their lives together in Christian marriage despite the cowardice and bigotry of the church to which they belong.

And if it leads to some kind of official action being taken, then maybe, just maybe, that could be one small part of the growing tide of resistance to the hide-boundedness of the church. If there is one thing the United Methodist Church--an institution that prides itself on its diversity and inclusiveness--hates, it's having to admit publicly that inclusive diversity only goes so far.

So it's out there. Have alb, will marry. Any takers?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Churches Suck. Not All Christians Do.


Be ye warned: the following essay says nice things about Christians.

In the six months I've been writing this blog, I've had some harsh things to say about the church. The church that formed me, United Methodism, is, in my informed opinion, a spiritually and ethically bankrupt institution, incapable of acting courageously, its leadership hopelessly hobbled by the desire to preserve what power they have and to hang onto jobs that are rapidly becoming obsolete. Whatever convictions they have with respect to providing basic civil rights to sexual minorities take a back seat to covering their asses in the event of an assault from the right.

Continuing in the disclaimer mode, I will also state that Christians in general are fond of imagery that just gives me the douche chills. I made the mistake of Googling "Christians" in a quest for an image to attach to this blog, and what I came up with was simply revolting: schmaltz, schlock, saccharine sentimentality with a frisson of sadomasochism. I've never cared for the sort of Christian "art" that is readily available in Christian book stores, and is often prominently displayed in churches that really should know better.

And finally, I readily acknowledge that there are Christians on the wrong side of many current controversies. As comedian/commentator/atheist Bill Maher frequently observes, it's as if they haven't read their own book. Jesus would be appalled at the positions taken by the most prominent Christians in the United States.

And that's all I will say about them today. Because today I wish to write about Christians I know who walk the talk, who act sincerely on deeply held beliefs that, to me, are fully consonant with the Gospel as I understand it. I will be naming names here, so if you're a really good Christian who knows me and reads this blog, prepare to blush.

I'll start with family. One of the sincerest Christians I know is my nephew Gabriel. Gabe's faith informs his compassion and dedication to serving those around him who most need it. For over a year, he became my parents' live-in caregiver because they--more particularly, my father--needed someone to take on this responsibility, to ease them into their new identity as shut-ins. Gabe's presence in their home enabled them to finally give up driving, and it set a standard for future care decisions. He did this with almost no compensation--a bed and meals--and, during the year of his service, focused on defining what shape his life would take once he left. He chose the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago because, as the year with my parents demonstrated for him, his heart lies in mission. He feels called to travel to the Third World and care for the needy. And who's doing the calling? Jesus, of course.

I must note that Gabe is as conservative a young adult as I personally know. He holds many beliefs that I do not share, worships in churches I will not enter, and may be deeply concerned about the state of my soul. If he is, he keeps it utterly to himself. He may just know better than to try to evangelize me, but I think it's deeper than that: I think he believes the best evangelism is the kind that never ever asks about one's relationship with God, but instead proclaims the good news by example. Gabe's life is the best kind of sermon, and to it I say "Amen."

I turn now to friends. My last posted essay, on the cowardly approach of United Methodism to same-gender marriage, got props from my friend and former colleague (and, for a time, my pastor) Gerry Hill. Gerry took early retirement last year to join his wife, Robyn Morrison, who is engaged in a sort of alternative ministry in Helena, Montana. From the first time I met him, Gerry impressed me as a Christian without guile. I've never known him to engage in the ridiculous political games so many pastors play. I have known him to be brutally honest about his own gifts--and failings. Gerry stayed in ministry, despite his misgivings, because he genuinely believed in serving God by serving others. He helped me through some of the hardest times in my life, and while we have not seen much of each other over the years--and sometimes there are many years between our meetings--I always leave our encounters feeling blessed, knowing I have been in the presence of a true man of God.

Another such man is Tony Peterson. Tony was the first floor RA in Lausanne Hall my freshman year. I lived on a different floor, but the community I became part of--I called it "The Group," while some of the others in it called it "The Element Gang" for reasons I've completely forgotten--adopted Tony as our RA, regardless of what floor, or even what dorm, we lived in. Tony was a rare bird, a black man who attended Punahou School in Honolulu (and yes, he knew Barack Obama while he was there) and was now finishing his studies at Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Salem, Oregon, with a mostly white student body. We never thought of Tony as black; he was just Tony, a gentle, caring, delightful person with a huge Afro. After graduation, Tony pursued a career in the Methodist church as a religious educator, youth worker, and, eventually, an employee of the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville. He married a single mother and, through her children, eventually became a grandfather (he prefers "Pee Paw" or "T-Dad"). He writes a blog that addresses theological and racial issues. As much as he has wrestled with United Methodism--he was laid off several years ago in a cost-cutting maneuver--his faith has never, as far as I know, wavered, and he continues to live generously out of that faith.

My final example, or rather, examples, are two of the people in the picture at the top of this page. In all honesty, everyone in that picture fits the theme of this blog to at least some extent. It's a photograph of the Metanoia Peace Community, a year or two before it finally disbanded following the retirement of John Schwiebert who, with his wife Pat, founded the community in the mid-1980s. John and Pat have lived, since their marriage in the 1970s, as radically faithful Christians. Believing profoundly in intentional community, they have never had a house of their own, but have always shared their home with other adults, living covenantally with them. Pat, a registered nurse and midwife, specialized early on in perinatal loss, a passion that expanded to cover all forms of grief, and led to her being a nationally-known advocate for bereavement work. Pat also has a heart for the homeless, and has, through meals she organizes at the Sunnyside United Methodist Church, fed tens of thousands of homeless and otherwise destitute people. John has been a community organizer since before he even knew Pat. He has served traditional parishes, but most of his career was spent bringing people together around issues of justice and peace. The community they founded together, and of which I was a member from 2000 until last year, when it disbanded, was a gathering of activists and misfits who rarely agreed on anything. They came to be inspired, and left in a huff over some action that was taken, or disappointed over one that was not. Metanoia was never an easy church to lead--in fact, it was often a hard one just to belong to--but John was ever faithful. However many times it said "No" to him as he presented a program emphasis he felt was important, John held on, carrying on the work well into his 70s. Without him, and without Pat, there could be no Metanoia; after a year of looking for a place, and trying to arrive at a Schwiebert-free identity, the community folded. John and Pat continue with their passions, still living in the Peace House, caring for ailing housemates, organizing, protesting, feeding, loving, and all of it in the name of Jesus.

Looking at this short list of Christians, I'm impressed with what a low profile they have overall. Yes, the Schwieberts in particular have made headlines, have even made use of the media to advance their causes, but they have never sought out publicity for its own sake, and I doubt that Gabe, Gerry, or  Tony has ever chased the spotlight. They live faithful Christians lives because that is who they are.

Meanwhile, my own faith has not held. Shattered by disappointment in the institutional church that birthed it, challenged by the intellectual pursuits that took me to seminary, dwarfed by the far greater fulfillment I find in enjoying the outdoors and teaching music to children, I have found myself again and again setting aside the tattered remnants of a faith that was never all that strong to begin with. I covet the faith of these exemplars, and yet I know it is not for me. At best, I can only hope to be an agnostic when it comes to believe in God. Unlike most of the Christians Bill Maher complains about, I have read the Bible. All of it. And I have many a bone to pick with the God described in both testaments of this book. The writers projected so much of themselves on God that it's impossible to know if they ever believed the Creator to be anything but a capricious old man.

Capricious or not, all-powerful or all-loving, the God these Christians worship, the Jesus the follow, calls them to love and serve their neighbors. However they may feel about intelligent design, abortion, militarism, same-gender marriage, ordination of sexual minorities, or any of the other countless controversies that have led Christians to divide their communities, they themselves are not quitters. They have all sought out faith communities in which they can be nurtured; and when none appears, they have seen no problem in starting their own. Faith, they all understand, needs to be nurtured in the presence of others who share at least some of its component parts.

I must add in closing that these remarkable individuals are far from alone in being sincere Christians. I've known many, far more than I can count. Yes, I've known many a hypocrite, as well, and even some true Christian monsters. By and large, though, I've found that those who practice Christianity sincerely, who work intentionally to follow its precepts, are some of the best people this world has ever produced. I know this is true, too, of faithful Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists; really, of anyone who takes seriously the parts of a holy book which talk about serving one's faith by serving other human beings. I know, too, that all these religions have their share of idolaters, people who turn their faith into a weapon to be used on others.

But that's not who I sought to write about today. There will be plenty of other times for me to excoriate the selfish, violent practitioners of religion. Today I wanted simply to laud those who practice what they preach. Just doing so has made me feel blessed to have had these people in my life, and hopeful that I may spend more time in their company in the future. It won't change my own mind about the relevance of their beliefs to my own life, but it does make me want to thank the God whom they believe called them and guided them on their paths.

Not bad, God. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Congregation of Cowards

 
I can't say I'm surprised. I can't even say I'm disappointed. It's just United Methodists doing what they do best: hiding behind rules they claim to oppose.
 
It's hardly the trial of the century. These church trials have been going on for decades, and not just within United Methodism. All but one of the mainline denominations have a miserable history on this issue, trying clergy who, acting in the interests of compassion, celebrate marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples. It doesn't matter where they're located: pastors have been tried in both the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast, regions in which a sizable majority of both clergy and laity oppose the restrictions on both ordination and marriage of sexual minority church members. Rev. Schaefer, the most recent victim of this modern dogma, was tried in Pennsylvania for performing his son's wedding.
 
What astounds me is how blind the conservative elements who control the majority vote at General Conference, the only body within the UMC with the power to change the Discipline, are to historical precedent. In the first half of the 19th century, American Methodism endured two schisms. One was primarily over the power of bishops, as Methodist Protestants believed that lifetime appointments to the episcopacy were a recipe for old church corruption. The other was over slavery, as the Methodists of the South insisted on preserving the Peculiar Institution. It took a hundred years to heal those schisms, though the Methodist Protestants essentially gave up all their principles in the merger. The Southern Methodists gave up nothing. Even though you would be hard pressed to find a Southern United Methodist who still believes in the correctness of segregation, let alone slavery, there has never been any kind of corporate admission that that part of the church was on the wrong side of this abomination.
 
Today, the United Methodist Church in the South is again on the wrong side of a matter of basic human rights. For decades they were able to dominate votes on this issue by virtue of the ongoing concentration of Methodists south of the Mason Dixon Line. In recent years, as those numbers have waned, they have allied with the growing number of Methodists in, of all places, Africa, whence came the slaves those same Southern Methodists divided the church over two centuries ago.
 
They are abetted in their homophobia by the institution of the lifelong episcopacy. When a church official's power and authority are perpetual, when there is no limit but retirement to the length of his or her term, there is far more to lose in standing against injustice that is enshrined in the church's law book. There are many bishops who pay lip service to their opposition to the homophobic Discipline, but when push comes to shove, when pastoral careers are on the line, the only bishops taking action are those who are retired. Active bishops write pastoral letters, may even preach prophetic sermons, but none of that amounts to a hill of prayer beads next to the simple actions of 1) openly ordaining a gay or lesbian pastor, 2) presiding over a same-gender wedding, or 3) refusing to prosecute a pastor accused of performing such a wedding. Acting in any of these ways would put a bishop at risk of her or his own church trial, which carries with it the potential to be removed from the episcopacy.So far, none of them is willing to take that step. Instead, they cower behind the Discipline, insisting their hands are tied when it comes to doing something concrete in defiance of that book.
 
And so the front lines of this conflict continue to be littered with the orders of low-level clergy, pastors of local churches, who are the cannon fodder of ecclesial war. Their captains and generals relax comfortably in their plush offices, expressing regret that there is nothing they can do to stop the bleeding, grateful perhaps that pastors are taking the heat so they don't have to.
 
There was a time when I held bishops in high esteem. There were a few who had genuinely impressed me with their courage, integrity, and compassion. They practiced what they preached. But those days are gone. Increasingly over the years, the episcopacy has been populated by individuals who run for the office like secular politicians and, once elected, even though that election is for life, act in controversial matters as if they were going to have to run for reelection. "There's nothing I can do; the Discipline is clear on this."
 
The fear of punishment is well-founded: just look at what the church is doing to ministers like Rev. Shaefer. And if his trial seems high profile, imagine how much publicity the trial of a bishop would engender.
 
And yet, that is exactly what is needed. As Thomas Jefferson said of democracy, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Perhaps Methodism is slowly dying in America because it lacks courageous leadership. There are no bishops with the courage of their convictions willing to sacrifice their office to the greater good, or to actively oppose the tyranny of the African/Southern conservative coalition. Perhaps it is also dying because the incoming generation sees it for what it is: as with slavery, once again on the wrong side of an issue that will define it for decades to come.
 
Knowing that the voices of evangelical conservatism will be the last to change, I can see no solution but schism. It is time the West and the Northeast followed the example of their 19th century forebears, and left the Southern bigots to their own backward devices. A smaller, principled church in both these regions, a church that really stood for something other than blind adherence to an antiquated code, could go far with the young skeptics who have been avoiding mainline Protestant congregations. Young adults are impressed with flexibility, tolerance, and advocacy. They want church to mean something other than self-preservation. They want church to be an institution that adjusts to the times, rather than forcing the times to adjust to its own antiquated standards.
 
I hope they're not holding their breath, because the one thing bishops fear more than losing their office is being in charge of some portion of a divided church. I long ago gave up on my hope that Methodism could, someday, embrace true diversity, reflected in the presence of gay persons in the pews, in the pulpit, and at the altar. Leadership will not come from our actual leaders. They're too worried about losing their episcopal offices or, if they're not there yet, their chance at someday occupying those offices. It will continue to come from the lower levels in the hierarchy, the clergy and lay leadership who make things happen at the local level.
 
And that is where they will continue to happen. Brave pastors will perform same-gender weddings. They may eve be open about what they are doing. From time to time, they'll be held accountable for what they've done with a trial by their peers--who've been instructed to act like a cowardly bishop, enforcing the letter of a law that is an embarrassment, a horrendous indelible stain on a church that, in its beginnings, prided itself on seeking out the poor and needy and ministering to their needs.
 
When a church responds to a ministry like this by prosecuting it like a crime, it's time to find another church. In my case, that means no church at all: the one congregation where I fit most comfortably no longer exists, creating a justice vacuum within the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. Perhaps I've just outgrown the garments of a denomination that is so deeply rooted in its early adolescence, in insisting on defending rules and practices that are patently discriminatory and reflective of the very worst that Christian identity has to offer.
 
Thankfully, I have a choice. I no longer have a pastoral office to protect. And I choose, like so many younger than myself, to stay home on Sunday mornings. Let the cowards go on with their hypocritical lip service to principles they don't dare risk a hair on their heads to genuinely advocate. I'll find my spiritual sustenance elsewhere.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gotta Dance!



Yeah--I didn't see that coming, either.

A drum circle got me into Orff. The dancing part didn't happen until I had my Level I training, and even then, I was far from comfortable with it. But I pushed through my discomfort, and began seriously incorporating movement into my classroom. Many more workshops, two more Levels, a Jazz Class, and my first national conference later, I can seriously say--finally, at the age of 52--I love to dance!

Few people who've known me outside of the Orff world would believe this about me. Yes, I took a full year of ballroom dance when I was in grad school, and it has informed my playing of any music that swings ever since; but I had few opportunities to practice those moves, and over time, they atrophied. I can still do some basic swing and Charleston steps, but anything else I have to make up as I go.

Prior to that year, it wasn't just that I didn't have dance skills. I hated dancing. I especially hated party dancing of the kind that is so essential to adolescence. I never outgrew the awkward wallflower stage. I had a big body, long arms, uncertain balance, and I just didn't know what to do with myself at school or other age-specific dances. I did like to slow dance, partly for the nerd-without-a-girlfriend reason, but also because the demands on my choreographic skills were far less than for anything with a lively beat. Remember, too, that I grew up in the Disco era, when there were clearly prescribed moves for the dance floor--moves I never bothered to learn because, I kept telling myself, I hated to dance.

I continued with that awkwardness all through my young adult years. If I did get out on a dance floor, I'd do the Charleston rather than anything that fit that harsh '80s backbeat. By the '90s, I was no longer socializing with people my own age--being a minister, especially of a rural church, does not encourage such behavior--so I missed many opportunities to learn.

The piece I was missing in all this was the improvisational component of dancing to a rock beat. I was learning to be quite the improviser on the piano, writing complicated songs with my guitar, and in the pulpit, improvising entire sermons based on a single suggestion; but somehow I never realized I could channel that same creativity into movement.

And then came Orff; and finally, last night, at the closing dance (which featured an awesome cover band called the Nacho Men), in the company of hundreds of fellow Orff teachers, I cut loose and let my freak flag fly. There were some couples dancing, but for the most part, it was all of us, dancing with all the rest of us, doing our own thing but completely in sync with the people around us. It was magnificent, crazy, hilarious, the perfect people with whom to let myself go. And I loved every minute of it.

Honestly, this is not that new a development: I've been dancing with my students for years, and loving it. What's evolved through these gatherings is my willingness to cut loose in the company of my peers. That's the true mark of freedom: I no longer worry about what others will think about me for doing what I'm doing. I've stopped prejudging myself through their eyes, and have just let myself be myself.

So there it is, those of you who knew me in high school and college: stodgy, shy, wallflower Mark loves to dance. You may now clean up the coffee that just spewed from your mouth in a colossal spit take over the very idea of me becoming a dancing fool, and resume your normal, non-blog-related activities.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Then Again, Maybe We Had That Coming.


Yeah, I know. It takes all the whimsy out to see the people drowning because they wouldn't listen to Noah. Then again, as the story goes, they had it coming.

After all I've written lately about the innocence of children and the selflessness of teachers, this is going to be one hell of a cynical blog post, of the "humans suck" variety. You'll see me tap into a variety of issues I have previously addressed, including health insurance, football helmet butting, capitalism, and that most horrible of children's bedtime Bible stories, Noah and the Flood. I may figure out a way to end it that's a tad less dark; the preacher in me is always looking for grace, after all. And let's begin.

America's real God is the dollar. It's appropriate that our money has the motto, "In God We Trust," because profiteering is the greatest American virtue. Capitalists despise a monetary vacuum. Anything that creates a demand will be monetized as quickly as the sales stickers can be printed.

Last night, I drove past "Everest College," a for-profit "institution" in downtown Portland. For-profit "higher" education is founded on the principle that "everyone deserves a chance to an education"--and also to line the pockets of the shareholders of these schools. For-profit education identifies fields that are in demand, crafts programs that can lead to certification in those fields, and sells it to segments of the population who cannot afford--or, more likely, lack the expertise or academic qualifications to obtain existing financial aid to cover the cost of--post-secondary education. They then maneuver these students into taking out enormous educational loans, often backed by the federal government, in the tens of thousands of dollars for an education that would cost much less at a community college. If the student finishes the program, he or she is awarded the certification required to be employed in this field, though typically finds that it pays significantly less than she or he was led to be believe by the college. The student also now owes the bank that issued the loans an enormous amount of money. And if the student doesn't finish the program? Still there will be loans requiring payment--and by someone who was unable to qualify for a professional position. Either way, Everest College walks off with a hefty tuition check.

I'm appalled by this for a host of reasons, not least of which is the sheer audacity of exploiting the laudable thirst for self-improvement in order to line pockets with greenbacks. Educators I know, regardless of the age of their students, teach because that is what they are called to do. Sharing knowledge and skills with students makes up for our puny salaries, and then some. It takes a twisted, greedy mind to want to turn something like that into a cash cow--and yet, that is what not just for-profit colleges, but charter schools do all the time.

It's also what hospitals and private insurance companies do. Americans need health care, and are not about to outgrow that need. They also need to be able to pay for it. Enter the insurance company, an institution founded on the notion of spreading the cost of health care across a large population by cashing in on their natural fear of illness and death. The Affordable Care Act takes a standard element of this industry--spreading costs for the sick among all patients, including those who are healthy--and applies it to a much larger group of people. That brings the costs down for everyone--except those who have no insurance at all.

It makes sense: if we're going to stay with the same private infrastructure, with profiteering middlemen holding the reins of the health economy, then for both their sake and ours, currently healthy people will have to subsidize the care of the unhealthy. This is, in fact, how socialized healthcare works, except that instead of paying inflated premiums to for-profit companies, citizens pay taxes to more efficient government bureaucracies. The blasphemy of the single-payer government health system, as Americans see it, is that nobody makes a profit. So we all pay more to preserve the profits of the investors.

Extending our analysis beyond the almighty buck, let's turn to the world of professional sports; more specifically, football. I rarely televised sports, hardly ever for entire games. The Super Bowl is one exception, as is any bowl game with an Oregon team. Several of the last games I have watched have featured strategic manipulation of the time out rules, and I find this infuriating. When I'm watching a game, I want to see it won or lost by the skill of the players and their ability to work together as a team. One thing I do not want to see is victory through creative bookkeeping. Playing with the clock, allowing it to run up to a certain point, calling a time out, stopping the clock at the most advantageous moment--this strikes me as having as much sport to it as tax evasion. And yet it is one of the things that makes football such a human sport: the human drive to take advantage of whatever loopholes can be found in a rulebook.

Sticking with football for a moment, I recall my last mention of this blood sport: the use of a protective device, the helmet, as an offensive weapon. Here's a manufacturer's warning from inside a football helmet:

And yet, as long as ramming one player's helmet into another player's head gives the first player's team an advantage, it will take a major revision of the rules to eliminate this lethal practice. When it comes to winning, whether the reward is money, fame, or just self-respect, anything not specifically ruled out is fair game, even if the cost is a lifetime of disability--or death.

Let's take it to a higher, but less (visibly) bloody level: Congress. Since President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Republican senators and congresspersons have fudged, violated, reinterpreted, and exploited every rule of procedure for their respective chambers to overturn the results of not one, but two national elections. Legislation has been discarded in favor of obstructionism. Rules designed to protect the rights of the minority have been used and abused to obviate the will of the majority. This has been true both with respect to the use of the filibuster in the Senate and the exaggerated voice of the Tea Party in the House.

Examples from the history of crime in America are also telling. The prohibition of alcohol led to the meteoric rise of organized crime, and current prohibitions on marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and other controlled substances have birthed a thriving shadow industry that exploits addicts.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone. Since the dawn of time, humans have been exploiting vague and general rules, finding ways to turn restrictions into advantages. The book of Genesis dates it back to the first humans: Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, finding it attractive precisely because it was forbidden; then tried to weasel out of their punishment by passing the blame to others. One of their sons went on to murder his brother. Murders, thievery, prostitution, idolatry, all of it growing out of essential human depravity, using the gift of a free will to exploit and subvert the Creation that God had so recently called "good": no wonder God decided to wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch. It's a good thing God promised not to do it again, though, because before there had even been time for another generation to be born, Noah and his family were indulging in their baser instincts.

It's a bleak picture. And yet, at the beginning of this essay, I promised a taste of hope at the end. So here it is:

Kindergartners can be incredibly frustrating to teach. Of all the students I deal with, their personalities come the closest to primitive, sometimes even feral. They will exploit any opportunity for running, chasing, pushing, blaming, denying; really, they are everything I've just accused football players, senators, health insurers, for-profit educators, and essentially the entire human race, boiled down into a concentrated but cuddly form.

It's the cuddly that I want to focus on here, because as selfish as kindergartners can be, they also have an altruistic streak that dwarves their tiny bodies.

Occasionally for one reason or another, a kindergartner winds up in tears during music class. Sometimes it's because one of the other children got a little too enthusiastic during the movement activity with which I started the class. Sometimes one of them has felt snubbed by another. Sometimes it's impossible to know exactly what happened, because the weeping child speaks very little English, or simply refuses to say.

Every time this has happened, without exception, other children rush immediately to comfort the weeper. It doesn't matter how obnoxious this child has been: kindergartners have a native compassion that puts that of humans to shame. They just can't stand to see another child in tears. Whatever I'm trying to teach takes an instant back seat to comforting the afflicted. They also become obsessed with tying each other's shoes, but that's another story.

As with so many other things, I can't really fault these children for caring. As much as I want to teach them something about music, I have to celebrate their concern for each other. And did I mention the cuddle factor? When it's time to get them on the bus, they will often clump together in a hug-fest that, as irksome as it can be for furthering the goal of getting them home, is delightful to behold.

So there's the hope: as much as our human nature may revolve around exploiting each other and manipulating the letter of rules to subvert their intent, way back, deep down, we care. We really do. Take long enough to pierce that manipulative cloud and you'll find a bleeding heart.

So hold off on the flood, God. We may yet surprise you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Little Chaos Never Hurt Anybody


I called this "Madonna of the Mutant Broccoli" when I posted it on Facebook, but those two bizarre vegetables are, in fact, romanesco. They're striking natural examples of fractal design, made up of patterns that repeat down to a very small level--though in romanesco the pattern doesn't extend into the micro-range. After spotting them at the farmers' market, Amy had a vegetable crush on romanesco for a couple of weeks. And then she had her fill. But they (and she) are something to behold!

I just looked up chaos theory, something I first heard about in the original Jurassic Park movie, only to find out I was completely wrong about what it is. Please don't ask me to define the real thing; I would need far better mathematical credentials than my miserable showing in freshman calculus 34 years ago to have a shot at it. As best I can determine, chaos theory is about how estimates at the data level lead to apparently random results at the other end of a calculation. And yet somehow it's also associated (at least, in my mind) with fractals, those amazing patterns found not just in vegetables and trees but also in the paintings of Jackson Pollock.

With these disclaimers in place, I'm now going to spin out my own personal theory of chaos (not to be confused with chaos theory--notice the transposition of subject and object in those clauses).

I'll begin with entropy, which, as I understand it, is the gradual decay of order throughout the cosmos. Over time, systems break down, energy fades, structures erode, life decays, until everything collapses in a dead heap. The end. Entropy is chaos fighting back against order. Our bodies build themselves up to a certain point, sometime in our 20s, then begin the long decline to decrepitude and death. In the arts, there is a flow from simplicity to complexity to collapse, then a reset into a new simplicity.

Human relationships experience the same ebb and flow, but with a striking difference: often the order is born of chaos.

When two people come together, their growing attachment to each other is founded on--hey, we're back in the math world!--approximations. We have vague, general ideas of each other's personalities; we project our hopes and aspirations on each other; we are quick to deny anything that contradicts the skewed data we're feeding into our brains. When we feel the pull of attraction, affinity, infatuation, we want things to work at a deep level, and we're willing to go to great lengths to ignore anything that contradicts those hopes.

Naturally, this lays the foundation for later upsets. If these approximations are allowed to go on without adjustment for long, we will inevitably find ourselves clashing with reality. The relationship heads off in a direction our hopeful innocence never could have calculated, ultimately collapsing under the weight of disappointment and rejection.

Or--and yes, after all this talk about entropy and decay and collapse, there is still a hopeful "or"--we use the amazing fractal brains we have evolved to continually make adjustments in our calculations and, with them, our expectations of each other. For relationships to live, breathe, and mature, they must be organic works in progress, rather than cathedrals which, however long they take to complete, always hew to the master plan. We're always revising this novel, and it will not be ready for publication until we're finished being together--or both dead. Relationships that grow in this way become every more complex, as we learn more about not just who we were, but who we are becoming, as our internal systems interact and change us both as individuals and as a couple.

In this way, the chaos in our lives can be a force for beauty. It's only recently that fractals were find in Pollock's paintings, which were for many years thought to be random splatters of paint. Random they may appear, and yet they have a pull for anyone who studies them long enough to see the intricacy of those splatters. The longer and closer one looks at them, the more amazing they become. So, too, with the masterpiece that is a successful relationship: the fractal complexity of it belies the apparent chaos of its overall structure.

A little chaos, even a regular dose of chaos, is a good thing. It keeps us alive, awake, active, on our toes. A steady diet of too much chaos, though, can be terribly destructive--as can too many large-scale chaotic events.

I've written at length about the difficult home lives of my students, of how chaos is a steady state for them when they are away from our building. The most important task for us teachers is to carve out a haven of order and structure for them, to teach and re-teach politeness and respect, to create a safe place for them to interact with their peers, to model adult behavior that is rational, disciplined, caring, strict, but never any of those qualities to an extreme. These children leave us to return to a heightened environment; our job is to turn things down, decrease the intensity, take everything down a notch.

At a deeper level, though, we're not just turning things down. We're helping these children learn how to have relationships that grow and mature, in which the introduction of chaotic elements creates complexity rather than collapse.

The music class is an ideal environment for this kind of learning. Up to now, most of my lessons have been about unison behavior: singing, playing, dancing identically with each other. The few times I've tried to create polyrhythms have collapsed into the clamor of random sound, intensified by the acoustics of the gymnasium in which I teach. Last week, working on the Orff instrumentarium (xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels), I began helping students realize that there can be two parts working simultaneously: an instrumental ostinato accompanying a vocal melody. With a very few classes, I took it up a notch and had multiple ostinatos playing simultaneously.

Most of my students are not ready for this level of complexity. Time and again, my students just couldn't hold onto the concepts I was demonstrating long enough to get the ball rolling. Just playing a simple rhythm in unison was all they could handle. With a very few of them, though, it worked, and I could see in their eyes the wonder of being part of something more intricate and more beautiful than anything they had previously done.

There is no better metaphor for complex human relationships than playing polyphonic music. To play or sing in an ensemble, one must be able to both perform one's own part rhythmically, tonally, consistently; and to harmonize and balance that part with contrasting parts. When it works, it's magic; when it almost works, it's a glimpse of perfection that generates powerful motivation; and when it fails--let me just say that, as a band director, I referred to that experience as "train wreck." Yet even that is an important experience for students to have, to realize that the collapse of a rehearsal into musical chaos does not mean the end of the ensemble, to see how picking up the pieces, carefully fitting them back together, working at making them better, can still pay off; and to know that the end result transcended the effort that went into making it happen.

That's how it is with relationships. They rarely achieve perfection, but when they come close, they are a taste of heaven. At times they may collapse into chaos, and the temptation to pack up our instruments and abandon the rehearsal. But if we take care with each other, if we spend the time really learning about ourselves and each other, fitting ourselves back together, the end result will blow our minds with its transcendent beauty.

In the light of this learning, the measurable knowledge in a standardized test pales by comparison. Yet music education at my school is one hour a week--for half the school year. And that's an hour more than students receive in many districts throughout this country. Perhaps the real chaos in this country lies with the politicians setting these priorities, cutting school funding while insisting on ever higher scores on standardized tests. If so, the order that will finally bring fractal beauty from this maelstrom resides in the hearts, minds, and votes of all of us.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

High Stakes

There's a word improvisers use that I've incorporated into my daily vocabulary: heightening. In improv, heightening is adding risk to a scene by amping up emotions, adding elements that may seem random, or seizing on a player's goof and making it part of the scene that is unfolding. The goal of heightening is to raise the fictional stakes and make the game more real--reality, after all, is chaotic, not scripted--but in truth, the stakes are actually very low for the players. The worst that can happen to them is that the scene will collapse, end on a weak note, turn off the audience, all of which is part of the package when one is in an improv theater. Things don't always work out in a meaningful, hilarious way. Sometimes even the best improv troupes go into territory that makes the audience uncomfortable or just doesn't work.

I've been thinking about heightening and stakes because, as my last two posts will reveal, I've had enough time in my new position to reflect on what it means to me. The stakes for me, personally, are very high: given my late start (at 42) and the amount of time I've had away from full-time public school employment since that start, there are not many years left to me to prepare for retirement; or, even more significantly, to end my working life on a high note. While most teachers my age are resting on their laurels, looking forward to retirement, employing decades of experience to sail through the most difficult of classes, I'm still building my skill set. I've got plenty of lessons in my repertoire, but this is only my second year working in a high-poverty school (the first was 2003-4, at the very beginning of this adventure), and as adaptable as I am, this learning curve is steep. The improv I do every day--hotwiring lesson plans on the fly, tweaking, editing, working around major disruptions, accommodating the needs of my students and the inadequacy of my space--has extremely high stakes. If I can make it through this year, and end it on a positive note, I'm set professionally, equipped to grow from strength to strength right up to retirement, at which point I'll be well satisfied with my accomplishments. It's also possible I could crash and burn, fail so miserably that I'll be consigned to substitute teaching for what's left of my career, piecing together an income between that and private lessons and performances.

I don't foresee that happening--I seem to be finding the right balance between firmness and compassion, and there's no danger of me running out of ideas--but there is a third outcome that would be worse: playing it safe, backing off from the risky hands-on teaching that is the Orff approach to one in which my students are in assigned seats throughout class, learning about music from books and videos but rarely actually making music. I taught that way for my first two and a half years. I doubt that my students learned much in my classes. I did have plenty of discipline problems, and frequently ended days tired and discouraged. It's the path of least engagement, of sacrificing the students' learning to the teacher's sanity. This approach is not for me, though there are textbook companies making fortunes selling it in brightly colored packages loaded with bells and whistles to school districts across the United States. To me, that's a waste of money: I'd rather be able to put mallets and drums in my students' hands so they can learn by doing than  hand them a book, however attractive, that will tell them about it. And it's the path that leads not so much to a burn out as a fizzle out. No, I want to end on (prepare to groan) a high note, and everything that's happened in the last two months tells me I will. I end my days tired, sometimes frustrated, but always exhilarated, knowing I've made a difference, and my students are going home loving music.

As high as the professional stakes are for me, they are dwarfed in comparison to the personal stakes of my students. They go home to situations that are already heightened to the breaking point. Most of them get free breakfast and lunch at school because that's the only way to be sure they're getting enough to eat. Many have absent parents; others have parents who are abusive, strung-out, engaged in illegal activities. There's a high turnover rate: children rarely stay at this school for all six of their primary years, as their parents move frequently in search of work. Some have been pressed into duty as caregivers for younger siblings.

Which brings me to a child I'll call Theo. He's a big bear of a child, easy-going, big smile, friendly, good-natured; he greets me every morning with a grin and, frequently, a vigorous hug. I mistook him at first for a fifth grader, but he's actually in the third grade, though his size makes me wonder if he may have been held back a year. A couple of weeks into the school year, I was outside doing my morning duty when Theo came by. "How are you?" I asked him. "Not good, Mr. A," he replied. "What's up?" I asked. "I'm worried about my little sister. She's home alone." "How old is she?" I asked. "Four," he said. "My mom wasn't home from work, and I had to catch the bus." "Wow, that must be scary for you," I told him. I saw the school secretary passing between buildings at that point, flagged her down, and asked her to look into it, then sent Theo on to class.

I don't know how many of these children have situations similar to Theo's, but I suspect there are many. There are others who, when told anymore disruptive behavior will result in a call home, go instantly from rambunctious to frightened. And then there are those who just can't help themselves, who will probably only fit into an institutional environment when the behavioral symptoms of their upbringings have been dosed with ADHD drugs.

For all these children, the source of their difficulties is something over which we teachers have no control. We're not a private school, so we can't pick and choose students whose parents are fully employed and will partner with us to help them excel, and who meet minimum academic requirements before they're even admitted. The only criteria for being a student at Margaret Scott are address and age. Our job is, if anything, to lower the stakes for them, to create a safe place where they can learn to cope with all the trauma that exists for them when they are not here, and, as a side benefit, to teach them how to read, write, calculate, and express. Their test scores will never rise to the level of children who attend a Catholic school, a charter school, or even a typical suburban or rural school. We have to pour so much energy into just getting them to a place where they can absorb some of what we're sharing that test scores are the least of our worries.

Don't get me wrong, the testing is still there. There's no choice in the matter: every school in the United States is mandated to put every child through standardized testing; and there will be parents attending conferences next week who will be upset when they learn how low their children have scored on some of those tests. The hardest part of those conferences will be helping these parents realize the environmental factors influencing those scores: the distractions at home, the emotional issues affecting attention at school, the class sizes that cannot be helped, the boundary change that has brought a hundred new students into our building. Many of them will focus on social issues: how a child is interacting with both peers and adults, ways in which a parent can help that child fit in better and act out less. Ultimately, unavoidably, the discussions will come back to the test scores, and to lowering the stakes of those scores.

Because as much as politicians value test scores, what we're teaching at Margaret Scott has far higher stakes in the long run: that learning is more rewarding than distraction, that cooperation is better than antagonism, that there are people in the world who care about what kind of adults these children become; that we love and accept them as they are, even as we challenge them to become much more.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The "Why?!?!?" Chromosome


Disclaimers up front: 1) I actually like watching football, except when I don't. 2) I am a heterosexual man. With those things clear, I can now go on to write some critical things about the Y chromosome--or, as I like to call it when I am, yet again, taking apart a dogpile of kindergarten boys, the "Why?!?!?" chromosome.

From 2011-2013, I was band director at Banks High School. Banks didn't have a lot going for it. It was an independent school district with just one school for each (primary, intermediate, and secondary) educational level. Its tax base consisted mostly of rural homes, so it's still in the austerity part of the economic recovery. While it is now building a new junior high, and its elementary school was built in the 1990s, its high school is embarrassingly decrepit, with narrow hallways, decaying infrastructure, strange smells, all the hallmarks of a district that has made getting by with what we've got the status quo for far too long. For all that, the kids are great: sweet, polite, helpful; kids on behavior plans are the exceptions. It's quite a contrast to my current assignment in the Reynolds School District, which, while being ahead of Banks in terms of funding, has a student base so urban and poverty-stricken that every class I see (and I see 17) has at least one child on a plan, with many more on the verge of having one but just not diagnosed yet. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Apart from the niceness of the kids, the one thing that Banks had going for it, that really drew the community together, was its sports programs. One advantage of smallness is that there's room on the teams for a much higher percentage of the student body than would qualify for varsity at a place like Westview High. In fact, I heard several of my colleagues talk about how Banks teams were "all-comers" activities, that coaches went out of their way to include and train any young person who wanted to play, regardless of ability. And for all that, the teams were highly competitive, bringing home league and even state trophies in softball, volleyball, track and field, basketball, wrestling...and, of course, football.

Football is the one sport at Banks that, as band director, I experienced on a regular basis. Every home game, I was in the stands, leading the pep band. Football games at Banks were community events: the bleachers were filled with students, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and beyond that, people with no familial connection to the school who were just there to support the team and experience the only entertainment in town. The fans could become rabid: I heard a fair amount of referee heckling and booing from the stands, though I know the players were well schooled in respect. The one girls' basketball game I attended (they were competing at state, so we took a pep band) also featured some overly aggressive fan behavior. Now here's my first anecdotal observation: all the bad mannered fans were boys.

Meanwhile, back on the playing field, every game I attended had tackles, quarterback sacks, dogpiles that made me wince and feel very grateful that my son never played football. There was one game where play had to be stopped while an ambulance was called in. I'll preface this next anecdotal observation with the admission that, apart from that basketball game, I've not attended any other girls' or women's sporting events; but (duh) all the kids on the football field giving and taking the abuse that's just part of the game are boys.

Something I was at this week, or a podcast I listened to--it's all blurring together on this Saturday morning--featured a conversation about violence in sports, and how the advent of the football helmet and the boxing glove have, ironically, led to an increase in brain injuries. In boxing, it's because cushioned hands can spend a lot more time pounding on a hard skull. In football, it's because players have taken this defensive tool and turned it into a weapon. Paradoxically, players are safer when they have less head protection, and boxers are safer with less hand protection, because the pain of bone colliding with bone is a deterrent; but that sidesteps my observation about football helmets, and the propensity of boys to turn anything and everything into weapons.

I was not allowed toy guns as a small child. My father was a pacifist, and my mother did not care at all for guns, so there just weren't any in my toy chest. No, the only toys my brothers and I were permitted were constructive, educational toys: Play-Doh, Legos, Lincoln Logs, building blocks, Tonka trucks. Did that stop us? Of course not. The one Lego construction I remember making again and again was a gun, and it wasn't enough just to point this flimsy weapon at my brother as he pointed his own back at me, making "peu peu" laser noises with our voices. No, we always had a handful of loose Legos we could then fling at each other to simulate bullets.

(My parents did eventually relent from the "no guns!" policy, probably worn down by her incessant requests for them and the clear evidence that no amount of indoctrination was going to stop us wanting them; so by the time I was eleven, we were permitted squirt guns, as well as Star Trek disk guns--but no cap guns! We drew the line there!)

In my music classes, I experience, every day, boys pretending that mallets or rhythm sticks are bows and arrows to be pretend-fired, swords to fence with, knives to stab into the floor. I had to give up on a ball-passing game yesterday because there were kindergartners--boy kindergartners--who insisted on hurling the cushy balls into each other's faces, rather than gently tossing them. When classes arrive in the gym, the noise level I have to calm down is almost always due to boys screaming and shouting. The children who must most frequently be reminded that they are there not to run, not to jump, not to chase each other, are boys. And I have never had to take apart a dog pile of girls.

Not to say that girls are always innocent. I've had plenty of girls in my classes hurting each other's feelings; and back at the high school, most of the students I referred for administrative discipline were girls (those exceptions I mentioned earlier). It's just that the aggression I see coming from girls is much subtler, more emotional, far less likely to involve physical harm.

My mother, trapped in a household of men (by the end, it was six of us, counting Dad, to her one), used to rail against "Men!" She often speculated that there would be far less wars, and far better government, if women were running things. Thinking back on the government shutdown, I can't help observing that all the prime movers in that crisis were male legislators; and thinking historically, I can think of very few wars that were fomented by female leaders.

My conclusion (and it may be all too obvious, but I'll make it anyway): men are hard-wired to be aggressive. It probably goes back to our prehistoric existence as hunter-gatherers and defenders of our tribes. That doesn't mean we have to stay that way. With the right environmental influences, most of us can be coaxed away from wanting to stab, spear, or shoot anything that moves, or when presented with a new safety device, turn it as quickly as possible into a tool for inflicting concussions on a competitor. But that environment is essential, and this, as with so many other reflections, brings me back to where I work now.

The kids in Banks came, from the most part, from nurturing homes. Their parents were hard-working people who believed in contributing to their community, and clearly taught their boys how to behave, while emphasizing that they were loved and accepted.

The boys in Reynolds are not so lucky. Many of them have absent parents, and are to some extent raising themselves. Others have parents they wish were more absent, who take out their frustration at being underemployed on their children. They come to school with their native aggression unchecked, and it is we, the teachers acting in loco parentis, who must model for them the proper use for musical and sporting equipment, must show them how to channel that competitive energy into something more constructive than chasing another child, primal screaming, or using a xylophone mallet to rap someone on the head. We don't have much time to do this--I only see them for an hour a week, as will be the case with the PE teacher who takes my place in February--and frankly, I don't hold much hope for the extent of my impact, especially with the fifth graders I will never see again after January, and who are some of the most aggressive boys I have ever known.

Thankfully, I'm not the only man showing these kids that it's possible to be both masculine and gentle. Two of the three fifth-grade teachers are men, and they're both great at being firm and kind with their students. This is not to downplay the importance of female modeling in their lives, not at all: most of the education professionals they've known have been women, and that will continue to be the case for at least a few more years. As my principal observed earlier this week, many of the most aggressive children just need kind adults in their lives showing them an alternate path.

I have no illusions about the aggressive streak. It still needs channeling, even among the boys with nurturing home lives. My hope for them is that it can go somewhere that doesn't involve concussions, shattered bones, or gunshot wounds. And this, I have to say, is where both arts and physical education take on an importance that has too long been ignored by school administrators. Wedging clay, pounding out drum rudiments, dashing around a track, dancing the Hokey Pokey--there are so many things we specialists do that can moderate the presence of native male aggression. When these programs are reduced or eliminated, the children have nowhere to channel these energies except on each other.

I apologize for the PSA, but it matters. May all my brothers know peace.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Hard, Hard Week


It’s been a hard week.

At least 90 per cent of the children I teach live in poverty. Their home lives are more stressful than I can imagine. I’ve had kindergartners pole dancing in my classes, third graders shrinking from a tap on the shoulder to get their attention, fifth graders snapping a “WHAT?” at me for pointing out a behavior that was obviously ill-advised. Many of the classes arrive in the gym where I teach shouting, pushing, running, despite all my teaching and re-teaching of expectations. Attention spans can be microscopic, and even the children who are trying hard to focus find it impossible when their peers act out.

This was a week of copious acting out. In class after class, children were loud, aggressive, impulsive, hyperactive, combative, disrespectful; they pounded on the mallet instruments, had to be reminded again and again to listen to what I was saying, to watch what I was doing, to please just pay attention. It wasn’t just me, either: at both our early release training and our staff meeting, the principal acknowledged what a rough week we were all having. She talked about the many changes, the hundred students new to this school, but most of all, about the many children sent to her office who just want someone to talk to, including the boy who had to be suspended.

That’s what I keep reminding myself of, as I run to the portable during my morning duty to defuse a riot triggered by a delay in the unlocking of the building, giving children just enough time for the kids who just can’t keep their hands to themselves to push and shove and chase far too many others; as I calmly take mallets away from child after child who won’t stop playing while I’m talking; as I phone yet another parent to explain why her child will be coming home with a referral slip for acting disrespectfully: these children need me. They need all of us, from the custodian to the cafeteria workers to the secretaries to the principal to, of course, all the teachers. They need us to provide them with the structure, the meaning, the content, the connection they will not find on the big-screen TVs their parents foolishly rented-to-own, but which will be repossessed tomorrow; in the mealtime conversations that will not happen because whatever adult is in charge is out turning a trick or closing a deal or panhandling on an onramp; in the afterschool sports their parents cannot afford, the museums they will never visit, the summer camps they will never attend, the home life that can never give them what they desperately need: adults who care about them and will do whatever they can to set them on course to a future that is better than their present.

When my students descend on the Orff instruments, the xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels, and start working the mallets with gusto and with utter disregard to the expectation I underlined that they are to refrain from playing until instructed to do so, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, the noise level is infuriating in the echoing space of the gym, and I know it feeds the stress of some of the children, not to mention me; but on the other hand, I can’t fault them for their hunger to make music, to rollick in the sounds that emanate from this marvelous child-sized orchestra. My most successful lessons take that enthusiasm and shape it, show them how magical it is when all the sound is coordinated so that everyone starts and stops at the same time (stage one), or that we have two or more independent parts working together (stage two), or—most magical of all—that we are so attentive to one another that we actually hear other parts, and celebrate what they are accomplishing (stage three).

We have not yet made it to stage three, and stage two proved a particular challenge this week. I spent so much of every lesson reminding students of expectations, calling again and again for “Mallets up!” Over the course of the week, it became plain to me that what I need to teach them is something far more basic than the form and structure of music. What these children need is simply to understand that stopping can be as beautiful as starting.

So that’s what we did, as it finally sank in. I played a fantastically simple pattern: C-G-C-G-C –STOP! And then we worked on stopping together. We worked at it, class after class, for five, ten, fifteen minutes, until we were finally getting the idea through, and still it was never perfect. And that was okay: most of the children got it by the end, and those who weren’t there were at least closer than when we started. Solving this puzzle, discovering the magic of starting and stopping together, was a breakthrough for them.

When I think about it, it’s not that surprising. When I think about their chaotic home lives, the insecurity, the noise, the violence and abuse and neglect they return to after school, the simple act of stopping, of experiencing the decay of the sound and the silence that follows it, takes on a magic that is foreign to my own quiet middle class existence.

This is why, however hard it is for me to teach these children, however exhausted my four hours of contact time with them may be, I still feel like this is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. However cross they’ve made me with their short attention spans and their obnoxious behavior, these children greet me with a smile and a wave whenever our paths cross. I’ve had more hugs in the last two months than in my entire previous career.

They need me, and they appreciate what I’m doing for them. They need all of us. This school is their save haven, their shelter from the cyclone that is their lives. As frustrating and challenging as it may be, as much as I may long for my students to have a breakthrough and make some wonderful music that moves audiences to tears, the very fact that they’re having music is their breakthrough. Knowing that the simple fact of my presence in their lives make a difference, even before I play a note for them: teaching does not get any more rewarding than this.