Tuesday, January 28, 2014


I know I have a pretty even mix of church-goers and non-church-goers around here, and I like it that way. It reflects my own ambivalence. When I was growing up, we went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night--really, every time the church doors were open, we were there. There were definitely times when I hated it, but it wasn't always bad.

For one thing, it gave me a lifelong deep love of the old standard hymns. For another, we knew that church building as if it were our home, all the nooks and crannies and the little used closets, and the baptistry that was like a mini-swimming pool. Usually the baptistry was locked, but every once in awhile it would be open, and you could go stand in it--it was dry when it wasn't in use--and look out over the empty sanctuary and get a completely different perspective than the usual one from the pews.

But when I hit adolescence and church started to intrude on my plans for what I thought I should be able to do at church time, I started to resent it more and more. I had "Forsake not the gathering of yourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25) thrown at me more times than I care to count. It wasn't until I was in college that it occurred to me that the writer of Hebrews' encouragement to stay in close contact with your fellow believers might have had little or nothing to do with the southern baptist round of organized church activities--sunday school, Girls in Action, interminable boring sermons, etc.

So I've spent a great deal of my adult life trying not to go to church too often, because I didn't want to get to the point where it became rote, just thoughtless repetition instead of something that's meaningful. Because it is still meaningful to me, in spite of everything. I've written several posts about why it's still important to me to go to church even though my belief system doesn't really match up with much of the stated purpose of our denomination (the second half of this one, and this one, for starters), so I won't get sidetracked about that right this minute, because that's not my point today.

And I am getting to the point, really. So, you will probably remember that I finally joined our church a couple of years ago after attending for 18 years without being a member--my small silent protest against our denomination's discrimination against the LGBT community. When they finally got rid of that, I joined. We've never been the most regular attenders--we average once or twice a month--but we're members in good standing.

And once I was a member, I lost my excuse for not being one of the lay leaders of the church. Our church is small--about 200 active members-- and in order for any few of us not to get burned out, all of us have to rotate through various responsibilities to keep the church running.

I did my part, for the most part--I volunteered in the nursery, I taught Sunday School (for the record, I am a terrible Sunday School teacher), I learned to run the sound board, I served on a couple of committees, we went on a mission trip to New Orleans after Katrina. But I was never a deacon or an elder, in spite of being asked many times (as everyone in our church has been), because I wasn't a member. And I was so grateful for that. Sitting through meetings is....  I'm sure it's one of the circles of hell. It has to be.

But once I finally joined, my excuse was gone, and I figured it was time to step up. So after giving it some thought, I decided I would be a deacon, because deacons actually do things, they do the work of the church--visiting the elderly shut-ins and those who are hospitalized, organizing food drives and delivering baskets of food to people, coordinating food for funerals, etc. So now I am in my first year of a three-year term as a deacon on the Hospital team. Maybe I will tell you more about that another time.

And then for a variety of reasons, about half the choir ended up deciding they didn't want to be in choir anymore, so we temporarily joined the choir to help out the lovely woman who is the choir director. (and ended up loving it, by the way, our choir is a hoot. a year later we are still there.) And then in a moment of what could only have been pure desperation, they asked me to help out with a temporary church website while our new one is being designed. And while I was doing that, they discovered I knew a bit about PowerPoint, so I was drafted to help with the presentation of the weekly small groups we're about to start.

So suddenly I am at church all the time. As anyone who is involved in church can tell you, it changes your experience of church to be in on all the little petty arguments, the endless debates, the hard work, the drudgery. You can no longer just waltz in the door and sit down and have your profound spiritual experience while our gorgeous, historic pipe organ plays, and then sashay back out again. You leave a bit of your sweat and blood every time you darken the door, and your attention might be just as much on hitting that C, B-natural, B-flat chromatic progression as it is on the actual words of the choir anthem.

But I'm discovering to my surprise that I don't really mind. There are a lot of  really great people that go to our church, and I'm getting to know them better and appreciate them more. In addition to the hard work, there's a lot of fun and laughter. It's amazing to see what we're actually doing in our community from the perspective of the people who are doing it. It's turning out OK.

Friday, January 24, 2014

on further reflection

Yesterday I said, "I guess I object to the implied arrogance, that Merullo can be so sure that his ideas about spirituality are so important that we all need to know..." 

Even as I wrote that, it occurred to me that somebody could say that about me, too, but I was on my way to a different point at the time. But that's what I've been thinking about since I published yesterday's post. How is that different from me? I put my ideas about spirituality in a blog post a couple of weeks ago and put it out there in the blogosphere. Couldn't someone say the same thing about me, too? How are arrogant are you, AuntBeaN, that you think we all need to hear your definition of spirituality? (and maybe that's one of the reasons that post sat in my draft folder for so long.)

I want to split hairs here, because I have a couple dozen regular readers, sometimes up to 40 or 50 if it's an interesting post (or if there are pictures of the chickens), but I'm hardly putting my ideas out there with the assumption that the general public "needs" to hear them. I'm not submitting my ideas to an agent or a mainline publisher because I feel I deserve to be heard. I'm not expecting you to pay $12 for Aunt Bean's Book.

But what would be wrong with that? Nothing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And all of us, me included, deserve to be heard. So why exactly do I have such a strong negative gut reaction when someone else does it? 

It occurred to me that this is an unexamined holdover from my Evangelical upbringing, a prejudice I didn't realize I was still carrying around. We were taught/coached that you can't trust your own ideas about spirituality, because human thinking is inherently flawed. You have to rely on the Bible--which of course meant "you have to rely on the Bible the way it has been interpreted by conservative Christians in our tradition." Don't think, just do as you're told. Don't come up with your own ideas about this stuff, leave it to the experts. And you already know how strongly I disagree with that.

So I think maybe I owe Mr. Merullo an apology. And maybe the guy who wrote The Shack, too (because not only was there the post I linked to yesterday, but I went on and on for two more posts). At some level my former Evangelical self was reacting to their assumption that they can have a valid personal opinion about spirituality--which of course, they can. 

Maybe it feels wrong to me because it appears that they step easily into the shoes of spiritual teacher, and they seem to have utter confidence that they have a right to do so--something that at this point in my life is impossible for me. But that may be my own insecurity projecting that onto them. It's possible they had to fight hard with their own personal demons to reach that point. Or it could be the old male privilege thing--it's a battle that as a woman I have to fight that they don't.

Anyway. Here's what I know: all of us have valid opinions about spirituality (well, all of us who are interested in this stuff). We're all trying to figure out how to integrate spirituality into living in the twenty-first century, and that doesn't always allow for easy integration. Any one of us is as qualified to give our opinion about how that works as the next person. I might still argue with The Shack guy because his tone was so much I AM DELIVERING TRUTH TO YOU, but Merullo is pretty low-key. At least so far. I still haven't finished the book.

Oddly, I've never had any problem taking spiritual lessons/advice from the most unlikely sources--children's movies, interviews on the radio, billboards, mystery novels, whatever--as long as it's not actually couched as spiritual teaching. It's only when someone tries to specifically teach me something about spirituality that my cycnicism kicks in--and that's not necessarily a bad thing, as we've discussed before, so it's not going to stop. There is a lot of nonsense out there. Maybe I want to see how you live before I take any advice from you. But I think I can dump this automatic prejudice against all spiritual teachers that I didn't know I had.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

and then, he levitated while explaining my past lives

As an example of how dead my brain is before 10 a.m., I submit that last post (which I started writing at about 9, even though it didn't get posted until later). I was blearily considering the theoretical pros and cons of following your body's inner clock vs. making yourself conform to the schedule that would be more useful to everybody else, and didn't even realize how much like a spoiled brat it would sound. Woe is me, I have to figure out how to schedule my lazy ass. Not that I am lazy, but it must sound that way to someone who has to get up and go to work every day no matter what their internal clock says. So, apologies for that. I do realize how lucky I am, I truly do.

Moving on. A long time ago, I read Life of Pi, the story of a young boy who survives for months on a lifeboat. I was struck at the time by the oddness of a fictional survival story. The reason non-fiction survival stories are so amazing is because they really happened--somebody really climbed Everest or trekked across Antarctica or whatever.

But what is the point of a fictional survival story? The author could make poor Pi float around the ocean for two weeks or two dozen weeks or two years. What difference does it make, if he's just making it up? Of course, the ending of Life of Pi takes the book in a whole different direction, which is beside the point at the moment, but it got me thinking about how a novel can present a fictional tale that depends on lifelike veracity, and when and how that can work. (and how is that type of lifelike veracity different than say the lifelike-ness of Barchester Towers or Tenth of December?)

That train of thought came back this week because of an audiobook I've been listening to for the past few weeks. I don't have nearly as much time in the car now that I'm not driving back and forth to UTown all the time, so it takes considerably longer to finish an audiobook. Months ago, I downloaded a book called Breakfast with Buddha from Audible. It was really highly rated, and the brief summary sounded interesting. But I didn't get around to listening to it for a long time, and by the time I started, I had forgotten it was a novel, if I ever knew.

It says great things about the narrator (Sean Runnette) that he so fully inhabits the voice of the first-person narration that I was fully convinced for almost the first half of the book that this was non-fiction. Breakfast with Buddha is the story of Otto, a successful, mild-mannered editor from NYC, devoted to his wife and children, who reluctantly decides he must drive back to his childhood home in South Dakota with his sister after the death of their parents to take care of their furniture, etc. His sister, a new age flake, at the last minute tricks him into taking her sort-of-Buddhist guru (Volya Rinpoche) with him instead of her. Otto is a much nicer person than I am, because I would have just flat-out refused to take him, but Otto clearly has a soft spot for his sister, so off they go.

Otto is a fussy sort, but not unlikable. He's obsessed with finding good food and nice inns. He records in beautiful and precise prose their adventures on the road and their halting, slowly evolving conversations about spirituality. I was fascinated and charmed. It wasn't until almost halfway through that I started to think, wait a minute. This can't be a true story.

For one thing, as anyone knows who has tried to search out interesting food on a road trip, you strike gold occasionally, but often you end up eating dreck. On this trip, even though they occasionally end up having to drive an hour or more out of the way, every meal ends up being a treasure. And Otto is just a little too obvious as a straight man for the Rinpoche's teaching. No one can be that obtuse, I found myself thinking at one point.

Finally yesterday I remembered to look up the book when I wasn't in the car, and sure enough--it's a novel, written by a guy named Roland Merullo. I should be clear here that Merullo never claims it is anything but fiction, and in fact it says "A Novel" right on the front cover--but of course, I was listening to the audiobook, so I never saw the cover. It's entirely possible that something was said at the beginning of the recording, but if it was, I missed it.

Knowing that it's fiction has changed my whole interest in the book. For awhile, I even decided not to finish it. This isn't a dense American relaying an interesting travel story as he attempts to unravel what the experience meant to him. It's Merullo's made-up morality tale. He gives Otto the personality he wants him to have, and he puts words in the mouth of the Rinpoche (rin-po-shay is an honorary title for a Buddhist teacher). Why should I care? Knowing it's fiction, the story seems a little too pedantically moralizing, a little too set up, set up to convey whatever spiritual message Merullo wants to convey. It feels manipulative.

But this afternoon, still listening, it occurred to me that Jesus taught with parables, and spiritual lessons have always been taught through stories. There's nothing inherently wrong with it. I guess I object to the implied arrogance, that Merullo can be so sure that his ideas about spirituality are so important that we all need to know, so advanced that they should be put in the mouth of a Rinpoche (see my review of the The Shack for the similar reaction I had to that book). But I'm trying to suspend judgment until I get to the end. So I'm persevering. Partly because I want to find out what happens, and partly because the narration is so good that it's almost worth listening to just for that. And now that I know it's fiction, I'm curious to see how it will play out. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

morning has broken. or is broken. or something.

You know, I am just not a morning person. Never have been. I'm actually waaaaay better now than I used to be. In times past, you didn't even want to speak with me until about 10 a.m. because I would bite your head off, just because you existed and it was before 10 a.m. I rarely sleep later than about 7:30 or so, but my brain isn't functional for.... let's just say some time later. That's still true, but I've learned over the years to at least keep my grumpiness to myself. Mostly.

So now that I'm out of school and I still don't have a job, I'm faced with a small dilemma. It's a rare day that I have to get up and be somewhere before 10. So what do I do with my morning aversion? Do I fight it? go with it?

If I go with what feels like my "natural" bedtime--about 12:30--I usually wake up when the garage door closes as MadMax is leaving, which is about 7:30. Then either I lie there and think for awhile and get up around 8, or I grab a book and read and get up around 8:30. But I'm still lethargic until about 10, and since I'm off caffeine, I can't get a boost that way (although to be entirely honest, having a cup off coffee never made much difference in my morning mood). I might throw in a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher, or go through the mail, but I'm not very productive until 10.

If I get up and get started earlier, I am more likely to go to bed sometime in the same vicinity as Dean (10 or 10:30), although usually I am still reading when he falls asleep. If I go to sleep earlier, I wake up earlier, maybe around 6 or 6:30 while he is getting ready for work--which, on the plus side, gives me more time to read before I feel like I need to get out of bed. And also, if I can get my exercising/shower/etc done before 9, it makes organizing my day about 100% easier.

But, on the other hand, when I was keeping student's hours in grad school, my most productive hours of the day were between about 9 and 12:30 (at night). So if I go to bed at 10:30, I'm losing my most productive time of day. And I enjoy being up late. Also, although I usually wake up about 7:30, on the days when I manage to go back to sleep for an hour after MadMax leaves, I wake up feeling like I really slept, if you know what I mean. As opposed to waking up feeling like I wish I could have another three hours of sleep, which is how I usually feel.

So what do you think? I know Julie is a night owl and Debbie and MMM are morning people, but I'm still curious. Should I work on becoming more of a morning person? Or should I go with my personal inclination, stay up late, and kick into gear around 10?

(For the record, that cold got considerably worse before it got better, but I seem to have recovered from it and from the caffeine withdrawal at about the same time and I've been feeling pretty good the last couple of days.)(yay!)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

cat scratch fever

OK, so I might have been a little premature when I told you how well this caffeine withdrawal thing was going. *grump* I'm fine in the mornings (which is when I wrote that the other day), but by late afternoon, I'm so irritable and grumpy I feel like I could scratch someone's eyes out. Or maybe my own. It's almost like my skin is itchy. You can feel extremely grateful that you're not living with me right now.

I can't really think of anything else to tell you at the moment. I'm pretty sure it's getting a little better every day, although it's not easy to tell. Tonight seems to be better than it was a couple of nights ago, so maybe progress is being made. Except now I'm getting a cold. woe is me.

Well, OK, here's something. Awhile back I told you I'd tell you about my workout playlist. When I'm driving around or just listening to music, I'll listen to all kinds of different stuff, but when I'm exercising, I want something with a beat, something that makes me want to move. I was getting tired of my old music when I heard a Prince song on the radio a couple of months ago. (He's Prince again now, isn't he? Not the artist formerly known as Prince? I think that's right.)

Prince was at the height of his career when I was in my early twenties, but I wasn't much of a fan. He was just a little too weird. Also, various critics praised his music to the skies when it didn't seem all that amazing to me. But the song I heard on the radio recently--Raspberry Beret--had a pretty irresistible hook, and when I went to iTunes they had his greatest hits album for 9.99, so I downloaded it. So now my workout playlist is about half Prince songs: the aforementioned Beret, 1999, Let's Go Crazy, Little Red Corvette, I Would Die 4 U. They're working pretty well for me so far.

Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down? Oh no let's go. I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn't last. The sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere. ET CETERA. I just looked him up and was surprised to discover that he has released eleven albums since 2000. Who knew? That's pretty impressive for a guy who is even older than me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Monday, Monday. Can't trust that day.

Unlike the rest of the country, we have had pretty much absolutely normal weather. For us, for this time of year. Which isn't to say it's been pleasant, but just that we always have crazy winter weather. Generally we have highs in the upper-20s to low-30s, with overnight lows into the teens. But then there will be storms and cold snaps and also chinook winds which warm things up into the 40s or even 50s and make you think spring is coming even in mid-January. So yeah. Around here, business as usual. But I know the rest of you aren't used to it, and I hope you're thawing out by now.

This past weekend was the designated time for finally getting all the way off caffeine. Having done both the cold turkey method and the weaning off method now, I can tell you for sure that it's better to wean off. The time I went cold turkey--four? five? years ago--was absolutely miserable for about ten days. Then it was moderately miserable for another couple of weeks. It wasn't until I'd been off for several months that I realized that I felt better and that it had been worth it.

This time has been entirely easier. I haven't had any caffeine since Thursday. Friday, I felt a little bit off, but not that bad. Saturday was pretty miserable, but by Sunday I was already better, and today I'm to the point that took three weeks that last time. So, if you have to do it, wean down first. With a couple of minor exceptions, I haven't had more than 40 mg of caffeine in any one day for a couple of months. As a side benefit, in the process of weaning down, I quit drinking Diet Dr. Pepper. I've had maybe three in the last two months. I'm so healthy I stun myself. ha.

Now we just have to see if all this makes a long-term difference in the number of headaches I'm having. It did last time, so I am optimistic.

Karen, intrepid commenter and blogger who doesn't blog enough, recommended Laurie R. King to me several years ago, but I never quite got around to reading them. King has two series going, one series of contemporary mysteries set in the Bay area, and one historical that is about Sherlock Holmes many years after the end of his Arthur Conan Doyle adventures and his new sidekick, Mary Russell. Mary is forty years his junior but it is still the first time he has met his intellectual match (well, I suppose other than Moriarty or Irene Adler).

So I've read the first of the Bay area series, and the first two of the Mary Russell series (because really, they are more about Mary than about Holmes). Definite thumbs up. I could quibble about certain things, but King's writing style is.... mesmerizing. Her books are very difficult to put down once you get into them--although two of the three I've read started slowly and took awhile to hook me in.  I had good excuses for sitting and reading the last couple of weeks, but time's up. My next class starts in three weeks and I have to get to work on it, plus I have a couple of other projects I've been putting off. So, back to work for me.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

good-bye grad school, part ad nauseum

So the take-home message of the Theory I learned in grad school is that all the things that we think are set in stone, aren't. That has been truly useful to me. I have a number of situations in my head that are entrenched--situations with a long history that I have told myself over and over again until I see it from my own little rut as if it were "real." But the whole point (if you ask me) of theory is that nothing is "real" in any ultimate sense. It's always just a way of thinking, a way of starting from assumptions that I've never examined, a way of framing the questions. If I change the way I think, re-frame the questions, turn the situation sideways or upside down-- the whole thing changes. And that has been really useful.

In Theory, all these entrenched ways we have of thinking about things are called "constructs," because they are ways of thinking or looking at the world that we have created, sometimes individually, sometimes as a society. There is nothing intrinsically "true" about the way we think, it's all learned, acquired, constructed habits of thought. For example, the idea that women are "naturally" maternal, and that we all have a deep longing to be mothers, that we will experience fulfillment by raising children, that if we don't have children we will not experience the full extent of womanhood-- all of that is a construct, and the way we can tell is because none of those things are always true. There are plenty of women who have no desire to be mothers, who are mothers but don't find fulfillment in it, who are mothers but shouldn't be, or who are physically unable to have children and yet live full, happy lives.

Maybe it seems a bit finicky to be insistent about this point, because after all, even if there are exceptions, plenty of times those ideas are true, so what's the harm? But that misses the enormous pressure that is put on the people who don't fit the construct, the blatant and destructive power that these ideas hold over people who don't fit in. It is important to be clear that gender roles, racial profiling, biases about orientation, ideas about art and literature and education, and all sorts of assumptions that we make every day, are not set in stone. They don't come from some universal reality.

Sometimes even theorists get caught on this. It seems to me that one of the most pervasive constructs in art these days is that the social self, the self that we present to others, is not "real." What is real, according to this construct, is the beast beneath. So Joe Perfect, who works hard, goes to church, has been married for 25 years, shows up for his kids' basketball games and dance recitals, and generally behaves in a socially acceptable way, is really a secret addict, or he has a mistress on the side, or next week he's suddenly going to explode in a violent rage and murder his children in their beds. And according to this construct, the purpose of art is to peel back the social persona and examine the seething mass of neuroses underneath.

And it's true often enough that we just accept it. How many publicly exemplary people have turned out to be fakes? And even on a personal level, who doesn't know the feeling of disconnect between the social persona that we are more-or-less required to wear in public and the person we feel we really are underneath? We all know the pressure of having to speak or behave falsely at work or at a party in order to fit in to social expectations. It's not that far off of the "reality" most of us experience.

But there's also something constructed here. The idea that the social person isn't real and that the seething mass of neuroses underneath is real is a construct, just like so many other constructs. Like all binaries, the seeds of the opposite half exist in the first half. Human beings are social creatures. We have always existed in social groups, from the earliest archaeological records. If anything is real, that is.

There are exceptions, of course, and I've already said that exceptions are what prove that something is a construct. But this is a sort of reverse construct, where we assume that the social self is unhealthy and that only by digging down to the mass of conflicting desires beneath the social mask do we reach what is "real." It's not necessarily true. And —I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here— freeing us up from that assumption would free art up from having to always concentrate on revealing what is the very worst about human beings. What is the very worst about us is no more real than what we are at our very best.

(This next bit should probably be a separate post but I'm trying to make this the last grad school post, so it gets crammed in here.) Awhile back in the grad school posts I mentioned that the word "meaning" is problematic these days. A good theorist doesn't want there to be any meaning at all anywhere, because "meaning" is a construct, the same as gender bias or the role of art. According to this way of thinking, there is no ultimate reality, so there is no ultimate meaning or purpose or truth. All we are is dust in the wind. (It did occur to me while listening to "Dust in the Wind" on the radio a few weeks ago that the entire corpus of theoretical work from the last 30 years is possibly the result of too many late nights listening to inane Kansas lyrics. That song was endlessly ubiquitous back in my high school days. Aaalll we dooooo crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see, all we are is dust in the wind... all we are is dust in the wind. blecch.)

To say that there is no such thing as universal, absolute meaning is-- of course-- to make a universal, absolute statement of meaning. It's self-contradictory. Most of the time I believe that the only meaning is meaning that we create ourselves (first person plural used advisedly, although individual creation of meaning must exist, too). But here's the thing: created meaning is not the same thing as no meaning--unless you're going to make some universal statement about what the word "meaning" has to mean, so that you can then say it doesn't exist. And how ridiculous is that? We make our own meaning. Maybe it's localized, maybe it's personal, but created meaning is still meaning.

But honestly, in my heart of hearts, I do believe in absolute, universal meaning. It's just that I think it's so huge that is far, far beyond our puny human brains. We can get a glimpse of it, or maybe understand a small bit of it. But it's so far out there that really it's irrelevant to everyday life. Which is why it is important be humble when stating anything of, um, meaning. Wow, this is really tricky to word.

And that is in the end why I disagree so much with a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It makes the Bible more important than God. (What I think of as God.) If God exists, God is a being far too big, far, far too vast to be encompassed by human thinking, and most especially God is too big to be imprisoned in words written in a book. Words written by human beings (including me) can only ever be a limited statement of what we tentatively understand at any particular moment. If God exists, s/he is far beyond our understanding and any statements we make about that being/entity/divinity/deity can only encompass a small part of what/who God is. And any self-righteous platform of "truth" that we construct so that we can draw lines between whose theology is correct and whose isn't are..... you knew this was coming.... just so much dust in the wind.

I really should stop because I'm getting punchy. Cheers, and we can all pray this is the end of the grad school posts.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

the fruitcake years, part 3

You may have noticed that often when I start a series of posts, I seem to be building toward some final point, which never gets written.  I think it's because when I start out, I have a specific point I want to make, but by the time I've typed two or three setup posts, I realize that the original point I was planning is way less interesting than the things that I end up thinking about along the way.  Which is why it has taken me so long to write this post--it no longer seems interesting to me, although it is the one I was planning when I started the fruitcake posts (the others are here and here, if you missed them)(and stub two from the other day was part of that same series).

But I've had so little to post about recently that I decided I might as well go ahead with this one, even though the first two were more than six months ago now. In the first post, I told you about all the new and different things that I tried when I was in my New Age phase, but I could never quite fully commit to any of it because there was always a core of skepticism on my part. At the time, I thought that had to be either a sign that there was something wrong with the ideas, or something wrong with me, because isn't complete and total faith, perfect faith, what we're after in the spiritual life?

That's what I believed when I was an Evangelical. If you have faith, you can move mountains, right? "All things you ask for in prayer, believing, you shall receive" (Matt 21.22). "Be ye therefore perfect, as your father in heaven in perfect" (Matt 5.48). Doesn't leave much room for questions or doubts or skepticism.

Of course, even when I was at the height of my Evangelical beliefs, I had prayers that weren't answered, and I had ways of explaining that to myself. But still I had this underlying, not-quite-conscious belief that doubt was bad, that if I believed something, I should believe it whole-heartedly, without question, without holding back.

But I've come to believe that the combination of skepticism and belief is actually exactly what is needed. Even an Evangelical needs enough skepticism that they don't just accept anything that has a Bible verse slapped on it. It takes some wisdom, some discernment, some skepticism, before you just jump in with both feet and hand your heart over to somebody. Except even I can argue with this. Sometimes you do have to jump in with both feet, trusting in yourself to come out of it OK, trusting in your spiritual mentors to get you through.

This is why I never published this post. :-) It's a bit of a confusing mess.

I listened to a recording of a lecture series by Pema Chodron a few years ago about the Buddhist practice of tonglen, which is the idea of returning good for evil. It's a meditation practice where you breathe in the badness/negativity/evil that you perceive or that is done to you, and breathe out goodness/positive focus/compassion. She said several times that tonglen is an intermediate level practice, not for beginners. Later, when asked, she explained that the reason it is an intermediate practice is because beginners don't have enough sense of themselves and the strength of their goodness/positivity/compassion, so they if they try to practice tonglen, they are easily overwhelmed and taken advantage of by those who wish them harm.

That was the most interesting part of the entire lecture series. Compassion and unconditional love aren't meant to make you into a doormat, they're meant to make you strong. But you can't do that unless you have a strong sense of yourself and your experience in the world, unless you have a healthy dose of skepticism to go with that goodness, mercy, and trust.

Maybe the point is that you need enough skepticism to keep you from being taken advantage of, but not so much that you edge over into cycnicism and lack of belief. It's just as important to be able to discern when to believe as it is to know when not to. You must be innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents, Jesus says to the disciples just before he sends them out "as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matt 10:16).

So, there you go. I promised myself I would go ahead and publish this tonight even though I know it's not very coherent, because after six months of sitting on it, I'm pretty sure it's as coherent as it's going to get. Maybe you all can help me figure this out in the comments.

And btw, I've heard from several people over the last couple of months that they try to comment and Blogger eats their comments. If that happens to you, would you e-mail me? bnelson four seven seven at gmail dot com (insert actual numbers for the number words). I've made a few attempts to figure out why it happens, but the only thing I know is that it seems to help if you have a gmail account (I believe Blogger is owned by Google now, who also owns gmail). But according to what the settings page says, that shouldn't make a difference. At the moment, I allow all comments, even anonymous ones, so that shouldn't be happening.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Six days into 2014

PellMel drove off to Bozeman yesterday, MadMax is back in school this morning, and Dean is, as always, faithfully doing his job to fund the whole thing. I spent a couple of hours on Thursday and most of the day on Friday putting away all the Christmas stuff. Why does it always take so much longer to put it away than it does to get it out? Actually, that may not be true since I've never timed it--maybe getting all the Christmas stuff out is just more fun since usually we're all four working on it and the Christmas music is going. Maybe it just goes by faster.

This year was just the right amount of holiday for me. Not so long that I got bored or cranky, but long enough that I was definitely ready to get back to the routine today. My to-do list is about three miles long for this week. Yikes.

The two posts that finish up thoughts from 2013 are mostly written, but I don't want to work on them today, so I'll tell you about SparkPeople instead. It's a new year, right? which means resolutions, renewed commitments to healthy eating, etc etc etc.

If you've been around for awhile, you may remember that instead of making a laundry list of new year's resolutions, I generally just have one thing. There's nothing magic about a new year, of course, and for the most part (in my opinion) New Year's resolutions are a waste of time. But there is some energy around the start of a new year that seems worth taking advantage of, so I more-or-less give myself something to think about for the year. The first year I did this, the theme was "lighten up," a phrase that just popped into my head. It came up over and over again in so many different contexts throughout the year that I've tried to do it every year since.

This year, it's freedom--what it means to me personally to be free, free of my own hyper self-critical-ness and self-condemnation, free of worry about other people's opinions, freedom from a couple of unhealthy compulsions. I had already picked it a few days after Christmas, then I started reading Jim Palmer's next book (more about that in a minute), and it is a major theme there, too. So this year I'm thinking about freedom. It was for freedom that Christ set you free, so stand firm and do not submit to the yoke of slavery again. (Galatians 5.1)

Oh, yeah, I was going to tell you about SparkPeople. That's the fitness site that I joined when I dropped out of Fitocracy a couple of months ago. There are some extremely irritating things about SparkPeople, and number one is all the ads. I know they have to make money somehow since most of the site is free, but it's ridiculous. Also sometimes even unethical--there's one particular pop-up that appears when you go to track your fitness that if you were elderly or not internet-savvy would seem completely reasonable and it is not. But I digress.

So far I'm putting up with the ads, because generally speaking the site is doing what I want it to do for me, which is give me that little extra bit of motivation to pay attention to my health and fitness. So far I'm not using the calorie tracking part of it since as I told you a couple of years ago, I refuse to diet. But it seems to be working anyway, slowly but surely. I've lost nine pounds since the beginning of last summer just by trying to eat healthily and exercise consistently (it was ten, but I gained a pound back over the holidays). I'm back down into the high end of the range that I was in before I started grad school, so even if that's all I lose, I'm OK with that. Oddly, not one single person has noticed--not even Dean (until I told him). I wonder how much weight you have to lose before other people can tell? And of course, now it won't count if any of you who know me irl say something. :-)

Another annoying thing about SparkPeople is that it's more a system than it is a fitness site. I try to earn 50-60 "spark points" a day, but I can do it without doing one single healthy thing if I want to, just by knowing how to work their system. You get a random number of points for just being there each day, but you don't get them by just showing up at the site, you get them by clicking on "spin" on their roulette wheel.

You can get points from reading articles about healthy snacks, crockpot recipes, strength training, etc (this morning I got five points for reading one titled "Nine Cardio Mistakes"). You can get points for playing their health trivia game, or donating points to a team that you've joined. You get points for tracking the food you eat, or logging minutes of exercise (1 point per five minutes), or watching one of their fitness videos, or participating in the forums, or any number of other things.

So really, like Fito, Sparkpeople is what you make it. If you want to just rack up points without doing a damn thing, you can do that--although that's definitely easier to do on Sparkpeople than it was on Fito. Or you can use it to be whatever you want, because it's also customizable. You can create your own checklist of daily activities (drink 8 cups of water, eat 5 fruits/veggies, meditate 10 minutes, write a journal entry, exercise 30 minutes, whatever you want), and you get a point whenever you check one of them off. That part of it works great for me. In fact, that's why I'm still using it, in spite of all the gimmicky stuff.

I try to look at all the cute-sy things like the roulette wheel as if I were at Club Med. We've never been to a Club Med, but we have friends who have gone. At a Club Med, there are all sorts of songs (with hand motions!) and games and activities. At the beginning of the week (we've been told), you feel like an idiot participating in all their silly stuff. But by the end of the week, you throw your inhibitions aside and join right in. And it's fun.

That's the way I try to look at SparkPeople, because if I can make myself quit being a naysayer (be free of negativity?!), it makes health and fitness a little bit like a game. It's working for me right now. It may not work forever, though. Those pop-up ads are really annoying.

Hmmm, this is already long and I never got around to Jim Palmer's second book (Wide Open Spaces), which I like much less than the first one but it is still giving me food for thought. I guess I've gone on long enough for now, though. Have a great day, and tell me what you think about New Year's resolutions in the comments.