Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

un-learning (when Buddhism & Unitarian Universalism conflate) ~

I don’t go to church much. When I do, I go to All Souls Unitarian Universalist, the largest UU church in the world. In Tulsa.  Tulsa.

Today I went to see my nephew officially welcomed in to the congregation.  His significant other is UU from her earliest childhood — grew up at All Souls — and he also has found a home there. It’s one of the most welcoming churches I’ve been to.

The  sermon was a prime example of why I consider myself as much UU as Buddhist. The senior minister’s ‘sermon’ — more a reflection and sharing of thoughts — was about what we need to ‘un-learn.’ And there is much, especially here in the home of the 4th worst race riot in American history.

Tulsa is a city deeply divided. Has been for generations, and still reaps the stunted harvest of violence & difference. We are an essentially segregated city, divided into de facto quarters: north Tulsa is African American; east Tulsa is Hispanic; south Tulsa is upper middle class white; west Tulsa is blue collar white. The old centre of town is old money, all white. And even within that enclave, there is the Maplewood area — which used to be Jewish — and ‘other’ money.

Newcomers don’t see this immediately. And whites often reject this map, saying that segregation ‘is all behind us.’ Well, no. It’s not. But at All Souls — flagship of a religion/ belief system seen by many as a liberal white country club — the UU congregation is walking the walk it’s also talking. Because All Souls is moving. Not immediately, but soon. North. Out of the old money neighbourhood, out of the beautiful white church w/ the bright light falling in great shafts through the tall windows.  North.

Did I mention there’s a lot to unlearn in Tulsa? Racial stereotypes, ethnic stereotypes, gender & class & political and every kind of stereotype you can imagine. We’re a kind of confluence of the vectors blowing across America. Right outside of Tulsa we have both a major KKK office and a major neo-Nazi party office. But we also have the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, and the Jewish Federation’s amazing Holocaust Council. We have the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, trying hard to move this fractured city beyond the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (it still haunts us…). And we have All Souls, actively working to promote social justice and access.

I talk much in this space about learning beginner’s heart. But today, something said in church resonated strongly: to be filled w/ new learning, there needs to be emptiness, too. It seemed the perfect meeting of Buddhism & Unitarian Universalism.  There needs to be stillness, space for the new. Breathe out, in other words. Then you can breathe in…

 

poetry time, or, when names are poetry ~

“…in Micmac … some trees ‘are named for the sound the wind makes when it blows through them during the autumn, about an hour after sunset when the wind always comes from a certain direction. Moreover, these names are not fixed but change as the sound changes.”   ~ as qtd. in Elizabeth Seay, Searching for Lost City, xii.

An exercise I do frequently in writing classes — poetry & othewise — is to ask students to make a list of names: of tools (dibble, trowel, router, awl), of moths (hawk moth, luna moth, emperor gum moth), of twilight (civil, nautical, astronomical). Because names often hold within them poetry. More than a mere seed, the name itself becomes an image: civil twilight holds an entire world within its 13 letters…

I once heard Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky tell of researching the names for the various parts of a man’s shirt, spending hours — if not days — on the task. So charmed was he with the precision, the world of tailoring and new knowledge, the words invoked.

Today? I’m looking for names w/ power. Names that hold poetry within the cool confines of another discipline. Another world…

looking to breathe ~

I sometimes pretend I’m a calm person…:) But during an election year, as a ‘bright blue dot in a very red state,’ it’s hard. People I know, even like, are filled with fear and loathing. They aim it at my beliefs, at what I hold dear. At my core values, as we seem fond of saying these days.

I try to meet people in their good intentions (years of teaching teaches the teacher :)). I’ve learned ~ mistake by mistake ~ that no one gets up in the morning wanting to hate, wanting to mess up, wanting to ruin someone else’s day. Or their lives. The difference between my intentions not to hate, mess up, or ruin someone’s day (or life) and what I see as other people’s more troubling intentions is who we include as ‘someone.’ And what ‘hate’ means to each of us.

It’s not hate if your minister tells you it’s okay, apparently. The ‘someone’ — my niece? A dear friend? — has brought this hate upon him/herself, by being… hate-able? After all, a person of the cloth would know, right? So if the church says that my niece and dear friends are hell-bent sinners, it’s not ‘hate’ to taunt them, goad them, drive them to suicide. Is it? It’s not hate if an elected representative aims it at women, or immigrants, or people of colour. Those ‘someones’ don’t matter, I guess… And if a congressman says that climate science and evolution are ‘from the pit of hell,’ well…? He must be right, huh? And if another says that women who are raped can’t get pregnant…? He too must know, correct?

To many people, those who are ‘different’ from us ~ by skin colour, religion, dress, sexual preference, whatever ~ aren’t really ‘someone.’ Not like I try to remember that everyone I meet — even religious zealots that condemn my family — is ‘someone.’ My niece Mary, my dear friends Shawn, & Soha & Ben & Dewayne…these people I love aren’t ‘someone’ to so many people I know…Soha makes people uncomfortable with her hijab; dining out w/ Dewayne or Ben (tall, elegant black guys) is rife w/ studied inattention from waitstaff and other customers…Hearing my colleague talk about adopting a child w/ her (female) partner makes some people I know just squirm.

All of which makes it hard for me to breathe. I’ve been working for a very long time ~ years & years ~ to balance the dragon warrior in me (speaker for the voiceless)and the infant seeker. I know so very little about how things work, about why we are the ways we are…I’m both the speaker and the infant, the child who has just hatched…

Digression: my younger son had asthma as a child. Still does, but as a baby, it almost killed him. Coupled with severe croup, he was turning blue from lack of oxygen on late night. I held him in my arms as my mother drove at lightening speeds to our hospital. She made the 6-mile trip in right at 7+ minutes — through the dark streets glistening with rain, as I crooned to the baby I held carefully.

At the hospital, there were miracle drugs they could administer. Drugs that cleared my son’s lungs, and let the bright air fill him with life. I lay beside his crib that night, listening to his breathing, and thought of what a miracle it is, to breathe.

These days, I feel as tight and starved for light and air as that infant, struggling for each breath. I’m once again driving down dark streets, it seems ~ looking for a way to breathe. Funny, though: I know I’m the only one who can do it. I really do understand that this is my own karma, my own tight place through which I have to pass. Somehow, I have to figure out how to see beyond the hatred and the fear to the human hearts beneath that darkness. I don’t believe that any of us is innately dark, even those of us roiled with violence and spilling ugliness and hatred. No child is born possessed by anger.

I’m trying to remember my tonglen, which opens the heart as it fills the lungs. This is critical for an anger-driven dragon :). Air doesn’t feed a fire; it replaces it. If I fill my heart with love for someone else who cannot breathe, I can come through the other side of this inferno of anger. And that’s critical.

So I’m trying to breathe again. Thinking of that infant son, gulping air. Catching myself as I slouch at my desk, sitting straighter. Remembering to throw my shoulders back, remembering that the imperial dragons once were humans. And that all of us — even those who would rather not be — are connected.

it’s just school/ work/ a relationship…NOT LIFE ~

I had a note from a former student today. This isn’t unusual — I’m fortunate to have contact w/ many of my wonderful former students. But this was a bit different. It was a thank-you note. Because of you, it said, I graduated alive.

Wow. I shiver thinking about it even now. Because this student never gave any sign of being desperate. She showed regularly. Handed in good essays. Was a pleasure to have in class. Funny, smart, a gift. And yet something I did in class made (apparently quite literally) a life&death difference to her.

Digression: every semester for many years of my teaching career I gave what I call ‘the Beth lecture.’ More than 15 years ago I had a wonderful student named Beth.  Had her in at least 2 classes. And then worked with her on the literary journal I helped edit. Like the student who wrote yesterday, she was funny, smart, a pleasure in all ways. Twice, when she was contemplating suicide, she called me. And I was able to talk her out of it. The third time she didn’t call. Anyone. Ever again.

Beth was worried her mother would be disappointed in her grades (she wasn’t making straight As…). Her mother, Beth  said, had told her she was fat. And that was all it took, coupled with the usual loneliness, erratic schedule, and just general young adultangst. That is NOT to in any way diminish the searing pain of any of these. But note: they do not make a life.

After Beth killed herself, I promised myself I would never again lose a student for lack of trying. So every semester from then on, I gave the ‘it’s just school’ lecture.  And to prove to my students that I really meant it, I would share bits of my son’s story: acute depression, semester of Fs. And two parents who are so very glad it was no worse than that.

It’s just school, I would tell my students. And I would make them repeat it. It’s just school. Loudly. Make them YELL it. IT’S JUST SCHOOL. I would tell them that no one (outside of a grad school application) would ever ask their grade point average. It will not capture the permanent interest of the right kind of partner. It will not save your child from early death. It will not ensure success — financial or personal — but it will not bring on disaster, either. Even in a grad school application, performance and recommendations far outweigh grades. My wonderful niece had a sketchy undergrad GPA, but amazing recs. She begins a highly competitive Master’s program this coming spring.

I also would tell my students about Beth. We would talk about how her parents must have felt when they heard. And how I felt. And  about the unrealistic expectations most of us have of ourselves…

I have no idea if that is what made a difference to my student. But I will say this: when former students contact me later, it’s often to tell me how much ‘it’s just school’ meant to them. It isn’t an excuse: I still held them to high standards. It isn’t a panacea: there are conditions that are grievously difficult for us to get through. But it does lighten one bit of the load. As does remembering that every person you meet or interact with is a fragile human heart…

It sounds hokey, I know. But it’s true, and we forget it. The surly guy at the dry cleaner’s? Perhaps he was up all night at the hospital, watching a beloved parent fade into a ghost. The idiot in the grey Nissan who cut you off at the light? What do you know about her life? Perhaps she just heard that her husband was shot in Afghanistan… Each of us drags behind us a twisted mess of baggage: what happened yesterday, what we remember from 10 years ago, who is hurting and how it affects us… And so much more.

The point? None of that is life. And it’s NOT forever. Death, on the other hand, is forever. At least so far as everyone on this side of that line is concerned.

There is no moral to this story. Only a heartfelt plea that you tell everyone you meet that they are important. That you find a way to let the car repair guy, the cashier at Best Buy, the stylist who cuts your hair, the man who repairs your dryer KNOW that you see them. That the human hearts beating inside each of us are not alone.

It’s important. It may well save a life…

 

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