“Hear me.”

I found all three speeches given on the first night of the Democratic National Convention—Michelle Obama’s, Elizabeth Warren’s, and Bernie Sanders’—moving, consoling and reinvigorating. For Sanders and Warren, both of whom dwell further left in the liberal territories than Hillary, it was a moment of publicly relinquishing something they publicly hoped for—of regrouping, reframing, reiterating, and redirecting. They’re not giving up pursuing what they (and I) believe matters; they both went through the list again, in case we’re inclined to remove it to the back burner: meaningful immigration reform, healthcare for all, corporate responsibility, overturning Citizens United, living minimum wage, a tax system that reduces income inequality, equal rights and protection for marginalized groups . . . . They kept their eyes on those prizes, and rose memorably above personality politics. They made it more possible for me to do the same from my own small corner of our embattled constitutional democracy.

I was especially impressed by what they didn’t say. Though they made some important points about Trump’s incompetence, ignorance, insularity, and egomania, they didn’t mention the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC, committed multiple breaches of ethics to try to insure that Hillary won the primary. They didn’t yield to whatever temptation the moment offered to point to troubling evidence of election fraud and tampering. They chose to unify.

But neither speech was a mere capitulation, and in that, I am stirred to particular admiration for what they exhibited about leadership. Sanders’ concession was generous and gracious; I believe he has thought long and hard about supporting Hillary, and that it wasn’t an easy decision. He taught me something about what it means to compromise with integrity: he gave her every benefit of the many doubts he’s raised and shared about her political positions and uses of power. He will keep challenging her and the party. He’ll stay in the conversation. And he helped me want to do that, too, and to keep finding ways to have it that don’t degenerate into mere complaint.

I was moved in other ways by Michelle’s speech. She had a different kind of fine line to tread. She is acutely conscious of the hostilities that have met her husband’s administration at every turn, but she, too, spoke from a place beyond the pain and resentment and defensiveness she must often have felt. I was stopped, near the end of her speech by this: “We cannot afford to be tired, frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me – between now and November we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago . . . .”

A black woman saying to an audience so full of white men and women, “hear me” made me suddenly aware as if a bolt of electricity had shot through my body of how huge a thing it is for her to utter that little imperative with such command and confidence. “Hear me.” She has to know, whenever she rises to speak, that one constituency she represents are those who for generations remained painfully, humiliatingly unheard and invisible. To have mentioned that she wakes every morning in a house built by slaves testifies to that abiding awareness. “Hear me” seemed to me a moment almost as stirring as the moment Obama’s election was announced. That she was heard—and with enormous respect, attention, and gratitude—that her authority was recognized and honored with such applause, and that she could speak as a wife and mother about raising and protecting children as an essential focus for our collective efforts to live rightly—restored for me what had been waning. I have been getting tired, frustrated, and cynical about political process. But though I still believe it is a deeply flawed process, and that in other things than politics lies the salvation of the world, I feel summoned again to citizenship. I’m grateful to be an American insofar as it means working alongside these three and others—Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges, Joanna Macy, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, . . . and others in my personal hall of heroes—to work locally and think globally and listen hard to those who deserve at long last to be heard.

BOOK CLUB CONVERSATION BOOSTERS

I was talking the other day with a book club participant who mentioned the familiar problem of predictable conversations that lack surprise, even when they’re about rich and exhilarating books. I think prompts help. These are some that help me when I’m reviewing, talking about, or just thinking about a book I’d like to share. It occurred to me others might find them helpful.

BOOK CLUB CONVERSATION BOOSTERS
©Marilyn McEntyre

— One of the most distinctive features of this writer’s style is . . .
— One of the writer’s main objectives is to . . .
— Basically, the writer’s strategy is to . . .
— The opening paragraphs already lead me to . . .
— The kinds of detailing I remember are . . . and they work to . . .
— One lovely bit of characterization is . . .—effective because. . .
— The images that remain with me most vividly are . . .
— One line I remember verbatim is . . .
— One of the most (surprising, unusual, provocative) insights this author offers is
— One of the troubling aspects of this work is . . .
— This writer’s approach is noticeably different from . . .
— I wish the writer had developed . . . further . . . because . . .
— I found myself in disagreement with the writer about . . .
— One question I am left with is . . .
— Reading this I had to reconsider . . .
— I wonder why the writer . . .
— This is, among other things, a work about . . .
— The work’s evident limitations are . . .
— I hadn’t before realized that . . .
— I am still of two minds about . . .

— The writer . . .
explains . . .
argues . . .
describes . . .
questions . . .
discloses . . .
assumes . . .
reframes . . .
criticizes . . .
elicits . . .
distinguishes . . .

— The writer makes me . . .
rethink . . .
wonder . . .
appreciate . .
critical of . . .
uncertain about . . .
want to defend . . .
want to learn . . .
want to look harder at . . .
delight in . . .

I’LL HAVE WATER, THANKS.

I heard an NPR interview recently with a mother in Flint, MI who was getting donations of bottled water to bathe her three-year-old. She was one of many. Amy Goodman did an hour special in which other adults, many of them mothers, were doing the same things. Strategies for living in a state of acute public health crisis range from those who are organizing free distributions, sharing their own resources, and going house to house to make sure people have enough water for the day to those who are hoarding. One particularly compassionate organizer, asked to comment on the evident fact that some people were hoarding water, said generously, “I don’t want to blame them. If it were my family at risk (this was a white organizer who didn’t live in the most severely affected area) I’d be tempted to hoard, too.
I’ve heard with some regularity since 2003 that our next wars won’t be about water, but about oil, and they’ll be here. As I follow drought statistics and watch the American River dwindle and read about the salmon die-off, I think about this prophecy—more so when I read about ranchers in the Central Valley actually engaging in water wars—poaching, spying, litigating, threatening each other, often with a good measure of righteous anger about the fact that it’s in the public interest for them to have the water. No water, no farms, no food, as the signs say, posted along the length of Highway 5. What the signs don’t say, and what slogans always elide, is that it’s more complicated than that. How Agribusinesses irrigate, what distribution measures have been legislated and by dint of whose lobbying, why we don’t have water rationing that applies both to individuals and to corporations are questions that need to be asked more frequently and answered more adequately.
Flint holds a magnifying mirror up to all of us who inhabit an infrastructure in which clean water (and other resources needed for survival) is unequally tested and distributed. TV specials like Goodman’s put a face on poverty, outrage, and take some measure of the loss of a sense of the common good. Recently my husband and I led a five-week series of discussions called “Reclaiming the Common Good.” We began by offering a little history of the term (one which goes back to ancient Israelites, among other communities. There farmers were expected to leave part of their harvest for the poor to glean, to contribute to shared stores, to care for widows and orphans, to extend generous hospitality to strangers, to forgive some debts every seven years, and all debts every 49 years. These were not matters of generosity, but of law and common culture. When Jesus famously said, “The poor you have always with you,” it was not a dismissal of the poor, but something more like “Duh. Of course. Of course you care for the poor. That’s not even in question.”
I am increasingly troubled by how deeply even those of us who think in systemic terms and understand institutional racism and exclusion (here I’m talking about myself) literally buy into the philanthropic model. We feel good about contributing “our” money to good causes. But one economic historian pointed out, in those traditional cultures where care of the poor was an axiomatic responsibility, supported by law and the teaching of elders, no one even thought it was “their” money—not in the sense in which we use that pronoun in a place where capitalism verges on a point of logical absurdity.
What can I do about Flint? Contribute, obviously, though I don’t want to support the companies whose bottled water are a huge part of the problem. So educate myself about where to contribute what I can. Consider which part of the chorus I want to add my voice. And in the meantime drink my own water with more mindfulness. I’ve stopped saying, “I’ll just have water.” I’m trying to remember to say instead, “I’ll have water. Thank you.”

UPON

Today’s lectionary reading included one of my favorite phrases: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The slightly antique preposition, “upon” offers its own particular vision of abundance. Where “grace after grace” might be a more familiar idiom, and testifies to the steady stream of forgiveness, opportunity, and gift that keep coming from the hand of God, it doesn’t quite get at what we hear in “upon.”
One grace upon another; it’s not a stream, but a tree with new rings or a rising pile of shining stones or the layers of story in a palimpsest. The old graces remain and become frames and foundations for the new ones, renewed by every occasion when we are, once again, surprised by joy.
Easter is a good day to hear that phrase again. God’s gifts came and then came again and keep coming—risen and rising and shining in “every riven thing.”

SIMPLICITY

I’ve been thinking about SIMPLICITY. As an idea and an ideal it has appealed to me since I first read Walden at 16. It still becomes a near-obsession when I feel overwhelmed with clutter. I long for it when I’m tired and the idea of moving things around is exhausting, and when the things I love to do seem inordinately postponed because I’m doing other things with things—moving stacks of paper, reorganizing the utility drawer, taking cardboard to the recycling center.
I invest deep hope in T.S. Eliot’s vision—which I take to be a prophecy and a promise—of an ultimate “condition of complete simplicity” a blissful state, which, he adds, will cost “not less than everything.”
This week I’ve been rereading a good-humored and blessedly readable book about the basic principles of science by two generous, good-humored physicists (Hazen and Trefil) who laid aside their own copious research long enough to produce 345 pages on what those of us who don’t live in labs or split atoms or study the lives of lizards need to know about science in order to buy, vote, and listen intelligently to controversies about deforestation, radioactive waste, FCC regulations, and drugs. It is helping me remember how many great scientific discoveries have come about because someone peered into complex or even chaotic systems and discovered something simple: a reliable “law,” a pattern of motion, a type or category or behavior that could be stated in a sentence: “All living things are made from cells.” “Force equals mass times acceleration.” “You can’t measure anything without changing it.” These are huge ideas whose implications and applications have taken lifetimes to explore, but they are “simple” truths in the sense of being irreducible and true. They are “core” truths that ripple outward. A little like “God is love.” Or “In the beginning was the Word.”
We honor people who find their way to the heart of things—both scientists and saints. We learn in their biographies something about what the journey cost them—say, Galileo or Mother Teresa—something close to “everything.” In my admiration for them I begin to understand the longing for elegance and simplicity that drove Einstein on toward the unified field theory he never discovered, even after he had filled many pages and blackboards getting to E=mc2. It’s not unlike what led St. Francis to strip off his robes in the public square and live in a cave.
Silence and centering prayer both evoke and fulfill that longing for what lies at the heart of things. When I enter them undistracted (on a very good day) the reward may occasionally be a sense of breathtaking simplicity—a sentence that is also a truth felt in my bones and in a place of awareness beyond the brain. “Heart of my own heart,” my favorite line from an old Celtic hymn, is that place. If God dwells in us, it is there, calmly containing and sustaining all the quarks, black holes, falling apples and sparrows, gamma rays and quantum leaping electrons. A simplicity so spacious it can absorb it all and turn it into light. Somehow, remembering this enables me to relax into the comings and goings of a complicated day.

EAT

A word that’s come into new focus over the past few days is EAT. I was invited to speak at a Seventh Day Adventist college, visit a few classes and share several meals with them. They are a denomination that pays close and specific attention to eating practices as a dimension of spiritual life and health. Continue reading

DISCERN

DISCERN is a word that keeps coming up lately in new contexts. It precedes deciding. It’s a patient, prayerful, humble process of separating out or teasing apart the various strands of a problem or situation in order to determine an appropriate course of action—not indiscriminate nitpicking but careful attention to those factors that might not be immediately apparent.
Quakers have “clearness committees” to help members of their community discern when they are facing big decisions. Each goes into a quiet, receptive place and sits with the others and then offers whatever insights, images, words, observations came to them in the quiet that might be pertinent. Often those who receive a thought or image don’t really know how relevant it might be, but offer it in trust that the one who needs it will know how to assess and apply it. It’s a generous process.
The word reminds me, whether I have the privilege of sitting with others in reflection or do it alone, to lay down the “pro and con” list, to let go for a while of my efforts to “figure out” or plan, to postpone the urge for closure and to listen inward for whatever comes, holding my concern with an open hand and an open mind, trusting that what I need will be given.
I don’t always take the time for it. When I do I can go down the path that opens with gladness of heart and confidence. Though this Lenten season is a busy time for me, or perhaps because it is, the desire to take time for discernment involves me in the paradoxical effort to take a step back when the day’s momentum urges me forward. It’s challenging.
It helps to think of the people I know who seem most discerning. They take their time; even small pauses before speaking seem to give their responses a weight and their conversation a spaciousness that seems generous and hospitable.
The image that comes to me as I think about this gentle process is brushing and braiding my little granddaughter’s hair, separating the strands, carefully untangling, trying not to hurt her, smoothing and finally binding the braid, putting in her barettes so loose hairs won’t fall into her eyes. I love the process. I enjoy the cornsilk feel of her hair. And when it is finished I love how she can forget about her hair and go play.
That, I guess, is where a good discernment process should leave me—able to lay down the burden of decision and go play.

GIVEN

Today I’m thinking about the word GIVEN—accepting what is given, being grateful for what is given, recognizing the given as gift. Wendell Berry chose this word as the title of one of his recent collections of poems which focus on attentiveness and care for what is. The line in the serenity prayer about accepting what we cannot change invites us to distinguish between what is given us to accept and what is given us as a challenge to act for change. Poverty, for instance, is not a given; it’s a condition largely created by unjust systems and unbridled self-interest. Health is given, but dependent on choices we continue to make. Family is a given. We get who we get, and they are part of our story, whether we remain in intimate contact or flee for the sake of the lives can’t lead among them. What is given is the frame within which we work out our daily salvation: “Given these circumstances . . . ,” “Given these limits . . .,” “Given the budget constraints, or the political climate, or the fact of a Supreme Court vacancy in the midst of a campaign year,” what then shall we do? “Given” acknowledges assumptions and we work from there. What is given is the gift—or the assignment, as I sometimes think about challenges I would not have chosen. My prayer for this day is to welcome and learn to work with what is given.

GUIDANCE

The word I’m carrying today is GUIDANCE. I’m interested in how it comes—in how to notice and receive it, how to make a habit of that noticing. People speak of it in various ways: “The Lord told me to . . .” “I sensed . . .” “I felt . . .” “I found myself strongly attracted to . . .” “I suddenly knew . . . .” The language moves rather fluidly between psychology and theology, intuition and inspiration, internal desires and external signals. I think of the Holy Spirit as moving among and within us and of angels or subtle presences some have names for, but who accompany and witness and help us along the way. These are things I have observed about how guidance comes: usually subtly; surprisingly; suddenly; often from unlikely (sometimes unwelcome) sources; sometimes in the form of bodily sensations—fatigue, new energy, a clutch in the stomach, tingling. I think you get more as you learn to pay more consistent attention to what emerges at the margins of consciousness. I wrote a poem some time ago called “Halo Effect” in a book called “The Light at the Edge” which had to do with this experience, so I’ll append it here.

Halo Effect
“What does it take for people to change their minds?”

Sometimes there are no trumpets, but only
a slight shift in the light, the angle
of vision, the syntax. Revelation
can hover like a hummingbird, dart
in and out of sight, leave only
a shock of color and the amazement
all that energy awakens.

Conversion doesn’t always require
a fall from a horse or three days
of blindness. Sometimes we see
the light at the edge of the field
when the gaze is fixed on the teacup
or we are chewing our pencils,
Looking for a word.

Epiphany as ordinary as a grey morning
dawns neither sudden nor gradual, but
alights in the present perfect.
What has been here all along arrives,
astonishing, and changes everything.

PERMISSION

Rather than relinquishment, I am thinking of Lent as a time of permission—to pause, to eat mindfully, to renew relationship, to let go of “pleasures” that have become dry or burdensome, and seek deeper pleasure in quiet, solitude, prayer, meditation, making music or art or poetry. To enjoy the early hour before the day’s demands impinge. To light a candle and accept its invitation to inwardness. Maybe even imperatives can become permission: “Don’t do that” could be heard as “You don’t have to do that.” Reframing is helping me reclaim the possibilities of this season, and appreciate in a new way the wisdom of the liturgical year.