National Poetry Month: Emily Dickinson

Happy Easter! I’m in Virginia for the holiday. I debated to go quite literal this Easter morning and share “Easter, 1916” by Yeats but I decided against it. I’m trying to choose 30 different poets with no doubles and there’s another Yeats poem I’m going to share before the end of April.

I knew I was going to share a poem by Yeats and I thought I’d avoid Dickinson. Emily Dickinson isn’t my favorite poet but she was recited during church service last Sunday. It might have been Charles Alexander’s melodic voice that made me sit up and take notice or perhaps it was the subject matter. Whatever it was, it made me take another look at Emily Dickinson.

“I measure every grief I meet” — Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

I wonder if it hurts to live –
And if They have to try –
And whether – could They choose between –
It would not be – to die –

I note that Some – gone patient long –
At length, renew their smile –
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil –

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –  

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –  

The Grieved – are many – I am told –
There is the various Cause –
Death – is but one – and comes but once –
And only nails the eyes –  

There’s Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –
A sort they call “Despair” –
There’s Banishment from native Eyes –
In sight of Native Air –  

And though I may not guess the kind –
Correctly – yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary –  

To note the fashions – of the Cross –
And how they’re mostly worn –
Still fascinated to presume
That Some – are like my own –

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I’m at Taco Bell and there’s a group of about 5 boys, probably 6th or 7th grade, occupying a corner booth. I can hear their conversation from where I sit and all it consists of is them making fun of their classmates. So much attention is given to mean girls but, damn, I know first hand how cruel boys can be.

Connection: “This Is My Story, This Is My Song”

If you would have told the young kid that sat on the playground swings a block away from the “queer”  church, too afraid to enter at first but too hungry for something more that he’d wind up speaking in front of the congregation about connection group, that youngster would have told you that you were fucking crazy. I was that young kid, and around 15 years since those three Sundays spent on the swings, I stood in front of the MCC Detroit congregation, my church family, and spoke about how much connection group has shaped my life.

I didn’t know I’d be speaking this Sunday when I was told/asked on Wednesday. All I was told was that Laura had told the church that I’d be speaking on behalf of the Wednesday morning connection group. I didn’t have anything prepared so I spoke from my heart. I’ve always sort of felt that joining connection group represented a huge step in my spiritual story.

I grew up Baptist. I tell people it was Southern Baptist because that’s easier to explain than the weird hybrid that was Turner Church. Turner Church was the church my grandmother Gartin attended. She was a deaconness and her photo hung on the church wall. The summers and holidays spent in Virginia center around Turner Church.

Religion had a heavy place in my family but I rarely remember us going to church on Sunday mornings. My parents had attended a church on Nine Mile in Hazel Park when I was first born but they stopped attending shortly after. My dad worked odd shifts at General Motors so I remember Sundays being more a time that he used to catch up on his life on those Sundays he didn’t work.

My dad is one of the most spiritual people I know. For as long as I can remember we have engaged in Biblical discussion. In his later years, my dad’s numerous heart and lung  health problems made him become a seeker for a home church in Michigan. He found a church filled with ex-pat Southerners from the Virginia, Kentucky region. He was baptized in this church and faithfully attended services until he moved back to Virginia. Now, when his health allows, my parents attend Turner Church like my grandmother did.

I’d think that someone that grew up in a strong faith based family would know his place in God’s kingdom but that wasn’t the case. Being gay and knowing the Christian stance on homosexuality didn’t make my life easy. Too many times I’ve sat through sermons that preached more about the lake of fire and brimstone and less about God’s love for everyone.

My gayness wasn’t the only thing that I felt separated me from Christianity. I could never wrap my head around the notion that practicers of other religions were going to go to hell because they did not know Jesus. I couldn’t understand the audacity the church had by claiming themselves the one and only true religion when there wasn’t 100% reliable truth that (a) there was even a God to begin with and (b) that God was exclusive to Christianity. I had a limited idea about Western religion so I wasn’t concerned about Jews and Muslims but my heart broke for the Buddhists and Hindus and other praticers of the Eastern religions that held me in thrall. I couldn’t get on board with a religion that would willingly toss a peaceful Buddhist in the lake of fire and brimstone because he did not know Jesus.

I became a paradox. I was a seeker of the truth and a doubting Thomas. My doubt has mostly left but I feel I’ll be a seeker, a questioner for the rest of my life. I began to study mythology and other religions trying to find the one that fit me. I wound up having my own piecemeal religion while avoiding the trappings of organized religion. I didn’t know that I was embarking on the “I’m spiritual but not religuous” path because that wasn’t really an option in the early 1990’s.

Now, for someone who wanted to stay away from religion, I made a strange decision in my working life. I found a job heading up the shipping and receiving of a local Bible and bookstore. Here I saw Christianity and both it’s worst and greatest. I saw how some Christians let the love of God shine through them while others treated God like a velvet roped nightclub where you had to have the proper credentials to get in. I spent a year and a half at the Bible store. At the end my relationship with traditional Christianity had soured. The reactions of co-workers and customers after the death of Matthew Shepard broke me. I knew that I could never be both gay and Godly. As Troye Sivan sings in “Heaven” I wondered “Without losing a piece of me, how do I get to heaven? Without changing a part of me, how do I get heaven?”

I left the Bible store and pretty much left Christianity. I was trying to practice the golden rule and it was around this time I spoke aloud my feelings that love and goodness and kindness towards others was the only way I could live my life. You might wonder why I let the Bluv nickname stick and this is why. I’ve reasoned out the best way to live was to be love. To be the personification of love and kindness in bodily form. I fall short because I am human and I have human ego and faults and bias but I really do try to show everyone I come into contact with a little love, dignity and respect.

I paused while writing so I could pull up the journals I’ve recently found to see when I first mention church. I mention it in 2003 in a context of how much can happen in 12 months so I started going sometime in 2002. I would have thought sooner. I remember being there for the Westboro Baptist protest so, whenever that was, I consider that the start of attending MCC. For the sake of coherent narrative I’ll say 2002. I was at pride and saw that there was a LGBT friendly church in Hazel Park (Divine Peace) but I knew I could never visit that church because someone would see me come out of it and I’d be outed. I knew that there was another LGBT friendly church in fabulous Ferndale so I decided it was close enough that I could relatively make it on time but far enough from Hazel Park that the likelihood of running into someone I knew was slight.

MCC-Detroit has been a life changer. The late Rev. Mark Bidwell preached that God loved everyone. I learned how to seperate my sexuality from my spirituality. I still struggled with God and the idea of sin but I felt comfortable at MCC.

Around 2007 my friend Cathy began looking for a church and, as much as I liked MCC, I decided I’d accompany her and see what else was out there. Cathy and I church hopped. Cathy told me what she was looking for in a church and I thought MCC would fit her needs. She started to come on a regular basis and eventually became more involved than I was.

Around the same time MCC introduced the concept of connection groups. They would be an opportunity to connect with other congregation members. MCC usually averages around 100 goers each Sunday so I felt that this would be a better way to get involved. It would also give me the added bonus of improving my social skills.

Cathy and I started to attend the Monday morning connection group. That group was lead by a pair of sisters, Jo Plougher and Laura Nicols. These women would show me kindness and give me a safe space to question and doubt and get angry with God and the institutionalized church. The Monday morning connection group was filled with unemployed people and was eventually disbanded when most of us found employment.

I then started to attend a Tuesday night connection group that met at Jeannie Barnett’s house. This group was beyond special. When I was gay bashed in 2009, this group went to the site of my attack and sanctified it. It was the Tuesday night group that really soldified that the “connection” part of connection group.

That’s not to say I didn’t have my struggles with MCC. I was asked to become a connection group leader and, after the first day of training, I became so overwhelmed with fear and uncertainity, that I fled MCC and didn’t return until months later.

These days I attend and host the Wednesday morning connection group. I schedule my classes around it. I appreciate that we talk about spirituality and wrestle with topics that are usually avoided. We’ve read Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattooed former addict turned pastor. We read Bréne Brown’s Rising Strong which helped me learn to navigate that space between falling and getting back up. Right now we’re discussing Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness and how a person actually goes about forgiving someone else. Forgiveness is a process like anything else but we’re not taught how to forgive only told to forgive. After we’re done with forgiveness we’re going to move onto Sister Joan and a book that has been on my to-read list for a little while now.

Through connection groups and the various subjects we’ve tackled throughout the years I’ve gotten a better understanding of my belief. I believe in a God but it’s not the traditional God of popular culture, a God with a long white beard that hangs out in the clouds. I only refer to God because it’s a term that people readily understand. In private I refer to it as the Divine Wow. I say it because I don’t feel the Divine Wow has a gender. It exists as something bigger than I am. The sun rises and sets and the seasons change and the flowers bloom and caterpillars turn into butterflies and I know that there’s a higher power at play. I sorta think of the Divine Wow as the source for everything. It surrounds me and is within me but it’s my choice to do with it what I please. I study all of the great teachers and thinkers but I don’t singularly follow any of them. I think that we can learn a lot from Jesus but I don’t buy into the crucifixion and resurrection.

Reading the different sacred texts there’s one rule found in all of them and in science. I mentioned it earlier. “Do unto others”. I try, and fall short, to treat people like I want to be treated. We all deserve basic respect and dignity. We all want to feel loved. We all want to be heard. I have a standard I live to, a standard I’ve been told I expect others to have so I’m trying to change that. U2 performs “One” and I adopt that as my spiritual theme song. This morning I heard a poem that talked about humankind being more kind. I’m in agreement. I’d like my life to be one of showing how humankind can be more kind.

I didn’t expect to write out a version of my spritual story but I never know what to expect when I put my fingers on the keyboard. Happy Sunday.

Return

I haven’t felt like myself lately. Between the lingering crud caused by living in Michigan in the dead months of winter, two fucked up ankles that have kept me slightly immobile,  a precarious financial situation due to a lingering unemployment situation, anxiety and stress over the Trump Regime, and a general unwell mental state, I’ve been a shadow of myself.

I usually go into some sort of hibernation after New Year’s Day. I live in the metropolitan Detroit area. January, February, March and even sometimes up into April it’s cold and dreary and there’s little sight of the sun. This year the hibernation has been fiercer than usually. All I want to do is sleep. The thing is I’ve not been able to sleep. My mind won’t stop turning and twirling when I close my eyes so I wind up staying up at all hours reading, listening to music and reading old journals that I’ve recently found. I had about 4 hours of sleep last night before I woke up at 6 this morning to ensure I would make it to class on time.

Despite dropping my Saturday morning Slurpee on the sidewalk and having an exam and dealing with inconsiderate people at the bus stop I’m feeling good. A little over a month after injuring myself and retreating from the world I feel like it’s time to return to the world.

Monday Motivation: Yes We Can

In the social justice arena there’s a term that is often thrown around. The term is “intersectionality” and Google definition describes it as the “interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. In common language it means that I’m not fighting for just my own place at the table but I’m fighting for a place at the table for everyone because all fights for freedom and equality are interconnected.

Today is the day we’ve set aside to honor the late Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the day we look back at his legacy and how he pushed the civil rights movement forward. Dr. King knew about intersectionality but he called it by a different name. In Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
People look at Dr. King and think to themselves that they could never be like Dr. King. We have become a people where most but not all of us choose to remain silent because we think we cannot make a difference. I only have one voice and my voice will not be heard so it doesn’t matter is what the voice in our head tells us. We know we want change and that things can’t continue the way they are but we don’t know what to do or where to turn. I’ll confess that I often find myself in that place, that place of knowing I need to do something but not knowing how to take the first step. After the presidential election I became disillusioned by the electoral process and the poltical infighting within the political party I support. I’m already disillusioned by state level LGBT rights organizations, the cause most dear to me. I’m facing an incoming president that has rhetoric unfavorable to the causes I support and a political party in charge eager to strip away basic human needs without having a replacement ready. I have become hollow and I know there are others like me. Then, a few nights ago, President Obama gave his farewell speech to the nation and, like always, his words fanned the little flicker of hope that remains within me. 

“…I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it. After eight years as your President, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government. It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea. A great gift that our Founders gave to us: The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom. It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, Iraq and Afghanistan. And why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs, as well.
So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional — not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change and make life better for those who follow. Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It’s always been contentious. Sometimes it’s been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all and not just some…”
Later the president would go on to remind me that “…Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning. With our participation, and with the choices that we make, and the alliances that we forge. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. That’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.” And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.
America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.

So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.
Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in other people, that can be a risk, and there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed…”
Finally, President Obama wrapped up his speech with a call to action. It is a call that I had forgotten about but a cause that I once again take up. It’s the call that those escaping the tyranny of King George heard. It’s the call that Lewis and Clark heard when they headed west. It’s the call that Harriet Tubman heard as she followed the northern star. It’s the call that Rosa Parks heard when she refused to give up her seat on the bus. It’s the call that the drag queens at Stonewall heard. It’s the call that Cesar Chavez heard out in the fields. It’s the call that Richard and Mildred Loving heard as they sued the government for the right to marry and it’s the same call that April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse heard as they sued the government for the right to marry and to keep their family together.
“…I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America. You know that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace. You are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber all of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.
My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.”
I only have one voice. That is true. But my voice can be added to your voice and our voices can be added to a choir singing out that we will no longer be bystanders, that we will no longer be brushed aside, ignored. We will sing out that love will not be ignored, that everyone has a place at the table and that we the people, together, can put action to the call heard by those that came before us and we will be so loud that our action will be the call for those that come after us. On this day let us hear the call and be motivated into action.