Monday, April 13, 2009

If Looks Could Kill . . .

I went to jail on Good Friday.

No, seriously, I went to jail. The Frau and I hauled my cello over to the Women's Correctional Facility and played for two Good Friday services - one in the medium/maximum section, and one in the minimum security section. As the Frau (who used to be a police sergeant) always reminds me, criminals rarely look like they are someone who would kill you. And while there were a few "rough" looking folks there (especially in the medium/maximum section), most were just nice, friendly ladies that made you think - what in the world did they do to end up here?

During the second service in the minimum security area, I actually had an accompanist. One of the inmates was a very accomplished pianist - a young Asian girl who was clearly very intelligent and friendly, in addition to her musical talent. Again, I wondered, what did she do? And memories of a rather tragic story kept tugging at me. But I'm in the MINIMUM security area. The chaplain introduced us and told me she had gone to a high school in a neighboring affluent district. We quickly established some folks that we knew in common. And that nagging memory resurfaced. Could there be two Asian girls from the same high school, the same age, who were talented pianists in the same prison? And if so, how could a sweet young girl like this, who didn't look like she would hurt a fly, have stabbed her mother to death? And if it was, indeed, her - how did she end up in the minimum security area? This girl did not have the look or the attitude of a killer.

But it was the same girl.

Playing for a Good Friday service - where we read scripture reminding us that Jesus was crucified in between two thieves. Poignant doesn't begin to describe the setting.

I found out a few more details later. There had apparently been a lot of abuse in her family, and while she was tried as an adult, and I don't mean to excuse the crime, even the prosecutor who fought to try her as an adult apparently had some compassion regarding her family situation. The final sentence and plea agreement attest to this. And she did start out in the maximum security section and "worked" her way into the minimum area. I can only imagine what those first months or years were like for her as a 17 year old.

I could have sworn she told me she was 23. But I have been so drawn to this girl's story that I googled what information I could find on her trial, and I don't see how she could be older than 20. In fact, based on her sentence, she will probably be released when she is around 23. So I either misunderstood (likely), or she is so focused on her release time that she finds herself thinking she is 23 . . .

I can't stop thinking about her.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Passover with a Christian Twist

We had a Seder at church tonight - the BAPTIST church.   Since this is one of those unusual years when the Christian Maundy Thursday service and Passover coincide (sort of - Passover began at sundown LAST night, but who's counting), we decided to have a traditional seder meal (sort of - I don't think the spaghetti has a long history for those "get-the-heck-out-of-Egypt-and-through-the-Red-Sea" Jews of the Exodus) with "bitter herbs" and sweet apples/dates and roasted eggs (sort of - rather than roasting them brown, we boiled brown ones) and Matzo ball soup and matzah bread and "fruit of the vine" (sort of - grape juice - but then again, we were to be leaving the leavening - yeast - so that might have been fairly accurate - if very Baptist) and a passover cake.   The passover cake (I assume it is reasonably authentic, but who's to know?) was very good - made with coffee, and chocolate and crushed almonds.   We joked that what with the "mad Exodus" there was no time to make coffee, so it was just cooked right into the cake.  And although we may not have been completely true to every aspect of the meal, the seder (or "order") was pretty close and gave a neat perspective on our Christian tradition of Easter.   It was nice to be reminded that Jesus wasn't a Christian - he was a Jew.   And so much of our Christian communion comes right from the Passover tradition.   In fact, I had always thought of eggs at Easter as a pagan tradition that got "thrown in" as a "teaser" for pagans.  It would appear that it has legitimate roots in the Seder as a reflection of new life to come.   Go figure.  The third (of four) cups of "fruit of the vine" is the cup of redemption and the one attributed to Elijah who is to usher in the Messiah.  It is believed that it is this cup that Jesus used for his symbolic statement during his last seder with his disciples.  It was truly a fresh and refreshing look at the moments leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection.   One I hope to repeat.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Insights into Blindness

The Frau and I decided to kick off our spring break today by attending the exhibit, "Dialog in the Dark."  We spent an hour in complete darkness with seven other people and our guide - who was blind.  I was excited and anxious going in, insecure and off balance during, and filled with all kinds of conflicting feelings coming out.  It was an interesting exercise in trust - of our guide, our instincts, our other senses.  

We were guided through a series of "familiar" settings (a park, a boat, a market, a city street), but nothing could break the darkness.  Interestingly, though, as I reflect on the experience, I have some visual memory of these places as I experienced them through touch and smell and sound.   At the time, however, everything just seemed so dark, and I kept reaching for something to hold on to to get my bearings.   We all were given a cane, and this grounded me in some respect, but I felt quite out of control and totally reliant upon the guide.   I have a blind student in one of my choirs, and I have a newfound understanding of what he must go through.  I thought I was being sensitive to his needs, but I think I've quite missed the boat.  One of the most frustrating things about the experience was the response of our "group."   We were always moved from one "setting" to another via a transition area that usually had us lined up against a wall - regular markers of certainty for me.  Then the guide would say, "Ok, now move single file toward the sound of my voice."   It seemed logical to me that we would continue to walk in the line we were in against the wall, but invariably, almost everyone would start moving toward the guide at the same time, running into each other and each other's canes.   And we didn't seem to learn from this as we went along.   I kept thinking, why don't these people just wait - and move together as one body? - we could then retain our bearings by our juxtaposition to one another.   It didn't happen, but everyone at least tried to help each other.  In spite of that, I felt myself drawing more and more inward, and feeling more and more alone.   As a group, we did seem to get braver as we went along, perhaps a bit more comfortable in the darkness.  We ended in a cafe setting where we had a short debriefing session - everything was still completely black, however.   Then we were instructed to walk toward the guide one last time, turn to our right, and "walk toward the light."  I felt a brief moment of Stockholm Syndrome - having been held hostage by my blindness, I was just beginning to give in to my captor, and suddenly the very dim light up ahead seemed almost an intrusion.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Walk Away from the Woodshed

I've been thinking a lot lately about the blogging craze, the willingness for folks to bare themselves on the world wide web, and the stories we tell ourselves and others.  Folks flock to bookstore self-help sections to find some sort of absolution and solution for conflicts and problems with which they are dealing.  The books tell them to avoid those situations in the first place, leaving them feeling more oppressed and alone with their burden, and plodding off to "the woodshed" to punish themselves for being "so stupid" in the first place.    

In another of those intersecting moments, I've found myself reading blogs by one friend who is Buddhist, who comments on the stories we tell ourselves.  She says we tell ourselves many stories of "who we are" in various moments, and Buddhist practice would say that if we don't like who we are in those moments, we should "change the story" - much like we change the channel on the tv or radio.  Granted, this is my interpretation of HER interpretation of a book that she read, but I think this is the gist, and I like what it implies.  One of the "stories" she tells herself is that she is not a very good writer.   I got all caught up in that comment, because I LOVE her writing, and I couldn't believe she said that about herself.   Then I realized, she wasn't saying it was a fact - it is just the "story" that she tells herself.   And, I suspect, she'd like to change the channel from that story.   That "story" allows her to make excuses when her writing isn't received as she had hoped.   I had to admit that one of the stories I tell myself is that weight is a big "issue" for me - and I use that story to "excuse" my lack of will power at controlling how I treat my body.   I decided that rather than find my next excuse for a bag of M&Ms or a creme filled chocolate donut, I would simply start telling myself to "change the channel."   Old story - I am a person who will always struggle with her weight.   New story - I am a person who can make healthy and happy choices about her eating and exercise.  It's Wednesday night, and that method has been effective, and somewhat satisfying, for the past three days.  In refusing to live in the story that weight is problematic for me, I'm finding, moment by moment, that I can tell myself a healthier story of a stronger C.   

Another friend has been telling her personal story of recent pain and self-discovery on her blog. Not only has it been cathartic for her, but she is discovering that the sharing of her story and her willingness to be vulnerable in new ways is providing a start of healing for others who have heard her story and realized they have lived a similar story - and they are not alone.   And in finding out she is not alone, her own healing is beginning.

At my church, we have been talking about the importance in the Christian community of sharing our stories in order to build community.   As one retired pastor tried to explain, we all have a story, and all our stories are important, and it is important to share those stories with each other.  I am finding this more true with each passing day.

So often, we keep our stories to ourselves, like some precious possession (or curse) that no one else could ever understand.   The hoarding of our personal story deprives us of the ability to help someone else deal with their story, and also puts us in the position of potentially poisoning ourselves with a story that really needs to be retold (change the channel!).  Sharing enables others to help us sort through the falsity or veracity of the stories we tell ourselves.

I know I take myself "to the woodshed" far too often, punishing myself for not "doing it right" - "it" being life, in general.  Punishment without rehab just isn't all that effective.   Self-flagellation may give me a momentary feeling of finding some sort of justification for my failings, but it is in my willingness to make myself vulnerable to someone else, accountable to people that I know genuinely care about me, that I begin the necessary healing of rehabilitation, thereby gaining the strength to change the channel to a more positive story.  Change the channel, and walk away from the woodshed into a community of friends ready to listen. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Intriguing Intersects

I find it curious how the various areas of my life often intersect in the strangest ways, and without any attempt at intentionality on my part.   Perhaps it is some strange "law of attraction" - some big "secret" I've yet to discover.   But for the moment, I'll just accept it as an intriguing intersect.

Here follows a "for instance . . ."

A couple of weeks ago, my church book club decided that our next book to read would be "The Faith Club" - a book about 3 women, one Christian, one Jewish, and one Muslim, who seek to learn more about each other's faiths and subsequently, each other.   This is path number one.

The Frau and I have been totally immersed in the West Wing series since we bought the entire 7 season compilation as a Christmas gift to ourselves.  The common phrase around our house when we have an evening at home is, "Well, shall we go to Washington?"   Last night, we found ourselves at the beginning of season six, wherein President Bartlett is on a quixotic mission to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.   Everyone thinks he is on a fool's errand, but he is resolved that he must try to do this thing, regardless of whether his closest staffers vehemently disagree.   This path number two.

My school choir is singing a Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) folksong, and in doing a little background reading today to share with the kids, I not only was reminded of the ethnic origins of the Sephardic sect, but marveled that when they were unceremoniously expelled from the Iberian peninsula (Spain/Portugal), that it was the CHRISTIANS that ran them out.   There was quite a lot of Muslim influence (from northern Africa) in Spain during the medieval period, and ironically, while their differences were duly noted, the Jewish community actually thrived under Muslim rule.  It was only after the Christians assumed the political power position that the Jews found themselves persecuted.   So, while "Columbus sailed the ocean blue," Spain and Portugal were great places to live unless you were a Jew.   Oddly enough, many of these Jews left the Iberian peninsula for the Baltic peninsula, and in recent years are experiencing the same turmoil there that they did in 1492.  These poor people need to find their "happy peninsula."  Path number three.

This evening, the Frau and I attended a lecture at a nearby liberal arts university given by guest theologian and writer, Dr. Charles Kimball.  The title of the lecture (the same as his book) was "When Religion Becomes Evil."  Dr. Kimball specializes in comparative religions, Islam in particular.   He is an ordained Baptist minister, whose grandfather was Jewish.   So when he says that our experience often shapes our views of God and theology, I believe him.   He also encouraged us not to let our experience limit our view of God.  He said, and I think this is a fairly accurate quote, "God may be at work in the world in ways that transcend my experience."  He went on to say that all of the major religions that have withstood the test of time have one fundamental premise in common - they all start with the belief that "something is wrong" with the human predicament.   For the Jew and Christian, that "something" is sinfulness.   For the Buddhist, it is ignorance (if you weren't ignorant, you wouldn't need the Buddha to enlighten you).   And for the Muslim, it is forgetfulness (it is because you forget who God is, that you fail to live in the way God wants you to live).   Much of his discourse revolved around our misunderstandings of these other faith groups, and how we confuse, especially the vast majority of Muslims, with extremist Islamic terrorists.  As he said, "a few clever people, bent on a purpose, can wreak great havoc."   He also reminded us that "terrorism is the weapon of the weak," used by people who have no power base, so they manipulate to create their "weapon."  He closed with a beautiful quote about diversity from the 5th chapter of the Koran, but I wasn't able to jot it down accurately.   I'm going to try to find it and post it at a later time.   Thus ends path number four.

Now maybe these four "paths," as I've chosen to label them, and my perceived intersections of these paths are significant only to me.   But I feel like all roads are intersecting, and I'm on a crash course to a heightened understanding of what these three faith groups have in common.  I actually think I'll be including a fourth group along the way and exploring Buddhist/Hindu traditions (I've found myself on at least one side-road of late on a friend's blog exploring fundamental truths from the Bhagavad Gita - and I'm quite sure I've misspelled that, but I digress).   I'd truly like to have a better knowledge of the commonalities (as opposed to, but not to preclude, differences) so that I can perhaps glimpse a bit of God's workings in the world that transcend my experience.


I feel this enormous need to write something - anything - just to feel the endorphins of creative juices flowing. And I can't seem to start.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


This is where I'm drifting these days. I have much I want to write about, but none of it am I able to really share at this moment - even for the few readers who follow this bit of self-indulgence. Suffice it to say, I'm not being "Blothful" (Slothy Blogger), but I'm dealing with a couple of very different issues that are simulataneously draining (if you only knew!) and evigorating me - both emotionally and physically. I'm also feeling "old" for the first time in my life, and I'm having to come to grips with that. I think it's an ok thing - for the most part. I'll get back to you on that as I have more time to process. (So keep checking, Greta! It's nice to have someone keep me accountable.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What I Miss About College Teaching . . .

I love high school kids, but not ONCE while I was teaching college do I recall having to say, "PUT the PARASOL away!"