Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Writing Process

I'm pouring out post after post on 9/11 to get out of my system those things which I need to say but which don't belong in my sermon.  This is done in hopes that once these things are out, I can see what is left.  What I know is left right now is the stone of hope that is hewn out of the mountain of despair.  Perhaps it is connected to those five smooth stones.  Or perhaps it is one of them.  What mountains do we hew the other four stones out of, then?  Grief, hope, memory, and even joy are all the tumblers now as I polish the stones up. 

09/16/11 - The Stone of Hope

I've been rereading what I wrote in those days after September 11th, 2001.  Here's what I said at our water communion service on September 16th, 2001:

          Like many of you, I have been inundated with the thoughts of millions this week.  I hear speaker after speaker on television and radio, I read comment after comment in the papers and on e-mail.  They blur together--the President, a minister, a fireman, a friend, a teacher, a rabbi, a senator, an imam...  I marvel at their coherence sometimes, their ability to capture the depth of tragedy in a soundbite.  I found myself unable to put pen to paper all week, still soaking it all in, still trying to make sense out of chaos.  What follows here, therefore, is one person’s thoughts--still mutable, still very much in turmoil. 
          My first thoughts, of course, are for the victims and their families of this week’s horrible events.  I hear phrases like “an end to innocence” and “our world will never be the same,” being exchanged, and they resonate within me.  Certainly, it feels like a tragedy the likes of which we have not known in this country during my life time.  And I applaud the efforts of those who have rushed to help.  The way people can come together and set aside differences to work side by side and do what needs to be done is only a small solace, given the extent of tragedy, but it does warm my heart.  It is in this that I find hope, and comfort.
          As I gather my thoughts as to what the next steps in this country will be, I have two warring sides within me.  They are both crying out to be heard.  The first is the one we’ve been hearing the most of.  Part of me cries out that justice must be done, that war is needed.  This part of me suddenly finds myself crying at the words, “God Bless America” plastered on billboards all up and down the road.  I want national unity, a feeling of togetherness, of solidarity in this cause. 
          But inside myself, I find no unity.  The other side of me, too, cries for the victims.  It too, mourns endless tears for the people who got up and went to work, only to never come home.  But this side of me is critical of some of the rhetoric I’ve been hearing.  I stay with my earlier beliefs: that if there is a god or goddess or gods, he/she/they, if they are in the business of blessing at all, would certainly bless all people.  I fall back on Universalism, which says that all are loved by God, that whatever is ultimate in this world, we are equally blessed and embraced, and will all be treated equally in death.  This side of me, too, worries at a nation which seems to feel right now that they would give up endless civil liberties for a larger measure of safety.  It worries that rhetoric of war too quickly gets acted on in our own back yards against people, our Muslim and Arab-American neighbors, who are just as innocent as the victims of the plane crashes, and just as innocent as you and me.
          In such a confusing time, what solace does a religion of questions offer?  When we want answers so badly, how can we live with this ambiguity?  I want so badly at a time like this to have a certain God, a personal God, whom I can turn to, instead of my endless agnosticism, a field of only more and more questions. 
          But as events unfold, I know that there are numerous lights that our religion must hold up.  In an increasingly conservative world, in a country on the brink of an indefinable war, religious liberalism is needed more than ever.  There is a particular role to be filled by us, and only we can do it.
          One thing we must do, is stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters.  Stand up for them, ally with them, help protect him.  What we deplore is fanaticism and fundamentalism, and any disregard for life, not the religion of Islam itself.  Muslim organizations throughout this country have publicized their statements decrying the actions of the terrorists who struck on Tuesday.  Yet throughout this country, Muslims, Arabs, middle-easterners, anyone racially resembling an Arab, have found themselves targets of hate crimes.
          The Houston Chronicle reported in a small article this week that Arab-Americans have faced “backlash.”  They tell that six shots were fired at an Islamic center in a suburb of Dallas.  An Islamic bookstore in the suburbs of Washington had bricks thrown through it’s windows.  A sign announcing an Islamic community center in Dallas was defaced.  In Sterling, Virginia members of an Islamic community center found their buses defaced when they gathered to go together to donate blood.[1]  In Detroit, which has one of the largest Arab populations in this country, my mother asked her Lebanese co-worker about his personal experiences this week.  She said, “He seemed to be so relieved that someone would actually give him a chance to speak about them. He, too, has been attacked verbally many times already, and even “shunned” by one of our own staff members with whom he has worked for ten years!” 
          As religious liberals, the first thing we need to do is be the person who actually speaks to our Arab and Muslim neighbors.  We have to be better neighbors than ever before, because so many would dehumanize them, treat them as “other,” and not as ourselves. 
          Another thing we must do is stand up against other forms of hate, for they are also taking place.  Televangelist Jerry Falwell, who would have you believe that he is a man of God, has blamed the tragedy on all sorts of liberal groups, from gays and lesbians to Pagans to ACLU members to pro-choice individuals.  I think he covered, in his list, just about everybody I know, and much of what I hold dear.  Other liberals have found themselves attacked by friends and co-workers for being a voice of dissent, for being unwilling to jump on the bandwagon and immediately cry “War!”  Many are moving quickly from the passion of the moment to an unwillingness to allow for multiple voices in this country, an anger which is so deep from the horrible tragedy that has taken place gets quickly unleashed at the closest source they find. 
          I’m unwilling and unable to say yet, because of the deep confusion and divide in myself, that we must assume an attitude of war.  I’m also not about to say, “We brought this upon ourselves.”  I truly believe that these acts were in no way justified.  What I am willing to say is that the strength of our nation, like the strength of our liberal religion, is in our diversity.  Our strength is in being able to hear opinions we differ with and not resorting to name-calling and hatred ourselves, whether that cry is against those to the left or to the right of us.  Our strength is in respecting all of the world’s religions, and in trying to understand them better, to work with them to find common ground, rather than resorting to a rhetoric of a God who blesses only our country, or only our religion, or only those who believe exactly as we do.
          The strength of this country is not found in the quick answers of flag or anthems, it is found in the more difficult, onerous work of voting and of free presses, and of dissent.  Similarly, the strength of our faith is not that we have an absolute God to fall back on, that we can say will go to war against evil with us, but that we have freedom of belief, and that we embrace our diversity.  Our unity must be found in diversity, in knowing that we are a Muslim nation, and a Christian nation, and a Buddhist nation and an Atheist nation and a Pagan nation and a Jewish nation, and so on.  Our unity must be found through acts of reason, not passion.  Now is a time for deep consideration, as we forge a national identity, that it be one which doesn’t ignore these differences but rather embraces them and holds them up as a model for the world.  If we cannot avoid fighting against ourselves, against Muslim Americans, against Arab-Americans, against any who disagree with our views, if we cannot avoid terrorist actions against our next-door neighbors, we cannot, with integrity, proclaim this to be a great nation. 
          Within our own four walls, I hope that we model in our church the best of what this country is, and the best of ourselves.  This is the time which will test our faiths most, and the time in which we must not falter.  This week has been a time of much hate, but also much love.  May we embody the best of it, the pulling together, the helping and volunteering, even as we guard more vigilantly against the hatred which comes so easily.  May we live up to our values now, for now is the time when our values are needed in the world.
          I close with these words from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
          We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.  Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.  We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.  Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war.  One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.  We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.  We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.[2]


[1] “Arab-Americans quickly faced backlash” by Hanna Rosin (Washington Post), The Houston Chronicle, Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, p.44A.
[2] #584, Singing the Living Tradition.

Visiting "Ground Zero"

9/11 had a large impact on my ministry.  About two years later, in 2003, now ministering in New England, my colleague Jennie Barrington and I, were talking often how 9/11 had shaped our ministry.  We also were big Simon and Garfunkel fans, and Simon and Garfunkel were doing their "Old Friends" reunion tour.  We bought two tickets to go see them in New Jersey, and we hit the road.  We went two places: the concert, and Ground Zero.  That was it -- we didn't do a Broadway show or see the Statue of Liberty, or go to the Met.  We had two things we wanted to do: that concert, and see Ground Zero for ourselves.

I had been to New York City only two or three times before -- once to visit a boyfriend in college over the summer, once with my college's Glee Club on a concert trip.  I had driven through it a couple of times on my way to New England, also, but all I can say about that is that the tunnels and bridges are expensive, and that driving through New York City six months after 9/11 with a truck full of furniture is a nerve-wracking experience.  I had never gone to see the World Trade Center when it was standing.  I've still never been to the Statue of Liberty, although I saw it from the ferry my first time there. 

So we drove with our bad Mapquest directions ("take the exit" -- which exit?) down to our hotel in New Jersey near the concert venue.  We listened to Simon and Garfunkel all the way down and all the way back, hearing some songs that we had never heard before on their newest release, such as "A Church Is Burning," which we heard with stunned ears, and replayed over and over again several times in a row, weeping, as we drove down.  We talked about how to use the song in worship, something I still haven't done.  And we went to the concert, which was a special treat not only getting to hear them, but hearing them in home turf, in the New York City area.

And then we went to Ground Zero.

There was no memorial there, of course.   What there was was a big pit where work was still going on uncovering things that had been pushed down into the earth by the collapse of the towers.  The area was surrounded by fences, tourists walking around, and people selling t-shirts and tchotchkes.  It was a strange and surreal experience standing there by the fence with nothing particular to say or do once we got there.  It had become more tourist site than memorial at that time.  Yet it was an important moment, this finally seeing it for ourselves, and understanding how big the area was.

I don't remember if we wept or if we prayed, or if we just walked around and looked.  I do remember that it changed us.

Do You Remember?

When I was younger, particularly, but really for a lifetime, I can remember instances where people were talking about how they remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot or that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  I was born after both of those instances.  But I could tell that there was something important about sharing those memories.  For my generation, we had a bit of this with the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion.  I remember that I was in science class at school when I heard about it.  But for us, really, it's now 9/11 that holds this strange fixed moment in our cultural consciousness.  I think it's true not just for us, but maybe a bit more so, since we aren't old enough to have experienced those tragic deaths of JFK and MLK, much less the World War II moments that still loom large for that greatest generation.

My story of 9/11/01 is intricately woven with the beginning of my ministry.  I was in my first month of ministry, fresh out of seminary.  I had started about a week into August, and the Sunday following 9/11/01 would be our ingathering  Sunday, the official start to the church year.  I was at home in my new Houston apartment when I got a call from our music director.  She asked me if I had heard the news, if I had my television on.  I hadn't.  I remember her saying, "The World Trade Center is gone.  It' gone."  I turned on my television as she told me the news.  And she asked me, "Do you think we should have a vigil this evening?"  I said, "I'm not sure, I'll call you back in a few with a decision.  Let me process this."

Two more calls from church members followed in rapid succession to make sure I had heard the news and to find out if we would have a service.  By the second one, I said yes, and started to make all the plans -- called the music director to start planning the musical elements, called the president to start the phone tree so that people would get the news, and had somebody calling the television stations to get us on the list of services. 

In my memory it was that very day, but perhaps it was the next day, that I had a meeting with the local Houston-area UU ministers.  What a blessing that was.  They shared resources that they had been thinking about for vigils and for the following Sunday: Annie Dillard, Anne Frank, Adrienne Rich. 

I get the vigil we had and the following Sunday conflated in my memory.  I know at the Sunday service we had our usual water communion.  And I remember somebody bringing water from their trip to the World Trade Center.  Whether it was actual water from there or symbolic water, I can't tell you.  To me, it was water that came from the World Trade Center, and it was there with us in our water communion.  I've carried that water as part of our water communion since -- I took some water from that water communion with me to my next congregation, and to the one that followed (my current congregation), and saved water from year to year.  The World Trade Center is still there in the drops of water we pour every year into our common bowl at our water communion. 

Other things I remember from those services are that we had a fireman in our congregation who shared the Fireman's Prayer with us, and that even as far away as Houston, there were people with connections at the Pentagon and in New York City.  We shared with the entire country the pain, the fear, and the longing to get up and go and be of some help as we watched the endless process to try to find survivors and identify the dead unfold through our television sets.

This was the beginning of my ministry as a UU minister.  And that I ministered through this time is still one of my biggest accomplishments as a minister.  Nothing in seminary had prepared us for this situation.  Those of us who were new in the field had had no training on how to craft a vigil after 9/11, how to minister to the fear and pain that was a national experience like this, how to be a non-anxious presence when the entire country was feeling the most anxiety it had ever felt in our lifetime.  We were new and green in a raw and earth-shattering moment. 

I didn't do everything perfectly, I know.  I remember the competing tensions even then about patriotism and religion -- Do we sing "God Bless America"?  Do we use a flag print cloth as our altar cover?  But as I look back now as a minister with ten years experience, and open the files and read my words from that time in 2001, I wouldn't do anything differently.  It was real and genuine.  I'll be using some of those same resources my Houston colleagues shared with me from 2001 in 2011, and am still grateful for what I learned from them on that September day.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Talking to My Child About 9/11

There are a lot of people who have written a lot of wise words about how to talk to children about 9/11.  I'm not a child psychologist, or a teacher, or an expert on trauma.  I am a parent, though, and ultimately every parent has to handle this themselves, whether or not they are also a a child psychologist, teacher, or trauma expert.

So I talked to my child about 9/11 today on the way to school in the car.  She was born a few years after 9/11/01, so it wasn't something that had really come up before.  But we had switched the radio from NPR to her favorite music station--the one that plays all the pre-teen pop songs--and they were talking about 9/11.  So I just asked her, "Do you know what they're talking about when people are talking about 9-11 or September 11th?"  She didn't.  So I told her, in simple terms, that on September 11th, ten years ago, before she was born, some men, which we call terrorists, had taken over some planes, using knives, and wanted to kill everyone, so they flew the planes into buildings and crashed them, and that they did this with three planes, and two of the buildings, the World Trade Center or "Twin Towers" had completely collapsed, and a lot of people had died on that day.  And then I just answered her questions -- she's pretty bold about asking questions.  And that let me know where her thoughts were.  And I made sure to tell her two things -- first, that this was why they check people over a lot more now before we go on airplanes, so that would keep us safer, and, secondly, that there were a lot of people who were heroes on that day, like some people on a fourth plane who stopped that plane from hitting a fourth building. 

Her questions were:
Why do people want to remember this now, and talk about it?
Why did those people want to crash the planes?
Why did they hate us?

Ten years is a long time when you're not ten yet.  However, explaining why we want to remember, when people are still sad, is easy to do for a kid who has done funerals for her pets.  Answering "Why did they hate us?" on a car ride to school is less easy.  I told her that I didn't really completely understand this, either. 

How do we explain acts of violence to our children?  It's definitely not easy.  I'm still working on this one.  Meanwhile what I want her to know at her age, the age of nightmares, is that we've worked to make things safer, and that most people on that day acted in good ways, and that's a big part of what we want to remember.