Category Archives: inspirations

“That of God”: Letting Go of Fear

Most of the time I spend at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs is spent interacting not with people, but with cats. My main function is what’s called “socializing”; that is, I give cats attention—pet them, pick them up, hold them, and so on. The goal of this is often said to be making the cats more adoptable. And I do hope that my interactions with the cats ends up with them being more adoptable.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do, exactly. My goal, what is behind how I interact with the cats, is to let the cats grow into who they truly are. What this means in particular for many cats is that I try to encourage them to be comfortable enough around people that they enjoy affection instead of fear it. This depends on trust and respect. The cat has to learn to trust me (and hopefully once they learn to trust me, they’ll extend that idea to other people), and to get the cat to trust me, I have to respect its limits. Respecting a cat’s limits doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do something that pushes its limits (otherwise a shy cat would never learn to be petted, for example), but that when I do push its limits, I’m aware that that’s what I’m doing and I let the cat dictate how long this uncomfortable interaction continues. And when the cat has learned that he or she can trust me, then the transformation begins: she or he starts relaxing into interactions instead of tensing. Purring happens. Greeting me when I walk into the adoption center begins to happen.

Ultimately, it’s about teaching the cat how not to be afraid. I don’t believe there are any “mean” cats; I believe that when cats aren’t afraid, they’re loving and affectionate. But this isn’t a natural state for cats when they interact with people. It’s something they have to learn or be taught. And the older the cat is when this learning begins, the more fear there is to overcome.

In short, what I’m doing is seeing and answering “that of God” in these cats. And they appreciate it.

And I’ve been thinking that this is how I’d like to interact with people, too; to interact with other people in such a way that they know they have nothing to fear from me, so they can become who they truly are. Because people, like cats, aren’t born learning how to interact with people. It’s something we have to learn. And sometimes that process of learning gets tainted with fear and we forget who we are, at our core.

We’re like cats, I think: when we’re afraid, we lash out. And when we’re with someone who knows us—truly knows us—we blossom. Can we learn to see each other how God sees us? Can I learn how to answer “that of God” in people as well as cats?

I hope so.

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Filed under cats, daily life, God, inspirations, love, practice, quakerism, speak and listen with love, that of God

Poems

“A Just Being”

Being as just
Being
Sitting to sit
Writing to write
Writing to right
Wrongs left
From
Unseeing
Unfeeling
Believing non-being
Instead of
Just
Being


“Holy Differences”

Wholly different perspectives
Stand their ground
Trip me up
Put motes in my eyes and
Cotton in my ears.

Where is the common ground?
Where is the shift we need to
See the same?

Yet in the differences rests
Diversity, the
Holy harmony of humanity,
That which turns the
Wholly different into
Holy differences.

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My Center

We Quakers talk a lot about “finding our center”, “centering down”, etc. Ask a dozen Quakers what we mean by the term “center”, and you’ll likely get a dozen different answers, though many of the answers would likely mention God, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, “that of God”…

But when I talk about the “center”, I’m talking about a real place. A place I go to at least twice a week and more if I can manage it. A place where I find joy, and love, and peace. A place where I know I’m needed and know without a doubt that this is where I’m called to be.

And that “center” isn’t my Quaker Meeting or my meditation group. That “center” is an adoption center at a local no-kill and cage-free feline (and canine) rescue called Chesapeake Cats and Dogs. I began volunteering at CCAD 4 years ago. My role was to help socialize the cats, and it’s a role I take seriously. If a cat is shy or skittish, I try to work with the cat, to help the cat understand that people aren’t a threat and that human affection is a good thing. But I also try to make sure that I find the time every time I’m there to pet every cat that needs it most.

And here comes the first challenge: in an adoption center that at times has housed over 60 cats at one time, how do I prioritize? How do I make sure that when I’m petting one cat, I’m not distracted by the dozens of other cats I want to find time for?

In short, how do I truly be present with each cat?

It’s just mindfulness meditation, in a different form. When I’m petting one cat, I’m just petting that one cat. I’m aware of the subtle body movements that indicate if I need to change my petting technique. I’m aware of the cat’s condition: has he or she lost weight? does he or she have any fleas or ticks? is he or she congested? What does the cat’s purr sound like? Are they any behavior changes, for better or worse, that I can notice? Are there other cats approaching that may make this cat feel defensive? And the only way I can answer these questions is by being with the cat, in the moment. And when I fail to stay in the moment, the cat always notices and reminds me to return to it.

There are always cats I don’t get to. When I leave, I make a mental note to make those cats a priority my next visit.

But there are also always cats I particularly look forward to. In a real way, some of these cats have become friends to me. Figuro, Snicker, Ethel, and Emily are the cats I’m most attached to. All of them have been at the center for more than a year; all of them except Ethel have been at the center for as long as I’ve been volunteering there. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I absolutely adore and love these cats.

Which brings me to the next challenge: how do I love and adore these cats without holding back any affection, but also without becoming attached? After all, I can’t adopt them all.

When I first began volunteering at the center, I would cry whenever a cat I’d grown to love would get adopted. It’s hard developing a relationship with an animal and then having to say goodbye, knowing that I would likely never see the cat again. I knew that this was our goal, that we wanted the cats to be adopted and never returned to the center, but it struck me as a loss each time. I asked the office manager, Debbie, how she dealt with this, knowing that she loves those cats even more than I do. She said something like, “It gets easier with time. There are some you’ll always miss and the goodbyes are always hard, but it gets easier.”

And it has. Slowly I’ve become able to feel joy when a cat is adopted instead of sorrow. Slowly I’ve learned how to love without attachment, but without holding back either. It’s not about me and what I’d like. It’s about what’s best for the cat.

And this brings me to the third challenge: how to cope with the death of a cat or kitten.

This doesn’t happen often (and certainly not for lack of care or veterinary treatment), but it does happen. It’s par for the course for any rescue, whether the rescue is a no-kill or not. Some cats and kittens we try to rescue will have health problems. And some of those health problems won’t be curable or even treatable. And sometimes, a kitten just wastes away and no one knows why.

There is no answer to this challenge. Only the opportunity to practice and to remember that nothing is solid and every one dies. All I can do is be sure that when I’m with each cat or kitten, I’m giving them my all: all my love, all my attention. Because there’s no guarantee with any of them that they’ll be there the next time I come in. Maybe they’ll be adopted before then, or maybe I’ve already noticed that this cat or kitten is going downhill and may no longer be alive when I next come in.

The answer to this challenge is in the answers to the other two. All I can do is all that I can do. There is nothing else.

My center may not be overtly religious or spiritual, but it’s a good teacher. When I forget to be mindful or become too attached or my ego starts parading about how important it is, these cats bring me back to center. They remind me of what’s important and what isn’t. They show me what real love looks like. They fill me with joy, happiness, love, and sometimes sorrow, despair, and sadness.

But through it all, I always return to my center. Because it’s where I’m meant to be.

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Death… and Life

JB—the being that I mentioned in an earlier post who’s dying—is wonderfully still alive and not suffering.

I am so grateful for this extra time.

Some days after I wrote that post, I realized something important that sounds simple but isn’t always. I’d noticed that I’d been irritable for a while, snapping at people I normally wouldn’t snap at, feeling like I just couldn’t settle in my own skin. Meditating during this period was incredibly challenging. I often would give up before my cell phone alarm would go off, often just minutes before, convinced that I hadn’t really set the alarm. I got angry at one of my cats and while I didn’t harm her in any way, she was nervous around me. I made snide comments to my undeserving husband and snapped at my sister who was only calling me to chat.

I wasn’t okay with being this way. I felt it was wrong: I’ve experienced losing those I love before; that means I should be over it; It shouldn’t bother me, I should just accept it as part of life.

But that day, as I was thinking about the impending death of this being I love and the anxiety I was having surrounding that, I suddenly realized that it was okay to be upset. No, I shouldn’t take that anxiety out on others: but once I accepted that how I was feeling wasn’t wrong or bad or somehow a failing, I felt enormous relief. What I was feeling wasn’t right or wrong, bad or good. It just was.

And, unexpectedly, the anxiety got better after that realization.

Today, I am grateful for all this extra time I’ve had with JB. It’s so much more than I hoped for. It’s so much more than anyone expected.

I know JB will die, likely sooner rather than later. But the true miracle is that JB has lived at all. Life is itself a miracle, one which I’ve taken for granted in the past. Death reminds me to stop, pay attention, and wonder at the uniqueness of each life.

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“Only Breath” By Rumi (As Translated By Coleman Barks)

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

*******

There is a way between voice and presence
where information flows.

In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.

This pretty much sums up my faith.

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Gifts from Unexpected People (Again)

Three weeks ago, my husband told me I’d be getting a surprise from my college friends. “What college friends?” I asked and added, “I can only think of a handful or so.”

“I think you’ll be surprised at how many you have,” he said. And he was right.

I’ve had a huge lesson in gratitude and thankfulness and appreciation for people I hadn’t been appreciating enough. I am so overwhelmed with emotion that I honestly do not know what to say.

Yesterday, I was given a Kindle from 18 friends of mine from college with the following note:

Cassie had the great idea for all of us to team up and give you a Kindle for your birthday this year. We’re all Johnnies and we love reading, so we wanted to make sure you had a way to read even when your hands are hurting.

Most of these friends I see once a year or less. A few of them I haven’t seen for over 2 years. And I was, frankly, unaware of the depths of the care all of them have for me.

Yesterday, when I opened my surprise present, I was moved but didn’t really understand what this means for me. Now that I’ve been using the Kindle and have downloaded so many books that I can’t remember even half of them, it has become clear to me what this means for me.

I can read without hurting my hands. For the first time in my life, I can read without hurting my hands.

The depth of this is hard to explain. As soon as I learned how to read, I’ve loved reading. But it’s always hurt my hands to hold the book. And book holders, of which I’ve had several, help, but just are cumbersome to use… and it’s just not possible to curl up with a book holder. I’ve always just continued reading, sometimes way past the point where my hands needed me to stop. I had long ago come to accept that reading was worth the pain.

I don’t have to accept that anymore.

I’ve been friends with these people for years now. And I’ve been taking them for granted and not appreciating them enough.

Sometimes, we have friends that we dismiss undeservedly. Sometimes, we have people who care about us more than we know. Sometimes, we’re shown love from unexpected people.

And I am so, so grateful.

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Bayard Rustin

I’d like to share with you a perspective-changing experience I had a few weeks ago. This experience was so deep and profound that I doubt my ability to share it fully and in an understandable, linear fashion.

The catalyst for this change was the book “Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”. Before reading this book, I had a very simple, trite understanding of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. I thought the Civil Rights Movement started with Rosa Parks sitting down in the front of the bus, which was illegal because of Jim Crow laws. And then, there were some peaceful protests, Brown vs. the Board of Education and desegregation, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot of speeches and was assassinated, and that was the end of the Civil Rights Movement, which was, of course, mostly successful.

This impression of the Civil Rights Movement was challenged on the first page of “Down the Line”, where I read this:

“Recently I was planning to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.

‘Hey, you. You’re supposed to sit in the back seat.’

‘Why?’

‘Because that’s the law. Niggers ride in the back.’

I said, ‘My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.'”

This was written in 1942, before Rosa Parks. “If what I thought I knew about Rosa Parks was wrong–that she wasn’t the first to sit in the front of the bus–what else am I wrong about?”

The answer: pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Civil Rights Movement was, if not wrong, misleading and over-simplified. And this understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is, frankly, dangerous. If I believe that progress comes in big, gigantic steps over a fairly brief period of time, I’m more likely to give up when the progress I’m fighting for doesn’t happen that quickly. And if most Americans my age have this same understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, we’ll give up too quickly when our ideals don’t come to fruition fast enough, when the big, giant steps don’t seem to be happening. What I learned most from Rustin’s description of the Civil Rights Movement was that it was not a movement of large steps, but a movement of small moments that all merged together to create change. This lesson is particularly important for those of us now engaged in GLBTQ rights, or fighting poverty, or any number of modern rights movements: to stay optimistic because we are making those small steps and not give up because the steps are too small and take too much time.

So much of what Bayard Rustin had to say still holds true today; for example:

“They [what he calls “New York Times moderates”] apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty.”

That was written in 1964. And reading this, knowing where we are today–that trillions of dollars have been spent on war in the last 8 years alone, that at least half of our government spending is “defense” spending, Katrina and the destruction of Section 8 housing that is not likely to be rebuilt–it filled me with such a sense of sadness that what he said over 40 years ago is not only still true today, but even more true today than it was when he wrote it.

On the other hand, reading Bayard Rustin’s writings showed me how far we have come as a country. I grew up in Massachusetts. I’m only 26 years old. I had no conceptual understanding of what the Jim Crow laws actually meant. I knew they had existed; I had read Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” in high school; but none of it was real for me. It was as fantastic as the fantasy books I read. And Rustin’s descriptions of events, protests, being in jail… I became aware of how much progress has been made… and how meaningful it was to have Obama be elected as President when one of the excuses given to prevent blacks from voting had been “You don’t want Martin Luther King to become our President, do you?” (Yes, we do.)

Rustin makes the strong claim that the civil rights movement needed to change from a political movement to an economic movement; that it wasn’t enough to just make it legal for blacks to go to school with whites, etc., but that unless economic opportunities were made equally available, the desegregation law was tepid as an instrument of change. What did it matter if you were allowed to sit in the front of the bus if your state was cutting mass transportation funding or you couldn’t afford the busfare? What did it matter if schools were desegregated if the inner city schools were filled with inner city residents, who were mostly black?

And reading through his eloquent, powerful arguments for economic change (he proposed a guarenteed living wage for every able-bodied man and woman who wanted to work, universal health care, increased funding of mass transportation, liveable public housing and enough of it, etc.) made me sad to know that we still don’t have those things today, that however far we’ve come, we haven’t come that far yet.

Quakers might find the next two quotes to be particularly interesting:

“The peace movement finds itself in a peculiar position. On the one hand, it would like to protect the integrity of its activities and objectives; on the other, it is somewhat unhappy over the fact that the civil rights movement does not openly ally itself with peace efforts…

…thousands of Negroes, in order to rehabilitate themselves, are forced to take a stand beyond morality and exploit the opportunities presented to them by their country’s military involvement. I myself can afford the luxury of drawing those moral lines, but it is more difficult to suggest to people who are hungry, jobless, or living in slums that they turn their backs on opportunities that promise them a measure of economic betterment.

If this attitude on the part of thousands of Negroes horrifies the peace movement, then perhaps the peace movement might well conclude that it must give a large part of its energy to the struggle to secure the social and economic uplift of the Negro community.” (written in 1967)

And:

“Lower class does not mean working class; the distinction is often overlooked in a middle-class culture that tends to lump the two together.

The distinction is important. The working class is employed. It has a relation to the production of goods and services; much of it is organized in unions. It enjoys a measure of cohesion, discipline, and stability lacking in the lower class. The latter is unemployed or marginally employed. It is relatively unorganized, incohesive, unstable. It contains the petty criminal and antisocial elements. Above all, unlike the working class, it lacks the sense of a stake in society.” (also written in 1967)

Speaking of Quakers, Rustin was one, and influences of his faith (our Testimonies) can be found in all of his writings and his actions. He didn’t talk about God much or mention Quakerism often, but his actions were a result of his Quaker faith. He had faith AND practice, and he wrote an enormous amount.

Why do we Quakers not claim Rustin enthusiastically and vocally as one of our own? In my Meeting, it’s George Fox, John Woolman, and Rufus Jones that get talked about. Why don’t we talk about Rustin more? To be fair, I first read about Rustin in a Friends Journal a few years ago. I’m sure I’m not the first Quaker to read Bayard Rustin. But I want to encourage more of us to read his writings.

Writing this has been more difficult for me than I expected. It almost felt like I wanted to write two different posts: one about how reading Rustin affected me, and one about how I wish Quakers would make a bigger deal out of Rustin. I think I’ve said enough about both in this post, but I can’t seem to weave the two of them together. And I know this post is a little disjointed.

But maybe that’s the point: that disjointed doesn’t mean unconnected. Each of those little moments Rustin describes, each time a Quaker speaks about our prejudices and the limits of our perspectives, each time one of us speaks up when being silent would smother who we are, we move forward.

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Responsibility

At last Meeting for Worship, the state of the economy was mentioned several times, always followed by comments like “their greed”, “they put us into this mess”, “they allowed their greed to overwhelm them”, “they”, “they”, “they”. By the end of Meeting, I felt uncomfortable and a bit of a nudge, so subtle that I missed it at the time.

I rose at Afterthoughts and felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time: the Guide. I paused  before speaking and prefaced my thoughts with an urge for everyone to take what I was going to say as a challenge, not as a criticism. This is what followed, as much as memory allows:

I understand our anger at people like the CEO at AIG, etc. I think this anger is justified. I think it’s easiest, and right in a way, to place the blame for our economy on them. But it’s not just them. And as soon as we make them into a them, we lose sight of the part we all played in this. They are not the only ones responsible. We all are. We all participated in this: wanting the best deal, not doing adequate research on companies we supported… And the thing is, because it’s not just their responsibility to fix this, we all can take a part in change. We’re all a little responsible. And that means we don’t have to leave it up to them to change. We can start on our own.

A few people came up to me after Meeting to thank me for what I’d said. And yesterday’s slogan reaffirmed this for me:

Look upon your treasures and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in your possessions.

(John Woolman)

Today, on this historic Inauguration, I want to quote part of Bishop Gene Robinson’s opening, under-televised, prayer from Sunday at 2:

We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one.

Yes, we are. Because if our government and our corporations have control over our society, it is because we handed it to them, slowly but surely. It is time for us to start taking control of our own lives. It is time for us to “be the change we want to see” (Gandhi).

It’s time for change. And not just for them to change, but for us, too.

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Uneven Footing

I’ve had a lot percolating in my mind recently. I wanted things to settle, to develop into a more definite shape, before saying anything on here. But I am starting to think that maybe the murkiness is the message.

I am on uneven footing. Nothing significant in my life has changed recently, but I’ve been unable to find a consistent schedule during the day and have been unable to attend Meeting for Worship regularly. Both of these have contributed to my current state of discomfort. I feel distanced from my Meeting, and from God. I doubt my ability to discern accurately leadings from my old addiction to drama. I worry that I’ve turned into the kind of person who can only see the bad in things and not the good.

I worry that it’s been my interaction with my Meeting over the last year that has led me to this.

I am still not sure of how much to say on here and what I should hold back and keep for private until God bonks me on the head and says, “ENOUGH! I told you to SPEAK, didn’t I? That was the leading you were given! Why have you not been faithful?”

And that’s the crux of it: I was given a leading to speak up:

I am, quite simply, being called to speak. I am being called to break the silence that smothers my Meeting with regards to non-heterosexual people, loves, sexuality, and even faith. I am being called to stand up and challenge heterosexism whenever and wherever I see it.

I am being called to honor silence when used in worship, but to reject silence when it is oppressive. I am called to respect the comfort levels of other people, but only when they do not deny a part of my being.

from here.

Have I been faithful? Have I been faithful? No. I’ve stayed silent out of fear of being ostracized in my Meeting and in one of my Meeting committees. I’ve stayed silent out of fear of being called a “trouble maker” again. I’ve stayed silent because I don’t want to lose my Meeting, and yet I feel it slipping further and further away from me the longer my voice is silenced by fear.

Here is what I feel: I feel decay within my Meeting. I feel that we’ve made our old Meetinghouses into sacred places, thus reducing the sacredness of the ordinary. I feel that we’ve fallen into the trap of worshiping silence instead of worshiping the Divine. I feel that we care more about maintaining the current status quo–not rocking the boat–more than we care about following leadings given to us by God. I feel that most of us are too busy with our own lives to truly want to do the work required to find unity: we want the unity without the work; what we get is consensus.

This is what I see. This is what I feel. But what I am being called to do with this, I don’t know. I wrote my Meeting a letter last spring that raised related, but different, concerns. The letter was handed to Overseers, who thanked me for the letter but didn’t believe my concerns were valid. That wasn’t exactly what was said, of course, but that is what their lack of action told me.

And thus, I am on uneven footing. The ground beneath me changes with each step. I feel like I’m floundering. And I can’t help but wonder: what if I am the problem? What if I’m making mountains out of molehills? What if they are right to disregard my concerns? And if I thought I was following a leading, how can I learn to trust my discernment again? How can I learn to trust God again, when following this leading (see here) has caused me so much pain and despair?

And yet, how can I say no?

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Why So Serious?

(I apologize for reverting to pop culture to get your attention. It’s a great movie, but that’s not what this post is about.)

Today’s Tibetan Buddhist lojong slogan is:

Don’t be frivolous.

I remember the first time I got this slogan. It was a few days before Christmas, the day of my mom’s huge Christmas party. It was the first time since getting married that I was home for this big event. I’m not a party person. I’m an introvert and prefer small gatherings. I max out at about 10 people. There were over 50 expected at this party, and my mom, as she never tired of telling me, was “looking forward to showing me off”. I was not looking forward to the party.

And then the slogan “Don’t be frivolous”. I laughed out of disbelief. How could one not be frivolous at an annual Christmas party?

But there it was, that challenge: “Don’t be frivolous”. I thought about how I could live up to that slogan without upsetting my mom. Hiding out in my old bedroom during the party because an index card had told me not to be frivolous, though tempting, was not a real option. Neither was being rude to her guests. So, I vowed to attend the party, as expected, but to attend with the intention of being present and mindful.

To my complete surprise, I had a wonderful time at the party. Maybe I’m guilty of Buddhist blasphemy, but my understanding of this slogan has changed since I first read it. I don’t take it to mean “Don’t have fun”. Laughter is good. Frivolity is good. Small talk that makes the person feel comfortable enough to be fully present with you is good.

But don’t waste time. And here it is again, that image of a dour face railing against entertainment or frivolities. That’s not what I mean. Be present. Whether at a Christmas party, or playing Halo 3, or studying Arabic, or reading the Bible, or belly dancing: be present. Don’t let time just slide by you, completely unnoticed.

Last Sunday, there was a message about the importance of three things: friendship, love, and fun. So, today I have two messages:

Why so serious?

and

Don’t be frivolous.

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