Same thing we do every day. Try and change the world.

If you tell a Nazi with a knife, “Tut-tut! That’s not acceptable!” he will cordially invite you to accept that knife in your throat.

When did that stop being obvious? How did that become some profound truth? Slate Magazine tells us The profound and damaging lesson of the Portland attack is “Two brave men saw something. They said something. They died for it. What will we all do next time?”

Is that “The tragic lesson of Portland”? That you can get hurt when Evil People run wild with weapons? That’s not profound. That’s trivial. When did that even become a thing to doubt?

Someone somewhere always pays the bill for social change. When you put off that bill, it costs more to pay it later. That’s not profound. That’s trivial. How did people blind themselves to that?

The artificial world in which we live

  • in which you take your complaints to HR and let them handle it;
  • in which you call the police and forget about what you see happening in front of you;
  • in which you block someone on Facebook and pretend that answered their argument;
  • in which you appeal to the Supreme Court and assume justice will be served;
  • in which you decide freedom is free and believe nothing is risked for it;
  • in which you talk about the arc of the universe bending toward justice and put away your own tools for bending that damn arc yourself;

That artificial world is a lie.

We build such a world for our babies

  • to show them the world as it should be;
  • to allow them to grow into youth who can then experience the world as it is and stand that experience;
  • to send them in out into that world which must might kill them if they try to make it into the world they want it to be;

We build such a world as a truth we plan to make real.

Making that world risks our lives. It risks our lives and it risks the lives of our babies. It kills some of us and it kills some of them and that kills us even if we aren’t the ones who died.

We die inside a little every time we risk them by sending them out into that world. We rot inside a lot every time we fail to risk ourselves to bring that world into being.

I ride the bus to work. Last December, a man at my bus stop tried to prey on a woman. I’m not a fool. I didn’t just jump into it. I bided my time to see if the encounter would end without my intervention. I planned to intervene when I could do so with the least risk.

When the time came, I tried to engage the bus driver’s help. I stayed between the man and the woman. I did my best to separate them. I gave her the invoice he’d discarded from the stolen property he was carrying so she’d have legal leverage on him if the police came.

I didn’t worry about his threats toward me until later. I failed to completely separate them, but maybe I did some good, and maybe I risked my life without doing any good at all. I knew when he tried to follow me off the bus he might hurt me, might even kill me.

It wasn’t even a choice. Neither is

  • breaking down from it later;
  • knowing you would never know if you’d succeeded in helping that woman;
  • despairing when well-meaning friends and not-so-well-meaning cops tell you that you shouldn’t have intervened;

It’s still what you do if you want a better world.

What now?
Same thing we do every day. Try and change the world.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I finally saw this movie under interesting circumstances a few days ago, on the Friday of Mother’s Day weekend, with my kid and my kid’s mom. We’ve been separated, mostly cordially and affectionately, for going on eight years now, and I made some effort to get there to see it with them.

The specific circumstance we saw it in was a strangely dissonant Star Wars fortieth anniversary event at the public library near where they live. It ran from six till the movie, which started at seven-thirty was over, and began with crafts and cupcakes and kid stuff. Little kid stuff which my kid, who was one of the two teenagers there, enjoyed helping the really little kids with. The announcement on the library’s website noted that this was a PG-13 movie and yet I think most of those parents didn’t quite understand what movie they were going to see.

As my kid’s mom pointed out later, the little kids were either too young to quite get the action or just old enough to get the stuff going splodey, so that was probably okay, but I wonder how many of the parents got the same feels that I got from it.

Seeing all those little kids there, playing unspoiled and innocent, with this movie going on above their heads.

I, too, was completely unspoiled going into the movie.*

It was totally convincing. I had no idea there was any CGI trickery or casting wizardry going on. I was sold, beginning to end.

Seeing Wla naq ure cneragf trg gur punapr gb eha gung Yhxr naq uvf nhag naq hapyr qvq abg trg**, that just killed me.

Realizing after the movie that strange encounter played out exactly as they’d planned, all the way down to gur zbz xabjvatyl trggvat xvyyrq gb ohl n yvggyr zber gvzr sbe gur xvq gb trg njnl, univat n qrnq fubg ba Xeraavp gung fur oyrj ba checbfr va beqre gb xrrc uvz va cynpr nf n hfrshy gbby jub unqa’g svtherq bhg gur sngure jnfa’g gehyl arprffnel, nyy fb gur sngure pbhyq fcraq svsgrra lrnef qbvat jebat va gur ubcr bs bar evtug npg ng gur raq, bar ur unq yvggyr ernfba gb oryvrir jbhyq fhpprrq**, that resonated with me.

I mean, gurl unq lrnef gb cyna vg bhg, naq zbzragf gb znxr vg ybbx tbbq, naq gurl qvq vg**, and I should have known how the movie would end right then. This was so much like the original, Episode 4: A New Hope, in so many ways, except for rirelbar qlvat**, that it rang loud and true for me.

All I could see in that movie was myself and what family I have and the world we currently inhabit.

You know that scene in John Barnes’ The Armies of Memory where Shan’s father buys him an ice cream cone? It’s the kid’s mom who turned me on to Barnes and bought me that book. I’m buying as many ice cream cones as often as I can right now.

I don’t think that was necessarily the movie I wanted to see, and I know it’s not the movie I thought I was going to see, but I think it was the movie I needed to see and the movie people need to have at this time. Every now and then an artist reaches into the zeitgeist and pulls out something weird and strange and richly timed, and I think this movie is as perfectly strange as Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft coming out on 9/11 and saying “I came ashore in the dead of night/A lot of things can get in the way when you’re trying to do what’s right”.

On the way to the kid’s and the kid’s mom’s home after the movie, we were talking about something, I forget exactly what, something current, and I had occasion to say to the kid, “Rebellions are built on hope,” neither ironically or sarcastically but with a catch in my throat.

One of the things before the movie was buttons with various symbols on them. All three of us had picked buttons with the rebel insignia.

When we got to their home and I settled into the guest room, I looked for the bag of buttons I’d taken from my folks’ house.

I already had my #IllGoWithYou button and my Love Each Other Motherfuckers button on my hat. I put the rebellion button on it. Then I put on my Rock Against Racism 1979 Militant Entertainment Tour button, and my Elvis Costello making a fist button, and my Martin Luther King button from 1984, back before he was okay to like in polite company, and my old IWW button with the guy behind bars saying We’re In Here For You/You’re Out There For Us. I later added my Cooley/Hood 2016 button. I think I’m ready as I can be.***

All that is probably a little too much, and of course it isn’t nearly enough, but it feels just about right to me.

*Something I cannot say about The Force Awakens, which I still have not seen.

**There’s a convention of using the rot-13 code to mask spoilers. You can cut and paste those passages into any translator on line and see what I said. There’s probably a plugin I could use to make it easier for you. When I have time to find it, I’ll install it and patch this post.

***Or so I thought. A few days later, a guy on the bus as we rode back from Wal-Mart, read my hat and offered me his little Fuck Fear button. It’s on there now, too.

How To Be Good: Forgiving and Unforgiving

I’m becoming less forgiving and less tolerant.

It’s not a pleasant development, but this is a time of injury. No matter how skilled the healer, some wounds fester.

I would love to tell you that we can forgive all those who wrong us. I would love to tell myself that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. A comforting lie is a lie nonetheless, so instead I bring a not-entirely-bitter truth.

Every day, unforgivable things happen all around us. Every day, people forgive them or unforgive them. Sometimes they forgive the unforgivable. Sometimes they are right to do so, sometimes not. Sometimes people break each other over trivia.

This election has been particularly bitter. The stakes were higher than in recent memory. One of the candidates ran as a strongman rather than a politician and that candidate won. History teaches us to avoid what we now have rubbed in our faces.

Many people helped cause this problem.

Some of them couldn’t have known any better. Some of them should have. Some of them knew better but should have done better. Some of them were careless. Some of them didn’t care. Some of them are bad people doing bad things on purpose.

Who do we forgive? There’s no question there’ll have to be forgiveness going on. Too many decent people made bad choices for us to just cut them off. Even if it were practical, it would be wrong.

This is going to be a hard question for people to face. I have my own lines drawn, but I wouldn’t recommend copying my work. My life has been too particular for my pattern to fit your equally particular life. But I do have one thought.

So many people I know have separated themselves from their families of birth. One would hope that would be an unbreakable bond. A bond one would not want to break. And yet for so many people, the bondage of such intimate ties is unbearable. Something has gone wrong where things are supposed to be right. Sometimes it’s abuse, whether physical or mental. Sometimes it’s lack of acceptance. It’s always someone’s human folly or flaw, nestled like a knife against your most personal, tenderest places.

So people choose to break such bonds. It’s not a choice to wish on someone. Neither is it a choice to second-guess.

As it is in miniature in the family, so it is in the large in society. The fundamental human bonds that make it possible for us to live together and sometimes find a little comfort and joy in doing so, those same bonds can be turned toxic and demand to be destroyed. From a trusted loved one or a dear friend to a total stranger in your face on Facebook, sometimes the only decent and humane thing to do is to cut a tie and walk away and not look back.

So this is the one thing I have to guide you in forgiving and unforgiving:

If a total stranger takes a political action which will endanger your life, restrict your freedom, does something so vile, so awful, so unbearable that you do not find forgiveness in your heart for it,

Think of your dearest relative, your closest friend, your sweetest partner. Think of that person doing the thing you cannot decide whether to forgive. Think of that person doing to you what you cannot bear forgiving,

And if you would forgive your dearest for such a sin, then I say you should forgive a casual acquaintance, a total stranger, an annoying co-worker, whoever else might commit that sin against you, for that particular sin.

That works both ways. If someone otherwise unknown to you says or does a thing you find unforgivable, that is a thing you must find unforgivable in your loved ones.

I didn’t promise much. What I do have for you, I will stand on.

There is certainly power to be found in just, righteous anger. You should seize that power when it comes to you. You should wield it for good. Seeking it out, though, is asking for trouble, a fool’s game at best and the road to hell at worst.

I assure you, even if things go relatively well the next few years, you will have endless reasons to be angry, crimes and cowardices not to forgive. You may have reason soon enough to hate. There’s no reason to hurry and every reason to wait.

There’s a certain symmetry in anger, an almost balance that instead escalates anger and conflict. If you can’t control your anger, if it uses you instead of you using it, then it stops being helpful and starts becoming its own problem. The chances are good that it will be through with you before you are through with it.

If we are to care at least somewhat for every human being, then we have to consider doing so fairly, then in matters concerning society or humanity or any necessary complete idea made flesh, we have to think of all people simply as fellow human beings first.

So forgive the forgivable things and hope the unforgivable people can redeem themselves. That’s generous enough to everyone.

How To Be Good: An Introduction

In troubled times, it’s often good to get back to the basics.

These are the sorts of troubled times which I dreamed of, as a foolish and romantic child. Times in history when things were uncertain and exciting and up in the air and one well-timed move might bring the whole circus down.

That’s an easy dream to get behind until you learn intimately just how hard it is to build anything, any damn thing at all.

But we learn things, even in the playgrounds of our dreams, about how to live, and the fantasies of my youth might have taught me a bit after all, especially since I fed them as much history as I could cram in with the stories and songs.

So I’ve been reading various stories, each one true in at least some senses, about people in difficult times and hearing what they are telling us, over the distance of culture and time, over the border of myth and fiction and even history.

“The problem is always how to live in a decadent society.” Not entirely true, because sometimes the decadent society can’t be lived in. Then what? Now, surviving a decadent society is a different matter. That’s a thing to learn.

So I have just a few thoughts worth sharing about how to be good in a bad time.

UU 102: “A conversation begins with a lie…”

Of all the dangers I ever wondered about in the marriage equality movement, it was the possibility that the GLBTQ community would collude in the silencing of these queer notions of love and desire.   When I used to read those alarmist articles about queers wanting to change marriage, and straight (and also gay) liberals defending our upstanding intent to slip unassuming into marriage as-is, I used to think – No.  We do want to change marriage.  I hope we do. 

Me, too, friend. Me, too.

Dear American Family Association, Please add us to your “Bigotry Map”

Dear American Family Association,

I am pleased to see that you have created a “bigotry map”. For some time, I’ve wanted a comprehensive list of those against whom you are bigoted. Your map is even better than a list! Well done! I know people in both the groups in Little Rock who you have mapped. Thank you for recognizing their virtues.

However, you have also greatly offended me. My church is not on your Wall of Honor. What do you have against us?|

Please add us to your map immediately. Failing to do so may result in my taking legal action on my own behalf. Here is the information you need to correctly recognize us:

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Little Rock
1818 Reservoir Road
Little Rock, Arkansaw 72205

You can spot us by the rainbow banner out front.

Sincerely yours,

Johnnie B. Zip

P.S. I am unable to embed your map here on my blog. Your help in doing so would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

UU 102: My one wish for today, the second anniversary of the Newtown Shooting

I wish we Unitarian Universalists were more willing to simply let our hearts break when they ought to break:

(The language gets worse, so turn the sound down now if need be. I expect I’ll turn autoplay off tomorrow, but today it stays.)

I remember the three steps in which the Newtown shooting became terribly real to me. The first was thinking, “Sandy Hook? Isn’t that where Scooter was the caretaker for his step-grandfather?” You Little Rock folks know who Scooter is.

The second step was reading my friend from  Fayetteville, Geri, had moved to Sandy Hook–did I remember that she’d moved there? I sure won’t ever forget it–and that her son was right down the hall from the killings.

Then step three was a one-word post on Facebook from Lee Tomboulian–“No”–at the news that the daughter of someone in his circle of New York City jazz musicians was killed, and at that point, it all got very intimately inside my heart and head real.

We intellectualize when, and what, we should feel. How many victims–twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight? Good question. Here’s an answer: Who cares? Isn’t this terrible enough without quibbling over the details? Can’t you just let your heart break?

I’ve tried since then to read everything her parents put on Facebook about Ana Grace Márquez-Greene, to let it sink in and try to imagining what this must be like for them and their son, and to repost it with “Never Forget”.

I missed some, but I’ve tried, and now here is a bit of what her mother had to say for this anniversary:

I remember my six year old’s last words: “There’s something for you under my tree!” This is what she told the bus driver in the last moments before her death. The final words of a first grader. . . .

Sweet Caramel Princess,

Today I feel like I have an apple stuck in my throat. I am having trouble breathing as the memories come in like a flood. Two years ago we were waking up on a day like today to a nightmare that has still not ended. Your daddy went to take out the trash and there were reporters lurking in the bushes. Isaiah was huddled in his bed with a far away, glazed look in his eyes unable to get warm. I was unable to feel my arms or legs. You were not in your bed. The sound of the helicopters above made our small house shake and made conversation impossible.

The lump. The lump in my throat is knowing I can only have you as an angel when I just want you in my lap…

…We would trade everything to have you back. Even for ten seconds. I would give my all to kiss that sweet spot under your neck. . . .

I take comfort in the things we taught you in the short years we had you. Your life was well lived. You knew how to love. You knew how to live. I am so glad we let you make messes. I am so glad we gave you lots of hugs and kisses. You indeed lived a Beautiful Life . . .


Your Apricot Mami

Ana Grace loved Jesus, people and food. She also loved dancing, music and fun. She loved Canada, CT and Puerto Rico. She loved the sun. She was a real girl who was really murdered on December 14th, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

That it was necessary to say “a real girl who was really murdered” is  disturbing. A mutual friend of mine and Geri’s, a nice guy despite being around the bend on conspiracy theories, told her the killings were a hoax. His “evidence” trumped her and her son’s eyewitness.

Skepticism is so valuable, valuable in particular when it is turned on itself. Rigorous self-honesty and constant critical thought can help you know where you embraced logic yet abandoned reason, where your skepticism became the worst form of gullibility.

When UU theologians refer to the “idolatry of reason” (a term I so dislike), this is typically all or part of what they’re talking about.

Emotion is sometimes dangerous when it disregards reason, but reason sometimes goes off the rails when it disregards emotion. The gut check of conscience can solve ethical problems our conscious mind evades or ignores or refuses to confront.

Sometimes that refusal to confront reality is based in pain or fear. UU theologian Sharon Welch put me onto the wonderful fiction of Toni Cade Bambara. I can do no better than to quote them:

Minnie Ransom [a character in Bambara’s The Salt-Eaters] sees such an avoidance of pain frequently in her work at the infirmary. She tells of an incident in which a woman came to the infirmary “clawing at her hair, wailing to beat the band, asking for some pills. Wanted a pill because she was in pain, felt bad, wanted to feel good.” The woman was overcome with pain because her mother had died. Minnie was appalled: “Her mama died, she’s supposed to feel bad. . . . Bless her heart, just a babe of the times. Wants to be smiling and feeling good all the time. Smooth sailing as they lower the mama into the ground.”

Which is not that far from Mike Cooley’s vision of the fundamentalist endgame:

So be it if they come to find out feeling good’s
as easy as denying that there’s day or night at all
til what it takes to feel a thing seems so far out of reach
they just claw their skin and grind their teeth and bawl

But I didn’t have these resources–Cooley’s song, Bambara’s novel, Welch’s theology–two years ago. I had to push through a day of grieving people everywhere with what I had at hand. I mean, there was at least one grieving person inside me. It felt like more.

That night, Patterson Hood and the Downtown Rumblers were closing out a tour. As a courtesy to fans who can’t attend, they let a show taper stream his signal on the internet so those of us at home could listen along. It was a lovely, heartfelt performance.

I know the song “A World of Hurt” very well and have been comforted by it on more than one hard occasion. When that intro started, I knew that what had to come that night finally was coming and that I was going to cry like a baby. It was exactly what I needed.

I cried all through writing this, too, through listening to that performance a few times, through writing about it, through thinking back on that dreadful day, through thinking about what the future might bring–

–and right on cue, there’s my daughter, feeling bad, so I must pause and take her temperature–

–and she’s okay–

–and while I remain ultimately optimistic, I’m was pretty sure then and just as sure now the crying isn’t over, by a long shot.

So what do we have, anyway? Three chords and the truth? A majority of people in a society run by a majority of money?

We have a lot, and one thing is the ability of art to bring us through life.

What Patterson Hood did for that crowd in Nashville–and for all of us who were connected to them that night, and for all of us who are connected to that performance right now, here in this age of local loneliness and world-wide connectivity–is sacred work. You don’t have to believe in the supernatural–I don’t–to believe in the sacred. Neither do you have to believe the people who do sacred work are anything more than ordinary human beings. Talented folks, or brave folks, or determined folks, beautiful soulful folks who do The Work.

What we do is who we are.

When anyone works with the raw material of people’s hearts and minds and lives, and transforms crushing grief, perhaps, by filtering it through persistent joy and turns it into something both beautiful and bearable, a bandage worn over a wound like a badge of honor.

And that is sacred work. No matter how it’s done, no matter what the intent, no matter how banal or strange or boring or downright freaky the method. Method just doesn’t matter. What counts is lives lifted up and hours filled with mercy, beauty, and joy.