Category Archives: Religion

100 Consecutive Days of Meditation Practice; 31 Days Without Sugar, Dairy, Grains, Legumes, Alcohol, and Soy; It’s Spring!


And no sugar that is not a natural byproduct of any of those items on the left.

Today my Insight Timer, an iphone app that keeps track of how many consecutive days and how many minutes and hours one spends in meditation practice, confirmed for me the 100th consecutive day of sitting for at least 10 minutes, every other Sunday as much as an hour, on a cushion. Today I have set two personal records. 100 days of mindfulness practice is the first. The second record is that I am on day 31 without alcohol, sugar, dairy products, grains, beans, and soy. I have successfully completed the Whole 30 project. So I thought I would check in today to do a little bit of reflection about the results, and about what I think this all means for me.

Result #1: I have lost weight. I’m not a big boy by any means, but things were protruding somewhat conspicuously in the middle. That protrusion has subsided somewhat and I think, depending on the accuracy of the scale or my memory, I’ve lost almost 10 pounds.

Result #2: I sleep better. I find myself going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. I find myself dreaming more vividly. I have not heard in 30 days any complaints from my sleeping companion about snoring. There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep, kept awake by what I have come to call “hamsters.” But this is an entirely different kind of problem from the fitful sleeping fueled by alcohol that might have been an almost weekly problem for me heretofore. And napping in the afternoon after work has all but disappeared–except on maybe one or two occasions during the month when I was suffering from a minor cold or recovering from a night with the hamsters.

Result #3: I have experienced a boost in energy. It seems I have more fuel and there’s a certainty that this new fuel reserve is a direct byproduct of the foodstuff I am consuming, and more importantly, the foodstuff I am NOT consuming. No sugar, breads, pastas, dairy, or alcohol (I see these intuitively as the main culprits) to put a drag on the day. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #4: Concerning alcohol, I know now that if I choose to, I can stop drinking. This was actually a question for me before this whole project got underway. I worried about it. And I meditated on it. And I am happy to report that I am not an alcoholic. As I look ahead, what I hope is that I have given myself permission and an opportunity to rethink my relationship with the stuff. I can’t see myself as a teetotaller, but I can see myself as a person who drinks less habitually and more mindfully, cautiously, moderately. That’s the kind of drinker I’d like to be. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #5: I have felt happy more often, sometimes unaccountably so. Maybe only once this entire month have I felt what one might call “blue.” I wept today over the end of Death of a Salesman, but that’s different. That’s an appropriate response to emotional stimuli, rather than a sense of gloom or boredom or discontentedness that would sometimes overwhelm me out of nowhere. So, there’s been less of that. And the happiness I’m describing is not some kind of feeling of fulfillment, ultimate satisfaction, a sense that I’ve arrived, but rather a kind of joyful bug, an invasion of mirth or wonder. Glee for no good reason. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Final Result: I believe somewhat without any evidence whatsoever that my meditation practice made it possible for me to successfully complete my Whole 30 project. I can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but here are two activities occurring simultaneously in my life. Did the meditation practice influence the success of the Food Project or did the Food Project facilitate the successful conclusion of 100 days of meditation practice or do the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other? Don’t spoil it for me. I think meditation helped. But perhaps, more so than what it is I was doing, it’s possible that ANY discipline religiously observed might pave the way for another discipline religiously observed. And I don’t mean religious religiously (but I suppose if I was a praying man and I was praying for 100 days straight I would be convinced that these prayers were answered), I mean religiously in the sense of its definition, three definitions down: scrupulously faithful; conscientious I could have been praying, sure, or exercising, or writing a poem, or maintaining a zen rock and sand garden, or drinking a magic potion; the devoted practice done repeatedly might just pave the way for other life goals or projects. You know what they say: success breeds success. So this is all I can claim: I think the meditation helped, primarily in the way that it disciplined me and perhaps made possible the discipline I would need for The Food Project, not to mention the other things I think meditation achieves for me: it centers, it mellows, it cools, it calms, it evens out, it stabilizes, it connects, it reflects, it resonates, it quiets. I have faith in the science that says it’s beneficial in part because I feel its benefits. And it’s spring. There’s that too, after all.





Filed under Religion, Self Reflection

Finding My Way Back to Courage


At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.

I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.

I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.

I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of  “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.

What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.

My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:

  • Come with 100% of your self
  • Presume welcome and extend welcome
  • Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
  • Know that there is always invitation, never demand
  • Avoid fixing–no fixing
  • Practice openness and learn from others
  • Speak for your self; use “I” statements
  • Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
  • Listen to the silence
  • Observe confidentiality

Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.

It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.

My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a  way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. I am thinking seriously about training to be a facilitator of this important, transformational work. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.

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Filed under Education, Religion, Self Reflection, Teaching

Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Tropical Flesh Mandala

I slept for seven hours cuddled up with my tiny electric fan–literally.  I thought maybe I’d roll over in the middle of the night and knock it off the mattress, or, worse, dreaming that I was snuggling with this machine, I might wake up with my hair caught in the fan blades.  No, it was safe and I was safe.  I didn’t move and the fan, sitting right next to me on the mattress, whirred me to sleep, kept me cool, and finally, on the fourth night at Wally Writer’s Camp, I slept well enough to be downright jazzed about attending this morning’s first class, having something to do with the iconic Buddhist, Hindu, sometimes Christian, oftentimes secular symbol or practice of the mandala. For readers who may not know what a mandala is, rather than define it, here’s an example I pulled from the mighty web in a 30 second google search:


The class was taught by my new Wally buddy, the poet Michael Collins, and he facilitated the class in the best way, or perhaps, the only way in which to facilitate such a class with writers.  He had 20 or 30 different mandalas spread around the room.  In an hour Michael spoke less than 3 or 400 words.  Instead of talking about them, he orchestrated for us an experience with them. We looked at mandalas; we wrote about mandalas; some of us moved around from mandala to mandala; some of us remained faithful to one the entire time. In silence and on our notepads or notebooks, we described, told stories around, and dialogued with the mandalas, and then finally we made one of our own.  For about twenty minutes we were coloring, and it was exhilarating.

But here’s the thing for me that speaks to both the power of this kind of work and of the mandala specifically, but, more importantly, to the synchronistic quality that often percolates through a Wally Writer’s Camp experience.  After describing and narrating the particular mandala each of us had chosen, Michael instructed us to dialogue with it.  And, after giving us a few quick descriptors about what that might look like, he made an offhand quip to put us at ease and make us laugh: “You know, maybe you’ve got a character that talks to art.”

As it so happens, in my current project in fiction writing, I have a character that talks to art.  My dialogue had nothing to do with that, but with the particular mandala I was looking at, a series of four trees around the circle, each tree in a different stage of its year, bare, leafing, blooming, fruiting. But Michael’s comment stuck with me, and the mandala that I created later represented the four characters in my novel and their interconnectedness, and then, later, when I squirreled off by myself to write in my sky room (once more unoccupied!), I wrote a scene in which my character talks to art.

Today, in part because of a good night’s sleep, in part because of Michael’s fortuitous class, and in part because René just texted me a picture of my son, I have been grateful and happy almost beyond comprehension.


P.S.  This is not the mandala I was looking for, but t’will serve.

P.S.P.S.  Oh, here it is, right in front of my face.

Photo on 7-2-14 at 3.48 PM

The mandala I made for my characters, while useful, was ugly.  I won’t be posting it.

 P.S.P.S.P.S.  And this, for Michael Collins, who has never heard of Robyn Hitchcock, is a song from his 80’s solo album Globe of Frogs, “Tropical Flesh Mandala.” The piano solo during the end fade is especially brilliant and terrible.


Filed under Religion, Writing and Reading

#120: The Resident Eight Year Old Speaks of Easter


Well, at first,
I thought it was
just about candy,
you know, just
as I thought
Christmas was
about presents.
And I thought
Easter was about
magical bunnies
just as Christmas
was about Santa.
But now I know.
Now I know that
Easter and the
Christmas holiday
are both about
Jesus. In December,
people celebrate
the birth of Jesus
and in April people
celebrate his death–
which is kind of
strange. But Dad
told me that
people believe
that Jesus
supposedly came
back to life and
that’s partly what’s so
special about Jesus.
I mean, not very
many dead people
can do that; it’s a
skill he had,
apparently. That’s
why, I guess, people
say Jesus is a god,
or that Jesus IS
god. I’m not so
sure. My parents
don’t take me to
church and they
don’t tell me to
believe one thing
or another thing
but I’m no dummy
and I can put
two and two
together and I
have come to the
conclusion that
Mom and Dad
are, all at once,
the tooth fairy,
the Easter bunny,
and Santa all
rolled into one,
or two, and because
they don’t go to church
I’m betting they have
their doubts about
the whole Jesus
coming back to life
thing. I had a lot
of fun this morning
looking for eggs
around the house
and finding the big
basket in the corner
behind the couch.
And I sacrificed a few
of my eggs so that
Dad could have a
hunt when he finally
got out of bed,
but I didn’t see
Jesus anywhere
and we didn’t say
any prayers or talk
about god. In
conclusion, my
Daddy wants me
to be older so that
I can make up my
own mind and
I think that’s fair.
Christmas and Easter
are just fun things
that we do and
I’m okay with that
for now.

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Filed under Parenting, Poetry, Religion

#67: The American Atheist Endorses The Pope


He reads that the Pope
has nothing against him,
in fact, sees him as an equal,
every bit as deserving
as the most devout religionist.
He sees the Pope coming out
for those who are coming out
and for those who have been
forever out of the closet.
He sees him saying that
market capitalism has run
amok and he sees the Pope
advocate, really advocate,
for the poor–in the way that
Jesus might have done.
This is all new, every day a new
wrinkle in the Atheist’s old faith,
the one he grew up with and finally
jettisoned because he’s actually
read parts of the Bible and been
sickened at heart by the atrocities
in the Catholic history, both recent
and ancient. And then he reads
that the Pope has said that parts
of the Bible itself are full of “later
interpolations contrary to the message
of love and truth” and finally, finally
he says that women should be ordained
and that one day he hopes
a woman will be Pope.
All this good news is not enough
to make the American Atheist “believe” anything
that he found impossible to believe
before Francis started changing the world,
except maybe for this:
that coexistence is possible
and hope is possible when
religious leaders start to use their minds
and are lead by reason, reason, reason,
and not the blind, unthinking, fundamentalist dogma
and anti-intellectualism that plagues
our country and the planet and in no exaggerated
way threatens our existence.
The American Atheist endorses The Pope
and says a very enthusiastic Merry Christmas
to the new Catholic Church.

Note:  This poem was in large part inspired by an article posted on The Mighty Social Network from a WordPress blog site called Diversity Chronicle.  Following a thread in this original post, someone made the claim that the article was a hoax, and, it turns out, from the blog site’s own disclaimer, that it might indeed be a hoax.  Okay, so maybe the Pope endorsed in this poem did not say that he hoped a woman could be Pope or that the Bible contains bullshit. But my bets are that he might at some point.  And, while I feel a little bit cheated by the Diversity Chronicle people, I am somewhat in agreement with the philosophy of the Lichtenberg quote on their disclaimer page:  “I ceased in the year 1764 to believe that one can convince one’s opponents with arguments printed in books. It is not to do that, therefore, that I have taken up my pen, but merely so as to annoy them, and to bestow strength and courage on those on our own side, and to make it known to the others that they have not convinced us.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.  So let’s write poetry and fiction in which the Pope says women should be ordained and the Bible contains some stretchers, and maybe, through the pure force of imagination, we can make a new kind of reality.  Thoreau:  “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”


Filed under Religion

#59: Out of the Mouths of Babes


Mom and Dad are not religious,
and have not yet taught their boy much
about the wide array of stuff
people believe in their
hearts and homes and churches,
but the boy’s starting to catch on
with or without their intervention
and today it was clear, to Dad anyway,
that some intervention will be necessary soon,
possibly as early as right now,
as the boy tells his father’s brother
(the real minister in the family)
that God is dead.

No, he wasn’t quoting Nietzsche;
he’s only seven and is woefully
underschooled in existentialist
philosophy. Far from
the young lad making any kind
of atheistic statement, he was probably
just talking about what he knows,
that Jesus did in fact die a long time ago.
But that’s not how it was heard
by Dad’s brother the pastor,
and it’s not the way Dad heard
it at first either.  Subsequently,
Dad is mortified and embarrassed and
kind of angry, even though the sentiment,
even if it were some kind of child pronouncement
of anti-faith, is not terribly far afield of Dad’s worldview.

Here’s the thing he wants his son to know:
Even if you think someone’s beliefs are bunk
(and you’re probably too young to come to that),
you don’t say the thing you know they will hate to hear
because you will either hurt them, alienate them,
make them think of you poorly, hate you,
or make them want to kill you.
And what good is that?
So we apologize for disrespecting
our family member’s religion,
even if we didn’t mean any harm
and even if its a religion our parents
seem not to be practicing. Dad knows,
and the young boy on the edge of his eighth
birthday is learning fast:
We’re navigating rough waters, now.

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Filed under Parenting, Poetry, Religion

#46: Call Me Reverend


Call Me Reverend

Call me reverend, call me padre or father,
man of the cloth, pastor, minister, oh wise one,
leader of men, shepherd, or guy who became
an ordained minister on-line in less than
five real live human minutes.
Call me the guy who has credentials
to marry and bury and a parking permit
and a press pass and a free pass
and a bumper sticker that says,
“We are all children of the same universe”
above the symbolic representations
of all the faiths on the planet,
some of which he recognizes,
many of which he does not
and none of which represent
a faith he belongs to or practices.
Call me the Atheist minister,
the guy who became ordained because
someone asked him to officiate a wedding
and he said yes,
who believes in the basic goodness
and dignity of every living thing,
who believes not in an afterlife
of heaven or hell,
but of an afterlife in the memory
of those left behind and whose
lives he touched, for better or worse,
the guy who believes, in a nutshell,

that this is it,

and heaven or hell,
heaven and hell
are right here and now, baby,
and that one can be
exchanged for the other
with the right or wrong
kind of practice or with a good
or a bad kind of luck.
His ministry or creed:
be good to people and the planet
and all the living things upon it,
and that will go an awful long way.
It’s all we’ve got, in the end.



Filed under Poetry, Religion

#44: Sure, I Will Marry You


Sure, I Will Marry You

Sure, I’ll marry you, if you’d like.
That’s what I told a student of mine
who sent me this message out of the blue
fifteen years or better after he’d been
in my classroom reading some Shakespeare,
saying he had asked his girlfriend,
who was also a student of mine
fifteen years ago, to get hitched,
and for some reason, they thought
their high school English teacher
would be the perfect guy for the job.
Will you marry us, he said,
and I said, sure, I will marry you.
I was honored and happy.
I didn’t have a certificate to marry anyone
so I got on the internet and
in five minutes I was ordained
as a minister in the Universal Life Church.
I was pretty pleased with myself.
I’m not religious any more
but the Universal Life Church makes
no demand and sets no standard
for any particular flavor or level
of religiosity, no dogma to follow,
inclusive of even the Agnostic and Atheist.
Well, that’s my kind of church, I thought,
as I ordered up my legal certificate
to certify my reverential self to the State
and to the world.
I told my former students
that I wouldn’t be talking about Jesus
and they were all right by that.
Despite my lack of religion,
despite the fact that it’s probably
been thirty years since I last said a prayer,
I think of myself, still, in spiritual terms,
think there is a big difference between
spirituality and religion, and find much
in the world and in life to be reverential
and even worshipful about. So
I find myself pretty darn excited now
to be a man of the cloth, of some kind of cloth;
hell yeah, I’m now a reverend, and if you ask me
to marry you or bury you or make a blessing
of some kind, I’ll do my level best
to bring some thought, some levity,
some seriousness, and gobs of respect
to the occasion, because that’s what you deserve.
That’s what we all deserve.

Reverend Michael Anthony Jarmer

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Filed under Culture, Poetry, Religion, Self Reflection, Teaching

Of a Holy Secular Christmas

The only times I go into churches any more are for weddings and funerals, and, on rare occasions, when there’s no service, for a quiet space. I am not attending mass or any other church service on Christmas. And I guess, it needs to be said, and I’ll say it here publicly for perhaps the first time, formerly speaking: I am an atheist. And I’m celebrating Christmas. I love Christmas. But mine is a secular one, meaning that I have participated in most of the trappings of the season (tree decorating, music listening, goody consuming, gift giving, light hanging) but not in those trappings that are particularly religious (church going, Bible reading, sermonizing, prayer sending, nativity scene building)—and even when I listen to or perform music that is blatantly religious, “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” (to name a few of my favorites), I will appreciate the beautiful melodies, the nuanced performances, the arrangements, and I’ll even admire the beauty of the feeling and the narrative behind that feeling, without a conviction that this music represents literal truth or historical truth.

I sometimes wonder if it is not somehow inauthentic to celebrate a religious holiday in a tradition one does not participate in or even remotely believe. Let me justify my position. I am not the kind of non-believer that suggests that Jesus never lived. Nope, I think he was an actual guy, as human as anyone—I mean, in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. was as human as anyone. But Jesus was not born on December 25th. We don’t know when the guy was born, exactly, although most historians put his birthday early fall or maybe late spring. So why the 25th? Early Christians, in an effort to appeal to the Pagans and win over more converts, chose the 25th, a Pagan holiday called Saturnalia celebrating the Winter Solstice (which I understand was one hell of a party). So I can, in good conscience, celebrate Christmas as a Winter Solstice holiday, or, whether it’s his actual date of birth or not, I can celebrate the day as a symbolic birthday party for the guy who, while not the son of God, or God in the flesh, had a few really good things to say about how to live a life and how to treat people.

And I can celebrate the holiday as a kind of nostalgia trip. As I child I was spellbound, intoxicated, totally enthused by the season and this particular holiday. I was a believer as a child—and I know that part of the appeal of Christmas for the childhood me, beyond all the commercial stuff that’s been bastardizing the holiday for at least the last one hundred years, was a kind of wonder, a reverence and awe for the spiritual or religious aspects of the season. I know that added to the magic; and illusory as that magic was—the feeling was real enough. And I think about how I want my son to experience the holiday. I don’t want him indoctrinated but I do want him to understand some things.  I can teach him about the historical Jesus. I can teach him what Christians believe about who he was. I can honestly tell him where I stand (to do otherwise would be dishonest), and I can emphasize to him the importance of making up his own mind when he has the maturity to do so. But I imagine that part of the holiday magic, that spiritual part, might be something that is always lacking for him—unless the holiday can remain somehow holy without being dependent upon religious dogma and superstition.

I appreciate two of the five definitions of the word“holy” I find on my favorite web dictionary. Something is holy when it has the quality of being spiritually pure. Or, something is holy when it is entitled to worship or veneration—as if sacred. I can get behind both of these ideas. First, one can be spiritual without being religious.  Second, there can be something sacred, worshipful, venerable about the holiday if we take time to think about those values Christmas can represent—all of which are inherently good and secular to boot. Good will toward men and women. Compassion, tolerance, and generosity. Peace on earth. Gratitude. Childlike innocence and wonder. Quiet time with family. A really good seasonal ale. An attempt to resist materialistic excess. These things, when they occur, are just as magical as any story about a virgin birth–maybe more so because they are within the realm of possibility.  These things represent Christmas for me and will continue to embody the holiday for as long as I’m around, I suspect.

Have a holy secular Christmas, y’all, unless you’re inclined to do otherwise.  Then do that.  And happy new year.

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Filed under Culture, Religion

Of Social Networks: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

First off, I offer my apologies, to anyone who’s actually following this blog, for my lengthy absence from the sphere. It was August the last time I penned anything for this venue, and that’s been weighing on me pretty heavily during this most difficult first few months of the school year—over 200 high school students on my caseload, new curriculum again, new standards again, and very little in the way of additional support. So, I come home feeling hit by a bus and pour myself a glass, listen to music, play with my boy as much as I can, work on fiction maybe a couple hours once a week, and sleep.

I decide today to break the dry spell, in the wake of the last week’s horrors, to ask a question regarding the social network we call facebook and the degree to which it is a viable avenue for social discourse of any consequence.

Let me give some brief context. I’ve got friends who aren’t really friends (an interesting commentary on the way this particular social network has really morphed the meaning of that word). You know, we all probably have them—ghosts from our past who friend-request us, people who, decades after our initial acquaintance, likely old high school haunts, we would not even recognize if we saw them on the street. We vaguely recognize their names, find out they were ex-students, or we were classmates or neighbors or something, and we say, of course, why the hell not? Let’s be “friends.” And over the course of this precarious “friendship”, we end up learning a little bit about these people, most disconcertingly perhaps, that they do not share our politics. Now, that, on the surface, is no big deal. I have real friends, ones I see in the flesh every day, whose politics are very different from mine—and yet, we get on just swimmingly.

But let’s say for example, after last week’s mass murder of children, and in my own neck of the woods a mall shooting, when you’re exploring these issues around security, school safety, gun control, media responsibility, and mental health, trying your level best, liberal as you might be, to make sense, to figure out some stuff, to come to terms, while taking care as best you can of your loved ones—you’re checking out your news feed on facebook and this is what you see. It’s one of those quote graphics, words of “wisdom” against a pretty and sometimes appropriately themed backdrop. And this one concludes with this: “The problem is not guns. It is a Godless society.”

So, now that you’re squarely in my shoes, I’ll speak in the first person. Immediately, I’m enraged. My heart pounds, my blood boils. I cannot help but respond. And the exchange that ensues, sometimes reasonable, but mostly not, mostly frustrating, mostly talk at cross-purposes, some name calling, a lot of misunderstanding and dismissiveness, consumes practically my whole day. I try to stop. I can’t. I walk away and say that I’m done. A half an hour later I’m checking my notifications to see what new idiocy appears there. Part of me says, dude, you can defriend the guy; this is swallowing up too much of your psychic energies. Defriend. Problem solved. The other part of me says, no, I must not remain silent. I must not allow people to explain away an extremely complex and urgent social problem with a supernatural, pre-modern, anti-intellectual, fairy story. If they’re facebook friends of mine and they say things publicly I disagree with on some deep, important issue, I have an obligation to speak up.

So I keep at it. The last post in the thread, mine, appears at 1:30 in the morning. I’m in the process of letting it go now, perhaps, only because the friend in question and a couple of other voices that chimed in on his behalf have been silent. If they were to keep at it, who knows how long I would have pursued the argument—and finally, for what effect, to what end? And I’m sure these other folks felt the same way about what they perceived as my bleeding heart stupidity. Why was I doing this? Did I think I would change their minds? Doubtful. Did I derive any pleasure from the contest? On the contrary: it stressed me out. Was anything accomplished? Thus far, only that I had the last word. I don’t find that terribly satisfying. So, rather than saying anything specific about the issue we were arguing about (the simplification of complex social problems around gun violence to the SINFULNESS of our nation), I just want to pose these questions and offer some possible answers:

What are the benefits of facebook participation? I enjoy hearing from people I care about from time to time, dropping in on their lives for a moment to find out what’s going on. I enjoy readings or images and audio posted by these people I care about. I enjoy articles posted by on-line publications, artists, writers, musicians I subscribe to or “like.” And I enjoy the benefits in the opposite direction: letting friends know what I’m up to or thinking about, telling people about my writings, my blog, or my musical endeavors. For the most part, I enjoy political or philosophical posts made by real friends of mine; and because we have certain sympathies in common, these posts rarely make me uncomfortable and often confirm what I already think. And this may or may not be a benefit of facebook: that most often, people are preaching (or posting) to the choir. No change occurs, just people patting each other on the back. That’s the sort of cozy community aspect of facebook, which, while it may not be all that earth shattering, passes the time somewhat pleasantly. Ultimately it’s just another kind of television.

Can facebook be a place to conduct meaningful social discourse? Generally speaking, I hate to see people airing their dirty laundry or their personal squabbles on facebook. That’s unseemly to me, embarrassing. By contrast, also generally speaking, I get more interested when people argue politics and big ideas, but find, like I found with my own experiences with this, that it’s impossible for people to really reach each other this way, in part, because there’s so much less accountability when you’re typing something from a distant place on the web-o-sphere and not speaking face to face, there’s a tendency toward nastiness and attack, and as a result, nothing changes. There’s a part of me that wants facebook to be a way to decompress and “be with” friends. That part of me advises against becoming friends with people I don’t know well, or people whose world view will make me angry and upset; it’s hard enough navigating the interpersonal relationships with the people I encounter every day in the flesh. But then, there’s another part of me; (there are often, I must confess, on any number of issues and occasions, more than one part of me). This part of me says SPEAK UP. Be like Gandalf in the Fellowship film, faced with the big fire monster; when ignorance rears its head, say, “You cannot pass!” And stand your ground. If I do this, as a practice, I’ve got to approach it in way that results in less hand wringing, less blood boiling, less anxiety. That’s hard for me. To those fears, those emotions that threaten to twist up my insides, and to those who believe God is punishing us by killing our kids, I must again borrow Gandalf’s words: “Fly, you fools,” and continue to argue for sanity.


Filed under Culture, Religion