Priestessing the Priestesses

Last week, I had the incredible privilege of sitting vigil with a friend in hospice in her final hours on this earth. She slept for most of the time I was there, but her waking moments were lucid, if brief. She whispered how good the fresh juice tasted (it had been made for her by a friend), and she seemed to prefer having my hands on her back to pain medication. In the last hour I was with her before leaving, a mutual friend joined us and played gentle, lullaby-style music for her on the kalimba and guitar. As he sang softly to her, I could barely make out his words; the intention was pure, the moment was intimate, and I felt honored to be present for such a profoundly sacred moment.

Speaking with another mutual friend who had held space for Maria in her final days, I mentioned that as I was at hospice I had felt an awareness of priestessing the priestess. Our friend agreed, and said she’d had a similar sensation. “That’s who Maria has been for many of us, whether she claimed that title or not.”

Maria and I were not part of a shared formal congregation or spiritual community in the traditional sense. We were both part of an informal network of friends in a variety of communities whose membership and interests overlap – sacred movement, ecstatic dance, ancestral healing, sound healing, and alternative spiritualities. It’s a network that is both leaderless and full of leaders, as its inherent diversity of beliefs and practices lends itself to members who are specialists in one tradition, students in another, and generalists in deep compassion, holy presence, and unconditional love.

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Family, Interdependence, and Mutual Support

Photo by Flickr user Rainier Martin Ampongan
Photo by Flickr user Rainier Martin Ampongan

Over the past few months, a precious person has come closer into my family’s life in such a way that their presence in my home, among my loved ones, has come to feel natural and easy. This is someone I love, someone who adores my children and appreciates my partner of 18 years and whose sweet spirit and vibrant laughter have added joy and mirth to our family home.

Yesterday, they rode with me to drop my freshly-mohawked teenager off at a farm to help with preparations for an upcoming arts camp. I introduced them by name to the camp assistant and walked over to chat with the camp director for a bit. Later, as we got back into the car to head to lunch, I asked what they thought of the farm.

“It was nice,” they said. “I’m glad your children have a place like that. Also, while I was chatting with the camp assistant, she asked if I was family.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes.”

They weren’t wrong.

The meaning the word “family” holds for me is something I’ve given much consideration over the years.

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On Being an Occasion of Joy

Decorating the tree in the convent guest house When I was 19, I fell hard into the kind of deep depression that hits college kids whose unstable upbringings, rife with inconsistency and trauma, left them ill-prepared to face the self-direction and responsibility of independence. I didn’t grow up religious despite my father’s attempts to turn visitation weeks into conversions, but had started attending the local Episcopal cathedral months earlier after seeing its stunningly beautiful windows on a historic tour. Having taken basic stained glass courses when I was 18, I’d been mesmerized by the artistry and would sit in a different pew each week, drifting into and out of awareness of the service, eyes trained on the nearest window, lost in contemplation, love pouring in.

When the darkness became too much and I sought more of that love through spiritual care and reflection, I walked into the church library and thumbed through the directory looking for resources, and was hopeful to discover that the Episcopal Church had convents. That afternoon, I dialed the number for the nearest convent, and in that especially dramatic way of depressed 19-year-old artist types with backgrounds in theater, I declared that I couldn’t handle life in the world anymore and that I might want to become a nun. Sister Ann told me that their order was less an escape from the world than a new way of being fully present in it, but invited me to spend Christmas at the convent.

What started out as a holiday visit became several months of me spending every day that I wasn’t in class or at work at the convent, living in the guest house, attending five services a day, helping with maintaining the grounds, and spending as many waking hours as I could in the library, face buried in the works of medieval women mystics….

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Present in Our Bodies: Sensuality, Movement, Feelings, and Joy

people dancing ecstatically, arms in the air

Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.

This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.

people dancing ecstatically, arms in the air
Photo by Flickr user dannysoar

On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.

Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning…

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Touch and Presence as Intimate Communion

Over the past 20 years, I’ve been blessed with many moments in which fully aware or embodied presence has intersected spiritual transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others. In my work on a crisis hotline, I’ve held space for strangers to open up and speak freely about pain, grief, and despair.  In my work as a minister, I’ve held a couple’s hands as I blessed their marriage, and I’ve held space with the dying and their loved ones.

In my work as a doula, I’ve supported women draped over my arms as they pushed new life into being; I’ve also held crying fathers in hospital hallways while their lovers were being prepped for emergency surgeries. In my rape crisis work, I’ve held the hands of women in hospitals through fear and sorrow, and I’ve facilitated support groups for survivors to reconnect with their own embodied sexuality and the fullness of its complexity as they worked toward greater compassion for themselves and their processes.

I’ve worked to build a practice of presence and compassion in my life that extends beyond my family, even beyond people. Last spring, I was late to a party because I’d stopped to help a stumbling fawn out of the highway. Seeing that it was unable to move, I sat with it at the edge of the woods and sang it to its sleep.

Each of these experiences has transformed me, my way of viewing the world, and how I see the role of touch and presence in friendship, service, and worship…


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Leaving the Bubble, Privilege, and Safety


Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. For months, I’d been telling him about the spiritual impact the Appalachian landscape has on me – about how my heart opens when the skyline first comes into view, with its arches pushing skyward from the horizon, sculpted curves rising up from streams that wash through valleys. He’d heard me talk about my favorite spaces – the river whose water wraps me in tiny galaxies of dazzling mica on brisk, soul-awakening swims, the rock by the river where I sit to meditate, and the wooded paths and bamboo forests who’ve been watered by my tears when my heart was heavy. He confessed that while he’d visited the mountains a few times, he’d never had the opportunity to dive into the lush beauty of North Carolina’s mountain forests and stunning views, and we planned a quick trip for before his mid-July move to Canada.

The county where we live is a tiny area of North Carolina whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections. We voted strongly against NC’s marriage amendment a few years ago, and have numerous churches – even Baptist churches – that are welcoming congregations. After HB2 was passed in March – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – dozens of new restrooms showed up in online databases of safe bathrooms, and after the Pulse nightclub massacre, our city governments put up rainbow flags, as well as trans, agender, asexual, and bisexual flags. Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people – not just in the context of protests and counter-protests, but as they were going about their everyday lives.

My trans friends have told me of being mocked while out around town and misgendered intentionally in the workplace, in addition to experiencing the kinds of abuses I won’t break confidence to divulge, and these abuses being on top of the ever-present stresses of being unintentionally misgendered, asked intrusive questions by acquaintances and coworkers, and frustrated at the kinds of support sometimes received from well-meaning friends and family. Even in a reasonably well-protected bubble, things are not ideal. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend provided a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break, every interaction with strangers, and every meal stop had the potential to become upsetting at a minimum, and possibly frightening.

linvillefallsOur trip turned out to be lovely – we swam through the sparkle-clouds of the Swannanoa River, discovered dens of garter snakes along parkway overlooks with awe-inspiring views, and hiked trails by waterfalls. As relaxing as so much of the trip was, throughout it all we were sharply aware that the predominant culture in those parts of our state made rural NC a not entirely safe place for my friend. Restroom choices varied over the course of the trip based on where we were, and glares from strangers reminded me that HB2 has made trans people more visible, more acknowledged (for better or worse) than they were before. When we arrived at the motel near Linville for the night, my friend sized up the look of the place and the people heading in and out, and told me he’d let me do the talking. Disappearing into a display of rocks in the lobby gift shop, he watched as I transformed into a hardcore southerner with a thick country accent, trash-talking with the innkeeper as he teased and joked. While I live in one of the more progressive areas of the Southeast, am college-educated, and hold some intensely leftist political and social views, I come from a long line of poor Southern farmers and that accent was my natural one until I was a teenager and realized the stigma in academic circles against Southern accents. I still slip into it unintentionally when talking to my family who live in rural areas, and had slipped into it without conscious thought in my interactions with the innkeeper.

Whether we’ll admit it or not, there’s a certain prejudice in the South against anyone perceived to be an outsider. “You ain’t from around these parts” is not usually considered high praise, and those of us who are from “these parts” but live a little differently know that rule number one of avoiding conflict in deeply Southern, rural areas is not to stand out. This is where my privilege becomes obvious – as a white, Southern, cis woman, I can easily blend in if I choose to. I’ve never really thought about the ways in which I code-switch when around other Southerners; for the most part, it just happens around my family thoughtlessly and without pretense. On this trip, however, I became more aware of the ways in which I do it as a protective measure around other Southerners with whom I am attempting to establish rapport, smooth out awkwardness, or defuse conflict. The underlying intent, subconscious though it may be, is to be accepted as “one of the crowd” so as not to be on the receiving end of any of white Southern culture’s negative tendencies. And when it comes to passing as “one of us,” I can usually succeed, because as long as nobody pays attention to the bumper stickers on my car, I visibly look like a white, cis woman and can readily sound like a Southerner.

The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.
The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.

Not everybody has that option. Not every person who does chooses to take it in every circumstance, and I can guarantee that had anyone been aggressive, unkind, or violent to my sweet friend while we were on this trip, I would easily have thrown out any chance of passing for mountain folk in order to stand by, support, and defend him. Any obstacle he encountered on this trip, he wouldn’t have encountered alone, and while my role isn’t to speak or fight for him, I definitely call out transphobic bullshit when I see it and would have encouraged people to respect and listen to him. I’d speak and fight with him against those who would harm him. I don’t have any idea what it is like to be trans. I’m an ally, a friend. But I’m a friend who tries to listen carefully when people tell me about their experiences. I’m a friend who knows what it’s like to see an interaction unfold from several meters away, listening to hushed tones of voice for frustration or stress, narrowed eyes watching body language and facial expressions. I’ve done it enough times with different people in different situations – friends and family who are vulnerable for one reason or another – that I can feel my energy transform when I go from relaxed to alert, can feel the way my eyelids tighten and eyebrows shift. My way of looking changes as I try to assess any need for me to step up, to stand behind my loved ones, or to put myself between them and harm. On this trip, I spent a lot of time alert. I spent a lot of time paying attention.

And I spent a lot of time learning.

illgowithyouAnyone who’s read an article or seen memes about privilege knows that one of the key concepts is that just because something isn’t a problem for you personally doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Just because bathroom bills don’t affect you personally doesn’t mean they don’t harm people – good people, wonderful people, loving people who have already experienced too much discrimination, abuse, and violence. Just because they don’t make you feel unsafe doesn’t mean they don’t make others far less safe than they would be otherwise. Just because you can travel your state feeling relatively safe in its small towns and rural areas doesn’t mean others feel safe in the midst of conservative, evangelical, Christian culture, or that they feel welcome, or that they feel loved. Hospitality extended to those we think are like us is easy; hospitality extended to all people – hospitality that includes compassion, acceptance of differences, and genuine respect – that’s harder. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s join with those who are already doing it for their own communities, adding our voices, our strength, and our power to theirs.


Poets, Christians, and Not Wanting to Be a Poser

OSH crossLately, I’ve been pretty deep into words. Having been writing for years – essays, academic writing, and technical writing – I’ve always longed to write words of beauty and powerful metaphor, rather than direct explanations and carefully constructed arguments. In high school, some of the more brilliant kids I hung out with wrote poetry, and I always read their words with a sense of wonder. If only I could write the things on my heart, I thought, it would be so healing, so transformative. I was a musician and dancer, so I’ve always had the mind and soul of an artist, but longed to put to the page the images of beauty, pain, and awe that regularly danced across my understanding.

I read poetry – loved reading poetry – but when I would pick up a pen and start to write, it all came out wrong… Too corny. Cheesy. Trite. I’d get two lines in, scribble out what I’d started, crumple the page, and give up. So, I kept dancing, played flute, and channeled my artistic pursuits into performance, while continuing to write the kinds of academic papers that dazzled teachers and floated my GPA. I was not a poet, not a creative writer.

Over the past few years, though, the urge to find words that convey the nebulous and numinous has grown louder and more persistent, and I’ve longed for coaching and teaching to help me break through the structures of academic writing and tap into a more fluid, imagery-laden, and heartfelt style of writing that more closely matches the insights and experiences of my heart. Through a series of near-magical coincidences, I ended up attending the Into the Fire writer’s retreat in late-May, sponsored by The Sun Magazine, an event intended to serve as instruction and inspiration for those seeking to improve their skill at creative personal writing. From Joe Wilkins, I learned about writing evocative prose, and from Frances Lefkowitz I learned how to allow my distinct, personal voice to flow into my writing style.

My favorite workshop of the weekend was on “hovering,” in which the amazing poet Chris Bursk led activities to teach us to linger over moments, allowing our words to circle round, ambulate, and drink deep from each feeling, each experience, before moving on to the next scene. While I didn’t write any poetry in his workshop, I wrote phrases, sentences, and brief pieces that used words to paint in ways I’d never done before. I came back from the workshop to discover that when something would be bearing on my heart, I immediately wanted to write, and to my surprise, what landed on the page in those moments of urgency were lines of poetry rather than prose.

And yet still I have a hard time calling myself a poet. I’m not sure if what I’m writing is any good. I don’t know what makes good poetry or bad. I know what I like to read, and I know what comes off my fingertips when I sit to put my heart into words, but feel a bit of a fraud to say I’m a poet, or that what I write is poetry. I’m finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but a poet? Isn’t there some external validation you must pass before adopting that word for yourself? Some confirmation that what you’ve written passes muster, meets the standards?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey. Over the years, there have been a handful of key traditions that have played a bigger part in my journey than others. While my current practice is greatly informed by an adoration of nature and penchant for digging deep into the scientific workings of the universe to find metaphorical, spiritual meaning, one of the greatest influences on who I have become and how I worship rests in the years spent deep in the mystical, liturgical, compassionate, and progressive Christianity I experienced through the Convent of Saint Helena and a handful of small, Episcopal churches. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church has found itself subject to great tension and difference of opinion about what constitutes the Episcopal tradition and what practices and beliefs can rightly be called Christian.

With those voices added to many conservative, rigid, and intolerant voices organizing in their efforts to dominate discussions about “true” Christians and Christianity, there simply came a point where I didn’t feel like I could lay claim to the label any more. No matter how compassionate, gentle, and progressive my Christ is, if all the other voices seem to be saying I’m not a Christian, that I’m wrong, there simply came a point where I was okay with that. I don’t need a label to practice my connection; I’m not attached to being called, considered, or seen as a Christian, particularly when some of the more vehement and bigoted Christian voices today rest firmly on the centuries of violence and oppression that have stained the institution of the Church for much of its history.

Do I still find power in the chant, liturgy, and community of the organic, progressive, feminist Christian church? Definitely. Attending Eucharist or any one of the daily prayers – even listening to them online – opens up channels in my spirit that aren’t tapped into by any of my other practices. Do I still yearn for deeper knowledge and understanding of the socially progressive radical Jesus – the one who dined with the marginalized and loved without bigotry? Yes, definitely. These questions are easy. The harder ones, more complex and unresolved, are these: Could I be in community with Christians, even progressive ones doing the work as I understand it, when “Christian” is a word that in my mind has become so powerfully associated with bigotry, patriarchy, and rigid, unforgiving morality? If I decided that I’d like to pursue participation in that community, can I stand firm in the face of rejection by the more conservative elements of Christianity, authentically claiming the interfaith nature of my practice and its deep, ecological roots as well as progressive Christian practice as I know and understand it? At what point do you accept someone else’s interpretation of the tradition as normative, and to what extent can we (feminists, progressives, radicals, and social justice activists) redefine, reinterpret, and represent a new, more open Church? When we do, who is listening?

I don’t really need to think of myself as a Christian, any more than I need to call myself a poet. They’re labels, useful only to the extent that they describe the goings-on of my heart, my practice, and my expression. For now, I’ll keep doing me. I’ll write prose when it flows and lines of (maybe?) poetry when that’s what pours forth. I’ll dig in the dirt, burn incense, swim in rivers, dig my toes into the sand of the oceans, write love poems for mountains, and pour out offerings onto the sacred earth of the forests. And I’ll read scripture, chant Psalter, pray, read writings of medieval mystics, and be bold to say the things that I might not be able to say in a community of like-minded people – not anymore, not yet. And I’ll try – really try – not to get hung up on the labels that I hesitate to adopt, and focus instead on living, learning, and growing in my own connection to Spirit.

For now, I welcome reading recommendations. Who are the feminist theologians within the Christian tradition you feel are doing powerful work? Who is tying in ecological awareness in a meaningful, powerful way? Who is doing interesting work reconciling their other interfaith practices with their Christian backgrounds?

On the need for interfaith worship

dukebelltowerRecently, I was catching up on past episodes of Interfaith Voices and heard their discussion about the Muslim call to prayer that was planned, and then canceled, by Duke University. Many of the speakers shared thoughtful dialogue about the value of interfaith acceptance, ways in which we interpret calls to prayer from various faith traditions, and why the situation at Duke University unfolded as it did. Speakers clarified that the call to prayer was initiated by the Duke Chapel staff, who (in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment following a high-profile terrorist act) wanted to make sure that Duke’s Muslim student population felt welcomed and safe. They clarified that the “amplification” would be minimal, enough so that you likely wouldn’t even hear it if you were walking right by while wearing headphones. They clarified that the decision wasn’t requested or demanded by Muslim students, that the vast majority of the student body supported it, and that the primary pressures to reverse the decision came from outsiders, not from the current Duke community.

Amidst the voices that seemed comfortable with a pluralist society, there was one voice advocating against having the call to prayer at Duke’s bell tower. Repeatedly, she affirmed that Christians do not share worship space with non-Christians, that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, and that the call to prayer should not be done from the bell tower of Duke Chapel due to its Christian nature, even though it was the staff of Duke Chapel who initiated the public call to prayer in the first place.

There are many good points to be made that either add complexity to or refute some of the claims against a public Muslim call to prayer in a large campus with a pluralist community, and I won’t repeat them here, because many of them were addressed in this episode of Interfaith Voices (link). I will simply say that many Christians do share worship space with those of other religions (one local example being a time when the Chapel Hill-based Episcopal Church of the Advocate leased worship space from Kehillah Synagogue while searching for a permanent home).  “Allah” is simply the Arabic name for God, therefore “There is not God but Allah” simply means that believers in God give their worship to God. If it is offensive or contradictory to other traditions, it might be so to polytheistic or atheist philosophies, but does not contradict any monotheist stances. As for the adhan being performed from the bell tower, it is good to remember that Duke Chapel is there to minister and serve as a welcoming presence for the students of Duke University. If Duke wants to serve a student body that includes non-Christians, then it is wise for the university to be truly pluralist in its structure.

These discussions make me reflect on the need for interfaith worship, the purpose of interfaith worship, and the factors underlying resistance to interfaith worship. I don’t at all claim to have the answers, but I hope to explore these issues in more detail over the coming months. Given that three of our community’s brightest young people were murdered in an apparent act of anti-Muslim rage just weeks after Duke caved to public pressure to cancel the call to prayer, this is a discussion that bears having.

For now, I found a peripherally relevant quote from Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy that I wanted to share. I believe it has profound significance for understanding both resistance to pluralism as well as a desire to create structures to publicly legitimize pluralism.

“The problem [of legitimizing human-created structures] would best be solved by applying the following recipe: Let the institutional order be so interpreted as to hide, as much as possible, its constructed character. Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group. Let the people forget that this order was established by [people] and continues to be dependent upon the consent of [people]. Let them believe that, in acting out the institutional programs that have been imposed upon them, they are but realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental order of the universe.”

Let them believe that they cannot share worship space with each other, ever, not even under specified parameters, and that to do so – to engage in interfaith worship or allow interfaith use of worship spaces – would sully the souls of those who participate, or profane the holy nature of the space for one group in its use by another. These rules are not set in stone; they are cultural, and culture is ever-growing, ever-shifting, and ever in the hands of those who are members of a particular community. I hope the Duke community maintains safe space for its own, all of them. I also hope that over time, awareness will grow about interfaith worship, what it means, and how it can benefit those who enter into it with an open mind. There is too much that could be gained by those who are willing.