Sadness Comes Apart in the Water

I met up with some of my circle sisters last Thursday night at the Forest Hills Lantern Festival. There are actually about three different events of this type in Jamaica Plain every year. It’s inspired by a Japanese Buddhist tradition that honors the spirits of the ancestors and is very well-attended. The image of hundreds of hand-decorated lanterns floating across the waters of the pond as the light leaves the sky is really magical. Lots of people bring cameras on tripods to capture the event. My friend Butterfly took a photo on her camera phone and emailed it to me, but I refrained from taking any myself, partly because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a good shot with my camera phone, and partly because I wanted to experience the event myself without the intervention of technology. There are tons of photos of the lantern festival on the web. I found Innusa‘s and ReallyStrangeGirl‘s flickr sets to be particularly beautiful. Still, nothing captures the experience like being in the middle of it.

I took the Orange Line from Green Street to Forest Hills and followed the stream of people heading toward the festival. It was one of those hot, heavy, dreamlike evenings we get in July, and the grounds around the pond were filled with people on blankets. My circle sisters had camped out right in front of the performance space, and it was such a wonderful feeling to arrive to see a group of women holding a space for me. By the time I arrived, the festival had been going on for about an hour and a half. I attempted to get a lantern for myself, but by the time I got to the tent where you could purchase a lantern and have a calligrapher paint a word on the rice paper, there was a huge crowd. I didn’t feel like waiting in line, so I returned to the blanket to watch the tail end of the Taiko Drummers’ performance. I wish I’d gotten there earlier so I could have watched the entire thing; Japanese culture fascinates me, especially the traditional forms.

My circle sisters made beautiful drawings on their lanterns. Although this tradition is meant to honor the ancestors, people at this festival seem to use it as a way of sending out all kinds of energy and prayers. Each of my sisters has something fairly major to release right now: one of them is going through a divorce, the other just split up with her long-term fiance, one is embarking on a new romance, and the last has been recovering from cancer surgery. But for the first time in a couple of years, I have really nothing to release. I have good news. I am in love, my job is going well, and I am overall very happy. I was nice to have some good news to share with the circle and to be able to listen and give my support about my sisters’ own tragedies. The Wheel keeps turning.

When everyone walked down to the water’s edge to place their lanterns in the water, I stayed on the blanket. I watched the many kinds of people milling around and soaked in the atmosphere of Jamaica Plain. Each neighborhood and community in the Boston Metro Area has its own unique flavor. The prevailing wisdom among people who do not live in Jamaica Plain is that it’s geographically isolated and difficult to get to. There is definitely a truth to that, but in the past few months I’ve found that getting there is not nearly as difficult as people make it out to be. And the neighborhood itself is quite wonderful. I’ve been considering moving there at some point. Of course, I’d hate to give up my lovely and affordable apartment in Cambervilleton (Cambridge/Somerville/Arlington), but I find the atmosphere of the neighborhood much more appealing.

I lay back and looked up at the sky as people milled around me. It was a blue-green, tinged at the edges with the burnt orange of approaching sunset. Trees ringed the edges of my vision.

Once the sun was down completely, the crowds dissipated. The five of us made a circuit of the pond, watching the slowly changing spectacle of the lanterns on the water. They followed the invisible lines of current and wind, and as the daylight faded away they looked like a line of souls marching into the other world.

It would have been nice to paint “forgiveness” on a lantern and send that message off to my father’s spirit beyond the veil. But there will be other opportunities to do so. That night was meant for other people’s releases.

Sadness comes apart in the water. Over the course of the last two years, though, my sadness has come apart on dry land. I have no grieving left to do, and nothing to share but joy.

At This Moment

“I care a lot about you,” he said. “And I have a deep affection for you.”

Later, he said, “I like what we have. And maybe it will develop into something stronger. Or maybe it won’t.”

He also said, “It seems that we have different long-term goals.”

I hate this, even though it’s probably true.

Maybe there’s a way to reconcile that, or maybe there isn’t. But even if we had exactly the same long-term goals, I’d still be scared. Skeared.

Because even if he’d said, “I love you madly and want to take care of you for the rest of your life,” I wouldn’t really have been happy.

I just don’t like not knowing what’s going to happen next. Especially with this stuff. The more of them I have, the more the painful ends of relationships haunt me. And it’s trust, trust. It’s stepping out onto ice and hoping it doesn’t break. What happens when I stop noticing it’s ice I’m walking on?

Faithful America, Religious Liberal Traditions, and Why I Belong to a UU Church

I came across the activist group Faithful America a while ago and really appreciate the message they stand for. Political discourse in this country around religion has been very much shaped by the religious right. Faithful America aims to reshape the discourse to include members of more liberal religious traditions. Their latest campaign is to shape some of the debate happening during this year’s presidential campaign. There’s a “compassion forum” live on CNN this Sunday at 8pm. You should vote on which issue to have the candidates address: click here to do that.

Whenever I talk to someone new, I feel self-conscious saying things like “I know her from church” or “I do lay ministry,” because as soon as people hear the word “church” slip from my lips I know they’re making all kinds of assumptions about my religion, my politics, and my beliefs. For the record (are the new viewers gone yet?), I have been a practicing witch for more than a decade. Most of that time I spent as a solitary practitioner, although I did study with a coven in Connecticut and also ran a website for About.com on the subject that included virtual ritual in chat rooms (not to mention mountains and mountains of emails, and the time-sink-hole morass of bitchy pagans forum). I belong to First Parish Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Years before I attended a Sunday service at the church, some friends of mine introduced me to the CUUPs rituals that take place on Fridays near the Sabbats of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, and sometimes Samhain. I appreciated CUUPs’s eclectic approach to pagan practice and was also impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge possessed by the facilitators.

While the notion of a liberal religious tradition is not entirely new to me, my experience at First Parish Cambridge really was life-changing. To steal the words of my ex-girlfriend, it was an important part of my re-churching. It wasn’t until Sunday services at First Parish that I actually heard the man up in the pulpit saying the exact same things I believed. The words in the hymnals weren’t full of things about Jesus, only-begotten Son of the Father saving us from eternal damnation. They were about a hard-working Mother God, a loving Father God, a Spirit of Life that imbues us all. Instead of the “thou shalt nots” of the 10 Commandments, the seven principles talked about things like the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, the importance of social justice, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

People like to make fun of the UUs for having wishy-washy beliefs. At the beginning, I used to laugh along with those jokes. But I don’t anymore, because I see the Unitarian Universalist movement as a group of people with very deeply held beliefs. They’re beliefs not based in shame however, but in the irrepressible presence of the Divine in all aspects of existence: in human beings, in society, in the earth itself. People need deeply held beliefs to fight the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, or speak out against the excesses of the McCarthy era, or take practical steps to fight racism, or get arrested protesting the genocide in the Sudan, or support the rights of gay families to equal treatment under the law.

The UU tradition allows for a heterogeneity of beliefs that includes secular humanists, deists, Buddhists, “Jew-U’s”, pagans, Christians, and others. It also has something sadly missing in the Catholic church of my youth: democratic governance. All members of a congregation have a say in how the congregation is run, and all matters of theology and the like come up before the General Assembly each year. Ministers don’t get any more say in the running of the church than lay people.

I never expected to find a congregation that so completely shared the same views as me, and certainly not one as active, welcoming, and thriving as First Parish Cambridge. As a result, I give back a great deal to the church, both with an annual pledge and with a fair amount of lay ministry. I’m co-leading a Sunday service for Beltane this year on May 4. If you’re in the neighborhood and would like to hear me preach, please come by. It’s the second lay-led service the Women’s Sacred Circle has done in the past 12 months, and I hope there will be more to follow.

Thank You, Locally Owned Fitness Center Near Me

Dear Locally Owned Fitness Center Near Me:

Thank you for being such an awesome place to work out. Thank you for always having plenty of cardio machines available without my having to sign up. Thank you, kind, fatherly owner of the gym, who always takes the time to explain things slowly and in the same tone of voice as my old Outdoor Living teacher in high school. Thank you for being so close to my house that I can walk or run there and thus begin my workout before I even arrive. Thank you for having ample parking and being on the way to my job so that I include a visit with you in my morning commute. Thank you for having hangers for me to hang my corporate whore clothes on in the locker room.

Thank you for your comfortable locker room with the wooden doors. Thank you for the carpets in the changing area and the linoleum tile in the shower area. Thank you for having a detachable shower head in one of the stalls, and for having stalls with curtains that are actually wide enough to close. Thank you, ancient scale for reminding me that it’s okay not to know my weight down to two significant digits. Thanks an extra bunch for showing that I lost four pounds this morning, and thanks for reminding that it’s okay to gain those four pounds back. Thank you, sauna, for being so hot and dry and dark like the Womb of Mother Earth. Thank you for being on a timer so I know you’re not singlehandedly causing the melting of the ice caps, although I wish I remembered to turn you on more BEFORE my workout.

Thank you, hardworking, down-to-earth women of my town who conduct your workouts without applying foundation, mascara, blush, and eyeliner. Thank you for wearing normal, baggy workout clothes on your normal, imperfect and yet beautiful bodies and not flaunting your perfectly toned abs, cellulite-free bottoms, and gravity-defying breasts in the latest fashions from the “activewear” racks at Neiman Marcus. Thank you for smiling at me when I smile at you — and I forgive you when you don’t, because this is New England, after all. Thank you for talking to me in the locker room, even when I am naked. I am sorry that I sometimes talk to you when I am naked or when we have not been formally introduced. I know this may make you uncomfortable, but it’s just because I am friendly, not a native New Englander, and jazzed up on endorphins. I’m also sorry if I take up space on the bench with my massive gym bag. I try to be mindful of your needs, but I just tend to take up a lot of space. Thank you for being so respectful of personal property that I never need to use a lock on my locker.

Thank you, little self-locking cubbyholes where I can leave my iPod while I’m changing, since my trust for strangers only goes so far.

Thank you, older gentlemen who use the free weights along with me and scowl when I use them too and smile at you. You are so much better than the alt-rock listening, baseball-cap-wearing, tattoo-sporting fuckheads who so intimidated me when I first started lifting weights back in the 90s. Thank you, nice transplanted divorced guy from Brooklyn who actually talks to me in the weight area and on the mats. Your Brooklyn accent makes me feel all warm and homey and I love that you used to live in Santa Cruz and know my favorite beach in the whole world, the one with the surfer museum. I would totally date you, except that it might make things awkward at the gym.

Oh men of the free weight area, oh women of the gym, I apologize if I have ever offended with you with my tight workout pants and my big-city attitude. I’m a big girl and it’s hard to find workout pants that AREN’T tight, it’s not really because I am trying to show off my hugamundo gluteii maximii, which are becoming more appealing by the day as I continue to do my clock lunges. You should be pleased to know that I have never worn my “Every time you see a rainbow, God is having gay sex” T-shirt specifically because I did not want to offend you. You are my workout compatriots and I treasure and love your unpretentious creamy goodness.

Thank you, housewives who bring your kids to the gym with you and leave them in that windowless child care room under the stairs. I am annoyed by you and your noisy kids, and also jealous of you because you “don’t have to work” (riiiiight, you just don’t get paid for your work) and because your husbands (or wives, but you all look so very, very heterosexual) must be bringing in mad bank for you to raise your kids in this affluent little suburb of Boston. Thank you anyway for being there, for exercising your right to choose as women, for raising the next generation of the human race, and for taking care of yourselves.

Thank you, nice, spacious group exercise room I have never used. Thank you, full roster of exercise classes none of which are at a convenient time for me. If I ever get bored of my familiar and lovely cardio/strength/flex fitness routine, I know you will be there for me.

Thank you, well-organized strength training chart filing area. Thank you for always having a clipboard for me to use and for all those lovely pencils with the pencil sharpener right nearby and the new supply of pencils with erasers that haven’t been worn down to the metal holder. I love you and the way you let me keep track of how often and well I do my lifting.

Thank you, lovely, colorful, but clearly painted by an amateur mural of people running and biking and climbing mountains and doing other sports, with the Boston skyline in the background. You make the walls so very much more fun to look at when I am standing in the dancer pose trying not to fall over or sprain my ankle.

Thank you, EFT transfer of funds that lets me go to the gym day in and day out without ever writing a check. Sure, you sometimes take me by surprise and overdraw my checking account, but you charge me exactly the amount of money I am willing to pay for a gym. And the gym is so very much worth the extra funds.

I love you, Locally Owned Fitness Center Near Me, and I want the whole world to know it.