Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A helping hand

Just past the main Summertown shops, and just before the medical centres and Marston Ferry Road, is a small parade of shops that include an internet cafe, a bridal boutique and a corner shop.

I first walked into that corner shop years ago - to pick up a Pepsi or chocolate on my way in to person the Lodge at the O on a Saturday. I remember the woman behind the counter - mid 50s, face lined with care, shalwar qamiz. She smiled at me - one, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't return, because I've grown up hating people who assume we're going to get on because we look alike. You're South Asian, I'm South Asian. BFD.

But I thought of her long after I left, even as I turned into the Oratory forecourt. Something about the...weariness, the sense of dreams and hope lost in a dreary existence, but the real warmth and kindness that had survived. Something that kept her smiling at someone who reminded her of home when she was thousands of miles away.

So I kept going back - not often, but if I needed to grab something on my way down - e.g., a Pepsi, chocolate or (most often) a synthetic blueberry muffin for breakfast - that's where I'll go - the supermarket chains don't need my business. She, who works from 7.30-9 with her husband, does.

And so, over time, I started smiling back and asking her how she was. "Fine, just another day" she'd say, in her accent that reminded me so much of baking summer days, the smell of freshly pressed shalwars and goat cooking in the kitchen, the dust of Bahawalpur, Sahiwal and Lahore on my feet. Slowly, but surely, she'd ask questions - about me, where my family was from, work, would even occasionally tell me I looked tired.

She looks so like my dhadhi's colourful neighbours in Sahiwal, how could I not unbend and respond?

She would light up when I came in wearing shalwar qamiz (or qamiz jeans) - in fact, on Easter morning, she was totally in love with my red and gold kurta, which I felt made me look like a tent that could have held a harem for an Arabian monarch and required me slapping a sign across my ass reading: "Caution: wide load".

About 10 days ago, I came in for my usual, and handed her a £10 note for a £1 transaction, which meant that I got a £5 note and 4 £1 coins - yes, slightly unwieldy for a second, but nothing I haven't done a thousand times before.

She placed her hand underneath mine in a gesture repeated by countless mothers everywhere when a three year old hand is struggling to hold currency too big for it.

I looked down to see that her hand was smaller than mine.

But it was the meaning of the gesture that made me choke up - the "I've got you, it's ok if you can't handle it alone." My own mother would have let me drop those coins out of my tiny three-year-old hand and then yelled at me for being clumsy. My entire childhood felt like it was about these things I was supposed to know how to do, but was never taught how - then got yelled at for being clumsy, stupid, a deliberate bane to my parents' existence.

Yes, that support was decades too late. But that it came from someone who could have been my mother mattered. A lot.

And of course, it got me thinking about one of my favourite body parts - hands.

I am in awe of hands. Hands do so much more than we ever think about: punctuate, comfort, bless, hold, express affection, communicate far more than our words ever will, love in ways naughty and nice, nourish, pull people away from danger, and so much more - in addition to the standard picking up, putting away, carrying, giving, receiving, opening, closing, making things, catching us when we fall, covering our mouths when we yawn - we begin using them the moment we're born and don't stop until the moment we die.

And yes, they can abuse.

Hands - with opposable thumbs getting a special mention - rock. No engineer could create such a marvel.

God, I love watching them - petite hands; large hands; long, elegant hands; square, practical hands and everything in between. Old hands with so many stories to tell; baby hands with stories yet to be created.


I love watching hands DO things - cook, make furniture, sew, knit, pick up a child, play an instrument, handle a camera, gesture - anything, though, perhaps, most shamefully, light up. I know I should tell my male friends to quit smoking, or offer them hypnotherapy to quit smoking, but I'm so entranced by watching their hands (and, as noted before, their expressions) as they light up, I hesitate, telling myself they'd get annoyed by my nagging.

So secretly, in guilty pleasure, I watch out of the corner of my eye.

Every so often, I even stop, amazed, by what my own hands are doing. Weirdly, because my parents kept telling me I was clumsy - I keep thinking of my hands as those of an 8-year-old, when I remember watching my parents DO things that I thought, "I'll never be able to do that - ever." My mother cooking, my father doing his tie (that one still needs practice - I can undo them well enough...), my mother using a blood pressure cuff, either one fixing something - anything I considered 'adult'. Suddenly, I'll find myself in the middle of making hamburgers the way my mother used to, or holding a child easily, or doing something reasonably skilled and stop and stare at my adult hands like they belong to a complete stranger. Then offer up gratitude for having them.

Hands are about rites of passage too, in so many ways. Mine came earlier than it should, because my father took beta blockers for years and lost strength more quickly than he should. One day, more years ago than I care to count, I was over at their new house. My father was struggling to open a jar, and I said, in a voice far too reminiscent of his, "Here, give it to me."

He did. I promptly opened it and handed it back to him. He wasn't even 60 then, but we both understood what it meant.

Hands do so much - is it any wonder then, that the tale of the maiden who loses her hands, leaves the kingdom with her babe and watches them grow back is a tale of initiation? Or that a woman who is beyond tired dreams of herself with her arms crossed at the wrists in front of her, with bloody stumps where her hands should be, in a classic pose of "I give up"?

I think not.

I love hands, but what I love most about them is that they heal us and eachother in ways far deeper than words ever could.

And so, to quote a favourite song:

"Reach out for her healing hands (2x)
There's a light where the darkness ends -
Touch me now and let me see again
Rock me now in your gentle healing hands."

I wonder...

...if I stay in the Catholic Church - and particularly in a *conservative* church - to take out w***ers like Mitch Bond (quote below) one at a time.

God knows, there isn't much else, other than a few good friends, keeping me in it at the moment. Far too often, I look up at the pulpit or the sanctuary, feeling utterly detached from the proceedings, and think what a friend once thought about the 39 Articles, "I don't believe a word of this."

But for now, those friends are worth staying for, and I'm not going to beat myself up about it.

Every so often, though, I wonder if there's more to it.

This morning, I noticed that a friend had joined the Cardinal Pell Appreciation Society. I know I shouldn't have gone there - Jack Butler will kindly point this out to me in his oh-so-tactful (appropriately) Antipodean manner - but it was car crash material. I HAD to see just how fulsome and lacy the picture was (very) and I had to see just how offensive the members were (even more so, judging from the wall).

Now we come to how I came to label someone I have never met (and never plan to) a wanker. Unfortunately, his comment was the most recent on the wall:

"HIV is the result of sin, since all corruptability on the part of nature is a result of mankind's fall from grace, Q.E.D. sin. It is neither backward. medieval, primitive, immoral, unscientific, unchristian, nor completely reprehensible to believe that the corruption of matter is the result of original sin."

I read no further.

Unfuckingbelievable. If that utter filth came out of someone's mouth in a sermon, I'd get out of my seat, walk UP to the pulpit and strangle the SOB from behind. Or shove him down the steps headfirst. I trust I don't need to go into why and the countless number of people who have caught HIV through NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN. It's an odd feeling to hate a Catholic as much as I hate a Bible-Belter or the Taliban.

Well, Mitch, I'm sure Cardinal Pell is PROUD to have a fan such as you. Darn proud of your orthodox faith.

I'm far less sure about Jesus. I think you and your ilk might make him consider taking up his cross to beat you over the head with it. When you say horrific, damaging stuff like that, 70x7 doesn't apply.

The irony, of course, is that the vast majority of men in that group are probably practising unsafe gay sex because they're incapable of admitting their homosexuality and are 'just falling into bed with men, oops, didn't mean for that to happen' and are at a much higher risk for HIV infection and passing it on than most of the rest of the population.

I wonder if I stay so someone is in those places - and shamefully, I can hear that line coming out of the mouth of almost anyone who sits in the Social Club on Sunday at 12.30, in their braying attempt at RP - to say to people like Mitch, "How dare you." To say, "What a load of crap." To walk out of sermons. To make people uncomfortable.

And to pray that every single person like Mitch has to face what he so casually, so easily condemns: for him, that he finds himself face to face with someone he cares for who has HIV; perhaps through volunteering, comes across an HIV positive baby or child. For the 'abortion is martyrdom' crowd, that someone they love has to face that decision. For the 'euthanasia is always wrong crowd' - yeah, you guessed it. That they have to face the decision to remove life support or be really close to someone who does, and suffer with them.

Because for those who have hearts that closed, only catastrophic, life-changing suffering is going to crack them wide open.

WHAT am I doing here, amongst people who can believe...THAT? I feel sick just re-reading what he has written and replaying in my head what I've heard in church and from the institution over the years.

More than one of my friends has noted my penchant for balance: I've chosen a church whose unspoken values are diametrically opposed to my own. Whilst orthodoxy is the overlay for most of those who attend the higher masses, it's really about people seeking approval, both from the institution and the secular world, thus lying about who they are and being what's expected of them. There's a sense of people *grasping* for something, an acquisitiveness, indicative of desperation to fill a void no one wants to face.

So why stay? I'm picturing Jack B. across the table from me, ready with the hard questions - so I'll answer him.

Mate, I can't give you a straight answer - I can't say it's this or that. I can tell you that there are people in the Church (and in the church, or I'd have left it years ago) that I love fiercely - people who are my pack, my karass - and I have always been a relationship person. I'll stay in hard places for my peops. I know, I know, it's not doing them any good if it's driving me crazy, but maybe it's about knocking my corners off too.

But having written this - and I think you'll appreciate this, J - I wonder if it's about being a thorn in the side, about being the one who can say, "What a load of crap," who can be angry, who can act out and say what no one else will in that place. No, I won't always do it well, it won't change the institution, and it won't change most of the people -they're still going to be avoiding who they are, thinking that being sweet to the priests and vicious to the laity is the way forward - but maybe I'm still there for a reason I can't yet fathom.

What I - and you - need to trust is that I'll know when to go. I woke up one morning knowing when it was time to leave home and I woke up one morning knowing my last relationship (which you nursed me through, with the occasional smack across the head, for which I am forever grateful) was over.

One day, I'll wake up knowing it's time to leave the church and the Church, because the vast majority aren't my people and I'm beginning to realise more and more, that's not my God. It's coming, I know. It's just not now.

Until then, I'll walk the labyrinth and trust that when I reach the centre, it'll all make sense.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Why I walked out of yesterday's sermon

Yesterday, not 5 minutes into a sermon, I got up, exited my pew, and walked out the back door of the church. In my 12 years at this church, despite the many sermons that have made me want to backhand a cleric or ask them "WTF? If you hold the laity in such contempt, why the f*** did you decide to become a priest and not a lawyer or politician," yesterday was only the second time I have stood up and walked out.

Most people who go to the 11am mass that have interacted with me, clerical and lay, would have thought I found that easy; that for me, it was a throwaway gesture.

I did not and it never is. To walk out when someone is speaking is a way of saying, "I can no longer listen to you: there is now no room for communication, no room for discussion; I will no longer engage." It closes the door in a relationship, something that I am loathe to do, especially as an INFJ. It can, of course, be worked through and healed, but there are no two ways about it: to walk out on someone as they speak, to shut them out, is to perform a deliberate injury to a relationship. Even if you are going to attempt to heal it, even if you're betting on the relationship coming out stronger, that is NEVER an act undertaken lightly.

The priest who gave yesterday's sermon is one I hold in the greatest respect - one of the truly rare high liturgy priests who feels his religion, really believes in liturgy as a vehicle to God (rather than an end in itself & a disguise for avarice/need to dress up and feel important, which is what drives too many high liturgists) - whose mass you can feel. He is a man whose integrity I would never question, someone I like and trust immensely, despite the fact that our similar underlying values have driven us in opposite directions: him to almost extreme orthodoxy and rigidity; me to flexibility and what my friend John would refer to as 'liberality' - a generosity in application of principles rather than rules.

His sermons lean towards the overwhelmingly catechetical; they are always a densely packed lesson in what the Church teaches. Though I often disagree and find them a bit heavy, I have great sympathy and understanding for what he's trying to do: offer a firm foundation for the faith, one he feels isn't given the laity in this day and age. Here, his rigidity becomes an asset: for a foundation needs to be rigid, whilst the structure built on it must be flexible.

But. Yes, but. Sometimes, I wonder if he remembers that he is building that foundation with people, not bricks - and that people are vulnerable, their lives infinitely complex, and you can't handle them in the same way, that they need to be handled with care.

So. Yesterday's sermon. He began by noting that Pope Pius XII linked the infallible declaration of the Assumption to the horror of the Nazi concentration camps not a decade earlier, and that it was a deliberate link.

"Offensive," I thought. "But not YOUR fault, Padre. Where ARE you going with this?"

He moved on to how in the Garden of Eden, all was light, no shadows, no death, etc. etc.

I'm an unshakeable believer in the Life/Death/Rebirth cycle; Shiva and Kali together as Creator and Destroyer, that light and dark are inseparable. I'm always deeply uncomfortable with those who need to believe in a fall from a perfect beginning, a deathless world of all light and no change. I always wonder why they need to deny darkness and death, seeing light and eternal life as the ideal. I'm not sure changelessness is ideal; God created a dynamic, evolving universe - surely that says something about the nature of the Creator?

Then, on to how Adam and Eve had been given the gift of integrity in body and soul, that body and soul would come to God as a single unit.

"Ah, the origin of the Assumption. Ok."

Then he went on to speak about how, since death was not natural and was a consequence of the fall...

"There is no such thing as dignity in death. Or [and this was spat out with no little contempt and considerable venom] *dignitas*."

I inhaled sharply. For those of you who don't know the reference, Dignitas is a Swiss assisted-dying group. []

"[Since death isn't natural/wasn't part of God's plan] Therefore, taking one's own life or assisting someone in taking their own life is always wrong."

I couldn't listen to another word.

I stood up, stepped out of my pew, and walked out. Fortunately, my friend's daughter was out there, playing with her pencil in the big pot of dirt outside the front door, helping me to calm down before I re-entered church after the sermon and faced the celebrant over the gifts.

Many of you will wonder why. After all, it is orthodox Catholic teaching; the orthodox teaching of most religions, in fact. Isn't one of the commandments, "Thou shalt not kill?"

Indeed. But that teaching can be offered with compassion. To state it so baldly, so forcefully, indicates an utter lack of compassion and awareness of the complexities of the issues surrounding euthanasia and suicide - a lack that doesn't exist in this pastor, but may well now be perceived to.

I once quoted what a friend suggested a truly traditional priest would say about suicide and mortal sin: "Grave matter? Yes. Full knowledge? I doubt it. Full consent? In that state of mind, no. Not a mortal sin."
THAT is teaching with compassion.

Had he so much as prefaced it with, "I understand how painful, complex and difficult these situations are - however..." I would have stayed. All it needed was an acknowledgment of the pain people face in these situations and that euthanasia has become a problem because we, as a society, are so desperate to live that we have forgotten how to let go when it is time and die. I have been both suicidal and the friend of someone who has committed suicide; it was of Lou I was thinking as I walked down that side aisle to the back.

Did he KNOW what the people in the congregation were going through? What he was saying to them - to the relatives and friends of those who in despair or in desiring not to be a burden through terminal illness, took their own lives? To those who might be struggling with someone who WANTS to die because they are so ill and in so much pain? How, after a statement so judgmental, can they even come and talk to him about what they're going through? What wounds did he unwittingly tear open? What fears did he implant: "OMG, my friend/child/parent/relati
ve committed suicide - from what he's saying, they're in hell."

Who, of those sitting there, will now believe his 'I'm so sorry,' when they tell him that a loved one has committed suicide? Won't they think, "Oh, he's judging them and/or us?" What about the classic clerical statement that someone has 'made a good death' (Lady, I HATE that phrase)? If there is no dignity in death, how can you make a good one? Who will trust him enough come to him over issues surrounding a terminally ill relative begging to be allowed to die?

The sad thing is, they could have done, because he is a good pastor. But now, because of yesterday's sermon, they may never know that.

As a good friend and astute cleric noted, "When you speak from the pulpit, it HAS to be absolute. You DON'T know what the people in the congregation have been through. Sensitive things like this are best dealt with in confession, one-to-one..."

Often, preachers would do best to remember that what is said cannot be unsaid, and that you don't know what pain, what grief, what darkness are hidden amongst those sitting in front of you. That doesn't mean you have to give a bland sermon or one that soft-pedals, but it does mean that you need to be aware of how what you're about to say is going to affect those you're preaching to - and that the authority you carry can make what's a throwaway comment to you feel like a freight train to an earnest, struggling Catholic in the pews. And it may mean that uncertain Catholic who might have approached one of you asking for help instead walks out of the forecourt, speaking to no one, suffering even more than they were when they first walked in.

And that would count as a sheep lost.

Am I sorry I walked? No. I couldn't have listened to any more, and I hoped that my act, if noticed, would make him think about what he was saying and what it sounded like. I also wanted to stand up for anyone who wanted to make the statement I was making but couldn't speak for themselves - for every friend and loved one of a suicide victim; for those struggling with the issue of 'just a little more morphine and...'; for those being begged by their dying loved ones to let them go...for those wondering if it's the right thing.

In walking, I stood by my integrity. In speaking, he kept his.

One day, I hope we'll be able to talk about it.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Dark men in dreams...

"There is a strong physical aspect to having a dream of the dark man...We could say the dream-maker has dispensed with subtle messages to the dreamer and now sends images which shake the neurological and autonomic nervous system of the dreamer, thereby communicating the urgency of the matter.
"The antagonist(s)of the dark dream are usually, in women's own words, 'terrorists, rapists, thugs..." There are several levels to the interpretation of such a dream , depending on the life circumstances and interior dramas surrounding the dreamer." -Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, "Women who run with the wolves"

Ok, I've been having uneasy dreams, but the last REAL dark man dream set I remember is from a long while ago. One involving a police officer who was a serial killer; one involving a 'pillar of the church' who (in the dream) was a wife-beater; one involving a head of a Catholic girls' school who drugged the girls to make them do what he wanted. The theme for me in those dreams was that I KNEW where to look, that I could see what was going on within institutions that people usually trust, but that no one would listen - but that *I* needed to pay attention and know the truth for what it was.

This afternoon's was much more primitive and much closer to the dream prototype.

I was walking at night, in the area of Silver Spring I grew up in, White Oak. I was walking along New Hampshire Ave, talking to my friend Ari on my mobile. It was late twilight, heading towards full darkness. I was aware, but relaxed, and as I passed White Oak Jr High, I saw a man sitting under a street light, eating his dinner. He was clearly a body builder - or to quote Fr X on the kind of man I'm supposed to fancy, "Tall, dark, butch and brutal."

[WTF? I don't find that attractive and, even more importantly, I'm FAR too aware of what a man like that would be capable of doing to me and I'd never, EVER relax.]

Our eyes met; the hate that flashed across his face was palpable. I could see his muscles tense. I ran.

Suddenly, it was much darker and I was much further along New Hampshire Ave, near the White Oak shopping centre - weirdly, I'd dialled 999 (UK emergency) rather than 911, said what I needed to say and kept the phone on so they could find me via GPS. It was odd - I was terrified, running hard, but there was a calm river as well - I thought "Irim, put your hair up so he doesn't have anything to grab." "Cross the road (all SIX lanes) and buy yourself some time."

I made it back to the house I grew up in, up the stairs and into the bathroom, backing into far wall against the window. There was nowhere to go as his hand reached for my throat - when suddenly, the master bedroom door opened, and there were two female SWAT team members with their guns trained on him - "Let her go," said the one closest to me, as she grabbed him, cuffed him and took him down the steps.

The other officer came over to me and asked me if I was ok, what had happened, and so on. I told her that whilst I felt shaken (I did), I was ok, and that I was going to ring a good male friend (someone I know IRL), because I needed to be ok with being around men and being touched by them, and I'd be ok.

As if THAT wasn't enough, the dream that followed entailed my sitting in the lounge and having a GIANT spider climb on my back from behind the sofa - I could feel the end of each one of the 8 legs in my back and screaming at Mark (Anna's boyfriend - we were waiting for her to arrive) to get it the FUCK OFF ME (I'd trapped it between my back and the sofa). As he approached to try to grab it by a leg, it leapt off and completely disappeared behind the sofa.

Dark man - and arachnid - dreams indeed.

Pinkola-Estes says that dark man dreams tend to be about initiation - from the young woman to through old age, as there is always another initiation into a different way of knowing and being. And this felt like that.

In the first dream, I did EVERYTHING I could whilst I was running - I knew where he was, I put my hair up, I did what I could as I could. And that's very different from the ones where I feel helpless - where I know and no one is listening, or where I'm passive.

And so, nightmare it may have been, but I'm with Clarissa on this:

"Dreams are portales, entrances, preparations and practices for the next step in a woman's consciousness, the next day in her individuation process. So, a woman might have a dream of the predator when her psychic circumstances are too quiescent or complacent... But also a dream like this affirms that the woman's life needs to change, that the woman dreamer has gotten caught in some hiatus or ennui as regards a difficult choice, that she is reluctant to take the next step, to go the next distance, that she is shying away from wresting her own power away from the predator, that she is not used to being/acting/striving at full bore, in all-out capacity."

Yeah, things are a bit slow, and I've gotten a bit lazy. And I DO hesitate about taking the next step and leaving the devil I know.

So I guess it's time for me - and anyone else having dark man dreams - throw heart and soul into the next step - not in knowing, but in faith.

And at full tilt, heart and soul, even if they look like windmills - because even that has a purpose on the journey.