UU-what?

I have mentioned before in this blog that I attend a Unitarian Universalist church.  Since the reaction of people in person to such information is usually a puzzled look on their faces, I thought I’d post about this topic here.

Recently I came across the following video.  I thought it was nicely done and pretty much says what I would want to say but with more aplomb (and humor).   So…if you are curious and have a few minutes, why not learn a little about the fifth most popular religion in the U.S.?

So there you have it.

I would just add that I feel much like the people in this video, namely that finding this denomination had been a real blessing, that I look around at my fellow parishioners in my congregation and feel privileged to be in the same community with them, that I feel truly welcome and free to exercise my intellect in church.  It’s a good fit for me and my family.

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Church Year Begins with … Bagpipes?

Our church does not hold regular services during the summer.  It’s not that we completely shut down — there are still some informal services held in the air-conditioned common room, but the regular ones in the sanctuary stop for three months.  Then we start up again, the Sunday after Labor Day weekend.  And, weather permitting, we hold that service outside on the green.  Our minister says the same thing every year: “I’m not ready to be back inside yet!”

Well, this year, we had an excellent reason to be outside for the first formal service of the church year.  Bagpipes.  Yup a corps of nine bagpipe guys played for us.  Turns out this group was first formed in 1964 when the then minister of our church (can’t recall his name) asked the “men of the church to form a band.”  They thought about a banjo band at first but could not find anyone to teach them to play that instrument.  So they turned to bagpipes!

Over the years the group lost all association with our church, and now not a single person in the ensemble is a member.  The award-winning group lives on, though, and last week we had the pleasure of listening to them play…outdoors…on the lawn.  It was a windy day, in fact, the day after the remnants of hurricane Hanna passed through New England. I honestly didn’t think we’d be outside that morning, but when I saw the bagpipers, I understood the particular need.  Bagpipes are pretty loud.  Cool.  But loud.  Really strange instruments, I think.

Here’s an odd tidbit.  I always find myself humming the drone note when I listen to bagpipe music–you know, the note that stays the same throughout the whole song.  Why is that?  How weird of me!  But I do it every time.  It’s like I get dragged into the song, riding along on that plodding underlying tone.

Anyway, when the band played “Amazing Grace,”  we stood and listened in honor of our fellow UU’s in Knoxville, Tennessee, who were killed and injured by the lone gunman who entered their church and began shooting during a children’s performance this summer. The music was incredibly moving. All the more poignant as we could look off to the sides of the town green where our church is located and see our children running and playing during the service, climbing a lovely ancient mulberry tree–their perennial favorite.

Many of us brought water from our summer travels and dropped some into a common bowl.  We will use this (later sterilized, of course) for child dedications throughout the year.  I brought water back from Sweden and Norway especially for this purpose and was happy to add my drops to the pool.  And I was happy to be back in my beloved community.  It is good to be together.  I am ready to go back inside.

Coming of Age

Saturday my son went to a classmate’s bat mitzvah. It was the first he’d ever been to, so I was curious about what his reaction would be.  He said the service was nice and that his friend did a good job speaking.  She didn’t look nervous at all, he reported.  The party afterward was a bit of a wash, though.  My son is not the kind of kid who relishes being one of a hundred children, most of whom are running around in a sugar rush screaming.  The loud music didn’t help either.  “Pop,” he said, when we asked what kind of music they played.  Frown.  He isn’t much into pop, he informed us. I think he’s become a tweener.  That seems like a tweener thing to say.

So, anyway, this coming of age thing is a bit of a puzzlement to me.  We aren’t Jewish, and we aren’t Latino (quinceanero celebration), or Norwegian/Swedish (confirmation).  Seems like all three of these groups really go to great lengths to mark a time for a child to enter adulthood.  When I was in Scandinavia, I was surprised to discover that confirmation was still such a huge deal, that confirmants are given a lot of money and other gifts and are really thought to have passed a significant milestone.

Why doesn’t mainstream America have any real coming of age ceremonies like this? I asked my husband this question on Saturday afternoon while we were waiting to pick up our son from the party. A party which did not, as the invitation said, end at 5 p.m. but rather around 3:30!! (Poor kid just sitting there waiting.)

My husband’s answer: “Because in America, we don’t want to grow up.  We want the lines to be blurred so we can be perpetually a child.”

Wow.  Hadn’t thought of it this way, yet it makes perfect sense.  If we do not have a ceremony to mark a pasage into adulthood after which a child takes on more responsibilities and enjoys more privileges, well, then maybe we just won’t HAVE to take on more responsibilities….

My son saw how much money the girl got from her hundred plus guests in the cards we all dropped into a basket.  He’s good at math. He’s wondering why WE don’t have a bar mitzvah tradition. 🙂 Yup. He’s a tweener.  How will we know when he’s an adult???

On Gratitude…

I’ve read two unrelated articles in the last day that have really made me stop and think. I’ve been in mega self-improvement mode for the last year, and two weeks from tomorrow my sabbatical ends and I go back to teaching full time, so I’m trying to tie up some loose ends.

Looking back over the last year, I can see that I’ve made a lot of progress in several areas of family and personal life. There have been some lingering issues that are unresolved, of course, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how far I’ve/we’ve come:

1) My husband and I have a one-on-one meeting each Sunday to discuss any relationship or personal issues and devote some time to maintaining the health of our marriage.

2) On Saturday mornings, the three of us (me, hubster, and son) hold a family meeting to give each of us, and especially our son, a chance to air concerns or make requests. We also use that time to go over our week’s schedule.

3) I lost twenty-five pounds and have kept it off for months now. I have finally recognized that I have a weight problem whether I am currently overweight or not. So I need to be vigilant and keep my physical health front and center. Stress eating is most likely to occur if I do not take time to plan and cook decent food. So I absolutely must make time for planning and preparing. So far, so good. But I continue to go to weight Watchers each month and weigh in and attend a meeting.

4) I started reading again. Not for my job. I read as an English Professor a lot. But I mean reading for pleasure and for enlightenment. I started a book club at my church, killing the proverbial two birds with one stone by forming this club within our “Women’s Group.” There was such a women’s group at our church in the past, but right now our book group is it. The best things about doing the book group this year are getting to read and discuss some terrific books and getting to know these awesome women. I’ve never belonged to a book group before. I highly recommend it!

5) I am exercising more. Okay, not as much as I’d like to or need to, but more than before. And I’m okay with that. It’s improvement. I’ve added regular walking into my fall schedule (along with time to plan, prep food, and read), so I am sure to have the time to exercise if I merely stick to the plan.

6) I have become a writer. Early on in this blog I wondered if I were a “real” writer if I did not write every day. The funny thing is that the more I wrote on this blog, the more I felt like a real writer. The more I wrote, the more I thought of my life in terms of what I would write about it. I love writing now as never before. I’m not sure how I’ll fit blogging into my schedule this fall. But I’m going to try to find a way because it keeps me thinking in terms of words on the page and helps me produce raw material. I have not scheduled time in my week this fall for blogging, but I have, however, scheduled in time for my creative writing. I’ve NEVER done that before. When school started, I used to stop all creative or scholarly writing. I’m not willing to do that anymore.

7) Most recently I’ve also gone a long way toward helping my family to reduce its ecological footprint in terms of food consumption. We had already joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm a couple of years ago. We enjoy getting a share of fresh veggies direct from the farm each week of the growing season. Now I’ve also signed us up for a pasture-raised meat CSA and a fruit CSA. I also just discovered that not five miles from us there is a local dairy (with organic cows) that delivers milk in those old-fashioned glass milk bottles! I still haven’t figured out a good source for other food products like grains, but I’m getting there. It feels SO good NOT to feel guilty about contributing to global warming by eating non-local, highly processed and over-packaged food. We’re not yet where I want us to be, but much improvement on this front!

Now, back to some things left unfixed and the two articles I read.

A lot is unfixed. Such is life. But one thing that I have noticed this year and that really bothers me is a certain bitterness I have been feeling about some things that have happened to me and to loved ones in the last few years. I have also, the more I learn about the state of the world, become more anxious about our planet’s future than I ever have been before. I have been working hard this year to try to find a way to let go of the rancor and fear and to embrace a sense of peace. I am naturally optimistic and positive, but I’ve become less so in recent years. This sabbatical year I have been looking for a way to regain my healthier outlook on life, to restore balance.

So, anyway, yesterday I read this article in the Sept. 2008 issue of Body and Soul magazine: “Thank-You Therapy” by Terri Trespicio. The title may sound like it’s a trite essay, but it contained the right info to help me. Here’s what I learned:

(a) A study showed that people who wrote five things for which they were grateful each week in a journal felt better about their lives than people who kept track of their problems or just kept a record of events. The gratitude group also was healthier physically and, get this, spent more time exercising — up to 80 minutes more a week! Further, people who kept a daily gratitude journal for two weeks were more likely to “offer emotional support and help to others” than those keeping the other journals.

(b) A study showed that the earlier truism that people have a set point for happiness (a predetermined level of happiness that pretty much stays the same over the long term regardless of circumstances) is not exactly true. In fact, they found that about half of a person’s happiness comes from genetics (their set point) and 10% from circumstances, but a full 40% comes from “intentional activity,” our habits, essentially. The author makes the point that you can actually “bump up your happiness set point” if you commit to a regular practice of gratitude. Gratitude can be learned. We get better at it if we practice it. Hmmm.

(c) The article gives a lot of examples of how to practice gratitude. Here are some of the ones I most liked: “enjoy a mindful meal,” reflecting with gratitude on the people who helped bring that food to your table; “start a gratitude wall” by writing things for which you’re grateful on stickie notes and putting them on a wall (I’m thinking of doing this on my office window); “pay a thank you visit” to someone you appreciate ; “flip your complaints” (i.e., every time you complain stop and think of something for which you are grateful); “set an alarm” to go off during the day and when it does, stop what you are doing and focus on something for which you are grateful; “count blessings, not sheep” before bed; for five minutes write “a bliss list” of as many things that you can remember for which you are grateful and keep the list in your purse or pocket to look at when you are waiting in lines.

The other article appeared in the UU World in Spring 2007, but I just got around to reading it this morning: “The Heart of Our Faith: Gratitude Should Be the Center of Unitarian Universalist Theology” by Galen Guengerich. This article clinched the whole gratitude thing for me, providing another reason for cultivating gratitude in my own and our family life. Here’s an excerpt that hits at the heart of gratitude as a religious principle:

… A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves.

The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful.

Gratitude. Yup. That’ll work, I think. When one is filled with gratitude, there is no room for bitterness. When one is deliberately grateful, one turns away from fear. When one feels ones extreme good fortune, one works willingly and gladly for the good of others. When one is thankful, one is FULL of thanks, not rancor or fear. Not that I am FULL of rancor and fear, but I’d rather squeeze out those emotions and make room for thanks.

Now, I’ve got two weeks before school starts to try to get a habit of gratefulness started!

Dog Idolatry

Please do not be offended. It’s not my fault that idolatry is tolerated in my home. I am certainly not guilty of it! My son isn’t doing it. My husband isn’t…well..isn’t doing it, per se, though he is the object of devotion, a household god of sorts.

Our dog, as I think I’ve mentioned before, adores my husband. Adores might not be the right word, if you get my drift. Really she worships him.

This summer the hubster has been taking two on-line classes in preparation for launching a new career in IT. And right now it’s final exam time. So hubbie is locked away in the den working on his C Programming final. The dog is not happy…

Prostrate before the almighty, she offers herself, a living sacrifice. “Take me, oh, take me, alpha dog,” she cries. Sigh. Double sigh. “When is he coming out of there?”

I took this picture with my cell phone and sent it to my husband, thinking he’d get a kick out of it later. Turns out he had his phone with him in the den. As soon as he saw what was waiting for him on the other side of the door, he got up and greeted his loyal devotee, who was beside herself with joy. “Ah, let me nibble your ear, O Wise One! You have emerged from the great beyond at last!”

Is it any wonder she continues with such encouragement? My husband is a marshmallow. 🙂

Our Tragedy: On Defending Liberal Values … with One’s Life

No doubt you’ve heard. Another shooting. This one strikes a little closer to home for me. It was a church in my denomination that was hit. What was not immediately in the news, though, is that this crime was apparently motivated by hatred. See this excerpt of a news article I found today:

Two Unitarian Universalists killed in church shooting

By Donald E. Skinner
7.28.08

Two people were killed Sunday, July 27, and seven others injured when a gunman opened fire inside the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (TVUUC) in Knoxville, Tenn., during the morning performance of a children’s play.

. . . Police arrested Jim D. Adkisson, 58, of Powell, Tenn., minutes after the shooting on a charge of first-degree murder. The Knoxville News Standard reported Monday that Adkisson’s ex-wife, Liza Anderson, had been a member of the church.

. . . Knoxville Police Department Chief Sterling Owen IV said at a press conference Monday morning that a four-page letter written by Adkisson had been found in his car. The letter described his “hatred of the liberal movement,” Owen said. “Liberals in general, as well as gays.” Owen also said that Adkisson blamed the liberal movement for his failure to get a job.

TVUUC is active and well known in the community for its support of equal rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, women, and people of color. It sponsors the Spectrum Diversi-Tea & Coffee House for LGBTQ teens. In 2006, TVUUC’s youth group joined Spectrum members in organizing a demonstration in a Knoxville park after two same-sex teens were harassed for holding hands.

The morning worship service, attended by about 200 people, was to feature a performance of “Annie, Jr.” by approximately 25 children in the church’s summer musical theater workshop. None of the children were wounded.

. . . the shooter had a large cache of ammunition on him at the time of the shooting but he was unable to use it because members of the congregation quickly subdued him.

______

My heart breaks for these good people. To think of those children in that sanctuary having to see this terrible event. It is inconceivable. And yet, is this truly a surprise? We know there is a deep well of hatred in some people’s hearts against gays and those who support them, against people of color and those who stand with them fighting for true equality, against all manner of folk who do not fit within a narrow definition of what it means to be “good” and “righteous.”

The people of that church are doing something so very, very right, standing up for justice in the face of bigotry, prejudice, and a semiautomatic shotgun. May they find healing. May they continue their good work. May people in their community be drawn to a place ruled by love and tolerance.

Information on how you can help:

“In the first 24 hours of its existence, the newly-established Knoxville
Relief Fund has received more than 300 donations. The Unitarian
Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) in collaboration with
the Thomas Jefferson District has established the Fund to bring
ministry, spiritual care, and practical financial assistance to those
affected by the tragedy in Knoxville, Tennessee. Your gifts will assist
the Tennessee Valley UU Church and the Westside Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship and their members, and will show them that they are not alone
during this time of shock and grief. To make online donations or obtain
further information, visit…
http://www.uua.org/giving/donatenow/117168.shtml

Trondheim, Bergen, and the Open Sea

Sorry that I’ve been off-line for a while, folks.  Odd that it’s been harder to get internet in Scandinavia than in Peru….  Anyway, here’s a recap on the last part of the Scandinavian portion of my trip.  Tomorrow I’ll post on the UK part.

TRONDHEIM:  Discovered a few key things of use there for my book.

(1) Lovely woman at the folk museum called her father on her cell phone to ask him about Trondheim in 1879, the year my Norwegian relatives left.  Her dad is a historian.  Found out the railroad had come there in the early 1870s but had not gone north to Bodø yet.  So my ancestors’ week in Trondheim would probably be the first time they had seen a train. Also, the city was just starting to industrialize then, with a few machine shops popping up.  They made iron stoves, among other things.

(2)  Lovely tour guides at the cathedral helped me put the pieces together that the ancestors would have been there during the time when they had just started restoring the ruined nave of the church.  I saw drawings of what it looked like then — much diminished from the grandeur of today.  That visit to the cathedral, the holiest sanctuary of Norway, made me start thinking about what my relatives would have done in Trondheim while waiting for that boat…. Ah, pray and attend church, I think.  They were very religious.  The tourguide ladies sent us to another old church that they thought my relatives also might have visited.  Yup.  Looked like their church in Bodø but only bigger and a little more ornate.

(3) Also discovered that they would have stayed at a boarding house down on the canals.  Interesting because there are also canals in Göteborg, where my Swedish relatives started their journey to America.  Canals, I know.  My own town is full of them.  Anyway, got a good view of that area.  Short stay in Trondheim, less than twenty-fours hours.  But fruitful research.

We also visited a decorative arts museum and an old fort that had been taken over when the Germans occupied the city in WWII.  I’ll write more about WWII stuff in a post after I return home.  It was very interesting how this kept cropping up….

BERGEN:  Flew to Bergen as the train would have to go all the way to Oslo and then Bergen. A short, uneventful flight.  I did not expect to discover anything of note in this city.  It was merely a stopping point, or more accurately, an embarkation point for our sea journey.  But, as has happened repeatedly on this trip, I gained in understanding.  Perhaps the most interesting thing was just to see this part of the coast and to realize that the immigrants hugged the coastline all the way south before crossing the North Sea.  Bergen was a major port at that time.  While their ship did not stop there, they were traveling in waters frequented by many ships.

By the way, it rained in Bergen.  Anyone at all familiar with the place will not be surprised.  It is like saying, “It was Bergen in Bergen.”  Charming city but we mucked about with our heavy backpacks in the rain for far too long to say we enjoyed Bergen fully.  Had a terrific meal at an Italian restaurant set off the tourist road one block.  Not a soul in there when we first arrived, but we were starving.  We sat down and had dinner while listening to loud Michael Jackson music. Waiter chose the music: “I LOVE Michael Jackson! He’s a great singer!!”  Surreal.

BOAT:  Boarded the Queen of Scandinavia the next morning at 8 a.m. and found our cabin.  La dee dah!  When I booked, I decided to go for the room with a window because I was worried about being sea sick.  Didn’t realize that Commodore Cabin essentially means first class.  Oh, my, aren’t we special?!  It was a lovely room (for a boat, that is) and I learned to thank my lucky stars for that window once we hit the open sea.  Before that, however, I made an appointment to interview one of the crew about travel from Scandinavia to England.  Kim from Denmark was super helpful (except for his comments that seasickness is purely psychological and HE never gets sick). What I learned from him that is useful:

(1) There is a very dangerous and rough patch of sea between the north coast of Denmark and south coast of Norway.  Our Swedes must have had a rough time traveling through there on their way to England, about a day out of the port of Göteborg.  Also, they sailed at the worst time, in October, after the start of storm season.  This explains why great-great grandma Lotta was so very seasick.  I knew that from my grandma’s story, but I didn’t know they had very good reason to be ill.

(2) Norwegian steamers would have followed the coastline even if they did not go into port.  One can totally see this after traveling by boat there.  A huge difference between the sheltered coastline with its many islands and deep and easily navigated fjords and the open North Sea where the wind sweeps down from the north and huge waves can make sea travel treacherous.

(3) The coast of England just appears out of nowhere, and it is relatively flat with a few hills with churches or ruined castles and a few lighthouses dotting the coast.  A strange contrast to the rugged fjords of the north.

When we hit the North Sea it was almost supper time.  Ugh. Within an hour I decided to take the little motion sickness tablet they give out free at the information center.  I went to bed and let it take effect. My friend had no problem with seasickness at all — thank goodness!  When I awoke from my nap, I felt better.  Decided to go to dinner as planned.  Ah, but I hadn’t counted on how the sight of odd sea-related food sitting out in a buffet would make me feel, plus the difficulty of getting to the buffet and back my seat with a loaded plate.  Oh, and the woman at the table right next to us who vomited on the table, poor dear. I ate a digestive bisquit and a few bites of lovely salmon, with my head turned to look out the window at the horizon.  Finally started feeling clamy and made a run for our lovely cabin where I applied a skin patch for seasickness and went to bed for good.  Awoke in the morning feeling much better.  I kept my equanimity overall.  Bed is sometimes best.  Even ate breakfast that morning.  But was heartily glad to get off the boat soon after that.

Good thing that I took that trip, too.  I discovered soon after boarding that the route is being discontinued in September.  This was my only chance to trace the ancestors.  Whew!  What a lucky duck I am!!

And now to bed. I shall write about the UK tomorrow (more interesting stuff)…unless I can’t get the internet connection to work again.  Took an hour this time before I managed to make it work, and I’m not sure how I did it.  Ah, well, homeward bound soon.  Missing the family. Will be good to be home.