How Did I Ever Get Here?

Photo of our national secular church….and public square — by Jacob Creswick

I was recently asked to talk about my experience with church and the public square, and I immediately said yes – I am always up for talking.  But then I panicked and could not imagine what I would say.  After several days of muddled thinking, I realized that I need to start with where I have been before I can talk about where I am.  For me, that is increasingly a response to questions about what I think, and I wonder if that is part of getting older….

As a child and young adult, I was unchurched.  My parents, who were both raised as Lutherans – one grandfather was a Lutheran minister – had me baptized. Their story goes “we walked out of church, looked at each other, and said ‘why did we ever do that’”.  I have no memory of attending a church with them, either as a child or an adult.  In other words, church was not an embedded experience, apart from episodically attending a Methodist Sunday school with my elementary school friend, Mary Lou. I had nothing to rebel against.

Photo by Duanu00e9 Viljoen on Pexels.com

I was also anxious because I have always considered myself a lackluster participant in the public square.I went to a small liberal arts college in the 1960s, and activism was part of the social and educational experience. About 10% of my peers were arrested in a civil rights demonstration when I was a freshman – I was not among them because I had stayed back to study. After graduation, I was humbled by the ways in which so many of my classmates figured out how to continue that activism to visible acclaim. Among my peers were a well-known environmentalist, a defendant in the anti-draft “Dr. Spock Trial”, and the founder of a non-profit litigating cases in support of women’s rights. Still others obtained top positions in national journalism.

By those criteria, a decision to become a sociologist who focused on education for the less advantaged seemed small potatoes in terms of being active in the public square.

Back to church….

When my children were young, I attended a Unitarian church in Lexington, MA, which was acceptable to my un-synagogued but Jewish husband.  It was less a spiritual than a socio-historical experience because I loved just being in a 200-year-old building whose first minister was Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And I liked the people. I began seeking a different relationship with church only as I entered recovery from alcoholism, where I encountered my spiritual self with a group who shared their experience, strength and hope on a weekly basis. 

I was impressed with an old-timer’s anecdote: When he whined ”I don’t know what my Higher Power wants me to do”’, he got a simple answer: “All your Higher Power wants from you is to not drink and be a decent person”.  Recovery gave me a space to seriously consider Teilhard Du Chardin’s statement that we are all spiritual being who are having – or suffering – a human experience.  I also met Dan, raised casual Congregational, who was with me on my path.  So, in my late 50s I started attending a liberal church. There are many ways in which in which the “spiritual but not religious” seek self-understanding and value-based action in a world that often seems meaningless.  For me, all my disparate efforts to enact those – yoga, meditation, volunteering, recovery meetings – gave me a taste for something that church has fulfilled. 

For me, church is the one institution that consistently brings together three important threads of my human experience: developing an inner spiritual life that helps me to challenge instinctively self-centered reactions, creating a supportive and caring community of thoughtful seekers, and carrying the wisdom of spirit and my values into the world in order to make a difference.  The latter is important to me because it means thinking about the public square based on collective reflection rather than individual preference – in other words, taking others into account.  The balance between these three elements of my church experience has varied over time, and I know that the weight different people bring to those basic human human challenges varies a great deal.  But, for me, a church must be all three to feel that I really belong – I could get reflection and community in my 12 step groups and finding places that need extra hands to help solve the world’s problems is easy, but nowhere else do I find a dynamic connection among them.

But what about the public square – making a difference in the world, aka purpose?   I have learned as a member of the churches that I have belonged to that (a) it is ok not to be an elected official, the founder of an organization, or a trailblazer in visible social equity initiatives; (b) I am obligated to look behind the invisible curtain that hides the possibility of something new, and (c) showing up where I am needed is often enough.      

I can admire the Jimmy Carters of this world without feeling inadequate, but I do have a responsibility to use my time and talents as an advocate and support to those who are more visibly out there.  In other words, now that I am almost retired, I can show up when showing up is important.  Dan found a quote by Wendell Berry that summarizes how I think about what I need to do to bring my values into the public square:

We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world.  We have been wrong.  We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption:  that what is good for the world will be good for us.  And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.

― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace

And I am also reminded that what I think of myself is not always what others see in me.  A decade ago, I was at a retirement event for a seasoned administrative assistant.  We were joking about what we wanted on our tombstones (good retirement party conversation…) and I claimed, “Tart of Tongue and Heart of Gold”.  The retiree looked at me and said, “Oh no – it should be ‘She Supported Women’”.  All I did was show up and advocate when I was needed. But  I also reflect on Richard Rohr’s observation that we show up when we are called to do so – and that is nothing to boast about, but simply listening for the voice that calls. 

The Chair: A Parable for Our Time?

I have so many friends who have confided that, since self-isolating began, their homes have never been cleaner.  They are also going through the old piles of books, the mess in the bathroom vanity, and all the almost-used-up cleaning products under the kitchen sink.  Hoarding toilet paper has given me new enthusiasm for decreasing waste and insisting on using and washing microfiber cloths rather than discarding paper towels, as well as making our own disinfectant.  Okay, we are all going a little nuts.  My point is that we are really paying attention to how we are living — how we occupy our little space in this world and how we can conserve what we have. 

Which brings me to The Chair.  The story of The Chair is, in some ways, an elaboration of my previous post on decluttering and connects me to ongoing reflections about “stuff” that both contains emotions and occupies physical space.  It raises the dogged and still unanswered question:  What will matter most when my mental fog around the current situation lifts?

To begin: In 1969, I lived in New York, with two graduate student fellowships as my husband’s and my only source of income.  As a friend said about my husband, however, “You could fall into a sewer and come up holding diamonds”.  So, while having NO MONEY AT ALL, we lived in the most luxurious home that I have ever occupied – a sublet in a Columbia University-owned faculty building on Riverside Drive, complete with doorman, polished door handles, three bedrooms-plus-study, and a parking space – a parking space in Manhattan!   But, after all, it was New York.  It was the late 60s-early 70s, and there was lots of good stuff going on for free (or nearly free).

When we moved from our first apartment to the brief Riverside Drive idyll, we brought with us a bed, a sofa (which I reupholstered – my only and not particularly successful effort of that type), a desk/dining table — and The Chair. She was a slightly bulky but stylish piece, whose Peter Max screaming orange velvet upholstery was the probable cause of her deeply discounted price at Maurice Villency (a big step up from the Door Store, which provided our cheap flat surfaces).  It was also the dog days of summer in New York,  and no one in their right mind wanted to sit on orange velvet in a marginally air conditioned pre-war apartment.  The Chair was actually a designer’s effort to make mid-century modern meet American recliner.  It was huge – big enough that we could sit in it together (sort of….).  She was the chair of choice for reading.  She was, even with orange upholstery, much more reflective of who we thought we would become than the very unprofessionally recovered second-hand sofa. 

I didn’t know at the time that The Chair would move with me through all of the chapters of my life, including a divorce and a remarriage.  Recovered three times,  her last reincarnation (a rust and gold patterned fabric that cost a lot more than I wanted to spend) ensured that it would fit in with the bold colors that Dan and I chose to set off the ocean of quarter-sawn oak trim in our 1910 “four square” honeymoon house in Minneapolis.  We loved it.  It was the chair of choice for any visitor.  Our dog, Moxie, thought that he should own it (although officially banned from the furniture) and leapt up whenever we turned our backs….

When Dan and I moved from a three-story house to a bright loft-like condominium, it never occurred to me to leave The Chair behind, although full shipping pods went to each daughter and we left a few other good pieces behind for the lucky new owner.  We knew when we moved her that she was in desperate need of another facelift.  For six years, she hung on, increasingly out of place in a loft that was otherwise furnished with Scandinavian antiques, Dan’s exquisite one-of-a-kind “art furniture” that occupied his dreams in the winter and his time in his summer shop, and handmade wood pieces from Thomas Moser’s Maine workshop, one of which I inherited from my father. 

The new dog, Kasper, loved The Chair as much as Moxie, our previous dog did.  Her arms acquired an increasing patina of permanent grime.  I shopped for fabric with our friend Laura, who held out the incentive of her architect’s discount. I couldn’t let The Chair go….and I couldn’t figure out how I could make her fit.

Then, somehow, things changed.  As I hemmed and hawed over The Chair, it became clear that she held too many memories (in addition to being huge and heavy) to carry with me as I moved into retirement.  She embodied too much past without holding a promise of what the future might bring.  And, all of a sudden, Laura said, “I know what you can do – send a picture to OmForme and see whether he could recycle it into a completely different chair”.   Omforme takes good quality old furniture and reimagines it and Laura was so intrigued with the possibilities that she used her deep dive into the online fabric sphere to score enough fabric to seal the deal.  And she loved the result so much that I gave the chair to her (she paid for the redo) – with the stipulation that I could visit.

Now, here I am in Boulder in a tiny rental house that we furnished from Ikea and Craig’s List, unable to get back to our Minneapolis loft until the “don’t travel unless necessary” recommendation is lifted.  I am trying to carve out a different life in retirement, where I live with fewer attachments to “old stuff”, whether it is a physical object or a professional persona that has become almost inseparable from what is just behind it. The world is in a frenzy, where my intense desire to reach out on Zoom to everyone who has ever meant something to me punctuates the relatively silence of our house. We have no way of predicting what will happen in the next few months, and I screen the competing voices seesawing between doom and “back to normal by fall.”

I sometimes think that I have two choices – hang on to what I have (relationships, hopes for the future…) or really try to live day-by-day, curious about what life-with-less will be like tomorrow.  But it is not easy to let go, although hanging on requires a lot of the mental energy that I could put to other uses.   And I am not even sure what is most important to hang on to. 

As for The Chair:  In this new and even more uncertain world, I am glad that you showed me that I could live without you.  So long good friend.  I needed to let you go but I won’t forget you — and I am glad that you are safe