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liberated to love

Recently, I delivered my second sermon ever to the 5pm community of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. This community practices a shared homily, so I gave a few minutes of my own reflections and then invited the responses of the community.

Here’s the gospel text I preached on from the lectionary that Sunday, Matthew 5:21-37.

And click here for the audio of my portion of the sermon.

Let me know what you think!

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adbusting

Recently, I got yet another email from Adbusters in my inbox. Normally this is merely inconvenient, since I’ve unsubscribed from them at least three times, and delete it. But something about the subject line pulled me in and I opened it to see this:

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I’m livid. A major aim of Adbusters is to educate Americans about when they’re being manipulated by advertising — so important that busting the Ad industry is right in their name. It’s a great goal, and Adbusters does many other great things: they organized Buy Nothing Day, and promote Buy Nothing Christmas.

But here’s the thing: you don’t get to boycott Christmas, and then use the same holiday to fund-raise for yourself.

You don’t get to condemn Santa and then use him to pull in cash (and I’m not even a fan of Santa).

You don’t get to convince me to not spend money, and then ask me for money.

You don’t get to tell me to not spend money specifically on gifts that my family wants, and then ask me to spend money to give them a gift of your product (let’s not pretend that this magazine is anything other than product sold for profit, no different from the book my father-in-law wants or the Cosmo magazine my sister reads).

You don’t get to wish me a “corpo-free holiday” at the end of the email from “everyone at Adbusters”– itself a corporation! Does size alone determine whether a corporation is worthy of my dollars (indeed, worthy of existence) or not? What is the tipping point? Is it measured in dollars or employees? WorldVision is huge and does lots of good; Adbusters maybe tiny, but without integrity.

There is so much bullshit here. Buy Nothing for Christmas, sure, but certainly don’t buy into a manipulative a deceitful Adbusters. At least be honest about what you’re doing, corpo–it’s what you want from Kraft and Phillip Morris.

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remember death

Recently, a friend sent me this piece in which Russell Banks discusses his inspiration for writing: a gravestone inscription of Remember Death that sits near his desk.

I’m reminded (as I read Banks’s words now, and often when I write) of Andrew Marvell’s line, “at my back I always hear Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” For some reason it gives me the feeling of a hand lightly touching the small of my back; a feminine image, a tuxedoed man ushering me inside while holding open the door. I don’t need to look over my shoulder to know that it is no mortal, but Death’s skeletal hand, resting on the curve of my spine.

Yet death is such an abstraction, so hard to keep near. I’ve more than once tried to be decisive about killing myself, tried to pick a date, so that I could write a suicide letter about the way I experience the world. Undoubtedly, the letter would turn into an essay and then a book and maybe something worthwhile would come of it. But I can’t convince myself quite enough that I’ll actually follow through with the suicide, at least never for long enough to actually write something worthwhile. Or, the times I begin to draft such an essay in my head, I’m already so far in despair that I know—with supposed certainty—that nothing worthwhile would ever come of it, or of any work at all. Everything is meaningless, I mumble to myself, everything is vapor.
Sometimes I worry that because I don’t remember death and because I don’t write—the causation is important—I’ll be diagnosed, someday soon, with an exotic, fast-moving, incurable disease and have to scribble down just one of the dozen books I have inside me before the spirit expires.
So here I am. Anxious, unproductive. Paralyzed.
Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring  forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you. It feels true. And I don’t now how to get it out.
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thanksgiving hopping

Thanksgiving is approaching and my entire school is buzzing with the formation of plans. Some students are going home; some are planning small, swanky soirees; others are hosting giant potlucks. Of course, with so many plans happening on one day, there are many students who are invited to many Thanksgivings. Some say ‘yes’ to the first invitation that comes their way, or to the one with their closest friends. Others agonize over where to spend the day. But there’s another category: Thanksgiving hoppers.

I think Thanksgiving hopping started—painfully, gruelingly—with divorce situations, but is now considered a fun way to spend the holiday. Often it means getting in as many Thanksgivings as possible; other times it means planning to be with one group for lunch and another for dinner, splitting the day between friends.

I find the practice infuriating. As a hostess and a friend, yes, of course, but even more so as a spiritually conscientious person. Because Thanksgiving hopping is the opposite of giving thanks. A proper Thanksgiving means being right where you are with deep gratitude, about savoring the rich quality of food and drink and relationship, about being in a moment of eternity because there is nowhere else to be. Thanksgiving hopping is about gluttony, sacrificing quality for quantity, and watching the clock to get to wherever you promised to be next.

By attempting to be with everyone, you’re really being with no one. You’re with the pain in your gut from too many side dishes, you’re with the clock on your phone trying to gauge how long you can stay without offending the host of the next event. You don’t stay put long enough to allow the slow build of relationship and relaxation to culminate in the quiet joy of deep contentment. You’re missing out on what’s right in front of you, and worse, you’re depriving your friends of the gift that is you and your full presence.

We spend every other day of the year rushing from one place to the next. Take this one day to slow down and really be where you are. Give us this day to give thanks for you.

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gratitude now!

Recently, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store when I noticed the cover of the latest Real Simple Magazine.

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What especially caught my eye was the circled blurb on the side of the cover: “feel grateful now,” it lures. “12 ways to live in the moment,” the promise continues.

I burst out laughing. Heads turned. But really, what a truly absurd marketing strategy. Who is hooked by the commercialization of gratitude? Are we Americans really so out of touch with slow practices of gratitude that we think our hollow inconsiderateness can be fixed in a few steps? Are we so consumeristic that we think we can buy our way to inner serenity at the newsstand? Are we really so out of touch with our souls?

The demand to feel grateful immediately is not a way to cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is a slow noticing, it is a practiced living into the moment, is recognition of desire for exactly what is present. GK Chesterton wrote that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. Henry Van Dyke said that gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. There are many ways to describe gratitude and its working within our beings, but none of its descriptions have a sense that it’s something you can demand, instantly. An old Seinfeld episode loops through my head, slightly altered: everyone is screaming “Gratitude now!”

Gratitude can’t fall under the category of instant gratification and can’t be bought because accumulating is fundamentally at odds with gratitude. When you are grateful, you measure your hearts desires with your life and surroundings and find that they match. There is no need to add more when you are grateful for what you have. The wish for more—whether “more” is a shiny magazine,or the promise of gratitude itself—the wish for more is what murders gratitude.

My first step to feeling grateful in this moment: recognizing that my both my bookshelf and my life are whole without a quick-fix magazine.

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good vs bad

Have you seen last night’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart? The first segment is a compilation of news clips of “experts” and anchors asking whether major, complex issues are good or bad. It’d be funnier if it weren’t so tragic.

Watching it, I keep thinking that this is at least partly the church’s fault. We’ve spent so many years listing and categorizing sins, condoning and condemning acts, that we’ve created very strict black and white frames through which to view the world. And then we shamed and praised our children into using those frames. And now those children are adults and can’t bear the complexity of a world full of gray areas.

How can we engage sin and brokenness authentically and honestly while also holding the tension of complexity, grayness, grace?

How can the church be about meaning rather than mere goodness?

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rule of life

Last year, as an assignment for Prayer, Presence & Practice, I received the assignment to write out my Rule of Life. While not exactly a Rule, what I turned in are some principles that I try to live by, and I share them here for whoever might find them helpful.

  • Have a voice. Know yourself.
    • Commit to living out the image of God that is within you, to allowing identity to overflow into actions.
    • Follow your joy.
    • Be interested in growth.
      • Allow events to change you.
      • Ask basic, stupid questions, and find unexpected answers.
      • Ask complex, interesting questions, and research for the most satisfying answers.
      • Look for more livable ways to define and live the good life.

This piece stems from my practice of silence, in which I not only learned the power of my voice but how to handle it with care and strength for both others and myself. My search is not simply for a career but a vocation, which I understand as identity-in-action. No one can tell me what this is; I must know and hear my own voice. It is not sufficient to have a self that is only a self in relation.

  • Have courage.
    • Courage to say no, courage to say yes. Remember that saying yes “to will the one thing” means saying no to lots of other things.
    • Remember that we all suffer. Keep going.
    • Lean into the pain, find what it has to teach you.

As someone who knows narrative and is intuitive, I often know where a trajectory will take me before I get there. I must remind myself that all good stories require conflict. Often, the work that must be accomplished requires leaning into the pain of my story. It’s those moments that I want to stop that I must find courage to keep going into the discomfort and hurt—nothing has taught me this more clearly than  writing. Additionally, I must have strong boundaries in order to accomplish what I’m meant to rather than becoming distracted in others’ callings.

  • Be vulnerable.
    • Pursue relationships that might not work out.
    • Show hospitality that will likely never be returned.
    • Risk emotionally.
    • Laugh, loudly.
    • Cry, openly and without shame.
    • Believe in the holy contour of life.

Relationships are important for a full life. My life is not only about my work but about being with others well, which requires such openness and risk for a certain level of intimacy.

  • Be grounded in physicality; know your embodiment.
    • Sweat often. Sweat is your prayer.
      • Practice yoga. Run. Practice krav maga. Go dancing.
    • Breathe deeply and mindfully. Breath is your prayer, too.
    • Drink lots of water. Eat colorful plants that died just recently.

Beginning to articulate body as prayer has been a theme in this term’s other papers, so I won’t reiterate here.

  • Value your creative process.
    • Mantra: good artists borrow, great artists steal. Keep a swipe file.
    • You are powerful enough to make new words and new symbols.
    • Listen attentively and carefully.
    • Take field trips.
    • Remember. Carry a notebook and pen. Write things down. Revisit journals.
    • Fail. Fail again. Fail better. Fail faster.
    • Collaborate. Everyone has something to offer.

I do believe that writing is a task I am mean to be working at. Guidelines are helpful in achieving that, in figuring out the way and the content.

  • Live with simplicity.
    • Know kinship with creation.
      • Garden. What you do the earth, you do to yourself.
      • Enjoy the sun. Sit in the grass. Enjoy rainy days, too.
    • Don’t be cool.
      • You don’t need more clothes, gadgets, social media presence, or anything else trying to sell a false version of the good life. Consume less.
      • In general: reuse, repurpose, and make what you can
      • The pursuit of [material] happiness is the source of much unhappiness.
    • Find a rhythm of work and rest.
      • Daily, weekly, yearly.
      • Keep a daily routine… but don’t be rigid. Stay up late when ideas are happening. Get out of bed when they wake you up. And keep human! See people, go places.

I’m concerned about the consumer-driven narrative of today’s culture; there are other ways to live that have been livable and well lived for centuries and centuries.

  • Find a third way.
    • It’s not just about looking forward to Resurrection on the other side of Death, it’s about finding a third way, a way in-between the black/white paradigms.
    • Think in terms other than good/bad, or find other ways to define those terms.
    • Follow your joy.

I’ve always struggled with darknesses; this past year has been especially difficult and I don’t expect that to go away as I start to work on putting words on pages. I need to find a way to navigate, a way to hope more than I despair and to know glory without being overwhelmed by it.

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silence and selfhood

By the end of the first week of classes, I am in tears. Half of my conversations make it obvious that I am a woman in a man’s world, or at least a man’s program. The other half of my conversations make it clear that I am no longer fully a student; my peers expect me to be something more—the opinion of women everywhere, the voice of a movement, at once leader and sacrificial lamb. In my last class of the week, the professor is discussing issues of women’s initiative and agency. It is exactly what I have been attempting to bring out of the mostly-silent women of my cohort, the parts of myself I have been expending on the students’ behalf. I am exhausted.

I share this with the professor after class; she understands completely, even better than I do. “It’s very bad to be exhausted at the beginning,” she states. I nod and unsuccessfully try to keep even more tears from falling. “I wonder,” she begins, slowly, with care, “if the strength that is in you could be for you.” Earlier, I would have claimed that others needed my strength on their behalf more than I needed it for myself, but it’s too obvious that that is no longer true, if it ever was. When she suggests that I practice silence, something in me feels the unfamiliar pull of hope. From my first weeks in this building I had been deemed The Woman Who Speaks (or, more often spoken, The Girl Who Talks). Silence feels like a good practice, one in which I could learn other ways to be engaged with the material, where I could find space within myself for peace, where I could demand others to allow me the silence they maintain, all while inviting those unheard voices to fill the space I leave open.

Silence is capacious. In silence, there is room for me. In silence, room is made for others. I hope that silence would also allow space for God to encounter me. I know myself to be too tired to chase after God. Still, I could make room for the Divine to come in, I could be watchful for moments to welcome such a Being.

I adopt the practice of silence in every class, and often outside of it as well. Even in moments when I want to speak, I allow my silence to fill the room. I notice my breathing. In extended silences, lying in bed at night, or observing the descent of rain while the heat of my morning tea passes into my palms, I put tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. Most often, my prayer is the characters of the Ineffable Name: inhale yod, exhale he, inhale vav, exhale he. In moments of frustration, I use another Hebrew word associated with breath, and more commonly linked with meaninglessness, the soon-vanishing vapor of expelled ether, hebel. Both Hebrew words are scripted over my rib cage, and I watch them rise and fall through the shower steam as I contemplate God within this broken body.  I focus on sensation, I practice mindfulness. I feel cool air welcomed into my body, warmed, allowed to leave as space is made for another benevolent breath. When I eat, I try to really taste. As I fold laundry, I touch the texture of each garment. I knit and notice the delicate softness of the wool as I tangle it into a big and beautiful knot.

Each Sunday evening I drag myself to my version of church: the yoga studio. It is a safe space, an hour and a half in which no one expects me to speak brilliantly, no one looks to me for wisdom nor guidance. Unlike traditional churches, no one asks me to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is something with which I can part, a sweater to shrug off. One week my thoughts drift away during shavasana, as they are wont to do, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles around those with whom I am intimately involved, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable, entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. Despite my years of martial arts training, if anyone wanted to kill me right now, they could. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could lead to my death also opened me up to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.

In school, silence continues. Nearly halfway through the term, people start wondering about it. One student approaches me while I am working at the front desk and says, “I’ve been missing your voice in Theology,” where we had been discussing feminist theologies. I choose my words carefully to convey appreciation that I was noticed, but underneath I feel the tug of the rope around my neck, students leading me to slaughter. The next Theology class, the conversation turns towards feminism once again. A couple students talk about how to find space for women to speak, the professor rightly points out that creating space can’t just be something that happens out in other places, it needs to start in this classroom, between each of us. “How can we be with one another, make space and find space?” We’re about to go on break, the conversation will end here—as it always does, as if asking the question is enough. I tentatively start raising my hand, put it back down, start putting it up again, lower. The professor sees me and starts unpinning her own microphone in urgency to make room for me to speak; she, too, has been both aware and supportive of my silence.

When I take the microphone it feels heavy and suddenly unfamiliar. “I haven’t spoken yet in this class,” I say, and realize the semester is half over. My pulse races, my breath quickens. This is unlike me; I’m familiar with the amplification of my voice in this room. “I hope that those of you who are often silent feel my silence as an invitation,” I look around to some of those women’s faces; their eyes are in their laps. I persevere, “I hope you feel that space is being made for you. And those of you who often talk, who speak every thought you have,” I’m very selectively making eye contact with certain students, “I hope you hear my silence as an invitation to join me in making space.” I shakily turn off the mic, we go on break. The next week is a jumble of processing, outspoken men thanking me for confronting them, quiet women avoiding me and their boyfriends explaining that they feel like I’m forcing them to speak, others just thanking me for explaining—my silence had been tangible and unknown.

I’m processing, too, but it’s tiring and trying and needs to stop. It’s early and will probably rain any minute, but I lace up, throw on a hoodie, run along the canal. The trees shine against the layered grays of the sky, branches sway in front of the stable lines of the bridge. The occasional biker whirs by, the whisper of leaves cuddling against one another, occasionally huddling tightly enough to offer glimpses of the water. It’s quiet. I run until my breath overwhelms my aural space and the sensation in my lungs overtakes all. The leaves are getting brighter and invite me farther down the path.

Suddenly the trees open up and there is a clearing leading to the water. I turn, leave the trail, allow my pace to slow as I approach the waves. I stretch the tightness out of my hamstrings and watch the inky blue shallows carry leaves as though they’re golden treasures, unexpectedly inherited and loosely held. I don’t know where they’ll be carried, but they’re here right now, and they’re beautiful. The water falls towards its unknown destination; it does not care how many gold pieces join it. A half dozen ducks glide by, or appear to. I know they’re not really gliding; under the calm surface, they’re paddling like mad, just like the rest of us. I decide I’d rather be the water than the ducks, held by the firm steadiness of the rock riverbed, with effortless and natural direction. I wonder if a duck can choose to stop paddling, allow the water to carry it, and survive.

The images stay with me for days. When I try to explain to my husband the warm darkness of the water, the brilliance of the leaves, the rocks that hold the stream and give it direction without ever moving—I can’t find sufficient words. I choke up. He understands, I think, or at least he surrounds me with his arms, and that’s enough.

Perceptions of me are changing. Previously, my struggle, tears, sadnesses had been viewed with a kind of courageous vulnerability. One woman told me, that first semester, that she wanted to sit at my table to see when I cry, because that would signal to her that she should be feeling more than she is. When even my emotions, my falling-apart-ness, were viewed as leadership, I was always on display. When I pointed out that such pedestals are tall and shaky and easy to fall off, people thought that even the falling was beautiful and taught them about themselves, so I was never allowed to fully crash off the pedestal. When I cried that it’s lonely on a pedestal, people said they were there for me, but it was clear that they were there to keep me on the pedestal. Now, students are finally starting to see that my struggle is real and the cost is deep. They still come to me with problems and questions, but more quietly. Most no longer approach me as a rockstar sage, but come to me as a person. They ask how I’m doing, too.

Back in the large classroom for Theology, and the professor is teaching on sin. She summarizes a feminist understanding in which sin for women is not pride, but is essentially a lack, underdevelopment, or negation of self, a dependence on others for self-definition, a deficiency of a center. Not owning one’s self and agency can be an affront to God. And such a shortfall often manifests in service and silence. I recognize this sin in many of my classmates. Is this my silence, too? No: my silence is on the far side of self-hood, a practice in centering and developing my self in order to find my place within community. I recognize that this is not a sinful way of being, it is a spiritual and God-directed practice.

Still, it’s clear that soon I will need to continue to move forward, to allow the waterway to carry me beyond this clearing. Practices and prayers may fit for a time, but they should lead us to a new place, a new way of being. Prayers are a practice of becoming. We each must be ever-moving towards the self we were created to be, the forgotten person we already are.

This paper was written in Fall 2012 for Pat Loughery’s class “Prayer, Practice & Presence.” Students were asked to discuss their spiritual growth and process through the term. It has taken me a year to publish this because I still cry whenever I try to edit it.

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the commodification of charity

TOMS became popular because it represented a humanitarian cause. You didn’t just buy yourself shoes, you bought someone else shoes, too. The distinctive style and little flag on the heel became a sign-exchange value, telling people not only the “look how cool I am” of the Nike swoosh, but also “look how generous I am.”

So it’s no surprise that knock-offs started popping up everywhere. The same distinctive cloth-wrapped style, although sans the blue-striped flag and the “One for One” mission statement. I’ve actually heard women brag that they would never buy real TOMS, they’re so expensive, but found ones just like them for only half the price! What a steal!

I know I’m supposed to do the woman-bonding thing and congratulate her on her stealthy hunting shopping skills, but what I want to say is this:

Well, of course you found ones at half the price, because you’re only buying shoes for yourself. You want the sign-exchange value of “look how generous I am” without actually having to give anything. You want it on the cheap. You want to look giving but without it actually costing you anything.

This is especially true of Toms, given the company’s philanthropic nature, but it’s USAmerican consumerism all over the place. We want it to look real, but we want it made less expensive, regardless of how many people we hurt. Forget the second-pair-of-shoes cost of charity; we don’t even care about labor conditions for the people making our items or if the materials are durable, much less sustainably grown. If you aren’t going to do the research on that, the absolute least you can do is think about why it is you want that new piece, what you’re hoping that purse or those shoes will say about your person—and then make it true.

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