A Very Unusual Holiday Season: Grief and Healing through Rituals

The holiday season is usually a very full time of year for me and my family. We have the run of Thanksgiving into Christmas with multiple family birthdays sandwiched in between. It is usually the time of year when we are juggling visits with family who live in other parts of the country. We have actually developed an elaborate system of alternating in person holiday gatherings between Vermont, Chicago, and Los Angeles on a three-year rotation to accommodate the family diaspora that has transpired over the years.

Of course, the holiday season in 2020 is going to look and feel very different for my family with all of us staying put through the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

I am sad to be missing out on some of our treasured family traditions this year and feeling the loss of time with my parents, brothers, nieces and nephew, Titas, Titos, cousins. I will especially miss eating and smelling the foods of my childhood, lovingly prepared by my mother or grandmother, which are just not as available here in Vermont.

The loss of some of these traditions this year, however, also feels like a forced adaptation that could hold some blessing. Our family trio has already started thinking about new or adapted traditions we could adopt this year. I really appreciated this recent article in KidsVT / Seven Days that gave us some great ideas.

Below is a photo of our Gratitude Tree which is mentioned in the article. We will write our gratitudes on the leaves and add them to the tree. Stones placed in a bowl can be used to signify the grief that is being held alongside the gratitude.

DIY Cardboard Gratitude Tree

This will probably also be a year when I make much more of an effort to cook up some of the Filipino recipes I have been reluctant to try because Nanay’s version is just so much better!

The losses present this holiday season help me remember how important rituals are in our lives. Rituals give rhythm to our lives as individuals and in community. Rituals help us to bring forth and sometimes release emotions. Rituals help us make meaning of circumstances that are sometimes challenging and confounding. Rituals give space to healing.

I hope that this holiday season you are able to give yourself space to grieve the temporary loss of treasured traditions as well as to lean into your creativity in developing new rituals that will help you stay connected with loved ones.

Please share in the comments the traditions you will be missing this year and the new rituals you’ll be trying out.

With love and care,
Rev. Joan

PS – If you’re looking for a way to connect with others over the Thanksgiving holiday, join in a day-after-Thanksgiving gathering from 4-5:15PM. Check our UCM e-news for more details.

Listening transforms hearts | October mUUsings

The month of October usually speaks to me of apple orchards and pumpkins, of vibrant hillsides and crunchy leaves underfoot, of sweaters and cups of steaming tea. This October, many of those comforts are still present. Yet, I also live with the heightened anxiety of the upcoming election and all that is at stake for people I know whose lives, marriages, and health care lay in the balance as well as people I do not know personally but whose everyday circumstances hinge upon the policies and rhetoric of those in high office. I am weary, as I know many of you are, and I long for the slowing down of noise and activity to be able to truly listen with compassion to the world around me and to my most inner voice and wisdom.

As we reflect on the theme of “Deep Listening” this month, I invite you to reflect on the conditions that make your own deep listening possible. What is it that helps you to listen more deeply to yourself and to those around you?

Recently, I found myself in a conversation for which I wasn’t totally prepared to deeply listen. Someone had made an appointment to see me to prepare for a memorial service for their loved one. They were very late for the appointment and I still had a few errands to do before returning home for an evening with my family. Time felt short.

Yet, as we talked, I realized this person had much more to share than had been apparent in our brief communications by phone and email ahead of meeting. This person was holding some profound and complicated grief around the circumstances of their loved one’s death. I had to make a choice in that moment to deeply listen. I mentally set aside my to-do list. I took a deep breath. I focused my attention on the person before me and the moment we were sharing together as best I could.

Though the story was a painful one, I knew that my heart was changed by being willing to listen and leaving open space for this person’s grief to emerge and to be witnessed.

This month, I invite you to notice when you might be called to listen more deeply. When is someone else’s pain, delight, or truth beckoning to be heard? (Or, perhaps, your own.) And, how might you offer your deep listening?

I leave you with this beautiful recording of “Blackbird.” Often, we must listen more deeply when something seems to be beyond our understanding for what is true and beautiful.

May deep listening transform your heart this month.

With love,

Rev. Joan

Students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni, Cape Breton recorded Paul McCartney’s Blackbird in their native Mi’kmaq language

Drifting and Staying Afloat Together | A Message at the Start of the Church Year

Listen to Rev. Joan read this message to the congregation.

Dear UCM members and friends,

As we return to our shared life of spiritual community to begin this 2020-2021 church year, our lives are marked by uncertainty and this coming year will be like any other this community has shared. There is no getting around this. But, there is getting through it.

We are all part of a long line of ancestors who have gotten through and made meaning with one another in this basic human endeavor of living through the joys and sorrows of our days – sometimes through very difficult days.

As we get through these days of turmoil and uncertainty, we bind together yet again in a community of shared commitments and values. We reach out for connection and deepening of relationship. We encourage one another in the practices that keep us grounded and centered and that can anchor us when most everything feels adrift.

A few days ago, I was sent a recording of our congregation singing together “Blue Boat Home” at last year’s Ingathering Sunday service. I brought my laptop up to the sanctuary and sat in its emptiness listening to your voice, our voices filling the space. I grieve the loss of sharing in worship together in our sanctuary. And, I find solace knowing that we are drifting together as kindred and companions guided by our shared mission as a spiritual community and the light we cast out to find our way.

This year, the Governing Board has identified three major priorities for us as a congregation: 1) Holding our UCM community together, 2) Widening our circle of concern, and 3) Deepening our service. The ministries and programs of our church for this year will all be connected to these broad goals.

While this church year will be unlike any other in any of our recent memories, I believe that it also holds the same invitation of other years. Each of you is invited to be part of something bigger than yourself. Each of you is invited to reflect on what truly matters. Each of you is invited to be loved and cared for and to offer love and care in turn. Each of you is invited to live your values with commitment. These things we do together.

Know that however, wherever, and whenever you can engage in the life of this community is okay. Some of you may need to really focus inwards and stay off virtual platforms to get through. Some of you may need to turn your attention outwards and to a broader scope of activism and engagement. Some of you may be ready to dive headlong into church life and join some new committees. All of you, in whatever ways you are choosing to show up in this community now, is welcomed.

Despite it all and because of it all, I am so grateful to be serving as your minister, and I hope to be a resource to you as we journey together this year. I will be resuming my daily phone messages, “Words for the Day” on Monday, September 14th. Call (802) 552-8544, Monday through Friday, to listen to a brief recording of poems, prayers, and words of meditation for spiritual sustenance.

Please don’t hesitate to be in touch to share with me your ups and downs and your ideas as we navigate these uncharted waters together.

With love and gratitude,

Revered Joan

February mUUsings ~ Resilience

I have found lately that it is helpful for me to have a mantra. Mantras have been used for centuries in Hindu and Buddhist meditation practice. Mantras are words or phrases that we repeat to ourselves to maintain focus. In the Western world, we’ve taken on the practice of reciting mantras as a positive psychology tool. The mantra that has been running through my head lately is, “I am resilient.” The song linked above by Rising Appalachia is probably how this particular mantra found its way into my head.

“I am resilient
I trust the movement
I negate the chaos
Uplift the negative
I’ll show up at the table
Again and again and again
I’ll close my mouth and learn to listen”

With all that is happening in the world, I find that I have to continually come back to practices that help me remember, “I am resilient.” The practice of “showing up at the table” is one that I come back to again and again. For me this means showing up at the table of seeking collective liberation – organizing with others who are both like me and also very different from me.

Right now, I am in Las Vegas, Nevada for the Faith in Action National Faith Forum #FaithForum2020. This may seem like an unlikely place for a gathering of progressive, interfaith clergy and leaders, however, hidden behind the slot machines and blackjack tables are the workers – many people of color – who keep this place running and organize together for worker rights and dignity. Nevada, of course, is also profoundly impacted by the climate crisis and environmental challenges. It turns out it is an important site for developing a national, faith-based People’s Platform and mobilizing across faith communities in this critical election year.

Being here in Las Vegas feels like showing up at the table (not the blackjack table!). Last night, we ratified the People’s Platform and joined in saying together Our Proclamation.

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Image of Bishop Dwayne Royster of POWER leading our assembly of 300+ clergy and faith leaders in saying our Proclamation.

These are some of the lines:

We the People of Faith in Action are prepared to fight for the dignity and well-being of every person and every family. We are ready to fight for the soul of our democracy, the soul of our faith traditions, the soul of our nation, and the soul of our world.

We will not rest until every person is able to enjoy the fullness of life in this nation, and around the world.

This work is hard, and it keeps me going.

I hope that you will also find those ways to affirm that YOU are resilient and to show up at the table again and again.

LOVE,

Rev. Joan

December mUUsings

December mUUsings

As we approach the Christmas holiday, I know many of you grapple with what this holiday really means to you and how you choose to celebrate it or not. Some of you grew up in Christian traditions where Jesus and his life were much more prominent in your religious upbringing. Some of you come from non-Christian or completely areligious backgrounds and Christmas is just an overly commercialized, secular holiday with no real spiritual depth.

I grew up Catholic as many of you know. My family’s celebration of Christmas had both deeply religious meaning and also many consumerist overtones. The way we celebrated Christmas was a truly syncretic blend of religious, cultural, and commercial traditions – the decorating and lighting of the German-based Christmas tree, attending midnight Catholic mass, eating bihongke (traditional Filipino bean thread noodle soup), and buying each other last minute gifts at the mall. Christmas meant time with family, grappling with consumer impulses that didn’t feel great, and also the celebration of a miracle shrouded in mystery.

Becoming a Unitarian Universalist, I have had to figure out what Christmas means to me now. In some ways, I feel more deeply engaged in reflecting on the significance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The biblical nativity story that we share during our annual Christmas Pageant and during our Christmas Eve services takes on new meaning every year as I imagine the lives of Joseph and especially Mary so many centuries ago. The improbability of life thriving in those harsh conditions – during a time of despotic rule, under extreme poverty, with a baby born under questionable circumstances to a teenage girl – cast new light upon the improbability, and yet the endurance, of life now.

The “holy family” is but one family in human history that has endured hardship and also found joy amidst their struggles. Jesus was certainly an extraordinary person who demonstrated more wisdom, kindness, and prophetic acts of love than most. His birth and his life can continue to offer any of us – Christian or not – guidance for living in ways that question power and break down barriers between us.

As you consider how you might celebrate Christmas this year and what the holiday means to you, I encourage you to consider what spiritual lesson the Christmas story may hold for you.

  • Is there something in the story of Jesus’ birth that you find wondrous?
  • Is there some aspect of Jesus’ teachings that you want to remember?
  • Is there a “miracle” that you are waiting for in your own life?
  • Is there a child whose life you want to be part of nurturing?
  • Is there a child in your life who is teaching you something?

Claiming (or in some cases reclaiming) the meaning of Christmas can be a significant spiritual undertaking. However it is that you choose to celebrate Christmas this year (or not), may you find the joy of the unexpected and peace in your heart this season.

*You might be interested in reading this reflection to learn more about the Unitarian influence on our modern day Christmas.

**Check out our Director of Lifespan Spiritual Exploration, Liza Earle-Center’s, blog post on winter holiday traditions for some ideas of rituals and traditions you might consider for your family.

November mUUsings

November mUUsings

Since childhood I have been an avid reader. It seems to me now that back in those days I was able to give my attention to reading with much more abandon than is possible presently. I remember one day I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom. We had been given some free time which I devoted to diving further into the latest Cynthia Voigt book in my collection. I became so absorbed in the story that I didn’t notice for several minutes that the teacher had already begun the next lesson.

We are constantly navigating the inner and outer worlds. In our solitude, we can become absorbed in the story lines and plots introduced to us through books or engage in activities that connect us with our own creativity and imagination. We can pay more attention to our inner psyches and spirits and the inner landscape of our souls where we harbor our fears and stoke the flames of our hopes and dreams.

The outside world also calls for our attention. Often, this call is a lot louder than the call to turn our attention inward. As engaged participants in public life, we may feel called to turn our attention empathetically towards those suffering and to take actions that move the needle in the direction of justice, equity, sustainability, and peace. On a more day-to-day level, we may feel the demands on our attention from children, spouses, co-workers or supervisors. And, the many devices we are so often surrounded with also beg for our attention with the buzz and burst of notifications every few minutes.

Our attention, though, is a precious resource. I have found that spreading my attention too broadly can have detrimental consequences for myself and those around me. It is when I am able to direction my attention with intention that I find the most contentment and fulfillment.

Engaging in a daily spiritual practice has helped me to be more mindful of how I direct my attention (and when I allow my attention to go flying in many different directions). My practice includes lighting a candle, sitting for a few minutes of meditation, and allowing my attention to rest within or on my breath. I sometimes journal or engage in some body practices of yoga and stretching. It’s not too long after this that my attention is then called to the hustle and bustle of getting the day started. But, these few moments of intentional turning inward make a big difference.*

This month, may you allow yourself the space and freedom to direct your attention in the ways that bring you and those around you joy and meaning. May you treat your attention like the precious gift that it is.

*I hope you will consider joining me for an “Introduction to Spiritual Practice” session on Tuesday, November 12. Whether you are new to spiritual practice or not, this session will offer a framework for developing a practice from a Unitarian Universalist perspective and practical tools for deepening your practice.


November 2019 Spiritual Exercises: Attention

Option A: Notice With Mary Oliver

In her poem Gratitude, Mary Oliver asks herself and then answers eight questions of attention:

What did you notice?
What did you hear?
When did you admire?
What astonished you?
What would you like to see again?
What was most tender?
What was most wonderful?
What did you think was happening?

It’s a poem that treats the details of our days as a blessing and calls us to do the same. So for this month’s exercise, let’s accept her invitation:

First, take a few days and just spend some time with the poem.

Here it is for you to read: https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2013/11/27/poetry-gratitude-by-mary-oliver/

Here’s an arresting video of it being read aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=65&v=1XKg514_K3s

Then use Oliver’s questions to write a version of your own by giving your own answers to her eight questions. Here’s an elegant example of someone making it their own: http://walkingintheholypresence.blogspot.com/2017/04/poem-gratitude-by-mary-oliver.html

But here’s the catch: You’ve got to decide how to gather the details for your poem. When reading Oliver’s poem, you get the feeling she wrote it at the end of a long day outdoors. But it could just as easily have been written at the end of a week, a year, or even a life. So you pick what calls to you. Maybe you take a 2-hour hike and then sit down and write it. Or maybe sit down and write it at the end of an ordinary day of work and family? You might even want to answer the questions as if they are asking about the past year of your life? Or the past few decades.

Think about sharing the poem with a close friend or your life partner. The point is to let Oliver’s eight questions help you remember that our attention is a way, maybe the best way, we say thanks for these precious days we’ve been given.

Option B: Join the Slow Art Movement

You’ve probably heard of the slow food movement. But how about the “slow art movement”? It arose from museums realizing that people were “seeing” their art but not really “looking” at it. For instance the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York discovered that people spent an average of only 17 seconds looking at their masterpiece artworks. 17 seconds! So now museums around the country organize special days where guests are asked to sit and view the art for 10, 20 even 30 minutes at a time, and then discuss what happened for them in that time of intensive and intentional looking.

This month you are invited to do the same. What a great excuse to invite a friend to your local museum! And if you don’t have a museum near you here’s a video with a bunch of options: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DAESq9BGMc . Or maybe you want to do it with a piece of art in your house that you say you love but now rarely give your attention to.

Here are a handful of articles and videos to get you centered and inspired for this exercise.

Option C: Notice Them

Let’s be honest, we sometimes ignore their need to be noticed. We’re talking, of course, about our loved ones. It’s never their big needs that we ignore. But on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to get…well…busy. Preoccupied. Wrapped up in work. Or worry.

We also know how big of a difference a little attention makes. You see it in your partner’s eyes when you take an extra 3 minutes and bring them coffee in bed before you rush out the door with your own mug.  Your kid comes home all excited to tell you a story and you have the good sense to put the phone down and look right in their eyes as they spin their yarn. They light up right in front of you.

Yes, we’re tired. Yes, life is stressful. Yes, half-hearted attention is not sin. But this month take a week and fight it. Spend a week intentionally finding all the ways you can to give your full attention and full heart to someone near you.

Oh, and be sure to pay attention to the difference it makes for and to them, and the difference it makes to what goes on between you and them…

October mUUsings

October mUUsings

I have loved biking since I was a child, but I have never considered myself a real cyclist. I bike to commute and occasionally for recreation. I do, however, love the sense of freedom I have when I’m on my bike. I also love getting to see places with more proximity than I can from a car. When the idea came about to join in a long-distance bike ride for immigration justice, I felt called to participate even though the longest distance I had biked recently was the mile or so between my house and the center of town.

Vermont Interfaith Action was organizing a Solidarity Bike Tour as part of a regional March for Immigrant Justice. Hundreds of people were walking from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and even Maine to the Strafford County Correctional Facility in Dover, NH which houses detainees arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of the participants were joining the journey to call for greater justice, compassion, and humanity in our immigration system.

The small but mighty group of cycling Vermonters set off from Montpelier on August 21. I was able to join them the next day for a 30-mile leg of the 140-mile trip.

By the time I joined up with them along Mascoma Lake in Enfield, NH, the group had already formed some bonds. On the trip was a married couple from Strafford, VT on their matching recumbent bikes who had traveled by bicycle all around the world together. Another couple of teenage friends from Burlington were also on the trip. The previous day the whole group had cycled through the pouring rain and up some steep hills before settling in for the night in Norwich, VT.

Despite being new to the group, they all welcomed me into the fold and helped me make a few adjustment on my bike to get ready. The fact that we were all there with the same intent fostered a sense of familiarity and comfort as we set off.

 

VIA solidarity bike tour
Our bike tour group taking a rest towards the end of our journey from Enfield to Andover, NH. (Joan pictured center with bike helmet.)

Those who passed us in their cars could also decide whether, in their minds, we belonged or not. A few loud honks, revving engines, and indiscernible shouts made clear that a few people did not think we belonged. But, there were also a few friendly honks and waves from cars that indicated our message and purpose were welcomed.

After several hours of biking, we made it to our destination for the evening in Andover, NH at the home of a member of a local UU congregation. By this point, I was ready to give my tired legs a break and was grateful for the food given to us and the gift of a warm shower.

I departed that evening back up to Montpelier, but the group continued on for another day of cycling and then the final march to Dover where they joined with others in marching and singing with common intention and purpose.

In the journeys we take together, we come together and form bonds and, in doing so, we can nurture for one another a sense of belonging. We can also remember that belonging is a gift – a gift that can be shared with others. We can ask, who else around me can I invite in? How can I embody belonging for others?

My 30-mile bike ride pushed me outside my comfort zone physically and mentally. It also opened up the chance for me to find belonging with strangers and to create together our own stand of resistance and declaration that ‘we all belong.’


October Spiritual Exercises:

Option A: Whose Are You?… All in One Place

We all know that belonging is not just about place, but people as well. Quaker teacher, Douglas Steer gets at this beautifully:

“The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’ – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder: Who needs you?  Who loves you?  To whom are you accountable?  To whom do you answer?  Whose life is altered by your choices?  With whose life is your own bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?’

It’s such a powerful and important truth: we are who we belong to. But it’s also a hard truth to remember. The world around us doesn’t help. Its focus is on becoming not belonging. It wants us to wake up every morning and ask, “Am I succeeding?” not “Who needs me?” “ Who loves me?” or “With whose life is my own bound up?”

So this month why not engage in a bit of course correction? Why not see what happens when who we belong to is front and center at the start of every day?

This exercise is designed to help with this. Here are your instructions:

  1. Clear off a space on a table, dresser, desk or shelf in your house.
  2. Over a few days or a week populate that space with pictures of people who come to mind when you ask yourself “Whose am I?” Find or print out the pictures. Add as many as feels right. Push yourself to think beyond the obvious answers: your family, your church community, etc. Treat the question as a meditation practice. Asking it each day will lead you to unexpected pictures: a mentor from your past, an unknown boy on the other side of the world suffering because climate change caused by us, those who have been exclude from our faith because of white-centered structures. Or maybe it will take you beyond people, to a pet from your childhood or that park you walk in every Saturday of the Fall.
  3. Once the space is filled with your chosen pictures, send another week or two using it as an altar of sorts. Pause briefly before it every morning. Or maybe more than briefly.
  4. Pay attention to how bringing your network of belonging changes your days. Journal about it. Discuss it with your partner or friend.

Note: You don’t have to do this exercise by yourself. Consider doing it with your partner or with your children as well.

Option B: Belonging to the Earth

When talking about belonging, one soon meanders around to the idea that we all belong to the Earth.  What is your connection to the particular plot of Earth on which you live?  Take some time this month to be outside around your home.  This might be a time of sitting and observing, or mindful walking. In walking around the neighborhood or the plot of land, note particular landmarks.  Use your various senses to pick up the sounds and smells of the place.  Ask yourself other questions, like, do you know where and when the sun is currently rising and setting on your horizon?  What plant or animal species also call this plot of land their home?

If you like, journal or take some notes during or after your time outside. Or different options might include doing a sketch or writing a letter to the plot of land on which you live. Share your writing, sketch or your reflections with a friend or loved one.   

Optional ways to take it further:

Consider doing some investigation to learn more about what that land might have looked like 20, 50, 100, or 200 years ago.

You might try walking barefoot on the earth a practice still done all over the world, and certainly by our ancestors that is showing some promising health benefits: Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons.

Option C: Find Your Place in the Work of Belonging

Belonging always comes with blindsides. When we receive a generous welcome it’s hard for us to imagine and notice the ways in which that open door doesn’t work the same for everyone. Our faith is slowly waking up to the fact that we haven’t been and aren’t the “welcoming congregations” we aspire to be. This is especially true when it comes to race and systems of white supremacy. The gap between our intentions and impact remains painfully large. The work is urgent and large.

This exercise is intended to help you find your place in that large work. Below are a number of resources and discussions that speak to the work our faith is doing around de-centering whiteness. As we know, the work needs to be systemic, but in the midst of systemic work there is also personal work to be done. Identifying “your work” is as important as participating in “our work.” So during this month where we are all trying to “be belonging” for others, not just find belonging for ourselves, use the resources below to better identify and deepen “your work.”