Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sabrinaa Nightfire Memorial Announced

From Steve Arkin, widowed husband of Deborah Berman Arkin, also known as Sabrinaa Nightfire on Second Life: 
Steve and Debbie at their wedding
In celebration and honor of the woman I loved . . .

Announcing a memorial for Sabrinaa Nightfire/Debbie Berman Arkin: May 7th, 2pm-6pm, at 1913 West Martin Luther King Tampa, FL 33607, open to the public. This is the medical office building where she touched the lives of over 7,000 families. There will be displays of her art and her life, and you can share your love with others who knew her.
Her love still lives in the hearts and minds of those whom she touched. For those who cannot make this day, the display will remain until September 7th and be open on Mondays and Wednesdays 9 to 4. Private showings can be arranged by calling: 813-376-3790. There is no need to RSVP. For those who wish to make a charitable contribution in Debbie's name: Women's Resource International, PO BOX 8809, Tampa, FL 33674, a 501c3 corporation. It will go to serve women in need of medical care or temporary living assistance. 

Farewell, Debbie -- gone from this life, but always in our hearts.                                   

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lady Lee Recalls

On the day before my 62nd birthday I received a gift of incomparable value, a grace, as it were, a gift unexpected and unwarranted. A woman who is a stranger to me has curated the memory of Rena and kept her alive to greet me more than twenty-five years after we had lost contact. Over the years I have searched for Rena, and I am now told that she died in 1992, leaving a daughter and a circle of loved ones who all thought her to be magical, lyrical and transcendent. That is certainly the way Rena was for me, she who called me "Lady Lee."

This stranger has darned the holes in the patchwork quilt made up of vignettes that lead from San Francisco and Berkeley to Hawaii to the mountains, lakes and plains of this country's heartland. The quilt contains the stories of both me and this stranger's now-husband, who was Rena's paramour at the time of her death. This volunteer curator has promised artifacts from that earlier age, and I wonder, will I recognize them as being of my making? Will they remember the one who dreamed them into being and shaped them? I ponder, too, the generous heart of this stranger and how she knows that she has touched magic even from the periphery of her love's memories.

Every woman of an age has a history. Mine is quite colorful and more than a little of a contrast to the steady life I've built over the past 30-some years. My 20's were the stuff of pulp fiction and Woodstock, a litany of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, a journey of hedonism, experiment and revolution in which I lost myself, tested myself and found myself. I don't think I would attach the adjective "good" to those years, but I also know this: I do not for a moment regret any of those days, people or experiences. Here I am, because they were, there and then.

I have often said, quietly so as not to tempt fate, that it is a miracle that God saved me from all the experiences that could have led to death for me, as it did for so many others. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were the famous ones, all dead at age 27 within a year of each other, 1970-71. Maybe that fate only befell those whose names began with "J," or maybe I learned from their lives' lessons, trailing five years behind them.

I have had a prescient sense of call through the years even when I could not discern a call from a ticket to Radio City Music Hall. God has a sense of the ironic and irenic, if not exactly a sense of humor. Humor presupposes a certain comic perspective of the human condition that I doubt belongs to God. I suspect God's viewpoint to be more rueful and compassionate.

God has always chosen the least and the lost to infect with his sense of the holy. The Beatitudes were written to be our law and blessing, holding up before us endless possibilities of the redemptive power of love and relationship. It is for us to choose people over the seductive, easy allure of money and social status, of climbing the shining ladder of success clad in stainless steel and greenbacks, stock options and expense accounts. Choosing people - over everything else or the right people - hasn't always been my strong suit. I've been addicted to ideas all my life, and they've been more consistently rewarding.

My 30's were spent in the heyday of the '80s when it seemed as if real estate and stocks would never fail us and gala charity balls, first class seats and silk dresses would never lose their appeal. Well, the wheel has turned in my lifetime, and the attractions of the '80s are over. Heaped into piles of disdained values like over-consumption, indulgence and selfishness, we don't regret walking away from them, glad to be left with our sense of self on which to build anew.

My sense of self does harken back, when it is reminded, to the important people in my life. There were a special few, who contributed to my formation, whose loss I mourn with all the parts of me touched by their overflowing essence of new days. My sense of call is this: listen to those who do not speak in ordinary words or any words at all, and if the opportunity arises, speak the crevices and crevasses of our human experience into mirrors for the power-led and power-emptied to see a path into that overflowing, ever-flowing essence of new days.

I remember Rena with her crooked, sunny smile, and her optimism that paid no mind to the reality of her existence. Magic is what some special few weave out of the air as their hands move when they talk and their hair whips in the wind as they dance instead of walking. It reminds me that I like to whirl . . . and whirl . . . and whirl.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Takeoffs and Touchdowns: The New Normal

I have given up waiting for a "normal" time in my life, because it seems that everyday is filled with activities that are extraordinary. My wait for "normal" has been about my hope for a time when I am fully in control of my days and can do some of the things I've been stacking up till then. I have a neglected sewing machine, an unused table loom, and beads I have yet to sort and string. I have books overflowing all my bookshelves and horizontal surfaces in every room. There are myriad unfinished poems, essays and stories tucked into folders on my computer.

I love the activities I have chosen and volunteered for. I don't regret any of the choices, and I get great satisfaction out of doing them all. I love being married and having a family. The people in my daily life enrich my sense of self and help me not to take myself too seriously. I love the work I've undertaken for The Episcopal Church. I feel very much called, at this place, in this time, to engage the leadership roles to which I've been elected. I love the causes which I support. There are people who need the passion and gifts that I bring to peace and justice work, and I need to be reminded that there but for the grace of God go I. I love the people in my life whom I listen to, counsel and support, who become surer of themselves and do meaningful things for others.

Occasionally friends will advise me to just say, "No," so that I'm not quite so busy all the time. I find that advice difficult to embrace. As I have grown in peace and justice work, from my teen years marching with the American Friends to my feminist years organizing women's groups to my ongoing work for racial and ethnic justice, I have tried to say, "Yes," whenever possible. My motivation for saying "Yes" arises out of my understanding of my privilege as a middle class American who has enough to eat, a desirable home, and distance from the privation of my sisters and brothers in lesser circumstances here at home in the U.S. and overseas in third world countries. As I have said in different ways over the years, I believe that those who can, should.

I am very much shaped by my mother's family's experience of the Communist take-over in China, their loss of everything, and their refugee status in Hong Kong . . . by the fact that my maternal great-grandfather was known as the "Jesus man" in his village and how his Christianity informed the way he treated the females and servants in his family . . . by my mother's answer to my childhood questions about the Communist take-over that "at least everyone is eating now" . . . by my father's duty and sacrifice of his own opportunities to support his parents, siblings, wife, children and wife's refugee family . . . by my father's constant efforts as an interpreter and translator for his fellow Chinese restaurant workers . . . . I don't have to look far afield to find role models who have shaped my sense of community and duty to care for others.

I suppose it was important for me to have been born with a proclivity for the kind of family training that I received. I think of it as a cultural meme that pervades the very essence of who I was created to be. In the terms of my chosen religion, Christianity, I have been called by God to be this person with these charisms, and living into these charisms is irresistible.

I'm looking ahead to April and thinking strategically of how I can keep some of the days clear of appointments and drives down to Denver, an hour away. The cost of gas will give me an extra incentive to be more deliberate in my driving trips. I am glad for Web conferences, but also find myself in a series of takeoffs and touchdowns like a plane on many short flights, seemingly always getting ready for meetings and recovering from them. I am sometimes tempted to forgo meeting preparation, but I am mindful of honoring other people's commitments by honoring my own commitments. In many ways, I suspect that I am firmly entrenched as a member of my generation, a boomer who will never fully retire and disengage, appealing as that prospect is. I generally don't think that's a bad thing. It is who we are.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Defending the racist UCLA girl

Someone has to defend the dumb, racist UCLA girl whose video (and another link here at Angry Asian Man's Web site) is now floating all over the Internet. The original video has been removed from YouTube, but it's gone viral all over the Net on different sites. So many Asians are offended that they and others have reposted the video everywhere.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm offended, too. I posted the link to Angry Asian Man's Web site on my Facebook account to comment that I'm offended by this princess of White privilege.

This young woman, a political science major at UCLA has stupidly posted a rant about Asians and their "un-American" manners. She has complained about Asian family members visiting their UCLA students in their apartments and helping them do their laundry and cooking for them. She has complained about Asian students using their cell phones at the school library. She has used offensive "ching chong" language to caricature and mock Asian students on their cell phones. Like no one else uses their cell phones in the library.

What this girl has done is wrong, racist and really stupid.

But she doesn't deserve to be threatened online or in person. She doesn't deserve to be stalked. She doesn't deserve to have her name and contact information bandied about all over the Internet.

I'm not excusing her behavior. I have no doubt that she will bear many unforeseen consequences for her lapse of judgment that caused her to post this racist rant on YouTube.

But, let's get real and use some judgment.

This girl's rant is rather pathetic and appears to be the rant of an unthinking young person who has had a momentary lapse of judgment. She appears to be taking a break from studying and videoing herself just spouting off on what happens to be on her mind at the moment. Her video doesn't appear to have the premeditated hate messages that we so often hear from racists who intend to perpetrate violence and bigoted acts against Asians.

She is not a public figure like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. She did not scapegoat a specific person and post a video of a private event like a sex act of anyone.

She's just dumb and has made a whopping big mistake.

Haven't we all made stupid mistakes from momentary lapses of judgment when we were her age? The difference is that today, with the opportunities afforded by YouTube and Facebook, a young person can really step into a big hole and make a big splash on the Net that she can't easily recover from.

So, friends, let's be grownups about this and cut this girl some slack. Let's forgive her and let her go back to her student life. Let's not add to the fear that she will feel from being the focus of so much negative attention. Let's not be the ones to instigate violence against her. No one deserves that amount of hate for a youthful misjudgment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Imagining Life

I can't speak for other parents of adult children, but I miss checking in with my daughter on the social networking platforms all day long while she is in Amsterdam on spring break with her wife. They left on Friday and arrived in Europe yesterday. Between an eight-hour time difference and the cost of 3G and WiFi access, she logs on when she can but not as constantly as when she's in the U.S.

When she's at home, we talk irregularly on the phone, but we text, post to Facebook, Twitter and Path, and email constantly. Her dad and I laugh when she uses us to keep her company via cell phone on her drive home from work. Facebook is probably the primary method that we use to keep in touch. She posts photos and her latest art work.
Cece drew this on her iPhone on the transcontinental flight to Amsterdam. I don't know how she gets this much control on an iPhone screen to make such a complex and detailed drawing.

This is my first effort at an iPhone drawing. You can tell I've got a lot of improvement ahead of me! LOL!
I use Facebook to post commentary on the news that I'm reading and occasional photos, especially if I've been traveling or attending events like weddings and reunions with old friends. I also keep up with current news that my friends are talking about and engage in exchanges on their Facebook posts. My daughter and I both post "what we're doing" and "what we're feeling" updates on Twitter when we think of it. Additionally, I have this blog to post longer commentary of things I'm thinking about. We're trying to get my husband to sign on to Facebook so that he can keep up with all the conversations and shared photos and art.

Our daughter, now 25 and a senior in law school, has lived away from home for eight years. It took us until last year when she got married to recognize that she doesn't live in our home anymore and probably never will again, except maybe as a temporary way station transitioning into her own quarters. We haven't quite cleaned out her bedroom, but it's been used as a guest room and storage space for the past several years. Soon, we expect my brother to move into that room as his way station to an apartment in Colorado to be nearer to our mother, who lives with us.

For me, the experience of our daughter finally leaving home is a lot like the experience of aging. I'm not sure how I got here, and at the same time, it feels like it happened overnight. I can't imagine life without my daughter nor can I imagine life without social networking media.

Monday, March 7, 2011

God calls us to sanity

I thank Diana Butler Bass and all who have commented in the conversation begun in a Facebook post by Diana this afternoon. The original post read:  “Just wondering if there is any real purpose to ordination exams other than hazing,” which led to a wide-ranging conversation about ordination, the quality of clergy and the institutional church, generating 75 comments and 42 people “liking” the thread at the time I posted this comment, originally meant for that thread, but growing too long.

I serve on The Episcopal Church's Executive Council and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Colorado, and my sense of how we raise up ordinands, move them through the process (parish discernment committee, diocesan Commission on Ministry, bishop's consent, seminary), and finally ordain candidates is that we are stuck in a mode of self-perpetuation with virtually no room for truly entrepreneurial, innovative and culturally diverse clergy. We are strait-jacketed by our canons and our bishop-centric hierarchy.

Deployment is another step where we fall into the self-perpetuation trap. A lot of what we march out and dress up as innovation is little more than window-dressing, albeit well-intentioned and nicely packaged. Our church's leadership ranks are filled to overflowing with a plethora of very nice, smart, educated and well-intentioned folks. Eventually they will only have each other to talk to.

We also perpetuate a class system in our clergy ranks that is institutionalized in our ordination process, which fails to recognize that some of the potentially more effective clergy might be raised up in non-traditional ways and serve in non-traditional ways (because they are also serving non-traditional congregations). Honestly, is our goal to win souls for Christ or to ensure that our canons and bylaws are followed with each “i” dotted and each “t” crossed? (The class system of which I speak relegates some clergy to cures with lower compensation, fewer community resources, lack of mentoring, and virtually no opportunities for career development.)

We know the words to describe what it is that we think we should be aspiring to, but we don't sincerely believe the philosophies that underlie those words, and we find it very difficult to embrace individuals who actually do understand and believe those philosophies, because they are not "like us," meaning, like what is familiar and known (aka the status quo).

A true entrepreneurial spirit has such belief in and passion for the project/activity/product that risking capital, reputation, future income streams, and alienation of family and friends is deemed a good and right choice in the quest for something truly life-giving and life-changing that attracts new customers/believers and changes the whole game. (Think "Fools for Christ.") Institutional churches seldom have the depth of faith to take those risks. Institutional people don't like to be perceived as fools.

I get that turning a huge ship around requires both time and direction and that we don't want to destroy the morale or commitment of those hands already on deck. But instead of continuing to allocate scarce resources to patching up the old ship when it continues to spring leaks and is stubbornly not turning, maybe we should be looking at how we can downsize the old ship so that we can create a flotilla of smaller ships that accompany us and help us carry out our mission and attract new resources until the whole fleet begins to take a different shape.

New resources (people and capital) will have a different notion of identity, who they think we should be together, and somehow, we have to be willing to humble and sacrifice ourselves and our veteran ideals and goals to hear and listen to those new ideas and lend them credence. I find it ironic that we can talk about sacrificial giving in a stewardship conversation, but then cannot talk about sacrificial giving up of our sacred cows because of our hubris in believing that we have the answers for those we want to invite into our churches to join us. Why can’t they and people like them have the answers?

I think we make mistakes in how we interpret the facts before us and how we ascribe rationales to explain why things are the way they are. I repeatedly hear elaborate, defensive rationalizations when confronted with recommendations for trying something new. I hear perspectives that begin and end with the frame we've always thought, lived and worked out of. That way lies insanity, and I do believe that God calls us to sanity.

Valley Experiences vs. Mountain-Top Experiences

"What mountain-top experience has shaped your faith?" asks the ELCA on Twitter (March 5th).

I'm thinking my faith has actually been shaped more by down-in-the-valley experiences than by mountain-top experiences.

It's the valley experiences that make me understand about surrender which is a precursor to faith. Faith is a gift, but it's a gift that comes at times and in forms least favorable to your wanting to accept the gift.

Accepting God as God in your life is about recognizing that God has all the power and that what power you think you have is illusory and puny in comparison. A metaphor for this would be the trust fall, where you willingly let yourself fall into the arms of your companions, trusting that they will not let you fall to the ground.

In our lives we are always falling metaphorically, and once in free fall, it's not our power that prevents us from falling all the way down, but God's power that saves us. All we have to do is answer "Yes" when God calls us.

"The Universe" or "God"?

"Nice people everywhere are saying 'the universe' instead of 'God' ... what are religious professionals such as myself to make of this?" tweeted my friend, the Rev. Torey Lightcap, on March 5th.

I think, Torey, that when people say "the universe" instead of "God," it's because saying "God" presupposes a certain intimacy with God that most people don't feel. Or, if they feel that intimacy a little bit, it's still too daunting to admit out loud.

I used to say "the universe" all the time, because I was afraid of intimacy with God. Not calling God by God's name is a way of keeping God at an emotional distance, where I can feel some sense of control over how much to let God into my life.

Having a relationship with God means that I have to own up to some responsibilities about who I am, the kind of person that I am, and how I behave towards other people. Saying "the universe" lets me off the hook. It's impersonal, and it's universal (pun intended), not directed at me in particular.

The universe doesn't hold me accountable in the way that God holds me accountable. And the universe doesn't impose any accountability to others on me in the way that a relationship with God does.

I can be anonymous in, to and with the universe; I am nothing more than just one of gazillions of human beings populating this corner of the universe. For a frightened human being who feels lost and small, being anonymous actually feels pretty good, because it doesn't add any noticeable stressors to those already at work in one's life.

Now, Torey, the logical next question to me is, "Why haven't religious professionals figured out how to tell the story of God so that people desire to have a relationship with God?"

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Farewell, Sabrinaa Nightfire

Farewell, Debbie Berman aka Sabrinaa Nightfire. Rest in peace and rise in glory in the great beyond.
Debbie Berman and her Second Life alter ego, Sabrinaa Nightfire
Our niece, Debbie Berman, died this afternoon at the age of 51. She fought a brave and optimistic fight against breast cancer. Debbie wrote and created art about her fight with Stage 4 breast cancer. She took the initiative right from the start, with a preemptory double mastectomy five years ago. 

We are very sad. The next generation is not supposed to die before we do.
"Shit, shit, shit... I have a lot more art to make" - words in the Stage 4 landscape
Images from Stage 4, a Second Life installation by Debbie Berman
Debbie's father, Captain Mel Berman, died a year ago at the age of 82. We miss him, too. Mel's friends keep his legacy alive at his fishing Web site

This is what happens as we age. It is the natural progression of time, but that doesn't mean we have to like it, even as we accept it. What choice is there?

Our thoughts and prayers are with Debbie's husband, Steve, and her mother and brother. We also hold all of Debbie's many, many friends in our hearts. May peace find them all and solace be theirs.
Debbie in October, 2007

Debbie was a phenomenal artist. She painted, quilted and took photographs in addition to creating computer art in the virtual world of Second Life. You can see some of her work at Flickr by clicking here.

Debbie is gone, but Sabrinaa will live forever in Second Life. And the flowers created by Debbie will bloom forever there, too.
Flowers created by Debbie Berman in Second Life

"There have been too many losses" are words I wrote in a poem penned in 1995 when my friend, Jeanne, died from breast cancer. Almost two years ago I cited that poem as I experienced a season of losses. It is a season that comes more frequently as the years fly by.

Lord, have mercy.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Of economics and fear

I've observed that conversations about topics of deep concern to caring individuals sometimes devolve into declarations of entrenched positions and name-calling without much regard for the fact that nothing in life can be construed as solely polar opposites. That is mistaken binary thinking. There are so many nuances that require much more conversation to illuminate and to understand the layers of the issues. It's not either-or, but both-and. It is often simpler to demonize the persons further down the spectrum (from us) than to see their humanity.

I sense that fear is at the bottom of this kind of reaction to economic topics like poverty, the rights of workers, entitlement vs. merit, opportunity vs. greed, taxation, property rights and responsibilities, public education, and so on. That fear arises out of a fundamental belief that the pie is only so large and can be divided only in familiar ways. That fear is overtaking the national conversation as well as the church conversation. It's as if our faith is somehow weakened in the face of so much fear, and we forget that if we trust in God, all else falls into a less threatening place, giving us the emotional space to search for solutions together.

A major shared, but unspoken, fear is that one might fall to the bottom of the pile and be at the effect of the forces that keep a person at the bottom. That fear has some basis in fact, since there are many circumstances such as catastrophic illness, loss of employment and natural disaster that could affect anyone, regardless of status, accumulation of wealth or individual actions. The loss of intact and supportive family and community structures has also exacerbated how this generation handles such losses.

However, realistically, not everyone is at the same risk of total loss. Let's be honest: there is a difference between not having transportation to go to work and not being able to go on vacation. There is a difference between being evicted for inability to pay the rent and losing half your 401(k). That is not to say, though, that the panic that ensues is necessarily less in one instance than in the other. None of us is prepared to be a loser in America where the myth (also known as "the American dream") has always been a promise that if you work hard, you'll be rewarded with financial success and a climb up the economic ladder. The Great Depression of the 1930's is only a remote history lesson in a book for many of us.

Another fear is a psychic fear that one will be found out to harbor politically incorrect, even uncharitable, degrees of selfishness and greed that contribute to the inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities in our country. We don't like it when others look at what we own and how we choose to spend and then judge us. It feels uncomfortable to be judged about the car that we drive, the clothes that we wear, the entertainment that we seek, and the food that we eat. Yet we subscribe to media and entertainment that generates constant portrayals of "lifestyles of the rich and famous."

Most of us believe that everyone should have food, shelter, education, and access to healthcare when ill, but we disagree on how people gain access to those basic human needs. Just to be clear and to disabuse my readers of any notions of the ridiculous: the Powerball lottery and being a reality show contestant are not the answers. Fairy godmothers are fictional characters, and the exceptions do not justify a rule.

I think it behooves people of good will and love for their neighbors to soften their hearts, examine their own lives and choices, and participate intentionally and directly with the people in need that are before them. What that will look like for each of us may be different, but it could begin by asking questions that go beyond, "How are you," to asking questions like, "How are you covering your expenses since you got laid off" and "Do you need help to see a dentist for that toothache?"

One of the lessons I learned from an Islamic professor in Morocco was that the third pillar of Islam is to help neighbors in need personally, directly, out of not just income, but also out of accumulated wealth. We in America are much more comfortable writing checks than inviting those who need help into our lives, and the Christian tithe typically only applies to income. We fall so short of what we could do if we lived what we profess to believe.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Numbness and Baton Passing

I am frequently numb after a busy period of intense meetings and volunteer service on various committees and boards.

But this week I am numb from the intensity of the hard news our family has received. Our favorite niece is in the end stage of breast cancer, a recurrence from a double mastectomy more than five years ago. Typically the five year mark is magical, almost a guarantee against cancer. Debbie wasn't so lucky.

We also learned that her only sibling, a younger brother, has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Their father, Herb's eldest brother, died a mere twelve months ago. Tough news to handle, especially for our sister-in-law, the wife and mother.

We've been teary-eyed for days, which are not yet at an end.

What makes this time different is that our daughter and her spouse are taking this walk with us. They're 25, adults and full participants in our family's lives. They are no longer merely our children, youngsters we look after and protect, protect not only from the world but also from the tough family times.

It matters that we are in a sense passing the baton on to the next generation, sharing not only the good times and material wealth of the family, but also sharing the responsibility for being family.

When we thought that Herb was dying late last year, before his kidney transplant, he and I talked about how we had finally launched our daughter, and that comforted us. Knowing that our children will stand on their own with some assurance of self-sufficiency is, indeed, comforting to parents. It's what we work towards from the day we bring our babies home from the hospital.

Another passage was the one I wrote about in Matriarchs and Elders, posted on May 9, 2009, the story of when I transitioned from daughter and niece to matriarch and elder. Little did I know then that it would be so soon that I would share responsibility so fully with my daughter. In retrospect, it makes sense: when one passage occurs, the others that follow will logically fall into place. It's always only a matter of time.

I know now that I must begin to reflect on how to identify the things that should be turned over to my daughter and how to encourage those turnovers gracefully. When the girls were married in July, I began the turnover by gifting them with some jewelry that previously belonged to my father and maternal grandmother. I made those gifts with an open heart, but also with a heart that wanted to hold back, just a little bit.

This passage of time and identity also means a movement towards an end date, something that we all resist with every fiber of our beings. As Herb says, he'd like to be around to know how the rest of the story unfolds.