Compassion

What Will We Do the Day After Election Day?

I doubt I am alone, during this election cycle, in being afraid, being exhausted, being exhausted of being afraid, and also having moments of anger.

When I think about the day after Election Day, I hope to feel relief. If things go the way I hope they will, my fear is that for those of us who feel relief, all of our anxiety and exhaustion will turn into self-righteousness and gloating — if, that is, we have the comfort and safety and ability to go back to living in a world that seems comfortable and safe.

Meanwhile, the inequality and violence that shaped this current election cycle won’t have changed, and the lives of those of us who have always born the brunt of that inequality and violence won’t have changed. If anything, this election cycle has stoked the fires of racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of inequality and violence. Continue reading

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Vibrancy on the Margins: AIDS, Solidarity, and Justice

I don’t always know how to express where my calling to do transformational change work comes from. I don’t always know how to give voice to what motivates me to not only act in solidarity but keep showing up and even on some level pay a cost for showing up. What won’t allow me to be quiet, what won’t allow me to get quiet to get along.

But when I think about where my sense of solidarity comes from there is one particular moment from my life that I go back to in my consciousness, one moment I revisit in order to understand even a little bit what my black and brown friends and communities of color in general experience in the world, what #BlackLivesMatter is really about. If you have never encountered cold, impersonal hate, then I don’t think you can understand both the paralyzing fear that it creates, and how alone the system leaves you feeling—the profound sense of isolation that comes with meeting hate like that. I have encountered it, and it’s a moment in a lifetime of such moments that I will never forget. Continue reading

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My Complicated Relationship with Survival: Twenty Years with HIV

I have a complicated relationship with survival.

That relationship involves monumental loss, and deep love. It is the space where heartbreak and resilience live. The very space that makes me me in so many ways.

Twenty years ago today I was a 28-year-old who was far too young and far too old at the same time. On July 15, 1995, I was sitting in the health department in St. John’s, Newfoundland, listening to a doctor I had never met coldly tell me that I was HIV+. This was a time just before effective medication. HIV was still a death sentence. I knew that, deep in my bones, because I had buried friends and acquaintances and would bury many more over the years to come. We were all too young and too old at the same time. Continue reading

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The Spiritual Practice of an Open Heart

This joint sermon was delivered at Arlington Street Church in Boston, MA, on August 3, 2014.

You can listen to an audio recording here (in my opinion, the audio recording is much better than the written word—I swear! We’re more charming in person).

Teo

We aren’t taught in this culture to be openhearted. There’s no lesson. And I came to openheartedness as central to my spiritual practice the hard way. Whether it was the violence I was growing up with, the shame and the struggle around being queer and being gender nonconforming, whether it was being 28 years old and being diagnosed with AIDS at a time before medication was available.

Every turn I came to in life there was a reason for me to armor up. There was a reason for me to not let anyone near me. Because the outside world was telling me that if I wanted to stay protected I needed to curl in a ball. The last thing I ever needed to do was leave myself vulnerable. But at the same time that the world was telling me that, there was always this soft, loving voice of the beloved telling me that that was not for me. That I was meant to be openhearted regardless of the information I was getting from the outside world. Continue reading

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What Being Sober for Exactly Half My Life has Taught Me

Teo

On Thursday January 2nd I passed the milestone of being in recovery for half my life: 23 of my 46 years. I have now been sober three times longer than I drank. Along the way I have learned a great many things (often the hard way). Here is what is coming forward at the moment, but is by no means a complete list.

Nothing is linear: not healing, not harm, nothing. Shedding damage from trauma, including addiction, has not been a process of going from point A to point B. It has been an ever-meandering route that seems to invariably circle back upon itself (often accompanied by my sentiments of “Fuck, I thought I dealt with this already!”). In early recovery everything was new and often magical; hard, but it still felt like I was getting somewhere… Then it seemed like growth came more slowly or not at all. Over the years I have found that to be the way healing unfolds. I honestly don’t know if there is a destination. What I know is that I am at home in my skin more than I thought would ever be possible. I’m wary of seeing myself as a “work in progress.” I distrust the self-help gurus who push “self-improvement.” Healing for me has come from being curious about who is actually here rather than focusing on “what I could become.” Continue reading

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Walking Faith

This reflection was originally delivered at The Sanctuary Boston worship service on April 18, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings.

Teo

Take a moment and just feel whatever is holding you, whether that’s the ground, the chair…

The aim of spiritual practice is not to protect us from heartbreak—our own or another’s. It’s to provide the grounding and the renewal so that we can deliberately put ourselves in the place of heartbreak. One of the most sacred things that we are called to do as human beings is to bear witness to another’s suffering. When they cannot hold hope it’s for us to quietly hold it for them. When we can live at the edges of heartbreak and still hold on to hope then that means that our spiritual practice has purpose and passion.  Continue reading

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Square Talisman

Teo

Please read Preface to Square Talisman to provide context for this post.

There are times that I don’t even know how to articulate the pressurized environment that I live in. That it—all of it—is soul crushingly invisible. I often feel like I don’t even know how to begin the conversation. It shows up starkly in hospital/medical settings because I feel like everyone around me is having this experience of an ordinary day and it’s not an ordinary day for me and I’m not an ordinary person and I’m not having an ordinary internal conversation and there’s no room to bring me forward, so I go from being big to small—to big—to small—to invisible, and finally, to not there.

What does it mean to survive the unsurvivable?

Because I feel that’s what I’ve done—every step of the way I’ve survived the unsurvivable. To be born completely without a road map to my own body, to my own mind, to my own soul. To hold in my palm as a little kid a square solid object, but to have everyone else tell me it was round. Adult after adult told me “no, round is your shape.” And I knew—knew what was in my hand, as solid as anything else in my hand could be—THIS thing is square. But I pocketed that square because to show it… they might take it away. Fuck, they might take me away. So I put the square piece in my pocket. And over the years it got worn. From the grasping and the fist-tightening and the finger-rubbing. This talisman I carry in my pocket, my square, in a world that keeps trying to push round on me. If I were to pull that square out into the light of day it would shine. It would shine from the ritual rubbing and rocking—the need to remember that what I feel is real, that what I see is real, that what they tell me is not real. That I can survive the unsurvivable.

I brought it forward at the moment that I and the square might not survive anyway. And time and darkness had made it a tiny thing, but still a solid thing. A loved, solid talisman that I exist. That I survived the unsurvivable.

And I’ve survived the unsurvivable more times than I can tell you. I’m still here. But my still here seems like such a tenuous thing sometimes. A thing that I don’t have a lot of control over. A thing that far too many people seem to have a vote on in addition to myself.  I crave the dissolution of a voting block that I don’t understand or support or want.

I sat in the doctor’s office today having that rational conversation that feels so irrational to me. About what my body needs versus what the institution says I need and about how the choices always feel like the lesser of two evils of which both are life threatening. And it’s on these days that I feel like I might rub that square into nothingness, as I rock back and forth, desperate yet again to find a way to survive the unsurvivable.

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Preface to Square Talisman

Teo

This piece is a preface to the piece Square Talisman.

I was at a conference recently where the staggering number of trans folk who have attempted or died by suicide was being discussed. Among these numbers are trans folk who seemingly had a number of “protective factors” in their favor. They were well connected and well known. Did not appear to be isolated. Likely had people to reach out to, but despite all of that, they died.

Amidst these workshops and private conversations, a good friend of mine and I shared our own struggles and how we have been impacted. As is often the case for me, I am having parallel conversations in many other parts of my life. I think the message getting through to me is loud and clear.

There is a profound isolation that I experience but can often feel like it is particular to me. Some of it is definitely personal to my struggle and trauma. I am more painfully introverted than I might appear by my social nature, for example. But I am realizing, through my own personal reflection and in deep conversation, that many people on similar journeys are having the similar experiences of judging their insides by other people’s outsides. My friend at the conference said he often feels uncool, awkward, disconnected, unworthy amidst the crowds of pretty, well-connected LGBTQ activists at this (and other) conferences. It is a painful internal conversation I am familiar with.   Continue reading

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“An Experiment in Love”: An MLK Day Sermon

Alex

I was invited to deliver a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, and it was remarkable to be asked not only because it’s an honor to receive such an invitation but also because for the last two weeks I’d been completely ensconced in King’s writing. Once upon a time I worked for Beacon Press, and I still do the odd freelance job for them. A few years ago Beacon became the exclusive publisher of King’s books and future collections of his work, and for a couple of these new collections, I’ve proofed and checked the manuscripts against previous versions to ensure accuracy. It’s pretty incredible to do this—sometimes I’m using the original transcriptions of his sermons, and once in a while I encounter King’s own handwriting in the margins.

For the last few weeks I’ve been working on Beacon’s latest King project—an anthology of King’s words for high school students. “I Have a Dream” is in there, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and a careful selection of other pieces that really show the breadth and depth of his vision. So here I am ensconced in his work, and reading bits out loud to Teo every night, and hearing King’s words resounding all around me, and I get invited to deliver a chapel service in honor of MLK Day and share some of this magic with others. I couldn’t say no to that.

Whenever I am blessed with the opportunity to read or listen to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I never fail to reflect on what a tiny sliver of his vision has been handed down through popular culture in this country—how little of him lives on through mass media, textbooks, and bank holidays. And what is resonating with me right now more than anything else is his vision and grounding and message of nonviolence, which was so central to everything he did and everything he preached. It was central because it was tied to his theology and his faith. King’s full vision of nonviolence as a spiritual way of life is one of the biggest things that is pretty much missing from the way we talk about him and learn about the civil rights movement and honor his legacy in this country. Continue reading

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Cultivating Reverance

Teo

I’ve been pondering since you read to me from Woodruff’s book on Reverence today.  Not much else to do during a hurricane, I suppose.

The difference between Plato’s belief that reverence was not a stand alone virtue (rather, it came about through practicing other virtues, primarily justice) and Thucydides (who in contrast prizes reverence as a cardinal virtue to guard against human arrogance) felt important the minute I heard you read those words.

Cultivating reverence as a means of counteracting human arrogance resonated with me. How do I/we work for social justice without sliding into self-righteousness, arrogance, bitterness, rage and/or hopelessness? After all, there is so much to be done, so many people marginalized in very real and harmful ways. I have been challenged as naive for believing and teaching that the most sustainable way to create change is by cultivating a practice of self-care that grounds us in compassion and interconnectedness, in purpose and in the larger perspective. My first introduction to activism and leadership through this lens was with Off the Mat into the World. I began to understand that I kept getting called to a spiritual practice as the foundation from which I could seek social justice, but articulating exactly what was happening has eluded me more often than not. It struck me today—cultivating reverence—that’s the thread that weaves through my spiritual practice. Reverence as a “profound adoring awed respect.”

I come back to my mat, my connection with the divine, to mindfulness, to spiritual conversations—all as ways of opening my heart. Being a target, fighting for survival, bearing witness to others fighting much harder battles all serve to tighten my body and armor my heart. Engaging in activism from that tightened, hardened place led me down a path of anger and resentment. It brought me to the conclusion that I knew THE way forward and anyone in my way was the enemy; seeing social justice as a battle in general where I could easily tell those on the side of good or evil.

I need an actual practice where I can cultivate reverence. A practice that calls me back to my higher self over and over again. A practice that cracks my heart open wide. A practice that allows my heart to break because of what I have experienced and what I witness in the world. A practice that opens my heart time and time again to joy, to feeling loved and cared for without question. A practice that lets me find my strength through softness and flexibility and that lets me know I can be wrong without shattering.

Cultivating reverence need not be tied to any religious or spiritual belief. It’s an intentional practice that we put in place as a touchstone serving as a reminder of our higher selves and our connection to all beings everywhere. A practice where we make time to heal, to breathe. Where our bodies and our minds find comfort.

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