“Nothing is what we thought”: A reflection on grief

Today’s slogan is, “Nothing is what we thought”. I love this quote by Pema Chodron because it has so many different meanings. First, it can mean that things are not the way we thought they were, that our perception of things is wrong. Second, it can mean that we are thinking nothing, that our mind is empty. And third, it can mean that our thoughts are nothing, that they are insubstantial and fleeting.

When this quote comes up in her book, it is the first meaning that she is referring to, and it is that meaning that I want to ponder in this post. A few months ago, I was feeling awfully smug about my ability to handle whatever life could throw at me. I felt that I was comfortable with the way grief affects me and I had a set idea of the losses that I expected to occur in the next couple years. Kosette, our 17-year-old cat with kidney failure, hyperthyroidism, and high blood pressure, would die within the next year or two. Then, five or so years later, our 12-year-old cat Min would die. That was how it was supposed to be. But life makes a mockery of our expectations, and nothing is as I thought.

220709_originalWhen we came home after being away for Christmas, Min had stopped eating. Over the next two weeks, we took her to the vet many times, searching for the cause of her anorexia, expecting it would be something fixable. It wasn’t. It was intestinal lymphoma, meaning that even if she were force-fed, the food had nowhere to go. She stopped purring, was barely drinking, stopped urinating and defecating, and spent a lot of time each day hiding.

On January 13, my husband and I made the decision to put Min to sleep. There was nothing else we could do to end her suffering. There were things we could do to prolong her life, but nothing we could do to actually make her better.

It was a shock. And I learned that grief is not predictable, that life is not predictable. Life doesn’t care about your expectations. All you can do—all I can do—is love as much as you can, because, as cliché as this is, you just never know. And so I start 2014 not feeling smug at all, but feeling vulnerable. And raw. And uncertain.

Because nothing is what we thought, and that’s just the way things are.

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Reflections from Discussions on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

A Friend and I organized a discussion series at Third Haven Friends Meeting about Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. (See here for a link with information about the discussion series.) What follows are my reflections at the end of the discussion series, written to share with my Meeting.


  • “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” pg. 6
  • “One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue…” pg 9
  • “Between 1980 and 984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million. By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced.” pg. 49-50
  • “When the War on Drugs gained full steam in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, and then increasing steadily until it reach in 2000 a level more than twenty-six times the level in 1983… The number of whites admitted for drug offenses in 2000 was eight times the number admitted in 1983… Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” pg. 98
  • “The racial basis inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men… One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006.” pg. 100
  • “African Americans were more than six times as likely as whites to be sentence to prison for identical crimes… African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.” pg. 118

This is the truth we have been hiding from: that our United States prison systems are mostly full of young African American men; and that they are full not because young African American men are more likely to commit crime, but because they’re more likely to be arrested and incarcerated because of crimes committed. This is particularly the case with the “War on Drugs”, which has been used disproportionately against African American males to imprison them in federal courts with mandatory minimum sentencing, whereas their white counterparts are instead more likely to be tried in state courts, where mandatory minimum sentencing rules may not apply.

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness”, argues that incarcerating young African American males through the “War on Drugs” was done intentionally as a method of control for African American males after the Civil Rights movement. While some may find her premise difficult to believe, what is made abundantly clear in her book are the statistics that show African American males are being imprisoned for the War on Drugs at an obscenely high rate compared to their white male counterparts. For anyone who cares about equality, justice, peace—which I would hope would be all Quakers everywhere—the system has to be changed.

The question then becomes: what can I do? What can we do?

The first step, as always, is education and conversation. Nothing will change if we are unwilling to discuss race in our criminal justice system. We at Third Haven took this first step during our book discussion group on “The New Jim Crow”. L.A. and I will continue to make ourselves available to any who wish to discuss this issue further or who were perhaps unable to attend the discussions. Other recommended books include:

  • “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”, an African American Quaker who was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington;
  • “The Soul Knows No Bars” by Drew Leder, a Baltimore Quaker who teaches philosophy in local prisons;
  • “Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights”;
  • and “Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice” by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye;

all of which are available in Third Haven’s library; and “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson, about the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to the North and Midwest, which is not available in Third Haven’s library, but is available through the Maryland library system.

But what next? As individuals, there are two kinds of actions we can take: local and federal. Federal actions may include: rallies for social justice, emailing Congress and lawmakers to change the laws that support racism in our justice system. There are several non-profit organizations directly involved in ending mass incarceration and the racism in our justice system. They are:

  • Drug Policy Alliance: See this link for a flier that contains a brief summary of “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race”.
  • Center for Constitutional Rights: They’re the group that sued the NYPD for racial profiling in their Stop & Frisk policies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Since the publication of “The New Jim Crow”, the ACLU has become more involved in ending mass incarceration and racism. See this link for information about marijuana prosecution in Maryland.
  • The Sentencing Project: This group is primarily involved in research about mass incarceration and racism. They’re the group that funds the kind of studies that provide the statistics Michelle Alexander uses in her book.
  • All of Us or None: Supports people in prisons and those released from prison, particularly those with children.

Local actions may include: investigating local policies regarding the War on Drugs, petitioning local agencies to become more aware of racial bias, encouraging venues to sponsor events about the subject, writing letters to the editor, supporting our local prisoners by donating books to the prison library or becoming involved in groups such as Alternatives to Violence, and more.

We can take any of these actions as individuals or collectively, as a Meeting. But what it all comes down to, Friends, is that we must care. We must open our eyes to the racial reality of our society. We must be willing to acknowledge race before we can confront racism. As Michelle Alexander says,

“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was [Martin Luther] King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”

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“That of God”: Letting Go of Fear

Most of the time I spend at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs is spent interacting not with people, but with cats. My main function is what’s called “socializing”; that is, I give cats attention—pet them, pick them up, hold them, and so on. The goal of this is often said to be making the cats more adoptable. And I do hope that my interactions with the cats ends up with them being more adoptable.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do, exactly. My goal, what is behind how I interact with the cats, is to let the cats grow into who they truly are. What this means in particular for many cats is that I try to encourage them to be comfortable enough around people that they enjoy affection instead of fear it. This depends on trust and respect. The cat has to learn to trust me (and hopefully once they learn to trust me, they’ll extend that idea to other people), and to get the cat to trust me, I have to respect its limits. Respecting a cat’s limits doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do something that pushes its limits (otherwise a shy cat would never learn to be petted, for example), but that when I do push its limits, I’m aware that that’s what I’m doing and I let the cat dictate how long this uncomfortable interaction continues. And when the cat has learned that he or she can trust me, then the transformation begins: she or he starts relaxing into interactions instead of tensing. Purring happens. Greeting me when I walk into the adoption center begins to happen.

Ultimately, it’s about teaching the cat how not to be afraid. I don’t believe there are any “mean” cats; I believe that when cats aren’t afraid, they’re loving and affectionate. But this isn’t a natural state for cats when they interact with people. It’s something they have to learn or be taught. And the older the cat is when this learning begins, the more fear there is to overcome.

In short, what I’m doing is seeing and answering “that of God” in these cats. And they appreciate it.

And I’ve been thinking that this is how I’d like to interact with people, too; to interact with other people in such a way that they know they have nothing to fear from me, so they can become who they truly are. Because people, like cats, aren’t born learning how to interact with people. It’s something we have to learn. And sometimes that process of learning gets tainted with fear and we forget who we are, at our core.

We’re like cats, I think: when we’re afraid, we lash out. And when we’re with someone who knows us—truly knows us—we blossom. Can we learn to see each other how God sees us? Can I learn how to answer “that of God” in people as well as cats?

I hope so.

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Poem: “A Day for Shadows”

Today is a day for
Shadows—
Subtle shifts in light
Quiet dances of darkness
The tired metaphor of good and evil.

When I wake up, it will be to a
World of shadows
Not pushed against a cave wall
But settling on my skin

Like a lotion.

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Poem: “A Day for Whispers”

Today is a day for
Whispers
Soft caresses of
Silence
Misty with the dew of
Yearning
The grey satin breeze
The gentle rain of
Awakening.

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Poems

“A Just Being”

Being as just
Being
Sitting to sit
Writing to write
Writing to right
Wrongs left
From
Unseeing
Unfeeling
Believing non-being
Instead of
Just
Being


“Holy Differences”

Wholly different perspectives
Stand their ground
Trip me up
Put motes in my eyes and
Cotton in my ears.

Where is the common ground?
Where is the shift we need to
See the same?

Yet in the differences rests
Diversity, the
Holy harmony of humanity,
That which turns the
Wholly different into
Holy differences.

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White Privilege: Reflections after the George Zimmerman verdict

I’ve been thinking a lot about racism and white privilege since the George Zimmerman verdict. (I’m not going to call it the “Trayvon Martin” verdict, because Trayvon Martin wasn’t on trial.) I’ve been having lots of conversations about race issues on facebook, some of these conversations haven’t gone very well. But these have been some of my thoughts…


Some people have tried to make the point that because Zimmerman is Latino and not white, race wasn’t a factor in the trial.

Let me be brutally honest here. People don’t like to think of themselves as racists, so let me clear the air a bit.

I am racist. When I see a black man or teenager, for a split second, I’m suspicious. Then I become aware of that irrational suspicion and I let it go. In today’s America, where most of our arrested criminals are black (because most of the people arrested are black), it’s very hard not to be a racist. It takes a lot of effort and work.

We’re culturally trained to associate criminal behavior with black men.

If I saw George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, instinctively I would be suspicious of Trayvon first.

Look deeply and honestly within yourselves. Can you honestly say your first impression would be different?

And if not, then how can you claim this trial had nothing to do with race?


The term “privilege” has always bothered me, even though the ideas behind the terms like white privilege, ableist privilege, etc., make sense. And I just figured out why.

Privileges are something extra you get, like when you’re a kid and your parents tell you you can earn a privilege by doing a chore. And when we talk about white privilege, we’re talking about unearned privilege. We make our “privileges” a source of guilt. In other words, the fact that I can walk down a street alone at night without being shot for having my skin color making me appear “suspicious” is something I should feel bad about, that other people don’t have the same safe experiences.

But being able to walk down a street at night without being shot because your skin color makes you appear “suspicious” shouldn’t be a privilege. It should be the norm.

Being able to walk into a store and not having the manager tail you should be the norm. Being able to get a job based on your qualifications and not your skin color or sex or etc. should be the norm. Being able to live in any neighborhood you can afford without being given sham excuses about why you can’t live there should be the norm.

Everyone should be able to live the life a male, straight, white, able-bodied, etc. American can live.

The guilt involved in the discussions on white privilege I’ve read implies that the privilege itself–our experiences as white Americans–is the problem. We need to give up some of our privileges so those without them can live like we do.

No. I don’t want to walk down the street and be judged as if I were black. I want everyone to be able to walk down the street and not be judged because of their skin tone.

The goal is to improve people’s lives, not lessen some to improve others.

My “privileges” aren’t the problem. The problem is that they have somehow become extra benefits and not the normal experience of just being HUMAN.

So, white Americans, don’t feel guilty that you can walk home and not get shot like Trayvon. Don’t feel guilty for getting into that college or getting that job.

Feel empowered to work so that people who are being denied their human rights can have the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that you do.

Because ultimately, what we’re talking about are rights, not privileges.

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Simple Testimony

The Quaker Testimony on Simplicity has been gnawing at me for a while now, and I didn’t know why. After all, I love this testimony. I love the idea of paring away everything but what’s important to make space for God. The testimonies of simplicity and integrity probably affect my day to day life more than any other explicitly Quaker practice. And yet, there’s been this gnawing sense of something very wrong with our modern understanding of simplicity.

Let’s talk about the Quaker “patron saint” of simplicity, John Woolman, for a moment. John Woolman is best known for speaking out against slavery in a time where very, very few others were doing so. But he’s also known for making the decision to cut back on his business, which was becoming so profitable that he felt it was preventing him from having adequate time for God. This is the model of Quaker simplicity I’ve heard the most about. This is the ideal that’s been explicitly or indirectly implied: that Quaker simplicity is about cutting back so you can make space for God.

I don’t have anything against John Woolman. I think he was awesome for the things he did. He’s one of my all-time favorite Quakers.

But you know what else John Woolman was? A man of means. And the overwhelming sense of Simplicity that I seem to get from a lot of modern Quakers is from this assumption: that you have the means to make economic decisions that will allow you to better follow God.

It’s simple to choose a career that benefits the world and doesn’t exploit others. It’s simple to buy a Prius or a hybrid instead of a sports car. It’s simple to buy fair trade instead of supporting exploitative labor practices. It’s simple to buy organic whenever possible, and the more local, the better.

Isn’t our testimony on simplicity more than just another liberal yuppie shopping practice? Can’t you practice simplicity without having an upper-middle class budget?

I’ll be blunt. Not everyone has a choice what job they work at. (Not everyone has a career, either.) Priuses are expensive cars. I’m going to be needing to replace my 2001 Corolla sometime soon, and I’ve ruled out Priuses because they are way over my budget. Fair trade clothes? Also expensive. Organic food? Expensive.

No one needs to have money to follow God. Period.

There’s another “patron saint” of simplicity, Thomas R. Kelly. With him, it was more about choosing how to spend your free time wisely. One of his most famous quotes is probably, “We cannot die on every cross. Nor are we expected to.” In other words, as worthy as a cause may be, it’s okay to say no and leave that burden to another if it’s not what we are called to do.

Disclaimer: I have the utmost respect for Thomas Kelly. He’s probably my favorite Quaker writer. Still, the assumption is that you have free time to spend and the freedom to choose how to spend it. That’s a luxury and freedom that not everyone has.

So, what do I think our testimony of simplicity is really about, if not about choosing how to spend time or money in better service to God? It’s about knowing what’s important and acting in accord with that. It’s not about how you spend your extra time or extra money, but about what matters to you most day to day—how you spend all your time and money, not just the “extra”. And when you’re clear on what is most important to you and live your life in accordance to that, then you’re living a life of integrity.

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Bi-religious Duality

There’s often an underlying tension when one professes to be a member of two religions. There’s the constant challenge of “Well, how can you be both X and Y?” And often one avoids answering the question by either outright ignoring it or starting a long convoluted explanation about how even though these two religions seem to have differences, they’re really not all that different when all is said and done.

Except sure they are, or you wouldn’t find it necessary to be part of both. You would be satisfied with one religion and wouldn’t feel the need to have two.

I am both Quaker and Buddhist. These two religions do have some similar beliefs—Quaker’s “that of God” is comparable to Buddhism’s bodhichitta or the idea that anyone can find enlightenment, not just monks—and some similar practices—when I sit in Meeting for Worship or for meditation, physically I am doing the same thing—but Quakerism is not Buddhism and Buddhism is not Quakerism. Nor should they be!

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most important theological differences I find between Buddhism and Quakerism. Now given the wide diversity of beliefs in both Buddhism and Quakerism, this post is going to involve lots of generalities and is just my understanding of what are the foundations of both religions, regardless of whether all Buddhists and all Quakers currently believe in these foundations or not.

This foundational difference is the concept of God. In Buddhism, there is no God, at least not in the personal, creative (as in, creator of the Universe) sense. The universe and all its inhabitants are, ultimately, ruled by karma, the law of cause and effect. In this sense, Buddhism is very scientific: because this happened, this then came to be, and so on. Pema Chödröm has this to say about the belief in a personal God, the kind of God who actually cares about you as an individual and interacts in the world:

“The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us… Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.”

Quakerism, on the other hand, has a foundational belief in the existence of a personal God. We sit in Meeting for Worship waiting to be Moved by Him (or Her or It or Whatever), and if we are so Moved, we stand and share the message. We believe that one can be Led. We have clearness committees to test Leadings. Now whether all Quakers today would agree that a personal God exists, we clearly believe that there is Something that has the ability to lead us. We believe in Something that can call us to an action or an inaction. We believe all can have a personal relationship with this Something without the need of a priest or outward sacraments.

Now whether Quakers today would name this Something God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Light Within, Allah, Nature, or Our Inner Goodness, this belief is not one that is found—as far as I know—within Buddhism.

The belief that I can be led—personally—by the Something seems at odds with the Buddhist belief in karma. How does a Something that can interact with me personally fit in with the Buddhist understanding of the universe as a mechanism of karma? How does that work?

It doesn’t seem to work, to be honest. Buddhist and Quaker dogma aren’t the same. They are inherently different. They come from different foundations: Quakerism is founded upon the idea of a Creator God, specifically the God of Jesus, that is accessible to all people; while Buddhism is founded upon the idea that anyone, despite current caste and past karma, can become enlightened and free from this world of suffering by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. Quakerism in a sense encourages the individual—one has a personal relationship with God, one can be led—while Buddhism discourages the individual—the idea of a Self is ultimately a delusion. And if that is true, then how can something that doesn’t truly exist be led?

Wow, I am really over-simplifying and generalizing, aren’t I?

But what it comes down to is that practicing Quakerism and practicing Buddhism works for me—experimentally—as George Fox would say. The Buddhist practice of meditation—the maitri/metta I talked about in my last post; the mindfulness of breathing, of pain, of sound, of Being—works for me. The Quaker practice of waiting upon the Light works for me. How can I deny that I have been Led? Can I look back upon the ministry I’ve given in Meetings for Worship and dismiss the heart-pounding, body trembling that inspired me to stand and speak?

And yet, I can’t deny that there are serious differences between the two religions, and that these differences in some cases seem to be contradictory.

And so I am forced to stand in the Center, between what seems to be two choices, and wait in the tension.

Because what it comes down is that I believe more in experience than in notions. And that is something that both Buddha and George Fox would agree with.

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Filed under belief, buddhism, different faiths, discernment, faith, leadings, practice, quakerism, statement of faith, that of God, universalism

Maitri Practice on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

Today is the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, what has been called the world’s first genocide. In fact, the term “genocide” was coined to describe the events in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 toward the Armenians.

Hitler admired the Genocide and used it to persuade Germany to begin its racial exterminations:

“Thus, for the time being only in the east, I put ready my Death’s Head units, with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language. Only thus will we gain the living space that we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

Prior to 1915, there were over a million Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey. Over 800,000 Armenians were killed, and that’s the “conservative” estimate.

I’ve been doing the Buddhist practice of maitri/metta daily now for nearly two weeks. Today I chose to attempt wishing maitri/metta on Talaat Pasha as my fifth stage maitri/metta (this is the stage when you wish wellness on someone you hate or feel aversion towards). Talaat Pasha was the Director of the Interior of Ottoman Turkey during the Genocide. This is the man who bragged about the massacres of Armenians by exclaiming,

“The Armenian problem doesn’t exist anymore.”

He wasn’t the only man responsible for the Armenian Genocide—it’s doubtful whether he actually killed any Armenians himself—but he was instrumental in the organization of their deportation and mass slaughter.

As the time for wishing maitri/metta on Talaat Pasha approached, I felt increasing apprehension. When the time finally came, my body began to shudder and I felt my eyes water.

Talaat Pasha to me during this meditation was not an individual. Not really. After all, he died long ago. Anyone directly involved in the Genocide is almost certainly dead. So what was I doing, attempting to wish him well, happiness, and freedom from suffering?

How much suffering must one face to honestly—fervently—wish the extermination of an entire race of people? How much fear?

And today, as Turkey continues to deny that the “massacres” were a Genocide (they say the Armenians were collaborating with the Russians and that’s why they had to kill all of them), I wonder not only about the effect of an unrecognized Genocide on the race that was killed, but the effect of an unrecognized Genocide on the nation who still denies it. To have something so horrible in your past that you cannot even allow your citizens to openly discuss it (to call the Genocide a Genocide in Turkey is illegal; it’s a “crime against Turkishness”). To live in fear that perhaps one day you’ll be forced to name those actions “Genocide” and the result will be the partition of your country almost in half (Turkish Armenia in Ottoman Turkey was a significant part of the eastern-central geographical block).

So, to Talaat Pasha and all like him, to Armenians who still suffer from this Genocide, to Turks who still deny its reality:

May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.

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