Category Archives: Miscellaneous

On Having Heroes Who Are Human

1234609_643104972388034_1378574855_nThese thoughts were inspired by and are a sort of response to this post.

I get quite a bit of pushback for being a fan of Amanda Palmer. I get long, impassioned comments from people who are concerned that I don’t understand how problematic she is. The nice ones assume I am simply uninformed, and spend thousands of words filling me in on all of her offenses. The list is long and to these people, unequivocal proof that Palmer is unworthy of anything but insult, derision, and dismissal.

Those are the nice ones. There’s another level of hatred that shows up in my comments or inbox when the person knows I’ m aware of the controversies but have refused to banish Palmer from my playlists, my Twitter feed, and my esteem. I imagine their eyes bulging with rage as they type out their accusations that I am a hypocrite, a shill, or that I must also be a __________________.  (Where the blank is filled with whatever label they use to dismiss her utterly; most often: racist, ableist, misogynist, narcissist.)

A few of her detractors are extremely committed: responding every time I mention her name, just to be sure I haven’t forgotten that she is problematic, persona non grata, enemy of justice, evil incarnate. They point out every possible thing I should be outraged by, every way my admiration for Palmer is complicit with her horribleness and contrary to their understanding of my values, especially my feminism, anti-racism, and anti-oppression commitments.

Not everything they say is wrong. There are times that Amanda Palmer makes me cringe. She’s done things that I wish she hadn’t. She’s said things that I strongly disagree with. She’s made mistakes. There have been times when I’ve been frustrated or disappointed with her comments or behavior. I’ve argued with her publicly about some of these things. And every disagreement has included the same word: (sometimes from her, sometimes from me) “Love.” And that’s why I’m still here, still a fan, still insisting that Palmer’s presence in my life, on the stage, and in the world is welcome.

This week, the controversy revolved around Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian musician and broadcaster, who lost his job after allegations of sexual assault and abuse became public. Or rather, who released a statement saying he was unfairly fired because his sexual proclivities included what he called BDSM or “kink” practices. Over the course of several days, more and more women came forward (a total of nine, at last count) to corroborate the original charges: Ghomeshi had not sought consent and they had not given it, but had physically and sexually assaulted them.

What does this have to do with Amanda Palmer? Ghomeshi was one of the people Palmer had invited to participate in the book tour that begins next week.  In nearly every city where she will be reading and performing, she invited a guest to share the stage and add to the conversation. Ghomeshi had agreed to join her onstage in Toronto, the final night of the tour.

As soon as the story about Ghomeshi broke, people—fans, not detractors—began to ask Palmer to rescind the invitation.  Because it was so early, there was little more than the information that two women had come forward with accusations and Ghomeshi’s post explaining that his sexual practices were being purposely misconstrued and that he had lost his job as a result.  Palmer posted Ghomeshi’s explanation and, sticking to her oft-spoken commitment not to avoid controversy, tweeted that Ghomeshi would still be guesting.

All hell broke loose then, as fans, haters, commenters, and the media all jumped into the fray. People were hurt, people were angry, and some people were supportive—all in the midst of a rapidly changing situation.  By the time most people learned that of Palmer’s post, there were more and more women coming forward, corroborating the stories of abuse and providing disturbing details. The online media, always eager for a fight (and always happy to discredit a woman, especially a feminist) went live with stories in the tone of outrage and reproach.

I’ve been around long enough to see how the media portrays Palmer and these articles included all the same tropes. Palmer was narcissistic, out of touch, and happy to defend the powerful at the cost of her fans.  They quote essays and blog posts that “point out that Palmer seemed to be leaning toward believing Ghomeshi…” without mentioning that those conclusions were drawn from one comment made before the details of the allegations were known. The articles are mocking in tone, faulting Palmer for asking for time to review the facts, to read the comments from her fans, and consider her decision.

It always amazes me how the media insist on the using and reusing the same three ideas to dismiss Palmer.  In every article, she is out of touch with her fans, self-absorbed, and shallow.  Even when all the evidence is to the contrary, they trot out these same judgments. It doesn’t matter that Palmer was deeply invested in the conversation with her fans, reading and responding to comments online—she’s still out of touch because she didn’t reply enough.  It doesn’t matter that Palmer requested time to make a carefully considered decision—she’s shallow.  It doesn’t matter that she’s sharing the stage as often as possible on this book tour—she’s self-absorbed and narcissistic.

Had Palmer decided to go on with the show and keep Ghomeshi as a guest, I would have been disappointed and even angry. I would have seen it as a way that even Amanda Fucking Palmer sometimes gets it wrong and believes men more than women. I would have taken that as evidence of how insidious sexism is, how deeply the messages of rape culture and misogyny can be internalized. I would have asked her to reconsider.  And had she refused, I would have let my tickets to her shows go unused.

I respect Palmer’s decision, but there are many who are still angry. Mostly, they seem to be angry that she didn’t make the decision quickly enough. She did take some time—96 hours—to make her decision.  Some are even angrier that she mentioned her current project—a musical theater performance  at Bard College called The Bed Show—in her announcement. “Self-promotion!” they cry. Never mind that the show is relevant to both the topic and the timing of her decision.  Palmer has been in 12-hour tech rehearsals in preparation for The Bed Show to open this Wednesday. The show, according to Palmer, also delves into issues of abuse and rape culture.

Is Amanda Palmer perfect? No. And I am happy that she is not. While some want their role models to be perfect, I like mine to be human.  Part of what keeps me engaged with Palmer and her art and music is that she is transparent about her mistakes. Like any of us, she tries and fails and tries again to live up to her own ideals. Oh, and that’s another reason people are angry with her. She doesn’t just hold herself to high standards. She has, again and again, over the course of years, asked for people to be compassionate, civil, and refuse to be hateful. Some have confused this with tone policing.

Tone policing is a strategy used by the powerful to excuse and propagate oppression. When an oppressed person gets angry or is not grateful enough or kind enough to the oppressor, this “deficiency” is used as a reason to continue controlling them.  This excuses the abuses of the oppressed and is the key way that oppression is internalized. In its crudest form, it can be as simple as a woman coming to believe she deserves to be beaten because she was not nice enough to her abuser. In more complex situations, it is used to silence the naming of oppression by redirecting attention from what is being named (the abuse or oppression) to how it is being named. (with anger, rage, vitriol.)  Asking an oppressed person to “act nice” in response to their oppression or “be grateful” for what they do have is a strategy of shame and silence. It is real and it is wrong.

But Amanda Palmer’s request that discussion on her Twitter feed, blog, and Facebook page remain civil and not become hateful is NOT tone policing. The relationship Palmer has with her fans is not the relationship of oppressor to the oppressed, nor does she have the power to silence them.  (I suppose she could delete comments, but I’ve never known her to do so.) In addition, she didn’t ask anyone to refrain from expressing anger. In fact, she doesn’t demand anything. She simply states, “ i am *not* happy to see people flinging insults, using violent language and wishing harm on others.” She later writes, “may we all hold the space – in the physical world and on the internet – to take care of each other. we’re in this one together, friends. please don’t forget that.”

This isn’t an effort to silence anyone, but to embody what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught when he wrote, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I believe it’s possible—even necessary—for people to express anger, to disagree and debate, expressing their ideas and experiences powerfully without resorting to hate. In fact, I believe we need more debate, more public discussions—even arguments that fight the –isms that infect us all.  I’m all for impassioned discourse about ethics, values, and how to make the world a better place. Amanda Palmer has shown herself willing to have those hard discussions. She’s shown herself willing to change her mind. She just asks that we do without hate, and I can’t fault her for that.

REPOST–Cabaret Church: Could this be Cabaret Church?

(The Amanda Palmer House Party Experience)

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by T Palmer

People often ask me how I ended up being a minister— which is a long story, but always begins the same way–I was fascinated by the whole idea of church. I loved that there was a place we went to be inspired to become better people. I was intrigued by the sense that being human is a kind of project that we can work on together. This started when I was very young, maybe four or five years old, yet last night at the splendid Chicago house party, when it was Amanda Palmer asking the question, that fascination is still where my answer began.

But before I get to that, I have to admit that the night did not begin as I hoped. If you know anything about me, you already know that means we were late. I hate being late. In spite of the fact that I woke up at 4 a.m. feeling like it was Christmas morning, and we fretted and timed everything  in order to arrive right on time and before Amanda, a number of things (including Chicago traffic) conspired to make us almost an hour late.

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by T Palmer
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by T Palmer

Even so, we were greeted by our gracious hosts and given directions about how things would work. People were already spray painting on a giant canvas and filling their plates from an enormous table, and I hurried through the crowd to add our food the the potluck.  I was frazzled and rushing; not at all how I wanted to be.

As I was trying to navigate the crowd, I saw Amanda and she looked up and broke into a big smile. I was unprepared  to be recognized. I had been carefully managing my expectations and practicing casually telling her my twitter handle and explaining who I was. To be suddenly face-to-face with her and to be known was a complete surprise. I managed to give her a startled look and a freaked-out smile and scurry away.

After getting my bearings and taking care of the required details, I worked my way back to  the food. As I stepped into the garage (where the feast was laid) there was Amanda. She smiled and said something like, “Hi! I want to sit my ass down next to you and talk.” I sputtered out, “Okay, that would be great,” and added, “Give me a couple of minutes to get through…this…” My words trailed off.  How does one name the profoundly strange combination of anxiety and joy that makes your entire vocabulary disappear? Luckily, she seemed to understand.

After we got our food, we found a place to sit in the grass and talk. I told her a little story about the last time we’d met and how I forgot to look at anything but my shoes. That led to a moment of intentional eye contact. And then, amazingly, it wasn’t awkward any more. That’s when she asked me how I became a minister. Or did she ask how I became me?

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by T Palmer
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by Carl Frederick

All I know is that I unwound the  strands of my story, laying them out in rows, trying not to leave too many  dangling or  tangled. Amanda listened and  I felt a genuine connection, not to Amanda-Palmer-the-rock-star, but to Amanda-Palmer-the-human-being.  For those few minutes not one person interrupted us–not with words or bodies or impatient eyes–and I felt like we were inside the fairy circle in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, protected by old magic. (Ocean is the most recent  book by Neil Gaiman, who is married to Amanda, and it is a book I already cherish. A post about that will happen when I can find the words.)

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by T Palmer

When it was time to move on, I ended up with the task of keeping Amanda’s kimono from harm, which somehow felt important. (It was the very same kimono featured in her recent musical retort to the British tabloid The Daily Mail.) Later, when she needed the kimono for photos, she asked me to hold her phone and take some pictures. That led to me becoming the “official” cell phone photographer, trying to capture candid moments happening before, after, and around each person’s formal picture with Amanda. I had great fun balancing two, three, and sometimes four cell phones, trying to catch the sweet, poignant, and happy moments of connection between Amanda and her fans.

Watching those connections allowed me to notice and observe the spirit of the night, quietly and beautifully shaped and guided by Amanda: a transcendent mix of art, conversation, hugs, tears, and courage.  In a recent blog post Amanda wrote about the power of  the house parties and the atmosphere of pure connection that pervades them. Last night, fifty strangers chose trust over fear and created something real together. What we created was the very thing that fascinated me as a child and started me dreaming and writing, curating and creating Cabaret Church. 

Even now, long past childhood, I am fascinated by the possibilities of the human project I first saw in church. I still long for a community where people support and challenge each other to break free from a culture that wants us to exhaust and anesthetize ourselves with conformity and consumerism. I’m still determined to spend my life trying to create and support spaces where people can grow and become more authentic, courageous, and kind. I saw that happen last night, around and within me.

There’s a lot to be learned from these amazing gatherings that could help make church more relevant, meaningful, and fun. And there are and will always be things we can learn from old spiritual wisdom, tradition and practice.  As Amanda told me last night, “We suffer from the separation of church and art.” Maybe it’s time for a reunion.

Special thanks to Andy, Siouxi, Dave, Kate, Amanda and all the other wonderful people who made last night possible.

REPOST–Cabaret Church: Why Amanda Palmer Makes Me Think About Church

AFP MKE PridefestI am a minister. Maybe that is why people give me strange looks when I tell them I am a big fan of Amanda Palmer. I guess the word “minister” conjures an image of uptight, scowling old men with nostrils permanently flared from sniffing out the faintest scent of the carnal.  When confronted by someone as free-spirited as Amanda—who is prone to displays of public nudity; uses the word “fuck” with both ease and power (it is, after all, her middle name); writes, sings and screams songs like “Do it With a Rock Star” and “The Killing Type;” and uses social media to share much of (if not every corner of) her mind—I guess I am supposed to immediately condemn her or run away screaming.

I may be expected to condemn, but instead I find myself drawn to Amanda Palmer’s work and her world. Her songs, her TED talk, her blog, her insistence on connection with her fans and even with her haters have all reinvigorated—resurrected, really—my passion for ministry and my vision of what liberal religious community can be.

Truth be told, I love all of it: the uninhibited self-expression; the nakedness of body, mind, and soul; the unabashed insistence that the power of art can change us and therefore change the world. “We are the Media!” Amanda Palmer sings.  I want to add: “And we are the Church!” Or maybe: “We are the Sacred! We are the Holy! We are Everything That Matters and everything beautiful and ordinary and amazing…

Amanda Palmer makes me think about church.  Yeah, church: the place where, for centuries, power and greed and transcendence and sin and art and ritual and life and death have been playing their parts in a grand mythic drama. Church: the place where people try to work out what it means to be human and how to make life more graceful and meaningful.  Church: the one thing that has both  saved my life and broken my heart so completely that I ran away screaming in pain and fury. And yes, church. The community that always draws me back and helps me recognize and serve something larger than my own ego, something like Hope.  Even though I am often frustrated at the forms the institutional church takes, I can’t shake my conviction that if we don’t despair, we can return the church to being a catalyst for empowerment, inspiration, justice, and liberty in our own hearts and in the world.

Alfred North Whitehead called God “the poet of the world.” The central story in every religious tradition is always the story of creation: God dividing light from darkness, the Goddess giving birth, or Turtle rising from the primordial ooze with the muddy earth on its back.  These primal stories are the centerpiece of religious myth not only because we humans are eternally curious about our origins, but because the ability to create is and has always been considered sacred.  For centuries, if you were looking for art you went to church, where poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and composers were lauded for their ability to make a way for the sacred to enter the ordinary world. Beauty and creativity were portals to the holy.

Amanda Palmer’s work is a torrid, sweaty, sex-in-public affair with creativity.  In the Punk Cabaret story of creation, creatrix and creature refuse to be separated by theological hierarchies, and are instead consenting partners in an ecstatic and slightly dangerous bump and grind. Bodies are celebrated, even flaunted, without embarrassment.  After all, if it weren’t for our bodies, how would we create or experience all this beauty?

This, for me, is an awakening. For decades I have struggled with the ugly dichotomy that separates body from spirit and declares the material, the physical, the carnal to be dirty and sinful.  I was moved to tears when I read Walt Whitman’s declaration, “If anything is sacred, the human body is!”  That sacredness is too easy to forget, yet listening to Amanda Palmer’s music I feel the urge to move rise up in me and am reminded that my earliest spiritual or religious memories are of dancing.  In dance class or at home alone with my record player, I experienced my whole heart and body absorbed in one transcendent “Yes!” I knew, as a child, that both the dance and the dancer were holy. I knew that I was inseparable from The Sacred.

I know, of course, that religion—especially Western Christianity—is responsible for much of this denigration of the body. I know that the unholy desire for power and empire led to the creation of systems and theologies that dismiss some bodies—brown bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies—as worthless and only to be controlled. I see the results of this thinking in policies that demean and punish those who wear these bodies. I see this and I know that many will be unable to believe that religion, complicit in so much evil, is worthy of anything but disdain. I know. I see. I tremble.

And yet I cannot just walk away. I keep being drawn back. Or, to use an older term: I keep being called back.

You see, I didn’t go into ministry because I wanted to reenact dusty rituals, all the while keeping my hair neat and my overcoat buttoned.  I didn’t go into ministry to write twenty-minute essays more conducive to checking one’s watch than to checking in with the state of one’s soul.  I didn’t go into ministry to be considered an employee with a three word job description: keep people happy.

I went into ministry because I long for transformation. I long for revolution. I am called to make this world better and to heal what brokenness I can.  I am called to help create communities that empower all of us to encounter and respond to the All that is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, and bigger even than anything we can imagine. I am called to look for and help create communities that are engaged in the work of the spirit together. Communities that are a lot like the crowds at  Amanda Palmer concerts or the people telling their truths and tweeting love and support for one another on a Friday night, tagging Amanda in every post.

I imagine a church where every sweaty, glitter-drenched, dancing body is welcome. I imagine a church that can be loud and bold and angry when necessary. I imagine a church where we notice the many who say, “No one sees me,” and take time to stop, look them in the eye and say, “We see you.”  I imagine a church where everyone is invited to not only attend the show, but to be part of it—to engage soul-deep in the art of living an authentic, embodied, meaningful life.

That’s the church I imagine, thanks to Amanda Palmer. That’s Cabaret Church.

Exhausted With a Nagging Pain in the Heart

I woke up early this morning. I tried to go back to sleep for about an hour, but couldn’t manage it, though I am exhausted. All morning I’ve been yawning and my eyes feel like someone scrubbed them with hot desert sand, but I cannot sleep. I cannot find a way to unclench myself, to relax, to surrender.

Fear.

That’s not all. There is this nagging pain in my chest. Not the kind that makes you think, “heart attack!” but the kind that feels like there is a big soft lump wedged between my ribcage and my skin. It is a lump of tears that will not come, that I am afraid will come. Not the pretty trickle of a tear from the corner of an eye, but big, messy, ugly sobs with tears that run and puddle and soak the shirt and leave stains that don’t easily wash away.

Lamentation.

Fear and Lamentation have been my companions since yesterday morning when Chelsea Manning announced her new name and revealed her true self to the world. There was not even a full second to digest the news and wish her well before the first attack was unleashed. It was a relatively small one, just a slight pause and pointed emphasis on the word “her.” Just a pause and inflection that clearly  said, “I have to use this pronoun now, but I am only doing it because I’ve been told to.”

But now, twenty-four hours later, I am exhausted from carrying the sadness, physically worn from the way my body tightens and cringes as I read the increasingly ugly attacks. This morning, the lump of tears grew harder and more angry as I read that media outlet after media outlet is refusing to use feminine pronouns for Ms. Manning.

The New York Times has stated that they intend to change to feminine pronouns gradually because they don’t want to confuse their readers, even though it seems that making the change and being consistent from now on would be less confusing. NPR has announced it knows Ms. Manning’s gender better than she does herself. They have stated they won’t honor her identity until she is “physically female.” Ironic, since while she is imprisoned, she will not be given access to the medical care and treatment she needs to do that. Less reputable “news” sources will undoubtedly bring up her transgender identity for years–maybe forever–as “evidence” that Ms. Manning is “unstable” or “dishonest” or “lacks integrity.”

After sixteen years, I am just deeply tired of the dismissal and judgement and hatred. Even more, I am tired of watching my trans* siblings–especially my sisters of color–being dragged through hell in the media and on the streets. I am tired of watching us die, sometimes in brutal moments of extreme violence and sometimes the death-of-a-thousand-cuts of having our truth, our being, our bodies, and our lives devalued and ridiculed.

Today, I will do my best to carry on–to attend to my personal and professional responsibilities, meet deadlines, care for the people in my congregation–while bent under the weight of Fear and Lamentation, companions that I did not choose and only want to leave me–and all of us–alone.

Neil Gaiman’s Beautiful Lie

Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is about many things. It is about childhood and magic and knowing and secrets and remembering. It is a story, but it is also about stories. It is these things—all set in the landscape of Gaiman’s childhood—and something more:  a strange but familiar dance between sweetness and sorrow, revelation and obfuscation, the need to remember and the fate that eventually, we all forget.

When I first began to write I was told by a wise poet friend that it was okay and even necessary, to lie. “All storytellers lie,” he said, “We lie to tell the truth.”  I realized then, and again when reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, that the most powerful truths must be wrapped carefully in lies or we would not survive knowing them.

Gaiman’s book is this kind of lie.

That is why, for only the second time in my life, I find myself unable to write a simple book review. I cannot parse the plot for you or analyze the prose or even tell you in any straightforward way about what The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about. Instead, I can only return a truth for a truth, a story for a story, a lie for a lie.

 Once upon a time there was a little girl who had whole worlds inside her. Though she knew many things, she was a child and for that reason alone was assumed to know nothing at all. Every moment of every day she was taught unimportant things. She was taught how to behave. She was taught what to think. She was taught what to believe. She was taught that the worlds inside her were make-believe and could never be true.

 She was given a name, a role, and a set of rules. She was told that the name, the role and the rules were the only thing that mattered, the only things that were true. She learned to hide what she knew, and as she did, she became sullen and sad as her heart dried out and crumbled, bit by bit.

 When her heart was still supple and whole, she could see that kind Mr. Shellabarger who lived next door was not just an old man who loved his garden. And his wife, Alice, was not just an old woman who stayed hidden in the house because a disease made her tremble, but was the very same Alice who once fell through the looking glass. The girl knew that the reason Mr. Shellabarger sprayed his apple trees with garlic rather than poison pesticides was that he did not want to hurt the March Hare or Cheshire Cat that occasionally sat in the big tree with the hole halfway between its roots and low branches.

 When the girl’s father would complain that Mr. Shellabarger was making the whole neighborhood smell like an Italian restaurant with his backward ways and overgrown garden, she tried to explain that only magic could make the little grapes taste exactly like beads of honey and sunlight, but her words only made her father’s anger change course, aimed at the little girl instead.  She smelled the bitterness in his breath as he screamed that she was stupid and read too many books and didn’t know the difference between stories and lies. As his anger coldly coalesced, he promised to throw away all her books and never, ever allow her see the inside of a library again.

 His anger and his promise lasted for two full weeks and by the time those two weeks had passed her heart was mud, cracked and parched from a terrible drought.  When she was allowed to return to books, she found that she had grown afraid of stories that helped her know true things, and instead read books about rocks and birds and girls who did not go down rabbit holes but wanted to wear pretty dresses and get properly married to please their fathers.

Her heart continued to crumble and it took many years of wishing to be someone else before she remembered that she could, indeed, become. Long after her father left and married the Red Queen (who was not the Queen of Hearts) she dared to begin to live her true life. And though she grew up to be a man whose heart was sometimes dry and dusty at the edges, he still reads books that remind him of being the little girl waiting to see a Cheshire smile in Mr. Shellabarger’s garden.

Happy New Year

Let’s drink a cup of kindness and send our wishes and intentions into the new year:

Peace everywhere on earth and in every heart.

Care for our planet.

Justice flowing down like waters.

Unfolding wisdom.

Forgiveness.

Humility.

An awakening to what is really of value.

Hearts softening and opening to compassion.

Each of us working on the side of Love.

Healing.

Open expressions of appreciation, gratitude, and thanks.

Hopes and dreams fulfilled.