samedi, novembre 07, 2009

(Don't) call me irresponsible

For months, many months, my check statements have been piling up on my desk. At a certain point last spring I stopped entering checks into the Quicken register.

I hasten to say that I never overdrew that account. A pretty conservative, though not frugal spender, I checked my balance with care.

Yet I grew more and more overwhelmed, as the fiscal situation grew out of hand. I mean, it's embarrassing not to know if you have 3,000 or 1,000 in your account.
So I did what many Americans apparently do -- opened a new account. My first deposit? Very virtuous intentions -- and a nice sized check.

A few weeks ago I went house -hunting with my realtor. I've known him for over ten years. After having seen a particularly awful house, a contemporary, he told me he felt baffled by my housing choices. What single mom chooses to live, not in a townhouse, but in an exurban village filled with pioneers, farmers and landed gentry?

How many of your divorced clients live in townhouses, I asked him. 80 percent? I guessed. More like 95, he said wryly.

When I left my former place of work, he told me, people came up to him and asked him how could he allow me to buy a house out here?

I was furious at the idea that they would be so, well, parental. Even though I know they care, and I am grateful. How could you be responsible for where I choose to buy a home, I asked him?

Yes, I don't live by their conventions.

And yes, I confess, I don't always balance my checkbook.

But two children aren't being raised by themselves. My ex and I draw compliments for the collaborative way we co-parent. We agree on most of the important stuff, including income-- and the static starts to fade after, well, a year or two (grin).

There's a difference between eccentricity and irresponsibility. And right now, I'm able to chalk up that little electronic check register issue to eccentricity. How about you?

On second thought, if you have strong feelings about this, I have some former workmates you can talk to. Better you, my dear, than me.

My column from Lancaster

Column: A disturbing trend among our clergy
Intelligencer JournalLancaster New Era

This is the first part of a two-part series on troubled clergy and what can be done to help keep congregations and clergy healthy.
What's going on with our clergy?
Once upon a time, they were regarded as role models.
Serving at the altar, baptizing babies, delivering a sermon on a Torah portion, asking God's blessing on our marriages — they seemed just a little holier, more knowing, perhaps more innocent, than the flock which sat in front of them on Saturdays and Sunday mornings.
But the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, the highly publicized cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy and the occasional eruption of high-profile clergy sex scandals point to a more mundane but troubling reality: in the shadows, many of our clergy are struggling.
Take three stories plucked at random from national media this past month.
The New York Times profiled a mother and her terminally ill son — the progeny of a now-suspended Franciscan pastor.
In a Religion News Service article on pastor suicides and attempted suicides in the Carolinas, one counselor estimates 18 percent to 25 percent of clergy are depressed at any given time.
And an article showed how a Baylor University study found that sexual abuse by clergy is prevalent across all denominations.
In the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, local and national church leaders have been locked in a struggle for years with former Bishop Charles Bennison Jr., who is appealing his ecclesiastical court conviction and deposition on grounds that he covered up the sexual misconduct of his brother John, a former Episcopal priest.
Being in ministry "can be a very lonely occupation" says Dr. Jeff Hamilton, a Lancaster-based clinical social worker whose primary work is with churches and clergy. An ordained United Church of Christ minister, Hamilton spends much of his time helping clergy and congregations navigate often challenging transitions, as well as recognize appropriate boundaries.
"One of the painful parts of being ordained is that we are set apart," Hamilton said.
One of the reasons clergy get depressed is that "there are so few places where clergy can go to tell their story," he said.
Some clergy attempt to quench this loneliness by forming relationships within their congregations.
Not a great idea, argues the therapist.
"It's easy to create relationships that can become muddled … and improper," Hamilton said. "You can end up treating parishioners differently (from each other) without even knowing it."
Upon reflection, I had to admit he had a point.
Most of the congregations where I have worked and worshipped seem to tolerate special clergy friendships. But I also have heard lots of complaints about clergy who appear to favor particular parishioners.
One of the fundamental problems is that clergy don't always recognize that they have needs for companionship, friendship — and sometimes even confession. For married clergy, Hamilton has a straightforward word of advice.
"If you can't tell your spouse, you shouldn't be doing it" — even if "it" is a public lunch with that attractive parishioner who is having marital problems. What starts in all innocence may not end up that way.
"Clergy get into trouble when they don't have their needs met," Hamilton said. "We have such an intimate relationship with people at different times of their lives, that if you don't have a good sense of yourself, things can get confusing."
Hamilton and I didn't get into what effect the Internet has had on clergy, but, as a Christian Century article from a few years ago notes, online porn also is a problem for pastors already troubled by relationship problems — or simply lonely.
And then there are significant numbers of clergy, who, at some point or another, question their call. "When their visions of what ministry might have been is not what they hoped for … they wonder about the value of what they are doing," Hamilton said.
Get too deep into this topic, and the overall picture begins to seem bleak, doesn't it? But in fact, there are many ways in which clergy and their congregants can work individually and collaboratively to prevent clergy meltdown and be proactive about it if it happens.
My next column will focus on strategies for nurturing healthier clergy — and congregations.

vendredi, novembre 06, 2009

Ft: Hood where the wild things

If we told our children what war was like -- and that they might come home minus part of themself -- would we have an army at all?

It's hard to understand what it feels like to be an Iraqi citizen whose son or nephew has just been reduced to a corpse and a pool of blood at a police station. I've often wondered: if the toll we had to pay here in American was so high, if we had to deal with roadside bombs and the attack on our solders -- would we be so willing to send our sons and daughters over to die for an ideal, however close we hold it to holy?

Whether you support the war for moral and religious and political reasons, or you find it totally wrong for the same, it seems to me that it is both realistic and honorable to try to count the cost.

The tragedy at Ft. Hood brings us one appalling step closer to the realities for an Iraqi or an Afghan citizen. It also impels those who want to think about what's going on to wonder -- what did Major Hasan hear?

Nothing, nothing, nothing, can justify the slaughter of the innocent. Nothing Hasan can tell the military men and women who question him (if he lives) will make what he allegedly did anything most of us would recognize as the act of a sane human being.

In a sense, Ft. Hood was a test of the American dream of gun ownership -- a society where pretty much everyone had one, and rarely was it used in fury. This horror, which changed that probably illusory sense of safety, will mark that post for living memory.

We'll pray for the dead, and those who have to face the empty chair at the dinner table, the hole in bed, the silence at Thanksgiving. But it seems to me that this is an occasion to ask about the nightmarish conditions our soldiers face -- that probably change many of them forever.

Hasan is a psychiatrist. While he wasn't deployed, he had heard a lot from those lucky enough to come back. That doesn't excuse mass murder. Nor may it turn out to have anything to do with his alleged reasons. But it may have contributed to his rabid wish not to walk through the hell that can be military service in Afghanistan or Iraq.

If you believe in something strongly enough to believe it is worth that kind of sacrifice, go and experience it. And if you aren't willing to do that, find someone who can tell you what it is really like.

Then decide if it is still worth the ongoing cost -- not solely to the families of the dead, but to our souls.

Mine. Yours.

Even if you don't believe that we have one.

Hasan and his alleged crimes should not be the reason we make this examination of conscience. But it might be a way to honor the dead -- and their blood spilled for us.

Here's a link to a New York Times blog post on roughly the same topic by a Vietnam Vet.

mercredi, novembre 04, 2009

Don't be afraid to wonder...

Sometimes, because it fits our need to classify and pin down, we think of science, and of scientists as dealing solely in evidence, in the concrete, in what they already know they can project.

Science is also, as Olivia Judson points out in her blog post in yesterday's New York Times, about using one's imagination. Where would we be without the ancient Greeks using mathematics to chart the movement of the stars, without Galileo throwing out the ancient maps, without somebody who imagined that a mold could be used to successfuly treat infections?

Yet so often we relegate imagination to the humanities (and, of course, to religion) -- as if, in putting it outside of the realm of the factual and concrete, we might somehow make it less real.

As we try to quantify religious experience, so we also do with creativity -- if we could but find that particular part of the brain that dreams, and looks hard, and wonders, and comes up with answers to questions no one has yet thought to ask.. then perhaps we'd be able to figure out how to make it happen again.

But somehow I don't think we'll ever be able to map the creativity of the genius -- or duplicate it.

Leave the scientist, or the hermit, or the artist to venture where no one has gone before. A culture that strips away wonder, that doesn't allow for mystery, is a culture without an inner life.

mardi, novembre 03, 2009

Sex Education: the post-grad version

Just because I grew up in New York doesn't mean I'm still a New Yorker. Besides, what does that really mean, anyway? So many folks come to New York to fulfill their dreams that it might not matter so much whether you grew up there -- or you wear the mantle of the town's propulsive, intoxicating self-absorption.

New Yorkers, or the affluent ones who are the target audience for New York magazine, like to believe that somehow they have been "grandfathered" out of the ordinary mandates of life. Emotional attachment? My dear, that's so Midwest.

So why did I read this article about the sexual compulsions of New York magazine readers and think: oh my goodness, I know these people? I've met them, or some variation on them -- online.

Let me preface (and if you can't cope with lurid, please stop reading now) my tales with a confession -- I am tremendously curious. I don't know if I am bent towards journalism because of my curiosity or if my yen to know more about people's inner lives is part of a writer's persona.

Signing up for the largest dating website in the country wasn't like putting an erotic ad on craigslist -- or even joining a Unitarian polyamory group. Then why did I seem to have a steady stream of potential suitors with a relentless drive towards virtual sex?

The middle-aged magazine editor who came home from a party two states away and messaged me about how well-endowed he was (he apologized the next day).

The 29 year old New Yorker who emailed me that he liked the poet Wallace Stevens and wanted me to have online sex with him.

The swinger in York, Pa., clearly married, who wanted to give me a grad course in risky sex.

The pastor struggling with an addiction to pornography -- a fairly common problem for male pastors, from what I now know.

I could go on -- but that's probably more than enough. I felt that I had wandered into a dating world in which most of the relational rules had been cast aside. I had no idea how I had gotten there, either. So I listened, before I backed off. I tried to be polite, because I could see that many were really and truly suffering.

Online dating can be a callous affair -- the emails unanswered, the correspondences begun and dropped, the carping remarks about "those women" or "these men." Yet I also found that even the would be-seducers displayed a yearning for love in their profiles. But sex would do -- until the ideal female came along. Wang captures this dissonance so well when analyzing the Diarists:

And yet perhaps the most surprising psychological attribute of the Diarists, despite weeks upon weeks of guarding their vulnerabilities from the brutality of the marketplace, is their romanticism. True love! Who could say these words in public without acute embarrassment? It is nonetheless something that the Diarists keep referencing, despite the impression they convey that it is an ever-receding ideal. It’s an odd, negative sort of tribute—a vague longing for something all but lost, but perhaps worth clinging to nonetheless.

I really had no idea of how to navigate a world in which you invite someone into your bed, real or virtual, before you ever meet them. I hasten to say that indeed I terminated contact with these guys before we got to the meeting stage.

Yes, there were some interesting guys who didn't open with the sex gambit. However, I am left wondering whether somehow I am catnip for swingers, addicts, men who try to lure with Wallace Stevens (why not Byron?).

If so, why? I have no clue. I return to a remark one of my friends at our local paper made to me a while back.

I've mentioned it before here, but it rings true, and gives form to a dilemma that at the moment I find unanswerable. You are so innocent, so naive, Elizabeth, he said with the kindness of a happily married man. You will meet so many cads that you may not recognize it when and if the right man comes along.

Only I'm not so naive anymore. Have I been turned back into a New Yorker -- without the designer clothes? What kind of a bargain is that?

Sometimes I wish I had stayed in "Midwest" Pennsylvania-- illusions intact. Other times -- I saved a few romantic dreams, just in case I ever need them.

lundi, novembre 02, 2009

So you say its time...

Listening to this old Carly Simon song after oh, 30 years, I was struck by its fly in amber 1960's feminism. I remember, even as an adolescent, hearing this and wondering if marriage was all about learning to be "me first, by myself."

Young Carly apparently also had a pretty dark view of marriage. In hindsight, "couples cling and claw and drown in love's debris" also sounds a bit dramatic, very much in harmony with the ethos of the generation just in front of mine.

Of course, I don't recall thinking that at the time.

What sent me back to Carly was a conversation I had with a pastoral counselor about a commentary I'm working on about clergy in hot water -- why they end up there, and how they can help themselves and be helped.

One thing he said was particularly relevant, and not solely to clergy. "If you can't tell your spouse what you are doing" he said, "you shouldn't be doing it."

I've become pretty convinced that he's on to something. Yes, there are some conversations that need to be confidential -- there are laws about what doctors or therapists can tell others, including their wife or husband.

The point is, I think, to be open about the relationships you have with others. Are you telling Mary or Connor more about problems in your marriage than you are telling your spouse? That may not be a cause of your problems -- but it could a possible symptom.

Happy marriages may have struggles -- who does not? Yet generally, these couples seem to be each other's best friends.

Not every unhappy marriage is replete with secrets. Some marriages that fail, sadly, seem to collapse inward under the weight of tragedies, disapproval from outsiders or struggles with children.

But some are on the slippery secrets slope.

Clergy, as with others in helping professions, aren't good at admitting they have human needs. In an age when Protestant mainline clergy and priests in some Catholic circles have lost the unique sense of authority that used to come with the collar, it's even more tempting to think that they can go it alone -- but eventually the loneliness can lead to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors.

If you are in a helping profession, and you know (yup, you know) that the boundaries are starting to get a little unclear (friend/lover? parishioner/confessor?) -- call a friend in your profession. Find a therapist. Pray. Run. If you don't like these options, clean your house!

And think -- if you feel that 3 hour coffee with that cute male parishioner or female gym friend was so innocent -- then why aren't you telling your spouse?

Update -- Reading the story of the Obama's marriage in this past Sundays NYT magazine, I was fascinated by, at a certain point, how willing she was to tell him how unhappy she was. She asked for what she needed -- and they negotiated from there.

dimanche, novembre 01, 2009

It was a mash

I don't understand why the town fathers decided that they would shut down Creek Road in the late afternoon. Early evening for trick or treating still makes the most sense -- it's truly dark and people can sit out on their Victorian porches flooded with candlelight and strange Halloween gizmos from big box stores.

But although we rushed to get Mr. C to the development with the biggest and safest place to trick or treat, he quickly ended up walking to our local park with his friends. There squirrels and Phillies fans (of course), wizards and other characters, including what seemed to be a pregnant blonde man, ate pizza and hot chocolate donated by our local business owner and town supervisor, Bryan.

The DJs played "YMCA" and other pop classics, and affluent city escapees jostled happily with less-wealthy long time Wallace residents. One of the things I love about the town is that, though grudges can run deep sometimes, everyone gets together and socializes, at least a few times during the year.

Some things have changed. Last year my daughter rang doorbells for chocolate with a friend -- this year, she went to a town close to Lancaster to go out with a group. Mr. C's two best friends from last year (still good friends with one another) aren't as close to him anymore -- though they spent hours in the videogame truck together. He doesn't seem worried, but I feel a bit sad.

None of my adult friends were there this year, telling me that maybe next year my own offspring may be too old for the pagan feast.

And yet -- as I sat by myself, sipping hot cider, I appreciated being part of the crowd -- sweaty and wet and a little loud.

We left just around the time of the Halloween parade -- behind us the tennis courts, ahead the graveyard, and the old church, and across the quiet street Bryan's deli, the only food in town.

Coming back from Parkesburg, the DQ and I listened to a little rock and roll on our longtime Philly station. A woman, at a party, called in to ask for a song -- we haven't played that yet, said the announcer.

Wa - oooh, the DQ and I sang softly in the car, cornfields and tree farms speeding by, moments from home. When you get to my door, tell them Boris sent you.