Rambling Thoughts from a Wandering Mind


Category: Personal

UU Lent and allowing myself to be vulnerable

A UU flaming chalice
The flaming chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism.

March 1 was the beginning of Lent. For Catholics and other Christians, it’s a time of self-sacrifice. It’s meant to symbolize Jesus’ time spent in the desert, during which he is said to have had nothing to eat or drink.

Even many people who aren’t Christians use Lent as a time to abstain from their vices. Many people, regardless of faith, give up smoking or alcohol or eating red meat. Others give up sweets and sugar.

I had been thinking about giving something up for Lent this year, but never quite got around to deciding on something meaningful. Instead, someone from my church shared a link to the UU Lent Facebook group. As a Unitarian Universalist, I was intrigued by the idea of approaching Lent from a UU perspective rather than a more traditionally Christian one.

According to the people behind the Facebook group, UU Lent (also known by the hashtag #uulent) is:

[…] a way for Unitarian Universalists to engage in a shared spiritual practice alongside siblings in faith who are observing Lent. In some Christian traditions, in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the faithful make a personal sacrifice as a way of bringing them closer to G*d, and reminding them of the sacrifices that Jesus and his followers made.

As Unitarian Universalists, we share theological roots with our Christian siblings. However, rather than a practice of self-denial, this is an opportunity to spend the Season of Lent engaged in a spiritual discipline of deep intention and appreciation of our world, our place in it, and an openness to Grace in our daily lives.

This idea appealed to me quite a bit, for a number of reasons, which I shared on Facebook at the start of the Lenten season. I’ll quote myself directly:

I’m going to [take part in UU Lent]. Hopefully, it will provide some focus and much needed spiritual discipline in my life. It may even lead to on-going practices to help keep me centred and focused on what’s most important.

Since I haven’t been to church in ages (partly due to D’s nap time, but also because I’m lazy and lack the discipline to get out of the house on Sunday morning), this will act as a spiritual practice – whatever that might mean for a humanist – and maybe even encourage me to make a greater effort to get to Sunday services at the ol’ UCE.

It’s been an interesting experience so far. For the most part, I’ve found myself simply meditating on the daily words. As I think about what they mean to me – particularly from a spiritual/religious perspective – I try to put them into meaningful practice going forward. It sometimes seems easy. “Love” just means loving my family, right? Well, no, actually. I think it must mean more than that if I’m going to make it a spiritual practice. It must mean something close to the radical love Jesus spoke of.

That kind of radical love is difficult and uncomfortable. But I’m trying. I’m trying to love the street person struggling with addiction issues as much as I love the child he endangers by discarding his syringe on the street. I’m trying to love the people supporting the fascist regime that’s unfolding in the United States. And I’m trying to reconcile loving those people while still resisting, fighting and even hating the thing they support. It’s hard. I fail more often than not, but it’s an important practice.

Today’s word is “vulnerability.” This one is difficult. Like most people, I don’t like to feel vulnerable. Vulnerability can seem like weakness. And you can be hurt if you allow yourself to be vulnerable.

What does vulnerability mean for me? I think it means being more in touch with my emotions and more willing to express them. This is something I’ve never been good at. Despite having long had a bad temper (which has mellowed a lot with age), I’ve generally been the type to keep my cool and not show much emotion – good or bad.

I won a Vespa from a radio station several years ago and the person who took my photo when I went in to claim my prize joked that I didn’t seem very excited. I was, but I didn’t show it. I’m not sure I even knew how to show it.

This ability to be cool can be helpful. I’ve been known in various jobs over the years as the guy who always remains calm under pressure. In truth, I’m often in a state of mild panic just below the surface. But not letting that show has generally served me well in my professional life.

Still, there’s something to be said for being in touch with one’s emotions, especially in one’s personal life. So that’s where I’ll start. I’ll try to be more open and emotionally vulnerable at home, where it’s safer to do so. If I succeed, it should lead to greater intimacy with my wife and family.

And since UU Lent is a religious exercise, I’ll try to apply this practice at church (I haven’t been recently, but plan to begin attending regularly if I can manage to slightly shift my daughter’s nap time). Being vulnerable there means being more open to community. I’ve never been good at meeting new people, networking or even making small talk with people I don’t know well. Partially, this is because I’m an introvert. But it’s also because I’m a very cautious person who sucks at breaking out of his comfort zone.

But a church is supposed to be a community. And it always had been for me, even if I’ve seemed closed off. I’ve met good friends through my church. I’ve gained a sort of surrogate grandmother. And it’s the only place I’ve been able to have a completely open conversation about how absolutely horrible the first few months of D’s life were for everyone in our house.

It’s a community that filled a card with wonderful messages when D was born, despite the fact that it would be an understatement to say that Sara and I had been very infrequent attendees for a couple of years by that point. We were not forgotten and were still considered valued members of the church community. I was truly touched the day we walked into church with our baby, for what was probably the first time in over a year, and were handed a card that had been signed by a large portion of the congregation.

I suppose what I’m getting at, with this rambling bit of prose about church-as-community, is that I want to allow myself to tell people what they mean to me. This means being open and vulnerable about my feelings. It means risking the discovery that I value a particular relationship more than the other person. But with that risk comes the possibility of great reward – deeper friendships, more intimate connections with people I’ve come to think of as family (even though I’ve never told them) and a stronger connection to my spiritual community (something I’ve long ago learned I need in my life, even if I’m terrible at developing and nurturing it).

And, finally, one more act of vulnerability. Instead of saving this post and thinking on it for a day or two, as I’d typically do with a post of this length and degree of personal exposure, I’m going to post it in a fairly raw form. This is it. Here it is.

“Marriage is hard” not a reason to give up on it

‘It’s work’: A month after announcing her divorce, Scarlett Johansson says monogamy is not ‘natural’

I’m not normally one to pay attention to celebrity gossip, much less write about it, but this headline caught my eye earlier this month and it got me thinking. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard people use the fact that marriage can be hard work as a justification for divorce.

“Marriage is hard” always seems like a cop out. No one should be forced to stay in an unhappy marriage, but “marriage is work” isn’t a reason not to be married. Maybe it’s hard because it’s worth working on? Many of the most worthwhile things are hard work. It sounds old fashioned, but more often than not, the right thing to do when your marriage is in trouble is to work harder[1].

I’ll concede that a person should probably not get married in the first place if they think it’s too much work. But once you’re in it, the fact that it’s not easy seems like a poor excuse for leaving.

I also find the idea that monogamy mustn’t be natural because it didn’t work for you a bit spurious, but there are some biological arguments that can be made to support the claim. I won’t claim it’s “natural,” but monogamy works really well for a lot of people. Frankly, an open marriage seems like a heck of a lot more work than a monogamous one (though some people can and do make it work).

What do y’all think? Is the fact that marriage is work a legitimate reason to divorce?

[1]Obvious caveat: “work harder” is terrible advice if there’s any kind of abuse happening — and that includes emotional and verbal abuse, not just physical violence.

Staying informed without becoming overwhelmed

Photo credit: Elizabeth M

Trying to keep up with all of the news coming out of the United States may be driving me insane. It’s overwhelming, maddening and much of what I read makes me simultaneously furious, frightened and deeply sad.

But it’s important to keep informed, now more than ever. To tune out is to let the forces of authoritarianism and fascism win.

How, then, to pay attention without becoming overwhelmed? How does one keep an eye on the news without negatively affecting one’s mental health?

I’m not entirely sure of the right answer, but I’ve come up with an approach that may work. The challenge will be to actually stick to it.

Focus on analysis

As the article “How to Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed by Your Newsfeed” notes, there’s a difference between being informed and being immersed. The former is vital. The latter is potentially unhealthy. Rather than allowing myself to be constantly immersed in the latest breaking news, I’m going to try and stick to reading thoughtful, informed analysis of the day’s events.

This will be difficult for me, as I tend to check the news multiple times throughout the day. But if I can resist the tempation to read the news every hour, I think I’ll be better off. I’ll avoid some of the outrage. I’ll avoid some of the wild speculation I’m seeing on social media. And, when I do check the news, what I’ll be reading will be more in-depth and informed analysis of what’s happened that day.

I’ve noticed what I read early in the morning and later in the evening tends to be of higher quality than what I read throughout the workday.

If I stick to checking the news mainly before work and after D has gone to bed, I may just maintain my sanity without losing track of what the US regime is doing to destabilize world order and push us closer to the brink of war.

Hopefully, by focusing on analysis I’ll also be able to stay focused on the bigger picture and maybe even do something to prevent things from getting worse.

Embracing winter through the Danish concept of hygge

Cozy tea and slipper socks
A woman gets into the spirit of hygge

Recently, I came across an article from the Guardian called “The Hygge Consipiracy,” that looks at the sudden trendiness of the Danish concept of hygge. The author concludes that the version of hygge being sold to the English-speaking world is really a British invention that’s more about selling you crap you don’t need than it is about the true Danish concept of hygge. It also delves into the dark side of hygge.

It’s a long read, but very interesting if you have some free time to devote to it, especially if you’ve managed to avoid the recent deluge of think-pieces about hygge.

I shared the article on Twitter and Facebook, and got some interesting responses. Despite having shared this somewhat cynical article with my social networks, I actually like the general concept of hygge. I’m not going to read a ton of books about it or buy a bunch of hand-knitted socks, but I like the simple idea of coziness and enjoying the warmth of friendship as a way of getting through our long, dark winters. Living in Edmonton means you have three options: you go south for the winter, you bitch and moan about the cold, or you accept our climate and learn to embrace winter.

Not everyone has the money to flee for warmer climes and complaining rarely achieves much of anything. So, for most of us, we’re left with embracing winter. Adopting the concept of hygge makes it easier to embrace the cold and the darkness.

And so I’m working to bring a little more hygge into my life. The last few nights, we’ve been keeping the lights low and listening to chill music. On Sunday, we had friends over for braised beef ribs, which somehow seem like a perfect meal for this time of year, when the holidays have passed but the end of the cold darkness of winter is still beyond the horizon.

It’s with this spirit in mind that I’m hoping to host more casual get-togethers and dinner parties over the course of this winter. I’m also toying with the idea of hosting at least one outdoor party this winter. I talked about it a bit last year, but never got around to doing it. I think the layout of our new backyard will make it easier to create some windbreaks and keep everyone warm. I’m even thinking about going down to Canadian Tire or Home Depot to pick up one of those movable fire pits so we can be toasty warm even when it’s cold outside.

For friends, family and neighbours who are likely to be invited to this hypothetical outdoor winter party, what would it take to get you to come to a backyard party in the middle of an Edmonton winter? Is there a particular hot beverage you’d like? Is fire vital? Let me know in the comments!

Personal goals for 2017

I promised to write about some of my less important goals for 2017. I’ve already written about the big three: to be a better father, a better husband and a better person. But I also have other goals. I’m reluctant to call them resolutions, because that almost seems like I’d be setting myself up to fail. After all, who ever sticks to their New Year’s Resolutions?

Let’s call them goals, then.

These goals can be broken down into two categories: physical and technological.

Physical goals

I’ve spent a good portion of the past month in pain. My back, which may be injured from auto accidents or scoliosis or from something else entirely, has been causing me serious pain for several weeks. Last night it was agonizing. I slept very little as a result and decided that something needs to change.

I suspect this pain can be managed better if I am more physically active. I already walk to work everyday.This is a great start, but I need to do more. Specifically, I need to do things that will strengthen my back. Swimming is the big one. I need to swim more often.

I really enjoy going to the pool, and live just a few blocks from a big, city recreation centre. My goal is to go swimming at least once a week.

Ideally, this will involve doing some lane swimming (i.e., actual exercise) but it will also include going to the pool with my family (which isn’t swimming so much as bobbing around the pool making sure my daughter has fun and doesn’t drown).

I also want to get outside more. This won’t necessarily help my back. I just want to spend more time being active outdoors. If I can find a good deal on cross country skis, maybe we could take up the sport this winter. There’s plenty to do outdoors in the winter, it’s just a matter of actually doing it instead of hiding inside for months on end.

Technological goals

As I wrote previously, I’ve recently switched from a Windows operating system to one based on GNU+Linux. I plan to stick with the free and open source operating system and delete my Windows partition altogether in a few months, I haven’t had a need to boot into Windows. This will free up a lot of space on my hard drive and really commit me to the GNU+Linux experience. Since I’m not a gamer, I don’t foresee a need to keep Windows, but want to wait a few months just to be sure.

I also plan to be smarter about my privacy online. I knowingly provide a lot of personal information to large corporations like Facebook and Google. I will continue to do so, because I find value in the services I get in exchange for my information. But I’m also going to be more careful about when and where I give up that information.

Toward this end, I’ve already started using Startpage and DuckDuckGo as my main search engines.

I’ve also committed to writing more on this blog and posting less on Facebook (though I will likely post links to many, if not all, of my blog posts on Facebook). This will mean I own my writing, rather than it being just another bit of user-generated content for Facebook to profit from.

Of course, if I share it on Facebook, they may still profit from it, but at least it’ll live on this site instead of their servers. I’ll be doing my own small part to support the open web, by maintaining my own website rather than dumping everything into Facebook’s walled garden. It’s a small act of resistance, but I think it’s important.

Resolutions 2017

I resolve to be a better husband, a better father and a better person.

That’s it. Those are my New Year’s resolutions. I’ve got other goals/hopes/aspirations for the year, but those three are the main ones. They’re big and abstract, sure, but they’re the ones that matter.

I’ll write more about the smaller things — the ones that matter less — in the coming days. But for tonight, for New Year’s Eve 2016, I wanted to highlight the big ones. I’m working on them already. If I stick with them then, by the end of 2017, I’ll be able to say I did it. I improved. I got better.

Hopefully, I’m pretty OK at all of those roles already. But I can do better. I want to do better. So I will do better.

I am a spambot

I’m a spambot. Rather, a spambot has been made based on me. Selenized made a Markov text generator, the same thing used to generate those superficially real-looking spam emails you get, based on my tweets. It’s hilarious, especially when it makes sense.

He also created one based on his own tweets, which I find almost as amusing. The one based on his tweets is the original, but there’s something about seeing my own words, twisted and distorted into bizarre spammy messages that I can’t help but laugh at. So, naturally, I like mine more. I may be a tad narcissistic.

A few of my favourites include:

  • Successfully bid on an orange vest before evacuating.
  • McDonalds now has 31 approved bee hive sites. That’s quite a few, isn’t it?
  • Mother Teresa was anything but a solution for urban areas.
  • Trump can’t be a more accessible site than Hawrelak Park, in terms of transit (and parking). https://t.co/Z7Qod7mD11.
  • Watching the tweets roll in is brutal. I work at @twitter but even I can’t believe how we got into this in Edmonton. #yegcc #YEG #YesPlease https://t.co…

Because you need to purchase your emergency vest before you evacuate from the auction. McDonalds makes its own honey. Mother Teresa was no Jane Jacobs (probably because she tried to make Donald Trump accessible by public transportation). And I work at Twitter, apparently.

I need to write

Just write. That’s the dictate I’ve given myself. Write, at least three times a week, for 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter what I write. It only matters that I write.

I used to think of myself as a writer. I wrote, back then. I was even published on rare occasion. Then I largely stopped writing. Sure, I’d push out a blog post once in a blue moon. And I could write the odd essay-style Facebook post. But, for the most part, I stopped writing for years. And if there’s one thing writers do, it’s write. I could no longer claim “writer” as a core part of my identity. I let a piece of me die. But at least I was honest about it. Writers need to write. You can’t call yourself a writer simply because you like the idea of being one. You need to do the verb to claim the noun.

My wife commented on it, from time to time, the fact that I no longer wrote. “Why don’t you write poems anymore? You used to love writing poems.”

Why don’t I write poems anymore? I don’t have an answer for that. I could say I’m too busy or that I’m uninspired, but that’s not true. I was busy in the past, but always found the time to write. Having a job that didn’t take a lot of mental effort helped—I could write, in my head, as I moved boxes. It’s tougher to do that when you’re a desk jockey. When your mind is busy, instead of your body, it’s tough to write “on the side.” Still, I could make the time if I wanted to.

You should be writing
You’re right, Neil Gaiman, I should be writing.

As far as inspiration, I’m not lacking in sources. I’ve got my usual topics: the city, spirituality, love. And now I have a child. I have a daughter. If she’s not inspiration enough, I don’t know what is.

So there’s no excuse. I should be writing. I want to be writing. So I’m writing.

I’ve given myself a rule: 30 minutes a day, at least three days a week. I’ve plugged this into my Google Calendar. It’s a Goal. It pops up in the evenings. Today was the first time.

If I go beyond 30 minutes, great. I hope I’ll often be inspired enough to go beyond that. But writing isn’t just about inspiration. It’s work. It’s a craft. So I’m scheduling it into my week. I’m making time. I’m writing. I’m going to put in a 30 minute shift, at a minimum, at least three days a week. I’ll do my work and maybe something good will come of it.

It’ll likely be shit, at first. I may need to polish a few turds before I’ve got something I’m proud of, but that’s part of the process. Editing is at least as important as writing. But editing comes later. It’s not part of the 30 minutes. The writing is the work. But, now that I’m back at the desk, I remember writing is the easiest part of the job. Editing is a slog. I hate editing. I’m a first draft kind of guy. That’s rarely a good thing.

And so, as the timer counts down, I’m writing. I’m completing my first shift. My obligation. My workload. It’s the first piece of writing, outside of a professional context, that I’ve made in a long while. (I write professionally. Did I say that up above? I don’t think I did. I write. I get paid for it. It’s creative work, even if it’s not what you typically think of as Creative Writing. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do—writing for a living. It’s not how I dreamed it would be when I was 10 or 15 or even 25. But it’s writing and it’s a living. And I enjoy it. It only took me ten years after finishing university (the first time) to figure out how to turn my joy into a job, but I did it. I’m doing it. So maybe I am a writer. Maybe I’ve been a writer all along, even if I haven’t done this particular kind of writing—Creative Writing—in a long time.)

By the time you read this, I’ll have made some edits. It’s still shit, because I’m out of practice. But I’ve polished this turd. And I’ve put it on the Internet. I’ve written something. I’ve edited something. And I’ve shared that something with the world. Not everything I write will see the light of day. Most of it probably won’t. But that’s not the point. The point is to do it. It’s only by doing the work that I improve and eventually write things worth sharing.

That’s it for today. It’s time to wrap things up. I’ve got another Goal coming up. I’ve got to read. It’s in my Google Calendar. Reading for pleasure is something I have to schedule. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s my reality. So I plug it into the calendar. I write. I read. I meditate. I draw stick figures. Those are my Goals (capitalized, as my calendar does, to highlight their importance). The allure of Netflix and YouTube, of easy, passive entertainment lies around every corner. It’s become too easy to be let myself be distracted. So I schedule Goals into my calendar, and I get to work.

I read. I meditate. I draw stick figures. But most importantly, I write. Because I’m a writer.


2015 Year in Review

2015 was a big year for me and my family. For starters, our family grew. On March 9, Sara gave birth to our first child: she whose name is not mentioned online.

Little troublemaker

Just a month earlier, almost to the day, I started my job with  Edmonton Public Schools. It’s been a great job so far—my best ever, if I’m being honest—and I have no desire or plans to leave anytime soon. I actually passed on what, in many ways, looked like a better job on paper to work for the school district and I haven’t regretted that decision for a minute. (In fact, looking at some of the stuff they’ve had to deal with at the other organization over the past 11 months, I’m quite happy to have not taken that job.)

We bought a new car. The old car continued to slowly fall apart (but it’s still running; she’s kind of a beast and I hate to think that we’ll one day get rid of her, but that day is fast approaching).

I’ve made new friends. I think I’ve lost a few, which is unfortunate, but people move on and their lives end up in different places. Sometimes, friendships aren’t meant to last a lifetime—and that’s OK.

I didn’t read as many books or watch as many movies as I used to this year, due largely to that whole first child thing, but the ones I managed to get to were great. Many of the books I read were about child-rearing, which is helpful. I saw a whooping four movies in theatres this year: Interstellar, Mad Mad: Fury Road, Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch, and I’d go so far as to say that I think Fury Road is the best movie of 2015. That’s a bold claim, since I didn’t see many of the movies that were released this year, but I stand by it.

What’s up for 2016?

That’s a big question and I honestly don’t have the answers yet (I haven’t yet developed the ability to predict the future). Our family has some big plans for 2016. And a few smaller plans.

I can’t reveal any of them yet, but will certainly write about them when the time is right. For now, I’ll just say that I’m looking forward to the New Year. If all goes well, we’re in for some big and very exciting changes.

Thinking aloud about religion

I’m probably a Unitarian Universalist after all.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after much introspection and reading about religion. Ever since the whole “to baptize or not to baptize” thing came up, I’ve been thinking and reading, reading and thinking.

Marcus Borg’s writing has been of great help. It helped me realize a few things. First, I believe in god (in lowercase, for now, since I’m not entirely sure god has the characteristics necessary to be a proper noun). Of course, what I believe in isn’t the “being above all other beings” that most people in the West—believers and atheists alike—tend to think of when the word “god” is used. My god is a pantheist god with a bit of a Christian flair.

Second, his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, helped me realize that, despite my not-so-common concept of god, I can explore my spirituality through the Christian tradition. And that I can do so without having to check reason at the door and believe the impossible.

My views, while not particularly mainstream in Christianity are, according to Borg, not as unorthodox as I once thought. They align well with older, mystical strands of Christianity (and Judaism). They’re not new ideas, they just fell out of favour in mainstream Christian theology for a few hundred years.

The problem with being a panentheist, postmodern Christian, of course, is that there’s not exactly a church for me.

Despite what Borg (and others) say, it’s tough to say the Nicene Creed without crossing your fingers when you believe that Jesus was killed mostly for being a political radical and that his death didn’t necessarily “forgive our sins,” that his resurrection was perhaps not a literal thing and the virgin birth probably didn’t happen, but that he was “of God” (but you’re not sure what that means) and continues to be an important figure in your spiritual life by virtue of your ethno-cultural background.

I looked into the so-called emergent (or emerging) church. But the churches in Edmonton described online as “emerging churches” don’t seem to follow the “emerging paradigm” Borg talks about. They’re theologically conservative, Pentecostal mega-churches whose pastors are youngish hipsters. And, while a hipster pastor might be cool (I guess?), the rest of that is pretty much the opposite of what I’m looking for.

Southminster-Steinhauer United Church exists, and I like their idea of expansive Christianity, but I can get almost the same thing within the context of Unitarian Universalism and not limit myself to just the Christian tradition. Within UUism, I can hyphenate my religion (see also: #hyphenatereligion, which was trending on Twitter recently).

Within UUism I can be a postmodern-panentheist-Christian-humanist. I can be a sometimes-atheist-but-usually-theist-who-thinks-Jesus-is-kinda-rad. I can have a rich, meaningful religious life without having to tie myself to creeds or orthodoxies.

And, while I still sometimes long for the certainty of traditional Christianity, the freedom to explore that’s given to me in Unitarian Universalism is exactly what I need.