Friday, September 28, 2018

Women, Girls, & Cats: Be a Vashti

This is what happened during the time of Xerxes,[a] the Xerxes who ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush[b]: At that time King Xerxes reigned from his royal throne in the citadel of Susa, and in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials. The military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces were present.
For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty. When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest who were in the citadel of Susa. The garden had hangings of white and blue linen, fastened with cords of white linen and purple material to silver rings on marble pillars. There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones.Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality.By the king’s command each guest was allowed to drink with no restrictions, for the king instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man what he wished.
Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Xerxes.

10 On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine,he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas— 11 to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. 12 But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger.
13 Since it was customary for the king to consult experts in matters of law and justice, he spoke with the wise men who understood the times14 and were closest to the king—Karshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena and Memukan, the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king and were highest in the kingdom.
15 “According to law, what must be done to Queen Vashti?” he asked. “She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes that the eunuchs have taken to her.”
16 Then Memukan replied in the presence of the king and the nobles, “Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against the king but also against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes. 17 For the queen’s conduct will become known to all the women, and so they will despise their husbands and say, ‘King Xerxes commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.’ 18 This very day the Persian and Median women of the nobility who have heard about the queen’s conduct will respond to all the king’s nobles in the same way. There will be no end of disrespect and discord.
19 “Therefore, if it pleases the king, let him issue a royal decree and let it be written in the laws of Persia and Media, which cannot be repealed,that Vashti is never again to enter the presence of King Xerxes. Also let the king give her royal position to someone else who is better than she.20 Then when the king’s edict is proclaimed throughout all his vast realm, all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest.”
21 The king and his nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as Memukan proposed. 22 He sent dispatches to all parts of the kingdom, to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language, proclaiming that every man should be ruler over his own household, using his native tongue.

Usually, the part of the Book of Esther that gets the most attention, by scholars of the Hebrew or First testament, is the story of Purim, and Esther's heroic actions. Many people have never heard of Vashti. Banished when she defied her husband who ordered her to dance before his friends wearing (nothing but) her crown, she is an early example of feminine self-determination in the Scriptures.
This week, the real horror has not been the high school assault made by a 17-year old Brett Kavanaugh. The horror has been the continued assault on social media, in the hearing room, and on TV, on women who dare question the status quo. Who speak up to the culture of rape and violence so clearly elucidated in Kavanaugh's yearbook. (which he lied about)
I have a cat named Vashti. I would probably have a daughter with the name if I'd had one after I studied this text. For women, the decision not to obey the patriarchy, whatever form it takes in your life, is monumental. The refusal to dance. The absolute refusal to be judged by others' standards. The courage of self-determination. 
And make no mistake.  It is not only men who enforce the patriarchy. Women can be the willing emissaries of its rules and restrictions. This has certainly been true in my life. We saw it played out in yesterday's Senate hearing as Rachel Mitchell grilled Dr. Ford in lieu of the white male Senators, with a smile on her matronly face.

My cat Vashti is an indoor cat. She hasn't faced coyotes, hawks, owls, foxes, and the many other predators on our farm. But she's been through four dogs, all much larger than she. All have ultimately backed down from her claws and her snarls. Most have taken some real wallops on the nose to get the message. Nevertheless, she persisted. She's about 13 now, and slowing down. But she's lived up to her name.
I was so excited when I learned that Vashti McCollum was elected the first female Bishop of the AME Church! She lived up to her auspicious name as well.

This is 2018. No human being is entitled to bully, berate, intimidate, demean, or diminish another because they are bigger, richer, whiter, or happen to be male. Or because they give the most money to the church, or they are an adult. 
But this is something women need to do themselves, and with one another.  I love the idea of her banquet. Let's have those! Support and empowerment. Not whining and blaming.
Be Vashtis.

more on the Hebrew Scriptures:

From the New York Jewish Times:
Vashti is attacked by commentators on the Megillah. The Talmud explains that she was the great-granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king who conquered most of the known world and exiled the Jews from Israel for 70 years. (The Purim story takes places during that exile.) Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson, Belshazzar, was king while the Persians destroyed Babylon. When the Persians ransacked the castle, they found Belshazzar’s toddler daughter, Vashti. Cyrus, the king of Persia at the time, decided to marry her to his son Ahasuerus. He thought the Persian monarchy would benefit from her prestigious pedigree.
There are still many Vashtis today, women who are punished because they say no, women who are stuck in abusive relationships. It is imperative that we learn from the Megillah and work to change the culture we live in today.
Support friends who are survivors of rape and domestic violence. Counter rape myths when you hear them. Patronize charities and organizations that help women escape domestic abuse, such as Shalom Bayit, the Shalom Task Force and Stop the Violence. Ensure that women have the courage to say no like Vashti did, but make certain that they will not suffer her end.
Your name reveals the essence of your soul, according to Jewish teaching. In Persian, the name Vashti means goodness. A commentary explains that Vashti comes from the Hebrew word “shtei” meaning two. While Esther is considered the only hero of the Purim story perhaps Vashti can now be counted as the second.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

For All the Men I Love

I hate what's happening right now, because the men in my life aren't pigs.

That's what Michele Goldberg calls (some) men in an op-ed in today's NYT: Pigs All the Way Down

I have a husband that's a good man, who never did anything remotely like the actions being reviewed nightly on MSNBC, and I see the pain as he listens to the descriptions. I know he's thinking about his daughter, about me, and about the victims' accounts, but he's also suffering some trauma of his own. As a painfully shy, very thin, teenager who was viewed as a stoner in the eighties, and who was teased and even beat up by the very same entitled and arrogant jock types we've all seen or heard about, who are being featured in the Brett Kavanaugh accusations, I can only imagine he is reliving some of that humiliation. I know it still affects him. I'm just glad he doesn't go on Facebook and see all the accusatory posts from women saying, Where all all the passive men?

I have two adult sons. They are super respectful to me, and when they have been in relationships, to the women they are with. At least, as far as I know. I've done my best to show them a woman who is self-determined and who does not make her life around another person. I do see that the women they have chosen as partners have that quality. No doormats!

I have had lots of men friends. As a minister, there have been times when most of my good friends were other clergy, and almost all of them were men. Some of the kindest, most caring, loving, and thoughtful people I have ever encountered have been my clergy friends from other denominations and faiths. They've been there for me, and taught me, confronted me and guided me.

Some of my best teachers have been men.

I have had two Buddhist meditation teachers, several writing mentors in my MFA studies, as well as group leaders in recovery groups, family studies groups, my Spiritual Direction training, and preparation for ministry, all of whom are on my Jewel Tree. I count them with gratitude among my most beloved friends.

There have been men in the congregations I have served who have taught me so much, just by being vulnerable and by their willingness to grow and be changed and who've empowered and encouraged me. I've always been amazed that such highly educated and accomplished men (and women, but in my experience, men were better) were willing to take direction and to trust my leadership and skills.

So I'm writing this to say, yes, damnit, there are some really entitled, privileged, prigs as well as plain old pigs of men out there. Some aren't even privileged. There are other environments than prep school that lead to misogyny.

But the vast majority of men that I have met (and maybe this is because of the choices I have made and keep making) are not jerks. This is for you. I see you. I believe that all of this might be painful for you as well. Your sister, daughter, or mom or even you have been assaulted. You are angry but you don't know what to say or do. But what you are doing matters. My husband? He's been the dad to my sister's grandson, a 13 year old with Autism, for ten years. Some days it's a challenge. But I've never heard him complain. When I hear him say, "Son," as he teaches Seth the same thing for the 100th time, I am so impressed at his patience.

  It is each one of you who is making the men of tomorrow a new breed. Keep going.

Thank you.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Faith and Sexual Misconduct

Women are raging.

And women who've been abused sexually are feeling traumatized all over again, not merely by the description of the alleged assault against Dr. Ford, but by the behavior of the GOP, the President and some of their apologists. To say "boys will be boys" or to say "all guys do this" is to open wounds so deep that it seems as if blood is flowing throughout our society.

The rage spills over into social media. Women (and some men, because men are victims too) report that they feel physically ill, and have had exacerbation of chronic conditions.

It's important to remember that so often the initial trauma is bad, but that it could have been far less had there been a vehicle for healing available. Instead, most victims face shame, repression, silence, denial, and disbelief if they do tell. Those who report are scorned by the perpetrator's allies and humiliated by attorneys and sometimes law enforcement. I believe that most perpetrators of sexual violence get away with their crimes, usually for their entire lives. Hence the hashtag #whyididntreport

This column by Maureen Dowd covers the extent of the fury. Read the column.

In my own family, this has happened.

My mother died when I was 5. Soon after, my father remarried, a woman with 4 sons, the oldest of whom sexually abused my sister, my brother and me. In my case, he backed off. I think he knew my father and stepmother would believe me if I told. But the others suffered severely, and their trauma has destroyed our family, our relationships, and taken a toll on several generations. So much of my own life has been devastated by the actions of this person that I am keenly aware of not only the first hand but second, third, and fourth hand effects of sexual trauma. A few years ago, I went back to my home place to live and work, and made an effort to unmask the perpetrator, now in his sixties, who has two young sons in his care. It was more out of concern for their safety than for revenge that I went to extreme measures to alert authorities to his crimes. Although I was listened to (probably because I am a minister), and I had a chance to meet with individuals in law enforcement up to the County Judge Executive, and there was a home visit made by Child Protective Services, nothing could be done. The person involved, Roger Tees of Atlantic County, NJ, was not yet 18 at the time the actions took place in our home. There's no statute of limitations, but he wasn't an adult. So.

Soon after, he and his wife and their young children came to the church I was serving as an interim. They only stayed for about 20 minutes, then got up and left. I suspect they came in an attempt to intimidate me. They did not. I tell you this not to claim a victim stance or a moral high ground but to say that I speak with knowledge of someone whose life was permanently altered by sexual assault and who has yet had a productive life, who refuses to stop trusting men, or people in general.

Roger Tees and his sons

The faith tradition I serve, Unitarian Universalism, is historically Christian but has evolved to embrace many paths to God and truth. We do agree on a number of tenets, not a creed. Topmost among them is The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

There have been times when I've questioned that. Times when I've felt that, although every person is born with innocence and free of sin (where Universalists fall away from Calvinists), there are those who immerse themselves so egregiously in evil that they eliminate any trace of worth and dignity. Nonetheless, my Christian foundation cautions me, as do my experiences, that there is always hope, that salvation is possible, and that even the most unrepentant may yet do good.

This stepbrother claims to be Christian and wears a big cross. To me, if he were even slightly serious, he would have made amends to those he hurt, and he'd be attempting to right his wrongs. He'd have gotten treatment for what was a classic example of pedophilia. If not, his "Christianity" is a cover for what I fear may be continued abuse that I can do nothing about, and what no one else, neither family, friends, nor the state, will do. You only hear these stories in retrospect, and by then the next round of abusers has already been created. 

Back to my own faith.

I'm disconcerted by the number of Unitarians and especially of Unitarian ministers who are making statements that, if I were a male, would make me feel as if I'd somehow been in the room with Kavanaugh and Ford. If you say #notallmen, you're toast, yet some posts I've seen look an awful lot like it's okay to say #allmen and that just doesn't go along with my personal beliefs. How can you believe in the inherent worth and dignity  of every human, yet somehow deny that to 50% of humanity? It's one of many problems I have with my own faith tradition right now.

Brett Kavanaugh is a conservative and a person with whom I likely disagree on many things. He's not a monster. What he allegedly did at 17 sounds pretty bad. I don't know what he's done to repent or repair the damage. He didn't apologize to the victim. Nor did he go on to a life of sexual assault (both conjecture).* Nonetheless, even though, as a liberal, I don't want to see him on the Supreme Court, I think he has inherent worth and dignity.  I think he probably did it. It's going to outweigh all good he's done since, in many minds. What if he'd gone to her then, begged forgiveness, stopped drinking? I am assuming he was and is Catholic. Did he tell his Priest? I agree with one wise commentator this week: He should step down. That would be the ethical, moral, and even politically correct thing for him to do. It's what appears to be his lying about it now, as well as his lying and dissembling about numerous other issues, that to me is completely disqualifying.

*Clearly, since, I wrote this, further allegations and details have emerged. It is now evident that unless the GOP and Trump are correct and all of this is a huge "con job", BK has a litany of behaviors that are appalling and disqualifying. Furthermore, perhaps even more distressing, it would seem he has chosen to lie about it all.

I conducted an unofficial poll of mostly ministers from my own faith tradition. I just asked them to respond to the question, Does Brett Kav have inherent worth and dignity? Yes or No. I also added the comment, And not "yes, but.." This should be an easy "yes" since it is first among our Principles, and many answered "yes". Others felt compelled to say "but" without using the word by explaining to me that even though he has it, he is still responsible for his actions, etc. Some explained that while it is inherent, it can be diminished by one's behavior and choices. One asked me if I was applying a litmus test for UUs (very funny for anyone who knows me).

My true goal was to see what people would say. Although it's true (as many reminded me) that our principles are not beliefs, or a creed, for me they have been a foundation to my 25 year ministry. They explain why we exist as a people, historically, and theologically, and they call us to service and justice. We have welcomed and embraced individuals in our midst that others would shun. We ordained LGBTQ individuals when other faiths banned them. We affirm people of all faiths and of none. We have even striven to make room for sex offenders to return to society. So whence comes this Puritanical hellfire toward Brett Kavanaugh? No way am I suggesting he be put on the Supreme Court. He's suffering humiliation and it sounds like it is well-deserved and long overdue. But him being drawn and quartered will not move us any closer to the real solutions we need to seek.

Every human being deserves forgiveness and Grace. That is my faith. I'm sticking with it. 

For the rest of us? I'm not telling anyone else what to do right now. I'm going to go on believing that most people are basically good. It's worked for me so far. And it's what my faith tells me.

Kids. Innocent & Safe.
Inherently Good.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Pointing Fingers & the Kavanaugh Debate

Every man is some woman's son.

Although he may not have been raised by his mother, someone raised him, and how boys were raised has a bearing on what sort of men they become.

As I contemplate the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, and especially as I read the extensive discussions on my social media (most of them among liberal and progressive "friends"), it's impossible to do so without the knowledge of a mother of adult sons, a sister, and a wife. When I hear colleagues ask: Where are the men? Why aren't they speaking up? I think, what can they say right now? When I read words like this is male privilege. This is what men do... I know I can't say anything along the lines of "Not all men," because that is verboten. I write this because I think the divisive rhetoric will get us nowhere and I want us to be able to get somewhere.

I pray that my sons, my husband, my brothers never did anything like this. I will probably never know. I know that raising boys has been a challenge over the past 36 years. I have felt that my own influence has been offset by the lyrics in the music they listen to (at times incessantly), the TV shows and movies they've watched, and the general culture: books like Fifty Shades of Gray, video games like Grand Theft Auto. I remember being overjoyed when it became clear they'd not join the military, when I realized they would never pledge a fraternity, when the women they had relationships with were clearly treated with respect. But there is much I don't know. Because they suffered from years of addiction, I was not always a part of their lives. Men don't usually tell their mothers the intimate details about their liaisons. And, since their father and I divorced when they were young, my influence was supplemented by his. What I know is that I expected to be treated with respect. I didn't tolerate sexist and misogynist behavior and comments. I hoped that by seeing me leave a demeaning and verbally abusive relationship, they'd understand the worth of women. But was that enough?

Since I have a young son, my sister's grandchild, I get to spend time around people with children his age. I can observe current day mothering as well as I could observe mothers and sons thirty years ago. Here's what I see that troubles me: women routinely allowing boys to boss them around. Women condoning and permitting behavior from boys they wouldn't tolerate from girls. Women letting men dominate conversations, make subtly aggressive remarks, and shuffle all the child-related responsibilities onto them. Boys learn from what they see.

And so do girls. I have a daughter, too. From the beginning, I felt the importance of teaching her that she must never allow herself to be objectified or demeaned by men. And it was clear to me that the best way I could teach her was not to tell her but to show her by my own life. But things are complex. This did not succeed in every regard. Most of the interpersonal negativity in her experiences have been caused by women... as they have in mine. Raising girls not to trust men is not the answer.

I'm convinced that growing up with misogyny unaddressed is how boys become entitled, arrogant, and dismissive of women's needs. If what boys observe is that women routinely set aside their own passions, health, creativity, and even their opinions in order to please the men around them, why would boys expect the world to be different when they become men? Why wouldn't they expect women to be available and even eager to please them sexually?

Men, here's a query you can reply to! Your HS experience?

I can see how this might sound as if it may be an attempt to excuse the behavior of men who do things like Kavanaugh is accused of doing. It is not! Nor do I have any patience for those who say women that are assaulted asked for it, or are somehow to blame. My point is that as bad as things seem to be today, as egregious as this type of behavior is, there are a multitude of things that need to change:

* How boys are raised by men and women
* The influence of culture: music, literature, and film/TV
* Sex education
* Fraternity culture and the culture of violence

Those of us who are mothers of sons can take an unflinching look at how we influenced our sons' attitudes. For me, there were things I did well, and things I could have done better. Rather than pointing fingers at the men on my Facebook timeline (the vast majority of whom are decent, respectful, and beyond laudable in how they treat women), it feels more productive to do some self-examination. Even now, with sons in their thirties and a boy in his teens, I can look at ways I allow people to treat me. I can demand respect and decency. I can believe that I deserve to be treated well. Those are things I can influence, and they matter.

Monday, September 17, 2018



I haven't been blogging as much lately.

Unless I have something to say that is likely to add to the general conversation, I think it makes more sense to wait and listen. When I feel compelled to speak/write, I will. I have so many projects underway, both writing projects and gardening ones, that my blog doesn't call to me quite as often. I've turned off comments for a very specific reason, but if we are connected through other social media, I welcome your feedback.

So, the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. I can't imagine that this isn't raising some issues for every woman (and probably many men), no matter their age. Did that happen to me, ever? Did I do something like that? For not a few, the answer will be yes. How much should that "yes" continue to impact the rest of our lives, if it happens as early as this was alleged to have happened.. high school?

I went to plenty of parties in high school where there were no parents, and there was drinking. I remember going into bedrooms. I'm pretty sure that boys laid either on top of or next to me, but there the comparison ends. Although they (and sometimes I) were drinking, and probably drunk, I wasn't forced into a bedroom, pushed onto a bed, held down, nearly suffocated, nor were my clothes nearly torn off. I didn't have to flee to a bathroom and wait, terrified, until the offender left. And there was never  a second boy in the room. That's just so upsetting, for a number of reasons.

I didn't feel then, and I don't feel now, that I was ever forced to do anything against my will. I'm a good ten years older than the accuser and the accused here, so I bring my own experience to the conversation, because it may be more relevant than someone who is that age today, or was that age ten years ago. As a girl, I felt more powerful than powerless, because I knew that I had something (even if I was insecure about it) boys liked, and I could either give or withhold my affection. The boys with whom I spent this kind of time were inexperienced, usually awkward, and endearing. So I write this not to say #notallmen because that has become anathema, but to say that what is alleged to have happened was not normal, not okay, and not just a case of "boys will be boys".


I was also sexually abused. This happened at a much younger age, around nine or ten, when the oldest stepbrother of four moved into our home after our mother died when I was five. Because I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes, he backed off after making numerous attempts to groom and grope me, and I spent the next year or two, until he moved away, hiding from him. Tragically, he did succeed with my brother and sister, and their trauma has been far worse than mine. But even with what happened to me, I've been affected in ways that continue to have repercussions decades later. So, it's easy for me to believe that the accuser is still affected, as well as to believe she did not tell many people. Neither did I.


Here's why I think what happened to her happened, and why so many women signed a letter supporting her attacker:

His actions were those of an entitled, pampered, male from the upper classes of American society. Much like Trump, he believed that if he wanted something, he could just take it. Of course, he kept that sort of behavior in check over the remainder of his adult life, because what he wanted would be undermined by allegations like the one that has arisen. There is a class of people who are making decisions for us, who are running our institutions, and who are taking our money, who have never experienced the day-to-day life of American people. This is epitomized as much by Brett Kavanaugh throwing a 15 year old girl on a bed at a party as it is by Donald Trump throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.

Strangest of all is that those who are enabling this triumph of entitled imposters are the poor and uneducated who have never seen the inside of a prep school, and who might think what Kavanaugh did is no big deal, yet sit back and ignore the rape of the environment, the stifling of peace accords, the undressing of trade economies. Who are being assaulted themselves, and don't even know when they're getting groomed.