The Faith Of Life-As-It-Is

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the future, especially as I have made some decisions on instinct that surprised me.

I got an e-mail about a Pagan festival I have loved attending in the past and I registered. I didn’t think about the religious implications or how this would impact my faith journey in the bigger picture. I was just excited about the music and people and being safe and feeling at home.

I bought a bunch of advent books on the cheap in anticipation of Christmas, but instead I watched Hogfather and read The Odyssey.

I am realizing that not having the spiritual answers I need means I have to engage with my faith in life as it is and how it works.  I know some readers will be thinking “Aha! Practice-based! Do what works!” I still find that line of reasoning illogical. My beliefs never seem to change as much as I try to bend them and shape them to conform to the spiritual communities available to me.

But if you have no palpable faith community that shares your beliefs, and for whatever reason you don’t have the ability to reasonably build that community from scratch, then you have to figure out how to craft a meaningful life with what you have. Maybe sometimes that means you embrace a culture that at the very least tolerates you even if it doesn’t include you. Sometimes being simply tolerated is enough.

This isn’t really a dilemma specific to me. We all have moments when realize our life is never going to be what we imagined and hoped for, and so how do we move forward? What if we don’t find a life partner? What if we don’t have children? What if we don’t have a local spiritual community? What if we never have our own home? What if we don’t have family? How do we make a life that has meaning within the means (emotional/social/financial/geographic) that we currently have?

I struggle with that every day. I’m beginning to think it means just trusting my instincts and realizing my faith is big enough to embrace the life I have and the people I love. Practicing what I preach. Being content with part instead of the whole.  Embracing the things that fit within my core values without worrying about their origin. Embracing the people around me without worrying about their expectations of me.

And maybe reminding myself to be brave, and take leaps.

I hope you are loved, seen, and heard.

Coming Back to Life

There is a fat horned moon hanging in a bright sapphire sky tonight. I watched it as I walked home, down slick sidewalks still flecked with melting snow. It’s warm for January. Maybe spring will come early.

I meant to celebrate Noumenia this week but I was sick and dealing with an unusual amount of stress. I desperately need to shut down and enjoy some solitude for a few days but that doesn’t seem likely. I have to find some way to revive myself with the resources I have. I have to come back to life.

Last weekend was my father’s birthday and it was a rough day for me. I was ill and couldn’t mark the day by going to see Selma like I wanted. The other day I attended a memorial service for a friend’s step-father, and with us was a friend who had lost his father a couple of years ago. In the midst of grief I remembered my own grief at my father’s passing. I thought about how long it takes to come back to life when you have been visited by death.

In many ways all religion is about death. It is about how to make the most of what short time we have here on earth. How do we live knowing we will die? And in facing the death of a loved one, how do we continue living?

I am coming back from facing a death of sorts. I’m putting a lot of things to rest. And in this process it amazes me how often we face, process and return from death in our lives. It really is a continual cycle weaving through the length of our lives.

Maybe I missed this Noumenia, but it will circle back around. So will my dad’s birthday. So will illness, grief, and beautiful horned moons in bright sapphire skies.

High Is Low: Autism and Re-Defining Normal

Look at the eyes. Look at the face. Lately I have to keep reminding myself.

When things are good I don’t have to remind myself so much. I look at people. I communicate. It’s easy. I pass for normal for a few hours and then go home and not talk to anyone again until morning.

When things are bad, when I am stressed beyond coping, it is a struggle to look at people. It is a struggle to communicate. If I could live in a world where I never have to speak, but only write, communicating would be so much easier.

Look at the eyes. Look at the face. Clasp your hands in front of you to keep from nervous tics or flapping. Struggle for the words. Be honest. Don’t lose your shit. Be tactful. Don’t try so hard to be “normal” you implode.

You push yourself to do better. To not regress into rocking, or silence, or solitude. You fool people. You even fool yourself sometimes into pushing your boundaries even further.

But then shit gets bad. Despite your efforts you are still a shitty communicator. You feel like you are waving flags, shouting, and blowing horns asking for help but no one takes you seriously. Then, when you reach the edge, people tell you to communicate better and still don’t take you seriously.

So you don’t know how to make things better. You look at all the variable outcomes and you consult all the communication advice and you still can’t get things right. You fuck it up, over and over. People don’t get how someone so smart can be so stupid.

I talk to autistic adults and teenagers, and I read what they write a lot. There is a lot of frustration with “high-functioning autism” because it gives the impression that “high-functioning” means “normal.” Really, it means you are, on a “normal” scale, low-functioning.

Sometimes I think I am doing ok, but in “normal” terms my life is far from a roaring success. Instead of a career I have a series of quirky jobs. My relationships, romantic or platonic, don’t seem to last. My need for solitude in order to recharge doesn’t really leave me much of a social life. I don’t do well in corporate environments, so I end up in quirky occupations that don’t offer much in terms of advancement or benefits and often are high-stress with a lot of social expectations that can be difficult to fulfill. I’ve faced homelessness down 3 times, and spent over a month in a women’s shelter.

If I was “high-functioning” in real-world terms I would have an actual career. I would have a husband. I would have a home. I would have friends to hang out with and family who actually enjoys being around me. I would have children, and I wouldn’t need to be alone so much. I wouldn’t sit in meetings thinking “look at their face, look at their face.” I wouldn’t say things that make people uncomfortable around me. I wouldn’t know that every time I face a dilemma the problem is probably me. I would know when a scrap of kindness is manipulation rather than love. I wouldn’t have to endlessly analyze every single social situation to understand what is happening in my life.

I’m not disabled or incapable. I’m smart, talented, and quite loving when I feel safe. But this high-functioning label often means I am without help, sympathy, or someone who takes me seriously when I need it most.

I like my life right now. I don’t want to change it. But trying to figure out how to reduce stress so I don’t meltdown in public is taking all my energy. I may be “high-functioning” but it certainly seems like “having it all” will never be an option for me.

At The Crossroads: Chief Luisah Teish On Finding Your Spiritual Way Forward

I am far from an expert on Yoruban religion, and so often when exploring a minority faith from a strange culture you simply encounter a lot of lists and terms whle not getting much glimpse of the heart of a faith.

So this video promoting an upcoming series on Baladé Black is a real treat that seems to come straight from the heart of the Yoruban faith. Maybe it is because I feel I have been loitering around the crossroads far too long but I am very excited about watching this series, especially with the Sacred Journeys episode on Yoruban religion having just aired on PBS.

Reassure Me: The Role of Community in Sustaining Belief

This morning I saw the NPR article about former minister Ryan Bell’s year-long experiment with atheism leading to him becoming – wait for it – an atheist. Not terribly surprising.

Your environment supporting the worldview you espouse strengthens your belief. It really is that simple. Belief does not survive alone, without nourishment and encouragement. It has to be nurtured and maintained.

There is a very sweet scene in Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking in which Amanda is leaving for Australia to write the book and her husband asks her to text, to call, to keep in touch and not simply disappear into her work. He says: “Reassure me.”

Jewish and Christian scriptures are full of reassurances: from prophet to people, from author to reader, from God to believer. The hymns and liturgy of the many denominations of Christianity are full of reassurances. Critics often point to this constant stream of reassurances as proof of a foundation of doubt. I think they are right, but is that a negative thing?

In a world full of starvation and war is it no wonder we need reassurance humanity is good? That the things that give us hope are real and worthwhile? Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather puts this need very well:

Other faiths also have a tradition of reassurance:

She is the gracious goddess, who gives the gift of joy unto the heart of man. Upon earth, She gave the knowledge of the spirit eternal; and beyond death, She gives peace and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before. Nor does She demand sacrifice, for behold, She is the mother of all living, and Her love is poured out upon the earth.

Of course The Charge of the Goddess is influenced by Christian tradition (particularly via Masonry), but here is a reassurance from Homer’s Iliad:

I bring you a message from Zeus, who pities and loves you, although he is far away.

I talk a lot about our relationship with the Divine being a genuine relationship full of give and take. It takes maintenance, love, trust, and support. But it also takes a community. Two people with only each other will have a tough time making a go of it, but with friends and family it is much easier. And just so if you want to maintain a relationship with God it is easier with a community to reassure and support you.

Ryan Bell left one community for another, which was happy to have him. (Atheists exult over their converts as much as the religious.) Naturally after a year of earnestly giving atheism a shot with a community to support him he became an atheist. Sincere seekers with a supportive community have an easier time finding their way. Not every belief or community is the right fit for everyone but a good belief is easily derailed by a bad community.

I’m a human. I need reassurance. I need to know that not only is my belief reciprocated, but that there is a community of believers alongside me. Maybe gods are born of virgins and walk disguised among us, but most often they communicate via the voices of their devotees. We write hymns and poems, we preach sermons and lead rituals. We prophesy, we inspire, we comfort, we reassure.

I am currently in a spiritual no-man’s-land. I need community and don’t know where to find it. I’m not the only one. So I pray the most basic prayer, for myself and for you: Reassure me.

Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking: An Open Letter of Thanks

theartofasking_imageI wrote this letter of appreciation to a musician and New York Times best-selling offer (#7 with a bullet!) that I admire. And after I finished it I decided to share it with everyone.

Hi Amanda,

I’m the woman who asked you the question at the end of the Minneapolis show. Thank you for answering me. The show sold out before I could buy a ticket, but you retweeted someone from the Minneapolis house party who had an extra ticket. Her name was Kate and I walked down the line looking for her outside the show and found a woman named Kate with an extra ticket. We chatted happily as we waited to get in and then after getting inside I discovered she was not the same Kate, and the original Kate was in the row behind me. The show was magnificent. You must have been exhausted but you were absolutely brilliant.

I’m alone this Thanksgiving. Being alone on a holiday isn’t terrible. It’s the fact that everyone takes on this exaggerated pity for your loneliness on this one day and don’t give a rat’s ass that you have been alone all year. Being alone this makes me think back to when I was happiest. I used to spend weekends bringing pizza and movies over to my sister and her kids. That was my family. My dad was dead, my mom and other siblings not very kind, but my sister and her kids were enough. I loved them and would do anything for them. But my sister didn’t really want me around. Last fall I fell in love. I am on the mild end of the autism spectrum (the end where you are treated like a fraud if you reach the end of your coping skills and actually need help because you’ve been faking it so well for so long) so falling in love with someone isn’t easy for me but when I fall I fall hard. I am all in. I thought I had someone I could give all my love to for once, but he wasn’t very kind to me and walked away. Some friends have abandoned me over the past year because I had a sort of breakdown and didn’t live up to their expectations. You see, in a small community I was kinda famous and I walked away from that. People had a plan for me, and I failed in their eyes for not sticking to it. So I am alone a lot without anyone to take care of or who takes care of me, and that can be tough when you are creative in a public way.

In early 2010 I was unemployed and looking for an accounting job. Someone advertised for a religion writer and I thought that might help keep me sane while I looked for a “REAL JOB.” I ended up talking them into hiring me as an editor and after an agonizing amount of work I turned the Pagan section of Patheos.com into a huge success. Every month 12,000 people from all over the world took the time to read my thoughts on modern Paganism, polytheism, and indigenous religions. Yet working for Patheos was like working for your label, and it was as if the Catholics were Bono and I was Jonathan Coulton. Being wildly successful within my religious communities wasn’t a “hit” by the standards they were measuring me against. If it were a non-profit I could have funded my own little corner of the site and served my community and been fine. But Patheos was in the business of making money and the presence of my band of spiritual anarchists and ancient revivalists and loving weirdos actually hurt their monetary prospects. They would ignore my 12,000 fans and entertain the one asshole who hated me, talk to them for an hour, and then come back and tell me why I was shit. They didn’t get what I was doing or what my community was about, but I hope that has changed since I left. My successor has the degrees to lend her voice the gravitas that my prolific quirky hustling lacked. I hope her experience is kinder because after a couple of years there I ended up having a crisis of faith and I think a slowly unfolding nervous breakdown.

My fans were loyal and loving, but they didn’t always drown out the hate. Sometimes they helped me, like when I needed a new laptop or when my roommates kicked me out and I was suddenly homeless. But at the end of the day I was always alone. People liked what I wrote but no one wanted to grab lunch with me. People saw my social media feeds, but they didn’t see me. And I was deeply ashamed of my inability to cope on my own and rise above my loneliness. I was deeply ashamed that I had accepted help from friends and fans to get back on my feet. I am ashamed that I shut down and stopped writing. I am ashamed that I let the sheer terror and panic show as I realized I had created something bigger than myself and had no way to keep this community of readers I had created going because I was exhausted and collapsing in on myself.

Does it matter that I worked seven 9+ hour days a week? Or that I gave around 15% of my small and unpredictable income back to community projects or to people in need? Or that I have all these messages from people telling me they love what I write because it makes them feel less alone? Or that people were happy and willing to help me because it helped make them a part of what I was doing? Or that I see ideas, organizations, and writers thriving that are to some degree influenced by my work? No, it doesn’t. I still felt like a shameful fraud and my critics agreed with me.

But after listening to your music for years I am reading your book, and it is healing me. I used a lot of your methods for community building over the years to great success, even when people didn’t understand what I was doing because it wasn’t the kind of “marketing” they were used to. I failed at asking a lot but I also triumphed in unexpected ways that created great connections and opportunities for myself and others. Your experience is really different from mine but also so surprisingly similar. Your vulnerability and openness has helped me see myself with kinder eyes and consider forgiving myself for the shame that engulfed me. Most importantly, it reminded me that I was at my best when I was open and vulnerable and acted as a mirror for other people, when I helped other people feel less lonely.

I have so many books inside me and I am now considering the real possibility of writing again. I am trying to figure out how to solve the problem of loneliness and lack of support system. I am trying to figure out how much I can reasonably do on my own. I am trying to figure out what I need to ask for help with, and how to ask. I am beginning to recognize that what I do is art and that there is merit and value to being an artist like me.

So I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your example and your sharing, because you have helped resurrect the artist inside of me. That is no small thing. Thank you for creating and cultivating such a loving supportive community, especially the all the generous people named Kate in it. I plan to give copies of your book to friends, and when you figure out the exchange tech, to buy copies for strangers.

All my love,

Star Foster

P.S. Fuck it all, I’m posting this on my blog. LOVE.

An Apology To My Readers and A Video About Relationships

I have been pretty terrible to my readers. I just realized that. I broke the sacred contract, in which I write and you read. In which I share something in hopes that it touches someone, and then someone is touched. I stopped giving. I got scared. That was wrong of me.

I’ve been carrying around a lot of shame about asking for your time to read my thoughts, about asking for you to consider something new, about asking you to help me when I needed help.

You were happy to read. You were happy to consider. Most of all you were happy to help. You send me e-mails, Facebook messages, tweets, and reach out in all these small ways to thank me and tell me you love what I do.

But I haven’t been doing the things that you love. Or the things that I love. I let the shame win, both the shame I created and the shame that unkind people tried to paint me with over and over. I decided it is time to let you win.

I just realized this morning that my crisis of faith began when people started treating my faith, which I wrote about so prolifically, as unimportant, unworthy, and even unprofitable.

But it is time I affirm that what I say, and what you love me for saying, is IMPORTANT, WORTHY, and AS DESERVING OF TIME AND RESOURCES AS MUCH AS ANY OTHER FAITH.

So over the next few months you will be seeing more of me. More of my words, more of my face, more of my voice. I am going to trust you more, I am going to share more, and I am going to be more visible and accessible. Sometimes I may ask for help. Sometimes you may help me. Sometimes I may touch and move you. You always touch and move me.

So here is a video, inspired by Revolution Church, and the informal discussion style I have come to love from the podcasts and from my visit there. It is about our relationship with all that which is divine, and how it is ok for that to be an imperfect, human relationship.