Green on Green

The view from my loom is my small back yard - my cloister garden, I call it. A patch of lawn, vine covered walls, a shade tree. Result is a pallet of layered green in the garden, echoed in the greens in my new project.

Christmas in July

When I was a little girl, in the summer, at Vacation Bible School, we would celebrate “Christmas in July.”  There would be an artificial Christmas tree, and we would make handmade ornaments.  We might even sing some Christmas carols - “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…”

We would learn about boys and girls in other countries, about orphanages, and schools, and hospitals.  Like the wise men, we would be asked to bring our offerings to help those boys and girls.  A dime a day was the suggested amount - 50 cents for the week.  

Just 169 days until Christmas!

I’ve been thinking about Christmas as I’ve been finishing weaving the fabric for a white and gold stole - just 169 days until Christmas!  Thinking about Christmas in July gives one a chance to separate the real message from the pressure and the hype - the “perfect” gifts, the “perfect” tree, the “Perfect Christmas.”

Thinking about Christmas in July helps me focus on the main thing - that God is revealed to us every day, that Immanuel is with us everyday, that like the wise men we can seek him every day, and like the shepherds we can “go and see” every day.  

White/Gold Star of Bethlehem

White/Gold Star of Bethlehem

Have a blessed Christmas!

Weaving for the Resurrection

I’ve been walking in the wilderness the last couple of weeks.  Like the ancient Israelites, my mood has been alternatively despairing, angry, resolute, back to despairing.  My nights have been sleepless and more than a few tears have been shed.  In the midst of it, I’ve been trying to set a patient, calm, “God will find a way” example for the members of my local United Methodist church.

Amidst it all, I still must weave.  I weave ahead of the season.  So even though my mood has been in lenten purple, my weaving is in Easter white and gold.  I weave, but my heart hasn’t been in it.


Tonight I read a post from a Christian blogger - one with thousands of followers.  She was explaining her recent silence, saying that she lost her son to mental illness in January.  I can only imagine that kind of heartbreak.

And then I thought about the parents who live in fear of that heartbreak.  Parents of gay, lesbian and transgender children - children who live in confusion and despair, because they’ve been told that somehow God does not love them the way they’re made, and if they seek out loving relationships in their lives, then God will condemn them for it. I thought of the parents who have experienced that heartbreak because their children have chosen to live out their lives in fullness and truth - and who have lost their lives to violence because of that.  And I realize I have no time to despair.  I must be about the Father’s business.

Because however the pharisees choose to live according to their interpretation of God’s law and force it on others, Jesus calls us to just two.  Both grounded in love, he lived and died by that example.  And whatever happens to the United Methodist Church, or even in my local church, resurrection is not just possible, it’s inevitable.  Because of all of the infinite things that God is, infinitely persistent is one of them.

So I weave - in hope and certainty of the resurrection.

“For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.”

2019 Word for the Year - "Walking"

“Do justice,
love kindness,
walk humbly with your God.”
Show me your ways, oh Lord.

This is my daily, sometimes constant prayer. Doing justice, loving kindness - these are fairly easy to understand, if not always east to put into action. Walking humbly with God - this one I have struggled with.  What does it mean?  How to put it into action?

Last year, while weaving a set of prayer shawls, I had a realization, an epiphany, if you will (it’s coming on to that time of year).  Walking humbly with God - for me anyway - means to walk the path put in front of me.  Not to seek challenge, or greatness, and certainly not glory.  Just to put one foot in front of the other.  

Sometimes walking leads to beautiful places…

Zion - on the river walk.jpg

Sometimes to scary places…

West Rim Trail, below Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah (CC BY-NC 2.0)

West Rim Trail, below Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah (CC BY-NC 2.0)

To places filled with 700,000 new friends….


To places that are lonely or sad…

20130817-FS-UNK-0074 (CC BY 2.0)

20130817-FS-UNK-0074 (CC BY 2.0)

At each step, looking left and right for opportunities to be just and kind.  

And if I get a few more steps on my FitBit, that’s good too.

Confessions of Faith

This story is a month late.  Two days after this event, I came down with the flu.  It’s hard to think, and especially to write, with a head full of, well, never mind.  Here it is now…

It was just 13 days after a gunman had opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 worshippers and injuring 7 others.  It was 80 years to the day after Kristallnacht.  

We stopped while the security guard apologetically checked our handbags.  We understand, we told him.  Inside, Temple Akiba was packed with members of the congregation and friends and families of six adult people who were celebrating their B’nai Mitzvah.  My husband Bruce and I, along with several of our good friends, were there to celebrate with our friend Laurie and her mother Lillian.

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving
and His courts with praise.”

Inside, Temple Akiba was a lively and joyful place.  And surprisingly diverse. There were black Jews, and Asian Jews, and non-Jews like me.  They were gay, and straight.  There was singing, and clapping and dancing, and if you don’t know the words, the Cantor told us, you can just sing “la la la.”  

Bruce, who has a good ear for music and languages, sang along from the transliterations in the prayer book.  For me,  it was more meaningful just to listen and read the English translations - strikingly, not surprisingly, familiar.  

The Torah portion for the week was not the most uplifting (in my opinion) - the story of Jacob and Esau.  Each of the B’nai Mitzvah read their portion in Hebrew and later said what about the story they found meaningful.  Me, I’ve always wondered how things might have been different if Rebecca had trusted God to fulfill His promise without resorting to subterfuge.  

At the end, they spread the Rabbi’s tallit over all of them, holding up the corners like a canopy, and danced underneath. His banner over me is love.

“You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

My ultimate take away from the service - the message, the importance of the B’nai Mitzvah, is the confession of faith: “Yes, I am one of your people,  this is my choice.”  Even though it’s not easy.  Even though it’s not safe - and it never has been.

Confessions of faith are never easy - they’re not meant to be.  

Other people won’t understand: “Do you have to go to church?” (“I want to go to church.”)
You will be ridiculed: “But how can you give up bacon?”
You might be threatened: “Towel-head! Terrorist!”
Your people will be persecuted and some will be killed for it - for thousands of years!

Yet every day, all around the world - safely or in danger - Jews, and Christians, and Muslims make their confessions of faith in God with thanksgiving and praise. 

Laurie and Lillian celebrate their B’Nai Mitzvah with new handwoven tallitot.

Laurie and Lillian celebrate their B’Nai Mitzvah with new handwoven tallitot.

On the Fringes

She had no business being there, and she knew it.  By law and custom, she should be at home.  Not just at home - alone.  As she had been for the last 12 years.

He was a famous rabbi.  So popular, large crowds followed him everywhere he went.  He was particularly well known for being a faith healer.  If I can just get near him, she thought…

The Greek New Testament was translated and interpreted by men - that much is obvious.  They argue about the exact nature of the woman’s condition.  One noted Biblical scholar that I recently read referred to it as “internal bleeding.”  Internal, my foot.  It’s not really hard to diagnose, even at a distance of 2,000 years.  Endometriosis, possibly, or uterine fibroids.  Difficult to treat today, except by surgical means.  Impossible then.  

And so she lived her life on the fringes, denied regular human contact, lest she spread her uncleanliness. 

There’s a word for what she did next - chutzpah.  Braving the crowds, pushing to get close to him, trying to touch - not him - but the hem of his garment, but not really the hem (that’s another poor translation), the fringe.  The tzitzit.

And she did.  And he felt it.  He turned around.  “Who touched me?” he demanded.  That was crazy talk!  The crowd was literally pressing in on him on all sides!  But she knew who he meant.  Because she had been healed, and she felt that.  

“Daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.”  Not the tzitzit, not even him.  Her faith.  

Tzitzit are important.  They are a reminder of the Jewish law, and an outward sign of faith and faithfulness.  But they are not the same thing.  Not at all. 

Winding the shammash thread around the tzitzit.

Winding the shammash thread around the tzitzit.

One Foot in Front of the Other

So I’d just finished photographing the tallitot that I've been working on, when Bruce comes in with his iPad in hand to tell me that there's been a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  I am imagining my beautiful tallitot splattered with blood - an involuntary sacrifice.  As if we needed any more proof that thoughts and prayers don't stop bullets!  People are killed in their various houses of prayer all too often, all around the world.  

My thoughts turn, as they often do, to the words of the prophet Micah, when Jerusalem and Judea were facing certain destruction - I think it was at the hands of the Assyrians that time. 

The people wonder what they can do do avoid their violent fate.  These are the days of temple sacrifices.  They ask: 

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

The prophet’s answer - the one I think about nearly every day:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

This then is the answer - the eternal answer - no more bloodshed this time, more sacrifices are not required.  Just our lives, practicing justice, mercy and putting one foot in front of another.  

A Prayer for Weaving

I sat down to start weaving on the tallit the other night - finally!  What is the appropriate prayer, I wondered, for starting to weave?  Treadle, the shed raises, throw the shuttle in, catch it coming out the other side, close the shed, beat, all that again.  Weaving is this repetitive motion of up and down, in and out.  Coming and going.  

And there it was, my prayer for weaving.  “The Lord bless thy going out and thy coming in.” A prayer for me, for the wearer.  Also a prayer for perfect selvedges.  


This phrase is used several places in the Bible.  First in Deuteronomy, where the Lord promises to bless those who follow His commandments.  It’s also the close of Psalm 121:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

I’m thinking about this while I weave.  A favorite psalm.  A song based in this psalm was sung at my wedding - “A Simple Song” by Steven Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein.

Blessed is the man who loves the Lord,
Blessed is the man who praises Him.
Lauda, Lauda, Laude
And walks in His ways.
I will lift up my eyes
To the hills from whence comes my help.
I will lift up my voice to the Lord
Singing Lauda, Laude.

I sing as I weave (singing badly - it’s a difficult tune).  Bernstein was a brilliant composer.  Brilliant, but challenging.  I’m thinking about Bernstein and Schwartz as I weave.  Two Jewish men writing a musical about a Roman Catholic Mass.  Kind of like a Christian weaving a tallit for a Jewish friend.  

Also wondering about how “the moon shall not smite me by night.”  The sun, I get, but the moon, I don’t know.  I keep weaving.  


Rending of Garments

rend (verb): to tear (the hair or clothing) as a sign of anger, grief, or despair  - The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

It was quite a week.  First a few, then a flood, on our social media feeds.  #metoo #WhyIdidntreport.  Each story unique, and also sickeningly familiar.  

I was a freshman in college.  I was fifteen. I was five. I was twelve the first time I was raped.

I was walking home from a party. He was my boyfriend. My uncle. The father of my friend.

I reported to the police, but they didn’t do anything. I thought it was my fault, My mother didn’t believe me.  I was ashamed - it was 50 years ago, this is the first time I’ve told anyone.

The anger has overcome the grief and despair.  Not seven sisters gathered to expose their hearts, but seventy times seven.

Don’t you dare disbelieve me.  Don’t you dare blame me.  Don’t you dare make excuses for him.  Don’t you dare think any less of me.  And don’t you dare treat me the way you’re treating her.

IMG_8085 (1).jpg

I am preparing to weave a tallit for a friend who will be celebrating her b’nai mitzvah in November.  My usual practice would be to work in prayers of blessing and thanksgiving.  But my heart is heavy.  As I pick up each thread and pull it through the heddle, I think of the women - friends and strangers - whose stories I have read this week. I think of the familiar words of the psalmist: “He restores my soul.”  So many souls to be restored. I say a prayer for restoration, for peace, and - dare I ask it! - justice. 

Weaving is the opposite of rending.  It is making something new and whole from all of the threads that go into it.  And a prayer shawl isn’t made just for the joyful prayers, and the prayers of thanksgiving, but also for the prayers of anguish and “O Lord, from the depths of despair I cry for your help.”

It’s late, and tomorrow is another day.   The psalmist also says “joy comes in the morning.”  Lord, hear our prayer.

Ritual Cleaning

(as opposed to “ritual cleansing” which is usually about one’s body)  
(also, not talking about OCD cleaning compulsions)

Cleaning rituals are found all over the world.  Although many are tied to religious beliefs - Chinese New Year, Persian New Year, Lent, Passover, Imbolc, Diwali - the ubiquity of the rituals suggests an physical, as well as a spiritual, value.  That’s what my anthropology professors who subscribed to the theory of cultural materialism would tell me.  And there’s no doubt that getting rid of germs, and the bits that attract vermin is important.

Not long ago, certain cleaning rituals were popularized by Marie Kondo.  How many of us have held up a piece of clothing - possibly an impulse purchase - and asked “does this still give me joy?” Or let a coffee stained t-shirt go, thanking it for it’s service, before cutting it up to use as a dust rag?

At some point, I realized that I have a weaving-cleaning ritual. 

A project is done - I cut it off the loom.  I usually have another project waiting in the wings, but it must continue to wait.  By now I’ve noticed the dust bunnies under the loom.  That’s not bad housekeeping - it’s a natural part of the weaving process.  The loom gets moved out, so I can vacuum underneath.  Since its out, I clean the window blinds that I can’t normally get to, and the sills, and if I’m feeling really ambitious, I’ll clean the blades of the ceiling fan, too.  Before moving the loom back, I dust it - top to bottom, back to front.  


Then I turn to my book cases, my storage shelves, my winding station.  There are many small tools - shuttles, bobbins, threading hooks, lease sticks, scissors, needles - they all need to be put away in their proper places.  Scraps of paper filed or tossed.  Shelves are dusted. Leftover scraps of yarn - enough to save? Or thank it for it’s service, and throw it away?

As I tidy my space, I tidy my mind, putting away one project, clearing space in my head for another.  I feel a sense of release, then calm, then building anticipation.  

Maybe (just maybe) we anthropologists have it backwards - perhaps the highest value of these cleaning rituals is in the mental clarity and the spiritual refreshment they provide, and the physical is just the way we get there. 


Tradition! (Sort of...)

I’m excited to be making tallitot (prayer shawls) for these two lovely ladies for their upcoming B’nai Mitzvah celebration.  It’s always fun to work with clients to design something that incorporates their ideas with my design aesthetic.  



I met with Lillian and Laurie last Saturday to work our our designs.  I’ve known Laurie for - well, more years than I care to think - ok, since the early’s 80’s.  Her mother Lillian I got to know in 2017 when we did the LA Women’s March together - what a great time that was!  Both Lillian and Laurie are artists, so they understand something about the creative process, and that made working together more fun and productive.

Tallitot (that’s the plural - “tallit” is the singular) can be any color, but most often they are white with blue stripes at each end.  Both Laurie and Lillian opted for something traditional - up to a point.  

Laurie opted for an white shawl, with blue stripes a the ends.  But rather than have several separate stripes with white between, she chose to have a gradient stripe - from dark blue at the bottom flowing into light blue at the top.  

Lillian decided to turn tradition upside down, with midnight blue for the main body of the shawl, with white and turquoise blue stripes at each end.  

A few minutes on my computer with my weaving design program, and I have the basics of each design. 

Does this matter?

Sometimes people ask me “why do you weave clergy stoles, or vestments, or paraments?”  But usually, what they really want to know is “do these things really matter to God? Can’t you worship God anywhere, without all these trappings?” 

The answer is “of course, yes you can.” But then I say “have you read Exodus?”  Because there are several chapters there that describe the materials needed for the construction of the tabernacle - so much fabric!  A massive undertaking for the spinners and weavers.  And then the description of the garments that are to be made for Aaron the High Priest, fine linen and wool dyed purple and scarlet, and decorated with gold.  So, yes, these things do matter to God.

But that’s kind of a flippant answer.  The real answer is this: we all have within us a spark of creativity, because we are made in the image of God the creator.  And we can and should use that creativity to the glory of God, according to the gifts given to us.  So the composer writes a beautiful hymn, the wood worker carves the altar, the glazier makes a beautiful window, the vintner brews communion wine.  Me, I’m a weaver.

The question that follows is “but it’s so expensive - wouldn’t it be better to use the money for missions or to help the poor?”  And I answer “One of Jesus disciples asked this same question nearly 2,000 years ago, when Mary poured an entire bottle of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.” There are so many things about Jesus that Judas just didn’t understand!

Because God is a God of abundance, and it’s not a question of “either-or” but of “both-and.”  Because God will give us what we need in abundance, not for our own wealth and power, but so we can both glorify Him and carry out His commandments to care for others.  

And so I weave. For the glory of God and, yes, to make money.  And then give a tithe, and a bit more, to care for others.  So if you buy something handwoven by me, whether it’s my line of liturgical weaving, or one of my scarves or shawls, you help me help others. 

This year I am supporting the Mama Lynn Center/Congo Women Arise, to help the women of the east Congo who have been victims of sexual violence to recover physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially.

Cough Suppressant

Ever since I was a kid, I've gotten sick with a bad cold or flu during spring break. That really cuts into your fun, let me tell you. This year was no exception. I woke up on the morning after Easter with a dreadful sore throat.  

After three weeks I have residual congestion and a hacking cough. Nothing - not cough drops, cough syrup, inhaler, or Bruce's special hot toddy - will stop the coughing attacks when they strike. The slightest exertion - and sometimes nothing at all - brings them on.  

In frustration, I dusted off my spinning wheel and dug some fiber out of my stash.  Armed with a box of Kleenex, a few cough drops and a cup of tea, I sat down to some gentle spinning.  Sure enough, as I spin the cough reflex fades away and I experience relief for a time.  It's like some blessed Rumpelstiltskin curse, as long as I spin, I don't cough.  I stop spinning, I start coughing.  But sooner or later, I have to sleep - or try to.

The roses, at least, are blooming and healthy.


The Inevitable - An Editorial

It seems like an appropriate day to write about taxes.  What do taxes have to do with weaving?  Not much, unless you have a weaving business.

As a responsible citizen, I like to pay my taxes.  Well, I don’t like it really, and I’ll take every deduction my amazing tax person Carolyn tells me I can take, but I understand the necessity.  It’s a price I’m willing to pay for paved roads, public schools, and a fire department that comes when I call.  Also National Parks - I really like National Parks.  

Being a law firm administrator, I’ve prepared - or overseen the preparation of - tax returns for income tax, property tax and sales tax.  Also city business licenses, which are a tax, even if they don’t call it that.  It’s a hassle, but part of the cost of doing business.  

When I started my little weaving business, I decided that I was going to be legit - registering a DBA, getting a city business license (which was incredibly frustrating - my city doesn’t seem to want people working from home), registering with the state Board of Equalization.  All this means that, if I sell in California, I charge sales tax.  My business is tiny, so it’s a hassle, but not much of one.

Most of my sales are through Etsy, and outside of the State of California, so that means that most of my customers don’t pay sales tax.  But that’s about to change.  Congress is poised to pass a law that will require online sellers to charge sales tax based on the buyer’s location.  So if I sell to Michigan, I charge Michigan sales tax, if I sell to Oregon, I charge Oregon sales tax.  Except that Oregon doesn’t have sales tax.  

Now I understand that this won’t really be a problem for a giant like Etsy.  They already have the algorithms and charge California sales tax for me.  But what if I were to decide sell directly from my website?  Sure, there’s going to be software that will calculate the taxes for me - but I will have to collect them, prepare returns, and send them to up to 45 different states (I should be so lucky).  And yes, there will be companies that will do that for me for a fee - just another cost of doing business!

But wait - it gets more complicated!  Because state sales tax laws are weird. Some things are taxable, some are not.  For example, if I go to Green Thumb and buy a six pack of flowering plants, I pay tax.  But if I buy a pack of, say, green beans, I don’t pay tax, because green beans are food.  Food in California is not taxable, most everything else is.  

I’m a weaver - I sell scarves, shawls, and ministerial vestments.  In California, you pay sales tax on all of those things.  But there are five states where you don’t pay tax on clothing.  Except certain types of clothing that you do pay tax on.  There are several others where you don't pay tax on clothing, unless it's over a certain amount.  If a minister buys a stole from me, he or she pays sales tax.  But there are several state where, if the church buys it, they may not have to pay sales tax.  

Not taxable in Minnesota - which is a good thing, because they just had a blizzard - in April!

Not taxable in Minnesota - which is a good thing, because they just had a blizzard - in April!

Expecting micro-businesses to keep track of these laws in fifty states is ridiculous.  And expecting us to subscribe to expensive services to be in compliance is an unreasonable burden.

Washed Clean

A couple of weeks ago I drove up out of Santa Paula into Ojai for the first time since the Thomas Fire.  The road roughly follows the path of the start of the fire, past St. Thomas Aquinas College, for which the fire was named. Past the Limoneira Ranch where several families of farm workers lost their homes, but fortunately not their lives, and into the town of Ojai, which, through a miracle and the heroic efforts of firefighters and the residents, did not burn.

There is much heartbreak in the aftermath of the fire, but as humans start to rebuild and replant, so does the natural landscape.

The Limoneira Ranch has been replanted with baby lemon trees, the only evidence of the fire, the remains of a blasted tree.  Along the side of the road, plants come up green through the ashy soil.

The Limoneira Ranch has been replanted with baby lemon trees, the only evidence of the fire, the remains of a blasted tree.  Along the side of the road, plants come up green through the ashy soil.

We had so little rain this winter, that my citrus trees and shrubs still bore traces of ash on their leaves.  But spring brought heavy rains this week, and the plants in the yard have been washed clean in the downpour. Today the sun came out and I was able to enjoy the results.

A humming bird came to feed from the blooming salvia as I swept the patio, but was gone before I could grab the camera.  Fortunately, the rains do not appear to have damaged the orange blossoms, just now getting ready to open.  There will be white roses for Easter.

A humming bird came to feed from the blooming salvia as I swept the patio, but was gone before I could grab the camera.  Fortunately, the rains do not appear to have damaged the orange blossoms, just now getting ready to open.  There will be white roses for Easter.

Inside, I'm working on project for spring:

Christening Shawl.JPG

Testing 1 - 2 - 3

My next projects will be two more wedding shawls.  One with the working title "Something Blue" and the other will be "Blushing Bride."  

The loom is warped, the white shawl is done, and it's time to dye the yarn for the weft.  My dye process starts with my computer - also a cup of tea.  

Dye computations.JPG

Once I have the numbers, I test dye 10 yard skeins, each weighing about 2 grams.  For the darkest shade of pink, the "recipe" called for just .2 milliliter of dye stock solution.  To measure that, I use a little syringe.  The paler shades required me to dilute after measuring.  The palest skein has just .025 ml of dye stock!  

Dye testing.jpg

The lightest skein is still not as pale as I would like, so I'm doing two more test skeins (in the little plastic cups in the photo).  I use a jeweler's gram scale to measure out tiny amounts of the fixative chemicals I need - salt and soda ash.

Side note: Different dyes strike with different intensities.  I got the blue I wanted on the first try.  Looking at the side-by-side comparison on of the blue and the palest pink, you can see that the pink is visually darker than the blue by converting the color photo to black and white.   Yet the pink has just 1/8 the dye concentration as the blue!

Staring into the Abyss

My latest project is a set of wedding shawls.  To set the mood, I put on some appropriate music to weave by - Handel’s “Water Music,”  including my wedding march of choice.


But as I weave, I can’t help but think of the fourteen young people killed last week who will never have a wedding.  I think about how the milestones of our lives are wrapped in white cloth - christening gowns, first communions, weddings, and, yes, shrouds.  

And my thoughts spiral wider.  It’s not just fourteen children killed last week.  It’s 46 children shot with a gun every day in this country - seven of them killed every day.  

Spiral wider - over half a million children dead from violence around the world every year.

Wider still - over 800 thousand children dead from measles, whooping cough and tetanus every year - all deaths preventable with a simple vaccine.  

Soon I am looking into an abyss - so many children dead, all needlessly.  

We are drawn to the edge of this abyss - all of us.  And to stare into it is it’s own form of narcissism.  Because inside each of us is a fragment of the abyss.  Whether you call it original sin or biological imperative, it’s there. The capacity for indifference, selfishness, anger, violence, even absolute evil, exists in all of us.  

But staring into the abyss, as seductive as it is, is not helpful.  It’s simply dangerous, lest we fall in ourselves.  

So we turn back to our jobs, and the tasks in front of us.  We cook our dinners, and make our beds - grateful that we have food and a place to sleep.  We hug our loved ones, grateful that, today at least, they are safe in our arms.  To avoid the sin of indifference, we take the actions we can - writing and calling our representatives, donating what we can, making plans to march.  

I go back to my weaving.  I turn up the music - Suite 2, Allegro in D Major plays. And I think back to a day nearly 36 years ago, with more of my life ahead of me than behind me.  I think of the white dress, and walking down the aisle to meet my beloved waiting at the end of it.  Today my job is to weave a white memory for another woman, a woman I may never know.  As callings go, it’s not a bad one.  

But I will also speak up, and donate, and march, and certainly vote.  And I will do my best to stand well away from the edge of the abyss. 

The Anthropology of Forgiveness

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Matthew 5:38

In my last post, we looked at the concepts of justice and mercy from an anthropological perspective using a highly simplified example featuring a fictional group call the Diz - hunters and gatherers on the savannah - sometime in pre-history.

Today, we will look at a more personal reason for mercy, which on an individual level can be called “forgiveness.”  Why do people forgive other people?  And why don’t others do so?

One reason (and I say one, because there is almost never just one reason that human beings do anything) is reciprocity.  Reciprocity is an anthropological concept that applies many human interactions: Christmas gifts, dinner parties, violence, and, yes, forgiveness.

Last time we looked at the reasons for mercy towards an individual by two groups with different interests.  This time, let’s look at the personal reasons for forgiveness.  (Again: Highly simplified examples, yes there are loopholes and other factors.  Don’t look too close.)

The Diz-zy elders are meeting to discuss the fate of Uh-Oh, who has taken more than his fair share of water.  Shall he be exiled from the band?  One of the elders is thinking to himself “My son once took extra water. I’m pretty sure that Uh-Oh saw him, but didn’t say anything.  This could easily have been my son we’re talking about .”  Another one speaks up and says “When my daughter’s children were hungry, Uh-Oh gave them an extra share of the game he had killed. He is basically a good person, he just made a mistake.”  

The elders are looking at past generosity and forgiveness, and also extrapolating possibilities into the future.  The closer you are to a person, the more likely you are to be generous or forgiving.  The members of our other, more distant band of Diz, the Diz-zed, are unlikely to benefit from Uh-Oh’s acts of generosity or forgiveness, and are thus less likely to be forgiving themselves.

Forgiveness is proportional.  I might forgive you for taking the last cookie, since I ate the last of the ice cream.  But I won’t forgive you for eating the entire box of Thin Mints yourself. 

Forgiveness is also based on intent.  I might forgive you for accidentally backing into my car, but not if you did it on purpose.  

But both of these examples are ultimately based in reciprocity.  Someday I may eat the entire box of Thin Mints (uh-oh).  Someday I might accidentally back into someone.  

Forgiveness is also one of our most complex interactions.  If it weren’t, there would be no need for marriage counselors.  It is likely that we have evolved to have forgiveness as part of our DNA, but not so much that it doesn’t have to be reinforced both by parents and religion:

“Share your toys.”  
“Say you’re sorry.”
“As you forgive, so shall you be forgiven.” 

As we become more physically disconnected from each other, we more closely resemble the Diz-zed than the Diz-zy.  When this happens, the cultural norms that we are used to break down.  It is yet to be seen what the ultimate result will be.


Thoughts on Justice and Mercy

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8

I have been thinking a lot lately about justice and mercy.  I promise to get back to weaving soon, but for now I am weaving with words.


Humans don’t survive well on their own in the wild. They are slow, they don’t have claws or sharp teeth, and their cunning is not sufficient to insure their survival.  Humans on their own in the wild tend to starve, or die of exposure, or get eaten by predators.  Yes, I know that I am speaking in generalities and there are exceptions like wolf-boys and Grisly Adams, but in general, I’m right - you know I am.

On the other hand, humans in groups have the ability to be the dominant species in virtually any land environment.  Ok, there are ants.  So lets say “dominant vertebrate species.”  In fact, we’ve been living and working together in groups so long that it’s literally part of our DNA.  And, if we’re not a member of a group, we will find a way to make one.   Note: I’m not talking about the inheritance of acquired characteristics here.  I’m saying that humans who like living together in groups are more likely to live and reproduce than humans who like living alone.  Duh.

For most of human (and pre-human) history, people existed in small bands of hunter-gatherers.  They tended to be closely related individuals, who interacted occasionally with other bands of humans.  But in order to live together in groups, they had to make some rules.  Sharing is one of those rules, not hitting your brother is another one.  Also putting down the toilet seat.

There will always be rule breakers.  In fact, if you can break the rules and get away with it, you might increase your personal chances of survival.  (I’m assuming you may have watched “Survivor” here - I haven’t, it makes me crazy.)  But if you break the rules often enough, or seriously enough, you will get caught, and you will be punished.  Otherwise, what’s the point of having rules?  That’s called “justice."

But then there’s this other, more complicated thing.  You break the rules, you get caught, you are sorry, and you are forgiven.  This is called “mercy.”  Or you may be punished - it depends on how badly you broke the rules, and a lot more, as you will see.

The concepts of justice and mercy are found in every human group.  In the rare cases that we have found and studied groups that did not have these concepts, there is evidence that this was a recent change in the group, that they were unstable and destined for extinction.  It is possible, even likely, that justice and mercy are also part of our DNA.

But why does mercy make sense?  If you have a rule, it’s generally for a good reason.  And if someone breaks the rule, shouldn’t they be punished?  If if you don’t punish them, won’t that just lead to more rule breaking?  In general, yes, but as with most things involving humans it’s more complicated than that.  

So now it’s time for a highly simplified illustration.  Did I mention that it is highly simplified?  And with broad generalities for purposes of illustration?  And if you’re going to get nit-picky and make it more complicated, you should just stop reading now?

Consider a fictional band of hunter gathers - our likely ancestors - we will call them the “Diz.”

The Diz live in small bands on the savannah.  From time to time they get together with other bands of Diz, mix things up a bit like humans do, then separate again.  All Diz share some common cultural norms, e.g. rules.

One of the limiting factors for the Diz is water.  The savannah is dry.  So they have a rule that no one gets seconds on water until everyone has had some.  The punishment for taking more than you fair share of water is exile from the band.  With me so far?  

Now let us introduce the individual we will call Uh-Oh.  Uh-Oh is a member of our particular band of Diz (let’s call them the Diz-zy, just for fun). He is hot and thirsty, so he sneaks an extra ration of water.  This means that at the end of the day, someone else has to go without water.  What happened?  There should have been enough for everyone!  But a little boy saw Uh-Oh take the extra water, and he tells this to the elders of the band.

The Diz-zy elders have to decide what to do.  They call Uh-Oh before them and ask for an explanation.  They are puzzled - why would you do such a thing?  And Uh-Oh, by this time is seriously remorseful - he saw that a young woman with a baby had to go thirsty because of his selfishness.  The Diz-zy elders have to punish Uh-Oh, and the usual punishment is exile.  

But wait, says one of the elders, Uh-Oh is our best tracker, he is better at finding game than anyone else in our group.  And his brother, Un-Huh, is our second best tracker.  And if we exile Uh-Oh there is a chance the Un-Huh will go with him.  And then where would we be?  We might all starve!  So they look for a compromise.  Can they find a punishment that is fitting but not full exile?  So they decide on a lesser punishment.  Uh-Oh will remain part of their band, he will have to make a full apology to the group, and forego his own water ration for one day, and give it to the the woman who went without before.  

The Diz-zy elders are pleased with their decision, which is carried out.  The have found a way to punish Uh-Oh, and preserve their band.  Not far away, another group of Diz (let’s call them the Diz-zed) are not so pleased.  They had been following the situation with the Diz-zy and Uh-Oh with interest.  The Diz-zed are of the opinion that Uh-Oh should have received the full punishment - exile.  

Are the Diz-zed just being mean?  Interfering in something that doesn’t concern them?  Not exactly.  If Uh-Oh had been exiled, he could have been used as an example by the Diz-zed to tell their children.  “See what happens if you break this rule?  Look at what happened to Uh-Oh - he was kicked out of his band and eaten by lions!”  For the Diz-zed, Uh-Oh’s exile and eventual demise strengthens their group by strengthening their rules.

So these two bands of Diz - highly similar in every regard - have very different interests in this situation.  

The tension - or perhaps balance - between justice and mercy exists in every level of human society almost all of the time.  It is one of our most complex human interactions.  It is innate to all of us, yet the fine points must be learned.  And by its very nature, mercy is not a fixed point on a scale, but sliding depending on circumstance.  Small wonder that we get it wrong much of the time!  And yet, we must continue to try to get it right - our very survival depends on it.

Hair Triggers

My church hosts a monthly gathering where we discuss issues related to racial and ethnic justice in America.  We’ve had speakers - a young woman brought here from Mexico when she was a year old and who now may face deportation, a Muslim man who was openly accepted on his college campus until a day in mid-September 2001 changed that, an African American member of our congregation who grew up in Chicago.  We go around our tables and listen respectfully to each person’s responses to hard questions.

One night, the woman sitting next to me, a woman I’ve sat with and talked with several times over the months, told me that my long, straight hair was a trigger to her.  This woman is of “mixed race.”  Her skin is light - almost as pale as mine - but her hair speaks to her African heritage.  She told me how she was teased in junior high school by some girls with long, straight, blond hair because of her dark, kinky hair.  She knew that I wasn’t one of those girls, but still, seeing me, being close to me, brought back painful memories.

I told her about when I was in high school, and I attended a school recently integrated by busing.  And there were a couple of African American girls in my classes who were initially curious about my hair.  What did I do to make it so straight and long?  They actually didn’t believe that it just grew that way.  They had never before been close up to someone with hair like mine.  They reached out to touch it, and then pulled their hands away as if it were something strange and dangerous.  Unfortunately, it did not stop with that.  They would come up behind me an pull my hair - in the hall way, in class, during a school assembly.  And then there were comments in the locker room before and after gym.  Because of my obvious, even stereotypical, “whitenes,”  I became a focal point for their feelings of bitterness and anger towards the white race.   Feelings that they had every right to have - but maybe not to direct at me. 

The message here is not that - news flash! - teenagers can be cruel, especially to those who are different from them.  It doesn’t even matter that we vividly remember those experiences with pain more than forty years later.  What does matter is that we come together to share our experiences, honestly, lovingly, and that we say “sorry” - even for something that’s not our fault - and forgive each other.  

Today is a great day to weave! 0r to admire the play of the light on your warp and reed.  Or to sit in the garden and enjoy a cup of tea.

Today is a great day to weave! 0r to admire the play of the light on your warp and reed.  Or to sit in the garden and enjoy a cup of tea.