Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wake You Right Up

Yesterday I returned from class in a rush to pee, only to discover workmen in my bathroom. (Shortages of bathroom opportunities seem to be a theme of this trip; I've tried to use them as reminders that much of the world can't count on anything approaching convenient indoor plumbing, but sometimes my patience frays.) Evidently whoever stayed here last week had complained about a leaking shower stall. Anyway, yesterday the workman apologized, and left fairly quickly.

This morning I slept really late. Partly this is because, sans CPAP, my sleep was of poorer quality than usual and I needed more of it; partly it was because I pigged out on chocolate last night. Bad Susan! Anyway, when I finally woke up I heard voices in conversation, thought they were from the hallway outside -- even as I wondered groggily why they were so loud and clear -- and, again at the urging of my bladder, wandered yawning, blinking and in the buff out to my bathroom, only to encounter yesterday's workman with a bucket.

We both yelped and performed evasive maneuvers. I can only assume that he'd knocked on the door of the suite and that I, asleep, hadn't heard him, which he'd taken as a sign that I wasn't there. In any case, I suspect he was more embarassed than I was. I retreated to my bedroom, threw on sweats and a t-shirt, and went back out to talk to him and his partner, who'd been in the shower stall when I emerged from my room and had missed the whole encounter. This gentleman explained that the shower was really fine, but asked me to put a towel in front of it when I bathed. After the two of them left, I discovered my bathmat, sopping wet, balled up inside the shower, and I admit that annoyed me a little.

It was certainly a memorable way to wake up.

I barely had time for my in-room breakfast before I had to go to class. I've been feeling very numb in class, which is ironic because we've been discussing American empire systems and how they foster addictions and numbness. To answer Jean's question, the title of the class is "Dissident Discipleship within the American Empire: Cultivating and Modeling Truly Alternative Ways of Being." I took this course because I wanted some concrete, practical suggestions for how to live against the grain of dominant/oppressive culture (aside from breaking my own addictions to shopping and chocolate, projects which are going very slowly, to the detriment of my bank balance and my waistline). I found yesterday's discussion annoyingly intellectual and also us-versus-them-y, a trait that tends to put my b.s. detector on Red Alert. Today was better, because we talked much more deeply about personal experience, instead of bashing mythical Thems. (We have met the Them, and They are Us.)

So far I'm most moved by, and interested in, the concept of "buried narratives," the untold histories resulting in behaviors that look personal but really have deeper cultural and historical roots. In other words, the personal is political: family addiction and abuse, for instance, are often byproducts of social oppression and trauma. The instructor's given us a handout inviting us to explore how our apparently personal suffering connects us to history and thereby to the suffering of others. "For example, if you were abused by someone who fought in a war, then you are now connected to the children of veterans returning from Irag, to children of military men and women all over the world, and to children of guerrila warriors and freedom fighters as well." (Here's the entire Deprivatizing Suffering exercise, for snyone who's interested.)

I've gotten so used to the rhetoric of suffering as special-making -- "I'm more oppressed than you are, so you'll never understand me" -- that the notion of transforming suffering into connection is very refreshing. I also like the course's reminder that oppression hurts oppressors too, by costing them their humanity. Nobody wins.

The instructor, Nichola Torbett, founded Seminary of the Street, and is starting a 12-Step Group for people trying to recover from the dominant culture. I love this idea, and if I lived in the Bay Area, I'd go to those meetings in a heartbeat. But I don't live in the Bay Area; I live in Reno.

There are huge ironies here, or maybe not. The East Bay seems so distant from what I think of as dominant culture that the idea of meetings here to recover from dominant culture is . . . well, I don't know, something like Buddhist monks having meetings to recover from materialism. (East Bay residents do have a sense of humor about their own politics; the co-instructor of the course, an African-American lesbian Christian pastor, had us convulsed today as she described the gyrations local seminary students go through trying to make sure that any religious service welcomes anyone of any possible background or tradition. "And you'd better smudge some sage in case anybody's Native American! And include origami cranes in the liturgy for the Asians in the building! And there might be somebody who thinks God is a muffin, so we'd better have a few committee meetings about how to revise our liturgy to honor the muffin god!") On the other hand, maybe you can only realize you even need recovery from the dominant culture when you've gotten that much distance from it. In any case, Reno seems infinitely more afflicted by the dominant culture than the East Bay does, and is there any chance of getting such a program started in Reno? Should I try? Can I try, if I'm not yet in recovery from the dominant culture myself?

Is any of this even making sense?

When I signed up for the class, I didn't know yet that my parish would be closing. Now that it is, I'm trying to discern what the class is suggesting about how to proceed from here. I've long had a sense that for many Christians, church buildings and administration become idols, getting in the way of doing God's work in the world, and the class has deepened that conviction. I may try to get some folks together to do house church back home, since I already have some friends in the parish who are open to this (and so's my bishop, although I'm not sure what we'd do about clergy).

Sigh. If anybody reading this in Reno would be interested in a 12-Step Group to recover from the dominant culture, let me know, okay?


  1. Anonymous11:19 PM

    Dear Susan,

    I'm glad the class is improving - thank you for the title and the description! - I'm sorry you're feeling numb. I hope the feeling - or should I say the lack of feeling? - will wear off soon.

    As you asked in the middle of your post whether you were making any sense, let me just say that you are making complete and total sense. And if I lived in Reno, I would sign up for your new 12-step group in a heartbeat.

    Take care, and I hope you get some good sleep and some precious privacy soon,


    ps - on a more intellectual note, love the idea of the "buried narrative" and its use as a pathway for self-understanding and social connection. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. You are going to be suffering from "brain drain" after this course. So many things to think about. So many challenges on so many levels.
    Transforming suffering into connection is a fascinating subject. Some of my ancestors were Irish immigrants from the great famine. I am sure that they passed on some interesting habits and beliefs based on what they had been through and what the families they left behind suffered, to their future generations (namely me) that would explain a lot.
    Funny that you are having a recurring "bathroom" theme to your adventure. Perhaps that needs investigating.

  3. I'd love to explore some of the ideas that you are discussing in the class. I have to say that I am someone who finds most of the Frankfurt School "dominant culture = oppression" analysis less than satisfying as a philosophical tool with which to dissect social constructs.

    That said, the concept of personal suffering connecting us with a broader community does have appeal. Though I must admit that I don't believe that those who abuse others shouldn't have the "out" that they are manifesting the "dominant culture." People do need to take personal responsibility for the harm they cause others.

    Plato, and the stoics, argued strongly that injustice damages the unjust as much -- if not more -- than the unjustly treated. The soul itself is corrupted by the unjust act.

    I am quite fond of the stoics, as described in De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, though I must admit that their philosophy is far more unforgiving than most would find palatable. One thing that I admire about the philosophy is that -- for all its other flaws -- is a perfect illustration of how an atheistic philosophy can structure moral living contra to some who believe that religion is the only root of morality.


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