Violence and punishment are the order of the day in so many places. From Syria to Ferguson, and a lot of locations in between and beyond, governments and groups and individuals use murder, mayhem, intimidation, and unjust rules and structures to keep people in their place, meaning of course where others think they belong.

The response to all this is often more of the same. It is the old playground “game” of when you are pushed, you push back.

Of course, such response is usually couched in terms of defense. “We have to defend ourselves.” It seems reasonable enough, except that is what the other folks are saying, too.

If everyone exercises their right to defend themselves, who will ever make peace?

A community in Denmark is trying something different, responding to Islamic warriors who return to their home in that northern European nation not with prison and punishment, but with help to live different, and better, lives.

You can read about it here.

Will it work? Is it practical? Will the effects last? All good questions.

But we can be pretty certain that the usual way–responding to violence and acting out with punishment and prison, perhaps even worse–has not not worked yet. If that way had worked, there would be less violence, not more.

The tragedy that is Israel/Palestine strikes deep into our hearts. How can people with such rich and beautiful spiritual traditions be so harsh with each other? The idea that many of us still call this the Holy Land seems almost a mockery of God.

Or perhaps the violence, the animosity and hatred, the intransigence and unwillingness to recognize the humanity in each other, the unwillingness even to talk with each other is actually a reflection of much of the world’s relationship with God?

A book that seeks to humanize–and for me that means also to reflect the divinity of those involved–the conflicting and conflicted personna is The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.

This book is nonfiction, but reads like a novel. At its center are two people, Bashir Khairi and Dalia Eshkenazi Landau. Bashir is a Palestinian and Dalia is an Israeli, aThe Lemon Treend their lives are intertwined not by romance but by the fact that when Dalia’s parents emigrated from their native Bulgaria (she was a small child) they occupied the home of Bashir’s family in Ramla which had been confiscated by the Israeli government after the war of 1948 (and the Palestinian residents had fled the town).

The entire book puts their friendship–maintained across severe boundaries–at the center while all around whirls the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Tolan, a journalist, does not fail us in recounting all the ugly details of wars and jails and bombs and suffering while reminding us again and again that the entire story is a human one.

Anyone who wishes to understand this tragedy at a deeper level than political and military strategy, or beyond the geopolitical power games of the various nations, or even the competing claims of two peoples deeply scarred by the loss of identity and by global disrespect and subjugation, should read this book.

It does not have a pretty ending, things are not tied up in a neat bow. Tolan is a journalist after all, not a romance novelist. But still there is hope in this story, and even glimmerings of love and salvation.

When you read it–and I think every thinking person in the United States, Europe and the Middle East should read it–then you may do as I am doing, namely pray. Pray for all you are worth, pray that somehow human beings–even those whose lemon tree dies and who have trouble growing a new one–can find a way to transcend the limitations of their leaders and make peace on the ground, among themselves, heart to heart, person to person, villlage to village, family to family, faith to faith.

Such peace is hard work, because it means staying connected not only to your own desires and truths, but also to the desires and truths of those whose very existence seems to threaten you most profoundly. This is work that belongs to all of us, because only by recognizing that our humanity is dependent on the humanity of others will we ever have peace, even, or  perhaps especially, in the Holy Land.

We can only be truly, fully human when we see our humanity reflected in others, and theirs in ours. It is a lesson taught by a lemon tree.

Election day always brings anxiety for me. And joy.

The anxiety comes from worrying about what it will be like if the candidates I think are pretty much wrong actually win. And the joy comes from knowing that whatever the outcome, we are blessed to have free elections, to live in a place where people get to choose their own leaders. And that probably we will “muddle through” (the phrase my freshman year poli sci professor at Michigan in 1965 used to describe the American political system).

However, today, awash in media ads–much of them untrue, or at best half-true, I wonder if we are choosing our leaders so much as they are choosing us. I know this is true in Congress and the General Assembly, due to redistricting. But I think money may be doing the same thing.

voting-paper-ballotsIf you spend enough money, can you buy the people?

Fortunately, there have been examples over the years of candidates who spent fortunes and still lost.

I have one other anxiety. It is about personality politics.

Much of the country seems to have decided they don’t like President Obama. He is too aloof, not a jolly fellow who can make us feel good. And then there are all those folks in the other party who just basically seem to despise him. In the sandbox we would have known that was because they didn’t think they he should have won, or more aptly, that they should have lost. Entitlement brings out ugly stuff.

I pray we can get back to issues, real issues, soon.

I am going to church today–not to preach as I often do at congregations across Virginia, but for myself, to worship. And I am going twice.

Actually, this is a pretty big worship weekend for me. Friday night, I joined Jonathan at Congregation Or Ami for shabbat. We sang, we prayed, we heard Rabbi Ahuba Zaches share a thoughtful message about fear (an appropriate topic on Halloween!).

This morning, I am going to MCC Richmond–Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, where I used to serve as Pastor. Now, my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Carolyn Mobley, is serving as the Interim Pastor. I so look forward to hearing her and sharing in the All Saints’ Day remembrances.

This afternoon, Jonathan will join me as we drive to the Gayton Kirk, a Presbyterian Church in Richmond’s West End, for Jazz Vespers. There, another dear friend and colleague, Rev. Janet James, and good friends Jill and Andrew Isola, will lead us in worship–as we listen to the wonderful jazz trio of Ross Riddell, Tommy Witten and Joe Sarver.

ripening peachesI am spiritually among the most blessed of people. I am fed through each of these spiritual communities. MCC Richmond is my spiritual home, but I am also part of these other communities, Christian and Jewish. In fact, although I am not Jewish, I am a full member of Congregation Or Ami because of my marriage to Jonathan, who is Jewish and a member.

And I have a fourth community–it is more of an online community most of the time, but it is nonetheless important and vital for me. It is called Wakan, the word that means “sacred” in the Lakotah language and “heart of the sky” in Mayan. It is led by an amazing shaman, Dr. Tom Pinkson, a psychologist by trade but more importantly, a man who has been in training with the Huichol Indians of Mexico and other native peoples for more than 40 years.

He led the Vision Quest on which I journeyed in September in Yosemite National Park, as he has done every year for 42 years. It has changed my life. Now, I can stay in touch with friends I made there, as well as others who support Tom’s work, by being part of the Wakan online community.

I have learned, and am learning, so much about the wisdom of wilderness and native peoples through Wakan. My prayer life, and all of my life, is much richer today than before I went on the Vision Quest.

It is the interweaving of all these gifts that is making this time the ripest of my life. I feel like I imagine a luscious peach must feel in the warm sun of summer, every day increasing in beautiful color, juiciness, and sweetness.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk whose writings are another source of wisdom and joy for me, speaks of the “slow ripening” that leads to maturity. I think I know what he means. I am not done yet, actually will never be, but I am increasingly aware of how all my life is the foundation for this time of ripening, and that it will only grow more full–provided I stay open and participate as fully as possible.

And I am realizing how this ripening is helping me see new ways to give back, to pay forward, all that I have received, and am receiving. That is part of the ripening process–like that peach being picked and feeding another being.

It is one of my primary intentions to continue to share more about this rewarding spiritual journey. I hope you will stay tuned.

[This is the first of a series of entries in my Jerusalem Journal–observations and opinions arising from an eight-day trip my husband Jonathan and I took to Israel in mid-October so he could attend the annual conference of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology.  We had some adventures together, and as you will learn if you read later entries, I had some of my own, in Jerusalem and in other parts of Israel and Palestine (aka the West Bank). The series will appear as I am able to gather my thoughts and feelings–I have plenty of both and they need to be sorted, sifted, and organized.]

I have been circling around this for several days, like a dog trying to find the right spot to lie down. I have puzzled about my reluctance to begin, until I realized that I have carried back, inside myself, the tension that underlays everything in Israel and Palestine.

Just using the word Palestine can land you in a controversy. Israel’s government does not recognize a sovereign nation called Palestine. Neither does the U.S. government for that matter. In law, such a nation does not exist. And yet it does. Some call it the West Bank, others the Palestinian Territories.

Those two latter terms recognize the reality that although Palestinian leaders–the Palestinian Authority or Hamas–have some authority in certain areas, they do not exercise full governmental authority anywhere. Their ability to govern is always conditioned on the forbearance of the Israeli government–either its civil authority emanating from Tel Aviv or the omnipresent Israel Defense Force (IDF).

So the society–it is in many ways one society, even though it is deeply divided into two–is governed by, and runs internally on, tension.

Western Wall, where Jews go to pray, with the dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims pray (part of the third holiest site for Muslims in the world), in the background. Not visible, to the left, is the Dome of the Rock.

Western Wall, where Jews go to pray, with the dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Muslims pray (part of the third holiest site for Muslims in the world), in the background. Not visible, to the left, is the Dome of the Rock.

Lest you think I am only critical of how Israel’s dominance produces so much of, although far from all, this tension, let me be clear: the trauma of Jews for two millenia, if not longer–the trauma of feeling always unwanted and unwelcome, indeed of being vulnerable not just to Nazi Holocausts but also to everyday violation–makes the Israeli desire to dominate and control, and own, every part of the land, quite understandable.

Trauma is, I think, the operative word here, but of not just for Jews. The Palestinians experience every day the trauma of living on, or agonizingly close to, the land that once was fully theirs but now belongs mostly to someone else. So many live in ugly, marginal, secondhand spaces only a stone’s throw (I use the term deliberately) from where they used to live the much richer, natural lives that had belonged to them and their ancestors for generations. So the trauma is everywhere.

Both traumas go largely untreated.  Which is why Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, says, “For those of us who truly care about the well-being of both sides, or even or either side, the task is to heal the trauma. That healing is not just a political or psychological project but also a spiritual project.”

Understanding this, I am more grateful than ever for Presidents Carter and Clinton who tried, by bringing the leaders of both sides to Camp David, to get them to talk, to listen, to communicate. And other Presidents, as well as other leaders,  have tried various approaches to change the dynamics of the situation. Secretary of State John Kerry has been engaged for some time, it seems to me, in trying to do something.

In coming entries, I will write about Israelis and Palestinians I met who yearn for an end to the hostilities, for peaceful coexistence, even in some cases daring to believe that all could somehow thrive together. And I will write about others: Israelis who so fear for their survival that they cannot imagine anything other than conflict, and Palestinians who feel the same way. I met peacekeepers and observers and teachers who seek to build honest and even caring relations on the ground now. I met Palestinians who do their best to live well and without rage, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, even as they carry a keen sense of the wrongs they see and experience.  I will write about the things I saw that disturbed me, in some cases made me angry, and I will write about the beauty I saw and the sacredness I felt.

I came back determined to find a way to help. Such a beautiful and holy land need not be a place of bloodshed and terror. I came back understanding that this is not simply an Israeli and Palestinian problem, or even just a Middle East problem. It is a global problem. As a U.S. citizen, I am implicated in what is going on there, if for no other reason than my government’s fingerprints are all over the place.

The sad truth is that both sides have to want to change the situation, and to do so in ways that do not deny the existence and well-being of the other. But to say that does not mean we simply wait until they are tired of fighting and decide to act like grown ups.

It means we have to do whatever we can, everything we can, to help them decide to want to change. That’s what friends do.

And that is what people do who recognize that the trauma which is theirs is also ours. More about that later.


Binoche and Owen (yes, he has a beard, and it does not look bad)

Binoche and Owen (yes, he has a beard, and it does not look bad)

Which has more power, words or pictures? In our media-saturated culture today, it would seem that pictures always carry more power. I notice that Facebook posts with pictures usually draw the most interest. And “as little as possible” is the amount of text that works best with the picture.

At the same time, there are some things a picture cannot tell us. There are subtleties of meaning and even information that are best served by text. And, for me at least, there is always the beauty of language well used.

A mew film, “Words and Pictures,: explores all this in a most delicious way. I urge everyone I care about to see it. Indeed, I urge everyone who cares about the liberal arts in our culture to see it.

Jonathan told me we were goint to see a romantic comedy with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. That sounded good by itself–two accomplished actors can often be good.

Clive OwenBut this is no simple romantic romp. I don’t want to give much away, because not knowing anything in advance surely helped me enjoy the film. Suffice it to say that Owen plays a troubled “Honors English” teacher at a prep school (in what appears to be Maine) and Binoche plays a painter who is hired to teach “Honors Art” at the same school.

Sparks fly between them pretty much from the beginning and more sparks fly around campus as they rouse their students in a “war” over the question I raised at the beginning of this post: which has more power, words or pictures (of course, some students are taught by both)?

Owen delights in playing word games with colleagues and in quoting authors to his student to show how vital good words are. Binoche demands much of her art students and  seeks always to beat Owen at his own word game (she’s pretty good). So it is fun, even as at moments it turns sad and depressing.

Juliette BinocheBut the real deal for me is the evocation of art–spoken, written, visual–as something really vital, indeed absolutely necessary for life. In less than two hours, I was reminded in the most beautiful way of why the liberal arts matter, why choosing the right word is of first importance, why painting the truth is absolutely essential.

And if you don’t believe me, stick around till almost the end of the credits . . . . . to see the identity of the painter of Binoche’s paintings.

Aging is a process. Of course. And like any life process, there are aspects we like and others that bother and surprise.


I only had one!

I had a delightful 67th birthday yesterday–hearing from family, leafletting for Obamacare on Cary Street (politics never leaves my blood), a Reiki session with JR Adams, dinner with Jonathan (in his office so we could do the next thing), laughing my way through a fabulous performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Richmond Triangle Players, a delicious gluten-free cupcake and Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” frozen yogurt, and the gift from Jonathan of a volume of poetry by Mark Nepo, Surviving Has Made Me Crazy. And somewhere around 200 of my Facebook friends–folks from my youth in Michigan, and in Virginia, and all the other places I have lived, and some folks from far away–shared good wishes (one of the joys of Facebook and other social media).

What’s not to like about all that? And oh yes, tossing the ball with Cocoa and feeling his delight–and in some ways, the true high point: being sung to by my 2-year-old granddaughter, Juna, and her beautiful parents, on FaceTime on the iPhone!

Juna and Papa

Juna Gorsline Knox and her adoring Papa

And later today, October 11,  the day after my birthday which always is National Coming Out Day, we drive to Williamsburg for an overnight and a daytime stroll around historic Jamestown. I am feeling very blessed.

But, the inevitable “but,” something happened yesterday that reminded me that things keep changing. The stream moves on, and sometimes, just sometimes, it does not feel good. Or right. Or at least it creates, or touches, some sadness. And offers a challenge.

I have this hat, a black fedora. I bought it years ago on West Fourth Street in the Village (that’s Greeenwich Village for non-New Yorkers and non-LGBT folks–actually, the store may have been too far east to qualify as being in the the village, but I always think of it that way). I paid $175 for it, an extravagant sum for me to spend on much of anything, let alone a hat.

But it is good quality, a Dobbs hat, and it serves me well. I wear it pretty much whenever I go out into the world from October until April or May (whenever the warmer weather feels right to trade it for a straw hat for the warmer months).

For the past two years, I have known it needed to be cleaned and blocked (shaped). This constant wear had caused it to look a bit shabby and the back was curling up rather more than I liked.

So my personal birthday present to myself was to arrange to take the hat to a shop in downtown Richmond whose sign I had seen over the years. They advertised cleaning and blocking hats.

Now you may have an inkling of the rest of the story. But here it is

I called the shop (Chic Chateau in some listings, Chic Chapeau in others) to find out their hours and to be sure of their location (I had noted a “We’ve Moved” sign in the window last year). No answer, in fact, no business message, just one of those impersonal, machine-generated “invitations” to leave my message after the tone. A woman called back a couple of hours later. “No, we don’t do that any more.”

I asked, “Do you know of another place I can take my hat?” She answered, rather curtly I felt, “No.”

Robin wearing fedoraI checked online. Lots of places sell hats–well, mostly caps with logos and pictures and the like. I like caps. I have quite a few of them. Wear them in the yard, walking with Jonathan and Cocoa, going to the fitness center. But in my 67-year-old-brain, they are not hats.

One business consistently came up in web searches as the place to call. “No, we don’t do that anymore.”

“Do you know……?’ “No, I don’t.”

It that moment, I realized something: An age has passed. A place as sophisticated as Richmond no longer seems to have a place to care for hats, real hats.

The old curmudgeon in me wants to flail about, in “high dudgeon” as my mother used to say. But really I am just sad.

I cherish my hat. I like the way I look in it. I feel a bit dashing. Yes, I have noticed that few men wear hats, at least fedoras and the like, anymore. Which makes me all the more happy to wear it. It is a trademark of Robin Gorsline. And I enjoy seeing other men in hats. We often notice each other, complement the other on his hat. It is a sort of fraternity.

So, I will find a place to care for my hat. In the meantime, I bought a brush to clean it up a bit. I realized that I am one of the few people who can see the soiled spot on the top of it–still, I care about my hat, and don’t want it to feel neglected.

So I will wear it this season, and then I will send it somewhere, in time for a good cleaning and blocking before next October 10. Somewhere in the world is a place to take care of my hat. Or maybe I will buy a cheap imitation now and send it away for “treatment.” I don’t know if I can bear that. But my hat might feel better.

An age has passed. I am a year older. So is my hat. I too could use some cleaning and blocking–that’s partly why I work out at Snap Fitness.

We, my hat and I, shall carry on, of course. I have miles to go, I hope many of them. I am just getting started.

Robin holding fedoraI want my hat to go with me, preferably cleaned and blocked. But, either way, don’t count us out. There’s plenty of life left in both of us. Surviving has made me crazy, as the poet Mark Nepo (a cancer survivor) has discovered (see reference above).

For me, and if I read Nepo correctly he would agree, it is the craziness that makes it possible to do more than survive, to thrive and change and shine and meet the challenges of living.

So I thrive. And my hat is going to thrive, too. Oh yes, my hat is going to thrive. We’re in this together.