Now I realize saying “March is the best month in the year” might start some fights in my inbox.
Beloveds, I’m ok with that.
March is my birthday month. It’s my mother’s birthday month. I was born on the anniversary of the arrival of Queen Latifah. March is definitely the best month in the year!
Prost! to us all.
Last decade I spent about three years meeting for worship with unprogrammed Quakers, a branch of the Religious Society of Friends that communes together in silence. It was a season for exploring socially, emotionally, and metaphysically, and a small Friends meeting in the high plains of Texas gave me harbor.
At the time I was exhausted. I’d worn myself out trying to nurture myself and others while negotiating hostile theologies in my native religious community: I was building a spiritual home large enough for me to live in with one hand and warding off zombies trying to squat in my soul with the other.
When I finally realized I’d started napping on Sundays to cope with my church experiences the previous day, I knew something had to give. I just didn’t want that something to be me.
John J. McNeill wrote back in the 1990s that “Good theology is good psychology, and vice versa.” McNeill was a psychologist and a theologian who practiced and encouraged psychospiritual integration. He saw it as the best way to express his own faith and training, and he hoped his counselees and readers might use it to build their own lives of resilience and joy.
As I read his books and learned from so many others’ experiences, I decided not to try to change everything about my life at once, but to focus on more awareness and more integrity as much I could.
So I started by watching how various theologies and other beliefs sat on my skin, fizzed in my mouth, stretched my imagination, or broke down in my belly. I traced reactions and outcomes back to their causes as far as I could go. I asked myself Why? Where did that assumption come from? Who told me that? What’s the evidence for so-and-so? What happens if thus-and-thus? What if I try A-B-C? I started therapy. And I wrote, a lot.
In the midst of all that, I learned from the Friends about the dual disciplines of silence and vocal ministry.
Then I graduated and moved away, settling my immigration status and finding work. I met new people and kept exploring. I connected with a congregation that didn’t offer me so much ambivalence or require so much post-service repair. I moved for work again and poured myself out.
And then, more quickly than I expected, a decade passed. I forgot some of the things I’d learned in the silence about conditions that most help me to listen, to attend to my environment and to myself.
I forgot, until I spent three days this month with others, warmly and respectfully not speaking.
It was just the reminder I needed.
In the silence I noticed how much I’ve grown accustomed to filling the spaces in between things and replacing silence with sound. I wondered about times I use music, podcasts, articles, and social posts not to connect with the world around or in me but to dodge my voice—not always but too much.
In the quiet, I filled journal pages considering silent gods and muted ancestors. I reflected on times I’ve reached out for connection as if I’m not already connected, or craved new counsel as though I hadn’t already received enough to inform my next right step. Here too: not always, but too much.
Flames flickered in the hearth of the lodge where we sat silently last weekend. Steam and condensation danced together up the walls of my tea mug before dissipating into the air. It reminded me of oracles my elders once intuited in flames, shells, and dreams.
How often have I tended fires without slowing enough to really see them; walked paths and not noticed life crawling about my feet or bounding a few feet away in the woods?
The Sabbath during the retreat was the most restorative I’ve had in a decade. It wasn’t restorative because I was on my own: I wasn’t, and I don’t believe Sabbath is about isolation.
It was restorative because I was in an environment and community that encouraged me to hear, experience, and pay attention.
In January, Ezra Klein talked to Judith Shulevitz about Jewish traditions of Shabbat. They asked one another what Shabbat, Christian Sabbaths, and civil sabbaths can teach us about time and rest. How can law and community shape and derail those spiritual disciplines we try to take up solo?
Listen below—or not. I just wrote a whole paragraph about replacing silence with sound, so take that what you will.
But Shulevitz’s point that Sabbath was never meant to be experienced as an individual ritual practice has stuck with me since January. I’m not sure why it should have. After all, I spent years Sabbathing in a few very active local congregations. When I look back, I don’t know how the adults working jobs and holding down families and other responsibilities sustained the pace.
Meetings and services flowed from sunset Friday, through 9:15 a.m. Sabbath School and 11 a.m. worship, to prayer gatherings after lunch, youth programs after that, and committee meetings after sundown Saturday.
There was nothing particularly restful about this! Collective living doesn’t solve everything on its own and still needs to be designed.
Yet there was something we got right as we practiced different ways to relate to labor, time, sacred space, and even identity. We did all that together. We confirmed each other in some counter-cultural ways of being, and I found beauty and coherence in that.
I still experience that beauty and coherence with others: sometimes in church, in meditation, or on walks; sometimes in retreats I attend; sometimes in circles I host. I experience that quiet confirmation beyond doing-ness, of being-ness expressing.
It feels like blessing. It feels like rest. It feels like the kind of enough I don’t need to recover from. I don’t leave it thirsty.
All of the countries my people have ever lived have bordered a body of saltwater. So whenever I’m near the Atlantic coast, I go to greet the tide.
If I’m not in there toes-first, I at least let it wash over my hands and pause for a minute. It’s less a plan and more a magnetic attraction. It’d feel wrong to be so close to the water and not say hi.
Last summer, Alexis Pauline Gumbs wrote a gorgeous essay on salt trades, saltwater, and the histories of the Black Atlantic for Orion Magazine. The patterns Gumbs describes, the resonance, the histories, they’re what pull me back to the coastal line time after time.
I go to remember and recenter; to remind myself of the expanse of the sea, the flow of life and time; to pray over all the boats and bodies that have touched this water before me, and all the sand and land it will swallow as it warms and rises.
I’ve been flirting with sundry archives for a few years now: the records digitizing traces my families have left in civil registers; the Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narratives for Maryland, my adopted state; High Country News’ account of the 11 million acres that the United States government took from Indigenous communities in the 1860s to create what became public “land-grant” universities.
I want to understand how Adventist schools, colleges, and hospital systems came by their land, too, because I’m interested in ways we live the past in the present without realizing that’s what we’re doing. As much as I already know about American institutions, including those I work with now, I sometimes struggle to take in how much contemporary wealth derives from the U.S. taking resources by force. From the colonies to Cop City, the U.S. is still taking.
I paused a Bible reading project last year in the middle of Jeremiah (some of you were here and reading along with me then). I was captivated by how Jeremiah positions himself as Babylon begins to overrun his people, and he sends them a message (Jeremiah 29).
He tells them they’re on the cusp of catching hell, and he dosn’t soft peddle what that means. Then and now, throwing hell around and expecting others to catch it is what empires do. For Jeremiah, Babylon is no gentle oppressor, and exile is not a vacation.
Jeremiah isn’t a triumphal or comforting prophet. All through the book named for him, he sidesteps every appeal to become the seer who says the things people want to hear. Rulers and their prophets hate him for not playing that game.
Nevertheless, I hear a kind of grounded presence from Jeremiah as he counsels those empire has displaced. He tells them to unpack their suitcases because they’re going to be in Babylon a while. He tells them to form families. To plant and harvest. To pray for the wellbeing of the land they are in. I don’t understand praying for something without also working as if that vision can become real.
So that counsel nourishes me now. Me: in a generation Jeremiah didn’t write to, from a people he didn’t meet, reading and writing on soil he didn’t touch. But Jeremiah and I have saltwater in common.
It’s a wild time to opt into the story of the United States. I became a resident ten years ago, and I filed to become a citizen a few weeks ago. They’ll be poking around my tax records and skeleton closet any day now.
In one of his recent late night shows, comedian John Oliver talked about coming to live in and love the U.S. while the nation is on its knees in the bathroom, hugging the toilet and throwing up after a tough half-decade.
The audience laughed of course, but I couldn’t choke out a chuckle. This nation isn’t in its mid-20s shaking off a bad relationship or muddling through a quarter-life crisis. It’s a few sun-circuits shy of 250 years old with the power to roil and spoil the planet, and it still has to decide whether it wants to be a nation rather than an amalgam of corporations, bunkers, and a surly squirrel in a trench coat.
Toward the end of his latest book, Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III, threads the needle between acknowledgement and vision—between, as he puts it, the blues and the gospel, synthesized in jazz:
Denial and despair are both ways to avoid wrestling with the spiritual challenges of our times. The alternative is neither to wallow in our blues nor to deny them, but to sing them... I am speaking of the diverse spiritual disciplines for nurturing your authentic voice to share your full story, pain and shame included.
Jazz, and all the many musical forms it has influenced, models a collective combination of love and the struggle for justice, because each instrument is saying to the other: You have value, we all have value, and none of us is greater than the other… In jazz politics, we define ourselves not by superiority to some denigrated other, but by how we use the gifts we were given to contribute to the community we share.” (pp. 117-119, Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times, 2023)
That’s some saltwater spirituality right there.
And I’m in it, toes-first.
What has my generation learned about apocalypse, climate collapse, and community over the last 40 post-nuclear years? Mary Annaïse Heglar reflects:
From this generation that had grown up in the Great Depression and had known the former slaves I descended from, I learned that my relationship with the earth was not that of a savior or an assailant… I couldn’t control the future, but I could control what I would contribute to it, and who I was going to be and how I was going to face it.” (The Nation, January 2023)
Do plants think? If so, how? And what might that mean for us? Amanda Gefter describes the latest in biocognition and plant intelligence:
If cognition is embodied, extended, embedded, enactive, and ecological, then what we call the mind is not in the brain. It is the body’s active engagement with the world, made not of neural firings alone but of sensorimotor loops that run through the brain, body, and environment. In other words, the mind is not in the head.” (Nautilus, March 2023)
What’s all this about “ChatGPT,” “natural-language processing,” and “artificial intelligence”? Elizabeth Weil interviews Emily M. Bender to parse fact from marketing:
To Benders’s ear, the overreach is nonstop: No, you shouldn’t use an LLM to ‘unredact’ the Mueller Report; no, an LLM cannot meaningfully testify in the U.S. Senate; no, chatbots cannot ‘develop a near-precise understanding of the person on the other end.’ Please do not conflate word form and meaning. Mind your own credulity…
Bender remains particularly fond of an alternative name for AI proposed by a former member of the Italian Parliament: ‘Systematic Approaches to Learning Algorithms and Machine Inferences.’ Then people would be out here asking, ‘Is this SALAMI intelligent? Can this SALAMI write a novel? Does this SALAMI deserve human rights?’” (NY Magazine, March 2023)
If you see something interesting in the wild, please send it to me.
Love you and talk soon,
I’m nearly a year into a daily Duolingo practice so unnecessary German references are a thing again. Building games around habits really does work; our brains are very unoriginal and easily entertained.
This was so phenomenal. But you are verifiably a weirdo for loving March 😜