19 Feel Good Shows Streaming in May 2023

I’m writing a series of blog posts with TV recommendations for church because sometimes church is about joy for joy’s sake. For the first post, we’re staying right with the joy with a list of shows that are accessible, easy to get into, with a general feel-good ethos. Here are 19 Feel-Good Shows I highly recommend you check out: 

  1. The Good Place (4 Seasons, 22-30 mins, Netflix): An extremely Unitarian Universalist take on the afterlife. The truth of this won’t become clear until a few seasons in, so you’ll have to trust me. It’s funny, smart, and surprisingly wholesome. The best series finale in my memory. 

2. Fleabag (2 Seasons, 30 minutes, Amazon Prime): Fleabag a show about grief, friendship, family, and regret. It’s witty, tragic (though, like the main character, it hides it well), funny, and smart. And it’s a great length for such a powerful show. The second season is a world unto itself, probably even better than the first. Especially fun (and again, tragic) to watch as a clergyperson who has spent a lot of time thinking about boundaries, intimacy, and power in the church. You’ll know what I mean after you watch. Also, just try not to become obsessed with (star and creator) Phoebe Waller-Bridge after watching this show.

3. Hacks (2 Seasons, 26-35 minutes, HBO): The formidable Jean Smart plays Deborah Vance, a groundbreaking female comic nearing the end of her career, though she doesn’t think so. When it looks like her Vegas contract will be pulled, her manager sends one of his other clients, a 25-year-old career-troubled comedian, Ava (Hannah Einbeinder), to help freshen up her act as a last-ditch effort. There are so many reasons I love this show. Most of all, I love that it takes an older woman seriously and gives her a full, complex history that fills out so much of who she has become, but not in a way that ever fully excuses her faults. I love that it does the same for a younger woman. I love that they both get to change through their relationship, or at least they try to. I love that both lead characters are trying to figure out just how brave they are willing to be and how much risk is worth it – both in their relationship and careers. I love that it is honest about what it takes for a woman to succeed at a big level in a career like comedy and how much it costs them.  

4. Ted Lasso (3 Seasons, 30 minutes, Apple TV): It’s hard for me to imagine that someone out there hasn’t heard of Ted Lasso by now, but just in case, the quick summary is that a British soccer (football) team owner, Rebecca (played by the stunning Hannah Waddingham), hires an American football (not soccer) coach – Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) – to coach her team. She does it as a way to humiliate and punish her cheating ex-husband. It’s a joke – except no one told Ted. This show is funny, original, smart, and unapologetically earnest. It explores and celebrates non-toxic masculinity and positive female friendship and believes in a world where people try to be better through community, loyalty, and play. As Ted Lasso’s motto goes, by the end, you can’t help but Believe!

5. Schitt’s Creek (6 seasons, 22-30 minutes, Hulu): A bratty, superficial rich family loses all their money and ends up in a dead-end town living in a motel. Yes, it starts with some old tropes and some extremely unlikable characters, but this is a redemption tale wrapped in a love story held together by dry humor and bananas costume design. (In other words, if you aren’t sure through the first five or so episodes, keep going.) Second best series finale I can remember.

6. Kim’s Convenience (5 seasons, 30 minutes, Netflix): This sweet, smart, very funny, and heartwarming show centers on Korean immigrants to Canada, Mr. and Mrs. Kim (Paul Sung Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon), and their two now-adult children Janet (Andrea Bang) and Jung (Simu Liu). The Kims own a convenience store, where much of the episodes unfold and where they have grounded their own story of independence and making a life for themselves and their children in Canada. Kim’s Convenience explores the cultural tensions and expectations present in an immigrant family in original and often hilarious ways that also feel authentic and specific.  

7. Grace and Frankie (7 Seasons, 30 minutes, Netflix): I was a little skeptical of this show when it first started because I don’t buy the connection between Sol and Robert, but I was hooked by the end of the second season. I’m so glad I stuck with it because it ended up being a singular portrayal of female friendship, older adult sexuality, and older adulthood, period. Not to mention Jane Fonda is stunning and vulnerable, and I  Grace more than maybe any other character ever. It almost makes me forget how unbelievable I still find the chemistry between Sol and Robert….almost… 

8. Heartstopper (Netflix, 8 episodes, 30 minutes, 1 season): After all of the struggles of the last few years, Heartstopper came bursting through in 2022 with a refreshing, unapologetic, adorable joy. Set in high school, it is the story of 14-year-old Charlie (Joe Locke) and his friend Nick (Kit Connor). Nick has the audacity to treat Charlie like a human, even though Nick is a popular rugby player and Charlie is relentlessly teased and bullied for being gay and out. Adapted from her graphic novel series by writer Alice Oseman and using on-screen graphics along with animated text messages as a part of the visuals, everything about this show brings you back into that scary, vulnerable, invigorating time of self-discovery that is the best part of high school. Because even though Heartstopper does address the more painful and angsty parts of being a teenager, most of all, this is a show that makes you feel good. It is instead funny, sweet, heartwarming, and even wholesome – without sacrificing depth or specificity, or diversity in the characters and their stories. It’s the story I wish I would’ve had to watch growing up (I cannot even imagine how my life would’ve been impacted…) and also that I am so grateful we can watch with our kids (and parents) now.

9. The Great (2 Seasons, 30 minutes, Hulu): My friend, who actually knows a lot about Catherine the Great, has a lot of problems watching this show because it’s so historically inaccurate. Luckily, I have no such problems, so I just got to thoroughly enjoy it in all my ignorance. Elle Fanning fearlessly plays Catherine, the smart and ambitious young German woman who heads to Russia to marry the Emperor, Peter III, the marvelously doltish Nicholas Hoult. The Great’s capacity to be both hilarious and absurd but also emotionally honest and tender is surprising and so much fun. There is a good amount of violence along the way – Peter’s constant disregard for anyone’s life except his own (and suddenly, Catherine’s) is offered by Catherine repeatedly as to why she’ll never love him. But mostly, it’s played more like a Shakespearean comedy than a tragedy – moving quickly, focusing on the main characters. Even though they are upfront about how much they’ve made up, the challenges of leading and being a woman with ambition and being a man who might prefer not to lead – all offer plenty of truth.  

10. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (4 Seasons, 30 minutes, Netflix): A musical comedy exploring mental health, loneliness, and the search for meaning and purpose in life today…. Did I lose you already? This show is strange, brilliant, and completely worth getting to know, even if you don’t usually trend toward musicals, comedies, or shows whose titles reference a “crazy ex-girlfriend.” Star and producer Rachel Bloom is brilliant, creative, and bold in her vision, and the musical numbers are singularly hilarious and on-point.  

11. Sex Education (3 Seasons, 30 minutes, Netflix): This has been one of my very favorite shows in each of the last three years. It is a comedy and, at times, very lighthearted, but it is also a deeply touching and sometimes heart-wrenching portrayal of the complex world of teenage sexuality. The show shies away from nothing, and fair warning, the first episode’s first few minutes almost made me stop watching because it was just a little too explicit.  But that’s part of the beauty of the show…sex is portrayed as messy and awkward, as it often is in real life. The show revolves around the teenage Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his sex therapist mother (Gillian Anderson) until Otis takes all he’s learned into an advice business at school in partnership with his friend/crush Maeve (Emma Mackey). At its heart, this show is incredibly Unitarian Universalist in its message and is a lot of fun along the way. 

12. Parks and Recreation (7 Seasons, 30 minutes, Netflix): Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, this show centers on the employees of the Parks and Recreation Department, led by the optimistic and singularly determined Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler). Over their seven seasons, Leslie and her team navigate the challenges of local government bureaucracy while attempting to make their town a better place (or at least, that’s Leslie Knope’s mission…).  If you haven’t ever taken the time to check out Parks and Rec, I’m so jealous because that means that this funny, smart, and authentically heart-warming show is still something for you to discover and then join the rest of us when we wonder if – whenever we are feeling especially earnest and enthusiastic – if we are being a little too much like Leslie Knope….

13. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (4 Seasons, 30 minutes, Netflix): Funny and smart with also a twinge of tragic – if you like Tina Fey’s sense of humor, you’ll probably love this show about a 29-year-old who was rescued from a kidnapper/cult leader after 15 years believing the world had ended. Supposedly it’s a story of Kimmy’s growth and self-discovery, but ultimately it’s a story of how it’s never too late for us to find and claim our own path of joy and meaning. All that sounds pretty serious – really, it’s mostly just a fun, silly, enjoyable show.

14. Derry Girls (4 Seasons, 25 minutes, Netflix): Set in a small town in occupied Northern Ireland in the 1990s, Derry Girls is a story of friendship and growing up. Centering on a group of five teenagers growing up amid The Troubles (the Northern Ireland conflict), Derry Girls reminds us of the persistence and consistency of human life regardless of what is happening around us. Don’t be afraid to turn on the subtitles if the Irish accents make it hard for you to follow, and don’t be shy about re-watching past episodes to remember the sweet and hilarious trouble the girls find themselves in as they attempt to grow up.   

15. Ghosts (BBC version, 3 Seasons, 30 minutes, HBO): Shortly after a young couple inherits a mansion in the British countryside, the wife discovers that she can see and hear the entire cast of ghosts who reside there. The ghosts have died on the property over the centuries, representing a range of residents from an early Viking to a witch burned at the stake, a lovelorn Edwardian poet, and a sketchy Thatcher-era politician who died with his pants off (and thus appears in the afterlife…  with no pants). What would the dead do with their time, given endless amounts of it? And how would they each engage with new technology and entertainment invented long after their death? And how should we think about their “rights” and quality of “life”? There is an American remake of the show that has gotten strong reviews, but I haven’t had a chance to check that out yet, so for now, I am focusing my recommendation on the BBC version, which is available on HBO.  

16. We Are Lady Parts (1 Season, 30 minutes, Peacock): I get why you have likely not watched this show – it is very rare to find someone who is a Peacock subscriber. But I have to say that this show (in addition to a few others I’ll mention later in the month) is completely worth a 1-month subscription, after which you cancel the service (until the next season drops). We Are Lady Parts is an awesome, original comedy centered on an all-female, all-Muslim punk band. Led by the formidable Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), the band is made up of a diverse and dynamic group who are each uniquely and unapologetically themselves – which makes the punk rock genre an especially perfect fit.  The first season follows the character Amina (Anjana Vasan), who struggles to reconcile her cultural values with her love for (punk rock) music. Not to mention a wicked case of stage fright. My only critique of this show is that it is way too short – which hopefully will be fixed before too long with a second season.  

17. The Other Two (3 Seasons, 30 minutes, HBO): We all likely have a sense of Justin Beiber’s story – but no one ever asks about the young star’s siblings. That’s the subject of this funny and heartfelt comedy series, which focuses on two struggling siblings, Brooke (Helen Yorke) and Cary (Drew Tarver), as they navigate the ups and downs of their careers and personal lives after their 13-year-old brother Chase (Case Walker) suddenly becomes a viral sensation. Although early episodes trend towards a satirical feeling, it doesn’t take long before you really feel for Brooke and Cary and their attempts to find themselves and what matters to them, regardless of their brother’s fame.  

18. Extraordinary (1 Season, 30 minutes, Hulu): In the world of Extraordinary, everyone gets a superpower as a part of becoming an adult, which is why our main character Jen (Emma Moran, also the creator and writer), a 25-year-old who has yet to received her power, is both extra compelling and also really struggling. This British series combines the conventions of the superhero genre with a sentimental buddy comedy to give us a compelling underdog tale, complicated by the fact that Jen is often a selfish, short-sighted individual who continually asks too much of her closest friends, especially her best friend, Carrie. Like most of these shows, this last sentence makes it sound like it’s less heartwarming than it is complicated, but ultimately the otherworldly premise controls the tone of this show and keeps us squarely in a story of creativity and possibility – and the hope while watching it is that the main character will do the same.    

19. Shrinking (1 Season, 30 minutes, Apple TV): Anyone in a therapeutic-related profession will likely relate with and struggle with the show, Shrinking. In many ways, it asks you to suspend your ethical disbelief to accept the premise that therapy might be even more effective if therapists abandon their professional training and just say whatever they believe their clients should do. Or at least, that’s how the show starts. Starring Jason Segel, Harrison Ford, and Jessica Williams and created by the folks who also brought us Ted Lasso, Shrinking is a show about boundaries and their usefulness – and the consequences for failing to respect boundaries. It is a show about friendship, grief, and the lostness we all feel these days. It is still also steadfastly a comedy, which mostly works because of the brilliance of the actors, who commit to finding the line between the intensity of what their characters are dealing with and the joy of playing out the scenes together.

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Better Man

For at least a few moments, before we had children, Carri and I had this one perfect moment where we had a sense of control about who our kids would be.

See, we adopted through foster care, and as a part of our application, we filled out a questionnaire about which kids we would, and would not accept….Age, race, drug exposure, various medical conditions, a great variety of behaviors…All of these became options for us to consider –  could we parent kids with that? Or like that? Or that came from that?

17 and a half years into parenting, I recognize, the whole thing was a fantasy. Mostly because being a parent is an experience of finally figuring out how to parent your kid just in time for them to completely change.

And also, for kids coming from foster care, which is to say, from trauma, it is important to seriously think about these questions. Because even though I do believe that love wins in an ultimate sense, I have also come to understand that love cannot fix everything in a single lifetime. And so, it’s good to spend time getting honest about your limits.

The checkboxes that required no conversation however, were the ones marked M and F. They didn’t give us an option for NB or Intersex but for the record, we would’ve checked those boxes too. Like a lot of parents, we just wanted a kid – whatever their gender, and actually as queer feminists we weren’t sure how much these early-on designations really mattered. We would be raising our kids without the traditional notions of gender – since gender is after all, a social construct.

For this reason, when our son Josef arrived when our daughter Gracie was 2 and a half, we did not make a concerted effort to go out and buy so-called boy-toys. Gracie had plenty of toys, and books, and dress up and items for imaginative play. These were obviously enough, because toys don’t have a gender.

Josef was in so many ways a different baby than Gracie. He was a good sleeper, he was easy going, and – unless he was over tired or hungry, he was pretty flexible overall. He didn’t seem to have any strong preferences, except that he did seem to really like it when we’d give him attention – we were always like – what a typical second kid to set such low bar expectations for his parents.

This impression of our son continued until he was just about a year old. Easy going, no real strong preferences, never really excitable, but also not sad either.

Until one day, we took Josef over to our friends’ house to play. They had two boys, exactly our kids’ age. And they also had every traditionally-boy toy that exists….

Monster trucks.  Trains. Blocks. Balls. A tool bench and tools. Dinosaurs. And then all the books were about trucks and trains and blocks and balls. There were zero dolls, no musical instruments, no puzzles, and no cooking station like we had at our place – because remember – toys don’t have genders!

So, we walked into our friends’ house, and Josef saw the trucks all over the floor, and the trains on the table – and literally in that instant, he became a different kid. 

He started cheering and making noises and saying what was his first word a lot – ball. Ball was his first word. 

I put him down and he scootched himself faster than I ever saw him move, and started vrooming the trucks, and then the trains and then he threw the ball.  

Carri and I laughed so hard. I guess we should get you some different toys, Jos, we said. 

Ball, he said smiling.

My relationship with boys, and men, and masculinity has always been, to a degree, confusing.

I never had confusion about being a girl, and certainly didn’t want to be one of the boys, but I was perpetually confused about why boys were given access to things that I was not. From leadership roles to athletic attention to pants. Literally, in my Catholic school only boys could wear pants until I was in about 3rd or 4th grade. Until then, it was jumper dresses, and polos, and sweaters, and also the shorts under the jumper because boys would always be flipping the skirts up. 

Because I was raised Catholic, I took it as a given that men were in charge – even if it was also obvious to me that women were doing most of the actual work.

As a self-proclaimed math-nerd, I spent a lot of time with boys (mostly white boys) growing up, my fellow math-nerds, who all found me a tolerable addition to the otherwise all-boys math team and knowledge bowl – at least, as long as I didn’t bring down our scores, which I didn’t. 

I want to say that I thought the same of them, that I tolerated them as long as they didn’t bring down the scores, but I really didn’t. I knew my spot was contestable in ways theirs was not.

When my pre-calc teacher announced to the class one day that I was “scary smart” I literally argued with him. I said, no, Jason Zanon and Ron Belgau – they are scary smart. I just work hard.  

Somewhat relatedly, the first boy I really liked seemed from all appearances to like me back, but for some reason would never make any moves. Finally, I asked him what was going on and he blurted out: boys don’t want to have sex with girls like you. I spent so many hours trying to figure out what he meant by that, what was wrong with me, even though in some weird way, I actually think he meant it as a compliment. 

My parents were, for most of my growing up, traditional in their gender roles – my mom’s primary labor was raising me and my two sisters, along with caring for our home, and preparing food – and my dad’s was his professional career as an architect, a job that brought him – as he would often report at the dinner table – in contact with different types of – this is his word so I’m taking a chance you’ll tolerate it in a sermon:  dicks.

My dad would spend a portion of every family dinner telling us about the book he was going to write some day called “dicks.” Each chapter would be about a different sort of dick that shows up in a business meeting to sabotage the possibility of progress, or collaboration. I hope it’s clear my dad didn’t mean he’d talk about chapters describing literal anatomy, although that was his consistent metaphor. It was his elaborate and highly entertaining explanation to his wife and two daughters about what it was like to work in the world of men.

Still, it wasn’t until college that I started to get a framework for gender and the ways it had impacted my whole life.  Feminism undid Catholicism for me, way more than coming out did. I might have been able to reconcile being bisexual with being traditionally religious, but I could never figure out how to call something so integrated with patriarchy my religion

In my new framework, men became less confusing, more problematic. Especially straight men, especially frat boy types, and what the culture now would call bros. 

The stereotypical athletic sort who you’d find with face paint at a football stadium, or at the head of a large corporations – like a bank, or an oil company, or a law firm.  

The sort, who, when I look at my now almost 6 foot tall almost 15-year-old son, suddenly appear to be much less like the enemy, and more like our collective responsibility – not to condemn, but to try to understand, and maybe even, to heal.   

Or to say it another way. I have taken multiple graduate and undergraduate level classes on gender, feminism, intersectionality, womanism, eco-feminism, and queer theory. I have sat on a panel with one of the leading voices on gender, Kate Bornstein, and I am a religious professional in a tradition that offers lifespan education in gender and sexuality. 

I say all of this not to flex, but to confess. Because even though I have all of these tools and gender “expertise,” I am still stumbling my way through this question of what it means to be a man, and to help my son become a man. Especially in ways not like my guy friends in theatre, or even like the boys on my math team and their extremely lucrative lives in programming today….because Josef has been telling us since he was a year old – that’s not his path. 

My son is a football player, a weight lifter, a mountain biker. He likes video games, and wears an Oregon Ducks hat and shirts basically every day, and he sometimes calls me bruh, and I sometimes let him.

And so, what exactly, is that, in its best version?

Some days I feel so unsure, I start to wonder if I should’ve paused at the M checkbox after all.

It does help to know, however, that I am not alone in my confusion. In the last few decades, sociology professor Michael Kimmel has led an entire academic degree program exploring this question of men,  and what makes a good man. Kimmel is at the forefront of the emerging field of men’s studies, which is a direct counterpoint to the long held idea that men don’t have a gender – since being a man is the default of what it means to be human.

As in: Women have gender. Trans people have gender.

The category of man, however, like the category of white, or the category of straight, is just the default. The word that needs no words. Besides, why would you need to study men’s history, for example, since isn’t that just what we usually call history?

This is what people have tended to think until recent years when some people – like Kimmel – started to realize that so much has been considered about what it means to be something other, it has left a lot underexplored, and unarticulated about the category “man”. Which in turn leaves unconscious assumptions about manhood in tact, even reinforced, and keeps the cone of being a man narrow, and confining.

In her important, insightful, and entirely troubling book Boys and Sex Peggy Orenstein shares that there appears to be a “huge shift” in how young men today perceive women. Most men today believe in gender equality in the classroom, in leadership, in athletics, and in professional opportunities. Yet, as she says, “when I asked them to describe the ideal guy, these same boys, who were coming of age in the 2000s, appeared to be channeling 1955; their definition of masculinity had barely budged. Emotional detachment. Rugged good looks (with an emphasis on height). Sexual prowess. Athleticism. Wealth (at least someday . . . ). Dominance. Aggression….

“A 2018 national survey of over a thousand adolescents found that although girls believed there were ‘many ways to be a girl’ (the big, honkin’ caveat being they still felt valued primarily for their appearance), boys felt there was only one narrow pathway to successful manhood. They still equated the display of most emotions, as well as vulnerability, crying, or appearing sensitive or moody, with ‘acting like a girl’— which, in case you were wondering, is not a good thing.

“Feminism may have afforded girls an escape from the constraints of conventional femininity, offered them alternative identities as women and a language with which to express their myriad problems, but it has made few inroads with boys. Whether you label it the ‘mask of masculinity,’ ‘toxic masculinity,’ or ‘the man box,’ the traditional conception of manhood still holds sway, dictating how boys think, feel, and behave.”

One of the biggest surprises for me in parenting a boy –and in therefore spending time with boys like him at different ages and stages – is how tender hearted and demonstrably loving boys can be. With each other, and towards their parents. Way more than my daughter and her friends tend to be. I confess I really didn’t understand that boys – particularly football-oriented boys – were so soft. In the cis-boys and men I’ve known,  there have been a few I’d describe that way, but I always thought they were exceptions. I simply didn’t know that this story we’ve been told about boys lack of emotionality and warmth was indeed, a story – even for the ones that really really like monster trucks.

And, I also have to say that as the group of kids in Josef’s peer group has gotten older, this softness has slowly and surely slipped away. In place of hugs, there are high fives and man nods, you know, “hey.” My son and his friends, these boys I’ve known since they were five, are now teenagers. Teenage boys.

Boys who watch youtube, and play video games, and who spend at least some time every day in the locker room, where jokes and trash talk most likely seep with sexism, and homophobia, and racism, most likely sanctioned or even led by their coach and/or teacher.

Increasingly in their world, they will learn, have already learned, must keep learning, that they must protect themselves, and their identity as men – above all else, even if it means sacrificing their humanity. It is a kind of trade off where whatever side they choose – manhood, or personhood, there is a cost. Choose person and they risk their sense of self, and self worth, their relationships, their social status….or choose man, and risk their dignity, and their sense of what it means to be a whole person, a good person. Not to mention that regardless of whatever side you might be inclined to choose, many will always keep placing you in the “man” category, whatever claims you try to make to say you are not like that.

Unitarian Universalist minister Joanna Fontaine Crawford reminds us of the famous quote from Margaret Atwood – that “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” She says we usually pay attention to the disparity of the stakes men and women face – being laughed at vs. being killed. 

But what we forget is that this statement also reveals just how afraid men are of being humiliated. Humiliation appears to be worse than death, for men. Which helps to explain why at least some young men seem to believe that picking up a semi-automatic weapon is a reasonable response when they are embarrassed.

It also helps to explain why, in recent years,increasing numbers of men have found a home in what some call the “manosphere.” Building on the ideas of the 1970s anti-feminist Men’s Rights Movement, the manosphere is a mostly-white-straight-male space filled with bloggers, influencers, and online forums dedicated to misogyny and the idea that (white) men are the ones who are actually oppressed. 

It includes people who still identify as Men’s Rights Activists, as well as a group known as MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way – these are men who believe women are so toxic that they should be avoided; it also includes pick up artists – which is a group focused on seduction techniques – and finally incels – as in, involuntary celibates – aka those men who believe they are entitled to sex with women, but aren’t having it – and so who are mad at the women. 

In the last decade, the manosphere – as with, and not distinct from white nationalism -has moved from the fringes of the internet and popular culture to the mainstream. As just one example, the self-proclaimed misogynist and also recently arrested for sex trafficking Andrew Tate is currently one of the most well-known, and even well-respected figures for tween and teen boys today, including for some of the boys you know, and love. 

As middle school teacher Allison Ochs summarizes, “Tate espouses horrifically misogynistic views, but the problem is, he also offers some pretty basic life skills to promote a healthy life. He talks about depression, vaping, and even loneliness– things which young boys say they don’t hear enough about. He then skillfully mixes his own misogynistic and highly political views into this messaging.”

Ochs describes that in her classes, students she would think would see through him instead defend Tate, and a number “seem almost obsessed with his Bugattis, his money and fame, and the outlandish things he says.”  

“They said things like, ‘I don’t agree with his sexist comments, but he defends us men.’ Or,  ‘No one is taking care of our mental health, and he does. He told us not to vape. You see he is a good guy.’”

When we leave “man” out of our gender conversation, except as an object for critique, when young men go looking for a way to make sense of the world and their place in it, it makes sense that they would turn to a framework that offers something constructive and cohesive to address their experiences. As journalist Clint Edwards writes, “Tate gives young men a lens through which to view the world, and even rules to live by.” 

Being a mom to my son over these last 15 years has challenged how I think about manhood, and masculinity. Challenged me first to redirect the anger I’ve had about behaviors that for much of my life I’ve had to struggle against, or heal from.  Instead of being angry at men – I’ve become angry at the cone of masculinity and manhood itself, and all the ways we are all caught, and hurt by it.  Not because it can apparently include a love of monster trucks, or trains, or even football – which it turns out, I love too – but because somehow the toughness of these things imply that the cone doesn’t also include tenderness, and tears, or any sort of vulnerability, even though Brene Brown has repeatedly reminded us that vulnerability is the birth place of courage, and strength.

I’ve also realized that a more helpful posture than confusion about men would be a posture of curiosity.  At the start of this series, Sean asked us to get curious about the gender of each person we meet – whatever their surface appearance seems to indicate. To make space for more diversity than is immediately apparent, or even overtly claimed.

This is a practice I believe is especially needed for our cis-surfaced men. We need to get just as curious about cis-men as we are about all the other gender expressions. We need to interrogate our own assumptions, and the still-caught-in-the-1950s notions that even we have about what it means to be a man. We need to make space for softness, and struggle, even if it had to go dormant in order for the man to survive.

My guess is that this need for curiosity is especially true if you ARE yourself a cis-man. Because it is the water you swim in. Impossible to see without intention, and help.

This curiosity will help us to make space, as queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton has encouraged, between word, and object. Man, and person who is called man.  

Holding this space, we make possible a world where men are no longer required to sacrifice personhood for manhood.  Because we know, “man” can never really touch the person – there is always distance, space, breath. And into this space, there is the hope of creativity, imagination, diversity. In this space there is love. And in this space, there is God.

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Top 22 of 2022

Sara and I are finally back with our list of our favorite shows from the past year! We had hoped to get this to you in mid-January, but the year new year didn’t quite cooperate with us….Still, even a few weeks later, we are thrilled to share our enthusiasm about these incredible shows with you.

As we said in our Top 21 of 2021, we make no claims other than this being a subjective list of shows that we personally loved, and also believe other people will likely love too. And of course, we could be wrong! Not everything is for everyone.

In compiling our list this year, we set a few rules for ourselves:

  1. The shows must have had at least one season that was at least partially new in 2022 in the US. Which means shows like Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts – which we both watched in early 2022, but premiered entirely in 2021 – is not eligible, despite it being completely worthy and brilliant.
  2. Any shows that were on our list last year are not eligible this year, even if they had a new season. This was a hard one because it meant two shows that would’ve made this list didn’t, but we really want to prioritize sharing about shows people don’t otherwise know about. More on this at the end.
  3. We generally prioritized variety, and accessibility. As in, we thought about making sure we had different tones, and platforms, and sorts of stories/voices represented, especially from those who have been under-represented in tv historically. And we thought about how easy it is for people to jump in to these shows. It’s why an all-time best show like Better Call Saul would end up not our top show of the year.
  4. We tried really hard (seriously hard work) but we definitely did not watch everything. If there is something here we missed that you think we should have included, please comment so we can watch it! We do this most of all because we love tv, and we want others to enjoy it as much as we do.

One more note, we split these reviews/summaries up between us – so when we speak in first person, hopefully it will become clear pretty quickly, who is doing the speaking. Ok…without any further ado….

1. Heartstopper (Netflix, 8 episodes, 30 minutes, 1 season) 

After all of the struggles of the last few years, Heartstopper came bursting through in 2022 with a refreshing, unapologetic, adorable joy. Set in high school, it is the story of 14-year-old Charlie (Joe Locke) and his friend Nick (Kit Connor). Nick has the audacity to treat Charlie like a human, despite the fact that Nick is a popular rugby player, and Charlie is relentlessly teased and bullied for being gay and out. Adapted from her graphic novel series by writer Alice Oseman, and using on-screen graphics along with animated text-messages as a part of the visuals, everything about this show brings you back into that scary, vulnerable, invigorating time of self-discovery that is the best part of high school. Because, even though Heartstopper does address the more painful and angsty parts of being a teenager, most of all, this is a show that makes you feel good.  Which is part of why Sara and I both agreed that it should be the top show for this year.  If you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while and you want to re-watch in time for season two (coming this summer!), this is an accessible show (on Netflix, eight 30 minute episodes!) that will truly just feel good to watch. So much so you start to forget just how revolutionary it is to offer a queer coming-of-age story that is entirely not tragic. It is instead funny, and sweet, heartwarming, and even wholesome – without sacrificing depth or specificity, or diversity in the characters and their stories. It’s the story I wish I would’ve had to watch growing up (I cannot even imagine how my life would’ve been impacted…) and also that I am so grateful we can watch with our kids (and parents) now. 

2. A League of Their Own (Amazon, 1 season, 6 episodes 50 minutes)

Abbi Jacobson (along with Will Graham) co-created and stars in this clever remake of Penny Marshall’s classic 1992 film of the same name.  The show tells the story of an all-female baseball league created during WWII, and in this reimagining queerness and race relations take center stage.  Which turns out to be a much more accurate reflection of history and of the League dynamics, as some of the original players described during press tours for the series. 

In the series – and in the League – nearly everyone turns out to be gay. Which means, it’s not just more accurate, it’s also pretty mind-boggling to watch a series (that isn’t The L Word) where nearly every character is queer! And where queer, Black relationships are explored authentically, and complexly.  No wonder the right started to freak out about it.  

Along with Jacobson (Broadcity), two of my favorite sitcom actors show up in the show, D’Arcy Carden (Janet from The Good Place) and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation).  The main storyline involves a budding love story between Jacobson, a married woman from Iowa who ran away to try out for the league while her husband was deployed, and Carden.  The uncertainty of the team’s future (always assumed to be temporary until the men return from war) plays itself out in their relationship, and we are left wondering at the end of the season not only whether there will be a second season (still unknown at this writing) but also whether they will reunite.

While the storylines remain largely separate (the new league doesn’t accept Black players), Chante Williams’ storyline as Maxine, whose first choice (playing with the league) and assumed choice (working at her mother’s salon), give way to a third option of working in the local welding factory so that she can play on the factory team is probably my favorite. This storyline stands out in large part because of the brilliant acting of Gbemisola Ikumelo as her best friend Clance (I love her beyond words) and Lea Robinson as her aunt / trans uncle, a fact that Maxine discovers only when she goes to see her years after they have been ostracized from the family.  I found watching a show set in the 1940s that presents such nuanced stories about race and gender deeply moving (and occasionally horrifying).  I would recommend this show to everyone; while it’s a bit heavier than our top show Heartstoppers, it is a thoroughly enjoyable watch, and with only six episodes, a relatively quick one. 

Melanie Field, Abbi Jacobson, and D’Arcy Carden in League of Their Own

3. Station Eleven (HBO, 1 season, 10 episodes, 50 minutes) 

Station Eleven is an adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel about a pandemic that kills 95% of the world’s population.  It undoubtedly hits home differently and perhaps feels a bit more urgently than it would have three years ago, which means it may be too hard for some people to watch.  But for me (after rewatching the first three episodes for a second time at Gretchen’s urging, and finally putting the storyline together), it wound up feeling like a deeply hopeful show about the ways that people continue to search for, create, and discover meaning despite the most catastrophic of losses.  The show is set mostly in the post-pandemic era, and follows a Shakespearean traveling troupe as they make their bi-annual circuit (on foot, as virtually all modern technology no longer functions) around the Great Lakes region, returning to communities they know to be safe to put on plays.  

This is a show that has one episode that stands out for me as one of the best hours of television ever made (spoiler: it’s episode 7).  While the show toggles between the days before the pandemic, fifteen years after the pandemic, and the early days after the pandemic hits, episode 7 is set in those early days.  It follows Kirsten (Matilda Lawdler), a nine year old acting in a professional performance of King Lear in Chicago when the death of King Lear himself on stage during the performance serves as the first inkling of the pandemic.  Unable to reach her parents, she leaves with Jeevan Chaudury (played by Himesh Patel), a man who rushed to the stage in an attempt to save the actor playing Lear.  We watch as Jeevan and Kristen wander through a mid-winter Chicago night figuring out where to go next as the tragedy of the situation becomes increasingly clear.  They eventually make their way to Jeevan’s brother’s apartment, where most of this episode is set.  Mackenzie Davis (the adult Kirsten) also makes several appearances in this episode, which I find so deeply touching because it explores deeply human themes like the perils and rewards of finally returning as an adult to childhood traumas, the complexities of family dynamics when difficult decisions are at stake, and the sacrifices we find ourselves called to make for love.   

This is a stunning story of human endurance, and it is a story of the power of beauty, and art, and theatre and Black imagination all as sources for healing, and for the path forward when we realize, as the series reminds us, that “survival is insufficient.”  

Daniel Zavatto and Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven

4. Better Call Saul (Netflix, ~10 episodes/season, 40-69 minutes, 6 seasons) 

It’s not right to call Better Call Saul a love story. Better to say that it is – like Breaking Bad, from which it spun off – a story of how a regular pretty-good person becomes a pretty-bad person. Or it might be right to say it is the embodiment of my mother-in-law’s saying “lies beget lies,” since the whole thing is filled with liars and the question of when and how they will be undone by their lies. It’s also a story of underdogs, and bullies, and a story of the law and who it is built for, and it is a story of crime, and drugs, and money, and power.  All of these things are in so many ways the right way to describe this heartbreaking, beautiful, brilliant series that stars Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, who over the course of six seasons, mutates into Saul Goodman, the slimy attorney from Breaking Bad. (People wonder if you need to watch Breaking Bad to enjoy Better Call Saul; I don’t think you do, but you’ll find just a little more meaning there if you have. Since it is a prequel, you could also just start here, and then go to Breaking Bad, if you want. Or, just watch Saul, because I think it ended up being the better of the two, which is saying a lot!) 

Still, none of these ways of describing this show get at the two key relational dynamics that for me are the most compelling reason that this show works.  First, and especially in the earlier seasons, there is the relationship between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean). I don’t know if what is happening between them is love, or abuse. It is obviously both, and also mixed up with mental illness.  But this driving question of the bond – or lack thereof – between Chuck, and Jimmy – is one of the key answers as to how Jimmy becomes Saul.  That Jimmy isn’t ever really loved, or lovable by his brother, that he isn’t good enough, that he is treated like (and often acts like) a screw up. Becoming Saul is Jimmy’s response.  

And secondly, and even more importantly, there is the love between Jimmy and Kim (the incredible and also underrated Rhea Seehorn). This too is a complicated love, tangled up with lies and scams, a struggle to feel like they are both worthy of love in the first place, and also a loyalty that is a direct counterpoint to the lack of loyalty Jimmy has with his brother. His love for and with Kim also turns Jimmy into Saul, but in more confusing, and also more devastating ways. 

Creator Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad, also of all the best X-Files episodes), makes it clear that love isn’t enough to save us. Save us from ourselves, or save us from loneliness, or save us from the consequences of our own worst choices. 

We didn’t end up ranking this show higher this year because we decided that if you’re new to it, it’s a pretty big lift to watch all six seasons, including because you can’t (re)watch the last season on Netflix until July (it was live on AMC originally). But ultimately, this series is for me one of the best shows of all time. The cinematography, writing, pacing, acting, and overall narrative consistently delivers on episode after episode. I will sincerely miss it, including and especially the painfully impossible love story of Kim and Jimmy.    

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul

5. Severance (Hulu, 9 episodes, 40-60 minutes, 1 season) 

You know something isn’t quite right from the very beginning of Severance, when the character we come to know as Helly R (Britt Lower) repeatedly attempts to escape from the conference room she has found herself in. And yet just as repeatedly, she is returned to the room, where Mark S. (Adam Scott) is trying to provide an extremely scripted orientation to Lumon, where they will both be working. See, in the world of Severance, people can choose to undergo a procedure that allows their brains to completely compartmentalize their work selves from their non-work selves. From the corporation’s perspective, this creates incredibly productive non-distracted employees, and also allows them to maintain a high degree of confidentiality. And from the perspective of the employee, it can allow you to leave work entirely at work – or in Mark S’s case, leave behind the pain of life’s realities so that you can actually have a productive work life, something he has struggled to have since his wife died tragically. But what neither those undergoing the procedure, nor the corporation itself fully understands is that a work self is still a self, a whole person who experiences the same full range of emotions and longings that a non-work self experiences. Or at least, they don’t realize this until the procedure is done, and it’s too late. While the characters try to figure out what to do with this realization while also being already-severed, this show also manages to explore the nature of grief, of consent, of love, and of friendship, and the risks of technology as it is and will continue to be mixed up with late-stage capitalism.  And all of this is set in a bigger mystery of what this corporation really does, and what its end game is. This show is a little bit of a slow burn, so some of these themes take a while to emerge–if you start and then you aren’t quite getting it yet, stick with it. I ended up watching it twice so I could catch all the world-building elements along the way – it’s that well-considered. 

The actors all do great work, but I do have to give a special shout out to Christopher Walken and John Turturro who are just the right amount of weird and tender.  Can’t wait for season two, which hopefully will be out before the end of 2023!

Adam Scott, John Torturro, Zach Cherry, and Britt Lower in Severance

6. As We See It (Prime Video, 8 episodes, 30 minutes, 1 season) 

Before I started watching, for some reason, I’d assumed As We See It was a reality show. Maybe because it’s so rare to have a show about people on the autism spectrum that features actors who are actually on the spectrum – which this does. I was thrilled to discover that this is a thoughtful, tender, funny and fictional show about three 20-somethings who share an apartment in Los Angeles. Creator Jason Katims – who also created one of the best shows ever, Friday Night Lights – offers complex character development, and diversity in representation, all while tackling extremely relatable challenges that all young adults ultimately have to face: when and how to navigate independence from your parents, how to deal with conflicts at work, and how to find someone who will love you back. I just realized that this show is not renewed for a second season, which is so disappointing, because it is really wonderful, alongside being really important.  Don’t let the non-renewal stop you from checking out the first season though, you won’t be disappointed.  

Albert Rutecki, Rick Glassman, and Sue Ann Pien in As We See It

7. Sort Of (HBO, 2 Seasons, 8 episodes, 20 minutes) 

This is a show about Sabi (played by Bilal Baig, who also co-created and co-wrote the show), a twentysomething, non-binary child of Pakistani parents living in Toronto, and it is one of the most emotionally nuanced shows I have ever seen.  Sabi’s life is, by any measure, difficult and complicated, and yet Sabi themself is one of the most grounded and emotionally mature characters on TV.  All of the show’s main storylines are centered around Sabi’s relationships, including their best friend 7ven (played by Amanda Cordner), their employers (the parents of the children Sabi nannies for and the owner of the queer bar where they bartend), and their family (including the father who travels from Pakistan to make them “back into a man” when he finds out about Sabi’s identity).  One of the things that really makes this show stand out is that every single relationship is complex and therefore interesting, and that the complexities get richer as the show unfolds (if you’re not sure about this show after an episode or two, or even after season one, I promise it is worth staying until the end of season two.  And a third season is coming!).  The tension between tending to what we know to be true for ourselves and what others expect of and need from us is one that is always present, and watching it play out differently within the particulars of each of Sabi’s relationships (and Sabi’s strength in tending carefully to themselves) helps me to see and name the tension more clearly when it arises in my own orbit.  

Aden Bedard, Amanda Cordner, Billal Baig, and Kana Kanishiro in Sort Of

8. Fleishman is in Trouble (Hulu, 1 season, 8 episodes, 45 minutes)

Like Station Eleven, this is one of those shows that has An Episode that blew me away (and it also happened to be the seventh episode of the season).  Fleishman is in Trouble is a show about a marriage that has run aground, told from the perspective of the abandoned husband, played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg.  Episode by episode, we are drawn into Toby’s world, as he is unceremoniously left with his two pre-teens without explanation.  The show is narrated by one of Toby’s college besties, Libby, played by Lizzy Caplan, a friend who knew him when he was full of potential, and who struggles to reconnect with him as he enters middle age, a struggle that he shares in as he tries to figure out who he is now that his settled world has been turned upside down.  Libby’s narration takes a while to draw attention to itself, so much so that it becomes confusing if this is really Toby’s perspective we are seeing, or if it is hers.  That becomes significant in the seventh episode, which is the one where we finally get the perspective of Toby’s wife Rachel, played by Clare Danes.  The withholding of her story until close to the end is a forceful reminder of how comfortable it is to fall into one version of the truth, and how incomplete our understanding of a situation can be when we do that. 

This is also the too-common reality of a marriage, and of any relationship where we become caught in our own experience of what is happening, and end up unwilling or unable to see the fuller picture of all that is going on – let alone make it better.  

Claire Danes and Jesse Einsenburg in Fleishman is in Trouble

9. Atlanta (Hulu/FX, 10 episodes/season, 22-40 minutes, 4 seasons) 

After a four year hiatus, Atlanta came back in 2022 with two additional seasons, which means there was a lot of weird brilliance, strange comedy, and incisive social analysis missing from tv, and for much of the third and fourth seasons, Donald Glover and team delivered. In case you’re new to Atlanta, it centers (except for the occasional stand-alone different-planet episodes, which I will come back to in a moment) on Earn (Glover). In the first season, Earn is trying to figure out who he is, and how he fits in the world – starting by managing his cousin, Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry, current oscar nominee), who blows up with a sudden hit.  Henry’s sad and tired eyes have always felt like a perfect fit for Alfred’s ambivalence about fame and celebrity, and his tough/trauma-made shell. Early in the show, Alfred and Earn are slow to trust each other, and Alfred is rightfully doubtful that Earn will really be able to pull off being his manager. Earn is kind of a mess as he attempts to be a parent with his off-and-on-girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz), while also dealing with the absurd and actually dangerous realities of being a young Black man in America.

By the time we reach the final season, Alfred has had global success, and is  starting to be treated like a hip hop elder whose best next move, people are telling him, would be to mentor up and coming (white) rappers. Earn has also found a pretty solid degree of success, stability and domesticity with Van and their daughter.  

Along with their friend Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), who always brings the vibes and often the wisdom, Earn and Alfred offer a look into what it means to be men in America, and specifically Black men. I’ve heard the tone of this show described as afrosurrealism, because sometimes, it is really hard to say what is really happening, and what is not in each show.  I’ve always thought of this style as another layer of commentary about the strange nature of race, which is both real, and also made up. Just like fame, and wealth, and so much of what impacts our lives in America. 

On a similar note, we need to return to those stand-alone episodes.  For example, in the fourth season, there is a faux documentary episode about The Goofy Movie, and its racialized origins, based in a (made up) story about the first Black head of Disney. (!!!)

These seemingly random forays into a completely different narrative also feel like commentary – on the randomness of race in America, the randomness of America, the experience of random disruption and displacement of personal stories, and a sense of being at home that is the result of enslavement, Jim Crow, and systemic racism. These episodes are also wildly experimental attempts at taking the form of the tv series in a different direction, and also, as experiments, can be pretty hit or miss.For me, this is part of the fun of Atlanta. Seeing a creative team attempt to do something bold, and big, and new.

LaKeith Stanfield, Brian Tyree Henry, and Donald Glover in Atlanta

10. The Undeclared War (Peacock, 1 season, 6 episodes, 45 minutes)

I can’t remember how I found The Undeclared War, but once I did I was immediately hooked (I admit to being a sucker for British shows).  It is probably best described as a cyber-thriller, telling a wide-ranging story of a foreign power (Russia) interfering in a national election through hacking computer code.  The main character, Saara (played by Hannah Khalique-Brown), is a young college student getting work experience in the malware department of the UK’s equivalent of the NSA.  Her personal struggles with her intense work (where, despite her cracking the first bit of the code, she is in a subservient role–the equivalent of an intern), her colleagues (I especially love her friendship with the overlooked old-timer John Yeabsley, played by the brilliant Mark Rylance), and her family provide emotional balance to the complicated cyberstory that headlines the show.  And yet even that complex story feels intelligible in a way that stories about cybercrime so often don’t.  After watching this show, I have a much clearer understanding of how social media bots work, for example, and a more grounded take on how fake news can get created, seem real, and have very real world impacts.  And it does now feel very clear to me that none of this is specific to the U.S., a feeling that is both deeply disturbing and somehow relieving at the same time.  Even the coding aspect, which my coder husband Dug reports is remarkably accurate in a way that few such storylines are, feels comprehensible, aided by artistic representations of analogous activities (in the scenes where Saara is sifting through the code to find the Russian hacks, she always wears a toolbelt, and we see her, for example, sifting through old phone books or trying to find her way into a hidden cave).  At six 45 minute episodes, this is essentially a long movie that is well worth the watch 

Hannah Khalique-Brown in The Undeclared War

11.  White Lotus (HBO, 7 episodes/season, 55-75 minutes, 2 seasons).  

Last year, we could not be persuaded to include the well-reviewed White Lotus on our best-of list. Season one – though I respect its social critique, and enjoyed its cringy storylines (and as always, Connie Britton), it  felt a little too forced, and not quite as deep as it was trying to be. The new season, however, really found its voice and tone, and was just as deliciously fun and weird (and still biting) as creator Mike White seems to be aiming for. The concept here is that the White Lotus is a luxury hotel experience across the globe. The first season was set in Hawaii; this season in Italy.  The first season is focused on class and racial dynamics, especially in the ways that tourists exploit the locals who work at the hotel; the second season still brings the critique of wealth, but it is less clear who – between the locals, and the tourists – are left worse off from the travel. And even more, the second season introduces the complications of desire, and the ways that sex and sexual desire intersect with wealth.  

Jennifer Coolidge stars in both seasons, portraying rich cluelessness, loneliness, and entitlement – all at once. Both seasons are actually filled with great performances – in this one, Aubrey Plaza is as always, compelling – but less well-known actors Meghann Fahy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Beatrice Granno were also incredibly sharp and particular in their performances, and make every scene interesting and beautiful.  

To me, White Lotus is an exploration of white wealth and its corruptive inevitability. The way wealth – especially as it plays out in white communities – leads to distrust, and isolation, and shallow and transactional relationships. (It seems important that Ethan and Harper – who are struggling to fit in at the White Lotus, and to come to terms with their new wealth – are also the only two non-white characters.) 

Whatever hesitation I had about season one has been relieved by the biting dark comedy of season two. It’ll be hard to find a location as visually compelling as the gorgeous beaches of Italy for the next season, but I’m looking forward already to seeing where the White Lotus resort turns up next.  

Meghann Fahy and Aubrey Plaza in White Lotus

12. Bad Sisters (Apple TV, 1 season, 10 episodes, 60 minutes)

Set in coastal Ireland and co-created by Sharon Horgan (from Catastrophe, who also stars in the show), Bad Sisters is a story about love and loyalty between sisters (in this case, five), and what can happen when one of them is in danger.  The catchy opening credit sequence of the show sets us up for the plot, a tragi-comic mystery about who killed the villain (John Paul, the emotionally abusive husband of the sister who is shown as the meekest, played brilliantly by Claes Bang) and how they did it.  We are first introduced to John Paul in his coffin, so we know from the beginning how the show will end.  My characterization of the show shifted throughout the season; for the first two or three episodes, it felt like a fun comedy with great writing and a slapstick plot.  As the season went on and John Paul’s behavior got increasingly egregious and he appeared frustratingly impervious to the sisters’ bungling attempts on his life, it got a bit harder to watch (Dug had to stop watching mid-season because he hated the character so much), but the comic overlay of the show (and my desire to finally find out how the bastard died) kept me hooked.  By the end, the show felt like an emotional powerhouse, and I would recommend the show highly to anyone with the stomach to watch it.  

Sharon Horgan, Eve Hewson, Eva Birthistle, and Sarah Greene in Bad Sisters

13. The Bear (Hulu, 8 episodes, 20-40 minutes, 1 season) 

Jeremy Allen White brings his sensitive-genius-who-needs-a-shower schtick (perfected in Showtime’s Shameless) to this story of grief, masculinity, class, and cooking.  White stars as Carmy, who inherits his family’s Chicago sandwich shop after his brother – who had been running the place – commits suicide. It’s an ironic turn of events, given that his brother had refused to let him work there – and in rebellion, Carmy got himself trained as one of the city’s top chefs. Carmy’s love for his brother, and for cooking, as well as his vision to transform the shop into something more than it has been, collide in the stress of the kitchen, where the staff are grieving, and also not at all on the same page as their new boss and his fancy ideas. Nearly every episode is stressful, and in a lot of ways just reveals Carmy’s inexperience and emotional immaturity – which in turn is mostly handed off to his new hire/sous chef Sydney (incredibly talented Ayo Edeberi) to handle and make work – but with ripple effects across the whole kitchen staff.  But experiencing stress is part of the story, too, as you realize it has to go somewhere. These feelings can’t be pushed away forever. Which is the lesson Carmy – and the whole team, especially as they feel out what it means to be family – are trying to come to terms with, and also learn how to actually process, and deal with what’s actually happening around them, and all that has happened. I’m excited this well-written show with a great ensemble will be back this summer for a second season so we can see how they keep struggling, and growing.  

Jeremy Allen White in The Bear

14. Yellowjackets (Showtime, 1 season, 10 episodes, 60 minutes)

Yellowjackets thoroughly captivated Dug and I through January and February of last year; it is one of those shows that we always watched immediately when a new episode dropped.  It tells the story of a girls’ high school soccer team who survive a plane crash deep in the wilderness of Canada.  Like many survivor tales, it follows them as they descend from relatively normal teenage girls to paranoid warring tribes that disagree on strategy for survival and descend into animalistic behaviors (this is definitely a show that won’t be for everyone).  What makes the show most interesting is that it toggles back and forth between the post-crash period (and a few pre-crash scenes) to the surviving adults 25 years later, making it both a coming-of-age story and an exploration of middle age.  The show keeps us hooked by slowly unraveling the mystery of what happened back then, while also creating a present-day drama when an unknown source begins sending bits of information to the survivors, information that they have worked hard to keep hidden over the years (Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey, Tawny Cypress, and Juliette Lewis all turn in compelling performances as the adult survivors).  The trauma and the ways each character has worked to subsume it in the ensuing decades (some successfully some not) create layers of mystery that Season 1 only partially uncovers (Season 2 starts March 23; our calendars are marked!).  

Melanie Lynsky, Christine Ricci, Tawny Cypress, and Juliette Lewis in Yellowjackets

15. Interview with a Vampire (AMC+, 7 episodes, 40-60 minutes, 1 season) 

There are a lot of reasons why you might not have watched this show, including the fact that it’s on a platform not many people have. But it also might be because you have a sense you’ve already seen it, or read it – from the Tom Cruise 90s movie, or the Anne Rice novels. I was definitely skeptical coming in, but was quickly persuaded, first by the beautiful Jacob Anderson who stars as the titular vampire, Louis de Pointe, and then ultimately by the ways the story allows race and queer sexuality in early 20th century New Orleans to become a major factor in this otherwise too well known vampire story. How much does it matter if you are immortal, and intensely powerful – if you are also Black? The other main actors are also doing great work, and also beautiful – Sam Reid as Lestat, and Bass Bailey as Claudia – in a queer, often brutal, surprisingly tender portrayal of a family. It can be – as you might guess – sometimes gory, and that is part of the tension between Louis and his lover/creator Lestat. Whether or not this killing can be reconciled with the loving. Whether the loving is really ever anything more than violence. The concept of the present-day interview, by the way, I am less interested in so far – but we’ll see what happens in season two – which I’ve read should be happening.  I can’t wait.  

Sam Reid, Jacob Anderson, and Bailey Bass in Interview With A Vanpire

16. This is Going to Hurt (AMC+, 1 season, 7 episodes, 45 minutes)

Ben Whishaw, who heads up this series following junior doctor Adam Kay in his Ob/Gyn job in the British version of a public health clinic (and who I had never seen before watching this series) has shot right to the top of my list of actors to watch.  I have since discovered that he voiced Paddington (endearing him to me further), and I was blown away watching him last week in the movie Women Talking (where he plays the gentle male scribe for a group of angry Mennonite women).  This Is Going to Hurt feels like one of the most honest portrayals of working life I’ve seen, likely due in part to the fact that it is based on a highly acclaimed memoir by the same name. 

Dr. Kay works 100 hour weeks, and the exhaustion of the lifestyle (and its cumulative effects over time) grows increasingly visceral throughout the season.  His ability to manage his personal life, from his primary relationship with the very tolerant (and beautiful!) Harry, to his parents (who he has yet to come out to), to his junior colleague Shruti (Ambiki Mod), is drastically impaired by his fatigue.  The consequences of his (understandable) inability to find the time and energy to deal thoughtfully with life’s challenges have devastating consequences, and by the end of the season we get a sense both that he is ready to face up to that reality and also that he doesn’t have any idea of how he can change.  That unresolved space where we often find ourselves so rarely finds representation on TV, and its exploration on this show is such a gift.  It’s a shame that this show is on a service that most people don’t have (and therefore not widely known), but if you have a week with some extra time, we encourage you to grab a 7 day free trial to AMC+ and watch this show (perhaps along with Interview with a Vampire; odd bedfellows, admittedly, but both well worth a watch!).

Ambika Mod and Ben Whishaw in This Is Going to Hurt

17. Slow Horses (Apple TV, 6 episodes, 50 mins, 2 seasons) 

Not enough people are talking about this British intelligence thriller starring Gary Oldman as the weirdly charismatic and thoroughly unhygienic director of Slough House, the Mi-5 unit where screw up agents are sent for a kind of extended tour of shame and humiliation. This set up makes this crime thriller a perpetual story of underdog redemption, because inevitably these same officers are the ones who solve the case, save the day, best the bad guy – not to mention that means they are outdoing the more traditionally successful non-screw-up agents who think they are better than anyone sent to Slough House. The first season – especially all of the scenes with Oldman and his boss, Diana Taverner, played by the always solid Kristin Scott Thomas – was really good. But the second season was often edge-of-your-seat-can’t-wait-for-the-next-episode good. For a few reasons: first, because Oldman continues to be just so self-effacingly gross and strange and smart in his role as the boss who both loathes and loves his outcast staff; second,because the story itself got more interesting, complex, and surprising; and third, because the characters in that outcast staff continue to develop with nuance, humor, wit, and an enduring love and loyalty for one another, and for their strange, annoying, brilliant boss. 

Jack Lowden, Gary Oldman, Olivia Cook, and Rosalind Eleazar in Slow Horses.

18. Yellowstone (Peacock, 5 seasons, 10 episodes, 50 minutes)

I intended to not enjoy this show (what little I knew was that it was about ranchers’ land rights, a topic I don’t have much interest in).  It wasn’t even on my radar before this year, and then suddenly it was all over the place.  Yellowstone had been running for four seasons before 2022, and has inspired three spin offs since then.  We decided to watch it to see what the fuss was all about, and we both agreed that the first three seasons are highly entertaining, well written, and beautiful (it’s set in Montana, and the landscapes are breathtaking), but were less sold on seasons 4 and 5 (which settled into more predictable tropes, dropping it lower on our list).  Yellowstone is an epic tale centered around the Dutton family and their ranch in Montana; it has a lot of thematic overlap with Succession and The Godfather.  The patriarch (played by Kevin Costner) and his three children are involved in a battle with the government, native tribes, capitalists, and environmentalists to keep their 800,000 acre ranch (that’s bigger than Rhode Island).  For me, Beth Dutton (the daughter, played by Kelly Reilly) is the most interesting part of the show.  Of the three children, she is the most fiercely loyal (and I do mean FIERCE) to her father, due in part to residual guilt she feels over her role in her mother’s death when Beth was young.  When the ranch is threatened, she moves back home (she was a financier in Salt Lake City) to fight alongside her father, and it is totally captivating (and a bit terrifying) to watch as she makes herself indispensable in the fight.  She is abrasive and emotionally unstable and impossible to look away from; I can’t think of another character that I would dislike so much in real life who has kept my attention so thoroughly in fiction.  

Kelly Reilly and Cole Hauser in Yellowstone

19. The Dropout (Hulu, 1 season, 8 episodes, 45 minutes)

In the same year that Elizabeth Holmes was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for defrauding investors in her blood-testing company Theranos, two TV miniseries came out with their versions of her story (I watched both and also read Bloodlines, a recent book about Holmes).  The appeal of this version for me is threefold:  first, it is an accessible retelling of a complicated story about science, technology, and capitalism.  Second, Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of Holmes is brilliant; we watch as she transforms herself through sheer will from a friendless 19-year-old Stanford dropout to one of the richest women in the world (with a reported net worth of $4.5 billion) within a decade.  The scenes where she works to modulate her voice downwards after being told that she won’t be taken seriously with such a high-pitched voice are painful to watch, but clearly distill her determination.  Third, it is a fascinating story about the ways that ambition can play out.  I don’t think of myself as an ambitious person, which is perhaps why watching this show felt a little bit like going to the zoo–Holmes seems like a different species to me (I imagine this feeling was amplified by her being a woman; the show definitely has something to say about how gender and power can play out in Silicon Valley).  I will note here that this is a rare show that Gretchen and I disagree on.  I (Sara) found it to be one of the stickiest shows of the year; I thought about it often in the months after I finished watching it (and I had to convince Gretchen to continue watching after the first episode–she found the whole show painful to watch).  

Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout

20. Derry Girls (Netflix, 4 seasons, 8 episodes, 25 minutes)

Derry Girls is a tremendously funny show set in a small town in occupied Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  At the core of the show is a group of five teenagers:  Erin (always trying to move up and more than a wee bit pretentious, her snooty accent and accompanying nose wrinkling almost makes the show on its own), Nicola (neurotic and nerdy, she nearly passes out several times when the gang is caught in various shenanigans), Michelle (the group’s party animal who instigates many of the aforementioned shenanigans), Orla (Erin’s seriously spaced-out cousin, who elevates the word “cracker” to a new level), and James (Michelle’s cousin who happens to be English and protestant, he is dropped off in Ireland by his wayward mum and allowed to attend Our Lady Immaculate College with the gang, despite it being an all-girls Catholic school).  The Troubles (the Northern Ireland conflict) manifest in their daily lives as they face bomb threats and British army checkpoints, but the gang remains focused on procuring forbidden concert tickets, practicing for the school’s talent show, and, in one particularly memorable episode, evading a polar bear who has escaped from the Belfast Zoo – the show is never short on absurb scenarios.  Nested around the core cast are friends and family members with highly entertaining quirks of their own (my particular favorite is a great uncle who drones on endlessly if allowed to begin a story).  After premiering in 2019, Derry Girls had its final season in 2022, and I find myself regularly dipping back into any season, rewatching any episode, and discovering new bits to laugh out loud at (an ability undoubtedly enhanced by the fact that, despite the strong Irish brogue, I still refuse to turn on captions, so I catch new bits every time!).

Derry Girls

21. Reboot (Hulu, 8 episodes, 30 mins, 1 season) 

There are so many reasons to love this sitcom-within-a-sitcom, most of all the actors, who are all clearly having such a good time with the material and each other. Rachel Bloom (from the brilliant Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) stars as the lead writer, Hannah, for a rebooted (fictional) 90s sitcom Step Right Up (fictionally, and also actually) green lit by Hulu, and featuring all of the original actors – played by Keegan Michael-Key, Johnny Knoxville, and Judy Greer.  Hannah has big plans for making the show more real than the superficial sitcom of 90s – until the original showrunner, Gordon (Paul Reiser), gets re-hired to work with her to bring some of the original “success.” The clash of the generations and styles both between Hannah and Gordon, as well as in the writers’ room also serves as commentary on the ways sitcoms have changed in the last twenty years, including the ways Hulu is the same, and different, than “network tv.” Reboot’s producer and director, Stevan Levitan, is also the guy behind Modern Family, and you can feel some of that vibe among this cast, just in an updated way – and I mean that as a compliment.  In a lot of ways it’s just a simply great ensemble sitcom, except with a fun and unique approach to the sitcom itself. Like…a reboot 😉 

Paul Reiser and Rachel Bloom in ReBoot

22. Mo (Netflix, 8 episodes, 30 mins, 1 season).  

The first episode of Mo, the title character (played by comedian Mo Amer), is fired from his job at a cell phone shop, because the owner’s other store was recently raided by ICE. Even though Mo has lived almost all of his life in the U.S., and has never actually even lived in Palestine where his family immigrated from, he has been waiting for over twenty years for his asylum case to be approved. It’s just one of many complications Mo faces in straddling American, Palestinian, and Latino cultures while trying to claim some agency around his own identity and sense of belonging and understanding. Mo is a story of family, of friendship, and of growing up.  It’s a story of coming to make sense of your childhood, and your parents, and your place in it all.  It’s funny, and sweet, and a unique representation of a pretty common experience of immigrants in the United States, and also many of us who navigate truly diverse spaces and relationships. At eight 30 minute episodes, all available on Netflix, this is a really accessible and easy show to get into, and finish up…and keep thinking about. 

Mo Amer in Mo

A few post-list additions….

Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu, 8 episodes, 2 seasons) 

Like I said at the start, Sara and I decided that since one of our main goals for these lists is to help expand people’s potential lists of shows, we would not repeat shows that we listed last year. I totally support this idea, and also it means I have to leave off this show that would otherwise be in my top five – it is just so brilliant. And so I want to give it a little side promo here because many people still haven’t seen it, or they haven’t come back for season 2.  While season 1 was stunning and heartbreaking and darkly funny, season 2 is even better.  I was especially impressed with the complex and brilliant comedy in these episodes, which are all still filled with grief and longing and displacement. The question of who gets to leave the reservation, and who is left behind continues is the under current of every conversation, and you start to better see the generational patterns, and the pain passed down, even while each person tries to do what they can to heal. There’s also more biting insight offered about those who attempt to “help” indigenous youth, and a continued commentary on the role of police, and the different ways this looks depending on if we’re talking about tribal or non-tribal police. This is an incredibly well-written, brilliantly acted, carefully crafted story that delivers consistently great tv this season – please don’t miss it.  

A few other honorable mentions we debated about including….

  • Andor (Disney+) – The latest Star Wars series is really great, but the pacing is such a slow-build that I started to realize that non-Star Wars folks might not ever get through it. I could be wrong – it’s definitely worth checking out for its cohesive world building and compelling take on the seeds of long haul rebellions and hoped for revolutions.  
  • Ramy (Hulu) – This show about Egyptian-American Ramy Hassan ran its third season this year, and both of the first two seasons were really strong. However I just didn’t get around to watching season three – but have heard that it is the best of all three, so I will! 
  • Barry (HBO) – Similar to Ramy, Barry ran its third season this year, and I have only gotten to 2 episodes so far.  This is a great, weird, darkly funny show about a hitman trying to reform by becoming an actor.  I’ve heard season three is great, especially Henry Winkler, so I will get back to it. 
  • The Rehearsal (HBO– What a strange show this is. It’s maybe a reality show about a guy who offers people a “rehearsal” opportunity for things they are worried about. Like a hard conversation with a family member, or being a parent. He creates entire sets and hires actors, and then they just literally rehearse the scenarios. I say “maybe” because by the end it is really, really unclear what is real and what is all just part of the show.  Which I assume is on purpose. I ultimately just could not understand this show enough to put it on the list, but I have continued to think about it.  
  • Minx (NOTHING)- We both loved this show about a feminist porn magazine, but it is not accessible at all anymore (after HBO unjustly canceled it they pulled it off their platform entirely!) so we decided it was unfair to put it on the list since you can’t watch it.  
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The Hopefulness of History, written for the 125 year anniversary of the Foothills Unitarian Church

Like a lot of people in the last few days, I watched the drama play out in the US House with both a little shock and not a little schadenfreude.

When they hit the 11th vote, I called my mom – a self-described C-SPAN junkie even outside high drama moments – to see what she thought about the whole thing. I expected a kind of “serves you right Kevin McCarthy” response, but instead she expressed only grief.  For the dysfunctional state of our democracy.  And even more, for the concessions McCarthy made. 

Over time I’ve realized my mother takes the far-right’s power personally. She hears their anti-democratic and antisemitic statements and can’t help but think of her father, who fought in World War 2, and whose life – and therefore her life – was upended by all he saw there. The only way their family came to make sense of that upending was the belief that he did his part to ensure the end of fascism, and antisemitism, and the triumph of democracy once and for all.

Like a lot of us, my mother, and my grandfather got caught in one of the biggest misconceptions about time – which is that idea of inevitable forward movement.  As if once something has shifted it will keep shifting in that same direction. The thing once done will stay done; lessons once learned will stay learned, that we will – as we tend to say in the immediate years after a great tragedy – never forget.  As if time works like a fairy tale, where at the end we declare, “they lived happily ever after.”

In reality, however, as writer Rebecca Solnit says, “History is not an army marching forward.” It is more like “a crab scuttling sideways.” Which means that often, the best way to know what will happen in the future is to look at what has happened in the past. Scholars call this idea “Historic Recurrence,” although most of us would just: “history repeats itself.”

Over decades and centuries – we do forget, or really, we fail to pass along hard-won lessons. Often because the trauma of the time makes it hard to stay with the stories too long.

For as much as my mom absorbed about his time in Germany, there was a limit to how much my grandfather would ever be able to share. It was too painful.

He didn’t want people to forget, but also, he had to find a way to move on.

Over time, this limit to what’s shared of difficult stories and lessons from the past makes those stories feel less like they apply to our actual lives, and more like – well, the stereotypical experience of a 2 dimensional history book. 

It’s hard to never forget things you never really knew.

At the same time, regardless of whether we remember, or not, history repeats itself because there are things about human behavior that are predictable, given similar circumstances and stressors.

Even when transplanted across cultures and centuries, revolutions emerge, and resolve with a remarkable consistency; conflicts over land, and resources, and religion play out again and again; families struggle and triumph, and grief, rage, and love in the human life echo across all of history – as any Shakespeare play or Greek tragedy – will make quickly clear.

Churches have our own version of this idea.

One of my seminary professors used to describe it as the story that lives in the walls.

What she meant is that when a person arrives to a congregation, there is always a story that immediately starts speaking to them – even if they don’t happen to show up on a Sunday celebrating the 125th year anniversary.

There are patterns and habits and norms in every community that by arriving, you are impacted by – and you are already impacting.

Not unlike how it happens in families – patterns in churches repeat over generations, even when the people who are repeating the behavior don’t directly know each other.

It’s one of the first lessons religious professionals learn – when facing something challenging in a congregation – to ask – when in the church’s history has something like this happened before? Because almost always, there is something being repeated, a lesson not yet fully known, a habit caught unwittingly in the congregational DNA.

As Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker says, “We inherit covenant before we make covenant.”

I came to our newly published history book already thinking about all this – but even if I hadn’t – it wouldn’t have taken long to see the patterns we repeat.   

For example, the moments over the last 125 years when the community decided to build or expand the church building leap out with their repetition. 

The first moment was just five years after the founders signed the charter – 1903. In those five years, they’d had six different ministers, but never really had enough money to keep any of them.  And yet, they took that moment to purchase land, and the build a church on Mulberry and College. 

They stayed in that building and, with the partnership with the Congregationalists, found stability over the next six decades. That is, until 1957 when, the Congregationalists were encouraged to join the newly established United Church of Christ – and then in 1961 the Unitarian sand Universalists officially consolidated to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

These moves, combined with the conflicts that arose around the Vietnam War, and other cultural pressures of the 1960s led some in the group to leave for a more explicitly UCC – that is, Christian – church, and for others to simply leave, period.  

Those who remained decided to affiliate with the UUA.  In the midst of this, their minister began preaching about transcendental meditation, and encouraging and then himself practicing open marriage, – ultimately leading to his own sexual misconduct and resignation in 1968.

And yet, they took that moment, to purchase land, and build a building – the one we are in now. 

Somehow they made it through that time, eventually hired a minister, and over the next three decades they again found stability, and growth.  So much so they knew they needed to expand the church.  And by now I should more accurately say not just they, but you. A number of you were here in the 1990s.  From what I can tell – in this expansion, you and they managed to vary the pattern somewhat – because construction happened in 1997, and the unrest didn’t come for another 18 months, although it was still a lot – all at once – as the church attempted to navigate transition in the church’s religious education programs. 

But they – and you – did navigate this. And stability returned, for a little while. But still, the community had always known the expansion of the 90s was about half of what they needed, and the church continued to grow. So it went that in 2022, not yet fully on the other side of the global pandemic and what some consider the greatest disruption to church life in over 100 years – the people of Foothills Unitarian Church – you – broke ground on construction that will double the size of its current building. 

We used the word audacious to describe these sorts of moments earlier – but I’m guessing that along the way, other words were used.  Words like, foolish, or irresponsible, or what were we thinking?!  

To be in the midst of the most challenging times and repeatedly decide – not to pull back, or even to put things on hold – but to instead invest in a greater future.

The word I would actually use is faithful. 

I know, it’s not a word we tend to use to describe ourselves very much, but what else would you call such otherwise irrational choices in a bunch of people who think of themselves as committed rationalists? 

It can only be a deep faithfulness,  to serve a greater vision born in a bold imagination – that despite all current evidence indicating otherwise, a greater purpose exists – a greater truth, a greater love – to believe that somehow, when we commit ourselves to working together on behalf of this vision – somehow, as Parker Palmer would say, “way will open.” 

When we talk about history repeating itself, often we focus on the painful patterns, the pitfalls.  

But alongside the tales of trauma, there are also always, these habits of hope – this way of acting on behalf of goodness and joy and love over, and over –  habits that are cultivated and passed along generation to generation,  habits that are our inheritance, too – and it is from this inheritance that courageous love finds a way to break through, again, and again.

For example. For all the talk about Kevin McCarthy this week, I’ve been thinking just as much about Hakeem Jeffries.

Jeffries was elected – 15 times in fact – as the first Black lawmaker to lead a congressional party. His election is a reminder – that alongside the painful rise of the far right, there remains also this resilient resistance, this pattern of working for progress, and justice, that is also being played out again – this still-beating heart of hope.

Both are our history, our inheritance, and therefore both have the potential to repeat, and repeat, and repeat –  across our own, and our great-grandchildren’s lifetimes, and beyond.  

“History is not an army.” Rebecca Solnit writes. “It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone,” she continues, “an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do, decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world, sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes like a change of weather.

“All these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to bet on the future, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. But hope is not like a lottery ticket that you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because…hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Anything could happen, and whether or not we act has everything to do with it.”

The good news friends, is that all we have to do is trust that the best predictor of the future is what has happened in the past – and be the people these walls – and those walls – will teach us to be.  

Faithful people.People who are willing to risk hoping, and by that I mean acting – on behalf of a world transformed by the resilient power of courageous love. 

As the hymn goes, “What they dreamed be ours to do. Hope their hopes and seal them true.”

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The Gift of Rebellion – Hanukkah 2022

First, a Reflection from Rev. Sean Neil Barron “Rebellions Are Built on Hope”

Gretchen said she was preaching on Rebellion, our conversation was something like this:

“The simple gift this week is rebellion.” 

“So, you are preaching about Star Wars.”

“No, Hanukkah.”

“You mean Star Wars, right?”

“Hanukkah, and the Maccabean revolt.”

This is the part of the conversation that started to take place in my head:

The Hebrew letter yud is often anglicized as a “J,” and syllables occasionally get dropped in translation. Hence, a Biblical name like “Yehoshua” makes its way into English as “Joshua.” It’s not much of a stretch to see how “Jedi” can be derived the original Hebrew word for Jew, “Yehudi.” So the story of the Maccabees is literally the story of a group of Jedi (yud-i), facing off against a far superior imperial power, and against all odds hold out long enough for a miracle. 


But here is the problem, When we encounter the histories like the Maccabees, and experience stories like Star Wars, whose central questions revolve around a choice. 

In Star Wars the central axis of the plot revolves around the question of choice. The choice to not give into the seductions of the dark side towards selfishness, power, and greed. The choice to make family out of the band of checkered past scoundrels, whiny farm boys, and slick con men. The choice to join the rebel alliance, and risk everything for a cause without much chance of success. 

And the problem with all the Star Wars stories, up until now with the release of Andor, are they made all those choices seem too obvious and seemingly too easy to make. That choosing to rebel is seemingly the only choice for people with any degree of moral compass to make. 

But it’s never that simple. 

We follow the small band of rebels, around the galaxy, in the original trilogy, they take up the full screen, scene after scene, what we don’t see are the everyday people who, when faced with increasing repression, hold their customs and their families close, and sleep through a rebellion. 

‘Turning away, from the truths, they don’t want to face’ the putrifying wound of tyranny, that corrodes like rust everything it touches. Most people don’t make a stand against empire not because they don’t know it’s evil but because that choice asks them to give up everything, and without a promise of anything coming of it. And acting on faith, regardless of the results. 

There is this one moment, that captures this choice so strikingly. All the leaders of the rebellion have gathered, have learned of the death star and its power to destroy who continents, and maybe entire planets. They know they need to acquire the death star schematics if they are going to have any hope of finding a weakness to exploit. 

“What chance do we have?” Some of the leaders demand. 

This is where the hero Jyn Erso speaks up: “What chance do we have?” she responds “ The question is: what choice do we have? You give in to an enemy with that much power. You condemn the galaxy to an eternity of submission”

‘It is hopeless” others respond.

“Rebellions are built on hope” she retorts. 

But here is the thing. We as the audience know it’s the right thing to try. But the gathering cannot agree,
Cannot risk it, Even though, if they don’t try, they will lose everything, The fear and stakes feel too high. And so they don’t.  They do not authorize the raid. 

I love this scene because it showcases the real stakes of the choice.It seems as though any chance at freedom and liberation from tyranny has been assured. 

And yet as Nemik writes in his manifesto, written 5 years prior, 

“There will be times when the struggle seems impossible. Alone, unsure, dwarfed by the scale of the enemy. Remember this. Freedom is a pure idea. It occurs spontaneously and without instruction. Random acts of insurrection are occurring constantly throughout the galaxy. There are whole armies, battalions that have no idea that they’ve already enlisted in the cause. Remember that the frontier of the Rebellion is everywhere. And even the smallest act of insurrection pushes our lines forward. Remember this. Try.”

And a small band of rebels, do just that. They rebel against the rebellion. And launch the raid. Find the plans. And like the Maccabees, mostly parish in the attempt. 

What chance do we have? The question is: what choice do we have?”

Sermon: The Gift of Rebellion

We were having breakfast last Saturday when my partner Carri declared that our kids – who are now 14 and 17 – have always snuck down to see the presents before they wake us up on Christmas morning.

They do not! I responded, appalled.

She was equally shocked at how naïve I was. Yet again.   

This was not the first time Carri and I realized we have very different relationships to rules.    

I was what you would call, a compliant child, especially when it came to expectations from my parents. Carri’s childhood, however, was, let’s just say, oriented differently.

Didn’t you and your sisters sneak and see the presents?, she asked.


My sister and I always did. It’s just a part of what Christmas means as a kid. Your parents set these absurd rules about what you can’t do, and then you find ways to do it anyway.    

This is not how I understand Christmas.

Now, I have learned over the years that Carri’s orientation to rules is a better predictor for our kids’ behavior than my own, and so my shock at the idea that our children would have been pulling one over on me for most of their life did not necessarily mean that it wasn’t true.

Except that in this case, I was confident that Carri was wrong. So, we bet on it.

Carri bet that they definitely snuck to see before waking us, and I said they definitely did not. Then, we asked them to tell us the truth, we wouldn’t be mad – that it was for our bet. 

And, well, let’s just say that I’m looking forward to the night when I don’t feel like making dinner and Carri has to – because she very much lost the bet.

And for this one sweet moment, my heart swelled with pride at my good, compliant children who did Christmas morning just like we asked.

Josef’s exact response was: No way, the surprise is more fun.

When he said this, I knew he was telling the truth. 

Because part of what we know about rules, is that compliance comes easier if rules are self-rewarding, and if the rule itself makes sense. And not just to the one who makes the rules – obviously most of the time the rule-maker thinks the rule is a great idea. But if you’re asked to follow someone else’s rules, it helps if the rule leads to something you like, or believe in yourself.

Without that, we are all prone to rebellion. Even if you think of yourself as a very compliant person who follows the rules.   

Studies have shown that most people who break rules, do not think any less of themselves, and don’t think of themselves as a rebel, or even a cheater Actually, recent studies out of the University of Washington and Harvard shows that breaking rules has the opposite effect. Breaking rules makes you feel smarter and more capable. It gives you a sense of power, and freedom. This is what’s now known as the “Cheater’s High.”

And it can actually be a good thing. I mean, obviously there is a point where this is not the case. But for today let’s just leave the warnings about rule-breaking being bad to all the other churches out there, because what we don’t say enough is that sometimes, non-compliance is not just a good thing, it is life-saving. 

Sometimes the cheater’s high isn’t just about instant gratification, after all. It can actually be the beginning of a better life.  And not just for the so-called cheater.  Studies show there is a euphoria that comes after you break a rule. And this feeling opens up a creativity that wasn’t there before – so that you make associations and considerations you simply don’t make when you are rule-bound. The “Cheater’s High” creates an experience of agency, and differentiation that can allow you to become more fully and uniquely you.  

This personal experience of liberation can be infectious –so that anyone who sees you standing in your own truth, regardless of what anyone says –can feel in themselves a new permission and possibility for what their liberation would mean – their path of standing in their own truth. 

It reminds me of this ad that’s going around social media right now – which is actually for whiskey although you may not realize it….

I love how in the beginning, when it’s the grandfather breaking the rules – you see him wrestling with just how differentiated he will allow himself to be –how rebellious, even just to himself, how many rules he has accepted over his whole life he would now be breaking.  

And then of course by the end of the ad, we realize that his rebellion was a rehearsal for the permission he would give to his young adult grandchild to rebel – that is, to be fully herself at the holiday table. 

And of course, it’s not clear how much of the early part was about his own truth that he’d never let himself claim – and how Ana’s process was actually giving him permission to break the rules he’d complied with his whole life. 

This is the gift of rebellion. To be differentiated enough to go our own way – to see something as true and valid, regardless of all evidence pointing a different direction, and then to offer this freedom to another.  To take a stand, and yet also stay connected. So that we can grow this new world together.

This gift is what spurs on rebellions, even when they come at a great cost – like with the uprisings we have we have seen in Iran over the last few months. Emerging after 22 year old Mahsa Amini was arrested in Tehran for violating the dress code for women – and then was beaten to death by the morality police while in their custody.

Just as with past governmental protests, the uprisings have been met with arrests, and brutality, and most recently, public executions.  And still, the rebels, now in their third month, have shown no signs of backing down. They have little chance, but what other choice do they have?

Their only hope resides in their willingness to stand in the smallest of possibilities and by their very life, resist.  

I have to imagine this is how the band of Jewish rebels in ancient Palestine must have felt.

Their people had been terrorized, and oppressed, for generations. The tyrannical King had outlawed their religion, defiled their temple, and their way of life and being together was banned. And still, across all the years, the rebels never stopped working for their freedom. Even though they didn’t have enough resources. Even though they were outnumbered in every way. Even though they had no real reason to think they could succeed.  They remained patient, and faithful. Until finally, as if suddenly – they overthrow their oppressors, and liberate their people, who immediately reclaim their temple as they gather once again in community. 

This is the story of Hanukkah, which begins tonight. This story of the Jewish people and the unlikely success of the “small band” of rebels known as the Maccabees feels especially important to tell in this year, with the recent rise of anti-semitism. For this is a story of people who lived with constant fear, and threat and yet who also persisted in faith. 

In the historical record, the success of the Maccabees is the “miracle” of Hanukkah. A small group who refuses to accept the world as it was and who continue to resist, and rebel, until liberation finally becomes reality. Their rebellion is the good news.

Except, if you know the story of Hanukkah, you know that this is not the way it is usually told. Usually we hear at least a little about oil, and the eight nights.  This is because when the Rabbis who preserved the story went to record it, they decided to tell it with a different frame. 

In their telling, we are reminded that for many years before the uprising, the Jews had missed their great festival of Sukkot, which must be celebrated in the temple, and so now that they had returned, they could begin the ritual and renew their promises with one another, and with God. 

As they began, however, they realized that all but one night’s worth of oil had been destroyed. They needed 8 days’ worth. But they decided to try anyway. And as the story goes, the lasted for the whole 8 days. Even though there was not enough. Even though it was impossible. Somehow it lasted.

This was the miracle in the Rabbi’s telling. These 8 days are why Hanukkah is celebrated for 8 nights, and the oil is how we end up with latkes and other oil-heavy foods as a part of a Hanukkah celebration.

In their reframing of the story, the Rabbis wanted to remind their people that the most important part of rebellion was not the violent uprising. The most important part was the faithfulness of the people, represented in the ritual, the people’s act of lighting, God’s assurance that there would be enough. 

Both the historical and the rabbinical story remind us that change was possible because the people did not stop trying. Despite what all the rules and norms around them might have them believe, they chose to keep showing up, to keep lighting the lamp – even though it seemed clear, there was no chance they could succeed, they never stopped trying. 

Author Parker Palmer says that we need to stop requiring that our rebellions lead to results.  Not that results are bad. It’s just that gauging our rebellions based on their possible results shuts down our imagination for what’s possible. When rebellions actually require expansive creativity to see the world that could be, but is not yet.

To stand in that smallest of possibilities and by your very life, resist.  

“The frontier of the rebellion is everywhere,” Sean quotes the young rebel Nemik writing in his manifesto – and we see this in our two versions of the Hanukkah story.  The historical Hanukkah says the gift of rebellion lives in the broad, collective movements that would overthrow a tyrant and the rabbinical Hannukah says the gift is also in the small, everyday rituals that help you know who you are, and whose you are.

Rebellion is resisting the oppressive empire, and it is also kindling a light in the darkness.

“The frontier of the rebellion is everywhere.”

I’ve watched that whiskey ad a few times now,and one thing I keep returning to is how small the grandfather’s act of rebellion really is –it is lipstick, and eyeshadow, in a family bathroom.  But this small, private act of rebellion creates an experience of liberation, and possibility across generations – so that we can imagine norms of all sorts coming into question in this family – and then in each of their lives, and across their networks…

This one moment of permission to break the rules of gender, and self-expression might well be the seed of permission to break other rules that would break your spirit, and to pursue the path of life and love, abundant.     

“It is an act of rebellion to be a whole person,” writer Courtney Martin says. “An act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, and especially in the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable.”

This is the gift of rebellion we can give to ourselves, and to each other. Especially during the holidays when so many of us are trying to figure out what parts of ourselves we can, and cannot make known – and how much of the usual rules we will comply with, or break, and just how much freedom and agency we will claim.

It is a gift to remember that this simple choice that feels so private can be a part of a greater movement.  A gift to follow the path of truth, to kindle still the light of hope, to refuse to let the light go out. Let us be the ones who choose to break the rules that break our spirits – to seek out and to stand in the smallest of possibilities for change,  and by our very lives, resist. 

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The Gift of Memory (Dec 2022)

Sometimes I think about my daughter’s childhood as a matter of three phases: 

  • Phase One: the years she was obsessed with playing Mary in the annual Christmas pageant,  but was way too young; 
  • Phase Two: the years she was technically age-appropriate to play Mary, and she relished in it – even though I wasn’t sure how I felt about my 14 year old giving birth in the middle of our Christmas Eve service; and 
  • Phase Three: the years when she became too cool to play Mary, and so instead we tease her about how obsessed she used to be about playing Mary.  

We are now, perhaps obviously, in phase three.  

The annual nativity play at Foothills only became an annual tradition in my third year here, when Gracie was 10, but by then she’d already had years of longing from prior UU churches that had been dedicated to telling the story of Mary, and Joseph and the arrival of baby Jesus at one point or another during the month of December. 

Although we always take time to update the script each year, ever since that third year, the Christmas Eve pageant is one of the few things in our liturgy that repeats year-after-year, pretty much the same each time. 

Just like people go see the Nutcracker, or A Christmas Carol each winter, or re-watch Elf, or Santa Claus, or….what’s your favorite holiday movie? …..  

All of this is not just about loving the story, or the songs, or the dancing in and of themselves. Sometimes you may not actually love the show all that much – you may realize it is cheezy or even problematic –  but, you can’t help but still love it!  

Because it’s not really about the thing, it’s about the memories that the re-encounter with the thing brings up…The person you were the first time, and then every time since.  The people you were with, and the places. The ways you have changed, and the way life has changed. Repeatedly re-encountering these memories is not just about looking back, it is also about the future. 

When you can rely on a certain rhythm of ritual and storytelling to re-occur, it can be a source of anticipation, expectation, and hope.    

“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair” says biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman. He roots this understanding in the Hebrew Bible, where repeatedly the good news is that “God remembers,” which of course also implies that God forgets.  

For hundreds of years the Isrealites experienced the despair of God forgetting them in their bondage as slaves in Egypt.  Until finally God remembers them, and they are free. 

Memory in the Hebrew Bible functions like a promise.“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt,” or“remember what the Lord has done for you.” Remember what has been, and know it will be again. 

“Memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair.” 

It has always felt important to me how often scripture says “remember you were a slave in Egypt,” because the impulse might be to instead to try to forget. To reverse Brueggeman’s assertion and call amnesia the source of hope, releasing from our consciousness the sorrow of bondage forever.  

We can sometimes believe that forgetting painful experiences will feel like healing, but like Cole Arthur Riley writes, “liberation cannot be found by tearing holes into oneself.”  

Our memories are how we come to make sense of ourselves – as individuals, and as a people.  We cannot do this selectively, as if life is only sweetness and ease.  Healing requires remembering, in wholeness, including rescuing memories forgotten by neglect or by intention across the generations, and bringing the fullness of the story to light.  

Sometimes the weight of certain memories can become too much for one to hold, of course, and like the girl in our reading we would find ourselves face down in the corner with our dress over our heads if we attempted to hold all the memories ourselves, especially the most painful ones.  Again, Cole Arthur Riley advises, “There are many instances when memory is unable to be held on to. By age or trauma or lack of revisiting, we can lose track of our own stories.” 

This is where collective memory becomes a gift. So that everyone need not remember everything, nor could they even if they wanted to, but together across the ecosystem of humanity, we can remember and hold the fullness of our stories – all we have been, and all we have known, and loved, and lost, and believed.  

When the Hebrew people are told to remember, it is always meant collectively, and cross-generationally. The task of remembering does not require your personal experience or witness of the events; memory, scripture reminds us, is inherited, as a gift. Collective memory is an experience of belonging, and identity, a promise not just for one but for all.  

“Collective memory requires that we piece together the fragments of individual memory and behold something not necessarily larger but with greater depth and color…” Arthur Riley says, 

“Memories that remain exclusive to a particular individual or even community are at risk of becoming false.  When memory endures no scrutiny or curiosity or challenge from the exterior, it can lead to a profound loneliness at best; at worst, individual or collective delusion.” 

Delusion is always a potential problem when it comes to memories. Because we tend to believe our own memories – even though studies show memory is often what we might call fake news. 

As one example, let’s try an exercise. Read the following words to someone and tell them that their job is just to listen.

Sour nice Candy Honey sugar Soda Bitter chocolate Good Heart taste Cake Tooth tart Pie

And then ask them to write down as many of the words as they can from what you said.

And then tell them that you have another list so they can try again. And then read these words (remind them to put their pens down!).

Mad wrath Fear Happy hate Fight Rage hatred Temper Mean fury Calm Ire emotion Enrage

Have them write down as many as they remember again.

Once they are done, look over the words they wrote from the first list, and see if the word “sweet” is among them.  And then for the second list, look over the words and see if the word “anger” is there. 

If they wrote sweet, or angry, they are in really good company. 80% of people who do this pick out sweet, and angry as words they remember.  By this I mean, they are in really good wrong company.

Because….look back, of all those words, none of them were sweet, or angry.

This is one of many fascinating things about memory. It works by association. You don’t necessarily remember facts, you remember the feelings and ideas associated with facts. This is what researchers Paul Doherty and Pat Murphy describe as the difference between story-truth, and happening-truth. 

“Happening-truth is the bare facts, what happened at such and such a time.  Story-truth is the story you tell yourself about that truth, the details you fill in, the version that helps you make sense of the world.”

Memories include both of these – the things we heard and observed and felt, and also things we hear later, as well as suggestions from others, and they are filtered through our existing stories, the ways we understand ourselves and life.  Over time, all this becomes integrated so that we really can’t tell which part is which, it’s all just one seamless memory.

How do you feel when you hear this? 

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus says that people are often really disturbed by this idea, because we feel “attached to our remembered past, and the people, places, and events we enshrine in memory” translate in our minds into our actual real selves, our real lives. 

But if we can’t trust our memories as real, then we wonder if we can really know who we are, or what’s real, at all. It can be disturbing, but then again, it can also be good news, especially for those of us who experience memory loss, or who love someone who has memory loss. 

Dementia can create in us a painful spiritual crisis.  Or at least it can if we imagine that we are our memories, and our memories are us – from this perspective, dementia makes us wonder if there is some point in the forgetting when a person is no longer a person. Because as the memories dissolve, we wonder if the self dissolves, as well.   

But, in this new understanding of memory – we realize that we have had this all backwards. Our memories do not represent a set series of fixed events that when stacked back to back add up to us.   Even in a brain without dementia, memories are malleable, and constantly under construction – subject perpetually to what Loftus calls post-event-information – so much so that with the right combination of factors, any of us can be completely certain of a memory that never actually happened; and completely forget one that did.

If anything, instead of our lives being the sum of all our memories, our memories are the sum of us at any given time – changing and becoming as we change and become – so that as William Faulkner said it, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

These are fitting words for a time when we are celebrating both the release of our congregation’s 125 year history book, as well as my own 10 year anniversary of serving this community. 

When I started my ministry with you, my children were 4 and 6. They are now 14 and 17.  

I was 36, and now I’m about to turn 47. When I was being considered for senior minister, a number of people thought I might be too young – I was about to turn 40. 

Sometimes I look in the mirror now and think, well, by now they are probably convinced otherwise.  

Long haul ministry – like long term membership in a congregation- inevitably means we will see each other age. And most days, I know this is a gift. 

Because it also means that we will grow many memories together. It also means, sometimes these memories will be painful.  In truth, there have been a few moments in the last decade when I have wondered if we had too many difficult shared memories, if we had gone through too much together, if a clean slate allowing a certain kind of amnesia would be better.  

But each time this thought flashes in my mind, I know immediately two things. 

First, that it’s a thought based mostly in my own fear.  And since one of my life commitments is to live not from fear, but from love, I know it’s basically BS.  

And second, I also know that the way to healing comes not from forgetting – i.e. a “clean slate,” – but from careful, intentional, relentless, remembering – and that through our staying put in a long term partnership, we have the chance for real change, and redemption, and rejoicing – not just in our own memories, but of the memories we inherit, the collective memory of the Foothills Unitarian Church.

When I was an intern, at the UU Church of Boulder – it was my very first December serving in a church. My supervisor and I sat down one day to talk about Christmas Eve. I had a million ideas of pageantry and innovation – but he declined all of them. 

The gift of the holiday season, he told me, is a very simple re-encounter with familiar stories. Our job is to just let the memories do the work, and to not get in the way of that magic. It is a magic that happens simultaneously in each person, and across the whole gathered community – as they each remember their own stories, and also their shared experiences in this same place – as it has changed, and as they have each changed,  and as this place and this community has changed them. The bitter, and the sweet of it all. 

That’s the magic, and that’s the gift of this season. Anything else we try to add on, is too much.

In these next few weeks, there will surely be moments where it feels like there’s just too much of everything. When that happens, I invite you to take some good, calming breaths, and lean into the simple gift of memory.  

Allow yourself to encounter once again the ancient stories of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and the rituals of Winter Solstice. Watch the familiar movies, bake and eat the familiar treats, sing familiar carols. 

Whatever is offered, allow the waves of memories to come in and out, trusting that memory is meant to be collective. Which means if a memory is too painful, know that someone, somewhere can hold it, and you can let it go. 

Feel the ways that this simple gift of collective memory can be a practice of hope, where we remember a past that is still emerging, and shifting, and offering us still a chance to heal, and grow, and begin again – in love. 

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More Than Enough

Reading: The Church Where Everything Goes Wrong by Elea Kemler

Sermon: More than Enough

Like a lot of teenagers, my daughter really does not love getting up in the morning. 

Instead she loves her cozy bed, and the sweet dark of her room. Many days she can barely be persuaded that anything else would be better than just staying there, and sleeping.

This can lead to a lot of frustrating exchanges, and more than a few tense words.

But sometimes, when I’m in a more patient place, I can step back and laugh at how 17 years ago, I would’ve given anything for her to sleep like that.   

For most of her first year, Gracie would wake up three or four times a night, usually soaked through her diaper, and hungry. Like most first time parents, we both knew this could happen, and also had no idea what it would actually feel like to go weeks and months at a time with no more than 3 hours of sleep in a row. 

I am confident I lost a part of my brain functioning that I am never going to get back.

Now, since we could not breast feed, there was no “turning over and feeding intermittently off and on in a sleepy haze.”  Night feeding for us meant trekking down the curvy stairs to the kitchen, where we would carefully make a bottle, go back up stairs, feed her, and then eventually go back to sleep. Only to be woken up for a repeat a couple hours later.  

Over and over again for months. Until one day Carri had a brilliant idea where she realized, we could pre-make the bottles and avoid the up and down the stairs part, not to mention the trying to make the bottles while half-asleep, which let’s be honest often resulted in spoonfuls of formula on the counter.

It felt like a really good solution, except for one thing. Pre-made bottles can’t sit out all night.  

So we made a special trip to Babies R Us and found a special cooler meant just for bottles that we could keep in our room – we felt so proud. The only wrinkle in our plan was that Gracie would have to drink cold bottles. 

It wasn’t technically bad for her, but let’s just say she did not make a happy face when she’d take her first gulp.But those extra minutes of sleep in the night were everything to us. And so with only a tiny bit of guilt, we decided it was fine. She’d be fine.

Fast forward two years, when our second child, Josef arrived. From the start, he was a much better sleeper, but still he’d wake in the night for food and changing like babies do. 

So we pulled out that little cooler, and returned to our routine. Until, one morning, Carri looked at me and said –  why don’t we get the water all ready, and the bottles with the right amount of formula in them, and put them all by our bed – but then not mix them until he needs them in the night. That way they don’t have to be cold, but we also don’t have to go all the way to the kitchen. 

When she said this, we burst out laughing, and also immediately felt so bad for Gracie and all those sad faces she’d make with the cold bottles.

The solution had been there in front of us the whole time – but as first-time moms doing so many things for the first time, we had been overwhelmed, and tired, and anxious – you know because of regular stuff of being new moms – but also from the high risk of the foster-adoptive process– and…. did I mention we were tired? 

We were clumsy and disoriented so much of the time – which meant we simply could not see that what we needed was right there – and instead we came up with all these other solutions, that created other problems, and poor Gracie had to endure all those cold bottles. 

Has this ever happened to you? 

Where the thing you need is right in front of you, but it might as well be on another planet. Especially when you’re tired, or anxious, or doing something you’ve never done before.Things are just hard and overwhelming and a struggle – until suddenly something happens and it’s like you just – wake up – and the thing you’ve been needing is just there. And then instead of life feeling impossible and overwhelming, without anything really changing, life feels suddenly easy and like you have everything you could ever need or want. 

Or really, without anything changing outside of you. Because what happens is that something significant does change inside you. Something breaks loose in your heart, in your mind, your body. Where there was struggle and chaos, there is ease and breath; and where there was judgment, there is joy; and right where you had been rigid and annoyed, you instead start to laugh with delight. 

It is an experience of awakening to what is already true, as if seeing with new eyes, or as if the world, the realer world, just comes into focus. When it happens it feels like magic, and in a certain way, it is.  Because there is not a precise formula to get the switch to flip – something happens IN you that is both about you, and also profoundly not about you.

It reminds me of how I have come to think about addiction, and recovery. Which is that there’s an element of getting sober that requires making choices – every day choices that create the possibility for wellness both in an individual, and in the people around that individual, choices that include new patterns of behaviors and boundaries, choices built on a commitment to change, and choices that create new opportunities for connection. 

And also, there is an element of recovery that is beyond personal choice.

It is instead about the intervention of grace that releases the grip of addiction and makes sobriety possible. 

And this happens not just in addiction, but in all sorts of ways when we can get caught in a kind of pain and struggle, until- in a flash or in a slow, meticulous crawl, we come instead to know healing, and freedom, and joy. All a result of both choices we make, and also something beyond our own choices. I call it grace because it doesn’t matter whether you deserve this awakening or not; and it doesn’t matter whether you have tried hard enough, or want it enough.

Grace is the force that comes as a gift – the force that softens your heart, or flips the switch, or opens your eyes and ears and minds to something that was already and always true. Where you realize everything you need is here – in you, around you, among us – and has been all along.

With all that said, I don’t mean to invoke the sort of theology that says all we have to do is think differently and life will be beautiful. You know, the sort of theology popularized in The Secret or by Tony Robbins or even Deepak Chopra – all of which offer a version of the idea that by simply re-framing our mindset, we will have everything we need, or that we can power of positive thinking our way to the good life. 

These are dangerous theologies that don’t hold up to any of the atrocities of human existence, e.g. slavery, or famine, or abuse…let alone physical or mental illness – these tangible realities are not erased by thinking differently.      

What I mean instead is that there is something also always and persistently true, alongside and intertwined with our greatest losses, which is the presence of persistent and unconditional goodness, and abundance, universally available and unconditional. Some might conceive of this goodness and abundance as God, but you don’t have to.

One explicitly Unitarian way of conceiving of it comes from the Transcendentalists – a 19th century movement in our history that focused on the capacity of individuals to discern ultimate truth through their own experiences, and the goodness of human nature – and all nature. One of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the persistent presence of unconditional goodness as the Over-Soul. 

I want to read a long-ish quote from his 1841 essay called the OverSoul – because I want us to hear this theology that is our own tradition – that we can work with – and because it gives us a way to understand and conceive of this goodness that is always and everywhere available.

Emerson writes:

…the “great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, the Oversoul within which every [person’s] particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [they are], and to speak from [their] character, and not from [their] tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within humanity is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.

And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”

That we can wake up and experience a sense of this reality – this awareness that everything we need is here – that it can for even a moment wash over us with delight and wonder and joy – without anything changing all that much outside of us – is a reminder that we can live with a faith in this truth – all the time. 

So that when we feel we are falling short, or when we feel the world around us is falling short – which happens all the time in small, everyday ways, and also in devastating, destructive ways – we can remember that in these same places where there is struggle, there is also the presence of this great oneness, and universal beauty. 

A presence that offers us companionship in the struggle, a promise that we are never alone, that we are seen and known, and loved; and also a presence that offers us partnership and support to carry us through, and the assurance that something else is still possible.

As the prophet Isaiah said: Behold, I am doing a new thing – do you not perceive it? To live with this awareness – even when we are not perceiving it – is an orientation of the heart, and an act of faith – and this faith is one of those choices that makes our experience of this goodness more possible, that we might in turn become its partner and co-conspirator, furthering its reach and its force in our own lives and in the world.    

Elea Kemler wrote her story about the church where everything goes wrong just a couple months after she started a new ministry, which is not at all the case for me –  I’ve been serving Foothills for just over a decade as of this summer. But there was a moment, right around that ten-year mark –  where I couldn’t stop thinking about her reflection, and that feeling she describes so well where she wants everything to be holy and lovely and perfect and instead it’s difficult and loud and a struggle.

Especially coming out of the pandemic, sometimes I’ve felt like we have a kind of amnesia where we all sort of forget how to do this thing we’ve done every Sunday for over a century–  but then also I remember that sometimes that amnesia is about trauma, and I remember we’ve been through something. 

Something that matters, and that we are still trying to make sense of, and I remember this recovery is happening not just in church, but in all sorts of spaces – like schools and workplaces and spaces for volunteering and activism. Things that we remember as being easy feel instead difficult and complex.

Kind of like when Carri and I were first time parents, there’s this collective anxiety and exhaustion among people these days –that make even the most obvious things feel obscure and out of reach. 

It was the Sunday my friend and colleague Rev. Kelly Dignan was here to lead service, and we were preparing for our first new member ceremony in nearly three years. She’d arrived early and we were walking through the order of service with staff, and volunteers, and it was just taking forever. 

One issue after another came up, until finally ready or not, it was just time to start. I leaned over to Kelly – and asked – do you remember church ever being this hard? She just laughed and said, I really don’t. 

The service proceeded on, and before long it was time for the membership ceremony, and at that point Elaine invited everyone who had recently joined Foothills, or who was ready that day to join to come forward – and at that moment, about 1/3 of the gathering got out of their chairs rushed the stage.

I later called it our Unitarian Altar Call. It was chaotic and confusing and it took about 10 minutes longer than we thought it would but in that moment something broke open in me. 

Instead of being annoyed and overwhelmed at the mess of it all, I was overcome with how beautiful it all is.That after everything, we are all still seeking community, and relationship, and meaning, and these impulses are not tidy, they overflow.  Because this goodness is abundant and resilient and everywhere.

Coming back to church after these last few years, in many ways we are all new here, because this moment is new, and we are all learning all over again who we are and how to do all this together, and why.  How to have a church that is both in the sanctuary and also in so many other places, including in our homes – what it means to have a faith that is uncontained, and everywhere.

In the place of our greatest struggle resides also the source of beauty. Here we are met in partnership with the presence of love that abides, and that reminds us over and over.  We are not just enough – we are together, more than enough. Already, and always.

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Bearing Witness

This week, one of my parents’ friends experienced a tragedy. 

Their daughter – who was my age, died suddenly, from a hidden medical issue they failed to uncover in time.  

My parents live far away from me, as do their friends and their daughter – I’d never even met her, and yet I have spent all week holding the grief of their loss, and feeling the pain of the circles of people impacted. It has been heavy, and at times overwhelming.

Some of this could be because we were the same age – so it hits a little harder. But mostly what happened is that I knew enough of her story that my sense of deeper compassion across our shared humanity was awakened. My heart broke with an awareness of the common experience of suffering and the risk of loving and living at all. 

When we bear witness to another’s pain, our hearts open instinctively with compassion. Bearing witness is how we protect a sense of universal common humanity, even in the face of the many forces today that seek to divide and destroy us.

Bearing witness is an essential part of responding faithfully to injustice, and pain – for each of us individually, and collectively. It is not all we are called to do – but sometimes it is our best and most possible response, and it is always the place where we must start. 

And, at the same time, we cannot bear witness to everything – all the stories of pain, and compassion that exist. 

We must be intentional about which stories we hear, and tell. Especially given the internet, and the reality of peak globalization today – there are simply too many stories, too many places of pain and injustice for a single heart to hold.

Scroll through your social media feed, or listen for any length of time to the BBC – it doesn’t take long to find economic and political collapse, devastating violence, extreme drought, or flooding, or fires, the threat of nuclear weapons once again….I could go on but also I can’t. Which is the point.  

Attempting to bear witness to it all lead us into overwhelm, which is paralyzing, and results in either numbing or despair. But even more importantly, bearing witness unintentionally leaves no space for us to hear the other things that are also true across the globe. 

The stories of resilience, and resistance – exemplified by the women protesting in Iran right now, or the stories of the persistence of the human spirit of creativity and beauty – modeled by the Estonian music during soviet occupation, and in the ways Estonia is making music for Ukraine today. 

Bearing witness to these also-true stories of celebration and survival is the fuel to keep us going, and the food that will sustain us in our compassion, even as we bear witness to the brokenness. 

It is the reminder of the world we are fighting for. 

Being intentional in what we bear witness to does not mean willful ignorance afforded by our relative privilege. It requires instead a commitment to seeking out stories that are outside our own immediate circle – stories beyond our families, or our city; beyond Northern Colorado – beyond the US – and then paying attention to where this expanded compassion threatens to overwhelm and shut us down. 

And also paying attention to when – instead of our hearts breaking open, we stay in our heads – in analytical distance, or over-simplified narratives – these too are signals of overwhelm, and shutting down – even if it looks on the surface like we are still engaging.  

Intentionally bearing witness means knowing these limits, and respecting your own boundaries. And using this signal to instead intentionally seek out those other stories of celebration too. Intentionally bearing witness is a practice of sitting with all of these stories in their wholeness. 

It is a practice that could also be called a sacrament. Or at least it can be when it is understood as a part of a collective act. In the same way we say – we each have a piece of the truth – we must also understand that we are each called to bear witness to a piece of the story. 

As Unitarian Universalists we know, we are not in this life, or this work alone. We are a part of a network. A network that includes organizations and institutions like the UU Service Committee, and the UU at UN office, and the UU International Office, alongside other UU congregations, and other faith communities and activist organizations and institutions – each of these bear witness to a part of the world’s story, as well. 

To bear witness with intention is to bear witness to these other organizations and their vision – and to support them and uplift them whenever and however we can. None of us are called to bear witness to it all. 

But when we recognize bearing witness as an act of partnership – where we intentionally understand ourselves as a part of an ecosystem that holds suffering, amplifies resistance, celebrates beauty, and seeks healing – then this work becomes not overwhelming, but sustaining and energizing.  

We can pay attention with our full hearts, open, and soft, and ready to break open, choosing to respond again and again, with love. 

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Queer More Than Memory (or, the closets made from the words we didn’t yet have)

This post is a companion piece to a post I wrote in February 2015, “A Conversation Begins with a Lie…”

Like a lot of moments in my life, I recently realized something important while listening to the Indigo Girls.  

Carri and I were at Red Rocks for their concert with Brandi Carlile in early September with our friend, Al. Al was one of the first people I introduced Carri to when she and I were first together. Carri was so nervous – she wanted to make a good impression on Al, and her then-partner Lee. She knew they were my closest friends, and also they were more than that. They were my family. And also, more than that.

Exactly what we all were to each other by then was harder specifically to say. It was true that Lee and I were mostly no longer together at that point. I’d done most of my grieving about the way things had ended between us the year before, accepting that there were other loves now, others who were squeezing their way into her day planner. Except for the occasional burst of flirtation, or forays into kink Lee led us all to in those days, it was pretty accurate to say we were all just friends.  Which was mostly, finally, a word meant not just as a stand in for all the words we didn’t yet have.

Even 28 years later, when I think about turning on the computer in the campus lab, I can still feel that mix of jittery faux-confidence she inspired in me. Back in those days, I didn’t own a computer that got email, at least not easily, and so I’d trek across campus in the dark, to the one lab that was open 24 hours, to see if Lee had replied to the long, wandering thoughts I’d sent her hours before.

In those days, email wasn’t an overwhelming annoyance. It was a secret intimacy of confession and uncoverings, especially for someone like me, who would never have the courage to say all the things that came through my head, out loud. Especially to someone like her.

We first met working on plays. I was a freshman, she was a sophomore. Before I even knew her, I knew she was not straight. Not just because she had a steady girlfriend, and a shaved head, but also because she was never someone who passed. Even those of us who were clueless could see what she was saying, and mostly that was on purpose. 

She wasn’t the first queer person I’d met, but I’m pretty sure she was the first out one. Not that I had any intention of letting her know that. Every energy in me instead was directed towards acting like nothing about her was that surprising, or interesting, or unusual. I was entirely committed to every exchange we had basically being a long, effortless shrug.

Which of course resulted in a supreme number of cringe-worthy early interactions. The first time I talked to her, I complimented her on her earring (just the one) because it seemed from a distance, very cool. She blushed, and said, oh, you like it? 

I saw her blush and then wondered if there was something more there than just a long cylindrical shape hanging from one ear – which, I mean – different earrings on each ear was plenty radical for me already,  and cool. Which is why I said something.  But after she blushed, I leaned in a bit to see it more closely, and I realized, it was the bodies of two women, intertwined.  While in my head I could only think: “don’t blush-don’t blush-don’t blush-don’t blush….” out loud I just looked her in the eye and said, Oh, yeah. I do.  Shrug.

This moment launched a pattern for most of my flirtation with women from then on – that is, where I basically try to play off my supreme cluelessness as confidence.

Not too long after that first accidental flirtation, she and I talked for real for the first time.  A conversation where we randomly ended up debating about whether some famous (straight) person was signaling instead that they were gay. She tried to explain to me about self-discovery, and the fluidity of sexuality – but I was stubborn and faux-confidently sure I was right. 

People do not just become gay, I remember saying. They either are, or they aren’t. She was kind enough not to roll her eyes. Or, really, she was just very patient. Because it wasn’t too long before the joke was on me.

At first our emails were about this girl she had a wild crush on, and how she was trying to reconcile that with her commitment to her girlfriend. And how she was discovering a new language for what it meant to love more than one person at a time. 

At first, I probably tried to flatten that impulse too. Nothing surprising, or interesting, or unusual. Shrug. Luckily she was uncontainable, as was my heart, once I realized the whole other-girl crush-was a ruse, for us both. Emails turned to secret notes turned to long walks until eventually I realized I was going to kiss her. And then I was kissing her.

She wasn’t the only one with complications. I was at the time in a long distance relationship with a pretty serious boyfriend. We’d left things open, when he graduated the year before, but I’d since seen him a few times, and I loved him. He knew about her, and sometimes sweetly teased me about how distracted she made me. But nothing felt like it had changed between him and me. This was something else. Something that made my heart feel like it was bursting from my chest – and also that I was determined was actually –fine. It wasn’t a shrug anymore, but it was instead something that simply made complete sense.

One night in my bedroom, she turned on a mix tape she’d made for me – filled with the Indigo Girls, and also Ferron, and Melissa Ferrick, and Ani Difranco – and she asked me, how do you feel about your new bisexual identity?

All I could think was that I felt free.

I never once felt shame loving her, or wanting her, and I never really felt confused. I didn’t feel like I had been in the closet before that point. It just didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t straight – until it really did.  Maybe my early commitment to being unfazed helped – like I willed myself into being ok, and happy. And I was. Except for the fact that we had no language to describe what was happening – even to ourselves. Or how to communicate the sort of importance she was to me, and that I was to her. It was 1996, and I was 20 years old from a small town, raised in a sheltered Catholic family. We barely knew how to talk about being queer, let alone what we eventually learned was called polyamorous.

Literally, we didn’t have that word at the time – though it did exist by then (a quick google search says it was coined in 1990), but it hadn’t reached the queer community or the theatre department in our little liberal arts college in Tacoma, Washington. Just like we didn’t yet have words like non-binary, or gender fluid, or even pansexual.

We had instead Leslie Feinberg and Susie Bright and Kate Bornstein and Cherrie Moraga and Audre Lorde, and butches, and femmes, and dykes and lipstick lesbians, and soon, Ellen. They all opened up so much for us (even Ellen), and also, there were limits we were all caught in. Limits in language that in turn became limits in imagination. We didn’t mean to be closeted – but coming out requires words.

In the earliest days, the three of us went out a few times – Lee, Al, and I. There were never any secrets between us, just a lot of unchartered territory. I understood they wanted to have children together, and be partners. We didn’t know to think about being wives back then, or at least not without laughing hysterically at the absurdity of embracing such patriarchal ideas like marriage. Later we’d learn terms like “primary partners,” and “compersion” – which is the opposite of jealousy – when you feel joy at the idea of your love finding love with another. In those days, I know Al didn’t really feel compersion about me, but we got there, eventually. 

After she graduated, Lee and I worked on her solo performance piece together – about loving in the sort of way that doesn’t fit words, and about having a body that doesn’t seem to fit what people expect, or be able to contain the amount of love she had to give.

In one scene, she offers a series of attempts to introduce me. “This is my – really really really really good friend.” Smile sadly, try again. “This is my lover,” she’d say with a wink, and a blush. We never found a word that worked. I accepted the invisibility as if it was its own honor. I knew who we were. It was fine. Shrug.

In another scene, she’d re-enact the many times children would demand she tell them, “are you a boy, or a girl?” And they’d even argue with her. She’d tell the audience, “I was never confused with my gender…Gender is confused with me.”

A decade after the show’s run, she told me she felt done with her breasts, and I didn’t get it. I laughed it off, without even asking why. I realized later I was stuck on how much her being a girl, with breasts, was important to me

The confusion of your body is part of the truth, why would you erase that? I asked her. It took me another few years to realize what she was saying, and I still feel bad that I missed her cue, caught as I was in our old words, and our old categories.

When it came time for graduation, Lee and Al returned to their home state of Colorado – Lee had been accepted to graduate school in theatre in Boulder. By then, my boyfriend and I had ended things, on a good note, while she and Al were building a life. Lee and I talked often that year, over the distance, and emailed more long, ponderous, tortured emails. One night on the phone I was going on and on about a mutual friend of ours, about the time we’d been spending together, how I was getting to know him in a new way. You love him, she said to me, like she was proud and amazed and excited for me. Compersion. I blushed and stalled, but didn’t deny it. Just a few days before, he’d told me that seeing Lee and I together was the first time he felt like he understood what being in love really looked like.

When it came time for my own graduation, I applied to graduate schools in theatre all across the country, including Boulder. I didn’t exactly mean to follow her to Colorado, and probably wouldn’t have except that CU gave me the sort of fellowship you don’t turn down. And so in the summer of 1997, almost exactly 25 years ago, I got on a plane and moved to Boulder, into a condo that I had not seen, but that I had sent Lee to scope for me – along with the two roommates I’d be living with. Based entirely on her word, I signed a lease. For at least the first few months, my new roommates thought of her only as my girlfriend. Until they met her actual girlfriend, and then she was back to being something less clear.

Twenty five years later, with Al on one side of me, and Carri on the other, under the full moon at Red Rocks, with the now-middle aged Emily and Amy leading thousands of queer shes and theys and a handful of straight boys (who had not as much bi-wife energy as you might think) singing Power of Two, and Least Complicated, and Closer to Fine – these songs that they wrote when they were much closer to the age when we first heard them – I kept flashing on all of these moments, these days where our lives were so fundamentally shaped. Shaped by silence, and the attempts to overcome silence. Shaped by the language we had, and the imagination we could manage, and the community we had. Which was everything to us in those days. We may not have yet had all these words (let alone the internet), but we did have lesbian bars and bookstores and women’s centers.  Places where culture was transmitted by way of drag king shows, take back the night rallies and dykes to watch out for, and where for a time, it really did feel like we were all irrepressibly free.

At one point in the concert, Al and I realized that the first time she and I heard these songs together, we were the same age her youngest kid is now. Those children she and Lee had dreamed about, they are now college students, just like we were when we all met, and fell in love. 

I started to wonder then, who we all would be, if we had grown up with all the words our children have. How things might have shifted without the weight of so much invisibility. If any of our relationships would’ve lasted longer – or maybe ended sooner, but with less pain. 

I’ve wondered too, how Lee would talk and think about her gender, now – how any of our butch or androgynous friends from the time would understand their gender now – if we had the words back then. And I wonder about me, too.  How our limits in language shaped how I know myself now. I’ve had these moments lately where I realize there are words for the back and forth feelings of masc (we would’ve said butch) and femme I’ve had for my whole life. I think if I would’ve grown up with all these words, I might’ve called myself gender fluid, I told Carri the other day. She laughed and said, it’s like with sexuality, you want all the options. Just like religion, you want all the religions. And for a moment I felt that same freedom from when Lee first asked me about being bi. You’re right, I said. Doesn’t everyone? 

This wondering comes with some grief, of course. For the ways we were caught in a certain version of freedom that felt so good, but also was a little like the lesbian movies we watched back then – it didn’t matter how good they actually were (and mostly they weren’t) because when you are starving, any food feels like a miracle. 

None of this means that I want to go back, or even wish to re-enact that time of my life in a queer version of a mid-life crisis. I might have some nostalgia about those days, but not enough to make me forget how hard it all was, to burn so brightly with becoming, all the time. 

More, at that moment, with those friends, at that concert – I realized I don’t want all this queerness to exist only as memory, or to be marked only by loss. I want it to show up less like a folk singers’ reunion tour, where we all try not to notice they haven’t updated their set list in 25 years, and more like the bad ass surprising ways Emily Saliers got up and slayed the guitar in the encore.

I want to say, even now – at almost-47, having been with the same partner for more than 23 years, and even given that our lives are dictated so fully by the needs of our two teenagers who are entirely engrossed in their own becoming – even now, all of these ways of being and loving are still true in me. Despite the fact that I’m just as clueless now about what it would mean to date men as I was about dating women back in 1995 – I’m still bi. And even though claiming words like “gender fluid” still feels a little like when I try to say “bet,” or “mid”…I am excited about continuing to explore how gender shows up in me in authentic and dynamic ways.  And regardless of the reality that Carri and I are too busy to be anything but monogamous, I still get what it means to be in love with more than one person at a time – and to do that faithfully. And I also still know what a gift it is to take not offense, but delight in your partner’s flirtations (or more) with someone other than you. 

It’s one of the reasons for this year’s National Coming Out Day, I decided to write this story, with all the words we have now, and all the no-longer-faux-confidence that comes from being middle aged. To say out loud: we loved this fiercely, this bravely, without any role models, or books, or online networks – or online anything.  Except, of course, those emails.

Almost three decades later, I finally have the not-faux-confidence to stop pretending to be unfazed by this reality.  Instead I’ve decided to finally spend some time feeling shocked, and proud, and amazed, and overcome with joy – and relieved. For all that we were then – all that love and desire and telling the truth we managed through it all.  And even more, for who we are now. That queerness is not something to tuck away in the drawer and then pull out when we want to reminisce. That it is a living source of joy and creativity, and power.  That we can keep telling the truth – even as it is still emerging in us, and in our loving, and becoming – even at middle age, and beyond. That we can keep shaking free from the silence, and keep coming out from all the closets, even those made from the words we don’t yet have. 

me & lee in denver, circa 2002
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The Dream of the Perfect Plan

It was February 1990, when the South African president Frederick Willem de Klerk made a shocking announcement: he would be releasing Nelson Mandela after 27 years in prison, and he would legalize Mandela’s political party and all other opposition parties for the first time, and begin talks towards a political transition. 

After more than 40 years under apartheid, in a flash, something new was possible. The future was suddenly uncertain, which as Rebecca Solnit has said, is the best possible thing it can be. 

After his announcement, a series of other changes happened one after another – Adam Kahane, a key consultant in the process – later described the flurry of “declarations and demands from politicians, community activists, church leaders and businesspeople; mass demonstrations by popular movements and attempts by the police and military to reassert control; and all manner of negotiating meetings, large and small, formal and informal, open and secret.”

Even though everyone was clear that things could not and would not be as they were before,  there was a lot of disagreement about how the future would go. People were both excited, and afraid; energized and exhausted. Just as we usually are in the middle of major change. A mix of terrified, and hopeful.

Kahane says that there was a joke he heard often around that time. ‘Faced with our country’s overwhelming problems,’ the joke went, ‘we have only two options: a practical option, and a miraculous option. The practical option would be for all of us to get down on our knees and pray for a band of angels to come down from heaven and solve our problems for us. The miraculous option would be for us to talk and work together and to find a way forward together.”

In the middle of major change, the idea of connecting with and working with others – especially who we aren’t sure we should trust, or who we don’t know all that well – is often our farthest instinct. Being with others is often messy, and emotional, and in the midst of change we more often go seeking the stable, the logical, and the clear cut.

As Karen Hering observes, “at the very moment we might most benefit from its support – the moment where we are most vulnerable, many of us “can [the most] be guarded against community.” 

We tell ourselves the change we face is so unique no one else can relate or understand, or our ego or sense of identity tells us we’ve got to make this journey all on our own. We must, as the phrase goes, “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” We get to work, and we make a plan. A plan where we have properly anticipated all of the potential options, and planned for them. We make a perfect plan where all the uncertainty of the moment is replaced instead with clarity, and control.

Plans feel so good. Especially when you’re in the middle of a lot of change. Stanford philosophy Professor Michael E. Bratman says –  “planning gives people a sense of personal freedom, and autonomy.” In the midst of change, plans are a way to claim agency. Like we have a say in our own life, and in the future. 

Plans don’t just feel good, they are also practically helpful. They help us make sense of complexity,  they help make goals more possible, and they help our brains settle down, which allows us to focus on our lives right now. 

One of the first things the pandemic took from us was our capacity to plan. At least, beyond the very short term. Plans are built on the idea that things in the future will be somewhat like things in the past, and that variations in the future are logical, and occur within a certain reasonable span of possibilities.

The pandemic stole this sense of future predictability, and logic, and instead invited us to live in a world where plans were mostly proven to be a fool’s game.

Take for example, our staff plans last year around this time – when we decided to start planning for a large Christmas gathering.  We reserved a space at the Lincoln Center which would accommodate more than we could safely manage in our own space. We held many meetings, including at the Lincoln Center, to walk through how it would all work. We recruited singers, and nativity storytelling participants.  We sent postcards of promotion, and we reached out personally – we were more than ready to spend Christmas together once again in one great gathering. 

By early December, nearly 400 people had registered to attend. It was all coming together perfectly.Perfectly, except for the arrival of Omicron. Combined with the fact that at that point, younger kids weren’t able to get vaccinated – and this was a service geared especially for families with younger children.

After a LOT of back and forth and hand wringing,we scrapped all our perfect plans and instead found ourselves in a last-minute scramble. Within days, portable stages were rented, outdoor stage lighting set up, and the whole script was re-written – and turned into two smaller services. We reached out to all 400 who’d registered, and for the most part, everyone was grateful and understood. 

2021’s curve balls weren’t done with us yet, however.  Three days before Christmas Eve, we learned that someone who had been in my home unmasked for an extended period tested positive. Our church safety guidelines meant that I could not attend Christmas Eve.

Once again, the whole script was adjusted, and, for the first time in ten years of Christmas Eve’s at Foothills, I missed the whole thing. 

Even though it was hard to accept, back in March of 2020, that we would be all online for a whole year, the upside was that at least in one realm of life, we could plan. But by the fall of 2021, that small piece of predictability fell away, and every other week felt like making everything up as we went along. And this wasn’t just true in church, it was schools, and businesses, and travel plans. Weddings, memorials, graduations, and family gatherings. Everyone was in a constant state of plan, throw out the plans, and then scramble – repeat. 

And even worse, unlike in 2020 where we had the sense of being in the mess together, by 2021 there were a million different ways people understood what was happening, what mattered, how to respond, what safety meant, and how best to move into the future. 

A little like the joke from South Africa, it felt like there were two options for us, and the practical option would be for a band of angels to come and solve our problems for us, and the miracle would be that we’d all work together and actually bring an end to the global pandemic. 

Thirty years ago, when faced with their sudden and world-shifting change, the South African leadership realized that if they were going to truly bring about the sort of change they longed for, they would need to start by overcoming a similar isolation and division. 

To build their future, they would need to make the miracle happen, and as Karen Hering says it, claim companions – in the widest possible sense.

Afterall, the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps  started as an insult – thrown at people who had a delusional and/or egotistical sense that they could go it on their own – in the same way it would be literally impossible, and delusional, to think you could pull yourself up when you are fallen – by your own bootstraps.  Only decades later did this insult get confused as congratulations, as if this foolishness is actually a source of pride. 

Given the complexity of life today, and the pace of change, it would be wise to remember the phrase’s original meaning – and as Hering says, “if it is pulling up we need, [realize] it is delusional to think any of us can do it alone.”

The people of South Africa came to a similar conclusion. 

Before they could begin imagining the future, they needed to locate themselves in a shared present. They convened a conversation across a great diversity of perspectives, some of whom they weren’t sure could even manage to be in the same room with each other, yet all of whom cared a great deal about where they were going. They needed to get to know each other, and build trust, and learn to move – as adrienne maree brown talks about – at the speed of trust. 

Most change processes never really move past this first stage of building relationship, because they try to rush through it, and never really establish trust. As Kahane says, “many of the people in this stage are skeptical or suspicious. Some are invested in the status quo, or in their own competing effort to deal with it. You have to work hard to overcome the centrifugal fragmentation and polarization that motivated you to try to organize them in the first place. You may need to try many times before you can find a way to get the conversation off the ground. You may fail and decide to walk away, or to try another way at another time.” 

In the case of South Africa, once the different folks ended up in the room, the first big challenge was to articulate a shared understanding of what was happening around them. Not just from their own vantage point, but to begin to see the bigger picture with “fresh eyes.” They listened to one another, and they also commissioned research, and went on field trips to see experiences that were not their own. 

They looked for the structural driving forces, and the themes both of what was known, and unknown. 

Kahane calls this a process of breathing in – before you can get to the breathing out, as in the process of imagining and creating a future.  They had to fully breathe in all the different ways to understand, and accept where they were, before they could begin to imagine where they would be going next.

The breathing out came, eventually – as they together moved into creating a shared sense that the future was not yet written – to return to the mantra Elaine offered last week. The future was not written, and also, The future was emergent, as in, being shaped through a process of ongoing co-creation that they could help shape, and also was a process that was beyond any one of their individual control, which also means it was beyond anything that could be fully planned. 

To help activate their roles as co-creators in their shared future, the conveners of the conversation invited them to describe the potential ways the future could go – not should go, or would go, but could go. Finding agreement on a variety of possible outcomes for the future helped the stakeholders imagine together what story they would want to live from.

This was a different sort of planning – what later came to be called a Transformative Scenario Planning process, because it was not just adapting to the change that was happening, as it was happening, it was also finding ways to shape that change. 

To become partners in the co-creation. In seminary, we learned that in all the various places where we have translated the Bible from Greek to the English word perfect, an equally valid translation would be the word whole.  I’ve hung on to this as a reminder that instead of seeking perfection – as in, blamelessness, or free from mistakes – we could instead seek wholeness, as in something more deeply complete,  and capable, and abundant.

When we turn first to one another, and claim companions in the middle of change, we create the possibility not for a perfect plan, but for a plan that is more whole, and more in tune with our mutual wholeness.  A plan where we co-create our future, and where we choose the story we together want to live from. 

Our Christmas Eve services last year were definitely not what we had planned for. But they were beautiful. Because we were grounded in community – I knew that even though I was not there, the gathering would continue on because our community is not about any one of us – it’s about the power of all of us –and the shared story we choose to live from. This story of being bound up together in the tangled blessing of life – and the power of courageous love that brings us through it all.  

Our gathering wasn’t perfect, but it was whole. 

This is what I hope for us as we look ahead to our future. That we will continue to turn towards each other as we co-create. A future based not in specific outcomes, but in specific relationships. 

Because this world continues to shift, and the changes are not over yet.   

We practice it here, and then we bring it out into our lives. We learn to move at the speed of trust, and we make space for an emergent future that  we co-create, together.


Trusting Change by Karen Hering

Transformative Scenario Planning by Adam Kahane

“Humans Make Plans Because It Makes them Feel Free”

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