Holy Heck, I Met Kurt Eichenwald

Happy weekend, friends. Here is a long but significant piece. Thank you for reading!

So I had quite the experience last Friday. I met Kurt Eichenwald, and we had a meaningful conversation together. I did not expect any of this to happen.

In one sense, many of the pieces that led to this meeting have been underway for a while, swirling about throughout my year. Yet at the same time, the actual opportunity to meet with Kurt Eichenwald came very quickly and in ways I never anticipated. After all, only nine days before, I had just finished reading his book.

I will talk with you about that book and our meeting, but first, let me give you a brief introduction to Kurt Eichenwald himself:

Kurt Eichenwald is an an investigative reporter. For many years, he worked for The New York Times, and he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. He’s written five books, including The Informant, which also became a movie with Matt Damon. He has a very large following on Twitter where he tweets regularly about politics. I’ve known him in this particular capacity for the last few years, and when he shared a very personal story on Twitter this summer during the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford (also in the book, see below) I sent him a friend request on Facebook in the off chance that he might accept it. (He did! More about that below too).

He recently released A Mind Unraveled, his new book. It’s a memoir, and this time, he turns his investigative reporting toward his own life, telling his story of living with intractable epilepsy.

The book is moving and so well written. Frankly, it’s hard to put down. The largest portion of A Mind Unraveled tells the story of how Kurt Eichenwald was kicked out of Swarthmore College in a horribly discriminatory way (you can read that story in a much shorter format here: I Was Kicked Out of School for Having Epilepsy) and how he fought his way back in. He is tenacious.

In A Mind Unraveled, Kurt Eichenwald also discusses abusive practices of his first neurologists, how he nearly died when his medications were prescribed at toxic levels over a very long stretch of time. And painfully, he also speaks openly for the first time about a sexual assault he endured after having a seizure in New York City, the details of which he cannot access fully because he was still incapacitated when it happened.

All of these things were horrific for him to endure. They’re also upsetting to read about. But above all, in A Mind Unraveled, Kurt Eichenwald seeks to share his journey of working through trauma and overcoming it. He shares how he moved toward his long hoped for family and career, and how he has integrated these these challenging experiences in ways that have positively formed his identity. Through the book, he is also becoming a public advocate for the epilepsy community.

It’s a phenomenal read. I recommend ordering it.

Now, here’s my experience engaging the book. . .

In November, I bought A Mind Unraveled at Literati, a local bookstore in Ann Arbor. When the staff member rang it up and handed the book back to me, I had an instant, split-second instinct to funnel the book away into my bag quickly and hide it.

“Oh wait,” I thought, “I don’t have to do that anymore.” I smiled.

I remembered times during my teenage years when I would sneak away secretly to the public library to read whatever I might be able to find about epilepsy, the condition I also had but did not fully understand. By that point, my epilepsy had faded fully into remission. I didn’t have it anymore. But what happened…?

From diagnosis to its natural fading in adolescence (I had a type where that often happens), I kept my epilepsy hidden from everyone. I felt a great deal of shame about what I didn’t fully understand, and I never spoke about any of this until my mid-20s. Now I realize that feelings of shame and secrecy are quite frequent among people with epilepsy, though that need not be the case.

This year, I made a decision to start speaking and writing much more publicly about my own epilepsy story. As I wrote here this summer, I found myself wanting to reclaim this experience. It’s been a long time since I’ve had active epilepsy, but I did have this for one-third of my life, which is no insignificant amount of time. And I had it during my earliest, formative years.

It’s been a long while since this experience was a secret, but I’ve also never gone so public with my own story. A number of significant relationships, conversations, and experiences began to move me in this direction this year. I’m glad they did.

I decided to start speaking publicly and broadly about this for two reasons:

1) First, I recognized that most people who know me still had no idea that I grew up with epilepsy. Even those closest to me who have known something of this experience still had no idea how deeply formative it was for me.

2) Second, I realized that I want to become a public advocate. All year long, this has become increasingly important to me. Epilepsy is very common — 1 in 100 people have it actively; 1 in 26 people will have this diagnosis in their lifetimes; 1 in 10 people will have a single seizure at some point in their lives; such big numbers! — but due to a long history of stigma, epilepsy is rarely discussed publicly, and research is underfunded.

Discrimination still happens too. Resonant with Kurt Eichenwald’s experience, a student with epilepsy had to leave Notre Dame in the last academic year because the university continually refused to accommodate his request for a private room, which he needed medically to ensure he got adequate sleep. Last week, a high school athlete with epilepsy was publicly mocked during a basketball game.

So in the midst of all of this, I have been asking myself… what do I do with my story? It’s been resonating within me. … what do I do with my story?

As you can imagine, it was quite meaningful to read what Kurt Eichenwald has done with his own story. After picking up the book, I devoured it, reading it from cover to cover quite quickly. I was deeply moved by his stories and his perseverance. I appreciated the ways he framed the book, and I’m inspired by how he is engaging community around it.

Then, in direct response to reading the book, I started writing some of my own storytelling too. In fact, I’ve written a piece that I will perform at a storytelling event in Ann Arbor in February. It felt wonderful to do this.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the two of us had an occasion to meet. . .

Just a couple days after finishing the book and writing my own piece, I saw that Kurt Eichenwald was coming to Ann Arbor to do a book signing. But… I had a final dress rehearsal for Handel’s Messiah at the very same time and was quite sad when I realized I would have to miss it.

So in the off chance that someone might be able to take my book to the book signing and pass along a note of appreciation to him, I wrote a Facebook post to see if anyone might be interested to go to the event. As I was typing his name in the post, Facebook emerged with an option to tag him, and without thinking about it, I just did it. I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to be available, but I thought it was a good idea to try.

Then, a person responded… Kurt Eichenwald!

Later that night, I received a personal Facebook message from him with a phone number, suggesting that I give him a call so we could find an alternative time to meet on Friday. This was so generous.

The next day, I admit, I was nervous to make that call. I even wrote out what I hoped to say and practiced it ahead of time. When I called, I expected to leave a voicemail, and perhaps he would call or text back. But Kurt actually answered. We were able to connect over the phone for a bit. I told him that his book meant a great deal to me and that I had done some of my own writing in response to his. Then, we decided to meet the next day at the office of the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan in Southfield after he was finished meeting with their staff.

So the next day, I headed over. Again, I was a little nervous, but once I stepped into that office, everyone greeted me so kindly. And when I said that I was here to meet with Kurt, he exclaimed,

“Here’s Renee, the only person I’ve ever responded to on Facebook. You really are the only one!”

This was not solely because of what I had written, but mainly because Kurt never opens Facebook. He just happened to do so very briefly and my request about the book signing emerged at the top of his newsfeed. Then, because he reached out, I became the sole, lucky recipient of a personal Facebook message from Kurt Eichenwald.

We had a very meaningful conversation together with such lovely commonality between us. We talked about what it’s like to come forward with stories we had at various points kept hidden. We talked about the importance of speaking those stories now, because due to stigma and tangible forms of discrimination, too many people are still having to keep their experiences hidden.

And then, I had a chance to pass along to him what I had written personally in response to his book along with a letter of thanks for what he is doing.

In the midst of this, I just marvel… After engaging questions about how to share my own story, I found his masterful book, sharing his own. I read it quickly, told many people about it, and then… nine days later, I met him, shared commonality with him, and now he’s reading me.

What an amazing, unexpected gift!

Renee Roederer

If you’d like to talk more about any of this, feel free to leave a comment, send me an email at revannarbor@gmail.com, or send me a Facebook message. I respond to Facebook also! 🙂

How Many Stories?

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Jesus said,

“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

I just wonder how very many memoirs could be written in response to this one sentence, giving flesh, names, connections, narratives, and meaning to these words? Over time, how many stories and connections have been created — many of them, totally unexpected gifts?

Renee Roederer

 

Rehearsing Belovedness

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In the Christian Century magazine, the Rev. Mark Ralls recounts a beautiful and unexpected experience he had while visiting a local nursing home. [1]

Pastor Ralls had gone to the nursing home to visit a resident who was a member of his congregation. While they were sitting together and conversing in the atrium, he heard some strange, intriguing words.

“I love you little. I love you big. I love you like a little pig.”

These words soon became a playful refrain. Pastor Ralls and his friend heard these words innumerable times throughout their conversation. They were spoken by a woman who was sitting nearby them. She was a resident too, and though she was sitting close enough to touch them, she paid no attention to their conversation. He writes, “During my visit to the nursing home that afternoon, I must have heard this sweet, odd rhyme more than a hundred times.” She continued to look out the window, and with a broad smile on her face, she let her refrain fill the room.

“I love you little. I love you big. I love you like a little pig.”
“I love you little. I love you big. I love you like a little pig.”
“I love you little. I love you big. I love you like a little pig.”

She seemed continually delighted by these words.

After inquiring of a staff member, Pastor Ralls learned that this woman had been a first grade teacher for decades. Each morning, when the children entered the classroom for their day at school, she would lean down and speak these very words into each beloved ear.

What a beautiful, playful ritual.

I love this story because it invites me to imagine what those words must have been like for the children in her classroom. . .

. . . I wonder if they would giggle before she could finish, each one anticipating the end of the phrase.

. . . I wonder if they would smile before she started, each one anticipating that they were loved and valuable.

. . . I wonder if they would ever add their voices to the chorus, each one rehearsing the truth of their worth, silly as the phrase may be.

I also love this story because it invites me to imagine how those words must have formed her as a teacher. . .

. . . I wonder if she spoke these words on days when she was feeling discouraged, and they lifted her mood just a bit.

. . . I wonder if she took pleasure in speaking these words to particular children who struggled to trust love.

. . . I wonder if the rehearsal of these words helped her love herself more fully too.

No matter how these words were spoken or received in her classroom, it is clear that they resonated deep within her psyche many years later when she was challenged by dementia. The refrain is delightful and silly. It is also so meaningful.

It makes me wonder. . .

Who has told you that you’re beloved?
Who has told you that you’re loved through and through?
Who has told you that you’re valuable and worth it all?

Do we rehearse those words and memories? Do we recall them and let them sink into our very being?

We can always begin that rehearsal again.

And if we doubt those words within us. . . guess what?

We can rehearse them again.
And again.
And again.
And again.

And if no one has told you today,
And if you’re struggling to tell yourself,
Please hear this truth:
You are Beloved,
Loved through and through,
Valued and worth it all.

Renee Roederer

“Come With Me”

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“I’ve had so many rainbows in my clouds. I had a lot of clouds. But I have had so many rainbows. And one of the things I do when I go stand up on the stage, when I stand up to translate, when I go to teach my classes, when I go to direct a movie, I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me — Black, White, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American, Gay, Straight — everybody. I say, ‘Come with me. I’m going on the stage. Come with me. I need you now.'” — Maya Angelou

I love this video from Maya Angelou.

Where do we each need support today? How can we call forth that internalized support? How can we ask for it?

“Come with me.”

Waiting in Hope

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This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Howell, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Luke 21:25-36. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

Dear friends, as we have already said this morning, it is indeed Advent. We share this season together each year, a time when we are reminded once more to wait, to watch, to wonder… Today, we are reminded anew of our shared calling to make ourselves ready with anticipation and expectation.

We see the decorations throughout our sanctuary, hints of Christmas, and that is a reminder among us too that we are waiting, watching, and wondering for Emmanuel, which means God with us. God really with us — found in Jesus, who will soon be born in the stories of our sacred scriptures, who will soon be born in our practices of shared celebration together. Soon in these stories, Jesus will be born, instantly vulnerable with no adequate place to spend the night. Soon in these stories, Jesus will be born, quickly on the run from the dangers of Herod. Jesus will soon be born, yes, in sacred story, but not only 2,000 years ago. Also here, among us now, as we are invited to find Christ’s presence with us — you and me, God with us, God with all the vulnerable ones of this world, God with all the fleeing ones of this world, God with all the “least of these” ones in this world.

In the midst of this anticipation, we wait, we watch, and we wonder. We lean our lives into these things.

There are hints of Christmas here even in this room. But it isn’t Christmas yet. It is Advent. Advent is the beginning of our liturgical calendar in the church (today is the first day of the year) but Advent is concerned with endings. Advent is about final things, inviting us to wait, to watch, to wonder — trusting that Emmanuel, God with us, is with humanity now and all of creation until the end.

We wait, and we watch, and we wonder for this. We anticipate and expect. And we lean our lives in this direction.

During his ministry, Jesus sometimes said very challenging things. He had a way of naming the pains of the world as they really were, and yet even from there, he had a way of naming God’s presence with us. He himself was God’s presence embodied, present to people in that pain.

And so, in our Gospel text this morning, we hear challenging words. This section from the Gospel according to Luke is apocalyptic literature, literature concerned with final things, with the end. And we might think of that end chronologically — God entering time and redeeming that time among us. But we also might think about the word end as the goal — God bringing creation to its final goal. God bringing creation to love, justice, wholeness, liberation, connection with God, connection with neighbors, and fullness with God’s presence in our midst. That’s part of what apocalyptic literature does theologically, naming the pains of the world now, and naming the healing that they shall experience.

Gathered around disciples who were also vulnerable, often poor, often disenfranchised, Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken.” This is challenging.

Yet Jesus also says that “they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’” — the Son of Man coming again. Jesus said, “When these things begin to take place” — the pains of this world — “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

The God we serve is a God who enters pain with us and with the world. It’s not that these things are good — no, they cause fear and foreboding — but even there, God is near, working to redeem all things.

Jesus said, “You look at the fig tree and all of these trees. As soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.” And so, even in our places of deep pain, even in creation’s deep pain, we are invited to place our faith and trust in the recognition that God is near, and even the Kingdom of God is near, full with possibility.

Jesus says, “Be alert. Be awake.” Not ultimately living in fear, but living in hope and expectation — that God is in our midst always. Because whatever time of year we celebrate together seasonally, always behind it all is a recognition that Christ has come, that Christ is coming, that Christ will come again.

And so we gather together, around these sacred texts, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the presence of one another, we are invited to lean more and more in that direction, to trust that this true, and to lean our lives in such a direction that we begin to participate in these things. God is with us in such a way that we, the Church, are being empowered to be in the world and also be about these final things — to work toward love, justice, wholeness, liberation, connection with God, connection with neighbors, and fullness with God’s presence in our midst. We are invited into these things. With God’s empowerment, we are invited to participate in these things.

So now, Advent is not just a nice little time in which we show up and anticipate the holidays. No, we anticipate so much more, and our lives are being called in these directions.

Greg Boyle is one of the people I most admire. He’s a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, an organization that provides job training and healing to people who want to leave gangs and people who have been incarcerated, giving them a new chance and building kinship community together. At Homeboy Industries, people who used to belong to rival gangs work side by side, heal their lives, and open possibilities for a new future.

These individuals have known great pain and have often caused great pain. In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle writes that every single person he has ever met who joined a gang, did so not because this was ultimately what they wanted to do with their lives but because they were running from something — often great, personal trauma.

And together, at Homeboy Industries, they do that healing work, the work of transforming the past, making amends, and healing toward another future. Father Boyle teaches them about a God who loves them, who enters their pain, and who invites them to transform the pain they have caused, ultimately participating in God’s final things — love, justice, peace, wholeness, and connection with God and neighbor.

In our own time of waiting and watching, I invite us to think about a story that Greg Boyle tells. It’s a sweet story about a man and his father, and Greg Boyle opens that story up to speak a conviction about God and human worth.

As his health was failing, an old man moved in with his adult son, someone that Greg Boyle knows personally. In the evening before bedtime, the son would read aloud to his father. In a beautiful role reversal, the adult son put his father to bed every night.

The son would often invite his father to close his eyes while he read aloud, but over and over again, he would catch his father looking at him. He would say, “Look, here’s the idea. I read to you, you fall asleep.” The father would apologize, but at some point, one eye would eventually pop open.

This went on every single night. When it was time to sleep, the father could not take his eyes off of his own son.

Greg Boyle says that God is like this: “God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in disapproval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. ‘You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.’”

As we watch during this season, God is watching us, looking straight at us, even into our pain, even into the pain of the world and saying, “You are my Beloved. I see you through love. And I see you into new ways of loving.”

Even though the world may fear and feel foreboding, God is near. God invites our watching with this kind of watching. God sees us and our neighbors with infinite love, inviting us to see God at work. The same God empowers us to work, so that we too participate in these final things, waiting for their ultimate end as God brings them about.

May we watch, wait, and wonder.
Amen.

Handel’s Liberation “Hallelujah!”

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This is a repost that I like to share at this time of year.

Handel’s Liberation “Halleluiah!”

Hallelujah.

It’s a word from a chorus many know well, especially at this time of year. I’m grateful that I’ll have the privilege to sing Hallelujah a multitude of times this week. Ann Arbor’s UMS Choral Union has the longest annual tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah in the entire world. We’ve done this every year consistently since 1879. We’ll do so again this weekend.

While I haven’t sung this 139 times in a row, I’ve sung the Hallelujah Chorus innumerable times. Yet I’ve learned something new in the opportunity to sing The Messiah in its entirety. Based on where it’s placed in the greater work, the Hallelujah Chorus isn’t a chorus joy-filled triumphalism. It’s about liberation.

It’s about human liberation from oppression — deliverance from oppression caused by other humans. This becomes clear when we hear what precedes the famous chorus:

The bass soloist sings,

Why do the nation so furiously rage together?
And why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Then the chorus sings,

Let us break their bonds asunder,
and cast away their yokes from us.

Then the tenor soloist sings,

He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn,
The Lord shall have them in derision.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,
Thou shalt dash them like a potter’s vessel.

That’s when the chorus responds with “Hallelujah!”

It might seem like an odd time to jump in and rejoice. But if we view this less as the powerful (including God) doing destruction for the sake of destruction, and instead, view this as liberation for the oppressed (God standing with them in power) the Hallelujah Chorus has a completely different purpose and tone.

Hallelujah! 

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. . .

Not standing above and dominating as an oppressor,
but standing among the people as a powerful Liberator —
a Liberator who invites the participation of the people in their own liberation.
(“Let us break their bonds asunder”)

King of Kings and Lord of Lords. . .

Not a tyrant kind of King or Lord,
but King and Lord that is revealed as fully human —
a vulnerable child,
a poor carpenter,
a revolutionary,
a healer.

Throughout our performances, I’m going to think about all of these things when I sing that glorious Hallelujah over and over. And I’m going to pray for liberation in our world and commit to the reality that bonds will be broken.

And the audience will add their voices too.
Resurrection,
Liberation.

Renee Roederer

Late in Life Siblings

I grew up as an only child and always wanted a sibling. I never received one in its most traditional form, but good things also come to those who wait.

Today, I spotlight three late in life siblings who gift me so much just by being who they are. All three of these relationships carry depth and meaning; we can talk about things that matter for a long time. But I especially want to lift this up today: These late in life siblings bring me the joy of utter silliness.

So much silliness! I laugh constantly with all three of these people. This, I think, is what it must feel like to have siblings as playmates, but as adults.

— Cody is my first cousin and functionally, very much my brother. It’s wonderful to have so much shared history together. We also have many shared interests. And we have our own style of humor that seems to build upon itself endlessly with a plethora of ongoing, imaginative inside jokes. We crack each other up in a way that is particular to each other. Our spouses, who love us deeply, don’t always think we’re as funny we tend to find each other. (It’s okay. We’re amused on our own. And we love our spouses deeply too, who are also quite funny in their own ways).

— Lindsey is my sister-in-law, and she absolutely hilarious to be around. I think Lindsey laughs harder and more often than anyone I know. When you’re around her, you feel like you’re really funny. I especially love spending time with her and Ian together. Earlier this year, she came to visit, and one night, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed all year. Maybe in multiple years. I will never forget how wonderful that felt.

— Ben is my bop friend. We all need that friend we can bop around with — you know, the one we can simply call and say, “What are you doing right now? Do you want to….?” Once when Ben and I were at same dinner, multiple people looked at us at the end of the night, and said, “Oh, this whole time, I thought the two of you were related!” So now, two only children have declared themselves to be siblings by choice. We also have a growing anthology of inside jokes, often built upon stories we’ve told each other.

These three are such a joy. I’ve always wanted this.

Renee Roederer