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By Willow (willowashmaple.xyz)

New year reflections

As the year 2023 came to a close and another year began its course, I am grateful for all the blessings I received this past year. Perhaps for many, 2023 was the first "normal" year (whatever that means) since the onset of COVID-19. For me, it was the year of recovery from the long four to five years of autistic burnout, which was only made worse by the pandemic. Even a year ago, my executive dysfunction was quite severe. But at the conclusion of 2023, I find myself successfully having completed two trimesters of full-time college education (for the first time since 1998) -- 15 credits between May and August, and 18 credits between September and December, which means I have earned 58 credits thus far (with 3.855 GPA). A year ago I often had difficulty reminding myself to check email -- even frequently forgetting which email services I was using.

My present educational journey represents something quite significant for me: in 1999 I was forced to de facto drop out (although I never formally did, since I believe they were in the wrong) of college where I was majoring in religion and Christian ministries, after two semesters of battling severe depression and anxiety. In 2010, an opportunity was presented to me in which I was able to attend a seminary and study at a post-graduate level (with a caveat that I would be receiving a professional diploma instead of an M.Div., due to my lack of a bachelor's degree, but in all other respect the coursework was identical). It was challenging, intellectually stimulating, and rewarding -- but in 2011, I became heavily involved in the Occupy movement and my life as an activist and organizer took a more prominent role for the next four years. By then I was questioning my values and faith again. This time around, I am very much hopeful that I will be able to complete the program of study.

In the spring of 2019, I envisioned a new ministry: spiritual direction and faith community development for the neurodivergent people. At the time I had a very vague idea of what that might be, except for the fact that, even with autistic people alone, they represented approximately 2 percent of the population (per the latest CDC estimate available at the time; now the estimate is over 3 percent) and that makes them a sizable minority comparable to the Native Americans and Alaska Natives, or to the Chinese-Americans. Since there are many Chinese churches and First Nations churches, I reasoned, why not autistic churches?

I enrolled in Christian Leaders Institute during the strange days of COVID, in early 2021, after having seen an ad online. At the time, I had little idea of how comprehensive CLI's educational programming was. Also, I was not aware that it offered 2- and 3-year diplomas. Its heavily Calvinist slant notwithstanding, I have learned so much and rediscovered historical Protestant traditions, in addition to more practical ministry skills such as small group leadership, chaplaincy, and marriage and family issues.

2023 was also a year I was intentional about having fun, having new experiences, and meeting new people. I also made purposeful choices toward a greater self-acceptance, through a few artistic activities this summer.

Another blessing is the arrival of another cat in my life.

It is somewhat hard to believe that five years have passed since the beginning of COVID-19 in Wuhan and the tragic cruise that was M.V. Diamond Princess. For many of us, the sense of time has warped during this half-decade. And as history repeatedly demonstrates, a pandemic brings long-lasting social chaos and a shift in the zeitgeist. COVID brought all sorts of things to the surface: racial justice, ESG, DEI, "the war on woke," white nationalism, antisemitism, transphobia, and general hatred. In this light, 2024 feels more depressing than hopeful.

I do however feel that it is important to pray for Donald Trump. This is my hot take for the day. Only someone whose soul is so profoundly damaged can act like he does. Maybe his childhood was extremely traumatic. Maybe he became incapable of experiencing happiness. Of course, this in no way excuses his behaviors and actions, including the 91 counts of alleged crimes and several alleged rape allegations. Yet, the scripture calls us to pray even for our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and pray for the "well-being of the city" (Jeremiah 29:7) -- a city in the enemy oppressor territory, to which one is exiled.

At the same time, we must also engage with a new vision of what it means to be a "beloved community" - and prophetically and prefiguratively bring this forth in our communities and in the world. I am increasingly convinced that democracy, as an experiment, is showing signs of failure. Despite what most people seem to think, democracy is not truly representative of all people, yet it manufactures a false sense of "people's consent" to an ever-growing tyranny and inherent violence. Democracy pretends to include but in reality, excludes. Democracy has become an idol the international community worships, yet it has failed to deliver freedom or equity. Periodical popularity contests we call "elections" are heavily manipulated by the media conglomerates, the rich and the powerful, taking advantage of the uninformed, misinformed, and uneducated masses. I do not yet know what would fix this, but we all ought to be questioning what has long been taken for granted.

Have a blessed, prosperous new year,

Willow.

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