Notes from the Middle Ground

31 12 2015

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see a new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  — Bill Vaughan

I’m torn: The optimist in me wants to take an inspirational look ahead, to set a positive tone for the new year. The pessimist in me wants to review the past twelve months, enumerating and wallowing in its difficulties. One approach seems disingenuous, the other disenchanting.

In a small way, today’s conundrum is representative of my whole life: it often feels like this life has been an exercise in seeking a comfortable perch somewhere in the middle. When I saw an astrologer to have my natal chart drawn, she said my personality was evenly balanced between the four classical elements of earth, air, water, fire. Every personality test has born that out – I tend to balance in the middle, on the fulcrum-point between polar opposites (extrovert/introvert; red/blue; task/process).

I know, this doesn’t sound like a problem. However, we are all living in a world – a culture, a moment in time – when polarities carry the day. Today’s is a zeitgeist in which, simply to be heard, voices stray as far to the ends of the continuum as they dare. As the ends of the continuum exert an outward pull, the middle ground stretches thin, making it ever-more-difficult to balance there.

Throughout my life, voices around me have declared, “That’s the way it is. You can’t change it.” These same voices have proudly staked out their territory as that of realism, casting me onto the ever-shaky (and mostly disrespected) ground of idealism. These days, I’m coming to think of idealism as the middle ground. It appears to be the only place from which a voice that hopes for peace, that trusts in love, that doesn’t cast other human beings as evil demons can emerge.

Let the realists have that territory at both ends of the spectrum, since they claim it anyway. In many ways, the middle ground is the only hopeful ground on which to stand. Someone told me recently, “It is a fallacy to believe that every voice holds equal weight.” That’s a realistic statement if I’ve every heard one. Still, is that right? Is that just? Here in the middle where there is less shouting, I can hear more voices, can allow them each their weightiness. Here in the middle we talk and we ask first, shoot later. In fact, we don’t shoot until/unless we’ve exhausted other options, so mostly shooting isn’t necessary. Living in the middle requires impulse-control, requires me to hold my fear in check, expects me to breathe through the anxiety until I am able to do more than lash out.

There’s a belief out there that the middle ground is lacking in passion, and I’ve often labored under that assumption myself. At times, it was the reason I tried to abandon the middle. But now I see that isn’t true. For me, calm and peace and reason are to be striven for with passionate abandon from right here, in the very middle. I may sway to the left or to the right, but mostly I seek a creative path straight through the center, to the heart of things. Here in the middle, I’m not supporting the status quo – that is a story that keeps getting told in order to force people to the poles. In fact, it may be the status quo is held in place by the equal but opposing force exerted at the ends of the continuum. More people in the creative middle might have the effect of causing the tension to ease; eventually the tightrope could slacken and bend into a new shape, into new possibilities. What is that old proverb – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail? When everyone is standing on one end or the other shouting at the top of their lungs, perhaps a different volume, even a whisper, issuing from the middle may offer new insights.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about passively standing in place. I am not saying that things ought to stay the same – I am claiming a reinterpretation of the dominant paradigm. I am simply unconvinced that ratcheting up the adversarial model we’ve been living in is getting us anywhere. The pessimist in me feels overwhelmed by today’s world. The optimist in me sees possibilities for making tomorrow’s world better. Change won’t happen if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, only more so. And I refuse to allow my dreams of a better world to be defined by the rhetoric of extremism, left or right.
Which brings me back to my original conundrum. Which lens  will it be – optimism or pessimism – through which I will view this ending of one year and beginning of a new? Now that I think about it, that may be the wrong question, after all. Perhaps the lens required in this middle ground I’ve staked out is the lens of hope. As Vaclav Havel, creative thinker, writer, activist so eloquently articulated:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

 

 

 





The Christmas Curse

24 12 2015

Ever since the Wise Men, there has been a “rule of three” associated with Christmas. Three ships a’sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning. Three ghosts to visit Ebenezer Scrooge. And in my family, the three disasters Christmas Curse.

The Curse isn’t in effect every year. Most Christmases for my family are filled with the normal holiday joys and mishaps that accompany large group gatherings. There are heirloom recipes that fail unexpectedly, or disastrous spills of red wine on something white. We forget to take family photos until the day after the big celebration, as people are leaving – exhausted and unshowered. You get the idea. Like most families, mine may be momentarily flummoxed by these occurrences, but we are able (eventually) to take them in stride with good will and humor.

Now and then, though, The Curse kicks in and all bets are off. My brother, for example, experienced the Curse as days before Christmas the furnace went out in his house, then a second furnace died in the apartment he rents to an older tenant, then his wife had an accident with the family car. Service and repairman sightings in Chicago the day before Christmas are more rare (and more precious) than sightings of Santa emerging from the fireplace with a bag of goodies. Boom. Best-laid plans for a relaxed family Christmas derailed.

I could regale you with stories of the various manifestations of The Christmas Curse over the last fifty years. But I won’t. Suffice it to say, despite these events, we’ve always somehow survived and lived to tell the tales. Usually, with enough distance, we are able to laugh about them. They become part of the cannon of family lore, told and retold as evidence of both the existence of The Curse and our family’s resilience.

This year turns out to be a Curse year. The three events happened to my parents, and all three were financially impactful. More heart-rending than the money (and this is saying a lot, because my folks are on a fixed income) was that the Curse necessitated moving the holiday celebration from their home to my sister’s. When you’ve planned every detail of the perfect Christmas, needing to renegotiate every one of those details can be overwhelming.

Yesterday, I woke in the guest room at my parents’ home and stumbled out to the kitchen for my first cup of coffee. My parents had been up for hours, making lists of things that needed to be done – people to be called, stuff to be packed for transport to my sister’s, items to be replaced as aftereffects of the three curse events. As I sat listening and huddling into the warmth of my cup of joe, I heard the following exchange:

Dad: Listen. The thing to remember is I love you and you love me.

Mom: Yes. Let’s cling to that.

Then they both erupted into gales of laughter.

And that, my friends, is the thing to remember whenever The Christmas Curse strikes: love and good will always carry the day. Fifty-plus years of experience should have taught us that The Curse has an answer in The Christmas Blessing – as the old carol says, “love came down at Christmas”.

Regardless of the cares and worries wearing on our hearts, let’s cling to that.

Merry Christmas.

 





If There Are Angels…

17 12 2015

The World I Live In

I have refused to live

locked in the orderly house of

     reasons and proofs.

The world I live in and believe in

is wider than that. And anyway,

    what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or

twice I have seen. I’ll just

   tell you this:

only if there are angels in your head will you

   ever, possibly, see one.

–Mary Oliver from Felicity

One  summer, my sister and I went to Mesa Verde. We arrived in the dark night, driving up the unguarded side of the mesa slowly, so as not to get beyond of the illumination of our headlights. We caught a number of animals in our high beams: a fox , coyote, small furred things we couldn’t name.

In our bare-bones room at the lodge, I tried to relax into the silence but the rustlings of nature outside our window felt hostile in the darkness. I slept fitfully.

In the morning, the sun illuminated our nighttime fears, showing them up as the mirages they had been. Reassured, we went to the commissary and ordered pumpkin pancakes, coffee, crisp bacon. I watched my sister’s face whenever she wasn’t looking. Throughout our lives, she has been a bright light – finding laughter at the moments it is most likely to hide, maintaining a positive view when the rest of us could only see disaster. But that summer, my shining sister was struggling, her inner light shaded by cares. I felt my heart breaking for her because there was nothing else it could do. Nothing I could do.

We chatted as we ate. She told me about her latest interest: angels. She had been using angel cards, had attended some spirituality conferences where a major subgroup of programs had been about making contact with one’s angels, seeking guidance and assistance.

I listened and spoke encouragingly, but inside I was judging. Not because I didn’t believe in angels. But my angels were the “real” ones, from the old-decidedly-not-the-new age. I had learned about my angels in Catholic school: the guardian angel I prayed to every night of my childhood, St. Raphael the archangel, St. Cecilia my confirmation saint. In my mind I envisioned a heavenly cage-match between Sr. Caramel Mary, BVM and Doreen Virtue. The good nun was a mighty force to be reckoned with.

After breakfast, my sister went outside while I used the restroom and poked around in the gift shop. When I walked out into the brilliant sunshine, the high desert heat was already radiating upward in waves. I spotted my sister on a bench, face raised toward the sky, eyes closed. As I approached her, she opened her eyes. “Did you just pass an older couple on your way out the door?” she asked excitedly. Her face was flushed and her eyes held a liveliness they had been missing just minutes before.

“No,” I said. “There was no one, just you.”

“Well,” she said. “You must have passed them because they just walked into the building. Anyway, you won’t believe what they said to me.”

Apparently, my sister had taken a seat on the bench and was just enjoying the sunshine, looking around at the desert and the deep blue sky. An older couple walked toward her from the parking lot, and stopped beside her at the bench.

“Beautiful morning, isn’t it?” asked the man. Then he proceeded to walk toward the park building.

The woman lingered a moment beside the bench where my sister sat. Leaning toward her, the woman spoke. “You’re glowing, you know. That’s always the case when you walk with angels. It shows.” Then she told my sister to have a lovely day and went to join her husband. My sister watched them walk toward the door out of which I emerged moments later, then turned back to contemplating the desert.

“You had to have seen them,” she said to me. “You would have walked right past them.”

But I had seen no one, except my sister sitting alone on the bench outside.

We got in the car, driving the slow park speed limit on our way to see the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is famous. As we rounded a curve, suddenly there were horses. The wild horses of Mesa Verde are also famous, and famously elusive. A park worker had told us, on our arrival the previous night, that he had worked there for three summers and had yet to see them. But within minutes, here we were – surrounded. I stopped the car and we gazed at the lean creatures. They were clearly horses, but unlike the sleek, well-fed beauties we were used to seeing in the midwest. Dark and gaunt, they appeared a wholly different breed. Otherworldly, even. I made eye contact with the one nearest my window.

You only see, its dark stare seemed to say, what you believe you’ll see.

 





Beautiful

10 12 2015

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My first Christmas gift this year was from Mike, who bought me a ticket to see “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. I have loved the title song since King’s “Tapestry” album was released in the early ’70s. It might have been the very first example in my conscious experience of what is now called “setting positive intent”:

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful as you feel.

Throughout my life, I’ve gone back to this song as a reminder that how I experience my day and the many interactions that take place is, to a large extent, dependent on my own approach and perspective. When I’ve fought through depressive episodes, when I’ve felt lonely, when I’ve been new and unfamiliar with my surroundings, I have often found this song on the tip of my tongue.

I remember one particular day in January 2014. In Minneapolis, we had been in the grip of the Polar Vortex for weeks. The actual temperature outside was -19 (and it didn’t feel much warmer in my frigid apartment). I was poor, underemployed, lonely in my first winter in a new city. I bundled up in my giant oversized parka, hood up with its fur trim cinched tight around my face. I felt like I was looking out at the world through a fuzzy tunnel. Scarf, light gloves inside heavy mittens, wool socks and plastic bags inside my boots – it was like girding myself with armor every time I left home. Glancing in the mirror before leaving, I thought I looked only vaguely humanoid.

As I walked the few blocks into downtown Minneapolis, I saw almost no one else on the sidewalks. The weather was “not fit for man nor beast” – except the occasional urban yeti, like me. In that low moment, as I walked simply because it was the only thing I could think of to do, I approached the light rail station on 3rd Avenue. There were a couple of miserably cold people waiting for the train, and I found myself quietly singing, “Waiting at the station with a workday wind a-blowing…”. Then I realized that literally no one could hear me anyway and, for the first time in my life, I decided to belt out a song in public – no music, no other voices, just me – the singing Sasquatch.

Crazy as it sounds, that made all the difference. By the time I turned back toward my own neighborhood, things didn’t look so bad. I stopped at the coffee shop, smiling at the other patrons as I peeled layer after layer of outerwear off and piled it on a table. Michael, the owner, asked if I’d like my usual. I said yes, then made my way to the restroom (where I peeled several more layers). I stopped at the sink to wash my hands and glanced into the mirror as I reached for the soap dispenser. My hair was full of static electricity and stood out from my head in a penumbra of excited strands. My cheeks were bright red, my eyes sparkled, and I was smiling. In that moment I felt two things: beautiful and happy.

Lately, since seeing the Carole King musical, the song has been on my mind frequently. It is often my mantra as I go about my days in the difficult first year of a demanding new job. Then, the other day, I happened to watch a video making the rounds on Facebook (below), in which a high school student asks others if she can film them. While the camera captures their reactions, she tells them her project is taking images of things she finds beautiful.

Each face transforms when the subject realizes that he or she has just been called beautiful. In that moment, each of those individuals does – in fact – become beautiful. Objectively, their features haven’t really changed –  they have the same lips, the same nose, same skin tone, they are the same weight. But their energy has changed. And that makes all the difference.

It got me thinking about the fact that it is really good to hear from others that they find you beautiful – to hear them compliment not only your appearance, but your beautiful qualities, skills, unique gifts. I should do that more often for the people around me whose actions, presence and care make each day and our world a bit better, more bearable.

More important, though, it reminds me that I can create a mindset of positive energy for myself, rather than wait for someone else to call it forth. When I make the effort to do this, I radiate that positive energy outward – something desperately needed in our world right now. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.





Hope in Darkness

3 12 2015

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“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” — Brene Brown

Every year in this season leading toward Christmas, when the days grow shorter and the nights exponentially longer, I think about darkness. Usually, I am thinking about the literal darkness that greets me in the morning and also accompanies me as I leave work at the end of the day. The mere lack of sunshine is enough darkness to provide fodder for spiritual reflection. Usually, I welcome these “dark days” as an opportunity to pause, to think about darkness as a metaphor, to remember that although light is what we typically strive for, we need to acknowledge – even accept – our dark places as well.

This year feels different. The news is filled with stories of our “dark side” as a human family – from Syria to Paris to Minneapolis and Chicago, from Colorado Springs to San Bernadino – our blood pools in the streets and our anger rages out of control.  Compounding that, it is full-blown election season in Iowa and we are bombarded with political squabbling of dubious gravitas and there is nowhere to hide.  This is the year of Donald Trump, whose campaign strategy – at best – appears to be “lie, bluster, name call, repeat”.

This December, my experience of darkness is not about seasonal metaphor. It is more palpable, more pressing – certainly considerably more DE-pressing – than typical. Despite the fact that I am far from the front lines on any of these issues (except the barrage of political rhetoric), my spirit is buffeted by the waves of ill-will, argumentation, hatred.

Where do I (we) find hope in this season of darkness? Does light exist, even in those moments when it is hardest to see?

Barbara Kingsolver says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”  In other words, hope isn’t something you have, it is something you do (like love, like faith). In this sense, finding hope begins by looking within.

What do I hope for? I hope that love and right and reason and civilization win, in the end. I hope that peace reigns in both our hearts and in our world. I hope that, when difficult choices are presented to me by the darkness of our human failings, my actions will bring light instead of an increase of the dark.

But how do I “live right in it, under its roof”, once I’ve identified what I hope for?

I suspect the answer is deceptively simple; easy to conceive of but hard to do. For example, one day a couple of weeks ago, in the heat of Minneapolis protests over the death of Jamar Clark, I read that a woman I’ve admired for several years, Lisa Bender, stepped between a police officer’s gun and a protester. “I’m a council member. If you want to shoot someone, shoot me,” she said.  I’ve seen enough movies, read enough stirring novels of courage, to imagine taking such a step as a noble gesture. But in real life, that step had to cross a giant chasm of fear and uncertainty. And here’s the important part: it came not as a single act of courage; it was no “one and done” behavior. It came as part of a daily commitment of presence and engagement with her community, aligning herself with those whose voices are most in need of amplification to be heard.

Living under that roof shows just what kind of radical act hope can be.

I am inspired by Lisa’s example. However, many days I feel I barely have the energy to keep the machinery of my life operational. Radical hope feels outside my scope. Until I realize that holding my authentic center while being buffeted by the cyclones and sand devils of daily life can also be about living under the roof of my hope. My Facebook friend, Shannon, is a woman I’ve never met (long story). Her husband is an American service man, and they are stationed in England. After the attacks in Paris, in the first flush of anger and fear, she asked her friends to talk on her Facebook wall about the dynamic between maintaining safety and expressing compassion toward Syrian refugees. As one might imagine, there were a wide variety of responses. What I appreciated about Shannon’s response was that she invited dialogue rather than invective. She posted articles that were well articulated but came to a variety of conclusions. She didn’t foreclose on a predetermined answer. One could say it was just a lengthy Facebook thread – but in today’s climate, it felt like a ray of welcome light.

I am coming to believe it is a radical act to keep the light shining in my heart, when darkness threatens to take up residence there. Some days, it is enough to remember what we hope for – we can’t learn to live inside of something we can no longer see in the darkness that is swallowing us. Some days, we find the wherewithal to do more. In our world, it can be radical to act from hope rather than from despair.  When we do this, we are able to contribute some measure of light to the world around us – whether that takes the form of activism, engagement, charity, compassion, mercy, love or laughter.

In this season of darkness, I have hope that it will be enough.

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Note: This morning, just before posting this reflection, Lisa Bender posted a lovely reflection on Facebook. In part, she said: “One of the things about being a parent of little kids is that I can’t get sucked into that magnet because they need me to try and make all this bad shit stop before they get big enough to really see it. They force me to have hope and to act on that hope day in and day out in every little way I can.”