What We Learned From What We Lost

29 09 2016

2016-09-29-10-57-35

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

     —from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

In 2008, the city I live in experienced a catastrophic flood. It surprised us, the waters rising fast and destroying so much of what made our town unique. I’ll always be haunted by the memory of cresting the hill on the south side of town, after the main flood waters had passed, to discover the very heart of the city enveloped in darkness. The sorrow and loss of it.

For eight years, many people labored to not only bring the city back but to make it better, stronger, more distinctive until you could literally feel the energy of creativity and new growth.

And then the unthinkable: another flood threatened the city in the very same way. This time, we had some warning, a little time to prepare. And the people, remembering, rolled up their sleeves and got to work saving our city and each other. It was inspiring, and it was humbling – and it was an example of what we are capable of when we forget our differences in the midst of what we share.

We still have our differences. We still have our critics. We still have our imperfections. (I myself will still complain that there’s not even a decent cup of coffee to be had after 4:00 p.m. on Sundays.) However, what we learned from what we lost is ours now – we own it, and it has changed us for the better.

Advertisements




Stand or Take a Knee…

22 09 2016

When I was in high school, I belonged to an inter-church youth group. Many Sundays saw my siblings and I attending services at the Methodist, Presbyterian or Lutheran churches in town with our youth group – and also attending mass at our own Catholic parish. Sometimes, our youth group friends would come to mass with us – not often, certainly not as often as we attended their services (I mean, we were teens – who would actually choose multiple church services on a single Sunday morning unless coerced?!). When they did come to our church, they refused to participate in the prayer ritual on the grounds that somehow doing so made them idolators or papists. They never asked me about the rituals of the mass, or why we sometimes knelt – they had learned elsewhere that it was antithetical to their religious doctrine. So they came to our church as a sign of solidarity with us (because my parents insisted on mass), but they used their presence as an opportunity to stage a silent protest against Catholicism.

I haven’t forgotten how it felt as a teenager, to watch my friends make significant eye contact with one another as they slowly, deliberately and with a clearly intentional flourish, took their seats – in the very front pew of the church where they insisted we sit – as the rest of the church dropped to their knees.

I felt shamed.

And then I felt angry. What made them think their church was better than mine? Their way of expressing prayerful reverence somehow more “right”?

Now, all that I’ve written about this experience is from my perspective – and not even my current perspective, that of my teenaged self. Today, I wouldn’t see or feel it in the same way at all! In fairness to my friends, their perceptions and perspectives of these events likely vary widely from mine. And it is so far in the past, we’re lucky to remember it at all, much less with any nuance or detail!

However, these memories of how I felt then have helped me to understand a bit about why the recent protests during the national anthem at sporting events have so enraged some folks. When someone chooses to act in a way that is deliberately different, we can’t help but pay attention. And when their action calls out something that we do or believe as a matter of course, we tend to take their actions personally. You kneeling when I stand, or remaining seated when I kneel, is not a political statement, it is a personal affront.

This initial reaction is visceral, not thoughtful.

And here’s where we get into trouble so often, I think: instead of engaging in reflection and dialogue about what is behind both the other person’s action and our emotional re-action, we stick with the visceral. Our responses are then always arguments designed to support our gut reaction, our feelings, rather than intended to bring about understanding of multiple perspectives. It keeps us in adversarial opposition to one another, rather than allowing us to truly listen, or to come to respectful disagreement – not to mention the even more desirable discovery of some middle ground.

Unfortunately, social media feeds this immature atunement to the visceral. In many ways, it has become a scourge to mature inquiry and and reflection. I say this sadly, as one who has benefited from all of the great things social media has the potential to offer. However, as both the algorithms used weed out more and more of what might be different from our own perspectives, more and more we also unfriend those whose perspectives differ. By the time both are done with “the weeding”, we’re left with a very sparse garden of ideas, indeed. One uninformed by the unique perspectives of others whose worldviews and life experiences differ from our own.

We find ourselves in a turbulent time. There are deep issues to be addressed. I do not have any answers, nor am I suggesting that I have a comprehensive theory on how to go about resolving these issues. I am, though, attempting to hold space – by listening, by checking my own gut-reactions, by seeking a broader set of opinions than my own – for what of Goodness and Truth and Peace and Justice might emerge from the turbulence of our times. Whether I stand, or kneel, or lay prostrate on the ground – I am trying to hold space for others to choose their own posture without casting them in the role of enemy or other. It is, honestly, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I am convinced that making the effort will be worth it, if only because it keeps me from a self-imposed solitary confinement of the mind and heart.

“It’s a fact—everyone is ignorant in some way or another.Ignorance is our deepest secret.

And it is one of the scariest things out there, because those of us who are most ignorant are also the ones who often don’t know it or don’t want to admit it.

Here is a quick test:

If you have never changed your mind about some fundamental tenet of your belief, if you have never questioned the basics, and if you have no wish to do so, then you are likely ignorant.

Before it is too late, go out there and find someone who, in your opinion, believes, assumes, or considers certain things very strongly and very differently from you, and just have a basic honest conversation.

It will do both of you good.”

— Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration

 

 

 

 

 





Passports

15 09 2016

When the phone rang, I was attempting to get three things done at once. I sighed with exasperation at yet another interruption before picking up. A friendly voice on the other end of the line greeted me, then said, “I was calling to see if you’d be interested in an all-expenses paid trip to Italy.”

Without boring you with the details, I’ll just say that this was a legitimate offer to participate in a group experience with colleagues. Someone in the original travel group had dropped out, opening a spot – which was offered to me. “Of course,” my friendly benefactor added, “you’ll need to have a current passport.”

Flash back to January, when news reports cited anticipated lag times for passport renewals. Flash back to conversations with my parents, New Mexico residents, whose state-issued IDs did not meet federal standards – making passports mandatory for air travel. Flash back to the many, many times I said to myself and others, “I should get my passport renewed. You never know when you might need it!”

Flash back to all the times I hadn’t followed through on that thought.

Those of you inclined to forgive my lack of forethought on this one, may ask in my defense, “How often does someone need a passport without advance warning, really?” I appreciate the kindness motivating your words, but just judging by the stories I’ve personally heard from friends and family of their frantic efforts to get passports or have theirs renewed, it actually happens not infrequently. I could, logically, have seen something like this coming.

Let’s broaden the lens a bit, though. Suddenly, it becomes possible to see many situations that have blown up and opportunities that have been squandered due to a lack of application. I’m great at the forethought part – I often think about the things I should or could do to be prepared for possibilities or eventualities. Not often enough, though, does the thinking translate into doing.

As a Girl Scout, I memorized the three-finger pledge (On my honor, I will try to do my duty to love God and my country…) but don’t recall ever hearing that the Girl Scout motto, like the Boy Scouts’, is: Be Prepared. Still, I can hardly blame my scout leaders for not ingraining in me the impetus to be ready for what life might bring my way. My mother, Shirley, was always a believer in getting up and at the day’s chores early, just in case something fun came along (and chores must always precede fun). Plus, American culture is chock full of aphorisms (“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”) and inspirational examples and quotes I should have learned from:

“It is not often that a man can make opportunities for himself. But he can put himself in such shape that when or if the opportunities come he is ready.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Embarrassingly, my own life history is littered with torn up tickets to adventure I’ve received and been unable to use due to my own lack of readiness. In virtually every one of these situations, I had thought in the previous days, weeks, or months that I ought to do the very thing that would have allowed me to say “Yes!” when Opportunity came knocking. Somewhere along the line, you’d think I’d have learned the value in listening to these thoughts – clearly my intuition providing wise counsel.

Recently, I went to dinner with a friend who had received good news after a health scare. She insisted that each of us raise our glass and solemnly swear to live every day to its fullest, with abandon and joy. As we clinked glasses, she beamed at us and declared, “Mischief managed,” with a satisfied nod. I wish it was as simple as a declaration pledged with margarita glasses (or, in my case, a giant glass of water). It may not be that easy, but it doesn’t need to be as difficult as I sometimes make it.

So, while I won’t be heading to Italy this month, I will be heading to the passport office to expedite my passport renewal. Contrary to popular sentiment, lightening does sometimes strike the same place twice. And I don’t plan to look that particular gift horse in the mouth a second time. Truthfully, at this point in my life, I don’t want to tear up any more golden tickets due to my own inaction – I’m going to try to listen when my intuition suggests I get up and complete my chores!





Skank

8 09 2016

2016-09-05 15.46.14

I didn’t notice when the word appeared. One day I was looking at the abandoned house across the street, as I often do when I pause at my window, and something about the red paint impinged on my conscious mind. It wasn’t there when I moved in a year ago, but it is there now and has been for at least the past few weeks.

Skank.

The boarded-up house sits in the middle of the block. Of the four lots on that block, two have inhabited homes, one is an empty lot, and – smack in the middle – is the derelict: a relic of the flood that decimated this neighborhood eight years ago. My apartment building, a renovated warehouse converted into “urban lofts” sits across the street. Two floors of 8-foot high windows look out upon the other side of the block. From my shiny new apartment interior it’s hard to know who might be the intended recipient of the one-word message.

Skank.

I do not doubt, however, that there is an intended recipient. This word is a sharp weapon, used with a soft target in mind. “Derogatory term for a female, implying trashiness or tackiness, lower-class status, poor hygiene, flakiness, and a scrawny, pock-marked sort of ugliness. May also imply promiscuity, but not necessarily,” says the Urban Dictionary and all of my 1970s high school.

Skank.

One night, in my former life in college administration, a student nearly died as I watched paramedics attempt to revive her from an alcohol-induced stupor. Later, I was told, she coded in the ambulance – I was in my car waiting to follow them to the ER, but the ambulance sat for more than forty minutes before leaving the campus. She was legally an adult at 18, but the hospital called her parents anyway because they were next of kin and it was not a given she would live through the night. Later – technically the next day, but as I had never been to bed it seemed like one nightmarishly run-on day – I interviewed students about what had happened. The first person told me, “She had a reputation.” I asked what kind of reputation. “You know, she’s kind of a skank.”

Interview after interview I heard the same things. Always, first, the definition of what she was – skank, slut, ho. Then stories that made my heart break, stories that would normally have led the students on our campus to intervene or seek help for their classmate. But not for this skank. Even my usually empathic resident assistants had stood back and watched, judging but not intervening.

A lot of students felt bad after the fact: after they’d spent months sharing salacious gossip about her, but never reaching out to her; after they were forced to confront their tacit complicity with a campus-wide “freeze out”; after the skank had been returned to her residence hall, unconscious and dumped on the floor by several guys who then fled before any questions could be asked. But until she nearly died, no one questioned their indifference or compassionless judgment.

Skank.

I knew a young woman who was nearly annihilated by that word.

When I see that red scrawl on the boarded up porch across the street, I think of her. And I remember the incredible power of words. I think about the interplay of the words people use against us and the choices we make – a stranger in a car yelling “fat bitch” at me as he passed didn’t make me fat. But it did affect choices I made that day, including whether I felt strong enough to face the world, or worthy to even be in it. Over time, their accumulated impact was a wall of isolation I had to tear down brick by painful brick if I wanted to live my best life.

I hear a lot of angry rhetoric about “political correctness”, how it has harmed us, made us weak and unable to confront hard truths.

I’m calling bullshit on that.

There has, in my lifetime, been a movement away from using the harshest and most derogatory terms. A movement away from the weaponization of words to harm, hold back and harass whole classes of humans. Compassion and clarity are never misplaced, and they unify us rather than make us weak. What makes us weak? This backlash against “political correctness” being used to call forth all of our racist, misogynistic, jingoistic tendencies. Because we human beings have these proclivities – just as we have the propensity to feel empathy and care for others in distress.

Which of these tendencies do we really want to call forth in ourselves, to bring out into our world? I know which I always hope to share. That doesn’t make me politically correct, it makes me someone who consciously chooses to bring my best self to the world.

Every day I have an anonymous tagger with a can of red spray paint to thank for reminding me of that. Skank: every day, I see that word and I remember that I choose kindness.

 

 

 





Showing Up

1 09 2016

I have a friend who, for years, has talked with her retired father on the phone each morning. Over time, these daily telephone conversations became a source of jealousy between my friend and her siblings. Her adult sibs would grumble about how she was “the favorite” and that they wished they got daily time with their dad. After listening to their complaints, my friend finally threw up her hands in exasperation. “Go ahead, YOU be the one to listen to him endlessly recount what he said to the guy at the meat counter yesterday, or repeat word-for-word what every single guy at the retired men’s coffee klatch said this morning! I’m happy to let you in on these scintillating conversations!” Faced with the reality of long, mostly one-sided, and sometimes boring interactions – as opposed to the idealized version in their heads – her siblings reconsidered. They told my friend, “No, no. You go ahead. It was your idea in the first place.”

Here’s what my friend understood, that her siblings didn’t necessarily get: what makes her interactions with their dad meaningful is that she shows up for them every day. No matter what else is happening, or what size the mountain of tasks she is facing that day might be – regardless of how mundane the conversation –  she shows up. Her siblings wanted the end result, the closeness, without the responsibility or the tedium of doing the daily thing.

And really, isn’t that true for most of us in at least some of our relationships?

Unfortunately, it is too often true about our relationships with ourselves, as well. This became especially clear to me the other night. A friend who is a cross-country coach posted an invitation on Facebook to come to his annual open meet. I typed the following reply: “I’m too fat to come this year.”

Of course I erased that self-shaming message before I hit send. Besides, what I really meant was, “I don’t feel good enough about myself right now to show up for you.”

That thought gave me pause. I have excused myself from exercising regularly due to tendonitis in my shoulders; I have allowed myself to eat fast food frequently because it is late in the evening when I arrive home; I have treated my minor depression and other menopausal symptoms with snack foods and junk TV. In other words, I have not been showing up for average me, much less my best me.

As a result, I just don’t feel like showing up for my friends or my family if it requires any effort on my part – or when doing so means they might notice how I’ve let myself down.

When we stop showing up for ourselves – when we consciously forego the kind of daily self-care that allows us to feel good in our own skin – we are much less likely to have the energy or ability to be present with, to or for others. And that is no way to live.

“Growing into your future with health and grace and beauty doesn’t have to take all your time. It rather requires a dedication to caring for yourself as if you were rare and precious, which you are, and regarding all life around you as equally so, which it is. ”  — Victoria Moran