Saturday, April 21, 2018

What the Beloved Community is

It is a concept embraced by, but not created by, Dr ML King, Jr, an idea that in the radical community of people inspired by God (and for King, the words of Jesus), there is no hate, no poverty, no separation between what we can be and what we are. In this wild inclusivity, a person doesn't just look out for himself but for everyone, knowing that all people are also him.

Here are some examples. In this first one, from 2017, it's the efforts, first of the two men who lift up a woman who is nearly on her face in the final yards of a half-marathon in Philadelphia (!). They each take an arm, effectively ending the times most marathoners care about and need to keep up if they want to submit for longer marathons, and walk her together toward the finish. I think it's clear that for her, it isn't the time that's important, it's the completion that's important. But finally her legs are just too weak and buckle and it's at this point another man, yards ahead, stops, turns around, and scoops her up to carry her there.

In the second, from earlier this year, a teen waitress is rewarded for helping a customer eat his breakfast. It isn't the proclamation by the town's mayor of "Evoni 'Nini' Williams Day" or the gratefully accepted money to help her with tuition that's an example from the Beloved Community because there wouldn't be a reason there for those things. It's in the simple, unselfconscious act of Evoni Williams, at the customer's request, of reaching across the counter and cutting his meat for him, the way billions of fathers and mothers have done for their children. It isn't an infantilizing gesture and Williams doesn't seem embarrassed by the request. Presumably, in her mind and in Adrien Charpentier's mind, it is what people ask for and do in the Beloved Community.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Real-life Where's Waldo


This is an excellent video and explanation for both defining white privilege and explaining ways to use it. If Brittany Packnett is emotional, remember it's her life she's talking about.

It shouldn't be so hard, in 2018, to explain what this privilege is, but it shouldn't be so hard to see how poorly Donald Trump is administering the country, and that's something at least the same number of people refuse to understand. Too many whites focus on the word "privilege," thinking of themselves or their friends, and in their arguments focus on what they can't do. But it's not about what white people can or can't do, it's how they're seen by people with authority.

For better and worse, I often think of this in terms of what I have gotten away with in the past. My years of shoplifting and taking drugs and being drunk in public, and how I was aware I was likely not to be seen as someone who was doing those things. Most black or Hispanic men of the same age could not do so since their simply being there puts the shop owner or cop on a higher alert. It can be a function of just being aware there's a person whose color doesn't blend in with the shades surrounding him. As Packnett puts it, White privilege isn't a blame or an excuse but "a lens to understand how race works in this country, where white people are the default and everyone else has to adjust." It's a condition of the privilege of being seen as just like everyone else, rather than being seen as an anomaly. The same is true of people in wheelchairs or blind people: they stand out by virtue of the majority around them being "normal." For many in authority, it's a real-life game of Where's Waldo. The game is made more serious for both authority and the person singled out because at times both person's livelihood or life is at stake.

But that same normality means it can be valuable to use in bringing attention to how people who aren't white, or aren't capable of blending into the background, face issues the majority are unaware exist. I think here of my old teaching practice of blindfolding students and leading them around by a rope to make them aware how they default to the use of their eyes and not their other senses. In doing so, their writing could be opened to allow in a newer, richer way of describing the world around them. Similarly, being aware how someone benefits from the way he sees the people surrounding him can open him to a newer, richer way of interacting with them.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Stop doing so much, start slacking

In the past few weeks, I've had a tremendous and sharp pain in the lower left quadrant of my back, right above my butt. It's as if someone had been slinking a dagger slyly under my skin and into the muscle, shiving me between the sleeve and the meat. It hasn't knocked me down, but it's threatened to.

It was so painful for so long that yesterday I visited my chiropractor. He worked on me for a while, and while it felt better for a few hours after, what helped me most was what he suggested I do as an exercise to ward it off. Demonstrating, he said, "It's a kind of lunging motion, using the opposite side's muscles." And when I saw it I shouted out, "I do that! Or I mean, I used to do that, or something like it."

What he was showing me was similar to a yoga exercise I'd made a part of my stretching routine, and which I haven't done much of for at least a couple months. For reasons I can't articulate, except that avoiding the act became the reason itself, I'd filled up my days with so much busyness that, rather than stretching and doing tai chi before taking a leisurely walk, I'd been just walking without stretching or doing chi. When I explained this to him he smiled and said, "Well, it's not a mystery any longer, is it."

What had I filled up my days with? I can't really say that either. The endless embarrassment of the Trump administration is one issue with which I've busied myself, often only for argument's sake. Extra time for reading on the internet is another. Still another has been nearly daily naps. None of these have added anything beneficial to my life. It's been like I've been engaged in proving the truth of the adage that activities expand to take up the alloted time.

I had posted this cartoon some years ago and it popped up on my FaceBook page recently. It is an important reminder to me that what is important isn't the things that are done, it's what is accomplished. I haven't been accomplishing much lately, and the stress has finally gotten my attention.

I'm reminded of visiting a Gurdjieff community in West Virginia decades ago and coming across a woman sorting buttons from a large cookie tin by size in the dark. It is that sort of attention I need to cultivate again.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Bunga uber alles

For a writer, the curse of living in interesting times is that so much happens, and on a daily, sometimes hourly, schedule that by the time you've given the event or statement any thought, something else has happened or been said, rending moot the previous consideration. This might be the contemporary condition: Too much happening all at once. Time condensed into only the "now," but not the now of zen, the NOW! of hype.

This is prelude to the observation that the current (February, although as a subscriber, I saw it and could have read it in late December) issue of Sojourners magazine offers the pertinent question, "Is This a [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer Moment?" The titular article, by Lori Brandt Hale and Reggie L. Williams, identifies such a moment as "living in a time and place in which 'the huge masquerade of evil has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion' and in which evil appears in the 'form of light, good deeds, historical necessity, [and] social justice.' [Bonhoeffer lived] in a time that required a radical form of ethical discernment, attuned to concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state." [Quotes are from Bonhoeffer's writings.]

This is a question that is uniquely church-related, its context coming from the experience of German Christianity identifying itself with and pledging fealty to the National Socialists, and especially to the person of Adolf Hitler. Taking a page from David Gushee's Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, they identify perpetrators (in context, the Nazis), bystanders (Christian churches, especially the Catholic hierarchy), and resisters (Bonhoeffer's Confessing Church). In our contemporary state, the corollary would be Donald Trump and his supporters, the Christian churches who provide a home to much of his base, and those of us who take to the streets, write warnings, argue with the others (and I would even include the Black Bloc and Antifa).

Wisely, the authors leave it to individual readers to come to their own conclusions, although the two followup essays, by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson and Victoria J. Barnett, suggest the most common answer will be a resounding "Yes!" And I agree, in the sense that this moment asks of us to take on the question of why God became human (not so humans would become divine but so we would become more truly human; this is similar to Abraham Heschel's God who is in search of humanity, itself similar to the old rabbinic suggestion God created people so God could experience what it means to live and die. I also agree that we live at a time when it's incumbent on us to identify and label evil as it rises in the world, to point to racism or abuse of the poor and say, That isn't just. That isn't how we're meant to treat one another

But in the first analysis, the suggestion that Trump and his fellows are like the Nazis, I disagree (and to their credit I think the authors do also). Trump is less Adolf Hitler and more Silvio Berlusconi, less "Deutschland uber alles" and more "Bunga bunga." For one, there are much fewer supporters of Trump than are often credited (only 30% of the US electorate supports him at any given time, a number smaller than the number who believe in ghosts, and they aren't given a say in governance). There is also the sheer absurdity of his misbehavior; more often than not we're left to ask one another, Did he just say that? Let's be honest, while many of his policies hurt others, even I would have a hard time connecting a strong line between what he says and anyone's death. Perhaps most importantly, we live in a time when information is readily available and there is no paucity of real news reporting on his hypocrisies, lies, misdirection, blatant cronyism and self-promotion. While Fox News might want it otherwise, the Truth is Out There for anyone who wants to read it.

While the election of the cult of personality that is Trumpery is a stain on our nation we should neither be allowed to forget or to whitewash, it has a finite shelf-life, one which its adherents, in their display of panic, are recognizing and trying like mad to pretend they were never really a part of. In that, it is exactly like Nazism.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Visiting Dad, Coda

I left Pennsylvania this morning after seeing Dad one more time. He surprised me by waiting for me  at the end of the hallway furthest from his room. He was concerned, he said, about my traveling in the snow (it had snowed a few inches in the night and morning) and he wanted me to get an early start. So I told him I loved him, kissed him goodbye, and took off after gassing up and getting a large coffee for the road.

It used to be that I would go a year or more between visits to my parents, months between phone calls. Before she died, I used to call my mother a couple times a week. Now I call Dad once a week and drive out to visit him at least twice a year. I can't say this change in visitation is in response to a greater realization of their mortality, because I've always been aware of mortality, theirs, others, and my own. I have a relationship with death and dying that is visceral and I am, in most cases, comfortable with it. I didn't cry when my mother died, not because I didn't love her, because I certainly did, but because I always knew she would die. This doesn't, of course, stop my tears in the case of some others.

When my father dies, I'll feel, as with my mom, a sense of loss, but not a sense of missed opportunity. I'm glad to have the chance to see him, and glad that my relationship with him has changed for the better. I'm unsure what to ascribe this change to, maybe it's a change brought about by change itself. But I'm thankful for the change.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Visiting Dad, Day 7

This was my last day on this trip visiting Dad. It was a good day, although we didn't do much talking. Like the last couple days, he dropped off and on asleep for the length of my time there, which is an average of four hours each day. I read my book, I do my crosswords, sometimes I fall asleep myself for a little while. What stood out today was that he didn't have a sun-downing episode at three or at any time I was there. He woke the longest about four until I took him to dinner, and during it he knew who I was. And while he didn't seem to know how long I'd been visiting him, he knew I was returning home soon.

This is a photo I took today while he was alternately sleeping and watching out the window. He is relaxed and meditative. This is a relatively recent situation. I'm a child of the late 60s and 70s, a generation that focused on its feelings and ethics, looking at ways we should get in touch with what and who we are. I fear, however, that the epithet that we were the Me Generation is accurate, because it was our own feelings, and sometimes those of our peers, that we were interested in. Had someone asked me then what feelings he was in touch with, "relaxation" and "meditation" are not words I would have used. I know that in my own case I have become more relaxed, at least most of the time, than I was when younger and learning meditative techniques. My dad of course would not know asana from prana (and would skew up his face at the words, saying "What's that?"), and yet here, in his 80s, I would say he's more poised and relaxed than I can pretend to be.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Visiting Dad, Day 6

The reason I never give up hope is that everything is so basically hopeless. Hopelessness underscores everything--the deep sadness and fear at the center of life, the holes in the hearts of our families, the animal confusion within us; the madness of King George. But when you do give up hope, a lot can happen. When it's not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens like one of those fluted Japanese blossoms, flimsy and spastic, bright and warm. This almost always seems to happen in community: with family, related by blood or chosen; at church for me; and at peace marches.
--Anne Lamott, Small Victories

Seeing dad today was good and different. Good because he was in a very good mood, different because I realized his desire to sleep most of the day has become central to his life. This wasn't a new realization, as I recognized the importance of sleep to him last week. No, I think the important thing was my discovery that this is primarily his life. It's not a bad life, I think he's as content as he's ever been. But I think too that I'm finding that I need to not only to accept it but to live with it as well as he has. I must be as all right with his life and the way he lives it as he is. Can I be? Yes, I will have to be.