Thursday, August 2, 2018

Always be the helpers

I'm not generally one who reads advice columns, but this one, aimed at parents, nudged at me, making me want to share it.

Too often, it strikes me that the person writing in for advice is asking for something specific to him or her, a response to a problem that's unique to him and him alone. But this mother's plaint is common, and not just to parents. I struggle, too, with the question of how to effect optimism with friends and others without, as she puts it, "overloading" them.

Carvell Wallace puts it plainly: "To be a child in 2018 is to know that the adults have completely abdicated our collective responsibility to make a decent world for our kids." Game, set, and match. Abdicated is the polite way to put it; the truth is we have, as a species, gone out of our way to fuck this world up with a passion.

Her suggestion, taken from a now-famous Fred Rogers' quote, is spot-on: In order for our children to find the helpers, we must be he helpers. What good does it do them if we're all behaving like chickens with our heads lopped off or, worse, as if the issue doesn't matter? America claims it hates a bully, and goes out of its way to elect one. We say children are our future and are important to us, and defund and beggar the very schools and programs meant to help them grow into that future.  We insist school be a safe place for them, and offer nothing more than thoughts and prayers to keep guns out of them. 

Everyone knows kids aren't stupid and we all like to brag about how intelligent ours are, but then we behave as if they're not only dim but blind and deaf too. The note that little ones have big ears and eyes is so common it's trite, but it's not only their own parents they're listening and watching. It's what we mean by having compassion: When you're outside your home, act like there's a kid watching and mimicking you. I do this myself. I feel better for it. Because there often is one somewhere. And they will eventually treat me the same as they see me treating others 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

How to treat offensive words

It's an offensive picture. It should be. It's an offensive word. But some context here is important. This is a stretch of beach near my home that's lately been made inaccessible by both a higher tide and the loss of some boulders people used to get around the fence the owners of this stretch put up. It is also close to the water so it can only be seen if you approach it from the lake. Finally, it seems to have been scratched into the face of one rock using another.

I remember as a young tween being overwhelmed by the power of some words to elicit responses from other people, not always responses I liked, and sometimes totally out of proportion (to me) to the relative smallness of the word or the intent behind it. (In a related way, this is also about the time I began to understand how written or spoken words could have an effect on others, which opened a whole new way of being to me.) I had a litany of words I thought were offensive that I'd mutter under my breath when I was angry or frustrated, including the above word and, for some reason, "booger."

So my suspicion is the above, hidden away as it is, and using a tool that was at hand rather than brought along like a spray can or even a marker, is the result of a young boy (it's almost always boys who write these things) just feeling the immensity of that power, the way a simple (so it may seem to him) word can make some people angry or giggle or turn serious or agreeably nod. For his purpose the word could have as easily been "cunt" or "faggot", words that aren't likely to come up in normal conversation and have no purpose except degradation and insult.

When I was a grad student I wrote a bunch of phrases in chalk on the walls and windowsills of my office, like "Stop praising dust!" and "Fight the power!". I was gratified, visiting a friend a decade later now in the office, to find that the phrases, or what was left of them just above the height of someone with an eraser, remained. This is not, of course, exculpatory but it is suggestive that the proper response is not to react against it (unless you happen to know the person who did it) but to let the rain and waves handle it.

Friday, July 6, 2018

We won't leave

There aren't too many people, at least not that I know of or have heard of, who are seriously considering leaving the country because of trump and his policies, but I speculate about it sometimes. In a time when humanitarian advances in voting rights, women's rights, abortion rights, immigrant rights, gay rights, trans~ rights, worker rights, minority religious rights, and the rights of nearly anyone who isn't white and wealthy and self-described Christian are under fire when not in downright retrograde, it's an exercise in both pleasant self-deception and potential self-defense to daydream about it. 

But I won't. I don't think many will. Most of us, I suspect, will take our cue from this drawing. Many Americans may follow a bully, some Americans may be bullies. But most Americans hate bullying and know the proper response to a bully is protecting the bullied. It's what the angels of our better nature demand. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Lift Every Voice

I will confess to feeling, if not burned out, then exhausted by the massive, deaf wall that is Trump and his supporters. They feign to be doing either what the law demands or what the economy demands or what the American people demand, and when it is proven, by polls or votes, that the people do not demand it but demand exactly the opposite, they purport that the polls are wrong or biased or lie or simply that the people don't really know what it is they want.

But as British columnist Emma Brockes reminds us, 
Trump’s presidency has been one long series of outrages [between] the twin risks of normalisation and outrage fatigue... [Citizens] are reduced to a state of numbness and apathy, caught up in a cycle of responding to each buffoonish Trump tweet while the bigger picture pixelates away to abstraction.
We run the risk by being so absorbed in the latest Trump scandal, insult, evasion, even missteps, that they become a huge Trump lump of just "another example how Trump and his supporters don't care about or pay attention to either the law or other people." As a result, we become that luckless employee who, with each new offense by his employer, rather than working to change it, prides himself on crossing off another day until retirement. 

I understand that because I feel it myself. I become mired in the constant battles with Trump supporters who insist people "like me" either don't understand the law/politics/history/reality or that our only problem with the situation is that it's Trump rather than Hillary or Obama making the policy. And when "people like me" post, over and over, proof in the form of primary sources or analysis by historians or research done by what for the majority of us satisfies the requirement of objectivity, we're told it's fake news, or that its source is biased against Trump, often in the form of a post from someplace purporting to prove Snopes is financed by Soros or The New York Times is a liberal front. There are only so many times we can be told Richard Specter is more legitimate a resource than Paul Krugman.  When everything is true, nothing is true. 

But I have to repress the natural instinct to turn from these blasts against reality because in the meanwhile, real people are suffering and afraid. I can't justify to myself staying out of the fray because it's too hot, it's too exhausting, it's endless, it's frustrating. To do so is to deny the humanity of the people whose humanity I want to uphold. 

I was among the hundreds of thousands of protestors (in the US alone; I don't have figures for the world sites of protests) at the Families Belong Together rallies. At mine, Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin's 4th District spoke, and while I don't remember what she said I was impressed by the passion and indignation in her voice. Such fiery voices, speaking truth to power, are perhaps all we have in our arsenal. Can voices change abuse and evil into something better? It may seem like they can't, but voices after all were all the abolitionists had, and Women's Suffragists, and Civil Rights workers. It worked for them. It will work for us. Si si puede

Monday, May 21, 2018

the world tree and my dad

In sorting through boxes of photos last Wednesday searching for pictures of my dad I realized I have hundreds of photos of the outdoors and dozens of crooked, gnarled trees. I guess I have an affinity for them, which makes my walk up to this one outside Coudersport a pilgrimage. The invention of camera phones has made it unusual, I think, to look at old photos as usual process except, as in this case, when we sort through them for pictures of someone to illustrate one of those posterboard collections to put on stands at someone's funeral. 

Dad died a week ago this afternoon. It was, as I understood it, a peaceful death. I'm told by the caregivers at his nursing facility, who were taking turns watching over him, that one minute he was breathing and the next he was not. I was with him the week before, having driven out with my wife. The weekend before that he had experienced a seizure of some sort that, after tests came back negative for all sorts of guesses, they determined was yet another stroke, maybe strokes. He lost his gag reflex, at least for a while, and hadn't eaten or drank in several days. We knew this would be our last opportunity to see him. 

It was a good week. Dad had always been a nervous, anxious kind of man, but now he was relaxed, calm, at peace. He looked out at the world with the soft eyes I associate with someone in meditation. We spent hours daily with him. His ability to swallow returned, so when he asked for something to eat he could have a few small spoontips of applesauce followed by a few sips of orange juice thickened with nectar. We placed him on hospice, knowing that this wouldn't be enough to sustain him long. He recognized me by name the afternoon we arrived, and my wife by name (although he hadn't seen her in 6 years) the next morning. My sister was there and he sometimes recognized her, sometimes didn't. That was usual, this sometimes-knowing, sometimes-not. He could only croak out a couple words at a time, usually "good" when asked how he felt, "I should get up" when he was tired of lying in bed and wanted to sit at the nurses' station or one of the visitors' lounges to see people. We left him on a Thursday morning, knowing it was the last time we'd see him alive. 

After the phone call, I began planning my drive out for his funeral. Fortunately, we had already made arrangements for that and dad himself had already written his obituary. Dealing as I do with death on a more or less daily basis, I can attest to the help that planning out one's service is to one's survivors. It's not so much that we don't have the time or inclination to plan these things after a loved one's death, but we are experiencing grief and that can suck up so much brainpan activity that, if it's possible to do so, planning everything out in advance not only is easier but ensures what someone would like is going to happen. 

The events of my return to The Thick, dad's memorial and interment, my time spent with my sister and her family as well as cousins, some of whom I hadn't seen in nearly 4 decades, the drive there and then the drive home, and the reconnection with my wife and animals, all that is personal and banal at best. If you haven't experienced something similar, you will. 

I'd rather talk about this tree. It sits on a hill outside the town where dad spent his last years, about a half hour's walk from the motel I frequented all these years, and something of a fixture of the many walks I took while visiting him. A couple decades ago I wrote, in relation to hiking, how for many wanderers in the woods there is a tree that he or she feels drawn to, a touchstone maybe, or a companion they can feel comforted by seeing. Sharing one's tree with others is like sharing one's personal name for God with them. In my very romantic view of my own death, I will somehow peacefully expire laid out beneath one of my trees, looking up into their old, gnarled branches and seeing something like eternity or redemption. In reality, of course, that's unlikely. But just in case, I choose a tree everywhere I go. Just in case. 

The ancient Norse had their concept of Yddrasil, the World Tree, and there isn't much I have adopted from them but I do like this idea. It's reminiscent of the interconnectedness of everything, the reliance on everything else that each individual has. In this view, old and gnarled trees are to my father as they are to my own sense of my mortality (as well as my wish for how my mortality plays itself out). At one time in my life, I cherished the notion that my ultimate reincarnation would be as a tree on a cliff. In reality, it's nice to think of, and it's nice to think my dad may have had such a profound life that he's earned a turn as a sequoia or a fir. But it's as unlikely as anything else, or as likely as anything else, and I suppose what's important is that, if I think of my dad or myself as a tree, it only means I think that being one is better than being a person. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

where the horror in Surabaya lies

This is a horrible event, and the horror goes beyond the targeting of people on their way to worship. The horror is that a family, including a 9 year old child, are the ones responsible for the horror.

For Americans, I suspect at least a part of the horror will be (perhaps should be) that the attack by an as-yet unnamed family on three Christian churches occurs on Mother's Day. While Indonesians celebrate Mother's Day in December, so the date isn't an intentional horror, Americans are wont to see every world event through our own lens. There may be several last-minute additions to church homilies mentioning the significance of the day in making their congregations more aware (read: afraid) of international terrorism.

But let's keep this in Indonesia, where the horror is enough without the symbolism. A family consisting of parents, sons in their late teens, and daughters ages 9 and 12, divided into three groups targeting three different churches, one Catholic, one Pentecostal, and a third that sounds like a generic Protestant congregation. That the family was Muslim, or at least saw themselves as Muslim (because many Muslims would argue that by doing such a thing the family gave in to apostasy), is probable since the Islamic State claims responsibility. And the targeting of a populous public space by suicide bombing is a well-known IS tactic, while researchers have noted the rise of intolerance by majority Muslims against other religions. 

But the horror, as I've suggested, lies in this otherwise bland statement in the BBC's report: Women "have become increasingly active in terrorist cells in Indonesia but this would be the first time children have been used."

Not discounting the mid-millenium Christian Children's Crusade, some of whose leaders may have been younger than their early teens, does the active use of children in violent anonymous attacks suggest a surety in the rightness of the groups' cause? Or a sense of desperation in the leadership encouraging them? 

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.