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.

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.