Saturday, May 28, 2011

Heather tells it like it is

I want to direct my readers to the Adventures in Animism blog, because Heather tells it like it is and I'm inspired. Yah! That's exactly what I see when I look around me, but her response is more courageous. I'm thinking that if I can't change anything, why bother responding to the evils of the world? Heather says that if we respond we can "hold our dead heads high" in the days to come. Charlie says that as long as I never give up, then I never fail. Jack reminds me that there's lots to live for in spite of the evils, and that the evils have been here for a long time, and that we shouldn't allow them to take away what little we're left with. Lee says that we should write a book. Vivi pulls out her camera. Sophie speaks her truth to power, while Ben travels the world with his merry band and lifts people up with his music. Hooray for the Christian Left, a growing uprising of love within the Christian Church. NORML carries on for the legalization of the Cannabis gateway to the gods. Maggie speaks out against fracking. And Dan and Joanne and Ruthie and Neil and Cecile and Jo C remind me that friendship alone is worth living for. Back to the drawing table!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Charlie has his say

Went down the rec trail today, and found Charlie wondering down the hill, close to six-mile creek. Charlie says:

This is your moment. This is your moment, what you've been given in this fallen world.
It will never come again, this particular intersection of time and space that you inhabit.
Live in it fully.

Enjoy the tree people while you can.
Enjoy your health while you have it.
You're blessed to have been able to run across the back yards on long summer evenings in your childhood.
Be grateful for what you've been given in this fallen world.

Your task is to blossom. You're a one-of-a-kind expression of your Creator, the God Flower of three petals. The task with which he's charged you is to blossom for the blink of an eye, to be a tiny flash of light among the uncountable twinkling galactic lights.

Live fully and with integrity. That's the goal. If you accept the world as it is, as unchangeable, you'll be freed to choose how to live inside of it.

Accept the gift of this fascinating, complex, scary, beautiful moment and be grateful to have experienced this lifetime in the body on the earth.

Good ol' Charlie. He's never led me wrong.

The World As It Is: Part Two

The world as it is, as opposed to what? To the world as it should be? This is a page from my sketchbook from just a couple of weeks ago. You can see that I was, as usual, feeling miserable because of the way the world is. But since I can’t do anything about the world as it is, maybe it’s time to let go of that attitude and start accepting.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

I have a friend named Steve who feels deep disappointment about how his life turned out and a great deal of hurt and sadness from people using him and treating him poorly in the past. I tell him (listen to me, full of good advice) that people are the way they are, so he shouldn’t take it personally. Their nastiness isn’t about him, I say. He can have compassion for them. Life never lives up to our expectations. Steve, I say, let go and be at peace.


I can see this when I comes to interpersonal relations and my own small life, but when I look at the world, I get angry. Humanity is wasting its potential. Humanity could create a world of abundance and peace. We worship money and power. We let criminals and bullies rule the world. Everything’s fucked up. It’s getting worse. On and on.

But what if I need to let go as much as Steve does?

From a historical perspective, Steve reminds me, humans have always been at one another’s throats, acting selfishly, trashing their own potential.

Not pre-historically, I say. Not before institutionalized religions and dominator control.

Ok, so for the past 8000 years or so, he concedes, human reality has been a rough neighborhood. That’s the way it is. You want to keep smacking your head against that wall? You’ll give yourself a headache. Besides, who died and elected you Savior?

Good point. Where did I get this idea that it was up to me to save the world, and if only I was good enough, and recycled enough, and sent enough money to the right candidates, and dedicated myself enough to the salvation of the world, the world could be saved. Where did I get the idea that it was up to me? I’m chained to a wheel by those easy-to-quote admonitions never to give up, that the only thing that’s ever changed the world is a small group of dedicated people, that the only thing needed for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing . . .

Somehow I’ve taken on the burden of believing that if the world stubbornly refuses to transform, it’s because I haven’t done enough. But how much is enough? You can die on a cross to bring peace and salvation and the world will go right on being a rough neighborhood.

Lao Tzu says that we can only recognize good in the first place because there is evil. That good and evil, black and white, up and down arise together, and that if I was as smart as I say I am, I’d stop trying to fix it all. It’s not fixable. It’s the way of the Tao. So, Lao Tzu says, do nothing. Teach nothing. The ten thousand things rise and fall, while the self watches their return.

Is it time to let go? I sure as hell would be a lot happier. I’d have more energy to give to my family and friends, and my art and my gods. I’d be able to walk in nature without grieving for nature’s losses. I’d be able to help kids with the computers and not get angry at what computers are doing to them. Where’s the balance? Does one let it all go? Worry only on the weekdays and take weekends off? I’m not sure, but something’s got to give.

On the ruins of a church from the 14th century, there are some words carved above the portal that read: It is so. It cannot be otherwise.

It is so. It cannot be otherwise.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Impulse to do Good

Inside of me, I feel an impulse to do good. I think most humans share this impulse, one that’s been explored through research into altruism, resilience, and the moral instinct. In firefighters, nurses, teachers, and others who dedicate their lives to community service, the impulse to do good has become a driving force. They want to care for others even at risk to themselves, at low pay, or in difficult circumstances. I include myself in this group. When I see something that needs doing, I want to do it. When something needs fixing, I want to fix it. I want to make life better. The suffering of others is like a fire in my own heart, urging me on, and the satisfaction I get when I succeed in serving and healing is a great joy in my life.

In fact, even a few moments of helping and making better are powerful enough to give me peace in spite of the cruelty and greed and evils that are too powerful for me to change. It’s the frustration of this impulse in my work the past few years that’s been the source of much of my unhappiness.

No matter what I’ve done for money in the past, I’ve been able to do good through my work: teaching at Planned Parenthood, raising money for heart research, helping folks quit smoking, making schools more diversity-positive . . . no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could offer service to the world. As I investigated my nostalgia for the 50s, it was easy to see that although the world is different now, it’s not better or worse. Humans are still struggling, some people are mean and some are kind. As LLB said, there’s sadness and beauty. So, why have I become increasingly discouraged, even depressed about the state of the world?

At least in part, I think the answer lies with my helplessness at work. I’m unable to inspire children to learn or help make their lives better. I haven’t got the time or opportunity to teach. Instead, I babysit, both the kids and the machines, and I’ve been given the role of “technology leader” when I believe that digital technology is hurting, rather than helping kids to read, think, and grow. Meanwhile, public education itself is oppressive. Our 11-14 year olds need to run and play. They need to build and work with their hands, be of service to their communities, do things that matter, interact with the natural world, follow their interests, horse around, and be in constant social interaction with one another. And what do I do? I tell them to stop socializing. I tell them to work on things they don’t care about. I keep them indoors and in their seats. I wear the face of the oppressor, and I can see the hurt in their gazes on my face. I am the enemy.

I feel like a doctor, vowed to do no harm, who goes to work and is told to mutilate instead of heal. No wonder I’m depressed. No wonder it seems like there’s no hope for the world. I’ve become caught in the dominator wheels, and I come home too exhausted even to make art.

So, I’ve decided to do something about this: I’m going to speak a little piece of the truth. At the next faculty meeting, for which I’ve been charged to teach about technology, I’m going to talk about digital immersion and how it’s hurting our kids. Digital immersion (interaction with digital or electronic media for the majority of a person’s free time) is changing our children’s cognitive abilities, making them less capable of sustaining attention, less able to read, process information, and thinking deeply. Digital immersion is hurting our kids. The loving and kind thing to do would be to give them a break from it, not increase their screen time, as we’ve been told to do.

I’m sure some folks will call me a Luddite, but I suspect that the majority of my fellow teachers have already recognized that something's wrong, because kids can’t sustain attention through a single page of text or sign their own names. I believe, after studying the subject for the better part of a year, that digital immersion is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and I’m going to stick my neck out and say so. Just thinking about doing this is giving me hope. Sometimes, in order to do good, a person has to take risks, for low pay, in difficult circumstances, but then this fallen world might be nudged, ever so slightly, toward the light.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The World as It Is

I found Aron's comment on my last post Why I Love the 50s so provocative, I wanted to explore it more, and I'll ask for your comments this time, because I surely can't find the answer on my own. Aron wrote, I guess my biggest problem with nostalgia is that it mostly removes you from present moment. Every pro about how things used to be has its cons of how things are right now and visa versa.

And I responded Well said, Aron and true. For me, the present really is pretty awful, and I don't want to be here. Whether in the woods in trance or at my drawing table or remembering my childhood, I seek to leave this world as it is, and enter an alternate reality.

What got to me about this, so that I woke up thinking about it, is that the world really is awful for me. I'm heartbroken at the cruelty and greed. It's a fallen world, as the Christians would say, and there's really nothing I can do about it. Oh, yes, I can have an impact on my immediate reality, but that's an uphill battle, too. Our school district has been without a contract for three years. The children are struggling with the effects of digital immersion and many of them can't sustain attention through a single page of text. The gas companies threaten to frack. The college kids desecrate the old cemetery.

I'm not bitching about this reality or being mindlessly negative. I accept it. It's what's real, but can I avoid nostalgia and live fully inside of it? Can I have compassion for this fallen world and find true peace in it? I escape at every opportunity into my beloved woods or the artistic trance. Can I stay in the present moment of techno-consumerism? More to the point, do I want to?

I remember when I was 18, sitting in a McDonalds with Neil, munching burgers that tasted like ambrosia to me, and declaring that I would never remove my children from the real world, the way my mother had removed me. My children would be fully a part of the sparkling, delicious, contemporary moment, and watch the latest movies and eat fast food and live in the city. I was young, and the young see the good.

But the latest movies make me cringe and assault me with violent imagery and the burgers I loved have made me sick and the city is ugly and noisy. I've come to terms with it, but do I want to be fully present in this present moment?

Do you like it here in the present moment? Do you enter into it fully? Can you imagine something better or do you, too, escape into alternate realities? Thanks, Aron, for asking me to think more deeply about nostalgia, and thanks to readers for sharing your thoughts about this, and best wishes to all,

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why I Love the 50s

No, it’s not just nostalgia. And yes, I know everything that was wrong about the 50s. The world was on the brink of nuclear disaster. Are we less on the brink of climate change disaster? Racism, suspicion of “the other,” and class differences intruded on the post-war peace, but if we are honest with ourselves, there is as much hatred and suspicion today as there was mid-century, and if bullying gay kids to the point of suicide is not as awful as hounding socialist sympathizers then I’ll be damned. I’ve heard it said that conformity was oppressive in the 1950s and we have more freedom today, but in truth, we’re still being pressured to conform. Today’s conformity is less about fashion and more about our beliefs and behaviors . . . is this better or worse? And while it’s true that mid-century women were forced into limited roles, today’s women are forced to work that second job because a family can’t support itself on only one. Today we haven’t got the choice to stay home and raise children. We hand our children over to the dominator controlled media instead. Is this better or worse?

In the 1950s women smashed their tender flesh into girdles . . . aw, hell. I’ll concede that point. I’m really happy to wear my leggings out to dinner and don sneakers for work instead of stockings and heels. So, let’s just leave this argument alone. Why bother? Every generation and era has its benefits and liabilities. Sometimes, I long for the uncomplicated, short, and bestial life of my Neanderthal ancestors and I definitely prefer the 1950s environment to this 21st century techno-consumerist wasteland. Call it nostalgia, if you like. Call it a preference for the devils we had then instead of the devils we have now, but here are some of the things from the 50s I wish I still had:

There was more community and neighborliness. People knocked on your door and there was a whole lot less fear of your immediate neighbors.

Less consumerism. Yes, the advertising business was in full swing, but we were more conscious of it, and advertising was less sophisticated and subliminal. We loved buying stuff, and we had the money to buy it, but we appreciated it more, took better care of it, and expected what we acquired to last. We didn't look to our stuff to fill our hearts: we had families and friends to fill our hearts.

We experienced more interpersonal relationships, and had way more face-to-face time with our family and friends. We spent more time entertaining one another and participating in group activities and informal sports, and way less time in front of screens or interacting with electronic machines.

I suppose that many marriages were unhappy, and I’m not suggesting that people stay together who would be better off divorced, but yes, we aimed for stable families and families were more stable. We really did value families and children more then than we do now, as reflected in the mythologies of television stories from the 50s and today and the punitive corporatism that takes away community responsibility for the general welfare, and despises the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the fatherless children . . . Maybe the echoes of the Depression in the 1950s were being felt as compassion for the  less fortunate.

We sure as hell had more hope and faith in the future. We expected science to serve the common good instead of corporate profit. We believed in the potential for generosity and goodness in humanity and imagined a world without war for our grandchildren, a family of nations, and the ultimate success of the project to create a world of peace and abundance.

We valued hard work, saving money, sharing, building, creativity, trying new things, children and the elderly, hobbies and leisure time, eating meals together, politeness, taking the time to do a good job, and other fine things now faded into jaded obsolescence, and these values were actively taught to children through religion, education, media, and other institutions of culture.

We were given a better education in public school. We read more and felt a stronger impact from intellectuals as well as socially aware and forward thinking social commentators.

Children had more freedom and responsibility. Children were healthier and more active.

It was a cleaner, less polluted, quieter, slower world.

We ate mostly real food instead of plastic food and ate at home more and with family more.

There was more artistic freedom, because art, music, and other aspects of creative culture were less controlled by commercial interests and the entertainment industry. We made our own more and talent was still the foundation for commercial success in the arts. Art was able to be critical of cultural norms and was having a tremendous impact as social critique.

Last, on a personal level, I love the aesthetic of midcentury, both the challenge of abstraction and expressionism, and the colors and forms of vitalism and modern functionality.

One might argue that I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but I do. I lived it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Humility is the road to peace of mind.

There’s a line from the prophet Micah that was included in the Shabbos service when I was a kid:

He has shown you, puny human, what is good. 
So, what is it that your Creator requires of you? 
Just this: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. *

Perhaps this line became important to me because it was a particular favorite of my dad’s, a just and humble fellow if there ever was one, but that word “humble” can be tricky. People mistake humbleness for humiliation, and seek to avoid it. Or they think that humbling oneself is to lay oneself low. The dictionary defines it variously as meek, modest, deferential, submissive, having or showing a low estimate of one’s own importance. Well, now, there’s the problem, right there. Isn’t there another way to understand the concept of humbleness?

Mother, whose heart hung humble as a button on the bright, silver shroud of her son, do not weep, war is kind.

This poem by Stephen Crane brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. That one line in particular . . . humble as a button . . .

Those things that are common and useful, and not arrogant or flashy, those are humble things. Let me be useful, and I’ll be happy. Why should there be shame in serving others? Why not be a button? There’s a whole lot of pressure to be extraordinarily beautiful, to achieve greatness, or perform amazing feats. Reality TV is about catapulting ordinary people into the glorious light of celebrity. Maybe celebrity is a lie. Maybe it’s enough to be ordinary. Maybe its wonderful to be ordinary.

The gods certainly love ordinary. They made a whole lot of it. My gods disapprove of human pride because it’s a source of so much sin. In various cultures, blanket weavers and quilt makers and potters and house builders leave some imperfection in their work, so as to assure the gods that we know our place and our place is humble. The ancient Greeks held hubris to be a particularly onerous sin. Hubris is an arrogant pride that sets one person above another and that sets humans above the gods. Oh, how many men are guilty of hubris in our world today, thinking that they can possess everything, rule over the the globe, decide for others what is right and wrong, rape the earth and plunder our resources with lofty aplomb.

One Sunday morning years ago, I heard a kind pastor preach about humility. He said that true humility was accepting our limitations with grace. We're limited by our nature and we are limited in the particulars of our person. How much I fight against this awareness, afraid to be imperfect, ashamed somehow not to have risen above the rest, never to have sold my art to a museum or written a definitive philosophical tome or pop best seller. I’m not so special, except in the specialness I share with every blade of grass of oak tree leaf. And that, of course, is special enough. But the pastor didn’t end there. He said that there were two sides to humility, that we are also all wonderful creatures, thrilling in our expression of the Creator’s will and amazingly unique. He said that there’s a certain dark pride to be found in self-deprecation, and certainly, when our self-esteem is low, we can’t fulfill the potential of our sparkling humanness.

To be humble, therefore, was to be clear about the truth of oneself and to accept that truth with grace. I'm limited, it’s true. I’m also a fantastic person with many blessings. That balanced humility is where peace of mind can be found. I can just be myself, in all my beauty and disaster. Funny how I keep growing into my name.
Best to you,
Puny Human

*my translation . . . can you tell? LOL!