Less Is More!

lessismore

This is my mantra for the year.

During winter break, when I was consumed by the desire to change my life, the urge to paint this in enormous flowing red letters across my living room wall was so strong I actually checked in my lease to see if I could do it. (Alas, no. One of the very few arguments in favor of buying a house someday is that I would be able to paint the shit out of it.)

A couple of weeks ago, the engine of my partner’s car melted in a bizarre accident, leaving us sharing mine. It’s been going surprisingly well. When we lived in the mountains, I always grieved that there were no commuter buses (anymore — the metal and plastic shelter only remained, getting more and more decrepit as each winter did its worst). But since moving down the hill, I’ve been pretty much all talk about how “I’m going to” ride the bus and bike places, like I used to do in Minnesota. I have all these happy memories of the flat ol’ Twin Cities where I could bike for miles and miles, and the awesome public transportation that was my only form of motorized transit (since I didn’t learn to drive until I moved away from there, and many unknown people can be thankful for THAT) … Well, now I’m actually doing it. Using shared conveyances or my own muscles to get around. Of course, it helps that it’s spring (almost) and I just want to be outside all the time!

So: one of the things I have less of in my life is fossil fuels. And that‘s a very happy thing for me.

But most of the things I have allowed to fall away are food-related. I’ve been working with the practice of mindful eating. Geneen Roth’s work, especially the book Women, Food, and God, influenced me a lot in this regard — or not influenced me so much as turned my brain upside down and knocked it out cold on the mat for a good two minutes. In part I’m addressing my habits of using food as filler, not sustenance … eating for reasons other than hunger (a complicated topic that can perhaps be more fully explored in its own post sometime). In part I’m paying attention to what goes in to my body, from the understanding that the energy contained in the food (and, as Michael Pollan puts it, “nutritionally worthless foodlike substances”) becomes the energy in and around my cells. That includes my skin cells, my fat cells, and even my brain cells.

Indeed, this is why I became a vegetarian several years ago: in massage school, when I studied and practiced forms of energy work such as reiki and pranic healing, I became increasingly, unavoidably conscious of the fact that when I ate, let’s just say, most of the meat produced in the United States, I was eating the energy of suffering, and that was becoming part of not only my own energy field, but my very body, my very cells. To put it concisely, it started to feel gross.

This year, then, I have felt intensely drawn to further refine my diet, both of food and of other goods, if not to eliminate, at least to reduce my consumption of things produced from energies of suffering, of torture, of harm to the planet or to people. As with meat, once I started asking myself, my body, and/or my intuition what I wanted to put into that system, the answers were startlingly rapid and clear. Many things — things I had previously LOVED, things I said I would never give up until the Apocalypse rendered industrial production impractical — I simply ceased to want.

So here are some things I now have less of floating around in my bloodstream:

  • Sugar
  • Aspartame (gone! shocking!)
  • Refined grains
  • Processed food
  • Pesticides
  • Growth hormones
  • Fertilizers
  • Chemicals in general
  • Excess in general
  • Gasoline fumes

Some of these things I just sense are not the healthiest for me, at this moment. And others of them I deeply believe are detrimental to humanity, to the planet — they are unsustainable. (More to come on this, too.)

And some other things I have cut back on, since embracing the mantra:

  • Homework for my students
  • Arguing
  • Anxiety
  • Trips
  • Days when I work from the time I get out of bed to the time I go to bed

But you know, as great a mantra as Less Is More has been for me in making major health-life changes, I don’t want less of everything. No, there are some things for which MORE is more! And in the spaces created by the things I’ve let go of, hopefully MORE of these things will flow in:

  • Love
  • Relaxation
  • Art
  • Music
  • Kindness
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Energy
  • Fresh air
  • Walks
  • Humor
  • Feelings of abundance
  • Generosity
  • Date nights
  • Comics
  • Restful sleep
  • Support
  • Freedom
  • Reliable employment
  • Creativity
  • Fun!

And, of course, as you’ve no doubt noticed, more blogging! I’ll probably always be a fan of the longform, though maybe someday I’ll get it that less words can also be more. ;-) Some things never change … But you know, whenever I say that, secretly inside I also say “uh-oh,” because let’s just say I’ve been wrong before.

Sherlock Holmes and the Book Club of the Departed

Series 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock went off the website last weekend, but not before I’d watched all three episodes twice. I’m hooked on this show. It combines all my favorite elements: brilliant, angsty young Englishmen in enviable coats; very funny banter; irresolvable sexual tension; dramatic rhythm guitars; and a very realistic and impressive method of incorporating text message conversations into the narrative. (Weirdo that I am, that last thing may be what sealed it for me.)

As a matter of fact, I’ve never been a huge fan of mysteries, either in literature or on TV. It’s just not a genre that I can really get into, and I couldn’t even tell you why. My partner loves mystery shows, especially old ones, and now and then I sit down and watch one with him. They’re great: campy, intriguing — sometimes they even make pithy social commentary, but after an episode or two I just get bored. So something about Sherlock‘s killer combination wins me over IN SPITE OF my anti-mystery bias. I like it so much it feels like a guilty pleasure. (But really, the true guilty pleasure is my computer wallpaper featuring the lead actor’s face and the quote, “Why can’t people just THINK?” Let me tell you, we commiserate about this quite frequently.)

Lit nerd that I am, I finally couldn’t resist picking up the books. I read A Study In Scarlet aloud to Sam during a road trip a couple of weeks ago (the trip was just long enough to finish the book! Yay!). (Also, yes, I’ve sucked him into the whole Sherlock thing. He thinks I’m a little silly, but he also thinks Moriarty is hot.) We had great fun with the first book (even the Mormon interlude — Brits writing about American expansion — fascinating! to me, anyway) and thought we’d go on to the rest. So I emailed my mom to ask if there might be any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books lingering around the house.

See, before this ever started, way before there was Sherlock-the-show (ok, the recurring miniseries), my family has had Sherlock baggage. Well, maybe baggage isn’t the right word. Sherlock was always a presence. My grandfather, who made an appearance in my last post, incidentally, was in love with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t think it would be quite true to say that the Sherlock Holmes books were the ONLY books he ever read — he read the Bible, and some other classics, mainly Victorian from what I can gather — but he read and reread the Sherlock books over and over and over.

He hadn’t gone to college but he believed in education, was impressed by degrees and what he saw as general smartness. (My mom had that, and he was impressed by it, but they never had an easy relationship.) He wanted what was best for his small family but was often way off on what that was; he was an old school Italian-American patriarch, though, absolute ruler of his little parcel, and his word was final.

Words, words, words … He was a lectury kind of guy. He liked to, you know, hold forth. (I can’t say I didn’t get some of that from him!)  His discourses on such topics as the reason Italians eat squid at Christmas or how everybody pronounces a particular word wrong, showing their grammatical sloppiness and thus poor chances to advance in life, were generally repeated many times — like PBS shows, I suppose, there was always an encore performance. He would get an idea in his mind and insist on it — factually accurate or not. He had his own way of reasoning.

This could be why he resonated with Sherlock. He liked that the detective had so developed his capacity of deduction. It made sense to my grandfather (whom we called Nono, or sometimes No-no — improperly-spelled Italian, but perfect in symbolism) and I think maybe it gave him confidence in his own self-education, his own lifelong striving to improve his own mind. In a way he surely saw himself as a fellow traveler with Holmes. Both, in their own ways, crabby men who looked down on the majority of people around them, both idiosyncratic in the things that gave them joy — both lovers of the life of the mind, both trying to figure things out.

Then, after my grandfather passed away in 2006, those members of my family who believe that our loved ones and guides can communicate with us from the other side — my mom, my partner and I — got some more insight into Nono’s journey and personality while he was in the “living” plane.  My mom has had the most contact with him; she’s come to understand that he lashed out in anger and clamped down control over his family so much because he didn’t know any other way of dealing with the burdens of his life.  She says he’s actually very sorry, now that he can see things more clearly, for all of the hurt he caused.   For me, too, the impression I’ve received of his transformation through death is one of unburdening.  I felt him as an exuberant kid, running around and shouting “whee!!!” in the joy of letting go of materiality.  So maybe it was also the sheer adventure of the stories that spoke to him, to the boy reading a dime novel who lived inside of him.

When I asked my mom if she still had any of Nono’s books, she said it was funny I should ask that, but she was unsurprised.  She had herself suddenly gotten into the Sherlock Holmes series soon after my grandfather died, and read them all online at Readsherlock.com.  Then about two years ago, she said, my brother had become obsessed with the Sherlock books and wanted to know if she had any of Nono’s books.  As it happened, my grandmother had given them to Goodwill, so she bought a used deluxe annotated edition and sent it to him.  I said I’d had the funny feeling that when I read A Study in Scarlet, he was reading over my shoulder.  I guess maybe he still loves it and still enjoys reading it again and again!

And to add another layer of intrigue to the story, it so happens that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a strong and vocal advocate of the spiritualist movement  in the early twentieth century.  That’s the one that created spiritual communities based around the idea that they could explicitly communicate with the dead.  These communities were apparently the target of police harassment, which Conan Doyle protested, according to Andrew Lycett in this great article written from a curious skeptic’s viewpoint.  So I can just imagine, playfully, if there is some place where souls of the formerly living can greet each other — my grandfather, upon dying, quickly seeking out his revered favorite author.  From this association he might become exceptionally good at making contact with those on the embodied side who might be actively looking for his signals.  Hey, it’s a thought!!!

At any rate, I approach reading the books as a way of learning more about him, and a chance to wonder what about his personality drew him so strongly to these stories.  It’s my way of continuing our relationship.  My mom tells me that my grandfather really wants to help us in any way he can.  I know that he loved me very much, and I feel that there’s a lot I can learn from him still.  I feel closer to him as I enter Conan Doyle’s fictional world and roam turn of the century London with my attention on the mysterious.  It’s a damn entertaining journey, and I welcome his company.

My mom ended up finding this used book online and sending it to me.  I heart recycled books.  She said it's the same edition she had bought for her father.  The original illustrations are amazing.  I love it!!!  Thanks, Mom!!!

My mom ended up finding this used book online and sending it to me. I heart recycled books. She said it’s the same edition she had bought for her father. The original illustrations are amazing. I love it!!! Thanks, Mom!!!

Right Brain Friday

This semester, I’m finally availing myself of my tuition benefit and taking a class at the community college where I teach.  I’m taking Drawing 101.  I’m taking this class because I want to write a graphic-novel-style memoir (what I would call “panel-form,” because you know how I feel about the term “graphic novel” being used to describe all kinds of things that aren’t fiction), and although I have a lot of ideas and even a sort of beginning of an outline, I was not feeling like my drawing skills were up to snuff.  So even though I have a million other things going on (like reapplying for my job, which ends after this year, and teaching my own five classes), I decided to plunge in and become a student again.  And man, is it messing with my brain — in the best possible way!

I am actually learning how to draw.  But taking this class is giving me so many other benefits that I would never have dreamed of.  One of the biggest is that it’s putting me back in beginner’s mind.  I really entered this class knowing nothing about actual drawing techniques; I had blundered my way through a few cartoons that came out reasonably ok after hours of frustrated sketching, erasing, and redoing.  Occasionally I would intuit my way to a particular shape or curved line that suggested what I wanted to convey, but I knew I was never going to get through a major project in this way (at least not in anything less than twenty years, by which time graphic novels and their nonfiction genre counterparts will probably be obsolete and everyone will be on to a new way of making literature that I will also not know how to do).  The point is, even though I had produced the odd successful drawing in the recent past, when I showed up on the first day of this class my ego thudded up against the truth that I know nothing about how this is done.

For the first two sessions, I felt almost paralyzed!  The anxiety I felt about doing something that I had no idea how to do, and then having to submit the results to critique by the whole class, just stopped me from getting going at all.  The first time I had to actually draw something — in this case, a sculpture of a head — I worked for a couple of hours (the studio part of the class is actually a six-hour Friday night session, from 3:15 to 9:15 pm) and then got what I called “stuck.”  It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to keep going, as I explained to the instructor (who had said he wanted us to gradually build up our stamina for longer and longer drawing sessions); it was that I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to make it any better.

So I took a break.  I wandered around the room, went up to my office and had a snack, then went back down to the basement, where the art department is.  I picked up my eraser and erased a bunch of stuff and started doing it over.  And when I put the new lines on the paper, they looked a little bit more like the thing I was trying to recreate.  Not exactly like it, but more like it.  And when, half an hour or so later, the instructor called it a night, I could have kept on going for at least another hour, erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing and erasing and … you know.

What did this feel like?  It felt like Wow!!!  I could practically feel the neurons in the right side of my brain waking up and stretching, and waving to each other across the gaps of disuse.  It felt like sparklers in the middle of a deep, warm, humid, Midwestern summer night.  Something clicked together with something else and the result was a release of energy.  I felt like going for a run; I felt like solving a problem; I felt like laughing out loud.  Yeah!!!

The recommended textbook for this class is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  In this book, the author makes the argument that the unrelenting stripping away of all arts programs from American public schools is not just a loss for those who are interested in, or who have “natural talent” for, those subjects; nor is it simply a setback to the general humanities approach to a well-rounded education.  The lack of arts instruction, she asserts, constitutes a truly tragic deficiency for ALL students, because nothing remains in the curriculum (besides what insistent individual teachers sneak in, against the will of test-score-driven policymakers and administrators) to develop and train the right brain, which is the source of creative thinking.  And it is creative thinking, right brain thinking, that is utterly fundamental to the putting of science, technology, and mathematics to use to actually explore the world, solve stubborn problems, and innovate new designs for the future.  I can’t put it strongly enough: I am all for STEM; STEM is awesome; science and math are both fun and vitally important.  BUT IN THE REAL WORLD, SCIENCE, MATH, AND ENGINEERING ARE CREATIVE FIELDS.  

Art is not a luxury.  Art is what makes science GO.

(steps down from soapbox)

Anyway.  Today I attended a five-hour professional development session on using the web-based digital movie program wevideo in the composition classroom.  In the workshop, I recorded a poem I had written; I selected photos (some I had taken and some stock images) that expressed the essence of the poem; I combined the text and the images with sound and visual effects.  (Even though I still think of it as a draft, I’ll let you see it: here.)  As soon as the workshop was done, I raced across campus and downstairs for drawing class.  I knew that today we’d be doing something new again, something that scared me: adding imagined elements into a real scene.

Now, when I had heard what the topic would be at the end of last week’s class, it was as though every imaginative idea was erased from my brain.  My mind became as a blank whiteboard.  All week long I thought about today’s class with trepidation, like, “What the H. am I going to draw from my imagination?????”  Even though I had signed up for this class because there were so many ideas in my imagination that I wanted to learn to bring out onto the page, when actually asked to consider this possibility, I became as the proverbial deer, you know where.  By this morning I had come up with something cute-ish, something I could do if I couldn’t think of anything better, but it wasn’t anything that came close to expressing my real passion, the passion that brought me to the class in the first place.

But after the five hours of video editing (in that class, I worked feverishly through the lunch break to capture as many of my ideas as I could, and again could have kept going long after the ending time — hence my comment above about it being an unfinished draft), when I went and stood in front of the easel, I actually saw something in the cavernous empty room that I was drawing — something that came from my heart.  And when, a few hours (not enough) later, the instructor called us all in, and I pleaded for five more minutes, I had produced the first thing that I actually liked so far this semester (this is week five).  And after the critique session, after we were all kicked out of the art room, I came up to my office and kept working on the drawing, filling in just a few more details from my memory, and a few others from my imagination.

And then I turned to my computer and wrote a blog post for the first time in months.  Because if on the first day, those long-hibernating neurons felt like sparklers when they woke up, today it feels like the freaking Fourth of July in the right hemisphere of my brain.  I guess the more I use it, the more there is to use.  And I feel like a million bucks.  And I can’t describe it any better than that.

face

room

Of the Dead and the Living

Yesterday some of my students came to class in costume.  With a few of them, I wasn’t quite sure if they were dressing up as somebody or something else, or if they were wearing an extreme version of their own true style — if those sunglasses, that muscle shirt, that fringe was what they would be wearing every day if it was socially allowed.  It made me think, I wear my costume every day.  Tonight I get to put on my real self’s clothes.  

I drove up to Fort Collins with a few friends (now that I live in the city, I can carpool!!  Much excitement!!) to attend a Samhain celebration that included both ritual and Dances of Universal Peace.  Oh, it was lovely.  The facilitator asked all attendees to wear black.  Although we were all invited to invite in loved ones who had crossed over, and this aspect of the holy day is the one that was most explicitly talked about, when I saw all those sisters and brothers dancing in unison in all-black sacred attire around a black-cloth-draped altar that really looked a lot like a cauldron, I felt most strongly connected to the starstream of my anonymous spiritual ancestors — pagans of ancient Ireland and Rome, blood-related to me or not — who have ever celebrated this, or anything like this.

Throughout the evening I kept imagining what it was doing outside — the wind blowing leaves, clicking along the concrete sidewalks and down the roads; the energy zapping back and forth across the sky.  As an adolescent I called this season between October and the New Year “the gathering together of power.”  I could feel it, though I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it.  I wouldn’t say I know those things now, but maybe I’ve developed a closer relationship with the mystery since then.  It’s sweet.  And wild.

Here’s a poem from the faculty reading I was part of this week.  I wasn’t sure what it would be like, reading without the usual academic costume.  It felt lighter than I expected.

“On the Cusp”

On the cusp, the world changing so quickly
or seeming to change around me, and I with it
know I am changing –
I am running both backward and forward –
 
Caught up in the spinning she tells me,
Abandon everything you have tried before.
Carefully reading the signs with eyes growing accustomed to new light,
She says, Those fables suited earlier times
when humans needed myth to shroud and disguise the Truth
so what they feared could sneak like a beautiful thief
into their hearts, to steal away their fear itself
and leave the jewels of faith behind.
Now we are grown, or part-grown anyway, enough to let go of the precious lies of childhood.
We must gird ourselves, be scientists, be brave,
take the laws of the Universe into our own hands now
and wield them without sentimentality to carve our way through to Love.
 
My soul, yearning for freedom, terrified of missing the chance to be
released from its captivity behind my questioning, worrying, analyzing mind,
like a soldier, rises at this reveille and scrambles to attention
gamely to follow the new orders –
but even as it leaps headfirst into the new day
there falls from the blankets the relic of the beloved saint
scent of the temple incense still clinging
much folded, much handled, and tearing at the edges,
but tightly grasped in sleep:
the letter from Home – the promise of reunion.
 
Though our memories of that time retreat more rapidly than Avalon,
and the great Teachers’ voices dim with distance
still I pick up the fragments they drop as they speed away.
In the palm of my hand the pentacle still glows with inner fire.
The crescent in the night sky still cups wisdom secrets
that may be poured out in crystal drops to the thirsty.
In poems, in spells, in gospels, beneath the tapestry of words
that decorate and hide, the Truth still whispers into the ear of the seeker.
 
Not every herald carries the Queen’s message.
For every true word that is spoken aloud,
songs beyond number are murmured by spirits
that fade from our senses and blend almost into silence.
Those ancient roads have not ceased to exist
but only made themselves hard to find.
Don’t be fooled: the signpost is not the road.
We will all arrive at the same place in the end
but some will see more beauty along the way.
 Milky Way Over Forest

Lover of Leaving

“Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving …
Ours is no caravan of despair,
Come, yet again, come … “

I loved this version of Rumi’s words, sung as a round, the first time I heard it, not only because of the familiar promise of continual welcome it expresses, but because of its address: wanderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving. That’s me. I’m a lover of leaving. I’ve seldom actually moved to a new place from the sheer desire to live someplace new, but I’m certain that my underlying curiosity about the rest of the world conspires with my karma to frequently create circumstances in which I need to make a rapid getaway, set out for parts unknown, with very little plan.

The rain in Colorado started on Thursday, Sept. 12. A lot of water came in through the roof of our apartment in Idaho Springs. The landlords told us we just needed to get used to this aspect of mountain living. By the next week, the mold was visible in the hole where part of the ceiling had fallen in. We decided we needed to move out.

That weekend I was scheduled to help facilitate a Goddess-themed women’s retreat. I went with the intention of sending energy toward our new place, visualizing the perfect place and drawing it toward me. The first night, the women leading the opening circle asked all of us to “take off our masks” and let the face of the Goddess expressing herself within us at that moment be shown. When I did this, the face I saw was Kali’s, dark, grinning, dripping with blood. When asked to listed for an affirmation, I heard “I affirm creative chaos.”

Maybe that’s why I felt more excited than upset at this crisis/opportunity. I had periods of serious freakout, but mostly I felt that I had a vision of where I was going, and maybe even an inkling of why. I felt fairly certain that we were being called to move out of the mountains, down into the Denver area, at least partly because this is a time in which community is going to be important. I’ve felt it coming for a while. It’s no secret that I have a tendency toward hermitism, and living in a mountain village half an hour from the far western outskirts of town doesn’t do much to discourage it. My comfort zone is being alone, maybe with a couple of close friends, but I feel I’m being pushed to develop those dormant muscles of social interaction, and possibly be of service in some new, hands-on way.

I began looking for a place. A few were duds; several more wouldn’t take cats. I upped my price range. I had in mind that it was time we had a bigger place. I found an apartment in a neighborhood I’d never heard of, just on the Denver side of Sheridan. It was the whole first floor of a ranch-style house, including a garage and a large backyard and patio, the latter two being shared with a nice young lesbian couple who lived in the basement apartment. I really liked it. I raved about it to Sam and made him go check it out. He wasn’t in love, but he was in hate-the-world mode, and even still he thought it would do.

I set up more appointments, including a few to look at actual houses. The agents never showed, or messages got weirdly mixed. I saw another crappy apartment. We started getting sick from the mold at home, so we moved (along with our cats) into the spare room of an EXTREMELY generous friend. We applied for the South Denver place. The process was very slow. Days went by.

The weekend of the 28th & 29th we packed all of our stuff (throwing away a large proportion, including at least half of our furniture, which was either mold damaged or rickety to begin with), cleaned out the place, left the keys on the counter, and parked the U-Haul in the U-Haul parking lot until we knew where we were going to take it, which wasn’t until two days later when our application finally cleared at the Denver place. Sam felt nervous about signing, having not actually seen any other apartments, and I also felt uncertain about it, because I didn’t want it to turn out to be a huge disaster under my leadership. But I recalled this message that I’d received from Lynn Woodland’s online oracle:

Sit quietly with your eyes closed and imagine yourself walking up to the edge of an impossibly high cliff. As you look down from the edge you can’t see the bottom, only a swirling, beautiful light. The air is charged with excitement and promise. The view inspires a sense of wonder. Stand here for a moment and declare your willingness to invite the miraculous into your life…. Now, leap off the cliff. Instead of dropping, you are carried gently on currents of air and light. Let your imagination float freely and see where the stream of light carries you.

I actually did the visualization in my mind, and I felt the “currents of air and light” lifting me up. I recalled how I’d posted on Facebook the gist of our situation, and asked for prayers and light — and what an outpouring I received!!! So many friends sent messages of support, and many others silently prayed for us. I felt literally lifted up by all of this energy, very strong, coming from other people, my circle of support. I also had in my car one of the affirming post-it-note messages I’d made for the goddess retreat: Angels surround you at all times. At the base of it, I had to acknowledge that the whole situation seemed to be Divinely guided, and all I had to do was (pack and clean and lift and cry and) go with the flow.

We signed the lease. We dumped out all of our stuff into the garage. We got new Goodwill living room furniture to replace our old Goodwill living room furniture. We designated purposes for all of our new rooms. We are slowly getting things unpacked, cleaned, and set up.

A friend asked if I miss Idaho Springs. I said that it all happened so quickly, it feels very surreal, but if I look inside I realize that no, I don’t miss it, and I’m not sad at all. The experience of living in the mountains for three years was unique and wonderful and amazing, and I am so incredibly glad we did it, but that chapter feels complete. Now it’s on to sunny southern Denver, a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood, bright colors, flat roads, easy access, and a whole new life.

Click the image to see the artist’s home page for a beautiful and fitting explanation.

Some Thoughts Can’t Be Expressed As Statements

Remember watching The L-Word?  Maybe we were less picky about our entertainment back then.  Anyway, there was one point in the show where Bette, going through a personal crisis, took up meditation.  She wasn’t entirely unconvincing.  At the peak of this period she went on a week-long silent retreat at a gorgeous, swanky retreat center in the Pacific Northwest.  Man, it looked nice up there.  But it turned out that much silence was not what Bette really craved.  The episode ended like a dam breaking as she poured out her pent-up words into someone’s voice mail: “I want, I want, I want…”

This scene, and this line, have stayed with me.  I sometimes find myself thinking those words, in that same heart-filled voice, without really being able to finish the sentences.  Sometimes it seems as though what I want doesn’t exist yet, so how could I know what it is called?

And then there are the things too painful to name, or at least to call them by the words everyone else uses.  The real names of these things, maybe, are silent; these other words only code, because the real names, when spoken, are unbearably sad.

Sometimes all I can bring myself to do is ask questions, and let the many possible answers hang unvocalized in the air like invisible memorials.

Here are some questions that I would like to offer:

Who owns a neighborhood, who owns the streets?  Who has authority to say who belongs there and who does not?

Why is a life of so little value that people are allowed to act with lethal force toward anyone who scares them?

Why have we created a climate in which violence is so quickly reached for in every uncomfortable situation?  Is there any way we can uncreate it?

Why are alternative solutions suppressed?  Why do we stand for it?

When will our nation encourage people to take responsibility for the hurt they cause, purposely or inadvertently?  When will our nation lead by example?

Would different standards have been applied if the one who died had been a white teenager?  Can anyone ever be honest about this?

What if those deciders had observed their own reactions and sincerely asked themselves, why does a policeman “just sound more convincing” to them?

Will our collective inclination to be generous and compassionate toward one another ever overcome our collective defensiveness?

How can anyone say the gun did this?

How can anyone say race is not involved?

Does it mean I support the US criminal justice system as it now exists if I wish that some punishment had been assigned to this person who survived the fight?  Even though I know in my heart that jail causes far more damage than it heals?

What’s a better way?

What can we do?

What can I do?

Let me be explicit here that while a certain “case” (if that’s really what we want to call it) has been in the news so much that even I have heard of it, and while I am truly saddened by the end of this particular story, this “case” is an EXAMPLE of one localized outcome of the values of violence-before-compassionate-action that permeate American society, and that’s why I feel sorrow for our country as a whole.  Other outcomes are other young people’s deaths, within the borders of the US and around the world.  That’s why I have chosen not to mention any names in this post, even though I hope it’s clear what national conversation has inspired these reflections.  I don’t know the specific people involved and I would hate for any of them to feel that I used their names for personal gain or publicity.  But I do recognize patterns.  And on occasion, throughout our history, certain other murders that were widely covered by the press (to the exclusion of thousands of similar stories; why those few get chosen, I don’t know) have served as motivators for change, as instigators for discussion, as alarm clocks for consciences.

When my own words can’t be found, songs sung in other languages can be comforting.  In the ardor of the singer’s expression, I can imagine whatever grief I’m feeling coming out in the music, too.

I remember listening to this African music show called Motherland Jam on KOPN, the community radio station in Columbia.  The host began each installment with “Shosholoza,” a South African folk song.  I always loved the sounds and melody of this song, even before I knew what it was about.  In fact it’s a song about working in the mines.  It came on my MP3 player while I was writing this, and it felt like medicine to my heart.  According to Wikipedia, it was sung traditionally sung call-and-response style by all-male groups in the Ndebele language to “express the hardship [and] heartache” of that deep, dark, dirty work underground and in camps, separated from families, abused by bosses.  The word “Shosholoza … means go forward or make way for the next man … It is used as a term of encouragement and hope for the workers as a sign of solidarity.”  The article continues, “In contemporary times, its meaning is to show support for any struggle.”

The lyrics alchemize the trials endured by the miners into poetry:

Shosholoza

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Shosholoza

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Wen’ uyabaleka

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume Rhodesia

Go forward

Go forward

on those mountains

train to South africa

Go forward

Go forward

You are running away

You are running away

on those mountains

train from Zimbabwe

So if I may place one thing on the altar of the memory of this one particular almost-man who was killed, and whose death, for whatever reason, allowed America to engage in a conversation, even if the conversation hasn’t yet led to any answers, I would make it this song.

“American Tune”

A couple of days ago, I was listening to the last episode of the NPR call-in show Talk of the Nation.  I’ve never been a huge follower of the show because I’m not usually driving around listening to the radio at midday, but I did always enjoy it when I heard it, and even though I’ve been accused more than once of being unsentimental, I did feel a slight welling up of emotion at its going away.

Host Neal Conan had Ted Koppel on as a guest on this series finale, doing a look back over the hosts’ lifetimes (since 1940) and speculating about whether America as a nation is better or worse off than it has been at other points since World War II.  The question on the table, for both Koppel and the callers-in, was, are you hopeful about the future?  Are you optimistic or pessimistic?  How bad are things now, compared to other times in the history of the nation, and what’s “bad” about what “things”?  One way they asked it that seemed to resonate with a lot of people was, “What keeps you up at night?”

Koppel stated in no uncertain terms that he was not hopeful about the future.  He had a series of reasons why he thinks the nation is in great danger at this moment, in some ways more even than in the Cold War days of Mutually Assured Destruction.

While listening, I thought of a friend who’d recently brought up this topic, from a different perspective.  She’d heard a speaker at a community gathering who’d totally changed her thinking on that question.  This speaker (whose name I don’t know) had listed many OTHER reasons why he saw things as getting continually BETTER, and noted that globally speaking, we humans are living, on average, much safer, healthier lives than we did earlier in the 20th century, with many fewer of us dying violent deaths or succumbing to epidemics.

Interestingly, the same debate came up in my class the other night.  It was an extended tangent away from the original topic of violence and competitions for dominance in society, where those forces come from, and whether or not they should be read as any sort of problem.  One guy, a returning student and Iraq war veteran in his 40s, stood up and insisted that first of all, humans are nothing more than animals with a VERY thin veneer of “culture” or domesticity, and we are inherently and appropriately violent beings, right down to our genetic cores; and, second, those elusive “things” in this country are going to get worse, and worse, and worse. “The world is never going to change,” he said adamantly.

As the class split up at the end of the evening, he lingered to wrap the conversation up with me.  He mentioned something that he would do when he ran for Congress.  I asked him if he really planned on running for Congress, because I could imagine him realistically doing so, and I like to encourage people to pursue their dreams.  He said yes, maybe someday, and would he have my vote?  I laughed and said I would have to see his whole platform; that I would have to reserve my judgment.

This is how I feel about the “what’s going to happen to us in the future” question, the debate over whether things are getting worse or getting better.  I do not really know, and anyway I suppose the standards of measurement are fairly suspect (“things”).  Many of my students, and others around me, express their anxiety about the future in terms of whether American will be able to keep its status as “number one.”  They see the possibility of other national currencies supplanting the dollar as “strongest” as a harbinger of future humiliation and economic hardship.  Meanwhile, others frame the problems of the present in terms of the United States’ refusal to prioritize the survival needs of the people and the planet over the survival needs of corporations.  So the jury is still out on whether we humans WILL make things better.  But I do wholeheartedly believe that we CAN.

I am hopeful about the possibility that humans can evolve, make new choices, and become less harmful to each other and to the planet.  There are other parts of us, besides our animal instincts, which give us the drive, in the face of extreme inconvenience, to create ever more just and compassionate social systems and ways of interacting with each other in every area of life, from the family to the industry to the market to the international stage of diplomacy.  I don’t know where this human journey is going, but I know it’s going somewhere.  I believe it’s our destiny to evolve.

It has also been many other species’ destiny to evolve—and some of them did so to the point where the original species became unrecognizable.  In a sense, thy evolved themselves out of existence.  And in at least some cases, I’m okay with that.

I’ve been called unsentimental because sometimes I have the ability to let go, without too many tears, of things that are no longer functioning, or no longer the most beneficial, or no longer meeting the need they were created to meet because the need is no longer there.  At least sometimes, I can recognize that it could be better to have a vacant space, into which something new and better suited to the present moment might come, than to hang on to the old thing, which, though it might still be providing some benefit, when weighed in the balance is really doing more harm than good.

So I’m led to ask, could this idea about America always being number one in the world be one of those things?  To question this assumption, I know, sounds bad.  But I’ve always believed that to hold someone accountable for their failures is an act of love.  Maybe it’s more the idea that America must be number one in the world–in everything–for us to feel secure that needs to go.  Because first of all, we’re not.  We’re not handling our internal affairs in a responsible way, and corporate preferences continually triumph over public good in our political, economic, educational, and cultural spheres.  And second of all, “the winner of everything” is a very insecure spot to be in.  When one’s sense of self worth is tied to beating everyone else in everything, one has to be constantly on the defensive and pour all one’s energy into maintaining one’s status.  And then one ends up forced to endorse the idea that all others are, in small and large ways, lesser than oneself.

In that same Talk of the Nation interview, Koppel and Conan talked about Nelson Mandela, who was at that time in the process of dying at age 94 in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa.   The journalists were calling him an exceptional leader, a great leader in a historical period that’s been mainly absent of noticeable greatness.  The source of Mandela’s distinction was the way he approached nation-building and national healing in the years after apartheid.  He and his party promoted a policy of “Truth and Reconciliation,” through which those who had benefited from the regime and brutalized the Black South Africans took responsibility for their actions, while those who had been oppressed and terrorized were treated with respect, and their suffering and grief and anger were given space to be heard.  It was not a reversal of the existing hierarchy, with the formerly colonized group now ruling over the old colonizers.  Instead, it was a process of actual peacemaking.  I daresay it involved everyone courageously forcing themselves to see everyone else involved as humans, attempting to find out what they all needed as humans, and seeking to meet those needs when possible, thus allowing each other to let go of some of their fear and defensiveness and pain.  It was a process whose goal was to lay a framework for lasting and continuing peace in that nation.

Voices around the world have been practically unanimous in acclaiming Mandela as a hero and visionary.  Yet none of our leaders have been willing to follow in his footsteps, rejecting the path of revenge on those who have been constructed as our enemies, those who we believe have done us harm.  None of our leaders, when faced with other nations, groups, or individuals behaving towards us in a hostile way, have stepped up to begin a discussion by taking responsibility for the many actions of the United States that have undermined the liberty, autonomy, and well being of people around the world and within our own borders.  In interpersonal relations, this would be the stance of a strong person, a brave person, a person trying to do what is right to the best of one’s imperfect ability.  In international affairs, such an approach is trivialized and called weakness.

I saw a meme on Facebook once that posed a question similar to this: The war in Iraq has cost the US government over 800 billion dollars so far (that’s according to CostofWar.com as of 6/30/13; click to see what it’s up to now).  What if, instead of going to war, just half of that money had been spent addressing as many of the needs of the Iraqi people as possible, that is, building sustainable civilian institutions to bring the best possible public services to underserved regions?  Would there be a conflict now?  Would there be an unstable situation?  This scenario is unimaginable to most people; it’s outside of the currently dominant paradigm.  And I’m not saying there has been none of this, but I am saying that the investment in really meeting the people’s needs has been tiny compared to the investment in fighting the people.  For all the dozens of military veterans I’ve met in my community college classes over the past three years, I’ve never met one person who’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan on any kind of peace mission.  The US has approached the situation from a military point of view only; our nation, at the government level, is just not capable yet of looking at an international conflict from a healing point of view.  But if they could, I’ll wager they’d see a lot more progress, a lot more resolution, a lot more stability and security, a lot more freedom for both “them” and “us.”

That would be greatness, America.  Living in fear that the dollar may not be the international standard any more is not greatness.  We’ve had that distinction for a while, and we should feel honored; but there are other countries in the world whose citizens know something about economics, and maybe have been doing some things better than we have lately.  What’s so bad about that?  Don’t capitalists supposedly love competition?

If we follow the line of reasoning that says that in world politics, one nation must be permanent leader (and it must be us) out a little ways, we begin to sound suspiciously like the sort of people who get called “dictator” in the mainstream media when they are in charge of other countries.  And if we look inside of that argument, we realize it depends on the assumption that if there is a permanent top dog, then everyone else must necessarily be an inferior dog, at least in the eyes of the top.  In other words, the culture of dominance in which one group has to be on top implies that all the other groups are 1. submissive, 2. subservient, 3. dependent, or 4. enemies to the ones on top.  Is that really the relationship we want to be in with ALL of our neighbors on the planet?

As you may be able to infer from this blog, I’m a terrible one for picking favorites (favorite word? favorite book?  I just can’t answer).  But I do have a favorite songwriter: Paul Simon.  After I listened to that Talk of the Nation finale, his 1973 song “American Tune” came into my head.  What I love about that song is that, for me anyway, it perfectly captures the frustration and the optimism, the quiet necessity of moving forward even with a broken heart.  I hate to quote a single line or verse, because the song is such a complete whole, but here’s the bridge:

And I dreamed I was dying

Dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly

And looking back down at me

Smiled reassuringly,

And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea

And I dreamed I was flying …

The mystics of all religions teach us that when we become something new, we do die.  Indeed, as we are continually changing, we let go of what we were, continually dying and being reborn while still living this life.  When we transform into something really different, when we take a big leap forward in our evolution, our old selves die in a more dramatic way, and that’s one reason why it’s really really scary, and takes huge courage, to allow ourselves to grow in those important ways.  As we reach toward the best that we can be, we necessarily shed old identities that no longer serve us.  Those identities may have served us for a long time, and become full of routines, relationships, ways of doing things, answers.  Letting go of them can be really damn hard.

But as the song suggests, I do believe we individuals have souls, and our souls are on a rising journey.  Our souls are heading upward; the more we get our egos out of the way, the faster they rise.  And I do believe that’s the way forward for groups of people, too.  There has to be a desire to become better—when the fire of passion for being the best one can be is awakened, we find the courage to let go of old paradigms that no longer serve.  We find the will to push ourselves to do difficult things, or things that scare us because we don’t already know what the outcome will be (because we’ve never tried them before). We can do it because we come to want so badly to become better than we are.

The concept of “hitting bottom” is illustrative here; an addict, after all, is just someone who’s become extremely dependent on a way of coping with life that’s actually much more destructive than beneficial, though it may at first seem otherwise.  Hitting bottom, losing or being truly threatened with the loss of something that it would feel unbearably painful to lose, is the most tried-and-true way that addicts have found to begin the sincere search for recovery.  Hitting bottom puts us (not just drug or alcohol addicts, to be clear here; we might include people addicted to bullying, or to being in control) in a humble frame of mind.  It gives us a yearning to transform for the better, and makes us willing to do anything it takes to heal ourselves and our relationships.  Ironically, hitting bottom can be the most powerful source of courage.  Maybe we reach this place when we finally look around and see all the suffering we’ve caused – something happens that’s so dramatic, it becomes impossible for us to continue to be willfully blind to our role in the destruction.  Maybe we reach it when we take a big hit from the world, get knocked out, see stars.  Suddenly we see ourselves with clarity and realize that our ways are not sustainable.  We need to change or die.

And, out of utter necessity, our minds become open to receive ideas from a new paradigm.  What was impossible to conceive of doing before now becomes a lifeline.  This is one way in which I can imagine nations like America evolving.

Of course, some addicts go through their entire lives without ever hitting a bottom that makes them seriously question their habits.  Many nations have risen to power and fallen to the next in line for dominance.  There’s no guarantee that anyone will ever “change” in the sense of becoming willing to undertake a difficult process of transformation—from the inside out—in order to bring their life into greater accord with their soul’s purposes.  But some do suggest that the more of us individuals undertake those efforts, the more collective energy will build, ultimately lifting and carrying along others who might not have come to that process on their own.  So that, for me, is a starting place.  It’s not an end.  I’m actively seeking ways to support and promote my nation’s process of healthy self-examination and change for the better.

Happy Independence Week, y’all.

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