Monday, December 12, 2016

because holidays



"And here I am sitting again, yes, sitting again by this faithful lamp, feeling indescribably serene and unhurried. I shall travel this day's path quite calmly and just take a little holiday—my eyes and head are slightly overstressed and overstrained. One must have the patience to do a little less."

–Etty Hillesum

Friday, December 09, 2016

political anxiety



The house is warm now, although this morning it was colder than usual and I bundled the children up to eat their breakfast. Outside is all ice dripping in the rain and every once in a while a splintery crash as sheets of ice slide off the roof or branches shake off icy coats.

I am trying to work; I have to work because I have a lot of it at the moment. However, my mind is full of worries, so many are crowding in right now! And if my own private worries were not enough, the election has cast a long cold shadow of anxiety. It's been a month now and I've been speaking with an anxiety I've never met before: a political one. I thought it impossible for Trump to win, and I'm a wee bit nervous that he will make paying attention to politics necessary.

Politics—that which I've previously left to people who find policy and power interesting. Or to those who can see past all the bluster and posing to the actual running of a country, to those who somehow don't lose heart. Not me.

Take abortion. I know it's a contentious issue, but bear with me. Studying the issue in college it seemed there were endless ways to evaluate it: from a philosophical, scientific, social, feminist, religious, historical, psychological, etc, point of view. The arguments sat there, in little black and white type on the pages of books. It was exciting to enter each one and see things from this perspective or that—sympathizing with the case for the unborn creature, convinced of the rights of the mother. I walked away from my studies with the conviction that the issue was hopelessly complicated, with no argument clearly triumphant. I felt in the end that both the mother and unborn child had some level of human rights that needed to be balanced against the other. I felt that because the mother was a fully grown, independent human, her rights did in some ways outweigh those of the unborn child—yet not absolutely. In contrast, the rhetoric of the political Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements were extreme and absolute. I felt frustrated by the burden their political rhetoric placed upon young women. Both parties used her dilemma as an opportunity to present their position in a tidy framework, as if it was obvious and easy. And both sides bordered on hysterical in their depiction of the other point of view.

Politics, I felt, was a ridiculous endeavor. You might as well check your mind in at the door. I put it aside and involved myself in subjects more given to nuance. But, since Trump will be the new president in January, and it seems unlikely he will die before then, I guess I have to gird up my loins.

And then there is another aspect of political engagement that has been weighing on me. If my Facebook feed is any indication (and I hope it isn't) it seems that the ability to listen to those you disagree with in patience and civility—that is, without freaking out, calling names, denouncing, and "unfriending"—is in mighty short supply. How have we become such thin-skinned, one-dimensional individuals?

In my early 30s in New York City I met a number of young professionals who were dedicated to liberal causes in a way that vaguely concerned me. To be clear, the causes didn't bother me, it was the way these young idealists regarded those who disagreed with them that did. They reminded me of the fundamentalist Christians I knew growing up: utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause and easily threatened by disagreement. In the Christian circles I had grown up with—anabaptists, fundamentalists, evangelicals—I had become familiar with the look of anxiety when people around them said or did things they flagged as ungodly, secular, or of the world.  I saw the same behavior here, but from young liberal activists. The red flags this time around were ideas that seemed conservative, Republican or Christian. Around that time I was dating a thoughtful young Spinoza philosopher who was involved in a satirical culture jamming organization called Billionaires for Bush. He had grown up in a southern Baptist family and but had left his religious identity behind. He, however, noted the same thing. He said that the religious fervor he associated with church youth groups was uncannily akin to what he saw among political activists. He wondered if some underlying impulse had remained, while the cause had changed.

It occurs to me now—perhaps as a result of paying attention to politics for a whole month—that what I really want is a political atmosphere akin to my time studying the various perspectives on abortion. I want issues explored from all sorts of angles, hearty discussion, disagreement, and—most of all—the civility to hear each other out. When I meet (or read an article written by) a person who seems adept at looking at things from numerous different perspectives a whoop of joy washes up inside me! How exciting! How beautiful! It doesn't matter if the person passionately espouses one party or point of view—what matters is their ability to listen to and acknowledge the opposition. I want to shout, "Listen! Listen! Here is hope for humanity!"

I wish we could, as a people, muster up the maturity to listen to those who disagree with us and see if we can find any common ground. Common ground doesn't mean we lose ourselves and our convictions, it means we honor those parts of our human experience we share. And the goodwill engendered may give us a place from which to engage in honest and thoughtful dialogue. It could mean a new idea, a more expansive perspective, perhaps even a win-win solution.

So here I am, with a mind full of worries and my first case of political anxiety. And, as always, I have come back to the words of Etty Hillesum:
"I believe that I will never be able to hate any human being for his so-called wickedness, that I shall only hate the evil that is within me... In any case, we cannot be lax enough in what we demand of others and strict enough in what we demand of ourselves." 

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

eight plagues not counting the election


A few days ago, walking home with a fresh loaf of bread under my arm, I came to a halt. Ahead of me on the sidewalk was an eight-foot, black-hooded figure stood with a scythe. It was leaning over the sidewalk, blade spanning the walkway like a banner. Okay, it's October. Halloween is quickly approaching. But I stopped. I let a woman walking her dog pass me. I helpfully pointed out the danger ahead, but she merely grunted, her nose buried in her phone. She didn't so much as look up from her screen as she walked past under Death's scythe. I reluctantly followed her. What I wanted to do was cross the street and avoid the ominous figure entirely. But that was silly, I reasoned, so I walked up and took a long look: I noticed the roughly cut black burlap gown, the wires holding the scythe in place, the string that lashed the figure to the fence. It's not that I suspected it might truly be the grim reaper, it's just that it doesn't seem like a good time in my life to take death lightly.

A few months before my father's death, life put on a Serious Face. I'm naturally prone to seriousness, so it doesn't take much. However, 2016 has given us: job restructuring, my son's testing for a learning disability, my dad's death, the sale of the businesses, my brother's state of mind after the sale of the business, Charles' new (and stressful) job, unexpected & chronic health problems, and of course the horrible horrible election. And, not to be forgotten, my mother-in-law moved near us in the spring. Charles vigorously dubs it "The Year of Challenges."

I feel less vigorous. I've started reading Rilke and Mary Oliver religiously, and am rereading the Diaries of Etty Hillesum. I started journaling again and begun listening to interviews with poets and philosophers via the On Being podcast. And I walk and walk and walk. I follow a daily loop along Crystal Springs, spying herons and kingfishers, flickers and barn swallows, red winged blackbirds and bushtits. I lean longingly over the creek hoping to spot the silver splash of salmon heading upstream to spawn. I talk to my friends while walking. Jenny called as I walked in a torrential downpour earlier this week, and listened (again) my litany of woe. "What number plague is this?" she asked laughingly, "There are usually seven." Well, I think we are at eight—and that's not counting the election. I think by the eighth plague you can start to expect that things to change for the better. Already I feel a resilience in my bones that wasn't there six months ago.

As I'm walking, this line from Rilke comes to me: Now you must go out into your heart / as onto a vast plain. Rilke is a heady draught from which you can only take a few sips at a time. Because, to use his own words, "Everything must be lived" (and living more than a few lines of Rilke at a time can be overwhelming!).

But out onto the plain I go: quiet and full, empty and expectant.

Next week Jenny flies in from Kona, and while she's here there is my Father's memorial service, followed immediately by Halloween. A joyful macabre mess awaiting me. Downstairs, in their beds, my children are singing one of my Father's favorite hymns, "Come Thou Fount." I am teaching it to them so they can sing it at my Dad's memorial. First my daughter's voice drops off in sleep, then my son's. The house is locked, and I have a cup of tea next to me. Whatever may come next, I still inhabit this snug little world of clean laundry and messy desks, steaming coffee and wet elm leaves, piles of library books and muddy boots, half-sewn dresses and half-knit mittens, bikes, tears, bird books, old computers, laughter, silence, kisses.

Friday, September 09, 2016

forty days



Begin with this. Forty busy days, days that seem to hold whole different days inside of them, days that are more or less negotiations with myself about how much I can get done. After the children are in bed I climb the stairs to my office to continue work, my mind awash with pieces of seemingly disparate puzzles. I feel like a cup full to the brim, but someone is continuing to pour.

My sister is sifting through the accumulations of my father's life: drawers of string and tape and glue, treasured cuts of exotic wood waiting for a purpose, colored glass, old books with torn cloth and broken bindings, and far far too many small pewter vases. He collected: plastic bags and garden tools, wool and cotton cloth for weaving, seeds, staplers, rocks, dried flowers, pencils, pads of paper with sad little sayings written on them, marbles, meat grinders, dental tools and surgical clamps, peppercorns, coffee pots, jars of honey, bars of soap, corn husks, magnifying glasses, plaid flannel shirts. My father prized that which could be put to use. He gravitated toward items that would be useful for homesteading in the 1800s, or if the electricity went out for a good while. I imagine he saw each busted garden tool restored, the rusted head rubbed shiny with steel wool, then carefully refastened to a newly turned and oiled shaft. As he stashed away plastic bags I suspect he imagined them reused until they turned brittle and torn, then twisted and woven into bath mats.

There is a lump in my throat that doesn't go away. It is a reminder, but of what I am not sure. I went to the doctor, she glanced down my throat and assured me I didn't have strep.

Forty days, and then some. Wednesday night we held a panikhida, a short and beautiful rite of remembrance, to mark forty days since my father's passing. I said a silent prayer asking him to forgive me for having a service for him in the Orthodox Church. My father was a man of religious conviction and theological intransigence. I'm not sure he believed I was truly a Christian once I joined the Orthodox Church. To his mind the Orthodox Church was some lesser and more antiquated version of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Roman church he regarded with grave suspicion. But pray for him we Orthodox did anyway, "with the saints give rest / to the soul of thy servant / where sickness and sorrow are no more / neither sighing but life everlasting."

My eight year old son said afterwards that it was a wonderful service. He wondered if we could also have a panikhida for his beta fish, Thunder, who also recently died. Thunder lies in a decorated box in the freezer alongside his favorite rocks, awaiting burial. "So many people are dying lately," my son said, "Grandpa, Thunder..."

I have not gone back to my father's house since the night he died. I can see the things all piled up there without going over to see them with my eyes. I remember the way he treasured it all. When I was twenty and moving out, I took a stapler from my parents home. Years later, when I'd moved the stapler with me to New York, my father found it in my apartment while visiting me there. He took the stapler with him back to Oregon. Apparently he'd been missing that particular stapler all the eight years it had been in my possession. My sister reports there are any number of similar staplers at the house and I can have one if I want. But honestly, I do not want a stapler.

Nor do I want piles of yarn or small pads of paper or pewter vases. I might be tempted by scissors, or local honey, but I don't need more of anything. Not really.

What I need is time. What I need is time stretched out and softly unfolding in front of me. Time unhindered by crisis or heartbreak or urgent business, just the business of walking and cooking and laundry and applying band-aids and bactine. Time just circling around the weeks like water, like leaves spiraling yellow to the ground.