Friday, December 30, 2011

Resolve differently

     A counselor once told me that I have "an overdeveloped sense of responsibility".  In short, he was suggesting that I worry too much.  Me?  Really?  Nah!  Well, there are, of course, those nights when I wake up and fail at falling back to sleep because I'm considering what I need to do during the coming day.  And there are those moments when I'm not paying  100% attention to a conversation partner because I'm stewing over some trifling error I made earlier in the day.  But (for those readers who'd remember Alfred E Newman), "What, ME worry?"
     The counselor was right, of course.  And he was also right in suggesting that there are some up-sides to the "problem" (for example, I pay attention to details).  On the other hand, such an attitude can lead to a very bleak outlook on life, a habit of living out of scarcity (i.e., "I've never done enough!").  Or, as a friend put it, "Perfection is the enemy of the good" (alluding, to a sentiment attributed to Voltaire).
     We're at that time of year when we are bombarded with lists of the  "fill-in-the-blank" stories/photos/movies/shows of the year past.  In all of those lists I've seen, I've never seen the "Ten Most Empowering Stories of 2011", or the "Ten Most Inspiring Stories" or so on.  (And if YOU have, please send them to me!)    Even the lists of the "bests" often have to put in a little negative bit:  "This movie was SO great, but it would have been better if actor so-an-so was less smarmy."
     We're also at the time of year when many folks make New Year's Resolutions -- usually along the lines of making up for some deficiency or error in their days past.  "I'm going to study more diligently" (implication:  "I was lazy last year").  "I'm going to lose weight" (implication, "I overate last year").  "I'm going to drive more carefully" (implication:  "Five speeding tickets last year was too many!").  And so on.  My "overdeveloped sense of responsibility" points me straight towards those kinds of resolutions!
      So when my cousin Patty posted the photo/poster above to her Facebook page earlier this week, I had to comment that "This is fabulous!"  What a paradigm shift!  It is along the lines of listing all those things for which I'm grateful -- a very helpful practice for anyone, any time.       Hmmm.  What WERE the strong, fabulous, enriching things in my life from 2011?  How can I take them to the next level in 2012?  Or, of course, in a more minor way, when I next wake up in the middle of the night, what WERE the great things about the day that was past?
      A different kind of resolution.

Happy New Year!


Friday, December 23, 2011

Write a new story

      This is the season of miracles.  A couple of days ago, hundreds of people gathered on a plain in Wiltshire county, England, just a few miles north of Salisbury to participate in a centuries-old tradition of welcoming the sun at the winter solstice.  For many early peoples around the world, the diminishing of the light during the autumn was frightening; whatever it took to keep the sun coming back -- well, it was miraculous.
       Likewise, earlier this week, Jews around the world began celebrating Hanukah, the Festival of Lights -- a centuries-old observance of another miracle.  During the Maccabean revolt against their Roman overlords, one day's worth of lamp-oil miraculously kept the Jerusalem temple lamp lit for eight days.
       And, in a few days, as they have for centuries, Christians will celebrate Christmas, miraculous in at least a couple of ways, Christians believe:  (1) God assumed human form, as well as, (2) a virgin conceived and bore a son.    
       Miracles rewrite the dominant stories.  Clearly, steadily decreasing light grows dimmer and dimmer until it is gone.  One day's worth of oil lasts one day.  Virgins don't conceive.  These were the stories that held sway . . . until something perceived as miraculous occurred.
       This line of thinking wormed its way into my head earlier this week as I read somewhere that we are at a time between stories.  The subject of the piece had to do with the seeming decline of the preeminence of the "story" of scientific materialism in the face of new discoveries.  From biology to physics to neuroscience, the material "facts" are being challenged by non-physical realities of the mind and heart.  The "old" story is not final, it would seem.  And so, I would argue, that is ever the case.
       There are major dominant stories aplenty in our world.  Shifting them MAY take a miracle.  But not every story requires a major miracle to change it; scientific discovery, poetic inspiration, or even a walk in the snowy woods, equally may bring about a new plot line.  Sometimes simply asking a question will bring about something new, something amazing, something . . . miraculous.
       Every so often I find myself mindlessly living in an out-dated story of my life.  Those are the times I know it's time to find a miracle-worker:  a friend, family-member or counselor.  Someone I can trust to ask just the right question that will serve to alter the course of the plot and create a new chapter.
      Students, lawyers, employees, lovers, parents, scientists, managers, politicians, athletes, clergy, doctors, mechanics, accountants  -- THIS is the season of miracles.  A time calling for new stories to be written and lived.  May we be inspired to "take up the pen"!

Seasons blessings,


Monday, December 19, 2011

Caroling alone?

When I was growing up, one of our neighborhood traditions was the annual caroling extravaganza.  Members of our family (immediate, and perhaps augmented by a cousin or two) would leave the house for our next door neighbors.  We would sing a carol or two, collect those neighbors, move the next house and repeat.  On and on, around the neighborhood.  By the end of the evening, we would have grown from four or five to several dozen.  And we would return to our house for cookies (my mother would have been baking like mad for weeks!) and wassail.
      I must admit, I can't remember hearing carolers outside my house since I left home.  On the other hand, I can attest to the magic of caroling -- or simply of singing together.  It might be magical because many of us do it so rarely.  Think!  When do we sing together in large groups?  It may occur in worship settings for some (but not all) religious traditions.  For many folks, it only happens at sporting events IF folks actually sing the national anthem or the team's fight song (or "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" at baseball games).
      Sociologist Robert Putnam wrote, several years ago now, in his book Bowling Alone, of the phenomenon of a decreasing participation in league bowling (another fond memory of my childhood!).  He used that as an example of our increasing disconnectedness from one another in our society -- not only from our neighbors, but also from our democratic structures.  I don't intend to draw the same conclusions from the absence of carolers outside my home; there can be MANY reasons for that.
     I have seen, however, over the last couple of day at the University of Denver, the joy of folks gathering together to sing songs of the season.  Whether it was "I Have A Little Dreydl" or "Silent Night" or "Jingle Bells", the smiles and sense of camaraderie were extraordinary.  No-one was asking about political or religious differences; we were bound by something simple, something joyful:  singing together.
      Caroling alone?  I hope not.  Find someone to sing with over the next few weeks.  It doesn't make ANY difference whether you're good at it.  [I was at an staff function earlier this week where we WERE bowling!  Few of us were any good--boy, have I forgotten a lot!--but we had a great time!]  Recapture the joy of song.  And if you need a reason, just say "I think it will do us all some good!"



Friday, December 9, 2011

Occupy . . . my heart!

       Amazing what a walk will do!  I was heading this afternoon from my office to the gym, mentally putting the finishing touches on what I might write this afternoon.  I had had a student earlier in the week come talk to me about Occupy Denver.  And then, this morning, I was listening to an interview having to do with religion, zombies-on-TV, and popular culture.  What RICH material for an afternoon's meditation!  But, as I walked the snowy path to the fitness center, I noticed heart after heart after heart scribed in the snow.  Sometimes there was an arrow through the heart, but most often a single heart.  There must have been 25 or 30 of them on either side of the path, or, as in the photo above, on the snow remaining on top of one of the hedges.
      Occupying zombies went out of my head, and I realized that something as fleeting as a snowy heart was much more noteworthy.  (I may return to zombies and the Occupy movement in future weeks.)  But, on a day when I was tired, but knowing I needed time on my spin bike (which would both invigorate and exhaust me further), the procession of hearts took ahold of mine.
      Someone, possessed by some spirit, took the time to stop every so often and, with two or three swipes of a finger, left for those coming after him/her a somewhat whimsical bit of encouragement and hope.  After I saw the first couple, I kept looking for more and they kept appearing. They even crossed busy thoroughfares.  My spirits rose; my fatigue left.
      In a time of the year when the light begins to wane, when days grow shorter, we long for light.  All of the religious/spiritual traditions that light candles or bonfires at the winter solstice witness to this longing for new life.  We look for the rekindling of light, for refreshment of heart.
      The anonymous heart-carver provided that for me.  And the juxtaposition of the heart with the leaves poking through the snow simply doubled the message.  None of us are prevented from providing similar simple messages of hope; a couple swipes of a finger in the snow and our hearts are occupied in an entirely different way.



Friday, December 2, 2011

The end is near! So what?

      One thing that has confused me for some time is the fascination some folks have with knowing the future.  This came to mind again last Sunday.  In much of the western Christian world, last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent, a four-week period of preparation leading up to Christmas.  One of the selections from the New Testament that (in my tradition) was appointed to be read had Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 21:5-19).  His followers asked him when this would take place, what would be the signs that it would be about to happen.  Jesus refused to give a direct answer; indeed, in another place, he asserted that  "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). His message seems to have been: "Quit worrying about it!"
        What IS it about knowing the future?  If it is "fixed", then knowing about it wouldn't change anything anyway!  Any changes we might make in our life or habits would simply be a factor in what would happen anyway; it wouldn't change!  If the future is fixed, we can't run from it; it will be what it will be.  If the future isn't fixed, then how can one know it?  [The "Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come" in Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a different critter -- a ghost of a possible Christmas to come -- as Scrooge CAN, and does, make a change that affects that future.]   Indeed, knowing the future may even have bizarre effects on our behavior: "Well, the world's going to end, regardless of what I do, in 2012, just like the Mayans said! So I can behave any old way I want! What's the point in saving money, or saving the whales?"
        So I've never been one who has been that interested in the future.  When will the world end?  I don't know, and I probably can't do a lot to accelerate or delay it anyway.  I think it's much more important, and within my grasp, to attempt to forge, to create, a future that is worth inhabiting.  Gandhi, in his development of his theory of satyagraha, or "truth-force", in the context of an argument over whether or not the end justifies the means, wrote of the inseparability of means and ends: "They say, 'means are, after all means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end . . .  There is no wall of separation between the means and the end.  Indeed, the Creator has given us control (and that, too, very limited) over means, none over the end."*
        I would hope that the "end", the future I would hope to see, is the product of the means I employ to reach it. Right means -- that's enough to worry about!   Is the end near?  "So what . . . now?" seems the primary and appropriate question.



*R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, editors; from section “The Gospel Of Sarvodaya, of the book The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahemadabad, India, Revised Edition, 1967.

Friday, November 18, 2011


       Every month I spend a Friday morning at Metro CareRing, a large food pantry (and more) in downtown Denver.  I began going last March, along with a BUNCH of DU students.  I decided that day that I would continue going monthly, whether I was joined by any students or not.  It has turned out to be one of the things I most anticipate every month.  Even more so in the last couple of months.
      When I first started going, my main role was to fill orders from the clients in the pantry.  I would be given a shopping list and I would fill it -- given the available items and my creativity ("Hmm, would they rather have spaghetti noodles or macaroni as 'pasta'?").  In mid-October, however, Metro CareRing went to a "client choice" set-up.  Now my role is as a "personal shopper;" I accompany the clients through the pantry, helping them negotiate the aisles, letting them know how many of certain items they may take, picking up heavy items, and so on.  The difference between this latter system and the former is amazing.  I actually get to interact with the clients, and they with me.
       Today was my monthly opportunity to be a "personal shopper."  As I anticipated, many of the clients were looking forward to Thanksgiving.  And they were all overjoyed to receive a turkey in addition to everything else.  I don't think I've ever heard the words "Thanks" or "Thank you so much" that many times in a few hours.  And I heard it not only from the clients, but from the staff -- both TO the clients, and to each other and the volunteers.
There was no sense of entitlement anywhere apparent.  All that was clear was gratitude.  Smiles and laughter were abundant.  The sense that "all is a gift" overwhelmed me.
      I began wondering, even before my time at Metro CareRing today, whether the "Thanks" on Thanksgiving are due only to God (and the cooks), or whether we might take the day a bit further.  Last week my office gave folks crossing the "Bridge" at DU the opportunity to write a Thank-You to ANYONE, and we'd deliver it.  Cards went to faculty and family, staff-members and sorority-sisters.  The avenues of grace are all around!
      So, next Thursday, somewhere between the hors d'oeuvres, the football games, the pumpkin pie (and inevitable subsequent naps), in addition to the thanks we render to the Giver of all gifts, maybe we can make some time to say "thanks" to the people who surround us, near and far, and who give us the everyday gifts that bring smiles and laughter to our lives.  That word can be a gift that never spoils or wears out.

Happy Thanksgiving,


Friday, November 11, 2011

You can't trust the box!

       When I was growing up, there was a saying in our house that "You can't trust the box".   Whether it was at birthdays or the holidays, the caution came out.  A box that might have held copier paper might hold a pair of cufflinks.  Or a shoebox might hold instructions telling the recipient to look in the garage at a new drill press.  That pattern has stayed with me, and my children are learning not to trust the box!
       I remembered this last Sunday when I hear the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts-Shori (the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States) answer questions after presiding at the morning worship at St. John's Cathedral.  In her answer to one question, she made a comment something to the effect of "don't confuse the gift with the package."  The context (if I recall) had to do with traditional religious expressions in a contemporary context.  The general point was that God has given the world multiple gifts.  We end up putting them in boxes.  And, voila, the gift and the box become, for all intents and purposes, one and the same.
      A similar phenomenon was characterized by Max Weber in his classic studies  of the sociology of religion as the "routinization of charisma".   A leader/reformer arises whose (usually anti-traditional) message, as well as his/her passionate, effective presentation of that message, attracts a LOT of attention and followers.   When the leader dies (or even during his/her lifetime), the initial momentum invariably wanes, and a structure is created to keep the movement viable.  Over the course of time, the initial message becomes a bit lost in the doctrines and practices that arise with the structure.  In short, the "charisma" becomes "routinized"; the extraordinary becomes ordinary, routine, perhaps mundane.  It indeed may happen that the evolved structure becomes almost antithetical to the original, captivating, vision of the founder.
     Weber argues that this process is practically inevitable.  Just as is our tendency to confuse the contents of the box with the box itself.  Reformers of all stripes realize this, agitate for change . . . and the process begins again!
      I took Bishop Katherine's challenge to us to be:  "Look closely at your sets of fondly-held beliefs."  Do we hold more tightly to the gift or the box?  Can we distinguish between the two?  Even if we hold tightly to the container, is it the ONLY container that can hold the contents?  Or might new containers -- larger, or smaller, or differently shaped -- cradle the gift equally well?
      And I thought, "You can't trust the box!"


Friday, November 4, 2011

Generously overturning the pot

Just as a filled pot, which is overturned, pours out all of its water, leaving nothing back, even and exactly so should one give to those in need.  Whether low, middle or high, like the overturned pot, holding nothing back . . . .!  (Jataka Nidana 128-29)*

       A student recently recounted to me an interaction she'd had with a fellow student in her Latin class.  She noticed that he was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the heavy-metal band "Bullets For My Valentine".  She remarked to the young man that she liked the group's music.  His response:  "Wow, you don't fit the stereotype" (i.e., of the people who like their music).  The implication, of course, that one has to "look a certain way" to appreciate various kinds of music.  (Let's not even get into the issue of heavy-metal devotees taking Latin!)
      It was a coincidence, to be sure, that, yesterday, as I was driving to a conference I'm attending, that the drive-time morning show folks were talking about stereotypes that were "problematic".  They had callers phone in who didn't fit (let alone appreciate) certain stereotypes associated with their professions.  Those who called in included:  a petite, well-dressed, female long-haul truck driver; a CPA with a sense of humor; a nurse who didn't wear high heels or show her cleavage.  Whether or not any of us accept these as stereotypes, the callers certainly had experienced them that way - - and didn't like them!
     And it was certainly another coincidence that, at my conference, I found myself paired with a woman who works for large agency within the federal government who, herself, didn't think she could ever be a "government worker" because they were all like . . . . "that" (fill in the "that" with YOUR stereotype of government workers).  She found, to her amazement, that she was an in "an amazing work environment" with people who were incredibly dedicated to making a difference.  In the course of her and my conversations, MY stereotypes of "government workers" (probably mirroring her initial suspicions) were destroyed.
      The key to the change, of course, was personal experience and conversation.  In our case, over the last few days, those of us at the conference have been given the opportunity to be pretty open with each other (and the rest of the conference attendees).  We've had the chance to talk about our strengths and fears, successes and failures.  In short, to "overturn our own pots", leaving nothing back.  The outcome and effect, of course, was deeper understanding and acceptance.  Those things that might have artificially divided us -- and stereotypes, in my mind, are artificial constructs that divide us -- were obliterated.
      We all want to be understood.   Our world demands that we strive to understand one another (almost all media messages to the contrary).  Yet we acquiesce to stereotypes; we perpetuate them.  So it's an incredibly generous gift to another person to engage them, to walk together past the stereotypes, to find understanding.
      Overturning our pot is the necessity of our time.  In doing so, we might find that we can complement each other to make our world better.
       Hold nothing back!



*The "Jataka tales" are accounts and stories of the prior incarnations of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha.  They are part of the sacred Buddhist scriptures.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bounce me higher!

     In the twelfth chapter of Jonathan Mooney's captivating book, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal*, the author introduces us to Katie.  Katie is twenty-four year old woman (at the time the book was written) with Down syndrome.  Mooney (who, as a child, was labeled "dyslexic and profoundly learning disabled") had been traveling the country in a short bus -- the kind of bus special education children often ride to school.  He has been meeting adults for whom that bus was a reality; one of his last stops was with Katie.  At the end of his time with her, Mooney's traveling partner at the time suggested that she, Katie and Mooney get on the big trampoline in Katie's back yard.  Mooney was clearly not interested, but joined the two women:

"It is better if you jump together," Katie said.  So Kelly and I jumped together, our bodies slowly adjusting to each other's weight. Then Katie joined us.  We had only a few more minutes left, so Kelly, Katie, and I threw our bodies in the air and we fell into an unspoken rhythm, each of us using our weight to throw the other one up a little higher than we could ever go simply on our own.**

I was struck by the image and had to put the book down for a few minutes to let it soak in. What an amazing metaphor for cooperation and encouragement.
     I think what struck me so much is how little we hear about encouragement (maybe that's just my perception).  Certainly I hear it among members of athletic teams; they recognize that their own individual and team success depends on the success of all on the team.  But when I considered this in a broader context, I couldn't come up with a lot of other examples.  Indeed, the counter-examples are pretty apparent, from political debates to international relations to some inter-family relations.  The scarcity model reigns:  "If YOU succeed, then, in all likelihood, you'll have gotten the laurels, and there are none for me.  So why encourage YOU?"
      What Katie realized, and what Mooney and Kelly learned, was that despite their differences in abilities, weight, trampoline experience, whatever, if they used what they individually brought TO that trampoline to serve the others, they could all achieve more.  The language Mooney used suggests that there was no agenda on any of their parts, only to jump together on the trampoline.  And then they "fell into an unspoken rhythm" that produced the elevated results.
     Golly, I know I like to hear "encouraging" words, but it seems that on this "range" these days, seldom are heard encouraging words.  Yet if that is what we want to hear, if that is what we want to experience, then perhaps taking the initiative TO encourage might start a trend.  It would be consistent, certainly, with the so-called "Golden Rule" that runs through every religious tradition.  And maybe we could all,together, end up a little higher than we might on our own.
       So, how can I encourage you?



* New York:  Holt Paperbacks, 2007.
** p. 200.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Is the best use of time . . . not to?

       The other day I found myself in a room listening to some pretty nice music.  I had nothing I needed to do EXCEPT listen; there was no other place I needed to be.  And I found it almost impossible to keep my hands off of my smartphone.  I felt absolutely drawn to check my email, or update my to-do list -- right in the middle of doing what I was scheduled to do!  I rationalized that I was making good use of my time.
       And, immediately, as I realized what I was doing, I recalled an article I had read just a day or so earlier.  The article came to my via the social network site "LinkedIn" -- a medium for professionals to make connections -- a very work-oriented social network.  And the article itself came from the magazine "Fast Company", described on their website:

Fast Company is the world's leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, ethonomics (ethical economics), leadership, and design. Written for, by, and about the most progressive business leaders, Fast Company and inspire readers and users to think beyond traditional boundaries, lead conversations and create the future of business. 

The article's title?  "What Happened to Downtime?  The Extinction of Deep Thinking and Sacred Space".
       In it, the author (listed as "The 99 Percent") begins by stating that "interruption-free space is sacred.  Yet in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the Internet, people, and other forms of distraction."  The author goes on to argue that this loss of "sacred space" is partly due to our fear of what that space affords:  "To escape this chasm of self-doubt and unanswered questions, you tune into all of the activity and data for reassurance."  So, in the midst of beautiful music (following on the train of thought in the article), I feared being unproductive and turned to that security blanket:  my Android smartphone!
      The article also suggests, however, that in moments of un-connectedness (such as in the shower), we often have those "ah-ha" moments.  We are not "fully engaged in a creative activity" and another form of creativity is able to break through.  A walk through the fall leaves?   Sitting quietly in a church/temple/mosque?  Listening to beautiful music (without an accompanying video)?  Space for inspiration?
       I remember that I hesitated getting my first cell phone because I didn't want to be constantly available.  Things changed, and it became a necessary accompaniment to my life (mostly work-related).  And then the worm turned, and that phone began to control me, to demand that I attend to it--even when no one was calling or texting me.   And empty time became busy time.
       A break from busy time?  Have we turned time into such a precious commodity that it has to be used judiciously, efficiently, intentionally, constantly?  Might occasionally "wasting" time be its best use?  Ironically it was "Fast Company" that encouraged me to consider slowing down.
       Tempus fugit.  So what!?


Friday, October 14, 2011

Rage against the shrinking of the pale!

      No!  Not that kind of pail!
      A "Pale", according to Wiktionary, is "a jurisdiction under a given authority; often held by one nation in another country, hence suggesting that anything outside their control was uncivilised. It was in use by the mid-17th century. The phrase may be a reference to the general sense of boundary, but is often understood to refer to the English Pale in Ireland. In the nominally English territory of Ireland, only the pale fell genuinely under the authority of English law, hence the terms 'within the Pale' and 'beyond the pale'."**  Colloquially, we often hear about certain kinds of behavior that they're "beyond the pale", that is, that they may be unacceptable in polite society.
      The problem with pales is that they are designed by people in (supposed) power/authority to define who's "in" and who's "out". Given the administrative nature of their origins, that's understandable.  The colloquial use, however,  reveals something else:  our need to define ourselves over against something, or someone, else . . . . and to preserve our privilege.  "Protection" may be nothing more than protection against unwelcome opinions or ideas.  In other words, those folks "over there" disagree with us; they MUST be "outside the pale" . . . and therefore we can dismiss them, OR fight them.
      Well, it seems to me that, in the colloquial sense, the pales keep shrinking.  Nations/states define their borders to define who is "in" or "out".  The USA has certainly done that -- and, in recent years, hardened those definitions with walls in the south and requirements-for-passports in the north.  We have done a lot to create smaller and smaller pales within these borders.  We define them by color, by religion, by language.   "You're either in, or you're beyond the pale!" And we have seen in the very recent months and years, the "pale" defined by ideology, or sectarian differences with religion.  The comments about Mormonism by Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress is a case in point (in my opinion).  Calling something a "cult" is an easy way in our culture to dismiss it, imply it's wrong (as everyone should know) -- in other words, cast it and its adherents "beyond the pale."
      Mr. Jeffress is not certainly alone in this, and it is not just a contemporary problem.  I was in college at a time when LOTS of religious groups that the mainstream didn't understand were labeled "cults".  And, now, we see it happening from both the right and the left -- the religious, as well as political, right and left.  And it is true within many different religious traditions; I can certainly think of examples in Christianity, Judaism and Isalm.  Cast someone outside of the pale, and they don't have to be heard from.  And, of course, we don't have to listen, because we are RIGHT!
      Well, I disagree!  And I ask that others join me in raging against the shrinking of the pale.
For the sake OF the pale-of whatever size, we need to engage all those within it in constructive, respectful, conversation.   And, then, expand the conversation, include more voices, increase our capacity for compassion, and enlarge the pale.  


*With apologies to Dylan Thomas, and his poem "Do not go gentle into that dark night"!
**It also refers to a portion of Imperial Russia where Jews were allowed to live -- but, outside of which, they couldn't live permanently.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Living in the future tense

     Earlier this week I had coffee with a member of the faculty who has been at the university for many decades.  He is in the process of retiring, and is pulling away from various responsibilities.  I wanted to take the opportunity to hear what it was about DU that had kept him (and so many others) here so long.  As one might imagine, I heard A LOT!  There wasn't one specific thing that stood out, more of a montage of good memories -- even through the difficult times.  He spoke of the changes in chancellors (and their priorities); he talked about specific people; he mentioned retrenchments during trying economic times; he talked about the increasing capabilities of students.  Through it all, it seemed to me that the one thing that was beneath all of the stories was a sense of optimism and commitment to making it work, to improving, to living into the future.
     That sense of forward-looking seems to characterize much of the commentaries and tributes that have filled the airwaves since the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  The stories -- both those that have found their way to the mainstream media (and blog sites) as well as the little anecdotes I read in Facebook updates -- focus on how Jobs kept looking for ways to innovate . . . and to delight.  The concern for the future of Apple without its visionary leader has certainly been raised.  Analysts, however, seem to think that a culture of looking to the future has become so ingrained in the company that folks need not worry.
     I was captivated by the stories told me by that member of the faculty, as well as by those about Steve Jobs.  Captivated because there is something hopeful in them.  So different than most of the news, or stories, we hear almost all of the rest of the time.  Hearing stories about "the best" or "peak experiences" energizes most of us.  Yet we are surrounded by stories about what's deficient, or needs fixing.
     I did not ask my coffee-partner about what needed to be corrected at DU; I asked him about the university at its best.  And we both went away up-beat and hopeful (at least I certainly did).   And while the death of Steve Jobs has hit many around the world hard, his legacy -- the way he lived his life, and died his death, as well as his spirit of innovation -- gives hope.  I didn't have to ask about them; they just seemed to roll out of their own accord.
     I am reminded that Moses, as he looked into the Promised Land, knowing that he was not to enter it, charged the Israelites to look forward, to be faithful to the covenant that they had established with the God they believed had delivered them.  He warned them against turning astray; things would not go well if they did.  He summed it all up by saying:  "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live . . . " (Deuteronomy 30.19).   The faculty person with whom I shared coffee could not see all of DU's future, but based on decades of experience, he believed it was bright.  Steve Jobs had known for years that he had cancer; it did not deter him from building on the best experiences Apple had known and looking ahead.
     And so I wonder, what might we learn if we spent more time asking people to tell stories about their best experiences?  There are different threads, and different trajectories, found in stories that focus on the best.  I think that's one of the reasons we like inspirational, positive, movies . . . and why we're so tired of the current negative discourse that fills our airwaves.   What is suggested by the "problematic" keeps us mired in the past, a past about which we can do nothing.  What is suggested to us, however, by the "best" can lead us to a hopeful future.
     So, share stories about your BEST experiences about . . .    Share stories about when you were MOST FULLY engaged in . . .   Dream about a future based on the best.  And then act into that reality



Friday, September 30, 2011

Finding redemption on Iliff Ave.

     Photographer Robert Adams, in a recent interview on the public radio show "Colorado Matters" said that his job was to record what was, so that what could be seen to be wrong might be rectified, and what was right might be preserved.  Adams chronicled, through photos, the changes in Colorado in the late '60's and early '70's, and, when asked whether the photos would be relevant today, he replied that some things have probably gotten worse, but that there are always going to be those things that are right and good.  And he said that he always seeks to "find redemption in nowhere in particular".  Ryan Warner, the interviewer, found that statement quite thought-provoking, and so do I.
     Adams reported that he would often walk down a street or sidewalk, simply observing his surroundings.  If something struck him as photo-worthy, he'd snap it (the photo above was the product of that kind of meandering in Colorado Springs).  He wasn't looking for anything in particular, perhaps only contrasts or lighting anomalies.  He may only have taken a couple of dozen photos a day.*  Yet amazing photos resulted.
      What is counted as "redemption" will differ from person to person (and I'm not just speaking in "religious" terms, although the statement is probably true in that regard as well).  The idea that one might find it "nowhere in particular" made me wonder, however, how much I might miss that is "redemptive" simply because I didn't imagine it could be there.  With a different set of eyes, what might I see?
      I was, of course, listening to this interview while bike-commuting, and I looked down at the very cracked (and repaired) road surface.  What was redemptive there?  And the cracks spoke to me of the power of that natural world to undo a lot of what we make.  As we know, without the constant work of road crews, our streets would quickly become pitted, pot-holed, and barely passable.  Nature strikes back -- redeeming work.  Hopeful, in some respects!  I'd never thought I'd find redemption in the bumpy surface of Iliff Avenue.
     Maybe it's not just "finding redemption in nowhere in particular" but, with eyes-and intention-to see, finding it, potentially, everywhere.  That would be looking through the eyes of blessing rather than cursing. Of salvation rather than damnation.  Of hope rather than despair.  Imagine what might change if we could train ourselves to do that.


*  This is in stark contrast to National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones, who would snap hundreds of photos, trying to be at the right place at the right time-like dawn or dusk-trusting that one out of those myriad snaps would be great.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Let there be . . . neutrino!

     So much for the speed of light!  Or so the papers reported this morning!  It seems that researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva have observed a nuetrino (a sub-atomic particle) that travelled faster than light.  Given that modern physics is pretty much premised on the Einsteinian principle that NOTHING travels faster than light, this discovery basically rocks the scientific world.  A tenet of scientific faith, challenged by a scientific experiment.  Cool!  A researcher at Fermilab (an American counterpart to CERN) was quoted as saying "[If it's true,] it's going to cause us problems . . . no doubt about it."
     What other certainties, accepted as true, are waiting to fall?
     The report this morning comes on the heels of my reading a book review of a graphic book/comic book soon to be released by noted evolutionary biologist and feisty atheist, Richard Dawkins.  The book is entitled The Magic of Reality:  How We Know What's Really True.  Hmmm.  I wonder if Dawkins will quickly recall the book and add something about this challenge to a scientific "truth"?   I imagine that Dawkins will take this in stride; he is a good scientist.  But there is, in his title (in my opinion) an implication that we can know what is "really true" through the scientific method.
      I think we can know, through the scientific method, that which the scientific method can test and evaluate.  And we need to hold any findings as tentative; we need to approach the results of experiments with humility.  Another famous scientist, physicist Richard Feynman wrote of this humility:  "Every scientific law, every scientific principle, every statement of the results of an observation is some kind of a summary which leaves out details, because nothing can be stated precisely. . . . It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions."*  Feynman goes on to highlight the role of doubt in science.  In a subsequent chapter, he highlights the role of doubt in religion as well.
      I believe in the humility of faith.  It suggests an openness to new discoveries no less than a good scientist is open to startling results to experiments -- even IF it means re-thinking long-held beliefs.  What we understand about the physical world has changed over time.  Religions form and re-form themselves over time as they come into contact/conflict with new realities/circumstance.  We tend to forget about a lot of those changes as we sit in the midst of the current "truths" -- whether we're scientists or religious people or both (Feynman, though not a religious man, certainly thought one could be both!**).
      What does that neutrino portend?   It certainly rocks our world.  But so did Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Baha'u'llah.  And when they appeared, their contemporaries weren't certain what they would portend -- and in some cases that uncertainty translated into fear.  But we've moved on . . . . mostly . . . and generally in a positive direction!
      So, let there be . . . neutrino!  Rock us on!


*      Richard P. Feynman.  The Meaning of It All:  Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist.   Perseus Books, 1998:  25, 26.
**    Ibid., 36.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Take the time to listen

        Yesterday afternoon a number of faculty and students gathered to discuss "The Constitution, the Budget and Morality."  The two faculty presenters came from very different starting points: one focusing on the issues of consensus and the social contract, the other on differing theories of economics.  They weren't necessarily at odds, but the perspectives were quite different.  They did agree, however, that we as a body politic have lost sight of "consensus" and that "consent" (of the people) doesn't imply uniformity or agreement.   One of the outcomes of the discussion was a pretty palpable desire (in the room) for a return to conversation about issues, not vitriolic debates.*
       Conversation, however, takes time.  And in our "hurry-up" life-style, time "is of the essence".  Or is it?
       In our rush to conclusions, do we miss the nuances that are inevitable when dealing with human beings?   Do we discount another's humanity simply because we disagree with their points-of-view-and trying to hear them takes too much time?  A study recently has suggested that the speed at which children's show "Spongebob Squarepants" shifts scenes (say that three times fast!) begins to take a toll on a child's ability to learn and memorize.  Is faster always better?  Well, no.
      We want results, and we want them now.  And if we don't get what we want, we shift brands, or "throw da bums out" at the next election.  We don't really want to spend the time to understand; it's often hard work.  But, in the context of another person's thinking, understanding is one of the greatest gifts we can offer.  Sitting, listening, being.  We may not come to agreement.  That's okay.  Most of us don't always agree with the people we love the most.  Should we expect complete agreement with anyone else?
       I appreciate the advice given by Jesuit scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to a young friend:  

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.  We are all, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.  We should like to skip the intermediate stages.  We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new, and yet it is the law of all progress that is made by passing through some stages of instability -- an that it may take a long time. **

His advice to a young man seeking his way in life is also a good reminder to us that we might want to engage in the "slow work" of understanding -- which I might argue is the work of God. 


*  The entire conversation can be heard here.  The file is found on the right side of the page.
**  The passage/letter in its entirety can be found here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

False devils?

Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils by making me afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.  (G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 9/11/1909)* 

      One thing common to just about every religious tradition I know is the counsel against idolatry.  That is, the counsel against setting anything up in the place of God; it can be money, sports figures, self-interest, Simon Cowell, love-of-country, anything!  Such a tendency must be common to all of us, given the universality of the caution against it.  (And the caution is not against making little statues of animals with horns.  They are simply physical representations of some spiritual/psychological issue.)
       I was struck, however, by the nice turn-of-phrase by turn-of-the-20th-century English author G.K. Chesterton.  Certainly, he recognized that we are prone to setting up false gods (or idols).  But his assertion that setting up false devils is just as dangerous seems a very appropriate consideration at this time, of this year.
       First, we are on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11/2001.  That awful day, ten years ago, was the manifestation of Chesterton's observation (reported, VERY coincidentally, ninety-two years previously, to the day!).  The terrorists had apparently set up both false gods (as in their understanding of religion), AND false devils (as in blaming America for all of their problems) . .  and many innocent people suffered.  But that awful day, ten years ago, also prompted many Americans to set up OUR own false gods and false devils . . . and many innocent people have suffered as a result.
       But, second, we are also on the eve of the start of another academic year at the University of Denver (and elsewhere); classes begin here the day after September 11th.  Many of us at colleges and universities--whether students or faculty--cling both to false gods and false devils.   When we are at our best, we hope the light of inquiry and knowledge will help dispel some of the darkness of both falsehoods.  But that takes a lot of humility-not a virtue that is highly appreciated these days.
       We begin anew.  We can choose to cling to the darkness, to false security, to the gods and devils of our own making.  Or we can choose to humbly seek the truth--even with those whom we might disagree or not understand--and follow that path wherever it may lead, perhaps to peace.  Chesterton would probably say that such humble searching was an act of great courage.  And, I believe, it would honor the memory of all the victims of the horror of that day.
       Here's to a new year, new possibilities, and a better world.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

A lamp, lifeboat, or ladder?

    Here at the University of Denver, we are literally hours away from the influx of incoming first-years.  Indeed most of the new international students have already arrived and are undergoing orientation.  Some other groupings of students are also here:  athletes, orientation leaders, etc.  It's getting busy!  Those folks in Student Life who bear the most responsibility for orientation and residence life are madly scrambling to have things ready.  Many emails are answered with an "away message" advising the sender NOT to expect a reply until sometime next week.  While folks are (for the most part) maintaining good spirits, every so often I'll pick up a note of stress and worry.  And that's to be expected, given the nature of the time.
       The incoming students, too, are often stressed.  They're out of their familiar surroundings.  With the international students, the language most often spoken around them isn't their "mother tongue".  Finding things on campus isn't always straightforward; I'm often giving directions or accompanying people to this office or that.  Anxiety about getting desired classes, about "clicking" with a roommate.  Stressful times.
       And . . . the economy is tough.  Political discourse is rough and inflammatory.  Hurricans and earthquakes have wrought real damage in people's lives and work-places.  We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  Wounds will be re-opened; anger and fear may rise.
     It is so easy, at times like these, to hunker down-to cover our heads until the storm blows over, or to distract ourselves to avoid having to deal with the difficult times.  Often we feel at a lost to help, so we avoid trying.
       In that regard, I was struck the other day by a quotation from the Sufi poet Jelalludin Rumi's "The Diwan of Shams of Tabriz"

Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.
Help someone's soul heal.
Walk out of your house like a shepherd.

What struck me was that there were three images provided for how to help -- and the help suggested wouldn't necessarily work for every situation.  Someone drowning doesn't need a lamp; someone in a pit doesn't need a lifeboat.  I often find myself thinking that I have one primarily "helping mechanism" and, if that doesn't fit the situation, then I'm somehow left helpless.  
       Rumi challenges me to think more broadly.  I'll look to fill my tool-box with many more ways to help.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why? 'Cause!

    In the summer of 2000, I think it was, I spent a week in Carpenteria, CA.  Carpenteria is just a few miles east of Santa Barbara.  I was there, with wife and daughter, for a week as a "campground chaplain" at the state park.  There weren't a lot of responsibilities (mostly "being present"), and, thus, a lot of free time.  One day we all went into Santa Barbara to (a) go to the zoo, and (b) ride our bikes on the wonderful bike path along the coast.  The zoo was wonderful, and so was the bike ride.
      What we began to notice however, as we were riding west along the beach, is that there were dozens of cyclists riding east.  It was a collection of riders the likes of which I'd never seen.  Men and women outlandishly attired (for cycling anyway); feathers in helmets; squeaky toys on their handlebars, and they all had "race numbers" on their bikes.  And the stream seemed never-ending.  I finally got up the nerve to ask one of them what they were doing, and he replied, "The San Francisco - Los Angeles AIDS ride".  I asked how far they had ridden that day, "About 60 miles".  I forget how many riders participated that year, maybe several thousand.  I was blown away -- not only by how much work it would take to ride 585 miles over a week's time, but also by the commitment to change the world that the riders had.  I doubted I could do it -- both in terms of strength or fund-raising . . . but, oh, did I want to.
      Five years later, I was riding along that same path, having pedaled some 60 miles that day, on my way to Los Angeles.  I was strong enough, and I had been extraordinarily fortunate in raising more-than-sufficient funds to qualify for the ride (the funds to help with AIDS research).  That week remains one of the major highlights of my life in oh-so-many ways.  It was a highlight because I worked to make it so; I was committed.
      Those memories came flooding back as I read an article from a recent New Yorker that a cycling buddy sent me (Thanks, Jim!).  It tells the story of Team Rwanda and some of its riders, as well as their entry in the Tour of Rwanda.  It was the story of inspiration, hard work and success in a country where hope was a rare commodity -- almost as rare as state-of-the-art racing bicycles (the story tells of "Flintstonean scooters", with wooden machete-hewn wheels).  Yet the riders, and the team as a whole, had a dream to make a difference.  The cause of Rwanda's future has been something that drives them on; their desire is great.
      Circumstances don't always let us do everything we want, or feel is valuable.  The hurdles which the Rwandan cyclists have had to surmount didn't deter them.  It took me several years of training and planning to do my "big ride."  Inspiration-some may term it a "calling"-helps us deal with those pesky circumstances:  if it's important enough, we can work to make it happen.  Our "yes" to the big call can cancel out a lot of lesser "no's".   "Why do you want to do THAT???"  "'Cause!"



Friday, August 5, 2011

Common Yarrow or Northern Bedstraw?

It was a dark and stormy afternoon . . . no, really!  Tuesday afternoon at Colorado’s Golden Gate Canyon State Park was characterized by multiple rain-storms.  It was not ideal tent-camping weather.  Our tent was weather-proof, and the canopy over the picnic-table kept our cooking area dry.  On the other hand, we couldn’t venture far from camp.  Between downpours, my son trotted down to the little creek to float bits and pieces of wood down the increasingly quick current.  I, on the other hand, would wander around the campground, camera in hand, to look at the amazing variety of wildflowers that surrounded us.

I was amazed by the number of different kinds of plants; there must have been twenty to thirty different species within a 50’ radius of our fire-ring.  I’m no expert at botany.  My parents were pretty devoted wildflower people – identifying and photographing teeny little plants in the short grasses on mountainsides.  I dutifully went along – but not much of their passion stuck (at least the details of the plants).  So, a sojourn in the mountains this week brought back a lot of memories and an appreciation of the details associated with identifying the flowers.

There are a lot of plants that look similar!  The one above is known as “Northern Bedstraw”.  It was named/featured on a nature walk at the Visitor’s Center, but it was NOT in my Wildflowers of Colorado field guide.  What that book does contain are a lot of flowers that are similar, from “Common Yarrow” to “Cowbane” to “Caraway” – even “Cow Parsnip”!  I was able to eliminate pretty much all contenders except “Yarrow.”  To an experienced eye, there were probably many differences; I only noticed one frustratingly major one:  the leaves were different on the mystery plant.  And, in our campsite, the overwhelming majority of plants were Common Yarrow.

If I’d assumed, through a cursory glance over all of the white-clustered flowers, that they were all the same, I’d have missed the glory of Northern Bedstraw!*  Circumstances were such that I had the (almost necessary) luxury of delving a bit deeper into the wonders of wildflowers.  And I was reminded that our human tendency to “lump” – whether wildflowers, or people – can blind us to the significant, wonderful, differences found in creation, or human society.   It takes some discipline, but yields great rewards!



*  And, yes, early settlers used the plant as mattress-stuffing, finding it more resilient than regular straw!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Out? Darned weeds! Out! . . . Really?*

        A week ago I spent a day at the Denver Botanical Gardens -- a sort of work/retreat.  It happened that I was there the day after a huge hailstorm had rumbled through Denver.  Wonderful plants had been battered to the ground; leaves and petals and branches were strewn about.  The gardener/horticulturists were out in force, cleaning up.  One of them commented to me that, when they arrived earlier that morning, they alternated between tears and busyness, as the day before everything was beautiful.  That was easy to see, even amidst the hail-carnage. As the day progressed, I watched a lot of picking up.  And I was struck by one worker, who stooped down and pulled up a weed.  A WEED!  In the Denver Botanical Gardens!  Why was I surprised?  Certainly, at my house, in my garden plots, weeds continually appear despite my (and Spectracide's) best efforts to keep them at bay.  Why should the Botanical Gardens be immune?
       Fast forward a few days, and I'm listening to a reading from the Gospel of Matthew (13.24-30), a parable Jesus told about wheat and weeds.  And I recalled that the Sunday prior, I heard another parable that included references to weeds (Matthew 13.1-23).  In both stories, the weeds are used as figures for something "bad".  And certainly, that was what the action of the gardener at Denver Botanical implied.  And I got to wondering about the (supposed) inherent "badness" of weeds.  I recalled Mary Douglas's definition of "dirt" as "matter out of place"**.  Are weeds simply plants out of place?
      I love the beauty of cultivated plants and flowers.  And crabgrass in the middle of my lawn seems to detract from the even-ness of the grass; I'll happily try to pull it out!  But is crabgrass "evil"?  Is it "bad"?  I guess not.  It's simply trying to do what it needs to do to survive.  As do dandelions and thistles.  On the other hand, some folks use dandelions to make wine; others have cultivated thistles to become delicacies:  artichokes.  It's a matter of perspective, not a matter of morals, it would seem.
      Some of this all came together when, in my email inbox on Tuesday, I received the following quotation:

It is very important to see your life not only from the narrow view of your egoistic telescope but also from the broad view of the universal telescope called egolessness. This is why we have to practice. Right in the middle of the stream of time, we have to open our eyes there and see the total picture of time. Through spiritual practice we can go beyond our egoistic point of view. We can touch the core of time, see the whole world in a moment, and understand time in deep relationship with all beings. 
 -Dainin Katagiri,  "Time Revisited" 

In a "universal telescope", daffodils and dandelions may simply be categorized as "plants".  The same is probably true for other distinctions we draw, using our egoistic (individual and societal) telescopes-distinctions of race, gender, class, political persuasion, etc..  Distinctions that may bring harm to us all when we start assigning moral categories to them.



*  With apologies to Lady Macbeth (Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26-40).
**   I reflected on this last month in a different context last month.  You can find that meditation here .  It's the second of the two meditations on the page.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Between Lake and Mountain . . .

      . . . Lies True Meaning."  This is the "tag line" on the front of the current visitor's brochure for the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland, OR.  The garden is the most authentic classical Chinese garden in the United States, built by artisans from Suzhou, China (one of Portland's sister cities).  Suzhou is renowned for its gardens-and I've visited several of them on a visit to China in the late '90's.  All of the materials (except for glass and plants) came from China to construct a full city-block version of Suzhou's landmarks.
      My family and I were there last Sunday towards the tail end of my vacation.  I had been to the garden at least once before, and I was struck again by its captivating beauty.  I was also struck by a sense of "slow-down" once we entered the garden.  That is, there was something about the place that almost required me to quit looking at my watch (even though we had a train to catch).  
     And then, there was that train trip.  Amtrak's "Coast Starlight" from Portland to Davis, CA.  A route down the Willamette Valley, and over the Cascade Range, and down that mountain range's east side.  Lakes and mountains (and trees) . . .  and no internet connection (and very sketchy cell phone coverage).  Again, almost a requirement to slow down.  Both at the garden and on the train I found myself wondering about my hurried pace of life, my semi-addiction to technology:  "What might happen without my input, or my knowing about it immediately?"  And what was I missing by NOT attending to that place "between lake and mountain"?
     Isn't that what a vacation is supposed to offer?  Something outside the normal, the seemingly pressing?  We speak of recreation, but do we connect it with re-creation?  A sabbath-time to rest from labors and ponder new vistas or vantage points.  A time simply to revel in relationships with loved ones.
     A few more weeks until it all starts up again in earnest around DU's campus.  LIttle time, then, to take stock, to wonder, to muse on the meaning between lake and mountain.  I'm going to try to make the most of the opportunities afforded by these days.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Bike Mind, Beginner's Mind

For those of you who live in a slightly less "snow-threatened" area, your Bike-to-Work day was last month -- sometime in May. Colorado has moved it to a more weather-predictable day; this year it was last Wednesday, June 22. For those of us who are pretty regular bike-commuters, it was easy to tell that something different was going on. There were certainly MANY more cyclists on the road during both the morning and evening commute. And I was asked a bike-route question at a reception that afternoon by someone who didn't find an easy way to cross a freeway. And, gosh, it'd be great if there were breakfast stations EVERY day!

A friend in my spin-class often talks about bike-commuting. When I saw him in the gym on Tuesday, he asked where the breakfast stations were situated. He was planning on trying it out (he only lives about a mile from his office). So, when I saw him on Wednesday, I asked if he DID bike commute. "No," he replied. He hadn't made the right preparations in logistical thinking the evening before and fell back on the normal mode of transport: car. Lesson one: change in patterns isn't easy!

While on my commute that morning, I was headed down a slight hill. Coming up the other side of the road was a young woman, walking her bike. Apparently she was someone who had decided to take the "bike-to-work" plunge and found that the "hill" that isn't noticeable in a car can be a bit of a lung-burner on bike. Lesson two: a change in perspective brings new appreciation for one's environment. I don't like that "hill" either, but I have learned that it gets easier with practice. I wanted to shout encouragement, but traffic prevented it. Regardless, I mentally applauded her for getting out of her car and attempting the ride (she WOULD have a downhill commute on the way home!). Lesson three: every journey begins with a single step (pardon the cliché).

One of the rationales behind Bike-to-Work day is to encourage people to try something new -- a different way of commuting. It is, in a way, a call to repentance, a call to make a change. For some the draw may be to pollute less; for others it may be to get more exercise. For most of us, making the decision to follow a different path was not easy; there are all sorts of "good reasons" why we can't make changes. On the other hand, when the lure is attractive enough, the benefits of making a change can certainly be worth the effort.

I often ask myself "where am I being challenged to change?" There are always many more answers/challenges than I have energy to address. And maintaining inertia is my usual response. So the lessons of this week's Bike-to-Work challenge are good reminders.

I hope the young woman I saw at the corner of Dahlia and Hampden keeps it up! She certainly inspired me to work through the difficulties of making a change. Best wishes to others in the same situation!



* With apologies, and homage, to Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Matter out of Place

In her brilliant (in my opinion) book, Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas discusses "dirt". In different contexts, dirt means different things. In the garden, it's "soil" and it's good! On the white carpet, it's "dirt" and it's bad! Bodily fluids within the body, good! Bodily fluids coming out of the body, bad! Same stuff, different contexts. "Dirt," Douglas argues, "is simply matter out of place," and different cultures and religions calculate the "matter" and the "place" differently.

So do individuals (again in my opinion). I tend to see folks in one of two ways with regard to dirt: "clutter" people and "grime" people. I used to ask students who wanted to live in a residence I once managed how they would clean a kitchen. Some wanted bleach and scrub brushes; others were satisfied with a counter-brush and broom. The former were "grime" people; the latter "clutter". Having both on the same floor was, in my opinion, a good idea.

I don't want to place these folks in any hierarchical ranking. I freely confess that I'm a "clutter person"; my wife (thankfully) is a "grime person". When we set out to clean the kitchen, we know our specialties. There's no right or wrong (well, there isn't when we're in good moods, and not hurried!); there's simply a difference of perspective.

I've been thinking about this this week as I've been cleaning my office. Due to some construction elsewhere in the building, my furniture has been moved around quite a bit, and I've taken advantage of the upheaval to re-arrange my office. But what that means is that things I'd kept out-of-sight are now visible. And that means the whole office (finally) has to be straightened up. And, even though I'm a "clutter", the increase of debris and detritus over the last several years has NOT been dealt with adequately. Now's the time.

The end result will be wonderful, I'm sure! The process of de-cluttering is therapeutic . . . but, I'm finding, also very taxing. I'm realizing that, while I'm a "clutter person", I'm also a bit of a pack-rat; I'll save things "just in case". Talk about two contradictory personality traits! But the clutter has to go! And I find myself asking the question, "Why do/did I save THIS?" or "Do I need multiple copies of this brochure?"

Karen Kingston, in her book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui** (yes, I'll go to almost any end to deal with clutter!), suggests that there are several reasons for why people keep clutter. Most of them have some sort of spiritual counterpart; I'll leave you to figure out which apply to you (IF you're a clutter collector like me):

  • Keeping things "just in case" - indicates a lack of trust in the future (37)
  • Identity - the things help us feel secure in who we are, while also leading to the trap of being locked in the past (39)
  • Status - bolsters a low self-esteem (40)
  • Security - despite advertising, one will never have enough stuff to feel secure (41)
  • Territorialism - the ego striving to acquire and control things (42)
  • Inherited clutteritis - learned patterns from our parents (43)
  • A belief that more is better - how many kitchen knives DO we need? (44)
  • "Scroogeness" - have I gotten my money's worth? (45)
  • Using clutter to suppress emotions - filling empty space with stuff to avoid emptiness (45)
I'm willing to own up to the first, as well as those that have to do with falling to the advertisers' siren songs. I'm hopeful that some of the others don't apply to me!

But I am asking myself a lot of questions about the stuff that surrounds me. And I'm thinking about the recent Pixar movie "Up" in which one of the main characters doesn't really get what he wants until he is finally free of the stuff he thought was necessary. I'm trying to let go.

Feel free to stop by and ask how I'm doing! And feel free to say "no" if I offer you something to take away! It'd probably be (useless) matter from my place to yours.



*Subtitled: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (first published in 1966, and revised, re-issued several times).

**New York: Broadway Books, 1999