Friday, February 25, 2011

So, what do YOU see in the tortilla? A simple stain-mark? A scorch-patch? Or an apparition of . . . .? Is it a face, or simply a silhouette of a head? Whose head? Is it facing forward, or away? Is it Asian, African or Anglo?

I was reminded of this phenomenon of recognizing famous folks in food when I read a quotation* from French-Cuban author Anais Nin: "We do not see things are they are, we see them as we are". And that led me to recall the line from the U2 song "Walk On" in which Bono refers to "home' as "A place that has to be believed to be seen". And from there to a line from the movie "The Santa Clause II"- "It's not 'seeing is believing;' its 'believing is seeing.' " If I believe that that's the head of John Elway or Harrison Ford or almost anyone else (Bono?), I can hold that tortilla as a miracle in masa harina!

I don't want, however, to focus on flat-breads. I want to muse on how I perceive events and their implications. Is my encounter with a friend any "better" than an encounter with someone with whom I have "issues"? Certainly I approach the encounters differently; I almost can't help it. But my hesitancy in the latter situation can very easily (and often does) blind me to the possibilities before me. I "believe" that the meeting might go poorly. Why, then, am I surprised when it does?

I'm in the business of co-creating my future. And I can "walk on" into that future with hope or resignation; that's a choice I make. It doesn't necessarily come naturally. I'm having to learn new habits of being, habits that see potential in each engagement. I have to learn to believe in a better outcome to see it emerge. Resignation, I've come to understand, is a recipe for stagnation.

We're seeing this borne out in the news almost every day as governments in the Middle East are being toppled by folks who believe in a different future, who act, and who are now seeing that new reality emerge. Hope is in the driver's seat, not the status quo. And now the figures in the North African sands are taking on new characteristics. What will WE see in those sands?

Hope, not despair. Expectation, not resignation. Belief in a place that might be seen.




Friday, February 18, 2011

We DO need another hero!*

Last week on the Driscoll Bridge, my office offered passers-by the opportunity to create "Valentines for Vets". Supplies were available to create "custom-made" valentines that were, at the end of the week, delivered to the VA Hospital here in Denver. The Chaplain at the hospital then delivered them to patients on Valentine's Day. At our end of the process, we had no idea who'd be the recipient (although several students specified that their valentine went to a veteran of a specific branch of the military). All the valentine-makers knew was that their card would be given to someone who had made the sacrifice of serving our country in the military.

As I said, we had supplies available: stickers (hearts, flags, smiley faces, stars, patriotic symbols, etc.), different colored pens and markers, and several rubber stamps. There were several stamps with the theme of "Thanks". But one stamp received particular attention. It said:

HERO: An ordinary person facing extraordinary circumstances

and acting with courage, honor, and self-sacrifice.

On the front of the card, on the inside, on the envelope -- that stamp (along with one or more of the "thank you" stamps) was probably the most-used single "craft supply". Notable!

Equally notable were the number of folks who, when told where the cards were going, were even MORE eager to make a card than they were when they simply saw the table. There was clearly something compelling about honoring the men and women who served, and who were now at the VA Hospital. I particularly enjoyed hearing some of them say, "Who wouldn't want to make a valentine for a Vet?" All told, in 4 hours, we had about 45 - 50 cards made.

Certainly the veterans who walked by were very appreciative of what we were doing. But those who were making the cards -- especially those who chose the "Hero" stamp -- were making a statement that we need heroes, and that we need to honor heroes. We are, I think, right now a culture that wants something substantive for which to cheer. I think that is one reason why we were (and continue to be) so captivated by what's happening in the Middle East. Common people are rising up and demanding a better life, a more just government. And they are doing that at some peril to themselves (as I was writing this, the NY Times afternoon update appeared in my email with news of crackdowns and protests in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya!). The photo above is of Egyptian Christians linking hands in Cairo's Tahrir Square, PROTECTING Muslims at their daily prayers during the demonstrations. Common cause crossing religious boundaries. In my mind, heroes.

Who ARE our heroes? Do we even think that way anymore? I just did a web search on the words "hero" and "heroes". The first page of results for "heroes" pointed to sites devoted to the television series "Heroes". The first page of results for "hero" had more pointers to articles about that same series, as well as a movie entitled "Hero" than it did to articles about virtuous, brave, people. Is the "heroic" going the way of the "virtuous" or . . . the dodo?

I really don't think so. But, like honor, or virtue, or courage, the heroic isn't regularly discussed. And maybe it should be; we might start feeling better about the world in which we live. Maybe simply recalling who are, or were, OUR own, individual, heroes and sharing conversation about them would be a way to start a revolution. Or by watching for, and honoring, random acts of heroism -- like stopping on the bridge and making valentines for vets.



*With apologies to Tina Turner.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Picking up the Pieces

I was listening to an interview earlier this week with Terry Tempest Williams, the author of Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon, 2008). A portion of the book was read during the interview in which Ms. Williams recounts some of her experiences learning how to make mosaics:

Luciana stands next to me and cuts several gold tesserae and shows me the line to follow to make the stems of lilies. She encourages me to break up the gold with tesserae made of yellow sandstone.

'It makes it more interesting to vary the textures,' she says. 'Never use too much of any one color, not even gold. In mosaic, it is the tension that ties one tesserae to another.'

I cut and set the lines of gold.

She asks me to move and sits down in my seat and instantly begins cutting more tesserae and placing them where they should be.

'See here,' she says, running her finger across the arching line just above the first lily on the left. 'You must pay attention to what the ancient mosaicists did with color. It may not make sense to you, but stand back and squint.'

I follow her instructions. It's true; what appears illogical or abrupt close up blends from afar. A chartreuse tessera that jars my eye when it's close becomes a glint of light on the dark green stem. It's as though sunlight has entered the room.

I began to muse on how often I neglect to "vary the textures" in my reading, viewing, and thinking. Many years ago I used to always read at least two books at the same time -- on different subjects. I was often amazed at the way that a book on religious history (for example) was illuminated by a fantasy novel, or a treatise on critical theory made sense because of a mystery. Political and media pundits are pointing out how much of our television and on-line viewing is simply finding the commentators with whom we already agree, so that our currently-held positions receive some "professional" validation. Very little variation of the texture there!

I haven't seen the "live version" of the mosaic above, but I would imagine that if I were to stand quite a ways back from it, I wouldn't notice the chartreuse piece in the middle of the flower. If, however, it weren't there, the magenta flower most likely wouldn't appear as interesting. It may appear as a nice mosaic, but one crafted by a novice.

I would hope that I could be more than a novice when it comes to appreciating the textures of the world around me. Certainly the pieces I choose to pick up . . . . well, I need to choose carefully. Or I need to work on my skills of discernment. Communities of faith help with this process; that's one of their great values-especially those communities that haven't bound together simply to avoid the textures. They help us stand back and see the bigger picture -- if not simply the current view, then one informed by history

So now I have to decide which second book will find a place on my nightstand. Maybe Finding Beauty in a Broken World.



Friday, February 4, 2011

Viking Virtue

I was reading recently in the New Testament book of Galatians (a letter from the apostle Paul to the Christians in Galatia). There is a passage towards the end of that letter that contains two lists. The first is a list of "the works of the flesh" (Gal 5:19-21) that includes all those "bad behaviors" that provide the plots for most day-time and night-time TV dramas (jealousy, quarrels, drunkenness, etc) and big-budget movies (impurity, sorcery, etc.). The second list is the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22-23) that includes all of those good qualities parents would like to see in their children (patience, generosity, self-control, etc.). Although the two sets of behaviors/attitudes are not called "vices" or "virtues", it is easy to see them that way-and, of course, they played their roles in developing the classical western lists of the Seven Deadly Sins (i.e., vices) and the Seven Heavenly Virtues.

And, as I thought more about these lists -- especially those that might be categorized as "vices" -- and how they play out in our common (cultural and political) conversations, I was struck by how much we focus on SOME vices and ignore others. Another such list in the New Testament lumps together as equally odious: envy, gossip, murder, slander, (and one of my current favorites) "rebelliousness towards parents" (Rom1:28). Now we'll sit up, take notice, and condemn someone if murder is involved -- or, in our current climate, some sexual indiscretion involving a politician. But when was the last time you heard a politician campaign on stamping out foolishness? Or insolence? Or jealousy? Or, heaven forbid, greed? Maybe all of those have become so much a part of our landscape that we don't care -- or we NEED them to become successful?

Much of our legal system -- every legal system -- seems to be built around the DIS-couragement of vice. Don't do this! The penalty for that is [fill in the blank]. Law enforcement agencies have special branches known as "Vice Squads".

What if we spent an equal amount of energy EN-couraging virtue? (Okay, so prime-time television might not be as interesting -- but a lot of it is pretty bad anyway!) What if we had "Virtue Squads" running around giving rewards to everyday people who LET that other driver into traffic or who empty the dishwasher without being asked? What if we really started viewing life through the lens of an abundance of virtue, rather than as an absence of vice?

And, in posing that question, I wondered how I might do that. So I've set myself a little task for the next week: I've gone back to the Seven Heavenly Virtues (prudence, justice, restraint, temperance, faith, hope, and love or charity), and I'm going to focus on embodying ONE each day for the next seven days. Who knows what that will yield? But focusing on the virtues is something that just about every culture and religion teach (and, not surprisingly, there is a lot of overlap). The picture above represents the Viking Noble Virtues (which appeal a bit to me, being half-Swedish).* But there are Samurai (Bushido) virtues; the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism can be seen as a list of virtues; Benjamin Franklin developed a list of thirteen virtues.

Interested in trying it too?



*Full disclosure -- there's some disagreement as to how much these "noble" virtues were REALLY spelled out among the Vikings. But I liked them!