In a world of seeming absolutes, Nature loves nothing more than to surprise us. Ice is always cold, except when it burns. Drugs, whether entirely from a single natural source or concocted in recipes of great scientific ingenuity, can heal, though the very same dose of the very same medicine makes one person miraculously hale again and kills another on the spot. The supposed Dead Sea has richer and more varied life forms than a multitude of other lakes and seas, while the so-called Sea of Tranquility is often enough a seething mass of storms.
And we gullible human beings, here in the thick of things, study deeply and grow wiser, yet can rarely tell the honest truth from a preposterous lie. May we learn, if nothing else, to know our limitations better and to show consideration for those whose ignorance is only naturally different from our own. And may we all remember our own imperfections before we devote any energies to defining and rooting out any others’.
I wrote the foregoing paragraphs quite a while ago, but am struck anew by the thought as yet another would-be Statement-Making evildoer commits an attack on innocents, this particular one today in Stockholm. How killing other innocent people, and usually in a barbaric fashion, is going to bring back the killer’s lost loves and goods, going to win hearts and minds to anyone’s cause, or even remotely change the world for the better for the attacker or anyone else, is absolutely impossible for me to fathom.
Throwing red paint on a fur coat wearer is going to make her say, “Heavens! It never occurred to me that a fur coat might offend anybody, let alone hurt the animal I took it from! I shall henceforth devote my life to protecting animal rights and the activists who promote them.” Really? Shouting epithets at anyone will make him think, “Good grief! You’re right! I will stop being brown/disabled/bisexual/elderly Right This Minute. What was I thinking?” Yeah. Just as easily ask the shouter to stop decrying Otherness. It’s natural for us to question, fear, or even dislike things that don’t fit our worldview, but why any of us would think it either our job or our right to change things that are intrinsic to who others are by birth or perforce is entirely beyond my comprehension.
You see me as dyslexic, as having Spasmodic Dysphonia (along with mitral valve prolapse, clinical anxiety and depression, hypothyroidism, familial tremor, and perpetual hot flashes), never mind all the others who have unspeakably more difficult and complicated conditions and experiences all the time—and you think we do this stuff by choice—for fun and entertainment? We take the meds, we do the therapies, we study and we pray, just as you say you do. As logical asking us to stop being this stuff as us asking you to stop wearing skin, to quit that wasteful use of resources when you insist on taking drinks of potable water, or to love the taste of cyanide.
I’m pretty sure that if there were a solution to this persistent, pernicious problem of human nature, any of the far wiser people than me would long ago have discovered it and the rest of the world embraced its practicality, if not its inherent goodness. Sorry to say, we are all broken and will continue to be damaged goods as a species as long as we have any kind of free will at all. But that doesn’t mean we should just stop trying to be better. It certainly doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for attempting decency and the simplest—if also most difficult—bits of compassion and insight we can manage in the here and now. I hope with all my heart that we can commit to at least that much.
Peace be with us all.
After the flood of mindless vitriol in our American political scene—yes, an outpouring from all sides and hardly touched by facts and logic or by mere civility as everyone descends to defensive and angry namecalling—I am reminded that this is an age-old problem.
“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” – Carl Sagan, astronomer and author (1934-1996).
More importantly, I recognize that we would not now exist, certainly not as a federation of states we call a nation, but possibly not even as the chaotic, argumentative, and colorful mass of humanity we are, if there weren’t some among us who occasionally do sit down at the same table and work to reason out the complexities that try us all. Only then can anyone come to an agreement that, while it may be deeply imperfect at best, is still genuinely aimed at the longer-term ideal of growing gradually, of improving until it offers a possibility for better health, education, safety, opportunity, and well-being for all, not just for the privileged or noisy few. I hope that the antagonistic tenor of recent times can be put behind us in favor of work and conversation dedicated to nobler causes than self-interest and fear. I hope that we can let go of redefining hot-button words to suit our mood-of-the-moment and that we can reflect on how our own attitudes and imperfections, ignorance of the larger picture or of other people’s experiences, and our own prejudices and deeply held convictions can stand in the way of simply living together. It doesn’t have to mean giving up principles or changing hard-won beliefs if we will honestly examine our shared needs and our commonalities with equal fervor and attempt to find the best ways to uphold and accommodate all of them.
I’m tired of living in a place that could be one of the few on earth these days that’s not an actual war zone, yet feels as though we are all embattled on a daily basis. If even a modest number of us spent the energy we currently waste on perpetual shadowboxing with real-or-imagined enemies and evils instead on reasoning out positive change and growth in ourselves and our communities, what a different atmosphere we’d have. I, for one, am ready to commit to turning down the volume of my critiques, and persevering in sharing what I have that can give others respite, or hope, or a moment of beauty, no matter how small it may be, instead of wallowing in anyone’s bitterness and despair any longer.
As she so often does, my amazing friend Celi brought up once again the question of what we photograph, and how, and why, and what it can mean when we do so. As an avid, inveterate and truly—in the old sense—amateur photographer myself, this topic remains of great and constant interest. In the present climate of world politics, especially our wildly messy and weird American version of them, we certainly become obsessed with the idea of which of us has a complete grip on The Truth (absolutely nobody, in my opinion) and how we wield it (selfishly and manipulatively, IMO), and whether we’re arguing about what is real in visual or verbal images it pretty much plays out the same. We’re all generally trying to express how we understand the world, and to convince ourselves and others that our understanding is the smartest or best one.
Me, I edit a high proportion of my photos, many of them very heavily—but rarely do I do so to many for outright imaginative purposes. Aside from the (at least) 2/3 to 9/10 percentage I cull before using, what I do keep is for illustrative purposes at least as much as for documentary ones, but my intent with my photos is always to show others how I see the world, not necessarily how the world exists in an empirical sense.
In my opinion, that was always the purpose of photography: even the most rigorous of news and docu- photographers have always only shown us what they choose, and are able, to shoot, and from their perspective. Heck, people were manipulating photographs (early “ghost story” and “fairy” photos, anyone?!) as soon as they could shoot them. Photos are no more concrete proof of Truth than are written or spoken words. Current politics and social interactions merely continue to confirm all of the above.
So last night I was doing my own version of HDR, wherein I meticulously hand-alter (albeit with digital tools) the light/dark contrast in various parts of shots to replicate what my eyes and brain do as I’m seeing the images live, and my live-in art critic commented on my play with the pictures. And then I showed him how, for example, the pictures I took while he was driving here through west-Texas and New Mexico storms this summer are ‘readable’ only after such an edit, and that if his eyes weren’t already making such adjustments on the fly he’d not have been able to see, headlights or not, to drive in such varied light as the storms make.
I know that when I photograph my own environment, I do so with constant awareness of my version of Clutter Blindness, too, which makes me not see or notice things that are constantly in my environment—until I’m recording that environment with my camera. What an amazing tool is the camera! But it’s only a tool, and the images we take with it only the things we’ve chosen to note or share in our own ways. I love seeing the world through others’ photos, artworks, and eyes; my reality is frequently shifted and enhanced by this interchange of ideas and experiences. But I’ll always think it’s best, whether in attempts at documentation and recording real-life happenings and visions or in entirely handmade and invented artworks, to look with my critical thinking and logical skepticism engaged, and know that what I see and what I perceive to be real are all as ephemeral and dodgy as the brain and heart can possibly make them.
During my long unplanned sabbatical just now, I had the privilege of going on a true Spring Break expedition with my spouse and one of my sisters. It was as close to a perfect holiday as any I’ve enjoyed, but there were enough imperfections lurking on the periphery of my consciousness to keep me grounded. Food for thought is everywhere, if I’m willing and able to partake of it. The road trip south from our north-Texas home to Texas hill country provided plenty of highway time to remind me with its proliferation of roadside signs and billboards that everybody has an opinion they would be happy to make me—or dare me not to—share. This, in turn, renewed my awareness of the current Presidential candidates’ campaigning, and in further turns, of how the American penchant for debate and individual thinking has moved further and further toward the hinterlands of sheeple-think, demagoguery, and hate speech. I wanted to think of nothing more serious than wildflower peeping, lounging about, and enjoying the quiet of being a slight distance from the cacophony of daily life at home, but the signs sprouting like weeds threatened at times to choke even the hardiest of wildflowers.
Maybe I was just tired at the beginning of the trip, unwilling to do the work of steering my own thoughts elsewhere.
About the time when I’d determined to put that depressing junk aside, I was reminded by some truly spectacular scenery we happened to find that troubles are everywhere. The three of us are masters at getting fruitfully lost, going off with little plan or direction, only to pass through and end up in really magical spots time and again. A side road that caught my partner’s eye landed us unexpectedly on the banks of the Blanco river in Wimberley, where last year’s flood had smashed through and chewed the valley to kindling, taking homes and lives with it. I was admiring the once-again clear and sweet waters and only diffidently wondering at the odd toothpick-scape on their flanks when it finally dawned on me just where we were.
This is our life on earth, this constant juxtaposition of impression and reality, of the beautiful and the ugly and the beautiful yet again. I thought again of the bullying, anger-fueled tone of the signage and the politics it represented from all sides, and remembered that the present is not really so much worse or better than the past, one point of view not so patently more or less perfect than another, as it is our willingness to look more clearly and carefully and patiently at what is around us and even, if we are truly courageous, to learn from it all and admit to our imperfections both before and after.
Anu Garg, master of that delightful etymological publication empire Wordsmith, has an email-subscription publication called A.Word.A.Day, where I get to learn, along with the multitude of other subscribers and visitors, the origins and meanings of marvelous words and how shape, and are shaped by, our existence. Every AWAD post ends with a Thought for Today, and these are as scintillating and demanding and fulfilling as the rich tillage of the language in each individual word explicated in the posts.
Today, as is often the case, I found the closing quote cause for both self-examination and rumination on the current polarized state of my country. So few on either side of the vast divide defining nearly any aspect of life here can evidently allow that anyone else could possibly have an iota of access to intelligence, let alone truth. And perish the thought that we ourselves could conceivably be wrong! Some days it seems to me that there are no tenable middle points of anything at all anymore, only I’m Good and You’re Evil. It frightens and saddens me more than I can say. But Thomas Szasz seems to have spotted one of the pivotal causes:
Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.
Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (15 Apr 1920-2012)
This is why my heroes tend to be among the perpetually curious, the skeptical, and those who are fearless about questioning anyone’s tastes, hopes, beliefs, and even hard-won knowledge—most especially their own. Those who never hesitate to admit when they are or even might be wrong, to negotiate the murky waters of faith, fear, and certitude to see what is further in the depths regardless of the potential for personal revolution, and who will always challenge any who make fixed claims to examine those under the light of reason, debate, logic, and yes, compassion. Because some things that nearly every living person would agree to be absolutely true are neither fair nor desirable, but ought to be brought into the cold light of day precisely for this purpose: to drive the challenger, and anyone around who dares to agree, toward positive change.
For the highest purpose of all knowledge is not merely self-congratulation, though it may admittedly keep one warm inside; it’s growth that can be shared by any others who will listen and learn as well.
When such central concerns of the communal life as politics, social policy, religion, law, science, health care, ethics, and education have become mere arenas for every hateful phobia or ism to express itself through opinionated pettiness, self-indulgent hissy fits, screeds and screaming matches, name calling and mud-slinging and other misbehavior that would shame anyone under two years of age, I begin to despair of our future. All I can think to do is start the revolution at home, and by doing my own homework. I must try to emulate my heroes better: fearlessly ask questions, practice due diligence to support my claims, and listen calmly to all points of view with the same healthy blend of openness and skepticism. And I’ll leave the mantle of noisy self-righteousness and impossible claims and promises stashed deep in the archives of disproved history where it belongs.
…at least, I generally avoid talking about politics as thoroughly and avidly as possible. But of course, the presidential election coming this fall means we lucky Americans have already been inundated for months with campaign wackiness as candidates pile into and out of their respective parties’—and non-affiliated, independent organizations’, whose candidates are not necessarily immune to the disease either—clown cars.
Apparently when there’s nothing left to say, that’s when I can’t help saying something.
If the prevailing attitude
should still allow me latitude,
I will ignore the platitudes
that beg to disagree,
Since all but mine is foolishness,
the opposition, ghoulishness,
and though it might sound mulish, this
is clearly about Me.
Say what you will, I’ll stay the course,
and only change my route or horse
if made to, for unless perforce,
no reason can I see:
Demand no ideology
of logic, for phrenology,
leavened with some astrology,
is good enough for me.
The running of our nation
is based more on desperation
—and a plague of perturbation—
than on brains;
of our leadership’s a ration
of reminders a vacation
is required, or what remains
Of sane deliberation
and of civil conversation
will go, sans meditation,
And on that note, pretentiously,
and would-be president-iously
as anyone can be,
I remonstrate with all you twits,
vulgarians and feeble-wits,
that, politics or other, it’s
forever about Me.
Maybe it’s the approach of the fourteenth of February that does it, but I seem to hear relationship talk everywhere I go these days. Maybe it’s because the university (where my husband teaches, conducts, and works alongside singers and musicians of every level both as students and fellow College of Music employees) is in the midst of vetting and hiring a wave of new musicians and administrators to fill in the blanks as faculty and staff move to other positions or retire. Maybe it’s simply because I’m always attuned to what works and what doesn’t, as a person whose relationships shape my life in every way. Very nearly all of them for the better, thankfully!
In any event, whether St. Valentine is listening in or not, it strikes me that there are a huge number of three-little-word combinations that make relationships tick. Some, sadly, tick like bombs about to detonate. Those that tick along like a well-oiled machine tend to avoid the trios of words that begin and end with “I” and “you” but have negatives in the middle, even if that’s what the parties are feeling is most realistic at the moment. “I hate you” or any variant thereof has little hope of communicating anything other than that the speaker is not equipped to reason out of a problem, and whether that arises from sheer, stubborn, stupid self-centeredness or from lack of experience and skills, it would be wise for any of us to attempt to learn and use the necessary tools for genuine two-way communication. The risk of not doing so is far higher than the implosion of that one relationship, though surely that alone should be reason enough to try. Every being with whom we share oxygen in our finite little lives has the power to bring richness and beauty to our existence, or to crush our very ability to see and experience such things.
I know that’s a mighty far-reaching claim, but think about it: every successful interaction or failure on your part colors not only your mood of the moment or day but your ability to rise up on the next ready for joy or expecting disaster. You, in turn, reflect this attitude on those others around you, and while that poison or elixir-of-happiness is rippling away from you in concentric, if eccentric, rings, it is passed along in ever-increasing circles that will always find their way back in one sense or another. Some name this Karma, some Luck, some Destiny, and some, The Golden Rule. But if you can’t pull up your socks and look trouble in the eye and take pity on it with a rational yet heartfelt conversation or ten, you’ve not earned your right to complain about it.
Rational yet heartfelt, I say.
It does no one any good to have a weepy, foot-shuffling, embarrassed, or even joyfully conciliatory moment of rapprochement, no matter how deeply felt, if it isn’t given clear thought and the foundation for future prevention of recurrence. It certainly won’t fix any damage to plan it all out and chart the full course of the détente if it’s insincere or only marginally acceptable to one or more parties to the agreement. If your heart’s not in it, take the time to figure out why—preferably together—and fix the underlying problems before settling the current dustup.
An old but tried-and-true way of saying what one can’t seem to convey coherently in the heat of an argument or when just overwhelmed with emotions is to write everything you’re thinking and feeling down, set it aside for a short period (preferably overnight), and come back to review it. Clarify, edit, and make it say as honestly and fully as possible how you’re feeling and why you think that’s so. Consider whether your partner—at work, home, or play—would be able to understand your view of things better if that essay or letter were in front of him or her. Have you presented your thoughts as calmly and factually as possible, no matter how emotional the content? Did you state things with fair ownership, making sure that it’s transparent to anyone that these are your feelings and interpretations of the situation and that you take responsibility for them? Can you speak without assuming that all of the blame lies either outside or inside yourself, but realizing that perhaps both parties might need to concede a little in order to have a meeting of the minds? Do you admit that you might not even meet in the middle all of the time, sometimes needing to be the one who concedes more ground and others, being met more than halfway? Are you obsessed with being right or 100% satisfied, or can you allow that someone else with a wholly different feeling or goal might be equally entitled to those different emotions, tastes, or wishes? If you can add those recognitions to the ‘document’ before you, why not do it.
Then read again. Is this something that, if shared in humility and a genuine desire to find common ground, could become the basis for a kinder, more thoughtful and productive conversation? Maybe you’ll even want to share it with your counterpart, but unless you promise yourself never to do so as an attack on your partner’s integrity, personal sense of worth, and human value, think first about how you’d feel on the receiving end. Isn’t that the point, anyway? To find a way to understand how your relations feel and what you’d want if you were in their shoes? If it isn’t, then I’d venture that it’s not a real relationship but the desire to make someone meet your needs and wishes. A person seen as a toy or tool for your convenience and pleasure is not a relationship, whether it’s pragmatic or romantic to you or, no, you’re actually absolutely lacking in empathy.
You probably wouldn’t even be reading this if that last were true. The only exception I can imagine is if you’re interested in developing empathy, or mimicking it, and frankly, either of those beats going without, in my estimation.
So what is the real goal in relationships? I would say that it’s mutual benefit. What are the possible benefits? Endless. In a work relationship—office, school, community, organization—it’s the ability to be more productive as a result of combining complementary skills and knowledge or merely by virtue of doubling or further increasing the work force. Yet more: it’s also the ability to grow and succeed in the business at hand because the combined companionship and efficiency of a strong, smoothly working team allows more creative and meaningful thinking as well as better energy for the moment.
In friendship and love, I tend to think the goals needn’t be all that different. If romance or lust is the only commonality, for a minuscule few that might be enough, but for most of us it’s a relatively small part of the daily equation. Temperate, even affectionate, converse is a fine place to start and end. If our words are considered for their impact on the recipients, the respect for their beliefs and feelings, needs and wishes, they will not only effect a positive response but can reinforce the alliance and mutual admiration. It doesn’t matter if the language if flowery and poetic, or if the thoughts seem original.
What matters is that you are willing to say, consistently and regularly, some positive form of “I _____ you” to your partner, with modesty, commitment, honesty, patience, and kindness. What does your partner want from you? Most likely, the same basic things you want from your partner: respect, liking, sympathy, empathy, care for one’s well-being. I like you. I admire your intelligence, your beauty inside and out, your accomplishments. I respect your ideas, your hopes and dreams. I am sorry for your sorrows, even the ones that I can’t fathom because they aren’t obviously situational. I recognize that your pain and joy are real, and that I am a part of them. I had my feelings hurt, but I forgive you, and I crave your forgiveness in return when I’ve been thoughtless or foolish, too. I want to protect you from whatever you fear. I hope that you will always be confident in my faith in our partnership and that what I do will show my desire to make your life better. I value your opinion and will ask for it when I’m contemplating a decision. It affects us both! If all of that isn’t crystal-clear, I hope that you will always feel welcome to tell me your needs and desires and to ask me about mine and respond positively to them. I love you.
And whenever you can summon the courage to do so, say it out loud. Trust me, if it’s true it never gets dull. I like you. I love you. I wish you well in all things. I am thankful that you and I are partners in this. Life is good, isn’t it.