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.
Call Me Forth
The invocation begins
as the faintest whispering, barely a
decibel above the ticking of air in
poplar leaves yet unseen in the
indigo-tinged predawn dark.
From a place deeper than imagination,
deeper than dreams, than death,
the call begins to breathe and ascends,
invisible, a wisp of incense made
of the most gracious resins, of
cedar and pine and fir.
That fissure between absolute nothingness
and the invention of life
appears: the horizon.
And lofting on the breath of this
most delicate solemnity, the sky
opens the heavy shade of night, lifts
the lid to open up the eye of day.
I am summoned. At the call, I must
respond; I shall fly upward, will arise.
Though I am the roughest raven of
the night, I stretch my iridescent wings
and sing like the lark of morning.
With loving best wishes to Tore, who remains one of the best things that ever happened on the eleventh of September.
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.
You have probably noticed, as I have, that western fiction containing aliens often plays with the old “We come in peace” subterfuge. False because, of course, we all know from the beginning that the invaders will be horrible, nasty, creatures bent on enslaving (and/or eating, interior decorating with, organ harvesting from, farming for pelts, eradicating, experimenting upon) the human species. Aliens bad; earthlings good. It’s simple and obvious.
Except for that little part where we also all know from the beginning that humans are flawed, damaged, and often horrible and nasty, even to each other. There’s a little earworm that plays a constant repeating loop of the first line of that song ‘I Fall to Pieces’ with a cheerily cruel ironic tone when I think about how people tend to interact with each other, especially when we become obsessed with our differences and forget we’re related.
I’m more than a little suspicious that if aliens ever do show up openly on our planetary doorstep, we’ll be far too busy tripping over ourselves and each other, and mucking up our own existence, to be bothered with figuring out whether the extraterrestrials are in fact here to harm or help us. Might as well be the latter, or they’re better off sitting back on their alien haunches with snacks and watching from the comfort of their spaceship windows while we bicker like fools and self-destruct without any help from them. I, of course, will be hiding in a closet with my wallet and most prized electronics clutched to my chest to protect them through the invasion for use in my privileged position after the overthrow of the world rightfully makes me the aliens’ designated deity.
I have never lived for any great length of time without wondering what would happen the next year, the next day, or the next hour in my life. It’s a deeply inherent part of my existence, and I suspect, of most other people’s as well. But I’m experienced and grown-up enough by now to recognize that I should jolly well limit my mulling over that mystery enough to spend the majority of my energies on getting the most out of the present—and putting the most that I can into it.
Call it whatever you please, devotion to making myself better in the here and now seems to me far more useful, meaningful, and simply enjoyable than mooning and swooning over what might be, may be, could be, or should be. I try, and I hope to try better. I mean to try better.
But really—what is coming? I can’t quite let that alone, either. Too tantalizing….
Meanwhile, in the here and now, I am tremendously grateful for many wonderful things. I am rich with love and friendship, with food and shelter and opportunity. And I have one of the greatest treasures of all, the knowledge and experience of peace. It may be a slightly rare commodity in the unknown, unplanned chaos of everyday life, never mind in the wider world’s daily struggles. But I have known peace and am gifted with times of deep and comforting peace through those riches I have just enumerated for you. And through no deserts of mine—I am glad beyond imagining that whatever lies ahead, I expect to keep looking for, and finding, Peace.
When things get crazy, it’s time to stop. I’ve said it many times before, and I will surely have endless occasions to say it again, but more important is that I do it.
Being immobilized by the lack of internet access for a while is perhaps a good start, but given the current schedule of overlapping work, travel, home relocation tasks, and a fair number of surprise interjections, I know that I will need to take every little momentary jot of rest and refreshment I can get. It’s 10:30 p.m. and I’ve just sat down after the evening’s part of the work that started in earnest about 12 hours ago. I know that there will be longer days ahead, many of them. I know that other people do intensely hard work for much longer days on a regular basis, and for less reward. And I also know my own limits.
My brain is abuzz, my muscles flagging, and most of all, I am reduced to a fuzzy and quite unfocused state that prevents much more productive work before bedtime. Since there’s an appraiser coming to inspect the house at 8 tomorrow morning (and you all know full well that I am among the least morning-friendly of creatures), I know it’s time to accept the state of the house as tidy and dolled up enough for his or her inspection—or else. Can’t make Neuschwanstein out of El Rancho Ordinario, nor should I. False advertising aside, it’s not the right character for a simple and happy family home. (Ask Mad Ludwig’s ghost, if you like.) So I’ll get up in the morning, however reluctantly, and get out of the inspector’s way, believing I’ve done as much as I can and should, and I’ll let the results of the day’s efforts speak for themselves. And then come back and undo all of them for the next inspection, the arrival of the estate sale manager at 10 a.m.
But right now, I am preparing my mind and body for as restful a night as I can conjure, and it begins, yes, ironically enough, it starts with stopping. Letting go of all the undone, poorly done, or yet-to-be-done stuff and silencing my mind. Letting myself drift toward peace and calm as though I’d dived into deep, clear, soothing seas and the water buoys me and shuts out the visual and voluble wildness of the day just past and those yet to come. I’ll sing myself to sleep with a little whale song, perhaps, but mostly, I will gladly let go of the need to rant and pant and wrestle, and I will return to life as refreshed as if I had a good long soar through the depths, if I can manage it, because that will make the next day’s work survivable in so many more ways.
For those of you who would like to Tune In suitably, the concert that was being prepared when I wrote today’s post will be performed tonight by the University of North Texas A Cappella Choir, conducted by my esteemed spouse Richard Sparks. Click on this link, and it’ll take you to the live-streamed concert at 8 pm Central Standard Time. Or, if you can, come on over to UNT’s Murchison Performing Arts Center and enjoy the concert (with me and a host of other fans) in the lovely Winspear hall.
I am listening to a superb vocal sextet as the singers demonstrate the purity of tone and the achingly clear, clean dissonances and harmonies that their conductor has just been coaching the listening university choir to attempt. When they two sets of singers all join forces and achieve this without putting undue stress on their breathing and without letting anyone’s vibrato widen far enough to fall off its assigned note, the whole room, no matter how large or small, dry or reverberant, empty or crowded, becomes electric. The power of even the faintest pianissimo, when perfectly tuned to the chord of the moment, scintillates in such perfect proportion, one note to another, that involuntary shivers of pleasure run up and down my spine.
The conductor admonishes the singers to embrace the more tender expressive qualities of the passage they’re singing; instead of attack-and-cutoff beginnings and endings to notes and phrases, they attempt to let the notes open and close naturally with the breath. Attack becomes the almost imperceptible awakening sensation of even, steady onset, and cutoff loses its hard artifice in favor of the easeful grace of release. I think that this, too, makes a fine representation of what it should be to live in tune with my fellow beings, to breathe in consonance with them whether we are making pretty and perhaps predictably agreeable chords or exact and shivering dissonances.
This is the gorgeous, staggeringly intense experience of listening to genuinely sensitive music-making, of powerfully accurate tuning. A wonderfully skilled musician will no doubt say that the experience is even deeper for the singers themselves, as the physical sensation can only be intensified when one is physically part of the sounding instrument in this fundamental way. But I have been in those rooms, at times, where the perfectly timed phrasing of notes and passages and the confluence of vibrations are so perfectly aligned that I feel I am no longer a solid object, distinct from all other things, but have become an integrated element of the glittering cosmos. This, I think, is what it means to gain true harmony.
A lake as cool as fishes’ silver flanks
and ruffled less by wind than lily leaves,
where children roll their pant legs up, and sleeves,
to shepherd pollywogs along the banks,
Right where the river empties in its pool,
sending out eddies limned in leafy green
and damselflies all hover on the scene
as shadow changes sun to shady, cool,
Pale reminiscent ghosts of yesterdays
that elders at their picnics on the shore
remember by their scent, if little more,
and are transported thus into a haze,
For idling lakeside, childlike, it seems,