Peace be with us all

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’.

Photo: Peaceful Stockholm

Stockholm on a more peaceful day.

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.

Tenderheartedness isn’t for Softies

It takes strength to maintain the goodwill and generosity that creates true bonds between people—individually and corporately. But through that steadfastness is the best path to peace and wholeness, a consummation devoutly to be wished.Digital illustration: Constellation

River of Stars

A river made of silver stars with sapphire deeps below,

The sweet compassion of the heart is ceaseless in its flow—

A font of healing, kindness, care; a waterfall of grace;

A draught to slake the deepest thirst; and with it, keeping pace,

Persistent hope, watered withal, along its banks to grow,

To bloom as peace, compassion’s flow’r, where starry rivers flow.

The Effects of Gravity

It’s wonderfully simple. Physics. Science. Gravity pulls us down. It’s a force that draws everything to it. Living creatures, all of us on the planet, are pulled toward the dense center of the earth just as we go along through our lives toward the time when we will reach the end, die, and be buried in the earth, drawn at last more fully toward its heart.

But along the way, it’s possible to pull against gravity, too. What happens if we choose to resist for a bit in life? How high can we rise? Any one of us rises to our highest point of all, I’ll be bound, when we choose to raise up someone else. It’s in elevating others that we ourselves are best elevated.Digital illustration: Against Gravity

Empathy over Courage

Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.

What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.

But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.Graphite drawing: Reach Down to Raise Up

Contagion vs. Compassion

“One bad apple spoils the lot.” That creaky aphorism is based on equally venerable experience. Rot is contagious.

Bad company makes bad behavior seem the norm, and we adjust our own standards ever lower accordingly. One or two disheveled houses bring down the values of the others in the neighborhood, and those, in turn, fall into neglect and decay as their owners lose the courage and determination to resist the incredible pull of entropy. What isn’t growth is death.

What leads otherwise good and sane people to fall apart like that? Doubt; fear; despair. These are the hallmarks of contagion: the plague succeeds in felling us not only through its own virulence but because rather than seek its cure with full courage and determination we flee with it hot pursuit, and when it eventually catches up with us, we topple, curl up in the fetal position, and succumb.

The fall of one member of the world community—like Mr. Duncan, who was felled by Ebola in Texas—is a very real and terrible loss for all. The loss of thousands—those dying in West Africa—is indeed a plague and a thousand-fold grief we all must recognize and bear. The response, though, cannot be equally contagious doubt, fear, and despair. That can only make us choose unconstructive, even destructive, responses like blame, xenophobia, retreat, and the neglect of our fellow citizens of the earth. Then, no matter how many or few have been overtaken by disease and disaster, the contagion will have won.Photo: Snakebit

Be that Light

Photo montage + text: Mirror for Contemplating Possibility

Photo + text: Toward Light

Photo + text: Solrosbarna

Photo montage + text: Solrosbarna 2: Greatest Gift

Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower