Powerless

There are so many ways that we crave and try to wield power, we mortal beings. We think we’re in charge of our own lives, if nothing else. We are wrong.

Our short trip to Portland from Thursday through this morning provided me with a fine refresher course in this form of necessary humility. While our house is in utter disarray during our move to an apartment and our lives in mild chaos during a busy fall season of school, concerts, travel, and conferences, I am about as far from in control of my own little existence as I am from running the world. I did my very worst job of packing, for Portland, that I think I’ve done since somewhere around the age of four. If my parents were dumb enough to let me help pack my luggage then.

So I arrived in Oregon without several of my simplest toiletries, one pair of socks short of the full trip’s worth, and sans laptop power cord. Hence, my first series of several days without daily blog posts in nearly four and a half years. And I must tell you that I was plenty irritated with myself, and mightily disappointed to break the string of consecutive posts so unwittingly, if not witlessly. But you know, the earth did not cease to rotate on its axis. The rain and sun still did their little minuets, people still talked to me as if they genuinely liked doing so, and music still sounded magnificent and more than a little miraculous.

Because it’s not my power cord that connects me to the universe, and it’s most certainly not my power that connects the rest of the universe together. I can’t fix what’s wrong in the world, not by a million miles, but I am not the source of any of its strengths or its life force, let alone its myriad joys. I’m just the lucky participant and recipient, who (when the power is plugged in) gets to report on my view of it all. I’m happy to be back online, but I am reminded that the very best of what I enjoy in my remarkably blessed existence is not born of my own merit or power, and not even remotely connected to whether I’m plugged in or not, figuratively or literally. I’m just plain glad to be here.

Photo: Out of Gas

Yep, I ran out of gas. But I reminded myself, however inadvertently, that it takes letting go of my driven need for power, sometimes, to refuel my spirit.

Braggadocio

Digital illo: Clever Bird!Crowing

Let me never be so craven as to be hubristic, crass,

Boastful as my cousin Raven, who (though he’s a silly ass)

Calls himself the Wise, the Clever, poses as a sage and wit—

I should hope that I would never be so wildly full of it—

All my fellows know my talents and my intellect and skill

Well enough that, on the balance, bragging would be overkill.

I prefer a steady diet of humility and style,

Being modest, cool, and quiet, and yet brilliant all the while.

Nah! Just kidding! I’m as happy as ol’ Raven is to brag;

I’m as boisterous a chappie, yelling out from crag to crag,

Tree to tree, tunnel to tower; I’ll announce my greatness, too;

Any reason, any hour, tell you I’m better than you!

Don’t assume because I’m smaller I’m less dazzling or less proud—

I’ll be glad to give a holler, shout my excellence out loud!

Crashing through the Snow

Few things are as visibly expressive of joy as a dog bounding excitedly through deep snow. Except, possibly, a whole bunch of dogs, plus a whole cadre of little kids, leaping, tunneling, floundering, grinning, and generally exploding their way through the same drifts.
Digital illustration: Snowflake

The problem with being an adult human is that we become so conscious of our creakiness and increasingly inflexible bodies, so obsessed with the dangers of having an infarction while shoveling or being speared in the forehead by a forty-pound icicle from the eaves, so hung up on our supposed decorum and dignity, that we stop risking not only true dangers but the possibility of gleefully tipping arse-over-teakettle into a billowing heap of powdery snow. It’s really too bad, because an occasional tumble from the pedestals we prop ourselves on, a momentary reminder of our own foolish frailty, and a smart whack on the overly fixed sense of reality is well worth a little bruising on ego and elbow. It might just teach us a renewed appreciation for the beauties of snow and nature. Why, if one were to be exceedingly incautious in the event, it might even turn out to be fun.

Fixity

“Why?” is a beautiful question, even though it terrifies most of us. A wise soul once said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but certitude. When we grow too attached to a belief and its perfect correctness, we disallow not only our own reexamination of that belief, which if it’s so perfectly correct should pose no threat to us and if it’s not, should allow us to become wiser and more faithful to our convictions; we also fail to show respect for the belief itself, if we are so fearful of its being exposed as wrong.

Standing fixed in a position of faith is only impressive if that belief can be defended in a calm, intelligent, reasonable conversation with someone who doesn’t yet share the same convictions. A shouting match or the refusal to discuss respectfully is as likely to convince and convert an unbeliever as punching someone in the nose is to prove that you’re smarter than she is if anyone’s questioned it. It’s more useful to ask, whenever any disagreement arises, whether one is genuinely defending one’s belief or just feels personally threatened. Egos so often get in the way of rational, logical conversation when we reflexively mistake the call for proof or persuasion of our beliefs for personal insults. It might be useful to remember that when someone asks for evidence of something we cherish as fact, we could give them the benefit of believing that they really want to know why we accept it as truth. A genuine discussion might actually lead to common ground.

It might also, if we let it, lead to greater insight on our own part. The dispassionate process of a logician is aimed not at debunking everything in sight but stripping away falsehoods and irrelevancies and fallacies to expose the facts in the matter. Truth can withstand all questioning. It trumps politics, rants, bullying, diversionary tactics, disinformation and pure human foolishness, if we dare to examine all of the input carefully and patiently and with respect for those who may have so far missed the mark. A reasoned and quietly stated truth will finally have more power than all of the smoke and mirrors that deniers propagate and cling to, or we will have to admit we’ve lost more than our own convictions.Digital illustration from photos + text: Zoanthrope

Mad Cat, Bad Cat

graphite drawing + digital mattingMurderous Mack

I prowl the alley on dark nights, looking for trouble spots and fights

And hissing, spitting, yowling, loud, my claws and fangs splitting the crowd,

So don’t be fooled if I look fine: wildfire is in my feline line–

My zoot suit is as cool as ice; my blood, though? Hot, not cool; not nice–

I’m fast, I’m fine, the cat that has searchlights for eyes, wild stripes for jazz,

A heart of iron, soul of steel, and toughness that’s dead deep, for real–

I’m fuzzy, but I warn you that I ain’t no prissy pussycat;

I’m lean and mean; I’m slick and sleek. But sweet? I’ll kick you to next week!

Get me riled up, it won’t be pretty–Bad Cat, yeah, but never Kitty–

All the same, at home a tub of cream is nice; a belly rub;

I’m tiger tough, to say the least, but hey! I ain’t no senseless beast–

Don’t cross me, ’cause I’m fierce, although I’m not an animal, you know!digital illustration

Sin Boldly, Fail Dramatically

Anyone who knows much about the instigation of the Protestant Reformation knows that its leadership was not enacted by prim and prissy sorts. Martin Luther, besides being quite the rabble-rouser in the event, loved his beer, offended the all-powerful Church that was his employer and effectively, his owner, and married a rebel nun, with whom he had six children. His being credited with advocating that fallible humans should ‘sin boldly’ rather than live in denial of their mortal failings and inability to produce or buy redemption comes as little surprise in light of this life history. But in all of this there’s also more than a tiny hint of very useful everyday advice as well: thinking ourselves capable of perfection tends to stand in the way of getting anywhere close to it. Making mistakes is the only real way to learn and improve. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it enables us to get closer to our ideal of it and, if we’re really smart and lucky, to change and improve our concepts of perfection.photoOur failures do tend to cling to us. There would be no name for Schadenfreude, not even an inkling of its existence, if it weren’t for our feeling relief in and even reveling in, others’ mistakes and disasters; the more public their occurrence or exposure, the better chance of their (sometimes literally, in this digital age) going viral. But for every ninety-nine spectacular pratfalls, there is one person who, by dint of dusting herself off and jumping up with agile alacrity to redo the test and win the day, makes the fall look like a flashy prelude to a show-stopping grand finale that everyone will envy rather than ridicule. What makes this person enviable is not perfection but the ability to rise up from the ashes with new wisdom and determination, both gained from what was probably a whole series of dazzling falls in the process. Even more desirable is the one who manages to let us all in on the secret, admitting fallibility and mortality from the start and leaving the curtain wide open so that we can revel in the learning process with her before she ever hits the stage, can learn from her mistakes. This is a kind of brilliant generosity I have always admired.photoRisk. Taking risks means you will have bumps and bruises to ego and, possibly also, body. Taking none guarantees you will have a dull life and probably, a colorless soul. Worthwhile risks might conceivably include real danger: one can take chances that cost money, job, power, relationships, physical injury–life. More often, they will cost a measure of pride, and that’s something nearly all of us can afford to lose (and some probably should offload a ton or two of it). A policy I developed for myself when I was in college and such a fearful ninny that I would hardly have survived my undergraduate years let alone moved forward in any other part of life if I hadn’t finally forced it on myself, was to accept that whether I believed it or not in the moment, whatever it was that scared me probably wouldn’t kill me. Sounds silly to all who know how minor were the things that held me in utter terror, but the fear was real even if the danger was not. The adjunct rule I decided to apply to this idea was that if It (the risk of the moment) did kill me, it certainly wouldn’t bother me anymore.photoI may have worded these rules in a slightly tongue-in-cheek mode, but I conceived of them as an actual, practical reassurance that anything life hands to me I ought to be able to handle sufficiently. And that hey, if I don’t end up managing quite that well every time, I’ll make some meaningfully big mistakes, learn from them, and do better the next time. I’ve learned that I can’t be humiliated unless I allow myself to be–in truth, it’s strictly an internal experience when you really boil it down, and there’s nothing that says anyone or anything can force me to feel mortified if I refuse to do so. If I make enough mistakes along the way, I’ll get better and smarter to the degree that I’m unlikely to deserve anyone trying to humiliate me anyhow. Being wrong doesn’t necessarily mean burning because I’m flushed with embarrassment, let alone guaranteed burning in Hell; letting it get to me and not taking the opportunity for growth from it is the true error.

Cat, Mouse and Everyday Danger

That little old four-letter word Work has challenged the finest among us to test the limits of endurance, wisdom, hope and courage for as long as there’s been such a thing as a job on this planet. We agonize and weep over our work as though doing unspeakable heroics every single minute, even when we know perfectly well that every living thing has faced challenges of his, her or its own since the first moment there were, well, living things. It didn’t take employers and employees to bring this tension to full expression. If I think I’m sitting on a powder-keg just because I’ve tackled something that pushes me to my limits (or, to be more precise, because it has tackled me), it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and remember my compatriots of every sort striving and struggling and facing greater odds than I have ever faced, accepting them as the inevitable price of existence.graphite drawingNot that any of this contemplation has the remotest chance of making me stop thinking myself both the greatest martyr and the finest superhero at work on the planet. I only get the smallest momentary glimpses of sanity through the veneer of my regular distorted self-image as the silly person I am, after all. Even though I know that in my own version of ‘cat and mouse’ the tiniest mouse could best me in the flick of a whisker.