Now, Let’s Sit & Talk about This for a Moment

Photo: Long Road 1After 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).Photo: Long Road 2

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.Photo: Long Road 3

Newness Absolute

Digital illo: CreatingCreating

Atom by atom and cell by cell,

The seconds tick and the hours tell

And up from nothingness and void,

Growing, expanding, and overjoyed,

What was mere darkness, lonely, grim,

Swells from the silence as a hymn;

Out of all absence, beauty came—

Because deep love had called its name.

In a Perfect World

Photo: In a Perfect WorldIf the universe were flawless, life within it ideal, and I supernally fine, I would arrange so that my dear, darling spouse could have the most beautifully untroubled and magically rich existence in history. When he woke up every morning, angels would fan him with their wings while serving him pizza and ice cream to his heart’s content and he’d never get uncomfortably sugar high no matter how many slices or scoops he ate. He would be wafted from rehearsing one unnaturally skilled and committed choir to another, each accompanied by the finest instrumental resources available anywhere, all the while enjoying the acoustic majesty of whatever stupendous space he desired at the moment. He would flit effortlessly to every city, country, and continent next on his wish list to make music or just to wander and rejoice in the culture and landscape, the people and history and endless other gifts of each dreamy locale, until he longed to be whisked to the next. He’d have a glorious day hike on Mt. Rainier any day he wanted, no matter where he was for the rest of the day.

And all of this would find him accompanied by me—but the fabulous, unimaginably sweet and brilliant and supremely good-humored version of me. Probably nicer to everybody than I have ever been, but especially to my husband. I might even be a good enough singer to qualify for one of his incredible choirs. If we wished. In a perfect world.

Especially today, it’d be nice to think he could exist in this perfect world. It’s his birthday, and I wish him every good thing on every day, with a plus-plus-plus-sized wishing on his birthdays. Sadly, no luck on that front. He woke up to the gentle breeze of my snoring, no angel wings. No sugary treats—homemade chili for dinner. Well, okay, a bit of chocolate for dessert. The choirs and ethereal travel…all of the other infinitely sweet wonders I wish were mine to offer him in vast quantities for every day of his long and deliriously happy life…only a dream, in this imperfect world.

But the love we share makes my world a greater joy, and I’m here to say that I hope that I can get better with each passing year at returning the favor. If all the perfection I can offer my beloved is to love him as best I can for as long as I live, then that’s what I’ll wrap up in silken tissue and a bow for now. He’s pretty tolerant of imperfection, I find, and that’s perfect for me. Happy birthday, my love.

Rough & Ready

Photo: Rough & Ready 1

Feeling ragged as an old mop lately? I rely on my cadre of kindly supporters to help me untangle my life.

If you’ve been reading the posts hereabouts in the last few days, you know I am no tough customer. I quailed as much at the thought of waking my poor sleepy spouse up in the middle of the night as at having him take me to the emergency room, let alone facing the fear of the unknown pain in my guts. And that was all for what might be the least horrific attack from a kidney stone in history, for all I know. Certainly I am as stunned (albeit happily so) as the follow-up caller from the surgical center when I say that I haven’t taken so much as an over-the counter mild painkiller since emerging from the happy haze of anesthesia yesterday afternoon.

The mountains of incredibly, indelibly kind and compassionate notes and calls I’ve received since airing my tiny miseries to you all are a true embarrassment of riches. I am grateful beyond your imaginings for the uplifting warmth and steadiness of your collective response to my discomfort and fears, and I treasure that surrounding goodness more than I can ever adequately say. But I feel more than a little sheepish, too, for being such a baby when I know that many, many who have offered such sweet and patient care and thoughtfulness to me in my weakness have also suffered far worse pain, deeper trials, and greater danger than anything I’ve faced in my whole charmed existence.

I look around me at the heroics of the people I love and admire, the friends, neighbors, and  companions who go about your business in the guise of ordinary mortality and hiding your bravery and strength behind the rugged facades of everyday occurrence, and I am slightly abashed. Slightly abashed, and very moved. You lay down your work and take time out of your already busy days to send off a word of comfort, an ethereal hug, a generous thought in my direction, and suddenly I feel myself filling with strengths and hopes that were not my own to begin with, and I am touched to the core with joy at my wealth and good fortune.

I am not nearly bold enough to manage the easiest of lives without endless help. You, who are so much more rough and ready in spirit, are always there to offer it to me. I thank you.

Photo: Rough & Ready 2

Whenever I feel like I’ve been tied to the railroad tracks, my friends come riding in to save the day.

Short & Sweet

Digital illo from photos: Dark Waters

Waves of sorrow will pass soon enough…

The interlude between uneasy emergency-room visiting and the expected, probably not too fun, Expulsion of a certain little hunk of rock from the Paradise of my innards is a brief one, but it’s amazing how lovely it is to feel pretty good in between times. The stone has kindly opted to not move during this intervening couple of days, and I am grateful! It meant, among other things, that I felt well enough to deal with a heap of post-hospital laundry, tidying up the general wreckage of a house neither of us has been free to visit much in the last week, and just admiring how lovely it is to have an ordinary day. I fully intend to be a poster child for pain-free, speedy resolution to kidney stone fun, but I have to be fair and say that I’ve already had about the shortest and easiest passage through this little form of bedevilment anybody could have. And I am cognizant, more than ever, of how incredibly fortunate I am not to face the chronic or the deepest forms of pain.

Remind me of that when I’m whingeing about my suffering later. Because, being human, and being a pretty unspectacular specimen of the species as it is, I will. I apologize in advance. But I really, truly, and with all of my heart thank everyone who has been so stupendously kind and supportive when I do get all misty-eyed over my supposed sorrows and tribulations, because it’s you who make any and all of it bearable. And keep it, despite my foolish self-centeredness, in perspective.

Joy for the day!

Digital illo from photos: Time to Make Waves

Let the happiness and love wash over us all!

Great Things are Meant to Last

It’s almost midnight here, but there are a couple of hours left of Mom and Dad’s 59th anniversary back in western Washington state, where they began, and still practice, the fine art of marriage. So before I tuck myself into bed, and because I couldn’t reach them in person to say so the first three times I called, I will take this opportunity to thank them for having had the excellent taste in partners that put them together in the first place, the temerity or mild insanity—or both—to have us kids and keep us, and the strength of will and love and hope to stick together for all of these amazing years. Blessings to you, Mom and Dad, and may whatever comes only strengthen your joy in each other.Photo: Mountaintop Experience

Documented/Undocumented

I’ve been thinking more, lately, about history. About cosmic and cultural, political and personal history. About the way that people do and don’t keep records of any kind of history, how each documentarian shapes the way things are remembered or forgotten, and how each person on the receiving end of the documentation shapes it all further, given the multitudinous filters of experience, intelligence, and personality each brings to the process. School learning, book learning, deep research, and autodidactic learning all depend upon the vicissitudes of human understanding and communication. And a whole lot, also, on luck and succeeding history, since all of the learning can be lost or found many times over the decades and centuries.
Machinist's School Certificate

My family recently unearthed the above little slip of paper that marked my maternal grandfather’s completion of his first machinist training. Gramps had immigrated to the States some years earlier in search of work, and had kept busy and alive in the piecemeal way that [willing, as opposed to indentured or enslaved] immigrants have done since time immemorial, bunking in cheap rented quarters with other young immigrant men, laboring long hours for little pay, and playing greenhorn pranks on each other in the few hours outside of work when they weren’t downing a hasty bite of food or sleeping exhaustedly. His machinist training eventually led to his working at General Motors for quite a long time, even serving on the team that built the first Duck prototypes for the army. And then his life took various turns, over the years, and I grew up knowing him as a skillful carpenter and homebuilder and the hobby-farmer tending beautiful produce gardens and a handful of Cheviot sheep.

But of course I knew very little of his life story. I did have the privilege of sitting and quizzing my grandpa over dinner more often than most, since I rented a bedroom from him and Granny for the three years I worked near their home in between my undergraduate and grad studies. So I heard some of the tales, like the one about his flatmates sending each newest member of the household to town to buy “ten cents worth of Piggly Wigglies,” a silly quest after a mythical grail that afforded the rest the cheap entertainment of watching from afar as their victim tried in his broken English to persuade shopkeepers to hand over something that didn’t exist even if his speech could be deciphered, and the store owners eventually sending the series of foreign-born youths off, each now smarting with the same outsider embarrassment they’d all experienced in their early days in the US. I heard, too, of that uncle of my grandpa’s who had tried to dissuade him from going to America, and if he did, to at least be as wary and canny as possible because “those Americans will sue you for anything.” This was, mind you, not in the modern day that we generally agree is such a ridiculously litigious one, but in 1929 or so. (Apparently some things haven’t changed very radically in this country.) Still, I know only scraps of Grandpa’s whole biography.

I can at least say with conviction that I come by my stubbornness honestly. Despite the family pleas and warnings, Elias Omli sailed willfully ahead, and lived most of the rest of his life in the US of A. In those early times, he must have struggled immensely, yet found fulfillment enough in the life he forged for himself and later, his family, that despite his longing for the old country and one brief but unsuccessful attempt to reintegrate with the family in Norway when my mother was very small, he lived and died an American. Between those atoms of information he shared with any of us his descendants about his childhood and youth in Norway and the rest of his existence in the US, there was a whole, complicated, adventure-filled, and ordinarily colorful life, very little of which anyone really knows, or could know.

That is how we all exist. Even the most documented, celebrated, and historically dissected characters and the events in which they take part in life or death cannot be fully known, let alone understood, by anyone but themselves. If I’m any example, I suspect even such self-knowledge is pretty shallow in the long run. Having written and shared over 1500 posts here in Bloglandia, where I immigrated from the semi-real-world over 4 years ago now, I may in some ways be better documented than a few other people, should anyone care to sift through all of my imagery and verbiage at any point, but even in this, I share what I choose to share, and only my point of view on it all is represented, so that skew is also bound to be imperfect, if not a little disingenuous.

(I’ll at least aver that the stuff I tag as Fiction is really fictional, and leave determining the rest of it up to readers, who will of course interpret it at will anyhow.)
Island Log Book

Gramps’s story was unique, but not dissimilar from many others’ in history, whether they decamped to new homes and lives from their birthplaces or not, whether they had vocations that called them at an early age and flourished throughout their days or they followed more unpredictable routes. The fate of an individual is inevitably affected not only by his own choices and acts but by the natural and national events and changes that fall in his life’s path. The person who penned the Swedish grocery and supply list above, many years ago, did so as the manager of a remote coastal household for not only the family but probably also a handful of townsfolk who shared the responsibility for overseeing the safe arrival of boats and their occupants on that forbiddingly rocky shore. What this little slip of paper denotes is a glimpse into the everyday life of not just the one person who wrote it but of a small group of people whose names are no longer known and whose life stories probably exist, if at all, only in the bloodstreams of distant great-grandchildren, yet the quaint harbor town they once labored to keep in existence all those decades ago is today a thriving and colorful, lively place. New stories are born there all of the time, and I can attest that the dry goods and groceries now available there are, respectively, more plentiful than and as delicious as ever.

Individuals, communities and cultures all have their times of trial and those of triumph, some noticeably more of one than the other.
Digital illo from photos: Houses of Sorrow

A recent reminder of that came into my view when my spouse and I spent a few days in Halifax. It is as beautiful a part of the continent as I’d always imagined, and yet like the rugged coast of that Swedish island it certainly presents difficulties to the ships that approach it today, and all the more must have challenged the lives, safety, and ingenuity of all comers in days long gone. I loved exploring as a tourist and seeing, especially, the natural beauties of the area with all of its geographical wonders, sea-borne marvels, and magnificent greenery, and also the wide variety of architectural styles that hint at the multicultural roots of the region. Not surprising that the shores are dotted with lighthouses large and small, as well as the houses of those who tended them.

When at the waterfront of the city proper, I admired the old lighthouse and the humble buildings near it on the island most visible from the piers. For a lighthouse location, which is by nature placed in a potentially volatile coastal setting, it looks sweetly bucolic, ideal, and peaceful. Indeed, it is nowadays a quiet and pretty place, a heritage site in mid-restoration for its intended future as an historical park. But that heritage is far from peaceful, let alone ideal; like many other islands in such prominent coastal positions, it has a long and storied past as a fort, a military encampment and, even darker, as a prison and internment camp.

Some of those imprisoned on that place now known as Georges Island, Nova Scotia, were among the estimated 1660 prisoners out of 11,500 local Acadians expelled from their homes and lands en masse by British forces during the 18th century imperialist battles between English and French forces over New World territories. Three quarters of the entire Acadian population were deported in those times and thousands died in raids, counterattacks, and battles; others died under torture, of drowning on the deportment ships, of disease, or of starvation. And Acadians were far from alone in being imprisoned or worse on that pretty-looking little island.

Their own comrades, the Mi’kmaq (and other aboriginal Atlantic inhabitants), with whom Acadians on their arrival as French colonists are said to have lived quite equably, suffered on the island along with numerous captured French sailors and soldiers and any number of other “enemies” of the British rule. Something far less benign than a lovely coastal outpost of protective presence came to exist on this sorrowful promontory at the edge of the proto-Canadian world.

Can I look at this island in ignorant imagination anymore as a picture of vintage calm? Of course not. But I can also guess that there are very few acres of earth anywhere that are not stained with ancient cruelty and the blood of untimely deaths, whether of the innocent or not. It’s easy to sit in judgement from my place of comfort and call the expulsion of the Acadians an attempt at genocide or ethnic cleansing. Certainly, records and recollections of the historians present offer ample reasons that I should think there were all kinds of wicked intentions at play, from land greed to hatred of unknown races, from religious and political imperialism to maneuvering for resources. There were clearly personal elements involved, and as in all wars, military actions that turned into personal vendettas, fights over disputed borders into plundering and petty theft. Just as, undoubtedly, the aboriginal Atlantic peoples must have initially feared, and perhaps fought, the Acadians, and the French and British spent great resources and innumerable lives on their distrust and fear of each other and of the inhabitants of their intended expansion zones.

But earlier centuries’ worldview was also vastly different from today’s, all around the globe. Today, we have knowledge of a much larger and more developed world, of the richness of other cultures, even of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, and we have no excuses for not trying in every imaginable way to resolve differences without being exclusionary or  violent. But past times and people didn’t all have the advantage of our expanded view. Every cultural center or nation of significant size in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has had its powers, each of them assuming a natural, if not divine, right of rule over all that they had not yet explored, by dint of their own isolated mastery. It’s not just that leaders, explorers, and conquerors themselves have seen it as their right, and often as benevolent duty, to claim ascendancy over whatever and (assuming they’ve managed to recognize indigenous residents as people) whomever they encounter, and to rule as they see fit. Those who write down history, or tell its tales, also continue to believe or disbelieve in ways that are unique to them, and the biases that sneak into our views are inextricably mixed into how we, and future generations, think about history.

What can I take away from these musings? Only the usual self-admonition that I look beyond what is visible. That I question and try to learn further, and not rush so quickly to the judgement that comes oh-so-naturally to me. That I ponder whether any slight thing that I do or say myself can perhaps help others, individually or globally, to remember the lessons of history, both bad and good, and to move forward away from our worst selves. We may remain undocumented in these attempts, as in so many other aspects of being small mortal beings, but I think that existence itself bears the marks of our passing as a document that will spell out the difference between annihilation and rehabilitation of our world.