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I Still Believe…..

December 14, 2012 1 comment

sure11-e1263490212475Dear Santa….

I’ve been contemplating this “naughty and nice” thing. The truth is, I’ve been both.

The difference this year is that I’ve been catching myself in the act and when I do, I ask myself, “Is this what Santa would want me to do?”

This year I noticed that there are times when my socks are so dirty that I think you might have put coal in them but then I get real and take care of what’s actually making them dirty by washing the kitchen floor.

See, changing how we behave is not a huge thing. It’s a bunch of silly things that we keep overlooking. Washing the kitchen floor isn’t a big moral issue. It’s an act of love for the others around us whose socks will also get dirty and then there’s a whole family with dirty socks.

Turns out I do still believe in you, at least the part that sees me when I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, but especially when I’m awake when I should be asleep. Those are the times when I contemplate how I could be more like you, at least in spirit and not in judgment (I try to avoid milk and cookies these days but it’s okay if other people eat them). How I act is not always a reflection of who I am and I’m trying to bring those things into line a little better.

So, I think I’ve figured you out. If we want to know if Santa’s happy, look at our family’s socks, right?

Thanks for your help, Santa. I think I’ve got it from here.

Love, Ellen

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Will Social Media Cause The Next World War?

October 1, 2012 2 comments

Or are we already fighting it and don’t even realize it?

After four years as a Facebook junkie, I’m moving into an introspective period about its value and how it has changed me and those in my life.

When I first joined, it was an oasis. Introvert that I am, I am not energized by physical interaction with people. I find conversation difficult because my head is always moving faster than the conversation and I have a hard time listening, which sort of defeats the purpose of verbal discourse. I often want to rewind the discussion to go back to an interesting point but by then we’ve moved on to talking about flowers and birds and cupcake recipes. Facebook allows me and others to address something that was said earlier so we can expand on it. This is like candy for me!

But on the shadow side, Facebook is a place for us to dispel our aggression on each other. As hard as we try to explain ourselves in civil terms, there is always someone (sometimes it’s me) who can’t stop their own train of thought long enough to hear what is really being said. Feelings get hurt, misunderstandings occur, and prejudices are inflamed; all the ingredients for a good feud.

Four years has allowed me to follow the arcs of growth for a number of people. Some who have been too shy to speak up in real life have found a forum for expression here and we have tapped into absolute gold mines of thought; the meek have inherited a whole new world. By the same token, those who have typically experienced great power in the physical realm have stumbled on an army of bully victims who now have at least a virtual shield against their wrath. No longer is the power one-sided. People across the globe are standing up and being heard and it is catching the bullies off guard.

What I have yet to get used to, though, is having to “listen” to the voices of the formerly powerful as they pull out their back-up arsenals of vitriol in an effort to regain their authority. The Bible gets tossed around like a hot potato and pictures of guns make a vain attempt to impersonate the real thing. Caustic humor is rampant as we try to impress our friends with our cleverness and end up stabbing others in the heart.

So my question is, will social media cause us to sharpen our blades or will it encourage us to lay down our weapons? Will those whose inclination it is to divide and conquer continue to feel further empowered by this anonymity or will they be healed by gentle encouragement to examine their thinking? Will we accept the responsibility not to just spew rhetoric and attempt to educate ourselves about what is true on a deeper level?

Bottom line, we know more about each other now than many of us ever wanted to. We’ve gone deeper and seen into the souls of people we thought we knew and in most cases found that we didn’t really know them at all, for better or worse.

Will social media cause, or will we use it to prevent, the next world war?

When Lightning Fails to Strike

January 26, 2012 3 comments

A few times a week I spend about a half hour with a friend from my neighborhood.

Our relationship has been forged by a circumstance relating to her eyesight that requires me to help her out by giving her a ride to take her daughter to school. My friend’s field of vision is narrowing, sort of the reverse of macular degeneration, so her peripheral vision is slowly closing in and will eventually leave her blind. Fortunately, the rate of loss has been slower than initially expected but still leaves her unable to drive.

During these quick jaunts that make my aging car feel useful we manage to have some pretty deep philosophical discussions. She and I are about the same age, are living in similar circumstances, and have many of the same fears and worries.

What we’ve come to discover is that we are both waiting for lightning to strike, for that jolt that lights up our understanding of what we are supposed to do with our lives.

But life doesn’t work that way, does it?

From what I’ve experienced (and often choose to ignore) is that life is a constant flow of tiny sparks rather than grand flashes. In our every action is a barely discernible pinprick that gooses us a little, like sitting down on one of those electrified mats that keep pets off your couch. They’re not strong enough to cause pain, but they are definitely uncomfortable, forcing us to change our position out of avoidance.

Maybe that’s our problem. We’re only uncomfortable enough to seek to make ourselves less uncomfortable. We’re slightly frustrated by our lack of initiative but not outright pissed off. We turn up the car radio louder so we don’t hear that clunking sound in the engine that warns us that our world may soon be screeching to a halt.

But we keep on rolling, ignoring the signs. We rely on what we know about ourselves to keep us going. We are educated, aware, and know what we are capable of. My friend has an MSW degree and once worked with cancer patients, possibly one of the most difficult jobs a social worker can do. She is extremely capable but under-confident, having begun her career when she was too young to be fueled by wisdom. And then her vision began to close in.

When she started a family, her life as a stay-at-home mom accommodated her vision loss. I chose work that is satisfying but leaves me fairly isolated. We have both spent many years away from the outer stimulation that reminds us of where we fit in a world that seems to grow ever larger and more complex. The spark plug wires that used to connect our inspiration to our deeds are corroded and we’ve come to crave the force of lightning because we’ve lost connection to the steady current that used to keep us moving. Everybody else seems to have a newfangled computer-controlled engine now. Heck, my car still has a cassette-tape player.

So maybe ignition of our inspiration is not the problem at all. More likely, we’re afraid that we’ve been sitting in one place to long and don’t believe the fuel in our old tanks is any good or trust that the old car is up for the trip so we don’t dare leave the driveways of our minds lest we break down in the middle of our journey.

The smart thing to do would be to hook up a trickle charger and slowly let our batteries revive, change the oil and put in a new fuel filter, some fresh gas, and trust that the frame of the old car is still sturdy enough to carry us where we need to go. We could try jump-starting the system with huge shocks all we want, but with faulty wiring and sludgy internal combustion, no amount of lightning force can do anything but fry the battery. At our age, we need a gentler approach.

Ironically, maybe it’s the humility of age, wisdom, a little rust, and a narrowing field of vision that are exactly what we need to fix the problem and focus on the rest of the journey.

But a new car couldn’t hurt either….;)

Grace and the Art of Not Setting Goals

January 6, 2012 1 comment

I used to think there was something wrong with me.

I was, and still am, constitutionally incapable of setting a goal. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

So I felt bad about myself.

A lot.

All the time.

I would get so anxious knowing that even if I did set a goal, I would not achieve it, yet the world kept pushing me to “make a plan!”

As I look around me these days, I’m learning that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. The “plans” that people made for themselves seem to be falling apart. They thought that if they saved enough, invested enough, played by the rules enough, they could earn the grace they prayed for.

But grace doesn’t work that way.

OK, so I don’t know exactly HOW grace works, but I don’t think it’s something you are worthy of or not. It just IS.

Maybe it is grace that kept me healthy when I didn’t have insurance, or sustained me when I needed a job, or allows me to spend a peaceful half hour in the morning therapeutically massaging my aging dog, watching the sun rise on another day in our life together, not knowing if it will be our last but allowing us the peace to just enjoy the moment either way.

In the cacophony of our modern world when everyone wants to tell everyone else how to achieve their wildest dreams, I realize that my wildest dream is the one I wake up to every morning when I open my eyes and catch the jet stream that carries me up and away, like a starling in a murmuration….

No goals, no worries…. just flying….

Becoming…. The Chaos of Taking Flight

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie

November 16, 2011 3 comments

If we let sleeping dogs lie, should we expect them to tell the truth when they wake up?

I’m feeling grammatically cheeky this morning, but this idea actually encapsulates what I’ve been thinking about lately. I am neither a historian nor a social scientist so I won’t even attempt to inject anything but my own observations into this, but it seems like a pattern is emerging.

Three things caught my eye on Facebook this morning. One read:

Everybody!!!!!!!, let’s do this. We should flood Facebook with this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands: one nation under GOD, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”. RE-POST IF YOU THINK GOD, OUR COUNTRY, OUR FLAG, AND OUR MILITARY DESERVE RESPECT!!!!. Let’s just see how many people will!!!!..

Another said:

It is interesting to me that when you do something with a giving spirit, there are often those who need to search for an ulterior motive.  (Renee F.)

And the third:

On our way home …. a deer leaped out and landed on the car. What that did to the car and everything that involves is secondary to how we feel about the Deer. I’m still processing…and, finding that I’m afraid to get back on these country roads. (Michele S.)

What tied these three ideas together for me was their common theme of TRUST.

As we are wrestling to find a way out of the mess our economy has become and people stand in public squares all across the country to voice their disillusionment about it, the dog that is our collective conscience is waking up …. and it’s hungry.

A college community is feeling shaken to its core by the shattering of trust that has been accomplished by the revelation at Penn State of a scandal involving the sexual abuse of several young boys by a former coach of the football team. Though this is not the first time such an incident has happened in our country, it points to a much deeper issue involving our collective morality. A revered community leader has engaged in a most base violation of those in his care and yet he can’t bring himself to admit that his actions were wrong. Those surrounding him who were aware of the problem had a similar dilemma. It makes me wonder how this pathology of deception and abuse of the powerless has become so prevalent in our country.

Since 1954 when Congress changed the Pledge of Allegiance to include the words “under God”, our country has been in spiritual turmoil. A decade earlier, we had righted one of the most egregious wrongs in recent history with WWII but our victory had created a taste for rooting out evil. We began to see it everywhere and in everyone.  Fear of our country being overtaken by Communism resulted in this knee-jerk decision to amend the original Pledge of Allegiance, written by Francis Bellamy in 1892, in an effort to fend off Godlessness, like a necklace of garlic warding off a vampire, as though a profession of allegiance to God in the public square could force people to abide by the rules of the United States and by extension, the Bible. All it did was incite rebellion.

This rebellious pioneerism has come to define most Americans. We want to be free to choose our actions with a minimum of interference. When we feel our ideals are being compromised, we are allowed to stand up and protest. Too often, though, we have left the dog to slumber too long while our rights were being impinged, relying on the stink of injustice to reach its sensitive nose and bring it back to consciousness.

Now, the sleeping dog has shaken itself awake to the smell of what’s going on and it is snapping, growling, and barking at what has been happening to the freedoms in our country, a Constitutional Republic that had been formed in reaction to this very oppression by government that had demanded control over how people worked, worshiped, and contributed. It has become increasing clear that we have allowed the misplaced perception of evil to once again invade our trust and shake our confidence.

In the early part of the 20th century as America became more prosperous, we seemed to forget why we existed in the first place. We had declared that every man had the right to determine his own destiny, with the idea that if we all pitched in and lifted ourselves up by helping to fulfill each other’s needs, we could create something that had never existed before — an open society of opportunity, free of the constraints of an oppressive government that would demand to determine our course.

Little by little, as our country grew beyond our wildest expectations, we panicked and lost our ability to trust that ideal. Companies bought other companies in order to squeeze out competition and maximize profits. In reaction to unfair business practices due to the size and power of these organizations, we thought that if we created laws to dictate fairness and prosperity for all then everything would be made equal. We thought that if we told people how to behave toward one another, we could create an atmosphere of mutual respect, but we can see now that the corporations ultimately won out. The concentration of economic power we had so eschewed in our early years, then in the form of government, had become the kind of bully we thought we’d escaped by rising up against it. The accomplice was looking the other way as the abuser took advantage again and again of the little guy who had no say in the matter.

I don’t know what inspired the coach at Penn State to initiate the violations he is accused of, or who was the first banker to make the decision to sell and profit from a bad investment, but history reveals that if we get away with something once, we’re likely to try it again. If no one disturbs the dog, we have carte blanche to do whatever we want, right?

We can declare our allegiance to God, the flag, and apple pie in public all we want, but does that absolve us of what we do when we think no one is looking or does it simply cover up the misdeeds of some very unrighteous people, like the bankers and politicians in our country, buoyed by a lack of regulation that allowed them to flagrantly cheat their way to unprecedented personal profits at the expense of those who trusted them to be the backbone of our economy? Were the jobs of the other coaches at Penn State more valuable than the spiritual and emotional health of a young boy whose life would be irrevocably altered by their indifference? Did they forget to pledge their allegiance to a higher moral call or were they the ones shouting it the loudest?

We, the people, are feeling the visceral ache of a trust violated. In the wake of a violent raping on 9/11, we were encouraged to take a ride in search of prosperity on our bucolic country roads in an attempt to build a brighter future for ourselves and our families, but then a huge deer suddenly ran out in front of us and there was no way to avoid it. The peaceful grandeur that had been our country was suddenly laid across the hood of our common vehicle and we were faced with the decision to put it out of its misery or try to save it. Meanwhile, the vehicle is wrecked and we’re going to have to figure out how to get to work as we ponder whether the deer was being chased or if we had simply built the road in its way.

Our society, once based on mutual nourishment, not a commune but a community, has lost its sense of responsibility to the health of the whole and our appetite for hunting down evil has grown stronger again. When a neighbor comes to welcome us with a fresh batch of cookies, we immediately wonder what they want from us. When a friend is experiencing need, we think they must have done something to deserve that lack. We don’t want to get involved but we’ll throw money at a charity so we don’t have to look into the eyes of the homeless person that used to be our neighbor or get our hands dirty by touching theirs; we might catch their bad luck. And we definitely don’t trust the government to decide how to fix the problem. Everybody knows that dog is vicious and unpredictable….

So, if, as we pledge, we do trust in God, then we will do the right thing even when God and the dog seem to be napping. We’ll stop poking God awake and whining, “God, tell those guys to cut it out! They don’t love you as much as we do so they don’t deserve anything!” It seems to me, as in any good relationship, that God needs to be able to trust in us just as much, yet we’re too often proving ourselves unworthy partners. Are we honoring our own pledge?

In these struggling relationships that are eating away at our collective trust, will the Penn State victims be able to forgive their abuser and his accomplices? Will our politicians and bankers stop encouraging us to blame each other for our troubles when they were the ones speeding down the road in the car that hit the deer that got us into this mess? And will we be able to give of ourselves to those whose spirits are so diminished that they feel they have nothing to lose, with no questions asked and  no expectation of return? Are we willing to offer them a ride until the car gets fixed no matter how long it takes?

Oh hey, since the dog’s awake, I guess I’d better go feed it something nourishing. Wouldn’t want it to go in search of evil just to satisfy its appetite. Nice talking to y’all.

And A Little Kid Shall Lead Them….

September 26, 2011 10 comments

A friend lost her father suddenly last week and she has been sharing her experience of grief with us in a way that reminds me of the profound days and weeks after my own father passed away nearly 20 years ago.

When I was 28, my father had been unwell most of my life. After suffering a near fatal heart attack at age 50, he was forced to retire from a busy job as the senior minister at a large Congregational church in New York and start over again somewhere less stressful. We moved to a farm my parents had bought a few years earlier in southern New Hampshire.

For years prior, we had traveled from NY to a summer retreat near there with a large group of families from the church, and one of our favorite destinations to visit was The Friendly Farm in Dublin. We’d all show up and spend the day feeding the vast array of farm animals with the food provided. It was an exciting experience for a bunch of kids from the suburbs.

When he heard we were moving to the farm for good, the owner of The Friendly Farm presented my dad with a beautiful Jersey calf as a gift. We loaded the week-old calf, whom we named “Irene” (eirênê) after the goddess of peace, into the backseat of our VW bug and took her home.

Over the years, Irene was mother to several calves, many of them not her own. They were Holsteins, Herefords, Ayrshires …. she had no qualms about who nursed off of her as long as her udder was empty and comfortable when they were done feeding. She lived for many years as matriarch of the farm.

So it seemed right, many years later when it was time to make a transition in my life, to spend a summer working at The Friendly Farm as a way to clear my head with some hard physical work at a place that represented good memories.

As the warm, early April sun filtered through the tall pines to melt the remaining snow, I would arrive early each day to begin the Spring chores. A batch of tiny goats had arrived for the season and my first task was to feed them — all twenty or so. In a 5-gallon bucket I would combine warm water with a powdery formula mix and fill twenty 10 oz. Coke bottles, fitting each one with a rubber nipple. In order to not lose track of who had already eaten — goats are tricksters — I would lift two at a time over a wooden gate and when they were done they’d be replaced by two more. The ritual made my spirit laugh.

But even as my own heart was expanding, my father’s was shutting down. When I told him I was working at The Friendly Farm, instead of his usual feigned disappointment that I wasn’t studying to be a brain surgeon whenever I’d tell him about my latest occupation, he just said, “That’s great, El.” His fight was gone. On April 22, 1992 — Earth Day — he finally gave up for good.

I thought about him in the weeks that followed as the farm began to come alive with new babies from the cows, sheep, chickens, and goats. I remembered all the creatures that had been born on our own farm in the early dawn before school, finding a new baby calf or foal all slippery and slimy being licked clean by its mother, and the amazement at watching that hour-old baby stand up on its shaky legs and begin nursing. All around me, new life was springing up again even as I struggled to fully understand that another had come to an end.

I worked through those days feeling some sense of comfort in the routine of the farm but still wasn’t experiencing acute grief. I wondered why I couldn’t feel anything. I decided that I had grieved him so many times over the years that what I was feeling was relief that he finally wasn’t suffering anymore.

Then one day a goat gave birth to triplets. Twins are the norm so when a third is born chances are that the little one won’t survive. It was clear when I saw this tiny kid plop out after the other two that he would not live for long. He was half their size, his breathing labored, and he couldn’t stand up to nurse. His mother refused to help. I tried to get him to drink some formula but he wouldn’t take it.

I did the only thing I could think to do and brought him to a quiet place in the bottom of the barn where I made a soft bed out of sawdust and hay. I lay down beside him and stroked his tiny frightened head and assured him that he needn’t be afraid, that it was okay to let go.

And then I remembered that those were the very thoughts I had spoken in my mind as I watched my father’s life drain away in the week before he died. I picked up the baby goat and put him in my lap, cradling him against my body as he took his last heaving breaths and when at last he became still I threw my head back and let out a guttural sob…. and then spent what seemed like hours weeping and rocking that little kid as though he were my big bear of a father who had died all alone in a hospital room.

In my heart I knew that this sweet baby goat, this little kid only hours old, had been sent to help me let my father go and I watched with my mind’s eye as the two of them, healthy and strong, walked side by side into the early Spring sunlight….

Let Me Introduce You To My “Family”….

September 18, 2011 6 comments

No matter where we come from, regardless of what was true for us growing up, we all end up with a family living inside our heads.

At least I do…

They are not real people, though they represent archetypes that we all recognize. The baby, the bully, the mediator….. You name ’em, I got ’em. Here’s the lineup:

Trixie is my inner child. She’s about 3, just learning to talk about the things she sees but can’t quite process. She only understands simple pain and simple joy. She’s full of questions and silly observations that mostly make people laugh. Her parents are:

Warren Peece, an old hippie activist who had his name legally changed to distance himself from his family legacy. He just can’t seem to stop being offended by everything that happens and speaks up whenever he perceives an injustice being done to powerless people. He’s not very good at constructively putting his efforts where his mouth is, so he married:

Anne Chovey, a reporter he met at a demonstration against some cause he can’t quite remember due to a previous propensity for illicit substances. Anne was that stable influence, like so many women are for their husbands. She has an uncanny ability to gather the facts and prioritize them, though she doesn’t do it unless she’s asked. And you know free-spirit Warren doesn’t want his passions made constructive. He’s simply acting out against his father:

Thaddeus A. Bunchable, a conservative blowhard, a “self-made man” who can’t stop spouting about how the world is going to Hell because of these hippie, Bible-bashing deadbeats who’ve never done an honest day’s work. He doesn’t want his hard-earned money going to bail out the lazy good-for-nothing welfare cheats who are dragging down the beloved country that he fought so hard for. And since he doesn’t believe in divorce, he has been married for too many years to:

Fritzi, a compulsive, unrepentant hedonist who copes with Thad’s chronic grumpiness by seeking out a party anytime and anywhere. Heck, she doesn’t even care if nobody’s around — she’ll have a party by herself, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Her motto is, “If life hands you lemons, make mine a Stoli Lemon Drop!” But deep inside, Fritzi is sad. Really, really sad. Usually after a bout of trying to entertain away her inner despair, Fritzi turns to:

Sister Ellen, a non-denominational nun that the whole family secretly goes to when the world gets too hard to take. Sister Ellen loves to sit with Trixie on her lap listening and laughing at the stories Trixie makes up about stuff; she understands Warren like few others, knowing that his heart is pure even if his actions aren’t; she respects Anne for being objective, but wishes her heart were a little more open to feeling something; she sees the pain in Thaddeus that can only express itself by lashing out; and she secretly idolizes Fritzi for being able to let it all hang out, even though she knows the exuberance is false.

This family, the family that is me, the one that is so dysfunctional yet so passionate, so hateful and hurtful and yet so kind …. is where I come from. They blame and forgive, dishonor and repent, yell and cry, but always come back together in laughter. They care for each other deeply, even when their words and actions seem to indicate otherwise. Time has allowed them to understand each other and give one another the space to work things out. It’s not always easy to bear witness to someone else’s growing pains, but they always manage to come back together when the dust settles.

I love my family, warts and all……

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