Sunday, January 23, 2011

In the Heart of Light and Shadows

I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything
I still believe that people are really good at heart.
                                             -- Anne Frank

I dunno, Anne.

As a child of the 60’s, I thought so too. Sure, I was aware of evil in the world. People who stole and murdered. People who took advantage of the weak and unfortunate. People who refused to extend the hand of friendship (let alone love) because the color of the other’s skin, or the tenets of his religion, or the country her grandparents immigrated from did not match theirs. I knew there were dark-hearted people who created shadows in America.

But there were also those who carried a light that shone from within their own hearts. There were the church folk and their God who said that we should love one another. And there were the musicians who sang on the radio urging us to “love one another right now.” And there were people in the streets who not only danced, but reached out a hand in friendship. Who wouldn’t be told who to love. Who started soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Who marched for the rights of people who weren’t members of their own tribe, and who taught at schools that weren’t in their own neighborhood. Who cried when the bad men killed people who wore a different skin color. These were the people who hoped and loved, who worked for a better day, and who stood up against the shadows in men’s hearts.

And these people are still in the world, carrying the light simply because it’s righteous and joyous.

But shadows still spread long and hard in the hearts of too many of us. Too many still hate – yes hate, not misunderstand, not mistrust, but hate – those who do not resemble them, who believe differently, who travel from another country to pursue the same dream (some of) our ancestors dreamt. Some who still hate those who want a piece of the pie we say is ours. And too many are willing to march and scream, and spit and snarl, and burn and kill, because they truly believe that those “other people” hate them too. Not because of what they’ve done, but simply because of who they and who those others are. It’s only natural, no?

So, I dunno, Anne. I don’t know if we are really good at heart. I don’t know if we are really bad at heart either. Maybe, just as sun and rain are good in the right proportions, just as tools and guns are only evil when you misuse them, and just as speech and literature can inspire or incite, we are good and evil in the same proportion and in the same manner that we spread the light or welcome the shadows. And, while maybe it is all just part of the ebb and flow of the human condition, I wonder if we can help each other now by shining a light into a shadow when we happen across it, rather than stepping in, and letting the darkness tint our better selves. Because Anne Frank also said: “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

We are not trapped in an attic, hiding from the shadowed hearts. We can carry a light in our hearts into the sunshine of now.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Art of Misbehaving
The Jet's win over the Patriots this evening reminded me of a point of conflict embedded in human nature. We battle against bad behavior, but sometimes we can't help smirking when the bad boys triumph.

Prior to the game, the Jets, led by irrepressible coach Rex Ryan, got into the faces of the New England Patriots, trashed-talking about their ability to conquer the  golden boys of winter. Fans and press alike tsk-tsked the team's antics as bad form, unseemly, and guaranteed to augur a humiliating defeat. For good measure, the Patriots stoically disciplined their own Wes Welker for similar poor conduct, sending a clear message that they would not tolerate such unsportsmanlike behavior.

I recall when my hometown Eagles taunted the Patriots before the Superbowl. They were also roundly criticized, but, unlike Ryan, they bowed to that criticism, conceding that trash-talk had no place within a civilized game like football. Maybe there was also a bit of fear that the Eagles' bravado would rile an already worthy opponent, inflaming it into an unstoppable force.  The Eagles lost, but I always wondered if they would have stood a better chance had they reared up and claimed their right to talk smack in a game that is roundly recognized as a war simulation.

Because, the Jets stood way up on their hind legs, got in the faces of their opponent, backed each other up in the face of disapproval, and won. They embraced their bravado and made it a necessary ingredient to their victory.

Sure, their is a bright line between acting up and criminal offenses, because there's a difference between conduct that annoys (excessive end-zone celebrations anyone?) and conduct that harms (helmet-to-helmet - ugh!). But, maybe we need to test the limits more often in this free society of ours. Maybe we need to question more regulations and tenets and decrees. Maybe we need to toss off the sheep's clothing that swaddles us. Maybe, in a society increasingly weighed down by rules of conduct for which no one can remember the genesis, what we need is a little more misbehavin'.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sturm and Drang

Philadelphia Mural Arts Project BRIDGE Mural (47th and Chestnut Street)

I find myself sighing a lot recently. Yes, so dramatic, but so necessary, so relevant, so purge-pregnant.

Sigh ...

So much upheaval in the world – shall we label it from the way back: Sturm and Drang? That resistance? That recalcitrance? That unwillingness to reach across the societal divide that originates within our own selves?

Surely, it has always been this way. But every time I ask someone: “Has life/politics/culture/religion/society always been this dramatic, this full of opposition and resistance?” she replies: “No, I have never seen things this out of sorts.”

Wars? Sure. Class, race, ethnic, political friction? Certainly. Intellectualism vs. down-home common sense? You betcha. I want guns; you want organic garlic. Yeah, man.  We are at war with each other -- on account of rain. The individual irritants spread like a virus of discontent to families and affiliations and groups and societies and nations until the whole world is off balance – off-balance to the extent that there must be organized forces committed to the propagation of chaos. Something is pushing the unbalanced down a rabbit hole to that place where souls forget who they are.

Seriously, there are forces in the world that would rather say: “Damned it all to hell – with buckshot!” than: “Ohhhh, maybe I’m w-r-o-n-g.” There are those who pray for Armageddon, who believe sometimes you have to destroy something to save it; who truly think the enemy is MONSTROUS and incapable of humanity.

Not like us.

There are some who believe that the enemy is blocking the road to all that is good, and right, and deserved in life. Hell, if not for all those damned black hats, life would be a golden bowl of cherries! But, no one stops to think that maybe the enemy views us in the same black light. No one considers that we are the black hats in the hearts and minds of our enemies. Us and them. Light and dark. Up and down. Like in that old Pogo comic strip: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

But, what if when we saw the other guy struggling on the street, or read the account of someone’s life spiraling down, or suffered some indignity at the hands of a stranger, we resisted thinking: “Glad it’s not me,” or “Probably deserved,” or “Screw you and the horse you road in on!” and instead wondered: “Do I have the capacity to grasp his situation?” or better yet: “Can I help? At all?”

What if, them became us and vice versa. What if dark became light, the strange became familiar, and enemy became less than and closer to friend? What if all that resistance and complaining and shouting dissolved into dust on a table. And, what if we sat at that table, and looked across into the eyes of our brother?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Got Hope?


I am an eternal, unapologetic optimist.

Oh, my faith can be shaken when enough dark clouds move in. I can see the evil in people, and the best-laid plan gone awry. I don't sit in the dirt on the prairie, refusing to acknowledge that the wheels have gone off the wagon. I get it. Bad shit happens. Sometimes bad shit happens for an extended period of time - centuries even of ill intent, unfairness, exploitation and down-right evil. And for some pretty suspect reasons, if you ask me.

But, call me Pollyanna because it doesn't take more than a whisper-thin ray of light shining through the dark clouds before I see a path to the good. Hope bubbles to the surface, the wind fills the sails, and we got a ballgame folks. Go Team Light!

So, I must be feeling a bit out of sorts, this morning because I am not feeling the light about Sudan's upcoming vote for independence. Today, the mostly Christian people of Southern Sudan are voting to secede from the mostly Muslim northern seat of power in a bid for independence and dignity. But, there are masses of billowing, roiling dark clouds in the sky over that African nation, and I am having a hard time locating that sliver of light.

Here is yet another people taken over and reorganized by a steady stream of invaders. A people blocked from development by a government eager to maintain control of oil. A people persecuted and tortured by their own government -- featuring an administration that denies providing material support to the gangs and slavers who happen to fall on the right side of the power and religious divide. A people who watch their sons forced to join an enemy army and kill or be killed, and who watch their daughters be raped. 

And, we in the US and other western nations say we support this independence movement, but is it freedom or oil that drives us? I fear it is the latter. And, when your rich uncle offers to protect you from abusive parents while fingering the family silver you have to wonder why he stopped by. So, I am having a difficult time imagining how a sliver of light can find a space to shine in Sudan.

But maybe the Southern Sudanese have enough vision for hope. Over the next 6 days, they will participate in their vote for independence. They will brave tricks and threats (or acts) of violence, and vote for the right to chart their own national course. I hope they succeed. Then I hope they are able to hold off the coup-mongers and the First World predatory lenders and the all-purpose corrupt and faithless long enough to build a foundation from which to grow a nation.

I hope the light shines bright and strong to part the darkness. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Early Morning Snow

I swear I didn't plan it this way. I just wanted to take a day off to hang out with my Mom.

Now the snow is falling this early Friday morning. 
And since we, the people of Southeastern PA simply cannot remember how to drive in the snow from one storm to the next, the first sirens are wailing. 
And the plows are running to and fro.

And my neighbor is cursing in that mild way of his.

And the snow keeps falling as if no one has anywhere to go.

And me? I will drink my coffee, munch on a pumpkin muffin, and wait for the morning rush to pass ... 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

So Much Air

Photo: Swedish Yogini

My, but we’re a big-winded species.

From the first man who expressed himself with a look or grunt or drawing in the dirt, we have embraced communication as the holy faculty of humanity. Our ability to communicate allows us to share information, establish relationships, to build community and develop culture. It supports our survival and drives prosperity. Freedom of expression is the cherished liberty of the lucky, and one of the first casualties of the disenfranchised. To possess the capacity to express oneself and to be understood is a blessing.

But, God, sometimes we don’t know when to shut up.

It doesn’t matter if it is a cave painting (did you really need to draw 17 horses?) or email (I don’t care-delete. I don’t care-delete. I don’t care …), we have so much to say, and want everyone to hear it. Of course it’s important. Of course y’all want to know. And, as the channels become more sophisticated and less labor intensive, we have the opportunity to go tell it on the mountain. Loudly.

How many people will see my cave painting? Five? Okay, I’ll draw a dozen more telling it over the fire. Wouldn’t it be terrific if I turned it into a poem? More entertaining with a Greek chorus? I could cut a wider swathe with a printing press – Think of the numbers! Teletype, email, discussion board, blog – Facebook! My God, it’s Communication Nirvana! And, they’ll tell their friends – a thousand mountaintops!

So much talk. So much opinion. So much air. And not all for the good.

We educate, but we also gossip. We enlighten one moment and mislead the next. We manipulate and flatter, castigate and condemn. We assassinate characters as often as we redeem them. We lie. We read about the best and the worst of us. And, guess which we find the most compelling? We know what’s constructive and destructive in what we say. We say it anyway.

And in our net-centric, smartphone-enabled world, we say it farther and faster than ever before. We’re surrounded. To all the paper that ever was, add all the transmissions from radio and television, plus all the e-communication created in the last hour, and you have to make a real effort to evade the voices clamoring for attention.

But you can do it if you want to. Just disconnect. Yes, dis - connect. It’s an act of will against that human imperative to commune, but go for it. Go for a walk in the cold, dark night. Just you and the voice in your head. Tell it to shut up. Look up to the sky where the stars sparkle around the first sliver of the new moon. Resist the urge to comment. Exhale. Watch your breathe rise in a cloud of silent smoke and disappear into thin air.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


It's 2011.
Another New Year.
Another chance to start anew.

We say our goodbyes to the old year like an friend - or enemy - departing on a train headed west.

We breathe. We tell ourselves that now is the time for a fresh start. Time to give up bad habits. To cultivate good ones. To make friends. To embrace family. To be more productive, more healthy, more loving and giving. To be the better/stronger/faster 'us' we've always wanted to be. The calendar turns over, and here is one more opportunity to reinvent ourselves.

But aren't those opportunities always with us?

Every time we wake up,
aren't we starting anew in some sense? Every time we leave the house, step forward, begin something, every time we pause and reconsider, aren't we reinventing some portion of ourselves, our lives, our world views?

That is, if we want to.

If we want to, we can make a habit of examining the old, keeping the valuable, and shedding the outmoded like dry skin. Over and over again, we can look at each day and step and meeting on the road as an opportunity for new-ness. Almost as if we had a sun to rise every 24 hours, awakening us with a fresh new morning, we too can rise with the expectation that at some time during this day there will be a chance to experience something new.

Tough prospect, this constant review and reinvention, huh? Who has the time and energy - or inclination - for that?

But yesterday, you said, you said, you said: "It's a New Year for a New Me!"

So why
is January 2nd less new-worthy than January 1st?