Better Angels

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I’m not one to advocate fighting, especially among family and friends. A colleague once told me that I would probably be able to find something good about anyone, including Charles Manson. I suppose that I am the way I am because I so value life, and believe that each of us has the potential for great good. Nonetheless we are also imperfect, and I try to remind myself that I do not have all of the answers and neither does anyone else. Our humanity leads us in many different directions, and often it is only in retrospect that we are able to determine whether or not we have always chosen the best pathways for living. Each of us is so complex as is the world in which we live as well as the long history of mankind. I feel that we must be far kinder and less judgmental that we often are. Somehow of late we have become a very divided nation with each side virtue shaming the other. The rancor that I see is toxic, and even more troubling is that all too often anyone who attempts to bridge the ever growing gaps is viewed as lacking in values.

Mark Twain once said something to the effect that the two most important moments in a person’s life are when he/she is born and when he/she discovers why. I love the idea that each of us has a purpose, and firmly believe that it often takes us a very long time to know what that may be. In my own case I suspect that my suffering has lead me to be far more understanding and compassionate than I might otherwise have been. Losing my father taught me how fragile life truly is. My mother’s mental illness showed me that each of us has a kind of brokenness, some more severe than others. I learned to embrace people just as they are, not as I wish them to be. I have been humbled by the realization of my own imperfections. I have embraced the power of listening to each person’s story and learning from what I have heard. History speaks to the truth that humankind has struggled for centuries to survive and to understand the world’s many mysteries. That epoch journey has been wrought with both failures and glorious successes. I suspect that if we were to analyze every single person who has ever lived we would find it to be true that even the most gloriously amazing individual still had a share of doubts and mistaken beliefs. It is who we are, and something that we seem to forget from time to time.

So here we in 2018 fighting like Cain and Abel all across the world, hurling invective at one another to the point of insisting that anyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions is no longer a friend. We are defensive and angry and unwilling to stop our ranting long enough to realize that as a nation we have become our own worst enemies. It seems as though the warnings that my seventh grade teacher proposed over five decades ago have come to pass, for she was prescient in urged us to be wary of the power of propaganda. She taught us how to watch for it, and insisted that it was all around us, even when it was not apparent. It was a shocking revelation, but one that I have never forgotten. I see its impact now more than ever before, and realize that we are being manipulated into turning on people that we once may have loved simply because their ideas do not conform with ours. It is a truly sad state of affairs and it has caused me to grieve and to feel a sense of desperation as I attempt to draw people that I know back together. The din of the rancor has become oppressive and I have worries about where it will eventually end that might never otherwise have occurred to me.

In the midst of the darkness I have discovered a small ray of hope. I have heard about a group called Better Angels, an organized effort to bring disparate forces together in a spirit of understanding. The idea behind the movement is to sponsor what are known as red and blue conversations between groups of Republicans and Democrats. Participants agree to discuss issues in a highly structured environment that focuses on listening. The gatherings are weighted equally with people from both sides of the political spectrum, and kept somewhat small so as to allow each person time to speak. Using a number of formal structures there is an agreed upon topic and the emphasis is on simply hearing each point of view. Only one person speaks while everyone silently considers what is being said. It is not a debate, but rather an opportunity to learn from one another. Nobody is allowed to speak out of turn or launch into heated arguments. It is a controlled and quiet attempt to find understanding, areas of common ground and possible solutions. Those who have participated have generally reported feeling enlightened and far more open to considering new ways of thinking. The system is so powerful that many teachers and university professors use it in their classrooms to invoke more critical thinking and less emotional argument.

I have personally participated in similar groups in past years. They were not affiliated with Better Angels but they were constructed in a similar manner. Generally there were a very small number of people in the groups and there was no effort to keep them balanced, but there was a very structured set of questions and rules for speaking about them within a limited amount of time. Usually one person served as a mediator who insured that everyone followed the rules. Such situations almost uniformly resulted in more listening than talking, serving to quiet the mind and open possibilities that had not previously been considered. They worked to build a sense of team and family even among very different individuals.

I believe that we have been approaching our shared problems in the wrong manner. We only hear what we wish to hear in an atmosphere of shouting and accusations. We align ourselves with like minded people and unfairly judge those with whom we disagree. We behave as though we have it all figured out when the truth is that every problem is filled with complexities that require consideration of many different ideas. In truth it is only when we quiet our own souls and begin to listen to everyone that we will ever find ways to agree on solutions. My guess is that much like our ancestors we will have to make compromises that may not perfectly suit us, but which will settle our differences just enough to make progress. The better angels that live inside our souls need to overcome the demons that are leading us astray.

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Take Them Off

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Don’t you just love all of those studies that claim to have discovered something new and exciting? One that I saw recently somehow found that children who run around in their bare feet tend to have higher IQs. Of course the article that described the announcement gave very few details about why that is so and there was no mention of how the experiments or interviews or whatever they used were actually done. Still it is an intriguing idea to think that just tossing shoes aside has the power to transform the brain. Yet another study claims that children who are encouraged to freely explore the environment without shoes will ultimately become more independent. The idea is that they have to be inventive and observant if they are left to rely on their own instincts rather than being hemmed in by adult supervision.

I have to laugh when I hear of such research. Based on these ideas the people with whom I grew up and I should be geniuses. I mean we only wore our shoes to school and church. The rest of the time we let our toes hang out and get dirty from contact with all sorts of things. We were like children raised by wolves as we ran through the woods near our neighborhood finding all sorts of fun that was only limited by our imaginations. There was never a parent around, just us kids, and it was glorious.

We were always doing something wonderful on our street. Sometimes we played for hours on someone’s lawn in very competitive games of Red Rover. I don’t believe that anyone ever broke a bone or had an injury and yet we were so committed to winning that we were rather rough. There were also games of football which did once result in a terrible injury to my brother when he stepped on a broken bottle that had been thrown in the the high grass of a neighbor’s yard. His Achille’s tendon was severed and he might have bled out had our mom not been very well read on how to apply pressure to a wound. After a few stitches he was fine.

One time we got a bit of help from one of the fathers when we created a dugout clubhouse. It was cool place to be on hot summer days and only certain kids were allowed inside. Sadly my mom become worried that it might cave in and bury us alive so we were restricted from entering it ever again. My brothers and I felt a great sense of sadness every time we saw other kids entering the cavelike domain. Eventually more and more moms sided with our parent and the father who had helped to created the place filled the big hole with dirt. Still we had great memories from the short time that we had enjoyed living like pioneers.

My very science oriented brother discovered that if we aimed a magnifying glass toward the hot sun it would burn wood. After that we became world class wood burners, creating intricate designs and using up tons of time as we sat on the hot concrete of the driveway holding the glass just right so that it would make a mark that decorated the wood. We were the hit of the neighborhood with our invention and we burned away until the repetitions suddenly became boring.

There was never a tree that we didn’t attempt to climb. It was glorious sitting high above the landscape sheltered by the branches. A really good tree would have growth that allowed us to lean back and read a book away from the the hubbub down below. My very favorite oak seemed to have been made just for my climbing pleasure and I often went there to meditate and feel the cool breeze blowing over me the leaves that rustled around me. 

All the while that we did such things we were shoeless. Our soles became hard and tough, able to withstand the pokes of gravel and the heat of asphalt. The tops of our feet turned brown from the sun and carried all of the colors from the places we had been. The grocer who had a tiny store down the street never seemed to mind when we entered his premises with our grungy feet flapping down the aisles. As long as we were polite and didn’t bother anything he was even okay if we just browsed or perused the new issues of comic books. I suspect that he knew that sometimes we just used his store to cool down a bit after a race or when the temperature was threatening to reach the one hundred mark.

At the end of each day Mama sometimes hosed down our feet before we entered the house even though we would quickly be shooed to the bathroom to take a cooling bath before going to bed. I must admit that I miss those days when there were seemingly no restrictions on what we might do as long as it was legal and didn’t harm anyone. Since retiring I wear shoes less and less. Now my feet rebel a bit when I stuff them inside the leather of my pumps. They much prefer the freedom of sandals or flip flops.

I tend to believe that the studies that I encountered have some merit. I know in my own case that running a bit wild was adventurous and taught me how to create and get along with my peers. I literally communed with nature by way of my feet so that I know how to avoid getting stung by ants and what it feels like to step in warm tar. With my brothers and my friends I filled the hours with games and ideas of our own childlike making. I suppose that somehow we were all the better for the independence that our parents allowed us to have.

The world is so different these days. I suspect that moms might be reported to CPS for allowing their kids to roam as freely as we did back then. I’m not quite sure how possible it now is for children to be left to their own resources, but one thing I know for sure is that they don’t really need those shoes. Take them off, and see if those brains get smarter. What can it hurt?

The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

Shades of Gray

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Years ago a friend of mine decided to enlist a professional decorator to help her enhance the appearance of her home. The artist walked through the house quietly looking around, picking up items now and again, jotting down observations. When she had completed her tour she sat down with my friend and bluntly asked, “How much of this junk are you willing to remove?”

There was a stunned silence as my friend attempted to understand exactly what the designer had just asked her. “All of it has to stay,” was her halting reply. “These are my family’s things. We use everything that you see. They have special meanings to us. I just need you to add some color, move a few things around, arrange our belongings in a more inviting way. The books, music, mementoes and such are part of who we are. They have to be incorporated into your plan.”

With a look of unadulterated disgust the interior artist suddenly stood up while putting away her notebook and pen. She announced with an arrogant emphasis, “I can’t help you. I can’t do a thing for you if you are unwilling to completely change the way things look around here. This is too much. You need to find someone else or do it yourself.”

My friend likes to tell everyone that she was stunned into a state of silence as the decorator promptly left. Later she did all of the rearranging and painting by herself and the results were quite lovely. She realized in that moment that she had chosen all of the things that seemed like clutter to the designer, and they were more than just junk. They were pieces of her family’s history.

I was reminded of this story when I recently read one of those click bait articles that often appear on Facebook. The topic was how to know when your home decorating is no longer trendy. The author consulted with respected interior designers to determine how to know when things go out of style. The entire essay came across as being snooty and out of touch with the realities of ordinary people. It insisted that kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are already passé. It further suggested that homes done in shades of gray and white are hopelessly behind the times. The author knocked the country look, anything resembling a Chip and Joana home, items purchased at Target, Edison light bulbs and so on. The words reeked of the same kind of arrogance that my friend had endured in her one encounter with a professional. The comments from Facebook users tore the suggestions apart, with readers hurling their fury at the unrealistic haughtiness of the writer.

I had to laugh because according to the article my home should be in the “what not to do” hall of fame. Nonetheless I really like the way things look around here. Every inch of my space tells a story about people I have known and places that I have been. The walls are filled with art that either reminds me of trips that I have taken or friends and relatives who created the work for me. I have books in every room that touched my soul as I read them. The furniture is an eclectic mix of inherited antiques and comfortable modern pieces that I like. There are colors that make me happy, not those that happen to be in style. I have plants scattered about that bring in the outdoors and magazines waiting to be read. There is a lovely memory everywhere that I glance, right down to the heart shaped rock that my grandchildren discovered on a back backing hike that I shared with them in the mountains of Colorado. I am more than content with what I see because my environment is personal and meaningful. I never feel as though I am in a hotel or someone else’s space.

I certainly have no trouble with the idea of incorporating suggestions from someone who has studied color, fabric, furniture, proportion and such. I regularly read Southern Living and watch HGTV now and again. I have items from Target and Home Goods but I also sometimes splurge on something special from Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. I consider my purchases carefully most of the time, but it can be fun to bring something whimsical into the picture, and I almost always find a lasting memento to add to my collection when I take a trip. I have a giant pine cone from California and a lovely print of a sailing ship from Cape Cod. A cobalt blue pitcher that was handblown in Estes Park, Colorado adorns my dining room, and prints of Savannah, Georgia hang in the living room. When I see these things I recall the fun that I shared with my family. They allow me to relive such grand moments again and again.

Decorating is a very personal thing, and I suspect that a truly gifted designer understands that. Years ago when my mother in law was redoing a grand old home she enlisted the help of a professional who wisely surveyed the items that would be used as well as the color palette that my mother in law preferred. Mostly the work of creating a pleasing environment involved incorporating my mother in law’s taste into the final product. The result was picture perfect and best of all it reflected the personality of the owners of the home, not the person who would never live there.

Decorating is fun, but it needn’t be expensive or impersonal. The best homes are the ones that instantly capture the essence of the people who reside inside. A great house is warm and inviting. If done right it doesn’t matter if it is gray or filled with a rainbow of colors, clean and sleek or crowded with interesting accessories. The most important goal of decorating should be to make the people who live there feel warm and comfortable and happy. Once that is accomplished nothing else really matters.

By the way…I really do like the style of Chip and Joanna, my appliances are stainless steel, I often shop at Target, and I still have some Edison lightbulbs. So there…!

The Wedding of a Die Hard Democrat and a Die Hard Republican

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One of my cousins recently posted a commentary about his parents that made me smile. He remarked that one of his folks was a die hard Democrat and the other was a die hard Republican. They used to joke that when they went to vote they canceled each other out. Mostly though they were good people who taught their son to be tolerant and to love his country. He served proudly in the military and learned how to be a  good person in his own right by following their example. He wonders, however, what has changed to cause so much derision, division and incivility today. He wants to know why it is increasingly difficult for people with differing philosophies to get along.

His post got me to thinking about my own parents. In all honesty I don’t really know what political persuasions they had. I only recall my father arguing about a political topic on one occasion and that was with his father. Since I was only privy to the noise of their voices rather than the actual debate I will never really know who advocated what position. It was not any easier to discern what my mother’s thinking might have been. She was an enigma when it came to voting and such. She often told me that she considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the greatest of all the American presidents, insisting that he had saved the nation in more ways than one. She broke into tears when remembering how she had once seen him when he visited Houston. She always spoke glowingly of Harry Truman and John Kennedy as well, but on the other hand, she felt almost as much allegiance to Ronald Reagan as to Roosevelt. In all honesty I can’t think of many times that she even spoke of politics or her feelings about them. To her a vote was a sacred and private thing between her and God. She didn’t discuss her leanings nor did she find it necessary to know about those of anyone else. Her only commentary was that it was glorious to have such a right, even if the elections didn’t always go her way.

Mama was from an immigrant family that was not always treated in the most welcoming way. She told us that her father insisted that in spite of a few prejudices here and there the USA was still preferable to the land that he had left. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the opportunities of being citizens and in turn pay forward the favor by demonstrating their pride in being Americans. When my mom and her siblings were taunted as being foreigners, their father urged them to just ignore the slights. He taught them that there are ignorant folk everywhere, and they need not nurse their anger. Instead he wanted them to become educated and fully involved in the culture and ways of the country. All eight of his children were patriotic, and his sons confirmed their love for the USA by enlisting in the Armed Forces and serving during World War II.

I suspect that my mom would be both confused and amused by the craziness on display these days, but she would have also insisted that everyone has a right to voice their opinions if they so choose. She would often tell us how important that cornerstone of democracy was to her father and ultimately to her and her siblings as well. It was something all too often denied in their homeland of Slovakia, so they were quick to welcome all ideas.

What would have most baffled my mother is the way that so many people are now determining friendships based on political beliefs. She would have first noted that it is none of anyone’s business to judge others, especially with regard to their political beliefs. She would have also wondered why we are talking about such things so openly and so much. Mostly she would have been utterly appalled at the idea of friendships and relationships being based on how people feel about particular hot button topics. I suppose that she had the same high level of tolerance as her older brother who was so fittingly described by his son in the Facebook post.

I often muse that the media is too much with us. There was a time when there was a news hour around dinner time. Thirty minutes were devoted to national events, and thirty to local happenings. Most stories merited only two to three minutes of discussion, rather than the twenty four hour blathering on and on that is possible today. Something has to fill those hours and unfortunately there is a great deal of sensationalism used to attract our attention. We have become news junkies and can’t even escape the grasp of the drama when we are away from our televisions. Our phones and computers constantly alert us to the latest breaking story. There is little or no rest and after a time we become so emotionally involved that we can’t seem to turn off the feelings that send us into emotional frenzies. It sometimes appears as though we are puppets being manipulated by some unseen master.

The reality is that we don’t really need to see every single kook who does something outrageous. The truth is that on any given day most people are busy going about their lives. They are not sitting at home plotting ways to make other’s miserable. They are not evil or uncaring or hoping to undermine the government. Most people are just trying to get by and get along. They do their duty as mothers, fathers, friends, employees, and citizens. They appraise the issues and make choices, and unless they do something illegal or hurt us in some way, it really should not matter to us what their political philosophies may be. Instead we should be focusing on what kind of people they are and admitting that if it actually is possible for a die hard Democrat and a die hard Republican to have a beautiful and loving marriage then maybe we also need to try harder to get along.