The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

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Negativity in a World of Plenty

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I’ll be visiting London in may. In preparation for my tour I’ve been immersing myself in films, television programs, and history from Britain. I’ve learned about the Victorian era and the age of the Tudors. One unmistakable thing that I have learned is that even for kings life back in the day was often short, ugly and brutish. While we may romanticize life before our time, the reality is that the average person had a really tough time.

When Henry VII was king in the fifteenth century people slept on straw along with the dogs and livestock. They didn’t take many baths and there was no such thing as shampoo. They were no doubt a rather rangy bunch who hardly dreamed of reaching ages that are commonplace these days. They were unlikely to do a great deal of smiling for portraits even if they were royalty because their teeth were probably rotten and black, when they weren’t missing completely. Medicine was built more on superstitions and old wives’ tales than any real knowledge of disease and how to combat it. Times were hard for most people with little sanitation and a looming threat of starvation. Small wonder that many people chose to risk the uncertainty of traveling to the new world once news of its so called discovery reached their ears. The chance of finding something different must have been tantalizing.

The Victorian era was not a great deal better if one were born without wealth. It was a hard life for the average soul both in Great Britain and here in their rebellious cousin, the  United States. Homes without electricity or indoor plumbing were still very much the norm, and work was often dirty and mind numbing. Forty hour weeks with benefits were still dreams of the future with most folks working themselves into states of bad health with little concern about either their safety or their welfare.

The twentieth century eventually led to modernization, but not before people had endured two world wars, a devastating depression, and a flu epidemic that killed millions. It saw revolutions that placed countries under the rule of communist despots, and the murder of untold innocents by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, among others. Somehow the people of the world soldiered on and slowly began to develop economies and political systems that allowed greater numbers of individuals to live with opportunities and modern conveniences that not even kings might have imagined.

Today here in the United States and many European countries and other rapidly developing parts of the world advancements have been so great that we live in relative comfort with our food, appliances, cars, medical care, educations, and ways of life. We take our beds and our shampoos for granted. Our daily showers are just part of an under appreciated routine. Even our dogs live in greater comfort than people did five hundred years ago.

While we have made such great advances for virtually everyone, we still seem to spend far too much time complaining about what we do not have. We envy those who have more and plot to find legal ways of taking what they have earned and so that we might have a share of it. Instead of appreciating what we already own we moan about what we are yet to have, rarely sacrificing our visits to restaurants or the small luxuries that were unheard of for any but royalty in another time. I wonder why we spend more energy listing our grievances than counting our blessings.

There is certainly nothing wrong with improving the world, making progress, but we have become a world filled with gripes and jealousy. We see far too many people wanting to take rather than give. We forget that the great strides forward in history have had their costs in hard work and innovative thinking. We seem to believe that if we simply legislate equality of living standard it will miraculously overtake society and all will live blissfully. History tells us that such thinking has no basis in fact. Lenin did not create a society that built better lives for the Russian peasants than they had experienced under the czar. Such a dream must be built on the ingenuity and drive of individuals, not the dictums of a government whose chief goal is to maintain power.

Having a purpose and a feeling of contributing to the greater good of family, neighborhood, village, and society is what makes us happy with our states in life. It is not what we own or how much capital we store in a bank that brings the contentment that we desire, although it doesn’t hurt to have those things. In the end it is how we feel about ourselves in relation to those around us that brings us happiness. Each of us has many talents that we may use to keep the engines of a society roaring. There is great satisfaction to be found in contributing love, ideas, work, service. When we are engaged outside of ourselves we don’t have time to nurse anger or hard feelings. Going to bed tired but filled with a sense of doing something meaningful brings restful slumber and contentment.

I used to do a daily exercise as a teacher to keep from being discouraged by minor problems in my classroom. At the end of the day I listed all of the things that appeared to have gone right as well as the experiences that made me smile. I made sure to go minute by minute, period by period so that I would not miss anything. Then I would write down my grievances and mistakes. There was never one day when the bad happenings outweighed the good. It taught me to be conscious of what I had working for me that would help me to improve what was going wrong. My perspective was centered on the positive and thus my solutions tended to be optimistic as well. I was honestly able to exclaim that being an educator was a joyful experience because I was consciously looking for the good.

We have much. All of us do, even those with very little still have more than their ancestors. We must build on the progress that we have made and ask ourselves what got us here and what we have changed along the way. We can make things better, but not if all we do is grumble.

The Front Porch

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There was a time when almost every house had a front porch, a place where family and friends would gather just to sit and relax and watch the world go by. People didn’t need an official “night out” to shout a greeting or wave at neighbors. They’d simply gather in the morning with their cups of coffee to watch the children scurrying off to school or in the evenings with a cool drink just to enjoy the glory of day’s end. It’s rare to see homes being built with porches in the front anymore. Instead we design our living spaces for ultimate privacy by placing our outdoor retreats in back of our homes where we are hidden from the rest of the world. Perhaps it is just one more sign of the times when we often feel isolated and unsure of our places in the big picture.

Visits to my paternal grandparents always included time spent on their expansive front porches which my grandfather enhanced with screen to keep the bugs out and to insure that even when the mosquitoes were having a roaring good time, we’d be enjoying ourselves as well without worrying about getting bitten. My grandparents always had the area furnished like an additional living room with a sofa like glider, rocking chairs and lots of extra seating. Grandma made sure that we had an endless supply of cool drinks and Grandpa kept a big fan in perfect running order to provide us with comfort. We’d join in the greetings of neighbors who passed by while on their walks and sometimes climbed up the steps to the house to spend a few extra minutes to find out how everyone was doing. We watched the birds during the day and fireflies at night, and talked of people, events and ideas. Somehow the time spent on their front porch always made me feel safe, content, proud and loved.

My maternal grandmother had a front porch as well. Hers was not covered or enclosed which was actually preferable to all of us cousins who gathered there every Friday evening while our parents played poker inside a tiny room so filled with smoke that it made us gag. We enjoyed the freedom and adventure of the outside with that porch serving as home base for the crazy games that we invented for our entertainment. Sometimes my grandmother would quietly sit in our midst, but because she rarely spoke it never occurred to us that she may have been watching over us. We just thought that she was escaping the raucous conversations of her children and enjoying the cleaner air on her porch.

None of my homes either as a child or an adult have boasted a front porch. I suppose that trend lost its charm for builders sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. We hosted our gatherings in our backyard where we might enjoy more privacy without interruption. The front of the house was reserved for coming and going and quick waves of the hand at our neighbors. Only once in awhile would we bring our lawn chairs to the front yard to join adventurous folks who decided to resurrect the old ways of relaxing together after long days of labor. I so enjoyed those sojourns with the Halls and the Turners and the Mayfields on somebody’s lawn when we would watch the children playing and laugh as our cares drifted away.

I rarely see people gathering in front of their homes anymore. Such enjoyment has in many ways become a thing of the past. Perhaps we are too rushed or too private or too wary of being on display. Maybe we don’t want to fight the heat or mosquitoes. For whatever reason we mostly stay enclosed in our own private worlds and seem to think it necessary to wait for special invitations to meet up with our neighbors. We know that there is life inside the homes on our street but it is only the passing of cars from the garages that alerts us to that fact. The old ways of lounging together outside on a summer’s eve are mostly the domain of the past.

Now my husband and I sit around the table on our backyard patio listening to the cooing of the doves and sounds of the people around their swimming pools or on their trampolines. Their dogs bark at us as we survey our garden and once in a great while a voice from behind the fence will ask us to retrieve a wayward ball that has found its way onto our space. Most of the time our contact is minimal and we get the idea that everyone prefers it that way.

My father-in-law has a lovely wrap around front porch at his house that was originally built in the early days of the twentieth century when such a feature was all the rage. He rarely sits out front preferring the deck in the back of the house instead. When I visit I imagine festooning the front porch with sumptuous ferns and plants. I think of placing a small table with chairs out there where one might enjoy a meal or a cup of morning coffee while watching the passersby. I suppose that I would wear out the swing that my husband and his best friend once hung so that my mother-in-law would always have a place to sit. I’d wring out all of the enjoyment that the front porch was intended to provide. Sadly I’m not sure that I would see much because I rarely observe anyone passing by whenever I go to visit. It seems that even those with the wherewithal to enjoy the neighborhood from the front don’t bother to do so anymore.

Front porches seem to have become a thing history, a pleasant memory of bygone days when the windows were open and the doors were unlocked. A neighbor need only shout a greeting from the sidewalk to be invited to come sit awhile. Everyone knew everyone else and there was an unspoken duty to watch over the children as they played. We were open and unconcerned with things like political differences. The whole neighborhood was one great big happy family. Along the way our televisions and phones and air conditioners lured us inside and pushed us at the back of the house. Maybe it’s time that we come back out to the front.

Decency

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I was a young twenty something when Richard Nixon was president. I never liked the man, and used my vote to register my contempt. My emotions toward him were admittedly base and immature. I’d flinch at the very sight of him, and I managed to extend my dislike to his wife and children. I realize now that my disdain was often irrational because in retrospect I have taken the time to learn more about him and his time as the president. In that study I see that he actually did some very good things for the country, but back in the day he could do nothing right in my eyes. I even cringed when one of my favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis, Jr., supported him.

I watched the Watergate investigation with a certain level of glee and celebrated Nixon’s darkest hour when he was forced to resign his office. I watched him leave the White House will nothing less than exuberant self satisfaction. In my mind he had earned his  too long in coming humiliation. I gladly wiped him out of my mind and was overjoyed that he decided to live out the rest of his life rather quietly out of the public eye. I had no desire to hear from him again.

When Richard Nixon died it was a newsworthy event in spite of his transgressions. The airwaves were filled with images of people honoring him and his family. Being a person who is interested in such things from an historical perspective I watched the proceedings with little emotional attachment. After all, this was a man whom I had never liked even though the passage of time had warmed my heart to him a bit more than when I was still a very young adult. Nonetheless, I recall feeling disgusted when I witnessed one of Nixon’s long time friends and allies breaking down in a fit of emotion and tears at the funeral. I sarcastically poked fun of the man only to be chastised by my husband Mike in a manner that he rarely uses with me. He derided me for lacking sensibility at such an emotional time. “His friend has died!” he reminded me. “Show some compassion for the people who have lost someone that they love.”

I was shocked because Mike had never been a Nixon fan either, but I understood in that moment that I was exhibiting a lack of basic decency. There are lines of decorum that just don’t need to be crossed, and I had gone too far in my criticism of Nixon with my churlish commentary. He was dead and the funeral was a time for those who genuinely loved and respected him to demonstrate their feelings. After all, his daughters insist to this very day that he was always good father. Friends admired him and loved him. Who was I to poke fun at their genuine emotions?

I am still not a fan of President Nixon, but I have studied him and his administration enough to understand that while he had many imperfections he also did some very good things. His insecurities and fears ended up ruining his reputation, but he was more of a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense than a truly evil man. There were very good things that he did like opening up relations with China and brokering peace in the Middle East. In fact it was he who ended the Vietnam War that I so loathed. As a young person I was far too generally incensed to take the time to parse his good traits and separate them out from his bad. In the end he allowed his own demons to overtake his reason, but that did not make him a totally evil man in the sense that I judged him back then. He was merely a human filled with both good instincts and glaring imperfections.

I’ve thought about the intemperate insults that I hurled at the people who were grieving the loss of President Nixon as I’ve listened to the immature and unnecessary rantings of President Trump regarding John McCain. While I too have been guilty of hyperbolic criticism of people I would like to think that those in high office might be more circumspect in their utterances, particularly once a person is dead. At this point there is little reason for Trump to continue to stew over the differences that he and Senator McCain had. If nothing else a sense of decency should lead him to let go of his anger.

Sadly our nation is engaged in a long winded and petty brawl in which anyone is fair game for insults and jibes. Almost every politician is sorted and categorized into narrow estimations of character that mark him/her as good or bad depending on point of view. There is no room for considerations of the continuum of reality in which we all exist. In truth the idea of either totally vilifying or adoring any individual is absurd, and leads to illogical assessments of important decisions. It might be a natural trait of exuberant youth to be more emotion driven, but we all need to grow up at some point and learn how to think without melodramatic outbursts. Right now those who show moderation are often thought to be without ideals, and yet it is likely that they are the true adults in the room. Perhaps that is why someone like Senator John McCain is a conundrum not just to President Trump but to most democrats as well. He was a man who considered each issue on its own merits, not from the perspective of a set of values frozen in concrete.

It was once said of me that I am capable of finding good in everyone, even an evil person like Charles Manson. That is indeed true of me because I have learned that every person who lives is an amalgam of both good and bad. Some learn how to tame their ill natured tendencies and others are defined by them. Perhaps the route that each of us follows is formed by the ways in which people see us and we then see ourselves. Our humanity is complex and who we ultimately become as individuals is determined by a million different things. Perhaps the good in us wins out because people are willing to see it, just as the bad sometimes seizes the day because our negative traits are the only things that define us in people’s eyes. 

If we have any hope of being a nation of integrity, then we must begin to publicly acknowledge good acts when we see them regardless of who is performing them. We need to stop the practice of turning people into incomplete caricatures of themselves, and instead admit to both their positive traits and their flaws. It would also do us well to return to adherence to a bit of decency befitting of logic and compassion.      

Inspiration

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I just got around to viewing First Man and I was once again reminded of what an incredible feat the journey to the moon actually was. The movie highlighted the primitive nature of the systems that existed back then making the accomplishment even more impressive than any of us imagined at the time. The movie’s focus was on Neal Armstrong so it almost minimized the efforts of thousands of individuals who made the event possible, and it gave only a brief nod to President Kennedy’s role in supporting the program and inspiring to help in the effort. In truth it was his leadership that created a sense of purpose and urgency to the idea of traveling to the moon.

John Kennedy had a way with words, or at least his speechwriters did. His talent was delivering them in such a way that we all wanted to get onboard with his ideas. He united most of us in realizing that we had the brains and the wherewithal to get the job done. He created a lovely picture of what such an accomplishment would be, and he challenged us to support the journey. In that regard he was a true leader, someone who garnered enthusiasm for a cause without denigrating those who were a bit wary. He made it seem patriotic and wonderful, and remarkable individuals like the astronauts reinforced his thoughts. They were men of high character and intelligence who had served their country and were willing to possibly sacrifice their lives for a lofty goal. That was the real beauty of Kennedy’s ability to rally all of us.

When Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon in July of 1969, John Kennedy was long dead but those of us who had heard his clarion call for the space program understood that he was in many ways the founder of the celebration. The whole world watched those grainy images with a sense of awe, and those of us in the United States felt great pride in the remarkable accomplishment. We knew that some of the best minds in the country had worked long and hard to accomplish the unbelievable. We celebrated not just Neal Armstrong and his crew, but also the best of mankind’s determination and abilities. We remembered with reverence John Kennedy’s words that first inspired us to believe that the impossible was truly possible.

I think of challenges that we have today and I realize that what is lacking is a brilliant leader with the ability to bring us together in common cause. Winston Churchill was able to do this for his country in one of the darkest hours of Great Britain. Franklin Roosevelt kept the people of the United States utterly devoted to the cause of bringing freedom and peace to a warring world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of Blacks in our country into crystal clear focus and brokered change without violence or threats. Then there was Abraham Lincoln who desperately worked to keep the country together and to right the wrongs of the past. Each of these individuals had a gift, an ability to describe a brilliant future with stirring words and practical plans. Sadly today’s revolutionary ideas are being voiced in such a way as to alienate half of the population.

Our leaders are not only at odds with each other but at odds with huge swathes of the citizenry. They patronize us by insinuating that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves, so they must do the job for us. In their quests to push their plans forward they demand and foment fear rather than inspire. Whether speaking of the need for a border wall or ways to deal with climate change they use scare tactics and hurl insults at anyone who dares to disagree with them. They seem to be urging us to go their way or take the highway. This is hardly the way to take care of problems if the great leaders of the past are any indication.

I’m a believer that we do indeed need to address climate change but I also feel that we need to do so with a realistic goal in mind. To simply say that we have to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels without actually having an idea of how to do that other than vague outlines is frightening. People have hundreds of questions that are either being ridiculed or ignored. I find myself feeling like the boy who noticed that the emperor was stark naked while the rest of the crowd acted as though they did not see the problem. We have to consider the consequences both intended and unintended of any actions that we choose to take or not take. That only makes sense. To rally behind either the climate change deniers or those with militant half baked ideas its the wrong course to take. Sadly our leaders are lining up behind one faction or another without steering us in a clear path and making us part of the solution process. We have to understand that rushing headlong into a brave new world is frightening for most people. There is a way to get things done one step at a time without throwing away our way of life. We just have to provide realistic alternatives that may actually work and then get the populace on board by explaining rather than lecturing.

Our young have always been impatient and revolutionary. It was young men who designed our country’s government, but their radical enthusiasm was often tempered by those who understood the need for a bit of caution. Our history is one of moving incrementally toward positive change with a few instances of exponential bursts led by extraordinary people who understood how to help people understand both the problems and solutions without patronizing or ignoring or insulting.

We can keep our union, fight a war for all humanity, bring justice to forgotten people and send a man to the moon. We are not afraid of a cause, but we need a leader who knows how to help us understand our individual roles in the solutions. It has been done before. Perhaps now more than ever we must search for the person who works for the good of all mankind, not just a select group that already agrees with all that they have to say. So far I don’t see such a person on the horizon, but surely there is someone and hopefully he or she will step forward.