Finding Refuge From the Storm

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I’ve had to take a deep breath of late,  and step back for a time. The furor over politics is ratcheting up as we draw nearer to the midterm elections, and the sheer lunacy of it all has been wearing me down, I found myself stewing over the craziness of each day’s episode of election tales deep into to the night. Then I found myself sleeping later and later in the morning to make up for my attacks of insomnia. In spite of the fact that all is going well in my life, I was getting sucked into the vortex of anger that was swirling all around me. It was not until I saw a single hummingbird perched on the branch of a tree near my bedroom window that I found the peace of mind that I had been seeking. Thanks to the feeder that my youngest daughter brought me from Colorado the tiny creature has been attracted to my yard, providing me with some unexpectedly comforting moments.

I suppose that I set myself up for the anxiety that has been stalking me. I was so taken by the calm and bipartisan sweetness of John McCain’s funeral that I had naively believed that the political landscape would be suddenly transformed into a kind of Kumbaya sanctuary. I had been forewarned by one of my wiser and more logical friends not to hold my breath, but being ever the cockeyed optimist I truly thought that we had reached one of those watershed moments in history. Boy, was I wrong, not just in left field but outside of the ballpark entirely.

For a time I was unable to escape the chaos that spoiled my mood. I don’t know about you, but my email account is filled with political adds from all sorts of folks who want to part me from my money for their causes. They have become rather annoying with their daily rants that I guess are supposed to rile me up enough to take out my credit card. Little do they know that they are having the opposite effect. I just want them to go away.

Watching the news on television or listening to it on the radio isn’t any better. I’ve sworn off of CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and NPR. Instead I tune in to the local stations mostly to hear the weather report since this is prime hurricane season and my city is often the target of those kinds of storms. Otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the posturing or have to watch the embarrassing behavior of most of the folks in Washington D.C. or those who are hoping to get there. I truly wonder if they all believe that I am as much of an idiot as their commentaries seem to assume. Sorry folks, I’m not falling for any of the propaganda. I can spot the techniques from a mile away. You won’t see me jumping on any kind of bandwagon.

I love catching up with friends and family that I don’t always get to see by way of Facebook. I enjoy knowing how people are doing. Now that I am retired I might lose track of them were it not for all those comments and photos on my wall. Nonetheless, my space has been bombarded with the pros and cons of the newest Nike ad and dire warnings about Brett Kavanaugh. It’s all way too much over the top for me. I’ve had to mostly stay away from it lest I surrender to the temptation to make comments that might cause me to enrage friends and family whom I love. I’ve tried to just leave them to their beliefs, because in the end each of us is entitled to our individual opinions. I’m not going to change mine because someone else is ranting, and I suspect that even if I submit a carefully crafted persuasive piece it will make little difference in the grand scheme of things.

The one thing that I have seen that most infuriated me was an article in which the author submitted an argument that presumed to know what all white people think about the various issues of our time. He laid the blame for most of the world’s ills directly at the feet of anyone of western European ancestry, but most especially those who eventually became Americans. To be fair the author was also white and his intent was to write a kind of mea culpa for being born into such an horrific race. He apologized in the name of all of us.

I did not find his ideas to be as redeeming as many of my friends did. Instead I saw it as patronizing and highly insulting, not to mention presumptive. Only a handful of the world’s people actually know me or anyone else for that matter. It is impossible to make sweeping generalizations about individuals, and it is dangerous to place large groups of people into a single category. The complexities of humans are far too great to assume that we completely understand what makes each person tick.

As for myself, if truth be known I am a political misfit. I have rarely found anyone with whom I totally agree in matters of national concern. I would be maddening to anyone at the extremes of political life, and in turn I long for politicians of old like John Kennedy or Barbara Jordan. I liked George H.W. Bush’s kinder, gentler nation, and I loved bipartisan efforts like those of the Gang of Eight. I advocate for immigration reform and fiscal conservatism at one and the same time. I am against both the death penalty and abortion. I think that it is high time that we fully embrace the idea of gay marriage, but I don’t think that it is right to ignore the religious beliefs of those who disagree. I believe that minorities still suffer at the hands of racists, but I do not believe for a second that all white people are racists. I have seen bad teachers, bad business owners, bad lawmakers, so I assume that there are bad police officers hiding in the mix of the good guys who serve and protect us. I have a theory that there are evil doers who are having a great time watching us tear at each others’ throats. It’s an old political trick that has been around for centuries and to my chagrin it is working rather well.

So for now I will spend more time with my little hummingbird, and less keeping up with the news. Besides, my grandchildren need me to help them review for tests in Geometry and Algebra II, so I have some planning to do. I will ignore the chaos and devote myself to more worthy pursuits.

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Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

And In Other News…

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There are some days when the news stories bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I am feeling happiness and on other occasions I am simply amused. At recent day this week was filled with items that brought a great big grin to my countenance.

I started the day hearing the wonderful news that Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz had been recovered. I have to admit that I didn’t even know that they had been stolen, but it was nice to hear a happy ending anyway. It seems that there were several pairs of the iconic shoes which were purchased by collectors. I saw one set when I visited the Smithsonian a few years back. An identical pair was on loan to a museum in Minneapolis because that’s the city where Judy Garland was born. They had been inside a class case that was supposed to have an alarm that alerted police in case there was a robbery. Someone came in one night, broke the glass, and walked out with the beloved shoes leaving no fingerprints or any other clues as to who had been there. For some reason the alarm rang but didn’t inform the local lawmakers and so for ten years the theft has been an unsolved mystery.

The crazy thing is that everyone thought that it would be impossible to sell the slippers, so many worried that perhaps they had ultimately been destroyed. There was even an idea that they may have been thrown into a river or lake. That led to attempts to find them in waterways in or near Minneapolis, but all efforts became dead ends. Amazingly a tip resulted in rescuing the shoes, but at this point the lawmakers are saying little about who the culprit may have been.

It was a feel good story. The kind of happy ending that the old movies always seemed to have. Thats something that often seems a bit hard to come by in today’s world which is filled with so much rancor and so many misunderstanding. For a few moments the newscasters while smiling as they reported on the wonderful news, and so were those of us who heard the story.

Then there was a bit of ridiculousness that occurred at a school in China. It seems that a principal at a kindergarten decided to welcome students for the new school year by hiring a pole dancer to give a demonstration at an assembly for the kids and their parents. The scantily clad entertainer gyrated suggestively causing utter shock among the adults in the audience. To say there were a few complaints is an understatement.

Ironically the principal stood her ground, defending her actions by noting the the dancer has many unique skills. She also defended her actions by insisting that this was an inspirational way to convey to the students that there are many forms of creativity. She was convinced that the children on the whole loved the performance, and questioned the reaction of the parents

This same school administrator had ended last year’s school sessions with a display of weapons and instruments of war. While some of the parents objected to the appropriateness of that particular sendoff, most people got too busy with summer plans to make too much of a stink. When they saw the latest inappropriate display, they felt compelled to speak out. This time their cries of alarm were taken seriously and the principal was promptly fired.

The total cluelessness of the still bewildered former school leader  left me speechless, but also roaring with laughter. I wondered how long it would take Saturday Night Live to do a skit poking fun at this incident. I can only imagine how much more hilarious their portrayal of this educational disaster would be. Knowing the world of schools as well as I do I wondered how many other major faux pas had been made by teachers and administrators whose common sense is sorely lacking. I know that I have seen a thing or two in that regard, and I tell my self that nothing can shock me, but I have been befuddled again and again.

Many long years ago a teacher at one of my schools decided to show a movie to her students. She turned off all of the lights in the classroom to make the environment more closely resemble a movie theater. Sadly the darkness made her drowsy and before long she had fallen asleep. I can’t even repeat what happened after that, but let us just say that things that took place in cars at the old drive inn theaters had nothing on the action that happened in that classroom. After that we all had to abide by a school rule that made us keep all of the lights on no matter what, and encouraged us to closely monitor the students at all times

I probably shouldn’t laugh about such horrific educators, but some things are so ridiculous that there is nothing left but a sense of humor to muck through the craziness. Thus I have to admit to enjoying the story about that Chinese principal. I’m sorry that she lost her job, but really…!

On the Road or At Home

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We humans are funny. We want to explore, but we also need a sense of security, safety. Who among us has not had the urge to just drive away, while still longing for the tranquility and familiarity of home? We love those glorious vacations when we throw caution to the wind, but almost always find ourselves longing for the comfort of the routines that await us. We oscillate between wanting to just chuck it all and drive away, and needing to spend time wrapped in blankets in our beds. It is as though we can’t really decide what makes us the most happy, and so our level of contentment all too often wavers.

We have so many choices, and yet it seems as though we have too few. Why is it so hard to decide what we really want? Would we indeed be better off if our lives were more constricted to fulfilling our basic needs rather than offering endless opportunities? Such is the conundrum for those who question what form of government intervention is best for the most people. The socialists offer a safety net for all when it comes to what Franklin Roosevelt called the four freedoms of speech, want, fear and worship. In an ideal world each of us would have total assurance that we would never again have to worry about whether or not we had food on the table, a place to live, healthcare when we needed it, the ability to speak our minds or to praise the God of our choice. Still the cost of such programs would almost certainly lessen the likelihood of having great differences in the manner in which we all lived. Our choices would be reduced, but we would not be without.

In a free enterprise, capitalist system each person has the possibility of making it big, attaining levels of wealth that also insure a life without want. The very nature of the system is competitive and results in disparities, but there is a great deal of freedom to experiment and try all sorts of ideas. It breeds creativity and excitement, but also some fear. It’s difficult to rise up from the bottom of the socio-economic heap, but not impossible. Many a person has found great success because the opportunities are indeed abundant. Still there are constant fears of losing all in the event of a tragedy or disaster. There is a push and a pull that creates tension and worry while it also nurtures our adventurous spirits.

It’s difficult to decide what is actually best for a society. I know that human nature is such that if we remove all of the incentives characteristic of a capitalist society we tend to be less inventive. At the same time if we are too worried about our futures our stress can work against us as well. Then too there will always be souls who are plagued with the bad fortune of illnesses and tragedies over which they have no control. I think of my mother who was left to raise three children with so little money that just surviving was a constant worry that was exacerbated by her mental illness. She somehow muddled through, but I wonder if our society would not be better if we had more mechanisms for assuring people such as her that they need never worry, because we will not let them down.

I truly believe that we might do such things without completely tearing down our economic system. Thee are brilliant aspects of capitalism that bring hope and dreams to all of us. At the same time we need to find ways of supporting those who truly are unable to help themselves. We have much room for improvement without taking away from those who have worked hard to achieve success. The problem is that the differing ways of thinking about economic matters have created such a chasm that we find it difficult to find common ground. One side raves that the more fiscally cautious are little more than greedy ogres, and the other side accuses the people who want more security of attempting to destroy our government. Surely there is a midpoint at which we might meet. Do we really need to throw the baby out with the bath water?

I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents who had fled from an authoritarian government that eventually had been forced to bow to Communism. I heard horror stories of what happens when there is a kind coup that overturns most of the customs and ways of doing things too quickly. For that reason I am still wary of trusting that quick overhauls will bring satisfactory results. I much prefer an approach that considers many different points of view and finds a way of fixing only the most broken aspects of society. I know that we need to do something, I just don’t want that process to be extreme.

I’ve read a great deal about the Russian Revolution. It is true that the common people were suffering, but the promises from Lennin and his ilk did not pan out the way most had hoped. Countless were purged simply because they disagreed with what was happening. Life was restrictive. The four freedoms were all but nonexistent. The new government was formed with too little thought, too little input from all sides. It was founded on fear rather than wisdom, tribal thinking rather than inclusion. I would hate to see such a movement take place in my own country.

At the same time the naysayers have to realize that we are reaching a tipping point. For too long there have been too many who feel like outsiders in a society that is supposed to feel free. Until we demonstrate a willingness to listen to what they have to say and then search for ways of helping them, the gap between groups will only widen.

I love my country with every fiber of my being. I think that in spite of its imperfections it is still a great place to be. I want to see progress in addressing our needs, our dreams, our wants. I want each of us to demonstrate care, concern understanding even for those whose ideas are complete opposites of ours. No president or lawmaker should be working for a particular base, but for everyone. Until we reach that point the uncertainty that we all seem to despise will continue. I hope that we are able to find solutions without creating so much division that we resort to embracing and enforcing only one way of thinking. We need variety in our government as much as we need it in our lives. Sometimes that means seeking adventure, and sometimes that means staying at home.

  

There Can Be No Excuses

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I’m a Catholic. I was born into a Catholic family and baptized as an infant. I attended twelve years of Catholic school and have received all of the sacraments but Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick. I’ve been a rather lackluster cafeteria kind of Catholic for the last several years, but of late I have returned to the fold on a regular basis. I can’t imagine myself being a member of any other Christian denomination, but I have to admit to being angry and sorrowful over the latest accusations of priests engaged in sexual abuse with young children and seminarians. The details are literally vomit inducing, and I can’t even imagine how dreadful it must have been for those who had to endure such horrors. In my mind there can be no excuse for such egregious behavior from any adult, much less one in a position of trust.

My church has to face the problems that brew in its ranks and accept full responsibility for such incidents beginning with a willingness to report such violations of decency to the police as soon as they are discovered. Anyone who simply moves a priest to another location or thinks that sending them for rehabilitation without alerting law enforcement should be viewed as an accessory to a crime. The days of hiding the abuse from the public must be long gone. It is only right and just. If the church leaders want to demonstrate compassion and forgiveness, they may do so, but first there must be adherence to the laws of the state. If that means watching one of their own being sent to prison, then so be it.

I have long believed that the church’s insistence on maintaining celibacy with the clergy is an outdated and problematic ideology. I see nothing wrong with having married priests. In fact, I suspect that opening up the priesthood to those who wish to have families would be more conducive to finding psychologically healthy individuals to maintain the parishes. It would certainly be a boon to vocations, and would lead to clearer understanding of the problems that faithful face. One of my all time favorite priests became single after he had raised his children and lost his wife. He was allowed to enter the seminary, and he brought a wisdom and compassion that is heart warming. He knows what it means to have the challenges of raising a family. His life with a wife and children has provided him with a unique point of view. I truly advocate for changing the ancient rule that seems out of place in our modern world.

For that matter, I wonder if we are also ready to accept female priests. The old ways of considering women unable to handle the same challenges as men are long gone. We have lots of proof that women are not only able to perform many of the same tasks as males, but they often bring additional assets and talents to most jobs. So many of the nuns that I knew as a child would have been remarkable priests. They were as wise and intelligent as the men, but relegated to a more submissive role. Surely we have moved beyond that as well.

I see religious men and women in other faiths doing remarkable things while still caring for spouses and children. They do not seem to lack either the energy nor the time to care for their parishioners, and they generally do so with few psychological hangups. I feel that if we create a more normal atmosphere for our priests, those with problems will be less attracted to a religious life where they think they might hide their proclivities. With a few adjustments to the way things are done, many of the problems that continue to plague the church will be eliminated or at least minimized.

You may be wondering why I don’t just leave the Catholic Church and find a new experience say as an Episcopalian or a Methodist. The answer lies in my conviction that the church is more than a single priest or even all of them put together. It is the community of the millions of Catholics the world over. It is about a beautiful faith and set of beliefs that rise above the sins of a few. As a member of this holy body I have a right to question the difficulties that I witness, and even to suggest solutions, but I do not intend to leave.

Long ago a very good priest, a holy man, Father John Perusina, baptized me when I was a baby. Many years later he witnessed my marriage and was a faithful friend of my family. Once when I was frustrated about problems that I saw in the church I threatened to just leave and find a place to worship more to my liking. Father Perusina gently and wisely pointed out that if everyone had my attitude the church would soon be run by the very people with whom I disagreed. He urged me instead to stay and to feel free to make my voice heard. He insisted that the only way to make change was for those with good ideas to remain members of the church. I have found his advice to be more than true. I have often been able to constructively note problems and bring about changes in the parishes that I have attended.

I have been a fortunate soul as were my brothers. We did not encounter the evil abuse that has been perpetrated on some innocent souls. I feel certain that most priests are as good as we expect them to be, but the unfortunate fact is that all too often the really bad ones have been treated with kid gloves when they should have been made to feel the consequences of their sins, not just within the church but with the law. Until that becomes a uniform reaction any time someone is discovered engaging in such heinous acts, a sense of distrust will remain to tarnish even the best souls.

We seem to have found a courageous pope who will be honest about the problems and will work to find real solutions. I’ll pray that a productive path will be found. I love my church and want to see it enforce the values that it taught me even when those in the highest level of authority do wrong. There can be no excuses ever again.