Walking Canvases

Cute-and-Artsy-Snowflake-Tattoos-35

Fashion is an art form, a way of expressing oneself with hair and clothing. There are really no rules when it comes to the way we present ourselves, but we are generally guided by the mores of the times. Fashion often becomes the subject of controversy, particularly in traditional institutions like offices, churches and schools. We tend to be judgmental when it comes to fashion, often preferring more traditional ways of adorning ourselves. As with language there are certain unwritten but widely known and mostly accepted ways of dressing in particular circumstances. Sometimes we demand more formality and other times we allow great variance from the norm. Even in the most casual situations we sometimes cringe at the sight of extremes that are unlike what we are accustomed to seeing. We forget that fashion is ultimately a very personal thing as we attempt to foist our own preferences on others in a critical and sometimes even persecutory way.

There was a time when both men and women regularly wore flowing robes. Even today there are cultures in which even males don what may appear to be a kind of dress. In the seventeenth century kings and potentates wore long curly wigs, makeup, stockings and high heeled pumps. Mankind has always experimented with fashion so why do we find ourselves freaking out whenever someone does not conform to our own thoughts on how to dress?

We’ve heard about the young man from the Barber’s Hill school district who was told that his dreadlocks were too long. He was informed that unless he cut them he would not be allowed to walk with his classmates for graduation. Those who know him admit that he actually looks quite nice and that he is a good and respectful person. Nonetheless the authorities took the stance that rules are rules and he must abide by them or suffer the consequences. My question is why there should even be such a rule? It is highly doubtful that the length of someone’s hair whether male or female would detract from the ceremony in any way. If there is any sort of distraction it has been invented by the powers that be, not this young man.

We get a bit crazy from time to time and create more furor or silly things like appearance than need be. I recall attending an assembly during school hours when I was in high school whose only purpose was to harangue the girls about the volume of their bouffant hair, the length of their skirts, and the need to wear white socks with their shoes. What our teachers did not seem to realize was that the meeting was a total waste of time that we actually appreciated because it allowed us to have a break from our classes. Beyond that we were all joking and laughing about the ridiculousness of it all.

The truth is that the ways in which we choose to adorn ourselves are always superficial. They do not define us nor do they really matter. We may roll our eyes at what we see as the ridiculous of a young man struggling to walk as his oversized pants hang around his knees, but other than demonstrating what we may see as bad taste he actually hurts nobody. We certainly have the right to tell him that such clothing is inappropriate in particular situations but we would do well to consider whether or not our attention to such matters is worth the time and effort that we will have to expend to gain his compliance. In other words, what difference will it make?

I once had a student who insisted on wearing a belt with a skull on the buckle in defiance of a school rule. He never personally gave me a problem. He came to my class ready to work. He was polite, paid attention, and participated in the activities I had planned. He was always a top student, rarely making a grade below a B. Somehow that skull on his belt was no bother at all when it came to his academics and yet it became such a sticking point with one of the administrators of the school that it resulted in his being expelled. While I agreed that the student’s noncompliance was indeed over the top I could not help but wonder if the furor created by the assistant principal was much ado about nothing. Rules should somehow make sense, be meaningful and this one confounded me.

We each have personal preferences for adorning ourselves. Tattoos are all the rage among those younger than I am. While I have no desire whatsoever to ink my skin the younger set sees tattoos as a way of celebrating individuality, relationships, accomplishments. To them adorning their skin with art is as natural as purchasing a piece of jewelry or a new pair of shoes. It’s not my cup of tea, but it does not bother me in the least if someone else decides to adorn his/her body with imagery. I would only tell anyone thinking of getting a tattoo to consider what it may look like when the skin ages and wrinkles. I would suggest that placing permanent art anywhere on the body might lead to regret later on, so a bit of circumspection might be in order. Beyond that there are far more important things to dwell upon.

Each of us is unique. We like different things. We express ourselves in the way we dress. In some ways we are living art. Some of us emulate the old masters and others trend toward the avant garde. Our appearance all too often becomes the manner in which we are perceived, but in truth it’s what is inside our minds that should matter. It’s how we treat people that should be the metric that determines our fates. Beyond that let each one celebrate individuality however he or she may choose. Our world is made more beautiful by celebrating the canvases known as self.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

central-park-5_bhm

Try to imagine the time when you were fourteen, fifteen or sixteen years old. Did you know much about the world? Were you confident? Did you do some stupid things? How would you have reacted if you had been picked up by police who accused you of a heinous crime? What might you have done or said if they wore you down after more than twenty four hours of interrogation without your parents or an attorney being present? What if they told you that all you had to do is go along with a story about people that you did not know and then you would be allowed to go home? Who among us would have held up under such intense pressure? How much worse do you think it might have been if you were poor and Black or Hispanic. Such was the situation of five teenage boys in New York City on an April night in 1989 after they had been partaking in a raucous game in Central Park called “wilding” in which they harassed passersby, sometimes going a bit too far but mostly just letting off steam.

New York City was a crime ridden shell of what it is today back then. The public had grown weary of the muggings and violence that were a daily occurrence. The failing economy of the city at that time created extreme economic divisions. There was a tension between the haves and have nots that was almost certain to blow. The situation exploded on that April night of 1989, when a young woman who had been jogging was found near death in Central Park. There was an immediate urgency to find the perpetrators of the crime and a sense that somehow the young men who had created havoc that same night must surely be the ones who had done this egregious act.

The police created a scenario in their minds and then without any physical evidence convinced themselves that some of the young men that they had rounded up early must indeed have been the thugs who had done the violent deed. With no substantiation other than a hunch they began to grill five young men only two of whom knew each other at the time. They lied to the teens telling them that others had implicated them in the crime. In spite of the boys’ claim that they knew nothing of the matter the lawmen persisted in their insistence that they would get the truth that they wanted one way or another. Promising a route home if the exhausted teens cooperated they fed each one details that were created to frighten them into making taped confessions each of which contained conflicting stories. Only one boy never implicated himself or any of the others because his mother rushed in to rescue him from the invasive interrogation but even he was doomed.

Thinking that the worst was over after providing the forced statements each teen was shocked upon being charged with the rape and the violence associated with the incident. Thus began a prolonged journey through the court and prison system for five young men who maintained their innocence in spite of what they had said on tape. They became known as the Central Park Five and their story is one of incomprehensible injustice.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef, and Korey would be tried in both the media and the courts. They became reviled symbols of all that was wrong with society. They had essentially been found guilty from the moment that the police learned of the raped and battered woman in the park. They were damned every step of the way and without the resources of money, good lawyers and parents who understood how things worked they were left to a kind of mob rule. Needless to say all five were found guilty in spite of a case so weak that it should never have resulted in indictments. The four who were younger were sentenced as juveniles and one, who was sixteen at the time of the crime but seventeen when he was found guilty, went straight to Riker’s Island as an adult.

Antron, Raymond, Kevin and Yusef spent seven years imprisoned. Korey endured thirteen years during which time he was brutalized multiple times. All had been robbed of their youth and any promise of the future until a serial rapist finally admitted to the crime for which they had been convicted. In a dramatic turn of events the actual perpetrator was able to provide police with details that only someone who had committed the crime would have known. Additionally his DNA matched that found on the victim at the scene of the crime. Eventually the five young men who had suffered so needlessly were exonerated and years later the city of New York gave them financial compensation for the mistake that had been made.

I have not been able to get this story out of my thoughts. I watched a documentary of their saga by Ken Burns called The Central Park Five and a limited series titled When They See Us. Both features were stunning in their depiction of an horrific injustice that is no doubt less uncommon than any of us would like to believe. In spite of the eventual outcome every one of the young men were scarred in ways that will never be erased by either apologies or restitution. Mostly I found myself thinking that something like this might easily have happened to so many of my former students who like these innocents might appear to be of a sort that is not even close to who they are. The color of their skin, the places where they live, their lack of income are often indictments by a world unwilling to seek the full truth. Our society has a dangerous tendency to act based on little or no facts. We follow outrages without thought, rushing to disaster like lemmings running toward the edge of a cliff. It happens over and over again.

I’d like to think that we might learn from such miscarriages of justice. I want to believe that we will adhere strictly to the idea that all Americans are innocent until proven guilty. I pray that we have learned the importance of protecting the rights of all people without prejudice. What worries me most is the feeling that we have yet to fully embrace such wisdom. We still have to fight for the rights of young men like Antron, Raymond, Kevin, Yusef and Corey. I pray to God that their numbers will be few. In the meantime I recommend that The Central Park Five and When They See Us should be required viewing for all Americans.

What We Need

common-ground-dove

There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

Serenity

maxresdefault

I tend to be a person of moderation. I’ve never smoked. I drink very little and I actually get so sick when I eat too much that I avoid gluttony like the plague. I was once addicted to Diet Coke, a habit that started when someone told me that I might forestall my migraine headaches if I drank the brew regularly. I got to where I was gulping down one for breakfast, another at lunch and two more during the day. I was terrified to quit because the drink was like a magic elixir that actually kept my headaches more at bay than prescribed medications. I was so known for drinking Diet Coke that my Secret Santas often included a carton of them with my gifts.

Two years ago I decided that enough was enough. I did not like the idea of being controlled by a substance and so I went cold turkey. I haven’t touched a soft drink of any kind since then for fear that I might resurrect my habit. It has been especially difficult at movies. There’s nothing quite like a big cup of soda with some popcorn to feel content. The same is true whenever I eat Tex-Mex or a Whataburger. In spite of my urges I’ve kept religiously to my goal of shutting Diet Coke and all other carbonated drinks out of my life,

I suppose that I do not like the idea of doing anything to excess, but in reality I know that my hidden secret is that I worry too much. I’m good at telling others not to waste time fretting over things, but not so good at following my own advice. My grandfather often warned me not to take after my grandmother who was a chronic ball of anxiety. I suppose that my genes are predisposed to being concerned about what might be, even when I have no power to change many of the situations that occupy my thoughts.

I suspect that the world lends itself to being a source of worry. I think about school shootings, trouble in the Middle East, climate change, poverty, the education of our children and a hundred other things. Sometimes it feels as though we are in deep trouble. Other times I’m able to control my mind and do whatever is within my capabilities and leave the rest to those in power and to God.

Mostly I think about my family and my friends though. I want to fix things for them, help them to have perfectly wonderful lives, even though I understand that sometimes each person has to face his/her own problems. I am a fixer who is constantly tidying up messes in the world, That is in fact the one thing that I do excessively even though I know full well that it is impossible for me to be all things to all people.

I suppose that I am not alone in desiring to mend hearts, educate minds, heal wounds. It’s not bad that I do my best to be considerate of other people’s needs. What makes my efforts a bit on the cray cray side is when I obsess and feel as though I am never able to do enough. I become addicted to being a panacea as surely as I was hooked on those Diet Cokes. Just as I understood that it was wrong to need that drink so much, so it is a bit prideful and presumptive for me to think that I can solve the world’s problems if only I try hard enough. In fact, if I’m not kind to myself I don’t think I can be really effective in helping others. In other words, I need to get my own house in order first.

I suppose that it is never too late to learn how to be empathetic and loving without becoming overly anxious. My resolve this year is to begin thinking logically about what is possible for me to do with regard to the difficulties of others and then let things go as the ear worm song says. Even love and worry in excess can be lethal. It’s time for me to change what I can and leave what I can’t to those who are more able. The Serenity Prayer is going to become my mantra. For those who haven’t heard it for a time here it is:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

If I have been able to give up those darn Diet Cokes I think maybe I can achieve a bit more serenity as well.

Opening Hearts and Minds

peacemaker

I am what is sometimes known as a people pleaser, not so much because I want to impress anyone with my goodness but because I have an uncanny ability to sense people’s feelings. I have spent most of my life striving to help others to be their best selves and making great effort to see differing points of view. My work has included titles like mother, teacher, peer facilitator, dean of faculty. In those roles I focused on walking hand in hand with my charges rather than being an authoritarian. I prefer being a diplomat to executing orders. To my utter dismay I more and more often find myself in a kind of new world order in which I am constantly challenged to choose a side or be considered outmoded and ineffective. The middle ground where I have long stood so that I might extend a hand to each side is now considered the choice of wimps, those unwilling to take a stand. I find it more and more difficult to please anyone and I am often accused of being the kind of person who has actually caused most of the problems of the world.

We appear to be in a phase during which manners and decency toward all is considered passé. Tough guys, bullies, those willing to hurl insults are thought to be the new saviors of the world. Being polite and soft spoken is out. Being brash is in. Passive resistance and peaceful assembly has lost its lure. Instead shouting and insistence that all agree to a kind of tandem manner of thinking is the way of the new heroes. Sound bites have replaced thoughtful discourse.

As a teenager I read John Kennedy’s Profiles In Courage with an almost reverential mindset. I saw the heroes that he described as role models for my own life. I liked the stories of fortitude in the lives of the saints that had so fascinated me as a child. I wanted more than anything to be a fair and just individual who held tightly to the belief that each of us has an important purpose in this world. I read and reread tales of men and women who changed the world without harming others. I came to believe that the most glorious aspect of living where I do is the unalienable right of individuals to have the liberty of their own thoughts. I enjoyed the idea of bridging gaps between diverse groups. It is who I am and what I do.

It seems as though a perverse stubbornness has invaded the world. We are at an impasse with one another. Society has become judgmental without taking the time to analyze situations devoid of prejudice. Our favored leaders often hurl insults at one another. We blame entire generations for our problems with sweeping pronouncements. Some taunt the “snowflakes” while others dismiss the “boomers” as the lot that has destroyed the earth. Anger is even invading families and rending friendships in two. There is a kind of worldwide psychosis that is making all of us sick.

It has become almost impossible for me to use my diplomatic skills. Of late I seem to anger everyone whenever I attempt to consider all sides of a discussion. My efforts are derided as useless and perhaps even counterproductive. I am reminded of how souls like Mitt Romney are not the heroes I think them to be, but spineless cowards who are of little use to the world. People are demanding action and those who attempt to broker compromise and peace are thought to be a large part of the world’s problems.

As a student of history I know how dangerous such thinking can be. While mankind divides itself into winners and losers suffering prevails. The power brokers unwilling to give an inch one way or another wreak havoc on innocents. Problems fester and grow in an atmosphere unwilling to consider compromise. When people no longer listen to one another grave mistakes are made. Divisions like north and south, left and right, red and blue, Christian and atheist, Sunni and Shia, Israeli and Palestinian, educated and uneducated, rich and poor are the sources of conflict and war. It is only when we truly attempt to work together that solutions begin to arise.

I was quite taken by an image that one of my friends posted on Christmas Day. In the photo were two women, sisters from a loving family. One of them stood in front a blue car with a “Warren” sticker and the other posed by a red car with a “Trump” sticker. Both women were laughing and obviously quite happy with one another, unwilling to allow their political differences to change their feelings of warmth and affection. It was a hopeful sign for me, a reminder that when all is said and done we humans may have differing opinions of how to solve problems but we are united by love.

I’d like to believe that our current state of rage is only a temporary phase and that the peacemakers will come into fashion again. In the meantime I pray that relationships that have been broken by differences in points of view may be mended. We need each other now more than ever. Life is far too short to spend time quibbling when we might be better off finding ways to get along. All it takes is a willingness to open our hearts and minds. Perhaps that is the best resolution that anyone might make for the new year and new decade of 2020.