Saturday, December 31, 2011

All shall be well: thoughts on changing the world in 2012

On a wall in my house hangs a fading, framed newspaper clipping from 2008 with the headline, "Change has come." My friends on the political right have had a good deal of fun deriding that claim in recent months, and much as I admire my president, I'm tempted to chime in myself with "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Just to balance the equation, it should be noted that in the closing hours of 2011, Politifact presented a report card on the Republican presidential candidates. When the big prize goes to the guy who only lies 75% of the time, it's not exactly cause for celebration.

Don't mistake me. This isn't a partisan post, and it's not about shadenfreude. The problem's systemic. Will the face of politics change any time soon? Nah. As Eddie Izzard likes to say, it "tastes of human, sir!"

And that's the problem.

I'm a deeply political animal. I care about social justice issues. I still believe the old adage that the test of a civilized society is in how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and I still agree with Gandhi who, when asked what he thought about western civilization, replied, straight-faced, "It would be a good idea!"

But I'm stuck. I'm stuck in the widening gap between my ideals and an unsustainable deficit, between what I like to think of as humanity and our all too evident humanness. I'm stuck watching the train-wreck that occurs when Nietzsche's warning is ignored--again, and again, and again. "He who fights monsters should see to it that, in the process, he doesn't become a monster."

It doesn't work to "take arms against a sea of troubles" if, in doing so, we abandon the very things we are fighting for. The need for expediency is, perhaps, the oldest of the "old lies": we must torture in order to get the upper hand against a regime that violates human rights; we must impose a death penalty to show that killing is wrong; we must lie and cheat our way into a place of political power in order to fix the mess that other liars created.

Really? And how's that been working for us so far?

In the classroom, I'm frequently faced with knee-jerk, sound-bite answers to complicated questions. The most challenging part of my job is opening spaces where students will dare to think, truly question, crack open the door of an inner prejudice just a little to let some air and light in, so they can attempt to work out complicated responses to a complex world for themselves. Why is it so hard for them to imagine nuance? Why is it so hard for all of us?

It's easy to point the finger at the pants-on-fire politicians and to rave about how bad they are. What's harder is to admit that the politician we disagree with has shown an admirable commitment to his marriage and family, the one we love and who had a great handle on the economy treated his wife like crap, and the one whose faith--or lack of it--we can't understand might have some ideas worth considering. When we refuse a complex world of nuance, we force our politicians into playing caricatures of their true selves--and then, of course, we beat them up for giving us the government we deserve.

I'm not going to stop voting. I'm not going to stop caring. And I'm not going to stop arguing for what I believe is right anytime soon. But I begin to suspect we can only change society as we change ourselves... and that happens slowly, haltingly, sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears, as we return to the place of integrity again and again, remember who we truly are.

I was chatting with friends the other evening about my crazy youth, when I abandoned my career and flew out to Romania after the revolution, determined to make a difference, to change the world, or at least some part of it. Who did I think I was: Batman? Mother Theresa? The greatest thing I learned was that change is slow, and incremental, and grindingly difficult.

In 2012, I'm not looking to change the world through grand gestures or partisan politics. Instead, I'm going looking for it in all my favorite places: in the middle of lakes, through the wisdom of poetry, in the laughter of friends and the colors of sky, on empty, wooded trails, and in challenging poses on my yoga mat.

From those spaces, I hope to come back to engage in my complex world with just a little more balance, just a little more integrity each time than the time before... That's how I'm going to try to change the world in 2012. It's only a practice--I make no promises.

The last word of 2011 goes to T. S. Eliot in this extract from "Little Gidding" in which he tempts us with "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)." Yes, please!

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Don't you just want to smack their heads together?

For the first time in my life, I'm beginning to feel some sympathy for my primary school teacher Miss Bland's preferred method of solving conflicts. She would haul arguing students to the front of the class, warn them that she was going to "smack heads together in a minute," finish her lesson, and then calmly do as she had promised.

I remember one time, my adversary and I thought we could outwit her, and we "made friends" quietly and worriedly as we waited by the blackboard where Miss Bland kept her long-distance missiles (otherwise known as chalks and erasers, objects which frequently found--and left!--their mark on student foreheads).

When Miss Bland finally turned to us to mete out punishment, we told her it was all over, and we had already said sorry to each other.

"Good!" she told us, and then whacked our heads soundly together anyway, leaving a ringing in our ears that lasted all through playtime.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating the whacking of children, but I'm starting to wonder about the whacking of politicians...

Picture of Harry Reid and John Boehner:
By JIM KUHNHENN. Featured in Huffington Post article "John Boehner, Harry Reid Debt Ceiling Plans Create Stalemate In Congress."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Veggie Delight

I recently joined a local community garden and am growing my own organic leek and potato soup. Fun times watching my garden grow, working in the dirt at sundown alongside the pro's, learning about the beneficial effects of mulching, dried molasses and worm poop.

Pop by around June and the soup should be just about ready. I wonder whether the loving care lavished on each individual leek slip over the weeks and months to come will translate into taste... My mum told me recently, "You do know they won't come out looking like soup, don't you, dear?" Yes, mum!

Gardening, it seems to me, is rather like fishing or dry stone walling. It's only partly about the activity itself, and only distantly related to the end result. Mostly, it's about having a reason to be out in the open, enjoying the moments as they tick by more slowly than they do in other places...

"Garden as though you will live forever." (William Kent)

Monday, February 14, 2011

♥ Happy Valentine's Day ♥

I almost stopped my car in the middle of the road and cheered today when I heard this interview with Matthew Alexander on NPR. Alexander and his team were responsible for the capture of two major figures in the leadership of al-Qaida, one of them the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Given the rhetoric we so often hear on popular news channels, you'd be forgiven for thinking this guy would be all about the end justifying the means. But think again. The words that almost got me a ticket today: "I don't care if torture works a hundred percent of the time. I'm not going to use it because it goes against the very principles that I signed up to defend." I received some fun messages and delightful adjectives on this romantic day of days, but Alexander's was the one that made my heart sing.

"Well, I won't be one to tell you that torture never works. I've had friends who have given me examples of when torture did work, but I don't care because to me this isn't about efficacy. We have other things that work a hundred percent of the time like chemical weapons and flamethrowers. We don't use them.

"And the reason we don't use them isn't an efficacy argument, it's because it's against our morality, or because the laws of war have determined that they cause unnecessary human suffering, and we've outlawed them. And there's no exceptions to that.

"I think my big disappointment is the shift in priorities from an America that stands for principles to an America that stands for security. My oath of office, when I took it as an officer in the United States military, didn't mention security. It mentioned allegiance and defending the Constitution, which prohibited torture when we ratified the convention against torture and other provisions within the Constitution."

You can buy the book here. Thank you, Mr Alexander, you made my Valentines Day! ♥

courtesy of St. Martin's Press and via NPR.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

On cats, cars, snow, and Super Sissies

Crazy weather and football fever hit Dallas together this week. Schools and colleges were closed Tuesday through Friday as ice and later snow brought the metroplex to its knees as it was gearing up to host Sunday's Super Bowl.

The cat that lives on our porch has been having a chilly time of it. After weeks of refusing all approaches and offers of food, it condescended to accept a blanket yesterday but is otherwise unmoved. Apparently, those big macho footballers in town for the Super Bowl are not quite as hardy as SuperCat. Playing outdoors at SMU was just too much for them to face, poor things! "It's a little too cold for me," linebacker Clay Matthews said (ESPN). Oh please!

Mind you, I'm staying indoors today after yesterday's little adventure saw me skidding down a hill, bouncing off curbs, and spinning 180 degrees before sliding to a stop facing oncoming traffic--I was narrowly missed by a truck behind me that also lost control but managed to slip past me onto the sidewalk. I've about had it with automatics. This wouldn't happen with proper cars with gear sticks!

Meanwhile, anyone else have a problem with the fact that bad weather and rolling blackouts meant two hospitals lost power this week but the stadium for the Superbowl was kept at a balmy 72 degrees?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Are you listening?

Enjoy your day off, but don't forget where it came from. Following a week which brought "a high volume of hypercharged rhetoric over whether hypercharged rhetoric contributed to last Saturday's shootings in Tucson, Ariz" (Linton Weeks, NPR), a reminder of Dr. King's dream seems not only appropriate but desperately needed.

"Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." Thank you for your life and legacy, Dr. King. I hope enough of us are still listening...