Where is your heart?

The world turned upside down this week, so I went looking for relief in books. The novel didn't help, it only revealed again humanity's tendency toward stupidity, so I pulled down a short book of essays and found some solace.

The book that reached out to me—sometimes they do that—was The Heart is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality by William Sloan Coffin  ["Love and hope, cousin Bill"] and I remembered that the first time I read it I was a little disappointed. I think I wanted his fire, and instead found gentle forbearance. Thinking I could use some of that now I sat down and read.

Those old enough may remember Coffin as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war when he was the chaplain at Yale (where he also organized busloads of Freedom Riders to challenge segregation laws) and later as the senior minister of Riverside Church in New York. He was arrested several times for protesting various injustices and Garry Trudeau's Rev. Sloan, of Doonesbury, was a tip of the hat to him.

Reverend Coffin never stopped speaking forcefully for what he believed and as I read I wondered what he might say were he alive today. Given his history, a good deal I think, and very well. His book is full of lines worthy of quoting:

"Nothing scares me like scared people; for while love seeks the truth, fear seeks safety, the safety so frequently found in dogmatic certainty, in pitiless intolerance."

And

"Although the academic community is more tolerant than the religious right, it is also more passive, and tolerance and passivity are a lethal combination. It's easy to forget how frequently compassion demands confrontation."

And

"No nation is well served by delusions of its righteousness. Every nation makes decisions based on self interest and then defends them in the name of morality."

And

"And for guidance in this task [denuclearization] let us not look overly to our political leaders. Their ethical impulses tend to be so much weaker than their political ones that in order not to stand out they'll do almost anything to fit in."

When our world is upended we need all the help we can get, and some of Coffin's fire and wisdom would be welcome. But I'm pretty sure he would disagree. Life may have tossed us all in a blender this week, but I think the Rev would say that if we listen to—and trust—our left-of-center hearts, we'll be just fine

Le Guin and the way

When I attended a tribute to Ursula Le Guin a few weeks ago I was surprised to learn she had translated Lao Tzu's classic the Tao Te Ching. I promptly bought a copy. Le Guin did not know Chinese, but she worked from a copy belonging to her father, an 1898 edition that contained the Chinese text, a transliteration, and a translation. As she says in her notes, this was like having a Rosetta Stone.

Le Guin started the project in her twenties and worked on it over many years, always adding to her knowledge and eventually connecting with Chinese scholar Dr. J. P. Seaton of the University of North Carolina, who was impressed with her work and shared his expertise. Clearly it was a task driven by determination and will, and love for the text itself.

I can't imagine attempting a translation of a text in a language I did not know, let alone one so easy to misunderstand. So far I like her version very much. It's approachable in a way others I've tried haven't been because, I think, she brings a poet's voice to it. Of course the Tao Te Ching is always difficult—sometimes incomprehensible. But worth the effort.

It's been good to have something to turn to that connects with both mind and soul; it's been a hard week. Reading this morning I thought of the Tao symbol, that circle half-white and half-black, each containing the seed of the other. To the ancient Chinese the dark represented feminine energy and the light masculine, but there are many meanings ascribed to it. I found an image on Google and planted it at the bottom of my computer screen. It reminds me that no matter how dark the world seems, there is always a seed of light within the darkness. We just have to feed it.

 

In a hundred years

A hundred years from now historians will have a clear picture of how our democracy was lost. No doubt they will wonder why we let it happen. What was it that took our 231-year republic—a beacon to the world—from freedom to despotism?

Was it our insistence on electing an ignorant, racist, megalomaniac just to see what would happen? Or because he might "shake things up"? Or because Whites wanted to maintain their position at the top of the food chain?

Or was it the slow, almost invisible slide of our attention away from education, from voting rights, from union rights, from civil rights, from the all encompassing right to domestic tranquility? What were we doing that kept us so earnestly looking away from what was happening? And how was that more important than preserving our country?

And why was it that those in leadership positions, powerful men like McConnell in the Senate and Ryan in the House, and all their minions, how was it that they refused to speak up? In fact, they used their power to protect the megalomanic; knowing, as they must have, that he was chopping at the underpinnings of our country.

 

Or perhaps the historians will say it was due to outside influences; the growing trend toward authoritarianism across the globe, or the pressure of Russia's Putin on a weak-headed president who admired all despots. Maybe it was the failure of global leaders, the United Nations, or the European Union. Why did they not raise their voices? Surely they had influence.

Was the destruction of American democracy planned by some deep state or fifth column, or was it simply a series of interlocking events, each one unimportant until joined by the rest. Could it have simply been a fateful accident, unnoticed until it was too late?

Perhaps it was all these things, and the people in charge, ourselves, were just too blind to see, or too busy to take action. Or maybe we did see, but we just didn't know what to do. Or maybe we knew what to do but we didn't do it. Whatever the cause, whatever the rationale, the result makes a shameful, sad tale.

It's not true

LIke a lot of you I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime and my entertainment comes almost exclusively from those sources. Lately I find myself starting something, watching for 10 minutes, and then looking for something else. "Too silly," I say, or "too violent." This pattern led me last night to a documentary called "Happy."

It's a subject I'm interested in, for obvious reasons, and the film confirmed my own long-held belief, that happiness has more to do with loving what you do—and who you do it with—than counting your many possessions. America, sadly, is not high on the happiness index (Denmark usually claims first place), but I was surprised to see Japan at the very bottom. The Japanese apparently work 'til they drop, with little or no time for family or friends.

As humans we do best when we are part of a community, a word that encompasses all sorts of relationships that shift, shrink, grow, change, and sometimes dissolve and reform. It can be as complex as family or as simple and limited as temporary aid in need. I had great examples of this when working with Ray's caregivers, who brought their hearts as well as their hands into our home every day.

It worries me that our country is so polarized, and that the community of citizens I remember from my post-war childhood is no longer working in concert to move America forward. Instead we are pulling and pushing at one another, criticizing, defaming, even dehumanizing the other. I could willingly blame Trump but it's not just him.

The slide into self-centered individualism and warped capitalism has many causes, and it's been building slowly since at least the late 70s. Trump is the exemplar, but we've all lost our way.

It's not true that wealth is the key to happiness. It's not true that people who don't look like us aren't deserving. It's not true that I can make it on my own, with no help from friends or strangers. It's not true that America can't open it's doors to those seeking asylum, or feed the less fortunate, or protect our environment.

What is true? That it's not too late to change. We can encourage compassion, learn empathy, extend a hand, speak the truth. We can practice listening and replying without venom. And we need to do all this, urgently. So put down your phone, turn off the television, and take a long walk away from the mayhem. Hug a neighbor, call a friend, kiss your cat. Small steps, yes, but in the right direction they will change the world.

 

 

A sampling of Sitka

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I went to Alaska last week. More precisely, I went to Sitka with my daughter, who was there for work. I had never been to either place and quickly learned to love them both. Sitka has a population of about 4,500 and it felt good to be back in a small town again, where traffic was minimal and the pace was easy.

Sitka relies on fishing and tourism for its livelihood and we heard a fair number of complaints about the fishing this year. On the other hand, several cruise ships sailed in and out of port, unloading hundreds of tourists to roam the town's main street and eat, drink, and buy. (The speed of the town's wifi would drop precipitously.)

While Jennifer was in meetings I wandered the streets, walking from one end of town to the other, visiting historical monuments and doing my share of eating, etc. Sitka was once the heart of the Russian fur trade and the Russian influence remains, mostly in the startling variety of matryoshka dolls for sale, but also manifest in the old St. Michael's Orthodox Church and the Bishop's House. It was a touch of old Russia that I hadn't realized I missed. Equally at home were the Alaskan natives and their remarkable art. This cultural variance keeps the little town vital and interesting in ways most homogenous places aren't.

The highlight of the trip for both of us was the three-hour private tour of the bay and its beautiful islands. Besides the scenery, which would have been enough, we saw a humpback, a minke, otters, seals and sea lions, and probably more than fifty bald eagles, though we had ceased counting them days before. They were everywhere.

We talked a lot about what it would be like to live in such a place and agreed that we would love it except for the weather, which consists mostly of rain and even in the summer doesn't get above 60 or 65. But there is peace in the landscape, and wonder in the wildlife and the call of Alaska is real. As our plane rose over Baranof island I waved goodbye to the fishes and pledged to return again one day.

 

All those lessons

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WRITING HERE A year ago I cited T.S. Eliot's famous line, "April is the cruelest month" while complaining about the constant rain. This year is no different. Each morning I check my weather app hoping to see sunny skies in the future, and each morning I see rain predicted ten days hence. I think I should stop doing this.

My new life continues to evolve and the days have taken on a kind of habitualness that has the benefit of filling the hours, if nothing else. My concentration has improved enough that I can now sit for a half hour with a book without reading the same sentence endlessly, or battling the omnipresent urge to do something else. Even the news doesn't hold much interest, and for a news junky that is weird. But the president and I have this in common; we are both living through a depressing year. The difference is, he doesn't know it.

So what have I learned so far from this year of bereavement? I have learned that by flitting from one task to another a lot can be accomplished. The satisfaction of actually finishing something, however, is lost. I have learned that yogurt can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; that errands can be put off indefinitely; and that the body can produce an endless amount of tears. Thanks to my grief counselor I have learned that talking to yourself out loud is neither unusual nor a sign of imminent dementia. This was a relief.

I have learned that I can still laugh out loud, still enjoy friends and outings, still look forward to events, while holding a sadness in my heart. I am impressed with the flexibility of my heart, how it makes room for boundless love and seemingly endless grief. If the rest of our bodies were as flexible as our hearts we would all be made of rubber.

Despite the evil and suffering that fills the world, I still believe we have within us the power to  change. In ways big and small that is happening every day. And maybe my grief is its own wake up call. Today, life without Ray feels empty and meaningless. But I know in my flexible heart that more awaits, and that the years ahead will confirm what I've always known, that all life is a gift.

Here's to the caregivers!

March is Women's History Month and today is International Women's Day. I've spent the morning vacuuming and dusting and cleaning up the kitchen, because Laura is coming for tea.

I had thought of honoring women in my family this month, for women's history is essentially the history of our families. There are many I could draw on, from the those who supported the underground railroad, to the sisters who fought for women's rights along side Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Closer to home I could write about my paternal grandmother, who raised eight children on an Oklahoma homestead and wrote poetry, and kept a pet pig that she washed every laundry day in the big cast-iron cauldron that now sits in Jennifer's living room, full of throws.

I met Alice Hedglin Coffin only a few times and most of my memories are of tales others told. Like the time she found a large rattlesnake asleep on the floor of the parlor. Alice grabbed the shotgun that was always nearby and threw it over the snake. Then she planted a foot on each end of the gun and called for help. A son soon appeared and cut the snake's head off. Then he asked, "Why didn't you just shoot it?" because Alice was as good as any man with a gun.

"Because I didn't want holes in the floor!" she replied. Which always made sense to me.

In the end though, I decided not to write about family; that can wait for another time. Today I want to honor the women who too often go unsung and underpaid. I had the good fortune to know several over the last months of Ray's life. Sometimes they came when called, like Siri, who lived down the hill and filled in when others couldn't make it. Sometimes they came for an hour or two a week, like the nurses; or twice weekly, like the bath aides. And sometimes they were there every day. One of these, Laura, was with me the longest, eight hours a day toward the end.

Laura had worked with dementia patients for nine years, and with those in hospice for the last six. She was knowledgeable, competent, kind, and loving. She cooked scrambled eggs for Ray, with the hot peppers he loved. When he could no longer hold a spoon she fed him, and when he could no longer eat she gave him hourly doses of morphine to ease the pain of inevitable bed sores. We bonded over dirty diapers and strong cups of green tea. I heard about her extended family and the traditions of her Mexican roots, and she heard stories of our travels and my highly opinionated views on politics. I could not have gotten through the last months without her.

Most women become caregivers at some time in their life, but few make careers of it and those few—there may be millions in the US alone—deserve our respect, decent pay, and even honor. I keep thinking about the President, who wouldn't give Laura, a Chicana, the time of day. He might even want her deported, despite being born in the U.S.

But Laura and those like her who spend their lives caring for others are worth far more than a thousand Trumps. So today, on International Women's Day, I'm happy to honor them. And I'm also happy because Laura is coming for tea.