Flowering pots of protest

I am sitting on the porch, my feet on a table. The sun is shining but it's not overly warm; white clouds drift across the sky and sometimes steal the sun, leaving a sudden chill as a calling card. The geraniums in their pots are blooming nicely, the Russian sage is growing taller, as is the lavender and rosemary. Others are not doing so well; they were hurt by our unusual winter cold and are having a hard time regaining what they lost. I could replace them of course, but I'd rather give them a chance.

The news is filled with talk of health care and lack of health care and protests against changing health care. Everywhere I look I see tales of impending doom if the Republican bill passes. We thought seven years ago this issue was settled, but here it is at our door again. This constant churning is demoralizing and cruel, for reliable health care is integral to how safe one feels in the world. How is causing 22 million people to lose care a good thing?

The preamble to the U. S. Constitution lists just six items government must do to "form a more perfect union": establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide a common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. Note that general welfare and common defense get equal billing. Maybe we should take half our overblown military budget and create universal healthcare. And please tell me how depriving millions of insurance in order to give huge tax cuts to billionaires, is justice.

I don't see how this can end well for the country, or for Republicans. Will the 61% of voters who approve of Medicaid vote again for the senators and representatives who destroyed it? It doesn't seem likely. But then having Trump as the president didn't seem likely either.

Whatever happens with the vote this week we're clearly a long way from the founder's vision of a tranquil, unified country. Can we really withdraw our help from a baby born with a heart defect, or a cancer patient who might be saved with chemo? Because that's what will happen if this plan takes effect.

Even my potted plants deserve a chance to live. Shouldn't we do the same for our fellow citizens?


Changing the message

Thirty-nine years ago I published my first piece in Eugene's Willamette Valley Observer, and while I went on to write many more pieces for that newspaper, this one holds a special place. I've been thinking about it lately, because I've been thinking about narcissism.

The piece, a first venture into opinion writing, was called "The Message is Me," written because for several months I'd been observing a new phenomenon. It may seem strange to readers today, but until the late 70s it was unusual to see people wearing company logos, or tee-shirts identifying stores, companies, events, or ideas. This new thing, clearly a trend, interested me.

"There's a growing compulsion to adorn our chests and backs with notices and free advertising, and people wander the streets like miniature message boards, demanding our attention. Why?"

Looking back on it now, I wonder if it was a first symptom of our national trend toward narcissism—or self-centeredness if you prefer. I'm not suggesting we're all Donald Trumps, but in our actions, our politics, our writing, we now emphasize the individual me far more often than the communal we. 

Consider the increasing number of novels written in first person; a style that was rarely used in the past, when third-person "omniscient" narration dominated. And memoirs—the most me-centered of all writing—are flourishing, with agents and publishers begging for them. Writers and would-be writers across the land are flocking to classes in memoir writing. This genre used to be the preserve of celebrities; now everyone wants to tell their story, and readers are buying. I'm not opposed to this, I've written one myself. I'm just suspicious of the change.

Think about the way our government and society have drawn away from the broad, people-centered programs of the post-war years into the 1960s. Johnson's poverty program and the drive for civil rights capped that period, and beginning in the late 70s and 80s our attitudes began to change. Individual wealth was applauded, while the not-so-fortunate saw government (i.e, communal) support dwindle, and continue to do so. Much of this is associated with President Reagan, 1981–1988.

And now we have elected an undisputed narcissist as our president. The world of I is spread out before us in glaring relief, and it's not pretty. We've heedlessly moved from we to me—my belongings, my job, my looks, my problems—a self focus encouraged by social media.

Our planet is in deep trouble. Our government is unresponsive and corrupt. Our infrastructure can barely be called that. Our schools cry out for attention and tax money.

As an only child I know the attraction of narcissistic behavior. It's a little like having the devil on your shoulder whispering, "It's all right, you do what you want. You're special."

And I am. And so are you. And so is every single life on this planet. And now we can all look into the mirror that Trump is holding up for us, and decide what kind of people we want to be. We can continue down the road we're on, or we can open our eyes and stretch out a hand. We can move from selfishness to empathy. But we have to choose, and soon.

Memorial Day

A gray morning. I open the New York Times site and see a photo of endless white crosses on a grassy slope. It makes me wonder; if we could add up every life lost in every war and action and evacuation and operation, how many would there be? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

Curious, I turn to Google, which shows me copies of every document officially declaring war. There are eleven. Great Britain in 1812, Spain and Mexico in 1846, Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1917 (WWI), and of course WWII, when we declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy in December 1941 and Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary in June 1942.

But then something happened. Declared war became a thing of the past — a strange deviation for a country so in love with its military. Now we just have actions, or operations, or incursions, or sometimes evacuations.

I turned to Wikipedia and found a list of every action in which the U.S. participated (some of those listed included actions for humanitarian purposes). Of course anyone of my generation immediately thinks of Vietnam, nine years of misery and a sundering of our unity. In reality it was longer than that, there were military advisers in South Vietnam as early as 1959. But before Vietnam there was Korea 1950–1953, and through the 50s the U.S. involved its military just eight times in sites around the world.

In the 1960s the count rises to ten: two Cuban actions, an expeditionary force landing in Thailand, planes to Congo, advisers to Laos; Dominican Republic, Laos again, Cambodia, a few more.

The slow rise continues into the 1970s, when there are 11; mostly continuing actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea. But in the 1980s the number explodes to 29 and includes such names as “operation Earnest Will, operation Praying Mantas, and operation Prime Chance. A few of these last more than a year. These names make me think the military — or someone — is having too much fun.

In the 1990s it grows again to 32, again with several multi-year actions. From 2000 to 2009 it drops to 20, including the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the war on terror — all of which continue to this day. (Note that though we call them wars, Congress, the only body with responsibility for declaring war, didn’t.)

The list from 2010 to 2017 shows 22 actions, but by now I am too depressed to go on. And I’ve not touched the Civil War, the slave rebellions, the battles against Native Americans.

So the answer to my question, “how many” is an obvious “far, far too many.” And looking at this long list one has to ask, how many died for a useless cause, a mistake, a regretted decision? And how many of these events could have been avoided with a little less testosterone and a lot more talk?

There will always be reasons to fight. But I hope that in the not too distant future we’ll avoid unnecessary deaths, and instead assume humanity’s capacity to solve problems without resorting to weapons. We will have to exchange our love of guns and glory for devotion to common sense and creative thinking. We can do that. And to honor all those millions who have died for us, we must.

The complexity of loss

A few weeks ago bluejays started building a nest in a tree outside our window and I looked forward to seeing tiny birds take their first flying lessons. But the bluejays have deserted us. Maybe they decided having a nest so near a cat wasn't wise (it's just five or six feet from the balcony perch the cat prefers), but Zoé would run in fear at two jays squawking and flapping their wings in her direction. Surely they knew this.

I took the binoculars out yesterday and looked closely at the nest. No sign of life at all. The piled sticks and leaves hugged the tree's trunk—a habit of jays—and the nest, like a sloppily-made basket, was the perfect size for a large bird and a couple of chicks. The loss made me feel lonely, which is ridiculous since I'd had no chance to make their acquaintance; let alone know their names. But still, it was a loss.

The casual complexity of the nest reminded me of other complexities, the lifecycle of the frogs I hear chirping in the undergrowth, and the fractal geometry contained within the tree leaves that I can almost touch if I lean over the balcony rail. These are hints of the deep complexities that form our world and I am in awe when I spend time looking and listening.

It is these complexities that worry me when I think of climate change. It's impossible for us to know—let alone understand—the interrelationships between ourselves and the millions of species that share our planet. (The Environmental Literacy Council estimates between 5 and 30 million.) It's easy to be distraught over the loss of polar bears, but what about the 300,000 species of beetles? Don't they deserve a little sympathy? 

We all know the doleful litany—denuded forestlands, acidic oceans, loss of cultivable land, poisoned air—all interlocking complexities, all produced by humans. No bee, beetle, bear, or bird created this catastrophe but each is at risk. If we cannot stop the warming we leave these creatures facing mass extinction. And all the vital complexities contained within them, all the still unknown interlocking pieces of our world, pieces that might solve problems we don't even have yet, will die with them.

I don't want to wake up one morning to find no birds in my trees, no bees buzzing around the lavender, no butterflies flitting across the landscape. I hope the jays will come back next spring and try again. I hope there will always be jays and that spring will always come round to warm and delight us with the colors and sounds and complexities of nature. I doubt humans can live without that, and I don't think I want to.

April and Eliot

“April is the cruelest month,” famously writes T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland, and cruel it is, with its hints of approaching sun and warmth, but its ever persistent rain. I consider going out to buy plants for the patio, but seeing the gray, windy day I retreat instead to a book. Maybe tomorrow, I say. But tomorrow never comes. The rain hasn’t stopped since forever and the temperatures never get above 60, but apparently spring is here. I remain skeptical but optimistic.

This is our tenth month in Portland and—perhaps helped by the weather’s constancy—we have settled into a routine, finally. It is not especially productive but it works and it gets us through the days without mishap. Routine, even boredom is welcome, for the world outside our safe haven seems to have taken leave of its senses. Change coupled with surprise is the order of day, and how anyone can have faith in our leaders and their constantly conflicted/conflicting ideas is beyond me. I may have given up anger, but astonishment never departs. 

Today, however, I am optimistic. A groundswell of organizing, resistance, and voting participation has brought a very red district in a very red state very close to being taken by a Democrat—an unknown Democrat who had only 60 days to develop a campaign against the Republican establishment in the heart of Koch brothers territory. April certainly is the cruelest month, but this one may have sown the seeds of a much happier future.


While I’m onto Eliot, here is the first stanza of another favorite, The Hollow Men, written in 1925. It is, I think, perfection, and its lines, while not perfectly descriptive of our current leaders are perfectly descriptive of their ineffectual rule.

     We are the hollow men
     We are the stuffed men
     Leaning together
     Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
     Our dried voices, when
     We whisper together
     Are quiet and meaningless
     As wind in dry grass
     Or rat's feet over broken glass
     In our dry cellar

               Shape without form, shade without color,
     Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

Eliot wrote this a few years after the end of World War I, after the settled world of European empire had been transformed by chaos into an still-undefinable future. The poem always elicits a feeling of desolation in me and is best read on a sunny day with a good glass of merlot at your side.

I'm not angry am I?

I've been having jaw trouble, or TMJ, for those who prefer exactness. This is not new, it's been recurring since I was a teenager and is often caused by stress. Most of the time it repairs itself quickly, but it's been hanging around too long, and is annoying and sometimes painful.

Searching for answers to "why is this happening?" I picked up an old book by Louise Haye that a friend gave me years ago. It contains an alphabetical list of body parts and their common ailments, with what Hayes believes are the root causes of such ailments—usually spiritual or stress-related. I've found this list to be both accurate and dead wrong so I keep it for entertainment, and also because in a few instances the insight provided relief.

I flipped through the pages and found "jaw problems" followed by "anger and resentment." Hmmm, I thought, I don't think so. I don't feel angry, and certainly not resentful.

"You missed this one," I told Louise as I replaced the book and went back to my work. It was somewhat mindless work and inevitably I thought again about her diagnosis. Do I feel angry? I began to think that maybe I did. Maybe soon evolved to yes, and once I acknowledged that, the anger came roaring forth, surprising me with its strength. Indeed, I was shocked by my lack of self-knowledge, for as soon as I conceded the emotion I found I was angry at everything.

I was angry with Ray for being ill. I was angry at doctors and scientists who denied him a cure. I was angry at the cat for scratching the furniture. I was angry with myself for my incompetence as a caregiver. I was angry that I had a new car but only seemed to drive to doctor's offices. The anger began with me and extended to family members, friends, and the wide world of politics. Not surprisingly, much of it bore the presidential seal.

The force of this suppressed rage shocked me, and as new recognitions surfaced I wept cathartic tears. By day's end I felt better; even lighter. I sat down and wrote a list beginning "I am angry that..." It covered three pages in a small notebook. Then I ripped them out and burned them in the kitchen sink. And then I wrote a list of all the things that make me happy, grateful, and loved. That one I'm keeping.

Anger is not always a bad thing. It is often required—think of righteous anger—and it can move us to action. But action driven by anger needs careful monitoring, and seething anger can kill us and others. To give it credit, however, anger is a legitimate emotion, unlike guilt and jealousy which serve no purpose except to make us miserable.

No matter how cathartic my experience, how extensive the anger expelled, this was only a partial purge. With the world in such a state how could it not be? Anger is justified. But I have learned a lesson. Now I will seek to recognize, manage, and release—not suppress it. Because with anger gone there's a lot more room for love.

A woman and her thoughts

Many years ago a friend loaned me a book. She was insistent, so I read and returned it and we enjoyed a mutually satisfying discussion. Unfortunately I don't remember the author or the title, but if my summation rings a bell please let me know. I'd like to read it again.

It is the story (a memoir I believe) of a woman setting off to spend months alone in a rough coastal cabin on the Atlantic, with nothing nearby and even a grocery miles away. Getting supplies of any kind was tedious and time consuming. The details of her stay and the reason for her escape into this challenging environment are lost, but I have remembered one thing quite clearly. 

Throughout her stay she had no communication—no telephone, radio, TV, computer. She lived alone with her thoughts, and when she wasn't busy trying to stay warm and alive her thoughts grew progressively deeper, more complex, more complete. She described this process as having "long thoughts," and it is this idea that has stuck with me all these years. How satisfying it must be to have long thoughts.

To mull over an idea, to carry it to its most extreme interpretation and then to go back to that idea and exam it from another point of view—what a luxury that must be. To have the time to think at all in any deep, meaningful way is almost lost to us now. It is a serious diminution of our competence. We rush from one urgency to the next, constantly interrupted by waiting tasks or our glorious machines, wondering if we can capture an idea in 140 characters.

Mr. Trump perfectly embodies this new reality. I suspect he thinks in 140-characters, with the last person spoken to determining his opinion. This is no way to run a country.

But I too am guilty of this short-burst thinking. I find it harder and harder to contemplate anything, or to find the peace needed to do so. One would think this easy, since it's just Ray and me here, and he sleeps a lot. But apparently my mind has been trained by the Web and I jump from one idea to the next to the next to the next without giving any of them their due. This is no way to be human.

With the beginning of a new year I've been wondering about my own goals, outside the needs of my family. What do I want to accomplish in the next 12 months? I'm beginning to think that I need to relearn thinking. To set aside time every day for silence and choose a thought to follow. I don't think I'll ever attain long thoughts, but I might at least learn to slow down the ridiculously short ones that fill my mind with such chaos. It's worth a try.


Thanks to NF for identifying this excellent book: Drinking the Rain, by Alex Kates Shulman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.