Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Year

Any resolutions?

What makes a good resolution?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas in Barnesville

Only three days late ...

We had a lovely Christmas ...

We went to ecumenical Christmas Eve services organized by the Barnesville Ministeriam at the Presbyterian church, where the Rev. Andy Wood is the pastor. We love Andy and he feels like our friend because he hangs out with Quakers. Ela and Bill, who are both very talented musicians, and who used to work at Olney, performed on the cello and whistle. Bill makes his own whistles, which look like piccolos. Needless to say, Bill and Ela were wonderful. The whole service was lovely-- the storybook church with stained glass windows, the traditional Christmas carols .. Joy to the World, Silent Night... and readings about the birth of Jesus ... the glow of lit candles at the end ... very "tender" in the Quaker sense of the word. They even rang the old-fashioned bell at midnight ...

Barnesville was pretty and idyllic on Christmas Eve, with the lit wreathes and big stars made of white lights attached to the lampposts along Main Street, the road glistening. Even the lopsided, decorated Christmas tree with colored lights on the corner added a touch of whimsy.

Christmas day was nice and I think (hope) everyone liked their presents. I liked mine. I read The Financial Lives of Poets, which I loved, except that (male) author treats women as objects--I felt like saying, come on, already ... is there anything more to the fictional wife than a "tight bod" and "hot bod" and that she's "cute" and that other men find her "hot" and that the protag. wants to have sex with her? And the other surface things: she likes to shop because she has "issues" from her childhood and she's good with their young sons (which makes him jealous because he wants the attention)? What is she like as a person? What's in her mind and her soul? And all the other women in the book are the same: "hot" Amber the HR woman, and the son's hot second grade teacher whom he wants to ... you know .. and the "hot,' "Nordic" blond Bea who .. guess what he wants .... and it's simply depressing that in an otherwise great book, where the men are immediately drawn as fully human, and yet there's not one woman who is more than a body. It wasn't deliberate either, I don't think, as he goes to pains to make this fictional hero sympathetic. But that's my rant.

Sophie's flight in from Baltimore was delayed so we had a big rush getting to Jane and Clyde's for Christmas dinner. As Jane said, after two years, it's a tradition! Bill and Ela also came and there was more music. Clyde, who is a retired music professor, played the piano, Jane sang (beautiful voice), their daughter Susan played the flute and Ela and Bill again played the cello and whistle. I lack the musical gene, so I listened. It was a lovely, old-fashioned event in the big high-ceiling living room--we even had a fireplace--and I don't think I can remember ever having had such a musical Christmas, filled up with so many Christmas carols. And I was thinking how nice it is that we all share a cultural heritage of Christmas music: People from farflung parts of the country can gather and we all know the same songs ... Something to think about. I like to think the music touches people with some of the true, pure sweetness of Christianity at its best.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Amish Grace and forgiveness

I hope everyone had a good Christmas.

In the book Amish Grace, which is about the shooting of 10 and killing of five Amish girls at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse in 2006, we see the Amish dwell with some wonder on how much easier it can be to forgive someone you don't know for a big crime than to forgive the people in your community for small transgressions.

I was a religion reporter at the time of the shootings and the Christian News Wire overflowed for awhile with Christians (white, privileged males) stunned and brimming with revelatory enthusiasm for this display of ... Christianity inherent in the Amish forgiving the killer and his family. I remember not being too forgiving of these pundits ... This Amish forgiveness is a revelation? Huh? Isn't this, like, .... you know, "dude," your FAITH? You've been bombastically blowbagging on this wire service about Christianity the whole time I've been a religion reporter and it takes the Nickel Mines shooting for you to "get" what forgiveness is ... ie, the heart of Christianity, what Jesus-died-for?

I remember after 9/11, first hoping fervently that it would be found an act of domestic terrorism, ala Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. My thinking was that if it were domestic terrorism, we'd avoid a war. When I discovered it was Islamic terrorists I realized OK, being a military state, the US will have to drop some bombs on Afghanistan, but let's pray it's short and quick. Beyond that, the passage about "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" and ... significantly... your lap will be filled with good things, pressed down and flowing over ... rose unbidden to my mind almost constantly. I did feel a forgiveness that had nothing to do with reason and everything to do with living in the spirit. I was surprised to find the rest of the world--even the Christian world--not with me on this.

At that time, I thought, as the Amish later did, well, who am I to forgive? I didn't lose anyone in the attacks. And--how is it that I can forgive this horrendous act and yet become incandescent with homicidal rage when a teenager cuts me off on the highway, causing me to fishtail into the lane with the oncoming 18 wheeler? I would certainly have vaporized that clueless teen, though he clearly had no malice towards me, in an instant. Or why was it so hard for me to forgive the person in my old meeting who stood up shaking with rage over the FUM employment policy but who couldn't see that I felt just as marginalized as a gay person when I heard an Easter message denying the resurrection? When that person told me I was wrong to feel marginalized? When that person dismissed the Israelis and the Palestinians and said they "just have to learn to get along," but then attacked FUM in the most scathing terms and said we had to split from them? Was that such a big deal?

I think of the Browning poem," Soliloquy of the Spanish Courtyard," in which one cloistered brother hates another for no good reason: "Grr, there go, my heart's abhorrence! Water your damned flowerpots do! If hate killed, Brother Lawrence, God's blood would not mine kill you!" Brother Lawrence's offences include needing to go trim his myrtle bush and inquiring after the Latin name of parsley ... in word, he innocently grates on his antagonist's nerves.

When I first read this poem as a college freshman, I saw the narrator as completely other ... and while the intensity of his hatred is extreme, I now realize we all have a touch of him inside us.

I think it's popular to denigrate the Amish--perhaps they speak too strongly to our longings, so we have to keep reminding ourselves that evil patriarchs and pedophiles mingle among them, as well as liars, drug addicts, oppressors and scoundrels... but I think, collectively, the Amish have much wisdom to offer. I do ponder, as they do, how we can be so unforgiving over the small stuff. Any thoughts?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Transformation: Inward of Outward?

Marshall Massey made the following comment in response to the blog on Amish Grace and Quakers: To adopt the [Amish] practices is, I think, to mistake the outward for the inward. Friends have historically had their own avenue to humility — the avenue of quietism, a stilling of our selves inspired by a powerful recognition of our own fallenness, and by a sense of our tremendous every-moment dependence on our Lord. It is to this, and not to outward tactics, that Friends need to turn.

Christmas, because of its garb, is a good time to think about outward wrappings and inward presence.

During Christmas, outward wrappings are more distinct than during other times of the year. Our houses are often transformed with trees, wreathes, advent calendars, pine boughs, candles, eggnog, mistletoe, creches, beautifully wrapped gifts and other signs of the season. Often our touches are old-fashioned or nostalgic--an idealized 19th-century village under the Christmas tree, a touch of a Nutcracker in either our music or a wooden replica of Tchaikovsky's figure, a viewing or reading of The Christmas Carol. We associate these outward signs with inward states:

--The Dickensian Christmas represents conviviality, family harmony, good spirits, fellowship. We are longing to be surrounded by healthy community and loving family.

--The shepherd and magi Christmas represents the conjoined simplicity and grandeur of the holy, the sacred made incarnate on earth, the sacred available through the everyday things of life. It is God's love alive and available in the here and now. We long for the sacred in life. We long for an extended season of goodwill to all men and women. We long for a just world.

--The trees, the pine boughs, the candles, etc., those elements borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan, represent our love of the living things of the world, our longing for light and life during this darkest period, our longing to incorporate earth love and joyfulness into the sacred.

During the Christmas season, we hope that putting on the outward form of what we long for will transform us inwardly--individually and collectively-- into what we wish to be. I think primarily this happens unconsciously--we don't think "I'm putting up this creche because I want all babies in the world to be treated kindly" or "I'm drawn to buy this colorful print of Dickensian carollers because I want to live in a more convivial world." But I do think we long for a world where everyone is cared for, community is strong, the material goods of the world flow abundantly, the earth is protected, and joy abounds.

Of course, we know that many marriages fall apart during the Christmas season. Many children can't come home, because no matter how beautiful the packaging, the underlying poison is too deep. We know the world is a highly flawed place. If anything, the beautiful packaging of Christmas can underscore-painfully- how far we are from the ideal.

The great question is: Can the outward form change the inward person--can the dress transform the soul? Some say that the great distinction between Christianity and the other two religions of the book, Judaism and Islam, is Christianity's persistent belief that the inward soul of a person can and must be transformed, that in fact the salvation of the world can only occur when people undergo the soul transformation --a new way of seeing--that leads to the true outward change ... of everything. The other religions, it is said, put more faith in outward changes--following laws and a set cycle of prayers, fasting, etc.--for softening or least ameliorating, the hardness in the human heart and thus engendering change.

Quakers have always come down hard on the side of the primacy of inward transformation, seeing the outward forms of the faith as "counterfeits." The early Quakers, as we know, saw the rites of the church as allowing people who participated to believe they were godly people without transforming their lives. They saw the rites of the church becoming an end in themselves, not an avenue to transformation. The Quakers swept away these rituals to open room for the essential, to put people in the unmediated presence of God with faith that this would result in world transforming change.

But we Quakers use ritual, and I would argue that sitting in stillness is one of the most rigid rituals of all. Coming from a different tradition, I tend to see the cultural ritualism of the English all over the faith--try introducing the tiniest variant or "programming" into a meeting for silent worship. So my questions is: what privileges silent worship over other rituals?

Also, like Marshall, I believe inward transformation is the key: I believe in inward to outward, not outward to inward. The most beautifully trimmed Christmas tree in the world will not magically mend broken hearts in a family. On the other hand, is there a transformative possibility or quality to the outward? For instance, many people think some transformative quailty was lost when the Roman Catholic sisters began adopting "civilian garb" and the church moved from the grandeur of the Latin Mass. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Amish Grace and Quakers

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher focuses on the Amish capacity to forgive after a troubled non-Amish man shot 10 and killed five Amish girls in the Nickle Mines schoolhouse in 2006. To explain the Amish ability to forgive, the authors delve into Amish theology.

I am struck, as I have been before, by similarities between the Quakers and the Amish. Both are peace churches that believe in simplicity, community and integrity. Both seek to "finish" the Reformation by bringing the Christianity back to its earliest beginnings, stripping it down to its essentials.

But the Quakers and Amish have also forked away from each other. Most Quakers don't express simplicity through distinctive dress, habits or transportation. Most Quakers have gone the way of the wider culture in valuing individualism over community. Quakerism from its start embraced equalitarianism, whereas the Amish have always been patriarchal. About 15% of Quakers have moved away from the centrality of Christ to embrace a full-fledged universalism, while the Amish are all devoutly Christ-centered. Many of those Quaker churches that still embrace the centrality of Christ have moved away from Quaker distinctives that Amish groups share, such as no paid clergy, opting instead to hire a minister.

As with the Amish, the Quakers, I believe, put forgiveness at the heart of their faith practice. Peace churches, almost by definition, replace revenge and retaliation with forgiveness. But what if the Quakers adopted some of the Amish practices to underscore forgiveness? Would this help us?

1. "In the Amish faith, the authority of the community overshadows the freedom of the individual."(92) "'Individualism,' said a 40-year-old Amish father, "is the great divide between us and outsiders.'" (93) The primacy of the community is stressed in the following ways:

a. verbal expressions of personal faith are seen as prideful, as if one is showing off one's religious knowledge. Individual interpretations of the Bible and personal testimonies are seen as "haughtiness." "For the Amish, genuine spirituality is quiet, reserved and clothed in humility, revealing itself in actions rather than words. Wisdom is tested by the community, not by an individual's feelings, eloquence of persuasion." (94)

b. crafting your own prayers is seen as prideful. They use the Lord's prayer.

Some of the practices that Amish Grace pinpoints as laying a groundwork for forgiveness are:

2. Emphasis on the New Testament, and especially the gospels. The Lancaster Amish Lectionary focuses on Matthew 1-12, which includes the Sermon on the Mount, for the first 12 weeks of every year. What if we focused on the Sermon on the Mount for three months of the year?

3. Frequent recitation of the Lord's prayer, as noted above. This would bother some, as a rote prayer might seem a "counterfeit" faith, but a thoughtful and frequent recitation--a mindful praying-- might be helpful.

Given that a roomful of Quakers can be markedly lacking in humility, would we do well to adopt some of these practices?

Monday, December 21, 2009

George Fox: Ponder in the Heart

But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

"And you may see how Mary wrapped Christ in swaddling clothes, and how tender she was of the heavenly birth, conceived by the Holy Ghost. And must true and tender Christians, that receive Him in the spirit ... she kept all the sayings that were spoken of Christ and pondered them in her heart. And so should every good Christian." From Mind the Heavenly Treasure: Thoughts for each day from the Scriptures and the eight volumes of the writings of George Fox", compiled by Gary Boswell.

Here again, we see the thoughts of early Quaker George Fox expressed through concrete imagery. Here, he draws us to visualize and dwell on Mary's "tender" care and clothing of the infant Jesus, advising us to be as tender in our thoughts as she was in her physical care for a fragile infant. Here, the vulnerability of Jesus is laid bare. Do we tenderly cradle his beliefs--in forgiveness, mercy, love, peace, joy, abundance, compassion--or do we dash his infant's head against a rock?

It also strikes me that Mary ponders things "in her heart," fusing together the intellect and the emotions. In her body, the embodiment implied by her pregnancy and childbirth, she also grounds God in the physical. The infant Jesus stands for ideas that don't make sense--which are dismissed as impossible, as fantasies, as for "some other time," in the cold light of pure rationality, but which did make sense for the here and now to Fox and his followers and which do make sense when we enter the upside-down kingdom today. They speak to the deepest longings of our hearts. They are possible here and now.

I visited a mosque a few years ago. It was a beautiful mosque, unlike the others I had visited, which were basement rooms in office buildings. This mosque was light filled and open and empty, with a deep, thick tawny Oriental rug on the floor. It had a stark, sacred feeling. Afterwards, our guides told us that Jesus was a revered figure in Islam and recounted a story from the Quran of the infant Jesus, under a date tree, speaking, in a miracle, to tell those denigrating Mary as a fallen woman that she was a virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit. From birth, he protected his mother

I thought at the time that in the Christian faith is a birth story lean in miracles--a visit by an angel, a virgin conception and a choir of angels breaking good tidings of great joy to a group of shepherds. But Jesus, the center of the story, is simply a human baby born in very humble circumstances. He is protected by his mother, a model of how we protect our faith with gentleness, mindfulness and nurture, a model of how he needs our care, how he needs us to be his body. Also, an infant can't survive with partial attention--it demands our dedication.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gratitude and Giving

This is a response I posted on Jeanne's blog on giving, but since it fit with the theme of gratitude, I thought I would post it here.


I appreciate your blog, and I hear what you are saying about elites supporting other elites ... Quakers supporting Quakers. I do get angry when I see the symphony hall built in my home town from a major donation and know the money came from the profits of racist fear-mongering in real estate years ago. They helped wreck the city and now they’re putting up a fancy venue? And in a city full of housing that you wouldn't let your pet live in ... a symphony hall? Then, like Chuck, I do remember I appreciate Mozart --but that too, I recognize this as a class-based taste ... and why should educated class tastes be supported ahead of others?

But as I mull this, I think of how healing it was for me for my Quaker meeting to support its own after coming from a church that always seemed to want to take my money. Take and take. It meant a great deal to me that the meeting would support my children going to Quaker camps ... and it meant a great deal to my children. When my meeting cares for me that models how to care for another ... but I agree, that care has to push out to the "least of these."

Also, my husband works for and two of my children attend Olney Friends School, hardly an elite boarding school. It's a school that provides a true Quaker education to kids who might not have any other opportunity to get one--because they would might be turned down for admission at the elite Quaker schools. Not because they couldn't do the work, but because they couldn't pass the test or look good enough on paper, which in itself might be a class issue. Or because they want an alternative to an elite school. I see hope for the world in schools like Olney. However, Olney does depend on support from other Quakers--it can't make it on tuition alone ... so I struggle with this. I hate to see needs compete and want to believe there's abundance for everything important, that we don't need to divert from one charity to the next but to divert funds from the latest consumer good so we can support more charities, especially these days.

As I write this, I realize how tight the budget is at Chez Reynolds, tighter than in decades. I think many people are feeling the pinch. All the same, I think we could look at our spending creatively and find ways to support more groups ...While I think it takes a leap of faith to believe the resources are here, I believe they are here. Do you believe they're here?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The library: Collective blessings and gratitude

One collective blessing I am grateful for is the Barnesville Hutton Memorial public library. It's in the center of town, housed in a lovely small new building with a bowed floor-to-ceiling window letting in natural light and comfortable armchairs tucked in the corners. It even has a Quaker genealogical research room.

As in most libraries, the librarians are friendly and helpful. The library is part of a system of county libraries that together comprise one big library. I can get almost any book I want through interlibrary loan. And so can anybody else in the community.

I am especially glad to have the library these days, while our family's disposable income is limited. In the old days, I would have gone the easier route of clicking the button at Amazon and having my books delivered, bought and paid for.

I am on queues for most of the books I want. For instance, I look forward to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but people are ahead of me in line for it. So the library is not the route to immediate gratification. But it does cultivate patience. And I will have to pick the book up, rather than having it deposited on my doorstep, but that's all right: I'll get to go the library!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Are we self-centered: Blessings and gratitude

Blessings and gratitude have been much on my mind this past year. Possibly as a result of the economic crisis, more people seem to be stating what they are grateful for and calling out their particular blessings.

Individual blessings are no doubt good and in times of economic distress, it can be useful to remind ourselves of how grateful we are to have houses, jobs, and health insurance while all around us people's lives fall into ruin and chaos.

At the same time, it can come across, even when sincerely and humbly meant, as a tad self-centered to celebrate one's own good fortune in the midst of the carnage. It is good to have a roof over one's head, a job and access to health care, and better yet to be grateful for them, but at the same time, it's a sign of the sickness in our society that not everybody has these things. What I often hear is a gratitude not centered in a context of abundance but in a context of scarcity. What I hear is not gratitude that we collectively are prospering but gratitude for my individual fortune. "I" am so grateful to have what others don't.

How would it sound if someone were to stand up in meeting and say: "I am so grateful to have air to breathe," if, just a few blocks a way, people were choking and gasping and possibly dying from lack of air?

What good is a blessing if others don't share in it?

I am convinced that God's true blessings are meant for everyone. When the Bible says the sun shines on the good and the evil alike, it points to the paradox of rewards but it also describes how God gives. God rains down blessings on us in great abundance. Indiscriminately. Not just on the "deserving," by whatever arbitrary measure we may devise to determine that, but on all people. Maybe all people are deserving in God's eyes?

The forces of evil would try to hoard those blessings for the few. But at the point, they get turned into something spoiled, like the manna from heaven the wandering Israelites tried to hoard. I don't think, for example, it's a blessing, in and of itself, to live in a huge house when others are homeless.

Things that are blessings for the few can linger and rot. When we think of haunted houses in the popular imagination, for example. we think of large old Victorian dwelling, with flapping shutters askew and inside, cobwebs festooning the once-fancy woodwork. Or we think of ancient castles. We seldom think of haunted huts or cottages.

Yet we live in a world that routinely encourages us to hoard the blessings for ourselves and our group, be it our own children, our faith groups, our cities, towns, counties, states or countries.

When the English ruling class started to enclose what had traditionally been common grazing lands, lands available to promote the common good and common prosperity, trouble ensued. Today, some don't care that water and air, traditionally freely available, at least in this country, have become polluted. There's money to be made by selling the clean versions of these-now--commodities.

As we contemplate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, it's integral--not simply a pretty embellishment-- to the story that he was born to bring grace to all people. He is a universal blessing. He brings a hope for peace and goodwill to all.

The challenge I am taking up is to try to be thankful for and to ask for blessing for all people. If I am grateful for a job, a home or health insurance, then I want that for everyone. If I deserve it, so does everyone else. I ask why isn't that blessing raining on everyone? What more can I/we do to ensure it?

When I think of the blessings I would most like to spread, they tend to be more of a spiritual nature: I would love everyone to have loving relationships, goodwill, peace, joy, beautiful surroundings, health, etc. But I also recognize that we are incarnate, material beings and the above spiritual needs are nurtured by physical security. Of course, we can have all these things in terrible circumstances--and the saints among us carry love, peace, joy and all the rest into the darkest dungeons--but most of us are not saints.

This is a roughly written piece, as I try to process these thoughts. I recognize that a crude equalitarianism is not necessarily a blessing either, though I think it might come closer to God's vision than what we have around us. Certainly we don't want to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator but to bring everyone up to a comfortable place. I keep thinking of John Wesley's dictum: earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can. Do we agree with that? How can we take what we have--our blessings--and make them more of a blessing to everyone?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Life in Barnesville: December

I learned the other night that molasses makes a good fertilizer, especially if your soil is low in sulphur. Just add a teaspoon (or perhaps a tablespoon) of blackstrap molasses to a gallon of water and pour on your plants. It's supposed to be a natural miracle- gro. I like this idea because it's so simple.

I have to keep chasing two fat squirrels out of the birdfeeder. I've never seen animals so fat run so fast.

Cows are being pastured just beyond our front yard, so I am studying cow behavior now and again. Not much to report, except that the two new calves run around and frolic. The adults don't stand entirely stock still, as they graze, but they're not doing much else.

It snowed today and is very cold and windy. However, I managed to get Sophie from Muskingum, along with all the stuff she was taking home for her winter break, without any problems.

Barnesville's Main Street is pretty. Christmas wreaths lit with white lights are attached to the lampposts. With the light snow and the decorations and the old brick and stone buildings, the town looks idyllic, at least at night. I continue to appreciate the quiet and lack of traffic here, the ease of parking and shopping. Other than clothes, we can get everything we need in town--there's a grocery store, several dollar stores, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a library, a Rite Aid ... a rare occurrence, I think, in this day and age, and probably supported by the Amish, who I imagine don't find it feasible to ride their buggies all the way down to St. Clairsville to shop in the big box stores and the Walmart. Again, I marvel that it's is the religious groups--the Orthodox Jews in some areas, the Amish in others, and doubtless other groups--that keep communities alive. Rules we moderns reject as senseless and archaic, fit for another era, such as not working on the Sabbath (and hence living close enough to the synagogue to walk) have hidden values. Should Quakers start embracing the Sabbath? Should we start thinking of driving as work?

I have become a vegetarian and that is going well, although in this geographic area (and perhaps all areas) it can be a challenge at times to find something on the restaurant menu other than a grilled cheese sandwich. I've been thinking about veganism, as much of my impetus towards changing my diet is factory farming ... but I can't figure it out. I'm pondering it. Here, I could buy Amish milk and eggs, as I sometimes do, and rest assured the animals are not abused, but so many processed foods contain milk or eggs ... as with many things, it's gradual.

Roger and I had trouble getting out of Barnesville on Saturday, one of the drawbacks of being six or so miles off the interstate. Cars were spinning out of control on the ice on the windy, hilly roads, blocking traffic. We were eventually able to get to Route 70, but for a moment I thought we were going to end up like De Smet, South Dakota from the Little House books--snowed in all winter.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

George Fox: live in the pure hope

"And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." (1 John 3:3)

"O! Live in the pure hope, which purifies you as He is pure; which hope is Christ ... and so feel Christ your hope, which anchors your immortal souls, that stays it in all waves, storms, and tempests, and is safe and sure in all weathers; Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday; so no new thing." George Fox, from Mind the Heavenly Treasure

Fox and the early Quakers seem to have often written of "pure" things, such as "pure hope" and "pure peace," and I believe the adjective "pure" had special meaning for them. I wonder, what to them, was the difference between pure peace and peace, pure hope and hope.

Having just learned about the potency of images to the early Friends, I note that Fox contrasts the unchanging "anchor" of Christ to the uncertainties (waves, storms and tempests) of this world and declares Christ as the place of safety. As Fox notes, not a new thing ... or image ... but powerful all the same.

Interestingly, he asks us to "feel" Christ, which moves us from intellectual argument to heart place, from empirical evidence to mystical, possibly ecstatic, union.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Liars or Friends?

I have been thinking recently about the Lewis and Clark journals, which I read in the early 1990s. I'm recalling ... and I hope have this straight.

As I remember, early in their exploration of the territory received in the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark disciplined a member of their party. This was a military expedition sponsored by the US government, and Lewis and Clark were both military officers.

They proceeded to beat an insubordinate recruit.

Native Americans were on the scene, watching, and their leader, distressed at beating, tried, I believe, to prevent it, and then cried tears at the violence.

Lewis and Clark were astonished and thought the leader must be feigning his distress. Why are you so upset, they asked? Don't you beat your son?

No, never. We don't beat our children.

Here is where it gets interesting. Lewis and Clark simply could not believe the chief--and the Indians in general-- didn't beat their children. It was so far out of their child rearing and hierarchical paradigms that they simply assumed the leader was lying. The only way they could make sense of the statement was to assume that the leader must have had a hidden agenda. It also fed into their preconception that Indians were deceptive.

Lewis and Clark were not alone in believing in the necessity of corporal punishment. Samuel Johnson, usually an enlightened man, defended it as the only way to compel young boys to learn their school lessons.

Of course, from the vantage point of today's culture, we know that we can raise successful children without resorting to physical violence -- and in fact, better understand the psychological harm that can arise from physical punishment. We can look at this encounter between Lewis and Clark and the Native American leader and see it as culture clash.

What interests me about this episode (aside from the fact that I'm glad our culture has moved in the direction of the Native Americans) is how we process what doesn't fit into our framework. We tend, I believe, like Lewis and Clark, to dismiss what doesn't fit as a "lie." (I believe Nietszche said a similar thing when he wrote that we label the "other" as evil.) In Lewis and Clark's case, as I remember, they didn't see the Indian as evil, but as childlike, deceptive and, most of all, contemptible. There was no attempt to, say, do a thought experiment and assume that perhaps he was telling the truth. And if he was, to ponder what the implications of that might be. There was no reflection that seemingly "normal" discipline might truly be distressing to another culture--and perhaps there might be something to think about in that slippage between the two cultures.

I'm thinking about this because recently the "culture wars" have been breaking out again in a part of the blogsphere I frequent ...and the assumption on both sides is that the other side is either deliberately lying or that innocent people are being misled by unsavory leaders with the ever-present hidden agendas. But what if we really tried to get into the minds of the people on the other side? What if we assumed that they were telling their truth--that they weren't misled or lying, childlike or contemptible? What leads them to this truth that is different from our truth? What can we learn from it?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Global Warming: Who cares?

There's been much debate lately about whether global warming is "real." Since that long-desired northwest passage is emerging due to melting ice ... my feeble mind says global warming is "real." Is the warming caused by greenhouse gases and carbon emissions produced by industrialism or is it just a natural fluctuation in the earth's temperature? I certainly don't know but it seems a tad suspicious to me that 50 years ago or more scientists started worrying about this possibility and devising models that showed that carbon emissions would warm the earth ... and voila, everything seems to be happening as they hypothesized, only faster.

I'm certainly not one to bow and worship at the idol of science. I know science can get things terribly wrong. Words like lobotomy and thalidomide dance through the brain ...

So perhaps science has it wrong. Maybe we can continue to flood the highways with ever more cars and throw ever more heat into the atmosphere and the earth will do what it will--heat, cool, stay the same--paying we humans as much mind as a gadfly. Maybe it doesn't matter. I don't believe that--I do believe our lifestyle, for lack of a better word is having an effect on the planet and not a good one-- but for me, the underlying issue is not solely whether cars, for example, are adding to global warming. Avoiding destroying the eco-system is important (I do care) but so is another question: do we want to live in a car-dependent culture?

And for me the answer is no.

Even if (here I can fantasize for a moment) cars are having no environmental impact, all the same, from a quality of life standpoint, it's dystopic for so many people to spend so much time sitting locked in traffic in little metal cubes that burn up money. It's dystopic not to have a choice. In addition, highways are dead space. How many communities have been broken by having a highway cut them in half? How much sense of geography and place do we lose when we drive around all the real places to get where we are going on highways?

OK, I'm throwing a mishmash of issues into the pot, and none of what I am saying is new. However, I seem to need to say it.

I have no answers, but I think if we can alter the debate or at least add the question of "how do we want to live," maybe we could make a little more progress. Maybe if we stopped assuming that cars are the be all and end all that have to be defended at all costs, we could stop arguing solely about whether they're contributing to global warming and ask: Are they really THAT important? Do we really want to be so dependent on them?

Just a thought.

Should we--brothers and sisters from another planet-- start a "bring back the buses" movement?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sister From Another Planet

Often I feel like sister from another planet in that I seem to look at life through a different set of lenses. For example:

I actually liked the period during which we had one car. It slowed us down. It felt good. It felt right.

I wish all our towns were connected with trains and buses and even passenger boats drifting down waterways.

I don't think the government does everything wrong. I think they handle many programs well.

I don't agree with the sentiment: "If their own parents don't care about them, why should we?" when children are in trouble. On that note, I didn't like the parties in elementary school given for the children whose parents got the school forms back "on time." Should a child whose parents are so disorganized or have so many problems they can't get the school forms back be doubly punished? When I would say that, I would hear "If their own parents don't care about the, why should we?" Then I would feel angry. And then I would feel ... like sister from another planet.

Well, the list could go on. Almost daily. It can make one despairing, frustrated or misanthropic, but then it gets back to ... ...loving people anyway, looking at life through their lenses, not judging ... accepting that the world won't conform to my ideas and that's probably a good thing ... any other ideas?

Same anyone? Additions to the list? It could go on and on and on .... :)