Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Paucity of Language: Parsing a Plethora of Information

A man I have known and greatly admired for decades, recently wrote, "We tend to get caught up in the words that we have, which may not be extensive enough to explain everything. I remember Zeno, or some Greek, telling us, ‘No cat has nine lives; my cat has one more life than no cats, therefore my cat has ten lives.'  I really think our paucity of language is a deterrent to [communication]." 

Linda Tirado, writing in Elle, states, "Solipsism [the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist] is self-soothing. It is easier to believe that everyone knows everything you do, and thus you ... assume that when they come to a different conclusion than you have, they are being intentionally wrongheaded, or selfish, or evil. Only, what if they aren't? What if you, given the information they have, would have reached the same conclusion they did? What if the problem in America is that millions of us, on the right and on the left, have been propagandized? In all the discussions of fake news, we seem to keep missing the most important conversation of all: Different information leads to different decisions for most rational thinkers."

Our "paucity of language," combined with our seeming inability to use critical thinking to read and analyze varied streams of information (not simply that which aligns with our beliefs or opinion) sets us up for divisiveness. 

We shy away from communicating with those who have differing viewpoints or beliefs because we either fear what we assume will be their bombastic wrath or we simply have no stomach for dissension of any kind.

Therefore, we keep to our own group of "think-alikes," talk over the same issues, come to the same conclusion: "It's them, not us! They are the problem!"

People demand freedom of speech as a compensation 
for the freedom of thought, which they seldom use. 
~Soren Kierkegaard


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Brief Moments - Lessons Learned

Image result for moment in time
"... This is how she now believes life happens.  One small thing at a time.  A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear briefly, to be this way...."  
~Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo

A very regular, usual, normal weekday morning. Coffee cup in hand, I walked to the front window, checking the skies to see what the day's weather might bring. My mood was almost as dark as the threatening clouds. No particular reason for this state of mind although it could have been the combination of realizing we were in for another cold and rainy day, a morning phone call that was mildly upsetting, and news of an acquaintance's recent monetary windfall.   

Image result for homeless manLooking to my left I saw a drenched, ragged and shaggy-haired homeless man rummaging through the neighbor's recycle bin. This old man had two filled-to-the-bursting-point garbage bags teetering precariously on top of other sacks and bags stuffed into his two-wheeled cart. I watched as the man assiduously rearranged the bags and eventually found an empty one, which he used to hold the several beer and soda pop cans nestled throughout the bin.

I'm accustomed to experiencing epiphanies that send my thoughts spinning, forcing me to rethink and reassess. I welcome these instances as they usually give me a good jolt to the senses and a reason to reexamine my mind-set or my mood. 

This morning I not only received an epiphany, I also got a good, metaphorical kick in the behind! 

Standing in a warm, secure and comfortable home, drinking fresh, hot coffee, looking across my small, tidy and flower-filled front garden, observing another human being as he struggled to simply survive, I understood all over again just how much I have to be grateful for. 

It's good to have these brief moments of clarity--and vow to carry the lesson throughout my day. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Learning How to Grow Old

[The dawning of 2017's Mother's Day spurred me to revisit and rework a previous post]

There are many days when I am sure I'm channeling my mom. My beloved mom, who died in 1998 at 83 years of age (pictured at 69 years). I feel her near to me and can almost see her in the mirror. I recall Mom said she had the same experience--seeing her own mom when she looked in the mirror.

Those days when I sense my mom so close began to happen more frequently when I reached 70 years of age. 

I recall my mom watching younger women, either on screen or out and about in our town. She seemed to delight in their youth and beauty, agility and energy. There wasn't any sense of wishing for what was past. I recall marveling at that. I certainly hadn't reached the same emotional plane.  

In my 40s (even 50s and 60s) I continued to compare myself to other younger, prettier, more able and capable women. I wanted that young skin, that youthful bounce, those sidelong admiring glances.

Of course, I totally forgot that even the 20-year old me always found fault with herself. So, the decades really had nothing to do with the perception and attitude I carried. 

I can only surmise the end-of-seventh-decade emotional evolution my mom may have experienced. It may not have come to her as vividly as with me.

Almost ten years ago, just before 70 seeped into my psyche and made herself at home, there were a few weeks when that age felt very, very uncomfortable, sounded very, very old, didn't seem to fit any place in my consciousness. 

Then one day it all made so much sense and I began to experience ease in my own skin, an acceptance of the continual changes in my body, acceptance of the fact that it's silly and futile to attempt to look or act like something I'm not. 

Now, as I navigate this 80th year of my life, what I experience most often is an appreciation of the glory and beauty in the never-ending cycle of life. It is as it should be. True, I continue to carry way too much pride and I am certainly not sanguine about the many physical limitations, aches and pains that are a constant in my life. 

I do know that all of "being" is nothing more or less than a process. As the inimitable Groucho Marx (of all people!) observed, "Life is a whim of several [trillion] cells to be with you for a while." 

To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, 
and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. 
~ Henri Amiel


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Understanding the Journey

For many years I’ve collected quotations from the famous, infamous or unknown. In a few words, a quote has the ability to elucidate and help me gather my often wordy thoughts.

Home is where your journey begins.

The quote above comes from a small ceramic sign hanging by the front entrance to my home. I wasn’t sure what the anonymous author meant by the phrase, or even what the phrase meant to me, however those words and the Arts and Crafts style of the plaque enticed me to buy it.

It’s entirely possible I have too much mulling time on my hands, but all in all I’ve spent quite a few hours dwelling on the words. Originally I thought of the word “journey” as simply meaning physical travel, not the “journey” of the mind. That’s an odd thing for me as I usually think in metaphorical terms.

It’s also entirely possible my growing awareness of time’s speedy passing has given me new ways of contemplating my mental “journey.”

As a child and all through my long life, my HOME has always been vitally important to me.   

I grew up in a very small house on a very small plot of land on the outskirts of a very small farming community. Of course, I didn’t realize the house was small, didn’t know until years later that the plot of land which seemed so vast to my child-eyes was truly less than a quarter of an acre.

Mother prepared three hearty, healthful meals a day for her family of four. She hummed to herself as she cooked and as she scrubbed, painted and polished every square inch of the (essentially ramshackle) two bedroom home. Home was where mother read to my brother and me—especially every evening before our bedtime—fostering a lifelong love of books and reading.

Home was what Dad left early each morning and returned to each evening after a long day of trudging the streets of our city repairing decrepit elevators in old office buildings and retirement homes.

At an age which now seems so very, very young and immature, I left my family home and began my journey as a married woman. Meager as our income was, over the years the two of us made each of our one, two, three or more apartments into "homes" which nurtured us as we planned for our future.

Our “journey” as a family began with the birth of our first child. Soon after we were able to buy a house—a new house, a tract house, a tiny house, yet a house two energetic and malleable young adults would eventually make into our true “home sweet home.”  

Add a few years to this young family’s journey and our second child was born.

Over the next sixteen years our family of four moved five more times, two of those moves took us across the country; eventually we came back again (for good) to the state in which I was born.

The physical journeys from home were never as life-altering as the many emotional journeys I’ve either had to travel or have chosen to travel.

Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey.
It reminds us to cherish each moment, 
because it will never come again.
What we leave behind 
is not as important as how we have lived.

~Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard

Monday, May 1, 2017

Coming Out of the World

Some of the greatest pleasures in my life happen when a friend, or some friends, and I are discussing the ways in which we see our world and our place on this third planet from the sun. 

A few days ago I met one on one with a friend I hadn't seen for about four months. I've known this man for almost 10 years. As we always do, my friend and I touched on many subjects. At least once each time we meet one of us brings up the subject of how much we both miss a dearly loved mutual friend who died four years ago. 

On this evening my friend said he could hardly wait until he "saw" our friend again, indicating that yes, he felt he would see this friend in her physical body! It may not be simple hyperbole: I think my jaw did drop as I realized just how profoundly he has moved to someone who professes a belief in a god figure and in an anthropomorphic afterlife. For him, "afterlife" means when he dies he will see, in human form, his departed friends and family.

I certainly do not have any interest in attempting to disabuse him of this fervent belief. It gives him solace, and his connections via this new path have become the foundation for the promotion of his burgeoning counseling business

As I drove away from our meeting, I recalled part of a quote by Barbara Holleroth, a UU Pastoral Counselor: "... the leaf does not fall out of the world when it leaves the tree.  It has a different way and place to be within it." 

When I returned home, I found the entire quote: 

It is sometimes said that we are born as strangers into the world and that we leave it when we die.  But in all probability we do not come into the world at all.  Rather, we come out of it, in the same way that a leaf comes out of the tree or a baby from its mother's body.  We emerge from deep within its range of possibilities, and when we die we do not so much stop living as take on a different form.  So the leaf does not fall out of the world when it leaves the tree.  It has a different way and place to be within it. 

Holleroth's statement is erudite and perceptive. In no way does she negate the feelings of "believers" (although it seems to me she does dispel the notion that the human form stays intact after death), and she certainly does not invalidate the more scientific-minded. In other words, life's energy is ever present, never ending, never dying but simply changing form. 

You'll drift apart, it's true, but you'll be 
out in the open, part of everything alive again.
~Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Part of the Whirling Rubble*

Richard Dawkins, ethnologist, evolutionary biologist and non-theist, gives the following response when asked, as he often is, why he bothers to get up in the morning: 

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades, we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? 

I thought about this comment of Dawkins’ last Saturday morning as I sat in an elegantly serene and comfortable aerie overlooking one of Puget Sound’s glistening bays. The Cascade Mountain Range jutted jagged, impressive and imposing in the distance. Mt. Baker—partially snow-covered—stood sentry in the forefront.

My “… brief time in the sun …” has spanned several decades. However, only in the last three have I focused so intently on the natural world. In Voyage of the Beagle Charles Darwin wrote, “It is wearisome to be in a fresh rapture at every turn, but you must be that or nothing.” In no way am I comparing myself to Darwin; however, there are times when awe of the universe overwhelms my senses—in the most delightful of ways!

In my own unscientific manner, I question, read and research; as a result, at every turn, I discover even more to think and wonder about. 

This 4+ minute video, Ultra-Deep-Field-3D, taken when professional astronomers pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at "nothing," is both incredible and humbling.

Of course, all life as we know it is finite. That’s nothing new to me or to any other sentient being.

One of the most fascinating and, in a selfish sense, comforting realizations that has come to me within the last five years is understanding that “energy” never really disappears but simply changes form. This has given me an entirely new way of looking at death ... my own or anything/anyone else’s.

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, author, anthropologist and folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston, eloquently wrote:

The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that … things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases … I will be still part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to ... become a part of the whirling rubble* of space. Why fear? 

The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving...never lost. ... I am one with the infinite. 

The 13 ¾ billion year continuum of the universe intrigues me and, rather than make me feel small and inconsequential, gives a comforting understanding of my evolutionary connection to the whole. How can one not feel this way when living on such a “…sumptuous planet”?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Factual & Fabricated

You may be a faithful reader of this blog. It’s also possible you stumbled across it in pursuit of something enlightening, informing, interesting or intriguing. You will not find any more in these posts than the thoughts and observations of someone who thinks best when putting words on paper and for whom the written word has always held great fascination.

The seed of an idea for a blog post may arise from an actual event in my life; from something I’ve heard or read in the news; from the fleeting and often disparate thoughts which clutter my mind and clamor for attention.

As I write—in effect germinating that seed—the varied tendrils and sprouts that arise take on forms, qualities and colors which many times veer from reality. Parts of the post may be fiction, yet the conclusion is never fabricated. Along the way there’s been an epiphany, an answer, an explanation.

Writing helps me sort out factual, actual dilemmas and gather seemingly disparate thoughts—sometimes with the help of a fabrication (or two).

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?
~ E. M. Forster

Friday, March 10, 2017

Still Evolving

I’m distancing myself more and more from world and national events. I’m mentally walking away from the hate-filled, contentious declarations and daily exhortations to fear. I’m spending less and less time listening to or watching national news shows. 

I no longer spend time fustigating and fulminating about what I view as inane and senseless editorial opinions in newspapers or on television (which means my usual stream of fairly benign, albeit counter-attack letters and blog posts is down to little more than a trickle) and I don’t give more than a cursory glance to those media espousing beliefs or thoughts with which I do concur. 

In retrospect, this “evolution of thought” has been percolating for some time. However, it increased as I read David McCullough’s book, 1776, which focuses on the events surrounding the start of the American Revolution.

And now, as I read McCullough’s amazing biographical work, John Adams, it is achingly clear to me that, for all the scientific and technical evolution Homines sapientes have achieved, it seems we truly don’t learn from past mistakes--the ratio of greedy, nefarious, self-serving, lying, rapacious and grasping humans appears to hold steady.

Over 160 years ago, French critic, journalist and novelist  Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr observed, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," or, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Total cynicism hasn’t yet crept into my heart and mind. I am simply focusing even more on those who are dear to me, relishing and reciprocating their love and care. I am more thankful than ever for my home and health. In short, I choose to hold close that which enriches my life; I choose to expend less mental energy in the areas over which I have little or no control.

Interestingly, “Homo sapiens” is from the Latin for “the wise human” or “the clever human.” I’d agree we humans are very clever—but then, so are many other animals. I question whether we are as wise, loving and caring as we have the capacity to be.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Winter's Bone Structure

In the midst of winter, I finally learned
that within me there lay an invincible summer.
~Albert Camus

Snow this morning on the way in to work and I once again recall the harsh winter weather of 16 years ago.  

My 81-year old mom had been a widow for two and a half years. Except for some housekeeping and errand help, she lived alone in the home she and Dad had occupied since 1983.

I lived 37 miles from Portland and the East County area where I worked and where Mom lived. I spoke with her daily and at least twice a week stopped by after work to visit.

That particular winter set records for freezing rain and record-setting snowfall. Power lines fell and large trees toppled—especially in the wind-tunnel-like area where my mother lived.

When TV news informed us that all power was out in her section of Portland, I packed some clothing and made plans to stay with Mom as long as necessary. “…as long as necessary” turned out to be six days.

I nailed blankets and tarps across the hallways, lit candles, turned on the gas fireplace and pulled Mom's recliner up close to the warmth.  When she settled in I wrapped her in blankets from the bed. She took it all in stride (she was a North Dakota gal, after all!).

Much about those days is sweetly memorable to me; the two of us talked and laughed, reminisced and remembered—at times tearfully, most often with shared delight.

Outside: A white, completely silent landscape. Inside: Mom wrapped head to toe in blankets, firelight flickering across her beautiful, serene face, outlining the sharp bone structure; the skin of her small and delicate hands stretched taut across blue veins, reminding me of a baby bird just out of the shell.

People don't notice if it's winter or summer 
when they're happy. 
~Anton Chekov

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Attitude & Perspective in Allegory

One ought, everyday at least, to hear a little song, 
read a good poem, see a fine picture 
and if it were possible,
to speak a few reasonable words.
~ Goethe

She said she thought it was her own secret weapon, revealed to her more than two decades ago. A smile danced across her face as she asked how in the world I, a stranger, knew her secret! She didn’t think anyone else knew about it.

I’m a checker in a local convenience store. As usual on a Tuesday afternoon, business slowed down to a trickle. There were no customers in the store, so when the woman walked in I looked up long enough to catch her eye—we nodded and smiled, then she went on her way, eventually walking down two of our three aisles.

She walked up to the register with four items in her arms—a gallon of milk, some kitchen cleanser, a package of cookies and a can of peaches.

The woman’s smile was broad and bright as we exchanged pleasantries. I asked her how her day was going and she replied “It's a good day!” I told her that’s just how I felt that day, and in fact, I said I begin each day by saying, “‘…this is a really good day.’ Not, it might be, not it will be, but it IS, in the here and now.”

The startled look on the woman’s face stopped me right then and there. She put the last item on the counter and as she looked up at me again I saw tears in her eyes.

I indicated the cashier’s stool near the end of my station and invited her to sit down.
She assured me the tears in her eyes were not from sadness—though I had the distinct impression life had dealt her some painful blows. She very lightly touched upon the fact that in her younger days she unwittingly developed the habit of putting energy and thought into what she saw as her life's problems—problems inside herself, and problems with others became magnified, grew out of control.  

Two decades ago one single instance completely changed her attitude; changed how she views life's vagaries.

On that particular day she awoke feeling surprisingly peaceful. Without even realizing it, the words, “this is a good day” ran through her mind. And, lo and behold! It was a good day, from beginning to end. Issues from the days or weeks before, which seemed to present insurmountable problems, simply smoothed themselves out.  

Those are the words which have helped her live the last 20 years of her life with abiding joy. Every morning, through all these years, she repeats five or six times what she calls her mantra, her meditation and her affirmation: “This IS a good day!”

Throughout the day she often dwells on how grateful she is for her mostly good health, the roof over her head and the people in her life who care about her. She assured me she is no Pollyanna; she knows the world is full of strife and pain. Her way is to find the good and focus on that; she tries to set a good example and not only believes in the ripple effect, she has seen it at work.

She chuckled a bit, saying she “experiments” once in a while and thinks to herself: “this sure is a lousy day,” although after an hour or two when everything imaginable seems to go awry, she reneges and replaces the negative thought with a positive one. 

I finished ringing up her purchases and put them in the cloth bag she brought with her.
We continued to talk for a few more minutes. I told her I had been using my secret phrase since the time eight years ago when I made the decision to turn my life around. 

She didn’t pry but continued to look at me with calm and patient understanding. She made it very easy for me to tell her, albeit briefly, about my recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, about my search for inner peace and my re-connection with my wife and children. It's not always easy for a guy to open up this way. I ended by telling her, “Today and all of my days since then, continue to be very good days! I guess it's true: thinking makes it so.”

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
~ Plato

The swinging door of the store opened just then and a man of about 45 walked through. There were grease stains on his khaki work uniform, his steel-toe boots were scuffed and dusty—the man appeared tired and worn down by life.

As he passed the cash register, obviously on his way to the beer cooler, he glanced at the woman on the stool. She nodded and smiled very slightly at the man and as she did, it seemed some burden lifted from his shoulders; his eyes brightened and a slight smile played on his whisker-stubbled, dirt-smudged face.

The woman turned back to me and with the same sweet smile lighting her eyes, she bade me good day.

Did I forget to say she was about 80 years of age and walked with an obviously painful gait? Oh, and did I tell you she timidly, almost apologetically, offered food stamps to pay for her purchases?

The woman in the tattered jacket and soiled old sneakers had the most serene, kind, open and honest face I’ve ever seen. She literally glowed with love, understanding and compassion. Pass it on and remember:

The richest person is not the one who has the most
but the one who needs the least.