~ from cats, dogs and nature to the flowering of body, mind and spirit ~

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Trusting the Discourse

In winter, we trust that spring will follow.
I find myself having to trust that my current discourse, whether face-to-face or through writing, is necessary. As I delve into culture, religion, politics, and family genealogy, it feels like I’ve fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. I meant this exploration to be short-lived, a way to become more at ease during my transition to the Ozarks of Missouri where I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole. I expected that I could then quickly switch back to working on my novel, a work-in-progress that is about three-fourths complete. Instead, my inquiry process expands and contracts like a fire-breathing dragon, though, granted, this shouldn’t have been a surprise since the local community and our larger American society as a whole is, in fact, the result of complex people, alive as well as dead. 
History reaches forward as well as backward, and each moment of the present investigation compels me to seek an explanation, an origin, but one that never truly manifests as solid. The fear and anger of the American people is full-spectrum, derived from past disappointment and future expectation, compounded by myriad perceptions of how our lives should be — locally as well as globally. This, too, is part of the fieldwork and analysis applicable to all of us; I am within the spiral of events, yet also a witness to them.

Thus, what began as a form of personal therapy has developed into a desire for greater knowledge and, hopefully, deeper wisdom. I have to trust that there is a purpose to my seemingly endless research, encompassing both my inner and outer work, taking up vast amounts of time, and that it will ultimately benefit others as well as myself. And I have to trust that when I eventually return to working on my novel, that it will be enriched as well — perhaps its characters will be more alive and multi-faceted than they would have been without my detour into the quagmire of the American political and religious systems.

I end with Walt Whitman on "How Literature Bolsters Democracy" … certainly something to aspire to when writing! 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Closing the Gap

Continuing my journey into understanding our American political differences in ideals and philosophy, I started reading Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker J. Palmer, and quickly became an advocate for the tension-holding process of civil conversation described within the book. 
The escalated ugliness revealed through our current election season process has been confusing and overwhelming, a point at which, in the past, I usually found myself completely withdrawing from. This year, though, I have become deeply curious about the “why” and "how" of politics, which has led me to learn more than ever before about my country through our formative documents, the founding fathers, presidents, parties, and political process, the psychology of diversity, and so much more. 
Our peopled government has never seemed more at odds and unwieldy, yet we must — every single one of us as citizens — find a way to support the Great American Experiment. It seems to me that this broader conversation begins at home, with friends and family, at the dinner table and in community. This isn’t easy for me — as an extreme introvert and pacifist, I tend to avoid conflict — but it does feel absolutely vital so that  we may continue growing our country toward greater dignity, compassion, and unity.
One divisive comment I’ve noticed that often halts continuing conversation is when one person speaks of “democracy” and the other states that we are a “republic.” Curious about this, since my high school years of social studies are many decades gone, I googled. Keeping in mind the context in which the Founding Fathers (see my earlier post on this group of diverse men) formed the United States of America, the definitions I found seemed simple and I agree with Parker Palmer’s comment that we are both: “we are a representative democracy set in the context of a constitutional republic.” The terms and their intention do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Parker Palmer acknowledges that “our differences may be deep” — as we are seeing in this year’s election primaries — but points out that this is nothing new (only 39 of 55 delegates signed the Constitution in 1787). What is new to my generation is how many Americans are behaving without respect, dignity, decency or compassion — and trying to call it “honesty.” Palmer says that if American democracy fails, it won’t be from external forces, rather “it will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it.” Fear of “the Other” is rampant right now and destroying our ability to discuss the issues we disagree upon; we cannot suppress necessary conversation, we can’t dig in our heels (or walk away) and refuse to talk. I know it’s tempting — I’m an expert at walking away from conflict and volatile relationships. But here, now, there is more at stake than my own personal comfort zone. Palmer speaks of “creative conflict” and his book clearly shows ways to engage respectfully with those whose opinions strongly differ from ours.
I’ve been watching debates on both sides of the political spectrum and, yes, the issues are major. Are they going to disappear just because we get angry and call people names, be vulgar, incite violence, or turn our backs? I doubt it. I lean toward the Democratic party myself, but I certainly appreciated the comments made recently by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan: “Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults … Our political discourse did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way” (“Wall Street Journal,” March 24, 2016).
During a recent family political discussion, where we all did a fairly good job of remaining calm, we kept returning to common ground, finding the core elements that we could agree upon. In those core moments, we could remind each other that the conflicting issues are how we address and resolve our concerns, rarely the deep issues themselves like how to keep people safe, employed, and fed. We could pause, break bread together, and then return to the table. Politicians in DC used to do that; they used to have their families there and members of opposite parties would attend social functions more freely and openly together — participating in community. 
Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy was written in 2011 and released in paperback with a new Introduction in 2014 (this is the copy I have); I was struck by the following paragraph — from a chapter on citizen heartbreak (when your heart breaks, does it break open or shatter apart — how we handle heartbreak is reflected through our subsequent behavior), pain, cynicism, and anger erupting in destructive behaviors that are symptomatic masks — in light of our current political schism: 
“There are exceptions, of course. Some of the cynicism, anger, and hatred we hear is scripted and strategic. For example, manipulating our ancient fear of ‘otherness’ is a time-tested method to gain power … if you have a public megaphone. Well-known media personalities—and too many political candidates and officeholders—exploit a market that will yield returns as long as fear haunts the human heart, a profitable enterprise in relation to their own financial or political fortunes but one that can bankrupt the commonwealth.”
This book is a gem that I wish everyone would read. What’s most remarkable about Palmer’s book is that, rather than be depressing, it is uplifting because the author returns again and again to ways in which we can bring about change through compassion, respect, and conversation. The dynamics of difference involved in our political system means that the pendulum swings back and forth from one election to another, but we don’t have to let it become a wrecking ball if we attend to the checks and balances provided initially by our Founding Fathers and allow them to grow in context with changing times and cultures.
I will end with these wise words by Parker Palmer (in a chapter where he is writing about seeing our own history as clearly as we can, rather than through rose-colored glasses):
“If we remain clear about the gap between America’s aspiration and its reality, [the Declaration of Independence] can continue to energize movement toward our goal. But when we imagine or pretend that it describes America’s reality, the [document] becomes an enemy of its own aspiration.” 
“In every generation, we must try again to close the gap between our reality and our aspirations.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Roots, Vines, and Religious Liberty

As I settle into our new home in the southwestern Missouri Ozarks, I’m embraced by trees and vines and roots, by bloodlines and history, by two hundred years of cellular community. Do the trees protect or isolate? Do the vines support or choke? Do the roots nourish or taint? How does any of this help me become stronger and more compassionate? 
I turn to the wisdom of nature and the beauty of landscape for messages of growth and healing. I step into new communities and listen with my heart. I invite the past to share its journey through story. 

I’m reading like mad, as usual, and one of my absolute favorite books has been Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty by Steven Waldman.* Founding Faith is a gorgeous distillation of America’s process toward religious freedom, and a good reminder for all of us right now not to persecute a religion because of extremists within it. Founding Faith is one of those books that, if I were one to highlight pivotal phrases or “ah-ha!” moments, would be a text of almost exclusive yellow markings. This means I find it nearly impossible to narrow my focus and provide only a few quotes, so the blurb from the back of the book will have to suffice in wetting your appetite: 
“The culture wars have distorted the dramatic story of how Americans came to worship freely. Many activists on the right maintain that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Many on the left contend that the First Amendment was designed to boldly separate church and state. Neither of these claims is true, argues Beliefnet.com editor in chief Steven Waldman. With refreshing objectivity, Waldman narrates the real story of how our nation’s Founders forged a new approach to religious liberty. 
Founding Faith vividly describes the religious development of five Founders. Benjamin Franklin melded the Puritan theology of his youth and the Enlightenment philosophy of his adulthood. John Adams’s pungent views on religion stoked his revolutionary fervor and shaped his political strategy. George Washington came to view religious tolerance as a military necessity. Thomas Jefferson pursued a dramatic quest to “rescue” Jesus, in part by editing the Bible. Finally, it was James Madison who crafted an integrated vision of how to prevent tyranny while encouraging religious vibrancy.”
 This book is one that I wish everyone would read; with excellent information (massive amounts of footnotes and extensive bibliography to follow up on any details) and beautiful flow to the writing and layout (resulting in a fast read), it also provides common ground for people to meet each other in conversation. 
An acquaintance on Facebook recently told me, after a brief chat clearly showed our political differences of opinion, that we needed to stop before the dialogue could damage our friendship. A few years ago, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with that comment. But now, I find myself wondering if that’s where our political system has gone haywire? Is that part of what has led to such tremendous polarization? If friends and family cannot participate in civil conversation, and respect each other across and through our differences, how can we expect politicians to do so?

The seasons change, the wheel of life turns, and new visions emerge within and without … below are two photos from nearly the same angle and location on our deck, yet the view is so different. Time and awareness can change everything.
August 2015

January 2016


*I bought Founding Faith after listening to “Liberating the Founders,” an interview with Waldman by On Being with Krista Tippett. If you don’t have time to listen to the hour-long podcast, even just skimming the transcript is a delight. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Oil Spill of Our Words

This morning I woke up feeling such compassion and peace that I nearly cried. Why? Because I am blessed to live in America where we are gifted with the absolute splendor of the natural world plus cultural opportunities and freedom. 
Sadly, I nearly cried again in the next few hours as I read the words of so many people, people I know and had hoped to form community with, who seem to have vitriol spilling out of them. They are awash in a constant turmoil of religious fervor and what they believe patriotism to exclusively be. And this zeal too often emerges as acerbic ridicule of people or enclaves or cultures, as the bitter criticism that heaps blame upon the other, upon someone who doesn’t think like they do. 
I understand the fear and anger, I'm intimately familiar with them, but scathing or derogatory remarks incite vitriol rather than invite tolerance or mercy toward our common need for safety and peace. How do we use our words to respond with healing intention to this acidic oil spill spreading throughout our families and communities? How do we mend the cracked and broken channels of emotion erupting from within that are in direct reaction to the eruptions of threat and violence we see coming toward us? 
I know my reflection upon this arises partially out of an audio interview I listened to a while back wherein naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams said at one point that: 

“And I was thinking, what is vitriol? What does it mean? And I actually looked it up and it was fascinating because it means an allusion to the corrosive properties of vitriol, which is a strong corrosive acid linked to sulfuric acid, clear, colorless, oily, water-soluble liquid that is produced from sulfur dioxide. Which I thought was interesting, which is the toxic waste that comes from burning coal, used chiefly in the manufacturing of fertilizer, chemicals, drugs, explosives, and petroleum refining. And I thought, well, this is really interesting. Because I think that the conversations that we so often have, and I have to tell you, you know, I don't have to go anywhere but my own family dinner table to find the seed bed of this, both the highest use of language and the lowest use of language with real vitriol, because the people around our dinner table and our extended family do not all think the same. So I have no illusion that we all have this common ground. You know, we have to really fight for that around our household. And we always have.”*

Williams talked about her journey to see the residual effects of the Gulf oil spill (she wrote a piece on that called “The Gulf Between Us”**) and also relates this to the feeling of being caught in the middle because we need something, such as oil, but also are diminished and shamed by what our own desire and need has done to the planet and myriad diverse cultures. 
So, how do we create balance? How do we embrace the other while holding our own center point of integrity and faith? How do we return with awareness, repeatedly, to our own culpability in the current chaos and crises? How do we not blame the other…the other person, the other side, the other country? Not easy questions, I know. 
One thing I can do, to begin within, is try to carefully watch my words, because they can’t be taken back, and because vitriolic words taint, tarnish, and can even potentially destroy all that we hold dear when they escalate actions toward violence. Thankfully, by grace, words can also heal and hearten the weary or fearful or angry, leading to compassion and the ability to embrace the other and to peaceful resolutions or, as Parker Palmer said recently, to revolutions, in "Five New Year's Revolutions." 
And this gives me hope...
Happy New Year and May We Know Peace on Earth.


*Terry Tempest Williams. “TheVitality of the Struggle.” On Being with Krista Tippett. July 19, 2012. < http://www.onbeing.org/program/vitality-struggle/233 >

** Terry Tempest Williams. “The Gulf Between Us.” Orion Magazine. < https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-gulf-between-us/ >
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