Tuesday, January 17, 2017

That My Heart Will Be Peaceful and Calm

i am, like all of us i suppose, a creature of habit.  i want to live my life with a certain orderliness, to organize my days after a certain pattern.  i follow a routine upon wakening:  i open our dog's kennel and together he and i leave the bedroom, i close the door from the bedroom so as not to wake my wife as i putter around the house, i turn off the house alarm, i grab my phone and stick it in my pocket, i get myself a glass of ice water and take my early morning medicines, i get my computer, i sit down in my chair in the den, i meditate, i practice my german, i read the blogs i follow on that day of the week, i feed the cats and the dog.  by that time my wife is usually up and breakfast preparations are begun, or, weather permitting, we go for a walk and then begin working on breakfast.  after breakfast, our day together begins.

usually, our day was planned the day before.  when we finish breakfast, we have our plan of action determined.  my wife is a great list-maker, and she has her list for the day which we begin to follow.  i, on the other hand, avoid writing lists at all costs.  somehow, once something is put on a list that is written down, it becomes an obligatory action, and failure to perform it is a moral failing.  sure, i have lists in my head, but for me those are not as binding as written lists.  if i'm not able to tick something off my mental list, i can push it over into the next day's list without feeling guilty.  between my wife's written lists and my mental lists, our days are pretty productive.

at the end of the day, we sometimes have very different perspectives on how the day went.  my wife often feels as if we didn't accomplish enough--there are items she was unable to cross off her list.  i then begin to recite all the things that we did accomplish and, by the time i've reminded us of all the tasks that were completed, we both feel pretty good about our day, and we have the start of the next day's list with what remains on our to-do lists for this day.

when something happens and my routine is disrupted, i have to psyche myself up or the change spoils my day.  it helps if i know in advance that i won't be able to follow my usual routine so that i'm mentally prepared for it, but, if i oversleep or some emergency occurs, it's hard for me to keep from feeling as if my day has been ruined.  sometimes i wish that i could be more spontaneous about how i live my life and wonder how people who don't follow a pattern in their daily lives get anything done.  what must that be like, to have no ritual at the beginning of the day, no set plan for how the day is to go, no goals for the day?  i am envious of such people, and yet i am comfortable in my regimen.  i enjoy the feeling that each day is productive, that i get some important solitary processes done at the beginning of the day, and that my wife and i work together to achieve our predetermined daily tasks.

i have the fifteen-or-so blogs that i read each week organized into bookmarks for each day of the week so that i generally get around to them all.  i have my pills for each day in pillboxes that are prepared two weeks in advance.  i have timers on lights inside and outside the house that i want to come on and off at precise times.  we always begin thinking about what we are to cook on the weekend early in the week, so that by thursday we have a menu worked out, and on thursday or friday at breakfast we make our grocery list based on that menu and do our grocery shopping after breakfast one of those days.  we cook enough on the weekend so that we don't have to do much cooking for our dinners during the week.  we have a set time each month that we sit down together and pay our bills.  on sunday morning i write my weekly blog post and refine it on monday and tuesday before posting on tuesday morning.  during the summer, thursday is yard day, so grocery shopping has to be done on friday morning.  this is pretty much how our life is organized, and i suppose it works well for us.  not much is left to chance and there is a precision to our days that is quite satisfying.

i know that living this way would be maddening to many, just as living without a set process for getting things done would be maddening for us.  we each are so different and yet so much the same.  we yearn for stability, but we achieve it in diverse ways.  some of us are planners, some of us "fly by the seat of our pants."  for some of us each day is a blank canvas to be filled in as the day goes by, and some of us have all the puzzle pieces laid out for us in advance so that the day is a process of putting the puzzle together.

life is wonderful that way--so many varied approaches on how to live it, and all of us wanting the same things in the end.  love, respect, appreciation, food, shelter, clothing, contact with others, times of rest and activity.  if we have those things, life is good.  may we each have a good life, regardless of how we approach it.  may  we not judge others for living life differently from us and may we celebrate our diversity, appreciating each other for it.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

We Blossom and Flourish as Leaves on the Tree

i am thinking lately of acceptance and change and the interaction between them.  so often we humans have a preconceived notion of how things ought to be.  we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration when things don't live up to our preconceived ideals.  i think of how a friend's marriage fell apart because his wife had an idealized conception of marriage.  she believed that their relationship ought to be like what she had seen in movies and read in romance novels that were far removed from the realities of life's daily give and take.  when their marriage wasn't fairy-tale perfect, she was filled with anger and disappointment and began an affair with another man, bringing their marriage to an end.  she went on to marry what she believed would be her perfect mate, and now they, too, are divorced, because of her unrealistic expectations.

life is seldom as we wish it to be.  reality intrudes on our image of how things "ought to be."  a child gets sick, and our plans for the day go out the window.  the car won't start, and our schedule is shot.  one phone call turns our day topsy-turvy.  our candidate loses the election, and we believe we are doomed.  change is the one constant in life.  i am not the same person i was a moment ago.  a moment from now i will be another person, and yet i am still me.  circumstances change and i react to them.

does this mean i shouldn't make plans?  life would be chaos without some thought for what i must do to give life order and to accomplish what needs to be done.  but i must hold those plans loosely and not feel as if disaster has set in when life interferes.  if i insist on following my plan rigidly, the outcomes are anger, frustration, and disappointment, and i injure those around me.  life is not my plan for the day--life is change.

must i, in the name of acceptance, put up with the wrongs of the world?  do i just say, "oh, well, donald trump won, and i have to accept his ideas about how our country and the world should function"?  must i abandon accomplishing what i had planned for the day because some emergency has intruded?  acceptance of how things are and acknowledging that change is inevitable doesn't mean tolerating that which we believe to be wrong or giving up on our plans and dreams.  acceptance of how things are and acceptance of change means that we accept the flow of life and adapt to the bumps and hurdles that are inevitable.

we live in an imperfect world and are ourselves imperfect creatures.  sometimes the vagaries of life that interfere with our "perfect day" are serendipities that stop us from making mistakes or lead us to an epiphany that would not have occurred otherwise.  the lemons of life that mysteriously become lemonade remind us that, while change is not always beneficial, it is the stuff of life.  railing against change is futile; working to bring it about is our mission, if we accept that there is no straight course to the changes we seek.

may we live lives of acceptance of impermanence.  may we understand that what is will not be in the next moment.  may we embrace the flow of life, sometimes allowing it to carry us along, and sometimes swimming strongly in its current.  may we work to change that which needs to be changed while accepting the reality of the present moment.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Oh, Rest Beside the Weary Road

we have an advent calendar shaped like a christmas tree.  at its base is a tray that contains ornaments of various colors and patterns that attach to the tree magnetically.  each day during the season, i add another ornament to the tree, counting down to christmas.  on christmas day, there is a large star to top the tree.  i look forward each year to filling the tree with ornaments as the big day approaches.

as i reflected on what christmas means to me, i thought about all the clich├ęd phrases we use to describe the meaning of the day that is so important in the christian calendar.  christmas is probably all those things--a time of new beginnings, of hope, of light in the darkest time of the year.  for me, it is a mark of the rapid passage of time.  my advent calendar fills with ornaments so quickly, and before i know it, it's time to put the star on the top.  my wife and i are celebrating our 48th christmas together, and we are both observing our 70th christmas.  it seems as if only a short time ago, i was a wide-eyed child jumping with excitement on christmas morning and an even shorter time since my wife and i celebrated our first christmas together.

how could so many years have elapsed so quickly?  coming, as it does, so close to the end of the old year and the start of the new, i suppose it is natural to associate december 25 with replacing the old calendar with a new one and beginning a new year, filing the old one away in our memories.  i think there is more to it than that, though.  christmas reminds of events that happened so many years ago, in a place and time that are very different from our own.  it reminds us of oppressive occupiers of a tiny land in which the baby was born.  it reminds us of cruel kings that would slaughter innocents to protect their thrones.  it reminds us of the universality of a mother's love.  it calls us to look back at events even further removed from the day of jesus' birth: to ancient lands, to earlier religions that called humankind to lives of peace and virtue, to cultures so different from ours and yet so similar in many ways.

christmas means looking back for me, back through the eons of time and remembering how much we have in common with those who have gone before us.  the present reminds us of the cycle that repeats over and over:   cruelty, selfishness, bigotry, and fear of those who are superficially different are eternal, but so is kindness, concern for others and the natural world, love, respect for one another.  in the face of all that is wrong with the world, there are religions and philosophies that assert what is right with the world.  the birth of a baby in an obscure place that christians celebrate at christmas was not the beginning of the search for what is right, but a continuation of it, a reminder that there are many lights piercing the darkness.

may this season bring joy in the face of sadness, hope in the face of fear.  may we be reminded that kindness ultimately defeats cruelty, but the selfishness from which that cruelty is born continually reasserts itself, making the need for love and kindness all the more important.  may we love unconditionally and without reason.  regardless of our religion or lack thereof, may we have "happy holidays!"  shalom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

From Lies of Tongue and Pen

i went to the post office the other day to mail some christmas packages.  in the parking lot there was a truck with a large trump sign in the back window.  on the back bumper was a sticker that said, "i don't believe the liberal media."  i wondered exactly what the owner of the pickup meant.  i was certain he didn't spend a lot of time reading "rightwingwatch.org" or "huffingtonpost.com"  did he mean that the "liberal media" is any media other than fox news or the right wing radio talk shows that abound in our area?

this led me to think about the proliferation of "fake news" which was in evidence during the recent election campaign and that so many of our citizens were ready to believe, things like "pizzagate" that claimed hillary clinton and members of her campaign staff were operating a child sexual abuse ring out of a pizza parlor in washington or the story long perpetuated by donald trump and others that claimed president obama was not born in the usa or the claim that secretary clinton's aide, huma abedin, was sympathetic to the muslim brotherhood and that our government had been infiltrated by that organization.  one of the most disturbing characteristics of the trump campaign and of our president-elect is the promotion of these far-fetched conspiracy theories.  mr trump's embrace of such disproved and fantastic lies gives them a legitimacy that reinforces his followers' insistence on their veracity.

the increasing reliance on social media as a source of information and the denigration of the traditional press is a disturbing trend that came to the fore in this election.  both major-party nominees were dismissive of the press, and mr. trump, in particular, frequently attacked the media, egging on those who attended his rallies as they targeted the reporters who were confined to the "press pen."  the refusal to distinguish between legitimate reporting of the sort that seeks truth without bias and pretend reporting that dismisses facts that fail to support a preconceived conclusion or that passes on unsubstantiated information as fact is a grave danger in a democracy.  the problem is not so much that fact-averse journalism exists, but rather that there are increasing numbers of people who are ready to accept as fact that which is demonstrably false.

i wonder if there is not a relationship between ready acceptance of patently fallacious reporting and unquestioning faith in religion.  the religious right's insistence that those who question or refuse to accept supernatural religious belief are undermining the foundations of our country seems to go hand in hand with insistence that fact-free "news" is preferable to conscientious journalism.  those who are ready to accept unprovable religious beliefs may be more likely to accept unproven stories that support their own biases.  as carl bernstein, the legendary reporter who, with bob woodward, exposed the watergate conspiracy during the nixon admistration, said recently, "what we have seen throughout the [trump] campaign is pathological disdain for the truth, a kind of lie, and ease with lying, that we have not seen before."  a democracy that allows this sort of conduct to take place unchallenged cannot continue to exist.  the easy acceptance of propaganda that has been proven to be untrue undermines the rational thinking on which our country was founded.

may we counter falsehood with truth.  may we seek truth wherever it may lead.  may we not succumb to arguments that target our emotions and our own biases rather than our brains.  may we defend the press's freedom to say whatever it wants but, at the same time, may we insist on proof of what is being said.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

And the World Will Be a Better Place

this morning i am thinking of the unspeakable acts of cruelty going on in the world, of the merciless shelling of the city of aleppo, of the battle raging against isil, of the unspeakable killings that are part of the drug trade in central america and mexico.  i am thinking of the pivot towards anti-immigrant sentiment in this country and in europe.  i am thinking of the persecution of women throughout the world and the desire to control women in my country, exemplified in the "fetal heartbeat" bill passed by the ohio legislature in the wake of donald trump's victory.  i am thinking of the oligarchy our country has become.

in the face of all this, it is easy to feel powerless.  what can i do to combat this pervasive evil in the world?  how can i defend those who have come here to make better lives for themselves and their families?  is there a way i can make life better for those who are endangered by the present political and social climate?  one thing i've resolved to do this giving season is to increase my financial contributions to organizations that are doing good in the world by providing the impoverished with tools to improve their own lives and institutions that improve the quality of life for those in my community.

the question of how i can make a difference in the world through the way i live my daily life still nags at me.  financial assistance to worthy causes is good and something each of us who can ought to do, but i want my life to make a direct difference, to live a life that takes a stand against the forces that increase suffering for so many.  here are some pre-new-year resolutions that i hope will make me and the world a better place:
* i can strive to treat others with more loving-kindness and respect.
* i can hold my tongue when i'm tempted to lash out at another who has wronged me.
* i can speak against the intolerance and bigotry that seems to be increasingly prevalent, and i can speak in such a way that is less a personal attack against the intolerant and bigoted and more an affirmation of ideals that i embrace.
* i can stop criticizing others as persons and start criticizing ideas that are harmful to others.
* i can be more patient.
* i can be more concerned with hearing another than i am with proving that i'm right.

so this is the day to begin to live these resolutions in my life, to live more skillfully.  i can't waste time fretting over the actions of our president-elect and his advisors, actions that i have no control over.  i can't go fight with the rebels in syria.  i can't conquer mosul or raqqa.  instead, i can exhibit the qualities that i want to see in others, living my life with dedication to ideals that i believe would make the world a better place if we all adopted them.

may we each make the world a better place, one human contact at a time.  may we treat others as we wish to be treated.  may we not give in to pessimism and fatalism.  may we love those with whom we disagree.  may patience replace anger.  may we never give up.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Child Is This

it is interesting how seemingly unrelated things sometimes converge to make connections in our minds.  during this time of year, my wife and i watch lots of holiday movies, some great, like "it's a wonderful life," some not-so-great and pretty sappy.  though the election is over, we live near louisiana, and there is a senate race there that won't be finished until next week, so we are still having political ads for that election foisted on us as we watch tv.  it's the connection between a couple of these movies and one particular political ad that has infected my brain.

in one movie, the female lead is shown practicing yoga.  she and her adult daughters no longer attend the church where they used to sing in the choir.  they seem to have joined the "spiritual but not religious" movement, but, in the end when all the conflicts in the story are resolved, we see the mom in her choir robe singing in the church choir again.  she steps forward out of the choir, a spotlight shines on her, she invites her family to come to the chancel where they are substitutes for the holy family in her closing solo.

in the second movie, set in the "wild west," an outlaw is responsible for accidentally killing the pastor of a church in a small town in the aftermath of a bank robbery.  as he dies, the pastor tells the man that he can change, that every wrong act can be forgiven.  in his remorse, the outlaw flees the scene to live a life of seclusion.  his two partners seek him out, an argument ensues, and, in the process of trying to escape, he is shot and left to die by his former friends.   a woman and her two children find the man alive near their farm, take him into their home, and nurse him back to health.  every night she reads the children a bible story, and the two stories that stick in the mind of the injured outlaw are those of the prodigal son and the good samaritan.  the outlaw becomes a changed man, falling in love with the widowed woman and helping her care for her two children and the farm.  in the end, we discover that the pastor he killed was the woman's husband and the children's father, but they forgive him, recognizing that he is not the same man who killed their husband and father.

in the commercial, the conservative candidate lists his "core beliefs."  one of them is, "i believe in God; the second is, "i believe we don't owe anything to illegals;" another is "i believe in love, but i believe in carrying a handgun just in case."  i've heard his beliefs so many times that i mute the tv every time i see his face.

all three of these that i've described trouble me:  the first movie by its vague religiosity that finally leads to a mawkish recreation of the christmas manger tableau, the second movie by its insistence that change for the good requires becoming a christian, and the commercial by the candidate using "God," "illegals" "love," and "carrying a handgun" as non-too-subtle codewords to appeal to his evangelical base.  of the three, i found the redemption movie the least bothersome, despite its insistence on christianity as the only path to change; in it, the woman and her children care for the injured outlaw, acting as his "good samaritan," and in the process, they are able to let go of the loss of the pastor-husband-father and move on with their lives, while the outlaw finds a way to forgive himself and to make amends for his past actions.

the religiosity of these three--the two movies and the political ad--is what ties them together in my mind.  this idea that religion, and particularly the christian religion, is the only effective way to do good in the world is offensive.  i sometimes think that God laughs at our use of religion as a means of separating the "good" from the "bad," those following our brand of religion being the good, while everyone else is bad.  i wonder if the real truth isn't that we are born with the ability to be both good and bad, and religion or lack of religion has little to do with which prevails in our lives.  rather, it is the choices we make, the skillfulness with which we live our lives, and the influence of those who surround us in our formative years that determines whether good or evil fills our hearts.

may we take responsibility for our own choices.  may we overcome bad influences and relish good ones.  may we try to live more skillfully each day that we are given.  may the true meaning of christmas, the potential for good that the birth of every child brings to the world, fill us during this season.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

All We Like Sheep

from time to time, i read an article about a drive to rename a building on a college campus or to remove a statue that some find objectionable.  while it is honest and instructive to examine the lives of those who are revered as great men and women from the past, acknowledging both their faults and their virtues, in my view, it is a mistake to condemn them for their flaws if we do not honor their notable achievements.

recently a number of teachers and students at the university of virginia criticized the president of the university for quoting the university's founder, thomas jefferson, in a letter to the university community.  thomas jefferson was a slave owner who was enriched by the forced labor of those he owned.  he fathered several children by one of those slaves, never freeing her nor acknowledging their children.  he held racist views that are rightfully condemned.  at the same time, he was an intellect of the first rate, a champion of our fledgling republic, the author of our declaration of independence, and our third president.  his views on slavery were conflicted, and, like many of his fellows, he did not see a way out the moral morass of an economic system dependent on this vile institution in the near future.  that the president of the university jefferson founded should be chastised for quoting its founder seems to be an exercise in political correctness that goes too far.

i understand the need to expunge the name of a person like nathan bedford forrest, a man who needlessly killed hundreds of black union soldiers during the civil war and who founded the ku klux klan after the south's defeat in that war, from the many buildings, streets, and other constructions which are named in his honor.  such a person is unworthy of honor, but to relegate people like woodrow wilson to the dustbin of history seems incongruous.  we must acknowledge that wilson held racist views and suppressed dissent during our participation in the first world war, but he also did much good in promoting world peace and working to engage our country in a role of leadership in making the world a better place, ruining his health in the process.  here is a man who is worthy of both honor and condemnation, a man who was flawed, as we all are, but one who sought to do good despite his imperfections.

the list of the great whose faults were long ignored and who were portrayed as paragons of super-human virtue is lengthy, and it is imperative that we re-examine their lives, in the process acknowledging their humanity.  their greatness lies in the fact that, despite mistakes and views worthy of condemnation, they did great good; the fact that they were human beings with warts and blemishes ought to inspire each of us to do whatever good is possible within our own limitations.

may we not be so ready to condemn others while we ignore our own failings.  may we see that we are all human, capable of both good and bad actions.  may we strive to live skillfully and forgive our own failings to do so.  may we be generous to both ourselves and to others.  shalom.