Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Art of Building Bridges

I’ve learned from talking to people over the last several weeks that many of us—and this includes myself—went into depression after the last election.  When the external structure, perceived as more or less supporting the greater good, collapses …. What are we left with?  The days have just started to become longer, the light beginning to return to the northern hemisphere after solstice and the mad stand-still of Christmas.  Is philosophical light increasing, I find myself wondering.  It feels like we have just entered a long dark night.

                To reference a famous poem* by Wallace Stevens, there are many angles for looking at the odd bird of the 2016 Presidential election.  Stevens’ long cold stare at existence always gave me chills, and in my lifelong career as an optimist I never viewed him as a kindred spirit—perhaps until now.

1.       Not all of us who lost this election got depressed.  The Bernie kids, as I affectionately call them, felt vindicated, being angry enough not to care about a dusty old concept like the lesser of two evils.  They were also (though I sincerely hope I’m wrong) naïve enough to believe that, in fighting the Good Fight, giving up the bridge because you can’t capture the mountain is an acceptable strategy.  Those of us who are depressed are focused on who took the bridge on the main artery, and what sort of trafficking is underway now that wasn’t there before.

2.       Possibly, we too are naïve.  Possibly the uber-idealists have the stomach for revolution because they are not weighed down by grief for the past, nor by romantic visions that need some renovating.  I maintain that idealism and pragmatism are both essential.  But so, I admit, is the spirit of revolution.

3.       This is a personal challenge for everyone.  It is no longer possible to putter on as if things were “normal.”  We suddenly find ourselves in a country whose democratic process, such as it is, chooses figureheads who espouse racism, classicism, and xenophobia, who prescribe anger and the use of force as the solution to everything.  Empathy and compassion have been cast out of play.  In the weeks after the election I listened to many clients in my therapy practice voicing fear and demoralization, saying in one way or another:  I don’t know how I’m supposed to live now.  I witnessed their distraught faces, noticing my own effort to keep breathing steadily.  I wrote checks for the food bank and the Syrian refugees, and signed petition after petition.  I continued my usual practice of waving and nodding to road construction workers I passed on the way to and from work, and connecting wherever I could with people who didn’t look like me—a well-dressed white lady of a certain age.  How am I supposed to live now?  Solidarity  seemed more valuable than ever.

4.       But nothing feels like enough.  It’s a tightrope walk not to fall into further depression.  What is depression, but the sink-holes in the self over which there is no bridge.  Ah, but those places are our teachers, my zen learning whispers.  The collapsed places of “What am I going to do now?” are our schoolbooks in the classrooms of life.  We can either fall into them, and move further and further from the light of our knowing, or we can focus on how to bridge them.

“What gives you joy?” I ask people constantly.  Singing they say. Writing.  Being outdoors.  Being with animals.  Helping others.  Making art.  And I try to help them begin building that joyful thing into their lives.  Nothing feels like enough?  Go deeper.  Take my hand.  Do it anyway.

5.       It doesn’t really matter what the sink-holes are, they’re the same for all of us.  When something we think we can’t live without collapses—a marriage, a social or spiritual community, one’s livelihood or health, a loved one’s death or departure—it’s the same crisis:  What am I going to do now?  This is the essential question for everyone.  We each have a choice about whether or not to face it.  Am I going to avoid it by becoming depressed or engaging in addictive behaviors?  Or am I going to look at it squarely and keep breathing, give voice to my feelings and try to stay open?

6.       Irony of ironies, openness itself is a bridge.  I can pour concrete over something, shutting myself down and refusing to feel and acknowledge.  Whatever it is has an energy of its own, and it will come bursting through like tree roots under a sidewalk, take my word for it.  Or, I can stay open to feelings, ideas, imagination that allows me to see my way across and through—to the meadow or sandbar or bit of flotsam I believe is on the other side. 

7.       I can also share this experience with others who, no matter who they voted for, have suffered some sink-holes of their own.  We’re all in this together.  We all have different gifts and resources.  And we all have wounds and losses.  This is the fabric of human existence.  We’re all working out of the same book in this classroom.  That happened to you, and I understand because this happened to me.  In this exchange we have formed a connection, thrown a rope across the abyss.

8.       Eight, the number of infinity.  “Your trauma becomes your treasure,” I say to people—even when I’m clinging to the outcropping, swinging out over empty space. . . . .  For the last few paragraphs I keep thinking of our attic in the old house where I grew up.  Three generations before me had put stuff up there that was no longer useful but couldn’t be thrown away:  crystal and china and fine old clothing and outmoded lamps and furniture and baby things and precious artifacts like my brother’s Cub Scout uniform and a blouse my mother hand-made in 4-H Club.  The letters her first husband wrote to her during the War.  By the time I was in junior-high I often joked that archeologists of the future would find us buried in our ancestors’ detritus.  I was powerfully drawn to these emblems of loss.  But it was my brother who first led me up there, taught me to navigate the territory with careful balance, striding mindfully upon the rafters, avoiding the floorboards between that might hold the weight of an ancient baby carriage but not 50 pounds of solid 6-year-old.  Once he even coaxed me into a far, scary corner where an upended oak dining table obscured the lurking shadows beyond.  When we’d gone as far as we’d fit under the eaves, he reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock show we’d recently seen, and then ran off, giggling with adolescent mischief.

9.       Nine, says Denise Linn in The Secret Language of Signs, is “a number of completion . . . a symbol of universal compassion, tolerance, and wisdom.”**I don’t remember how I got down—it was that terrifying.  Our artifacts lay suspended above the weather below:  my mother’s depression, my father’s anger—our island on the vast plain of old farm culture that was rapidly dissolving in the acids of commercialism, itself fueling the Sixties Revolution--a thousand grassfires running wildly toward each other.  They were just about to shoot the President.  Treading a skewed bridge of steps from rafter to rafter in my whirlwind of fear, I did get down without falling through—perhaps developing a muscle that sustains me now.

10.          This is not enough either, I agree.  Take my hand, so that I can try to go deeper.

11.          (“intuition, clairvoyance, spiritual healing”**)  What kind of muscle are we developing at present?  It’s hard to believe that anything good is happening.  All I can think is, when nothing good seems to be happening out there, we work harder in here.  Isn’t this what we learn in meditation practice?  If we show up expecting fireworks, we may be disappointed and give up too easily.  If we get fireworks, we may be all the more likely to give up the next time when we don’t.  When we show up in the open sea, filled with the flotsam of what once was, none of it capable of carrying us now:  we find out what we’re made of.  We find out about our stickability, the quality of our imagination that can keep us focused on the pole star even when we can’t see it.  We find out whether or not we can believe in a pole star, and whether the one we choose rhymes with our gut knowing, whether it heals or sickens.

12.          “You gotta serve somebody,” goes the grinding wail of Bob Dylan—maybe the first and last great bard of our age.  The error of Post-Modernism, I believe, was not knowing that.  It’s all theory anyway, right, and in grad school we become expert at considering theories.  Considering is the skill we are taught—not choice, not commitment.  Perhaps now there is nothing but choice.  What will we save?  What will we support?  What will we protect in this new era of the militant demagogue?   .

13.          Oh my, I’ll let you go looking into this one on your own, faithful reader.  A number vilified by Patriarchy, a number of evil, upheaval, lawlessness.  And/or, the number of lunar cycles in a year, the number of the Goddess.  The “birth to the spirit, the passage to a higher level of existence” says one internet source. 

           As the light returns:

           It is snowing.  And it is going to snow.*

           Let us keep breathing.  Let us keep our balance.



*“Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird:

**Ballantine Books/Random House: 1996, p. 213.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Did Inertia Carry This Election?

                What got me out of bed this morning surprised me for a split second.  It was the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I and on the eve of the Irish revolution.  Only three of his words, to be precise:  What rough beast….  Here’s Yeats’ poem, which some of you will remember from college English.  Yeats’ prophetic words shake me, maybe more now than they did when I was twenty.  The “better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s phrase, seemed to be sitting this election out while the beastly elements raged.  I can’t but think that the people who elected this candidate were voting from their angry gut, not their hearts.  They couldn’t hear their hearts for all their accumulated anger and hurt, and all the campaign snarling. 

A few days after the election I was surprised to learn that the actual winner of the popular vote wasn’t even Hilary Clinton, but the fictional third candidate chosen by everyone who didn’t vote, or voted ineffectively.  According to an Electoral College map posted shortly after the election, this “third candidate,” who gathered all the Non-Trump/Clinton votes, won the popular majority in all but four states.*

I can’t decide whether this is good news, or terrible.  Was it inertia that actually elected DT?  It would be interesting to know if that "third candidate" bloc also splits closely for Clinton, as did the voting bloc.  I suspect it splits less evenly, and that the number of generally disillusioned voters far outweighs the non-voting fans of the winner.  It can be hard to admit that in a two-party democracy such as ours, not voting counts de facto for whoever wins.

                Inertia is a hidden enemy, easy to miss in the distracted, angry fray.  The non-voting bloc has always been there.  It’s estimated at about 45% of the voting age public on average—we’re used to that.  Americans rank fourth from the bottom in voter turnout in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s list of 35 developed democracies.  We’re just above Estonia and just under Luxembourg. Nonvoters include those who don’t make it to the polls for reasons of disability, illness, and economic hardship—these are not the ones I’m referring to.  The inertial bloc consists of the sub-group whose choice has to do with anger, cynicism, disillusionment—things we all suffer from at times. 

This morning I was struggling with the little concrete gnome who sometimes sits on my chest repeating things like What CAN you do, really? and You missed your chance and It won’t be good enough/It’ll never be perfect . . . .  Insidious fellow, a skilled hypnotist:  If I listen to him, I become him.  Today he was silenced though, thanks to W.B. Yeats:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?  

Those lines seared into me as an undergraduate, perhaps because I already had a template in place. Poetry, including much of the poetry of the Bible, imprinted my consciousness from an early age.  I attended Sunday school in a quiet, polite little Methodist Church in rural Texas, where I received a certain lexicon of religious imagery.  This was a few decades before the rise of religious fundamentalism began to displace American Protestant culture.  So there was “the mark of the Beast” in the New Testament, and there was William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger burning bright” in my third grade English book.  Both were symbols I couldn’t articulate then, though they made my wayward hair stand up.  Now, I can say that the Beast is the distillation of the worst we can imagine coming to power, the Thing uniquely capable of bringing out the worst in us.  And Blake’s Tyger, a “Christ image” we learned in college--the fired, inspired ichor of All-Powerful Good.  Perfect and terrifying, it’s perhaps best captured in art.** 

               Thank goodness poetry comes back to me now, when so much of what Yeats called “the ceremony of innocence” seems sunk out of sight in our post-modern chaos.  Why did Yeats say mere anarchy, I wondered as an undergrad.  Because anarchy is just a wrecking ball, it doesn’t require organization, forethought, consideration, reflection, or ethics.  It doesn’t even require intelligence.  It requires us not to struggle with our consciences.  Mere anarchy is the easiest thing in the world.  If it’s now loosed in an all new way, we may just have the hardest task in our history before us. 

                It worries me that the perky media voices, speaking in the same old tones as if everything were normal, will lull us into more inertia.  Three generations of voters are children of the media age, if we date from television’s arrival in most American households in the 1940s.  Increasingly short soundbites have for years been eroding our attention spans.  So if we’re feeling that something is rotten in this state of affairs, that something must be done--again, thank Goodness.

   I’m not sure what I will do yet, other than stay awake and speak up. 

                We are now in a situation that will test our character as never before.  If we thought we had a basic external structure, however flawed, that more or less supported the Greater Good--now we don’t know what we have.  As the days tick by, the outlook isn’t brightening.  Normalcy, as we thought we knew it, may be a thing of the past, and everything we do matters now more than ever.  That Everything has to be from our best selves, our consciences, our highest social ethics.  It has to be non-violent.  It needs to effective, not just the “squawk about it” Paul Simon laments.  

We need our conviction.  We need all the light we can find.  We don’t need anger, which only clouds judgment.  Rather, we need our hearts and minds working together.  We need to be in touch with our gut, yet able to step back.  We need our poetic sensibility.  We need to know what we’re made of, and how to stand up for it in ways that build rather than fragment our social fabric.  We are being judged harshly right now around the world, by peoples who far out-number us.  We are still the freest people in the world.  Though widely hated and ridiculed, we are still seen as the world’s best hope—or we have been, perhaps until now.  What we do from this point will determine the survival of that ideal. 

Let us not be found inert and awash in a toxic tide.

*  If you go looking for this map now, you won’t find it.  It’s apparently been removed, but it was posted for a few days and friends told me about it.  If you saw it, please let me know. 

 ** See the Tyger masterfully reimagined in the first story of science fiction anthology Metatropolis: Cascadia, ed. Jay Lake. On Audible.