Accidental Object Lessons with Papa Weaves: A Brief Meditation

Rusty bolts can be hard to get out, and you have to work slowly and carefully, because if you break it, your job is going to be that much more difficult. So you unscrew it until it doesn't want to budge, and you can feel it sticking. Then you retrace your steps. Screw the bolt back in a bit or all the way, spray some WD-40 on it. Then repeat steps 1 and 2, over and over, until your shoulders ache and WD-40 sludge is dripping down the socket wrench.

It has been remarked by wiser individuals than myself that progress doesn't march in a straight line. King talked about a "moral arc of the universe" that bends toward justice, which has at least this implication (if we're taking him quite literally): that it's not always clear what our present course is aiming at (for justice is not geometry, with perfect calculations). Or as Gandalf says, "Even the very wise cannot see all ends"--and who among us can even claim to be wise?

But perhaps the rusty bolt is closer to home than the straight, clean curve of the arc. We push forward until the resistance is too great, and fear or prejudice exert the equal and opposite force that brings us to a halt. And in the face of such resistance, some people melt away, and we move backward a bit, but we've beaten down the path in the march forward and while it makes our retreat that much easier, it also clears the way again for a renewed advance. Back and forth. Back and forth. In hopes that somehow, eventually, we'll have worked out the problem, and we can make it good as new.


Oh, Night Divine

Joyous expectation.

For reasons that I will probably uncover and clarify only as I write this post, I am looking forward to the holidays this year. I've erred more on the side of the Grinch than Buddy* in previous Decembers, but one could argue that this is a natural consequence of working in the service industry, where you can't escape the Christmas music and there are always some random, useless products that must be sold if the lumbering, ancient bark is going to make it through the dead waters of January and February.

I don't know why, but this year I feel as though the whole thing is somehow more... holy. Probably somewhere between going to an All Soul's Day Episcopal service structured around Faure's Requiem, and the realization that most of my Christmas budget ended up going to a mechanic so I'm going to have to get creative, and oh, let's not forget that Maria won't be here this year, so no Christmas cookie party or cherished sister time...

I wanted this to be more eloquent, and it was, in my head, two hours ago when I was blissfully stabbing cloves into oranges and listening to choral renditions of (actually) classic Christmas songs. But I suppose it just comes down to this: it has been a hard year. I'm not where I want to be, even when I'm being gracious with myself; and I have tasted something of the bitter side of life in a way that I've been avoiding for a long time.

But as I begin to ascend into the heights of December, I look back across the wasteland and what stands out to me are the bright spots of love and joy and hope. And it strikes me in this moment that there is something magnificent and sacred about celebration, and that something arises not out of an innocent naivety, but rather from the admission that the world is often neither kind nor good, and yet we are not going to allow that to govern our response to it.

Celebration is an act of resistance. It is a backbone of steel disguised by holly wreaths and pine garlands, surrounded by carols that redound with those words with which I began: joyous expectation. That, to me, is Advent. The building sense of expectation, the serene image of the pregnant woman curled around the life within her, as the whole world waits, breathless, for a miracle to take place.

So if you care to join me, I'm going to be filling my house with paper snowflakes, having holiday gatherings, making wassail and Christmas cookies, going to church unusually often, and hopefully experiencing Christmas in the time-honored way, which has very little to do with presents and everything to do with cultivating a holy sense of peace, expectation, and joy.

*To be clear: I will never be Buddy. I hate Elf, and I think Zooey Deschanel is annoying. Gauntlet: thrown.


What I Find in Times of (Personal) Crisis

In these past few weeks immediately preceding and following the election, I have been admittedly rather morose about prospects for the future. Which is probably only fair, when you're hanging your hopes for change on a political process and not on the polis that the process seeks to organize and govern. In my defense, the polis has also been disappointing. But as it is closer to home and nearer to my heart, the picture they compose has more details to it than mere disappointment can convey.

"I have just seen the largest pale yellow splodge in the clouds that I shall see in my lifetime. #deeplymoved #cosmicsignificance #wordsfailme" {Andy Jones, 11/15/16}

The above lines are shamelessly reprinted without permission from a friend's recent tongue-in-cheek Facebook post about the supermoon. And you're probably going to think I'm crazy (go ahead--I'll think I'm crazy in two years when I come back and read this post), but when I read that in the context of recent events, I kind of want to laugh hysterically and maybe cry a little bit too.

Because it feels like a perfect summation of recent events. Something big happened, yes. For lots of people, it was a meaningful something, although the meaning you find in it varies by the weight you place on different factors relevant to interpretation (was that a truism? I'm sorry if it was). But at the end of the day, it's also a bit absurd and comical. This feels like an appropriately Chestertonian view of the situation: that something huge is not therefore important and, more importantly, not serious--and may indeed be quite the opposite if we're willing to look at it the right way 'round, which is to say that maybe we need to stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope, or through a telescope or microscope or any scope at all. What's right in front of our faces is what we have to work with. Let us proceed accordingly.

Now that I've got all of that off my chest, and hopefully absolved myself of the charge of being too bitter or hopeless: a happier subject.

Sometimes it's easier to turn our sights on national crises, because they're too big for one person to solve and you and I both know that from the get go. If we just throw words at those problems, well, who's really to blame us at the end of the day? What can be more difficult to face are the personal crises that come up in our day to day lives. These are emotionally charged, immediate, urgent, and blurred or distorted by how we are situated in the midst of them. They change how we see the world and how we respond to it (a good thing to remember before any of us judge anyone else for decisions made out of fear, distress, or anger). So we panic. Because I can't solve a lot of things by myself. I have needs that I can't meet, and beyond those, things that I want to do, but can't.

I was listening to a podcast recently, an episode of On Being with Krista Tippett interviewing Congressman John Lewis talking about "the art and discipline of non-violence." At one point, he mentions a phrase with which I am familiar from other discussions about the civil rights movement, but which always strikes a chord with me: the Beloved Community. The below is taken from The King Center's website, and I'm going to the trouble of an extensive quote because I feel like I couldn't say it better:

"For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill."

These paragraphs use certain significant buzzwords: nonviolence, global vision, racism, discrimination, conflict. They are a big picture. But as with all big pictures, they start here, on the ground, with individual people performing small daily acts. Sometimes those acts are not obviously or overtly about overcoming issues of race or conflicts. But they are the small graces that make a community healthier over time, that overcome divisions of class and economy or differences of opinion, that are the training ground upon which we are taught to work together peaceably and wherein we learn that our success does not lie in our individual strength, but in our shared strength as a community.

With that in mind, some things I have found in times of personal crisis (and you thought I was just pulling that title out of a hat--fair enough, I usually do):

1.) You learn how strong your support group is. I grew up without a lot of the supports that most people expect from their parents. Oh, there was a never a time that my dad didn't manage to put food on the table, but I knew that it was hard sometimes, and he made his dollars stretch with the garden and Mom's freezing and preserving, and most of my clothes came from thrift stores and charity bags. But in so many other regards, I was raised with the tacit recognition that if I didn't do it, nobody else was going to do it for me, and to expect otherwise would be to burden and trouble someone who already had enough on their plate.

So it's a bit surreal when you're confronted with a problem, you start taking stock of your options, and you think you know what you're going to have to do, but then this person out in left field says, "Well if you buy X, Y has the space you need, and Z has the skills to help you do it: does that work?" Suddenly you've gone from I alone, to I, U, Y, and Z, all working together to pool resources, skills, connections, and favors, and the bleak prospect of being forced into a decision you don't want to make is... gone.

Because the weird thing about operating out of a sense of community is that when you step up to support someone or they step up to support you, you don't just bring or get one person. You also get the full force of all of the people they know and have supported, or you bring all the people you know and have supported over the years. There has to be a pebble to get the landslide going, but once it starts, it moves an army of boulders.

2.) Money has nothing to do with it. When you take stock of what you have, list your financial resources last, even if you're actually so comfortably well off that you can make a substantial difference that way. Look at your skills, look at the people you know, look at the places you have access to, look at the physical tools that you possess, and don't be afraid to think outside of the box.

Chances are, to make something happen, to make something change, to fix a problem, you'll need a little bit of all of those. And chances are good that if you're missing something, you know someone who has it.

3.) There is no end point. When you exclude money and explicit numerical transaction values, nobody ever manages to balance the books. This comes up somewhere in David Graeber's book, Debt. He mentions an African society in which people are regularly making small loans and gifts to one another, and their social interactions are structured around these small transfers. The key here is that you do not repay someone the exact amount or in the exact kind that something was given to you. This means that the exchanges must continue, because you have never settled. It would in fact be rude to do so, because it would signal to the other person that you want nothing more to do with them. Instead, with a few pennies here or a pound of flour there, you build up a lifetime of debts and repayments, and so you continue in relation to one another.

This is not an economy of exchange with a particular destination. It's an informal system that, because of its lack of definition and precision, leaves room to accommodate the crises, both large and small, that the members of a community face. The resources move to the points of greatest need, when they are needed. I do not own what is mine to use only as I see fit (notions of property have their place, but that which is mine is mine humbly and in trust, for we all die, and our possessions do not follow us to the grave), but as a service to others.

This is where I find my warmth on the colder nights. And for the regular readers of this blog, I believe that most of you fall well within the bounds of my community. I hope that in time I can offer you hopefully more (and maybe, sadly, less), something, but never perfectly equal, to what you have given me.


When Despair for the World Grows in Me

The American government does not exist to protect the interests of the American people. It exists to protect the interests of American corporations. In theory, this could transfer benefits to the people, but historically, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I mention this, because I was thinking about US foreign policy and the prison system. Not necessarily related, except for a few points. Intervention/invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan was not for my sake. Certainly, 9/11 provided a convenient, symbolic rallying point for massive public support for those actions, but I can't say that I feel any more secure or less likely to suffer from a terrorist attack as a result of them. Furthermore, that all comes at the expense of the security of vulnerable civilians whose entire lives have been disrupted for over a decade and who can be targets of drone attacks for the simple crimes of proximity or being male and in the wrong age bracket.

What's being protected are economic interests. Keep the petroleum flowing. Ensure access to valuable mining operations that feed metals into the ever-ravenous maw of developing technology.

Do I benefit from those? Tangentially. I'm not spending $5 per gallon for gas. I have a relatively new iPhone, a MacBook, etc.

But am I actually benefitting from those? Or have my tastes and needs been conveniently adapted to suit what's available? Am I being regularly molded as a consumer toward a particular company's vision of the world and an acceptance of and desire for its products?

I just think that the sense of inevitability--that obviously we must have oil, that obviously we must have cheap labor because otherwise I have to pay more than $10 for my t-shirts, that obviously...--it's an illusion that directs our attention away from contemplating alternatives. What could life be like if we didn't...?

Alternatives, for example, to killing innocent people so that multibillion dollar corporations can continue to churn out profits for their shareholders, profits that are converted into financial speculations or carefully protected from taxation by the elaborate machinations of very good accountants taking advantage of loopholes that ostensibly don't exist to enable them to do what they're doing, but that nobody is closing, because the people who could close them are probably benefitting from the system that's in place.

This has been a bit of a ramble, and maybe a paranoid one. But what kills me about all of the candidates that are on the table right now is that every last one of them, at the end of the day, doesn't give a shit about social policies once they've stepped off their political grandstands. They'll pander to the electorate for one more week of my-god-why-do-we-have-to-listen-to-this political campaigning, and then they'll go right back to doing what they do best: protecting American businesses, at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, African American men are incarcerated at alarming rates and essentially stripped of their citizenship, while older white men far from the East and West coast megalopolises are unable to compete for skilled jobs. Women's reproductive rights, so closely tied to their progress socially, politically, and economically, are being chiseled away, because what we clearly need is a return to a world in which falling down the stairs while pregnant could get you convicted of feticide (don't even get me started on this one).

I'm not keen on this world they're protecting. And I don't like the solutions they're offering. It's like intentionally generating pollution, then having the state supply us with asthma medication to cure what wouldn't be an issue if the cause of the asthma was removed in the first place.

...That's all she wrote.