Rising to the Challenge of Change as Temperatures Fall

I drove into work through a bowl of great Hudson River fog, guided by my memory of the road and the headlights of what little oncoming traffic there was. The car’s thermometer read 29 degrees, but I found that impossible to believe, wearing only a wool turtleneck and a shawl as I was. My sweet October could not possibly have dissolved into temperatures that demand jackets and gloves and drying one’s wet hair so it doesn’t turn to icicles. As I moved in and out of clear spots, where the sun could actually filter down to the increasingly bare branches, I finally noticed the blanket of frost. Mums on porch steps were limp and clearly affronted by the weather and the trees that don’t turn to brilliant autumn colors were decked in shriveling, mud colored leaves.

Why was this such a shock to me, one month past the Equinox, well into the time when the northern hemisphere was due to sleep? As the sun set last evening I made my way through the fallen foliage, and shivered through my thin shirt. I found myself cursing the cold, amazed at how I seem to have grown a summer skin that rebelled against nature’s inevitable chill. So often I have pitied those who cringe at the first crisp morning, who bemoan the coming of the gray days and the nights when the fog of your breath blots out the brilliant stars. With some pride, I’d describe how I love wool scarves and leather boots and velvet jackets and how my mind simply functions better when the temperature starts to fall. But this year, I am as shocked as the last grapes on the vine, and I find myself squinting into the last gold of the trees, trying to get my bearings.

My life has been marked by constant change over the last few years with marrying, my husband’s multiple job changes, and buying our first house. I would say that I thrive in a dynamic environment, and hunger for different experiences. Then I remember that I dislike stay up late these days and how crummy I feel when I eat the wrong sorts of food. This summer, I had a kind of existential crisis about travel and consumerism and dislocation in the middle of a covered bridge in Lucerne, Switzerland while my husband and I were on an otherwise blissful holiday. Far from my nest, jet-lagged, and juiced on Swiss chocolate, I couldn’t believe how stressed I was to be so out of my element. My “element” used to be a vast, seemingly infinite place.

Is it growing older? Is it that I have set healthier patterns for myself that are uncomfortable to break? Is it that I am as susceptible to the mundane dictates of human nature as anyone else?

I did not intend this to become a political post, and I really feel like I should resist the urge to talk about November 4 just because I mentioned the dreaded/beloved “C” word, but oh well. We can dream that electing Obama will set off the seismic shift that our country needs, but we are all too aware of the limitations of the slow moving barge of government and that one man will not be our messiah. Thing is, are we upset that the social and political (dis)order will not be overturned overnight or are we secretly pleased that the planet will not start spinning so fast that we cannot keep up?

We beg for transformation, for “little earthquakes” – not the sort that rip us into pieces but those that shift us into the new era we yearn for – but I think we have to uncover all of our internal resistances and feel the ways we might cower as our new world tries to emerge.

The Revolution of Compassion and Other Impossible Feats

Visiting my parents this weekend, I was greeted by a black lab who couldn’t contain her joy, Mom’s cooking, and a pile of junk mail from the various progressive organizations that will continue to have my childhood address on file until I retire. Eyes half open after the late night four hour drive from New York to the Cape, I flipped through the envelopes from NOW and Ms. Magazine and the Sierra Club. There was a small promotional booklet from The Sun, a magazine to which I had once subscribed with the best of intentions (I think there is a small unread stack in a closet somewhere).

The first thing I read was an excerpt of an interview with a fellow by the last name of Edwards in which he said:

“It’s not enough to just sit there and have compassionate thoughts. Your compassionate thoughts need to be reflected in what you do. How can you aspire to compassion and yet work for an arms manufacturer? You need to help other people. […] Once you start to see through the myth of status, possessions, and unlimited consumption as a path to happiness, you’ll find that you have all kinds of freedom and time. It’s like a deal you can make with the universe: I’ll give up greed for freedom. Then you can start putting your time to good use.”

As I said, I was exhausted and we had been listening to campaign coverage for most of the ride. I got into bed wondering why I never realized that John Edwards was such an amazing person, not just some guy who seemed to mention being the son of a mill worker more often than was necessarily interesting or sincere. The next morning, I was ready to read my mother this quote and tell her that we must have really missed something when it came to this man’s campaign. I was ready to bemoan the fact our country was just too taken with special interests and big money politics. I was ready to think that “Yes we can!” was an empty slogan compared to someone who talked about finding freedom through renouncing greed.

Before I started a rumor that virtue was still valued over power somewhere on the national scene, I realized this interview was with a guy named David Edwards. The passage was from a June 2000 interview with a British writer who had walked away from his corporate destiny and began to dedicate himself to “spreading ideas that challenge our culture’s destructive illusions.” Please do check out the piece – I think he just blew my mind a little, but it will take a a little time to let those ideas (all of which I had probably heard before) fall into the shape of an epiphany.

Am I suffering the pangs of cruel disillusionment when I realize that the words above really probably could not come from the mouth of an individual as firmly entrenched in the political machine as an American presidential candidate? Does it just figure that something I found so simple, true, and insightful comes from a man thought mad because he gave up so many of the accustomed Western privileges and luxuries? Am I saddened that countless people whom I love would shake their heads at my quaint, bleeding heart liberal, idealism should I bring one of his books along on vacation?

It is just becoming alarmingly clear that the sort of vision that appeals to me, that seems the only correct, possible way to be a human being in the 21st century is neither easy nor popular. It scares me to realize that I might be ready to accept that challenge. Almost as much as it scares me that I will not.

Challenging the Politcs of Fear

Earth ReflectionDriving home from work last night listening to NPR, as usual, I was left slack-jawed and muttering to myself at two stories presented back-to-back on All Things Considered: one on the plan to “map” Los Angeles’s Muslim community and the other about Italy’s expulsion of immigrants in response to the murder of a naval officer’s wife allegedly beaten to death by a Romanian immigrant. I can only hope that NPR realized the horrific juxtaposition of these stories that reeked of racism and xenophobia and intended to stir a bit of outrage. But perhaps they were just reporting the “news”…

L.A.’s deputy police chief Michael Downing said their new program is intended to identify the 500,000-700,000 Muslims in the city and determine the “trust level” so the department could serve these communities better. Of course, we are not meant to believe in this altruistic pitch, precisely because he went on to say that they were seeking groups who were “susceptible to violent ideologically based extremism.” Now, in no way am I advocating that we turn a blind eye to violent extremism or pretend that it does not exist, because surely it does, but what do we gain by singling out over half a million people for closer examination because of their faith, because of their coreligionists’ behavior? But it’s not racial profiling, he said, of course not.

In Italy, an emergency decree permits local police officials to expel EU citizens with criminal records if they are deemed dangerous to public safety. Of particular focus are the Romani people, the “gypsies,” who are criticized for being “unable to integrate into [Italian] society.” I always love how only “criminals” are accused of an inability to integrate with society; isn’t the history of the western world based on trampling indigenous culture? Neither Europeans nor Americans have ever been skilled at honoring “when in Rome…”

Certainly NPR could not do full justice to these stories in under five minutes each and I do not claim to grasp all of the mitigating factors that informed these law enforcement decisions, but it is the spirit of distrust and the politics of fear that reign across the globe that really terrifies me. I do realize that bad things happen in the world, and that that judging people by their religion and homeland is as old as these concepts themselves, and that a thug is a thug, and a terrorist a terrorist. I also realize I have the luxury of declaring such approaches to public safety preposterous (which public, by the way?). It belies the fact that my cocoon of American middle class privilege has never really been shaken. But how can we move forward as a global society when we make decisions based on suspicion and hatred?

If I am to believe that the only answer is love and the pursuit of understanding and unity, which I do, then I am obligated to rail against the way governments exploit and capitalize upon fear. A fearful citizenry is robbed of its ability to ask critical questions and loses aspects of its humanity when everyone and everything is seen through a veil of anxiety. It is not impractical or naive to believe that there is a better way, it’s just much more difficult and takes the responsibility of salvation out of the hands of the Michael Downings of the world and places it squarely in ours. We only resist a culture of fear by challenging it within ourselves.