Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks

There is an element of thankfulness, of gratitude, that raises one up from the ordinary to the sublime. Elevated, not necessarily in stature, or in circumstance, but internally, to a qualitative condition that allows one to function with kindness, with dignity, and in harmony with ones self. It is a condition that, when observed in other people, is most often experienced as graciousness. Graciousness implies intention, which implies consciousness, which is fed by gratitude. A self-serving life, a life dedicated to the service of self, disparages, by its own nature, the importance of these very qualities. But it is a chosen and practiced position, a life doing battle with, and within itself, and one that eventually blinds the participant to his own indulgence.

Most of us, however, live in a shifting condition, one that intersects differing regions. We are people who live in both the ordinary, and in the sublime. We vacillate between the two positions as mood, emotion, or circumstance lift us up or drag us down. It often seems to be beyond our own control. But it is not. To be thankful is to view circumstances through a different lens, it is to experience them on an eminent level, and to embrace them in a manner worthy of our higher nature rather than in submission to our baser inclination. There is an enormous spiritual component in the practice of gratitude, and it is a gift made available to all. I am in full receipt of it at times, and not so receptive of it at others. I prefer the former to the latter, and am thankful for the ability to be thankful, without which life would most likely manifest itself only in muted tones and various shades of gray.

Thanks giving, my friends, is practice in the art of appreciation.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hearts Of Fertile Soil

Spent some time in Amsterdam. It was a long time ago. It was in another time, and another life. I was out walking the streets alone late one night, well past midnight. Things were pretty deserted. Four men appeared in the near distance and fanned out as they approached me. They were, to say the least, not sending out signals of love and brotherhood. And they were not smiling. I knew I was in trouble. The four men surrounded me. One of them stuck a pistol in my chest and demanded cash, credit cards, passport, everything. He pulled the hammer back with his thumb. I was terrified. The sound alone sent shivers through my soul. I knew I needed to keep my cool. He was shaking, more so even than me. I was relatively calm. I had no other alternative. I had to take control of the situation. I needed to relax a very agitated man with a very big gun, and a very nervous finger. I began talking to him, calmly giving him the respect he was demanding with his gun, but that he had obviously not found, to date, in his larger, and more significant life; the respect he would have been deserving of as a fellow human being. Interjecting some friendliness and humor, I did my best to try and get us through the incident without the predictable consequences we all would have regretted. Especially me. The others were egging him on, but now he was not hearing them. They had encircled me, threatened me, got what they wanted, and then left. When they were comfortably out of sight, my already quietly trembling heart began pounding even louder, my pulse began racing, and a steady stream of warm piss quietly found it’s way down my quivering legs. But I was alive.

I quickly flashed back to a time a couple of years earlier when I had been in Harlem in the middle of the night.

Then, as in Amsterdam, I was alone, and the only one upon whom I could rely. I found myself surrounded, being verbally harassed, and physically roughed up as I tried to make my way. A street gang, angry young men who were, other than myself, the only people out at that particular hour of the night. I was being threatened, and I was scared. Very scared. I really had no avenue of escape, or recourse, in the event of rising aggression. There was no one I could call, no one I could count on, only my seemingly inadequate self. I was very much on my own, so I retreated to a safe and familiar place. Humor. It was my only available means of defense. I began to talk to these guys like they were no big threat at all, like they ought to be afraid of me, like I could relate to them, as if I liked them even. I relaxed, in appearance anyway. I became self-deprecating and sarcastic. And somehow, before long, they began liking me. I actually began liking them as well, in a perverse sort of way. They began to appreciate that I had risen above my fear, that I was bringing some lightness and levity to the situation. Internally I was terrified. A wreck. Ready to soil my pants. But they began laughing. The shoves turned to slaps on the back, and then hugs. We carried on, bull-shitting one another and making fun of our own stereotypes. They even began making fun of each other. They ended up taking me to an all night diner, buying me a chicken dinner, and eventually escorting me safely back to the subway. On the underground back to Manhattan I relived in my mind what exactly had happened out there, how dangerous a situation I had really been in. But I also realized that I was witness to the transcending power of humor, and the miraculous effect, and positive impact, derived from including, into my own world, those who would otherwise threaten me, or seek to do me harm.

My experiences of having been assaulted (and there have been several additional occasions over the course of my life) serve only to remind me of long-existing conditions, but also of the opportunities held forth for redemption. I am not naïve enough as to believe that every man will find transcendence, but that every man can if given the right conditions. Inclusion, trust and opportunity.

It is imperative that, as a people, as a nation, and as a culture, we overcome our lingering fears, our disproportionate exclusion of those we have stereotyped; that we learn to fear only the repercussions of our own dishonest, duplicitous, and divisive actions, that we include the poor in the wealth of our dream, that we invite the wallflower to the dance, and then dance with her, with him; that we provide hearts of fertile soil for trust to take root in, and that we value the garden above even our own ego-connection to it.

It is equally necessary that the outcast, the outlaw, the wounded, the con, the hater, the gang-banger, the grudge-holder and the blamer begin to forgive, and to begin to understand their own complicity in the discord and disorder that has arisen in our world. It has not happened without their participation, and it will not be remedied solely by the good intentions of others.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Angels In Unexpected Places

I remember years ago sitting on a bench in the downtown area of a small beach community in Northern California, having a cup of coffee and taking in the unfolding of early morning life around me. I was struggling at the time with some issues that were both painful, and disheartening. Feeling continually discouraged, I took a day alone to collect my feelings, and, hopefully, to air-out the chambers of my heart. A young woman appeared, unexpectedly, beside me on the bench and, without introduction, quietly began to speak about love. I was unaware of her having approached the bench, or of sitting down. She was just there. She was not there at first, and then she was. She talked in a way I was not accustomed to hearing strangers talk, loved ones even, like she knew me intimately, like she trusted me implicitly, and like she loved me. I did not sense any fear, concern, discomfort or wariness. She just spoke as if we had always known each other. She was telling me about love, unconditional love, the kind that has no boundary, how it manifests itself, what it looks like, how it feels, and what it can accomplish in the world, and in our lives, if we allow it. I was captivated by her honesty, and by her wisdom.

Then she asked if I had a car, and said she wanted me to drive us to a quiet place overlooking the ocean where we could be alone. It was a beautiful, sunny, early summer morning. I followed her directions. We parked the car on the cliff above the ocean and walked out into the middle of an enormous field, a field painted fresh with flowers, alive with an awakening bouquet, glistening in the new light. We sat down on the ground together and looked out over the water. It was quiet, it was serene, and then she told me, without bitterness or animosity, that she had been severely battered by her husband, repeatedly, over time, and eventually beaten up and left for dead. She said she was living in a shelter for battered women now, in a secret location for her protection, and that I was not to ask any questions, only to be here with her. Then she said “this day, Denes, this time . . . . . . is for you”. I swallowed hard, caught my feeble breath, and collapsed without struggle, surrendering helplessly to tears.

She enveloped me, quietly, caringly, in love. We sat together in that sacred place, in that regenerative silence, while she held me close, and I cried, for her, for me. She continued to hold me. My eyes continued to run, and did so throughout most of the day, stopping and starting for no apparent reason, and with no awareness of time, until the well eventually ran dry. We remained there in the field until after dark. We’d watched the sun set together. Neither of us had said another word since earlier that morning when she’d told me about having endured such indignity at the hands of her husband. There was no need for words, of any kind. And there are no words that could have been nearly as warm as the silence.

We got back into my car. I began driving, to nowhere really. After a few miles she quietly said “If you’ll stop now, I’ll get out here”. We were no place in particular, but it didn’t matter. We were alive, very much alive, both of us. She reached over, wrapped her hands around the back of my neck, gave me a kiss on the forehead, opened the door and walked away.

I drove towards home. I was stunned. I was filled. I was drained. I was like pudding. I was acutely aware of every pore on my body, and I could feel the molecules moving around, on the inside, like bubbles in a warm bath. It felt like all the struggle that had been my life up until this time was now on pause, maybe even permanently, but at least it was for now.

I have met angels in unexpected places.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lifetime Membership

Things have been going nuts. Job layoffs, bankruptcies, financial collapse of historic institutions, the housing market, corporate/government fraud, media bias, conflict of interest, social upheaval and unrest, spiritual schizophrenia, idolatry and greed. Sounds like daytime TV. And in the midst of it all Costco sends out another application for the continuation of our membership. It’s not quite like being assigned a social-security number, and being expected to embrace a lifetime membership in the illusion of democracy, but it does hold the expectation of becoming our only consumer connection. I can foresee renewing the Costco connection, it’s that other membership I feel compelled to re-consider. If ever there were a time to think about discontinuing use of our once-valued Lifetime Membership cards, it’s now. If ever there were a reason, it’s pretty damned apparent. But hey, lifetime is a lifetime. That’s the bitch. I don’t know who gave us the stupid cards to begin with anyway, or what they’re actually for. They can’t get us into the places we want to go. We don’t need a damn card to get into the bathroom at the Laundromat, just a couple of quarters and a phony name on the guest list will get us ten minutes of privacy and all the paper towels we can pull. And some of us pull a lot of paper towels. Who ever thought up the idea of Lifetime Membership anyway, to anything? And if they’re going to have these memberships, why don’t they just tattoo the numbers on our face or something? Who’s naïve enough to think they’re going to get through life without losing the damn card at least a couple of times? Hell, I’ve lost that many tickets to paradise.

We can’t really decline membership in the club, or even postpone it because Lifetime implies that we were members even before they gave us the social security numbers, we just didn’t get the registration packets in the mail until they found us. We didn’t get the benefits until we acquiesced on the proverbial dotted line. The requirements haunt us now like some rampaging wave chasing down the only boats left afloat, lost and confused, bobbing on an endless ocean. We’re subtly, but suddenly, overwhelmed by a vast array of bad choices. Should we stay with the boat and ride the wave to shore like some romantic surfer hoping to get his picture in the morning paper, or like an insane pirate crouching on the bow with a bottle of rum for courage, and shit for brains? Or should we wave a rusty sword at the hand we’ve just been dealt while that foul mouthed parrot with the death grip shreds the delicate flesh on our one remaining sunburned shoulder? Should we abandon ship and take our chances in the water? It occurs to me that if the wave doesn’t get us the sharks most surely will. Or should we just kill ourselves quickly, making everything disappear, making certain that we’re good and gone before the wave arrives, or the sharks, or the grandiose illusions that seek to subvert our better judgment? If I were to ask you (which I probably will) you’d most likely have to say ‘stick with the goddamned boat’, like we really have some other choice in the matter? But at least then we could have a good brandy and a sandwich on the way down. Lifetime Membership means just that. We’ve got to stick with the ship for life. And we don’t get to decide the size of the wave. That’s for the guys with the wave-makers who hand out the membership cards.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where I Do Not Feel Alone

If I don’t come home again it won’t be because I haven’t wanted to, but because I’ve found my way.

I find it easy to sometimes lose track of the way back, the signposts if you will. I presume it’s not a conscious act, but who can be sure? I often fail to notice them, even though they may be shouting at me from the side of the road, loudly, and in brilliant color. Something about missing them that appeals to me, to my need for anonymity, I suppose. When I was younger, like many, I had a need for recognition and attention. Having achieved a moderate degree of it I wished to be invisible again. It’s familiar ground for me now. It’s peaceful here, and it happens to be the only place that I am able to live comfortably. I need the quiet, and the isolation, more often than not. It enables a sense of order for me, where everything makes sense. It’s where no one can find me. It’s where I am able to find myself. That doesn’t happen in the larger world, in the vast landscape of cultural cul-de-sacs. I only find invasion there, invasion of the I-me-mine, the genetically re-designed, the publicly refined, invasion of the fake opinions and phony agendas, invasion of the bogus protocols and unspoken expectations, invasion of the social monitors, invasion of the common beliefs, invasion of the status geeks.

They do OK in that world. But I become disheartened. It drains me of that essential lifeblood. It seeps out quietly, unnoticed even by me, until there’s very little left. Only then do I understand what’s happened. Only then do I know that I have got to get away from it, from them. Before that it was just a case of wanting to. It has now become necessary to my survival. It becomes perpetually imperative that I return to a moderate seclusion, a modest invisibility, to the safety of a dependable solitude. I do that now, as I am able. Being alone is, in fact, the only place where I do not feel alone.

If I don’t come home again, it won’t be because I haven’t wanted to, but because I’ve found my way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Magnetic Disturbance

I was filling out a form this morning. One of the questions asked was ‘Year born’? Not a problem, 1949. The next question was ‘Year died’? Kind of threw me. Got me to thinking about dying. Got me to wondering if I already have died. There’s a good possibility that I have, and if so, I’d like to know about it. In fact, I’d actually like to be the first to know. That’s reasonable, don’t you think?

But I was thinking about all the deaths we really do die over the course of a lifetime. We die to old habits, frivolous relationships, and identities, which often get shed like cocoons. We die to cities and towns, packing up and getting out when they can no longer hold our interest, our notoriety, or our secrets. We die to jobs that have bored us, held us back, disrespected us, or not compensated us accordingly. We die to style that we grow out of (hopefully), and to language that becomes unbecoming of our age. We die to belief systems as we gain wisdom, and to simplistic myths as we accumulate knowledge.

Some of us die to behaviors that are damaging to others, or compromising to our own character, or both. And some of us do not. Some of us ignore our inner compass. As with an actual compass, an inner compass can be pretty accurate, and dependable. It is something we rely on to help us determine our path, to guide our way. But when an inner compass is neglected a man can get lost. If it gets too near a magnet it can go haywire, resulting in devastating consequences for the traveler, throwing him off track, pointing him in a potentially dangerous direction. It is when this happens that one must be willing to listen to an external voice to help them rediscover their way.

Bernie Ward was a Catholic Priest. He left the priesthood many years ago, got married, and had children. He worked as an assistant for Senator Barbara Boxer, hosted a Sunday morning television talk show, and was a San Francisco Bay Area radio talk show host for the better part of two decades, three hours every weeknight. It was a very popular show. Bernie was well regarded. I’d known of him for years, but never actually listened to his show. About a year and a half ago, while turning the dial, I landed on his radio program. I didn’t know whom I was listening to, but was stunned at the impression this radio personality was having on me. He was talking politics, social politics specifically. He was not saying anything particularly controversial, kind of the same old recycled clichés. But there was something I was picking up between the lines. There was something in his attitude, in his spirit, and in his psyche, something dark and sinister. I listened for about ten minutes, and shut off the radio. I was quite disturbed about it. Two nights later I felt compelled to find his program again. I did, and listened for another 10 minutes. In those 20 minutes I saw a traveler who had completely lost his way. I became aware that Mr. Ward was living a deep and troubling secret. His spirit was so compromised that it skewed his every view of life. His belief system was tailored to function as a justification for his behavior. Let me say that again. His belief system had become custom tailored to function as a justification for his own behavior. It was unspoken behavior, but I knew what the behavior was.

I sat down and wrote Bernie Ward a long letter, explaining to him that he had lost his inner compass, that he had wandered way too close to the magnet. I told him that I know him, and that I am fully aware of his secret life. I told him I wanted to warn him, and give him opportunity for personal redemption, a redemption he could find on his own, within himself, a redemption that would save his life, and spare his family the pain and degradation of his behavior. I knew that if I never heard from him that he would have rejected my warning, and that if I did it would be because he would have found it within himself to face down his own demons.

Last December Bernie Ward was arrested and indicted on several counts of receiving and distributing child pornography, some of which had to do with children under the age of three, bound and gagged. Some of his fantasy had to do with his very own children. When given the opportunity, Bernie Ward did not die to his own behaviors. He is spending the next several years in prison, a convicted felon.

There are many different magnets that cause people to lose their ability to be guided. This was just his.

Quoting myself, “when an inner compass gets too near a magnet, it can have devastating consequences for the traveler, throwing him off track, pointing him in a potentially dangerous direction. It is when this happens that one must be willing to listen to an external voice to help them rediscover their way.”

Keep your compass away from magnets.
Listen to your inner voice, or a sensible external one should you no longer be able to hear your own.
Have the courage to be that external voice for someone else you might intuit is in need of re-direction.

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Opportunity For Magnanimity

The holidays come around every year, and they do so for a purpose. To give us an opportunity for magnanimity, to share of ourselves with family, to rise above our circumstances, our possessions, our personal protectiveness, our inclination to disregard the uncomfortable. Of course, that is not all they are for, but they do provide the opportunity for us to extend ourselves beyond ourselves. Thanksgiving moves families together for the day, to renew ties, strengthen bonds and usher us into the Christmas season, a season that can be difficult for some, to say the least.

This has been a formidable year for many. People have lost jobs, homes, family, and the self-esteem that accompanies such loss. Recovery is a process that takes the help of others. It takes the help of family, and of strangers alike. It takes people committed to having less so that others may have more. And in many cases, ‘more’ can be defined simply as ‘subsistence’, something we all deserve.

There are many families living in homeless shelters, and in other circumstances less than ideal, and less than dignified. Many remain there because it is just too difficult to come up with first and last months rent, and a security deposit, to get their family into their own apartment, all the while trying to keep the kids going in school, and themselves going with work. A very trying and complex juggling act at best, and one that would challenge the best of us. I would like to suggest this Christmas season that my readers get their friends and families together to commit to making a difference for another family in their time of need. That you curtail the buying of expensive gifts for one another, and, instead, contribute the money you would have spent on those gifts to secure an apartment for one of these families that are down on their luck. You wouldn’t need to commit to paying future months rent, just get them started, and they can carry it from there. I’ll bet many of you could even furnish the apartment with the stuff you have in storage. You can do this. You just have to do it.

If you’re an apartment building owner, how about eliminating the deposit and the last months rent this year to allow a homeless family a new beginning?

The holidays come around every year, and they do so for a purpose.

Click on the little envelope below to email this suggestion to friends and family.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Beautiful Trees

It’s foggy today where I live. Like looking through the intervening years back to childhood. Vague impressions standing ghostlike on their own like tree stumps lurking through the fog in a field. I’m told that as one gets older long-term memory becomes more acute while short-term memory diminishes. But I remember what I did last night, it’s the childhood years I’d spent so long trying to forget that I am now trying to remember once again. I remember why I spent all those years trying to forget them; I just don’t know why I now want so desperately to recall them.

Perhaps one needs the totality of one’s life to truly put ones self in any kind of meaningful context. As struggling and sensitive people, as people susceptible to emotional and psychological pain, we tend to diminish, or eliminate, portions of life and history we don’t like in order to arrive at the conclusions we wish to accept about ourselves. It is a natural thing to do. It is self-protective, it is often necessary, but it is surrender to the MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) way of being, and of seeing; like looking through the fog, aware of the ghostlike images of stumps in the field, but not seeing them clearly, not understanding that they really are, quite profoundly, beautiful trees having, at one time, been thoughtlessly, and carelessly, cut off at the knees.

In order to see the tree one first has to see the stump.

Monday, November 10, 2008

My Little Brother Is A Great Man

In our world today we seem to measure greatness by the amount of attention or recognition one gets. Sometimes the attention is connected to accomplishment of some sort, and sometimes it is merely the byproduct of self-promotion, or even of some notorious behavior. With cell phone cameras, instant digital video, and the internet, it is becoming an increasingly public world. It is easy to put oneself in the public consciousness, or to be put there, even unbeknownst, by someone else. Greatness and notoriety have become interchangeable.

A politician, social activist, or minister who finds the camera often enough will take on a mantle of greatness whether that moniker is actually deserved or not. Witness the homage we pay to the Nancy Pelosi’s, the Al Sharptons and the Benny Hinns of the world. A music group can be promoted to the top of the industry much the same as an individual can be exalted by his handlers.

But exposure, in my view, does not constitute greatness, nor does accomplishment, even on a grand scale. I see greatness as an internal quality, a character casserole of sorts, a quiet contribution to the world, the kind of contribution that the world would miss were it not present, a contribution which does not necessarily have ones name prominently, or publicly attached.

I know a young woman who claims to be in Christian ministry. She travels around the world supposedly saving the under-privileged in the under-developed regions of under-developed countries she wants to see. I think SHE is under-developed. But what do I know.
She counts, and keeps track of, supposed conversions resulting from her ‘ministry’, as if she could know another’s heart, then prints those results on her web page, and in fund-raising newsletters she sends out to solicit additional support to enable her to continue to travel around and see the rest of the world. She includes pictures of little black children whose lives she has supposedly improved, and whose souls she has supposedly saved. She considers herself a preacher, a teacher, and an evangelist. She exploits her parents, she asks other people for gifts. She asks them to pay her debts, to furnish her house, to commit to monthly contributions so she can afford to raise the family she wants to have. She owns her own house back in her own hometown, but conveniently leaves that part out of her fundraising communiqués. She claims to be following the Lord by faith. She brags about her goodness in ways that fool people into thinking she is glorifying God. She tries to dress self-aggrandizement in humility.
She is not a great woman. She mistakes ambition for greatness. She embodies why I left the church more than 30 years ago.

My little brother is a great man. Growing up in the shadow of two older brothers, he received very little attention. My older brother was the golden child, and he fulfilled that expectation. I was the sensitive, troubled child, and I fulfilled that expectation until I became strong enough to break those chains. But my little brother was only expected to get through life without fucking up too bad. He did so much more than that. He spent many years baking that character casserole inside himself. He found ways to share the cooking with those around him. He worked a job, educated himself, raised a family, helped support a larger community, and gave of himself as opportunity arose around him. He has worked in Christian ministry for most of his life, he just doesn’t call it that. And he doesn’t ask for donations. He quietly helps mold the character of teen-agers with whom he interacts. He provides help for those who need it. He gives of himself, of his time, and of his resources. He has been taking off work, going down to New Orleans, and helping to clean and rebuild houses and homes for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. He’s been doing this since the beginning. He does it quietly. He doesn’t ask for anything in return, and he doesn’t post his business on the internet.
And he cares for our parents in their old age.

I wish the young woman I spoke of could get to know my little brother. It would do her well to become more like him. It would do us all good.

My little brother is a great man.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Illusion Of Hope

The hullabaloo is over. The crowds have all gone home. The hope of a different world holds many in its once diffident grip. I include myself among them, and although hope is something that leaders have been selling us on since the beginning of time, it is, I recognize, actually a very empty action. It is, in fact, not an action at all. It requires nothing of us. If I go under anesthetic for surgery I hope that I’ll wake up from the operation. If my boat sinks in the middle of the ocean, and I can’t swim, I hope somebody will rescue me. If I break the law I hope I won’t get caught. Hope holds itself out as if it were something to believe in even though it can change nothing in, and of, itself. But I guess the idea of hope is important, especially considering that the backside of that coin is despair. I’ll choose the hope thing every time.

We’ll see if those of us who expect a different world out of a different leader will actually do our part to make those changes happen. For some it means to stop hating those with whom you have disagreed in the past. For others it will mean the acceptance of a new direction. It must start inside of every individual.
Inside of every individual.

And like so many of us, I too, hope it all works out.