Rage On! Or Not …

Why a photo with sheep? They make me smile.

Early this morning, while walking with my faithful canine companion, an SUV pulls out from a driveway just ahead of us and heads in our direction. The driver, a male stranger of middle age, offers a friendly wave and smile. As I wave back, my heart lifts from this simple act of kindness.

It brought to mind a man who for about 20 years has been, among other things, a friend of the unconditional variety. We haven’t spoken for 6 months? It’s like we talked yesterday. You know what I mean. This man lives in a different city and holds political views in diametrical opposition to my own. He and I speak on the phone with some regularity. We know where we each stand; he sometimes teases me about my views, as I do about his. But we do not argue.

These days political differences, once a more or less permeable boundary, as in “working across the aisle,” have morphed into alternate realities. Each “community” grinds their own axe, to hell with others who see things differently. We saw the extremities of this divide on the day when citizens attacked their own capitol, some with apparent murderous intent. 

No amount of persuasive speech or rational evidence will change the minds of those whose are charged up with anger. Anger, as you know, is an expression of fear. Bullies are fearful. Those who engage one-on-one with bullies are foolish, yet letting bullies rage unhindered only serves to endanger others.

Should there be limits on free speech? I am not so sure that turning off the tap at this point serves much purpose. The flow will only erupt and spew elsewhere. Hateful speech may incite some, but the root of the problem lies elsewhere. You can only light a fire where the fuel is already laid. What are those who are so angry afraid of? That’s where to begin with solutions. 

A man pulls out of his driveway. He waves and smiles at a woman walking her dog in the morning sun. The woman waves back. Her heart is lifted. She thinks of the good that comes from kindness. And sharing this, she knows that some will view her as simplistic.

Rage on, my friends! Or relax, regain perspective, and share a friendly wave with a stranger. Refrain from argument. See behind the anger. Don’t react to bullies–they feed off of anger. Try not to shun those who currently dwell in an alternate reality. 

Having said this, we need to work together towards an equitable society where all life forms can thrive. Where humans beings are equal regardless of any external factors, where all have enough but not too much. 

Sending you a smile. Share it with the next stranger you meet.

 

“This is the Best Day of My Life”

A gentleman in his 80th decade walks down the corridor. As we pass he pauses.

“A good afternoon to you,” he says.

“How are you doing today?” I ask, going against my personal vow to avoid trite social questions.

“This the best day of my life,” he responds.

I didn’t ask what made this a grand day. His response could have been either cynical or deeply meaningful. Not knowing the man well enough to probe, I smile and continue on my way.

Ze hayom, a Hebrew phrase meaning “this is the day,” opens Psalm 118:24. What day? Asah Adonai. The day that the Creator has created. So what? Negilah v’nismacha bo. So, we are to rejoice and be glad in it. End of story. Just do it.

Once upon a time, I called my mom, who is no more in this life, to complain, “I am having the worst day ever.”

Her response? “Well, Gail, if this is the worst day ever, then tomorrow has to be a better day. Right?”

But was it the worst day? That have certainly been some dillies since. Did that day, with its unremembered challenges, teach me something important? Are there really “good” days and “bad” days? Who are we to judge?

I am sitting at a desk in Minneapolis, looking out a window as snowflakes pass by on a 45 degree trajectory from the south. A man with a COVID mask hanging from one ear walks by accompanied a high-stepping maple brown poodle. They walk under a leafless ash tree, its twigs swaying in a light breeze. Earlier, on a brisk morning walk (3 degrees F), I watched a pair of hunting coyotes, on the lookout for bunnies or rodents. Then I spotted an albino squirrel on a tree, which despite the presence of my dog, stayed still long enough for me to dig my phone out and take a photo.

This is the day. The only day. This is the moment. The only moment. As I write this, as you read this, the moment is here, then the moment passes. We awake, we sleep, we dream, on and on, the days pass.

1 + 1 +1 . . .

Ask anyone. We are in the middle of a mess – a pandemic revealing huge weaknesses in our health care systems, crazy prices for pharmaceuticals, environmental degradation, income inequality, racism, lack of housing, rampant substance abuse, political divisiveness, a broken government, greed, incivility, violence, human trafficking, an ineffective criminal “justice” and prison system, to name a few. You can surely add to the list. In the face of myriad issues, we can become hopeless, overwhelmed, even cynical.

Here’s a challenge for each of us. Envision any societal challenge as a locked door seeking a key, then become the key.

Dear readers in the United States and those around the world–you know who are, where you are, and what you particularly care about. Pick a problem that speaks to your heart, or one in which you have some expertise. Likely those categories will overlap. Devote yourself to that one issue, trusting that there are other people who are willing and able to tackle the rest of the list. Further educate yourself on that issue. Seek out others who share you passion. Learn from them, learn together. Get to you those who are in a position to effect the change that you seek–legislators, local officials. Get busy! Become an expert in your area.

If this speaks to you, let me know. I have a passion for the well-being of those in prison and being released from prison. If you read my previous posting on those lacking homes, you know that many of those individuals have criminal records. At one point in my career, I worked as the director of spiritual care in a men’s maximum security prison. Time to educate myself further on possibilities for positive change in the incarceration system and find others who are engaged in this work.

You + another person + another person . . . = Positive Change!

What Brings You Here?

Minnehaha Tent Encampment, 11/26/20, 8:00AM, Thanksgiving Day.

Back in June, early on a gentle morning, my dog Roo and I walk through an encampment of 40 or so tents set up on the west side of Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. A man in his 50s stands over a Coleman stove making a pot of coffee.

“Good morning!” I say.

“Morning. That’s a cute dog you have there,” he replies.

“Thanks. Her name is Roo and I’m Gail. How are things going for you here?”

“Nice to meet ya. I’m Bobby.* It could be worse. There’s a few troublemakers but I steer clear of them.”

Joined by older camper named John, we chat about the nice weather, and the beautiful location under large oak trees. They don’t address why, as individuals with a past, present, and future, they dwell in tents in a public park.

I walk on among the rainbow-colored tents, some with lawn chairs out front, others surrounded by large plastic bags, some covered by tarps. A young man sits alone on a bench. Again, I introduce myself and ask him how things are going.

“Yeah, I’m Jason and my girlfriend and I want to get the hell out of here. This is no kind of life. My uncle up in Red Lake says we can stay with him, but no drinking or he’ll kick us out. That’s good with me.”

His girlfriend comes up and sits next to him on the bench. She is a tiny woman, unhealthily thin, with sallow skin. He introduces her as Fern. Jason continues to talk, telling me that he is a drummer and wants to get back to to playing in a drum group. I tell him that I used to work for the Red Lake Forestry Department. Then we discover an acquaintance in common. He invites me to attend a pow-wow up there. I tell him that I’ll try.

Fern sits silent, with closed eyes and bowed head. Then she lets out a low moan. “Sorry, I’m but I’m so hungover,” she says.

Roo is getting restless so we part company.

The question I refrain from asking is this: What brings you to this place in life?

For a fascinating, difficult, and transformative year of my life, I worked as director of spiritual care at a men’s maximum security prison. What brought the inmates there was not a question I asked in relating to them as individuals. What I found of more interest were three related questions: Who are you today? What do you hope to achieve? What do you need to get there?

Circumstances beyond control, poor life choices, and mental or physical ailments land people in predicaments. Why are you struggling with substance use disorder? Why are you a repeat felon? Why are you unemployed? Why are you lacking education or job skills? Why you struggling with untreated mental or physical health problems?

What matters much more than “why” is what an individual needs to help them thrive.

Few people choose to live without permanent housing. My daughter-in-law, as a nurse (later a nurse practitioner), worked with homeless vets. There were those who, because of trauma, did not feel safe indoors. They preferred living in the open. Others, being in a state of active addiction, avoided housing that requires abstinence. Mental health issues prevented others from getting along with others in a congregate setting.

No human being should be living in a tent in a park. How would you feel spending Thanksgiving Day or any other day there? What’s the answer for those in such a regrettable situation? The answer is that there is no one answer. For example, one size will never fit all in terms of housing. Some simply need help getting into an apartment. Others need sober housing. Still others may need a harm-reduction setting. Even if every one of these people were housed, providing housing alone is like giving charity. It helps today, but doesn’t necessarily provide what is needed for a long-term positive change in circumstances.

Some look to the past success of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression of the 1930s. ‘Let’s give people jobs! Make them work hard and they’ll be fine!’ I think this is truly a laudable idea for some who lack homes or employment. For others, not so much. It seems that current methods of addiction treatment are not successful for many addicts. Is anyone working on new models? Solid mental health treatment facilities or access to therapists are sorely lacking. Working in prison system taught me that the current model of lengthy incarceration, solitary confinement for rule infractions, and dehumanizing conditions does not make people better. Also the stigmatization of those with a felony record is permanently damaging to the life prospects of those individuals.

On and on it goes. Dear friends, where do we begin?

  • Names of people met are changed for privacy.

Where the Crawdads Sing, A Novel by Delia Owens

CAN you tell a book by the cover? 

The cover of Where the Crawdads Sing gives the potential reader helpful, as well as misleading, information about the book’s contents. First, the title. The word “Where” clues us in that setting will be important. And it is. One could almost say that the setting, a marshy area on the North Carolina coast, is the main character. The protagonist Kya is known by disdainful locals as “the Marsh Girl” and she truly is shaped by the environment in which she dwells. 

The word “Crawdads” establishes the novel as geographically set in the southern United States. Northerners would use the term “crayfish.” Putting a creature in the title hints at the primacy of nature as a theme. As we all know, crawdads by any name do not sing, causing us to wonder if this reference is legend, metaphor, delusion, or allusion. In any case, the title is a bit catchy.

From the back flyleaf we learn that the author has co-authored non-fiction volumes based on work with wildlife in Africa. This is her first work of fiction. She now lives in Idaho, which is a long way from North Carolina marshes. A brief internet search reveals that she grew up in Georgia, and (drumroll) is wanted in Zambia for questioning in relation to the murder of a poacher! Does this in any way inform the plot of this book?

Interestingly, the front cover portrays a female figure paddling a canoe down a tree-lined channel, toward an orange-tinged sky. Note that Kya drives a motorboat, not a canoe. But the painting is pretty.

To assure you that I actually read the book, let’s take a brief gander at the plot. At age 6, Kya is abandoned by her mom and siblings. At age 10, her alcoholic and unpredictable father also departs, after which she (improbably, in my mind) lives alone in an isolated shack and manages to stay alive by what she grows, forages, and catches. Her relationships are with creatures, primarily seagulls. Then she meets Tate, who teaches her to read in such an efficient way that she is soon perusing scientific textbooks. Not surprisingly, she falls for him. He, like her family before him, abandons her. Then she is pursued by Chase (not joking). This also comes to no good. Back to the seagulls. 

A mysterious death ensues and our protagonist is mixed up in it. I won’t reveal more. The ending is clearly written to be surprising, which it was, but also left me with…a squeamish feeling. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is beloved by many readers. The book was on the New York Times bestseller list for a LONG time. Why? My assessment: a pleasant quick read, an appealing setting, a pulls-herself-up-by-the-bootstraps main character, murder, mystery, love, loss, and a sense of loneliness that touches something inside of every human being.