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 white squirrel licking sap from a tree. Happy day!

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.

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.

Summer Solstice

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Minnehaha Falls

Yesterday summer officially began. As usual, my dog and I started the day with an early morning walk through Minnehaha Park to the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek. Other than a couple of fisher-people, we usually have the place pretty much to ourselves. Armed with a plastic bag and gloves, each day I pick up garbage left by visitors since the previous morning’s cleaning. It is satisfying work.

Public parks are such a gift. Natural features are protected from development and harm, and everyone is welcome. Fees are minimal; many are free. Public parks allow access to beautiful places regardless of your ethnicity, race, income, age, or gender. Think of it! We all own riverfront, lakefront, and historically or environmentally significant areas that we can visit whenever we wish.

Along with parks as great institutions of equality, we need to place public libraries. As a small-town kid one of my greatest joys on summer days was riding my bike to the library and checking out a stack of books. Anyone can get a library card and educate themselves. They can use a computer to look for a job, do their homework, or research an interest. In my adult life, when I need a change of scenery, my public library offers a quiet, comfortable place to work on writing projects. Plus libraries smell great. Like books!

My kids attended a diverse public high school in St. Paul. There they had the opportunity to excel and grow as human beings. On a daily basis they interacted with students who were born in other countries and who were culturally diverse. A few students were well-to-do, some were mid-range, as we were, and many were truly poor. With all due respect to those who send their kids to elite private schools, I believe that a real education must take place in the real world.

Public institutions are created to be bastions of equality. Parks do this well, libraries, too. Public schools certainly have a way to go in terms of funding. Our legislature would well to consider how our schools are paid for, and how to distribute funds fairly across all school districts. There is no excuse for kids in Edina, for example, to get a better education than kids in North Minneapolis, for example.

In addition to supporting and improving parks, libraries and schools, we can extend the equalizing power of public institutions by working toward universal health care, free home internet access for all, and free community colleges. I had the good fortune to teach at a great community college in Chicago for a few years. Many students were newly arrived immigrants, as well as those who had ability but didn’t thrive in their high school environments, and those who were wise enough to see community college as an affordable option for their first two years. Every American of any age or circumstance should have the opportunity to attend community college free of charge. This should be extended in the future to 4-year state colleges and universities.

In this time of social upheaval and momentum for improvement, let’s look to the equalizing power of our great public institutions as agents for societal change.

 

 

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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Former Post Office, corner of Minnehaha and Lake

I live in south Minneapolis. During the recent troubles, the police precinct that serves our area was destroyed, as was the post office and the public library. Our nearby Walgreens was looted, and across 46th Street from Walgreen’s, the Holiday gas station was torched. Lake Street, a mile away, is nearly destroyed. A few long nights were filled with the constant smell of smoke, the unnerving sound of loud booms (guns? smoke bombs? fire bombs?), whirring blades of helicopters passing low overhead, and endless sirens.

Protests continue, as they should, and peace has returned. Trucks haul loads of rubble away. At some point, rebuilding will commence. We hope, wait, and work for positive change in our community.

In the meantime, the universe conspired to bring back into my hands a copy of a book that I first read in 1993 and which had a great impact on me at the time. What follows is a true story. At some point, my copy of Respect for Nature disappeared. It’s importance was such that I wouldn’t have given it away, although it is possible that I loaned it out. Last week while walking through my neighborhood I stopped to check out a Little Library. Inside was a copy of Respect for Nature! My day was made and with a silent “thank you” I carried it home. The next day, I started paging through the heavily marked up book, and here’s the thing that I wouldn’t believe if it hadn’t happened. The book I found in the Little Library was MY COPY! Marginal notes in another hand had been added to mine, but there is no mistaking one’s own scrawl.

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The book that wanted to come home again

Respect for Nature by the late Paul W. Taylor, presents a well-expressed biocentric theory of environmental ethics. He places the well-being of all life forms on the same plane. There is no hierarchical system of value with humans on the top rung. He begins his book by discussing human ethics, before fully expounding his theory of biocentric ethics. Respect is the centerpiece of his theory. He refers to all humans as “persons”. Every person is a member of the human community, in which all others are members on equal terms. Further, Taylor proposes, the human community should be ordered so that each person has the ability to live self-directed lives, subject only to constraints required to give everyone the same opportunities. Other humans are seen as persons with no greater or lesser than value than oneself, and are all due respect.

Think of this. How would our world be different if we accorded equal value to every human being? And if we respected the right to life of non-human beings, making all our decisions on the basis of this value?

Place the obscene murder of George Floyd, along with so many others in the context of respect for and the equality of all persons. Place the destruction of businesses employing people and places offering essential services in the context of the right of all the pursue their own well-being.

There are those who are so blinded by fear and anger that they are incapable of seeing the value of others. There are the bullies, there are the greedy, there are the cruel. They must be stopped.

Every person of relatively sound mind can make the choice to live by higher values, reflected in compassion, generosity, and kindness. We can make the choice to toil tirelessly to make our community, our state, our nation, and our world better for all who live and breathe.

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Beauty in Minnehaha Park. Forget-Me-Nots by the thousands.