Thursday, December 31, 2009

I HATE New Year's Resolutions

Yeah, I said it. And I'll say it again...I hate New Years resolutions!!!

Most of all, I hate what they've become in our culture...a way to mostly look at the superficial qualities of our lives and think that somehow we'll be happier if we change them. Oh, and there are usually tons of products we can buy that will "help" us achieve them, so its now time to pony up.

But there is something even more insidious about how we approach resolutions. For some people (not all), this becomes a time to unleash all of the "shoulds" that have been rolling around in our heads. Most often, these are the shoulds that others in our lives or culture have laid on us as baggage. To resolve to meet those shoulds is usually not only doomed to fail, but negates our own true desires for ourselves.

I'll admit that I come to this issue with a bit of baggage from my past. I haven't hesitated to disclose that for the first 20+ years of my life I was steeped in right wing christian fundamentalism and that it took me over 10 years to shed all of that.

What I remember more than anything growing up is hearing "the rules" about how I was supposed to live my life. And that if I just had enough discipline or willpower, I'd be the "good girl" that God and all of the other adults in my life told me I should be. I tried. As a matter of fact, I tried with every fiber of my being. But ultimately, I always failed in some way. And of course, that failure was a result of my short comings - so then there's the guilt and shame to add to the failure.

But then one day, with the help of some very wise people, I began to realize that I was looking in the wrong direction. In other words, I was looking "out" at what the rules were instead of "in" at who I already was. While absorbing that was eventually a life-changing experience, it didn't come without a price. Here's how poet David Whyte describes it.

Revelation Must Be Terrible

Revelation must be terrible
with no time left to say goodbye.

Imagine the moment staring at
the still waters with only the brief tremor of your body
to say you are leaving everything
and everyone you know behind.

Being far from home is hard,
but you know, at least, we
are exiled together.

When you open your eyes to the world
you are on you own for the first time.

No one is even interested in saving you now


Yep...I was free of the rules, but I was on my own. No daddy, or preacher, or god to tell me what to do. That was a frightening moment. But as I (figuratively) stood there for awhile and began to look inward, I saw something with the potential of authenticity and wholeness that could never be attained in my failed attempts to follow the rules. Discovering who I was and what I wanted (warts and all) eventually became my journey. The downside is not having a fall-back when I fail...no one to blame. But the upside is never having to be a victim of anyone else's pressures/expectations. And if I do it right - bending to accommodate others is a choice I make out of love, respect, or perhaps even self-interest. But its my choice.

So I'll not be making any new year's resolutions this year - except to continue to look inward and do a little bit better job of embracing the person that I already am. That's perhaps why this is one of my all-time favorite songs.



And if fits so nicely with the ending to Whyte's poem from above.

and the world steps in to test the calm fluidity
of your body from moment to moment,
as if it believed you could join
its vibrant dance of fire and calmness
and final stillness...

as if you were meant to be exactly where you are,
as if like the dark branch of a desert river
you could flow on without a speck of guilt
and everything - everywhere would still be
just as it should be,
as if your place in the world mattered
and the world could neither speak nor hear the fullness
of its own bitter and beautiful cry without the deep well
of your body resonating in the echo...

knowing that it takes only that one terrible
word to make the circle complete,
revelation must be terrible
knowing you can never hide your voice again.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The narrative of disappearance

Years ago I was introduced to a poet by the name of David Whyte. Since then, I have only half-jokingly referred to him as my "spiritual guru."

About once or twice a year, I get a newsletter from Whyte and it always includes an essay from him reflecting deeply about how he sees the world at the moment. Last week the newsletter arrived and I think in it, Whyte speaks to our current situation in a way that goes much deeper than our politics, and yet recognizes the political challenges we're facing.

I would encourage you, if you're interested in this kind of thing, to go read the whole thing at the link in the above paragraph. But here's a portion of it that I think gets to the essence of what he has to say.

Human beings stand at the center of these sometimes swift, sometimes slow, always moving patterns of presence and absence, but rarely intuit their own essence might be revealed and magnified by what is veiled and hidden, or by what has been taken away. Yet this form of subtraction may be the very hallmark of our time. At the present time we are asked to live in companionship with patterns and dynamics that are either disappearing, have not fully emerged or can never be fully named; patterns perhaps already changing into forms for which we have yet no language.

It is tempting, in this limbo time between the traumas of a world once said to be in ceaseless war with terrorism and a not yet fully formed future ideal, to feel righteously lost. Everything seems to be paused and hanging in a mist-wrought, barely moving dance. The world's economic systems, the world's ecological systems, the relations between haves and have-nots, the sovereignty of nation states upon which many millions of individuals have based their identities, all these are taking forms which we cannot quite recognize, and in that movement through form seem to be on the verge of disappearing.<...>

Little wonder then that if we prefer the appearance of stability or clear unobstructed vision we will manufacture fake narratives to replace the complexity, changeability and raw beauty of real ones, especially if the stories we always wanted to be true seem to shimmer and disappear. <...>

It may be that we live in a time of collective heartbreak, where for the first time in history we are being asked to witness the disappearance and reappearance on a global scale of what it means to be fully human; to give away our identity and see how it is returned to us through a sincere participation in the trials and necessities of the coming years. Part of that heartbreak is the sense that we might not be equal to the ecological, political and economic transitions that are necessary, that our own selfishness may be writ too deeply into our genes and that the future is therefore untenable and unreachable. We do not as yet know if this is true, but the old humanistic story around ourselves as a successful species, always on the up and up and appointed to some special destiny, is fading and silvering into the night air, and we are left, at this point in history, contemplating the unknown immensity of the night behind it.


I believe that Whyte has captured here the basis for so much of the angst we feel both in the world at large and in this tiny little space of interaction we call the blogosphere. If indeed, we are being asked as humans to give up what we have known as our identity without really being able to see the alternative, it is no wonder that, as Whyte says, so many of us feel the need to rush things and create a fake narrative to ease the strain. The problem he doesn't address is the fierceness with which we need to cling to those narratives because some part of us knows they're not real...at least not yet. And so we fight over whose narrative bears the closest resemblance to reality.

I have no grand answers to the question of what we do with that anxiety. But thinking about it once again reminds me of something Nezua wrote a while ago at The Unapologetic Mexican.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view.<...>

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too.<...>

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


While discussing this quote in a comment thread at Daily Kos last week, jonimbluefaninWV shared a phrase that captures this position very well - he called it a "state of critical ambivalence." While Nezua finds that his "true eye shines" in that state, I think that for most of us, it is one that is extremely uncomfortable. And yet its where we find ourselves nonetheless. I expect that it is those who can navigate the "skinstripping wind of the next living moment" who will not only survive, but show us the way.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Both Eyes

I have an interesting, but not uncommon stigmatism...one eye is near-sighted and one far-sighted. The interesting part of it is that they mostly cancel each other out and give me close to good vision. Since high school, I've been a very poor student of biology - so don't count on me for much insight into the workings of the human eye. But it seems to me like they were built this way - to provide the tension that brings results.

And that reminds me of a little song that I was taught years ago by a trainer in diversity.

Its in every one of us
to be wise.
Find your heart
open up both your eyes.
We call all know everything
without ever knowing why.
Its it every one of us
to be wise.


Another great wisdom of the ages is reported to have been penned by one of our great philosophers of the 20th Century, Reinhold Niebuhr.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


I've recently been reading up on Niebuhr (but will grant that there are probably many of you who know his writings and teachings better than me), since hearing about a conversation about him between then-Senator Obama and David Brooks back in the spring of 2007.

Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”


Niebuhr was a Christian theologian/philosopher who lived from 1892-1971. He began his career as a pastor committed to the social gospel and pacifism. The rise of fascism and the events of WWII caused Niebuhr to question these commitments in a way that holds the tension between "the world as it is" and "the world as we want it to be.' Over the course of the years, it seems that many have adopted what Niebuhr said on one side of this tension or the other. But that, to me, seems to be viewing him with one eye as an escape from the difficulty created by looking at what he said through both.

Interestingly enough, the most cogent description of this tension comes from Wilfred M. McClay who surrounds it with alot of verbiage that I otherwise disregard (how very Niebuhrian!). As someone who doesn't hold to the Christian faith, I find this a powerful statement when I exchange the word "Christian" with "progressive."

Niebuhr dismissed as mere “sentimentality” the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands around the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.

This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.


I would suspect that anyone who has been on the ground floor of working for social change can recognize the reality of getting your hands soiled in the process of challenging existing social relations that are held together by coercion. The dilemmas of real life don't often fit into the neat categories of "good vs evil" that our verbiage can sometimes embrace. And yet, the "other eye" must always stay focused on the ideal in order to maintain a course towards the love ethic of justice and righteousness. Holding that tension is what we are called to do.

You can hear the echos of Niebuhr in Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.<...>

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.


Obama then spends the last half of his speech identifying the other side of the coin...what we must do to maintain our ideals that lead to peace. He ends with this.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.<...>

For if we lose that faith -- if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace -- then we lose what's best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.<...>

Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.

Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he's outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school -- because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child's dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.


Thorbjørn Jagland, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, also reiterated this tension in his speech yesterday.

The Committee knows that many will weigh his ideals against what he really does, and that should be welcomed. But if the demand is either to fulfil your ideals to the letter, and at once, or to stop having ideals, we are left with a most damaging division between the limits of today's realities and the vision for tomorrow. Then politics becomes pure cynicism. Political leaders must be able to think beyond the often narrow confines of realpolitik. Only in this way can we move the world in the right direction.


I don't share this to defend Obama's decision on Afghanistan. Niebuhr himself was never easily pigeonholed - supporting the Cold War but being adamantly against the US policy in Vietnam and perhaps one of the first in this country to criticize American exceptionalism with its negative impact on our foreign policy. His message seems to be that we have to enter these conversations individually with humility about the limits we all have as humans in an imperfect world with the capacity for real evil.

Some of you might remember this picture of Obama from his days as a community organizer.

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Obama not only studied Niebuhr, he was schooled in the thinking of Saul Alinsky who, interestingly enough, required all of his students to read Niebuhr. What all three men share in common is this understanding of the power our idealism must challenge and the risks associated with wielding power in return. And yet, they all also agree that we can't shy away from our ideals. Living with that kind of tension means that our vision is almost never perfect. And yet it is exactly why we have to constantly see the world through both eyes.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Obamas and Children

Sometimes you shape the narrative by simply living your life. As Gandhi said..."Be the change you want to see in the world." It is in that spirit that I have watched the Obamas over the last couple of years and how they interact with and involve children in their lives.

Its become cliche for politicians to talk about valuing children as our future. But I seldom see them given the priority these words imply. That is why the photos I'm about to share speak to me so much more loudly than words. They indicate a lived-out value of children. And they inspire me.

First of all, a few of my favorites from the campaign.

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Since moving into the White House, the Obamas have hosted many events for children.

Like the one in February when middle school children were invited to a presentation about Black History Month.

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And to plant an organic garden at the White House.

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And a Healthy Kids Fair.

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And Bring Your Kids to Work Day at the White House.

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Of course, there was Halloween.

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And who can forget the fun of the White House Easter Egg Roll?

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And finally, there was Astronomy Night at the White House.

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Did you know that Michelle Obama has started a mentoring program that matches local girls with White House Staffers? She said it was one of her top goals when becoming First Lady.

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Back during the transition, we saw the Obamas interest in visiting local schools. That tradition has continued since they moved into the White House.

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I think we should make Michelle Obama's title "Hugger-In-Chief."

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But then, I don't know what this guy's title should be.

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And finally, lest we forget the two children who currently live in the White House, here's a pictorial look at the bending of the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

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(Sasha's first day of school in DC)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Why I support President Obama

I am one of those people that find myself very torn over President Obama's decision about the escalation in Afghanistan. I know there are a few of us out there. But my concerns go to the strategy's efficacy and, unlike some others here, don't lead me to question his motives, values, intelligence, or capitulation. So that makes me wonder why I don't when others do.

Lately I've been thinking alot about trust and how it does or does not apply to politicians. I think healthy skepticism of elected officials is important to maintain. But just as I would never blindly trust, I can't go to the opposite extreme and assume they are always corrupt and/or lying. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that, in my professional life, I work with several elected officials that I not only trust - but who have become mentors. On a local level, I've gotten to know a few - which is easier to do than with national figures. And while there are some that are certainly corrupt (and a lot more that just aren't playing with a full deck), there are some stand-outs that break the mold and challenge a complete slide to cynicism.

I also find that having been represented for 6 years on a national level by someone like Senator Paul Wellstone (and now Senator Franken), gives me pause when I want to think in general terms - even about national politicians. They aren't all cut out of the same corrupt mold.

All of that leads me to at least keep the door open and requires that I take a look at each elected official without a pre-conceived notion about who they are as human beings. They are as complicated as any group of individuals - both in their ability to display courage and in their weaknesses. For example, as much as I valued and respected Senator Wellstone, he let all of us down at one point by voting for DOMA. No one is perfect - and I know he learned from that experience, which is all we can ask of any fallible human being.

But there's one other important piece of history that informs my evaluation of President Obama. The first Presidential primary where I really got involved heart and soul was in my support for Howard Dean. My initial draw to his campaign was his stance against the Iraq War. At the time, there were no other national candidates speaking out as strongly as he was. But I was troubled by some of his other policy positions. He was not a traditional progressive in many areas.

What drew me to the Dean Campaign in the end was his notion of "people power." The more I got involved, the more I saw that this wasn't just a campaign slogan...it was very real. I think I had been waiting all of my life for a politician to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And Dean was asking alot of all of us - much more than making promises of what he would do for us. This...to me...was what democracy was supposed to be all about.

With the onslaught of attacks from the media, the Republicans, and yes...the Democratic establishment, Howard Dean's campaign ended. I was crushed...as was my belief that we still lived in a democracy. Perhaps that was hyperbole on my part, but its how I felt at the time. So I not only watched my hero go down in flames, I watched another 4 years of Bushco happen and decided that there was not much sense it trying to change things through electoral politics.

And then I started hearing about Barack Obama. Again, it wasn't his policies that I noticed, it was how he was running his campaign. Early on I read stories like this about Camp Obama. Looked to me like he was following Dean and taking it up a notch. So I was intrigued and got on board. It took some doing to get over my cynicism, but the more I watched the more I saw something that woke up that craving for real democracy - the one where the people could have a say. So I decided to believe again. But it wasn't so much about believing in Obama, it was about believing that perhaps the people could have a voice.

What I've seen since then from Obama is a man who is prepared to lead the people of this country as far as we - the people - are willing to go. He laid it all out to us over 4 years ago in a diary at Daily Kos.

We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice. <...>

And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.<...>

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.


The fact of the matter is...I'm wondering if the real question of trust isn't more about how wise it is for someone like President Obama to trust the American people this much. He's calling us to a dialogue with each other that can lead to the kind of sacrifice that's necessary for real change to happen. Where some would prefer that he beat the country over the head with that change, he's asking if enough of us are ready for it. The change we're looking for will not happen unless enough of us are. That's because one man - even the one occupying the White House - can't do this alone. If we want democracy - we have to do it together.

I truly believe that President Obama is willing to take on that challenge. The question that remains is whether or not enough of us are ready to join him in sacrificing over the long haul that will be required. My read on that one is that not enough of us are ready at this point. Too many people still expect him to do it for us. And when you add to that the number of those who prefer their current comfort to the kinds of sacrifices that are required, the coalition for change is not there yet. I suspect that it can/will happen when those of us who are on board quit looking to politicians to do it for us and get busy with our fellow citizens in building the kind of coalitions that demand to be heard.

So in the end, I'm more of a believer in the process - one that is required to revive democracy and a voice for the people. Certainly the policies are important. But absent the kind of engagement in authentic debate and consensus-building by the people, those policies will simply sustain the status quo.