Posts Tagged ‘Swarthmore College’

I Know What I Like

February 19, 2017

I sent an email to my (very understanding) supervisor recently, expressing my deep reservations about a proposed move to video visits being pushed by upper management. Not that I don’t know how to adapt my interviews to a video format, but I live in a region of limited Internet connectivity and the people with whom I am expected to conduct these visits have neither the technology nor the money to acquire the technology to participate. Most run out of minutes on flip phones before the end of each month.

More importantly, to my mind, is a concern for the disappearance of meaningful interpersonal connections. Too many of us now live in isolated bubbles, glued to smart phones and tablets, Googling for answers to test questions instead of reading and learning and thinking things through for ourselves. Too many of us can be seen sitting with others, everyone with his or her head down staring at a screen. Too many of us spend too much time “connected” only with those who visit the same websites, think the same thoughts, agree with whatever we say, and take righteous offense if anyone contradicts the group’s predetermined set of beliefs.

I’m not originating these thoughts – some of them I read in an analysis by Eric Francis, astrologer and writer and producer of PlanetWaves. Some I heard during an interview with a journalist scorned by his liberal peers for writing a biographical piece on Milo Yiannopoulos. The journalist’s original position was a sort of “know thine enemy” belief that one cannot effectively implement programs or persuade others who hold different views, if one hasn’t heard enough of those views to discover where there may be common ground upon which to build a successful compromise, or a persuasive argument for a different outcome.

I’m reminded of a speaker brought to my college campus in the early 1960s. Once a week the entire campus was gathered for Collection, to hear a presentation meant to give us food for reflection. Attendance was mandatory. One spring morning, the speaker was a South African government official who presented a defense of apartheid to an audience almost entirely composed of supporters of the civil rights movement then actively unfolding in the United States. Some students made an initial effort to block the speech, primarily because of the mandated attendance. The school administrators insisted that we hear the official’s viewpoint “in order to understand how best to argue against and counter it.” The speaker presented a closely reasoned and very persuasive argument in support of separation of races that could only be countered, I realized, by catching – and taking apart – his implicit assumption that people are more comfortable “with their own kind” and that race is a necessary and sufficient condition for dividing kinds of people. He only verbalized the comfortable with one’s own part of the premise; the racial implications corollary was never stated. In case you didn’t take logic in school, the speaker implied but never stated that in and of itself skin color creates an unbridgeable gap between people such that I as a Caucasian can never be the same kind of person as anyone with a Negroid complexion.

Had I not heard the South African speaker, I might never have been able to pinpoint the unstated assumptions on which so many people base their objections to the sort of social integration that has been experienced in the past 40 years in the US. And had I not heard that speaker, I probably would not have grown in my own ability to reach across very real differences, to find common ground with people whose views are significantly different from my own. I have friends, good and caring people, who support the newly elected Congress and President. I don’t agree with their political views, but I also cannot fault their day to day treatment of neighbors, nor their commitment to good education, appropriate care for the needy, and fair treatment for all.

The devil is in the details, as they say, and one of the details seems to be that we as a nation have lost the capacity to relate to anyone different from ourselves. How many people, now, would object to the statement that “people are more comfortable surrounded by those like themselves”? How many of us choose to go outside our “comfort zones” or our technologically reinforced personal bubbles to listen to, interact with, care about those whom we perceive as different from ourselves?

The journalist who was scorned for writing about Yiannopoulos had called himself a liberal, but reacted to their scorn by redefining himself as a “new conservative.” Not that he changed his own values, but that he perceives today’s “strident” liberals as unable to listen, unable to discuss, unable to tolerate different viewpoints from their own. They have become, he claims, just like the alt-right in that both sides are equally intolerant.

A Quaker friend (a Friend friend) of mine recently raised the question of how to reach out to those whose views differ from our own, in order to better understand steps to take to heal the growing divide which he sees as threatening to tear our democracy apart. I found myself wanting to answer “shut down the social media sites, turn off the Net, create an environment, at least for a week, that will force people to actually see and talk to and listen to one another. Don’t replace in person visits with video visits, don’t require doctors to focus on data entry into a computer when they should be listening to their patients. Don’t allow objectors to prevent a speech, however unpleasant the views of the speaker. And don’t let implicit assumptions about similarity and difference slip by unquestioned.

It may be true that we are generally most comfortable with those like ourselves. What matters is how we define the phrase, like ourselves. I remember that I used to say the only thing about which I am intolerant is intolerance. I suspect that is still true. Intolerance, to me, means lack of respect for the humanity of another. I need to ask myself whether I can respect the humanity of a bigot. Can I find that of God in a hater? I found it in killers who were my students when I taught in the NM Penitentiary. I have certainly found it in those friends referred to earlier, whose political views are so different from my own. If I can do so, it does NOT mean I accept anyone’s right to act on bigotry and hatred. But if I can do so, I think I’ll have a better chance of diverting the haters from implementing their bigoted agenda.

 

A Way Forward

January 27, 2017

One of my followers, and fellow bloggers, recently inquired after my well-being, not having seen a post from me in quite some time. I appreciate the concern – am in general okay – but recognize that in subtle ways I have not been myself, or at least not the self who reflects and blogs.

Now that I’m coming out of the blank space, I can see that it was:
1) real (not an alternate fact),
2) somewhat akin to depression,
3) also at least partially rooted in a doctor-ordered change in thyroid treatment,
4) definitely influenced by political ugliness in both the U.S. and Cameroon,
5) full of flashbacks, or recognition of old patterns and feelings that no longer have a place in my current life, and
6) clearly an opportunity to process and release residual mental patterns that do me no good.

I know that some of the threads I pulled from the tangle included a deep anger that our society still values a sorry excuse for a man over an intelligent and accomplished woman – an anger that eased on January 21st.

Another thread was a profound fatigue, best reflected in one of the signs carried on January 21st by an older woman. “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Really, do I have to do this all again, fifty years later?

Yet another thread was a vivid remembrance of my college years, in the infamous sixties, marching in protest against the war in Vietnam and in support of civil rights, dating an African fellow student and later marrying a Black American, living integration on a day to day basis at a time when that marriage was still considered illegal in several southern states. Today we have an Oscar nominee in a new movie about the legal case that ended miscegenation laws, but also an upsurge in attacks on mixed race couples and their children, legitimized by the new administration’s ugly rhetoric.

Yet another thread from the past woven into the present was my own feeling of limitation in what I could say or do to protest domination by values with which I profoundly disagreed. In my youth, that limitation resided in the fact that my father was an officer in the nation’s diplomatic corps and I was made to understand that my conduct could not undermine his position and responsibilities. He had written reports in the mid-1950s, warning of the quagmire into which the U.S. would fall if it followed the course of action then being dictated in southeast Asia. He was ignored, and then told to stick to economic reporting. He was back Stateside, and assigned to an academic setting, when I attended the very first march on Washington to protest the start of the Vietnam War. He warned me to be very careful where I went and what I said, just starting out on my working life, in order not to prematurely curtail my options – and also in order not to bring more censure down on him.

I was not then, and am still not now, a demonstrator in the public crowd sense. I tend rather to make my statement of values in the choices of how I live my daily life. I’ve become comfortable having friends from a variety of backgrounds, working in a helping profession (Care Coordinator for an MCO with Medicaid recipients as my caseload), married now to a Cameroonian studying here, and living in a “rural frontier” community in a state known for its multicultural heritage (Hispanic, Native America, Anglo and with a small but historically significant black population) that has also welcomed many Vietnamese and, lately, Tibetan and Middle Eastern immigrants.

I began to come out of my blank space when I read that my college Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, has declared itself a sanctuary school. Santa Fe (NM), near my home, has declared itself committed to remaining a sanctuary city. I wear a safety pin on my outer garments ever since I learned of the act as a symbol that others, of whatever type, are safe with me. It seems that I’ve needed time to find my way into the acts that allow me to express my resistance to the present state of the nation. Because I am under constraints now, as I was all those decades ago. Again now, as then, people whom I care about can be harmed if I become too outspoken.

Am I truly having to go through this yet again? How could the nation have regressed so far, so fast?

I have not been writing, and therefore not posting, while I work through my response to what seems to be the undoing of everything I have cared about and supported my entire, many decades long, adult life. Living my values in my small corner of the state is necessary, but has not felt sufficient. I’m signing petitions, but ignoring the constant demand for cash contributions to fund more protests, because I don’t have the cash to donate (if I did, I wouldn’t still be working full time at long past retirement age). I’ve been seeking what would feel like an appropriate expression of my objections to the so-called swamp which, instead of being drained, has been broadened and deepened to cover the entire nation with greed and egotism and petulant childish tantrums and threats to our most fundamental Constitutional freedoms.

Today, when I heard that federal funds will be cut off to any entity that resists the government’s attack on immigrants, I remembered another piece of my past – tax resistance. As a Quaker, I refused to pay for war when I was young. Might I now refuse to pay for a wall, and a registry, and an immigration ban? Might I give my tax money directly to Santa Fe schools that will need it, instead of to the Federal government to spend on taking this country backward a century or more?

I don’t know how this idea will unfold, but it is clear to me that identifying a form of protest congruent with my life experience has been necessary to bring me the rest of the way out of my funk. Now let’s see if it also ends my silence.

I Went for a Walk

August 14, 2016

Cleaning out unneeded documents in my computer files, I came across an essay I wrote for myself about eight years ago. I don’t recall writing it. Rereading it now, I recognize that I’ve integrated the essence of it into my self, my life, my philosophy of living, my spiritual path. I choose now to share it with others, offering a bit of my beloved grandfather’s wisdom to those who honor us both by reading my words.

A Walk with My Grampa

I Went For a Walk in the Forest was the book title and first phrase I learned to read, precociously at age three, sitting on my Grampa’s lap as he read the story over and over to me. The book was paper bound, about 6 inches high and 10 inches long, with a black and white cover sketch of the forest surrounded by a pumpkin-orange border. If you opened the book out flat, so that the back and front covers made one whole picture, all the animals met on that forest walk could be seen hidden among the trees. In the delightful manner of children’s fantasy, the animals collected in that forest ignored the habitat restrictions which would normally prevent them meeting, except perhaps in a zoo.

From the safety of Grampa’s lap I learned about lions and horses, a giraffe, an elephant, deer and antelope, and a monkey. When the reading walk was done we rested. He smoked, and I trapped the smoke rings he blew into a wide mouth bottle, where they magically retained shape until the genie who also lived in the bottle stirred them into a fog to give himself shelter.

I went for a walk at the zoo, with my Grampa, most Sundays from when I was seven until I was twelve. He would come down on the train from Baltimore to spend the day with us, and would take me for ‘our’ time. Not always to the zoo, sometimes to the park or just for a walk around the neighborhood. He would ask me about my week in school, what I had learned and what I was reading, and he would tell me about the poem he was working on, or the article he was writing (in Hebrew, or Yiddish) for The Forward (which he pronounced as though a “v” began the second syllable). It was important to him to pick just the right Hebrew word from among several choices for his poems, to convey mood and spirit, as well as meaning.

I went for a walk on the beach – alone now, a world away from my Grampa, he still in Baltimore and I on the sand at Nha Trang, picking up tiny pink and black and pearl-colored shells which elderly Vietnamese refugees from the north collected to string into elaborate necklaces. I wore a small gold pendant my Grampa gave me, with the Tree of Life etched into it. A link, he said, that would stretch from Vietnam back to Maryland, to keep us sharing our walks. Those were harder years, without his immediate presence and gentle wisdom to balance the emotional stresses of my early teens.

I missed him still, when I went for a walk in the Bois de Boulogne during my high school years. I wrote to him, sitting on a sarcophagus in Pierre La Chaise cemetery, one of the few places in bustling Paris that I could find solitude and quiet. Those were very hard years, for both of us. He was no longer working in his dental practice and had fewer places to publish his essays and poems. He was no longer as able to care for himself, and not very aware of time, so his replies to me were intermittent, and rarely responsive to the questions I asked.

I went for a walk in the Crum Woods on Swarthmore’s campus, during my college years, and felt his presence through the guitar in my room, a fine instrument I’d found in a pawn shop, which he gave me the seventy-five dollars to purchase. I’d asked my parents for the money, but my mother had responded in her usual fashion. “Why don’t you prove your interest in playing guitar by learning on a borrowed one before you ask me to spend my money on something you may not pursue?” Fifty years later, that guitar stays easily in tune and its tone is admired by everyone who plays it.

I went for walks by the Chicago shore of Lake Michigan, and along the Charles River in Boston, after helping my mother to settle Grampa in Miami, where the better weather and the presence of a few close friends made it easier for him to manage. We talked on the phone since his eyes had failed to the point that he could not write, nor easily read. With a metal-bound, rectangular, hand-held magnifying glass left from his collection of dental tools, he would slowly read the daily Yiddish press, sharing his opinions with me on the events which he didn’t trust TV news to present fairly. He worried, after the Six Days War, that while its outcome improved Israel’s security at the time, there would come from it a negative turn in world opinion toward the Jewish state. He would, I know, be distraught over the actions and decisions taken recently – the wall, and the West Bank settlements which have become symbols of oppression rather than statements of freedom.

I went for one last walk with my Grampa, along the path beside the railroad tracks in Lamy, here in New Mexico, after he could no longer live on his own. My mother and I moved him into a nursing home outside Santa Fe, where I visited with him several times a month, and brought him to my little converted boxcar house for an outing, the one weekend he was strong enough to come. I told him the story of looking out the train window, age twelve and on my way to Vietnam, seeing Lamy as a strange, wild and western place – missing him desperately and never imagining that we two would walk together there. He answered that it was good to walk with me, though he didn’t really grasp where we were, and complained to me that there were people in his nursing home whom he could hear speaking Yiddish from a distance but who, when he came close and spoke to them, would not answer. I tried to explain that they were speaking Spanish, not Yiddish. He was by then seriously deafened, hearing just enough scraps of language to know when it wasn’t English being spoken. Like most speakers of more than one tongue, with advanced age Grampa’s communication abilities lasted longest in his first language, or in his case his first two, Yiddish for everyday and his beloved Hebrew for poetry and praise.

My grampa died within days of his official 91st birthday. Official, rather than real, because he had to transfer a birthdate from the Jewish (lunar) calendar used in what he called the “dot on the map village outside the dot on a map town” where he was born in Russia, to the western calendar he encountered when he entered the US as a twenty year old man in 1907. Knowing Shvat to be a spring month, he arbitrarily called it March. He equally firmly rejected the proposed Americanizing of his name to Hill, insisting that “no, my name is Domnitz, Aaron Domnitz.”

I go for walks now, often a brisk measured mile by Storrie Lake, or a leisurely stroll along Bridge Street, and realize I am just the age my Grampa was as my parents prepared to take us (his only close family) across the world to Vietnam. After 14 or more years of weekly trips from Baltimore to DC (he began them when my mother became pregnant with me), how great a change – and loss – that must have been for him!

I wonder – but obviously have no one to ask – why my parents didn’t bring him with us? Perhaps it was discussed and he refused? More likely, I’m afraid, my mother determined that she ‘didn’t want the responsibility’. That was her standard reply with which to block everything from my having friends for a sleep over, to helping host visiting dignitaries whom it was my father’s job to entertain. Blessedly it was also her response when Grampa needed nursing home care, so that I got to have him close to me for those precious last 18 months of his life. We went for so many lovely walks, in our talks, during my on-my-way-home-from-work visits with him!

Because life in his natal village had gone virtually unchanged for centuries before he left it, his awareness bridged nearly 300 years. Thus, we talk-walked streets of the 1700s in Russia as readily as those of Santa Fe in 1975. He shared the concern of many, that our technological skills so far exceed our ethical advances. “Will we now bring war to the moon?” was his question after that ‘one giant step’ for mankind.

Grampa’s dental cabinet, filled with a fragile, gaily decorated porcelain tea service from Vietnam, sits in my dining room. I use his magnifying glass when I need stronger eyes. The guitar provides music from many cultures, when I entertain students from the United World College. I pick my written words with care, respecting the importance he gave to nuances of meaning.

My Grampa started me reading about a walk through a forest to meet different animals. He continues to guide me on my walk through life, meeting its varied challenges. Some of that guidance arises from one of the last things Grampa said to me, shortly before he died. I’d asked if he had his life to live over, what he might have done differently. His answer was that he had only two regrets. The first was that he thought perhaps my mother might have been a happier person if he had remarried (he raised her on his own), but he’d never found the right woman. The second was that he wished he’d learned to play the mandolin. No wonder he supported my learning the guitar!

However long my own life walk turns out to be, I hope that when it ends, I will have as few regrets as my Grampa did. With his gifts surrounding me, and his ethics a part of me, I have every reason to succeed.

Right, Just and Good

June 16, 2015

A number of times lately I’ve set out to write a post and instead have spent my time playing solitaire. Forty Thieves occasionally but mostly Free Cell. I have no idea if I have set any sort of record on the latter – 4600 consecutive games without being stymied. I undo and start over when I see one not playing out – and a few times have had to repeat that process four or five times before I succeed. I think maybe that’s “cheating’’ when it comes to setting records, but since I’m not playing for a record I don’t suppose it matters.

What am I playing for? A sort of mindless zone out that lets my attention relax and float free, to be with my spiritual Master on the inner. Oddly, doing something seemingly profoundly mental (a card game) serves me as an avenue out of Mind and into a non-mind status.

Coming back to conscious awareness, I often have new insights, including ideas for posts – but too often have used up my free time that otherwise might have been spent writing. Alas, no matter how elastic time sometimes seems to be (long when I’m tired but obligated to keep working at my primary job, so short when I have a rare day to relax) it simply doesn’t stretch to encompass all that I want to accomplish in my “off work” hours.

Especially not now that I am coaching my husband through his demanding load of summer classes. He’s taking his first psychology course, being exposed to the discipline that was my major in college. I participated in a reunion (I won’t say which one) by Zoom conference last week, the first time I’ve ever attended any such activity. I enjoyed visiting with a few classmates, and seeing how differently we all look. But I realized, also, that I have very little interest in looking backwards to my years at Swarthmore. I greatly value the education I received, which has continuously served me well as I have taken up employment in a series of different fields. My appreciation of my teachers and the learning process is a present condition, however, with very little nostalgia attached.

Apparently one of the undertakings of my classmates on campus was to share personally significant memories about our years at school. I find that almost all of mine arise out of my own achievements, with relatively few memorable events, other than friendships made, involving other people. I was not “social”, although my senior year I captained the archery team, and I regularly performed with the modern dance troupe.

In that capacity, at the start of my senior year, I posted a notice seeking a musician to improvise in response to a dance I’d choreographed. The drummer who answered became one of my best, certainly most long-term and special friends, as we are still in communication close to a lifetime later. The experience of connection when I performed the dance for him to watch, with the next run-through a perfect match of music to movement, is a significant personal memory of Swarthmore.

Another is my feeling of floating over the ground as I left the oral exam for my philosophy courses. I’d spent over an hour with the visiting examiner, analyzing a statement I’d made in one of my written tests, to the effect that good, right and just are coextensive concepts, a core tenet and summary of my personal belief system. At the end of the session, the professor stepped back, looked over the blackboards that we’d filled with examples, and said “I think you have a coherent philosophical system laid out here.” It was not merely a validation of my intellect, but a deeply felt validation of my ethics and spiritual concepts of right conduct, or what I would now call Knowing, Being and Seeing.

Just as I now find value in what could seem to be mindless time wasting, moving cards around on a board, I guess I do also see value in occasionally looking back. If nothing else, when change is incremental and in such small steps as to be easily missed, looking back can provide a signpost marking the fact that change has in fact occurred – or perhaps it has not.

The important thing is not to get stuck with one’s sight turned to the past. Equally important, is to not be so focused on the future that the present is overlooked. I appreciate and value the reminder that “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” To be able to reach my end with as few regrets as my grandfather (who wished he’d learned to play the mandolin) I know I need, daily and here and now, to manifest the ethics that covered that classroom board and to Be in my life in each moment of it. When I succeed, I know such happiness 

Let It Rain

April 19, 2014

It’s the end of a long, productive but tiring day and I had no idea what to write about for this week’s post.
I opened email from a dear friend, to find a single word – “rain”.

Perhaps because my last email to him announced happily that it was raining outside? For all of five minutes, it actually did rain, hard enough to be heard from inside the house.

Rain – its long absence from our lives, the urgent need for it – is on many minds. An elderly client stated that damp weather – like cold – makes her bones ache but she’d welcome the ache if it brought water for our thirsty earth.

Driving into town (I live about 15 miles out) earlier this evening, I remarked on the dusty, silted, sadly brown fields and talked about the Depression Era dust bowl with my companion. In that area of our community, on a windy day, the air is almost unbreathable, thick with topsoil being scoured from the land. Ninety plus years along, and it seems we haven’t made any progress at all toward preventing another dust bowl.

Hmm… the saying is that you attract what you give your attention to. Perhaps the problem is that too many of us have been giving attention to the drought, when what we should be doing is meditating on rain, snow, lakes, springs, moisture in all its myriad and lively forms.

Like the pond I discovered beside the road back into the mountains, en route to do an assessment with a client who lives in a tiny camper trailer on a twelve acre parcel of wooded mountain land. Several ducks floated on its surface, undisturbed by a chorus of frogs loud enough to be heard over my car’s engine. More than twenty years of living not far away from the area, and I’d never heard that the pond existed. My client informed me that it’s not a year around water, that by June it will be dry.

So think about rain. Think about all the different types of rain I’ve experienced.

The first that comes to mind is in Saigon. My usual form of transport was a cyclo-pousse (French for the combination of bicycle and push, describing a bike with a seat in front, sitting on two wheels).

Cyclo Drivers, Saigon 1957

Cyclo Drivers, Saigon 1957

The faster, noisier variety were called cyclomoto, did not have a carriage cover, and so could not enclose the rider. They were better adapted to carrying large loads.

Motocyclo - Saigon 1957

Motocyclo – Saigon 1957

During the rainy season, the cyclo driver would deploy, from behind the seat, a sort of umbrella cover to which tarps could be attached, ostensibly to keep the rider dry. You can see the cover, minus its surrounding tarp, on the central cyclo. Being enclosed did help a bit, but one still got soaked from below, as furiously fast rains pounded the pavement and rebounded up to a height of two feet or more. There was really no way to be dry if one went outdoors during the downpour. Fortunately, the rains came on a predictable cycle, gradually working their way around the twenty-four hour clock as the season progressed. One could even safely plan to hold an outdoor party at night, during the part of the season when it rained in the morning.

Any wonder that I questioned a local station’s weatherman about his use of the term monsoon for the nearly non-existent rains of the  summer season in New Mexico? Turns out the term describes patterns of air movement which, in wet countries, produce rain and which – rarely – do the same here.

Think about rain.

The British have a wonderful word – mizzle – for the thick, misty, almost-rain conditions associated with foggy London nights. I remember walking across my college campus (Swarthmore, in Eastern Pennsylvania) in a mizzle, bundled against a wet that somehow penetrated all my layers and left me dampened and chilled. There was a beauty to the campus on those wet nights, lamplight haloed by mist showing my way through the rose garden and along winding, tree lined paths. It took several cups of hot cocoa to thaw me, when I reached the warmth of the student center.

The first summer – 1990 – that I lived in my present home in Sapello, I wondered what I had done, buying a home in what felt like a flood zone. My previous residence, on eleven acres southeast of Santa Fe in the Galisteo basin, was almost 1000 feet lower in altitude, and definitely in a more desert-appearing landscape. We received the blessing of summer thunder storms during the years I lived in Galisteo. Great arcs of lightening would leap across the sky, crash into the Ortiz Mountains, and unleash water onto the prairie at a rate that could be absorbed. An occasional gully washer would plow a furrow down my drive, but was always sufficiently short-lived not to do damage.

The summer of 1990 in Sapello was different. It started raining in May and seemed not to stop, not to show the sun, not to warm enough to wear lightweight summer clothing. It rained and rained and rained. My uphill neighbor’s catch pond overflowed and sheets of water poured down across my property, overflowing the culvert and – twice – washing out my driveway completely. I had to have another neighbor come in with his backhoe to rebuild the drive, installing a larger culvert in the process. My horses’ hooves softened and began to rot, as they were unable to escape standing in sopping mud. I scrambled to create a cement pad and shelter for them, before they suffered serious harm. Try laying concrete in a persistent downpour!

Meteorologists tell us that the 90’s were an exceptionally wet period for this area, not a standard against which to rate our current situation. There certainly has not been a summer like 1990 in the past 15 years. I’m gently teased by a friend (native of a tropically wet climate) about my attention to our weather, to the condition of the prairie, to what I see on the distant skyline. He has yet to live through a wildfire summer. He tells me that a member of his church regularly petitions the congregation to pray for rain.

Please join me in a collective focus on wetness falling from the sky onto the lands of the Southwest.

In reciprocation, I will join you – if you live in the Midwest – in a collective focus on calm air and balmy days of recovery from the storms and ice of this past winter.

Together, may we find a better balance and harmony in all aspects of our lives.

**************

PS: Between writing yesterday and posting tonight it rained, intermittently, for several twenty minute periods. The air is cool and damp, the ground moist and there are a few puddles glistening on the highway. I see no stars nor moon tonight – rain clouds hover overhead.

Dieu nous benisse. 🙂

 

In Another Language

January 12, 2014

Do you speak more than one language fluently?

How are you different to yourself or to others, according to the language you are using? How does the difference in world view embodied in a language reveal a difference in its speakers? What depth of knowledge, of concept and perception of the world is lost when a language dies for want of speakers?

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I was fully bilingual, speaking, thinking, dreaming in French as readily as I do in English. After forty years of living in the Southwest, with rare occasion to use French, and then only for a few hours at a time, I felt that I was losing more than the ability to speak French. I was losing aspects of my identity, personality, self.

Some traits are obvious – I use my hands much more when I speak French. These past thirty years have steadily diminished both my gestures and the mobility of my face (as evidenced by videos), with my communication limited to English. What else about myself is disappearing? Am I less flirtatious? More reserved? Living more through my mind and less through my emotions?

Or are those changes the result of growing older, of my life experiences, of my spiritual practice – and would exist irrespective of the language I speak?

In the way of events in my life now, once I’d framed up an inquiry, the means to explore the answer presented itself. I’ve been introduced to a Cameroonian who has been pursuing graduate studies at a nearby university. He is fluently bilingual, and offers me the opportunity to resurrect my French. I’ve been pleased to discover that my language skill still exists, relatively intact, beneath the surface of my daily life and that, as I use it regularly, my fluency is returning. My pronunciation, however, definitely needs practice.

What else is or needs changing as a result of using a second language? Can I separate shifts in attitude or emotion that originate within me based on language, from those resulting from the topics of discussion?  What is the effect of conversing with an African, rather than a Frenchman, or a bilingual American?

A good friend with whom I discussed the effects of language on perception, told me of how his relationship with an acquaintance changed as a result of a change in use of language. The interaction of the two men had been conducted in a mixture of fractured Thai and equally limited English. Despite the limitations, they had begun to build a friendship. Then the American was observed by the Thai, chatting easily with a group of other English speakers – and “the friendship was not the same afterwards. He saw me differently, and seemed not to be able to be comfortable with me in the same way as before.”

Do I see myself differently, when I speak French? I’ve been remembering events from my earlier life that I’ve not thought of in a long time. An evening at a club on the Left Bank in Paris, during my junior year of high school (American School of Paris) to which I was invited by the son of a friend of my mother’s. Hugh had just returned from a semester in the US, and ostensibly was introduced to me by our mothers, so that he could practice his English. He already had plans for the evening, and agreed to include me. On the way to the Sorbonne, by metro, he suddenly asked what part of the US I was from. When I said Washington DC his next question was, “Is that considered the South?”

He was subtly trying to determine if I’d have a problem spending the evening with his friends – African students at the Sorbonne. I did not. We collected his two French-speaking friends from Dahomey (now Benin), and went on to visit a Nigerian who has in hospital. There we acquired a fifth member of the group, a visitor who spoke virtually no French. As the only person fluent in both languages, I became the interpreter for the evening, which meant that I danced with one or the other of the men from Dahomey who argued for each African nation developing itself economically, then with the Nigerian visitor whose view was that a Pan African approach to growth was essential to the emergence of the continent as a presence in the world. About every third or fourth dance, Hugh would escort me and – in English – check to see if I was enjoying myself, and if I minded talking so much politics.

I mostly remember the oddity of being – with Hugh – virtually the only white face in the club, which was a hangout for all the Africans living in Paris. I remember enjoying the dancing, and the adventure associated with being out with “older” guys (they were in their mid-twenties) and experiencing an evening so distinctly different from the norm of my life.

My first “true love” happened in French. I dated Patrick throughout my senior year, left him behind when I graduated and returned to the US to attend college, but never really left him behind. He visited me in Boston seven years later – and fifteen years after that came with his family to the US, and a visit at my home near Santa Fe. We still exchange greetings although we haven’t written letters or talked in a long time, partially because I “lost” my French, partially because I’ve found it challenging to translate some of my US, and particularly my rural Southwest, experiences into a language I know primarily as a fast-paced, urban expression.

In college, for about a year, I dated an African Olympic soccer star, coincidentally also from Dahomey. We spoke French when alone, but English in company. He led the college team to the championships, and would usually make one goal that was spectacularly “pour toi” – a solo, elaborate-footwork trip down the field showing off his skills. The rest of the game he was the consummate team player. He was also sadly troubled and displaced, enough to not return from a summer visit home between our sophomore and junior years. In this instance also, French was associated with experiences out of the norm of my life – even though I was minoring in the subject. Studying French literature and practicing translation of texts felt like part of my general academic life. Dancing the High Life, cheering at a soccer match off campus, trying to help my friend overcome the culture shock that was dampening his spirit – those were new and different challenges.

So am I finding that I’m more adventurous in French? Perhaps…

I certainly seem to be more frank. Because I do not have the fluency to mask my thoughts and feelings? Perhaps…

I notice, in the recounting, that the significant experiences being brought to mind by my use of French are all about interactions with the opposite sex! Hmmmm…..

To be continued.

When It’s Time

December 8, 2013
I Dare You...

I Dare You…

This isn’t the topic I expected to post this weekend. Not because of the passing of Nelson Mandela, but for an even more personal passing that raises almost identical emotions.

+++++

I demonstrated to push my college to rid itself of all investments that supported the South African government during apartheid. I’m proud to say Swarthmore College was one of the early institutions to manifest its (Quaker) values by participating in the economic boycott which the pundits are crediting with bringing an end to the apartheid system.

I rejoiced when it became clear that Nelson Mandela’s emphasis on equality and democracy, and commitment to reconciliation as the path forward, would be carried out with a simultaneous delight in the small pleasures of life. I’ve followed Mandela as I have the Dalai Lama, listening (by reading) to their speeches and appreciating how well they each translate values into action in ways I try to embody in my own life. My venue, as my status, is so much less than that of these two men I admire. Only others can assess to what extent I manifest any similar virtues.

I do attest that my Shih Tzu, named Shian Shung in respect of his status as a Master and Teacher, has shown the Mandela and Dalai Lama traits of persistence, consistency, dedication, joy in living, playfulness, affection, tolerance and respect for the equality of all. I could not know, when I cuddled him for a bit of extra “affection time” this past Monday, that I would never again do so. I cleaned and treated his eye, hugged him, received several doggy kisses in return, and watched him run out to catch up with his mates, chasing a rabbit into the pasture.

Blowing Kisses

Blowing Kisses

I loaded the car for my week of job training away from home and, as I headed down the drive, looked back to see my four dogs sitting on the deck, watching me go. That is my final image of Shian Shung – a furry white bundle of loving energy standing out against the blackness of the other dogs.

+++++

Today everything outside the windows is white. It snowed while I was away, and is snowing again now. Somewhere hidden within the cold wet white, is the body of what was a vibrant, lively personality cloaked in the white fur of a Shih Tzu. Apparently he was hit by a car mid-week. A visitor reports noticing a white dog lying beside the road Wednesday night. Shian Shung has not been seen since Wednesday morning; no body was found near the highway on Thursday. Most likely it was moved, or covered over, by snow plows clearing the road from the storm that day.

In his three short years, Shian Shung endured two traumatic health challenges and lived with a persistent eye irritation that required daily treatment. He was little more than a year old when he ingested meat some neighbor had set out, filled with rat poison. His gums were almost colorless when I got him to the vet. Daily injections with Vitamin K saved his life. He bounced back. He had one surgery to his right eyelid, intended to eliminate irritation to the cornea. It was only partially successful – I still had to clean and treat the eye daily. A follow-up surgery ended abruptly when Shian Shung flat-lined on the operating table. The vet and his assistant performed CPR, intubated him, worked on him for more than half an hour. He survived – again.

Within a week he was running and playing and teasing his pals, warning me of intruders with his assertive bark, tolerating steroid shots to reduce the inflammation to his eye, and lavishing me with his affection and abundant joie de vivre.

Over the 40 years I’ve lived in rural New Mexico, I’ve shared my home with a very large number of dogs and cats. Inevitably, a few stand out… Natasha, Driftwood, Daisy, Haiku, Rowena, Mei Ling and now Shian Shung. Daisy (a beagle/basset cross) extended her life after a serious illness, for just long enough to see me through the loss of my father, before she moved on to join him.

Handsome Haiku

Handsome Haiku

Haiku and Natasha (tiger-striped cats, one ginger the other grey) each taught me how to recognize the difference between choosing to live with sickness and being ready to depart. Rowena (a Scottie) and Mei Ling (another Shih Tzu) offered generous  love while also requiring respect for their independence. Each chose her moment of passing, in ways I could not avoid recognizing and respecting.

Miss Independence x 2

Miss Independence x 2

Various cultures articulate a tradition of animal guides and companions for the spirit world; I’m certain they “have it right”. A cat (my totem) will undoubtedly inform me, and accompany me, when it is my time. For now, I accustom myself to life here without the active presence of Shian Shung, as I adjust to a world now lacking the physical presence of Nelson Mandela.

+++++

We are most fortunate when we find good role models or wise teachers, to help us on our paths through life. I’m blessed to have my spiritual teacher, on MasterPath, still present in the physical, as is the Dalai Lama. Two other role models, one proximate (Shian Shung) and one more distant (Mandela), have shown me how to live fully and well despite imprisonment and life threatening trauma. Both will continue to function as guides, now in my memory.

I wonder – is Shian Shung frolicking at Mandela’s feet as they move to their next stage of being?

Small World

November 24, 2013

Have you ever swapped “small world” stories?

Some are simple, like the appearance in the training class for my new job of a woman who lives barely five miles from me in the rural area denoted by a dot on the map called Sapello – a woman I’d met once briefly before, but did not know until we were paired, during the training, for motivational interviewing exercises. Turns out we have a number of common interests, and a shared love of living “on the frontier” as our employer labels the area we serve.

Other small world stories are of more surprising meetings (Coincidences? Fated encounters?)

Two of mine have their roots in my stay in Vietnam, from 1956-1958. I was in my early teens, my father assigned as the economic officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  Ingrid, a few years younger than I, was one of my friends. Both of us were socially awkward, neither of us fully aware to what extent the stresses within our families contributed to that lack of ease. We – in modern parlance – hung out together. After Saigon, Ingrid was sent to a boarding school in Colorado and I moved with my parents moved to Paris. She visited once, briefly, during those three years I lived in France. Then we lost touch.

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Skip to four years later, my junior year in college, and a trip to New York City.

With my then boyfriend Ray, I was on a date that included a meal at the Russian Tea Room. We walked into the dining area, and saw before us a large family group seated at a round table. Ray started forward to greet one couple and their daughter Pamela, a former girlfriend from his high school days. I started forward to the same table to greet Ingrid’s parents. Ray and I looked at each other. “You know these people?” he quizzed me.

“Yes,” I replied. “Those are the Blaufarbs, parents of my friend Ingrid.”

“Pamela’s aunt and uncle. I’ve been told about them.”

I didn’t share with Ray how immediately I felt transported back to the tropic heat and teenage anxieties of Saigon, where I’d heard too much detail about Ingrid’s socially popular cousin Pamela!

*******

My second Vietnam-based story begins at its end, tying Saigon to Sapello. One of the people working in the office of my vet is a tall, energetic woman a few years older than I, named Susan. She is the sister-in-law of Louie, who trained my younger mare, and with whom I became friends when I first moved to Sapello in 1990. At some point in my on-going  conversations with Louie, it came out that his sister had “run off with a Frenchman” when she was in her late teens, and that the siblings had only reconnected many years later, when they both settled back near their mother. in the Sapello area.

Louie told me that Susan had gone to work for “our” vet when he set up practice about three miles from my home. On my next trip in with an animal in need of care, I met Susan. Remembering what Louie had told me, I mentioned that Susan and I had a connection of both knowing French. The next few sentences revealed that we both learned our French, not in Paris, but in Saigon. We had both spent leisure time at the Cercle Sportif, the “club” where we swam, played tennis, and in my case took classes, and performed the French Can Can at one of their “spectacles” – shows put on for the enjoyment of the members.

Contemplating a Plunge

Contemplating a Plunge

Susan’s time in Saigon preceded mine – she left in the spring before the October that brought me to Vietnam, just in time for my 13th birthday. Susan’s Frenchman, whom she married at seventeen but divorced just a few years later, was the older brother of Marie Claire, with whom I became friends in the dance class, and with whom I performed that Can Can.

******

Ingrid now divides her time between New York and Maine; her son went briefly to Swarthmore, where Ray and I attended college. Looking through a Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin sent to her son, Ingrid found an essay I’d written. Through the college, she obtained the information to once again contact me, some forty years after our last encounter in Paris. I’ve since traveled to the East Coast. We met for an afternoon. Ray recently traveled west, and we also met after a parallel forty year gap, as I recounted in a post this past summer.

Meanwhile, Susan is retiring from the vet’s office for a combination of reasons, including the fact that the vet is introducing a complex new computer system to the practice. Susan “does not get along well with computers” and decided the stress of trying to do so would be an unacceptable strain on her health. I’m feeling vivid kinship with her now, as I try to understand the complexities of the several computer systems I must master in my new job. I don’t share Susan’s aversion to computers, indeed feel fairly comfortable with them – or thought I did – until I encountered the multiple encrypted layers of security that must be understood to navigate around a health provider’s regulation-compliant system. Thank heavens, Presbyterian’s tech support is a seven-days-per-week operation!!!

I expect I’ll still see Susan occasionally, as we live quite near one another and have overlapping interests. I’m in intermittent contact with Ingrid, and with Ray, by email. If the occasion arises for me to introduce them to Susan, will that somehow close a loop that stretches over fifty-five years and around half the world? Linkages through the Internet, which enable me to “chat” simultaneously with a friend in Singapore and one in Norway, have already made the world much smaller, but enjoyable as they are, those conversations don’t have the same feeling of “oh my, how amazing” that accompanied my encounter with the Blaufarbs in New York, or with Susan at the vet.

Is it just me, or is it something to do with the life experiences of my age group, that makes the face-to-face connection of a small world encounter more precious than even the most globe-encompassing Internet link?

What Are The Odds

May 30, 2013

Recently, I received two phone calls within 5 minutes of one another, both from women with whom I had interacted (one closely over several years, the other only briefly) more than 30 years ago – and with whom I had not had contact since! Further, my connection to each of them involves the criminal (in)justice system with which we have all three been involved in some fashion. I taught college level psychology courses in the New Mexico Penitentiary beginning in 1978. One friend was active with me in a major prison reform project arising from the 1980 riot there. The other – acquaintance rather than friend – went on to do research in criminal justice after we had interacted, and wanted now to talk to me about that continuing interest of hers.
What are the odds?

What are the odds that I would date, in college, a guy whose high school girlfriend was the first cousin of one of my schoolmates from junior high? And what are those odds given that the high school was located in White Plains NY, the junior high in Saigon, Vietnam and the college at Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania. Out on a date in New York City, we walked into the Russian Tea Room and encountered my friend’s parents and his girlfriend’s parents having dinner together.
What are the odds?

For that matter, what are the odds that I would receive a call, more than forty years later, from that junior high friend, as a result of her reading an essay I published in the Swarthmore College Alumni Bulletin? Her son had briefly attended Swarthmore before his death. Clearing out his papers, she found the magazine, and my article, and tracked me down through the College alumni office.

Skeptics may try to answer the question of odds with numbers, while reciting the logical statement that co-occurrence says nothing about causality. In other words, the fact that two or more events occur simultaneously, or in close proximity to one another, means nothing whatsoever about their causal relationship. The events may in fact have a common cause, but they may equally well have no connection of any sort to one another. These skeptics (they may think of themselves, rather, as logical or pragmatic) can be heard to pronounce that it is a fallacy of humanity, to ‘need’ to find meaning in random events.

What are the odds, and do they matter? Perhaps only to those fascinated by coincidences, who have not yet taken a position with regard to the importance and role of causality – or serendipity – in our lives. A good friend of mine reminded me, when I mentioned my ‘what are the odds’ question, that I was expressing a cultural bias. Many cultures – the Navajo for example – do not believe in serendipity, or coincidence, but rather believe all events are linked. The purpose of life is to understand those links and find one’s place within them, and thus to be in balance and harmony – to walk in beauty.

Other traditions also teach that the goal of life is to learn to exist in a space of harmonious balance, often expressed as learning to “Be”. Buddhists practice stilling the mind in order to achieve a state of immediate, present, awareness. Quakers seek ‘the Light Within’ to guide them in manifesting the divine in daily life. The Catholic priest Richard Rohr (founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation) encourages us to live from the center instead of from the edges (the edges being where we define ourselves by ego, by the groups we belong to, or the codes we think everyone should adhere to). The ancient Light and Sound teachings (the poet Rumi was an interpreter of this age-old wisdom, MasterPath is a current expression of them) – these teachings guide followers toward direct awareness of Soul, and the ability to Know, Be and See as a manifestation of the Divine.

To resolve apparent either-or tensions, my teacher in MasterPath speaks of the value of finding “what the opposites have in common.” Thus, a middle road between the skeptics and those who see a connection among all events might be found by asking another question on the order of, “Is this seeming coincidence calling my attention to something I should attend to?”

What the two callers reaching out to me had in common, other than a 30 year gap in our interactions, was a connection to the field of corrections. I have taught college courses in prison, been an activist for prison reform, and I currently offer Alternatives to Violence Project workshops in the New Mexico prison system. Should I be looking at that aspect of myself?

Or does the benefit to me of noticing the conjunction of these two calls lie in a consideration of who I was 30 years ago, in contrast to who I have become since? A third possibility is that the value of reflecting on the calls lies outside myself, in my consideration of the science and logic of coincidence versus the range of belief systems which see systematic connection and order between events.

What are the odds that I’ll discover the ‘real reason’ for this apparent coincidence? Is there such a reason? Does it matter? Probably only if I choose to make it matter. And therein lies the kernel, the import of all the questions – the fact that I can choose how I interpret the events in my life. We each can make such choices, though sometimes it feels like the choice is made for us. Coincidence or meaningful plan, noticed or ignored, how our lives unfold and what we make of our experiences is ultimately a matter of choice. Knowing I am responsible for my circumstances, I can more easily “be”, in harmony with them. I like those odds!


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