If This Were Enough

canstockphoto1628056The yard was muddy, but the sun was out and the call of the garden undeniable. I’ve been turning our front yard into a perennial garden over the last 10 years. If a garden could have attention deficit disorder, it would look like mine. Nothing is planted by height or color or for an eye-catching display as people drive by.

There’s probably 50 different kinds of plants and flowers – things that caught my eye at a nursery or roadside stand or even better, plants that people have offered up from their own gardens. I have a high disregard for manicured lawns, because the cost of maintaining a monotone field is too high. Too much water, too many chemicals, and not enough joy. I rarely see people playing or sitting on their beautiful lawns.

canstockphoto15362073On my haunches and muddied knees, I dug around beds, cleaned out weeds. The sun was warm, but a chill spring breeze interrupted occasionally. I paused at moments to let bees pass by or notice the first of the season’s butterflies. I found cicada husks from last August and a rabbit’s burrow from where the first batch of bunnies emerged this spring (they’re now teenagers in the backyard grazing on everything).

I’ve been writing a lot of serious stuff lately, caught up in the news and politics and issues of the day. It occurred to me that it’d been a long time since I’d felt the kind of joy I feel while in the garden. I pondered why being there made joy possible. It was certainly not the end result, my potpourri of mismatched and misshapen plants. Even when my garden is in full bloom, I have the critic’s eye.

It occurred to me that when I’m in the garden, I’m not worrying about what needs to be done, what was said, what will happen. I just work. I thought “What if this was all I had to worry about? What if gardening is the only thing that I really had to do?” Now, anyone familiar with Buddhism or meditation could call this for what it is: being present.

Gardening isn’t something I just do. It is something I am part of – I am a caretaker of life that has little regard for me. I am honored to be in the presence of bugs and plants and birds and animals. I feel, sometimes, that they allow me to be there, this oafish, destructive human. And it brings with it a sense of freedom – this sense that at this moment in time, everything is enough.

canstockphoto18968974I am a grasping sort of person. I always want more – more knowledge, more books and music, more muscles, more economic freedom and better running shoes. Part of it comes from growing up poor and feeling like I was in a perpetual state of want and envy. Part of it is that we live in a society built on the very concept that success is only precipitated by want. Our economy teeters restlessly on the backs of our desires. Our politics would be earnest and lackluster without the want of power.

But always wanting is exhausting and demoralizing. It means that we are never satisfied and never feel we have enough. And the more denigrating message is that we, as humans, are not enough. I played around with this idea in my head. Not everyone is delighted by or has access to a garden. How can this idea apply for others and in different circumstances?

I thought about how to repeat that feeling, that sense of freedom throughout my day. What else relieves me of the burden of want and anxiety? If I’m deep into writing, I feel it, but it means wading through perfectionism and troubled expectations of myself. It’s a lot of work to get there. Where do I find the joy like I find in the garden? And I end up, once again, with more want. I could certainly do with less irony.

Where do you find your joy?

What keeps you in the moment?

When does it feel like this is enough, I need nothing more?

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Searching for Moral Imagination

canstockphoto9973547.jpgI spent part of Earth Day last Friday at a lecture given by Terry Tempest Williams. She was not a natural speaker and began by saying that she was nervous. At first, I felt a little impatient, trying to understand her flow and taking notes of various names she mentioned. She continued to speak haltingly, but something else happened. I was moved by her sincerity and her passion for our wild spaces.

I’ve always been environmentally aware, doing the simple things like not treating our yard with chemicals, growing produce organically, recycling. We gave up two cars and now drive a hybrid. We inconsistently try to be better humans. Her lecture really shook me up, though. What we miss in all this picayune environmentalism, is the bigger picture. We are distracted by the minutiae when all around us, companies (complicit with our consumerism and population growth) are polluting the air and water and destroying the land, acre by acre.

canstockphoto17612177.jpgMs. Williams talked about fueling moral imagination. I’ve been thinking about those words over the last few days. I’ve always believed in human ingenuity, growing up in a time of vaccines, exploding technology and a media that churns out daily new stories about this invention or that. It seems like we could really solve some of these problems.

Being change, rather than just wanting it, is overwhelming these days. I am not a mover and shaker. I am an unpublished writer, having crept my way from poverty into the middle class. The sense of not belonging, of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, has me holding my breath constantly. The problem with holding one’s breath, biding one’s time, expecting the worst, while hoping for the best, is that it becomes about place holding, feeling victory in the status quo.

canstockphoto20070383With news of the world and politics always at boiling temperature these days, one feels lucky just to have a job and health insurance and to not fall into a random sinkhole while walking down the street. You feel lucky if you get through the day not getting shot or being diagnosed with a fatal disease. Holding your breath and sighing as you sink into bed at night.

What I heard when Terry Tempest Williams spoke, was this: I am afraid, but there are bigger things than fear.

Some people seem like seers. They take the long view early on in their lives and they stick to the path. I have never found that path. I am a product of unrealized opportunities and ideas. I am a product of the information age – never sure that I have enough information to make informed commitments to causes. We watch heroes fall and causes become corrupt with self-importance. What is there to believe in, that won’t be wrong tomorrow?

canstockphoto5925912Whenever I go through checkout lines, I like to think about aliens perusing our magazines. Maybe they have. Maybe it was this that keeps them hidden. We are apparently a species intent on making money, high fat foods and having indiscriminate sex, but only for the six-packed and large-breasted among us. Our royalty is comprised of pimply 17-year-olds who sing falsetto and Amazon women with eyelashes which weigh slightly less than their entire body.

Yes, I’m the old broad out on her front lawn shaking her fist at popular culture and the dearth of ethics it espouses. We are saturated with inanities and Tweets and consumerism. I’m not immune, nor an innocent in all this. I am a privileged bystander, able to stand a little apart. Enough distance to mock and criticize and get up on my soapbox and my high horse, but close enough to enjoy the spectacle.

Ms. Williams did not entertain me with polished words and slick salesmanship. She cut through it all and gouged into my self-satisfaction. I lack courage of conviction and moral imagination and the right to feel smug about anything at all. I’ve felt the weight of that this week – the sense that my life is so small and that I’ve wasted much of it just trying to stay afloat.

Perhaps there’s a certain recklessness of youth that comes around again in middle age. A second chance to be passionate and outspoken. An opportunity to decide what matters to you and pursue it with abandon. Like novels, our lives have emerging themes – the things that we think are important, show up again and again.

canstockphoto9307772.jpgShe spoke of her friend and fellow conservationist, Doug Peacock. When the battle was being lost to have the wolverine listed as endangered by the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, he said “You lose nothing by loving”. To me, this is such a simple, but profound statement. You lose nothing by loving.

I think about the shadow of perfectionism that follows me. I tend to embark on sure things. As a writer, this has been crippling. As a human, this has stunted my full potential. Any human who is successful, truly realized, is someone who has failed repeatedly. They believe that they have nothing to lose in loving, whether it be the land or animals or their art or other humans.

canstockphoto5614534.jpgThere should be a happy ending here, like I’ve decided to abandon my suburban life to live in the wilderness or camp on the steps of Congress; that I’ve somehow realized what it is that calls to me. Instead, I sit here uneasily, feeling a subtle shift in my perspective that will either help me find what fuels me, what fuels my imagination or it will leave me in the desolate land between watching and acting.

Environmental and Conservation Writing:

At the end of her lecture, Ms. Williams stood stock still at the podium while Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played over the speakers. If you’re a Vivaldi purist, this might not be your cup of tea, but I enjoyed it:

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Small Talk and Slightly Bigger Ideas

canstockphoto3538551.jpgSpring is a dangerous time for writing in my world. It’s the time I’m most likely to quit blogging. It’s the time when every new novel idea looks better than the one I’m working on. It’s the time when dust collects in the study.

It was a tepid winter this year in Minnesota. I might need to move further north at this rate. Ride a melting glacier, run a homeless polar bear shelter. I’d like to see some studies on the impact of hot flashes on climate change. All I know is that wherever I am, it’s too damned hot.

*****

It was two weeks ago last when I was inspired about my writing. It got kicked off by an extended family get-together.

So, are you working now? Oh, still writing? How’s that going? What’s it about?

I have a script I now use for these occasions. Little jokes. Self-deprecating nonsense that flies out of my mouth automatically. Well, my book is about my husband wanting to retire eventually, so I’d better sell something. Har, har, har.

My spirits sunk a bit. I’d had this same conversation for years.

canstockphoto0970790.jpgThe following day, I pulled out all my notecards, the rough first/second/third draft and I starting writing page after page of notes. I reviewed old notes. I rewrote the first chapter and last chapters for the sixth time. I scrawled deliriously across blank paper. Lines connecting words, concepts, timelines. It was heady. It felt productive, but I was suspicious. I’m the queen of busywork when it comes to writing.

Then I started to see motifs and themes and realized that there was a reason I was writing this particular story over and over again. A flash of understanding, a moment when the entire novel coalesced inside my head. It’s these damned moments that keep bringing me back. Progress? I don’t know. Just when I think it’s time to move on, I get hooked again.

*****

Summer vacations have already been planned and scrapped and planned again. A family road trip through southern states was vetoed by moi. The heat was a determinant, but throw in bugs that don’t get controlled by an annual killing frost and a little regressive anti-LGBT legislation and it got crossed off the list.

A friend said “Why do you care about the legislation? It doesn’t affect you.” That’s what these times do to us – they surprise us with bigotry in our familiars. People who have never seemed particularly unkind take on a malevolent glint and you step back a bit.

canstockphoto14554749My first impulse is a rage that I have to rein in. Then I go to reason, which usually involves these questions “How are these laws going to be enforced? Are they going to be doing crotch checks?” My rage is not reined in well enough.

I’ve written several draft posts about the laws in Missouri and North Carolina (and southern states are not on the hook for this – many states are taking a trip in the way back time machine), but they always end in spluttering anger.

And if you’re not in fear of your life in public restrooms before these laws, you should have been- it’s a public restroom. They’ve never been high security against people intent on nefarious actions or drunk couples who can’t wait until closing. Do your business and get the hell out. Stop worrying about other people’s genitals. I’d back a law for mandatory soap and water hand washing before exiting, though. Seriously, that’s just gross.

*****

canstockphoto17007161.jpgMy daughter wanted a musical weekend for her birthday present. We were fortunate to catch a Jeremy Messersmith performance on Friday and then on Saturday, the Minnesota Orchestra. I’d never seen a professional full orchestra before, except on TV. We went whole hog and bought box balcony seats, another first. We are the plebes, the unwashed masses (well, we did shower) and usually sit in the cheaper seats.

It was a lovely experience not being shoved ass to elbows for a performance. My daughter is a viola player and we were able to see Roberto Diaz play the Viola Concerto composed by Jennifer Higdon. The piece had been commissioned by the Library of Congress not for an event, but for an instrument – a Stradivarius viola. I felt pretty posh about it all, but seeing my daughter’s wide eyes and having her say “this is awesome” a hundred times made it worth it.

*****

A melancholy settled over me these last few weeks. It surprised me. Spring seems a time when the world blooms with possibility. I was moody and my need for quiet became its own sort of clamoring. I walked through the woods a lot last week and listened to the birds. I saw a group of wild turkeys – the males in full regalia strutting their stuff. A fat muskrat puttered its way along the water’s edge. Bluebirds and woodpeckers and ducks, all plotting and courting.

canstockphoto4786661.jpgI saw a man with a large camera on the path coming towards me. My body tensed. I smiled a tight smile and he smiled back. I immediately thought thank you. It was the fear that I’d have to talk, when I was in a place both physically and mentally that needed no words. Maybe that’s where he was too.

Sometimes it’s good to hear life firsthand.

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Getting Married for Less Than 30 Altarian Dollars a Day

Happy April Fool’s Day, alternately known as my wedding anniversary. It’s the 16th one, commemorated by toilet paper or broken china or something like that. My beloved lies snoring in the other room, occasionally irritated by the racket that I make in the kitchen every morning around 5am. One must have one’s tea.

canstockphoto16775729I stopped reading women’s magazines when I was about 22. All the quizzes suggested that I’d better be ready to settle down with low maintenance pets and a penchant for crochet projects that never quite get finished. What I knew about marriage or children could fit on the back of a sugar packet. What I knew about myself was that I wasn’t very good at crocheting.

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.”
Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless

canstockphoto33412127In 1998, I moved up to Minneapolis, leaving behind a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship. Impatient to get on with things, I placed an ad online, in the quaint days of free Yahoo personals, in order to get back into dating. 27 responses later (26 of which I think were written from a prison library computer), I met him. We exchanged emails and phone calls for a couple of weeks and then, after I ran a background check, drove by his street address and emailed all his relevant information to a friend (Subject: If I am dead, THIS guy did it), we went on a date.

“There are some people you like immediately, some whom you think you might learn to like in the fullness of time, and some that you simply want to push away from you with a sharp stick.”
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Two years later, we got married. I was 32. He was 35. It was the beginning of a long line of compromise and arguments over house projects and why I didn’t want to spend yet another holiday with his family. I kept my name. He got a wedding. I wanted to get married in a park with a justice of the peace and ten people, to whom neither of us was related. We ended up getting married in a Lutheran church with a gillion people I didn’t know, but who seemed to like him very much.

As a requirement of the church, we had to meet with the pastor a couple of times for “the talk” before the date. Not that talk. She asked us a lot of questions about our canstockphoto35602496families and on a big whiteboard, drew our family trees side by side. On my side, divorce, suicide, alcoholism, more divorce, death by misadventure (usually while drunk) and another divorce or two for good measure. On his side, married for 50+ years, or until one of them dropped dead. For generations. The pastor smiled wryly. This might be something you want to think about as you prepare to make a commitment.

“You know what a learning experience is? A learning experience is one of those things that says, “You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.”
Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

While my husband-to-be took it in stride, I thought we’re totally screwed. If anybody is going to mess this whole thing up, it will be me. Planning the wedding could have been the ending point. I didn’t want to wear white or spend time or money shopping for all things bridal. I didn’t even like church. Or groups of people in general.

Anything traditional gave me the heebie-jeebies. But he was rather happy about getting married, so I tried my best to do the bride thing, which included breaking out in hives the night before our wedding. I look back on our pictures and all I see is him smiling, surrounded by the people he loved most and I’m so grateful that I didn’t behave like a complete shit.

“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

One early morning, four years later, I calmly announced to him that I was pregnant. I get spookily calm when I’m losing my mind and panicking. Too many years of singlehood caused my brain to turn in on itself. Pregnant?! Oh wait, this is a good thing. It is, right? His silence gave me pause. Then I realized he was still asleep.

“Don’t Panic.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In the early hours of a chilly April morning, after hours of her mother swearing while sitting on a yoga ball, our girl came into this world dramatically. So I hear. I was completely stoned after having a complicated and unexpectedly scary delivery. My husband was traumatized, as he was not stoned and had to be a witness to it all.

We were ready for her. I say that, because after years of working out our differences, clearing out the extraneous furniture (older meant two households) and learning that sleep was often preferable to cuddling, we’d settled down a bit. We were ready to learn more.

“Don’t you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity, because it hasn’t developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don’t expect to see.”
Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

This kind of life is not for everyone, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. I’d like to believe that if I’d never met him, never had her, that I would have found my way to a loving circle of friends and a purpose that gave me joy. But now that I know and love them, now that they are a part of my soul, every April I celebrate like a happy fool.

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soulcanstockphoto16837343

Note: When I was a child, every Saturday I would listen to the BBC production of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” on the radio. A few weeks ago, my daughter asked if I’d read to her at bedtime like I did when she was younger. We’re reading the whole 5-part trilogy by Douglas Adams. Even if you’re not a science fiction fan, the wordplay and nonsensical joy of this series is a lovely escape.

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Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness

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For a brief respite between drab winter and frenzied garden preparations, my family and I headed up to the North Shore on Lake Superior. We visited the local high points: Split Rock Lighthouse, Glensheen Mansion, an aquarium, a maritime museum. It was relaxing and enjoyable when we were together. Alone, I found moments to do what I do best. I recognized my Otherness.

It’s hard not to feel apart and isolated these days. My disconnect from the political those who scramble to represent us, overpower us, quiet us, is becoming palpable. I am scared of many of my fellow voters. I don’t understand your placards or your mindless hooting. These politicians are not your friends. They want power. Stop throwing them parties.

Culturally, all the latest stars look like kids. The celebrities I grew up with are beginning to die, one by one. I have a low tolerance for television shows or commercials these days. It all seems like extraneous noise. Most nights on vacation, I’m down in the lobby reading while my family unwinds to reality TV involving children crying during junior chef competitions or grown men finding out what happens when they crush things.

Hidden behind a column, I sat in a comfortable chair looking out onto the lake. To the right and back of me, a group of young lawyers discussed witness prep for an upcoming trial. Gaiman lost me at that point and the words of my book blurred as I listened with fascination. Everything becomes material. Part of me feels a predatory thrill. To observe without being observed. I am voyeur.

canstockphoto2064089I wake up at 4am every morning, vacation or not. Sometimes I lie there, listening to the soft snuffling of my family. We paid for a view on the lake. I bundled up and sat on the balcony, listening to the waves crash on the shore. When the sun came up, I saw a large ship on the horizon. It was coming towards the aerial lift bridge. I dashed out of the room, down several flights of stairs and out onto the lake boardwalk, walking quickly towards the monolithic barge. It slid into the harbor and out of sight. And then I was alone, feeling slightly foolish.

Otherness came over me. It happens to me more and more frequently, as I get older and slip out of synch with the rushing, constantly updating world. I’m becoming invisible. My otherness is no longer quirky or weird or even interesting. It’s unseen.

canstockphoto0033418Sitting on a bench, I watched the ring-billed gulls doing their acrobatic swoops. A cold wind blew off the lake. Sporadic joggers passed by. I remembered other park benches and rocks and stone walls where my legs dangled. Listening to the bark of sea lions on Monterey Bay, drinking beer on a grassy hill at the Festung Marienberg, sitting on a Mediterranean beach as fishermen gathered up lines and nets, in a park next to a group of WWI German soldiers memorialized in stone, carrying a fallen comrade.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head, escaping less than edifying circumstances. I found secret places to be alone – in the back corner of a library, in a tree, on a rock by the lake. I became a watcher. Distance became necessary armor against assaults on hypersensitivity. It was a way to be safe. To heal quickly from the bruising nature of life.

Whether I was already a writer or laying fertile ground for becoming one, I think this is a thing that happens. While life is happening all around me, sentences are being formed, dulling the intensity of the moment. A story emerges. What ifs override what is. Curiosity drives an overwhelming need to chase barges, to see what happens next, to find oneself in the middle of a deserted boardwalk, feeling all at once foolish and delighted.

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Adult Education: A Neverending Curriculum

A wave of stale high school sweat wafted over me as I opened the door to the gym. Last week I started a community adult ed class for circuit weight training. I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years – everything from Chinese ink painting to yoga to first aid.

It’s always the same. There’s a group of people who have been taking the class together since the dawn of time, who smell new blood in the water. I end up on email lists,  preceded by an onslaught of handshaking introductions, and unsolicited advice. I take classes because most of them are local, relatively cheap, and I am likely to walk away with something I didn’t have before – a broadened perspective.

I believe in lifelong learning and not as a euphemism for what retired people do. It’s what we all do if we’re paying attention. Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new – about myself or others or the world around me.

*****

It’s been a week of talking people down from trees. This is when the concept of “sandwich generation” hits me like a ton of bricks.

canstockphoto21347802.jpgThe week became about moments. My daughter is now in that world of preteen entanglements – friendships fraught with shifting loyalties. As an adult, I want to laugh it off for all its impermanence, but I know that her present moment is intense and painful. There are tears and conversations and hugs. I try to remember what it was like to be that age. I am not confident in my ability to teach her, but I tap into all that I know to offer her ideas and options. Sometimes I just try to make her laugh. This morning she told me that she dreamed she was being made fun of by high schoolers and that I beat them up. I try to be measured and wise, but sometimes all she hears is that I care. Violently so, apparently.

My mother-in-law was moved to a better room at the nursing home, triggering a cascade of cognitive impairment, common with dementia. She still remembers to call. Pick me up. Take me home. I’m at the casino. The staff expressed concern. She keeps hovering over her roommate, worried that she’s not getting fed. She wants to make sure the baby is okay. There is no baby. We make big decorative signs that say it’s her room. My husband or I visit her twice a day to remind her where she’s at. A palpable sense of relief comes over her when she sees us. At that moment, we are her home.

*****

canstockphoto8525201It might have been the setting, but with 700 stringed instruments, a gym was the only place to have the concert. One of the music teachers exhorted audience members to create an orchestra hall environment by turning off the sound on their cell phones and asking them to pay attention to the performances.

It seems like common sense, but over the last year, I’ve heard Bach and Mozart accompanied by ringtones and followed by hooting, whistling and hollering as if we’d just witnessed a professional wrestling match.

If I’m a snob, I come by it honestly. Growing up poor meant that live performances of music, theater or comedy were a treat. When money is tight, seeing the Cleveland String Quartet is a special occasion. Tickets to many events are expensive. We dressed up, used our best manners and treated the performers with awe.

There is something to the idea of making music accessible to a wider audience by not having etiquette expectations. Which is fine, until you slosh your drink down my back and do a shrill whistle in my ear to let your friends know where you are sitting. Or I can’t see the stage because of all the cell phone ambient lighting and cameras flashing around me. It’s an I hate people moment that I wrestle with every time I go to live performances these days.

My daughter said “Mom, sometimes I feel like crying when I hear live music.” Music does the same thing to me. The start of a symphony or a choir or an acoustic band sends chills up my spine. The ability of human beings to create such beauty, to cooperate and harmonize – this is an amazing thing.

Besides the love of my family and the natural world, the rhapsody of live music is the closest thing to faith that I experience. Hence the conflict between a roller derby audience and what I feel. But gratitude comes in all forms and I have to remind myself of that, next time someone yells woo-hoo! in my ear.

*****

This morning I struggled to write a letter. For several years, I’ve sponsored a girl in Ethiopia who is my daughter’s age through Save the Children. I know there are people who do more than I’ve managed, but I’ve told myself that at least I’m doing something. Perhaps too easy and too convenient, but something.

Ethiopia is now going through a terrible drought. The child I sponsor lists “fetching water” as a typical daily activity. I look at her picture. Her eyes are big, but her body thin. Her shirt has a tear in it. She does not smile. She wants to be a teacher.canstockphoto11235653

I fetch another cup of coffee. I’m thinking about taking a shower. I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Each moment, water taken for granted. What do you say to someone who cannot take water for granted? What do I say to a child in Ethiopia or in Flint, Michigan for that matter? My discomfort in writing a simple letter is nothing.

*****

canstockphoto8176108As I walked tonight, the crows swooped and raucously cackled as I crossed the park. The wind was cold and sharp on my face. The world expanded around me and I exhaled.

Sometimes the weight of my insecurities and fears presses down on me. I hear the voices that tell me that I’m a failure, that what I do matters little, that I’ll never be good enough.

Those thoughts are always there, flapping at the edges of my brain, trying to get my attention. A good week is when I feel strong and intentional and do nothing more than wave them off. This week, I invited them around a campfire. The s’mores of self-loathing were cooking away.

Like the crows, though, I know those thoughts are never going to stay. They can make all the noise in the world and that’s all it is, just noise to distract us from our true intentions. Sort of like politics these days.canstockphoto1392244

Spring couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Wishing you a sense of renewal and happy intentions this week!

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Inside Out: Coming to America

canstockphoto12339761Yesterday was a perfect day in my neighborhood. The sun was out. Pasty white Minnesotans emerged from their Netflix caves after months of winter. Immediately some started their leaf blowers (which I posit is the worst invention ever). I went to the park with my daughter and one of her besties. They played basketball, as I sat at a picnic table and read.

I love my neighborhood more frequently than I hate it. It was built in the late 1950s, tracts of little nondescript ranch houses. We add shutters and paint different colors but in the low light of a late sunset and a few beers under our belts, we’d be easily confused. It’s a working class neighborhood near schools and apartment buildings and a grocery store. We can walk 15 minutes to anywhere we need to go.

I’ve been here about 16 years and have watched the young couples move in and out as their families expanded. The retirees move a little slower. Some have gone to nursing homes. The demographics have changed from the homogeneity of Germanic and Scandinavian residents to a more diverse neighborhood with families of color.

canstockphoto9412008(1)When I hear all the angry conversation about immigrants, I don’t understand it. I love being in a metro area for the richness of its diversity. My daughter’s friend is from Kenya. This is a family that completely transplanted itself into a bizarre culture, with its Minnesota niceness and subtle and not-so-subtle bigotries. With its climate so opposite from theirs. With its language so difficult and complex to learn. That they chose to uproot their lives and come here is amazing.

At the park, a Hispanic mother followed her toddler son as he rambled happily across the lawn, while his father chatted with neighbors. The little boy unsteadily walked over to the picnic table where I sat and stared with big, beautiful dark eyes. His mother smiled shyly at me as I rolled a basketball to him. He laughed with delight and was off, carrying a ball twice the size of his head.

I don’t think she spoke English and I’m not yet confident enough with Spanish. Smiles did our communicating. I think about their lives here and why they gravitate to communities that reflect their own cultures and experiences. It must seem overwhelming and isolating at times. My fellow Americans curse and spit about why “they” don’t do this or that, when many Americans are barely literate and do nothing to pursue self-improvement.

There is something about the immigrants whom I have met in my life. The inherent optimism of moving someplace foreign – a belief that a better life is possible and that they have some say in that. From the antics of some Americans, it is quite apparent that they have no such belief. They believe in a savior with a comb-over, that a boastful ingrate will lift them out of their shitty lives and save the country.

It’s amazing that anyone believes a politician will improve their lives. Politicians do very little that isn’t badgered out of them by polls or bought and paid for by donors or brought on by bad publicity thanks to activists. Individual choices and protests still impact our country, are still part of the algorithm of the elusive and mythological American Dream. There’s no point in waiting for a mouthpiece to do the work for you.

canstockphoto5109847Now, I’m a bleeding heart liberal, there’s no doubt about that. But I also served my country, worked my ass off, came out of poverty into a middle class existence. I believe in the power of hard work and education and ethical living. My street cred as a hardworking American has been established by every hard knock, graveyard shift and paid tax.

As a resident of planet earth, though, I believe in compassion and kindness and seeking to understand. My experience in this country, as a first generation American, was helped by the color of my skin and my language skills and happenstance of birth. While I’ve experienced sexism in the military and various workplaces, I’ve always assumed the individual was some sort of stupid I couldn’t fix and got on with things.

Last week, I attended a lecture by presidential biographer, Jon Meacham. It was an interesting, if not somewhat sanitized, conversation about the impact of some presidents on the country. What I was struck by, though, is that Jon Meacham is two years younger than I. He’s an executive editor at Random House. He has numerous biographies, including one that won a Pulitzer Prize. I felt momentary envy. Huh, so that’s what a successful career track looks like.

canstockphoto18730397Still, it made me think about how much control I actually do have over my own life. I made very specific choices, some of them good, some of them terrible, that got me here today. Despite the times when I struggled, when I had no health insurance, when I turned in pop cans for grocery money, I never assumed that the state of things was anyone’s fault or responsibility other than my own. Sure, there’s all kinds of systemic flaws that can really mess up a linear rise in circumstances, but for most white Americans, it’s on us. Yet we still seek to blame.

The minute I rise in defense or even in curiosity of immigrants’ lives, some dipstick will share anecdotal evidence of people gaming the system or laziness or criminality. I can double down with stories of Americans I’ve met who game the system, are lazy or are criminals. Hell, I’m related to some of them.

canstockphoto32473828At this point in my life, I do have a tendency to romanticize lives of people outside my purview. I recognize this and remind myself that people from other countries likely have the same percentage of shitheads that we do in the U.S. But these days, some of our citizens seem the more immediate danger.

 

Resources about the immigrant and refugee experience in the US:

Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

10 Essential Films about the Immigrant Experience

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: Syrian Refugees Part 1

US Refugee Admissions Program (Subtitled: It ain’t easy)

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