The Light at the End of the Hall

earth from the moonAs it happens, the world did not stop while Tom and I went from being in the jaws of the shark, to being spat out, to swimming to shore.

So much going on in the world:

The struggle between those who seek to start another war to enforce their belief in American exceptionalism, and those who seek to use America’s strength to lead a global community.

The struggle between those who want to declare religious dogma is a person and thus should be granted civil rights equal to an actual person, and those harmed by—and those who think no one should be harmed by—another’s religious beliefs.

Again, an unarmed black man has been shot dead by a policeman who claimed he feared for his life as the fleeing man ran away from him. Shot in the back multiple times.

Oh, and Mad Men returned.

Mad Men is always a great reminder of where we have come from, telling the story of the cultural changes that catapulted America out of World War II and the Fifties, and into the a world that stretched boundaries. The first episode begins in 1970, when the counter-culture got assimilated into the status-quo culture. Businessmen wearing shaggy hair, sideburns, and mustaches. Women venturing into the business world, where, of course, their power and standing were trivialized and diminished by frat-boy-men who humiliated with them with snide, stupid innuendo and sarcasm.

I thought we were past all that.

And, then, Indiana passed a law that allowed businesses to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. Fortunately, it created a backlash, led by the market place. Indiana relented and included a statement that it was illegal for a business to deny services to an individual based on his or her sexual preference.

Well, hallelujah, I say.

There was the debate that tried to defend religious beliefs. God tells some people that those who are wired to love someone of the same sex are an abomination to him. And, they have a right to hold that belief.

Well, yes, they have a right to believe that. But my god tells me something very different. First she’s a she and doesn’t cares who you love and commit to. The point is to be kind and loving.

There is great harm done when the culture, the society, and the government supports a group’s right to shape the world in its own image. Look no further than gay teen suicide as an example.

Imagine how bleak it must seem to believe you are unworthy of love in the eyes of god—not because of having done harm to anyone, but because of what you inherently are. Imagine believing that you can never have a home and family and life partner unless you are willing to live a lie. Imagine what it must feel like to the spouse who lives with that lie.

It’s tough enough when one’s family enforces such a limited world. When a government reinforces it, there is no escape.

Believe what you want, but you do not have the right to mold the world to reinforce it, especially if it inflicts harm on others.

If we are to live in a country that does not establish a religion, then we all need to live with the ambiguity that comes when we make room for all religious beliefs or none at all.

In The Power of Myth series, Bill Moyers asks Joseph Campbell if humans create myths based on their environment. He said yes. He gave the example of what it was like when a Pygmy, who lived in a rainforest, was taken to a mountaintop. The vastness of the landscape overwhelmed him. He wanted to retreat into the rainforest where he felt safe.

Those of us who live in the “modern” world are much like that Pygmy. Only we are exposed daily to the vastness of the world—a world that includes rainforests, deserts, mountains, valleys, oceans, glaciers—and we don’t have that rainforest to retreat to.

What we have is our planet. Our home. And we need to feel safe here, the way the Pygmy felt safe in the familiarity of the rainforest.

As Joseph Campbell said, we need to write new myths. Science and the information about the world it gives us provide us great tools for doing just that—for finding the divine in the mundane.

But, to do that, we cannot pander to or give credence to solipsistic dogma, anymore than a family can be functional if it sacrifices the needs of its members to the needs of its least functional member.

Mad Men is great storytelling. The characters are catapulted into a world that is vaster than the one they were raised in. It makes visible the devastating effects of racism, sexism, and homophobia through the eyes of the characters who experience them.

We’re not past all that. But, I believe we are on our way.

The governor of Arkansas saw the reaction to Indiana’s attempt to codify homophobia, and refused to sign a similar bill.

The policeman who shot the black guy is being charged with murder.

We have a president who understands the nuances and subtleties of strength. I like to think that it’s because his mother lived in, experienced, and exposed him to cultures beyond her Midwest beginnings. It seems to me that rather than freaking out about the ambiguous nature of reality, he embraces it.

I believe we are spirits learning to be human. Compassion rises out of our experience of being human. The origin of the word compassion comes from “to bear” and “suffering.” To bear suffering.

I think that means a willingness to see and experience another’s pain, rather than avert our eyes from it, convincing ourselves that it has nothing to do with us—it’s not something that could ever happen to us.

In “Conversations With My Son,” Sue Miller says that there was a light at the end of the hall where she grew up. Safe passage. So there was a light at the end of the hall in the home where she raised her son as a single mother.

If we want safe passage in our home, our planet, we need to have that light at the end of the hall. I think that will come from writing the new myths Joseph Campbell referred to.

We’ve come along way and we have a long way to go. Let’s do it.

Shades of Black and White

earth from the moonA picture of an outhouse was posted on my Facebook this morning with the instruction to “Like” if I knew what it was and had used one. I not only knew what it was, I had used one when I was five when we visited my aunt’s farm in Iowa. The year was 1955. They still did not have indoor plumbing.

My father’s was the last generation where it was not unusual that you were raised on a farm. I suspect I am the last generation to have visited relatives who had no indoor plumbing. They weren’t poor. They were just rural.

I suspect I am the last generation who, as a child when asked “Do you want ice cream?” and responded “What kind?”, heard in return, “What kind? What kind? Why in my day, it was so unusual to have ice cream we never even thought of asking what kind.”

The astonished were my grandmother and my great uncles and aunts. My grandmother had nine siblings—born during a time that spanned the end of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth.

My maternal great grandfather was born two years after the end of the Civil War. He travelled by covered wagon, remembered hiding from Indians, took part in the third Oklahoma Land Run, and chased after the James boys and Cole Younger gang when he was a marshal in the Oklahoma Territory. His earliest memory was jumping between the railroad ties—his legs barely long enough to make the jump. He figured that memory went back to when he was four years old.

My great grandfather, who traveled by covered wagon, lived to see men land on the moon. His daughter (my grandmother) flew across the country in a passenger jet for the first time in 1959. His grandson, my uncle, worked on the Mercury space program.

My great grandfather was 104 the last time I heard his stories. He died in 1973 at the age of 106. My grandmother died in 1988 at the age of 99. My uncle, who was born just a few years after the Wright brothers showed we could fly, died at the age of 100 in 2010. He built and flew his own airplanes over the years.

I have the benefit of having heard personal stories that date back 147 years. That has given me a particular perspective on change, an intimate look into daily lives from an era that no longer exists. I remember the phrase, “I might as well do that as go to the moon.” I don’t hear that one anymore.

I believe that the decisions we make that affect the course of our lives, are largely informed by the size of the world we inhabit. My great grandfather’s and grandmother’s world had clearly drawn boundaries—that was their world. Telegrams brought in the outside world to my great-grandfather; radio and then television brought it into my grandmother’s.

But now, we have the Internet, email, twitter, and other various and assorted methods for bringing the world to our front door. A letter that once took weeks or months to arrive now takes seconds—from across the globe.

I have been thinking about this for the past two days after getting involved in a “discussion” on Facebook. I never seem to learn that one really can’t have a discussion on Facebook, but there you are.

The discussion was about whether or not the Baby Boomers (me, for example), are the scourge of the earth. This was presented as how Millennials see us. I thought this was hype until I got responses from my comment detailing why I didn’t think it was true. According to the responders, Baby Boomers are responsible for the demise of Unions, trickle-down theory, the failure of the economy, the election of Ronald Reagan, and the reason Republicans prevailed in this last election.

We (Boomers) may have done good things in our youth, but we grew up to start the Tea Party. We have left the Millenials with a world in a mess.

First, there is probably some comeuppance in all this. I remember my generation in its youth blaming the “greatest” generation for leaving us a mess. In some ways they did, but we also grew up in an era that supported affordable college, reasonable student loans, the hope for social justice, and belief that the Constitution supported the rights of the individual over states’ rights.

I got a great education in history, civics, science, math, humanities, literature, music, drama, and visual arts.

That kind of education I believe is the key to our future.

I could not convince my Millenial assailants that I believed in that, had fought for it my whole life, and continue to fight for it. They simply cast me as their enemy who had nothing of value to offer the world because of the time in which I was born and came of age.

This scares me. I wonder if they have an ice floe in mind for me. But then, ice floes are becoming fewer and farther between, turning the environment polar bears knew well into dangerous territory for them.

This last election really bothers me. It had the lowest turnout of voters since 1942. Republicans ginned up fear (Ebola! Isis!) to get their base to the polls and suppressed votes that might not be in their favor, while Democrats tucked tail and quivered. It was hardly a referendum. Only a fool could say that America has spoken and they want what we want. Nobody offered anything other than fear and retreat.

I don’t know whether those Millenials who want to send me to an ice floe voted. The generations succeeding mine seemed less and less interest in voting.

So I want to give my perspective on voting. I came of age when people died, in this country, for fighting for their right to vote. Others, who had the right to vote, died fighting for voting as an American right. Those fights expanded over the years so that we have a much more inclusive society now. Though that inclusiveness is tenuous.

There is much about the Millennial generation that I find exciting—they seem to want to forge their own way. But I’m concerned, because we live in a time of such rapid change, that they might not have a broad enough perspective.

We had to throw away an iPod that no longer works. Well, it’s six years old, after all, I told myself, then thought about it. In the movie The Red Violin, the violinmaker selected wood that has been aging for thirty years to make his masterpiece. I remember thinking that not only did he choose the wood that had aged thirty years, but that someone had thought to set it aside for aging, and he knew where it was.

My iPod was six years old and it made sense that it no longer worked or was relevant.

That’s a different perspective of time.

I wrote at one point to my assailants that I used to think things were black and white. And then I realized that not only is there a range of colors and shades of grey, there are also shades of black and white.

The best thing about the world we live in today is that within seconds we can see the varying shades of black and white, some we never knew existed.

But we have to rise above fear and facile answers to understand how to respond to the world we live in. It’s a world that is both bigger and smaller than the world inhabited by my great grandfather, grandmother, and uncle. It’s both bigger and smaller than the one I grew up in.

I hope that those who are trying to reinstate the status quo of fifty years ago fail. I hope the Millenials don’t hate me for being born at the end of the first half of the twentieth century.

I hope that I have gained wisdom over my years and that I can have some influence on the future.

I might as well do this as go to the moon. Well, we did. It started with our imagining we could. It’s the shades of black and white that stir our imaginations, that help us leap beyond our expectations.

Every generation leaves a mess as well as gifts. Let’s look back at the pictures of the earth taken from the moon and embrace the shades of black and white so we can clean up the mess while enjoying the gifts.