The Other End of My Rope

When I was in seminary, one of the theologians we studied was the very orthodox Calvinist Karl Barth.  Not being either very orthodox or Calvinist, I didn’t particularly like Karl Barth.  One day in a small group discussion, our teaching assistant asked me what I could say about Barth that was positive.  I thought for a moment, and finally I said, “He’s holding up the other end of my rope.”

As a female child metaphor, that rope might be a jump rope. As a male child metaphor, it’s a tug of war rope. Either way, there is a necessary tension in the rope in order to make the game work. Without someone who perceives the world differently than I do, I would not be forced to reconsider my position, to validate, substantiate, or revise after giving thoughtful attention to the other person, the one at the other end of the rope.  I did my best with the two most tension filled ropes in seminary, Karl Barth and Augustine.  I didn’t come around to their viewpoint but I did follow the maxim of my late friend and provost, David Maxwell, “There’s a difference between I hear, I understand, and I agree.’ That has become my mantra.  First to hear.  Then to try to understand, to figure out what this person is seeing or experiencing that I am not.  And only then can I say, I agree, or I disagree. And also lay down the rope in a shared search for common ground.

That dialog from opposite ends of the rope has become a lost art in contemporary America, despite the best efforts of the surviving (but endangered) moderates in both politics and religion. I am blessed with multiple communities—family, friends, church, and others—where I tend to encounter people who share my moderate/progressive worldview.  But we don’t learn and grow in an echo chamber.  Where and how do I encounter the people holding up the other end of my rope? And how can we engage in civil dialogue?

Last year, I talked to friends and acquaintances who are involved in a group called Better Angels. and attended two of their workshops. The name draws on the phrase popularized at the death of Abraham Lincoln, who was a martyr to the cause of finding common ground. They bring reds and blues together to help them find common ground in shared values that they express differently.  They examine stereotypes and search for the exaggeration or half-truths and the kernel of truth that may lie within the stereotypes such as Democrats are socialists who will take away our freedom, Republicans are heartless and greedy capitalists.  It’s hard to get people who are on the extreme in both parties to participate.  The groups they can assemble generally are moderate Republicans and Democrats who are anxious to explore ways to talk across boundaries, whether with family or friends or neighbors or co-workers.

That same year, I spent some time in Navajo nation. On the flight back, not long before the midterm elections, I sat next to a very nice man, a fellow South Carolinian.  Somehow our conversation turned to politics, and he was a Trump supporter, I was not.  But it didn’t seem to bother either of us as we talked about what we thought was good and bad about his presidency.  Then I turned the conversation to Navajo nation and how they tended to cluster in family compounds.  His face brightened, and he told me how his family had a similar situation with land in the Upstate that had been in the family for generations, with several homes built on it.  I told him about the family farms of my aunt, my grandfather, my uncle and my great-grandparents in the hills all within a couple of miles of each other on the hills surrounding my home town of Torrington Connecticut.  Attachment to the land and to the family was common ground for me, the Trump supporter, and the Navajo nation. Our common ground was literally ground, the spot on earth we call home and the people it connects us with.

The late Rushworth Kidder wrote a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices, in which he came up with a novel word, the tri-lemma.  A di-lemma means that we have two choices and neither is satisfactory. They embody competing values, justice or mercy, truth or loyalty, individual or community.  Is there a middle ground?  We can’t find it by just tugging a rope until one side pulls the other over to their side.  But the girl game of jump rope is very different from boys’ tug-of-war rope.  It takes the cooperation of those holding both ends of the jump rope to provide an opportunity for someone in the middle to experience the game.

I still like my end of the rope, but I am always in search of common ground with the person on the other end of the rope.  For Barth and Augustine, that other end of the rope is the reality of sin and evil that challenges my perhaps too sunny worldview, too much faith in the perfectibility of humanity and the good intentions of others.  Barth and I, Augustine and I need each other as complements, not as people shouting disagreement over a wall or tugging a rope in hopes of forcing the other person to come over to our side.

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Send This Adult to Camp!

When I travel, my dog Boudica goes to doggie camp.  It’s on a farm with a huge fenced area, horses, chickens, cats, a toddler, and a mistress of operations with a master’s degree in animal science.  Boudica is always excited to see where we have come to.  It’s her camp, where she can be outdoors as much as  she likes and be part of the pack.  Boudica is almost 13 years old, has arthritis, and have been treated for heartworms since late puppyhood, but she’s still game to play with the other dogs, bark at the horse, chase the cats.

Having camp for Bou means that I, too, can go to camp. In my younger days, working full time with three children led me and a friend to conjure up an imaginary camp just for us.  It was a convent, but not your standard variety–for one thing, we weren’t Catholic.  But we would sing hymns and observe the hours, at least matins and vespers and compline, and work in the garden and stomp on the grapes so there would be wine at dinner.  And most important, we wouldn’t be in charge. My friend even had a photo of a pastoral scene on her office wall that was, she explained, the view out of the convent window. We knew it didn’t exist, but it was a fantasy that helped us get through the dailiness of managing a household, working, and raising children.

Fast forward…one my husband and I reached the required age, we started attending Elderhostel (now Road Scholar programs), which offer travel in a fairly small  group of older adults, combining a variety of adventures with lifelong learning.  As two college professors, that model of travel/learning/retreat spoke to us, and still speaks to me.

About 15 years ago I discovered Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, where they teach adults a variety of crafts in sessions ranging from a weekend to a six day week.  I started going at least once a year.  We lived dorm style, no cell tower until recently, no TV, communal meals, morning song (a sort of secular matins), and lots of time in our studios perfecting our baskets or bowls or quilts  stained glass for the grand finale.  When my kids went to camp, they did crafts along with sports and games, but here crafts were the centerpiece and adults were the campers.  You can study everything from blacksmithing to woodworking. My late husband was a fan of folk school, learning about woodworking, photography, wood carving, and water color.  He and a son-in-law even spent a week building plywood canoes that actually floated. His personal dream of adult summer camp for himself, though, was a baseball camp for older adults.  He never got to go.

I still go to Campbell Folk School at least once a year, usually for a weekend, but for several years I have been longing to go to “nerd camp” for adults, better known as the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. A week of lectures, sermons, plays, concerts, and other adventures for the mind and spirit.  I had friends who went, but I didn’t want to go alone.  I also didn’t want to give up on it, remembering my disappointment that Carl’s developing Alzheimer’s disease ruled out baseball camp for him..  Last year I found a companion and we went, and made reservations for a week next year as soon as we got home. It was an amazing experience.

As the baby boomers have retired with money to spend, there has been and will continue to be more and more places like these that offer adult camp for body, mind, and/or spirit.  What is your fantasy of a respite from the dailiness of life that renews, refreshes, and inspires?  Betcha there is such a place out there for you, just waiting to be discovered.

 

 

 

 

 

Roots and Wings

 

It is a commonplace saying that your children need both roots and wings—roots to make them feel safe and give them a “starter” identity, wings to fly to new places and ways of being in the world. This past weekend I went to my 60th high school reunion in Torrington, Connecticut.  It was my first reunion ever.  In 1959, I spread my wings and fled Torrington into the richer soil of academia, first in Storrs at UConn, then in South Carolina as a Clemson professor.

Torrington is an old town full of dead factories and new housing developments.  My family on both sides has lived there for many generations.  I grew up in the church of my maternal ancestors, and I was married there. Aunts, uncles and cousins dotted the landscape. At the Congregational church we sang from the Pilgrim Hymnal and attended Pilgrim Fellowship in high school. We knew who we were, New England Yankees, frugal, often unimaginative, cautious.

It was a surprisingly pleasant reunion, warm welcome, old familiar faces, catching up on everyone’s past.  I was assured that I was so smart and they knew I would do great things—me, Alan, and Carol, the three nerds at the top of the class.  Later I visited UConn, the place where my wings first landed me,  with a college roommate.  Unlike Torrington, UConn had changed.  We sought out the few familiar landmarks-the skating pond, the Congregational church.  Our old dorm still bore the same name but had been updated, as did ”The Jungle”, a group of men’s dorms where my future husband was living in 1959.

My mother gave me roots, but she didn’t think wings were such a good idea. I could go to the local branch of UConn, she said.  No, I said, I’m going to the main campus.  You can be a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, she said.  I think I’ll be an engineer, I replied. (That was shortly after Sputnik.)  But it was being rooted in time and space among ancestors and hills, relatives and neighbors, that enabled me to sprout wings. They eventually flew me to marriage and an adult life in faraway South Carolina.

There I repotted myself and put down new roots, which in turn provided soil for my three daughters to have a home town, high school friends (they regularly attend reunions), second cousins and a grandmother who moved her ten years after I did.  Two of them still enjoy visiting their home town, while the oldest lives here. One daughter and two sons-in-law are Clemson grads. My oldest daughter moved away, saying she was too liberal to live in the South, but after adventures in Charlotte and Dallas she would up back in Clemson  working for Clemson as a graphic designer. Another daughter lives a few hours away in Aiken SC, while the third developed big wings that took her to many places before settling in New Jersey.

There are no Congregational churches in the area, so I became a Unitarian Universalist, which shares a history and a liberal approach to religion with my ancestral faith. I learned how to respectfully hold onto and affirm my liberal New England worldview while treating those of others with respect. I let my daughters choose their colleges (within some financial limits) and their majors—an economist and a physicist looking on in wonder as the daughters spread their wings as an artist, a musician, and a librarian.

I am grateful for my roots and my wings, and I am pleased that my daughters return to their roots while having spread their wings.  I wish the same for every child.

Cutting the Apron Strings

 

I have divorced cable, which appears to be a popular pastime among my friends and neighbors. Like an ex-smoker, I chose the TV version of a nicotine patch, Sling, which enables me to get a limited number of channels at a much lower price.  I have Netflix and Great Courses Plus and Roku, so I do not lack news and entertainment.  I miss Jeopardy.  I miss MSNBC, which is hard to get without full service cable, but I can watch Rachel Maddow on my TV the next day, and I usually go to bed around 9:30 and watch it the next day anyway. I don’t miss AT&T with their outrageous prices and huge lineup of junk channels and constant attempts to sell me more.

There’s an old song with a line “if I can’t be with the one I love, I’ll love the one I’m with.”  That’s how I am feeling right now as I explore other offerings and options.  Less news, mostly relying on CNN (whose initials, ironically, are for Cable News Network). Clemson football on ESPN—that’s the only sport I watch. More documentaries, movies. Classical music streaming from my TV on amazon music as I go about my daily routine. Very old Jeopardy shows when Alex had more hair and less of it was gray and the questions come from my prime years.   Or as Carla told me when she had to totally change her eating habits because of lupus and related allergies: “Mom, we just eat from a very small part of the food spectrum.  I just picked up my plate and moved to a different part.”

Habits are comfortable, but they can easily become ruts or worse, addictions.  I admit that an addiction to Jeopardy is pretty harmless, but for several years I have had my cable scheduled to record it every night just in case I am not there, and when I return from a trip, I catch up. TV itself is an addiction, although I rarely watch it until I find myself winding down from the day around 5:30 or 6

Television has been a great gift in creating a wider community of shared information and experiences, just as email and the internet have.  But they come at a cost. That cost is in neglecting live relationships, distraction, being overwhelmed by the full inbox and the facebook messages, providing an outlet for all kinds of crazies, becoming a nation of couch potatoes. I can’t bring myself to completely divorce television, but I feel like I have made a step in a positive direction.

 

Our Non-Binary World

Scientists, pollsters, many religions, politicians, television pundits, and lots of other groups seem to have no gray in their color palette.  Everything is either black or white, true of false, right or wrong.  We don’t want nuanced answers to questions of abortion, gun control, or even “would you like to go to a movie?”  (It depends. What’s playing and where and at what time? Are we going to go to dinner first? Who’s paying?)

The standards of “proof” in statistical research, known as confidence intervals, set a very high standard for considering a hypothesis to be true.  When that standard is applied, it increases the likelihood that the researcher will reject as false something that is actually true. The problem is that there are gradations of truth, and researchers struggle with how to control for circumstances that might give false positives or negatives.

When we move from the laboratory to daily life, we sometimes find that an attitude of perceived certainty has spread to other parts of our human experience where nuance is more appropriate yes or no, right or wrong, approve or disapprove.  Abortion on demand versus abortion never ever ever misses all the complexities of the specific situation.  Gun control is not either-or—background checks and an assault rifle ban does not mean “the government is coming for your guns.”

Sometimes the answer should not bet either-or, but both-and.  When the right demands that we end the Affordable Care Act ( Obamacare) while the left advocates Medicare for all, those of us who spend our lives swimming in the muddled middle are looking for a compromise, a good enough solution, which is what Obamacare was and still is. We can affirm the nuanced decision in Roe v. Wade that sets duration of pregnancy as a determining factor in considering abortion. We can put reasonable constraints on access to guns without trashing the second amendment. We can respect people’s religious beliefs as long as they do not trample on the rights and beliefs of others. That’s what democracy is all about.

If we can reframe the public conversation away from sound bites and taking firm and unyielding positions toward a search for common ground, compromise (not a four letter word) and a due respect for the thoughts and opinions of others who see things differently, perhaps we can learn to dwell together in peace.

So for starters, take out your mental set of paints paints and mix up some gray. As we know from some very fine fiction, you can create at least fifty shades.  Just ask Sherwin-Williams.

 

Socialism and Capitalism in the Election Wars

None of the candidates for president can use either of these words as anything but an insult.  And they are right.  Pure capitalism or pure socialism would be a horror for people living under either one.  But purity is overrated.  I alwahs  return to Aristotle, the virtue always residing in the center of the fulcrum between its extreme and its opposite. Capitalism champions freedom, socialism champions equality.  But none of us want to live in a society of total freedom.  Remember the four freedoms? Freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear? Both capitalists and socialists pay lip service to the first two.  In order to sort out the conflict,  we need to add another pair, because there are not just freedoms of and freedoms from but also freedoms to–freedom to succeed, freedom to fail.

Capitalism in its purest form adds the last two freedoms while dropping the freedoms from. We all want the freedom to succeed.  The freedom to fail, maybe not so much, although it is inherent in pure capitalism.  Without the freedom to fail, there are no consequences to mistakes, excessive risk-taking, or bad judgment. The discipline of the marketplace is essential to capitalism, which is why a real capitalist doesn’t endorse freedom from want and fear.

Socialism has the opposite problem. Socialism protects us from want and fear by guaranteeing equality independent of effort.  We lose the incentives which are a key aspect of the success of capitalism.  Without incentives to work, to try, to succeed, there will be less innovation, less productivity, and a lower standard of living for everyone.

So in the real world of the muddled middle in which we live, we cobble together a blend of capitalism and socialism.  We provide a floor, a social safety net offering a minimally adequate access to housing, food, and health care, but if you want more than the bare minimum, you have to earn it.  The debate going on not just this year but for my entire lifetime (which has been pretty long) is not between the extremes but exactly where we think that muddled middle should be..  The much-maligned moderate is the one who is willing to tweak, to compromise, to realize that sometimes the best is the enemy of the good enough.  That’s what I want in a presidential candidate, and for the most part, that is what we have elected in the last 70 years. Let’s hope we can find that candidate again.

 

 

 

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Sinister and Gauche: Life on the Left

The Latin word for left is sinistra.  The French word is gauche.  Neither is a very attractive way of describing those of us who are left-handed and find ourselves on the left side of politics and religion.  Which is me.  I was born into a traditional mainstream Protestant Republican family, but they were all right-handed and pretty left-brained. At least I was born after the public schools ended the practice of trying to convert lefties to write with their right hands.

There is a subset of left-handed people who, like me, score high on standardized tests and have allergies, a set of characteristics associated with good left-right brain integration.  Don’t ask me why that’s true.  It’s science, more correlation than causation, but I’ll take it.  Having good left-right brain integration, I can get my imaginative, mystic, creative  right side of the  brain ( I call it the place where God hangs out) to collaborate with my linear, analytical left side of the brain.  It’s a useful way to be, especially as a teacher, writer, policy analyst, and public speaker.

There are definitely drawbacks to being a lefty in a world designed by and for right-handed people.  Think of those desks with chairs attached in high school and college.  The writing space is on the right side.  Notebooks. Cars. Soup ladles.  Scissors. Lefties are more prone to accidents in a world designed for the right-handed majority.But we are probably also more adaptable, and often more ambidextrous at least in limited ways.  I use knives and scissors with my right hand, always have, and I am a pretty poor batter on either side of the bat. My mother could teach me to sew but not to knit, which I had to teach myself because everything was backwards.

Having embraced my leftness bodily, I turned to the left side of the mind and spirit and embraced first the political left and then the religious left (after all, I came of age in the sixties).   Not too far left in either case.  I always joked that my mother was so relieved that I came home from college after my freshman year neither pregnant nor communist that she didn’t mind that I had become a Democrat. Far left in religion is atheism, but that didn’t speak to me, so I gradually found my religious home in Unitarian Universalism, the left frontier of mainstream organized religion.

Being a liberal left-handed Yankee (raised and educated in New England) female professor at a conservative (in the 1960s) largely male, recently military southern University was not all drawbacks.  In fact, my first department head said if I was just black, I would be perfect. He could check off all the diversity boxes.  I would be much less useful in that respect if I had wound up on the Left Coast, also known as the Pacific Northwest.

Sinister and gauche?  Fine, I’ll take it.  I rejoice in all my varieties of leftness. And to my Righty friends in body, some also in mind and spirit, I wish you equal comfort in discovering and experience your rightness.  Just try not to confuse right and left with right and wrong.