Disengaging the Albatross

 

I live in a townhouse in a retirement community, and am part of a volunteer corps that tries to make life easier and more meaningful for those living in apartments, assisted living, memory care, and the nursing home. One of the many projects—the only one I participate in regularly—is to help people dispose of possessions as they downsize, move to assisted living or the nursing home, or move away, often to be closer to family.

Often the family just walks away with most of the furnishings and possessions left behind. We sell what we can, deliver some to charitable organizations for thrift shops, and throw a lot away.  It’s a sobering experience about being prisoners of our possessions, about preparing for the inevitable, and about the excessive attachment to material objects that is not good for our spirits or for the planet. We are a link in the chain of recycling, but the amount of stuff that goes to the landfill is troubling. We also make some money that is used to provide equipment, supplies and services to the residents of those facilities. And finally, it also saves the families the expense of hiring someone to  dispose of these possessions.

Lessons learned?  Lesson #1, possessions for which there is no market.  Cassette tapes (LP records are another matter). Old electronics, which are a disposal challenge.  Framed pictures. Knicknacks. Mismatched glassware. Empty vases and flower pots. Outdated electronics. Holiday decorations do surprisingly well.  A friend of mine organized an annual holiday giveaway of decorations to families served by the local food bank.  We are among the many who ply her with used decorations from artificial trees to ornaments to gift wrap, and it is all claimed by clients of the food bank in a couple of hours.

Lesson #2. Organizations that do this kind of work on a volunteer basis are few and far between, so be kind to your children and heirs and clean out now, starting with the stuff on the list above. It requires some skills in pricing and finding outlets like consignment shops and a lot of hours. The maintenance staff at the retirement community is a big help in the final cleanup. Think about finding an organization like this to work with–or start one!

Lesson #3.  It’s Christmas, when we buy each other things.  My oldest daughter asked for more experiences and consumables.  Theater tickets, wearables, spices  for the cooks are a bigger part of my holiday giving this year, along with a gift card for each family member to select a charitable cause for their/my charitable donation of $25 each through Global Giving online. We pass around the laptop and enjoy seeing what worthy cause strikes their fancy.  It may be chickens for an orphanage in Africa, or solar power for villagers in Asia, or protection for the rain forest or endangered species in Central America. I refuse to give up buying people books, though—and they are definitely recyclable!

So in this holiday season, let’s remember the planet, the wasteful consumption and the challenge of reusing those items in our storage sheds, cabinets, drawers, closets and garages. If you are old like me, consider the burden  on your children of disposing of your stuff.  If you are young, watch your accumulation, and  help your parents or aging relatives find creative ways to disposed  of surplus possessions.  If you are shopping, focus on consumables and the ability to recycle. Grandma, Mother Earth, and the beneficiaries of your creative recycling and restrained consumerism will be grateful.

How Does It Feel to Be a Resource?

 

As a teacher, a preacher, and a writer, I have been called many things.  An expert. A content provider (that in the world of textbook publishing). A repository of information.  An entertainer. But the one thing I refuse to be called is a human resource.  And likewise, I refuse to regard our mother earth as a natural resource.

Both terms reduce the glory and complexity of life to its usefulness. I don’t mind being useful, and I appreciate the usefulness of nature in providing me with light and dark, food and water, warmth and cold., But the reductionism that has overtaken my original profession of economics has no eye for beauty, no heart for compassion, no soul for soaring. It has escaped its boundaries of addressing only the material side of life to proclaim that materialism is the highest purpose.  The servant of our needs has become the master.

Economic materialism means that if something—a person, an acre of land, a forest, oil beneath the soil, the oceans, then it should be put to use to serve whatever human purpose we may choose. People, likewise, are measured by their value added to the GDP.  An unemployed person is a wasted resource. When a person is killed by the negligence of others, compensation is offered by measuring how much that person would have earned had he or she lived out their natural lifespan. The value of a human life is the discounted present value of expected future earnings.

Charles Dickens captured the barrenness of what has been called the dismal science in his novel, Hard Times.  The central character was  Professor Gradgrind, a soulless utilitarian who subjected everything to a calculus of cost and benefit.  He was baffled when his  grown children forsook him and his careful instructions about how to live, choosing lives that were more filled with meaning and joy than pursuit of material success.

Economics was born as a descriptive social science that has over time evolved into a prescriptive one about how to live and where in life we are to seek for utility, satisfaction, meaning.  It is grounded in an individualism that ignores the joy and meaning that comes in connectedness, in companionship, in relationships not only to one another but to the earth on which we dwell as our homeland, not just a package of natural resources awaiting our exploitation.

I love my profession.  It is rich in insights about the material side of life.  It has taught me to avoid absolutes, to seek changes in increments, When it is joined with its sister social sciences, especially those that focus on relationships and collaboration rather than individualism and autonomy , it can make useful contributions to our common life, our government, our communities, our grounding to the natural world. But like the Minotaur, like nuclear weapons, it needs to have its boundaries patrolled lest it encroach too far on the important things in life—purpose and meaning, joy and companionship, and a world in which all life can be nurtured and flourish.

And now I’ve gone to preachin’, wayward human resource that I am. May it be so.

 

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrim Was NOT a Puritan

Every Thanksgiving I am reminded of a humor column—Art Buchwald, I think—about Thanksgiving that was full of  fractured French. Les pellerins are indeed pilgrims, but is a turkey in French really a dindon? Maybe.  For sure, Thanksgiving Day does NOT translate to “le jour de merci donée.”

In any case, it was not my fondness for the French language that set off alarm bells in my head but a line from an article in Time this week about teaching children about Thanksgiving. It included the following mind-boggling statement: “The Puritan separatists were  rebranded Pilgrims.”  Ouch.  Okay, I’m really interested in religious history, having grown up in a New England Congregational Church attending Pilgrim Fellowship and singing out of the Pilgrim Hymnal, and yes, that church of my ancestors was later formed by a merger between the two groups, but no, Puritans were not rebranded Pilgrims.  Pilgrims came on the Mayflower in 1620. Puritans weren’t even present at the shindig in 1621.  They were still back in England annoying King Charles I with demands to purify the Church of England, a demand that eventually would lead to his loss of his head (literally). By then our American Puritans had set sail for the New World, arriving about ten years after the less numerous Pilgrims.

Pilgrims were separatists.  They didn’t want the state running the church.  They chose to be self-governing.  They believed in religious democracy, up to a point.  You did have to agree to a certain amount of Christian orthodoxy in order to be a member of the church, but there was more emphasis on right living and mutual respect and having genuine religious experience. No bishops, no popes, no hierarchy, no divine right of kings or the monarch as head of the church.  God was the only external authority, and discerning what God wanted them to do led to a lot of church meetings.

Roots of American democracy came from many sources.  New England religion was an important one. The less numerous Pilgrims even persuaded their Puritan brothers (sisters didn’t vote) that democracy should be the way to govern themselves in both church and civil society.

So while you are celebrating the jour de merci donée with your dindon, remember to thank the Pilgrims and yes, the Puritans who embraced it as well, for the gift of democracy.  And keep in mind that democracy is a fragile gift, one that needs to be honored, practiced, and  polished regularly. And protected from all enemies foreign and domestic. Just sayin’.

Celebrating Women

 

Lots of our holidays celebrate men.  Martin Luther King Jr. President’s Day. Saint Patrick’s Day.  Jesus, several times, particularly Christmas and Easter. Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, until recently mostly about men, now including a growing minority of women. Founding fathers on the fourth of July. Christopher Columbus, still has fans not so much as before we were invited to view him from a Native American perspective.  Yes, women get Mothers’ Day and men get Fathers’ Day, but where are the specific women whose lives we celebrate? We can’t even get one on the twenty dollar bill to invade the space made sacred to men in political leadership.  We sort of honor women generically by granting them the entire month of March as women’s history month.  But there is no woman in particular and no day that in particular is dedicated to a designated woman as a leader, an achiever, a hero.

So I would like to suggest that one day in March (Maybe the Ides of March, the 15th?) we designate as An Alphabet of Women Day and recite the names of some heroic, path-breaking American Women.  Here is my list, mostly American but with some entries from elsewhere. No explanations provided.  You can find them in Wikipedia. Or you can celebrate one a day until you run out of alphabet on March 26th, or fill in the last five days from the dates with more than one candidate.  You can also create your own list.  Suggestions welcome!

Abigail Adams

Boudicca. Betty Friedan (tie)

Caroline Chapman Catt

Dorothea Dix, Doris Kearns Goodwin (tie)

Eleanor Roosevelt, Eliza Pinckney, Emily Dickenson (tie)

Frances Perkins

Gloria Steinem, Greta Thunberg (tie)

Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller (tie)

Ida B. Wells

Jane Adams, Jane Fonda (tie)

Katherine Graham

Louisa May Alcott

Margaret Fuller, Margaret Thatcher (tie)

Nancy Pelosi, Nancy Reagan (tie)

Oprah Winfrey

Patricia Schroeder, Pat Nixon (tie)

Queen Elizabeth I and II

Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson (tie)

Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea (tie)

Theresa (Mother), Tallulah Bankhead (tie)

Ursula LeGuin

Victoria Woodhull

WACS and WAVES

X—for the unknown woman

Young women, the leaders of tomorrow

Zelda Fitzgerald

Making the Right Mistakes

Fear of doing the wrong thing is often what holds us back from taking actions or making decisions.  But not to decide is to decide.  It’s easy when there is a right answer, but usually there is just a better answer, and we’re not sure how to determine what that is.

Martin Luther recognized that challenge in one of his most pungent observations: “Sin boldly.”  He knew that there are few unmitigated good actions. Most of them have at least some negative consequences, some unexpected, some minimized while  focusing on the positive outcomes, some just intentionally ignored. Driving a car is good. Polluting the air is bad.  Disposable diapers are convenient but fill the landfill.  Washing cloth diapers has its own consequences. Working more hours at a challenging job can bring financial rewards and satisfaction, but at what price in terms of health or family time?

Statisticians know this well.  They have invented a useful and, of course, measurable (that’s what statistics is!) yardstick called Type I error and Type II error. It’s a decision tool for the particular purpose of determining whether a theory is supported by the facts.  A researcher proposes a hypothesis that left-handed people are more prone to violence than right-handed people. Various kinds of evidence is brought to bear, such as police records.  Type I error is the probability of accepting this hypothesis as true  when it is actually false. We don’t want that to happen, or at least not very often.  Lives may depend on getting it right. As a left-handed person, I don’t want to be discriminated against for something I not, just because I belong to that category.  Truth has consequences. (Yes, I know that’s and old TV show and also a city in New Mexico.)  So keeping Type I error as low as possible is the safe strategy.  But guess what? When you minimize Type I error, Type II error increases.  Type II error is the likelihood of rejecting something as false when it is actually true. Maybe we really should be wary of left-handed people!  After all, the Latin word for left-handed is sinistra.  You can miss out on a lot of good choices if you let fear of Type II error get in the way.

Two lessons: listen to your gut, which is where your fear of bad consequences is at war with your sense of adventure, but also listen to your brain. Get good information so that you can assess what the benefits are and the downside of each alternative you are looking at. Martin Luther took the riskier choice and started the Protestant Reformation, knowing what the consequences might be for himself, his family, his supporters, and peace in Germany. So every time I find myself leaning toward the safe choice, I conjure up my inner Martin Luther and say to myself, Sin Boldly!

 

 

 

 

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.

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.