Virtual Visiting in a Time of Crisis

Human interaction is vital to our emotional and even physical health.  We interact with sound, sight, and touch.  Social distancing means no touching, at least outside the household,  but technology has given us the opportunity to add sight to sound.  What a difference Zoom, Facetime, Skype, and live streaming can make! Churches are live streaming services in a variety of ways, some of which are interactive, others not.  Virtual meetings are being held for business, community groups, governments and  social organizations, although it doesn’t work for golf, bridge, or quilting groups. Government bodies are holding meetings via conferencing software.  Book clubs can discuss their reading with software help.

Most students from kindergarten through college are now finishing courses online, which has been a logistical challenge (or a learning opportunity?) for teachers, parents and students. Some of that is interactive, seeing each other in real time; others are recorded and watched.  It’s a poor substitute for being present with your peers, but it’s a lot better than it would have been 20 years ago because of the communications tools we have acquired.

I was teaching two classes in journaling when the two organizations that had scheduled them shut down, so my students, many of them senior citizens, quickly adapted to online meetings to finish the classes.  Informal groups have organized on-line happy hours, just you, your computer, and your friends, face to face.  And as for those special friends, Facetime on a smart phone is the easiest of all to use.  I had three conversations with close friends via Facetime yesterday, and while a hug would have been nice, we wouldn’t have done that even if we met in person.

Virtual socializing is not the only skill we have learned from this pandemic. We have  learned creative ways to shop, even for groceries, to order takeout, to visit the doctor with telemedicine. I had been procrastinating on joining the local on-line farmers’ market, but this was the push I needed. It was an easy way to shop, especially because I could bypass  hoarding-induced shortages of meat and fresh vegetables in traditional stores, and it offered a convenient local pickup. A recent NPR story highlighted getting reacquainted with your kitchen as more than a storage place for snacks, dishes, and a microwave. Being at home more and with no hectic schedule for music lessons, dance lessons, sports practices and other child activities, the family dinner may be rediscovered.

Each of us who are healthy and want to contribute to helping others cope with the challenges of the corona pandemic has to find a way to make a difference.  I applaud my friend making face masks and the one helping hand out food to elementary school students.  I have contributed to the United Way and the local food bank, as have many others.  But my particular focus is to help people stay in contact with each other that at least involves both sound and sight. I am actively engaged in two communities, my church and the League of Women Voters.  We need to stay connected, but gatherings are out.  So I  upgraded my Zoom account to include more time and people, taught them how to use it, and set up meetings for small groups (committees, discussion groups, social groups, informational meetings, classes) in both places. I am working on using Zoom for family conversations and neighborhood groups.  One on one, my phone conversations always are by Facetime if the other person has a smart phone, which most do, and I am making more phone calls instead of using email or texting.

Virtual visiting is my personal contribution.  May you be well, and may the crisis be short, and may you find a way to be part of the glue that holds our society together as we weather this crisis. And may we all emerge from this crisis more conscious of the need (and tools!) for regular human interaction with sight and sound, and looking forward to eventually again, resuming touch.

Reflections on Friendship

An old friend of mine, getting ready to leave a public office he had held for 14 years, explained why: Friends come, friends go. Enemies accumulate.  I probably have enemies I am unaware of, but I was more struck by the friends come, friends go part.  I don’t have any close friends from high school with whom I have stayed in touch , but two college friends maintain regular contact.  My late husband and I were together for 56 years, from first date until death did us part. His sister is still a dear friend.  I moved to Clemson 54 years ago, and my first friend is still my good friend. One of my very closest friends has been part of my life for 43 years.

Yes, friends go.  Some die, or move away, and we lose touch. When marriages end through death or divorce, some married friends become less available, and we loners are more inclined seek the company of others who also live alone.  That’s part of life.  What I have never adapted well to are the friendships that spring up, are fairly intense, and then fade away.

Many years ago, there was a woman in my circle (neighbor, children the same age) whom I’ll call Penny.  She had a new best friend every six months.  I had my turn as her best friend. Penny was funny and outgoing and involved in lots of things, so she could always find a new best friend.  She finally found the right best friend and stuck with her for several years until the friend moved away. Penny was what one might call a friend consumer, looking on a friend as an experience to enjoy, get tired of and replace. Kind of like a car, or a piece of furniture, or a restaurant. I found it baffling.  For me, finding a friend with whom to share conversation, experiences, joys, sorrows, hopes and fears takes time and effort, so I want it to last.

One of my dearest friends died four years ago, but she taught me a great deal about friendship during the 18 years that we knew each other.  I learned to regard a deep friendship as a covenant, a mutual understanding of what we ask and expect from each other and what we give in return. That shared understanding of friendship is critical to acknowledging that someone has become a part of my inner circle.

Lasting and deep friendships—and I count four of those in my present inmost circle, another less intense group of seven or eight friends in the next circle—involve effort by both partners.  When a friend is suffering illness or grief or stress, we need to be there for her, counting on her to do the same for us. We need to laugh together, cry together, and vent without being judged or criticized when we are hurt or angry or frustrated. When there is conflict, and at some point there usually is, friends need to find ways to address it and move beyond it. Sometimes it’s a cooling off period, although in a truly covenantal relationship, there is a need to eventually talk about what happened.  My life only has emotional space for a few of those intense friendships at a time.

Some of us prefer to settle for less intimacy and honesty and feel safer in a more superficial and expendable relationship. Perhaps that’s what worked for Penny. There’s also a comfortable middle ground, in which friendships, like many marriages, settle into a pattern of familiarity that doesn’t require a lot of interaction.  I have several friends with whom I had been very close in the past because of regular interaction at church or work that I now see once a month for lunch, and I still enjoy their company, but it’s a different kind of friendship.  The initial intensity  has faded but there is still pleasure in each other’s company, affirming shared memories and often shared values.  But even if we drift apart, usually these are people we still count as friends. It is harder when a person whom you once regarded as part of your inner circle decide to defect to a more remote location without explanation, as happens from time to time. But that, too, is part of the dynamic of friendship.

In Eastern Europe, the First of March was International Friendship Day.  They pin red and white ribbons, buttons, stickers, or yarn figures  on their friends, advertising to the world how many friends they have.  I still have a yarn boy and girl from a visit to Bulgaria. But quality, depth, and intensity are at least as important as quantity of people you count as friends.  So a bit late for the occasion of International Friendship Day, and being observant of our current national health policy of social distancing, spend time with a friend today (just don’t hug!).  It will make your day, and the other person’s day too.

 

 

 

The Preacher and the Pragmatist

 

Margaret Marron writes mystery novels set in eastern North Carolina.  Her heroine is a lawyer turned judge.  Deborah Knott is a bootlegger’s daughter, the youngest and only girl in a family of boys.  Deborah is the name of one of the few female judges in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In becoming a judge, Deborah was Judge Knott.  Nice pun.

These novels are not great fiction, but they are engaging and full of Southern character.  Faced with a difficult choice, Deborah Knott always hears from her own version of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  She calls these two inner voices the preacher and the pragmatist. I can relate to that.  The preacher is my inner theologian, the pragmatist my inner economist.

I am supposed to be strictly nonpartisan in my role as Co-president on the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, but I can do that and still vote in primaries, because South Carolina has open primaries, and I don’t always choose the same one. It was an easy choice of February 29th, the historic presidential primary in South Carolina that saved the candidacy of Joe Biden. That is, it was easy to choose to vote in the Democratic primary, because there was no Republican primary.  Come June, the Republican primary will be the interesting one. But which of the seven surviving presidential candidates to vote for?  The preacher and the theologian told me to vote for the one I thought would make the best president.  I knew the answer to that one, the choice of my oldest daughter and a dear friend f mine about my daughter’s age.  Elizabeth Warren.  Smart, competent, funny, experienced, energetic, not too far left. The preacher’s choice.  But in a crucial year, was she electable?—a pragmatist’s word if ever I heard one.

In 2020, who was the pragmatic choice?  I vacillated.  The ideal candidate is both a good campaigner and has the relevant skills, values and experience for the presidency. Each candidate had weaknesses. Joe Biden was not campaigning or polling well.  Sanders was too far left to win, Bloomberg was not an effective campaigner.  I thought that Mayor Pete’s youth, inexperience, and sexual orientation could be liabilities.  Klobuchar was appealing but not very inspiring. I finally settled on Tom Steyer, who debated well, had decent poll numbers, and came closest to my views on the issues.  He’s something of a pragmatist too. But so is the Democratic party, and Joe Biden was the pragmatic choice of the voters of South Carolina and is likely to ultimately be the choice of the Democratic party. A field of more than 20 candidates had systematically weeded out women, people of color, billionaires, a self-avowed socialist, and the lone LGBTQ candidate in favor of the safe choice. In politics, pragmatism means living by the maxim that the best is often the enemy of the good, or the good enough.  That’s an economist’s way of thinking.  Economist Kenneth Boulding always liked to point to the contrast between economic man and heroic man—the knight on the white horse fighting for truth, justice and the American Way, and the practical person on a plodding donkey—which happens to be the symbol of the Democratic party.

Pragmatism is about how we make collective choices.  In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a book titled Moral Man and Immoral Society.   He wrote that each of us may listen to the preacher on our shoulder as an individual,  but get us together in a situation of collective decision making—otherwise known as democracy—and we tend to sink toward the lowest common denominator.  Pragmatists all, we take what we can get and settle for less than we want.

Back in my working days I wrote textbooks with my dean and fellow economist, Ryan Amacher.  One day we got an ad flyer from our book on Principles of Economics with the clever title, Don’t Compromise Your Principles!  Ryan laughed. He said, I’m a dean, compromising my principles is what I do for a living.

So, preacher on my shoulder, what principles did I compromise?  The core of my faith tradition lies in the seven principles.  I compromised on the first,  respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The third, acceptance of one another and by implication, inclusiveness. The fifth, use of the democratic process, which I was unwilling to trust.

Our children have seen only one person of color as president.  Never a woman. The safe choice in uncertain times, means putting off for four more years the chance for a woman or another person of color or even both. By compromising, I helped to postpone the day when we will be truly inclusive at least as far as gender is concerned.  Obama proved that a person of color could be elected and served with dignity and honor. It calls to memory the fact that black men got the vote in 1868 while women of all races had to wait another 52 years. Let us hope that the same will not be true for a woman president.

Our foremothers fought for seventy-two long years for the right and privilege of voting.  All but one of the signers of the 1848 Declaration of Women’s Rights were dead in 1920, 100 years ago when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Susan B. Anthony was too ill to get to the polls.

There was a deep division in the suffrage movement between focusing on the right to vote and a broader Equal Rights Amendment.  The prevailing pragmatists settled for the right to vote, figuring they could use the vote to make the other changes in divorce laws, child labor laws, access to health care, protection from domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, fair labor standards.  100 years later ERA is still unratified.

Pragmatism gets you half a loaf.  It keeps you from starving, but we can do better.  Sometimes we need to listen to the preacher on the other shoulder.

 

Political Tribalism

I am a life member of the League of Women Voters.  I organized the Clemson (SC) League in 1968 and currently serve as state co-president. So this blog reflects that particular tribe in which I am proud to claim membership.

It is human nature to identify with a tribe, whether that tribe’s base is ethnicity, religion, occupation, geography, income, politics, shared interests, or even sports teams.  (My native New England remains sharply divided even within families between Yankees and Red Sox loyalists.)  Most of us belong to multiple tribes, some overlapping more than others. Bonding with our tribes is part of how we develop our own identity and self-understanding.  But to make democracy work, we have to not only bond but also bridge—to communicate across tribal lines to others who perceive the world differently from the purview of their tribal identities.

Over the last few decades, aided and abetted by the proliferation of social media that cater to defined tribes, our civil society has degenerated into tribalism, hiding behind our barricades and shouting over the ramparts.  Theologian Paul Tillich defines neurosis as “retreating to a limited defensible fortress of ideas.”  By that definition, we are an increasingly neurotic society.

The League of Women Voters, committed to nonpartisanship, has had to learn to operate outside or across many tribal divisions. So we have a contribution to make not only to a vibrant democracy but perhaps to our collective mental health as well.  In voter service, we encourage everyone to participate in the political process, whether they share our hopes for the outcome or not.  We invite dialogue at candidate forms and insist that every candidate be treated with respect. In advocating with public officials, we seek common ground in trying to identify the public good and how we might best achieve it. In a world of yes/no, either/or, we stand for compromise, for that fundamental principle of public policy that the best is often the enemy of the good (or the good enough, or the good enough for now, or a move in the right direction.) It took 72 long years for our foremothers to win the right to vote, but they persisted. Compromise is not a  four-letter word.  It is the essence of being able to live together in spite of differences, whether it is in a family, a workplace, a neighborhood, a city, state or nation.

So as we move into the fray of electoral politics, remember that our task is, as Rudyard Kipling said, to keep our heads when all of those around us are losing theirs and blaming it on you (or us). As we begin our next century of serving the public interest and rising above our tribal allegiances, let us be mindful in this year of the centennial of the 19th amendment, we are in it for the long haul.

 

Imbolc and the Picture of Jesus

 

If it weren’t for Punxatawny Phil, and Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, this obscure holiday would probably be ignored even more than it already is.  How does one celebrate Groundhog Day?  To figure it out, we have to go back to its Celtic roots as one of the eight holidays on the wheel of the year—two solstices, two equinoxes, and four cross-quarter holidays. The cross-quarter holidays are midway between solstices and equinoxes, so February 1st (or sometimes 2nd) is Imbolc, the first cross-quarter holiday of the calendar year. Imbolc mean’s ewe’s milk.  This is a time of lambing, and a celebration of new birth in anticipation of spring.  In some places,  January Jessamine and forsythia are blooming, and the crocuses and daffodils are poking their way through the soil. In case you are curious, the May 1st holiday, Beltane, is a fertility festival; the August 1st holiday, Lammas, is a first harvest festival, and Samhain has been rebaptized into Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve to be followed by the Christian observation of November 1st as All Saints’ Day.

So how did our Celtic ancestors celebrate this holiday? They cleaned house!  The greens (now brown) they brought in their homes for the winter solstice were thrown out, the fireplace where the Yule log burned at solstice was wept out, and all was made new again. In other words, spring housecleaning was a form of spiritual practice.

I am intrigued at the sanctification of housecleaning.  We think of cleansing our souls, and our bodies, but why not our homes? Shedding the detritus of the past, scrubbing the windows and floors, recycling our no-longer used possessions for others to use, all relieve our dwelling of the weight of the past as we look to the future.

When I was young I read all my mother’s books (and everything else, even cereal boxes). That heritage was full of pious 19th century tales of brave little girls defying their fathers’ orders to paly piano for visitors on the sabbath, or other forbidden acts. But one pious tale stayed with me, because it rang true.  The church lady came to visit a widow and her invalid daughter and brought a picture of Jesus for the child’s room. When the church lady left, the mother went to hang it up and discovered the walls were dirty. So she cleaned the walls, only to  notice how dirty the curtains were…and the windows. and the floor…and on and on until the whole house was clean.

My friends all enjoyed this little moral tale as a metaphor.  You start cleaning, or anything, and one thing lead to another, so the half hour you intended to spend on this project wound up taking the whole day. I can say to a friend, I started to clean out the pantry and it turned into a picture of Jesus, and they totally understand.  But there is another message here, too, about the integrated whole that is our life, our community, our living space.  The butterfly flapping his wings in China that causes storms in Idaho. We humans break down the cleaning process into segments ,but they are all intimately interconnected.  If I need to relocated old books and files in my office to the laundry room or the bedroom, I have to prepare that space.  When I find a left-behind Christmas ornament I start to think about where best to store seldom used items, and a new plan forms.

Housecleaning doesn’t just require energy, commitment, and elbow grease. It also calls for us to rethink the habits that undergird our dwelling place, to be imaginative and creative in organizing and brightening our habitat. So just as the groundhog peeps out of his underground domicile to look around, perhaps it’s time for you to do the opposite.  Spend this last stretch of indoor living, long nights, short days, and no yard work to prepare your dwelling place and yourself to burst forth into the larger world knowing that you have a better place to come home to.

 

 

 

Beyond Tribalism

The principal enemy of democracy is hierarchy in all its forms—patriarchy, oligarchy, totalitarianism, any kind of system that gives the few power over the many.  But another, more subtle enemy of democracy is tribalism—building our fortresses of like-minded people who only talk to each other and read the same books and watch the same news stations and affirm their certainty about being God’s chosen.  People who feel threatened by the idea that others who don’t see the world the same way may have a valid and defensible point of view. Because within tribalism is the desire that power should be in the hands who share my tribe, my world view, my religious understanding, my values. Both sides are tribal.

My oldest daughter told me that her daughter, now a college junior, has found her tribe.  I am happy for her, but I hope she doesn’t stop searching. My youngest granddaughter is 15, and she has three tribes: Girl Scouts, tap dancers, and science nerds at her High School, Aiken Scholars Academy. My sister’s granddaughter found her tribe in a sorority.  I, too, have found my tribes over the years. Academics. Economists. Unitarian Universalists.  Members of the League of Women Voters. Feminists.  The UConn Huskies of my alma mater and the Clemson Tigers whose presence is very large in my adopted home town. These are my people.

There’s lots of overlap among my subtribes.  I  am drawn to the ones that share and affirm my values and my worldview.  They are the ones I seek out to do things with, to talk to, to exchange information and sigh together about the state of the world.  I am sure that you, too, have circles of people that matter to you that are part of overlapping tribes.

Some of these tribal members are more my people than others.  I probably  don’t have a lot of common ground with a white male Southern Baptist real estate developer and Trump supporter other than skin color and being a Clemson Tiger fan.

In our search for power over our own personal lives we often seek advantage in those aspects of our identity and our tribe that help others identify with us.  Good old boy networks. Alumni of the same college.  White people. Good old girl networks. We join lobbying efforts to confer advantages on us because of our group membership, whether it is farmers, hedge fund managers who will vote for Trump if Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic candidate, or members of AARP. That’s not to condemn all political tribes as self-serving.  The League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the Moral Monday folks  are all tribal groups that seek to build community by allying with members of their tribes of progressive Christians,  senior citizens, environmentalists, and African-Americans. They are tribal in their shared values but inclusive in other important ways. The League welcomes male members, NAACP is happy to have white folks join, and Moral Monday includes some agnostics, heretics, Jews and Muslims  All of them believe in intertribal alliances.

One often overlooked message in the Christian story is that Jesus came from a tribal people.  Twelve tribes, tied together by their history, their land and their distinctive religious beliefs and practices which survive to this day. Part of the success story of Christianity was in moving beyond tribalism to proclaim a message of hope  and shared humanity to all people, at least all the people they knew about. Of course, tribalism frequently reasserted itself rather violently , erupting into nationalism and warfare and battles for power. Non-Christians, especially Jews and Muslims, were the other, fair game for conversion or extinction. Christianity did not bring about world peace, or end misogyny, or result in equality.  But it did from time to time hold up those lofty ideals.

Finding your identity is an important challenge of adolescence. It is a stage in our personal, moral, and spiritual development as we recognized our membership in ever larger communities. But we ae no longer adolescents, and we need to outgrow the narrow comfort of tribal identity to truly connect with the interdependent web of all existence.  Political engagement with others not of our tribe is an important part of that growth.

Great thinkers of our time have described this challenge to further growth in various ways.  Catholic theologian Richard Rohr describes the task of adolescence and early adulthood as building an identity, and the task of the later years of tearing away that outer identity shell as a scaffolding we no longer need.  James Fowler, in writing about stages of faith development, sees a steady growth from o a narrow we to a more inclusive we to a global we as we pass through the stages of moral and faith development. According to Fowler, there are six stages, from the infant’s tribe of one growing to two and then three  plus any siblings, to larger groups, until they find a tribe or tribes with which they can identify.  Nelson Mandala, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King were sixes. I am not.  Nor, I expect, are you.  But we can move beyond tribalism to embrace those who are different from us in many of the ways that divide us.  4 is a lot better than 2. Even a 5, which is not quite universalism but well beyond tribalism, is an attainable goal if we work at it.

How do we begin? First, we need to recognize tribalism in ourselves and how it keeps us seeing members of other tribes as not quite as fully human as we are. Many faith communities are bumbling through efforts to conquer certain forms of tribalism, especially the often unconscious racism toward African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. But tribe is not just race. It also includes age, gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability or disability.  And even access to and mastery of technology that splits us  into separate and often warring tribes of troglodytes and geeks.

One of the important lessons of colonialism in the Americas was the ability of colonists to pit tribes against one another in order to gain power over all the natives. That is what we are experiencing in American politics today. Each major party is a coalition of tribes, bound together by a mix of self-interest and certainty that their understanding of the way things are and the ways things should be is the right one.  No one is immune from that kind of tribalism.  A bigger tribe with subtribes is still a tribe.

What are our tribes? How do they call forth the best in us and affirm the worst? Awareness is the first step. Acknowledging our tribes and the shared world view they embrace and being open to criticism of that worldview. Taking the uncomfortable step of affiliating with other tribes where we may be a minority, like male members of the League of Women Voters or white folks who join the NAACP, is a possibility.  Searching for common ground with people whose world view is different from yours is uncomfortable, but it’s a part of your spiritual growth challenge. So let it begin with me. And you.

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.