Making the Right Mistakes Revisited

One of my earlier blogs was called making the right mistakes. It was about one of the few life lessons I learned from the study of statistics. When someone says, “statistics show…”  that is really a statement about what is most likely to be true, not what is certain.  It is certain that it is raining at my house right now. I can see it on the road and hear it on the roof, and it is definitely  not snow or hail. Snow is white, and hail is noisy.  But how much of the neighborhood is being rained on, and which ones, and for how long is it going to keep raining?  The weather forecast is a probability statement, not a fact.  (In this case my understanding of statistics was buttressed by being married to a meteorologist, or more precisely an atmospheric physicist.)

The reason I feel a need to revisit this topic is the current controversy over how safe we are or feel a need to be during the hopefully waning days of the coronavirus pandemic, how much we want to go outside without a mask, send the kids back to school, go to a party or a theater,  or sunbathe on a crowded beach. (Yes, I do know it is only March as I write this, but sunny beaches come early here in South Carolina.)

Somehow reawakening the sleeping economy and the less Zoom-dependent social life has become a partisan issue.  It’s not just about personal freedom and the economy (Republicans) or about safety and protecting others from harm (Democrats), although all of these things are important.  Somehow, we need to address both the emotions (fear, frustration, anger, isolation) and the facts (positive tests, cases, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccines administered) and come to an agreement about how fast and in what order our nation, and the world, return to normal—whatever the new normal turns out to be.

Science is not about facts; it is about probabilities. Statistics , a major tool of scientific research, is about weighing the risk of declaring something to be more or less a fact and being wrong, as opposed to declaring something not to be a fact when it turns out that it is actually true.  Is the vaccine really safe and effective? One of my friends pointed out that even 95 percent efficacy of the vaccine does not guarantee you will not get COVID, because 5 percent of the people still will. At that point I knew for sure that Michael was much more risk -averse than I am.

Life is risky. Sunny optimists will point to all the benefits of speeding up the opening process—children back in school, adults back at work, firms saved from bankruptcy, summer vacations back on the calendar, and eventually actually seeing other people’s entire faces.   I tend to fall into that sunny optimist category and keep having to extricate myself. I also have to remind myself that people have different degrees of tolerance for risk,  and I am not the person who gets to make that decision about an acceptable level of risk for everyone else.

For months we have been treating the idea of herd immunity as  a closed door that would suddenly open and usher us into the wonderful world of Tomorrowland. It is not.  Clearly, more of the herd has immunity than just a couple of months ago, a combination of those who have at least short-term immunity from surviving the disease and the many, many of us who have been vaccinated.  But there are still a lot of people who refuse to be vaccinated, or to take precautions that protect themselves and others from an unacceptable degree of risk. 

Science errs on the side of caution, requiring very high levels of probability to treat a statement as true.  There are lots of people willing to take risks—they take boats out during a thunderstorm, have unprotected sex with strangers, hang-glide off mountain sides, and give their credit card numbers to strangers on the phone. But when their risk is inflicted on other people, they shouldn’t get to decide how much risk is acceptable for us.

The fundamental question is, how much can we reopen with an acceptable degree of safety for the most vulnerable?  Which reopenings offer the most benefit at the least risk? I can’t answer that for anyone but myself, and even then I wrestle with how much, how fast.  Bars at midnight have never been a big draw for me, but live performances, parties with friends, dinner in restaurants, travel, hugs—I miss those encounters with people, places and ideas and I want them back. Your list is different and so is your risk tolerance.

Our democracy has not been very successful in the last decade or so in working through differences to arrive at a widely acceptable outcome.  Perhaps we ought to step back from arguing over facts and start examining how we feel—what makes us feel safe, what makes us feel hopeful, what makes us willing to take into consideration the hopes and fears of our fellow citizens.  Be honest with yourself.  Be willing to listen.  In the end, that kind of honest conversation might do more good for humanity than just beating the COVID virus into submission.

Processes, Outcomes, and Goals

A few years ago. I was in a leadership retreat at which we talked about our efforts to address systemic racism.  As one of the ”elders” in the group, I shared a description of some projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s called Unlearning racism, which included honoring black WWII veterans, forming a sister congregation relationship with a more diverse group, spending time with leaders in the local African American community to see how we could be connective and supportive, etc.  When I finished my description, the person running the meeting asked, “And how many  new African-American members did you acquire?” “None, “ I said, “That wasn’t the point.”  I understood where he was coming from He and I and others have sat through countless long-range planning sessions and been told to have goals with measurable outcomes. I am an economist, and my discipline does put a lot of emphasis on measurable outcomes.  But something was tickling in my brain that we were going about this in the wrong way. Part of it was that some of the best outcomes are not quantifiable.  But something else wasn’t quite right.

Recently I was watching a series of lectures (Great Courses) on fitness and aging in which the instructor was also talking about setting goals.  And measurable ones, at that.  But the difference was that her idea of goals was not outcomes.  Not pounds lost.  Not blood pressure measurement. The goals were changed habits, which are also measurable.  Instead of pounds lost and blood pressure measurement, goals were how many times a week did I exercise? How far did I walk? Did I give my digestive system its much-needed 12 hour fast between dinner and breakfast? How often did my meal include a serving of fruits or vegetables? How many calories or carbs was I taking in and how many was I burning?  The difference was that these goals were things I could control, habits that I could work to develop. They, too, are often measurable. I can’t control outcomes, even though these better habits should make my preferred outcomes more likely.

The instructor’s focus was on fitness—physical, mental, and spiritual health that will lead to good outcomes like inner peace, longevity, less illness, and a slowing of the aging process. Or for concrete thinkers, weight loss and lower blood pressure. I started thinking about how we might apply processes or habits versus outcomes thinking about goals to those long-range planning processes in terms of other aspects of life, particularly organizational life. Typically, organizations will have concrete outcomes they want—more members, more people showing up at events, and more successful fundraising are common ones, all very measurable. But also not something we can control.  

What if the goals were about who we are and what we do, about identity and process rather than outcomes? What if we adapt that great quote from the move Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”  Instead, we could build what our vision says is the right thing to build—the right place, the right time, the right design—by listening to the people who are already here and contributing their time and their presence and their money. And perhaps even back up from that process to remind ourselves why we exist as a community and how building our particular field of dreams serves that reason for being.  If building ( a space, a garden, a program, a project) means that they do indeed come, so there are more members and more money, that’s fine.  But if that project leads to unanticipated outcomes, to better connections to other groups and communities, to a more joyful experience of being together, to a better understanding of what matters, those are good outcomes too. They are just very hard to measure.

So next time you make New Year’s resolutions (and a new year can start any time), or are part of a planning and goal setting process, try to focus on what you can control—the inputs, the processes, the habits or ways of working together.  The outcomes you want may or may not follow, but  you may get some unexpected benefits along the way..

A Torrent of Holidays

February usual begins quietly with Groundhog Day on the 2n,, pauses for Superbowl Sunday,  then cruises on through  Valentine’s Day on the 14th, Presidents’ Day on the third Monday, and Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, which fall sometimes in February and sometimes in early March depending on the phases of the moon.  This year we experienced  a confluence of holidays, each calling for a different emotional attitude, as there were four holidays in a row on the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th.  Unlike the Christmas holidays, each called for a different kind of emotional response.  Valentine’s Day is lighthearted and sentimental, hearts and chocolates and flowers and cards.   Presidents’ Day invites us to be patriotic, closing the banks and the Post Office and in many places, the schools.  There is also the invitation to shop at the Presidents’ Day sales, spending some of that green stuff with presidential pictures on the front.   Mardi Gras is the final celebratory fling (the carnival, literally meaning farewell to meat) before Ash Wednesday calls observant Christians to the austere penitential six weeks of Lent.( Even those of us whose faith traditions didn’t make a big deal out of Lent felt compelled growing up to join our  more high church comrades in giving something up for Lent. Nothing like a holiday the celebrates self-denial.) By Thursday al of us will be in for a good rest with no significant holidays till Saint Patrick’s Day a month later. Whew!

All of these holidays have an interpersonal aspect in their observances that don’t work well with a pandemic, even one that is starting to recede.  Valentine’s Day is for hugs and kisses and exchanging cards—maybe not in a pandemic.  Presidents’ Day means the kids are out of school and some of the parents off work, which might mean some playtime or family time or a weekend adventure somewhere.  Not during a pandemic.  Mardi Gras is observed in various ways ranging from church pancake suppoers to a party or a trip to New Orleans—not during a pandemic.  Even the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is hard for churches to manage during a pandemic.  At least the pandemic can’t mess with Lent, since this season of austerity  has come during a time when we are already being asked to practice self-denial—what’s another six weeks of it?

All of these holidays have a common element, however, and that element is hope.  Valentine’s Day was originally a Roman fertility holiday. The name of the month, February, refers to the fever of love. The earth is preparing to be bloom again and humans are willing to go along with it by celebrating romantic love, even if it is only by watching Bridgerton on Netflix. Renewal of plant and animal life as we all start to emerge from winter’s hibernation is a source of hope.  As the weather warms, even those of us practicing social distancing can do more of it outdoors and see other humans as more than a head in a rectangle on Zoom.

With the inauguration of a new president and political tempers cooling after the post-election drama, there is also a renewal of hope that perhaps we can learn to dwell together in peace, a good thought for Presidents’ Day. I just heard the statistic that politically speaking, 25% of Americans are Republicans, 25% are Democrats, and 50% are Independents.  There actually is a majority—it’s the No Party Party!  Perhaps efforts to woo those independents will pull both parties back toward the center.

Finally, Mardi Gras is about letting go, turning one’s back on self-indulgence after one last fling and instead make an effort at cultivating the spirit. (In medieval times, it was also a way to stretch the food supply in the final months before spring crops began to come in.) It is long enough to change, short enough to see the light of Easter at the end of the Lenten tunnel, with the hope that by Ester, the holiday of renewal and rebirth, we will be reborn as better, wiser, more patient and less greedy and gluttonous than we were six weeks ago.  That’s a tall order, but we have to start somewhere.

So as we zip through these back to back holidays, let us celebrate hope.  Especially the hope that we have actually learned something from the pandemic and will remember it next year when these last gasp of winter/start of sprig holidays come round again.

The Stock Market and the Economy

My oldest daughter and my youngest grandchild are both taking economics this semester, and neither of them are enthusiastic.  Often it is taught in ways that make it seem irrelevant for your life, your values, or your idea of how people should behave for the good of the nation or globe.  If you are one of those people, try this little lesson on why it pays to know something about economics.

Defenders of Donald Trump often admit to his shortcomings, but at the same time, they defend his presidency with praise for the economy.  Asked for specifics, they point to the booming stock market (which has continued to boom since Biden was certified, but that is another story). They also point to low unemployment and GDP growth, both of which had also occurred under the previous administration. But the stock market is the one that comes up most often.

As an economist, I want all you non-economists to know that the stock market is NOT the economy. The economy is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), jobs, and income distribution.  That is a utilitarian answer, an ethical movement that defines the goal of society and economy as providing the greatest good for the greatest number.  Greatest good is measured, however imperfectly, by GDP, but greatest number requires that those benefits be widely shared across the population.  GDP was doing well before the pandemic, as was the stock market, but both had done well under the previous administration, and some of the further gains were a sugar high from the 2017 tax cut. The distribution of income and wealth has been deteriorating for several decades as both became increasingly unequal.

If the stock market is not our primary measure of economic performance, what is it?  Historically, the stock market is a place where investors can buy and sell ownership shares of business firms.  It serves three primary purposes and two secondary purposes.  One purpose is to provide a vehicle for raising capital for business firms. A second purpose is to provide a financial instrument where people can put their savings to work earning interest, dividends, and capital gains. The third purpose, which is a side benefit, is to discipline or reward firms for their past, current, and expected future earnings through the purchase of  shares for firms expected to perform well and selling shares of those firms that have been or are expected to perform poorly.

The two secondary purposes, which are incidental, are to serve as a leading economic indicator and to enable a sophisticated form of gambling.  A leading economic indicator is something that has a good track record in forecasting future output (GDP) and employment (which is closely tied to GDP). The stock market is one of about a dozen such indicators, which include building permits, manufacturers’ inventories, consumer expectations, and other tried and true predictors. They are all tied together in the index of leading economic indicators, a popular tool for forecasting recessions and recoveries.

The other secondary purpose is related to the growth of sophisticated tools like puts and calls, options, or short sales by hedge funds allows investors to use the stock market for what amounts to a form of gambling.  These tools are also used in commodities markets, which sell metals, fuels, and farm products among other things for future deliveries.  Like the stock market, the commodities futures market developed for a useful purpose, providing short- to medium-term capital to firms and especially to farmers to plant and harvest a crop.  Commodity prices are very volatile, so this futures market provided a way for producers to protect themselves against a price decline (the curse of an abundant harvest in the case of farmers). Guaranteeing a future price involves risk (a relative of gambling) for investors and insurance for sellers.

This past week or so we have seen a dramatic use of that gambling function by non-hedge fund individuals with the aid of social media to deliver a serious blow to hedge funds that had used these tools to bet against the price of a favorite retail chain, Game Stop. Hedge funds, as in hedge your bets.  Does that suggest gambling? Sometimes a hedge is just that, a way to “insure” against the risk of sudden changes in a stock that is a large part of your portfolio.  But  these tools can also force or accelerate a decline in the price of a stock with a short sale. Hedge funds were not protecting themselves from a Game Stop price decline, they were betting (and abetting) that it would happen. Hedge funds had used a short sale to gamble on a decline in the price of  Game Stop stock.  They sold shares they did not own for future delivery, betting that the price would be lower when they had to buy shares for delivery.  Caught short when the price rose, they had to divest themselves of other assets to cover the short sale, taking losses in the process. I am proud of those small investors, most of them young, who used the tools of the hedge fund managers to turn it into a life lesson on behalf of a company they liked.

I like  to gamble too, but I would rather gamble on the lottery where at least some of the money goes to support education in my state. Between buying my Powerball ticket and waiting for the result, I get the recreational benefit of dreaming about what I would do if I won the lottery. (At my age, I would give it away to worthy causes.)  And I even occasionally visit a casino if I am in the neighborhood and give myself a loss limit of $50.  But at least my personal occasional petty gambling does no harm, although there are people who have a gambling addiction who do need protection.  Maybe hedge fund managers should reflect on their own gambling addiction and check out Powerball as a less dangerous and less destructive alternative.

What’s Your Oxymoron?

I am working on a book with the oxymoronic title Passionately Moderate, and it got me to thinking about the labels I apply to myself that are oxymoronic. I am a feminist traditionalist, for example. I believe strongly in women’s autonomy and inclusion, but I was married for 53 years to a loving husband and raised three daughters to believe that being a career woman and married with or without children was not a variety of oxymoron. I was also a band booster and a Girl Scout leader and a Sunday School teacher. I cook, I clean, I sew as I was raised to do.

When I was working as a policy analyst (an  economist at the Strom Thurmond Institute who never voted for Strom), I had a picture of myself on my office door finishing a lap quilt for my daughter. Caption: Professor, economist, quilter. As poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Religiously, I identify as a liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist with touches of Buddhism and paganism in my religious makeup.  My Universalist self does not accept the idea of exclusive possession of the truth by any one way of being in religious community, so others may find this identity oxymoronic, but I prefer to call it holistic. I am progressive on social issues and fiscally conservative, but I always have to explain that fiscally conservative doesn’t necessarily mean smaller government, it means more responsible and accountable government.  I recall many years ago a student coming up to ask a question after class and he began by saying, “Well, I know you are conservative, so…” I think he meant that he found himself agreeing with me, and his label was conservative, so I must be conservative.

I am also a New England native but an adopted Southerner for the last 2/3 of my life, which make me more a split personality than an oxymoron, but I hold both cultures to have enriched my life in different ways. I probably have other contradictions in my makeup that I am not aware of, but I count on my daughters and my friends to point them out to me.

So I invite you to reflect on your own oxymoronic labels.  Practice oxymoronics.  Try being both-and rather than either/or. It can be enriching, rewarding, and a good foundation for a bridge to others who share some of your “oxys” and others of your “morons,” along with those that are just their own.

Being a Good Citizen

2020 offered us a crash course in how our federal government works, or at least how it is supposed to work.  Certainly we all were introduced to parts of the Constitution and the electoral process that we never thought about.  Certifying an election. Curing mail- in ballots. Drop boxes, signature verification, and witness signatures. Not only did we learn a lot about elections, we also now know more about the three ways to remove a president from office (four, counting electing someone else)—impeachment, the 25th amendment, and the 14th amendment.

It is my earnest hope as a 53-year member of the League of Women Voters that the events of 2020 inspired us all to becoming better citizens—more aware and more involved.  Democracy dies in darkness.  It is more threatened by the indifference of the majority than the violent anger of one minority or another. Since it’s still early in the new year, let me invite you to practice five essential civic virtues that are part of the privilege and responsibility of being an American citizen.

1. Pragmatism is my favorite civic virtue, probably because I spent 15 years teaching in a public policy program. According to Aristotle, virtues lie at the golden mean between their opposites and their extremes.  The opposite of pragmatism is absolutism, while the extreme is anything goes, a political form of indifference or apathy.  The best is often the enemy of the good. Or the good enough.  Beware of candidates who stand for absolutes.  Barry Goldwater learned that in 1964 when he declared that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  He carried five states. Sometimes the best we can do is to move policy a bit farther in the right direction.

2.   Pragmatism and its twin sister, compromise, are one form of acceptance and respect, which is the second civic virtue.  But acceptance and respect goes beyond pragmatism to being sure that everyone is heard before a compromise is made. All lives matter, but especially the ones that haven’t seemed to matter in the past. In the 19th century and into the 20th black and women’s lives didn’t matter enough.  More recently, we have included LGBTQ people, native Americans and immigrants.  We are also called to include those who feel left behind by a society of rapid change and concentration of wealth, and those on both ends of the political spectrum who feel suppressed and unheard, who feel that their free speech and freedom of religion rights are being trampled.  Listening, not just to those with whom we agree but those who see the world differently, is an essential practice in both private and public life.

2. The third civic virtue is honesty, integrity, transparency—whatever you call it, truthfulness is a critical civic virtue for maintaining or restoring trust in our society and our government. Faith or trust in institutions crumbles when there is no honesty, no disclosure, or worse, spread of misinformation, a culture of falsehood. It is the responsibility of public officials to practice honesty in all forms, and it is the responsibility of citizens to seek it out, test its plausibility, and demand honesty and transparency.  That includes supporting a free press and listening to a variety of media voices, not just the ones on your side of the political fence.

3.  Fairness, justice, and equality are a package civic virtue that  pervades every public issue, every program, every institution to provide equal access to the common goods of life.  Justice, fairness, and equality are not just equal treatment under law, but equal opportunity, equal respect, and equal access to the good things of life. Equality in access to opportunities and employment, to health care and housing. Justice in equal treatment for equal offenses and appropriately unequal treatment for lesser and greater offenses. Fairness in the distribution of resources among competing groups and interests.

5. Responsibility or diligence (or civic engagement) means committing to do your share of the work of public pace in ways that use your gifts to make your city, state, or nation a better place.  I am so proud of my oldest daughter and my youngest granddaughter who took four hours of online training and then worked a 12 hour day as poll workers in the November  election. Sammi, who just turned 16 two days before the election, served at the polls along with seven of her classmates.  They give me hope for the next generation.

Responsibility means voting, listening to candidates, following legislation, letting officials from president and members of Congress down to city councils and school boards what your concerns are and why they should vote in a particular way. It means paying attention and engaging with fellow citizens to try to make a better, more nurturing, more sustainable world for ourselves and generations to come.

It’s still January.  Not to late to make a New Year’s resolution. If is five is too many, start with #5 — civic engagement– and let it lead you to the other four in how you assert your citizenship as a duty, a right, and a privilege.

Visiting My Bookshelves

A friend of mine visits her books every New Year’s Day, removing each one from its shelf, dusting it, deciding whether it stays or goes, and puts it in the distribution pile or back on the shelf. Visiting my personal library is also a January habit of mine, but I have experimented with several different styles of organizing the eight bookshelves in my townhouse (one in the office, two in the bedroom, two in the living room and three in the guest room).  The office bookshelf contains books I am likely to refer to in my writing—speeches, articles, books, blogs. The content of that bookshelf is about half stable and half varying with whatever project I am currently pursuing.

The rest are somewhat organized by subject areas (religion, economics, ethics, history, biography, politics/government, reference, fiction…) but the organization tends to break down over the course of a year with additions, loans in both directions, and recycling.  With bookshelves scattered throughout the house (although nothing like the book-trove of the Carl Sandburg house in North Carolina!), this act of loving care for my books involves a lot of movement from one room to another. It also generated a growing pile on the dining room table to take to the local library, which will keep some and put others in their monthly book sale.

I made a couple of changes in the routine this year.  One was to relegate to the bottom shelves those books I intend to keep but am unlikely to revisit.  These include textbooks from my teaching career, textbooks from seminary, and books I wrote myself. Sorry, guys, love you all and am keeping you, but don’t expect to be consulted or reread any time soon.

The second and most important change was to dedicate a shelf to books I have not yet read but intend to read, as well as a selection of the ones that I think are worth re-reading. That turned out to be the most enjoyable part of this year’s library project.  I looked at some fiction books that I bought but forgot about, started and dropped, or for some reason got diverted and never resumed reading.  Most of them are in the library box now.  But I have promised myself to read some that were distressingly bulky, like two of the Ken Follett series that started with Pillars of the Earth. I have lots of inspirational reading, short pieces or reflections that offer a good companion to my morning journal writing. It’s nice to have a place to find them when I am l looking for a better reading start to my day than the morning paper. That is one shelf that will be visited regularly to pull out a book for my reading table, decide where it goes when I am done reading it (keep? lend? recycle?), and adding new volumes to the collection.

Winter hibernation, with or without a pandemic, is a good time to resume your love affair with books.  They have no commercial interruptions.  They do not preface everything with Breaking News! or similar enticements to drop whatever you are doing and enter medialand.  They are, like a faithful pet, ready and waiting for your company when you choose to enjoy theirs.

So let me invite you to the feast spread before you, books you have loved or will love, books that will lose your attention after the first chapter and books that will not let you go. (Another friend gives a book 50 pages to persuade her to either ditch it or read to the end.) An organized pantry makes cooking much easier. An organized library does the same for the feast of words, ideas, images, and stories that is waiting for your attention.

Name That Base!

Now the Defense department has been authorized to replace the names of Confederate Generals on military bases,  whom should we honor instead? I know that there are at least 10 bases to be renamed, so decided to start the ball rolling. All of these fought—the only one fighting on the other side was Tecumseh, and he was quite justifiably playing self-defense.  Robert Smalls is my favorite hero of the civil war. He did great service to the Union.  Nathan Hale died for his country in the revolutionary war.   All but two of the others are military leaders one was an enslaved person and the other was an enlisted man in World War II.  Here are my candidates.

#1. Robert Smalls, the South Carolina-born slave who stole a ship from the Confederate navy in Charleston harbor and piloted it to the Union blockade to turn it over to the  U.S. Navy.  Smalls subsequently served in the U.S. Navy and later in Congress. He can be the new name of Fort Jackson in Columbia, SC.

#2-5.  Heroes of the American Revolution.  Francis Marion.  Sergeant Jasper, the hero of the battle of Fort Moultrie who declined a commission from the governor because he was illiterate. A county in South Carolina and a square in Savannah are named for him.  Lafayette, who offered invaluable help to George Washington and once had an installation named for him that has since been decommissioned.   John Paul Jones, founder of the American Navy—is there a navy base in need of a new name?

#6.  U.S. Grant for the Union side of the Civil War, but probably best used at a non-Southern military base.

#7-8. Generals Patton and Eisenhower.

#9. Nathan Hale.

#10. Tecumseh.

And as for #11, look him up! Isaac Woodard.

New Year’s Resolution #3: Simplicity

The third and final action virtue in my trinity of 2021 resolutions is simplicity.  It rarely appears on a list of virtues, yet it is at the core of two religions, Buddhism and Christianity.  It also is one of the spiritual tasks of the final stage of life after one’s hair has turned white and one has seen one’s grandsons in the Hindu tradition.  (Coloring my hair and pointing out that I have only granddaughters does not get me off the hook.) Simplicity means leading a less cluttered life in all respects, but for 2021 I will focus on three in particular: fewer possessions, living lightly on the earth (“live simply that others might simply live”), and decluttering the cluttered calendar.  

First and easiest, possessions. Having written a book on decluttering with my friend and distant cousin by marriage Fran Scoville, I recognize that decluttering my space is not an act but an ongoing process. Marie Kondo is an inspiration to me as she is to so many. Does this possession spark joy? If not, thank it and let it go.  Decluttered cabinets, countertops, closets, drawers, and spaces make it easier to find the things you do want to keep and use. Lots of recycling involved.  Reducing food waste is both decluttering and living lightly on the earth. Recycling from two of my hobbies, jigsaw puzzles and books, is pretty easy to do, with fellow puzzle fans and readers before the books finally wind up in the library to keep or sell to support the library, and the carefully repackaged puzzles get recycled to a consignment shop that supports a volunteer organization. Virtual decluttering is a challenge that I have begun to face by divorcing most social media, but I will continue to work on the challenge of managing the overwhelming volume of email by clicking more often on that magic word “unsubscribe.”

Living lightly on the earth has lots of dimensions. Using less energy with less driving, flying, and shopping.  Being mindful that ordering from amazon or other online services does not reduce energy consumption and may actually increase it compared to shopping mostly locally. Reducing food waste is another dimension.  Growing some of my vegetables.  Avoiding the use of pesticides and wasting energy (mine and the mower’s) on mowing a lawn, a continuation of my war on grass that began in 2020. Replacing grass with plants that provide habitat and are friendly to birds, bees, and butterflies. Empowering others to simply live spills over into prudence in charitable contributions that go to providing solar energy in sub-Saharan Africa and planting trees in the Brazilian rain forest.

Most challenging of all is the to-do list and the calendar, the tendency to over-commit time and energy and leave no space for spontaneity, silence, or what the Dutch call “nichtsen”–doing nothing. I have two major volunteer commitments for 2021, one tapering off starting in May, one continuing through the year, so I will limit my other volunteer obligations until that ‘space” is available. I feel more of a need to tend and befriend, so people time will be more central to my calendar, as I look forward to more of that time being in person and less via Zoom some time in 2021.

I once had a friend who always talked about repotting herself, like a pot-bound plan with a need to spread her roots and grow toward the sun.  (She eventually took a leap of faith, divorced her overbearing husband and remarried.)  For me, the annual tradition of New Year’s resolutions (some of which I have actually kept!) is a less dramatic but still meaningful, challenging, and enriching form of repotting myself, nourishing my physical, intellectual, and spiritual roots and letting myself grow toward the sun.  What kind of repotting will enrich your new year?

The Turning of the Year–Resolution #2

Patience is a virtue, except when it morphs into procrastination.  I am pretty good about not procrastinating (all right, maybe emptying the litter box, according to my cat) but I do find myself drawn to impatience, its opposite.  Impatience is living in the future, whether it is waiting for Christmas, or the kids to grow up, or the workday to end, or the new president to be inaugurated.  The grass is always greener in the future (especially since I am writing this blog at the winter solstice!).

The spiritual practice that is the best known cure for impatience is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment and doing one thing at a time, a foreign notion to the familiar modern American world of multitasking and planning ahead.  I eat breakfast while writing in my journal and drink my tea ( a recent switch from coffee to reduce my over-stimulation) while reading the morning paper.  I cannot watch television without something to occupy my hands (jigsaw puzzles are a favorite in the winter).

I took a six -week class in mindfulness meditation several years ago, and the experience that particularly stayed with me was mindful eating. Focus on the food.  Think about where it cam from, and be grateful for those who made it possible. Look at it, experience it.  Don’t take another bite until you have finished the first.  Mindful eating is not only a good spiritual practice, but also a good way to reduce one’s intake!

  I grew up in an environment where eating was competitive, especially with my older brother, who was a voracious eater. It was fueled by his growth into a 6 foot 5 inch frame, while I topped out at 5’4″. But the habit persisted. When I eat out with a friend, I always finish first. Now I watch the same story play out between my 60 pound dog and my five pound cat.  The tiny 20-year-old cat eats mindfully and returns to nibble throughout the day.  If I do not shelter her food from the dog, my big barking protector will hunt out her food and finish it off, which is not good for either of them.  And trust me, both cat and dog practice mindfulness to the nth degree.  Always focused on what they are doing in the moment.

As I write this, I am resisting the temptation to multitask by turning on NPR for the news of the day.  When I finish this blog, I will turn my attention to the next round of my daily routine, the most challenging in terms of mindfulness.  Five miles, 15 minutes on the exercycle to energize the active part of my day. There my challenge is to silence the monkey mind by concentrating on the body, the exercycle, progress toward my goal.. It helps if, before mounting the exercycle, I make out my to-do list.  Writing things down is off-loading those jumping monkey thoughts to the hard drive, so that I can be patiently in the present, knowing that my list will be waiting for me when I am ready for it.

There is a longer term dimension to patience and impatience as well.  I dashed through life at warp speed.  Married on my 21st birthday, I took three courses in summer school to graduate from college a year early and start graduate school.  At 28 I had a Ph.D., a husband, two children, and an assistant professorship.  I can’t go back and live those years more slowly, but when I retired (early, of course!) I did go back to graduate school to get a master’s degree in theological studies and to savor the experience.  In part to deliberately slow the process and in part because I was commuting a fair distance, I took three years to get a two-year degree. Graduate school in Emory University’s Candler School of Theology was a good place to practice mindfulness.

As I approach my 80th birthday in the summer of 2021, I am very aware that I have  a limited number of years left, especially years of good health, eyesight, and stamina. The past is long and the future is short.  I cannot afford to live the future any longer.  I need to savor the present.  Yes, I need to plan for those final years—that’s prudence, the first virtue on my three virtue list for 2021.  But I also need to live them!  I hereby publicly declare that I am committing to patience and its cousin, mindfulness, in 2021. 

There is an old joke about Unitarians that goes something like this.  Why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly?  Because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the theology. Reading ahead does get in the way of experiencing and singing joyfully in the present. I wish you, and me, a mindful, present-focused, patient 2021.