Morning Questions

I’m a longtme journal-keeper, starting the day with a page or two of what is going on in my life.  At the end of each day’s entry, I ask myself three questions.  The first two are “What do I hope for today?” And “What am I grateful for today?” The third question come from British author E.B. White, who posed it something like this.  “When I get up in the morning, I have to decide whether to enjoy the world or to improve the world. It makes it hard to plan my day.” In the form of a question, as the Jeopardy host would say, ?What do I plan to do (or not do) that will enable me to enjoy and/or improve the world today?”  Most days I try to do some of each, but there are some days that are mostly enjoy and some that are mostly improve. Over time, I have seen closer links among the questions because the enjoy/improve questions are grounded in what I hope for and what I am grateful for.

The practice of gratitude journaling has been around for a while. Those not inclined to do prayers of thanks (I’m one of those) find an alternative way of expressing thanks to be an alternative spiritual discipline.  There are so many big and little things that make our life more enjoyable that we can be thankful for and so many things we can do to make the world a better place. I have hopes for myself, about being a better person or getting more exercise or losing weight of being more mindful and more present. I have hopes for my friends and children and grandchildren, hopes for my state and my country and the world, hope for peace in Ukraine and slowing down climate change and preserving democracy. Gratitude is tied to enjoy, and hope is improving (or at least not to making things worse). All four of them are part of the mix of who we are and what we do and how that being and doing impacts our life and the lives of others.

Theologian Joanna Macy reminds us that hope has to be active hope, not wishful thinking.   She castigates both optimism (all will be for the best in this best of all possible worlds) and pessimism (nothing I do will make any difference) as a failure of hope, which those who read the New Testament may recognized as one of Paul’s cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. It is not enough to sit yon your recliner and think hopeful thoughts, but to find ways to work alone or even better with others to bring them about.  Similarly, gratitude means respecting the sources of joy, whether it is a sunny day, flowers, a cat on your lap, or a surprise phone call from an old friend. Gratitude calls us to be kind, attentive, and respectful of the atmosphere, the plants, animals, and other people.

What might it look like as a journal entry?  Something like this.  Today I plan to enjoy my weekly 4 pm visit with my women friends who largely share my values and attitudes but are enough different to challenge some of them.  I also plan to enjoy my exercise class, doing some writing, taking a walk, and making pumpkin bread.  I will finish up preparations for my congregational board meeting (I’m the president) and gather the supplies I need for a postcard to minority voters projects to launch after the Sunday service. I will get in touch with an old friend who recently suffered a fall and haul my recyclables to the local recycling center.  I will spray my doorways and windowsills with cleaning vinegar to discourage critters from moving in without resorting to poison. The postcards are part of my hope for democracy, the recycling and vinegar reflect my hope for the planet, and my call to my friend rests on the hope that it will cheer her up while she recovers. I am grateful for so many things, but the ones that are reflected in my enjoying and improving are my friends, my faith community, a good recipe for pumpkin bread, and the Botanical Garden in my community where I often walk.

We are what we think and what we do and what we refrain from thinking and doing.  Sometimes it helps to commit it to paper.

When Hope Is Hard to Find

Do you ever feel that your personal life is going fine, but the outside world is going to hell in a handbasket?  I was feeling that way already—climate change, COVID, political polarization and deadlock, frequent mass shootings—when I watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix last night.  Along with depressing me with the presentation of the widespread addiction to exploitative and divisive social media sites, this documentary affirmed my decision almost a year ago to divorce Facebook.

As a born activist, my response was, what can I do?  And the answer is, not enough. I can make my tiny contributions to slowing climate change, but they are not enough, and it may already be too late.  I can protect myself from COVID, and encourage others to do the same, but I can’t get through the noise about the vaccine and the refusal to take responsibility that make it hard to get back to anything we would consider normal life. I am trying to engage in dialogue across boundaries, but I am not a very effective little progressive wave against a Tucker Carlson ocean.

Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy describes the merely muscular Christian as one who attempts to continuously ladle from a bowl that is never replenished. So, after watching the climate disaster play out in Germany and the Western US (in the southeast, we are enjoying an unusually mild summer), after watching The Social Dilemma and then news of shootings and political fighting, how do I refill the bowl with healthier thoughts?  

I am not a Buddhist, but Buddhism does offer good advice for hard times.  Take refuge in the sangha, which I translate as community. Family, friends, congregation, voluntary associations (the League of Women Voters at the local level, in my case).  Take refuge in the dharma (which I translate as wisdom—the teachings of faith traditions and philosophers). Take refuge in the Buddha (which I translate as the presence of the sacred, by whatever name you may call it.)  And go for long walks in the woods.

May you find ways to refill your bowl and go forth with your ladle to save the world.

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.