Thursday, September 24, 2020

PLEASURE

Our neighborhood meditation group met last night--a small group, but always welcome, no matter how many or how few. In view of the anger many of us are feeling at the many ways our whole country seems to be collapsing into chaos, we spent out time in contemplation of the simple pleasure of the breath. It's a pleasure of body and mind, both, to pay attention to the breath as it comes in, and again as it goes out. The whole length of it. And to allow it to bring pleasure with it--not sensual, quite, though it involves the senses; but holistic, gratifying, healing all at once. At the end of the session, everyone felt better. 

Then we started talking about our social and political unrest and uncertainties... 

Monday, September 21, 2020

THE MIDDLE PATH

Along with I suppose everyone who thinks like me, and believes as I do in justice for the powerless, the impoverished and disadvantaged, I was not only deeply saddened but seriously alarmed at news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death last Friday. I was still more disturbed by the reaction of those on the right who leaped without hesitation to seize the opportunity to renege on previous policies and promises in order to ram through a nomination to replace this distinguished jurist before the election--or at the very least, before the inauguration of the next president.

Ginsburg's death has added a new and potentially noxious ingredient to the already toxic brew of the coming election. Before anyone has had the time to mourn the loss of yet another great champion of democracy, the argument is already in full swing as to who will benefit the most, Republicans or Democrats. The intensity of the division between left and right, between "liberal" and "conservative" has only increased--and I use the scare quotes because those words have lost their conventional meaning in the era of the current occupant of the White House and his congressional acolytes. Conservatism, particularly, has been stood on its head; its partisans have abandoned every principle and policy in which they once so loudly proclaimed their faith. And the word "liberal", not only in their lexicon but also in that of the radical left, has become nothing more than a pejorative taunt.

The question that arises in my mind in the midst of our deteriorating national crises is this one: where is the Middle Path, and, even if found, is it possible, even desirable, to still follow it? With the best of intentions, I see no middle ground between my own democratic--and, yes, Democratic--convictions and those of a would-be autocrat's enablers and his adoring hordes. A middle path requires that ground, an agreed-upon set of values, a common ground of reason, a measure of goodwill on either side. Where is the middle path when those who have set standards and made explicit, public promises so readily abandon them in order merely to maintain and reassert their power? Where is the middle path when those on one side of the highway seem to have lost their way; to have no path at all, but zig-zag constantly according to their perceived benefit at any given moment?

I find myself in a state of unhealthful perplexity. I wake early, too worried to fall back asleep. I head off to my meditation at an earlier and earlier hour, and find it harder to resist the thoughts that insist on intruding on the equanimity I seek. I remind myself of that sound, reasonable teaching about hewing to the Middle Path... and am challenged by my inability to find one. 


Sunday, September 20, 2020

THE DIGITAL WORLD

There are advantages and disadvantages to this digital world in which we live today. On the one hand, the Internet gives us all the opportunity to stay in touch in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past. Where would we be without the (double-edged!) blessings of email, FaceTime, Zoom, and so on, which allow us to stay in touch even in times of pandemic-induced isolation?  It's not the same, of course. What we see instead of a real person is a complex assemblage of thousands--millions?--or pixels. What we hear is not a real voice, but that has been digitalized and reconstituted as something approximate to the one we know. 

Case in point: our daughter, Sarah, left Los Angeles a couple of days ago on a flight to the Netherlands, to visit her friend there. The following morning, at seven o-clock already, we had an audio-visual conversation with her as the two of them sat drinking beer at a sidewalk cafe in Leiden. I clearly remember the days, not so long ago, when even a telephone call to family on the other side of the Atlantic involved an operator, false starts, endless waits for an open connection and, when connected, fuzzy voices and a lot of confused shouting. It was also expensive. You worried about the minutes as they passed. Now family is just a click away, with immediate connection, clear visuals and voices--all at no cost whatsoever. It was such a great pleasure to know that Sarah's flight had been an easy one and to see her happily enjoying the new environment several thousand miles away.

On the other hand... I just spent an hour "unsubscribing" from the mounting blizzard of unsolicited emails I have been receiving. I should, I suppose, have made a habit of unsubscribing a long while ago. In recent days, thanks to my neglect, I have been snowed under with 200, 250, 300 of these things a day. Two or three of them are personal. The rest are sales pitches or (mostly) political requests for money. The need is legitimate. It's a sad thing that American political life is dependent entirely on the flow of case, but that's the reality. And I understand the need. Our situation is now so dire, the need for change so urgent, the danger so great, the candidates are obliged to be unceasing in their barrage of requests for help.

Still, to sit every day, several times a day, and go through it all, and delete most of it, is a chore that has become increasingly... well, not burdensome exactly. Irksome, perhaps, is the word. Something of an unwelcome imposition. So I sat down yesterday morning and must have unsubscribed from at least 50 different sources. It's one of the penalties one pays, I suppose, for the convenient miracle of instantaneous communications.

And this morning... only 81 emails on awakening. More work to be done!

Friday, September 18, 2020

NEVER FORGET

The celebration of the Jewish NewYear begins today, followed a week later by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement--a time to make up for unkindnesses and wrongdoings of all kinds from the year previous. I am not myself Jewish, though somewhat, having married into a Jewish family some 50 years ago. Brought up in an English country village during World War II, the son of an Anglican minister, I had little to no knowledge of Jews and Judaism, even with the arrival of a Jewish boy from Vienna, a few years older than myself. He had the good fortune to have been sent out of Austria on the now well-known Kindertransport, and stayed with us at the Rectory for the war years. I had no idea, at the time, that he was Jewish, nor what that meant. Immensely grateful to my family and much influenced by my father, he became a Christian--and remains one to this day. (I am still in touch with him; bereft since the death of his wife several years ago, he lives in a retirement home in the American Midwest). 

I did, however, learn from contemporaneous news reports about the Holocaust as the war came to an end and the Allied forces came upon those horrifying camps and liberated them; and that knowledge has remained as an essential part of my social and humanitarian conscience ever since. The memory is a vivid and important marker, a true measure of the depravity of which our species is capable. It is always there to remind me of an unfathomable darkness in the human psyche, and of the depths to which we can sink when we surrender our conscience to that darkness. 

So I was shocked to read this morning from a reliable source that about 63% of our young people, millennials and Generation Z, are not aware that the Nazis killed six million Jews during the Holocaust. I was shocked, mostly, because that not-knowing is what could all too easily open the door to similar atrocities in the future. A person needs that knowledge not merely for the sake of history, but to fully understand his or her nature as a human being. We need to know who we are and what we are capable of, particularly at a moment in history when so many of us are choosing to close our eyes and ears to the ill-will, prejudice and hatred validated by the voices and actions of our leaders. 

It is only small, unconscious steps, tragically, that lead us from toleration to acceptance, and from acceptance to the unthinking practice of actions that embody the worst of our humanity. We need knowledge, understanding, consciousness to save us from ourselves. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A LEAD ROLE

I dreamt I was cast in the lead role in a play. It was scheduled to be performed on Saturday and it was already Thursday and I had not even begun to learn my lines, there had been no rehearsals, and the crew responsible for the set were hanging around with no idea what to do. I had arrived in good time that morning, as requested, but the director had not yet bothered to show up. There was another actor in a lead role, but he seemed unconcerned.

When the director finally arrived he proved to be an Oliver Stone type--or at least the type I imagine Oliver Stone to be: tall, hefty, self-possessed, but a bit disconnected from what was happening around him. I was delighted, though, that he brought with him a copy of "Bob Went Home"--a large-scale, clumsy book/poem/sculpture that I assembled with the artist Gary Lloyd many years ago, as a young man. He had opened it up to reveal its extensive, and some dangling parts, and gave me to understand that he set great store by. Which encouraged me to think that he was a man who had a good grasp of contemporary culture.

He seemed curiously disinterested in getting to work, however. Everyone was just hanging around, waiting for something to happen. I worried a lot about not knowing my lines, with only a bit of Thursday and Friday left before the performance. I was also more than a little annoyed to think that we'd probably be staying up very late that night.