Saving Your Thanksgiving

It’s November: The pumpkins are out, along with their various spiced lattes, cream cheeses, and sausages. Christmas trees made a showing before September ended in some stores. Yes, it’s that time again. The holidays. After Halloween, it’s all over but the shouting.

Help is here! Four words to improve your season: Boundaries, expectations, change, and change.

We call boundaries many things. Manners and good sense make the list. Simply put, you don’t do or say things that you shouldn’t. If it were that easy, of course, Thanksgivings with family would go a lot easier. Children would spring forth fully operational, Minerva-like. Love really would mean never having to say you’re sorry. Oh, and no more wars. If the human race were good at boundaries, though, we wouldn’t need police, or parents. In a word, set some, for yourself anyway.

Now we get more personal.  Expectations have ruined many a holiday. Set too high, the right events, the perfect gift, the happiness, the thrills are not enough. Too low, and the time goes by with drudgery and boredom. Expectations are not reserved for parties and pleasantries. You wanted a pumpkin pie made from a real pumpkin with hand-grated nutmeg? Mom bought one at Costco this year. Expecting the reverse works as well. The holidays offer a swell opportunity to monitor your expectations. See the section on boundaries if you need help being quiet. The exception? Do more good than you expect to get.

Even closer to home. Change, twice, is not a mistake. First, you can’t change other people. Lots of clichés help with this—Horses to water comes to mind. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still” has more detailed instructions and could avert many a political rampage. Yet many of us would so like to improve our fellows that the idea blinds us to the impossibility. It’s a boundary issue, yes, but a field so rife with abuse that it needs its own category.

Second, you can change yourself. Hurray! Gyms memberships will explode in January. Self-help books do a booming business. AA works. Negative cycles are broken every day. But it’s not easy. Try this exercise: Clasp your hands so your thumbs cross. Then draw your fingers up and cross your thumbs the other way when you clasp. It feels most uncomfortable. Really, most of the time, we’d just rather not. Perhaps it’s no accident that the last gasp of the holidays is that wondrously impossible list, New Year’s resolutions, some of which actually get done.

If you’ve been paying attention here, you may have realized that this piece violates all its own precepts. It gives unsolicited advice and asks you to expect something positive for your trouble by changing. An intrusion, no? How, then, is it possible to instill some sense of “I-know-this-is-right-so-please-listen”?

I’ve struggled with boundaries. For years, I had an account with a florist for the times I made too big a misstep for a simple “I’m sorry” to make me feel better. A Thanksgiving without a sibling in tears, well, being the oldest never gets easier. As for expectations, one more year is here when I’ve not planned and saved for cruises for all my kids. (Sorry, guys.) Change? I feel pretty good about this one. I’ve asked any random relative to remind me to stop if I begin a sentence with “Have you thought about…?” The world is tough. At home, let’s be safe, even if it’s from each other this year. I wish us all a happy and a merry.

Be. Still. And. Know.

Ways to be and ways not to be—a regular topic here. Last week, I met the most amazing group of people who have this being thing down. On Saturday, I was with Reyna Aburto, a counselor in the presidency responsible for the women in my church. She’s from Nicaragua but has lived in this country for several decades. It’s not that her life here or there has been easy. In this talk, she discusses her daughter’s encounter with depression and her father’s death by suicide. But she was funny and organized, warm and open.

Monday evening was Swami Atmarupananda who spoke for an hour on the Vedanta tradition within the Hindu faith. You can listen to another lecture here and will get some sense of his voice and his lovely hands.

Tuesday was a Dallas Winds concert, and I am often invited to attend with a dear friend. Last week, the highlight was Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which you can hear here with James Earl Jones or here with Henry Fonda or here with Phylicia Rashad. Each a different experience, so please listen to one. So last week, it was Rex Tillerson’s turn. As we went into our seats, the usher followed and asked for our tickets. That has never happened before. I hope I didn’t make too much of a scene as I called out for my friend to get them out. She did, everyone was nice, and on we went. The usher added, “I am just doing my job.” Friends next to us then whispered that Rex Tillerson and his wife Renda were just behind us. “Don’t look now but…” So we did finally look, and there they were, with Secret Service in attendance as well. Afterward, we spoke to them at a reception. He and I were at the University of Texas together, though he was in the Longhorn Band and I was in another one. His wife was also charming. She rode horses in rodeo events for 20 years. We bonded when I offered that I did some barrel racing myself but in a different body than the one I have now. She laughed.

Where are we? Wednesday. In 2017, Allison Stanger, then a professor at Middlebury College, was assaulted by students and outside agitators when she was trying to assist Charles Murray off campus. In this column for the New York Times, she recounts the events but also adds the insights she received. She is a partisan who understands the need for non-partisan communication. Her new book is Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump. It has nothing to do with the current whistleblower but everything to do with the important function of calling out corruption.

So that was my week. I want to add four brief stories that all this excitement brought to mind. First, an explanation. The Swami said he has two favorite verses from the Bible: I am that I am, and Be still and know that I am God. The first is a deep discussion reserved for another day. The second is also a favorite of mine, but today I am considering each of the first four words as its own sentence.

Be. Decades ago, a physician I knew told the story of a woman who lived in her bed, blind, deaf, barely able to move. Her family had called him in to have her declared incompetent. It’s not a pleasant task, usually involving ulterior motives. Sitting down, he took her hand in a doctorly manner. Suddenly, this woman began moving her fingers. Blessedly, this physician had training in tactile fingerspelling, the method in which the deaf and blind communicate. Her motion was not random, but few would have recognized what she was doing. One wonders how often she might have tried and failed. This man learned that she was anything but incompetent, and he spent many hours in her delightful company. One thing puzzled him: How did she spend her time, trapped as she was in her mind? She explained that she gardened. It was at her grandmother’s home where she had spent many happy hours planning, planting, weeding, harvesting. In her mind she went through all those long-remembered tasks. “Is there anything unusual that happens?” he wondered. Her wry reply has stayed with me: “Well, I do hurry winter.” It’s hard to imagine her life, but I take comfort in her ability to be, considering all the freedom I have to move and to speak.

Still. The Swami discussed at length the steps to enlightenment. Beliefnet describes the goal as this Buddhist concept: “Freedom from craving, delusion, and hatred is where true peace lies, and that is the goal of enlightenment.” Except that he didn’t use the word “enlightenment.” He is Hindu, with his branch of attainment called Vedanta. Impermanence is an important ideal, as well as the quieting of self. About three years ago, our two oldest grandsons were having a lively discussion about existence on different (geometric) planes of existence. They dispensed with two dimensions easily enough. “What is one dimensional space?” asked the 9-year-old. I described it as best as I knew how—a place with no heighth or depth, a single dot. The 12-year-old fielded questions about not being able to run or eat or play in such a place. Finally, a bit exasperated, the younger one said, “I’ll just be there and think.” Then came the answer for the ages: “No, you couldn’t even do that. Thinking would require neuronal activity, which is directional motion.” Wow. That’s what the Swami said, too, and his companion allowed that they were brilliant children, which I know I’m not allowed to say. My point in telling him the story was to suggest that now I had some glimmer of what it means to be still, not to brag.

And. New word for the day: syncretism. The response given after the Swami was from a Japanese scholar who practices meditation with Buddhists but also identifies as a Catholic Christian. Syncretism is the practicing of two different belief traditions, or reconciliation. A recently-heard concern involves the practice of yoga in the West as cultural appropriation of a religious Eastern form of worship. Asking Google if that is true yields a surprising set of answers that includes everything from white supremacy to colonialism. Startling. However, a concept called “holy envy” which is part of the late Lutheran bishop Krister Stendahl’s guide for religious understanding: “(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies; (2) don’t compare your best to their worst; and (3) leave room for “holy envy” by finding elements in other faiths to emulate.” Note that he says “emulate,” not just admire. Having left the Swami’s presence, I knew I needed to be quieter, perhaps even studying meditation more seriously. Dr. Stanger, it happens, believes that interfaith dialogue is the way forward as she herself is a member of her local council. We are commanded, after all, to love God and our neighbors. Neither is easy; both are necessary.

Know. A man serving as a bishop in my congregation years ago would begin his testimony saying he knew, really knew, only two things: His wife loved him. The Church is true. As an aviator, he knew how to fly fighter jets, even in the dark, we learned at other times. He taught students and directed companies. Yet those are the things he chose as central to his being. In the talk by Dr. Stanger, the importance of civility was central. A flyer accompanying the evening was a list by Dr. Scott Crider titled “Overcoming Your Lesser Angels: Ten Ways to Improve Our Culture.” His conclusion notes that it is possible to know what is good without doing it—to ignore what is true “and rejoin one of the ignorant armies clashing by night.” Relishing something better, I think few of us will want to choose that. This brief explanation of Aristotle as used by Dr. Crider might be helpful. The goal of happiness, or eudaimonia, was recently discussed by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, here. This discussion allows for the possibility that our happiness is also the goal of Deity. And so we come full circle. Some weeks, it seems, are simply more full of light than others. A source of thanksgiving indeed.

It’s Not Me–It’s You

It’s not as if “It’s not you—it’s me” was ever the truth, of course. It always meant the opposite. This old break-up line was intended not to hurt feelings. Since no one ever believed it, it didn’t work but at least softened the inevitable blow.

Last week, a student whose paper I needed to critique had written a sentence that didn’t make any sense. I tried to soften the blow: “So, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here.” The response was one I’d never heard nor will I ever forget: “I’d think that you as an English teacher ought to be able to understand what I wrote.” Let me see if I translate this a different way. “What I’ve written makes perfect sense. You are just not bright enough to understand.” The continuation “I try to use big words when I can” did not serve to assuage my astonishment.

The message, obvious to me at least, was “It’s not me. It’s you.” Not in my defense, but as a matter of “I-thought-I’d-heard-everything,” I couldn’t think of anything bright to respond. Maybe the student was right. Maybe it was over my head, this string of words with no apparent connection to each other, to external facts, to truth.

Instead, this exchange may have hit the proverbial nail on the head regarding the current state of much that happens not only in politics but also in the arts, not only in discourse but also in human interaction.

Politics is too easy a target, though a convenient enough place to begin. When Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election, she did call President Obama and say, “I’m sorry.” That was the last of her humility. Afterward, we’ve been treated to a laundry list of “It wasn’t me. It was (him or the Russians or Comey or sexism or misogyny or etc.) This CNN column reflects Mayor Pete’s take on her loss, suggesting exactly the same thing: The Clinton campaign assumed that voters were going to take the message that Trump was too “Trumpian” to elect. That thinking affected her failure to connect. The entire “Basket of Deplorables” speech didn’t help because of the very separation of “us-them” that caught up half the voters. As the new cycle careens onward, the Democratic hopefuls would do well to grasp this principle. Even Sen. Sanders is taking Sen. Warren to task about an impossible plan that insults the intelligence of many, for example. No new taxes? That message rarely rings true, regardless of party.

Rather than riff on modern music or art, revealing thereby a definite preference for older forms, I’ll suggest that you listen briefly to Philip Glass’s Glassworks. Yes, I understand the concept of minimalism. Yes, I know the criticism of comparing his work to “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is overused. Still, his work all sounds essentially the same to me. The same kinds of things are said about Jackson Pollock (see this week’s visual.”

Perhaps this is too judgmental. Perhaps my student is a genius and I’ve missed it. We shall see, I guess. Papers are due Tuesday.

Open Letter to Someone Dear; or, Difficult By Design

Imagine a warm spring day. You’re walking by a mossy pond filled with frogs and fish, reeds and algae. On several logs bask turtles, eyes closed, heads high, happy. Not that last, of course—just to see if you’re listening—since we have no way to measure turtle contentment other than observation. Importantly, we are not turtles though we can occasionally have the opportunity to bask.

Next, the game Woody Puzzle has its attractions. Ten squares by ten squares must be filled with assorted shapes ranging from a single smaller square to a cube of nine small squares. The others are an assortment of 4×4 squares, lines of two to five squares, and elbows of three or five pieces (my nemesis). The simpler pieces are static; the more complicated ones rotate, thereby making a healthy array of possibilities. My high score is 4672. But wait: current high for the world is 262,459. It’s not uncommon for me to score in the low 200s. One must pay attention, you see, because it is possible pieces will not appear that can help you but seem almost sinisterly to undermine your plans.

Both these, of course, are metaphors for life. It can seem too easy or too hard. We can try to sit it out or struggle to piece parts together. Often, problems are of own making. When they are not, however, we can still control our reaction to them.

Viktor Frankl wrote an important book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that contains this quotation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He was a Holocaust survivor who knew what he was talking about.

This week a friend who is facing some struggles (so many other words could be used instead) posted this brief poem by Najwa Zebian: “Never wish them pain. That’s not who you are. If they caused you pain, they must have pain inside. Wish them healing. That’s what they need.” It is a good goal. It will serve you well when you might rather react differently.

In my generation, a popular prose poem called “Desiderata” affected lots of people. We were told initially that it was old, centuries old, but it was actually written in 1927. It begins “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste…” and continues with sentence after imperative sentence exhorting us how to be. Many of us had it before us often in poster form. We loved it, honestly, perhaps because it taught us how to treat each other without getting religion involved. Sacrifice was not our aim, then.

I, too, wrote a poem when my children began to encounter challenges with life. I had a poem last week and won’t push my luck with another, but the theme was that I would make it all easier, if it were in my power: “a snail sans shell” was the guiding image. The dedication was to a sick little boy, which you are not. The point remains relevant. You’re lucky I’m not the one in charge. You might not have the opportunities that struggle provides. Odd but true.

Back to turtles, but not basking ones. The old story goes that baby sea turtles survive only if they make it from their nest to the sea themselves. Any assistance (as by an earnest boy) weakens them. I am not sure it’s true, but you can read about them here. I do know that many of the things we think about as “help” actually are not.

Finally, (imperative sentence ahead) remember how much you are loved by so many. We can’t make things easy—and shouldn’t—but we will do everything that is best and wise and good to show that we hear you (a mixed metaphor, sorry). Ever upward, excelsior!