Archive for April, 2012

Deli flags

April 29, 2012

I was passing by a crosswalk across Mass. Ave. in Lexington this afternoon and I noticed a canister affixed to a light pole, I think, that was labeled something like “crosswalk flags.”  I read the instructions, and it seems that a pedestrian can use the flags (they looked white when I peered into the canister) to get the attention of motorists before venturing out into the crosswalk.  (I think there’s a state law requiring motorists to stop for anyone in a crosswalk, but as a practical matter, this rule is of little comfort if the motorist hasn’t spotted you.)

I don’t think I had ever heard of crosswalk flags before.  I think they might be confusing to a driver who had never heard of them — they might think they were being asked to pull over to offer some kind of assistance, perhaps.  But I can see their usefulness, especially at night.

I can also see an application for them in supermarkets.  At the deli counter, even when they use numbers and tickets, I often have the experience of not being heard when I respond when my number is called, and not being seen over the counter.  (Jordan is not only a foot taller, but is such a good customer of theirs, it’s like old home week when he comes — he gets seen and recognized and chatted up and served lots of samples.)  Flags would be just the thing to get the deli clerk’s attention.



April 29, 2012

It occurs to me to note, as a follow-on to my last post, that I think behaving virtuously is good thing, a helpful thing, but it is, we know, its own reward — we behave virtuously for ourselves, not for God.  We become better able to access the divine within us when we behave in a way that constitutes behaving virtuously.  We feel better, our hearts are lighter, we have more energy and less baggage to drag around.  At least, that’s what I think.

Divine intervention

April 29, 2012

I read something the other day that gave me pause, in part over the substance and in part because it showed me how different my thinking seems to be from others’.

It had to do with Paul Krugman’s “Confidence Fairy,” and he said something to the effect that people who believe in her think she’ll come as a reward for “fiscal virtue.”

I had no idea that this was the dynamic people imagined.  I assumed that people thought eventually the Confidence Fairy would come when she felt things warranted her intervention and would instill confidence in business owners out of the kindness of her heart, perhaps by re-framing things as I think the Wizard of Oz did.   Because confidence I don’t think comes to us from a sense of having been good and deserving — plenty of such people don’t have it, while plenty of people who are pretty clear on their having behaved badly have plenty of confidence — I don’t think a sense of virtue produces confidence, I think it is a frame of mind we access or not depending on other factors.

This contrast between fairy intervention on the basis of earning it through behavior and receiving it for the fairy’s own reasons led me to think about different models for divine help or intervention.  I don’t think we receive it because we racked up enough points to compel it, or that if we don’t receive it we’re not virtuous, I think a big factor is whether the desired help serves our good and the greater good.

If we need help locating our confidence, I think we can get that, but I think it probably means facing our fears rather than demonstrating our virtue.


April 28, 2012

I remember President Obama (I think he was Candidate Obama then) saying something about the ego involved with running for president.

I was thinking this morning as I woke up about my repeated failure to distinguish behavior arising out of a lack of love in the other person for me and behavior arising in them out of their own ego needs, including putting their own priorities first (in some of these people, we could call it narcissism, but it varies along a continuum) — the person can love me and still present me with a relationship I have difficulty handling.  Processing that difficulty as the other person rejecting me (which is my tendency) is inaccurate, I was thinking, because the attitude towards me I have trouble with is not directed towards me personally, it is a backdrop, the ground out of which all the person’s relationships grow.  The problem I have with the person is at the level of that backdrop, not their feelings of affection for me.  The intersection of those issues occurs, I think, in the concept of caring and consideration for someone beloved, but a person who lacks the ability to empathize with another person well does something that comes across as uncaring or inconsiderate out of ignorance, not bad intent.

What I thought was a more interesting issue is whether a person can armor themselves with enough ego to do something like become president of the United States, or become successful in the material world in other ways, and still be able to take off that armor, perhaps in private, to access inner wisdom, to “bow to their inner self” as the mantra “om namah shivayah” suggests.  In some ways, it’s none of my business, but I find myself wondering if people, or individuals, can do that when they interact with me in ways I find difficult — am I getting unrealistic expectations of theirs for me because of their ego, or are their requests coming out of some deeper place I can trust?  Part of my evaluation of this rests on whether I think they are capable of and practicing taking off their ego-concerns and looking at a situation from a perspective beyond them.

It’s hard for me to know.  That’s why it’s a lot easier if we “meet in the middle,” in that space between our egos which I think we get to through some form of prayer or meditation.  Willy had a different rule of thumb: he would point out to me when I seemed to him to be trying to tie myself into a pretzel in response to somebody else.

I wonder if the challenge isn’t in a way for me to figure out how to have a relationship that works for me too with someone incapable, even benignly, of considering thoroughly what it’s like to be me.

The countervailing issue for me to take into account is that of throwing out the baby with the bathwater — pushing away a loving relationship altogether because it is difficult to work out easily.  Because if it serves my greater good to try to maintain  such a relationship by, for example, politely explaining my needs, then I shouldn’t avoid that experience, then the challenge isn’t to walk away and deal with loss but to learn how to identify and present my own experience, perhaps to someone who is not able to apprehend it any other way.  In a lot of ways, that for me would be a bigger challenge than disentangling from the relationship altogether.

Juno’s wraps

April 27, 2012

I realized that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is just a stop before the medical area where I was headed to hear Martin Guggenheim speak on reforming our approach to child welfare, so I got off a stop early and went to see Juno first.  I’m glad I did.

The statue is big, looks great from afar as you approach.  I got caught up in trying to understand her clothing.  The wall placards said she was wearing a heavy-ish mantle folded double and fastened with a pin at the right shoulder, and a filmier chiton underneath that pooled at her feet.  There also seemed to be another level of hem a little way up from the fabric that was pooling, and I was trying to figure out how to understand that.  The sculpture reveals her thighs and legs and breasts in places in a way that implies the filminess of the chiton, so it would be odd if this double hem was suggesting a double layer of fabric to the gown.  I don’t think it is the “mantle” (my mother wondered whether it was actually a stola when I asked her about it — her area of expertise is Roman art history), because it’s too far down, I think, at that place in the front — the mantle seems to drape down at the sides but not in front, and again, how would the legs be so revealed beneath its heavy cloth?  I’m thinking of showing my mother a picture of the statue when I go down to visit next month to see if there’s an obvious answer I’m missing.

I also loved some of the Asian sculpture I saw — a Buddha who looked like he was saying “Hi” and a Bodhisattva who also had a playful or mischievous expression around her mouth (and a posture like a child, with her stomach slightly thrust forward).  And some home furnishings from China long ago I liked a lot, especially the way they are arranged in the exhibit.

I doubt I’ll get back there again within the ten days my ticket, I think, is good for, but maybe, I’d like to.

Things that come back unexpectedly

April 25, 2012

In today’s mail are two notices of a scheduled hearing for an early May date on the health insurance matter from last fall, the appeal for which I had been told had been dismissed for not having been filed in time.  I posted about it last August, September, and October.

I had been told a supervisor would review within a week’s time last October whether the appeal had been properly dismissed.  When I heard nothing after a couple of weeks I assumed that the dismissal stood.  I have no idea why now we are being given our chance to be heard, what the process was, what happened back then, and who approved the hearing now.

At this point my interest in having the hearing is less about the money and more about trying to give feedback on the inadequacy of the systems in place in the bureaucracy, including the system for written communication, the number of independent computer systems whose information is not cross-referenced, and the (lack of a) system of coordination of their various insurance programs and their eligibility requirements.  Even if my going forward with this is no longer about my family, maybe it will help others.  I’ve taken it so far, I kind of hope it will.

Martin Guggenheim

April 24, 2012

I came across this interview with Martin Guggenheim (a professor of clinical law at NYU School of Law), I’m not sure from when, but I really liked what he said, enough to persuade me to go hear him the day after tomorrow at Children’s Hospital in Boston (well, at least I hope to hear him — I don’t have great recollections of last year’s lecture in the same auditorium, but this year I may get a front-row seat).  The lecture is called “A Call for Child Welfare Reform,” but what persuaded me to go was seeing in his responses in the interview that he has a realistic sense of what goes on on the ground in social services with families and has developed wise and measured policy ideas in response.  The lecture is free and open to the public.


April 23, 2012

I am no longer sure whether it is in fact the case that there are fourteen words for “snow” in an Eskimo language, but the concept still remains even if the original story wasn’t accurate: if we want to talk about nuance, we need a vocabulary to reflect that.

I was thinking about that after reading Michael Gerson’s column in The Washington Post today about his mentor Charles Colson and Colson’s faith.  The lines that caught my attention were, “This inversion of social priorities [referencing Colson’s work with and attitude towards prison inmates] — putting the last first — is the best evidence of a faith that is more than crutch, opiate or self-help program. It is the hallmark of authentic religion — and it is the vast, humane contribution of Chuck Colson. ”

This got me thinking about what different people mean when they talk about faith.  A deeply received faith I have no doubt manifests as it did in Charles Colson.  But I’m wondering how to think about people who say they have faith, or seem to have faith, but aren’t able to find the sweet spot in a convict, for example — the people who may have a less complete relationship with faith.

This is what brings me to my vocabulary issue.  I am not sure myself exactly how to talk about this, but I’m pretty sure there’s an issue here.  I’ve met people who have faith but seem to limit its arena to their families.  I’ve met people who have some amount of serenity in their lives but very little thinking about big questions about Life or their lives.  I’ve met people who have versions of the perceptions people with faith may have, like being an empty vessel for God’s will, but have them in a less healthy form — a negative feeling of being “nothing,” for example.  I experience myself as having some amount of understanding of big questions and an ability to find the sweet spot in most people, but not a whole lot of serenity.  Some religious figures (Moses, Jesus, for examples) in the past who clearly had great spiritual gifts also had more anger, for example, than I would have thought an “enlightened” human being would have.

Clearly, enlightenment is not synonymous with faith.  But that’s just my point.  Discussions in the public square, at least that I come across, don’t make many, if any, distinctions between different aspects of a spiritual life, and my impression is that we can have some aspects without having others (yet).  I suspect faith gets a dubious reputation, when it does, from people whose faith is a work in progress, who haven’t experienced (yet) the deepest penetration of those mysterious forces into their hearts, whose faith comes across to others as a “crutch, opiate or self-help program.”  I guess I am trying to understand what those people have and don’t have.

My fallback concept is that we stand in a shower of a force or energy stream, and depending on our interior preparation, we experience that stream in different ways.  The Charles Colsons with broken pride and heart receive it more deeply perhaps, without so much self-protection interfering.  People who have been able to maintain their attachments and not experienced what they may have feared most, for example, may still have ego issues blocking or getting tangled up in the stream.

My main point isn’t my theory of faith, it’s my wish that we discuss faith with a more developed vocabulary and more nuanced conceptualizations.  I think it’s probably more complicated than, “Either you have it or you don’t.”  I think we obscure the continuum that’s probably there.  Surely the deep, thoroughgoing faith of a Charles Colson is a beautiful thing, and I for one appreciate that kind of bedrock faith, but I’m concerned that we need to not separate such outliers from the rest of us, lest that make it less likely that most of us make progress in our own lives.

Addendum to “Listening”

April 23, 2012

I just wanted to add a sort of follow-on to my previous post.

There was another young suicide in our orbit last week.  A student at the university Jordan attends apparently jumped off a university building, I think it was on Thursday.

The two suicides are factually unrelated to each other.  But I think because of the timing and the youth, I couldn’t help thinking about Romeo and Juliet and other stories where the deaths of two young people are intertwined.  While we have known other suicides of youths in recent years, two in one week seemed unusual, and I suppose my mind is looking to try to make sense of that.


April 23, 2012

Yesterday I had a bunch of not very remarkable things to do, including mowing the lawn.

I still needed a walk, though, because a walk airs out my brain in a way lawn mowing doesn’t.  I had decided to walk down to Menotomy Rocks Park, which is probably about a mile east of me.  I had never walked there before — we used to drive down with the dog so he could frolic with some canine playmates.  I had learned last week that a young woman, a teenager of 16, had killed herself in the pond there, on Patriot’s Day, I think.  Jordan hadn’t known her, although some friends of friends of his had.  I felt I should go down there.

It was a beautiful walk down, down Gray Street.  So many flowers and ornamental trees in bloom.  The park wasn’t particularly crowded, and I quickly noticed a memorial area at some stone steps going down to the water’s edge.  There were some candle stubs, a photo, some origami-type things hanging in tree branches, and flowers.  I sat down on the steps.

What happened next was an example of one of things I do.  I took on the emotions I encountered there, I felt them as my own, I processed them, I kept company with their bearer(s).  I did my best to understand what else might be needed and prayed for help with that.  When I felt things were arranged sufficiently, I got up and continued walking around the pond.  It was so fragilely beautiful, a dragonfly, some birds, new cattails, the first leaves unfurling.  I ran into some neighbors of mine with their little dog, and we chatted briefly.

As I left to go home, I realized that I had had no clear idea of being called to the pond to “do” something, I only developed the thought to take my walk there.  When I got there and saw the memorial and sat down and felt what I felt, I did what I do, and in retrospect I can understand it as my having been summoned there to do that.  All I did in the first place was to listen to what I could hear.  Doing that was enough to lead me to the next step, and that step to the next, and so on.

That’s how “listening” works for me most of the time: I hear a piece and I follow it without really knowing what it will lead to.  Once I have gone through the episode, I can see what it was about pretty much, but prospectively I don’t.

For me, listening involves faith, the faith involved with taking a step I may not fully understand.  It also for me includes relief, the gratitude that I don’t have to understand it in order to do it.  I just need willingness, and enough ability to listen to hear the first step.