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Are you an optimist or a pessimist? The difference between the two is often defined by the old “is the glass half full or half empty?” conundrum. Guess what? Turns out it doesn’t matter what you think about the glass. We are all, deep down, optimists, or we wouldn’t be here.

Reading the news can get you down. It does me, anyway. Just scanning the headlines convinces me that the world is a dark, ugly, little place full of small-minded, uneducated people who just want to watch the world burn and toast marshmallows on the flames. But the news doesn’t tell the whole truth. Not that the news is in any way “fake” — a phrase I detest — but simply that it cannot cover the complex entirety of the modern human condition. Even I can spot the better headline: “Man Kills Dozens” will always triumph over “Man Happily Distributes Free Lemonade and Hugs.”

But you turned up this morning for all of this news — bad and good (mostly bad) — didn’t you? You got out of bed. You put on your socks (or omitted them; it’s kind of too hot for socks). You gave your body fuel and opened your front door. Congratulations! You are officially an optimist. And pretty darned brave, to boot.

Do you think it takes more than just showing up to show courage? Maybe. But for any thinking person it’s more than enough. To watch bad things happen and still say, “You know what? I’m going out there anyway” is a testament to human resilience. After being ejected from the Garden of Eden, did Adam and Eve just pack it in and give up? Nope. Even though they’d lost access to unbridled happiness, they went on anyway. This kind of steel is precisely what God knew we would need to function in the world.

So if you’re here today, reading this, and just trying to bumble through life, I salute you. Thank you for continuing to take a chance on the world. Thank you for not giving up or giving in. The world needs you. I need you. Don’t give up. Despite what it says in the news or anywhere else, most of us are just like you. We’re trying. It is the stuff of superheroes, of saints. It is brave.

I rewatched the Hitchcock classic “Rope” last night. In it, two college friends kill an acquaintance just for jollies — or, more specifically, because they believe that intellectually superior people have the right to kill those who are inferior…that they are above morality and notions of right and wrong, which are conventions meant only for “common” people. James Stewart, as their former prep school headmaster, is aghast that they have made this decision: “Who made you God?” he asks them.

Who indeed? And yet, in smaller ways, we are all guilty of this type of judgmental thinking. Exhibit A: You are sitting in front of your computer reading about the latest political scandal. You are inwardly raging: How can this kind of malfeasance go unpunished? Or, alternately, why is this such a scandal when so-and-so (who I did not support) did the same/worse and went unpunished? Someone is getting away with something! Someone must be punished!

Who made us God? Before you demand perfect justice, examine yourself: Have you never broken the law, even in the tiniest way? Have you never jaywalked? Never ignored a traffic signal at three in the morning? Never taken something that wasn’t yours to take? Would you really want the full, scrupulous eye of the law to come down on you?

This is not to say that we should not seek justice, or that we should leave such things entirely to God. My caution is against fanaticism in all its forms. It is a reminder not to put ourselves above other people or allow ourselves to decide who is worthy and who is inferior. It is a call to humility and a reminder that we are all sinners, all of us steeped in sin. We must not point out the splinter in our brother’s eye while remaining indifferent to the plank in our own.

We’ve become so divided, culturally and politically speaking, that we actively call for violence against our “enemies” (I recently read a blog post comment that called for liberals to be “lined up and shot”) while seeking immunity for those we espouse, even going so far as gloating about our side being above the law somehow. No. This cannot be tolerated.

Instead, when you become angry at those you seek to judge, why not utter a prayer? “Heaven help us all,” has become my new mantra, and I mean it. Heaven help us not to succumb to the kind of overweening pride that allows us to pick and choose justice, that allows us to point fingers at others while hypocritically excusing the same sin in ourselves.

In an episode of “The Twilight Zone” a man obsessed with outing those he perceives as “guilty” keeps files on his neighbors, examining them for the slightest flaws. His mania becomes so great, he predicts that all of the guilty will suddenly shrink to three feet tall — and thus become instantly recognizable to the rest of humanity — at four o’clock that afternoon. What happens next? Not much, except that he himself shrinks to about three inches…and is instantly seized as prey by his own parrot.

Don’t be that guy. Because if we start sorting the populace into “them” and “us,” we are in for a world of hurt. In that case, heaven truly help us all.

We try to tackle the big topics on this humble little blog: life, death, spirituality, peace, love, justice, mercy. So, in comparison, my topic today seems ludicrously flimsy and terribly vain: I am going to write about my recent decision to let my hair go gray, as it has been wanting to do, lo these many years.

I started going gray — white, really, if I’m honest — in my thirties. I’ve been dying my locks ever since. I consider being brunette part of my identity. I could never wear colored contacts, for instance. My brown eyes are also part and parcel of who I am. A good deal of this identity is wrapped up in pop culture: Brunettes are serious. They’re smart. My earliest role models were Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas on “That Girl” and Catwoman — all brunettes, all “making it after all,” on their own terms. That was my tribe!

So why change now? Why not go to my grave with my roots intact? Well, for one, my husband recently encouraged me to go natural. And if he doesn’t care, why should I care what the rest of the world thinks? Secondly, it’s a drain of time and money to continue to color my hair, and the chemicals involved are not as healthful and innocuous as one might think while watching a Clairol commercial. Third, why lie, even to myself, about what I look like? I like to think I embrace truth-telling. My white hair is a truth about myself.

But here’s the big one: I truly believe the purpose of life is in embracing the little “yesses.” After all, at the end of our lives, there is going to be a huge “yes” that we will have to embrace, like it or not. By accepting and welcoming each little “yes,” I prepare myself daily for the big “yes.”

And this is, despite being firmly entrenched in female vanity, a tough yes. I look at other women who are letting their hair go natural and I judge. It looks slovenly. Like a lack of self-care. And yes, I know that’s a horrible thing to think. I’m appalled at myself. But there it is. And this is what I will have to see in myself as my “skunk stripe” covers the crown of my head and extends, inexorably, downward. I will have to confront the worst in myself. I will have to deal with my own feelings about aging and about how women are judged and valued on their beauty and youth. I will have to see myself lacking.

And I will have to find God in all of this. I will have to grapple with a God who loves everything about me, but who created humans to love what is aesthetically pleasing. I will have to align myself with a God who expects my power to come from something bigger than a bottle of dye. I will have to say “yes,” not just once, but over and over again, every time my fingers itch to solve the problem with a box from the drugstore.

I am hoping all of this will be good for my soul. Because that’s the part of me I care about most. And it doesn’t need anything artificial in order to be beautiful, does it?

People these days are scary. They’ve grown fangs and spew poison. Get on their wrong side (easy to do) and you could be punished in a number of vituperative and terrifying ways. There is no shame. There are no moral boundaries. There is only internet anonymity and anger.

I read an article by a journalist opining this very same theory. One of the comments on his article was simply “you suck.” Ah! Well met, my friend! Your brilliant repartee reveals you as a man of wit and ingenuity. You are the Sam Johnson — nay, the Mark Twain! — of our times. Sadly, considering the level of discourse these days, that last statement may very well be true.

On the other side of the equation: SueBe’s and Ruthie’s posts this week, celebrating friendship, specifically the friendship of the three of us that led to the creation of this blog. It’s true; we deeply love and care about one another. Also true — we have never met in person. Just the other week, SueBe mentioned something about being short, and I was dumbfounded. All this time, I’d been picturing her tall. I’ll say it again: We’ve been working together for the better part of ten years, yet we’ve never actually hugged. Or eaten a meal together. Or heard one another’s voices, except on the phone.

Yet our bond persists, will persist, through the tumult and turbulence life hands us. This essentially boils down to a choice: We chose each other. We continue to choose each other. It’s what every great friendship, every great relationship, is made of. And it may be the one and only cure for the pollution that swirls around us politically and spiritually.

I once taught a mini-course on “The Company of Women” — both the book by Mary Gordon and the idea that enduring friendships enable us to become our fullest selves, allow us to thrive in the most polluted of atmospheres. I still believe this is true. All I have to do is think of my fellow bloggers to know it is so. This blog — and its posts by my fellow bloggers — has become a haven for me. When the world seems just too awful to continue to breathe in, I come here. I listen to SueBe and Ruth. I feel better.

Let us cultivate our own fresh air. Let us seek out those of us who are willing to be patient, to listen and to love. Let us keep them close to us. When darkness closes in, let us cling to them.

Let us not let pollution overtake us. Take our hands. Join us.

Some people talk to God as easily and readily as picking up a phone — they have God on speed dial. Through meditation, prayer or other means, they’ve perfected the art of hearing what God is telling them; their ears perk up at sounds outside the spectrum of human hearing. I admire them. I envy them.

My ears stretch and crane for the slightest peep. I hear only the silence of my own selfish heart. Would I believe the voice of God if it came to me? Or would I dismiss it as a figment of my own imagination? What does it take to hear God? Well, for one, it requires being attuned to your own inner self. This is difficult to do when one is not essentially interested in one’s inner self. Call it dint of long acquaintance, but I am thoroughly sick of my inner self. I’d like it replaced, please, with something better, holier, more interesting. I am tired of slogging through its sludgy waters.

Then I remember: St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta last heard the voice of God as a young woman traveling on a train. She never heard the voice again, not through the long years of her service to the poor, holding the hands of the dying, through her own illness and death. Not once. Her “dark night of the soul” lasted decades. And it would be difficult to argue that she wasn’t trying to do what God asked of her all those years ago on that train. She was. With a resounding silence as her reward.

So maybe God doesn’t speak to us with an eye as to what we deserve or even ask for. Maybe God figures once is enough for the right folks. Only when was my once? Was it deciding to go away to a college I’d never even visited before but which ended up creating lasting ties and thoroughly overhauling my spirituality? It was a decision that could certainly be described as providential. But I’d hate to think that the first, last and only time I heard or heeded God was at the raw age of 18. That’s a lot of wasted years.

Or is that I don’t know how to listen? That would be strange indeed, as I count listening as one of my greatest ministries. I’m the woman that strangers pour their hearts out to while standing in line at Walmart. I hear about other people’s crises of faith. So maybe I’m not supposed to hear but to be a conduit to the One Who Does Hear?

I wish I knew, but I suppose that would require a rather loud message that I, for whatever reason, lack the skill to interpret. It doesn’t mean that I am going to toss out my inner telephone. No, I’ll keep it on, hoping as I have through all these long years, that someone will give me a call. I’m waiting.

The world is spiraling out of control. We are not evolving, but de-evolving. Every day things become more vicious, more divisive, more hopeless.

Here’s where you’re expecting me to say, “Have hope! God is with us!” I am not going to say that.

I’m growing increasingly tired of hearing, “hope and pray that things will improve.” I’m not sure that’s enough. It feels to me as if God is pushing our buttons lately, with a very intentional agenda in mind: What will it take?

What will it take for you to call your senator? What will it take for us to understand that we are all human beings and need to take care of one another? What will it take to stop blaming and start working on solutions? What will it take for us to wake up?

It is all very well and good to hope and pray. In fact, prayer can be powerful action. But there is more to be done, and it starts with making our actions congruent with our beliefs. Do you claim to be a Christian yet don’t care about (or actively work against) the welfare of the poor, the immigrant, those standing on the margins (like the LGBTQ community)? You might want to re-evaluate. Do you hate liberals? Conservatives? Hating is not a Christian value. Spewing that hatred, whether online or at a “rally” is not a Christian activity.

Which is not to say that Christians have a corner on morality; we don’t. And part of God’s wake-up call to us is recognizing that we, in our diversity of faith traditions, are more alike than different, that Sharia law doesn’t hurt me any more than someone keeping kosher does — just follow your own beliefs and be considerate of others’ beliefs. Religion isn’t the enemy; it’s people who misconstrue and misinterpret religion, who forget that God is love — above all else.

I firmly believe that Jesus was a radical. He didn’t come to soothe anybody’s spirits; he came to shake things up. And that’s what God is doing now. God is shaking and shaking us, trying to make us declare exactly who and what we are and what we believe is right and just.

So…are you ready to stand up? If not, what will it take?

The middle-aged among us are in a curious position: We are becoming caregivers to our parents. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is more prevalent these days — in the past, people simply didn’t live as long as they do now. My longest-lived grandparent was in her early 70s when she passed away. My beloved friend Marcelline is 101 and still doing yoga.

This shift presents real moral and spiritual dilemmas, as grown-up children navigate the line between respecting their elders and celebrating their independence and wanting to make the path smooth for their parents in their later years. It is not easy.

My mother lost her mother when she was barely 20. I know it was traumatic for her. But it also makes it hard for her to understand my concern for her: She never watched her mother live into her 80s. But in this period of adjustment, I have stumbled upon an important piece in the puzzle of my own aging — letting go. Because that’s what getting older is — the process of letting life go, piece by hard-won piece.

I have to let go of my hopes and expectations for my mother’s “golden years.” Of course, I’d like to see her waited on hand and foot, tempted with fine food, made to do little more than recline while being fanned by palm-bearing attendants. That’s not going to happen. None of us gets to write the ending of her own story, let alone someone else’s. And there is my mom’s own tenacious will to contend with, too.

In the end, God will bear us up, as God must. In the meantime, there is poetry.

She never had to do it, so she doesn’t know
how it feels to touch the bird bones
of her hands, feel blood click a pulse
through ropey veins, the flat of her hand
a creased map of a strange valley,
each gnarled finger a beloved isthmus.
What to do with this hand when I cannot
take its lead, but equally cannot force it
to follow? I can only love it, seeing in it
my own hand marching quickstep, just
inches, really, behind it.

 

There used to be men (and women, I assume) called holy fools, perfectly ordinary (and often brilliant) people who faked idiocy so as to be daily humbled by the world. It was good for their spiritual lives, they felt. I am coming to grips with the place of foolishness in my own life — it’s not something I’ve chosen, but rather a facet of my being: I am a social idiot.

I was forced to confront this aspect of myself last weekend at a party. Surrounded by outgoing, extroverted folks, I grappled with a tongue roughly the size, shape and weight of a cast iron skillet. “Amazing!” I heard myself saying. “Wonderful!” I’m a writer. I ought to have facility with words. And I do, to some extent. That extent lying within the power of my mind and my fingers…not in the vast rolling pastures of speech. Add in a dash of shyness, and you’ve got a wallflower extraordinaire. Move over, Emily Dickinson. There’s a new weird, silent poetess in town.

All of this — coupled with a fascination for the sound and substance of words, which once caused me to mispronounce the word “full” in prayer — brings us to this: a sort of love poem, penned by a fool who may or may not be holy, but who certainly hopes for its salvific grace.

Pixilated,
besotted with love,
love coursing through blind alleys,
traffic circles, cul-de-sacs,
languishing in corners, deaf to
directionality, wholly lost in translation. I fish,
pull up old shoes, tin cans, frank inadequacies.
Brooks babble better.
Helpless, hopeless heart!
Could I crack you open and let
the depth of you spill! And yet.
There is a solace in silence, dim wisdom
in the fractured code, the blank flags,
the broken nibs and worn erasers.
I send up smoke signals,
too random to be cumulus,
received by God like an armful of roses.
Wordless. But heard.
I am a fool of grace
and God is with me.

At the end of the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” Ethel Merman (playing her usual role, a loudmouthed nag) slips on a banana peel. The entire cast bursts into laughter. But the beauty of the scene is the state of those characters — they have been through unimaginable awfulness. They are bandaged, their limbs in casts, their marriages frayed, their careers at an end. And they laugh. Because what else is there left to do?

The scene is a metaphor my brother used recently in summing up what keeps him going. It was an extraordinarily bad week for his family, and his usual sunny disposition had cracked under the pressure. He had every right to throw in the towel, but he didn’t. He took a deep breath and pictured Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel. In the midst of our greatest darkness, there is a ray of light. We just have to find it.

My personal perk-me-ups come from literature. I am terribly fond of this line from Joan Didion’s Democracy: “I’d be leery of those ice cubes if I were you, Frances. Ice cubes are not a national craft.” You have to know the context, of course, but it always makes me smile. As does the word “grape.” (Ellen Raskin fans will know why.) Sometimes I think God gave the author her entire oeuvre just so I could yell, “Grape Mrs. Carillon!” when necessary.

Oxymoronically, these “banana slip” moments don’t happen by accident. I truly believe the hand of God is in them, providing us with a glimpse of absurdity so as to leaven the loaf/load. It is when we fail to see these glimmers and allow ourselves to plunge into darkness that we have a real problem.

This is increasingly easy to do in a world that seems overrun by greed, lies, violence and terror. So I am suggesting this: Arm yourself in advance. Find your Ethel Merman moment and hold onto it. Then, when the chips are down, you have something to bring you back from the brink.

Of course, prayer does this marvelously well, too. But it’s nice to have options.

I like to think that one of my gifts — my ministries, really — is prayer. I’ve always prayed vigorously for others, and I believe that prayer is powerful. That’s why I was so affected by a recent situation, one that dramatically revealed the limits of my charity.

“Pray for them,” my friend asked me. But I couldn’t do it; not the way she wanted me to. She was speaking of her employers, oil investors who grew used to a lifestyle that includes three mansions, dozens of vintage automobiles and a lifetime of lavish spending. And why not? They were making in the mid-five figures every month. Then the oil market took a downturn.

Suddenly, they find themselves having to contemplate selling one of their homes, liquidating a coin collection, borrowing from family. They’ve hinted that they might have to cut my friend’s hours. (My friend is 76 years old, supporting her grown children, with no retirement date on the horizon.)

I don’t mean to disparage these people. They may very well be much better people than I can ever hope to be. My friend certainly idolizes them. So what was my problem? Why did I say, “Yes,” even as my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth?

Praying for the oil market to return to its former profitability wouldn’t just help my friend’s employers. There are lots of good people who work hard for oil companies, who deserve raises and steady employment. It would be good for the economy of certain states whose coffers could use a nudge. But I still can’t mouth the words that would potentially help them.

I don’t think reliance on oil is good for the environment. But that’s not my real reason for not praying. It’s this: I simply cannot pray for the rich to get richer. And that says more about me than them.

Am I jealous? Maybe. It would be nice to have that kind of money. Am I too busy judging them to pray? Yes, certainly. That they did not save money, that they frittered it away, bothers me. But who am I to judge someone else’s spending habits? My own savings are ludicrously small.

In the end, it comes down to this: I am at ease praying for those on the margins, the struggling, the poor. White, wealthy and powerful? Not so much. God doesn’t judge, but apparently, I do. And that’s a problem.

Like my post of two weeks ago, I didn’t write this for assurances that I’ve done the right thing; it’s a genuine wonderment: When someone asks you to pray for something you don’t like/condone/care for, what do you do? If you do pray, do you worry that it is inauthentic? How do you keep judgment out of it?

I’ve settled for praying that my friends’ employers will find a way to live within their means without causing deprivation for my friend. It’s not what she asked for. It may even be sinful of me. But it did provide me with a moment of self-revelation.

I’m not altogether comfortable with the results. Maybe I need my own miracle, of the heart-softening variety. Maybe someone should pray for me.

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