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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dreams Really Do Come True - Part 1

It's funny how much we forget.  When I wrote the post about Pocahontas last month, I had completely forgotten that I had analyzed another princess fairy tale a couple years before.  I wrote about Cinderella in one of my many journals.  And apparently I was more open-minded then!  Anyway, Sage wasn't much interested in the movie, so no wonder I forgot about it.  

But now that I've found it, I think it might be a nice lead-in to something else I've been thinking about lately:  Dreams.  As in wishes and aspirations.  So, here goes...

AUGUST 18, 2007
I watched Cinderella, the Disney movie, with Sage yesterday.  I hadn’t seen it in years, hardly even remembered the very beginning, and it was strange to view it with my adult eyes.  I mean, this is the definitive fairy tale, for me.  Cinderella, the definitive fairy tale princess.  I think Sleeping Beauty is my favorite of the Disney princess movies—the character, the story, the imagery and music.  And Snow White is classic, of course.  But Cinderella is somehow, perhaps, the most influential.

Watching it again, I still find it enchanting.  The golden-haired, angel-voiced Cinderella is a dreamy vision in herself.  She’s so gentle with her cute little animal friends, so optimistic with her big-eyed innocence.  And those graceful movements are mesmerizing, when she gets up in the morning and goes about her chores--the animation reminded me of underwater slow-motion, or ballet.  It’s easy to fall under her spell.  And it’s inevitable to find yourself singing along to the lovely theme:  “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep….”

I can’t help enjoying the story, and I was looking forward to sharing it with my daughter.  And yet, watching it now, I have to seriously question the messages here.  I know there have been countless feminist studies of fairy tales and their underlying messages and symbolism.  But I need to analyze this for myself.

Okay, so we have the beautiful young maiden, orphaned, imprisoned and enslaved.  But she remains good hearted and hopeful, as she cheerfully performs her housework.  Underlying message:  Menial tasks aren’t so bad—especially if you sing with the birds as you do them.  (Too bad in the real world we can’t have adorable, and clothed, mice and birds to lay out our clothes and make our bed.)

In contrast, selfish and lazy is definitely unattractive.  The ugly (and untalented) stepsisters aptly portray what NOT to be.

Then, we have a ball that Cinderella would like to attend.  She has no thoughts of escape at this point.  She just wants to have a nice time, just one night out.  When her attempt to make a dress (again with the help of her clever animal friends) is ruined by the meanies, Cinderella sobs in despair.  Suddenly, poof, out of nowhere appears a fairy godmother.  There’s no explanation of who this creature is, where she came from, or why.  She just magically materializes, presumably in response to Cinderella’s ardent wishes.  Message:  If you want something really, really badly, then someone else with magical powers may come along to grant your wish.  You don’t have to do anything other than dream.  In fact, your own efforts are fruitless.  More on this—and the long hours of daydreaming it spawned—later.

So, the ball itself, the dance with the prince, the clock striking midnight—these are all great fun, full of romance and mystery and suspense.  But the next lesson comes when Cinderella finds out that the handsome gentleman she danced with was actually the prince and that he plans to marry the maiden whose foot will fit the glass slipper.  This moment of realization puts her into a lovestruck trance, but it also marks her chance for freedom.  For, by marrying the prince she will become a princess—and will be freed from the bonds of her evil stepmother.  Message:  Prince charming is a savior.  He has no name in this story.  He’s simply a handsome, elegant romantic who, by virtue of his title, has every eligible maiden vying to be his bride.  Obviously, the feminist analysis here is that little girls are taught that they need a man to save them, to complete their lives.  The ultimate goal is to get married, there is no other option, and this is the only thing that will make you happy, yadda, yadda, yadda. 

Well, if we’re just looking at this story, which apparently takes place in medieval times, that message is ostensibly true.  Getting married would have been Cinderella’s only decent chance at having a life away from her step-family.  So, she was actually quite savvy to recognize this opportunity and jump at it. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well to the modern world.  I can only try to convey to my daughter an alternate reading on this aspect of the story—that love itself is the ultimate goal.  Love is worth fighting for, love conquers all.  Et cetera.  Nevermind that Cinderella didn’t know this guy AT ALL.

However, the message that disturbs me even more than the “catch the prince” story, is the one about dreaming for your wishes.  And dreaming, and dreaming some more.  Like I said, it’s a beautiful hypnotic song.  But there is a danger in buying into this idea.  I mean, I am totally all for dreaming and wishing, and setting goals to achieve your heart’s desires and making plans for a better life.  I love the idea of dreams.  Dorothy dreamed of going over the rainbow; Sleeping Beauty dreamed of meeting her true love… and I am constantly dreaming of the circumstances I’d like to have in my life—the perfect house, and job, and body etc.

The problem comes when Cinderella says to dream it, but not to speak it.  This echoes the superstition that if you speak your wish aloud, it won’t come true.  But this is completely the opposite of what you have to do to achieve your dreams.  You HAVE to speak it.  You have to write it down, articulate it, tell people about it, and MAKE IT HAPPEN.  Creative visualization is one thing.  First you imagine it, then it can become a reality.  But there are some steps between the dream and the manifestation.  Unfortunately, those steps are not normally in the person of a kindly, plump little fairy godmother. 

I’m sure all kids who have seen Cinderella have probably imagined what they would do if their own fairy godmother appeared—or a genie with three wishes to grant, or a leprechaun, or a wizard with a magic wand.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  But it has taken me a lot of years to realize that I myself have the tools and the power to “magically” create the life I want-- with some ardent wishing AND with some pragmatic steps.

I used to think, as a kid, that if I daydreamed a particular scenario, then I was guaranteeing that it would not happen.  Because it was entirely implausible that something imagined could actually happen.  This was the stuff of fairy tales.  ESP was just in fiction books.  So, my daydreams were idle rather than constructive.  If only I had viewed them differently.  If only I had known that dreaming—while it won’t produce a fairy godmother—can actually direct energy towards making things happen. 

I guess it’s too bad that Cinderella wasn’t a little more proactive.  But it’s still a lovely story.  As long as I balance it with some stronger role models, I think the story can still be a nice part of childhood.   
**********************
That was then.  Nowadays I find myself dreaming most often about more sleep and more time!  Well, that and a few other things.

More on dreams next time....

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Everything’s gonna be alright

One night, last fall, after I had tucked Sage into bed, she called me back in, crying and upset.  I asked her what was wrong, and she said she was scared, because… the sun is going to die.  That’s right.  The sun is going to run its course and then burn out.  Poof.  No more sun.  No more life on Earth.

And she was right.  We had just learned this during a visit to the Adler Planetarium not long before.  You probably already knew this, but I was actually a bit taken aback to find out that our sun has a limited shelf life.  Just like all the other stars, it was born, and it will die.  Sure, this isn’t expected to happen for another 5 billion years.  Nevertheless.  This is what Sage was worried about.

Admittedly, it’s kind of a weird thing to think about.  Bye-bye, Sun.  Bye-bye, us.

But I wanted to comfort Sage.  That’s what mothers are for.  So, of course, I told her not to worry.  I lay down next to her and held her close.  I assured her that 5 billion years is a very long time.

Sage wasn’t convinced.  The fact remained—the sun was going to fizzle out and die.

So, I kept talking to her.  I told her that humans weren’t necessarily doomed.  There are lots of smart scientists who are probably working on a solution right now.  After all, we already know how to build a rocket ship to the moon and beyond.  As science and technology progress, discoveries are being made all the time.  Why, in another thousand years or so, we’ll probably be able to just move to another solar system.  (Either that, I thought, or we’ll be so evolved by then, that we’ll just beam ourselves to some other plane of existence.  Isn’t that what The Celestine Prophecy is all about?)

Luckily, my calm words worked.  Sage felt better (not the least bit sleepy, but at least not scared), and I felt good for having reassured her. 

Everything’s going to be okay.

Thinking about this takes me back to my own mom’s confident reassurances.  As long as I can remember, she’s always had an abiding faith that everything would be okay.  I heard her say it many times:  “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Everything will work out in the end, no matter what.”

Well, I guess this is where I get it, because I feel pretty much the same.  I’m not quite sure why, though.  It’s not a religious conviction, for me.  I mean, I have no idea what happens after death.  As far as I know, reincarnation is just as likely as pearly gates and mansions and harps. 

Either way, it will be okay.

You could call it a hunch, I suppose.  Or maybe it’s more about acceptance.  What will be, will be.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I live without fear.  Lord knows, there’s plenty I’m afraid of—from heights to city driving to lost opportunities.  On top of that, if I chose to focus on it, I could add lots more to the list:  climate change, violent crime, alien invasion (thank you very much, Stephen Hawking).

But, I don’t so choose.  I know it does no good to focus on fear.  Fear can be paralyzing.  Fear can be destructive—both internally and externally.  Fear can also be used by unscrupulous leaders and powerful institutions as a means of controlling people.  (Ahem.)

I remember hearing somewhere once that “to worry is to die a thousand deaths.”  Turns out it was Shakespeare (in Julius Caesar) who actually wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.  Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

I think Bill Murray expressed the same sentiment in Meatballs. 

Remember Meatballs?  Towards the end of the movie, the misfit campers were all down and dejected when it appeared they were going to lose the games once again.  Murray gave them a pep talk, rallying them to their feet with the chant-- “It just doesn’t matter.”  So what if the other side has all the advantages?  So what if we win or lose?  “It just doesn’t matter!  It just doesn’t matter!”  Thus motivated, they gave it their all and wound up triumphant in the end.

At least, that’s the gist of it.  I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that phrase.  Past mistakes?  Material losses?  Disappointments, regrets, failures?  It just doesn’t matter.

This is not to say that NOTHING matters.  Lots of things do matter:  people, relationships, honesty, and integrity, to name a few.

But the surface stuff doesn’t really matter.  In a sense, the past and future don’t much matter either, since all we’ve got is the present.  There’s no sense wasting your time or energy worrying about what might or might not happen someday, especially when that takes away from your experience of the present moment.

I guess what I’m figuring out is that, to find some peace in your life, it helps to let go of some of the fear.  It may even require you to surrender, in the spiritual sense.  Accept—and be grateful—for what you’ve got.  And when you’re afraid of unknowns or a thousand possible futures, try to trust that everything will be okay.

At least, that’s the feeling I’ve inherited from my mom. And that’s what I hope to pass on to my child.


Peace.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"You're a part of me..."

“I’m a part of you.  Wherever we may travel…whatever we go through.”

That’s Glenn Frey.  You know?  Lead singer of the Eagles?  Part of Me, Part of You is a mellow country-rock tune.  Kinda catchy.  I guess it’s supposed to be a love song, but I actually think of it whenever I hear New Age types or spiritual leaders talk about how we’re ALL connected.  How, in fact, we are all ONE.  One body, one light, one consciousness.  One with the Universe, and all that. 

           It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around the concept, yet it does have a ring of truth.  There are times when it seems there must be invisible connections—like when someone says the exact thing you were thinking.  This has happened with my husband and me, which, of course, isn’t uncommon.  It’s even weirder when you overhear a stranger saying the exact random thing you were just thinking about (which happened to me today).  It makes you wonder if you picked up on their thoughts, or if they picked up on yours.

           But, beyond any cosmic, mystical connection, there’s also the obvious link.  One world, one people.  We have our common humanity.  Every single one of us was born and will die.  We all share this planet and this sun.  We gaze at the same moon and wish upon the same stars.

           You’d think we’d be kinder to one another.

           I recently read The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, which I may write about another time.  But what sticks with me now is something written by Russell E. DiCarlo in the foreword:  “The myth of ‘other-than-me’ has been responsible for wars, the rape of the planet, and all forms and expressions of human injustice.  After all, who in their right mind would harm another if they experienced that person as part of themselves?”

           Do unto others….

Dr. Seuss is good at illustrating this point.  In the Butter Battle Book, there are two groups of characters:  the Yooks and the Zooks.  They look identical (sort of like beaked turtle-heads in Who clothing, the Yooks in blue and the Zooks in orange).  But there is one crucial difference between the two groups.  The Yooks butter their bread butter-side up, whereas the Zooks butter theirs butter-side down. 

Naturally, this makes them mortal enemies.

           The Yooks and Zooks separate themselves by a long wall across the countryside, and they teach their children to look upon the other with disdain.  Then, one day, one of the Zooks shoots a pebble over the wall with a slingshot.  This prompts the Yooks to build a bigger, more modern slingshot (the triple sling-jigger).  Thus begins an arms race, with each weapon bigger and more impressive than the last.  Finally, on orders from the Chief Yookeroo, the “boys in the back room” come up with the ultimate weapon:  a tiny, gum ball-sized atomic bomb.

           All the Yooks are ordered underground, and their homes are boarded up.  The “hero” of the story (or the chump, more accurately) marches to the wall on a mission to finally “put an end to the fiends on the other side.” 

           But the Zooks have their own little compressed “Boomeroo.”  So, there they stand, the Yook and the Zook, face-to-face on the wall, each holding a bomb between his thumb and forefinger.  And that’s how the story ends.

           It’s really pretty disturbing.  And the deep back-room lab, where the final bomb is made, is a creepy nightmarish place.  Not so to my 7-year-old, though.  In her childish innocence, she thinks The Butter Battle Book is just a silly, funny story.  Of course, Sage doesn’t know about nuclear weapons, or the fact that there are currently around 23,000 “boomeroos” around the world today.  More than 95% of them are in Russia and the U.S., and we’re not even at war.

           How crazy is that?  It’s the fantastical scenario of a Dr. Seuss story—just the fact that weapons were even created for the purpose of total annihilation.

           Rather than dwell on the doomsday possibilities, though, I like to look for rays of hope.  As you probably heard, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev recently signed an historic agreement to reduce our nuclear arsenals.  To me, that’s a step in the right direction.

Another hopeful sign is the growing support for Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons.  Check out the website and you can see a long list of supporters from around the world--including Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.  Oh, and me too.  Well, I’m not on the website, but I did sign the declaration.  And you can too!

As Global Zero says, “We must now choose between two very different futures. In one, nuclear weapons continue to spread, increasing the chances that a country or terrorists use them, with catastrophic consequences. In the other, all nuclear weapons are eliminated according to a comprehensive global agreement for phased and verified reductions.”

           Sounds like a simple choice to me. 

           No matter who has the weapons, or the technology, or the desire to have them, this ultimately affects all of us.  On the flip side, whoever has the desire for peace can affect others as well.

           Part of me…. part of you?     

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"She's a vegetarian"

Yeah, that's me.  Meat free since '03. Well, it actually started earlier than that.  I began transitioning to a vegetarian diet sometime in the mid-to-late '90s, after being around other vegetarians and learning all about the "101 reasons to be a vegetarian."  The reasons run the gamut, but they fall mainly in three categories:  animal cruelty, environmental degradation, and poor health.

In those days, it was easy not to have meat at home, since I never liked to prepare the stuff in the first place.  But I wasn't 100% vegetarian.  At restaurants I might order fish.  And at other people's homes, I would partake.  Even when I called myself a pseudo-vegetarian, I wouldn't pass up my Mom's homemade meatballs.  (Yummy.)

I figured, I make the rules; I can make the exceptions too.  There was no guilt.  It's not like it was a religion.

But eventually I stopped with all meat--except maybe fish, on rare occasions.  (Again, my body, my rules.)  It's not like I hate the taste of meat, though.  The smell of bacon in the morning or grilled barbeque on a summer evening are two of the best smells ever.  I'll inhale deeply.  But I won't eat it.  I'm not even tempted anymore.

Why?  Still those 101 reasons.  But, what it really boils down to is that I just don't think it's right to kill animals for food.  It's cruel, inhumane, and unnecessary.

I really am a pacifist through and through.

But the last thing I want to be is preachy.  I've made a personal choice not to eat meat, but that doesn't mean I look down on everyone else who does.  In fact, nearly every single person I love and care about in this world is a meat eater.

What I can do, though, is answer the questions when people ask.  I can share what I've learned and what I know.  And maybe, just maybe, I'll inspire someone else to cut back on the meat habit.  Even reducing meat consumption a little would help lessen the awful impact of factory farming on our lands, water, and air.  (Meatless Monday advocates going meat-free one day a week for personal health and the health of the planet.)

So, here are my answers to a few questions I've heard about vegetarianism:

How do you get your protein?  Don't you need meat to build muscle and for overall health?

I get protein from eggs, beans, nuts, and soy products.  And I feel fine.  But don't take my word for it.  There are lots of fit, athletic vegetarians, including tennis legend Martina Navratilova, running champion Carl Lewis, and Mr. Universe bodybuilder Bill Pearl.   


Aren't humans naturally carniverous?  Early peoples, such as the Native Americans, hunted for survival.  After all, we are animals and we're at the top of the food chain, aren't we?

I'm not so sure we are naturally carnivorous.  We have flat teeth, not fangs and claws, and our digestive systems are better equipped for processing plants than meat.  Of course the Native Americans hunted animals for food, and clothing, and a lot of other things; and they were immensely grateful to the animals for this.  But they certainly didn't kill any more than they needed.  And we have more options than they did.  We are evolved (supposedly).

Animals are lower life forms.  Aren't they here for us to use and consume?

We don't eat dogs, cats, and canaries; why should we eat pigs, cows and hens?  I've heard pigs are as intelligent as dogs; and cows are gentle creatures.  Animals feel pain, and they suffer if mistreated.  As higher life forms, shouldn't we be stewards of the land and protectors of the animals?

Plants are alive too.  How do you know they don't feel pain?

Okay, this one doesn't warrant an answer.  I will say, though, that anyone who eats meat should at least look at pictures of slaughterhouses and factory farms.  No matter what we eat, we should make ourselves aware of where, exactly, it comes from.  

The environmental harm caused by the meat-producing industry is huge.  Did you know that cattle production is a far greater contributor to global warming than transportation sources?  Did you know that livestock waste has contaminated groundwater and polluted more than 35,000 miles of rivers in America?  Did you know that livestock grazing uses 26% of the earth's land surface, and feed crop production takes up about 1/3 of all arable land?  Did you know that rainforests and other wild areas have been destroyed to make way for more cattle, thus threatening biodiversity? Do you know there is a connection between meat consumption and world hunger?

 If this is all news to you, you should really check out The Meatrix trilogy, and let your eyes be opened.  (Even if you are already in the know, it's still fun to watch!)

But, you know, while environmental issues are a huge factor for me, that's not all.  Even if we could somehow return to a culture that supports the small family farm (which would be fabulous), I still wouldn't eat meat.  For me, it still comes down to the killing problem.

Consider this:

"Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution.  Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages."  -Thomas Edison

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."  -Mahatma Gandhi

"Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances of survival of life on earth, as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet."  -Albert Einstein

"Animals are my friends, and I don't eat my friends."  -George Bernard Shaw

Like I said, I'm not here to preach.  Just to share some thoughts.  In fact, I have a lot to learn myself.  I'm not a vegan, but maybe I should be.  Maybe someday.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Following the signs

Do you believe in signs?  Messages from… the Universe?  Guideposts, hints, clues along the journey of life?

I know it sounds wacky.  This is not exactly something I would bring up at the office.  It smacks of superstition.  Or worse:  Professor Trelawney-like flakiness.  As if you can’t make any decisions on your own, without a note from the Ouija or an answer from the 8-ball before making your next move.

And yet… I do believe.  Oh, not in horoscopes, or psychic hotlines, or water stains shaped like the Virgin Mary—although any of these COULD speak to someone else, I suppose.  But, I do believe in something

Here’s a true story:

Back in December, I was visiting at my parents’ place for the weekend.  One morning, my mom (an avid reader) asked my brother’s girlfriend, Mae, if she was reading any books.  Mae said she had just started a book called The Alchemist.  I recognized this title.  I knew I’d read it many years ago, but all I could remember about it was that I liked it.  So, I thought to myself that I’d have to pick it up again (which wouldn’t be too difficult, as I had it on a bookshelf at home).

Well, I didn’t pick it up again right away.  But, then, a few days later, I was riding the train to work when I noticed that a woman sitting a couple seats in front of me was reading, none other than, The Alchemist. Granted, this is a best-selling book.  But it’s not like it just came out; it was first published in English in 1993.  So, to have two random encounters within the space of just a few days… this had to be a sign, right?

So, that night I went home and found the book on our bookcase.  I wasn’t very surprised to see the subtitle:  The Alchemist:  A Fable About Following Your Dreams.

And when I read the first few pages--where the boy has had the same dream twice and takes this as an omen—I knew I was meant to read this book.   

It’s a simple little story:  A young shepherd decides to leave his homeland in search of a treasure.  He learns important lessons along the way, with the overarching message to persist in order to realize your dreams.  He also learns to watch for “omens,” because once you set off on the right course, the Universe will conspire to help you on your way.  Your heart will also lead you, if you’ll listen to what it’s saying.

Someone else once talked about the universe “conspiring” to help you along your journey.  I think it was Oprah. 

So, why am I writing about this now?  Well, lately I’ve been noticing more and more coincidences in my life.  I think it tends to happen when I’m in dream mode, like when I first started thinking seriously about creating this blog.  For example, one morning after tossing the idea around in my mind (and tossing and turning in bed), I was in the car riding downtown with Scott and Sage and happened to look up into the vehicle in front of us.  There was a bumper sticker in the car, on their right front visor.  It said “Teach Peace.”  And it was right in front of me.

That was last year.  I guess you could say I’m a procrastinator about some things.  Maybe that’s why I need these cosmic nudges.

Here’s another example, this one from an actual dream.  I had a dream that I was taking a test and feeling anxious.  I was spending too much time looking up answers for the multiple-choice questions, leaving myself no time for the essay questions at the end.  As time ran out, I was kicking myself.  I would have done well on the essay questions, I knew.  But it was too late. 

I had that dream in October 2001.  I recorded the dream in a journal I was keeping at the time (not that I routinely remember my dreams at all; only rarely actually).  I came across it when I was flipping through old notebooks, and I wrote it down again in another journal.  Beneath that writing, I wrote:  “Ouch.  Double ouch.  Wake up and smell the coffee, Jennifer. Write your damn essays.”  That was 8 months ago.  Getting closer!

Yes.  Well before I’d ever heard of blogging, I was thinking about writing essays.   And writing about writing.  If you read my old journals, some with very sporadic entries, you’d soon see lots of repetition:  “Gee, I like to write.  I’m going to write every day.”  Six months later:  “This time I’m really going to do it; I’m going to make a habit of writing.”  Two years later… you get the picture.

At the public library several weeks ago I noticed a shabby-looking man with a long grizzled beard sitting at a table.  He had shopping bags at his feet, and more than a dozen well-worn spiral notebooks spread out all over the table around him.  He was hunched over one of the notebooks, intent at his writing.  Glancing over, I couldn’t make out the words. But from the neat and measured way the lines looked, I guessed he might be printing the same thing over and over.

It was an unusual sight.  But then I saw him again a couple weeks later, at a different table but with the same notebooks covering the top.  I caught my husband’s eye and nodded towards the man.  I had told Scott about this guy the first time, and he had joked, “Just as long as he’s not writing ‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.’”  

It wasn’t until later, standing in the kitchen, that it hit me.  Writing the same thing over and over in notebook after notebook?  That’s me!  Or, it could be me if I don’t just get on with the program.  Take it to the next level, put my writing “out there.”  Just do it already.

So, here I am.  And here you are. 

After I had posted the first couple blogs, I was still feeling a little uncertain about this endeavor.  I was thinking about it on the way to work, wondering how it was all going to work out.  In the bathroom at work I saw something on the floor that looked like it could be an earring.  (This is a clean bathroom.)  I reached down, picked it up, and saw that it was a peace symbol. No kidding.  It was a metal peace symbol, broken off of some piece of jewelry or clothing.  I smiled and placed it on the counter.  Message received.

As soon as I start noticing coincidences, and open myself to the possibility of “signs,” they seem to occur with amazing frequency.  Sometimes it’s an actual sign, something I notice out the train window that was never there before.  Sometimes it’s a person; sometimes it’s a song.  Always it’s random, improbable, and freaky.  I get goose bumps.  And I just know.  There is a rhyme and reason.  

We are not alone—and this is a very good thing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Great Outdoors

There's this beautiful place.  It’s near the sea.  Skies are brilliant blue and waters are bluer.  Grassy hills are a soft emerald green.  Rocky outcroppings add interest, and cobblestone streets add charm.

The people are friendly here, even encouraging.  It isn’t overly crowded.  No one smokes, there’s zero traffic, and the dogs don’t poop.

How’s that?

Oh, it isn’t real, of course.  This is the computerized world of the Wii Fit “Island Lap” distance running activity.  This is one amazing island:  It features silent wind turbines and clean beaches; majestic waterfalls and stately mountains.  You can jog the virtual paths against a backdrop of pristine, crystal-clear Nature.  

Sage loves all the Wii Fit games, and she’s really pretty good at all of them.  At seven-years-old, she’s got tons of energy and stamina.   But, funny thing, with this jogging game, she doesn’t actually jog.  She stands in place and shakes the remote, just enough to keep her Mii going at a good pace.  (Well, sometimes she’ll shake it fast just to watch the Mii trip over her own feet.)

As I sat and watched Sage fake-jog the other day, I thought about what an idyllic scene it was-- pretty nice for indoor exercise.  But it sure made me long for the real outdoors.  It’s not only that you can’t feel the implied sea breeze or the warm-looking sun, or smell that green grass.  For me, the most frustrating thing about the game is that you can’t explore the hills and mountains.  You can’t stray from the path or follow any other trail.  It’s just the same loop.  Over and over.  Nothing to do but keep jogging until you reach the finish line.

I don’t know if a place like the Wii-fit island actually exists.  But I have been to a few places in my life that come close, in terms of natural beauty.  And, let me tell you, if ever I’ve had a spiritual moment, it’s been on a woodsy trail.  

Whether hiking on a mountain path, walking through a nature preserve, or strolling down an old rail trail, I think some of my happiest moments have been among woodland trees.  It’s hard to describe.  There’s just such a feeling of relief to be in nature like that.  It creates a sense that everything is going to be okay. 

As someone once said, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.  Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”  (It was Anne Frank, wise beyond her years.)

Seriously.  My image of heaven is a place full of trees.  Oaks, maples, sycamores.  You name it.  Trees are so amazing—at once gentle and strong, wise and mysterious.  As corny as it sounds, being among trees brings me pretty close to a state I’d call inner peace.

I just love trees.

Which makes it all the more ironic that I live in a metropolis now, with less trees than concrete.  There are parks, of course.  And there are SOME trees, scattered here and there (many that are currently blooming lovely, heady flowers).  There are places to glimpse sun and sky, rivers and a great lake.

There’s even a fabulous little oasis in the city—an actual nature preserve, with wetlands, and trees, and hiking trails.  It’s called North Park Village Nature Center, and it’s just a few miles from where we live.  Scott, Sage, and I went there this past Saturday, and it was SO nice.  Even though we’ve walked these trails before (and you can walk them all in easily under an hour), it’s never the same experience twice.  The plants and trees change with the seasons—and so do the birds and other critters.  One time we saw some deer.  (A rare treat in these parts!)  Once we saw a raccoon—a strange sight in the daytime, so we kept our distance.  Another time, in the pond, we counted more than a dozen little frogs!  That was so cool.  The closer we looked, the deeper we peered into the trees, the more they just seemed to materialize.  

Last weekend, the highlight was a baby snake, slowly crossing the path in front of us.  I glanced down and thought it was a worm at first.  When I realized what it was, I called Scott and Sage over and we all just stared at the little thing as it stuck out its tongue and did its little s-slide across the trail.  Afterward, Sage made a note of it in her nature journal and drew a life-sized picture.

That was such a nice afternoon.  As cliché as it sounds, I couldn’t stop thinking about how getting out in nature is so good for the soul.  And it’s good to do it frequently, so we don’t forget.  It had been several months since the last time we were at the Nature Center.  But each time we go, it’s like, “Oh, yeah!  I remember now.  We should come more often.”

            Another reminder has come in the form of this unique and beautiful book I bought a few months ago, called MaryJane’s Outpost:  Unleashing Your Inner Wild.  I also subscribe to the magazine, MaryJane’s Farm.  (Thanks, Mom!)  MaryJane Butters, a “wilderness ranger turned Idaho organic farmer” is a champion for getting people outside and back to nature, no matter what your circumstances or where you live.  While it’s geared towards women, I think the message is for everyone:  Outdoor time is vital for our health and for our spirit.

            I sure believe it.  It’s not always easy to make space for outdoor-time, but I think it should be a priority.  The computer games are fun, but maybe they should be saved for poor-weather days.  There’s just no substitute for real, live woodsy, earthy, calming, peaceful trees.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Gangland

I’ve been thinking a lot about gangs lately.  The whole concept is so stupid to me.  I really have a hard time grasping why gangs are so prevalent and so powerful.  And why they apparently can’t be stopped.

In the past, I’ve been inclined to dismiss gangs as juvenile foolishness.  Kids and graffiti and Sharks vs. Jets mentality.  Except I know it’s far too dangerous and far too real to ignore.

A man was murdered in front of several witnesses on the north side of Chicago a few weeks ago.  He was sitting in a barber shop waiting for his turn when a young guy walked right in and shot him pointblank.  The killer fled and was not caught.

Afterward, I found out that the victim was my neighbor.  I didn’t know him, would never even have recognized him, but his house is visible from my kitchen window.

Yesterday, there appeared on the victim’s garage door a spray-painted gang tag.  I assumed it was some kind of a sick “in your face” message.  But my husband said it was more likely a memorial of sorts, a sign of respect and remembrance and solidarity from the victim’s gang:  Familia Stone. 

This isn’t even a particularly bad neighborhood, or so I thought.  Just a couple blocks away are million dollar houses.

But gangs are everywhere in this city.  Any direction you go, you’ll see tags here and there.  Of course, if you venture too far south or west, things get much worse.  Shootings seem to occur weekly, if not daily, in these areas.  One such place is called Terror Town, because children are constantly at risk of being caught in the crossfire.

Why isn’t someone doing something about this??!!!   Why do people shake their heads and wring their hands?  Shouldn’t this be a top priority?  Shouldn’t there be special task forces, specific short-term and long-term plans, think tanks, grant money… whatever it takes to shrink this problem and stop the violence?  Why can’t the police at least catch the ones spraying all the graffiti?  Haul them in, fingerprint them, call their parents, give them a good talking to.

A couple years ago, I was haunted by the story of another murder—again, not too far away from where we lived at the time, still on the north side of Chicago.  A small 13-year-old boy named Lazarus Jones was walking home from a friend’s house, with a couple other friends.  Some men in a van started chasing the boys, and the boys ran.  Lazarus slipped on some ice and fell.  The men started beating him and bludgeoned him with a hammer.  According to news reports, the police believed the men were gang members who thought Lazarus and his friends were in a rival gang.  But Lazarus was not involved in any gang.

At the time I heard of this crime, I thought seriously about writing a letter to then-Governor Rod Blagojevich.  I imagined pleading for his sympathy and imploring him to use the power of his office to DO SOMETHING.  After all, his home, where his two daughters live, was little more than a mile from where the beating occurred.

But I didn’t write the letter.  I’d just drive by the spot—turned into a shrine of flowers and teddy bears—and feel sad and helpless.  And shake my head at the utter senselessness of it all.

I mean, really, WHAT is it all about?  Is it that gangs sell drugs, so the more territory they cover, the more money they’ll get?  Or, the more recruits they get, the bigger they’ll grow, and the more territory they’ll cover…. and more money again?  Or the more power they can display, the more territory they’ll cover….

Is it all about money?  Are THAT many people buying drugs?

Or is it more about home team pride, like sports fans gone mad:  You’re not on my team, so you’re the enemy.  And these teams have SUCH a fierce sense of loyalty.  They wear their designated colors, paint their tags, and flash their signs.  And kill for turf or revenge.

I’ve heard gangs recruit children as young as third grade.  They brainwash them into believing they need the gang for family support and protection.

I imagine it’s born from poverty, like a lot of other crime.  In that case, there you go.  We’ll just eradicate poverty.  Problem solved.

Oh, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.  Maybe if I listened to rap music, I’d understand better. 

Still, I just can’t believe it’s THAT complicated.  Maybe I SHOULD write a letter.

As for Lazarus Jones, I read that his mother, in the midst of her sorrow and her grief, stood up against violence.  Initially she handed out flyers and asked people to come forward with any information about her son’s murder.  (The killers were never found.)  Then she gave talks and became involved with CeaseFire, an intervention program under the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention.   

She said she was doing it to be a voice for her son, and to help the friends her son left behind.

I say, more power to her.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hope for Peace

Today is Easter—a good time to be hopeful, a good time for optimism.  While Christmas is traditionally the season for peace-on-earth, good-will-towards-men, I think both holidays are about the birth of new hope.

At the winter solstice, early peoples rejoiced that the darkest night had passed.  There was a light in the sky and candles on the hearth—and an evergreen tree brought indoors—to remind us that the sun would shine again.  Warm days will come again.

And at the spring equinox, the sun does come again. 

In early spring, there comes a day when you’re suddenly aware of birds chirping a little more enthusiastically.  You walk past trees that, at a glance, appear bare.  But if you look closely, you’ll see small buds just sprouting from those empty branches.  Then little purple crocuses appear, as if by magic, here and there on a ground that wasn’t long ago covered in snow. 

Once the temperature starts rising, it is such a relief.  Spring is in the air—or, in the case of Chicago the past few days, summer is in the air.  Either way, it feels really good.

And now Easter.  The name, of course, comes from “Eostre,” the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess of spring, and “Ostara,” a Germanic sun goddess also associated with the coming of spring.  The name, I learned, means "movement towards the rising sun."  The connection to fertility is evident in the word “estrogen” and the prominence of eggs at this holiday.

Fascinating stuff, huh?

So, as chicks hatch and bunnies abound; tulips bloom and trees show their baby leaves (as I like to think of them), there is new life all around.  This is a time for cheer, a time for renewal.

For Christians, of course, it’s a time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  As the story goes, he rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion, appeared to his disciples and told them to go and spread his messages of love.

Remember those messages?  Love your neighbor, love your brother, love your enemies.  Love everyone.  At least, I’m pretty sure that was the message.

 In that spirit, and at this moment of hopefulness, I decided to do something as a show of confidence that peace is possible:  I signed up to learn more about the Peace Alliance.  The Peace Alliance is a network of individuals and groups around the country working on a campaign for the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace.  As their mission statement says:  “The Peace Alliance empowers civic engagement toward a culture of peace.”

There’s a ton of information on their website.  But here’s a succinct description of the movement in an article from the suburban Daily Herald: http://www.thepeacealliance.org/content/view/582/46/.  And here are some FAQs:  http://www.thepeacealliance.org/files/outreach_material/FAQ.pdf.

What’s so cool about the idea of a Department of Peace is that it’s practical and proactive.  With a DoP, “Peace then becomes a tangible goal as opposed to a lofty ideal.”  It’s all about creating nonviolent solutions to both domestic troubles (such as street gangs) and international conflicts.  If there were a cabinet level “Secretary of Peace,” then nonviolent options would have a greater voice at the table.  There would be funding and support for peacebuilding programs at the community level.  And the study, creation, and use of nonviolent solutions would become a national priority. 

And shouldn’t it be?  What could be more important?

To me, it sounds awesome.  And it seems to have a decent amount of support.  Last year, the bill in the house had 71 co-sponsors from 27 states.  Thirty-nine local governing bodies, including Chicago’s City Council, have passed resolutions endorsing the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace. 

On the other hand, this alliance has been around for five years, and I’m guessing a lot of people haven’t heard of it.  Also, the main sponsor is Rep. Dennis Kucinich.   (Say what you will, but I actually like the guy.)  This makes me wonder if this effort has about the same chance as Kucinich ever had of winning the primary. 

Nevertheless, it is the season of hope and new beginnings.  I’m signing on.  One more voice for peace.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Too much of a good thing

It’s like they’re trying to discourage us from communicating with one another.  They’re preventing us from thinking our own thoughts, from sharing our ideas with actual live human beings.  They’re deciding where we should focus our attention.

They?  Whoever it is that’s planting TV screens like magic beans everywhere you look.  (And, of course, the advertising/media giants that decide what will be on those screens.)

Have you noticed?  It seems there’s a screen, or two or three, in at least every other restaurant, bar, and fast-food place.  They’re in hotel lobbies and doctors’ office waiting rooms.  They’re in the elevators at work and on the ceiling at my child’s dentist office.  I’ve seen them in beauty salons, gyms, classrooms, and grocery store checkout lines.  Sometimes they’re on the sides of buildings.  There’s a huge one now on the side of the CBS building in Chicago, competing with views of the Picasso at Daley Plaza. 

Even in our own homes, TV is often the obnoxious third wheel in the room.  Just try not to look at it when it’s on.  It’s nearly impossible.  It demands attention.  If my husband and I are sitting side-by-side on the couch and the TV is on, our eyes will be on the TV—whether it’s a good show, a bad show, a commercial, or whatever.  (But if I’ve got the remote, you can bet the commercials will be muted!)

And, come on, there is a LOT of junk on TV.  (Flip, flip, flip, yawn.  Flip, flip, flip, snore.)  Not to mention all the casual violence, the contrived “reality” TV, the tired sit-com stereotypes, the shameless materialism….

Okay, Okay.  Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m really not a total TV hater.  I know there are, and have been, a lot of smart and funny shows.  TV is entertaining.  Sometimes it’s even inspirational or educational. At various times in my life, I’ve been hooked on a favorite show.  I might even go so far as to say certain shows have added value to my life.  Obviously, TV can be comforting too.

But.  (Of course, there’s a but, and not just the one on the couch.)  For a long time I’ve been impressed by, and even a little in awe of, people who don’t watch TV.  I think it started with this young college professor I had.  She was my freshman writing instructor, and I still remember well her class and her style.  She was relaxed, yet serious.  She was open and natural, and very encouraging—it was because of her that I decided to major in English.  Anyway, she mentioned one day that she didn’t own a TV.  This was fascinating to me.  In my mind, I conjured up a lifestyle simultaneously sophisticated and Bohemian; a home scattered with copies of the New York Times and stacks of poetry books.  It seemed so hip and countercultural. 

Then, a while ago, I read a book called The Big Turnoff: Confessions of a TV-Addicted Mom Trying to Raise a TV-Free Kid, by Ellen Currey-Wilson.  In this memoir, the author shares her story, including her reasoning, her challenges, and her worries, in trying to keep TV entirely out of her son’s life.  She was a bit extreme, actually:  taking pains to prevent her son so much as a glimpse of a cartoon on a TV in a department store, and becoming unduly stressed out by the fact that a TV was on during a kid’s birthday party.  Still, I sort of understood where she was coming from.  She had the stats—and a lot of humor.  This was an enjoyable and absorbing book.

Yet, I think I relate more to Barbara Kingsolver.  She explains her rationale for keeping TV out of her home in Small Wonder (an excellent book of essays).  Part of the reason is lack of time and patience:  life is short and there’s so much else to do.  Another part is the narrow and shallow reporting of news on TV, with a bias towards the most visually alarming events in the world, while ignoring a whole host of other important issues. 

Significantly, Kingsolver says:  “I also believe it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” 

Good point. 

It may take some effort, but I can try to ignore those ubiquitous screens.  And I can certainly limit my screen-time at home.  I can keep up on the news, in much more depth than TV soundbites, through a variety of print media.  And I can attend to the people around me, instead of the make-believe people in TV world.

If you think about it, real human interaction is ultimately more fun and interesting anyway.