Sunday, October 15, 2017

One of the reasons I don't listen to music on my runs

I spent almost a quarter of my waking hours today on a long run. A couple of miles in, I passed a farmer spreading manure. (I was to later pass 4 more farmers doing the same thing. Today was the day, apparently). I imagined him shaking his head at what was essentially a pointless expenditure of effort on my part, while he spent his day toiling from dawn to dusk to accomplish necessary tasks, on a Sunday. It made me reflect on how strange the gap is between people's needs. I need to spend a good chunk of my free time running in order not to have a heart attack at 50-something because I spend the bulk of my time with my ass slowly conforming to the shape of an office chair, while there are serious needs for physical labor in the world- 2.4 miles from my house, to be exact. Why isn't there an easy way for my need for physical work to get matched up with an actual job that needs to get done? There are migrants coming to our country to perform physical labor that no American wants to do- like picking New York State's apple crop every year- while Americans are dying way too young because we are way too sedentary. Why the imbalance?

All of nature, apart from human beings, exists in balance, each life and force flowing into the need of another part. The intricate balance of predator and prey; animals and plants figuring in their roles and producers, consumers, and decomposers; water continuing in its cycle through the air and back to earth-- all matter dissolves and reconstitutes itself continually in a dizzying dance through being and non-being. As humans, the matter of which we are composed is a part of all of those cycles, and we feel our kinship with it. But we stand apart in that we are driven by some other need which makes us resist all of those never-ending cycles. We are constantly looking for a break in one of those chains to find our freedom. But what are we really resisting, and why are we resisting it?

The strange mismatch of human beings' needs seems to stem from this need we all have to be out of step with nature. I read a crazy article last year about an Indian entrepreneur who figured out a way to collect the thrown out food of restaurants and distribute it to India's starving population. Here was a guy who just figured out how to match up people's mismatched needs- on the one hand there's a class of people with so much money that they continually waste food, and on the other hand there is a huge population of people literally starving and which could live on the waste of the upper classes. What a simple and beautiful idea to connect those people so that they can share.

I still don't know what it is in human nature that compels these excesses that remove us from the cycle of life and death. But it is something fundamental and flawed and strange. And there are some genius souls who can see their way clear to mending the rent this tears in the social fabric. And they feed millions of hungry.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How We Become Polarized

It is no secret that American politics and society has been becoming more polarized in the last decade or so, and this trend seems to have reached a head around the current administration. Smarter people than me are offering suggestions as to why that is happening, and I won't comment on why, but it is interesting to me how it occurs. I find the current debate over NFL football players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in America to be particularly illustrative of this phenomenon.

On the one side, football players, led by Colin Kaepernick, are expressing a principled, peaceful protest of a very real American problem. I don't think most people disagree that police officers killing unarmed African Americans is a deep cultural problem and that Kaepernick and others have every right to peacefully express their opposition to it and to how these events are handled. Their chosen method for doing so, however, is to sit or kneel during the national anthem, and this method of protest has stoked a deep, virulent resentment in many Americans.

On the other side, you have patriotic Americans who identify strongly with nationalist sentiment and view the flag, and people's public display of respect for it, as civil activities in which every American should engage. They view respect for the flag as honoring veterans and their service and as an expression of national solidarity.  This is a tradition with deep roots in American culture and deviation from these norms causes not only discomfort but anger.

These two sides, which divide rather evenly along political lines (for the most part), are completely missing each other's messages and talking past each other. And this is how polarization happens: it occurs when we fail to fully consider each others' points of view and what we mean by our expressions. It occurs when we latch on to a pithy and compelling narrative that represents only our own views, without considering the importance of others' views. It occurs when we refuse to view a situation as nuanced and difficult when that is exactly what it is. It occurs when we fail to honor one another, and to show basic respect for each other as fellow human beings. It is, fundamentally, an issue of respect.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Beauty is One

From April to October, the sun is high enough at 6 a.m. for me to run outside before I go to work in the morning while it's light out. Before I run, I read for awhile in my purple chair with me eye on the window, waiting for the first pale rays to climb over the horizon. Starting each April, I begin to notice  that from day to day, there is a minute change in when those first rays appear, slowly coming earlier and earlier until June and July when they are up before I am at 5 a.m., greeting me in my bed.

At first I have to run on the roads because the trails in our woods and the grassy areas are too muddy, but eventually I begin to test those areas too as they change each day, until usually May or June when most are reasonably navigable. And when I start running the trails almost every day, there continues the slow evolution of their drying and hardening, each day a little better than the last.

The animals I encounter change, too. Earlier in the spring, on my first lap around the pond each morning I would hear frogs gasp in surprise and plunk, with a little splash, into the water as I would pass, one after the other-- as if they had all lined up in a ring around the edge for this performance. By mid-summer, there is only an occasional and larger splash and they no longer release a little yelp before they take their plunge. Now it is the lone loon whom I terrify on my first lap. His prolonged and agitated yelping are hysterically satisfying. And just today, I surprised a single deer on the pond path. I think he was just getting a drink alone, and I must have been moving quietly, because we came very close, startling each other before running in opposite directions. If I had had the wherewithal to reach out my hand, I could have touched his flank. I often see the deer back in the pines where they bed, but usually in groups and never so close.

Also today, I picked a bowl full of blueberries after I finished. They are late this year. Usually they are done by now but the raspberries ripened before they did. That is a first. This is only the second picking. Once they start to ripen, we can pick quite a few every day and they are all at different stages of ripening. Each day their colors shift until they are deep blue and my fingers know, by the slightest tug, whether they are fully ready. When they are, they roll into your palm with no resistance.

The daily ritual of returning to this space is its own lesson. The land is constantly changing, each day shifting its lights and colors and shapes in a predetermined course. Only through constant conversation with it, melding my own habits to its course, do I fully experience it. For all the relentless forces in this world, beauty is one.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Slower

Near the edge of this old town
Peopled with families that have been around
As long as the trees,
There is a natural depression in the ground
That was the perfect place to build the baseball fields.

When the children square up to the plate, take swing,
Or turn the bases, take the mound,
A hundred little phrases come to mind--
The old advice-- like, "Watch the bat hit the ball"
And "Don't wait for it to come to you"--
And they want to do it right, with narrow gazes,
They aspire to do as they are told.
It's a game that teaches them to focus
With its slowness and the way it forces choices.

I wonder if they notice, like I do,
That behind the bemused parents cheering them,
There is another ring of spectators,
The trees themselves respectfully
Look on behind the fences. Some of them
Have climbed the hills to get a better view,
And they cheer too-- not quieter, but lower,
And their advice is different. They whisper, "Slower."

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Graceful

Sadness is an ordinary thing that you can find
On the face and in the gestures of a frowning ballerina
Getting ready with the other girls to sweep onto the stage.
And she will still become the song, maybe even more so now,
Because for her the dance becomes an expression of her grief,
An ordinary grief that many children have endured--
Of their one home becoming two--
And kids are resilient, sure.
You'll still see them on the stage, and they're graceful, too.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

And the Opposite Is Also True

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Where Consciousness Resides, suggesting that the part of us that thinks and feels abides somewhere in parallel to the part that moves and talks, and I often feel that's true. But shortly after writing that, I was taken down with the stomach flu and plunged into a couple of days of animal existence, one inseparable from the machinations of my body. There was nothing more to me than the act of purging. There was something cleansing about that experience, though, and not just in the literal, visceral sense, but also in the experience of being so much in the moment. It was not a time to plan or reflect or to allow my mind to dwell on anything apart from being. And that is the other side of this reality: that on the one hand, we do carry within us a spiritual essence whose dwelling is someplace other than the body, but that on the other hand, life also offers us intense physical experiences -- and we can seek them out-- moments when we are completely engaged in a consuming physical task and inseparable from our actions. It is deeply paradoxical that the human spirit- the thing in us that is life- is lent from elsewhere, but yet we never feel as fully alive as when we wed that spirit to the parts of ourselves that perish. Perhaps that is the greatest mystery of all- that life does not know itself fully until it engages fully with death.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where Consciousness Resides

Some have speculated that consciousness leaves the body when we die but I question whether consciousness has ever resided in a body. As someone who spends a lot of time observing, I am often on the sidelines of a social situation, contentedly and quietly taking in what others are doing. But I'm really more present when I am observing than when I'm engaging. It's the times when I engage the most that I am at the furthest remove, for it is at those times that I observe not only others, but also myself.

This past weekend I ran back to back semi long runs on the hills around my house. I hadn't run outside in several weeks, having opted for the treadmill through the cold. But I have run those hills hundreds of times before and still it seems impossible that it's actually me running those miles until I am a few miles in. In the hours before I start the run, I can't even imagine myself performing the task. At the end of mile 1, I can't imagine I will complete mile 5 or 7 or 9. So I just move. Clearly there is some forethought involved, or I wouldn't be able to pace myself- pacing requires an accurate balancing of how your boy feels in the moment and how it anticipates feeling an hour later in the run. But still my core seems absent from that activity and I feel present only as a pair of eyes that is absorbed in looking at the world that I am wading through and nothing else. 

The same feels true when I am speaking publicly or leading a high level meeting, even presenting an argument in a case before the government. I certainly spend a lot of time in solitude preparing for those activities, and I make absolutely sure that my mind has fully wrapped itself around any issue on which I could be called upon to speak. I am always deeply prepared, and preparation requires in part that I imagine ahead to how I will present myself. But those imaginings are always images of the shape of my thoughts, not about this corporeal being that will deliver them in the form of words. I never see my legs carrying my brain around in its skull or my lips opening, my eyes scanning the audience. I can't see myself acting, ever. All I can see of myself is the inner machinations of my mind, my reflections, the organization of my thoughts.

I think that is why I write. I write because the part of me that feels real is the part that was shaping these words in my mind as I was walking around yesterday. All the other parts that carry me through the day, that carry out even the simplest tasks like fixing a cup of coffee have always been tinged with unreality to me. My life only takes on substance to me when I give it shape in solitude. I am amazed that others recognize my existence, that I have taken on challenging feats and that other people have noticed. It makes me constantly smirk to myself that other people pair the part of me that formulates thoughts with the part of me that carries them into being. 

I don't live here. I am a squatter in my body and I try to be good to it because there are other souls under my care. I am certainly tied to the life that goes by my name, but even that - what we call life itself- is not all that there is. There is another place where consciousness resides. I don't know where it is, but it is not here.