“It’s not that easy being green
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold
Or something much more colorful like that…”
(Kermit the Frog of the Muppets)
I’m not sure why, but as a child I so wanted to be tall, smart and a good athlete. I would stretch when I went to bed at night, hoping that would make me taller. I was average height, a little better than an average student and a little worse than average athlete. I wasn’t the last picked for the team, but it wasn’t too far from it. At the ripe old age of 70, like Kermit in the above song, I’m still trying to like being who I am.
Lidia Yuknavitch in her February 2016 TED talk, shares what it has been like for her to be herself, a misfit. She talks of the homeless as heroes and takes us on her personal journey from failure and despair to success as a mother, teacher and writer by changing her working myth and accepting herself for who she is.
Thanks for the encouragement Lidia. You’ve inspired me to keep at it and given me a new appreciation for the maverick or misfit in myself. Now maybe I can sing the last verse of the above song with Kermit and you and anyone else willing to take the risk:
“When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why, but why wonder why
Wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful
And I think it’s what I want to be.”
Most of us like stories, especially when we are young. And we like stories that begin at ground O and ascend on up toward 100. An upward climb from low to high is preferable to a downward slide from high to low. “High” usually represents success, while “low” represents failure. So when a boy or girl brings home a report card, he or she wants to report to inquiring parents: I got a high grade, rather than admitting: they gave me a low grade.
That mindset is behind a lot of good films that record the hero or heroine of the story proving to be a success because they moved from low to high in their life passageway. Few films achieve success if they depict the central character of a film in a downward spin, ending in disaster or failure.
True though this be, many of us carry the burden of failures in our lives. They may not be obvious to others. In our youth we had dreams of successes in what we set out to achieve: happy marriages, lucrative business ventures, children of whom we could be proud, fine reputations, the house of our dreams, early retirement followed by the pursuit of enriching past-times about which we had always dreamed, associations with the rich and famous, reputations gaining us access to the pinnacles of power and prestige. But, instead we may wake up each morning facing a day in which we have to drag ourselves from morning to night: faltering marriages, troubled children, collapsing business ventures, failing health, distrust from among colleagues, constantly being overlooked in the arena of promotions, being the butt of jokes, disdain among collaborators, reputation for being a loser, etc.
Early dreams of being climbers, that is, those who have effortlessly moved from the lower echelons of life upward on a constant climb toward goals that I have pursued all my life, thrill and excite us. EXCELSIOR! has been a dream to be achieved. Who would not want that to be emblazoned on our life story! The counterpart of that, of course, is LOSER. To be regarded in this way is a dampener difficult to bear outwardly, and inwardly depressing and deflating. Undoubtedly many suicides terminate the lives of those enshrouded with a constant sense of their inability to escape the sense of being enclosed in a hole in the ground from which no escape is possible.
It makes an interesting comparison to present a counter situation in which the dynamic of upward and downward is changed from downward to upward, and presented as movement from upward to downward. As depressing as some of the above description appears, at least the theme of upward and onward pervades the description of the scene presented. But there’s another way of describing movement between down and up, in which the predominant mindset is from upward to downward. Using the terms found in the title above, there is also the experience, less frequently experienced, thankfully, that might be suggested in these terms: From riches to rags. It would be the contrary of the situation just described, where the motion from rags to riches is the dominant driving force, and instead plays out as a downward, sinking sensation of moving from riches to rags.
In this setting, one comes into this world with a silver spoon in his/her mouth, where all of the elements making for success, are at hand, so that a high-energy effort at reaching out to achieve and acquire the building blocks of success are already at hand, but, through unforeseen events, such as the Great Depression in 1929 and the succeeding decade, calamitous losses befell the makers and shakers of society, leaving them and their families deprived of all their assets. They became “losers” of all the benefits they owned—property, financial instruments, lives of leisure—and found themselves at the bottom of the upward ladder toward success, and inexperienced in the struggles needed to move upward.
So the question is presented to us: what is the more devastating experience to undergo: to move from rags to riches, or from riches to rags? And though the more common sequence is the former alternative, instances of the latter are not lacking. And should we ask ourselves: which is the more difficult situation to sustain (even though each scenario contains the same elements, but in a differing sequence), the answer seems obvious.
This leads us to the figure of Jesus Christ, and to the unique experience He underwent: from that of heaven itself, downward (so to speak) to a penurious life in this world of ours, followed by a brief but highly successful three year period of untold success, followed by a calamitous ending in shame and ignominy, but concluding with an unprecedented upward movement into His heavenly home. How do we understand His “life”: from rags to riches, or from riches to rags, or might it be both? Do our lives bear any resemblance to this?
When I think of the great architects of the world, Diébédo Francis Kéré is not a name that comes to mind. I came across him after listening to Sebastian Junger’s November 2016 TED Talk, Our lonely society makes it hard to come home from war which was featured in Sunday’s “This Week on TED.com”. Junger’s talk left me wondering if there was any hope. He presents facts like 22 vets commit suicide every day and the wealthier we are the more likely we are to commit suicide, abuse our children and suffer from loneliness. I had to find a positive response to this depressing scenario, so I went looking at TED, putting “community” in the search field.
I found Diébédo Francis Kéré. He, like Junger comes back to a community only his community has nothing and together they make something, a school. Sebastian Junger comes back to a community that has everything and he suffers PTSD and asks: “Can we save ourselves?”. I think Kéré’s community is a good answer to Junger’s or the one we are more familiar with in the U.S. and I think I’ve found an architect worthy to stand with Mies, Frank, Louis and all the other great Chicago architects.
Uncle Jack will not likely go down in history as memorable. He never did much to merit acclaim or notoriety. The oldest of five brothers and sisters of a medium-sized Midwestern city, he was a relatively unknown family member. He likely did not graduate from high school, which coincided with the duration of the First World War.
He was drafted into the army, and served overseas in France during the war. At war’s end, he returned to the States, and was released from his military service. He more or less broke family ties at that point, not completely, but he limited his presence “at home”. He began to move around, from one part of the country to another. He was unattached to anyone, though he had a friendly personality, and always seemed able to make friends, wherever he might happen to be.
So long as his aging parents were alive, he would show up at his family of origin unpredictably, stay awhile, then move on. He had a brother, another bachelor, who was the stay-at-home type, and three sisters, all of whom eventually married. As mentioned, there was no close network bonding him with any of his kin, probably because he was never at home long enough for this to happen. But he never seemed lonely or morose or dependant, at least in the early days, even though he was rootless. With the passage of time his family members grew accustomed to his nomadic comings and goings, and laconically report that Uncle Jack was back home. Everyone anticipated that this would be for just a time, before he was gone again. There was some periodic remonstrance from his sisters about settling down and starting a family life, but he enjoyed living out of town.
He became a traveling salesman, being the garrulous type with the persons with whom he associated. These happened to be professional golfers, whose careers entailed their traveling on the golfing tour, from place to place. Uncle Jack wasn’t interested in competing to join their professional ranks, but he did enjoy the life of a salesman for golfing equipment, travelling along with them. That group became his family. Perhaps some of them had been in the military with him, but it was a group whose company he enjoyed, striking up friendships with many of them. They formed a buddy system. He got to know their golfing habits and made sure they had access to the golfing equipment they needed.
The professional golfing tour of the 1920s and 1930s became his way of life. Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones were two of the better known on the men’s golfing tour in those days. These were the best days of his life for Uncle Jack, consorting with the rich and famous. Unfortunately, those kinds of days didn’t last forever, as the Great Depression began with the stock market crash, casting a dark shadow over the ‘30s, creating many impoverished individuals and families. Uncle Jack was one of them. The Prohibition Era coincided with part of this time period, and accounted, paradoxically, for the Al Capone era and other like-minded entrepreneurs who made the availability of liquor a hidden but lucrative enterprise.
Uncle Jack became a victim of that era and its addictive appetite for whiskey. And the good life with the well-to-do and the famous became a thing of the past for him (and many others), and his ability to get by in a depressed economic period through selling expensive golfing equipment became a thing of the past. His golfing associates notably diminished in numbers, and were just memories of a fading past, and a way of life he had enjoyed. He had no other skills or contacts on which to fall back. He eked out a living, continuing his periodic return to the home of his youth, but it was an uncomfortable fit both for him and the family. His brother, a bachelor like himself, frequently helped him out, but they were not close friends with one another. Their lifestyles were totally different. His brother became a religious stalwart in his parish church, and a faithful practitioner of the faith, while Uncle Jack could not be called a religious person, by any stretch of the imagination.
A saving feature of his life, however, was his decision not to attempt marriage. When asked why he had never done so, he replied that he couldn’t inflict on any woman the way of life he was now leading, though earlier on he had close friendships with women. This realistic admission of his situation helped balance out the ledger of his life. Throughout the remainder of his life he manifested momentary flairs of the kind of man he had been in former days, recounting his association with pro golfers, and regaling his listeners with the jokes he could tell with the best of them, and with what it was like “in the good ole’ days”. He died tragically on New Years Eve, 1945, in Jackson, Michigan, late in the evening, beneath the wheels of a car backing out of the driveway, as he walked along the sidewalk. His brother, as usual, handled the affairs of his funeral. They lie buried together in a family plot, closer now than they were in life.
Uncle Jack was never prominent in the life of the family, but the name Jack has continued in the family tree. He certainly did not lead a wicked or evil life. But was it a wasted life? Perhaps. But he was good enough to know he would make any girl an inadequate husband, and he had the humility and adequate true self-knowledge to know what he should not do. Possibly he was like the good thief hanging on the cross near Jesus, and from that cross making one request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And why should he not have heard the reply: “…today you will be with me in Paradise”. (Lk 23.42, 43)?
Every once in a while, albeit, not very often, I hear or see something that leaves me speechless. “Danny & Annie” is that something. I thank Troy from the Chicago Center on Halsted for introducing me to this five-minute video, which I will never forget and wish to share with you.
This video comes from Story Corps founded by Dave Isay, (the recipient of the 2015 TED Prize) in October of 2003. It’s mission is to:
…preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.
In a 2015 survey of 600 National Public Radio (NPR) listeners, 88% reported that they were better able to understand people with different backgrounds, and 96% reported they were better able to understand people with disabilities or serious illness.
To find out how you can get involved telling your story or interviewing a friend or family member click here. Thank you Dave Isay and all of your membership as well as your donors and storytellers for bringing the world a much-needed tool for creating understanding.
Truth-telling is an activity highly regarded in human interchange. It bonds people together when they can trust that everyone in possession of the truth is conscientious in conveying it to others. Parents try to inculcate a respect for it in their children. It is not always easy to tell the truth even though the truth is a highly-regarded value, for sometimes such value, while working to the advantage of some, also causes some disadvantage to others. So hiding or covering the truth is a temptation for one who may fear him or herself being harmed by the truth.
So attempts have always been made to shade or diminish the truth, but in a way that, should they be discovered, they don’t necessarily fall into the category of a bald or outright lie. These are defense mechanisms against the severely damaging charge that one is a liar. There are few accusations that are more damaging to our reputation than the charge that one is a liar. It besmirches nearly every transaction in which one engages. But truthfulness is a universal value that plays out in every activity in which one commits oneself. Haven’t we heard that “…the truth will set you free?” (Jer. 8.32) And to be less than free in living one’s life makes life miserable because one must take precautions to remember one’s deviations from the truth.
The issue of such approximations to the truth may describe many of our transactions in which “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is expected from us by those dealing with us. In courts of law, where the truth of the matter is central to the case, the truthfulness of remarks is of such significance that an extra step is taken to guarantee that the truth is being told. So litigants are asked to take an oath by placing their hand on the bible and stating they are telling the truth, “so help me God.” This increases the seriousness of an obligation to tell the truth.
Amid this concern lies the temptation, if not to lie, but to reshape the truth for our own benefit. It can be traced to our fear of suffering injury if the full disclosure of truth is required in my testimony. Or it may owe to our disagreement with the wording used in the legal formulas placed before me, which I regard as wrong and misinformed. Or it may elicit an answer from me that is cleverly concocted. So, to protect my interests I may shade or modify the full intent of the statement placed before me.
Sometimes an exaggeration on my part may be used to shave the full impact of the statement to which I am being asked to accept as true and accurate. An exaggeration is often not a complete reversal of the truth of something, but it may be a modification of the truth to the point where others may be led to wonder whether it’s the full truth. Or it is possible at times to shade the truth without completely denying it, as in admitting you threw peanuts in the river, without clarifying that Peanuts is the name of someone (whom, one knows, can’t swim), or in the case of a hearing- impaired parent questioning a young person told to return home by 10:00 pm, what time of the night it is, upon hearing his or her return, who responds that it is plenty after 10:00, hoping it would be understood as twenty after 10:00. Or the case of the NBC newscaster, Brian Williams, who guilded his account of participating in a military operation in Iraq without clarifying that this was not an immediate involvement, but somewhat remote. All of these examples, while true, to an extent, need various degrees of clarification to satisfy the requirement of telling the truth. There was an element of exaggeration in each of them likely leading listeners to think they were hearing the truth while, as a matter of fact, they were hearing distorted versions of the truth.
So the question becomes: were each of these a substantial violation of the truth? If truth-telling is an important way of bonding with and trusting others, do these examples undercut and injure ways of relating to others? Is it a violation of the truth to boast about one’s background or education or experiences or connections? If others know I tend to magnify my accomplishments, and make provision for that in dealing with me, so that deception is usually not the outcome of an arrangement we make with one another, is that nonetheless the equivalent of a lie? If I am placed under oath to tell the truth in a court of law, and am cleverly maneuvered by manipulating officials, am I lying to evade their misleading techniques by telling part of the truth but not all of the truth?
Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth: is this a hard and fast rule of life and conduct in all life’s situations, or is it appropriate to shape responses to situations that are appropriate to that situation, leaving to the experience and skill of others the task of appropriating the truth they seek from the remarks I provide? During His trial and interrogation before Pilate, Jesus is asked: “Are you the king of the Jews?” To this Jesus responded: “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” (Jn. 18.33-34) And a bit later Pilate repeats: “Then you are a king?”, to which Jesus responded: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (Jn 37-38). Is Jesus here sparring with Pilate about the truth? Are there occasions for us to do so?
One of my favorite pieces of literature is Don Quixote, the Man of LaMancha by Miguel de Cervantes. I remember reading it as a student at De Paul University in a remote corner of Alumni Hall in the 1960’s. It is the only classic that I remember really enjoying which of course says more about me than the “classics”. I totally identified with Mr. Alonso Quixano as he went after windmills and damsels in distress. He knew how to dream.
Dan Pallotta also knows how to dream. Born in 1961, he is an author, public speaker, entrepreneur and humanitarian activist. He is also married to his husband and together they are raising their three children. In 1961 such a description would most likely have banned him to a life of obscurity. The above credits belie such a fate and suggest to me Dan learned how to dream. His talk demonstrates that well.
Pope Francis is a dreamer. The Catholic News Agency reported Pope Francis’s dream. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Pope Francis said: “I have a dream…”, this one for a unified Europe, this past Friday May 6, 2016 as he accepted the Charlemagne Award. He joined the ranks of other famous unifiers like, Pope John Paul II, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, King Felipe of Spain and a host or other winners. That’s quite a litany of dreamers.
Guess I’m not the only one who liked Cervantes’ work either. Dale Wasserman’s famous 1965 play, Man of LaMancha is based on Cervantes’ work. That play inspired the 1972 Movie by the same name. Both feature one of my favorite songs, The Impossible Dream with lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh.
Think I’ll join Don Quixote, Dan Pallotta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pope Francis and dare to dream another word for prayer, the second definition in Dictionary.com. Want to come along?
Mothers Day is a special day on the American calendar, joining Thanksgiving Day and Christmas and maybe the 4th of July as similarly important days. Not far behind is Fathers Day, the birth of one’s first child, the marriage anniversary, and then other special days, cherished by us for their significance to us.
Mothers Day: might we regard it as a holy day? Like a holy day of obligation, on the Catholic calendar? Well, maybe yes, or possibly so. It’s a holy day because it concerns one of the truly sacred things near and dear to our hearts: our own life, and that special person who, in conjunction with God Himself, has brought us into life, and nurtured us to the point where we can provide for ourselves.
There may have been a time when we took life for granted, primarily because we had not reached the point where we could step back from life and look at it from some distance away. In our early years we were engulfed and swallowed up in our life, with no way of disengaging our self from our dependence on our family. It was like being on a ship on the high seas, living our entire existence on that vessel, unable to distance ourselves from that ship so as to think of our life apart from it. Of course, it was a pleasant and comfortable life, from the early phase within our mother’s womb to the later frightening experience of stepping out of our front door and walking through the entrance to kindergarten. Till then our family, and especially our mother, was like a ship on the high seas of life where we found security, care and comfort, day in and out. Those on shore could observe us at a distance, sailing by, with our mother at the helm.
An even more graphic example of this sense of being enveloped by our mother has been the development of space exploration and the manufacture of space craft to traverse outer space, from where we can look back safely at earth and see for the first time what the world out there looks like, from our vantage point within the space capsule. Though we would soon join our earth home, for the present we can watch the world go by, having all we need for a comfortable life.
These examples are how it is with our mother. Early on we were so embedded within the folds of our mother, first, within the womb, then outside of it, that we had no sense of living our own distinct life. She was our ship on the seas of life, and our space capsule, within which all our needs were handled.
But once the first sensation arrived of having a life distinct from hers, I became able to focus on this person who was a mother to me, and develop a sense, as I grew in age, that I was my own person, so much so that I forgot the early sensation of being one with her. Life then entered a new stage where very personal adventures occurred for me as I began to live a life separately from hers, but never to the point where I dismissed her from my self-awareness completely. That early bonding between us never disappeared, forming a linkage unlike any other in our experience, regardless of the geographical distance I put between her and myself.
This is what we celebrate on Mothers Day—an experience of life in which she was intimately involved, so that I can look back on it, as if from outer space, and marvel at the wonder of what I now see, which I could not see earlier on. It is a profound feeling that borders on our sense of the sacred. And as sacred, it is holy, and for this reason is aptly regarded as a holy day. Corresponding to Mothers Day is my birthday when for the first time I can reach land and look back at the ship on which I have spent my life, to this point. Or similarly, my birthday lays out the possibility of appreciating Mothers Day like the opportunity provided the first astronauts of looking out the porthole of their space craft, back at the earth from which they just separated themselves, and for the first time fully observe it teeming with the white cloud cover, the blue seas, the dark-hued earth, and can fully appreciate it as mother earth, where life unfolded and blossomed.
This is why we should regard Mothers Day as a holy day on our Catholic calendar. We can look at it as a day of appreciating my dependency on the nurturing elements of life I earlier relied on, and can begin to feed myself, as with the eucharist. It’s a day when the factors comprising our traditional holy days, such as the sense of awe before the mystery of the sacred, converge into sentiments of reverence and respect before a sense of something religious. For life is sacred and to be revered as Godlike. Life is how Jesus identified God in His dealings with the Sadducees: “He is not God of the dead but of the living”. (Mk 12.27)
I was the number four boy growing up during the ‘50’s in a family of seven children. I had four brothers, two older and two younger and two sisters, one younger and one older. As a boy in that era, the worse thing that could happen to you was to be called a girl, usually couched in the term “sissy”. I did all sorts of crazy things to avoid that moniker, like playing football, pretending to be interested in baseball and choosing clothes that looked very manly.
Ameera Ahmad Harouda, “Mr. Rambo” works as a fixer in the Gaza Strip and in the above TED Talk, shares what I believe to be the real face of bravery, perseverance and strength—in short, all the masculine virtues (Latin root vir means man) that I have always aspired to. “Mr. Rambo” is a woman. She has another virtue not often demonstrated by men, compassion. If you doubt that statement about men, read the comments that follow Ameera’s talk. While there seems to be one woman, Louise, involved in the discussion that follows, the rest look to me to be men who I think have missed the point of the talk all-together. Ameera is telling the moving story of people caught up in conflict. The men continue to discuss who is right and who is wrong. If my life’s experiences have taught me anything, trying to assign blame, rather that compassionately learning to live in the present moment will surely continue the war.
There’s another woman’s story told in the May 2, 2016 New York Times article: Departing Judge Offers Blunt Defense of Ruling in Stop-and-Frisk Case whose strength, I believe, far exceeds that of the men she has had to work with. Judge Shira Scheindlin, is stepping down after 22 years as a federal district judge in Manhattan. During that time she had the nerve to stand up to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly in her 2013 ruling in the stop-and-frisk case. Her response to interviewers demonstrates compassion rather than fear:
“Think of the lives that that has changed, the lives that that has touched,” she said, “the lives of people who were stopped for no good reason and how intrusive that is.” The policy had “bred nothing but distrust,”
Just as important, Judge Scheindlin noted that her ruling reduced the number of stop-and-frisks from 685,000 to 24,000 in just a few years. Maybe we should change the word virtue to mulierue (Latin root mulier means woman) and encourage little boys to be more like the girls.
Aside: This post has nothing to do with the 2016 politicking going on right now. I'm actually supporting Bernie Sanders