The World Is On Fire

The World Is On Fire

I’m not going to lie. Every time I tune into any type of media these days, the world immediately looks mangled and dark. This new era in politics is unknown; between the Bannons and the DeVoses, disruption is about the only thing we can safely predict. But what I want to focus on here is that we, as Americans with opposing political views, cannot seem to have a worthwhile conversation about any of it. The emotions that any political talk seems to tap are, simply, combustible. The increase of available information, some of it valid and some of it not, and some of it relevant and constructive, some of it not, means that everyone’s sources of information are feeding them competing and contrary narratives.  So let me ask a question:  To what end?

This is America. We are diverse and we have always had “robust” national discourse about the best path for our country to move forward and prosper. But this is not national discourse. This is all-out madness. This is painting each other as demons or idiots. Most of us are not, so can we try to remember that the people we called fellow citizens a few months ago are still the well-intentioned people they were back then? (I say “most,” because, certainly, there are people who, in the pursuit of less-than-noble goals, cause harm, and we’re not all geniuses–or necessarily the best informed. But it’s not naive to say that most of us mean well.)

Need I spell out the obvious result of this madness? We all become entrenched in our opinions and vilify the other side even further. (My deepest respect for the few who are open to changing their views when presented with convincing arguments or facts.) Our government then reflects this entrenchment and refuses to work across the aisle to move our country forward. (Wait–our government’s already there. Is it possible for the malfunction to get worse?) The point is, if we continue down this path, we all lose.

Trump’s candidacy and election have emboldened the worst in America. (And in recent days, it is emboldening the best, but it is only beginning, and yet to be determined.) We see the worst not only because his election emboldened or forced extremist individuals and groups to come out of the shadows (more on that in a moment), but even more because his election, and the candidacy preceding it, have turned civil discourse into a screaming match. Half the country’s angry. Half the country’s scared. The other half is defensive. And angry. And we’re all shouting to have our opinions heard. That’s not all Trump’s fault. There were all the -isms (racism, sexism, etc.) before. There was opinion-sold-as-fact and oversimplified or misrepresenting memes before Trump came along. But he has managed to harness it to his great advantage, and we are all paying the price.

So can we not? Can we just not? Yes, the stakes are high. People are suffering real harm–most recently in the area of immigration–and will likely continue to in other areas (ACA repeal crisis, here we come). Not to mention the people who have been mocked, beaten, or otherwise suffered at the hands of emboldened extremism since November 9. But these dark forces are not what I want to focus on, because I am clinging to a faith that our laws will not take away basic protections of safety, and that police, judicial, and civil forces will continue to uphold our laws. This does not mean that peoples’ lives won’t be affected, or that our most vulnerable members won’t be attacked and hurt before law enforcement can act (which is why, by the way, so many people are genuinely and justifiably frightened for themselves and their loved ones), but it does mean that we have not lost our democracy. Yet.

If, however, we continue to allow this constant vilification of each other, then the fight is only going to get uglier. Our government will be less stable and less able to execute legislation, and our civic life will become more inflammatory. Worse yet, in the name of keeping society from all-out chaos, this government will restrict our freedoms so much that we will lose our democracy. Yes, it is possible.

In an ideal world, we would all agree on some rules of engagement. Here’s what my rules would look like:

•No ad hominem attacks: the amount of mockery, and painting people with a broad brush, is crazy. Learn to criticize someone’s ideas without criticizing who they are. Same goes with groups. I hate seeing posts about how those liberals or republicans are such hypocrites because ____. Just stop with the name-calling, m-kay? It serves no purpose.

•Use a common language. A basic premise to any fruitful conversation is to speak the same language. Because we tend to get silo-ed in our communities, I suspect half of us are using terms that are foreign to or misunderstood by listeners. I’ve learned, for example, that not everyone knows what “racism” or “hate speech” mean. Clarify when necessary.

•Take the time to fact check. As you’re talking. And if you’re not sure of something, pause and, as my old friend likes to say, consult the oracle (your phone). It’s ok. We can’t all have all the facts we’ve read readily available in our mental Roladex®.  And if it turns out you were wrong, admit it. Or at least go home and read up on the subject. Don’t dig your heels in.

•What would you add to this list?

Everything is not alright. But using our words as swords instead of building blocks is not going to make it better.

Back to My Core

Back to My Core

It took me weeks to absorb what our country did on November 8 (see my prior post, written on day 1). I say this only as a prologue; there has been enough public grieving for me to detail it again here. At some point, when no amount of the usual comforts could bring me out of my darkness, I turned for answers to the source of my worldview: to my faith.  This post is for other Christians who are struggling with the election results, and perhaps for those who don’t understand why we (anti-Trump Christians) are struggling. I hope these reflections will be helpful to others, as drafting them has been for me.

Let’s begin with this: no one can declare that God was on the side of any candidate; to do so would claim an omniscience we ought not dare to assume. Arguments can be (and have been) made on either side.¹ ² (Their credibility, mind you, needs to be carefully evaluated…but I digress.) And more importantly, the Bible, where we discern God’s message to us, is conspicuously silent on the issue of how to vote. The Bible speaks, rather, of how to live: love the Lord and love your neighbor, follow the 10 Commandments, run your race, to name just a few.

So that is what I will attend to. How tens of millions of people voted is well outside my sphere of control or influence, but what is solidly within my control is how I live my life, and the impact I have on those around me. As a Christian, I should be asking myself: am I living each day in a way that pleases God and aligns with God’s message to humanity? Am I living it with an eye towards my spiritual life, which will last far longer than the best things this world has to offer?

I’ll be frank. It’s been hard to remember that in this past month. It’s been hard not to look at the hateful acts committed and words said in the name of our president-elect and not think the end of the world is coming. Seriously. It’s been hard not to look with, um, incredulity at someone who knows less than a little about how government works and yet proclaims that he will fix everything, and who thinks he can (as do his supporters) simply because he is rich.

But yet, here’s the thing. I don’t believe that Trump made America worse. The ugliness was there all along, in the shadows. For many Americans, Trump encouraged the basest of urges, urges belonging to people who knew better than to vocalize them. They knew better because for decades now, our national civil teachings have said it is wrong to speak hatefully of, threaten, or harm members of our society for something that is part of their being (and that, even given the choice, they should not have to deny): race, religion, sex, national origin…you get the picture. These teachings, by the way, fit nicely with teachings in Christianity. Moreover, they are values that matter very, very much to me. Building bridges between cultures, working towards equality, seeing and honoring the humanity in others: this stuff is the very theme of my life. It is my mission. So yes, to see Trump, and all the hatred he embodies, elected to the presidency was devastating.

That ugliness, that darkness–in this case, the anger and fear that wants America to be one big monolith that reinforces one’s own personal views–will always be and has always been a part of our world. If we zoom out from 2016, from America, and look at the history of humanity, we see a thread. In the oldest civilizations, you find stories of struggle for power, struggle for acceptance, fear of the other, desire to lash out whenever one’s views and life choices are threatened. Fear of those unlike us, anger towards those whose actions are contrary to ours, anger or fear when we think others don’t accept us: these are all impulses that, I believe, all of us have had at some point. What we do with those impulses matters. The difference between acting on them and pausing to examine them is tremendous.

As for the question of his ineptitude, I can laugh or cry or rail, but in the end, I will remember that the universe is a big place, created by the Master Creator. Any destruction that can be wrecked by one man is…well, it’s destruction. But as a Christian, the things I value are not things. Economies will rise and fall, militaries will succeed and fail. It is the things that are unseen that endure. Not to say that there is not human suffering that happens in those falls and failures–there is terrifyingly much that does. So I have reasons to be afraid; most of the country does.

My faith teaches me to name that fear, but then to overcome it. It teaches me to recognize the darkness of this world, but not succumb to it. But what does that even mean?

Two things, I think. The first is to not let the fear or the anger darken my own soul. That’s tough. It’s tough not to get discouraged and feel despair that my fellow Americans are being intimidated and attacked, and are justifiably afraid of every-day places and activities that used to be safe. It’s tough not to feel anger that as a country, we have been conned. And make no mistake about it, we have been. But that is not something within my control. What is within my control is how I choose to react to it. Indeed, in the end, I am only responsible for my soul, as each of us is. In the end, it’s the daily choices in my world that deserve my attention.

So the second is to do what I can. I can’t fix everything, but I can shed light on some things. I cannot challenge all the hatred and misinformation out there. But I can address what I see, especially if and when I think it might make a difference. (To that end, and for anyone who cares to read, I am following this post with two others. One will concern emerging trends in our national discourse, and what discourse I believe we should be aspiring to. The third post will explore what individual Americans should expect from Washington.)

A central teaching of my faith is to love my neighbor; to love others. This isn’t a romantic or easy love; it is to look for God’s reflection in others and then to act in accordance with the conviction that those around me are just as worthy of kindness and of care as I like to think I am. So: love those around me, and be a light when I can. On both counts, I have my work cut out for me. If you pray, dear reader, please pray for me. I could use the support.


¹Sample of arguments for Clinton as the candidate for Christians:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/september/why-i-support-hillary-clinton.html
http://religionnews.com/2016/10/05/who-should-christians-vote-for-theologian-miroslav-volf-makes-a-surprising-case-for-one-candidate/
http://www.christianpost.com/news/hillary-clinton-is-the-best-choice-for-voters-against-abortion-170258/
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/october/ron-sider-why-i-am-voting-for-hillary-clinton.html
http://thefederalist.com/2016/10/12/christians-support-trump-undermines-public-witness/

²Sample of arguments for Trump as the candidate for Christians:
http://www.dailywire.com/news/4097/jerry-falwell-explains-why-christians-should-vote-james-barrett
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/heres-why-white-evangelicals-still-support-trump-in-spite-of-everything_us_5807ce8be4b0180a36e86259
http://townhall.com/columnists/waynegrudem/2016/10/19/if-you-dont-like-either-candidate-then-vote-for-trumps-policies-n2234187
(I tried to find more sources that were well-substantiated, but couldn’t. Readers are welcome to look further.)

 

Reflections on a Dark Day

Reflections on a Dark Day

 

I am dumbstruck this morning, and I am heartbroken. As I did my daughter’s hair for school, she asked why I was shaking my head, maybe thinking it was something she’d said. “I just can’t believe we did this. I don’t know how our country will survive this person.” She looked at me questioningly, and I realized I have to, at least for the moment, talk to her and her sister of normal, immediate things. I can’t have her believing her world is physically collapsing. Because it’s not.

But it does feel like the values of my country are collapsing. I can’t dismiss what’s happened. My country has just elected, to the highest office in the land, a man whose very essence is crass, disrespectful, fear-mongering, and completely blind to the privileges he’s been handed, not earned. This is a man who thinks nothing of ignoring basic civil rules, such as paying the people you’ve hired to do work for you for an agreed-upon price, just because he can get away with it. This is a man who, when given a chance to scale down some of his most incendiary rhetoric, has instead repeated it.

Some speculate that now that the election’s over, he will tone down the crazy-talk, stop the performance, and use the advice of more experienced political supporters to take his responsibility seriously. He will act like someone who is a president for all Americans. I don’t know that this is anything more than hopeful wishing. But for all our sakes, I hope they are right.

What I see is a man who has shown only that he loves–needs, even–to be in the headlines, and will do whatever he needs to to stay there. I see a man who won’t stop the crazy-talk because that talk is who he is. But the fact is, I don’t know what’s going to happen. He is one man, he will be at the head of one branch of government. In a normal world, his impact will be limited (except of course, in areas like foreign policy, where the executive branch has a lot of power). But today, I can’t assure a normal world.

I can be assured that the many good people of this country will act to keep our system of checks and balances in place, will call out fouls when they see them, and that, among the many who are dejected and disenfranchised today, there are millions who will continue to work towards a fairer, more just society within their own spheres of influence. And that I need to more actively be one of them.

Friends have joked with me that it’s time to flee and go back to Australia. But even in Australia, as there was in Britain, in France, and in pretty much every country on earth, there is the dark underbelly. This silent group are the people who are racist, misogynist, and xenophobic enough to vote for the furthest person from Obama they could conjure up and to vote against a woman based on unverified rumors and conspiracy theories.

There is also a second group: the many, many people–people I call friends and acquaintances among them–who allowed fear and ignorance to dictate their vote. Many are intelligent people who are tired of seeing promises not fulfilled by the Washington elite and who are just busy trying to succeed in their every-day lives. But they check their Facebook newsfeeds and listen to the know-it-alls (we all have at least one in our social circles), and they hear the same half-truths and false allegations said with conviction and repeatedly. And so they believe them. And they repeat whatever they heard Susie Q say. And then they vote. To these people I say two things. First, take your responsibility to be informed seriously. Facebook articles are not “the media” and they are not all good news sources. Read a lot, and read real sources. Jo Shmo who wrote some article that he posted on some internet-only site that then posted onto Facebook about [insert theory here] should not be your only source of information. Look at who is writing what you are reading, and what their sources are. Better yet, go to their sources directly. I know you are busy, but it is your responsibility. It is the price you pay for living in this great country.

Second, I say: let’s talk in a year, or two if you prefer. Let’s see which of his promises your choice has managed to fulfill. Those promises, for the record, include most notoriously:

-building a wall on our Mexico border

-repealing Obamacare AND replacing it with another system of healthcare

-overturning Roe v. Wade through the appointment of (a) Supreme Court justice(s)

-eradicating ISIS/ISIL

-protecting existing gun laws, military-grade assault rifles and all

-rewriting our tax code and lowering taxes “for everyone”

Which of these policies, by the way, are you most excited about? And what will you do and think when he doesn’t deliver? I truly want to understand, because without understanding, we will find ourselves in the exact same place in four years.

I am heartbroken today and I am angry. And I fear the damage our president-elect will do before we realize our mistake. But I am also hopeful that out of this election will rise a country who engages, who finds common ground, and who makes decisions with eyes wide open about how we should move forward. Because, despite what happened last night, we are better than this. And if we aren’t now, we have it in us to be.

 

No Bow Can Wrap This Up

No Bow Can Wrap This Up

It’s still winter in Queensland. Though we’re now back across the Pacific and across the equator, the scene that flashes across my mind is an unremarkable one. I am standing over the laundry sink, the Queensland sun streaming in the window, scrubbing my daughter’s school socks and cursing the fact that she’s once again managed to embed that singularly Aussie red dirt into the fabric.

It was only weeks ago that I was standing there, but it could have been months. It is summer here in Ohio, everything is lush and green and hot and humid, and my sense of place is still suspended. People ask how it is to be back, and my answer is usually a patchy attempt to explain that, while our plane landed weeks ago, I’m still waiting for my feet to hit the ground. We have flipped seasons and calendars (we left mid academic year and are arriving in time to start a new academic year next month). We have moved back into our home only to find that, though it’s unchanged, our habitation of it has. We’ve reconnected with so many family and friends, and it has been overwhelming to hear and see everything that has changed in the past 18 months. And we’ve only just begun to catch up.

Before we’d left, a year–or year and a half–didn’t seem like long. And it’s not, in fact. It flew by. But you know that expression about not stepping in the same river twice? Well, it’s true. I knew things would change while we were gone (including our own views and experiences), even if I didn’t know how. Neither did I know know how the transition back would go.

While in Australia, I had started half a dozen lists in my head of things I didn’t want to forget. They went something like this:

Things I’ll Miss Hearing:
The Aussie accent. Being called “dahl.” Even, dare I say, the screech and song every morning of magpies, cockatiels, lorikeets, rosellas, and cockatoos.

Things I’ll Miss Seeing:
Our friends and neighbours. Gum trees. The ocean. The one-of-a-kind colors of a Queensland sunset sky.

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Foods and Drinks I’ll Miss:
Pies. Lemon Lime & Bitters. A really good flat white or mocha being easily available. (I have yet to have a Starbucks coffee since being back, and am in no hurry to reintroduce that brew into my life.) Date scones. The cornucopia of flavour-packed seasonal fruits and veggies, which would require a dedicated blog if I were to name them all.

Our Time in Queensland, Tallied:
Our oldest daughter learned to braid hair. We washed easily over 150 loads of laundry. Our younger daughter saw her first movie in a movie theater. The kids went to their first (and second) circus performance. My husband learned about half a dozen new classes of venomous snake bites to treat. We drove thousands of kilometers…on the left side of the road. I read probably 40 books. Our oldest daughter was introduced to the game of Monopoly. Both older kids fell in love with the game of Trouble. I wrote one book, and a first draft of a second. Our younger daughter’s speech went from the toddler speak that only those closest to her could understand to the very precocious–and intelligible–speech of a preschooler. Our oldest daughter fell in love with soccer. We went, most significantly, from a family of four to a family of five.

 

That was there. This is here. Here, when I haven’t been trying to return our home to some kind of physical order or to catch up with family and friends, I’ve been swept up in the political discourse currently consuming the societal psyche. It has, in fact, generated a lot of material for a future blog post. But I’m not ready to go there yet. Not until I can more firmly answer the simple question of how I am doing, how we are doing. Not until I can wake up in the morning and plant my feet on the ground with a solid sense of where I am and what I am meant to do that day.

There is a pair of my daughter’s shoes, shed mid-stride, in our entry way. Along the sides and bottom is a coat of that red dirt, picked up on our last trip, in Uluru. I think about wiping the shoes clean, but I am not yet ready to let the red disappear.

Joy Finds You

Joy Finds You

 

It is the first night of the junior school musical at our kids’ school.
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While the children prepare with their teachers nearby, parents take the chance to catch up and chat amongst each other. Slowly, we find seats in the covered court that has been transformed into an outdoor theatre of sorts. My neighbour points out the kookaburra singing their song as dusk starts to settle.

 

20160318_182615I look down at the baby, sleeping beside us. The musical, incidentally, is about the story of Daniel (in the Lion’s Den). I look up and see the nightly path of the flying foxes over the car park beyond the court’s wall. Dusk has deepened.

 

Our kids parade onto the stage. Along with all the other parents, we snap our photos, beaming.

As the play ends, I am standing several rows back and off to the left rocking the baby, watching the joy on the faces of the kids, parents, and grandparents around us. I am thankful for this perfect evening, when the kids are beaming with pride at their hard work, and we are full of joy. We are all together and healthy, and life is good.

Fast forward to a few days later. It is Orthodox Easter weekend, one of the highlights of our year. This year, we have a newborn who is still nursing and crying often. Getting into the spirit of the services will be hard, a fact we are reconciled to; we know it is just temporary.

We celebrate what parts of the weekend we can with a small and loving congregation in Bundaberg, almost all of us expats, almost all of us far from the family and traditions of home, though those living permanently in Australia are more rooted in a new home and new traditions. A prayer comes to mind from the liturgy: a prayer for the “strangers, travelers, and visitors.” A prayer for us.

My husband and I have a few moments to pray and reflect on the significance of what we are celebrating. That’s something. But it is not the profound experience that comes from the culmination of a whole week of services and reflections. I don’t realize until it doesn’t come that I was still hoping for that penetrating joy.

Absent is the usual gathering of family, and with it, the chatter of my sisters, cousins, and in-laws as we congregate at home after a long Good Friday service. Absent is the pre-dawn awakening on Saturday and the most poignant liturgy of the year. Absent are my mother’s inimitable stuffed grape leaves, and the other delightful dishes that mark this feast. Absent is my father’s invitation to each of us to have a bit of wine with our dinner, telling us a little about the bottle he has selected.

This Easter weekend, our home isn’t pervaded with the smells of roasted, stewed, and breaded meats. I think to try and replicate some of the dishes that might make it feel more like a feast, but I don’t know how to make any but the simplest of them. Besides, even if I did, I lack the energy to prepare such a meal.

We call and FaceTime our family back home, the pace of the weekend out of sync with theirs. We call on Saturday, when they are still celebrating Good Friday. We talk on Monday, when they are still celebrating the feast.

What should have been one of the most joyous points in our year was understated this year, and what might have been a mundane weekday night attending a school event wasn’t. It was perfect.

I am glad I was in the state of mind to see that perfection and to feel such joy. I could easily have been distracted and wishing that Daniel was past this phase, or stressed about how to feed him and keep him quiet while the musical was on. But I wasn’t.

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A cappuccino from Paradise Pie & Pastries, one of my favourite HB spots.

It is perhaps one of my greatest lessons from our time here: allow yourself to experience joy. Be open to it always. Sometimes it will be in the most mundane moments of the day. A pure and joyous smile from one of the kids. An unspoiled landscape. A conversation with my husband over a cup of coffee, perfectly prepared.

Be open to joy, for it won’t always come in the ways you expect.

 

 

 

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Standing on the Edge

Standing on the Edge

Recently, I came across an unfamiliar word: koselig. It is the Norwegian word for coziness, and it resonated with me. I’m not sure why. It’s certainly not because I have any desire to be anywhere near anything wool, fleece, or fuzzy. Indeed not: it’s currently 28C/81F.

But this post isn’t about the weather. It’s about koselig, and the fact that as a couple and as a family, we are currently at this odd juncture of waiting for a pretty significant change to come into our lives (in the form of baby #3) and at the same time anticipating a settling in. A settling in, or a “koselig:” a finality, a completeness that brings a psychological coziness.

This time around, parenthood is surrender. I know there is little we can control about this child: how good a sleeper s/he will be, or how loud a crier. Later, what and who will this little person of ours love? Who will s/he become? (There is, of course, a lot we can and will influence, teach, discipline, etc., but from where I stand now, the unknowns overwhelm that which is within our  control.) How will our older kids adjust to the change in our family dynamics? How, exactly, will our day-to-day lives change? I’m a lot more at peace with not knowing the answer to this last question especially than I would have been even one year ago. That has everything to do with trusting that God will see us through whatever this new chapter brings.

“Koselig” is also reminiscent, for me, of rest, and comfort, and a sense of being sheltered. These are sensations that are too often lacking in the do-something, be-somewhere nature of our lives. We–and I’m not sure whether by “we” I mean Americans, most humans, or simply people like me–seem to always be seeking the extraordinary and exciting. But I would posit that the richest moments of our lives, and the ones which we look back on when we need comfort or the memory of happiness, are moments that are ordinary, homey even.

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Cooking a turkey at Thanksgiving. Note the stylish cereal necklace, compliments of a certain 4-year-old.

Simple pleasures: swimsuits drying on a clothes line after a day at the beach, a mighty hug and good night kiss from a child, the smell of a home-cooked meal when you walk in the door.

What if we learned to savour these things, instead of always seeking the next sensational thrill? That thrill, depending on one’s personality and preferences, can be the latest purchase from a favourite store, or that newest, rancor-filled political article, or the next meal or vacation on a recent “best-of” list, or any number of other thrills. At some point, I think excitement and novelty became overrated, and small, ordinary joys became under-rated.

As we stand at the edge of this new chapter in our lives, my hope is that we–I–will learn to right that balance and embrace the koselig that is waiting right in front of us.