Posted by: MC | March 16, 2010

American Connections

“It’s as old as humanity itself.  Literature is filled with stories
about the warriors who come face to face and discover
that they’re actually destroying themselves.” 

Andy Walton

This morning I had separate conversations with a sustainable energy professional, a poet, a Starbucks barista, a wildlife biologist and an ex-offender. All are Americans.  All spoke of matters central to their lives. 

They were regular conversations, nothing special.  The kind of chit chat that happens with friends over the phone or with acquaintances at a coffee shop.  They involved linking across diversity of work, of age, of ethnicity, of gender and circumstance.  In each case talk could easily have been avoided due to differences, but it wasn’t.  So, in what was an otherwise ordinary morning, these conversations were rich with connection and with content.

The sustainable energy guy is also an artist.  He paints and works with electricity.  And, these days his determination is turned to remaining as true as possible to integrity as he moves through enormous life transitions – transitions of relationships bashed up by the demanding captor of addiction.

The poet is also a professor.  This morning, she too was considering integrity, particularly in the use of words.  She was wondering about the idea and experience of the sublime – wondering whether mystery has become old fashioned and how that affects the way we relate with the world and with one another.  “We may live in a more ironic age;” she said,” or we might be less willing to give up irony.  We ‘need’ it as a defense.”

The Starbucks barista talked about holding down a full-time job while pursuing a university degree in early midlife:  wife, kids, new puppy, a captivating literature of women course, and writing assignments galore.  The particular quandary of mixing sleep into the balance was most on his mind.

The wildlife biologist had just finished meetings with the Nature Conservancy and was onto planning for a field course for undergraduate students.  She spoke of feeling focused, and of feeling tired.  We also talked about going to see Alice in Wonderland.  Levity matters.

The last conversation of the morning was with the ex-offender – another member of the community – another American life.  He is a multilingual and world traveled man.  Most recently, he spent time in prison and was released a little over a year ago having served a sentence for a terrible crime. 

I was reluctant to talk with him.  Those kinds of extreme life experiences make for caution. We spent some time chatting about writing.  Then he spoke briefly about the enormous challenge of living a useful and good life with such a huge scar on its story.

Each conversation grew from stories, theirs and mine, out of the middle of everyday American lives.  And throughout the morning, there was not a single mention of what’s going on inside the beltway. 

Last year, this time, that’s where I was.  In DC. 

Today there’s tense debate in the halls of Congress about how and whether to regulate financial institutions.  We’ve also entered the last week (we are promised) of political shouting matches about health care. 

Probably each of the people I talked with this morning cares about these things.  Most of them probably have opinions and insights, but, today, those issues were not at the center of the changes and challenges they are living.  The two main themes from this morning’s talk:  Living with integrity and being in good relation.

Last year inside the beltway, I spoke with Sherri in the lobby of the downtown Marriott, and then a few hours later with Andy in a parlor of the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church.  Both Sherri and Andy spoke also to integrity and the human connection that makes government relevant and workable. 

Sherri W was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.  She and her husband have now lived for a long time in Las Vegas where she has a successful business and her husband is a professor.  They were in DC for an event associated with new Administrative appointments.  We met by chance in the lobby and began to talk about change. 

Sherri spoke of change in terms of the integrity of stepping up to tell the truth to each other about our history, our present and our future.  She focused particularly on historical truth that includes the contributions, sometimes forced, of African Americans and other groups historically marginal to the formal stories of our country. 

“OK, here we are in the capital,” she said.  “We have all these museums here about how our founding fathers established America.  Let’s come on and tell the whole truth about that.  We’re changing so let’s bring out the truth.

“The first time I ever saw slave chains, my best friend, Tony was working for the LA Times.  She took me to an African museum this Black guy in LA owned.  He had part of a ship.  He had slave chains.  He had whips.  He had everything.  It actually brought you to a realization of what really happened.  If you would have seen those.

“It seems to me that we’re coming to a point where we all know what’s happened so it’s time to build the country over and do the right thing.  We’re in change now.  That means we’re about to come full circle by telling the truth.” 

There are parallels here.  Our country, too, can be guided by integrity, by good relation.  Often it is.  And all along we must continue correcting and ennobling our course with some quite hideous and undeniable scars on the story.

After my visit with Sherri, I walked from the Marriot back to the Mall and up just past the Capitol to meet with Andy Walton.  Andy was raised in rural Georgia.  He spent a good deal of time in theater – specifically, directing a theater on a military base in OK.  Then he went to seminary.   Now he’s the pastor for the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church of Washington D.C. – a church which formalized itself with an inaugural Sunday service very shortly after President Lincoln was assassinated.

Andy’s comments came back again and again to human connection – to being in good relation.  “In tough times, people will come together to help other people even though they disagree,” he began.  “Every time there’s a hurricane or a flood you discover that.”

“Maybe the economy can be that kind of storm for us. Maybe the environment is it.  We’ve got clear and fundamental issues out there that everybody has a stake in.  Everybody’s got a stake in education.  Everybody’s got a stake in health care.  Everybody’s got a stake in the environment and everybody’s got a stake in the economy.  All four of those areas are definitely in crisis, so maybe those are ways the country can begin to find the ability to cooperate.

“When you get right down to it, what do most people want?  I don’t care their culture, their nationality, their religion; human beings basically just want to be secure.  We want to be safe.  We want to have enough to eat.  We want to be able to enjoy the other people around us – our families, our communities, our friends.  That’s basically all we want.  We want less strife. 

“It’s that whole idea of knowing somebody – of getting to know who they are, finding out what you have in common and really experiencing that commonality.  It’s nothing new.  It’s as old as humanity itself.  Literature is filled with stories about the warriors who come face to face and discover that they’re actually destroying themselves.” 

This February 4, 2010, Andy was asked to give the opening prayer for the new session of Congress.  I can’t help but to hope his gentle fervor for cooperation toward change was well seeded into that august body with his prayerful words.

Conversations inside the beltway, outside the beltway – in mid-March 2009, in mid-March 2010.  Americans are in the middle of changes all the time.

Although it may not be always at the center of attention in the course of everyday living, our government does matters to us.  Responsible citizenship matters.  These things matter precisely because of the people and circumstances at the center of our lives, and because of our interest in the endurance and well being of this place we call home.

Our seeming lack of cohesive mobilization toward change may be due to apathy in the face of a governing system that seems distant, inaccessible, impossible to influence.  It may be due to our huge numbers as a U.S. citizenry – the numbers being counted right now in the 2010 Census.  It may be due to not really knowing what to do first.

Oddly, all of this are a sign government and the community it supports are working.  Abraham Maslow developed a theory of human need and motivation in the 1940’s that has withstood the test of time and change.’s_hierarchy_of_needs 

Seems we focus on the need that matches our level of satiety – at least, that’s one way to say it.  If human circumstance includes scarcity in the basics of food, water and shelter, we naturally give all of our attention to that.  If those needs are met, we attend to community and belonging.  And if we are fortunate to experience reliable social connection, we have the need to understand ourselves and life itself in ways that support the meeting or our own and the collective needs of all people in enduring ways. 

Government is a guardian of meeting fundamental needs.  In that way, the circumstances that make government necessary are best guided by the inquiry and conversation that makes government work.  The initiatives of activists and elected leadership attempt this inquiry and change – but often get derailed.  It is not easy to remain established in the maturity of that highest level on Maslow’s hierarchy.

Integrity and good relation are two of the themes that emerge from the 100 voices of EX:Change.  They echo into the casual conversations of our days because beyond food, water and shelter, they are at the very center of our surviving and of our thriving.  The discussions of change among the American people, the discussions of living well and kindly, offer guideposts in our ongoing devotion to individual, community and planetary wellbeing. 

Hokey as it can sound, check it out for yourself – is everything connected?  And if your investigation shows that connection to be so, how do integrity and good relation figure in?  This is a question as urgent to our lives close in as to our country and its governance. We are fortunate to have the attention and situation to consider these questions.  And that good fortune seems to me to carry profound opportunity and powerful responsibility.  Integrity and good relation.

Just now, I’ve returned home from a walk in Laurelhurst Park.  It’s another day in the 60s.  The clouds do not matter – neither does the fact that it’s Monday.  People were out and playing.  On a long stretch among leafless towers of Sycamore, I approached two men in black cowboy hats moving the same direction I was, but much more slowly.  One leaned onto the metal frame of a walker.  He was thin and bent.  The other walked backward facing him.  He had ruddy cheeks, strong hands and wore a red plaid snap shirt under his leather jacket and over his midlife belly.  He was playing the harmonica for his companion, stopping from time to time to say something and laugh. 

As I passed, I could see the age on the man with the walker.  Easily in his 90’s, by my guess.  I could also see his glowing smile.  The younger man commented on the weather.  He said, “I’ll have to express my gratitude to whoever’s responsible.”  He went back to playing his music; the older man giving his best effort to lifting one boot and then the other.  Their black felt hats were exactly the same.


Postscript:  I’ve been delayed in getting this blog up this week.  Today (Tuesday) was my friend Jenn’s community memorial.  Preparations and the arrival of friends from a distance have filled the last two days.  This afternoon, hundreds of people gathered for two full hours of remembrance and another few hours of spending time with each other. 

We are so related in these fragile lives.  And we have them right now.  Jenn invites us all to live truly and boldly and with the generosity that naturally radiates from that.

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