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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Freedom Whence...brooding feelings and the world's struggles


I recently finished reading American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.  As a follow up, I looked up a few reviews. Some provided critiques of the author’s age a few others lamented thin-ness of historical research in some points of the narrative. True the author is young. True he went to Harvard, but I did not find anyone who disagreed with the author’s main presentation of facts, and as a student whose US history courses were not nearly 25 years ago much of the insight was new to me.

Especially intriguing to me was the fact that the fledgling US government played a persistent role in asserting slaveholder authority and preserving status quo in slave-holder states in the early US. It was also refreshing to see the enslaved people given agency, creativity, and drive. This explains and contradicts the “life was good for slaves” as well as “the meek slave myth” and forms the context for a narrative of revolt and the wave of escaping of slaves from plantations as the Civil War continued prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

A few parallels between our modern economic situation and that of the historical New Orleans environs described by the author also caught my eye. The plantation systems’ reliance on debt to finance the land and the slavery which made it possible with its connection to lower taxes and a different role for government in these areas compared too much of the country. Hmmm? Financial Crisis anyone? The relative underdevelopment of transportation, education, and other infrastructure are also illustrative in the low tax plantation focused world. Do we see any of this today?   This inspired me to write the following poem.


A heavy brooding feeling has stayed with me some days after the reading of this book.



A brooding feeling grows.
Drawing the mind down
Into the darker abyss
That lurks beneath will
A thousand histories of stupidity
Call out with their dream of forgetfulness.
Do what you do.
It is what it is.
That is the way the world is.
The numb dreamer within
Lies gulliverian among innumerable ropes.
Routine is decreed truth
Law and power are deemed right
Does a rebel inspire?
Does a martyr?
A CEO?
A lover?
Clouded by the mist of time
We seek our past in the future
Unwittingly creating paradoxes which
Our ignorance name “Truth” and “the way it has always been.”
You look out and forget that you see yourself
A wrinkle in the dream makes the face strange
A ruse that makes a fence out of a mirror.
The dreamer’s delirium threatens .
How long can you destroy yourself?
Nearly 52 years to the day. Did Abe celebrate the anniversary
With trembling pen?
Giving what he had no right to give or withhold.
Did he know the slaves were setting
Themselves free before the emancipation deemed it so?
Beginning the march toward peace
That would continue eight score and ten years hence.
When will I be free?


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hope rears its destructive head again


It has been two years and five months since I left my social work position. During that time I have learned a good deal. I have been exposed, thoroughly exposed, to perspectives of the world that I had only viewed from a distance. Economics, business, profit margins, investment, and competitive landscapes are the coin of the realm in that world.

I have spoken with countless people on the phone involved in various aspects of “industry.” A few have helped keep my faith in humanity alive. They have stretched out a hand to me. They have shared their experience. Often they cited the awareness that, “Someone else helped me. Today, I have a chance to help you.” And they do. They choose to be generous with their time which in corporate accounting may value one of their hours at more than the value of my whole day. Sometimes I hear a wise humility. Other times a calm self assuredness. Other times there is brusqueness. A few value themselves and their time as outweighing the responsibility to treat me as a human being.

In short it is a microcosm of all of the complexities of the world. It is not my contact with this “new world” that is the source of my interior turmoil. I  feel like a traitor because commuting, fatigue, child care, work and inertia have made it easy to stay away from something. Something that I never wanted to lose contact with. Something that shaped who I am and laid the foundation for my view of the world: people living at the bottom of our social order.

Some people will tell you they saw the face of Jesus in some of the people they served. I can’t say I ever saw the face of Jesus on anyone, but I did experience community. I realized the limits and possibilities of personal responsibility as well as the joys and burdens of brotherhood.

Sitting with a schizophrenic in a basement drop in center while she was dressed in a duck suit and smelling of urine is not something you easily forget, and she  is not someone who can fail to change you.  I remember her furtive glance at the others drinking their coffee. Some huddling over garbage bags holding their belongings. Many wore stained and torn clothing. She gave me a fleeting smile and a quick hug that stayed with me in many ways through the morning.   

I worked for months with another man struggling in the initial stages of HIV and some dementia. Memory, emotion, and routine swirled. How long had his life meandered? He told me that I was an angel sent by God to help him get better. Who was I to say that I wasn’t sent for that purpose? He believed it.

In the midst of these men and women, I was continually reminded of hope. Was it the life in the midst of all the supposed problems? Was it the laughter even without a car or a home? Was it the thank you for a simple cup of coffee and a short conversation? I don’t know.

Ironically, driving to work and going to the grocery store sometimes I lose that a little bit. I slip back into the self-contained circle of myself and my family. I try to remember to smile at a stranger and to reach out to my friends. Why does it always seem like there is too much to do?

Tonight I met friends at Humble wine bar in the short window of time after work and just before the kid’s bed time. The available time was short for a drink and an appetizer. When I arrived they had already been there for some time.  One was returning to medical school. Another spoke of the excitement and opportunity at a new job while a third spoke of labor abuses and fair trade. I had to ask as my heart stirred, “Do you still think you can have a meaningful job and change the world?”

They all said yes. They said it without pretense, irony, or mockery. It was a delightful moment in the short evening.
 I called my wife, and the boys weren’t in bed yet.


  I decided I did not want to miss putting them to bed. I hurried out to the car smiling. I moved quickly toward the side door of the house. I bounded up the steps and heard Charlie running to meet me at the door. I drank in his greeting and smile while tasting the exotic euphoria of that rare elixir- HOPE.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The time for mystery and adventure is over.

I have spent years of my life seeking out ways to enter into mystery and adventure. My first adventures were in religion and in reading fiction. Years later I left home to attend boarding school. Another call took me to the seminary. I traveled to Guatemala to immerse myself in Spanish. After the priesthood, social work gave me the opportunity for countless adventures. I finished writing my book. I traveled through Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and Central America with my wife.  This was followed be a return to school and the challenge of multivariate calculus as I neared forty.  After finishing school for the third time, maybe my time for mystery and adventure was over.

Now I go to work each day from 8:30 to 5. I help change diapers and cook dinners for a two and a half year old and a one year old. Grocery store trips and potty breaks are my most common weekend activities. Travel shows help put my one year old to sleep. I am 41 and have other people and practical concerns which need to be focused on. Rent and health-care premiums preoccupy me. Any trip involving plane fare may not be in the cards for a while.

Today I realized the perspective I gave in that last paragraph is nonsense.

Watching my boy grow up for two and a half years has finally pressed through onto my consciousness that he is a mystery perhaps more intoxicating than any I have known. Even though his body is not full grown and his experience of the world is limited, he has ideas and desires of his own. God’s path for him is already twisting and turning in directions toward destinations unknown and beyond my control.

Yesterday, I said to him 3,000 times, “Be careful” as he raced about the house playing ball and climbing onto his stool to wash dishes. After one trip down the sledding hill, he was begging me, “All the way. WAY UP THERE, this time daddy.” His little boots slipped on the slippery snow. He rolled to the side a little as he lay in the snow and smiled at me.  I DID take him up higher the second time.

 I admonished him to be careful as I pulled on his pants while he did his best impersonation of a trout pulled from a raging river. This little wiggling and writhing game had already garnered him one rough fall and a head smacked on the floor when he lost his balance with two tiny feet stuck in the bottom of his pj’s.  Why did he say he didn’t need to go potty and then promptly wet his pants.

My expectation that this shouldn’t happen anymore was ruining a little sliver of my day with him. Just underneath the skin my stomach churned. A tangle of frustration and anger flooded me as I looked into my little boys blue eyes. At that moment, he saw his one year old brother climbing toward the edge of the couch and sprinted over to protect him. “Be careful, Bubba. This is too high. You can fall and bust your coconut.” He waved his little hand in front of his brother showing him he should back up. What do you do with that?

He is a mystery. A human miniature of love, desire, will and community. He is a mystery- something that had always thrilled my soul. Another piece clicked into place. Hadn’t he always thrilled my soul? From the day of his birth, riding with him in the ambulance to the downtown NICU, my heart thrilled with the reality of his fragile little life.  I am immersed with him in our little family 24 hours a day. No pilgrimage required. No determined meditation needed to open myself and prepare for the encounter. He chases after me. He wakes up when the first rays of the sun push over the horizon and start to light his room. At that moment, he comes in to wake me. “Dad, it’s morning.” No fear of missing the appointed hour of meeting the beloved in prayer. The prayer seeks me out. “Dad, come play with me.” My heart thrills.

I think it is time.
Time to stop telling him to be careful.
Time for me to stop being careful.
Time to do what I have disciplined myself for and practiced doing for decades.
 Time to stop holding back and let go.
Time to fall into the mystery.

Time to be swallowed by love and thrill in the presence of the familiar little mystery that is always seeking me.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Seeking Liminality- Another view on Travel

Seeking Liminality- Another view on Travel (sorry if you checked this when the format was not readable!)

This is from Wikipedia. (  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality )

“Liminality. In anthropology (from the Latin world limen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status bt have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a rituals luminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.

The concept of liminality was first developed in the early 20th century by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep and later taken up by Victor Turner. More recently usage of the term has broadened to describe political and cultural change as well as rituals. During luminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables new institutions and customs to become established.”
For footnotes see Wikipedia page.
Sorry for the long introduction, and a quoted one at that. The topic made it necessary. I am always scanning travel blogs, and I discovered Travelerspoint had begun a section on “Travel Philosophy.”  Since travel is often on my mind (blogged about in previous post titled “HegeMoney- One thing I learned traveling around the world.” Dated August 18, 2013. ) I decided to revisit the topic. I tried to delve a little deeper into the dynamics of why I craved travel. Travel shows and books about travelers also substitute here. A significant factor in my passion for travel is my experience of liminality through travel. This experience comes to bear from many directions.

First, liminality of path. Every country, town, culture you visit has its own history. It has arrived in the present moment through a serious of conscious choices, accidental events, historical figures, religious and political sensibilities. (To a lesser degree this is true even with cities and states in my own country compared to my own. It isn’t necessary to leave the country.) Coming to a sense of their historical journey gives a “sense of the other side of the threshold.” Depending on your ability to empathize and the distance between your culture and theirs, this can be a very emotional and disorienting experience.

 Second, liminality of time. I often find a glimmer of resemblance with pieces of my past or with pieces of human history which still live in other places. This could be something as simple as places where washing is done in the river to something as deep as religious ceremonies and festivals engaged in whole-heartedly. This time liminality stretches my awareness beyond my present time and moment. It doesn’t mean that “their moment” is old fashioned or that we are “better” or “further along.” These time experiences touch me because sometimes they tap into my own deep longing. Not all of these time liminalities are good. Some of them have serious negative effects- for example, sometimes lack of access to the most current technology to fight illness and provide clean water has a serious downside. A downside which can include sickness and even death.  Whether positive or negative, this experience of liminal time reminds me of my mortality and of the mysterious flow of time.

Third, liminality of perspective. Prepare yourselves for a shocker- “Not everyone thinks like you do.” I know. Hard to believe. Especially for those of us surrounded by the Hollywood machine and the steady drumbeat of US media. There is a whole world out there- a world where using a thinly veiled “Chinese” enemy may destroy a movie’s chances to be a global hit. It is also a world where 1.5 billion people name Mohamed as their prophet and nearly a billion people identify as Hindus. Their perspective is shaped by the history of their people and their political organization. In traveling, if you let yourself you might be able to get the sense of what it is like to live in a different world not just to walk in their shoes.

Liminality is not just the romantic vision of another culture. It isn’t just voyeurism- you don’t just come to see something. It isn’t “the grass being greener on the other side of the fence” and thinking what they have is better. You can come face to face with the mystery of people, places and culture. There are possibly more things that you won’t understand than how many you will. But not understanding does not prevent you from sharing. If you are the kind of person who seeks it and who is open to it, these liminal experiences can be truly transcendent. They can pull you beyond yourself into a union with the wider world. It can be the first step not just to “loving travel” or “adventure” but experiencing love itself.

Next entry: The Role of Travel as Ritual in seeking Liminality 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Perfect Place to Be

My face hurt. The air was brutally cold, but “Light Up Lakewood” would still go on. The side-street parking that I found left more than a short walk to the festivities. My generic smart- phone confirmed my tardiness. I guess a giant blow up slide would have to wait.
I found an open door into the large hall in the center of town. Children bundled in gigantic puffy coats tossed bean-bags onto squares marked with prizes. Volunteers smiled and handed out candy. There was no giant slide.
I spotted a young woman who appeared to be giving directions. “I’m here to help with the giant slide?” I offered with a hint of questioning. “Oh yes, they are just getting ready to set it up!”
So much for being late. Three young men wrestled with giant plastic bundles. They pushed and tugged as they man-handled the slide through the double doors. Business-like, they opened them and connected the large blower. Soon, flat formless plastic began to rise in an amorphous bulge in the middle of the auditorium. The massive peak of the slide barely fit.
Plastic. Huge. Majestic.  Children began to hover nearby. The erectors of this modern marvel briefed me on the procedures. Shoes off. Feet first. No flips. Make sure there is only one person coming down the slide at a time. Little did I know that these words would become my mantra for the next two hours. Oh yeah, and If it starts deflating re-attach the blower.  Okay, I can handle this.
Most of the time, I was just repeating cautious phrases and helping kids wait patiently before climbing the gigantic slide. There were a couple cuddly moments with big brothers helping little sisters climb, and a couple cuddly moments of mom’s (below the weight limit of course) sliding down with their little people.
After briefing my replacement, I hurried home hoping the reindeer and sled dogs would still be there when we got back. We bundled up the two year old and the baby as fast as we could, which is to say that it took us quite a while. We wanted to bring them out to see the lights and animals. I managed to get the baby’s coat on and bundle his blankets over and around the car seat. After another few minutes, mittens were on as well.  His cute Peruvian hat snugly pulled on his little bald head. He was adorable! Charlie wore his new winter coat and the “Wisconsin Badger” hat provided by his aunt.  Mysteriously, by the time we were at the car, one of the baby’s mittens was gone, and after five minutes in the car the hat was off too!
 The whole time I was hoping that we would be able to find parking close enough to arrive before the reindeer were taken home or the sled dogs headed for the hills. Luckily the spot I scouted out was still there when we returned. I unfolded the stroller while my wife re-hatted and re- mittened the baby. The car seat released from it’s base and locked into the stroller. We were on our way. The quiet hum of a crowd moving in the cold filled the air.
There were several stages with live music. Steamy vapor rose from the tables selling hot chocolate and kettle corn. We made our way through the crowd to where the corral held the reindeer. They did not seem quite as tall as the claymation Santa shows make them out to be, but hey Santa is supposed to be an elf too? My two year old  had no problem accepting them. I have pictures of my badge- hat-wearing son in front of the reindeer to prove it. We stopped to enjoy some music. We bought a led light “wand” and a bag of kettle corn before slowly making our way toward the sled dogs. Compared to my little boy the dogs did seem gigantic. One look in their direction and he was leaping into my arms. Note to self -“Giant dogs do not seem overly cute to a three feet tall child.”
At this point, my wife and I were starting to get hungry. Our newly opened wine bar was only a half a block away, so we made our move. Luckily, the hostess said our wait wouldn’t be long. It wasn’t. The smiling young lady pulled up a high chair, and we settled in for our snacks. Our order was brief and to the point- Two glasses of Malbec, cheese plate, and fire roasted pizza. The atmosphere was warm inside and filled with the pleasant holiday murmur.
The cheese plate and wine arrived quickly. My two year old loves cheese with the added bonus that grown-ups love to see a two year old sitting very seriously with a gourmet cheese gnosh. Another young couple sat one table over. Mikey caught the woman’s eyes and made flirting sidelong smiles in her direction. We struck up a small conversation.  “Mine are all at home. They are a little older, but we needed a date!”  she said. We exchanged pleasantries regarding the merits of Lakewood entertainment between bites of the cheese plate.
A short time later, Mikey began to cry.  I walked around a little while quietly singing in his ear. A fairly large group that had just been seated nearby watched us. The group consisted of about five women in their sixties and a couple of men. “How old is he?” one woman asked.
 “Almost one.”
“Poor little guy. We are here for a baptism, we miss NE Ohio.” We chatted a little more before I turned to make a few more small laps around the room.
Mikey was starting to calm down but was still upset. The same woman gathered her courage  and intercepted us on our lap. “If you don’t mind, I can give it a try. I am a grandma in withdrawal, and I hate to see the poor little guy cry!” Without a protest or a whimper Mikey dove into the lady’s arms. He snuggled into the fuzzy collar around her neck.  She started singing softly and his eyelids began to flutter.  A few minutes later he was snoring in her arms.
Our pizza came a short time later. The crust was perfectly crisp and the toppings nicely melted and hot. We chit chatted with the couple and the baptism party. I asked the proxy baby-holding lady if her arms were tired. Smiling, she said, “Not quite yet. I would love to hold him for a few more minutes if you don’t mind. You three can relax and eat in peace.”  We enjoyed our pizza and  retrieved our baby. After sitting for a few moments more of relaxation, we decided to brave the cold and journey home which was all of three quarters of a mile.
 Well wishes were exchanged. An evening was very much enjoyed. The atmosphere at Humble Wine bar had cut the chill, and the night was a success.

Lakewood is the perfect place for us to be.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Surprised by inspiration!

You never know where or when inspiration will find you
I don’t always pay attention my wife will tell you. Other times, something catches my attention and won’t let go.
                That happened to me recently.  I had gone to take my son in for his well check.  The waiting room was nearly empty. The only other people there were a mom and her little boy. He looked a little bit younger than Charlie. As is sometimes the case, we struck up a conversation. She told me that she had arrived nearly an hour early.  She brushed her hair out of her eyes, and I noticed that she had a hearing aid. She explained matter-of-factly that she didn’t have transportation of her own and she didn’t want to take chances on bus connections. “My boy’s appointments are too important.  I have to make sure he gets here and that he is doing good.”
“Maybe they can take you in first or they’ll be running ahead of schedule,” I tried to offer helpfully.
“I don’t mind. I am just glad to be here with him. Do you know that when I was little they told my parents I wouldn’t even live long enough to grow up! ”
Her son and mine were looking at each other across the table of toys in the office.  One was rolling a car and the other was ‘galloping” a toy horse. She had her bag of things for her son just like I had mine. She smiled, and her son saw her and smiled back.
In my imagination, I could see the doctors huddled around the little baby, the parents holding her fearfully. The white-coated man probably began apologetically.
“I’m so sorry. She probably won’t live past the age of ten.”
Remembering how I felt with my son in the NICU, I can imagine the father’s eyes wetting. Maybe he cried silently with quick hot tears running down his cheeks. Maybe the mother sobbed or screamed. Maybe she was silent. The little baby girl’s health issue remained a mystery to me. I don’t think it really matters what it was.  That baby didn’t know she faced long odds, but she still overcame them.
                 I don’t know the young mother’s details. I barely met her, but when I thought about her at home that night I was inspired. A life that wasn’t even supposed to happen but did. Here she was: a survivor. She had grown up. She was a mom. She made sacrifices to make sure her son was doing well.  Here was a hero that had never walked out in front of a cheering crowd at a stadium. She never made a billion dollars or appeared on the cover of a magazine.
How many people walk in our midst every day that could inspire us? People with stories of their own that are very different from ours? Different joys? Different struggles? But they are still our brothers and sisters that can inspire.

                Do you have a story of someone that surprised you with inspiration? 
I would like to know about it: Michael.floreth@gmail.com.

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