Unfolding the Moment

I guess what I’m trying to say is, pay attention. As creatures of habit we fill the space around us with our decisions, our categories, and our unceasingly acquisitive store of data points. To be human is to carry around a satchel of these conceptual tidbits, eventually identifying that bag as ourselves.

The atomistic fallacy requires us to assert a rationalization of our existence. In this process we are… almost there – not quite – just about to add the final piece. We become puzzle piecers. But this puzzle has no edge pieces. And before you get too cocky about finishing it maybe you better check the puzzle box. The number of pieces is “infinity plus one”.

Our existence is not exclusively or even primarily utilitarian. Life is actually more about sensing presence. And tucked away between every bit of this semi chaotic collection that defines the organization of our own usefulness is this presence.

In this silence which is presence, in this purported empty time, there comes an Elysian courier. She carries a message to which we must attend: “Listen to the moment”. 

Just as we give ourselves over in listening to another (which is only allowable by our silence) or in solitary silence, in the endless emptying out of every sound we hold precious and every thought we hold dear if only for a moment, the discipline of silence is meant to pry ourselves open. In this way listening makes absent the unrequired and manifests the essential. 

Between us and another is the resonant space that creates a third. And establishing relationship is a sacred process creating some universal third thing that resembles meaning. 

But this meaning, in the sense of the value that is existence, is not approachable if we simply move from one event to another, from one data point to the next. That process is a plod. It is fixed in scope and locked up with our predispositions.

Listen to the moment. Pause. Sense the gap. 

It begins with an interruption. First we stop. And then we begin. In the restart we also return to where we were, this time with greater focus. Attentive. Listening. Giving the moment it’s due. Giving the moment a chance.

The moment is folded in on itself. At first glance it looks inert, like some filler material between events. But by pausing, and by subjecting the importance of the events to it, by making the data points that bracket it inferior, by actually stopping the incessant tick tock of assessment, the moment unfolds.

The folds are folded in on themselves. And those enfolded folds are folded also. The enfolded is always there, as is the moment it holds. If you know that one thing absolutely, that each moment is enfolded paradise, it will always be there ready for you to open it. And to be opened by it.

This can be understood as a reversal of the directionality we assume to be true about how we experience life. We think of ourselves as collectors of data. Much as early science thought of vision as a force emanating from the eyes. And even our modern, common sense view of experience is that we take in what is “out there“ and process it, organize it.

But what if the reverse is true? What if the direction of experience is actually coming to us, as a kind of givenness, a superabundant gift? What if we are tasked instead with clearing the decks in order to appreciate that?

It seems to me this reversal of directionality is a prerequisite to the possible life. I would never argue that the more quotidian experience of examination, analysis and decision-making has no place. Life requires that we project our gaze onto world at times in order to sort chaos, solve problems, live responsibly.

But we must also realize that this conception is wholly inadequate. We need to know that light is actually coming into our eyes from the world.

I remember a child’s toy that fascinated me. It was a small tablet of paper that when dropped into a cup of water would slowly unfold into a swan or some other such beautiful thing.

The possible moment is that small, enfolded, compressed bit of paper. Only we can provide the water that allows its hidden secrets to be revealed.

The depth of that revelation is profound, the treasure in sensory detail and the wealth of awareness is its own boundless reward.

In every enfolded moment lies this unbounded region of life that we can not afford to deny. We must listen to the moment. Its charge says “Ask me”. It is available. 

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Unita Blackwell

I just learned about her today. With the year’s end we mark the passing of those who left gifts for all of us, purchased with their strength. This lady dragged the powers that be kicking and screaming out of their ignorance into the face of justice.

She recognized that the world she was given was not fixed. The Mississippi of her youth, the level of deprivation and oppression, is incomprehensible. And to be uncomprehending of it speaks to what happened because of those like her and to now, with the changes she began. The world she left is not fixed. But it is no longer that.

Her life reminds me that I don’t know these people who worked for us, life in danger, to connect freedom with opportunity. I know the ones you know. For every one we know there are a thousand others like Unita.

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Movie review: Roma

“Roma” is remarkable. It starts out loose and you wonder if it will gel. The opening interior shots are shot in wide angle which keys you into a space just this side of a dream. That carries throughout the film as it presents scene after scene containing that odd mixture of rough reality and the truly bizarre that I’ve always loved about Mexico.

Those elements jump out of the corners of the picture frame and always put me through the same process of becoming familiar with those everyday oddities, after which I would repeat the same refrain, “That is so Mexico!”.

This tone is consistent and so artful that it is nearly transparent to the story. The slippery but substantial magic that infuses this great culture supports and enlivens the narrative, supporting it very effectively from the background. The story is heartfelt and powerful, containing the motion from failure to triumph, wounding to healing.

The lead actress, Yalitza Aparicio, is mentioned for an Oscar. She has a natural strength that establishes the pivot point for the story. Her dignity and presence dominate the screen. Her failings and her heroism become ours. And in the process the profile of the indigenous culture she represents is honored and elevated.

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The Unwashed are Coming

(Moises Castillo/AP)

The fever pitch of election season always brings out the histrionics in us. The way the political right frames it, we now have an “invasion force” coming at us from the south, not carrying guns but.. of all things, flags of their home country! This unusually selected detail was used by a post I saw on social media focusing on the flags (accompanied by an inflated statistic of the size of the group) as solid evidence of an “invasion.” So our President sends 5,200 troops to the border and speculates about “middle easterners” being among the refugees. Simultaneously, our own military files a threat assessment that predicts only 20% (1,400) will actually make it to the border and finds exactly zero middle easterners in the group.
We also get to witness the cries from the left of “Nazi!” and Fascist!” which get thrown around at any sign of the exercise of power politics on the part of the ascendant political class. While I am aware of a growing number of cases where rights are abrogated and power is used that has not been designated by democratic representation, it is my opinion that these terms fly about too readily and too unrealistically. I’m sure there is a sociological formula for the average gap in time between mentioning the President’s name on Facebook and the appearance of these words. There are times when we witness true fascistic behavior. And we would be better served to hold those terms in reserve for the times when law enforcement actually aids and abets extremist elements, or acts to deny us our constitutional rights with impunity. 
Another word that we hear frequently in this context is “racist.” All indications are that at a bare minimum, the president struggles with a tendency towards racism. But his racism, like most racism, is context driven. A member of another ethnic group is not treated unfairly unless they are a threat, either as a member of a group with a contrary agenda (immigrants, “Jewish bankers”) or as part of an economic underclass. This second type of racism results from a peculiar class awareness that makes associations with being financially well-off the hinge factor. Financial status is the key element that determines whether or not a member of the wide variety of humanity that is not Scotch-Irish is worthy.

Max Weber

The great sociologist Max Weber, known for naming and describing the “Protestant work ethic”, had an insight into this classism that has origins in our nation’s puritan background. He examined the pervasive belief in predestination that was central to his own Calvinist upbringing and found powerful threads running from it into capitalism and classism. The idea that our fates are decided beforehand and some of our names are “written in the book of God” became, for early capitalism, an organizing principle.

Since predestination was real but only God knew who was pre-selected, the stout and hearty Calvanist took life as an opportunity to demonstrate salvation. Hard work, upright morals, and thrift were salient features that proved a person’s eternal destiny. The notion of thrift in particular acted to fund the store of surplus capital that led directly to institutions of lending at interest and equity markets that we consider natural today. In prior ages, if any money was earned by commoners it was by and large spent as soon after it arrived. 
All of this of course is the well-rehearsed underpinning that Weber provided to his theory of the Protestant work ethic fueling capitalism. A lesser known corollary helps clarify our current dilemma over immigration and racism. Weber thought that this demonstration on the earthy plane by God’s “select” (i.e. that they had been predestined by God) became reinforced over time to become an assumption. In other words, the stricture that we do not know the mind of God as regards to who is predestined for glory went by the wayside and those who demonstrated an ethic of hard work and thrift began to assume that they were as a group clearly marked for eternity in heaven.
The political philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes a parallel here with the end times teachings about the rapture and those “left behind” who remain after the select enter into heaven. The same principle of “chosen” and “damned” seen in the theology of predestination applies to this formulation. Even the rough percentage holds: 10% matter, 90% don’t. 
Inevitably, this led to where we are today. The mere appearance of being financially well off is enough to delineate who is “clean” in the eyes of God and who is “the unwashed.” The feelings of sympathy and comity with the poor become less important and the burden of responsibility and connection to their well-being is lifted. The idea that the poor are responsible for their own fate begins to dominates and any guilt associated with having surplus is allowed to vent.
Those who are not currently wealthy but only aspire to be part of this club of the well-to-do buy into this same program. The recognition that the rich have a responsibility to the poor is seen as sentimental hogwash. All of life is reduced to tooth and nail struggle to reach a lifeboat and if that means climbing over your neighbor to save yourself, so be it. That person, by losing out, in effect demonstrates that they were not predestined for glory anyway.
Weber had much else to say that we could stand to hear today. He provided insights into political ethics that are as sharply descriptive as they were when he first published his essay “Politics as Vocation” almost a hundred years ago. He argues that political leaders must balance what he calls the “ethic of conviction” with the “ethic of responsibility”. Conviction is doing what you feel is right regardless of the consequences. Responsibility lies in seeing where an action might possibly lead. It takes into account the implications and ramifications.
We are more closely being led by political convictions today and they emerge from that bottomless font of political enthusiasm; ideology. It starts with unshakeable premises like “government is bad” and “foreigners are dangerous” and all actions flows from that. Subtlety, nuance, fact sorting and consensus are left begging. And unintended consequences are the result of acting on irresponsible conviction. “Political stunts” (as Barack Obama deftly termed it) like the militaristic overkill at our southern border work more as emotive electioneering engines than practical strategy.  
The immigration issue is real and problems regarding refugees, economic inequality and political stability must be addressed. Dividing off and dismissing a group of humans as arbitrarily unworthy is not helpful or humane. 
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The Wrong Kind of Ticket

(note: this is a work of fiction based on a real bus ride I took back in the day)
Years ago I needed to get out west. Back when I was young I had a job waiting for me out in Washington State. After a few years working as a prep chef at a restaurant in Chicago I was itching to get out of the city. So I sent a letter to the boss of a mining camp out there extolling my virtues as a cook and he bought what I was selling. Probably as desperate for help as I was for a reason to leave. Anyway, I needed to get out there in a big hurry. Only problem was money. I didn’t have much. Enough to buy the cheapest ticket on the cheapest form of travel: a Greyhound bus ticket.

Greyhound station Chicago in the 1970’s

Being young and unfamiliar with bus travel outside of city buses I had no idea about how this whole cross-country bus thing worked. Just figured you bought a ticket for someplace and they took your there. I was ready for anything in my twenties. No fear and just as much sense.

Continue reading “The Wrong Kind of Ticket”

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