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Would You Mind…?

The Yosemite Valley is wild and strong. Towering granite peaks dwarf human arrogance even as they stretch our souls beyond bounds. In their presence, I felt small, but still…my spirit soared.

Three-thousand-foot rock walls block more than cell signals; they enclosed us safely in space away from the outside world for just a weekend. I recharged while all my devices lost power. I hiked. Glimpsed beauty words cannot describe. Cooled my body in waterfall mist. My camera captured breathtaking scenes:  two-dimensional disappointments whose only value lies in allowing me back inside those moments for a fleeting instant.

And everywhere I went, I was in community. A national park is full of worshippers. In the valley of the shadow of these mountains forged by time, you feel the grace and power of the same God–no matter how we might define “religion” in our daily lives.

The last time I came here, I was younger. The world was younger. Technology…was younger. I remember carrying a camera case, cushioning a state-of-the-art Canon Sureshot. Point and click. Automatic focus. Develop the perfect pictures later. I could even delete by flipping through digital images in the postage stamp screen. I could erase any scene I didn’t want. It was miraculous then. We could capture everything in such clarity but select only the best to keep.

What I couldn’t do with that old camera fifteen years ago was take my picture. A “selfie” wasn’t part of our vernacular; self-recording our own moments hadn’t entered our culture. We had not begun the Age of Obsession with Ourselves, spinning our lives, marketing our brand, becoming our very own paparazzi. If I wanted to save a memory with my own face in it, I asked for help from fellow travelers. “Excuse me…would you mind taking a picture of our family?” And I would hand over my expensive cherished camera to a total stranger and trust that he or she would help record this moment, would get “the Christmas card shot” that would help us tell our story to our friends. “Excuse me? Do you mind? Can you help?” I don’t remember anyone ever declining. They always said yes. They may not have spoken my language, but who cares? Help is its own dialect. They may have felt burdened by the request. If so, they did not say. I regret now that I did not fully appreciate that small act of civility then as I do today. We used to take it for granted. Some did not even engage in the obligatory “swap of services” by letting us take a photo in return. Simply, they always helped us capture this memory we wanted when we asked with a shy smile before continuing on their way. I needed them to be part of our narrative; without them, I would not have these memories. We could not do it alone back then. We had to cover each other.

The pictures were often terrible. Not many strangers ever mastered the twelve-inch differential in my husband’s height and mine…nor were they very mindful of the fact that Joe’s best smile is not the one he poses with. Most were not attuned to the subtle ways of counting to three but snapping on two or four while we were all a little more relaxed and real. Some got the family at the expense of the background or the background at the expense of a head or half a person. Kristin always grimaced when she saw their view of her. That’s ok. This collection of pictures that aren’t beautiful is actually a reminder today of all the ways in which people help each other when they don’t have to. It’s a collaboration among strangers that I find strangely beautiful all for itself.

In Yosemite, I stood on a wooden bridge over the Merced River, watching Vernal Falls come crashing down, spotting fleeting rainbows in the spray exploding like fireworks over the rocks. I didn’t snap a selfie. I saw a smiling couple taking pictures of each other posing at the bridge railing (the falls too tall and too close to make the aspect ratio of any selfie capture the moment well), and I asked them, “Would you like me to get one of you guys together?” They paused, caught off-guard by this charming, old-fashioned request. Then they smiled and said that would be great. And handed me their $900 iPhone. I sized the shot to get it right, to get them right. (We don’t even have to ask how to use the camera today; we all speak Smartphone.) I got three terrific Christmas card-worthy photos of those two. I swear they will love them. They continued on their way without even checking my work. No do-overs. No retouching. Just faith. A part of me finds it odd that I noticed this small gesture of trust.

I hiked twelve miles up the falls and back around that day through the mountains to my starting point at the dusty trailhead on the road to the campground. Along the way I was never alone. Dozens of strangers accompanied me. And in our mutual awe of the valley around us, we were a congregation on this Sunday morning. A diverse and unconnected body drinking in the view. Communion.

At the top of the waterfall, a viewing platform just big enough for a few people hangs out over the edge right where the roaring stream bends to drop on rocks hundreds of feet below. You cannot possibly take a selfie and do justice to the view. You’ll miss so much if you try to do it by yourself. Focused only on your own face, you will completely lose the context of where you are. You must count on others standing back twenty feet to snap the shot that shows that you are here. And so we did. We joined an improvised photo brigade and each took turns posing while someone else held our digital lifeline and snapped the picture of us smiling bravely into the sun with miles of wilderness at our backs. Then we’d move to the snapping space, recover our phone from someone, and become the photographer for someone else. Symbiotic,  collaborative, poetic justice. That evening, back at the campground, my husband and daughter would share with me their moment of hanging out over the edge of the world on Half Dome, preserved for me and them by total strangers–a picture they could not have captured themselves to bring me so I would share their joy in the summit I could not make myself. My heart still fills with gratitude to the nameless, faceless hiker who caught that memory for me to have with them.

Later, back at home in my life, I muse on the fact that while I was encased in this throwback human moment, my countrymen and women debated the politics of hate speech on the unending news cycles that fill our days and our devices. For a weekend, in the cathedral of rock walls that blocked these signals, we did not have to know that so many of us despise one another. I was able to wrap myself in ignorance and bask in the purest light, bathe aching feet in glacial waters beside a roaring stream that hid all other sounds. Relax to the soothing white noise of earth speaking. I drank the water I carried and talked to people I will never see again. And we captured memories for one another…we strangers.

I know my musings here are naive. Ensconced in this skin I did not choose but was merely born in, I can only plead guilty to being innocent of what it feels like to be hated or hunted for being myself here in “the home of the free.” I cannot change this. Still, I wish naively with all my heart and with no appropriately sobering real experience to make me cynical, that we could block most of the signals the world is sending and just be decent strangers willing to help one another on the journey, feeling gratitude for the creation around us. I wish that we could trust each other with things of value and do one another simple kindnesses without question. I wish that we could see the context beyond our self-images and our own narratives and let other people into our stories. The people I shared the journey with last weekend traveled far to stand together in awe of something bigger than ourselves. And when they handed me back my camera, they gave me back their generous view of me to keep and this small spark of hope. And I am grateful.

Midwestern Soul

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I have a Midwestern soul

No fast-talkingwalking pace

but no warmlazydrawl with sugar in it either

Just plainspeaking truth laced with an offered hand

Amid flyover forests of corn tassel tops baking in July heat

I came of age in vast back yards of dandelion crabgrass

filled with cicadas and whirring lawn mowers

Knew all my neighbors’ names

Quiet people working outside

who watched us walk to school and back

Dependably bought from our school catalogs

Cheap ugly candles and stale candy that they did not eat

And we could count on them to watch us grow

Not all suspicious…more like sharp

Aware of missteps that we should not make

And people whom we should not trust

But trusting all the same (except for some)

Which pains me still, a scar upon this place that does not fade

I have a Midwestern soul

My home will welcome traveling friends

With dinner table food and talk and crisp white sheets tucked in just so

I’ll hug a new acquaintance without fear

And search for common ground

Because it’s right

Not every crop that grows here comes up strong

But people strive to weed and to forgive

Most understand the simple things to plant

Food and faith and family, all in rows

fenced safe with wind breaks

Work hard from dawn till dusk and help your neighbors first;

there’s always time

Some slow Midwestern voice reminds me quietly

From coast to coast the breaking news all sounds the same discordant howl

The middle may just be the place to meet

We all may find we have Midwestern souls

Driving by Headlights

In one of my favorite passages of Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she quotes E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  Annie adds, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way.  You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.  This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

We’re all on this journey through life “driving by headlights.”  My writing snapshots capture the view along the way and the moments I want to preserve…just the two or three feet ahead of me…illuminated briefly from where I stand.

A Different Kind of Calendar

I was setting up my calendar and to do list for next week and realized that by this time next Saturday, it will be January 21st. I always rejoice as we get close to January 21st each year…it’s actually usually a little private celebration day for me because in my head, I have a different kind of calendar that is tied to the rhythms of light.  Here’s how it works for me:

The time between November 21 and January 21 is the darkest two months of the year, and even as we transition into Christmas in November (which I always greet with joy), I hate how the days grow shorter as the year comes to its close. As soon as we pass the winter solstice, though, I remind myself that we are coming out the other end of this little tunnel of darkness.  As we pass January 21st every year, I always compare it to its calendar opposite month and start to tell myself, “The light now is like it was in late November…in a month, it will be like late October…and soon we will be like late September…” and so it goes.  I count both forwards and backwards at the same time, and coach myself to happily anticipate the returning of the light. Every day is closer to the light I loved last summer and all the summers past. I think because I see things in this weird way, I never feel low as some people do in these dark after-Christmas months of January and February…because to me, they are taking us in the right direction.  Each of these cold gray days brings us closer to more light, so I am always glad for them. Similarly, although I love the lengthening of days, I’m not sad on June 21st (the calendar’s other solstice tipping point) because I envision it as the center of six months of wonderful long light (late March to late September) of which so much remains…followed by the postscript of October–which compensates for shortening days with gorgeous fall color. I like to think it is an optimist’s way of viewing earth’s cycles. There is only a little short piece of darkness (with the lights of the holidays in its core) and the rest is all good.

Small message…

Some years ago, on a visit to New York City, we toured the 9/11 museum. While all of it was deeply moving for those of us who will never forget, one particular artifact stood out to me that day and still does. The last room was just a place to write our thoughts or reflections and post them on the walls. They were covered with messages left by others who had come before us. I stood gazing around, not really able to process them all or put into words everything I had just seen and felt…until one particular message caught my eye. It read simply: “Love harder. Pray for peace.” I will never know who wrote it, and the author will never know her impact on me…but in the midst of memories of a tragedy caused by our human inability to find common ground, a temporary triumph of hate that left families torn apart, hearts broken, so many good people lost–whether dead or ravaged survivors of this hateful act of violence…in the midst of all that, this little message reminded me that we are never powerless, and we are never alone. We can always act, for love is ours to give. We are never abandoned; lifting prayers reminds us of a higher power in the universe than ourselves. We are never finished if can envision something better and yearn for it, lean toward it, hope for it, work for it. Peace is not a vague dream. It is a state that we can all picture. And it begins in simple ways…with reaching across the lines that divide us and finding ways to love those with whom we differ, those whose actions elude our understanding. I love that the writer of this little post-it encompassed both the “hope” of something better and the knowledge that in action, even something simple and small, we make those hopes come to pass. Pray for peace, yes. But in the meantime…while we are praying and waiting for prayers to be answered, we love harder.  Just love harder. 

 And if that feels sappy or weird or vague or political…well, we don’t let it. We don’t give away our power to love people because of those who doubt our sincere intentions.  No one gets to say it’s too late to love harder or that we are late to the table with our offering in this world where more love was needed long before we arrived on the scene offering ours now that we know it is critically needed.  No.  It’s simple.  Love harder.  Love with your heart, with your time, with your smile, with your intellect, with your money, with your profession, with your arms, with your attitude, with your grace.   And pray for peace.  Not for the destruction of those with whom we disagree.  Not for revenge or vindication.  For peace.  Only peace.  

If love wins…

when love wins

when love wins a primary we might

step awkwardly from polls into paradise,

try a smile tentatively tomorrow at strangers,

ask ourselves hard questions about the true cost of so much

excruciating comfort bound in easy answers

if love takes leads in early exit polls,

latitude and longitude might compress,

binding us nearer to frighteningly familiar others

the night love mounts the stage to raise triumphant fist in victory,

alarming line graphs might aim sharply downward, illuminating

regression analyses of correlations between invective and violence

decreasing trends

in all the ways we’ve found to hurt one another,

if love’s approval numbers skyrocket, dark ideas might die instead of…

and all the fearful haters who’ve found God in cozy suburban oblivion,

displaced earners who simmer in slow-burning rural indignation,

angry young men frantically looking for their lost hope hidden

in twisting urban labyrinths crammed with the inconveniently poor,

might end jihad against our ugly human symmetry

for we are mirror images, left mapped to right and right to left

if love pulls off a victory

in the hardened hearts and noisy minds of a soulless electorate…

so obstinately resolved to be impervious to hope

if love wins…what could we become

Tennis Lessons

In the last few weeks, I have enjoyed watching Wimbledon on television. It’s not something I usually do, preferring to follow the matches vicariously through my husband. He played tennis in high school and follows along closely, especially because Wimbledon comes at that point in the summer when the roar of other sports has all but faded away. I have come to associate early July with green grass and bright whites on tv, drinking my weekend coffee to the background sounds of hollow “thwacks” and the gentle murmurs of announcers. They speak slightly louder than the golf whisperers, in mumbly accents of cultured Brits. It’s comforting noise.

Tennis, I realized, this week–in the midst of awful, violent news of people hurting one another around our world–is still a gentleperson’s game. Wimbledon is played on grass–a soft surface that makes even 140-mile-per-hour serves look visible. Players must wear white–the traditional attire of the game. The uniform is, well, uniform. Even the biggest egos are not allowed to strut their individuality all that much. It’s about the game; tradition rules…and older, more civil social conventions still apply here. In fact, they are insisted upon.

I grew up watching tennis in the ’70’s and ’80’s. I remember the stunts of McEnroe–the tantrums, the antics. Remember Ashe and King breaking barriers. Borg dropping to his knees, a beautiful sweat-drenched hero that every girl wanted on a poster in her room. Darling Chrissy Evert in her cute little outfits. (My father always commented on her looks and not her athleticism; arguing with him about it was my first foray into feminism.) For me, the tennis players of my childhood years seemed just like other colorfully interesting athletes–except that they played alone and not on teams.

It was only watching Wimbledon this month, with years of life experience and weary of the news around the globe, that I noticed how glad I was to watch these particular solo athletes take the courts. Watching them compete did not feel like sports-as-usual. Something felt different. Something about the civil, courteous, tradition-bound matches with attending crowds demonstrating restraint and self-control renewed my faith a bit. It sounds ridiculous that anything could take my mind off the killing of our citizens by racists, the hideous violence in Texas, the hate-filled speech of the U.S. campaign trail, the prejudice against “others” that has led to Brexit and Americans trumpeting tales of a mythic wall…but Wimbledon actually did.

For a few hours this week, I watched hard-working athletes compete with every ounce of courage and strength they could muster, and, when they were done fighting, come to the net and embrace or clasp hands, speak kindly and respectfully of one another in victory or defeat, and leave the court together–sometimes even assisting an aching opponent with his heavy bag. I loved these people this week; I loved their sport. I loved that they came together here from all over the world to play their game…hard…to try to defeat one another with everything they had…and when it was done, to talk humbly of hard work and admiration for opponents who gave them a good game.

Wimbledon is one of the only competitions where the champion and the person he or she defeats to get to the winners’ circle stand together to be interviewed by the press. Side by side, they share the spotlight for a bit before the runner-up gracefully exits to leave the champion to his/her due. When do we ever see that in sport? The two opposing quarterbacks of the Super Bowl shake hands like they’re touching something hot and move quickly on to the locker room to mope or the microphone to thank God that everything came together today for their victory. They make their obligatory comments about how the other team is great and played hard, but no one really seems to mean it. Their press agents have trained them to say this, and it rings falsely so often.

My favorite moment of the last week was watching Serena and Angelique Kerber standing together after their match, speaking with such sincerity and kindness about one another. We had just watched them compete fiercely for every point, fighting and grunting, frowning and intensely focused on beating each other. Now, one held the first place trophy; one the second. Both were champions–the trophies gleaming but irrelevant. They expressed their gratitude for the chance to play together, gracious admiration of the other’s game, acknowledgement of the hard work that had landed them both there, love for their families and friends and…surprisingly…for each other. None of the typical sports cliches passed their lips. There was no “we executed well but fell short” or “they were just a better ball team today than we were” or even “we just need to work harder” rhetoric–just a pure expression of the joy of competing, a candid recognition that sport is about the pursuit of excellence win or lose, and a civility toward one another that somehow refilled my reservoir of hope that people on opposite sides might actually learn to treat each other respectfully.

Not perfect, these athletes likely have egos off the court they did not flash during the time I watched. Perhaps if I Googled their private lives, I’d find evidence of moral failures and distasteful conduct. I don’t know. I have no intention of looking…because I truly need to believe in what they showed us this week. Certainly Kemper in her final speech to the crowd and the press acknowledged as she thanked her family, team, and friends that she is “not always the easiest.” Milos Raonic and Andy Murray did not show any genuine liking for one another, and Raonic was candid about his disappointment not to go home with the gold trophy, telling the crowd his goal was to work hard to “get back here because I want more than anything else” to return and win. OK. These are humans. I get it. Not one is wearing a halo, and I’m sure they are glad when they best their opponents and mad if they don’t. But their sport and this tournament in particular were the best example I saw in the media this week of people behaving humanely. Even the crowds follow the rules of civility at these matches–no shrieks or trash talking, just quiet appreciation for good shots on both sides, polite applause and cheers when appropriate, honor for both the victor and the defeated when the end comes.

I took tennis lessons as a kid, going early in the morning before my summer job to a local club where the high school tennis coach gave me discounted time for $5 an hour as a favor to my parents, fellow teachers. Left-handed and awkward, with an old Wilson racquet that needed its strings replaced, I tried my best to master the two-handed backhand and some semblance of a serve. I never got good at it, but I certainly learned enough to appreciate the complexity of moves and the quickness required to play well. In the same way, this week, I took tennis lessons once more. The sport these athletes dedicate their lives to was more than a game this week; it was a reminder that we can stand on opposite sides, each wanting something different, fight hard but within guidelines, and come together at the end with grace and appreciation for the greater picture of which we are only a part. These players showed us that whether they win or lose, the honor of playing at Wimbledon, the chance to strive to be the best at their game in this place steeped in the tradition of their sport…this effort is the glory, and respect for each other is the price of admission to their game. They made me wish that we could all just take a tennis lesson or two.

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