Only words

Almost no one would dispute that we live now in an age of often confrontational and contentious rhetoric. It has never been more true, nor easier to discern that, like certain body parts, everyone has an opinion. With modern technology, everyone also has the means of broadcasting those opinions. Never has the unity of our common humanity seemed more fragile.

There was, I am sure, a time when people of diverse points of view spoke civilly to one another, even while disagreeing. There must have been a golden era of collegiality where Republican and Democrat (and, Whig) liberals, moderates and conservatives all sat around the big table and reasoned together. It may well have been long ago and far away; perhaps in some hazy, now-forgotten age, but I need to believe there was a shining time when people did not wish bodily harm upon one another over politics, health insurance, or which cola was best.

Oh, I know, I’m a cock-eyed optimist; a foolish believer in fairy tales and just plain hopelessly naive. But I believe in that gilded age where the sound of wailing and gnashing of teeth did not fill the air. Once upon a time, there was a place where wild-eyed shouting was not the norm.

Now, I understand that the folks doing that shouting will forcefully assert several truths. The first is that having and expressing an opinion is a God-given right. This is true, but I believe that God also gave us wisdom, discernment and inside-voices–all of which seem to get far less exercise. Another truth you will hear is that a free society needs all voices to be heard. Again, undeniably true, but I’m sure that society could get even more out of those voices if they could actually be heard over each other’s yelling.

Many will also say that the expression of an opinion is an individual thing and hurts no one. “They’re only words, ” you’ll hear. To those who say this, I have to believe that they are either kidding me or deluding themselves, but they are dead wrong. Words matter. Ideas inspire. Emotion incites. And, more, words and ideas are not necessarily heard and received in the way they were intended.

Once words are in the open, once an idea is absorbed into the public consciousness, we lose our control over them. And, we lose any chance to determine what will be done with what we put into the air. I don’t, however, believe that we cede responsibility for our words and their effect–so we need to be sure.

Even the most sacred and trusted sources can be distorted by the human mind determined to hear what it wants to hear. Everyday, people of all faiths read their scriptures and take away the intended wisdom, guidance and commitment to peace and love that their founders inspire. Many of those readers, though,will read those same words and find hatred and a call to bloody war instead.

I’m not singling any faith group out, either. There are so-called faithful Christians who find support for racial division, exclusion and murder in the diametrically opposed words of Jesus. Muslim extremists find justification for war and hatred truly faithful followers of Muhammad will never find in the words of their prophet. If even sacred words can be twisted, then the words of average people have no chance. Words matter, because we never know how they will be twisted by minds looking for reasons to hate.

It cannot be denied that it is far too easy and common for words to be warped and transformed into something dangerous by those who hear them. We know that far too many people are powder kegs waiting for an igniting spark. We know how quickly an anxious or deranged mind can find the trigger it needs to explode. Words can be spun, ideas can be exploited; sparks will fly, trouble will combust.

I believe in this age of often super-heated, sometimes angry and exploitative discourse, our words have to be used as carefully as any weapon of mass destruction. No world war or militant jihad ever erupted from silence; the fires of conflict burn ideas like dry kindling. And, speaking into a conflict, eschewing reason for reactionary rage, is the same as gushing a volatile accelerant onto an already unchecked conflagration.

Oh, I understand that expressing your opinion is a God-given right. And I know that our Constitution your freedom of speech. I get it. But in this modern age of media multiplicity, everything that is said is captured in a thousand repeated and rehashed snips and clips. Everything spoken lies in storage waiting to be retrieved and reviewed. We will remember who starts which fire. So, think, reason, think again..then engage your mouth. And be sure that you will be held accountable.

More important than discretion and care in the rhetoric of the public square, however, is the absolute need to control our words in the home and within our family. More than any physical harm, more than any other punishment, what we say to each other in intimate situations has enormous potential to cause life-lasting pain. What parents say to children, and how it is said matters. A single word, or the omission of a needed word can scar a child who is loved and cared for in every other way.

We all carry these scars. We have all experienced the casual scorn, disapproval or disdain spoken in a flash of unguarded emotion. Sadly, many of us have in turn passed along painful little moments to our own children. Words have the power to destroy and once uttered cannot be recalled. They careen like jagged shards of shrapnel, in countless directions, tearing holes in the esteem of our victims.

I know I am as guilty as any. As a clever person, proud of my quick wit and possessed of an unfortunate instinct for the jugular, I may be more guilty. Scoring the point has often been more important than considering the outcome. Getting the laugh overruling the price someone else will have to pay. As with many aspects of character seen with new eyes later in my life, I’m not proud of what I see. I am trying harder. I am attempting to be more conscientious. I’m not near to perfect, but I am trying. All part of the slowly evolving show of me.

Let’s strive for open communication and a forum of shared ideas without recourse to venom and conflict. Let’s live in a world where we respect ideas and the people who have them. Let’s create a golden age of getting along.

Words matter. They can be dangerous things. Use them wisely.

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Up

I’ve been thinking of my writing here as a sort of work in progress about a work in progress; that is to say, my life. It’d be nice to say that everything is as zen and under control as I sometimes pretend, but it ain’t. Despite the fact that I invite the readers to see the things I write about from my point of view, I know that view is not singular or rarified in any way. I have no claims on expertise, let alone right answers. Life is a process, I’m just here to report from the road.

Life, in fact is a jigsaw puzzle with a gajillion pieces and no picture on the box. And, a whole bunch of those pieces seem to be nothing but sky blue. Let’s have at it, shall we?

There are good days and there are bad days…and there are days express mailed directly from Hell. In no particular order. It used to be that I’d find myself so deep in the hole that all I could see was dirt–and I’d ask, ‘why me?’ I’m trying, in slow baby steps, to change the question to, ‘what next?,’ or maybe ‘what else?’ But on Hell days, it’s hard to remember to be clever and positive and sunny. A mostly inexpert work in fitful progress is my life.

My tendency is to assume the worst and look for the way in which it is all my fault. A lot of times I had help finding the blame, but I never really needed it. My conscience is like a truffle sniffing pig for guilt. Thanks to that background noise, I had two choices, basket case or king of denial. I chose the latter…mostly. Over the years, I’ve focused forward and hoped. And done my best–and given myself no credit.

So now I find myself older and not particularly wiser. I look back and find that I’ve wasted time and given away things I should have kept. Having reviewed the trip, I see that I’ve taken many right roads and quite a few wrong turns…but I have survived. And have finally come to realize that you shouldn’t settle for just existing, but in fact need to actually live. That you don’t have to lower your expectations, that you might really find happiness somewhere out there. This is merely a theory so far–I haven’t proven it yet. But I believe in it–though it is new.

I am trying to believe more, hope more, and fear less. And, it’s a work in progress–with lots more work before you’ll notice any progress. I’m trying to look up, past the top edge of the hole. I’ll keep you posted.

So, it’s probably obvious that if I’m preaching to anyone, it’s to myself. You’re not finding me dispensing wisdom and clarity to the world, you’re catching me mumbling desperate encouragement to myself. Listen in, if you want. Maybe we can find the next steps forward together. I hope so.

So…on days when I find myself wondering what cosmic entity I’ve managed to piss off so blithely, I’m going to make every effort to breathe calmly and see hardship as a human condition and not my due. I’m going to try my damnedest to move toward the light and stay positive.

And I’m going to keep on trying till I believe it. Then I’ll try some more.

And we’ll see if I ever progress…

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City Boy

I grew up in a city neighborhood in Chicago. Built after World War Two, our streets were neatly laid out in grids of Streets and Avenues that intersected at right angles; each one pretty much like the block before and the one after. Mostly new, single family homes sat on smallish lots, separated from one another by narrow walkways we all called gangways. Alleys ran behind our houses, allowing access to garages, and a place for garbage to be left and then picked up by the city, without disturbing the placidity of our picturesque facades.

Those facts and measures defined our world as children. That geography expanded over time to include schools, stores, ball fields, etc. But basically, our few square blocks were the whole universe.

Children, as they will do, used everything to their own advantage. Auto lined streets were perfect places to play baseball, or football, or hide and go seek. Our sidewalks existed as places to chalk in hopscotch patterns, or batters’ boxes. The concrete front steps and lawns of our houses were where we played stoop-ball (called “3 Outs”) with pink rubber Spaldeens.

The trees, gangways, porches, shrubs and cars were outfield walls, hiding places, goalposts, boundaries and clubhouses. Our alleys were basketball and volleyball courts and testing grounds for bicycles and go-carts. Our neighborhood was a kingdom, and we were all princes of the realm.

And, since we were the children of the post war baby boom, there were plenty of us. We never had to work to get a pick-up game going, if anything we had to devise elaborate fair-play rules to make sure that everyone got their turns. All circumscribed, but designed as well so that no team could get stuck with too many hopeless cases. If not for those rules, many of us would never have gotten off the bench (or the curb we used as a bench).

The realm was, for the most part, sacred and safe. Sure, many of us scraped knees, elbows and chins every time we went outside. Lots of sprained, banged, bruised and cut fingers, wrists, ankles and toes–but we were tough and not terribly bright. As if sensing how soon the time to grow up and get serious would come, we grasped and held every second of our childhoods in vise-like grips. We spent time like misers. We savored and stretched and strove to find and live the perfect moments of play.

Looking back, there are moments and memories that remain so crystalline pure that they retain the power to summon whole the experience even now. Running at top speed, often shouting in exultation, a sweeping summer wind at our backs ruffling our hair. All to be the first to take that almost sacramental drink of cold water from someone’s garden hose. Even with that vague rubbery taste, was there ever any sweeter or more quenching drink?

Finding the perfect hiding place and settling in with absolutely motionless patience. The anticipation and agony of immanent discovery, the thrill of the hunt, the feel of coiled young muscles held tightly in tension–living right at the edge of potential explosion.

When hot summer days transitioned to warm summer nights, I recall laying absolutely still on the cooling front walk of our house. While running, laughing children zigged everywhere like the fireflies they were often chasing, while the adults talked over their grown up days. I lay and stared up at the billions of stars arrayed above me in the clear, blue velvet sky. My eyes and my mind would focus outward, trying to take the enormous vastness in, to understand what the universe was. Almost always the sounds of life around me would fade, and I’d feel a pull inside as if from the stars themselves.

In those moments of unknowing transcendence, I would become lost in that forever moment–only to come out of the reverie in a start, a delicious shiver still panging through me. I was six, I had no idea what I’d just experienced. I was frightened by it, and yet also drawn to it. In the slightest way, I was touching infinity and being touched in return and it changed me forever. I revisited that experience often over the years, and guarded the secret of my communion with the universe jealously. Not least because I knew whatever it was that I was experiencing would only sound crazy if I attempted a stammering, uncomprehending explanation. I had no words for this glimpse of eternity, nor anyway to translate it for anyone else.

Were the times so different then than they are for children today? Did the simplicity and innocence of that time make us more open to wonder? Life buzzed through us with the sound of telephone wires singing their electronic arias overhead. We lived and moved and had our beings in this envelope of Eden, however briefly, and however eternal. Paradox in paradise.

At that age, in that era, there were no plans, but we were ever on the right path. No clocks, calendars or expectations, but everything important got done. Bees were counted, dogs were taught to roll over, broken bats were given second lives in sheaths of black tape, snowflakes were tasted, wars fought, dragons slain, frontier towns made safe. We touched the universe everyday, stretching time beyond any Einsteinian limitations.

And, the universe touched us back. Called us forward, promising all the treasure that we could hold. And hold it we did.

We had the whole universe, the world, the city–everything before us on the streets where we lived.

Paradise.

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Home

I took my 19-year old daughter back to college this afternoon, after a laid-back, but very nice Easter. It had, of course, been a holiday made even better by having her with us, and I said so. She replied, to my mild shock, that it’s “always good to be home.”

I say ‘shock,’ because she is after all 19, and very happy at her school. Logically, she is already planning her life as an adult, and I guess I expect her to think of home as old news. Aren’t we all working on achieving escape velocity at that age? Anxious to shake off the dust of the old home town and move on up to some deluxe apartment in the sky…?

But, my daughter, crusty cynic that she tries to be, gave me the lovely gift of defining home as the place where we are together, and that’s more than good enough for now. In one way it may not change, even as she moves out and up. When asked for our home towns, most will think immediately of where we grew up. I’ve lived in Connecticut for 23 years, but Chicago is still what I think of as home. It’s almost genetic.

I don’t know if ‘home is where your heart is,’ as the cliché has it. That seems too simple, too facile, but there is something true in that all the same. My sense of our house being a home increases when we’re all together. My daughter may well find it always good to be home, but for me, it’s more home when she’s here. I have two beautiful children, and for me, home is wherever I am when they’re with me.

I know they will grow up and find lives, interests and families of their own, and yet, wherever I am, they will always represent the warmth and love of home. This was true when they were babies, and will remain true for all time. Home is where your family is, wherever those you love are.

Now, I recognize that I’ll need to forge my own life after they’ve grown, of course. I’m sure I’ll be a sad and pathetic old man, I certainly don’t want to be any more an embarrassment to my children than that. I plan on being active and mentally agile well into my 90s, so I will indeed find things to do–but my connection to my children and to the lives they find, will tether me to a sense of home that I will carry with me always. A conceptually mobile home, if you will.

None of this is earth-shattering or new. Everyone feels the same, I suspect, particularly parents. I certainly hope everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. Home as a concept, as a construct of our love and connections, should be a common human baseline reality. That sense of home not only gives us our physical grounding (literally), it gives us a philosophical grounding too.

The great tragedy for people losing their homes to foreclosure and disaster is not simply that they are without basic human needs such as shelter and protection. More than the idea of the loss of property, it’s that they become unanchored from their connections to friends and loved ones–from the people and relationships that define them as human and part of a community.

We all need a place where we belong–even if that place is primarily in the hearts and minds of those who care about us. Addressing homelessness has to be about solving both the practical realities of location, but also the deeper requirement of belonging.

Home is the place, it is said, where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Home, I say, is the place where, when you go there, they’re waiting with open arms.

My daughter said only a few words, and casually, but those words truly brought me home. Where we all belong.

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Happy Easter

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Comes the sun

Everyday we face a choice. To look toward the future and seek a way forward, or look to whatever it is behind us that holds us back. Look to the dawn, or back at the things that scared us in the night. Darkness or light.

I’m thinking of this because today is so bright, warm and mild that it’s almost impossible to feel anything but good. The sun is high and bright and the world looks wonderful in this light. For those of us celebrating Easter tomorrow, the weather couldn’t be more perfect. Creation becomes its own metaphor, you can feel hope waiting to be reborn. The air positively buzzes with the promise of new life; of a resurrection from despair to delight in a single moment of light and life.

Like that day so long ago, that miraculous hinge of history when many of us believe the world was redeemed, every Spring remembers and resembles in miniature that singular spark of dawning revelation. Christ died to be reborn, to lead us through death to the same rebirth–a cycle of life echoed in the dying of a seed in the ground to burst forth somehow with life to feed and encourage the continuity of all life. The Easter moment is both promise and pattern; it is future and past at once.

That’s the way faith works. Not blindly stumbling forward without practical understanding, not to step into empty space and expect magic to save you, but to recognize what has been, what can be, and to see the signposts of the promise along the way. Nature is God’s best sign, and the cycle of the seasons enacts its passion play for us in continuous performance. The seasonal death of winter, leading to the re-greening of earth each spring; the sprouting of new shoots which become the strands of time that weave our lives in forward motion. The light reaching into our darkest places to warm, thaw and draw forth the breath of new wonder.

The metaphors reach beyond the practical and natural. Shall we live in the grim expectation of persecution and suffering, or believe that the sun will rise on a renewed world in mere moments?  Shall we live in the worst of that deadly Friday noon two millennia ago, or live for the dawn of Sunday morning when the stone rolls away?

Stay in the shadows if you want, but the light will find you. You don’t need to let it in, you needn’t take it to heart, you can opt to go on in defeat and dread, but the light finds us all. What we do about it, and with it, is for each of us to discover. But the light seeks its own, fills every corner and is there for the accepting.

Now, take Easter as history or faith, as metaphor or myth. Believe whole heartedly in the sacredness as many do, or see it simply as a symbol of natural process–but embrace it for the goodness it brings. Again, make your choice. But there is much to celebrate from any perspective in the yearly (re)turning of the world toward the sun, in the resurrection of a living, breathing world from its cold winter tomb.

The promise is natural and supranatural, metaphor and fact. The sun rises, the son has risen.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Happy Easter, wherever you find yourself.

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Not so distant fires

I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, a few miles from Midway airport. We lived in a blond brick bungalow built for us by my uncle Vyto’s construction outfit in 1957. The entire section of town had been little more than scattered farms and vast tracks of undeveloped prairie land less than twenty-five years prior. Our neck of the woods was part of the post-World War II boom, and grew up around the Government-built housing for thousands of war-plant employees who relocated during the 40s.

There was one major factor which accounted for much of the housing and businesses that pre-existed the war. Since the late 1800s, our area had been part of Chicago’s foundational growth industry–the railroad. In fact, the street I grew up on abutted the huge Grand Trunk Railroad switching yards. Built somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, and sprawling over about a quarter-mile square, the yards were an amazing world of limitless exploration.

The enormous octagonal barn (from which clouds of bats erupted every night), with its huge turntable for redirecting locomotives, sat dark and hulking in the center of the space. It was the absolute height of thrilling adventure to sneak into its labyrinthine gloom to watch that table rotating a multi-ton iron monster onto another track. Outside, the barn was  surrounded by surplus freight cars, mostly empty outbuildings, crumbling sheds, large, mysterious and rusting equipment, and coolest of all, many outdated rail cars abandoned on siding tracks.

We kids of the area lived our summers in the yards, claiming 1920s passenger cars as clubhouses and settings for cowboy scenarios, climbing on monstrous old locomotives, playing out war and frontier fantasies in the shoulder-high prairie grass that grew everywhere.

There was supposed to be great risk in being there, because the yard was purportedly patrolled by railroad detectives with shotguns loaded with black pepper or rock salt. Grizzled, sour men were said to roam those tall weeds, dedicated to flushing out trespassers and supposedly delivering stinging rebuke to the quarry’s hindquarters. No question, though we didn’t truly understand the idea, we were trespassing and our enjoyment of every foray was enhanced by the illicit boldness of the venture itself. Everything was made more savory in the shadow of the danger that lurked nearby waiting for us, armed and ready. That no one had ever actually seen the guards, that no one had ever actually been shot, and that very few had even been run off, didn’t matter–everyone knew somebody who knew somebody who had taken a seat full of hot stinging pepper. That was good enough for us.

Carved out of one corner of the rail yard was a several block stretch of land given over to what we all called a junkyard, a commercial auto salvage yard, where rusting cars were stacked like old newspaper, and a ragged mountain made of thousands of old tires rose precariously at the center. We never went there, because unlike the phantom railroad dicks, there were very real packs of loud German Shepherd dogs that could be seen roving among the refuse.

One summer when I was about nine, the junkyard caught fire. The blaze spread with alarming speed and ferocity, and the neighborhood homes were so close that the fire department had pumper trucks standing by to fight any subsidiary fires that might erupt from the sparks floating on the hot, dry summer air. We were all on alert, many families were even encouraged to move further away to safety until the fire could be contained.

Acrid black smoke from burning tires mingled with the billowing white smoke from the kindled dry grasses, and a red-hot glow pulsed within the near-impenetrable haze.  The smell of scorched and melting rubber and super-hot steel filled the air, and everywhere large particulate chunks of ash blew like negative snow. We were litterally cut off from the rest of the world by the haze and heat; our neighborhood was under seige.

Logically, the instinct would be to move far away from the fire, and, even if you wanted to gawk, the combination of police and fire personnel, the blinding smoke and blistering heat, and basic common sense would limit your exposure. Of course, nine-year old boys are not known for common sense, and we were drawn to this event like seagulls to fast-food scraps.

The area immediately adjacent to the junkyard, and every logical entrance to the place was cordoned off by the vehicles and equipment of the fire and police departments. But, given our ownership of the rail yards, it dawned on us that we could come at the show from the back way, which mayhave been wide open. We went in and discovered that we had free access to the inferno, and–don’t ask me why–decided that this was a good thing. An invitation, even.

If the danger of unseen guards sweetened our every-day adventures into the yards, I guess it must have seemed that really risking our lives to smoke and fire was the sweetest thing of all. I doubt that we even considered the risk, however. We were nine, we were impervious, we were immortal. We were dumber than rocks.

We went wandering into a scene straight out of Dante; a surreal land proscribed by curtains of thick, gray haze. Everything we could see looked unreal through this filter. Even the flames seemed less substantial, less dangerous seen this way; the haze transforming the bright hot blazing red to a pale, translucent orange. The firemen battling the fire were gray wraiths, shadowy, dreamy figures moving in slow-motion through the nightmare landscape.

Sound seemed to not exist in there. Everything that might ground us to reality was gone too. We felt as if we were in the midst, in some bizarre way, of a singularly otherworldly experience, exhilarating in ways we couldn’t understand then. We wandered blithely into hell, casually took in the sights and survived.

We could literally have died in at least a thousand ways, I realize now. But back then we were safe from such logic–protected by our bullet-proof stupidity. We were also very quickly hotter than we’d ever been, coughing from the stench and smoke, and streaked with ash. What we weren’t, at any point though, was worried. We were just uncomfortable and our curiosity had been sated.  As casually as we had entered, we left. No one saw us, no one stopped us. We came, we saw, we moved on.

Now, you’re a nine-year old boy, you come home streaked like a zebra with sooty black stripes, and you smell like Akron, Ohio…how do you explain that to your mother? We had cheated death, literally, but we couldn’t escape the scrutiny of the all-seeing eyes of mom. Beyond the grime, I looked as though I had been seriously sunburned, and I had blisters forming on my cheeks and arms. That’s how close to cooked we had been.

After my mother extracted the tale of our fiery field day (she failed to grasp what I saw was the obvious truth; all kinds of awful could have happened, but it hadn’t, I was fine). Needless to say I was grounded for a long time–and probably thought that it had all been worth it.

The blisters I had on another part of me–blisters not caused by exposure to the heat–definitely took the edge off my satisfaction pretty quickly.

It was a long time before I’d risk everything for adventure again. At least a month.

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