clovernode

where DSL and meadow grass collide

Chosen Family: Then and Now June 4, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — clovernode @ 2:50 pm
Tags: , , ,

I just heard yesterday via Twitter about the LGBT family blogging challenge. This seems like a good time for me to take some time to write about those friends who have become part of my chosen family, both back when I first started exploring my sexual identity (the mid-nineties), and now that I have gotten older and somewhat settled in comparison. I currently identify as genderqueer or bisexual.

 

Rather than use their real names, I’m going to write about my experiences with LGBT community members in general who have encouraged, supported, and sheltered me at times, as I struggled with understanding my difference from my original family, and learned to celebrate it. I’ll also include my dogs Bodie and Sara, who are the equivalent of children for me now.

 

My experiences with gender-bending began at an early age. Although I was somewhat curious as a child, the cultural climate of southwestern Virginia in the 1970’s and 1980’s meant that there were no visible role models to look up to. Consequently, expressing gender variation or difference was seen as subversive. For teenagers, rebellion comes naturally, so it never occurred to me that what I was doing was wrong, it just seemed different and therefore cool. My first girlfriend sought me out at age 14; we had a torrid love affair which ended two weeks later with her unceremoniously dumping me to skip school with a friend.

 

This first experience of rejection from a teenaged woman was hard for me to take. To her credit, she later talked to me about it, and said she was sorry, but by then, I called the whole experience “a mistake” and pretended to be straight, rather than accept her apology gracefully. Although I regret that now, this was a time when being “found out” as lesbian or gay was quite frightening, as you would almost certainly go through the experience alone. No Dan Savage, no “it gets better” videos. You either convinced yourself and everyone else around you that you were straight, or concealed a secret which you were sure would result in social exclusion if found out. It has not been that long ago that this rejection of LGBT people was commonplace in America.

 

I guess my first LGBT ally was my mother. Whether she ever realized my difference or not, she was a fair-minded person who told me about gays and lesbians she knew while living in Ohio. In the rural South, these experiences were my first exposure to gender difference, and I’ll always be grateful to her for it.

 

The assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone weren’t on my radar at the time, but Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign in Florida made the local news. The flamboyance of guys like Liberace and Elton John were merely seen as them being “entertainers”. Even Freddie Mercury, who now seems as flaming as a forest fire, kept up a tough guy façade in order to successfully front a 70’s rock band.

 

I went to my local bookstore at age 15 and special-ordered a copy of the Radclyffe Hall book, “The Well of Loneliness”. The protagonist, a woman named Stephen, is allowed to demonstrate her feelings for her girlfriend, Mary Llewellyn, but she is not allowed to find any happiness with her, she must give the girlfriend up in order to please a biological male. At 15, this was the message I absorbed about lesbianism, that it existed but merely in subordination to straight male needs.

 

The first friends I made in college who were gay were well-traveled but heavy drinkers. Nevertheless, I got caught up in their circle and hung around for a few years, mostly because they were the only out LGBT people I knew. My friend who had HIV asked me if I thought I was a lesbian. I said “maybe” but my life experience up until that time demonstrated an almost evenly divided interest in both men and women. He basically took me under his wing, and encouraged me to seek out female friends as well.

 

Later, when I moved to San Francisco in the late nineties, I met a wider circle of LGBT people who had no qualms about being out and proud of it. The social climate there was much more supportive of gender-bending, so much so that it was frowned upon to be closeted. This was a 180-degree shift from the cultural disapproval I was used to. I found that I was more reserved about my sexuality than I had thought.

 

Part of what has held me back has been original family issues. While I was in San Francisco, my mother fell ill and had a protracted illness for six years. It was difficult to be so far away while this was going on, and I made every effort to come back when I could. This meant less time for any personal journeys, as I was still responding to the needs at home. Later, after the first dot com bust, I thought it would be best to come back to Virginia and help my father, who had gotten sick himself while taking care of my mother. I was worried about his health breaking down as a result of the long caregiving situation he had just been in. He had a few years afterwards in which he was able to go out and meet a new girlfriend, socialize with buddies, and so on. He recently passed away from lung cancer, after a five year battle with the illness. I was directly involved in his care and became his primary caregiver for the last several years.

 

So over the last 16 years, 11 of them have been spent with either my father or mother suffering from sickness and needing care. Between this reality and the demands of work, I’ve had little time to reflect on what I wanted for myself as a single person and to look for potential partners. I have also struggled with substance use, but moving home has made it easier for me to wean myself off of these crutches. That has been the biggest benefit of moving here, besides being able to help my family from closer by this time.

 

What role does chosen family play in all of this? Well, quite simply, they give me the hope that my life will get better, that I’ll be able to go on and have a life with a partner of my choosing, and that I won’t be rejected for it. Chosen family are the people who accept my gender difference and actually like me for it. They do not expect me to play a straight role for them, just to make them more comfortable. They join me in the enjoyment of just being different, and together we have built a whole community around the recognition and even celebration of this fact.

 

Although I’m a strong supporter of marriage equality, sometimes I feel a little weirded out by the eagerness with which the straight community embraces us, almost as if to say, “Hey, I’ve got a gay friend”. I never sought approval for my feelings of gender difference, and I never thought it was wrong despite the disapproval of society and some peers. So it bothers me a bit now that some straight people seem to patronizingly “approve” of us, as if we ever sought that. No, instead we went and made our own communities. We created our own social structure, in which we were diametrically opposed to any attempts to define us or demean us based on gender difference.

 

The good thing about the marriage equality movement is that it “normalizes” our relationships, states that they are not inferior marriages and that we are able to experience same-sex love in the same way married straight couples do. The concern is that not everyone necessarily wants to get married, and so it creates some pressure within the LGBT community to “blend in” with the straight world, when that may not exactly be on everyone’s dance card. One of the happiest times in my life was when I went about 5 years without socializing in the straight world, living exclusively within the LGBT community. Now we are expected to be “role models” on display for the straight world’s approval. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that yet.

 

Although I’ve dated some women in the past, I’m currently very single and living in an area with very little LGBT visibility. The younger generations are coming out earlier, but many LGBT people who are my age and older here remain closeted around straight people. Hopefully, this will change with time.

 

So my LGBT family consists of my two dogs, Bodie and Sara. I dote on them like a devoted mother, and they show me a lot of unconditional love in return. I recently inherited Sara when my father passed away. She’s 14 and Bodie is 7 years old. She has been a great addition to the household. I won’t be able to take her with me when we move, due to issue with rentals and pets, but I’m glad we got to spend this time with her. She has helped mellow out and mature Bodie, who is still very much a teenager. I can’t wait to take him walking on the city streets and in parks. He will be my advance PR department, as he is way cuter than I am at this point :}

 

Well, that’s all the time I have to write for today. Pride month has a special meaning for me this time, as I prepare to move back near the LGBT community in San Francisco which I remember fondly (for the most part). I’m going to appreciate it a lot more this time. I hope that younger LGBT people will listen to their elders when we say “we haven’t always had it this good”.

 

Science Podcast: an interview with Frank Biermann March 20, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — clovernode @ 11:04 am

The journal Science recently posted a proposal from an international group of scientists regarding improving world social systems in the face of global warming. The proposal is titled “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance.” The full article is available for purchase.

A supplementary podcast of an interview with Frank Biermann, one of the authors, was included on their website. I’m linking to a copy of the podcast below in order to pass it on people on Twitter. All rights owned by the journal.

BiermannInterview

 

 

We’re Having a Heat Wave December 7, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — clovernode @ 10:12 am

The weather has been unseasonably warm here so far this winter.  Luckily, I live at around 3000 feet, so a temperature increase here doesn’t feel as drastic.  Even though we’re not talking about it much, most rational adults collectively understand that we are seeing the initial effects of global warming: melting ice caps and warming average temperatures.

Part of me feels panicked about this.  The little girl who used to save earthworms from drowning in rain puddles won’t be able to save each creature who suffers the effects of this change.  Just the other night, I saw frogs hopping on the roadway during a rainstorm, which is unusual for December, it seems.  What will happen to those out-of-season creatures when the weather suddenly turns cold?  It saddens me to think about it.

But my more adult side understands that adapting to this change is all we can realistically hope to do.  The planet’s ecology is too massive for humans to control, so the Earth will adjust, whether that suits us or not.  My meditative side knows that accepting what I observe, and responding appropriately to it, is the best way to cope with whatever life throws my way.  After the dot com bust, one of the biggest mistakes I made was that I didn’t react fast enough to the changes.  I lamented what had been, rather than embracing and facing what was happening at the time.  This was a costly mistake.

So now, I try to dodge deer and other creatures on the roadway, while saying a short prayer for those that have been killed.  I don’t spend too much time agonizing over the sight of them, like I used to though.  I’ll go out and mow the grass, which continues to grow even after the leaves are gone from the trees, even though this “shouldn’t be happening”.  I recycle and buy recycled products as much as I can, in order to minimize my family’s impact on the environment.  Mostly, I’m learning to look at the world differently than my dad, who grew up in the 1950’s when there was no worry about over-consumption or pollution.

He used to dump oil on the ground to lay the dust in the driveway.  He would pour creosote on fence posts to keep insects from eating the posts.  He would paint cars without dust masks, change drum brakes which exposed him to asbestos dust, and wash his hands in kerosene after working out in the garage.  I’m sure this disregard for his personal safety was thought of as macho at the time.

He has now lived with lung cancer for the last three years.  He is on oxygen and has a diminished lung capacity.  The man who was an accomplished mechanic and carpenter now shuffles from the bed to the dinner table and back, a shell of his former self.  As a child, he idealized the idea of cowboys and war heroes. He may still have a “John Wayne” mentality, but he’s been affected by his actions and environment, whether he chooses to see it or not.  The Marlboro Man is still immersed in the world, regardless of his posturing.  (My dad didn’t smoke, but I’m referring more broadly to our individualistic society.)

I have had to accept these health changes in my father quite rapidly.  He hasn’t really been able to absorb it fully.  It saddens me to know that his workaholic tendencies may end up being what kills him.  My sister is also working herself to death to support grown children with addictions who live with her.  I don’t want to go that route.  I want to help the most people I can with the talents I’ve been given.  I don’t want to be a needless martyr to consumption and capitalism.  If I can live through being a cancer caregiver, I can live through anything.  So that’s how I feel about global warming: the planet is getting sick, too.  I’ll do what I can to help us cope.

 

Culture War, Class Warfare, or Ecological Crisis? December 5, 2011

Filed under: nonviolence,occupy,peace,social justice — clovernode @ 5:34 am

When I arrived at VCU in Richmond in 1989, I remember seeing an art installation for the Tiananmen Square protestors on the lawn of the student commons.  It featured a replica of “The Goddess of Democracy,” which had been built by Chinese art students in Tiananmen Square, before the sculpture was destroyed and many protestors were massacred by the Chinese army in early June.

goddessdemocracy2

 

The installation featured hundreds of small placards with Chinese characters sketched on them in red paint.  These placards were meant to represent each of the protestors killed that day.  A moving tribute.

How did this affect me at the time?  I felt the proper sense of outrage, and was proud to be in a new, exciting place where political statements like this were made.  Moving to Richmond, Virginia from small-town Southwestern Virginia was a liberating and eye-opening experience, as I’m sure this rite of passage has been for countless others.  I went on to do what most college kids do: try to get good grades, meet new people, and learn more about life away from home.  But this novel display of solidarity has stuck with me over the years: it is still one of first images that come to mind when I think about those heady days so long ago now.

goddessdemocracy

 

Back then, when the World Wide Web was still in its formative stages, how connected did I really feel with those protestors?  I remember watching footage of the infamous “Tank Man,” and being shocked at how heartless the Chinese government seemed to be.  However, back then, we Americans still enjoyed a comforting if false sense of distance from international events such as these.  China seemed to be a world away from us.  The Soviet Union had just fallen, and pro-capitalists were gloating over the fall of communism as a viable system.  Most people my age were busy preparing to launch their careers into an early-90’s recession economy.  Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?

So although I felt for the lives lost, and found the wanton brutality repugnant, I didn’t see how what had happened there really affected me here in America.  That has changed now.  Thank you, VCU Art Department, for creating a lasting image in my mind of what it means to stand up with creativity and courage against a brutal regime.

In 2011, we don’t need much prompting to see how much has changed in our country.  The largesse of the 60’s and 70’s has dried up, and we are starting to see through the capitalist façade.  After the dot com bust, I noticed that our country seems to have recessions every ten years or so.  This recent deep recession should just be called what it is: the second Great Depression.

After 9/11, the Enron scandal, ten years of global warfare, bank bailouts, the deregulation and swindling on Wall Street, and the travesty of a politicized Supreme Court, it’s hard to recognize what we have become.  The ridiculous inquiry into Bill Clinton’s private life paved the way for the current penchant for “reality shows,” trials-of-the-century, and the general exploitation of human emotions for entertainment purposes.  When is our country going to grow into something more than an adolescent gang of hoodlums snickering at Super Bowl half-time nip slips?

occupy

 

Now I understand how my mother felt as she watched the 60’s generation come of age.  She shared their politics, but was born twenty years earlier than your average hippie.  Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) is the first political movement in my lifetime that I feel compelled to take part in.  I have seen the ups-and-downs of our modern job market and societal mores, and so instinctively, I know I have to create my own reality, my own working environment, my own value system.  The tired old Vietnam-era, “uptight squares vs. wild hippies” framing of our country as a cultural battleground must stop.  We are bigger and better than that.

We are looking at the first generation of college-age young adults who may never have the opportunities that their parents did.  Training our youth to think critically isn’t going to work out so well when the target is our own crumbling society.  The concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority has happened a few times before in history, and the result is usually the same: revolt and revolution.  When is America going to drop its puritanical obsession with everyone’s sex lives, and start to see the crisis for what it is: the majority class of workers against the minority class of corporate investors?

This past year had some record-breaking weather, including a tsunami which devastated Japan, which led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster.  This should be a wake-up call to many, but instead, perhaps due to overwhelm, we giggle at the latest case of sexual indiscretions.  How long will America be able to keep this up?  What if a nuclear winter were to occur, and we all became sterile?  There wouldn’t be many left after a generation to publish the tabloids.

As more and more draconian laws are passed, to placate a fearful yet fading worldview, let’s take the inspiration of the Arab Spring and American Autumn into 2012, and remember that people power will always triumph over the fickle few.  Why don’t we forget about 1960’s-era debates – it’s time for Gen Y *and* Gen X to come into their own.  We can’t live in the shadow of the Baby Boomers forever.  Let’s start framing this in modern terms: a struggle not only for the welfare of the little guy, but for the sustainability of our ecology and planet.  Peace.  Solidarity.  No nukes in any hands.  Occupy peace of mind.

 

 

WYSIWYG FTW November 29, 2011

Filed under: facebook,nonviolence,peace,twitter — clovernode @ 4:20 am

Hello again, I’ve finally taken the time to figure out what was up with the font formatting, I’m using Windows Live Writer now, much better.  I’m increasing the font to 10 point, since my eyes are getting fuzzier as a middle-aged blogger.

Well, many people have encouraged me to continue writing here, and for various reasons, I’ve been putting it off.  After hearing about the attack on Mona Eltahawy in Cairo last week, and seeing her hands in casts, I feel that I can’t put it off any longer.

I spend most of my social networking time on Twitter.  Facebook is like a clunky beast.  They should hire a new user interface team, imho.  What a messy and obtrusive site.  Yuck.

Anyway, I’ll be checking in here more regularly now.  I don’t want to make any promises, as it’s too easy for my schedule to get re-arranged these days.  But trust and believe, I’ll be on here speaking my mind, trolls be damned.

Occupy your body, and occupy peace of mind.

GR

 

False Dichotomies

Filed under: Buddhism,conflict resolution,social justice,twitter — clovernode @ 4:10 am

 

This is a response to the following post:

http://www.thereformedbuddhist.com/2011/07/how-counterfeit-cultural-diversity-and.html

Although I don’t have time to get into an extended debate with the author, due to personal priorities, I feel that this
post merits a response.

It seems that some Buddhists would like to dwell in a rarefied atmosphere of "pure" Buddhism, which is untouched by
"mundane" concerns.  The idealization of any belief system to this extent is unrealistic and misguided, in my opinion.
To imagine that any religion has developed separately from the social and political concerns of the surrounding culture
of its time is simply glorifying ideas for the sake of ideas.  This is a misunderstanding of what the Buddha taught,
in my opinion. I believe that western Buddhism and the separation of church and state can co-exist, however.

It’s unlikely that one could live long in the West without having to come to terms with our heavily materialistic
culture.  In a monastic environment, a monk or nun may be able to claim that they are “removed from society” in terms
of keeping stricter vows and not charging money for teachings.  However, even monks and nuns are still taking part in
samsara, due to having to eat, drink, eliminate waste, and so on. In my understanding of the term, renunciation does not
mean throwing away our bodies, it means accepting the reality of our bodies, yet not clinging to either our body, other
material things, or even clinging to an expected outcome of our practice.

Unfortunately, it seems that those who would prefer to see Buddhism as “pure” or removed from the world rely on a false
dichotomy of "sacred vs profane" in order to disagree with other Buddhists’ involvement in politics, personal
discussions, or even common social courtesies.  Different interpretations of Buddhism really boil down to different
points of view.  How can any ordinary practitioner claim to have an exclusive understanding of what the Buddha meant?
This attitude may be possible to sustain in a monastic environment, within a forum of debate.  Even there, more
experienced teachers would judge the outcome of these debates.  I think household practitioners (which includes most
Western Buddhists) would benefit from realizing that they themselves make choices in living everyday which are
ambiguous at best.

For example, how do you reconcile your Buddhist beliefs with roadkill that you see on the highway?  What is the correct
Buddhist response to running over an animal on your way to work?  Have you considered that simply driving a car
automatically includes you in a culture of killing and maiming?  What would be the appropriate Buddhist remedy for
that?

My point is that everyone interprets and acts on their Buddhist beliefs differently.  To say that being a “socially
engaged” Buddhist is a less accurate interpretation than being a “purist” or “fundamentalist” Buddhist is simply
another opinion or interpretation of what the Buddha meant.

With that introduction, here are my specific responses to parts of your post.  Although I respect your right to
interpret the Buddha’s teachings differently, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your claims in this post are backed by
Buddhist thought.  I’m comfortable with the same being said of my thoughts.

Starting with the title: “How Counterfeit Cultural Diversity and Social Justice are the Antithesis of Buddhist
Teachings.”  How do you know this to be true?  Have you had a dialogue with those who hold different viewpoints from
yourself?  Are you claiming that you are the only authority on Buddhist teachings?

First sentence: “It may be nice to think or to say that through Buddhist teachings, one will or must come to the
conclusion that social justice or forced cultural diversity is the end result of the Buddha’s teachings.” Kyle, who is
forcing you to accept anything?

I don’t agree with you that a person who identifies as Buddhist who also happens to value cultural diversity and/or
fights for social justice is a racist.  This claim is illogical at best.  Where is your proof of this claim?  How can
you possibly know the motives and thoughts of others without asking them?

I think that western Buddhism is a work in progress.  To claim otherwise is like taking a snapshot of a river, pointing
to it, and saying, “This is the river.”  The visible expression of “eastern” thought in “western” countries is still in
flux and ever-changing.  To say that western Buddhists are racist because American interest in Buddhism started in
mostly white western academic circles is uncharitable at best.  That’s like saying, “some humans are cavemen” because
evidence of early human existence is often found in caves.

Additional quotes from the linked post:

"the West continues to trap and confine itself in terms of a Buddhist path, based on nothing more than a superficial
and horribly unhealthy marriage of radicalism, powered by white elitism and basic Buddhist teachings…" I disagree.
Where is your evidence for this claim?

"…that there resides an overwhelming feeling this marriage of social justice and Buddhism is the only true and correct
path…" Who is forcing you to accept their interpretation of Buddhism?  Can you honestly say that you have had an actual
dialogue with someone who has said that?

"…marginalizing and disregarding the middle of the road, lower to middle class moderate folks…"  Again, who have you
talked to who is making this claim?  Can you provide concrete examples?

"The West needs to stop defining what being a Buddhist is…” Do you realize that you are a part of this amorphous entity
you call “the West,” and that you yourself are attempting to define Buddhism here for other Westerners?

"…how we can get others interested in exploring Buddhism in all its forms…"  I strongly disagree. My understanding is
that as Buddhists, we are not supposed to proselytize.  So therefore, unless someone asks, I tend to not discuss my
beliefs.  To be anxious about spreading a belief system to others, and taking that on as a moral obligation is usually
thought of as becoming a missionary. Proselytizing and missionary work is usually a Christian imperative, in my
understanding.

"…where is room at the inn for the rest of us?"  Again, who is excluding you?

Thanks for the dialogue.  I’m glad I’m able to agree to disagree.

 

How I learned to love being silly December 29, 2009

I’m reviving my blog over the holidays.  I spend most of my internet social time on Twitter, but I thought I would go “long form” for a change.  Some of the information here may be repeated in older posts, but I’m going to assume I’ll have all new readers for this one (if any!) since I hardly ever post.

Dot Com Projections

I used to work at a dot com in San Francisco back at the turn of the decade, and as a paralegal a few years before that.  After being laid off several times and going through some family crises from long distance, I moved home and have worked in retail and sales since then.  Following some trials and tribulations, I’ve started to realize that I’m more of a “behind-the-scenes” person and that working in sales just isn’t my forte.  I also found it mind-numbingly boring, and have slowly realized that none of the jobs I have had in the last few years presented me with any kind of challenge.  This isn’t good for someone who was labeled as “gifted” early in life, and therefore has always been expected to be able to do more.  So I applied to graduate school in hopes of bettering myself once again.

I was very pleased to be accepted to grad school for Conflict Resolution at a North Carolina university back in June.  I ordered my textbooks early and started reading them.  I also ordered biographies of Martin Luther King, Mahatmas Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, and other influential figures.  I imagined how great it would be to work for the UN or the Peace Corps, and decided to follow President Obama’s example in his commitment to work for others.  My interest in Buddhism was also tied in with these ideals.

Obama Halo

It was so easy to be optimistic and hopeful as Obama was sworn in.  It really felt as though the sky was the limit with what we could do, the victory was so groundbreaking.  Then as the year wore on, the tea party groups emerged, and we all watched as the town hall people threw their fits for the cameras.  It became harder to see how things would ever change here in America.  I found all of that virulent expression of hatred quite depressing, as I’m sure many others did as well.  I also became pessimistic about how we could ever achieve a real lasting peace, and felt intimidated by the arduous task of trying to live up to such sterling examples as King or Gandhi.

So I did what a lot of people might do, and distracted myself from the news.  I had been a social networking Luddite since Myspace emerged in the early 2000s.  I never got on there because I had heard there was some trouble with viruses being spread in the beginning.  I had tried tribe.net for a few months, and that was about it.  So when I finally broke down and joined Facebook and Twitter this past summer, it was a welcome distraction from all of this heaviness.  It was great reconnecting with people I hadn’t talked to in awhile, and just realizing that everyone was still out there somewhere, even though they seemed so far away.  After becoming isolated living out in the country after fifteen years in the city, it was nice to be reminded of that.

Family Affair

On a more personal note, I have been trying to help boost the spirits of my father who was treated for lung cancer in early 2008.  He’s in remission, but is still on oxygen due to lung damage.  He doesn’t get out much anymore.  He has also suffered from bouts of depression and OCD for a number of years, since taking early retirement in the eighties.  This tendency he has of rumination and pessimism makes the job of comforting him that much harder.  It bothers me to think that I may never see my dad happy again.  It’s important that I try to keep myself in the best spirits I can while dealing with this though.

I’m going to give some background about my interest in Buddhism, which I hope will provide some information that will tie together with other themes later on. My mother, who was older than Dad, passed away in 2003.  I came back quite often to help while living in California.  Eventually it seemed to make more sense just to move back.  I stayed out there as long as I could though.  As my mom’s health declined, I started to think about spiritual matters more seriously.  I was mainly wondering “where do we go when we die?” and so on.  Since she was Catholic and my dad was Baptist, she had left it up to me to decide which denomination I would choose.  I had read a lot of Buddhism as a teenager, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to start attending services at a local Buddhist center in San Francisco.  I also tried out an Anglican church for awhile which was non-traditional as well.

Buddhist Wheel and Deer

I found that a lot of ideas in Buddhism meshed well with the Christian teachings I had grown up with, and the newer ideas were intriguing, if hard to get my head around.  Reincarnation and karma are the two that I’m still trying to better understand.  After moving home for a year, I headed back out to California to visit friends.  I was still curious to learn more about Buddhism, so I moved into a Buddhist center called Tse Chen Ling (http://www.tsechenling.org) while I was back.  I briefly considered whether or not to become a nun.

Although I enjoyed the classes and the people I met there, I found that organized religion just wasn’t going to be where I fit in the best.  I had a lot of great experiences there though.  One of the best memories I have is of the laughter, joking, and light-hearted spirit of the younger Tibetans.  It seemed that irreverence was not only tolerated, but encouraged.  The lamas, some of whom I met in person and some I watched on videos, were so calm and understated in their presentation.  This was quite a difference from the “fire and brimstone” style of preaching that you still see in churches in the South, where the pastor is practically shouting at people.  I thought the Buddhist approach was much more authentic.  It’s true that you do see some new converts putting on a “centered and blissful” new-age style demeanor, which can easily change when things don’t go their way.  However, especially in the case of Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan monk who helped establish several centers there in the 1970s (http://www.fpmt.org), there was a depth of spirit present in him which was palpable.

Books

Back to the present, I found that it was hard to concentrate on my studies, because I really couldn’t honestly say that I believed there was a permanent answer to conflict.  After all of the wars that have been fought in the name of God and country, and the petty irritations that plague even the happiest of relationships, is it really possible to eliminate conflict?  It seems like this same struggle has gone on in every era, so is there really any hope for a lasting peace and justice for all?

Also, it seems that we conceive of the striving for justice and peace as very somber tasks, worthy of pursuit, but ultimately very serious stuff.  After spending most of my childhood amusing my mother in her later years, I naturally try to entertain people.  I also absorbed the notion from my Buddhist center experiences that joie de vivre is healthy not silly, and a lighter touch works best.  I wondered if I would be willing to spend the rest of my life playing referee to so many overblown situations.  Would I be able to take each side seriously enough, would I be able to inject any levity into the mix, to try to help lighten the mood?  Or would it turn out to be me trying to manage a lot of awkward, ponderous battles?  I don’t really like taking part in personal conflict anyway!

I brought this up in one of my classes this semester.  I said that I thought that a sense of humor may help, when helping people mediate or negotiate a problem.  The teacher warned that you have to be careful with that, as often you are dealing with people you don’t know very well, and you have to be careful not to offend anyone.  Isn’t there a common ground left anymore, a perspective from which we can all see the folly of things, only if just for a minute?  Or have identity politics completely taken over the arena?  Can we find common ground as humans, or would that be completely contrived?

Twitter Bird

Due to the heaviness of being in a caregiving situation, I found myself drawn to the wry observations of comedians on Twitter, who often are dealing more with the truth on a daily basis than politicians or religious figures it seems.  I starting thinking about the underrated value of humor, and thought how great it would be if I could just get my dad to lighten up a bit.  A person has to be willing to look at things from a humorous perspective though, one can’t really insist on it, and so instead I found a lot of solace there myself.  I really enjoy the stream of consciousness viewpoint that Twitter provides.

What is it that makes something funny, and why do most of us find humor in certain situations?  Is there some way that we as a people can start to look at things from a lighter perspective from the beginning?  After years of dealing with depressed people, and suffering from depression sometimes myself, I wonder, how can we start to cultivate a lighter touch?

Lama Yeshe Lama Zopa

For others who worry about such things, here’s a few recommendations that I’ve picked up along the way.  One thing Lama Yeshe always says is to never give up on yourself.  You may have committed the worst wrongs known to man, but there is still hope for you to become enlightened, from the Buddhist point of view.  To me, this is a welcome departure from Christian thinking, with its focus on “eternal life” and the idea that one can be eternally damned or saved.  Buddhists believe that our “souls” are recycled endlessly through reincarnation.  I think that key difference helps prevent people from doing psychologically harmful things to themselves and others, just to “get into Heaven”.  Also it is recommended to be gentle with yourself, and learn to love and forgive yourself first, before trying to do the same for others.  We have all heard these things before, but have you ever actually tried doing it?  It’s not a very common attitude to find in our punitive, judgmental culture, but it seems that this kind of thinking would help us all better weather the economic and cultural storms in our country these days, rather than just seeking to place blame.

Another thing I have had to realize is that Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the rest were people too, and although they have been held up as singular examples of peace and non-violence, we do not have to live up to that exacting standard in order to make a difference.  There were many people working with them and around them who are now nameless, but they believed in the same things and contributed to the movement as well.  The chance of becoming such a figurehead is rare, and often individuals are thrust into the spotlight, as Martin Luther King was, without any real desire for the role.  Many people around King helped create the civil rights movement that he led so eloquently.

Bayard Rustin

I find Bayard Rustin to be someone who I can relate to much more, as his personal life was under much scrutiny even as he contributed greatly to the civil rights movement, primarily by bringing Gandhi’s ideas of non-violent civil disobedience back from India.  Bayard Rustin was raised as a Quaker, and so pacifism was taught to him as a fundamental belief.  He spent time in prison for being a conscientious objector during World War II.  He was openly gay at a time when this was hardly the norm.  He was arrested in Pasadena in 1953 for “lewd conduct” in what he later claimed was a set-up to tarnish his growing reputation as an activist.  His greatest achievement was organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, even though he was relegated to Deputy Director due to fears that his homosexuality would discredit the movement.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayard_Rustin)

While my power was off during the ice storm the other day, I picked up the collected writings of Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses, to see what he might say about the situation I’ve found myself in.  Maybe he could remind me why I got involved in trying to change the world.  I started out reading through the series of interviews with him in the back of the book.

Time On Two Crosses

In 1987, the last year of his life, he gave an interview with Open Hands, an HIV services organization, entitled “Black and Gay in the Civil Rights Movement.”  The interviewer asked him various questions about how his homosexuality had affected his treatment in certain circles, and what he thought the future could hold for the gay rights movement.  Specifically he was asked, “Are you hopeful for the human race?  Do you think prejudice will be overcome?  Do you think it’s improved in your lifetime?”  He gave an interesting reply about the lesson he had learned from “the Jewish prophets”.  He said, “If one really follows the commandments of these prophets, the question of hopeful or non-hopeful may become secondary or unimportant.  Because these prophets taught that God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue.  What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.  And, therefore, I do not expect that we can do anything more than reduce prejudice to an irreducible minimum.” (page 289)

I found this advice from him heartening in a number of ways.  First off, his viewpoint seems much more realistic and achievable than the utopia of permanent world peace.  As we discussed in class, conflict is not always a bad thing, as long as the sides involved are both given their say and are able to move towards an agreeable solution for both parties.

Also, my Buddhist sensibilities are tickled with the idea of moving beyond hope (and its counterpart fear) as a motivator.  With the little I have absorbed from Buddhist thought, I’ve been struck by the idea that clinging to any given state is not the ideal way to have “skillful means”.  In other words, acting blissed out all the time is not really any better than running around pissed off at everyone.  Neither one is that realistic.  Experiencing your emotions, acknowledging them internally, and then acting with reserve and respect for others is the method that I have tried to cultivate personally.  Sometimes that means voicing your anger or disagreement as it arises.  Being Buddhist doesn’t mean being a doormat.

His idea of the “irreducible minimum” of prejudice being left in society makes sense to me as well, when you look at history and observe how many times intolerance has cropped up again and again.  I think that it’s true that even within each of us, there is always going to be a tendency to see things from a certain filter, and we have to actively work to overcome that in ourselves.  So why should it be any different in a social setting?

The Shadows Greatest Hits

This also gives us room to work, because as we acknowledge the darker places in ourselves, it makes it easier for us to tolerate its presence in others.  One thing that bothers me about the outcry against the teabaggers, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the like, is that the left is so ready to ridicule them, then get on a moral high horse about it.  I agree that most of the things they do are terrifically misguided, but I have come to believe the best way to defeat them is to accept them as misguided, and try to love them anyway.

Remember the scene in the movie Mississippi Burning, before one of the CORE workers Mickey Schwerner is killed, when he faces the angry man in front of him and says, “I understand how you feel”?  (The statement was later confirmed by the killer as accurate. http://bit.ly/5aqzq4)  This moment is so compelling because it helps us to realize that that kind of commitment and self-discipline transcends death.  The kind of radically accepting attitude which he was able to demonstrate at that moment haunted his killers for the longest time, as they at least internally had to admit that they were incapable of that.  Maybe we’re not required to live at such an extreme level all of the time, but it seems that making an effort towards that mindset could help one find some level of inner peace, which is where it all starts anyway.

So I don’t feel like I have any answers that haven’t already been brought up before, by other much more skilled and accomplished thinkers, but as I head back into another semester, I thought it would be good for me to organize my thoughts about these things in a blog post.  I don’t pretend to possess the self-discipline of Mickey Schwerner or the Dalai Lama, but Bayard Rustin has helped me to remember that “it’s all about the struggle, baby.”  Also I wanted to let people know that I haven’t forgotten about the movement just to chase dudes on Twitter!  Maybe that roller coaster has just gotten me in shape for pursuing truth and justice again.  :)

 

 
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