Saturday, August 29, 2015

Small Things and Simple Pleasures

This past week my work was extremely stressful. I felt, as I often do these days, that my responsibilities far outstrip by capacities to meet them. I feel beholden to my colleagues, my students, my friends and family members. I worry. I pray, I meditate, I remind myself of all my blessings, and then I worry some more. Sleep can elude me and I come to the end of the day and the week physically and emotionally spent.

While the nature of my work does not really end when the weekend begins, there is something about Friday that allows me to let down. However this week seemed extra special. When I came home last night my wife had cooked a simple meal: hot dogs, fresh corn, and beans and tomatoes from a friend’s garden. Not elegant, simple – yet so refreshing and delightful.

Then on Saturday morning as I often do, I got on my bike for a long ride along the Schuylkill River Trail and then off into the hills north and west of the river. In the beginning the air was clear and fresh, and lots of people were out walking, running, rollerblading and biking. The sun was bright but not harsh, and when I happened to ride through a shaded area, it was cool and invigorating. As often happens when I take my morning rides, I felt  sluggish at first and somewhat out-of-sorts, but after a few miles the endorphins kicked in and I felt alive and at times almost euphoric. At about mile 16 I was going up a long hill and though my legs had to work there was a rush at just being alive. At mile 28 I bent low and pumped my legs on a long straight stretch, and was aware of how fortunate I was to be strong and healthy enough to feel the rush that comes in such moments.When I finished after 32 miles, I felt tired but complete.

Part of the stress of my week is normal work stuff, some is related to changes taking place in my job leading to feelings of uncertainty, and a lot of it comes from considering the state of the world: the violence, the cold-hearted hatred of some leaders, the desperation of migrants seeking refuge and rescue, the poor state of our educational systems especially for the poor, and wars all over the globe. I wonder, as did many a psalmist where God is in all of this, is there any reason for hope, is there any point in trying to change things, and no clear answer comes. So I need these moments of simple pleasure not to escape these other things, but to balance them out.

As I rode my bike I was reminded of some advice the poet Ranier Marie Rilke gave to a young protégé in his classic work,  Letters to a Young Poet, where he describes what Buddhist writers call “mindfulness”, that attention to the wonder of ordinary things and taken-for-granted pleasures. He wrote:
Here in this vast landscape, swept by the winds and sea, I wonder if there is any person anywhere who can answer the questions that stir in the depths of your being. For even the best miss the mark when they use words for what is elusive and nearly unsayable. But nonetheless, I believe you are not left without a solution, if you turn to things like those that are refreshing my eyes. If you ally yourself with nature, with her sheer existence, with the small things that others overlook and that so suddenly can become huge and immeasurable; if you have this love for what is plain and try very simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent, and somehow more reconciling, perhaps not in your conscious mind, but in your innermost awareness.

Small things and simple pleasures are always available, if I simply take time to note them and then take them in.

[Photos taken by the author]

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Peanut Butter and Family Culture

I grew up in a family of eight children: five boys and three girls born over the span of fifteen years. I am the oldest. Today my siblings and I are literally spread from the east coast to the west coast with seven spouses or partners, and fourteen grandchildren added to the mix. My mother died in 2005, but my Dad celebrated his 88th birthday this past January. Were my mom still alive, this weekend they would be celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary.

Like most families we had our share of dysfunctions, but overall my parents created a happy and healthy environment in which to grow up. My dad was the traditional breadwinner and my mom a stay-at-home mom, although over the years she had many outside involvements, such as teaching swimming lessons, heading up a local candidate’s political campaign, running a clothing business,  and countless volunteer activities. Like many families, we had our unique rituals and idiosyncrasies. For the Boyd family one such idiosyncrasy had to do with food.

Last week one of my brothers texted  the rest of us with a picture of a unique Boyd specialty he was making: a peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich (on left). This precipitated a series of texts from all eight of us on our current feelings (some positive and others negative) toward this Boyd creation. The conversation then migrated to other sandwiches our mother often “treated” us to such as cream cheese and jelly sandwiches and something that entered the family lore after I left for college called the “Webster special”: an English muffin, layered with peanut butter, tomato, bacon and cheese grilled just enough to melt the cheese (see below). Like the sandwich which started the conversation, this led to comments for and against said creations and various adaptations that have evolved from our childhood. While we did not agree on our current attraction to these various delicacies, one thing was clear: our children, the next generation, generally had not gravitated to these Boyd specialties.

While on one level this conversation-by-text was a funny walk down memory lane, it reminded me of the way in which families shape us and make us who we are today. While my mother was not a great cook, she was a creative one, and there are many dishes or variations of foods that I have encountered few other places. Likewise there were words we used for certain acts, sayings, and family rituals. One such saying/ritual I remember was “FHB,” which stood for “Family Hold Back.” Whenever someone unexpectedly showed up at dinner time (which seemed to happen with certain individuals a great deal), my mother would say “FHB,” thereby indicating we needed to make room for our guest and take a little less food so there would be enough. While by no means did we suffer for this “sacrifice,” it taught me the value of generosity and hospitality. Another Boyd standby in my youth was something called “Family Night,” a sort of family talent show about once a month in which every child no matter how young or old was asked to perform for the group in some way by playing an instrument, reciting a poem, singing a song, describing a picture or performing a little play. As a result all of us developed an ease in front of groups which has served us well in our various vocations.

Today, my siblings and I, as well as many of our adult children, exhibit a wide range of political views, career paths, religious or nonreligious commitments and personal hobbies. When we get together there can be rousing debates and differences of perspective, yet at the same time there is a deep bond that connects us. When we gather, as many of us did in Oregon this past July, we find that time and distance has not broken the bond or the familiarity with certain ways of being that were bequeathed to us by our parents. My wife has commented on numerous occasions that there is a certain way of doing and saying things that seems to come over me when I get together with my family; I can’t deny the truth of what she is saying, nor do I regret it.

What I realize that there is a kind of family culture that I carry within me. In some ways I have sought to distance myself from that culture, and in other ways I have embraced it and sought to continue it. One thing is clear I can never escape it. In many ways who I am, what I believe, how I see the world, and the manner in which I live is a product of my family. In that way I don’t think I am unique. Most of us are who we are, for good or ill, because of the influence of the people who raised us, loved us and shaped us as children.

As I reflect on what would have been my parents’ 63rd anniversary, I am thankful for the peanut butter lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich, family night, “FHB”  and so much more that are part of who I am today, and that remind me of the blessings of family and the parents that shaped me.

[Pictures courtesy of Wint Boyd, Tucker Boyd and Hannah Boyd Vargo. The picture of my parents was taken about twenty years ago .]

Thursday, August 06, 2015

One Year Later

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
(Langston Hughes)

On August 9 the nation will remember the one year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darrin Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. When the event occurred I was vacationing with my wife in Maine, and the shooting did not make the evening news. Yet within a day, the nation and the world began to learn of a stirring taking place in Ferguson in a way that shook Black people to their painful soulful core, and led to an eruption that has continued to smolder. There were peaceful marches, overshadowed (in the media) by angry looting, and police dressed in combat gear reinforced by the National Guard. From the politicians and police there was a call for order and but from the communities of color around the country there was a call for justice. Officer Wilson was not charged, but that cry was not silenced and the call for justice continued to grow. 

Pretty soon, we were hearing other names like Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Eric Garner (NYC), Brandon Tate Brown (Philadelphia) and Freddie Gray (Baltimore). And there was Charleston and the Black churches burned in its aftermath. Just this past month Sandra Bland (Texas) and Samuel Debose (Cincinnati) were added to that list. There were a few retaliatory reactions such as the murder of NYC police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, and tensions between members of the Black communities and police departments in communities across the nation grew tense to the brink of breaking. And the movement that has come to be called “Black Lives Matter” emerged and continues to grow.

For many White folks this eruption of anger and frustration came as a surprise. We  Whites hadn’t been paying attention. We had seen glimpses like the riots after Rodney King’s beating and the marches after the death of Trayvon Martin, but then things slipped out of our view and we got lulled back to sleep. We thought that Michael Brown’s shooting was somehow unique, out of the ordinary, and a deviation from a racially peaceful norm, even though it was all too normal for Black and Latino men in this country. We didn’t understand the reactions of anger, frustration, despair and even hate, but that was  normal too in communities of color. Back in the ’90’s Cornel West had written of nihilism in many poor communities of color. In the 1980’s Peggy McIntosh had written about the “invisible knapsack” of White male privilege. If given a chance to tell their story, almost every person of color I have known personally has shared a story of being stopped, frisked, and harassed just for “driving while Black.” No this wasn’t new. What was new was that the anger got coordinated and organized, and reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “tipping point.”

I wrote recently of my sense that we are in a Kairos moment, a coming together of folks and forces that portend a shift in the tectonic plates of history. When these kinds of seismic shifts take place, it is unpredictable, frightening and chaotic. As I look back over the year since Michael Brown’s tragic death, I don’t recall a year of such social dynamism, since I was young person watching the Civil Rights and anti-war movement unfold in the 1960’s. People look back to the '60's with a nostalgic longing for the passion and the fervor, but we have forgotten how divisive, strident and unsettling life was then too. Just like now, folks in the '60’s didn’t know where would end up but they knew things needed to change; so too now.

One year from the events in Ferguson, we are no closer to really engaging the issue of institutional racism in our criminal justice system and our society in general. A lot of important leaders from the President on down have said some significant things, but the patterns of violence, degradation and exclusion have not changed. Far too many Whites deny they have any role or responsibility for addressing the deep cancer of racism built into our culture and societal structures. Others think it either useless or hopeless.  However, the Pew Research Center recently reported that there has been a significant spike in the last five years of Americans (43% to 59%) who think there is a significant problem with racism in this country. While among Whites that percentage is only 44%, it is much higher (17%) than only five years ago. Perhaps we Whites are slowly starting to wake up that America’s original sin cannot be ignored. Whether we get on board or not, the movement for change has begun.

I close by inviting you to listen to another Langston Hughes poem, “The Kids Who Die,” recited by Danny Glover and set with images from past and present. Written in 1938 in the height of Jim Crow, this poem has a haunting relevance. May we hear and not turn away. May we walk in Mike Brown’s memory, people of all races, ethnicities and creeds with our “hands up” toward that dream that has been deferred far, far too long.