An Unimaginable Ejection

Right around 3:00 a.m. on November 9th, I saw that the unthinkable had happened. Donald J. Trump attained 278 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton conceded the election.

Stunned, overwhelmed, absolutely crushed, I wanted to scream:

How could we have done this? How could we have just elected a man who had spent months promoting racist, sexist, xenophobic notions, almost all built upon lies?

Where am I?  I couldn’t help but wonder.
Surely this couldn’t be the United States I know and love,                                                            not the country so widely revered for its devotion to freedom for all.

Of course, there had been warning signs. I saw them. In his rallies, when Trump mocked a disabled reporter, people laughed; when he encouraged people to rough up protesters, they did; when he called for a return to law and order, they cheered; and when he even admitted to groping women and rarely – if ever – paying taxes, they shrugged. Clearly, the man appealed to people.

Yes, I saw all that, but this too I knew.

We had come so far as a community. Rather than teasing the disabled among us and taunting foreigners, we increased accessibility to both groups, and benefitted greatly from their labor and talents. Instead of bullying each other into submission, we peacefully protest wars and unjust treatment, and celebrate LGBTQ weddings. Realizing that the ruthless crime bills of the past were decimating neighborhood and lives, especially those of color, our community leaders have begun to repeal “stop and frisk” and “three strikes you’re out” policies. And as for greater respect for women – well, his opponent was our greatest symbol of just how far we thought we’d come.

Yes, I knew that debates raged about costs, true patriotism, traditional values, and the safety of our streets. And yet, I honestly believed that once people entered the voting box, and the excitement of being in such raucous crowds had settled, that our respect for human dignity and personal freedom would prevail. But as I stared at the numbers on my cell, I knew that I was wrong. Feeling absolutely defeated, I stumbled back to bed only to toss and turn the night away as one image dominated my thoughts:

Everything I held to be good and true had been completely uprooted.

Grief wrapped itself around me as I mourned the apparent destruction of my deepest values. How I ached for those who would be most affected by the changes of policy that may accompany those taunts and jeers of Trump. Even with my husband next to me, I felt so insecure, so alone, ….. so isolated. It seemed as if I had been kicked out of a beautiful garden and into a cold harsh world I do not know. How I pitied myself, and those I loved, realizing then that I wasn’t the only one so awash with grief, the only one jerked into a new reality. Many of us that night were ejected into unpredictable, unknowable, uncertain territory. Again, I wanted to scream:

How could this have happened? How could you do this to us??

But who were the “you”? Our analysts tell us that it was the white working class – non-college educated men and women – who most supported him. They were the ones who marched into our polling places eager to elect someone who promised to make their America great again. None of the rest of us saw or understood their passion, their determination to uproot the system.

We didn’t see it coming – not at all. But this I’ll admit, I should have.

In having been raised within a working class family by parents who never went to college, I once lived in a home where money was earned through hours clocked, not a salary contracted, a social class which valued strength and common sense, not book-smarts and good manners, a life where everything could be threatened by a lay-off, an accident, or a politician’s refusal to respect laborers. Yes, I remember that experience well. One Saturday morning stands out. For over two hours I sat crying at the kitchen table after having broken both arms. The day before my dad had been laid off, so, without health insurance, they needed the cheapest hospital, a search that took time. That delay cost them. My arms swelled so badly that I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for three long and expensive days.

In fact, as I was growing up, my parents’ very lives were threatened more than once by low pay, unexpected lay-offs, and heavy tax burdens. Fortunately, given the arc of their lives, when they retired in the early 1990’s, they possessed ample savings, and their combined benefits covered most of their needs. In contrast, a generation or two later, those who would be their peers do not have such resources. Well-paying jobs have been made obsolete by technology; manufacturing plants moved; robots eliminated much of the need for skilled labor. Once respectable service jobs are now viewed with disdain and rarely provide living wages. Routine, even sacred, benefits are inadequate or even nonexistent. In short, women and men who do not attend college – of any ethnicity – no longer have the ability to create and sustain stable and secure lives the way my parents’ generation eventually did.

I must ask myself – if I had never won the scholarship that allowed me to attain a college education – what would I be doing now if that were still my reality? At the very least, shouting, even screaming for attention, for justice. I may even have voted for Trump, the one who says he’ll bring back jobs, hold companies liable, make such a life great again.

That last thought humbles me.

It forces me to realize this: long before this election, other people were ejected from their beloved gardens of security and safety and into a cruel world they did not know, a world which – by all indications – no longer valued their labor, their service, their very lives. That world, however, was actually already populated by many of today’s targets of Trump’s cruel jests, people who had never been able to reap the riches and rewards of our society. Rather than accepting each other as victims of injustice, though, the inhabitants – both new and old – believed those who told each group: “There is your enemy! He is to blame for your suffering!” And so fear, hate and despair flourished. And we are where we are.

In having been ejected from my own small, safe world and into this one:                            what am I going to do?

Am I going to blame others for creating this mess? Reject Mr. Trump as “my” president? Allow self-pity and fear to conquer me as I struggle to stand in this new place?

No, I’m not. It’s time for me to release my place of privilege, to enter more fully into the experience of others, to seek to see and possibly understand the suffering of all people, not just my chosen few. It’s time to plant seeds of beauty, hope and trust out in the open, not just in my own small zone of comfort. It’s time for me to believe that somehow – all shall be well,” a task dependent upon accepting this truth:

we are “many members, yet one body,” and so,                                                                                “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” *                                                             regardless of who that person may be.

It’s time for us to work together to unite the many states of mind among us.  Only then  may the collective insight, wisdom and compassion we so desperately need arise. Only then do I believe we can overcome what we’ve done.

*lines from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12.

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The Rock of My Bitterness

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead the senior ministry team of The Riverside Church on a tour of Central Park’s north end. Having met at the Harlem Meer, we ventured over to the Conservatory Garden, before meandering along the paths that connect the forts, and then down past Lasker RinkIMG_1398 and Pool. When we reached the parking lot behind the complex, a few participants thought we would head up the drive to our left so that we could walk the main road to which it led. As soon as they looked to the right, however, they knew that was not the plan at all for before them was the most magnificent arch in the park: Huddlestone. Like the other 35 arches and bridges, this one was designed to provide an appropriate transition for what lie ahead, in this case, The North Woods, one of the most natural areas within the park. Needing to communicate something of the rustic beauty that lies ahead, Huddlestone Arch consists of boulders, each sitting one on another, with no mortar cementing them into place.

The rocks’ mottled coloring, the plants growing through the cracks, the uneven but beautiful lines drew us near, teasing us with a glimpse of what was to come.

We paused for a moment in collective awe, and then, knowing only gravity _MG_4590and pressure prevented the boulders from tumbling down, we entered, only to stop again. There, embedded in the wall was a rock that some estimates place at 100 tons in weight. Immediately we wondered aloud what came first: the rock’s original location which invited such an arch to be built or the arch’s design, one the planner knew would be enhanced if that rock were moved right there? Regardless, it was now quite apparent that the rock was an integral part of the arch – and of its experience as well. Truly, no one could pass by without pausing to wonder about its mass. Of course, that day, we soon moved on, continuing our tour into the North Woods. Recently, though I’ve had reason to return to that experience, to see what it may teach me as I process my most recent life decision.

Little did I know what that rock would offer me.

A little more than two and a half years ago, I joined a group with the intention of making a life-long commitment. How eager I was to become a member, to participate in their life-giving activities, to be part of a vibrant community striving so earnestly to transform our world. Through it I hoped to gain both identity and purpose, while contributing mightily to its work. I embraced my new community and role with gratitude and joy. Over time, though, as I entered more deeply into the experience, I needed to move further into its structure, into the back rooms, per se, where the work gets done. Usually when we enter such rooms, as everyone must when s/he joins a new community, we find that although imperfection exists, we can accept the methods, the goals, the culture that drive it. Sometimes, we cannot. Sometimes the deeper we enter into the backrooms, the more and more uncomfortable we become. Sometimes that discomfort reaches the point where we must admit that we just don’t belong. That is what happened to me. I could not remain, and so, I resigned.

In doing so, I am, of course, stuck with the consequences, the primary one being the question: What now?

As I ponder that question, I sort of feel as if I’m standing in the parking lot behind the Lasker complex. To my right is that magnificent arch; to my left is that driveway that can take me to the main road of the park, the road on which service vehicles, cyclists, runners and walkers all traverse. In some ways I feel as if I am being presented with a challenge that lies in scripture:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Of course, I would never say that those who are traveling the main road through the park are headed to destruction. But, in my own life, I see that, if the drive represents the wide road with the arch being the narrowIMG_1400 gate, in opting for the wide road, I would destroy my own dreams. I must choose the arch. And really, there is some joy in being presented with such a choice. Haven’t we all heard it said that the road less travelled is the better one? Or what about that old cliché in which its promised that God opens a window whenever a door is closed – mixed metaphors aside? And, so I enter the arch, confident that a new path will emerge. But then, inside, awaits that rock – huge, ponderous, not only immoveable but absolutely necessary to the arch’s support. Seeing it again, I realize this:

I am standing under that arch, ready to begin a new journey, only because I could not find my place within that other community.

To be honest, such awareness overwhelms me. I must admit, for months I struggled through a myriad of emotions – confusion, anger, guilt, resentment, grief, frustration. Because I’ve done my best to appear to be a loving and forgiving person through it all, I’ve either hidden or even denied that I was experiencing them. I also wanted to leave the group, acting as if I could easily
walk away, unaffected by all that had occurred. Yes, of course, grief was appropriate to claim. As for all the other emotions, well, as I said, I’m a “loving” person….. But this, too, I must admit: if I don’t claim and work through all those emotions, I run the risk of allowing them to become so entangled that bitterness arises, a bitterness that may have the power to prevent me from taking a single step on my new path. In seeing that rock, however, I see that the entire experience I had with that group, good and bad, is now not only what pushed me out of the community: it is what’s holding up the gateway to the next phase of my life’s journey.

Suddenly, everything changes.

First, humility enters into my heart. What right do I have to be angry at “them” for not fulfilling my hopes and expectations? Of what use would it be to nurse the wounds I felt inflicted upon me? Such self-absorption not only denies what the rock teaches me, it would prevent me from passing through the arch, the narrow way into new life. Gratitude emerges, gratitude for all I experienced, all I learned, and all that brought me to this place. I see that rock, now, as the symbol of all the emotions I have felt during my entire experience, including the earliest ones of joy, abundance and deep admiration. Rather than it becoming the rock which I, consumed by bitterness, would have longed to throw, it has become the foundation upon which I build my future. Peace enters my heart. Not only can I walk away from the experience without bitterness; I can do so knowing and cherishing the vital role it has played in taking me to this new place. And so, in bowing to this rock and that community for all they have offered me, I move on, eager to leave the darkness, eager to step into new life.

Love becomes possible.

Of course, I cannot know what actually lies ahead of me now. But this I do know. The path that runs through the North Woods does lead us by peaceful waters, along which we may pause to rest, before coming to another arch, 20140806_193612Glenspan, and, oh, what a vision it offers!

Yes, hope springs eternal,
All, indeed, shall be well!

And, knowing that everything does belong, I may now offer to all I meet

love untainted by bitterness.
That is my dream.

The Nothingness of Being One in 8.4 Million….

_MG_4344To celebrate our one year anniversary of living in New York City last weekend, my husband and I went to see Jim Parsons in “An Act of God.” As we walked through Times Square on the way to Studio 54, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized once again by the thousands of people congregated underneath towering flashing enormous ads. So thick was the crowd that when they moved, I felt as if I had no power but to go in whatever direction they were headed. I could see, too, that within such a crowd, on a specific block of a specific street in one city, I am only one amidst thousands, so indistinguishable to be practically invisible, one tiny speck of creation. Questions filled my mind as they had a year earlier:

Within such an astounding population, who am I really?
Of what relevance or even significance is my own brief existence,    my own short story of life?

Those questions actually haunted me those first weeks in the city. With only our doormen calling me by name, I couldn’t escape the anonymity of my situation, especially since life in Manhattan is very different from that in Louisville, KY. There, not only could I expect to see several people I knew at my local grocery store, regardless of the timing of my errand, I could also strike up conversations with the clerks behind the counters. Here, I quickly learned that one rarely sees the same people and those who work, work. To fill my considerable free time, I went often to Central Park, mostly to explore on my own, sometimes to take a tour offered by the Central Park Conservancy. One day in particular stands out.

In having ventured into the North Woods, I found the perfect perch atop a 450-million-year-old boulder of manhattan mica schist. As I listened to the afternoon song of a nearby bird, I became aware that other than the faint whispering of distant traffic, no other indicators of the city itself were present. In fact, I was alone, completely alone in that borough of 1.626 million people. Basking in that moment of perfect solitude, I reflected upon some of the facts I had recently learned on a tour of the park.

IMG_3287Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmstead in 1858, it consists of 843 acres, running from 59th St. to 110 St, and between 5th Avenue and Central Park West. Its initial construction may have taken only 15 years or so, but its upkeep has been continuous and reflective of the city’s economic trends. When the city thrived, so did the park; when it struggled, the park’s neglect could be striking, the worst occurring in the 60’s and 70’s, an era of such disrepair that it inspired concerned citizens to create the Central Park Conservancy, the organization that currently runs the park through a partnership with the city and its people. Possibly, though, the most interesting detail I learned was this: other than the rocks in the park, nothing else is natural to the original state of that piece of land. Everything, absolutely everything, was intentionally designed, structured, built, and planted to fulfill the designers’ vision. Even the water in all the Park’s lakes, ponds and streams comes from an artificial source, the city’s water system. Taps and drains are used to maintain water levels and the health of their surrounding eco-systems.

20140806_193732In recalling that fact regarding the park’s artificiality, I pondered the many, many people who have been responsible for my ability to experience a moment of solitude in such natural beauty. Yes, Vaux and Olmstead planned it. Yes, specific people designed particular elements within it, Jacob Wrey Mould many of the park’s arches and bridges, and Emma Stebbins the Bethesda Terrace fountain, “Angel of the Waters,” to name only two. And, of course, many wealthy donors have supported the Park throughout its history, their many names commemorated on the Park’s plaques, benches and paving stones.

On that day, however, my attention focused on the thousands of people, who through their sweat and labor, brought the dreams and visions of others to life. These were the men who drained the swamps that once pervaded much of the area and then lay miles of pipes to maintain the new landscape. They, too, bore through yards of rock to create the tunnels through which the city’s streets could cross the Park without breaking it into distinct segments. Others crushed tons of that rock to pave the many paths and roads that ramble through the Park, while still more carved out steps, poured concrete and planted thousands of flowers, plants and trees according to the plans. In reflecting upon the contributions of so many unnamed folk, most of whom were paid less than $1 for a ten-hour day, I couldn’t help but be grateful. Now nameless, indistinguishable from each other in the texts of history, it was these people who were the foundation of what is today Central Park. Without them, I would not have been on that rock on that beautiful day, experiencing such a moment of ideal solitude within a city of millions. Without them, those people whose names we celebrate would never have seen their own visions fulfilled. Without them, the legacy that is Central Park would not exist.

In pondering those facts, I returned to the questions that haunted me:

Within such an astounding population, who am I really?
Of what relevance or even significance is my own brief existence,                  my own short story of life?

All my life, it has seemed, I have been told that I could become whoever I wanted, that I could fulfill the greatest of dreams, if only I put forth effort, if only I believe. And, so, for a long time, a part of me longed to become that someone special, one whose memorable mark on this world would be known for years to come. I wonder, though, if such a quest actually misses the point entirely. Yes, a few people do develop radically new ideas that enhance life for all of us; yes, some bring forth such unique talent and beauty that we are enchanted and enriched for generations. However, it is only through the collective efforts of all that any one person may fulfill a dream, may bring to fruition a stunning idea. And with that thought in mind, I could not help but wonder,

What has been my own role within our collective community  through which dreams and ideas not only come to life but also bring forth a shared legacy?

Humbly, I must admit, it hasn’t always been a gracious one. So focused on attaining my own identity, my own dreams and goals at times, I have overlooked not only the gifts of the community, but also its needs, forgetting that, even if I happen to stumble upon that one idea that will be my hallmark, whatever I achieve will be entirely dependent on the support and efforts of so many others. Sadness filled me as I realized that in being so focused on the need to promote and defend my own efforts, I may have trampled those of another person, not only one who may help me, but also another whose own gifts and ideas may surpass my own. A certain peace arose as well as I realized something else.

Really, for my life to have significance,
I need not worry about establishing an individual identity that will be known for generations.

I need accept my life only for what it is – one in a thousand or so in Times Square, one in seven billion in the world – and to accept the responsibility of fulfilling my unique role within it. In doing so, I commit myself to the legacy we create together, each of us having distinct roles, some through which a few names will be remembered, the vast majority of them not. Whether or not I am one of the named is irrelevant.

What matters is the relevance and the significance of our shared legacy, one, I hope, that will ensure our planet’s health, enhance all life, and weave together in peace all our myriad communities.