Thursday, July 8, 2010

Eyes to See

The other day I was sitting at the computer, inanely shuffling from one e-mail address to another, to an article absently read. In the midst of this I was gladly distracted by the presence of Isaac, the one-year-old I take care of, beside my chair. He was absorbed; picking up his toys, one at a time, from a basket in the corner next to me and carrying them across the room where he placed them in a new nest beneath a chair. Intrigued by his attentiveness to this task, I decided he was more worth watching than whatever was hovering behind the electronic screen I’d been dazed by.

I started thinking about watching and being watched. I had the sense that Isaac was aware of this new dynamic and found some satisfaction in it. This is something I have thought about before. This feeling that an act attains wholeness through observation. It is validated by being viewed. I began to recall times that I’ve felt this craving to be noted acutely.

When I was in college it felt like my mind was incessantly whirring with ideas. I was forever forming little theories, enacting conversations, examining feelings and ideas, histories and futures and sometimes simply wondering and being suffused almost to suffocation with the ineffability of being. I remember a particular moment of a particular day, sitting in the hall of a classroom building, waiting between classes, wondering with an anxiety that gnawed into me, if the unrecorded thoughts roaming my mind mattered at all. If these wonderings were never written, were they of any significance at all? Was this all a waste? I often felt wasted in those days.

When I lived in Kentucky, I wandered often and alone. There were many wild hills with looming trees that tangled their long arms together or reached right into the sky and large rocks that rose up from beds of fallen leaves that had been layering for years and years. In the early days even a trip over the small paved hill that separated our volunteer house from the mailbox at the entrance of the valley had an aspect of grandiosity to it. I remember one day moving my bare feet contentedly from the warm pavement to the cool grass, admiring the loveliness that enveloped me, I began to wonder if I was lovely and wished for a witness. At the time my heart was hungry for love and inclined toward Spirit, so I prayed; “do you see me? do you love me? do you think I’m beautiful?” What I saw in nature, what I felt in my body, what I heard in the whispering breeze, was a yes and a yes and a yes. That was enough for me then.

Why does being seen matter? A couple of months ago Chris Hedges spoke at the Catholic Worker Resistance Retreat. He referred to our culture of celebrity saying, “We try to see ourselves as a camera would see us…” This is in part because we have so internalized the message from film, and television and advertising that those most worthy of our attention and admiration are those whose beautiful image has been captured. We continue more and more to experience by viewing rather than by being and feel like what we do doesn’t matter if it is not being watched or recorded. Hedges follow this line to illustrate how human beings become commodities, how we move from production to consumption. This, he says, is “the ethic of unfettered capitalism.” This is the ghostly apparition of the innate need for acknowledgement.

The need (or desire? I lack the proper research to assert that it is an actual need, though I suspect that it may be an integral part of being human) to be known has existed long before twitter and YouTube and public access television let us all make celebrities of ourselves. It’s entwined in child development, spirituality and interpersonal relationships of any age. I wonder where this comes from and what it means. Where do the boundaries between truth and falsity, healthy and unhealthy fall?

I like to think that who I am is who I am, regardless of who happens to know or notice. At the same time, I know the truth is that I want to be known and noticed, even when I’m withdrawing, even when I’m resistant. I know that, as far as I am concerned, something gains significance only when it enters my realm of observation. When I can see, touch, taste, smell or hear a thing; then it matters to me. I do not and really cannot (can I?) care about an issue unless I’ve seen it, or heard or read about, or in some way experienced it. So, can I be of significance if I am not experienced by another? Does what I do or what I think matter if it is not made manifest in a realm of observation outside my own? And beyond me, what about you? What about a child in danger of being bombed by a drone missile in Afghanistan, an unpublished author in Alabama, a migrant in the desert, a contemplative in a monastery, a tree in a forest. Oh dear, I just made myself think of one of the old, universal questions, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” I finally understand the weight of that common inquiry. My goodness, there really is nothing new under the sun. Yet, somehow every living thing is ever being made new. Paradox abounds. Can you see it?

Monday, July 5, 2010

America, Be Beautiful

“Perhaps we chose to come to this country, or it was our parents or grandparents, or even further back that family came here with hopes and dreams and determination. For others among us, being here is directly related to forbearers being brought here as slaves. For many of us there are a variety of situations and circumstances that have led us to where we are today. The best way we can acknowledge the freedoms that we enjoy is to work to assure that they will not be eroded for the generations that follow us. We also must be vigilant that these freedoms do not encroach upon the freedom of others. Without justice there is no freedom. Even as we give thanks for what we have, we realize we are part of a larger world where in many places there are people longing for the same freedoms that are ours. May we pray and work for the freedoms that recognize the dignity of all our sisters and brothers.” -Father Grassi, St. Gertrude’s Church (emphasis added)

I felt so grateful for Father Grassi’s words this Sunday, the 4th of July. It has been interesting experiencing the approach of this holiday surrounded by this beloved assortment of activists and anarchists who view it with such antipathy. Interesting, and at times frustrating. Ambivalence, I can understand. How can one take an honest look at all the blood that has been shed, and all the injustices committed in the name of the Nation, for the sake of “Freedom” and not feel the need for repentance and critique as well as thanksgiving and celebration? Yet, we are a people of great privilege. That word too though is one that, amongst those of us who desire to remove from ourselves the mantel of power, can be seen only in a negative light. We are people of privileges that ought to be acknowledged and celebrated because they are privileges that we would desire for all people. If we ignore these unmerited gifts, there is the risk that we may begin to think that we’ve earned them, that we deserve them and that those who don’t have them must not have earned them, must not deserve them. There is the risk that if we ignore them, we will obliviously swallow them in excess. Neither enjoying them nor sharing them, all while others are deprived, waiting, working, struggling.

Mass ended with “America the Beautiful” as our closing hymn. I felt the influence of the afore mentioned ambivalence creeping in as it was announced. “Really?” I thought, “this is what we want to end with?” While singing, I realized I’d never learned any lyrics beyond the first verse. Here is the second, for those who might be in the same boat as I:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Singing the first few lines I thought about how little most of with the legal label of “citizen” can relate to the struggle indicated here. How many of us bear the blisters and burns and calluses of “pilgrim feet?” How many are familiar with the wilderness? My mind immediately recalled images of the desert, that sun-scorched scape that blurs the boundaries between the United States and Mexico. I thought about the pilgrims I met there. I thought about the “stern impassioned stress” that drove them from their homes and families; that burdened them along their treacherous trek; and that enveloped them as they were branded “illegal,” put in cages, processed through courtrooms, shipped away to unfamiliar cities full of unfamiliar people and promptly forgotten by those who can cross borders with barely the flick of a passport because of where they were born.

I feel fortunate to amongst those born here. But that fortune weighs heavy. My mom has often said, “From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” I’ve long felt the truth of this as an individual. I feel it now also as a resident of the United States.
“America! America (incidentally, when we use this word, do we forget that we are only North America? There are South and Central nations that share our name!)! God mend thine every flaw; confirm the soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dorothy: A very short reflection

On facebook an option came up on the sidebar to "like" Dorothy Day, so I did. So silly, really, but I am glad for every reminder of her. Not because she was perfect, or because I want to be her (though, sometimes I think I do), but because I love the way that she loved. Her life reminds me of what is possible. I consider her witness and am uplifted and challenged to live beyond the enclosure of my Self, to open my arms to Christ, creation, community. Amen. Let it be so!