Sunday, October 30, 2016

“Hello in there…”

I took my time getting home yesterday from my visit to see my Dad. After most of these trips back to my childhood home, I need time to think about what has just transpired. A million thoughts and feelings dance in my head as I amble through rolling pasture lands with their cattle, horses and rolls of hay waiting to be hauled away, chopped up and baled. This day, as I head back to my home in the heart of a city, I am overwhelmed with a flood of conflicting feelings and stray thoughts.

I need time to think. I need time to be alone.

I’d come over to accompany Daddy to his latest chemotherapy appointment on Thursday. The nurse had had difficulty finding his vein to insert the IV. She kept apologizing and Daddy kept telling her not to worry, it’d work out. And, of course, it finally did. The nurse who stepped in to help laughed and said, “You didn’t even know I’d gotten it in there, did you?”

We sat together in the treatment room watching the drip bag funnel poisons into his vein that would kill the lymphoma but not the surrounding tissue. At least that’s what the doctors are telling us.

The woman in the LazyBoy recliner across from Daddy was a teacher. I thought at first  we might have a decent discussion of education until she mentioned that it was her car that had the “Hey America! Fear this! Trump” bumper sticker.

Suddenly working the Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle I’d picked up in the waiting room became urgent.

Around us sat other patients, most of them older, some with little of their hair remaining, their faces gaunt, their expressions thinly masking anxiety if not utter terror. Many of them have come to treatment alone. Is it because their spouses have died and left them to trudge along toward the finish line solo? Did they have children? Are they near enough to accompany them to treatment? Do they even know their mother or father is there?

Soon the timer goes off and the nurse comes scurrying over to disconnect the now empty bag. One of the attempts to find Daddy’s vein has punctured a vein wall and he has discoloration from seepage up his arm. He says he isn’t worried about it. I just wonder how much pain and fear might actually be hidden beneath that constantly upbeat fa├žade.

 Soul Food Relief

My sister and her older boy meet us for lunch at a locals’ favorite, Aunt Fannie’s. This is when I know I still have a good dose of Southern in me. There are few things better at helping a Southerner cope with stress than soul food, instantly bringing back memories of the suppers Henrietta, our black nanny, fixed us each evening when I was growing up. (Yes, I know the meals weren’t in need of repair – it’s a Southernism)

I got the vegetable plate and chose four servings from a long list of options: the turnip greens (with pepper sauce, of course), black eyed peas, French fried eggplant and cucumber salad. Of course, my Southern credentials might well be pulled if anyone knew I ordered unsweetened ice tea. 

Oh, the scandal!

That night I would spend the evening with my Dad, trying to ignore the Fox channel he seems to always be watching, reading my own study materials from Richard Rohr and checking on Facebook from time to time.

Periodically Daddy awakens from his naps or puts down his paper long enough to talk. He says he wants me to help him mark photos to give away to people. He keeps reminding me of where all the important papers are for after his death (I’m the personal representative of the estate, one of the ways I pay back his having put me through law school). And he keeps asking me if there is anything I want from the house.

Truth be told, we are in the process of downsizing ourselves. More stuff is the last thing I want or need.

Contentment with a Life Well Lived

I usually stay until our late breakfast or early lunch the day after his treatments. At the beginning it was primarily to make sure he didn’t get sick from the chemo but more recently it’s just to have time to talk with my Dad. For a man who will be 90 this March, he’s doing pretty well. But I do worry about him. Time for talking is at a premium.

“Do you ever get lonely, Daddy?”

He says not. He says people come to visit him, former students and colleagues. And I know they do. Most of the people under 40 in town learned to drive from my Dad. 

I’ve learned that when people say “Hello, Mr. Coverston,” they're not talking to me. It’s probably someone he’s taught at some point in their lives. I’ve also learned to reassure him it’s OK when he cannot readily remember their names. Given all the names he’s had to remember in nearly 90 years, I’m just glad he remembers his own.

He says he is content to look out the picture window of his home to watch the birds coming to the feeder in his front yard. He occasionally gets out in the yard to look out over the 12 acres of his little domain that my brother and I helped him clear in order to build our home when we were kids.

That was where I learned what the word “thicket” really meant as I grubbed out palmetoes and burned them on piles of lighter knots left over from the days this land was a turpentine plantation named Edenfield. I also learned what rattlesnakes sounded like when surprised (just back away, slowly) and what bobcats, panthers and bears sound like when they howl. It’s where I learned the wide variety of plants that are native to Florida and how I learned the subtleties of the four seasons in a state where people come to avoid winter.  

Most importantly, this was where I learned to love the land itself and to know I belong to it, not vice versa. As an adult I continue to realize the insight I gained from that time in the woods with my father, the master teacher. 

So I can see how he might be content to sit with his thoughts, his many photos of a life fully lived, a life that stretched from the western Pacific in World War II and then back to this little town where he was born to which he returned as an adult to teach school for four decades. 

But I still wonder: Does he really ever get lonely? And would he tell me if he did?

I don’t know. And as I roll along the woodlands and cow pastures of the Snow Bird Road shortcut to US 27 and the Turnpike back home, I wonder if I, too, will have to answer that question one day.

“Old People, They Just Grow Lonesome“

When I was first out of undergraduate and began teaching at the middle school in the next town over from the once small town where my father still lives, I spent part of my first pay check on an album by Bette Midler, The Divine Miss M. One of the songs on that album has stuck with me for years.

Entitled “Hello in there,” it speaks to the diminished dreams and hopes of the aging process. After numerous glasses of cheap wine bought in gallon jugs at the Winn-Dixie (which was all beginning teachers could afford), I would sometimes sing along with Bette and weep. I knew only too well what loneliness felt like, isolated in that hostile little redneck town where I sometimes feared for my life. Indeed, I sometimes wondered if I’d ever survive to be the lonesome elderly person Bette sang about.

As I drove along sifting through the deluge of feelings about the days just completed and the flood of memories being in this place of my childhood had just triggered, Bette’s song came back to me. Here are some of the lyrics:

We had an apartment in the city.
Me and my husband liked living there.
It's been years since the kids have grown,
a life of their own, left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha.
Joe is somewhere on the road.
We lost Davy in the Korean war.
I still don't know what for, don't matter any more.

Someday I'll go and call up Judy.
We worked together at the factory.
Ah, but what would I say when she asks what's new?
Say, "Nothing, what's with you?
Nothing much to do."

You know that old trees just grow stronger,
and old rivers grow wilder every day,
ah, but, but old people, they just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say,
"Hello in There. Hello."

Midler’s lyrics and the melancholy piano accompaniment capture the aching loneliness and despair at depths that words alone cannot. I was overcome with sorrow when I first heard them 40 years ago, huddled in that lonely apartment in that hostile little town, crying out my own loneliness and fear into oversized plastic cups of cheap wine. And it comes back just as quickly today as I listen once again to one of the modern masters of song ply her trade.  

Six weeks is too long a time to go without visiting my Dad. It’s an hour’s drive from Orlando one way but the last half of it is through the back country, much like the proverbial old shoe – scuffed, worn but familiar and comfortable. Though he says he’s not lonely, I think my Dad could use the company and I can always use the wisdom I inevitably encounter in our visits.

Most of all, while I don’t like to think too long about it, I know our visits are increasingly numbered.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


Monday, October 10, 2016

The Wisdom of the Little Ones

For Francis of Assisi, all of Creation bore the image of G-d and merits our love and respect. Indeed, it is that very Franciscan desire to demonstrate our respect for the non-human animal companions with whom we share our lives that brings people together every year for the Blessing of the Animals.

The reading from the Gospel of Matthew appointed for the Feast Day of St. Francis references a common theme in Franciscan thought, the wisdom of the little ones. In a rather odd statement, Jesus thanks G-d for having hidden the knowledge of the true nature of the world from those conventional society sees as wise and well educated. According to Jesus, we academics and public scholars, who sometimes think we know it all, have missed the big picture.

So, who does get it? To whom has G-d revealed the wisdom of the kingdom of G_d that Jesus came to proclaim?

The translation commonly used reads like this: “[Y]ou have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The term “infants” lends itself to two understandings.

The first is the notion that because children are not yet educated, they are rarely seen to be wise. Some scholars translate this term as “untutored,” people who have not been to school and thus have nothing of value to offer others. The second understanding of this use of infants is a reference to a common theme in Jesus’ teachings – the value of the anawim, the little ones that G-d loves. While the little ones included children, the anawim also included ordinary men and women going about their lives, seeking to survive in a brutal Roman Empire with its vassal state in Judea.

Francis of Assisi was very taken by the little ones of his own time. He believed they were dear to G-d’s heart and their wisdom was worth hearing and considering. Franciscans have always focused their attention on the poor, the sick, the homeless, the outcasts, those whom our society says have little wisdom to share with anyone. But Francis also believed that it was the non-human animals all around him all the time who were trying their best to communicate wisdom to him, wisdom that G-d, their Creator had imparted to them, wisdom that we human animals badly needed to hear.

In Memory of Miss Daisy (2006-2016)

Essential Life Lessons

For many of us, non-human animals are a daily part of our households. Why do we share our lives with these furry, feathered and scaly creatures of G-d? Are they simply possessions we own and eventually discard, one more aspect of shallow consumerist lives, or are they more than that? 

Moreover, why are we so fascinated by the animals we observe in their natural habitats, both live and those we encounter on film and online? Why do we seek them out? What wisdom do they offer us? Perhaps more importantly, can we listen patiently long enough to actually hear what they have to tell us?

I’d like to offer a couple of insights that I have gained from a life shared with animal companions. Since I graduated from high school there has rarely been a time when I did not have at least one dog and one cat living in my household. Currently that number stands at four, one dachshund and three cats. Over the years I have learned to pay attention to their barks and their growls, their urgent meows and their purring, to notice the difference in tone from time to time which reveals the different concerns they are trying to communicate to me.

One of the essential lessons they reveal is the importance of interdependence. Contrary to the American myth of the rugged individual, evolutionary scientists today are telling us that our species, homo sapiens, became the fittest and thus survived when other species died out for one single reason: we learned to cooperate with one another. In recognizing our mutual dependency, human animals learned to insure a constant food supply, protect themselves against the elements and ultimately to live together and build civilizations. Our willingness to honor our interdependence made us the species most fit to survive.

Our household animals reveal that truth to us daily. They depend upon us to feed them, bathe them and care for their medical needs. They rely upon us to remember to take them out regularly so they don’t make messes in our houses. They are dependent upon us to live into our part of the deal under which they came to be part of our households.

But they also teach us vital lessons in what it means to be a fellow creature of G-d. Truth is, we have to cut a Devil’s Bargain to bring them into our lives in the first place. We know they will die before we do and that we will have to give them up before we are ready to do so. We know that our time with them is limited to about one fifth of the time we are on average privileged to spend on this earth.

For our animal companions, time is indeed fleeting. The moment is all we have with them.

And so we have to learn how to be present in the moment with them. To love them and laugh with them here and now. We must learn to appreciate their presence and their desire for affection even when we are tired and want to be left alone. We have to learn patience in giving them our undivided attention for the moment they demand it even as they stand in front of our computer screens between us and the document we have been slaving over for the last hour. We have to recognize that it’s precisely that exasperated moment when we least want to be bothered that we probably most need to stop and take a break.  

Practicing love and engaging in laughter. Appreciating the presence of the other. Demonstrating a regular display of affection for those with whom we share our lives. Taking breaks from our driven lives. These are valuable lessons for us, indeed. There is no small amount of wisdom in this.

Our animals are also master teachers of the vital lesson of how to be compassionate. One of the great agonies of being the human companion of household animals is watching them suffer, decline and die. It is a terrible feeling of being helpless, unable to do anything to save them, a reminder of how much we rely on G-d’s presence to simply live our daily lives.

Their struggles evoke our compassion, a word which literally means the willingness to suffer with another living being. In a world in which suffering is a regular part of our daily lives, learning to be compassionate is a valuable lesson, indeed. There is no small amount of wisdom in this.

Our animal companions also provide us a reminder of G-d’s constant presence. The unconditional love they display for us, the willingness to forgive us for our impatience with them, our outbursts of temper over small indiscretions, the devotedness they display for us, wanting to be by our sides. These are reminders of the presence in our lives of a G-d who loves us unconditionally, forgives us without reservation and remains devoted to us even when we wander away and lose sight of that devotion.

What valuable lessons these reminders provide us. What wisdom they embody!

Important Messages from the Web of Life

Even the animals who do not live in our homes are constantly seeking to provide us with the wisdom we need for lives in what scientists are now calling the Anthropocene Age, the era in which the behavior of we human animals will play the deciding role in how our world evolves and changes. Many of us can readily visualize the polar bears in the Arctic struggling to survive on ever shrinking ice caps. But they are, in many ways, the mere tip of the iceberg of a planet in the midst of a major shift. We see that shift in the die-offs of species ranging from the coral reefs that line the coasts of our beloved state to the honey bees that are necessary for the pollination of the food that provides our daily bread.

These animals have an important message for us about our behaviors as one but only one of many species of an interdependent biosphere: The unrestricted consumption of natural resources, the destructive pollution of the environment fouling our own nest, the thoughtless use of potentially harmful chemicals and the introduction of genetically altered species cannot continue unabated. Bear in mind that the species of animals currently dying at the rate of 100 species per million species a year - a rate which is 10,000 times the natural extinction rate - are simply the most vulnerable species at the edges of the web of life. When that web goes away, so will the other species which depend upon it.

That includes a species called homo sapiens.

Ultimately we are all interdependent with the rest of the living beings with whom we share this fragile earth, our island home. The native Americans put it simply: They are our relatives. We are all related. So can we hear the wisdom that our fellow animals, our closest relations, have to impart to us? Can we countenance their suffering and respond appropriately?

Time will tell.    

So I ask you to take a moment. Consider the little ones who have been your teachers. Remember the human and non-human animals whose gifts you have received. Think of the unlikely sources of wisdom from little ones you never knew possessed it. Be grateful for those gifts and take the time to express your gratitude this day whether it’s a word of thanks to the young man who bags your groceries, a pat on the head of that dog whose affection tells you that you are the center of her world, or the stroke of the coat of your cat who reminds you that, in fact, he is the center of your world.

Most of all, say a word of thanks this day to the gracious and generous G-d from whom all these blessings flow and whose very good creation we should celebrate this day and every day.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


Saturday, October 08, 2016

An Overgrown Frat Boy

The most recent revelations of the shallowness of the soul of Donald Trump are hardly surprising. Even as I find them disturbing, they are completely in character with the many other misanthropic comments he has made along the way. His outbursts against immigrants, disabled people, gay people, Mexicans and Muslims have revealed him to be deeply bigoted man with an adolescent lack of impulse control.

 But Trump seems to have a real problem with women. He does not respect them, something that is evident in the way he describes them. That was evident early on when he made a comment that his daughter was hot and if she wasn’t his daughter, he’d go after her. That comment turned my stomach. His long string of failed marriages, some ending even as he was publicly and proudly romancing his next victim, suggests that devotion to relationship is hardly a primary concern for the Donald.

Trump seems fixated on younger, attractive women. I suspect it is largely to compensate for his own inabilities to come to grips with his aging and ultimate death. In that, he shares a common aversion to that reality with American consumers who daily respond to constant pounding by death-denying advertising by purchasing everything from teeth whiteners to chemicals producing four hour erections requiring trips to emergency rooms.

Trump’s makeup and hair styling suggest a discomfort with the ravages of Father Time on his body. But his braggadocio regarding women suggest an obsessive need to convince himself of his own fading virility.

Where this gets deadly is when the insecurities lurking in Trump’s personal shadow begin to be projected out onto others. His midnight tweets about the former Miss Universe suggest both the shallowness of this man (what of any level of depth can really be said in a tweet at three in the morning?) and his need to inflate his own ego at the expense of a former contestant in a beauty contest.

Of course, the beauty queen joins a long line of those Trump has targeted for his projected Shadow content. This is a man with some pretty deep insecurities. At some level he is an equal opportunity misanthropist, launching ad hominem attacks on fellow candidates and large segments of the American populace at will. Indeed, in many ways he embodies the Shadow of the American Soul.

At the same time, he seeks to market himself to the American people as a successful businessman despite a series of high profile and costly bankruptcies. He also seeks to sell himself as America’s strongman, an American caudillo or Il Duce, to whom frightened Americans should turn over their own decision making.  Social theorist Erich Fromm warned of the dangers of an Escape from Freedom (and thus responsibility) in the years following WWII.

The frightening thing is that so many Americans appear willing to do just that.

No Moral Superiority

I cringed as I heard the tapes from Access Hollywood played last night on the Rachel Maddow Show. I had two immediate reactions to the content. First, what an incredibly disrespectful thing to say about any woman. The objectification in this statement at some level reveals how Trump is able to say such misanthropic things about people generally. When you start down the slippery slope of refusing to see the other as a human being and thus entitled to respect of their innate human dignity, anything is possible.  

 But, second, I must hasten to note that I do not make these observations from a position of moral superiority. Part of why I cringed is recognizing that I have said things just like this during my lifetime, most notably while president of a fraternity in my undergrad days at the University of Florida. While Trump rightly calls this locker room talk, in fact life in a fraternity house is an extended locker room experience and the discourse about women there often reflects this. At some level, the constant pressure to prove one’s manhood that Trump exhibits as a senior citizen is much more comprehensible in the delayed development milieu of the fraternity house.  

But the fact it is easier to understand does not mean it is acceptable. Indeed, in the fraternity houses and sports bars across the country, women are regularly targeted by alcohol emboldened young men, many with the same sense of entitlement as Donald Trump routinely exhibits. The results have been disastrous. And these are just for the incidences we know about. Most are never reported.

It’s easy to criticize Donald Trump for his boorish, misogynist behaviors. He gives us a lot to work with. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But to focus only on Trump also lets a lot of us off the hook to account for our own behaviors and attitudes which have reached their apotheosis in The Donald. 

That includes a political culture in which an attitude of winning at all cost has seen fear-mongering and the demonizing of our fellow Americans as an acceptable means to that end in virtually every election of my adult life. When our leaders set such an example, it’s hardly surprising that the general populace will replicate it in their own lives. Indeed, Trump’s misanthropy has emboldened bigotry of virtually every form to come out of the closet during this election.

Perhaps we need to bring these demons out into the open for close scrutiny if not an exorcism. But is this really the America we want to live in?

It also includes a media culture which constantly confuses sensation with reportable news. When was actual news ever anything other than “breaking?” Now owned by a handful of corporations, our media pays a rather superficial homage to a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided desire to present both sides of any issue equally. But without any kind of critical assessment as to whether they actually are equally substantive and supportable, we find ourselves in the absurd position of crackpot climate change deniers sharing the stage with those representing 97% of the scientific community as if equally authoritative.

In the end, our media devolves into little more than a source of constant distraction seeking to entertain the public (and thereby sell its corporate sponsors products) even as it defaults on its duty to thoughtfully inform us.

Finally, it includes those who of us still support Mr. Trump regardless of everything he has said and done which has consistently revealed him to be unfit for any office in America, especially its highest office. Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked that an obsession with consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds. To that I would add cold hearts and dried up souls. Mr. Trump embodies the very worst of America in virtually every manner. An unflagging loyalty to a pathologically narcissistic, misogynist 70 year old frat boy is not an admirable trait for anyone with even a modicum of intellect, compassion or moral fiber.   

We can do a lot better. 

Misogyny is not acceptable from any source any time. When we see it in the extended adolescence that is often Greek life, that makes it no more acceptable. But the context in which it occurs there does suggest that frat boys like me will eventually grow up. 

That The Donald has failed to do so is a tragedy. But America need not make it her own.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8