Citizenship and Conversation in a Disjointed Time


 

By Neal Lemery

(Podcast)

In this pandemic year, our craving for “normal” pushes back against the new rules of social interaction. What lies ahead of us grows even murkier.  Uncertainty is the new mantra of who we are as a society, and where we are going with our own out of sorts lives.  Simple acts of normalcy such as going to school, shopping for groceries, dinner with friends, and a weekend getaway take on all the traits of unpredictability.

 

Nothing seems routine anymore. The old patterns of life now can be simply “paused”, the calendar becoming a mess of cross outs, erasures, and question marks.

 

Sound medical advice, scientific wisdom and evidence-based practices run the risk of being politicized in loud, partisan fashion. Wearing a mask at the grocery store now can be a political statement. Nuances and logical development of analysis are discarded if favor of “right vs wrong” and “us vs them” viewpoints. We don’t seem to be able to even agree to disagree or admit we need more information.

 

Serious discussions about racism and discrimination, the role of police, and how we look at history are now mixed into the swirl of our pandemic responses and thinking.  Political rhetoric grows more heated and polarized.   “Them” and “us”, “right” and “wrong”, “liberal” and “conservative” are becoming the short slogans that can fit on a baseball cap.  Efforts to simplify and quickly label perspectives and opinions are pushing out the deep discussions on public policy and the rich stew of community discourse and public debate that are at the heart of a healthy democracy.

 

Instead, we are experiencing a “shoot from the hip” attitude, with no room for civilized conversation and thought.  Being persuasive and convincing in one’s opinions and views is replaced by an angrily shouted slogan and no room for disagreement, however polite or thoughtful.

 

We are all hopefully looking for a sense of civility, order and normalcy in our lives. I find myself weighed down by all the “pausing” of social life, and the angry, strident rhetoric of public opinion.  Sarcasm and rage, and downright nastiness and vitriol now seem to occupy center stage in public forums.  That approach to our collective life is toxic and exhausting.

 

I should remember that, perhaps, I might be wrong in my views, or that the situation is more complex and requires more information than I have been willing to admit.  Like any effective theologian, scientist, or teacher, I just might not have all the facts, and might not be considering other ways to look at an issue.  I might not have all the answers.  And, I might even be wrong.

 

Many turn to social media to air their own views or the rant of their favorite commentator of the day. In their role as a publisher and editor in the public forum, a significant number of Americans ignore their responsibility to be factual, to educate, and to add to thoughtful debate that will improve our society. Be a builder, not a destroyer.  If you are going to be a journalist of sorts on the public stage, then act like a professional.  It is a public trust.

 

 

 

We have “paused” the democratic ideal of thoughtfully listening to others.  We aren’t doing a good job weighing the viewpoints of others, and striving to achieve a collective, informed response and thoughtful viewpoints. Instead, the quick opinion, shot from the hip, seasoned with sarcasm and hostility, dominates. Public conversations have turned into shouting matches.  Snarky slogans and nasty put downs of others fill our screens and public interactions.  We often forget that “conversation” means a respectful interplay and heartfelt communication.

 

Our freedoms of speech and expression are precious and should be cherished.  And with freedom comes responsibility.

 

 

7/17/2020

A Time for Patience


 

 

 

 

 

By Neal Lemery

 

 

 

There is a time for everything, and everything has its time.  Life is like that. There is a rhythm, a pattern in life, where things that are to be done have their own time for being expressed, for getting done.

 

There are many metaphors for me in sorting all this out, and figuring out time in my life, and the “right time” and the “best time”. One is the rhythm of music.  Music is the learning of patterns, of repetitions, of putting things in order, and of honoring the rhythms that the expression should take, so that it becomes an act of beauty and pleasing form. Music teaches patience and a “right time for everything”.

 

Old Testament poets talked about time and patience with these familiar words:

 

 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

“ A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

“ A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

“ A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

“ A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

“ A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

“ A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3)

 

I like this scripture in Ecclesiastes in the King James version because it is poetic; it has a cadence and a rhythm that is pleasing to my ear and to my heart.  I am a poet, and the work of the poet is often to find the beat, the cadence, the rhyme in the ideas that I want to express.  And, doing that work and finding the right words in the right order takes time and patience.  Often, my poetry first finds its expression in scraps of paper and scribbled words and phrases. The work often sits on a tablet of paper for a while, letting time age it, season it.  One day, the work becomes rewritten, reorganized, and re-formed, reshaped, re-spoken.  It is a work in progress.

 

Such is my life, always being reshaped, reformed, reworked.  I am different today than I was yesterday, and so my work today will be different today, because the me of today is the work of a man who is different today than yesterday.

 

Like any work, it is often transformed and reworked by the passage of time.  Relationships with others change over time, partly because I change, I am reworked, and I look at the world with different eyes, and with a longer, hopefully richer and more insightful perspective.

 

Thus, I try to be gentle with myself in difficult times, and in working difficult problems and being in difficult situations.  They say that Time Heals. Healing is one aspect of this perspective, and I want to recognize that time is an ally, a friend, something to be seen as a tool, a process that helps me be a better student of my life, and to increase my ability to learn.

 

I am finishing reading a book on the history of calculus (which is intellectually exciting and certainly challenging). The lesson in the book for me is that all the great minds that wrestled with calculus and its development for humanity utilized time, that much of the work was spent in contemplation, and deep thought, over time.

 

There’s a saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  A great city, a great work of humanity needs some space over time to come into its own.  The pouring of concrete, the mixing of mortar and the setting of stone needs time in which to age, to strengthen, to come into its own as its own identity and its own form.  Cement is liquid, then sets, then ages into strength and final form.

 

I learn those lessons not just on my guitar and my banjo, but in my garden, and certainly throughout my life. In each day, I become a different man, a product of growth and also of weeding and pruning, of adding the necessary fertilizer, the length of the sunshine in the day, and the temperature and moisture in the soil.

 

An aspect of appreciating time in my life is the virtue of patience.  Yet, life is finite, and there is no pre-established limit to the length of my life.  Life is a gift with an uncertain span of time, and I think I should see it as a gift, an opportunity, something precious, and fragile. The current pandemic is teaching me a lesson on the fragility and preciousness of life. What will I make of it? Who am I becoming?

 

Who indeed am I becoming? I am the master of all that. I am the captain of my ship, and I am the one who plots the course, who charts the path of my ship.  Yes, there are storms and tides, and often I am pushed and blown into treacherous and uncharted waters, yet the hand on the tiller of my ship is mine, and I am the one who trims the sails.

 

I look at life from the eyes of the poet, the musician, the gardener, looking for patterns, looking for putting my house in order, and making sense of the path I am on.  So it goes with anything difficult that we take on, and try to work through, to manage, and to bring to fruition.

 

Respecting time and practicing patience are vital tools in this life and in these times. These are the gifts we have now to use wisely and bring about the changes we want to see in this world. I speak not only of relationships between people, but also within myself. Learning to love and honor ourselves is the most challenging work in life.  Honoring myself, nurturing, tending to and caring about who I am and how I am equipped to deal with life is my most important work. Part of that work is to be easy with myself, to not beat myself up, to be kind and respectful to myself, to honor myself.  I do good work.  I really do.

 

Time gives me the chance to see that in myself, and to enjoy the fruits of my labor, to find the rhythm of my life and all of the poems, the songs, and the flowers that are within me.

 

4/9/2020

Connecting and Creating


 

 

This time of quarantine, social distancing, staying home is a new order in society. Our social connections can become frayed, even severed.  The many events of daily life have changed, our calendars cleared.  Routines are disrupted, and we find ourselves adrift.

Staying home and apart from others is the new social expectation, a necessity to reduce the impact of this pandemic, “flattening the curve”. Staying home is seen as a medical necessity essential to health and wellbeing, a fundamental obligation to our society.

Instead of isolating, these times are times of great connectivity. Our technological lives now grow connections. We message each other more frequently, communicate more deeply, and find new ways to meet and interact. We access more books, movies, and “off-site” encounters and conversations.  Our now rare trips to the grocery store and running other essential errands take on a new heightened satisfaction of interacting with others. We are important to each other, something we may have overlooked in the busyness of the pre-pandemic world.

I connect deeper with myself and my world. Tending to my garden and the young seedlings in the greenhouse takes on new importance as I witness the miracles of sprouting and growing, of new life as we move into spring.  Filling up my birdfeeder gives me time to celebrate the migrations of birds and to notice their lives in this quieter, more meditative and spiritually reflective time.

The morning cup of tea takes on new meaning, giving me a welcome ritual and a time of contemplation. I am finding time to breathe and connect with my soul.

This is also a time of great creativity. Times of plagues and quarantine, while socially threatening, have led to great creations.  Shakespeare wrote several of his most famous plays while in quarantine.  Newton developed his theories of gravity and motion, and invented calculus.

Now the world is taking a retreat from normal routines. We have time to pause, to re-energize our creative juices, and find our quiet space to express ourselves. This is a time of renewal and re-creation of so much of what is truly human and soul-nourishing.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”  — Stephen Jobs

This is that time to connect.  Go and create.

Neal Lemery 3/31/2020

Hunkering Down


 

 

The morning drizzle finds me inside, sorting and organizing, rediscovering my writing space.  Long neglected filing cabinets and piles of papers are now getting sorted.  I have a number of bags of burn pile starting paper, waiting for a sunny day and a match.

 

The second week of “Stay Home, Stay Well” in this pandemic finds me with a deeper layer of projects on the “to do” list. The yard is already manicured, seeds are sprouting in the greenhouse, the vegetable beds weeded and waiting.  Even all the laundry is washed, folded, and put away.

 

Old treasures are found and filed away, fodder for a poetry collection and other writing projects.  Mellow guitar on the dusted off CD player soothes my soul in this time of global uncertainty.  My paper sorting provides me with comfort, familiarity and accomplishment. Here there is order of a minimal sort, in a world now chaotic, unknowing, scary, now comfortably distant from the reality of my day here, hunkered down.

 

We are learning again how interconnected we all are, dependent upon each other to be staying well and safe. Microscopic disease runs rampant, reminding us how vulnerable, how fragile life can be; how something so small can change our world, and threaten our very lives. What are the lessons I need to learn? How will we change?

 

My bean soup simmers downstairs, soon to be flavored with a little bacon grease, chopped onions, and a little wine.  Two for the pot, one for the cook, I can hear my aunt say.  After this paper stack, it will be time for a break, to check the soup, put the kettle on.

 

I head to the kitchen for the mid morning cuppa. The water boils, poured into the hefty mug that will heat both hands. I sweeten the tea with a dollop of honey, just like Grandma in her old farm kitchen, after we gathered the eggs and picked some lettuce for dinner, throwing a few leaves to the hens.

 

She survived the Spanish Flu, the Depression, and World War II, keeping the farm going, steadily moving ahead in life, making do, and building a family.  All we are called to do is stay home and be healthy. She’d laugh today, at what we think we have to endure, how inconvenienced we think we are. She’d wipe her hands on the apron she made from a flour sack in 1934, and sit down to tell me a story, over our tea.

 

The tea, slowly cooling, soothes and comforts, like it always has on cold days, and demanding times. Quiet, thoughtful memories of good times, old traditions are revived.

 

I survey the bird feeder, taking time to notice new birds, on their way to Alaska, this corner of the yard alive in late March drizzle. Others, settling in for the summer, scout for nesting sites, raiding an old nest we’d found last fall and set on the porch with the pumpkins. Ancient rhythms are noticed again, rebirth and regrowth, endless, and comforting.

 

Life as we knew it, is on pause now. Slowing down feels good to my heart, this time creating a place to savor and rejoice in. I go slowly through the day, finding a new kind of work, a new order of the day, building a time that promises many lessons for us all.

 

—Neal Lemery 3/28/2020