Every day now I roll out of bed and go right to the high-performance morality gym. I have to. The multiple existential threats we face require moral dexterity, and as a Boomer I’ve gotten flabby. At the gym I train my mind, heart, body and soul to work together to meet the sh*t show on the news, the dishes in the sink, the weeds in the garden and the concrete actions I choose to thread the needle of decency.
It’s hard work building tone into lazy muscles of normalcy. I am on high alert now. Bullets of dark news come at me from all angles. I want to keep calm and carry on. Honestly, it takes all I have to stay on an even keel.
I feel metaphorically like a pregnant woman doing kegels to prepare for the aperture of her cervix to open wide and let new life be born.
Aperture is a good metaphor.
I want to be like a zoom lens, focusing without friction on what’s up close and personal and what’s out there in the troubled world.
In photography, the aperture of the lens determines which part of the picture is in sharpest focus. You can adjust your lens to highlight one daisy in a field of daisies, or blur the daisies and get the crisp line of the distant mountains, hazy purple against a brooding sky. You can use a macro lens and capture the stamen in the heart of a lily. Brilliant photographers work deftly with focus, aperture, and focal length to tell a story, share a moment.
In a similar way, I change my focal length daily to bring into clarity the complex realities of the world I share with millions of other species and humans. Mind you, I’m 75. I am financially secure. I have time to go to the gym.
The day coming into focus
In the morning I turn my lens inward, sitting quietly with an open curious mind. Life, I seem to say, show me what you will. Body, where are you tight, where are you easy? Feelings that guard the aperture of my heart, show me your fears and longings; how willing are you to play? Butterfly of the mind, what flower attracts you today? Soul, who locates me in time and space and destiny, what food do you want today? Images form. Or a relaxation of striving settles upon me.
I drink coffee and journal on my balcony, eye to eye with the treetops. My lens widens. My spirit expands like air. I am air. The birds flit in me. I am the hummingbird drinking my gardenias. I am the moving clouds, the sunrise breaking the line of Douglas fir to the east, the sun on the field to the West. I live in a blessedly peaceful world, as long as I don’t bring in thoughts about what my fellow humans are doing to it. This ordinariness might last all the way through watering the plants and doing the dishes.
The full catastrophe
Then I arrive at my computer, and the whole catastrophe of the world’s problems are upon me. The distance between me and the President or me and the clashes on the streets of Portland or me and Elijah Mclain collapses. I am nose up against the violence of my society. Right in front of me, as close as the stamens in the focus of that macro lens, real people with real families are dying of Covid 19, are in long lines to vote, are in a raft floating in the Mediterranean unable to enter any port. There is the last white rhino sorrowfully perishing. I have a virtual front row seat in the boxing match of politics – good punch AOC, go for it Nancy, take that Mitch. I rock in my seat as if a change in my inclination could affect what I see. Moving on to read opeds and long reports from climate scientists and the new deplorables somewhere spouting QAnon poison, I’m asking myself again and again, “What can I do?” Not much, but even doing nothing is doing something, so it’s really a question of “Where can I put in my oar to row with others towards safety?”
It’s a gritty experience, focusing my lens on the near foreground of the unraveling, and not turning away. Plenty of sand in those gears, plenty of resistance to letting the reality of suffering bore into me, show me how blinkered I am in my bubbles of safety. Is my scrolling obsessive? Some perverse self-abuse? Sometimes it does get out of control, but mostly it’s part of my practice of loving the world as it is.
My nose comes off the plate glass window between me the torrent of professionally crafted messages – the news, the pundits, the photographers, the talk show hosts. That tight focus, somehow an inevitable part of how I am constructed, of the Tikkun Olam assignment I’ve accepted, leaves me feeling that I am not enough anything… not smart, connected, educated, courageous, calm, strategic, caring, energetic, informed, focused, serious, capable enough to impact what is in that unreachable display on the other side of the glass.
And then I laugh. Of course, you care. You’re human, a caring human. I’d be worried if you didn’t care. Of course you, with your Western mind, think you can solve this problem. Of course your Joan of Arc and Cecil B DeMille personality wants to get out a sword, mobilize a cast of thousands and save the day. But sweetheart, that’s 99.9% delusional. So have a bite of humility pie and see where you might direct your energy just for today. The lens of my mind widens enough to break the spell and actually take on the reasonable, necessary and happy work of the day. A blog post like this might pop out whole, dishing up some insights for whoever is hungry for my words. I might take a walk with a friend, or write a letter to the editor and comment on thoughtful Facebook posts, or inch forward a project like getting all my end of life documents done, or join a zoom call (easily an hour a day), or check in on the ever greater number of friends on CaringBridge, or work on some aspect of my most favorite project, What Could Possibly Go Right?, or read a book or schlep some body part or another to a doctor or dentist, or chat with friends at a safe distance while shopping, or cooking, or play with the cat when she wants to play with me, or take a nap.
In all this I am no longer nose squashed against the plate glass window, frustrated I can’t touch effectively the world I see. I am in the picture of daily life, moving from one task to another – some intimate, some far-reaching – with ease. Perhaps this is the aperture where everything is in focus, the whole picture, giving the eye permission to focus anywhere attractive. Inwardly these hours are spent with little friction and great satisfaction. My energy is sopped up fully by the tasks and I’m not trying to keep anything from falling off the edge or through the cracks or down into a pit of despair.
And then it’s time for dinner. When I have a guest it’s best, but these days dinner is usually me cooking something from scratch, some ingredients home grown. Fifty percent of the time I like my cooking, the rest of it’s at least nourishing. This is part of the daily life flow, moving the body, colors, smells, tastes.
No longer an author-ity
And then I go down into the garden, and I’m really lost for an hour or so puttering. The light tilts towards sunset. The trees to the east catch the western light and turn gold. The peace of nature, of being a small included creature in a glorious grove of trees and a tangle of vegetables and flowers and my cat rolling where she shouldn’t and the chickens clucking, waiting for me to throw them some weeds and kale. In the garden, I can enter timelessness as long as I putter and don’t descend into work. There is no specific, only garden. Perhaps I am in the Garden’s focal plane, part of the tableau it sees.
Then it’s off to the stars. I finally got myself a small hot tub to ease arthritis and, face it, to sink into pleasure. From it, I can see half the sky. In the dark of the moon it’s as dazzling as stars can get in human settlements. In the last week the Perseid’s have showered Earth with shooting stars, some of which I caught. The time scale of my life disappears and I am in the incomprehensibly vast sea of heavenly bodies. I am a spec in eternity. Not even a spec. My sliver of time is so minuscule. I honestly don’t know where I came from or where I’ll go, but I know that, in a more vast time scale, over a hundred civilizations have risen and fallen on this earth, and living through the end times of Western Civilization is not such a big dramatic deal, really. Just like the expansive focus in the garden is the garden’s, not mine, the lens of the Universe includes me as an infinitesimal spec of dust in eternity. It’s not easy to die nightly on this tiny cross of insignificance, but sometimes I make it out of my ego sac and float into the breathtaking awe of it.
It’s all part of the picture
I don’t put any of these slices of reality, close in to far away, above any other. My morning meditations and my evening garden fusion and my hot tub evaporation into the heavens may be more blissful, expansive and nourishing, but I love that I care enough about this world to taste the bitterness of, and digest, the news. I want my heart to hurt in this world. There’s a world of hurt everywhere and it’s part of being alive to feel it and want to touch it with love. Morality is arid without the moistness of feelings. The tasks of daily life might not be that sexy, but it’s what keeps me human. We all do dishes and errands. Earnestly sitting at my computer, using words to touch the places that hurt, feels right on purpose – and I love creativity.
This is my workout at the morality gym – zooming my focus from meditation to contemplation to indignation to mobilization to relaxation to expansion. Accepting all the focal distances as part of the picture is the training. The friction polishes us. Conditions us. Grows our capacity to meet whatever is on the way.