Grateful for Small Things

I recently read a book on the recommendation of a friend. The December Project by Sara Davidson is a collection of thoughts she shared through conversations with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, a higly acclaimed Jewish leader who landed in the US as a young man after fleeing from the Nazis.

The book inspires and assists people as they approach the ultimate check-out point in life. Its final section is a set of exercises to help people navigate their personal last chapters. I found several of those ideas to be applicable to life in general. They could easily be adapted to any situation, at any season of life—good habits to nurture regardless of age.

I will share some of those over the next few posts, offering them as the first building stones for a gap-spanning soul bridge to work toward healing our world.

The first exercise: “Give thanks. . .Why not begin each day by giving thanks?” One way to do this is to make a “gratitude walk” a regular practice. What is a gratitude walk? A short walk you can take anytime or anywhere. Attune yourself to the surroundings and feel gratitude for what you see, hear, or think.

Items in your home can spur memories from the recent or distant past. Offer a grateful heart. The scenic beauty of your local park or a vacation trip generate many reasons to be thankful. Smells in your kitchen can inspire thanks for nourishing food.

Another of the tips suggests hanging a bell in a place that often moves, such as on your car’s visor or mirror, or a frequently used door in your home. Whenever you hear the bell, pause a moment to breathe and think a thought of gratitude.

Lately I have felt overwhelmed by situations or events out of my control. It is hard to feel thankful. Recent election results come to mind, as well as the national news headlines. I find that I have to look small in order to find inspiration for gratitude, but small can be wondrous and beautiful.

April is a favorite time of year with the abundance of spring flowers. Two of my favorites appear on bushes, lilacs and spirea. Looking small, to the delicate whorls and tiny petals, I find reason to pause in wonder.

Together, the lilacs and spirea are a patriotic pair. We celebrate red, white, and blue as our national colors. But what do you get when you mix red and blue? Purple, of course. Mixed together, we are a beautiful spring bouquet, as intricate and miraculous as the tiny flowerlets of the spirea and lilac blossoms. I am thankful for the array of our differences.

While hunting Easter eggs yesterday, Grandson and I discovered a miniature miracle. Remember Charlotte’s Web? We found a clutch of newly-hatched and itty-bitty spiders dancing on invisible threads above the daylily leaves in our yard. These tiny creatures know nothing of the world’s human events. They just go about doing their spider things on a miniscule scale. I am thankful for the opportunity to peek into their lives, for the moment we spent watching on the bright spring afternoon, and the gift of being a witness to their launch.

Think small. You can always find something marvelous and be thankful.

 

Diversity Lends Stability

One of the first lessons in Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “Beware the One-Party State.” Isn’t that what we have now in our country? If not yet, we are certainly approaching it. There’s something immoral, unethical, and deeply wrong with a system that inaugurates a candidate even though his opposition won the approval of voters by a significant majority. There’s also something immoral, unethical, and deeply wrong with a system that allows the majority party in Congress to re-draw voting district lines so their candidates have a clear advantage.

It doesn’t take much intelligence to realize a society is stronger and more stable if all views have a voice in our capitals. The great art of negotiation and compromise benefits us all. We have been created with a wondrous variety in interests, opinions, and talents. Rather than try to squelch those who hold differing views and talents, we’d all be better people if we tried to understand and learn from those who are different.

Diversity lends stability. Sound familiar?

Those of us fascinated by the study of science understand that ecosystems thrive when populated with a wide variety of species. In such vibrant systems, even if one species is decimated by a disease, others can adapt to fill the thinning ranks. If an area is home to only one kind of plant, and a pest or disease invades, the area is laid waste very quickly.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, science and scientists don’t really have an agenda to thrust on the rest of us. Scientists are curious thinkers. They notice something in their world and they want to know why it is the way it is. They watch,  measure, take things apart, get into the very smallest building blocks with increasingly technological equipment. And they keep asking questions. Ecologists noted over and over that “Diversity of species lends stability to an ecosystem.”

Even if you’re not a fan of modern science, maybe you are concerned with finances and the economy. My advisors recommend a retirement plan that utilizes multiple funds, guarding against the dire possibility that one failure would wipe out your life savings. (“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”) Many people have watched their pensions disappear after economic disasters in recent years. Let’s not watch our entire country go the same way, with a government run by one party that answers to a few wealthy individuals.

Diversity lends stability.

If, for no other reason, this one reason makes it important for people to vote. Those of us with the opportunity to cast votes in an upcoming election must take the opportunity seriously. My congressional district is one of those. Advance voting is already open and I voted today. I voted for the candidate of the “other” party—the one not in power in Washington. To my friends and neighbors in this 4th district, I urge you to vote as well. Cast a vote to support a diverse Congress. Vote for James Thompson because diversity lends stability.

The Unknown Factor in any Book

This has been a strange week for me, reading two books simultaneously. Both are good books, and neither probably would have been one I would pull from a library shelf had I not encountered them individually somehow. However, I am not sorry to have read them. And reading them together produced a strange melding of thoughts from within, reminding me that the one unknown quantity in any book I might write lies with the reader. Active reading is a creative process, as much as the writing endeavor. Each reader will understand the content of a book, essay or poem within the parameters of her own personal history, making the read a unique experience for every person.

The two books I have been reading are On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder and Wisdom Chaser by Nathan Foster. Put them in the context of my need to search for building blocks to start bridging gaps in our current society, and interesting things happen.

If I find some things to remember in a book I read, I consider the book to be a great book. With Foster’s chasing of elusive wisdom, each chapter included some points he’d learned from climbing mountains with his dad. Described with poetic clarity, many of his points resounded in my soul. For example, Foster described a concept of time. “When we share our time, is this not the pinnacle of human sacrifice? . . .The only thing I have any control over is what I do in this fleeting moment. Time, my most valuable possession, is quite possibly my only real possession.”

And we fritter away so much of that precious treasure. Leaping to Snyder, I find a chapter exhorting us to “Be Kind to our Language.”  “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

Ah. The internet. Fortunate is the person who hasn’t been lured into skipping from one site to another, conveniently linked together with the seeming purpose to see how long those webworms can keep you distracted from the rest of your life. Too often I tell myself “I have ten minutes. I’ll just check email.” And then–THEN–I see something that I just have to look up, and something else, and before I know it, an hour has passed and I’m almost late to an appointment. And I have accomplished nothing except wasting sixty minutes of my precious time, stolen by the internet.

The internet, a practiced thief. It is one of the best, for it steals your time with no apology whatsoever. A theft of time is perhaps one of the most heinous of crimes, for along with lost time is lost potential, those things you might have accomplished if you’d directed your efforts elsewhere. Where might we be now if we had not been seduced since childhood by the ease and temptation of impersonal connections online?

Select a book. Enlighten yourself. Escape with some well-crafted characters. But decide when to return to your life, and close the book with a book mark. To be continued. Books are great, aren’t they? Snyder recommended a few books to help us put today’s trending events into perspective. How do they compare with historical examples of other places at other times? And what happened to the people in those situations?

I recommend both of these books to any one who wants to exercise their own thinking while reading. Additionally, Snyder recommended Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and even J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. 

Any book which places an endearing character complete with personality flaws woven into their compassion and integrity could give a reader pause to think. What would happen if it was you who faced some dire circumstances? Would you even recognize the threat? How far would you go to defend your principles? How much are you willing to sacrifice to assist someone less fortunate than yourself? How much time would you give to save a helpless child? Or an immigrant? Or a refugee?

Then there’s Foster: Giving someone our time and attention is the ultimate sacrifice. That is all we have to give, after all, and in the end it is the only thing we can decide how to spend.

Just my reader’s musings after pondering points from two good books.

Thanks for allowing me a few minutes of your time. . . .online even. May we all find a new direction.