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The Thing With Feathers


Somehow the heat of early summer is intensifying my feelings of hopelessness about the world. I awaken to the noise of political leaders’ angry missives and condescending dismissals. Juries make decisions that allow despicable actions to continue unabated. Angry, armed individuals wreak havoc in sacred settings. The earth itself falls victim to carelessness and greed. I watch my friends and listen to my colleagues. Our frustration, exhaustion, and fear hang on us all like heavy, ill-fitting coats, as we grasp for some kind of shining light in this darkening scenario.

I was thinking of this today while I was running early in what was still cool, morning air. The trees on the green belt hung low and small dogs pranced in front of their owners, happy to be out and about. I realized that there is a part of me that struggles to let myself fully appreciate that little beagle with the red collar or the last of the many broods of spring ducklings still paddling eagerly behind their moms. Bad presidents and bad behavior make me cautious about letting my guard down to enjoy the way the sun lights up the ripples on the water.

And yet, here are some other things that have happened recently. A couple I know who found each other late in life got married this week, high in the mountains, surrounded by trees and kids, and filled with the giddiness of discovering a deep, human connection they might have thought had passed them by. Another couple—two of my dearest friends—celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary. They met in their 20s, raised two lovely daughters, struggled as we all do with life issues, and continue to love each other in the deepest, most authentic way imaginable.

Fear of what might happen next can’t stop us from stepping out into the unknown a bit to touch something new.

Kids I know have graduated from high school and college and middle school and kindergarten this month, bound for new adventures and filled with a spirit and hope many of us can barely remember ever having. One of my favorite teenagers struggled with math all semester. But she has made huge strides in a summer program approved for her after the adults in her "village" finally convinced school officials that the kid needed a different way to engage with the material. They could have given up; clearly she could have. In their own way, they each held tight to their hope. The result is confidence on a granular level, but it's there. At the community college where I’m working, I watch students—some young and some even my age—as they sit in classrooms and let themselves learn about the world and ways in which we can co-exist more peacefully. They study history and watch it repeat itself. They look for a place for themselves in the world, a chance to make a difference. A teacher sees something in them and tells them how smart they are, what a knack they have for a topic or a skill. There is hope born and bred in an uncomfortable wood and metal chair.

I know people who help build wind farms, teach the elderly how to use computers, lead choruses of lyrical voices, help difficult children and aging parents to navigate unexpected paths to independence and confidence, train dogs to be faithful companions and assistants to kids and adults who need something extra. Other folks I know guide scared, wounded people to stronger places. And yet, I forget all of this wonder when I read the headlines or listen to alarming statistics on NPR. How can I celebrate these small marvels when there is so much pain?

Even in this short piece of writing I feel the need to explain that I do not forget the pain in the world when I am laughing at the way our cat stares at us through the tall window in our bedroom. But I want to feel the fullness of pleasure that is present when I sit on my couch and look at my partner’s artwork on the wall across from me, or in the sensitivity and depth of my friends’ beautiful writing, or in the turn of a phrase in a book I can’t put down. But part of me feels as if there are too many wrong things to fully enjoy those that are right.

Still, I think I have to. Each painting, each book, each musical composition, each first grade drawing, each college essay, and each couple holding hands can remind us of the many things we are doing right. We are humans trying hard, doing the best we can, hoping against hope, and reaching out. Trouble in the world shouldn't keep us from doing that. Fear of what might happen next can’t stop us from stepping out into the unknown a bit to touch something new.

As I get older, I can feel the pull of negativity trying to drag me into the worst mindset imaginable. It’s almost as if people my age are the perfect targets for despair. On some level, it would be simple to feel that there is nothing good to hope for amidst the chaos around us. But I’m thinking now that this is the exact opposite of what we should really do.

As I move toward that last half of my 60s, I think the real challenge is to not perseverate over the huge things I cannot control. Instead, the big task at hand is to notice every precious moment I can and to relish it. It doesn’t help anyone for me to fume about all the ways someone is screwing up. What helps is being ever so grateful for those times when we do something right, when we feel our own power, stand with courage, try something new, enjoy each other’s company. Plus, I fully believe that this attention to the golden moments lets all of us grow so we can overshadow the grim. And it's that focus on the good that builds our hope for next time.

You only truly know this when you get to be my age, but life really is too short to focus on all of the ways that things are screwed up. In that spirit, I’m determined to to find delight wherever I can and to encourage us all to do the same. There is so much good among us. Let’s remember to celebrate it whenever we can.

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