An Optimist’s Guide to Politics

Politics and optimism seem to mix like oil and water, but formidable British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Those of us with such dispositions can successfully navigate a contentious election year by clinging to some simple values most optimists hold dear to their hearts.

At the end of the day, optimists just want everyone to be happy. It’s an idea our founding fathers shared, at least in theory. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When optimists vote, they want nothing more than our country to keep moving towards fulfilling those promising words adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

Most optimists believe good character to be the most important quality in any person, particularly someone who wishes to hold a public office. Voters who don’t care about a politician’s character, just their policies and party, are probably not optimists. Abraham Lincoln reminded us, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think about the personal qualities you admire and likely insist upon in the people you want in your inner circle. Before you vote, consider how well the candidates hold up against that basic measure.

Optimists have heaps of trust in their fellow citizens and in democracy itself. We have faith in the democratic process and take seriously our right and responsibility to vote. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote after decades of protest and civil disobedience. When we go to the polls we must keep in mind that democracy, the cornerstone of an optimistic nation, is always at stake.

At the risk of sounding like a Miss America contestant, optimists really do want world peace. George Washington said, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Here at home, we want to live in a country that’s peaceful and united in the belief that we all deserve to feel safe and respected, despite our differences. Support the candidate who wants that, too.

For those of us who like to keep things light, the next few weeks are going to be pretty heavy. Let’s stay true to our ideals of happiness, character, trust, and harmony. Don’t worry when the cynics call us dreamers, because they will. Finally, remember another thing Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Why I Asked My Community to Remove Confederate Flags

After three months of being cooped up due to the Coronavirus lockdown, we knew our nephews, who live north of Indianapolis, would enjoy a couple of days visiting our home in the woods of southern Indiana.

They filled their stay to the brim with boating, fishing, swimming and kayaking. Wide-eyed, they watched a deer amble into the yard early one morning. Under the setting sun, they saw four young foxes play with abandon on the shore of the lake. It was almost enough fun to take their minds off these uncertain, tumultuous and frightening times.

Almost.

When they arrived, the boys tumbled out of the car and asked curiously, “Why are there so many Confederate flags around here?” My heart sunk. I hoped they’d be too busy playing on their phones to notice the symbol that dots the hilly drive to our home.

Along the country roads, at least a dozen Confederate flags proudly hang from trees, fly from houses, stick to truck bumpers and decorate front porches. (Note that Indiana was not part of the Confederacy, and the ubiquitous design seen on the Rebel flag never actually represented the Confederacy.)

 While roasting marshmallows one evening, I asked the boys what the Confederate flag meant to them. My eleven-year-old nephew quietly said, “It means they hate black people.” His thirteen-year-old brother added so softly it was nearly inaudible, “They wish the South won the Civil War and that there was still slavery.” Despite the warmth of the fire, a chill went down my spine.

A few days later, something I read by Martin Luther King, Jr. demanded my action, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency.”

Fueled by the fierce urgency of now, I submitted my column to our local newspaper, unsure if it would be published, which read in part –

This is neither a history lesson nor a political discussion. Rather, it is a plea to consider what that flag means to the people who pass by your house or vehicle. Neighbor to neighbor, it is a huge and humble request to consider removing Confederate flags from your property.

The editor of the paper emailed me back almost immediately. She thanked me for my column and assured me it would be featured in the next issue. She also invited me to be part of a newly formed county commission for human rights and told me about an upcoming solidarity rally for racial justice to be held that weekend smack in the middle of Brown County, Indiana.

The Confederate flag has generated controversy and impassioned debates for 155 years. What makes this time any different?

Because right now we are emerging from the unique stillness of a quarantine. Thanks to the pandemic, we were forced to take a collective time-out. Without our usual distractions, we are in a heighten state of awareness to better see the realities of our country and ourselves.

The headlines aren’t any different. But we are.

We find ourselves in what may be a once-in-a-lifetime position to finally open our eyes to the causes of racial injustice, pain and division. It will take much more than removing Confederate flags, but it would be a tangible start to making positive, lasting change for our children and our grandchildren.

And for my nephews – smart, kind, beautiful brown boys – who simply deserve to run among the wildflowers, jump in the lake and feel welcomed when they visit the joyful rural countryside of America’s Heartland.

To Bee or Not to Bee

Drinks in hand, Mike and I stepped onto our boat for a quiet evening ride around the lake. We noticed a few bees buzzing around the front of the pontoon and absent-mindedly shooed them away.

Bees are the world’s leading crop pollinators.

I was getting settled in my usual spot when I flicked away a bee and spilled my entire glass of wine. While lamenting that tragedy, I felt a sharp sting on my right middle finger. I held it up in what appeared to be an angry gesture I don’t usually use. “Stupid bee!” I wailed.

Since 2006, the bee population has declined considerably.

Looking to Mike for sympathy, I saw him dancing erratically on the dock. His gin and tonic glass lay empty on the ground. He was holding his cheek, and I could see a welt beginning to form. We realized the bees were darting in and out of a small opening between the boat seat cushions.

The causes for decline include pesticides, disease, parasites and climate change.

We ran to the top of the wooden stairs to regroup and come up with a battle plan. This was war.

If we lose the bees, we could lose all the plants they pollinate. 

While I explained to our neighbors what all the buzz was about, Mike disappeared toward the house. He returned with fresh drinks in one hand and a can of insect spray in the other.

Eventually, we could lose the herbivorous animals that depend on those plants to live.

He violently sprayed directly into the opening where the bees were coming from. When the melee was over, we realized Mike had been stung several times on his arm, hand and face. He said he was fine and still wanted go on a short ride to watch the sunset.

Ultimately, this could work up the food chain leading to worldwide famine, poverty and possible extinction. 

We were not yet out of our cove, when I saw Mike’s face getting blotchy and swollen. “My mips meel a mimmel mummm,” he said. “What? Your lips feel numb?” He nodded. We went back to the house and I gave him some Benadryl and an ice pack. I was dabbing his stings with vinegar when he mumbled his throat felt weird.

More immediately, we could say goodbye to honey as well as carrots, apples, lemons, onions, melons, almonds and coconuts.

Mike didn’t argue with me about going to the emergency room thirty-five minutes away. By the time we arrived, he looked a little like the Elephant Man. He got a shot in his rear and was monitored for a few hours. We left the hospital with a prescription for prednisone and a lifetime of bad bee puns.

To really bring it home, there would be no limes for a gin and tonic. No grapes for a glass of wine. 

A couple of days later, we went down to the boat. Mike carefully lifted the seat cushion with a wooden oar, and we saw an empty bee hive the size of my head. He muttered something about losing the battle but winning the war.

A world without bees couldn’t possibly sustain our planet’s human population.

Looking at the destroyed hive, I expressed my concern for the bees and our environment. Mike stared at me incredulously, his hand and face still visibly swollen, and said, “If the bees want to survive, they need to stay off my boat.” Waving the oar, he added emphatically, “Bee-lieve me!” §

(Source for italicized information is BBC.com ~ pun not intended.)

The Mourning Doves’ Call for Peace

Note: This post was written in response to a weekend marked by gun violence in our country. 

A quiet sadness hung in the air defying the bright August morning. The rising sun was still behind the treetops, but slivers of light cut through thick branches in stark, illuminating shafts. Nature seemed to know mankind awoke again to unnatural hate and violence.

Under the mysterious stillness was a low, haunting call of a mourning dove. Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo!  

A pair of doves landed on the ground, their fluttering wings breaking the strange silence. They moved gracefully searching for seeds below the bird feeders. Oddly, they foraged alone. No squirrels scurried around them. The cardinals, finches and orioles reverently relinquished the morning to the soft gray, slender-tailed doves.

In the distance another soft, slow coo was heard. Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo!  

Their distinctive melancholy song gives mourning doves their name, but the birds are not associated with despair. To the contrary, they are universally recognized as symbols of peace. Since the beginning of time, the dove has represented a transformative symbol of optimism and hope in folklore, mythology, literature and scripture. Doves are referenced in the Bible more than any other species.

Artists and musicians often turn to doves for inspiration. In 1949, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso drew the iconic Dove of Peace-Blue for the World Peace Congress, becoming a lasting symbol of respect and harmony between people of all nations.

The mourning dove is one of our country’s most common birds. It’s found in nearly every environment and has adapted well to man-altered habitats. Yet despite their abundance, despite their well-known symbolism, despite our love for the idea of peace on Earth, we aren’t getting their message. We’re moving further and further off the path of civility, kindness and goodwill that leads to peacefulness.

A third mourning dove joined the other two at the bird bath. Noticeable was their calm and serene demeanor. They sipped the water delicately, occasionally looking up with round, dark eyes. They elegantly cocked their heads as if understanding the sacred beauty of the world and their role in it.

Just as the sun peeked over the top of the trees, flooding the new day with golden light, a mourning dove sang its pleading song of peace. Oo-woo-oo  oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! §

 

 

Under the Same Stars

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a wish on the first star I see at night. This week, I will make a wish for a ten-year-old boy who lives in a small village in Uganda.

When I was a child, my wishes were those of a child. As I got older, they became less self-centered and foolish. Eventually, most of my wishes turned to prayers for the health and happiness of the people I love. After my children went out on their own, I found it comforting to know they might look up in the sky and wish upon the very same star as I.

Several years ago, my husband and I began sponsoring a little boy named Pascal through Compassion International, a humanitarian aid organization. I love knowing he, too, is under the same blanket of stars.

Pascal lives with his brothers, sisters, and mother, who has been ill for some time. His home has been described as a small shelter cobbled together with discarded materials. Fortunately, Pascal and many of the children in his village are able to attend a church-sponsored school.

I don’t know if Pascal understands he lives in poverty. If so, his smiling school photos and drawings of himself playing soccer, laughing with friends, and helping his mother belie the fact. When I find myself wishing for material things or for even more ease in my life, I think of Pascal and the three billion people who live in poverty on our planet.

There’s a quote I turn to when my life seems inadequate, when advertisements, HGTV, and social media make me feel small and envious. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches. For to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

Rilke’s words shame me. I keep the quote close at hand, just in case I need to snap out of it.

I sent a birthday card to Pascal, which an interpreter will help him read. I asked him to look up at the night sky. “Remember that you and I are on the same planet, under the same sky, looking up at the same stars,” I wrote. “I am making a special wish upon one of those stars for your birthday and always.”

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. §

 

More about Compassion International ~ When you sponsor a child through Compassion International, you become the single sponsor of a specific child. You get updated pictures and profiles of your child and can exchange letters. Your monthly donation of $38, as well as birthday and Christmas gifts, can be automatically withdrawn from your bank account. (Trust me, you won’t even miss it.) Your donations help your child’s local church provide medical care, education, nutritious meals, and other needs. More importantly, through your sponsorship, children like Pascal receive hope and love. To find out more about sponsoring a child through Compassion International, go to http://www.compassion.com/Child/Sponsorship.      

 

Starting the Year on the Right Foot

When I signed us up for the First Day Hike, it sounded like an exhilarating way to begin the new year in the peace and quiet of Brown County State Park, but the experience proved to be more challenging and eye-opening than expected.

When Mike and I reached the trailhead where the New Year’s Day trek began, we were surprised to be joined by more than 200 hikers. There were loud hikers. Pushy hikers. Slow hikers. Hikers on cell phones. Hikers with unruly yapping dogs and children. So many children.

I looked at my husband like a deer in the headlights. “This might be the hardest two-mile hike I’ve ever been on,” I whispered unnecessarily, as he knew exactly what I was thinking. We almost bailed on the First Day Hike before it even began, but I felt it might be a test, not of my endurance, but of my tolerance.

I used to have a wealth of patience. When I was a teacher and mom to young children, patience was my superpower. For more than 25 years, I willingly trapped myself in a small square room with more than a hundred middle schoolers a day. Although I’ve always enjoyed time alone, I loved interacting with students, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends, and even strangers.

Now I’m retired and live in the boonies. I go days without talking to anyone save my easy-going husband and the forest critters. If not for the necessary task of grocery shopping, I would happily remain in the woods like a hermit. I’ve admittedly become a tad intolerant of my fellow man.

We fell into line with the army of hikers who snaked single-file through the hills of Brown County at a steady comfortable pace. I noticed how nature worked its magic to cast a spell of courtesy and civility over the group. While navigating the rugged trail covered in wet leaves and squishy mud, we chatted quietly, as hikers often do, about the weather, foliage and fauna, wildlife, and other favorite hiking spots.

I talked at length with a loquacious teenage boy whose mother seemed to welcome the break. I discovered one of the hikers was from the same small Illinois town as my dad. I petted a cute scruffy dog whose owner had come to the event alone with her rescued pup.

Our First Day Hike was over before we knew it. We said goodbye to our new friends and wished each other a happy new year. Hiking is often a chance for solitude in the great outdoors, but our walk in the woods with 200 other nature-lovers gave me a feeling of community and comradery I didn’t realize was missing from my life.

My new year got off on the right foot with a burst of energy, an appreciation for nature, and most surprisingly, a reminder to have a gracious and open heart towards all of the people I meet on my path along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

Common Ground

 

Since the first day of fall, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the woods to transform into a magnificent tapestry of autumnal colors.

For weeks, I dragged my husband on long walks and country drives hoping to be amazed. I squinted my eyes, imagining the trees painted russet, scarlet, bronze, brown, and gold, but I was beginning to give up on splendid fall foliage this year.

Along with gusty winds, a hateful force blew over the land last week. I took a walk in the forest to clear my head of gnawing images. I wanted to shake them off and leave them there in the woods with the echo of angry voices unable or unwilling to find common ground.

Hot tears stung my eyes and burned my chilly face. I sat on a log and stared at a thin shaft of sunlight that fell on a patch of spongy moss. The light slowly spread across the log and over the ground. Low morning clouds parted, and golden sunlight filled the woods.

It was then I noticed the trees. Oaks and sugar maples had adorned themselves in gorgeous rich hues. Aspens, black maples, hickories, and birch trees had been gilded. Autumn’s brilliance had finally, faithfully, arrived just in time to fill my aching heart with serenity and hope.

Millions of Americans make pilgrimages each year to see the multi-colored leaves. They explore byroads, trails, and backyards. The Japanese have a similar custom called momijigari, loosely translated to mean “leaf hunting.” Human beings across time and space seem to share an appreciation for seeking nature’s beauty.

So we do have something in common.

I don’t have the answers to our world’s problems, but I think nature can help us find common ground. A young girl named Anne Frank left us this advice, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”  

 

One Sun Wishes Us All a ‘Good Morning’

Driving home from a weekend visit with my daughter in Chicago, I left the city before dawn to beat the Monday morning traffic. As I-90 led me into Indiana, the sky was dark and lonely, lit only by the glow of automated toll booths.

I had all but forgotten about the sunrise, as it was the kind that bursts rather than creeps into view. Suddenly the eastern sky exploded with blinding light, illuminating the sprawling steel mill that sputters and spews on Gary’s lakeshore.

It was magnificent! I instantly felt the sun energize my groggy mind and body. “Good morning,” I said aloud to no one and to everyone.

I thought of Maya Angelou’s poem On the Pulse of the Morning which ends ~“Here, on the pulse of this new day, You may have the grace to look up and out, And into your sister’s eyes, Into your brother’s face, your country, And say simply, Very simply, With hope, Good morning.”

My husband voluntarily rises before the sun nearly every morning. I do not, but the next day I inexplicably woke before dawn. I pulled on jeans over my pajamas, slipped on my sneakers and coat, and ran outside to greet the sun. The morning magic included a thick mist rising up from an invisible lake, a flock of graceful geese flying overhead, and five deer quietly foraging for breakfast.

My sun came up behind thick woods beyond a golden field in the Midwest, yet I vaguely understand the same sun rose over mountains, oceans, deserts, farms, and cities. It rose over mansions and huts. It rose over my house and yours.

I confess it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around that, as well as the sun’s scientific role. It is a star and the source of energy for life on Earth. It provides us light and heat. It allows plants to conduct photosynthesis, creating food to eat and oxygen to breathe. Its reflection off the moon offers a nightlight. It is the gravitational center of our solar system, keeping the planets in place. We use it to mark our days and our years.

What’s easier for me to grasp is the inspiration the sun offers poets, mystics, and artists, and the reason I was outside at dawn in my jammies watching it make its daily debut. Each sunrise brings with it a unifying reminder of the incomprehensible mystery, beauty, and wisdom of our universe.

No matter our differences, the sunrise is our common denominator ~ faithfully shining equally on every upturned, wishful face. So we can all wake up and say, very simply, and with hope, “Good morning!”

 

 

 

 

 

Weathering the Storms Together

 

At some point in your education, you may have learned about a psychological theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory is often shown in a five-tier pyramid, with basic physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top. Abraham Maslow’s idea was that, in general, we can’t advance to the next level of personal fulfillment until the previous level is met.

I’d venture to say much of my time, and yours, is dedicated to self-actualization ~ realizing our personal growth and potential. We are fortunate to have our basic needs met, so we are free to pursue loftier goals.

But if disaster struck, how quickly we would slide down that pyramid. We wouldn’t give a fig about self-actualization!

Last weekend our power went out during a rain storm. Mike and I stopped everything we were doing, lit candles, gathered flashlights, and checked our food supply. The outage lasted less than an hour, but it briefly upended our priorities and concerns.

Later in the week, we learned 2,975 people lost their lives in Puerto Rico last year as a result of Hurricane Maria. By the end of the week, Hurricane Florence was ravaging the Carolinas.

Nature offers such peace and beauty, but there is wisdom to be garnered from the raging storms, too.

We remember what’s important. When forced to evacuate, people grab each other, pets, and maybe a few sentimental items. The house, furnishings, decorations, clothing, jewelry, and electronics are all just things. It makes us question if any of that stuff was ever getting us closer to self-fulfillment.

We realize we’re all the same. In a disastrous situation, we get a taste of the lives of those who struggle daily for nutritious food, potable water, and safe shelter. Social and economic status can make human beings seem very different from one another, but in truth, we all have the same basic needs and desires.

We rely upon our resourcefulness. There’s a reason why television shows and movies about survival are popular. They challenge us to think about our ability to meet our basic needs without depending on modern conveniences. Storms, of all kinds, test our physical, mental, and spiritual strength

We are put in our place. Most of us like to feel we’ve got it together and are in control of our lives. It’s all smooth sailing, and then WHAM! Stormy weather reminds us we can’t control everything. Sometimes we have to surrender and have faith the storm will pass, and the sun will shine again.

We need each other. Maslow’s theory includes the human need for love and belonging. In times of disaster, there are always stories of people helping people, reminding us of the good in humanity and in ourselves.

You can help people affected by Hurricane Florence and other devastating storms by donating to the American Red Cross at http://www.redcross.org.