aim higher: on time and labor

As another Labor Day passes, it is helpful to stop and take stock of why we pause, how we work, and why we rest. We Americans, in particular, derive a lot of value from our relationships to work. Our national mythology is wrapped up in the idea that hard work and an independent spirit are powerful enough to eliminate every other factor that might hinder our success. Our national origin story stems from the ongoing idea that we Americans are exceptional, that we are destined for glory because we determine to work at a thing until we achieve more than anyone thought possible. We pretend our work gives us control over time, and so we commit everything to work. This American Dream and our shared American stories merge to produce a red, white and blue baby who finds unlikely success because she works harder than everyone else, ignoring the deficits of her past and determined to keep moving forward, convinced that sacrificing her health now will secure her well-being down the road.

The commitment to ignore limitations as we find all value in productivity is uniquely American. Because we are convinced that our hard work will set us apart and reveal our worth, we are invested in our own upward trajectories. Time, for most of us, moves in a linear fashion, climbing upward we hope, but always moving forward. Rest then, unproductive as it is, is not valued. As a society we are invested in moving along, in facing the future, in improvement.

 Time doesn’t always behave within the constraints we give it though, does it? We work hard, committed to our own narratives of ascension, only to be rejected, forced to face the same failure or insecurity over and over again. We do all the right things, marching along the straight line we planned for ourselves, only to find that a career surprise, a struggle with mental or physical health, a tragedy, or a slower-than-expected relationship reality derails the benchmarks scheduled on our linear paths. We work to heal from a would in our past, only to find ourselves panting, hearts racing, as sweat runs down our back. Panic and anxiety defy time, forcing us to relive traumatic moments or to be stuck in our current one with no clear path forward.

In much of the global east and south, time is held differently than here in America. Instead of a linear path moving in a straight line from the past into the future, time’s nature is recognized as cyclical. Time moves along, and then doubles back; the future and past are inextricably linked, identities evolving and deconstructing simultaneously. America’s insistence on forward motion can offer hope that things need not stay as they are; however, the progress of time does not erase the lived experience of the past. Instead, notions of cyclical time have a way of making space for the past to coexist with the present. The all that you have seen and known and been is very present with the all that you currently experience. Cyclical time takes away the power of chronic productivity and control by acknowledging the mystery of time and the balance discovered through rest.

This weekend, my niece turned 7, and family and friends gathered to celebrate her joyful, resilient life. It was a wild celebration of loud fun, and we were mostly fully present and grateful for her birthday. We were simultaneously swimming in grief though, because every year of her life her big brother had a birthday the day after hers. Her birthday and his are inextricably linked together, but this year he is gone and his birthday marks a terrible absence. A cavernous longing. In the same 2 days we celebrate her life and possibilities in this very moment, while also reliving so many birthdays from years’ past. Time cycles on time so that we live both the present and the past, the joy and pain, together.

The holy scriptures of the Torah speak of a God who knows that time is both linear and cyclical. Time moves, but the present can’t be fully appreciated unless it is experienced in the context of the past. Throughout the record of God’s relationship to the Israelites, God often says, “Remember this moment when you caught a glimpse of who I am and of who you are. Build something in this spot so that you won’t forget. Tell your kids about our encounter as you go about your day. Carry this day with you because it will impact your experience of every future day.” God, in these scriptures, knows that time and memory are much bigger, much more mysterious, than a simple chronological line.

In this series on the disconnect between what we tend to say is true about our existence and how we live in our existence, we must notice that our dependence on hard work, on a better deal coming tomorrow, on time marching on, severely limits our ability to embrace the wonderful mystery of life. We don’t know—on any given day—if our best days are ahead or behind. We don’t know if the moments we now wish would end will be the same we soon long for. We do know that our experience of time is never as straightforward as we have been led to believe. Instead, time marches along and loops back on itself. At times we find ourselves released to be present today with little worry to yesterday or tomorrow, while at other times we find ourselves humbly thankful that the past can still feel incredibly close, shaping our now.

Today can be new, but it doesn’t mean yesterday can’t continue in beautiful ways within us. Watching my niece blow out her candles, I experienced joy in the miracle that we get to celebrate her life in the midst of such awful sadness. Infused throughout those moments was a palpable and shared deep grief that her brother was not standing next to her, his own cake next to hers. And yet. He was there. He was present in every single heart that wrestled to make space for the joy and the sadness. The present and the past. Creating room within our cyclical realities for work and rest is important if we hope to share each other’s stories and engage our present moments, pregnant as they are with the past.

Holding on to cyclical time in a country committed to linearity is labor, indeed.

an announcement

Two years ago I launched ExpandYourUs with the unwavering support of my family and the massive technical support of my sister. Since then I have written essays every week. Always prompted by the goings on in the world around us, sometimes they are thoughts on how we might better think about the way we live, or how we treat each other. Sometimes they are filled with outrage at how mean we can be to vulnerable others. Sometimes they attempt to contextualize our current moment with a retelling of histories often erased. Sometimes they are a lament, and other times they celebrate the good.

I have learned that each of you readers can surprise and delight me when you engage with this work. I have learned that it IS work to write and revise on a weekly deadline. I have learned that reading someone else’s thoughts every week can feel impossible, like getting through the New Yorker before the next one arrives! I have also learned that I am not invincible, and that sometimes I need to rest.

Therefore! On this two year anniversary of sorts, I’ve decided to publish an essay every other week, slowing my production significantly. I hope this will both improve the clarity and effectiveness of the writing, and that it will incentivize you to pause and read more often! I’m also working on a way to post an audio file each week, so you can listen to a ten minute reading of the essay as you go about your day. (Let me know if you are a tech wizard and have ideas!).

Since this feels like a juncture of sorts for me, I’ll also say that I’m so very grateful for the curiosity you have shown me as you allow me to help us think about the way we think about each other. I remain convinced that each of us are capable of living in ways that improves the lives of those around us. Indeed, each of us sacrifices for others all the time in beautiful ways. My hope is that we will simply expand our circles so that we care about more people, seeing them as our brothers and sisters. As I’ve grown fond of praying, “Expand my capacity to care about all of it. Help me never see a living soul and utter, ‘Not my problem.’ Everything matters. Amen.”

on practicing beauty (as an act of resistance)

Here at the end of June, nearly halfway through summer holiday for many kids, I’d like to offer some ideas on how to slow down and see beauty. These are indulgent activities (They might not require finances, but they do take time, and it will be necessary to plan find time alone or with one or two others). In my experience, learning how to be in a space, present with yourself, aware of your senses and open to the beauty in the world around you, takes practice.

 The last few years have been so ugly and evil that at times I lost sight of the beautiful. I experienced great personal pain through the slow death of a child I love, students and close friends have struggled to survive through mental illness and addictions, the norms of public speech have devolved so that hate, blame and bigotry are accepted with no challenge, violence is uttered and practiced on the bodies of so many vulnerable people, and those committed most to their own comfort seem protected, unaware of how the systems that protect their position also prevent others from living with enough. Living in grief, and acknowledging my deep dissatisfaction with the inequity and injustice I see around me has left me feeling profoundly alienated.

There are many ways to elevate the sense of connectedness and belonging that abides underneath all this alienation, but here I will offer the two that have sustained me in my weary waking hours: First, to remember my origins, and let them lead me back to my Creator. I have been frustrated at my understanding of God and furious at many people who claim to love God for their utter lack of sacrificial and compassionate action on behalf of hurting others. However, when I remember that I was created by God and that I bear God’s image, and when I read Holy Scriptures, I see that lamenting—confessing to God wrong I have done and wrong done by others, and acknowledging how much it all hurts, and how impossible it all feels outside of a radical, cosmic, redemption—leads me to abiding in God. Lamenting leads to hope, and hope is an act of resistance in this damaged world.

 The second lesson I have learned in how to find the points of connection when alienation or grief threaten to swallow me whole is rather simple: seek beauty. The ugly is surely there if you look for it, but the wonderful truth about our planet and the people on it is that beauty exists. Always. Train your eyes to look for it, train your body to respond to it, train your hands to create it. Elevating beauty in the midst of pain and suffering is a bold act of resistance in this dark world.

So, with that, here are indulgent suggestions on how to spend time elevating the beauty around you, reminding yourself that you belong to a world that is both ugly and beautiful, and that each of us must learn to accept and respond to all of it.

1)   Plan to be outside from dusk to dark. Like an observant Jewish family prepares to rest on Sabbath, plan ahead so that food, music, and seating are ready. Lights hush our spirits, so find a way to see the stars and the moon, or string some twinkly lights, or build a small fire. Watch the world go dark.

2)   Create something. Search your childhood, school days, or even a dream you used to have, and go try it again. If you are embarrassed then do it alone. Paint a canvas, or even a piece of paper (paint the whole thing first just to get over the blank page). Pick up a guitar (even at a store) and try to play a chord. Sing a song out loud with no accompaniment. Get some clay (or play dough!) and make a snail. Build a recycling bin or a table. Write a song, or a memory. Enjoy the process, if not the product.

3)   Find a patch of green, a bench, or a walking trail in a part of your town you normally do not visit, and go be there. Sit or walk and just see the people, noticing that you share a county with lots of people you never encounter, and they have a normal that works in their space just like you do in yours. Wonder at the wide variety of living we all do.

4)   Garden. If you have green space then weed it and plant something that makes you smile. If you don’t then buy a few pots and then fill them with soil and living things. Go to a berry patch or orchard and pick fruit. Allow yourself to notice that the rhythm of our world is to die and then to live again, to be still and then productive.

5)   Sit in one chair, pour yourself something you can sip slowly, and listen to an entire album. I suggest jazz (even if you’ve never listened to jazz). Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Herbie Hancock’s Inventions and Dimensions or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Just be with the music, observe your wondering mind and see what it does for you.

6)   Find a state park (usually free) and go on a long hike. Work hard and go fast for 30 minutes, sweating and breathing heavy. Then forcibly slow yourself, looking around and soaking it all in for 10 minutes. Repeat for as long as you can, noticing that our bodies are made to work hard, but that in doing so we often miss the world around us. Make room for both in your daily rhythm.

7)   Begin a daily practice of Examen. There are many ways to do this, but I suggest simply setting aside time every day to reflect on two questions.  As you do, your answers will begin to reveal for you certain habits, tensions or areas of gratitude that are dominant themes in your life.  As you ask yourself two sides of the same question, day after day, do not over analyze your answers; rather, make a note and take in the data you collect.  You might be most impacted after a week or two when you begin to notice patterns—not of situations, but of your responses to and feelings about such moments.

            Possible questions include:

            For what moment am I most grateful today?  For what moment am I least grateful?

            When did I give/receive the most love today?  When did I give/receive the least?

            What was the most life-giving moment today?  What was the most life-thwarting?

            When did I feel most connected to God, others, self? When was I unconnected?

            When did I experience “consolation”? When did I experience “desolation”?

 

We have this one, beautiful ugly life, and the task before us is to show up for all of it. Remember your origins, and seek beauty, and you will find that we can resist the darkness one practice at a time.