The time change and my recent life have aligned to place me in the gauzy betweenworld of sleep and reality.
Yesterday, I watched the last episode of Bill Maher. One of the guests was Michael Eric Dyson, a preacher, professor, and activist. Another was Jon Meacham, a historian, and writer. Both were exceptional. Jon’s intelligence and ability to explain his ideas impressed me. Michael had the same gift, amplified with a poignant and natural turn of phrase. If I’ve learned nothing else about myself, I treasure these gifts.
Though I didn’t know I was dreaming, a writer invited me to attend an unfamiliar church on a Friday evening. As happens in dreams, I entered the church without any connecting events.
After a round of introduction and applause, a man approached the podium placed in front of the altar at the front of the church. He cleared his throat and began to speak:
“If you want to be a good person in life, the most important thing you own might be your ears. Your eyes are forever full of appetite and illusion. If you’re receptive to what you hear, you learn a lot of knowledge. But you also learn a lot of subtext and context that your eyes convert to confusion. If you educate yourself, your mouth allows you to share what you learn with others who hopefully have their ears open to different voices. But no matter how much you learn in life or what you achieve, if your heart isn’t open, you’ve wasted your life. Your heart shouldn’t be open only for what you see as God in your life. It should be open to people as they struggle. Because you have a lot of life experience, it would be easy to use the conduit between your ears and mouth to forget that whatever someone else is going through, they need your ears and heart to open long before they need your mouth. A welcome ear and a warm hand on one’s shoulder can cure more disorders than any amount of preaching. Present company excluded. If you have God in your heart, I believe you’re ahead of the game. But more importantly, just open your heart at every opportunity and figure out what’s keeping you from doing it all the time. Wide open. My message today is this: Ears. Heart. Mouth. Your achievements are meaningless otherwise. And all the knowledge? Dusty information doesn’t help anyone. Flex your fingers and arms for an embrace.”
The preacher took the papers from the podium and threw them into the air, and laughed.
“See? You weren’t expecting that! Sermons and life must contain unexpected moves – and laughter. Love one another as much as you can and listen. Amen.”
If you don’t know the phrase, “better and bitter angels,” you should add it to your vocabulary. Most of us talk about the devils on each of our shoulders. The truth is that it is our intentions, motivations, and convictions that run us afoul more often than the whispering devils. In our public life, we judge others. In our private secrets moments, we judge ourselves most harshly. A little grace for all of us is much needed.
P.S. And a bit for you if you’re looking backward with an unkind eye for yourself.
Often, the only way forward is to give yourself a laughing pass for the things you have most definitely said and done. And twice that for the things you imagined you are guilty of.
This story zigzags like my life. I apologize for having no consistency.
I generally have a rip-shirt in the closet. The current one is somewhere between 15-20 years old. The vivid color of the shirt has faded, and the fabric is stretched past its intended shape. But I keep fixing the rips and frayed edges because that is what life is. I’ve done every activity you can imagine in that shirt. (Don’t overthink that.)
Because I have always sewed, I sometimes dabble with a variety of things that require it. My Grandma Cook taught me to do a stitch when I was very young. I loved sitting at her feet on the rough floor and sewing anything she handed to me. And often, my fingertips. Thimbles were available but made poor guides for novice sewers.
My Dad and brother loved mercilessly teasing me about my penchant for making non-bunching pillows many years ago; my favorite kind involved going to a fabric store or department and choosing something appropriate for the intended v̵i̵c̵t̵i̵m̵s̵ recipients. Sewing has always been meditative for me. I’m not GOOD at it, of course, but you know what I’m going to say: I don’t care. No one in their right mind would ever invite me to a quilting circle for my sewing skills unless they needed comic relief.
In my early 20s, I started doing what I call rip-shirts. Some of them took me 100 hours to make. Simply put, I choose a shirt, usually of a distinctive color, then spend hours sewing stitch patterns all over it. Part of the fun is using a wide variety of threads, especially of different colors. It’s supposed to be garish. It’s possible to do intricate monograms this way, too, which I’ve done. I gave away many of these for years. One of the key advantages of such a shirt is that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish if it should be discarded, as all subsequent rips, tears, and issues can be restitched and become part of the resulting pattern. One of my shirts had over 500 hand-stitched lines on it. For another, I sewed a difficult-to-see curse word cleverly hidden in the stitch lines. That one amused me greatly.
Later, I discovered Kintsugi’s idea, where breaks and defects in bowls and cups are repaired using lacquer and gold dust. Theoretically, such repaired bowls can be fixed repeatedly and still be both useful and beautiful.
Rip-shirts fulfill the same purpose for me. They are each unique.
As the fabric wears, it becomes softer and more comfortable. If you rip the shirt, you can just sew it back. Unless you tell someone, they’ll assume all the stitches were purposefully placed.
When I was 30, I made a shirt for someone I initially thought was mocking me. He pulled me aside to correct me and told me that the idea was perfection to him. Because he was a large black man, I chose a very large shirt. I monogrammed his nickname along one sleeve and put hundreds of stitch lines on it. It was the only time that I worked hard to get the stitches perfectly aligned. When I handed him the shirt, he teared up. “Wow. I bet this took twenty hours to make, X!” I shook my head. “No, it took fifty.” He couldn’t believe that I spent so much time making him the shirt. He died much too young a few years later. What breaks my heart when I think too long about it? I told him I could teach him to do basic stitching in less than 15 minutes. So it came to pass that I sat in an industrial office in a vast poultry plant patiently showing another grown man how to stitch. It occurred to me how strange the idea would have been to my Grandma.
I indeed caught a fair bit of mockery for wearing these shirts. Likewise, I also wore my clothes inside out for fun, too, or made exotic and ridiculous headbands, sewed on a long-sleeve to a t-shirt, and a wild variety of stupidity. I went inside what is now First Security on Emma. The plant manager for the company I worked for had a wife who worked there. I went to the next teller, and it was the plant manager’s wife. I’ll never forget the look on her face when she realized that my t-shirt had the sleeve of a long-sleeve button-down dress shirt sewed on it instead of a standard t-shirt sleeve. She laughed so hard that a bubble came out of her nose. The look of mortification on her face was etched in marble. And then she laughed more. The person in charge of the tellers walked over to see what the problem was. The plant manager’s wife was crying from laughter and trying to tell her what the joke was. Looking at the floor manager in the eye, I said, “I got robbed, and they did THIS to me!” – and I pointed at my sleeve. The plant manager’s wife and I both laughed for another full minute. The floor manager walked away, shaking her head.
I made several rip-shirts for younger kids, who were fascinated by the concoction of stories I created to go along with them. Kids take a bit longer to lose their sense of adventure or categorically reject something interesting.
Somewhere around 2000, I was at the store wearing a rip-shirt, and a gentleman asked me where I bought the shirt. I think I was at Hastings Records. “I didn’t buy it. I made it.” He seemed genuinely interested. That particular shirt had a lot of neon threads in it. I grabbed the hem of my shirt, pulled the shirt up and off, and handed it to him. “Here,” I told him as I stood there shirtless near the main entrance. He didn’t argue or hesitate. “Thanks, Man!” You would have thought I handed him my wallet. At least fifty times that year, I bragged that I was willing to give someone the shirt off my back.
As my eyesight naturally worsened, I began to sew less often. That was a mistake.
I wonder where some of the rip-shirts ended up or if they still exist. Each of them was made by my imperfect hand. Each one of them is a literal tapestry of the moments I spent making them. They are not for everyone.
No matter how comfortable you are, if you wake up needing to go to the bathroom, you should go immediately. (Get out of bed first, though!) Additionally, as you age, the likelihood that you will misjudge your capacity to navigate the delicate balance of comfort versus biology increases exponentially. Young people read this and think it’s stupid. Older people read this and say, “Genius!” The difference between those two perspectives is experience.
After decades of watching people, I can share an obvious secret with you.
People don’t work to learn another language because it exposes us to our ignorance. It’s not because they’re lazy. They are nervous or scared. If you find someone who doesn’t fear their ignorance being on display as it diminishes, keep that person in your life. They are rare. All of us start from complete ignorance for every language. When we already know one before starting a new one, what we think we know trips us like an endless bucket of banana peels.
If you are lucky enough to speak English as a first language, trust me when I tell you that you won the lottery without purchasing a ticket. Please do everything in your power to forgive others as they struggle with the mess we’ve made of our language. Please take a second and consider that they’re using another language. I know that the necessity of needing to speak or write another language ADDS pressure to those in that position and adds difficulty. Whether it is the case for you, I’m an idiot if a proverbial gun is to my head.
Also, if your accent is remotely like mine, you might sound a bit weird. As the old joke says, the last thing you want to hear your brain surgeon say is, “Y’all are going to be alright.” I’ve butchered so many words that I should have a Dexter spinoff. One thing some don’t know about me, though, is that language is a melody that excites me, and when I find myself forgetting what once was at my disposal, I feel a bit of loss.
For language, all any reasonable person is going to ask is that you try. It helps to be able to laugh at yourself. People learning other languages is a joy to witness. There’s no better comparison than observing a child conquer something complex; mastery soon seems inevitable. Laughter and self-observance is a considerable part of a good learning plan.
Yes, people don’t take the time, that’s true. With a couple of other people before, I proved to them that a person could learn a LOT of another language by just learning one word a day. Like all learning, words begin to associate, stick to another, and create grooves in your brain that you might even realize have formed, in the same way lyrics fall surprisingly from your lips. You’ll soon learn phrases, insults, and wit. Anyone lucky enough to hit the milestone of laughing at a joke that isn’t directly translatable experiences a deep satisfaction at having done so. For me, I will never forget the abstract joy of telling my Sarge/Lieutenant On the Edge of The Prairie joke in Spanish.
Most of us only use around 800 different words a day. I’m not talking about Tiffany or Jessica, who seems to rattle off 800 a minute. They only use four different words, and two of them are both the word “like.” Sorry, Tiffany.
Truthfully, it is not the words per se that create difficulty for us. It’s the connecting words and the ridiculous verb tenses we allow in our language. If you can overcome your initial fear, you can communicate a lot of information using words as a toddler does. You don’t need the word “sublime” in your vocabulary during a typical day – nor do you need to master the future perfect tense, subjunctive or otherwise, in either English or the language you are learning.
I know there are people out there who have always toyed with the idea of another language. If you learn nothing else from me, please hear this: if I can get to a decent level of mastery, anyone can. Even if you only remember a few words, those few words will push your mind outside of its normal limits.
“I don’t look for exoneration, though I want it. There is no one in this world who can be both aware of my actions and the reasons for them except for me. Since I don’t pardon myself, I expect no less from others.” -X
I do look for understanding, and if that’s not possible, acceptance. All of us desire to know who we are and that who we are is of consequence to someone.
“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I fail in this regard a lot, even as I continue to hope that others will assume no failure of character on my part.
“We judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions.” -S. Covey
If you think above these for a few moments, the hypocrisy of how true it all is numbing. I’m working on it. Honestly, I always will be. I can’t imagine aiming for an authentic life without such reflection.
Most of us tentatively feel our way through our lives, wanting more of the invisible things that bind us, yet distracted by things around us. Awakening to our houses’ solid walls, we forget that whatever else we are, we are not focused on the sublime and unknowable lives of satisfaction that could be ours. It is possible that you’re different than me, and that you don’t get distracted by the volume of “other” that surrounds and confounds me.
“The bitterness of knowing the truth is that it is impossible to unknow.” The same idea has been expressed in many ways. I see “the truth hurts, but lies are worse” frequently on social media. Like all universal knowledge, it becomes fuzzy and self-referential the more you try to grasp it.
Knowledge changes us, even if we turn the recognition of it away from prying eyes or panic that it will change us. Whatever we are is already essentially invisible, leading us to hold close the changes we can’t share. In part, it explains why people suddenly seem to change; they trapped their truth until it couldn’t be contained. While the catalyst might have exploded in a single moment, the ability to reveal ourselves is frightening.
We learn something, we figure another thing out, or knowledge breaches our defenses. When we compare it to what we knew before, it’s inescapable that we’ve changed too. Whatever malleable ideas make us a person, a new insight either dents us or expands us.
For those of you who don’t know the agony of insight, it often results in paralysis. Whether you understand that something fundamental to you cannot be right or that you’ve spent time furthering people or a life that you didn’t seek, it is at once liberating and confining. If I were a betting man, I would predict that the postcovid world will shatter us as we wonder if our attention wasn’t in the wrong direction. I do hope it continues to break us of our obsession for things.
Some of my insights include the idea that if God exists, he cannot be an interventionist. Unseen dangers fly above and around us and narrowly miss us with ridiculous frequency regardless of who we are or our accomplishments. That youth and health are no more a guarantee of a long life than any other factor. That certainty of the world or myself is the surest sign I am about to reminded that I am ignorant of both. That love is the glue that both expands and contracts.
Of all my insights, I think the one that traps us most might be that we are indoctrinated into the false promise of security by the right choices. It’s possible to make only the right choices and still fail – or be unhappy. It’s a bitter truth. With the finite number of breaths I was given, how could I possibly know what would lead me to a satisfied life? Not one without agony, because such lives are absent.
I find myself inside the pinball machine, bouncing from one reaction to the next – even as the tally of my remaining steps allotted to me fades. Because we’re human, I suspect you also often look out into the world and deeply feel the disparity between who you are and your place in it.
I have no answers. As I’ve aged, I’ve been glad to see that so many people have admitted that they are struggling for meaning and unsure of themselves. Those who seemed to have surety and confidence often are better at distraction or demeanor. A few years ago, I told a graduate that “the secret to life is most of us are winging it.” His dad, though a brilliant man, told me, “He is not ready for that certainty.”
With love comes turmoil. With life, hardness.
As late as yesterday, someone told me to “choose your hard.”
The census worker stood by my custom address plate when I emerged from around the blind corner of the house, holding a long metal ladder over my head like an idiot. I didn’t know he was standing there; the ladder was over my head for purely ridiculous reasons. The truth is that it seems perfectly safe and reasonable to run around one’s house with a long metal ladder above one’s head, much in the same way that scampering inside the house with two pairs of open scissors seems safe. I’m 53, so stupidity hasn’t so far been fatal. Check back tomorrow, please.
The census worker must have noted a large shadow was overtaking him because he turned around quickly. I’m not sure what he was thinking – only that he was perplexed. Without bothering explaining why I say so, he was the embodiment of what a census taker should look like. I wish he had been wearing a green accountant’s visor. It could save us all a lot of guessing and speculation as the workers navigate through neighborhoods. (If you’re with the Census Bureau, you’re welcome.)
“I completed my census form online a long time ago,” I told him. “Sorry about listing myself as a Vulcan. It was hard enough searching for ‘human’ on the checkboxes.”
“Yes, I saw that in my system. I’m doing a follow-up on a few of your neighbors.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” I told him. “I’m X, bilingual, and do genealogy and general nosiness.”
He smiled. “I’m having problems getting these two houses to respond. I’ve been here before, left notes, etc.” He pointed across the street.
“Yes, you’re not going to get a great response rate here for the reasons you’d expect.” I told him the number of people residing in each house and their general age, ethnicity, and why I thought they wouldn’t respond no matter how many times he knocked, called, emailed, or parachuted into their respective backyards. The census worker seemed surprised when I told him that the first house he pointed to had 6 cars usually parked everywhere. (It looks like a parking lot. The entire neighborhood is slowly becoming one – a fact I predicted when we moved here. A closed set of streets that allows parking on both sides is doomed to become a hazard.)
“You’re going to need to bring a minority census worker with you. You need to come back at 6 p.m. and approach the house when one occupant is already outside. And say, “We need your help” instead of whatever has been scripted for you.” The census worker nodded. We talked for a few minutes.
Before surprising the census worker, I noticed someone sitting suspiciously along the curb a couple of times. I imagined several imaginary scenarios for him: assassin, assessor, or inept thief. I’m still surprised that people distrust census workers. That says a lot about my sheltered life and privilege.
The total number of residents in those two houses is 15-17, depending on the time of the year. That’s a lot of federal money and representation missing. Multiply it by the likelihood that the same pattern is being repeated over much of Springdale, and you get the idea of how massive the problem is.
I’ve done more than my share to help people understand what the census is for and why citizenship is irrelevant for the purposes of counting. I can understand why some people might not be so trusting, given the White House’s occupant in the last few years. Since the census is being prematurely closed down this year, it is a certainty that we’re all being undercounted. Whatever else is going on, the current president isn’t helping matters.
Whether every person should be counted is an issue for us to decide and remedy via the constitution. Until we change the way we do it, we rely on accuracy to share dollars and representation. I get a little cranky about constitutional arguments, as the group of rich white men who wrote it managed to demean well over half the population when they did so.
I have a few white American friends who are also deliberately not participating in the census. Some do so out of privacy fears, some simply because they don’t understand how it impacts them, their community, or their children. The others fall into a category I call “boneheadedness.” That’s what democracy is for: to irritate one’s neighbors. As a liberal, I do my part.
Everyone failing to be counted is doing all of us a disservice. Unlike failing to vote, it is inaction that literally costs us.
With the technology we have today, it is difficult to understand why such a herculean bureaucracy is needed to do what consistently applied technology can. Before I pat myself on the back, I admit that such a system would rely on people much smarter than I am – and not as prone to shenanigans.
Meanwhile, countless residents refuse to answer their doors or reply to the mail the census bureau sends.
As for neighbors who didn’t answer directly, they can thank me for doing the heavy lifting for them. If I had the inclination, I would knock on their doors and leave a note to let them know that their secrecy in itself draws attention to a handful of possible explanations that tend to draw increased scrutiny rather than less. Unlike many, I understand their reluctance and remind myself that my reality is not theirs and to stop blinding myself to it.
I enjoyed talking to the census worker. He was impressively smart about a lot of topics. They really need the green visors, though. .
Notes: The 2020 census was conducted with fewer than 1/2 the total census workers we used in 2016. Many Americans don’t know that everyone alive inside the United States is supposed to be counted. This is the first census that allowed responses by mail, internet, phone, and in-person. For those who don’t do genealogy, census data is released 72 years after it was taken. (This information is incredibly valuable to us tracking ancestors.)
“I find it damning that I can both love someone as a person walking this earth with me and yet despise their ideals. Politics is subverted because we are.”
We blame our response on the system itself as if we did not actively create it or passively nod as we inherited it. Few of us find this to be what gives us comfort or represents the best in us. Most of us scowl and grow angrier at what we’ve allowed, although we might do so from opposite political spectrums. That we don’t have ten distinct political powers is the single biggest issue we face; such fragmentation requires coalition and cooperation. Two-party systems destroy our ability to stop rooting for ‘us’ at the exclusion of ‘them.’
It is our system, the one we’ve allowed to remain. Acknowledging our failure is an indictment of how incapable we are of managing our affairs—failing to realize it is a charge of compassionless disregard. The constitution recognizes itself as a fluid document, just as we should see ourselves as fallible and prone to selfishness and stupidity.
If we are each not culpable, no one is.
Wandering through this year, each of us fought against our better nature. Simply put, it is not about an election. It’s about us.
No political system that culminates in a crescendo of shouts and dissonant voices like this one is a success – no matter how it turns out. The victory you might imagine will be its opposite to those who lost.
We all know that elections are supposed to be a collective handshake about the direction we choose. Words like ‘us’ mean nothing when we disagree on what ‘us’ is or how we get to raise our hands and offer opinions. Marginalizing anyone will water dissent and anger.
We learned of our shared history in school and wondered how such a young country could tear itself or reveal that its dedication to ideals could be so completely torn. Observant citizens no longer wonder; instead, they pivot and watch those around them.
No matter who wins the election, we have fundamentally exposed the facade of our imperfect system. As flawed as it is, it is merely a reflection of us.
We’re fixable. So is the system that seems to dissatisfy all of us.
Though I’m a liberal, I’ll give up all my nuanced objections if we could establish a political system designed to help people. As ignorant as I am about so much, most of us agree that what we have is unworkable and increasingly worse.
If we don’t devise an intelligent way to find a system that serves us better, entropy and chaos will align to assign us as a footnote to an avoidable disaster.
2020 had its issues before involving a national election. How many of us can survive a repeat of this for the rest of our lives? We will lose the ability to engage in public policy and how to manage it.
Unlike many, I’m not foolishly offering solutions. If we can’t get there from here, we’re in trouble.
Breaking the entire system will result in something no one will enjoy.
Since we seem to be there already, I suggest we try something different.
Although similar thoughts have passed through my porous brain over the years, I admit that the “Brooklyn 99” episode with Gina forced me to laugh out loud. I’ve said “blank” or “unintelligible mumble” in the past. Gina’s use of “redacted” was funnier, perhaps in part to the fact that not everyone would use the word in everyday conversation.
Have something you’d like to say but not say it? Want to curse but can’t? Have something potentially offensive? “Redacted” is your word.
In much the same way that saying “Karl” (from “Sling Blade”) denotes sharing a deep feeling for me, I find “redacted” increasingly serving in that capacity, too.
I made a gif to commemorate the word’s increased usage in my private vocabulary.