Thursday, January 20, 2011

Monsters Unincorporated

Remember when you were a kid and used to be afraid of monsters under your bed or in the closet? Even though you'd never actually seen one in person, and even though your parents promised you they didn't exist, you knew enough to be scared. When your parents looked in the closet for you and checked under the bed, you weren't really reassured; you only had no other recourse but to accept that the monsters were not there for the moment, and hope you'd fall asleep before that moment passed.

Now grown, our monsters often still exist just as strongly. The old ones of unimaginable ugliness, size and stealth are gone, but we've created new ones just as formidable. The adult monsters I often hear described are fears of a different nature. Fears of: global warming, a recession comparable to the Great Depression, a nuclear holocaust, a tyrannical or uncaring government, the destruction of Earth. Or on a more personal level, fears of: losing a job, losing a loved one, failure, retirement, loneliness, financial ruin.

Rarely do adults admit to fear. Rather, we mask them in political palaver, adamant condemnations of others, and call them "concerns."

But these concerns seem awfully similar to the childhood monsters that lived under the bed. Never actualized, never clarified, never truly conquered, always stifling peace and joy.  Our adult monsters are much worse than any childish monsters, because we are now responsible for our own safety. No longer can anyone else allay our fears, it's up to us to do it ourselves (with God's help). And most people don't want to face their monsters.

I choose to fight. Early in my adult life, I began to learn that if something scared me, then I'd better do it or face it, because the not knowing was my real fear. I found I had to look under the bed in order to sleep. So, I applied for jobs I had no skills for, not knowing if I could succeed (I did). I married, not knowing if it would last (it didn't). I had children, not knowing if I could raise them well (I did). I acted in a play, not knowing if I could act (I couldn't). I sang in public, not thinking I could sing well (I can't). I encouraged my girls to be independent, not knowing if they would be safe (I redefined safe). I taught English, not knowing if I could teach (I could). I backpacked in Alaska, not knowing if I was prepared (I wasn't). I participated on mock trial teams, not knowing if I would win (I won and I lost). I am opening a restaurant, not knowing anything about the business (it will be fun, whether it works or not).

I hope to fight my fears as long as I live, because that's how I grow. That's how I have peace. I find it much easier to fight now, because I have faith that even the worst possible result is bearable. Failure is not indicative of being a loser; not even trying is. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" said FDR. Bully that!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Born Free?

Last night, PBS aired "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story," an interesting documentary on the real lives of Joy and George Adamson and their work with African predator cats. A comment struck me, that before the Adamsons, no one viewed wild animals as having personalities and being individualistic in their natures (paraphrased). One of their greatest achievements was demonstrating that humans and wild animals can connect with one another, and can love one another, thus giving validity to universal worth of life.

Yes and no. 

Yes, all mammals should be appreciated and treated with respect. Yes, animals are incredibly complex and (like humans) can often be trained with love, calmed with music, manipulated with kindness, especially from infancy. Yes, we can feel intense love, awe, protectiveness, and loss in regard to our relationship with animals, whether they be our old tabby house cat or a wild leopard.

Both the documentary and the movie Born Free evoke intense jealousy in me, as I watch the Adamsons and the actors interact with the big cats, playing, petting, and tussling with them. I believe the film was so popular because we all dream of having that intimate relationship with a huge and powerful kitten; once that fantasy has been fueled, then we can transfer our affection to caring for cats in the wild, even if we are not the ones that actually get to do it. Nothing wrong with that at all. We must always personally identify with something or someone to truly desire to help; compassion and empathy require some level of love.

But no, perfect harmony between humans and wild animals does not currently exist, partly due to their (and our) natures. Humans' survival instinct is usually manifested through power, whether it be war, violence, competition, or merely a snide remark. Wild animals' survival instinct is almost always manifested through violence, specifically killing and eating. Yes, there are wild animals that survive as herbivores and some that are like us humans and are omnivores, but the ones that fascinate us are the carnivores. We are enthralled by their apparent indiscriminate ability to kill at will. Watching "Wild Kingdom" as a kid was always much more exciting when Jim fought to stay alive while Marlin Perkins calmly described the attack. National Geographic's nature shows always made us cringe when we saw the cheetah attack the young wildebeest, pulling it down. But we never changed the channel. We humans consider ourselves civilized, so our killing is either justified or condemned, but never neutral.

The documentary told what the movie did and could not. A later lion George attempted to rehabilitate to the wild attacked a child and later killed a man, requiring the lion to be put down.

My trip to Kenya affected me more than I can yet comprehend. It was the closest to both heaven and hell that I've ever encountered traveling. I stood (in a Range Rover) not 15 feet from 5 lionesses and their 10 cubs, lounging under the sun, grooming and playing with each other. Pure beauty, love, trust and happiness in the moment. 
I saw grown lions walking calmly by elephants, neither bothered by the other. I saw giraffe mothers watching their young playing amongst zebra. 
Yet, I also witnessed crocodiles tearing down wildebeest as they crossed a river, terrified, struggling to get away with broken legs, bleeding while others crushed by. 
I literally cried when I watched a hungry baboon eating a baby gazelle alive, with absolutely no compunction whatsoever, totally unmoved by its death cries. 
We were not created to be enemies toward each other, yet due to our own actions and choices, the world suffers. Enmity between man and snakes, the concept of eating meat, the fear between men and animals, have all been the result of our own selfishness. But, one day, harmony will truly exist again.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear, 
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the ole of the cobra, 
and the young child put his hand into the viper's next.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9

Friday, January 7, 2011

Touch Moments

Moments I've (been) touched:

  • a death row inmate's embrace
  • a boa constrictor wrapping itself around my forearm
  • the first flutter of movement in my womb
  • a campfire's warmth on my backside
  • the freshly burred head of a young boy
  • petting a moray eel in Moorea
  • tree sap on my fingers, legs, hair
  • a child's trusting hand in mine
  • dolphins propelling me through the water
  • plucking fragile cicada shells from trees with my grandmother
  • the merest brush with a potential lover
  • the contrast between the softness right above a dog's nose and the nose itself
  • black sand between my toes
  • a patient cow's teat in my hand
  • an icicle on my tongue
  • cradling a mewing baby white tiger in my arms
  • stones brilliantly pieced together by the Inca
  • living coral beneath the sea
  • my baby nursing contentedly 
  • bitingly cold air in my lungs
  • my blind grandfather's hand on my arm
  • the sun's heat on my face
  • gingerly holding a blowfish in my hands
The ability to feel makes life meaningful and memorable.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Miracle Music

Color Blind: In 1972, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and several other black jazz musicians went to Yale University to play and raise money for aspiring black musicians. During one performance, a bomb threat was called in, and police rushed to move the musicians to safety. Mingus refused to quit playing, saying "Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain't strong enough to kill this music."

Beth Ullman, an incredible jazz singer, wrote "Charlie's Last Stand" about this story.  She sang this song New Year's Eve at a small concert in her home: a gift to us, a perfect way to end 2010 and begin 2011. 

In Keith Richards' bio Life, he says "I didn't know Chuck Berry was black for two years after I first heard his music....and for ages I didn't know Jerry Lee Lewis was white....It was hardly important. It was the sound that was important."

Soulful: Music touches everyone, even the rhythm-deficient and the tone deaf. In fact, it may mean even more to those of us with very little musical talent, because we need music as a saguaro cactus needs water. I can't produce music, but I need it.

I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. [Igor Stravinsky]

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. [Confucius]

Universal: We've all heard the stories of a lone violin or piano playing in the midst of war, yet calming both sides. We've all heard music from different cultures, yet we feel a kinship to the musicians. We've all heard music in languages we don't understand, yet we understand the song. 

As an adult, I was initially drawn to classical music and European opera precisely because there are no coherent words to engage my mind; I can just revel in the pure enjoyment of the notes.

Musical compositions, it should be remembered, do not inhabit certain countries, certain museums, like paintings and statues. The Mozart Quintet is not shut up in Salzburg; I have it in my pocket. [Henri Rabaud]

Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends. [Alphonse de Lamartine]

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. [Victor Hugo]

Beyond Man: In my opinion, music is "of man," yet is "beyond any one man." Angels sing. The miracle of music transcends humanity, drawing us to one another, while simultaneously drawing us to a higher level of being, and a better us.

If I can write the songs of the nations, I don't care who writes the laws. [Plato]

Music cleanses the understanding, inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself. [Henry Ward Beecher]

It is incontestable that music indues in us a sense of the infinite and the contemplation of the invisible. [Victor de LaPrade]

Play on.