Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah.
The third week of December in 2016.
Major storm just rolled in – wind, rain, snow – power outage.
Old Man Winter finally arrived in a wild mood.
MEANWHILE – SIDEWAYS
Winter Solstice has long been celebrated by me as New Year’s Day.
It’s happening again this week.
The longest night of the year will be past.
The next morning’s dawn is the forerunner of longer days, however slight.
A cycle has run its annual course.
More light is on the way.
December 22, by my weird way of thinking, is the first day of Spring.
* * * * *
Saw this bumper sticker on several cars and trucks in town this week:
“What Would Jesus Do?”
I think I know what the question intends, and it’s a noble thought.
But if, as some believe, Jesus is about to return any day, any moment,
and it happens in the next two weeks, and he sees what’s going on, one might well ask,
“What Would Jesus Do?” with what we’ve done in honor of His birthday?
Would He stay for the party?
* * * *
A kid I once knew well was prone to vex his mother with probing
theological questions at this time of year.
“Did Jesus ever have a Christmas tree?”
“Well . . . .”
“Did Jesus ever meet Santa Claus?”
“Well . . .”
“Did Jesus have to go to Sunday School and church?”
“Well . . .
“Did Jesus sing Christmas carols?”
“Well . . ..”
“Did Jesus have a birthday cake the next year when he was one?”
“Well . . .”
“Did Jesus know that Joseph was not his real Daddy?
“Well . . .”
“Why didn’t the Wise Men bring something useful to poor people with a
baby in a stable – like lunch – some ham sandwiches or something?
“I don’t know.”
“Was Jesus a Christian?”
I don’t remember the answers – because there weren’t any a kid could really
understand. I do remember the questions and the wicked pleasure the
kid took when backing his mother into a theological corner.
That same kid had a kid of his own who once asked him, while they were ringing the Salvation Army bell one year:
“Is there a Salvation Air Force?”
“Yes – that’s what angels are.”
* * * * *
Next question: Why don’t you have a Christmas tree?
But I do, I do.
My house is surrounded by Christmas trees – pine, fir, cedar, juniper.
They’re out there all year long – alive.
Trees grow slowly in this climate – they aren’t very tall.
Most of them are much older than I am – they were here before I was born and will be here after I’m dead.
The trees have cones or berries on them and little birds fly in and out of them – they’re already decorated, you see.
Add a little snow and my tree are as Christmas as can be.
I just don’t have the heart to go outside and murder one and bring it in
the house and watch it while it slowly expires.
There, that’s one answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”
He wouldn’t kill a tree to celebrate His birthday.
* * * * *
The Winter Solstice puts me in a state combining mild euphoria and self-reflection. It’s always a time of taking inventory – to consider the year-end profit-and-loss state of my personal enterprises: Fulghum Heavy Industries.
By the time January 1, 2017 comes I’ll already be up and running.
But I’m in a sideways mode for now.
Some sense of being successful in life may lie in knowing which league to play in. If you are and have always been short, chubby, and slow, and your sense of success means playing striker on a World Cup soccer team, forget it.
Failure will be your lot in life.
Sorry. Wrong league.
However, if you are pleased to play goalie on a local playground team with other short, chubby, and slow people – and you have a wonderful time doing it, then you are a successful soccer player.
And the same is true for any sport – tennis, baseball, volleyball, poker or whatever – best to pick a league worthy of your abilities and flourish there.
Epictetus said way back in the 1st century B.C.:
“If you can fish, fish. If you can sing, sing. If you can fight, fight. Determine what you can do. And do that.”
Likewise, some sense of being successful in life may lie in knowing
on which scale you work best.
For example, an astronomer is one whose mind can work on a cosmic scale.
A physicist is one whose mind can handle the quantum scale.
A theologian – the metaphysical scale.
Historians deal with the long picture.
A psychiatrist works with the deep picture.
A cook or taxi driver or barber attends the immediate situation.
Poets and artists operate on a very personal, inner scale.
Many people die confused and unfulfilled, because they spend a life trying to perform above or even below their abilities and perspective – usually a matter of working on the wrong scale.
Epictetus again: “Why worry about being a nobody when what matters is being a somebody in those areas of your life over which you have control, and in which you can make a difference?”
My mind works best on the scale of the local, the daily, and the ordinary.
Writing about that is the league in which I am competent.
I tend to be simple-minded, plain-spoken, and optimistic.
I attend to my corner of the world as best I can with the tools I have.
Of course evil and ugliness exists, as much now as ever.
These get all the headlines. We all know about the bad news.
A tsunami of information flows over us in journalism, punditry, blogs, and editorials from newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, and the internet.
It is my opinion that we’re pretty well covered on the negative side of the ongoing human enterprise. Wars, corruption, crime, disease, disaster, and all the other manifestations of evil in the world are well publicized, well-documented, and well deplored.
Plenty of reasons for pessimism.
The wrongs of the world are clear.
I’ve witnessed cruelty, injustice, pain, sorrow, and death firsthand.
And knowing that I am a flawed and foolish man who has more failures to his credit than successes cinches my case.
However, I do not shut my eyes and turn away.
I’m as outraged and frustrated as most of us are.
And I send money and vote and sometimes march in protest.
Still, ultimately, I know I shall die – all of us will.
The climate will change.
The seas will rise.
The glaciers will be back.
Life will evolve in unimagined forms.
And, finally, the Earth will fall into the sun.
That’s the truth.
But for the time being, there’s what I call The Meanwhile Factor.
Meanwhile, I remain astonished at the good and lovely that does exist.
And most of it is free and readily available if I’ll look for it.
Meanwhile . . . is the league and scale of the amateurs like me.
I am profoundly grateful that those who do have what it takes to act on the grand stage of the world have the courage to step forward and play in the big league on a major scale.
The New Yorker magazine quoted a statement Barack Obama made to the Times’ David Brooks: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief that we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
Obama was reflecting on the thinking of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, to whom is attributed the great prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s a beautiful prayer, but, for me, it hangs too much responsibility on God.
As I humanist, I’d put it this way – as a statement, not a request:
I believe that I am capable of the serenity to accept things I cannot change;
I have the power to muster the courage to changes the things I can;
and I have the experience and insight to know the difference.
Obama’s speech was about Hope.
Not the wimpy kind.
A muscular, active hope that acknowledges noble human accomplishments in the past and the ongoing possibilities in the foreseeable future.
This reminds me of the probably-apocryphal, but bound-in-truth, story of the wagon-master’s cry to pioneers in the American westward venture.
“Them that’s going, get behind the wagons and push. Them that ain’t, at least get out of the way.”
As for me, I’m one of them that’s going. And if I focus on the positive side of human experience, on the possibilities in the small events of a given day that might lift the spirits of those that are also going.
No apology is offered.
I am a storyteller at heart. I am a man who goes about trying to be awake to the news of the immediate ordinary world; to make sense of what I see; to pass my thoughts along.
And to offer praise where praise is due.
I want to have credible, worthy answers to the four Great Mother Questions:
What on earth have you done?
What in the name of God are you doing?
What will you think of next?
Who do you think you are?
Out of my own desire not to drown in the news of evil, I search for the good stuff in the world in my own life. I don’t want to miss it. And when I find it, I pass it on. Often it makes me laugh.
We are all characters in a comic strip at times.
And I say, over and over, in one way or another, “Meanwhile, don’t miss the good stuff. Pass it on.” If I have a message, that’s pretty much it.
There. Not a self-defense or an apology.
Just a statement of position – moving sideways for the moment.
Here at the Winter Solstice of another year.
The world and the universe go their inevitable way.
On that scale, no doubt things are working out just as they should.
Meanwhile . . . I know what I can do.
Meanwhile . . . I do it.
Often I end a letter to friends with this admonition:
Meanwhile, stay strange, stay amused, stay amazed.”
On this day when inevitable darkness shifts once more toward invincible light
– as this letter ends, I say that to you.