Mark Twain’s Christmas wish

“It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us—the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage—may eventually be gathered together in heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss—except the inventor of the telephone.”

— Mark Twain, Hardford, Ct. Dec. 23, 1890

Encounter in a breakfast shop

I woke early yesterday morning. I decided I’d help the struggling economy so I went out to eat for breakfast. I went to a nearby breakfast shop for some pancakes and a little alone-time sipping coffee and reading a little of the new book I’d recently got. At least that was the original plan.

I was there just as the doors opened. The manager, I’ll call her Lisa, sat me in a booth. Besides the cook, she was the only other person working. I was the first and only customer and would be for about 30 minutes before any other patrons—and one of the servers—started trickling in.

While pouring my coffee Lisa noticed my new book. With a tone of curiosity, she read the title out-loud: “First Principles. Sounds interesting. So what’s it about?” I said it was a history book about the education of our first 4 presidents and the classical principles which they, and all the Founding Fathers ultimately, had constructed our nation upon.

She told me she loved history but didn’t have time for reading. She had 6 children and a busy life. She gently added, “These are interesting times for sure.” She was slow and cautious with her words, not knowing my views. “I can only imagine how historians,” she smiled slightly, “will see these very revealing times.”

Of course it was the word “revealing” that pulled me in. I began to probe.

“So where are you from?”

“I was a military brat of sorts growing up,” she said, “but basically I’ve lived in this area most of my life. Since I was about 5.”

“Do you like this area?”

“Hmmmm,” studying my face closely, “that’s a complicated question, sir” she said. “Some days I do….and some days I’d like to move far away. I know I can’t escape it all entirely, but the hate is thick in the air here.” I could tell she was watching my reaction to her words; waiting to see what her words might provoke…or reveal.

I assumed, correctly, that she was referring to the debased status of American politics. I told her, “Yes, well George Orwell once said ‘all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia,’ and I think that statement has probably never been more true in American politics than right now.” Her gaze fixed on me, “Gosh, that is so true right now. I mean I’ve experienced deep hatred before while growing up and I know it’s always there, lurking, but I thought maybe our nation was making some real progress…..but I can see I was completely wrong.”

I was meditating on her words, “If I may…’deep’ hatred? What do you mean exactly? Hate is pretty strong and deep already, isn’t it?” Understand that Lisa is a woman of mixed race. She had told me during our chat that her mother was white and her father black.

She went on: “Well what I mean is when I was growing up my [maternal] grandparents never allowed me or my mixed race brother into their house. My brother and I had dark skin so we weren’t allowed inside the house. We had to sit on the front porch, but our half brother and sister, who were white, were allowed inside. My white mom had me and my brother with my dad, who was black, and then they got divorced and my mom remarried a white guy and had two white children with him. My grandparents were very racist. The white grandchildren were welcome in the house, my mixed raced brother and I weren’t. My grandparents made that very clear. I never understood it, it was so cruel. I mean it wasn’t mine or my brother’s fault that my mom slept with a black man and had us.”

The time period we’re talking about is the mid 1990s, in Virginia Beach, VA. That struck me. Lisa’s grandparents lived in a middle-class neighborhood. I had grown up in Va. Beach myself and left in 1991 and just recently moved back. The city was–and still is–largely a white, middle-class city, that constantly ranks in U.S. News magazine as one of he best places to live in America. It was a great place to grow up. At least it had been for me.

Stunned, I said, “So you were never allowed in your grandparent’s home?!”

“No, my brother and I, being black, had to sit on the front porch. My white half brother and sister went inside and visited.”

“So you sat out there on the porch the entire visit? Even if the visit went for hours?” I said.

“Yes, my mom would bring us food and we’d eat there on one of those rocking chair benches.”

She could see the look of searching disbelief on my face, “Even in the cold?”

“Yes. My brother and I were never allowed inside the house. After a while we’d sometimes wonder over to the neighbor’s house. They knew what was going on and gladly welcomed us to play with their kids, who were about my brother and I’s age.”

“So what did your mother say to you and your brother about all this?” I said.

Lisa paused, she seemed to be trying to balance something inside. “I don’t,” she began slowly, looking down, eyes darting back and forth, as if she was searching for something lost, “recall my mom objecting to it. She seemed to see it as something that was-what-it-was and we had to live with it. You have to understand that at first my mom might not have been racist. I mean she married my dad, but in the end she’s her parent’s child. I think she just accepted the situation with her parents and her mixed children because she somehow understood how they could be racist. I’ll never know I guess. Her and I have had it out numerous times recently about some of her Facebook posts. She’ll post openly racist stuff! She never use to do that. It’s like she doesn’t care how that might hurt my brother and I. She just doesn’t care.”

I asked Lisa why her mother might feel it’s okay to say or post these things that might hurt her children.

“You know before,” Lisa said, “my mother always sort of struggled, I think, with something inside about race and her life and her beliefs, but she use to have some restraint because of me and my brother. Not saying she handled it well, obviously, but she wasn’t this bad. But there’s no doubt the election of Donald Trump completely unleashed something inside her. Trump has unleashed something in the hearts of many Americans that is dark and hateful. It was always there, smoldering, Trump just threw fuel on it. That’s why I’d like to move away from here. But I know you can’t run from it.”

“So,” I asked, “your mother says and posts blatantly racist stuff and it hurts you and your brother. How do you get past it? How is it that you’re still able to maintain a good relationship with your mother?”

“Well that’s a very good question,” she said. “It does hurt, and we argue badly about it. A lot. But what do you do? It’s mom! There’s a lot I could hate my mom for but I refuse to do that. I guess what my racist grandparents taught me by their poor example was that hate is an awful thing. It can eat you up. They taught me how cruel and mean and ignorant hate can be and I’ve always said I would never be like them. My mom wasn’t born a racist. She learned to be racist from her parents. I think my younger mom had at first resisted….she married my dad for example. But that didn’t work out and she fell back into what she’d learned as a young girl. So I’ve tried to understand my mom and have some sympathy for the fact that her parents taught her to be racist. I keep hoping to reach that part of her that I know is there. Hope is all we got.”

“Yes, that’s true Lisa, for a lot of things in life all we can do is wait and hope.”

The importance of living and promoting fundamental values

During politically turbulent times like these our value systems are put to the test. Being human, naturally, we fail to live our values completely and honestly. We’re all hypocrites. A lot of us (but clearly not all) recognize this early in life as we mature and develop a greater and deeper sense of honest self-reflection. This leads the penitent soul to recognize how important, for example, humility is in everyday life. Humility, we realize, is a solid virtue. Humility is a fundamental value we believe in because it’s an honest and mature understanding of our naturally flawed condition.

So, if we truly value humility—or truth telling, integrity, fidelity, justice, mercy, faithfulness, etc, etc—then we value them as an integrate part of a meaningful and purposeful driven life. We also, naturally, want to see these values reflected in the behavior and character of others—especially our leaders. Such fundamental values make our social lives and our sense of community possible. The break down, or deep decay of these values over time, is an invitation to strife, to rabid partisanship, to tribalism, to social breakdown, and the fermenting of civil war.

So it becomes critically important to understand that none of these values or virtues have any meaning unless we try to live them and promote them socially. (Listening and empathy, I might add, are virtues.)

Character matters folks. That’s a fundamental law of humanity. Our mature minds and our longing souls know this if we but listen to them. We should live, as best we can, those fundamental values and expect our leaders will strive to do the same.

Our life’s work is an act of daily creation

“We are your opus. We are the music of your life.”

My wife and I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus the other night. Over the years I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie but never watched the entire film. Typically, when you hear someone reference the movie, which is rare these days, it’s usually a movie critic or, at best, someone over 40 remembering it as “a classic.”

When someone calls a movie “a classic” I can’t say exactly what they mean, but to me calling something a classic means it’s good art. The philosopher Roger Scruton captured it fairly well when said that “art…reconciles us to human life, gives us a sense that life has an intrinsic meaning and as such is justified in itself.” This reconciliation to life’s turns and the intrinsic meaning to be found in it is exactly what we find in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

So what’s the film about?

Glenn Holland (played brilliantly by Richard Dreyfus) is an aspiring artist who dreams of writing a great symphony and becoming a renown composer one day. But, as is often the case, life has different plans. Holland takes a job as a high school music teacher to pay the bills. He thinks he’ll do this teaching gig for a few years, save some money, and hopefully break into the music business as a successful composer. He figures he’ll do the teaching job during the day and compose during his off-time, his “spare time.” Or so he’d hoped.

But of course life is rarely that simple or cooperative. Holland’s life and job become ever more consuming: He and his wife have a child; the boy turns out to be deaf and requires special–costly–services. They buy a new home. Holland must work during the summer breaks for extra money. Holland takes on tutoring some of his students before and after class. He’s placed on various after-school committees, and he’s put in charge of the marching band. Spare time, he finds, is a commodity he has very little of for composing music.

Gradually Holland’s dream of writing a great symphony, of becoming a great artist, fades in the careless flow of time. He accepts he’s not going to be a great composer of music, at least not now. But without quite realizing it Holland had been artfully composing something all along, just not music.

After 30 years of teaching music Holland is called in and told his career as a teacher has come to an end. The school system is cutting the music program. As Holland is leaving the school for the last time he hears noise in the auditorium and goes to find out what’s happening. As he (his wife and son) enter a filled auditorium the faculty, students, and many former students from over his career, stand and cheer him. It’s a surprise retirement party. They’ve all come together to celebrate Holland’s career. Glenn Holland, like so many of us, hadn’t achieved that youthful dream. He hadn’t written that great symphony, but he had been creating a master work all along. It would be realized in the cheering and smiling faces all around him.

Holland wasn’t able to give the world a great musical symphony, but he’d given his students something very valuable. He had given himself. He had given that most precious of human gifts that one human being can give to another: caring and attentiveness. He hadn’t realized it but throughout his years of teaching he’d been composing all along, but his symphony wasn’t of musical notes and beautiful sounds, it was a grand symphony of hope and inspiration.

The final scene of Mr. Holland’s Opus

The film is a classic because it’s good art: it reconciles us to life’s realities, and allows us to see (and feel) the intrinsic meaning in this reconciliation. Like Holland, many of us have had grand dreams about what we’d hoped to accomplish in our life but it didn’t work out, or at least not in the way we’d envisioned. Instead life took us in a different direction, and, is often the case, we found happiness, success, and meaning along this different path.

It wasn’t until the end of his career that Holland recognized the impact he’d made on so many lives. The writer of this film, the artist, wants to remind us that life itself can be a work of art. It’s ultimately up to each of us to recognize the artful impact of our daily life, and decide with each daily act and choice what we’re creating and what we’d like to be remembered for.

Decision are Made by Those Who Show UP

Without question, we are 17 days from the most consequential election of our lifetimes. Please make your voice heard.

Let’s restore dignity, grace, and intelligence to the Office of the Presidency. Let’s rebuild the American economy on more fairer and just terms. Let’s restore America’s position as the leader of the free world. Let’s act decisively to protect and preserve our democracy and our democratic institutions from the creeping forces of authoritarianism.

No matter what it takes, on November 3rd SHOW UP at the polls. Stand in line no matter how long it takes. This is your patriotic duty to your country…and, I would hope, to your conscience. The direction of our nation will be decided by those citizens who show up and exercise that most precious and fought-and-died-for right, the right to vote. Let’s send a resounding and clear message.

Let us, most of all, restore faith in the promise of America.