Monday, July 27, 2009

Pandora

In the midst of a Seattle heat wave, I’ve taken a break from the beach for a moment and am getting caffeinated in another chair in the secret garden of Hotwire Coffee’s outer courtyard. The perpetual plant sale and conveniently placed fencing are providing some good cool relief. It’s just me, the plants and Pandora out here at the moment. Pandora has been a constant companion over the past several months. It’s basically an online personalized radio station. You type in an artist or a style or even a song, hit enter, and a radio station is created. Each time you open Pandora, it begins at your last chosen station and away you go. The interesting part is that you have no idea what’s coming next on the queue, although you do get the opportunity to rate the choice either a thumbs up or a thumbs down. After time, if you hang with it, it compiles your own approved and personalized station. If something comes up, then you also have the opportunity to just skip over it.
I find the name especially intriguing….Pandora… because I am very familiar with the legend of Pandora from Greek mythology, and this is not exactly an accurate portrayal of Pandora. Actually, to me anyway, and at the moment I’m the only one that matters, the Pandora ideology represents a fascinating blend of Greek mythology and current Western culture. The story of Pandora, in it’s barest form, is that Zeus gave her a box, actually it was a clay jar, along with the instruction to never open it. He also conveniently gave her the gift of curiosity. In modern times, I think it translates into the gift of shopping. What he was thinking, I have no idea. Well apparently, as incredibly unlikely as it might have seemed, she opened the box, or clay jar. Out of the open jar sprang, supposedly all the ills of society, including reality TV, televangelists, and instant coffee. Anyway, the assumption was, she opened it without having any idea what would come out.
That, in my opinion, is where the similarities end between the myth and our online version. You open it and are not really sure what will come out. However, while she was powerless to now do anything about these great ills that were loosed on the world, we, in our continued attempt at social engineering, get to eliminate that which we deem to be bad selections not personally chosen. We get to skip over song choices less desirable, either to eliminate them entirely or to wait for a more convenient day. You may think I’m being cynical here, it has happened on occasion, but I find the metaphor here to be very interesting.
The imagery is our vain attempt at engineering our choices, wise or otherwise, to have only outcomes that have passed our acceptability test. The Greeks knew the reality of choice. Choice brings outcome and her choice brought the outcome for the entire society, fair or not, guilty or not. Our culture says that no, I can make a choice, but the outcome, if not entirely acceptable to me, should be passed on until I can experience a suitable outcome. This is technically known as mental illness. I deal with it all of the time. I have a personal version of it in my own life. None of us is totally exempt.
So lest this become really depressing, I will share that, it is said that at the very bottom of her jar, despite everything that had already escaped, there lay “hope”. Although I have a knowledge of Greek mythology, I am not a follower of it. I do however hold this appreciation as it parallels my own faith in Jesus. We do share some important commonalities. I have my own beliefs in the origin of the “ills of society”, but the“ills of society” certainly do exist. Secondly, what is left for us is indeed hope. So, knowing that, as I enjoy my daily interaction with Pandora, I have in recent months refused to “engineer” my own stations. I realize that this probably defeats the purpose of what the creators of this program intended….sorry. I choose to put on my station and then “hope” for the best outcome. It doesn’t always work out for me, to be sure, but I choose to deal with whatever Pandora gives me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

litter


I pulled a shoe out this morning from under our shoe rack near the front door. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I keep sweeping and cleaning, cleaning and sweeping and it still somehow seems to live on. I find it in cracks, in vents, behind the magazine rack. The fact that it has found its way into our living room in this past year has been almost too much for me. It’s the worst part of having a cat. She and I were constantly at odds these past few months about her toilet being in my living room. But now, in some cruel act of fate thumbing its nose at me, the cat is gone and all that remains is her litter.
A week ago, Sassy, my friend and nemesis for 17 years, was tragically killed in a fight with a pit bull. To my wife, she was an angel….actually her own personal angel. Anyone who watched their relationship over the years would agree. Those who knew her will say that her end was, in a way, a fitting exit. She went out in a final burst of attitude. If I hadn’t been there in the midst of the jaws and the shaking and the fur, I might have agreed. If I hadn’t been toe to toe with the pit bull (what was I thinking?) even while realizing that this was one jam that I was powerless to save her from, I might have agreed. If I hadn’t held her and looked into her eyes while trying to, in one last act of denial, comfort an already dead friend, I might have agreed. I had to do all of those things, all with the sound track of my wife’s anguished cries coming from inside, somewhere behind me as friends thankfully kept her from the worst of it.
Afterwards, in the brief quiet that comes immediately after a traumatic, did I just see that, kind of moment, I was able to carry her across the street to the quiet and comfort of our back yard…to find a box that would be her final resting place. I’ve done plenty of funerals in my life as a pastoral artist. I’ve worked with many funeral directors. I’ve never been one, and never wanted to be one. But that was our relationship… She seemed to take great joy in making me do things that I never wanted to do, like swearing, buying cat litter, and placing it in my living room. She took great joy in reminding me that I’m not all that. She was my humility “fail safe”. In recent months, just when I seemed to have a sense of my own dignity, she had me buying “Old peoples” bed wetting pads at the local drug store. She had this curious habit of climbing in the litter box and then peeing over the side, all the while looking at me with an“excuse me” look on her face.
Not long after the trauma of Monday night, I took her litter box out of the living room, near the shoe rack, and swept, once again, the floors surrounding it. I was trying to remove, quickly, the practical reminders of her. It’s kind of hard to do though with a 17 year relationship. She was nearly as old as our children. She was family in every close sense of day to day living. If you knew us, you knew her. She has been in every year of our lives of ministry, from the Midwest to the Northeast then onto the Northwest. She was small town, she was country, and she was city. So the sadness comes in waves and unexpected moments. We were walking through Target the other day and without realizing, walked right by a big display of litter on sale. The sharp blade of grief quickly stabbed through what had been a light hearted moment. This morning, as I fumbled for my shoes, only to find remnants of her presence still in hidden places, I felt it again. So I can resolve to sweep those floors one more time, but to be quite honest, I’d be happy to have the litter back again.

Monday, July 13, 2009

choice

This morning, in the early morning hour on my way to the beach, I saw a familiar vehicle parked nearby…. and I avoided it. It was in the parking lot next to my house. You might wonder why I’d bother avoiding a parked vehicle, especially one parked nicely in a lot. It’s not like I’m not used to them, except for the fact that this one was actually between the lines, which, I’ll admit, can be a rarity around here. It wasn’t the car, it was who I suspected was sleeping in the back of the car.
During my 10 years here in the urban world, I have become acquainted with a great many homeless individuals. A handful of them have become more than casual encounters. I have developed personal relationships with them. In the lives of these individuals I have seen homelessness from a few different angles. I have seen it come as a result of mental illness, as was the case with a man known as Father Joseph who, for some reason known only to babies and dogs, found me to be a sympathetic friend. I have seen it as a result of life circumstances, being privileged to play a part in a fresh start for a school friend of my daughter. I also get a courtside seat to witness it as the result of stupid choices. I know, being the respectable pastoral artist sort that I am supposed to be, I should put it in more PC terms. I should say that they are “poor” choices” I’ll stick with “stupid” thank you. Don’t write me letters unless you have people who are homeless ,because of their own repeated stupid choices, parking outside your window in the middle of the night so that they can catch up with you and whine about the results of their most recent stupid choice.
As a pastoral artist in a community of faith that teaches the Bible as the Book of Books and the Word of God, you might be surprised to hear that I am pro-choice. Let me clarify, you don’t want to experience unwanted pregnancy? … then choose not to participate in the activity that leads to it. You don’t want to be tossed in jail as an accessory to a crime?....then choose better friends. You don’t want to be wandering, sleeping in your car?... sometimes that might mean (and I said might, so relax) making better choices when they are presented to you. I’m not talking about addictions, illnesses, or circumstances totally out of your control. I’m talking about choices. We live in a culture which has invested heavily in trying to eliminate the consequences of poor choice. I was somewhat starry eyed I guess when I began the calling that I am in the midst of. I thought that when you presented better choices, people would at least consider them. Now I understand that my role is better defined as presenting a better choice, then being there to help pick up the pieces when the same old choice has been made anyway.
Life is a series of choices. It is my personal belief that worldly success is simply the owning of your own choices along with the results that come from them. Imagine what would happen if we owned our own choices and where they led us instead of wasting time, money, and effort finding someone else to blame. Imagine how many lawyers would be looking for another line of work. Imagine how many counselors and psychologists would have the time to diagnose their own issues. Imagine how many people of faith would actually live out the beliefs that they claim. Imagine how many resources would be made available to those who truly need them. Imagine the parking lot next to my house without anyone sleeping in it…… “it’s easy if you try”.
I might be a bit selfish, but I’m not a heartless SOB. I’ve known plenty of individuals who are homeless not by any choice of their own. I work at shelters regularly. I volunteer with food banks. I buy newspapers from the guy or gal on the corner. I extend a hand nearly anywhere I can. But I also know choice when I see it and the poor choice people, parking their vehicles outside my house in the middle of the night are making it more difficult to choose compassion.