Yesterday was a challenging day. There was the escalating fear and rancor of the political scene to start with, and the fact that my hubcab fell off and I am wondering how much a new one costs and when I am going to find time to get it. And then there was the embarrassment of lunch with two of my friends. When the bill came, I had to blushingly ask them not to split it evenly three ways because I had been very careful to keep to my daily budget while they had each had two dishes apiece and right now, $16.00 is not insignificant to me. $16.00 is what it costs me to park when I teach at UC Berkeley. Then last night there was the debate itself, which I could not listen to for more than 5 minutes without becoming very, very disturbed and slightly sick to my stomach.
But in the face of all of this, I want to say this: life is not getting worse. It is definitely difficult and filled with looming anxiety but 2016 is not actually a worse year than 1016, 1209 or 1939 when we look at the whole of history. The current horrible political landscape is actually quite a bit more civil than the discord in Dante’s Florence, which sent him into a lifetime of exile with a death sentence over his head. It is not as bad as the first century’s Roman rule, when crowds amassed in a Coliseum to see people hack each other to bits and be eaten by lions and crucifixes lined the roads all the way to Jerusalem. It is not worse than the time of the witch burnings or the years of the Spanish Inquisition, when you could be tortured and jailed for not eating pork. It is not worse than the many centuries in which you could be drawn and quartered on charges of treason for owning a Bible in English. It is not as bad as the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews and countless others perished because they held alternative views, lifestyles or bloodlines. Let’s be clear: it is a darkening time, and disturbing and not going in a hopeful direction, but is not as bad as what humanity has endured before. And this is where I believe it becomes very, very important to have a bigger perspective and to focus on the right things.
Much of the political debates this season has focused on income inequality, the disappearing middle class and the need for education. This makes me laugh or cry- or sometimes both at the same time. I could have a pity party (and I am afraid at times I have) that despite having adjunct positions at four highly regarded colleges and being a featured lecturer for both the Symphony and the Opera, I still do not have any healthcare benefits provided by an employer and without the relentless work I do for Mythica, my composite salary would actually fall far below what is needed to live in the Bay Area ( FYI: an adjunct typically makes $2,000-4,000 per semester course). I could bewail the horrors of a society in which I would be better off financially as a stock brokers or stock car driver or even stock clerk in a grocery store rather than an educator who consistently gets reviews proclaiming “This class changed my life” or “Your courses make life worth living”. I could fall into a river of sorrow that my three master’s degrees and PhD have not amounted to anything that measures on the Richter Scale of Wealth. I could swell with self -pity that I actually have to go to a Laundromat to wash my clothes since my one room studio does not have a washing machine and dryer.
But there is another way to look at it. I drive less than 3 minutes to wash my clothes in clean water in a safe and well-lit environment where I can sit and prepare to teach my classes on TS Eliot at UC Berkeley and Beethoven at Dominican University and religious studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. I don't actually have to contend with alligators or cheetahs or polluted swamp water like many in this world do right now. I own significantly more clothes than Laura Ingalls Wilder and all the other American pioneers, who, if I remember correctly from “Little House on the Prairie”, had one dress for Sunday and one dress for the rest of the week.
I own more books and music than either Bach or Schubert ever had in their lifetime, and while the praise and letters I receive every day do not actually pay any of my bills, they do warm my heart if I do not let myself become cynical.
And this is what I want to say to you: becoming bitter and cynical and defeated is a choice. We get to choose what we focus on. We get to choose if we immerse ourselves in fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric and drown in trite and superficial media storms. We get to choose what we read, what we listen to and with whom we spend our precious time. We get to choose if we are comparing ourselves to those who have “more” (more wealth, more security, more power or prestige, more stuff- whatever) or if we are remembering how much we do have, which hopefully includes safety, enough food to not go hungry and people who love us even when we don’t deserve it. We also have sunsets and sunrises (every day!) and a moon and stars that shine over us each and every night. We have birds that sing and flowers that bloom and trees that whisper in the wind. We have libraries and internet sites that let us have access to treasures of the world’s wisdom (for free!) and you tube sites where we can listen to the most astonishing musical masterpieces known to humankind. It is amazing what riches there are strewn all around us.
I realized after five minutes of the debate last night that there was no point in listening further. I certainly wasn’t going to change my vote as a result of anything that was said. So instead, I turned it off, went to yoga class and then sat outside on my porch breathing in the beautiful crisp country air while I drank some steaming mint tea. In the gathering dusk, I saw a family of deer laying down to sleep, and then as night deepened, a shooting star streaked miraculously across the sapphire sky. It made me remember to count my blessings, which are so many. It also made me remember to make a wish for the places and people who are really suffering and need an extra dose of love, compassion and help right now: the Syrian refugees, the families who are mourning the death of their children, my high school friend who is so bravely battling Stage 4 cancer, my octogenarian friends who are facing growing dementia. And finally, at last, I had the presence of mind to remember that I am so, so lucky.
It’s up to us. We can swim in the junk stream of Kim Kardashian and the Brad Pitt- Angelina Jolie tabloid headlines and the relentless polls and political analysis that we will be bombarded with before this ridiculous, embarrassing and downright heinous election is finally over, or we can go out and savor the beauty and goodness that is actually all around us right now.
Yes, the world is scary and painful and even tragic. It always has been, and it always will be. But it is also lovely and filled with gorgeous and heroic souls who do astonishing things in the face of their suffering--people like Dante and Beethoven and TS Eliot. And I get to be connected with these people every day, sharing the stories of their lives with those who need to hear about something beautiful and true and real. So this weekend, you’ll find me at the Laundromat preparing for my next set of lectures. My car will be the Prius that is missing a hubcap. Lucky, lucky, lucky me.