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Meaning in the Daily

Adam, Auguste Rodin, Cantor Art Museum Sculpture Garden

It takes a certain maturity of mind to accept that nature works as steadily in rust as in rose petals.
- Esther Warner Dendel

One of the interesting aspects of writing on-line essays are the discussions triggered with readers who share and add to the dialog. I recently wrote about the value of the personal artistic versus public service ("A Content Heavy World," 9/14/2012). In this essay I mulled over a troubling dissonance in my mind between social and personal values; creativity versus practical service to others. A discussion evolved which included an Inland NW physician, and a recent PhD in the humanities from the Chicago area. I found their comments so instructive, I thought I would round out my original essay by sharing some of their comments with you. (Edited for privacy and presented here in rough chronology.)

Such an appropriate question for all of us. Especially those who yearn to have a meaningful life. You are asking very exactly the questions that my daughter, working in the arts and humanities, has had for ten years now. For those of you who are artists as well as pragmatically skilled, the contrast stares you directly in the face. For the rest of us, the choice may not be so stark, but the question still exists. And how have you reconciled writing vs. the State Department?

I'm not sure I have.

This very much reflects the paradox of my chosen path. What a wise thinker (the two don't always correlate). It is so hard to measure the impact of work in the humanities. I'm not sure it puts me at more ease but it is nonetheless interesting to compare my tension (in a productive sense) with another's.

I think what matters most is that each individual finds fulfillment in the everyday of work life. I can only hope work within something bigger than myself... my tensions will begin to subside.

Our shared perspective!

I think my sensitivity to the pendulum of "personal usefulness" was partly behind my standing back as my daughter made her career choice, giving her space to weigh, and ultimately switch from humanities/art history to medicine - the obverse of the "practical v. creative" service choice I made. I believe she felt she would ultimately always express in her life, and appreciate, the arts, while coming home each day from work in medicine would provide her with a concrete sense of purpose. To be fulfilled in the way only she can be.

I think because the fields of the arts and humanities are by definition open-ended, perpetually yielding to new territory, rendition, and discovery, the artist/scholar never feels something is concretely, genuinely accomplished, but always part of a subjective shifting evaluation of worth. It is the burden of artists (and some scholars) to have to settle for a role as a voice of translation: The light that shines brightly on thinking and understanding, yet is transitory. The perpetual "work in progress."

I like the definition of valuing meaningful work in the every day. I agree. The haunting sense of the bigger effort/bigger picture perhaps settles out in how we use our "voice," and in the many other things we do in life and love that impact the micro and macro human story.

To be capable of both the artistic and practical! Such a gift of engaging complexity. My favorite intellects are those that quest from science into art and back again. Or from one track to it's cross. I spent dinner in California recently with a friend of my late husband's who reminded me of the richness of balance and complexity. This gentleman is a chemical engineer, as well as entrepreneur and spiritualist, who traverses all boundaries. He has found a way to make his inner creative practical as well as personal. As to observing those in medicine, there is clearly art in the science of the body human, machine in the art. Scalpel as tool of discovery?

Perhaps it is not so much the choice of one particular professional path or "field of dreams" over the other, but as was expressed above, holding true to the importance of committing to "work within something bigger than myself."

Thanks for a great dialog, readers!
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The Places You'll Go

Convocation 2012. Stanford Unviversity
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...”
― Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

There are so many jumping off places in life - that first day of Kindergarten, perhaps a religious commitment or confirmation, maybe just saying "no" when others push "yes"... And there's that BIG one, college. My son has been through the grist mill when it comes to higher education. His first commitment was to a military service academy. He and his plebe buds survived summer military training and advanced through the ranks to become upperclassmen, training hard in military skills, and core science and math academics. He rode for the cycling team, became a respected leader within his company, and majored in Computer and Electrical Engineering. In my son's case, fate intervened shortly after making his junior year formal service commitment: he was released on an honorable, medical discharge. It took awhile for him to sort through the whys and hows, and the sucking vertigo of dislocation he felt personally as well as in his education. Yet he handled it all with dignity and personal quietude, centered in adaptation and faith in life. I was privileged to experience the kind of man my son actually had grown to become: the kind that doesn't quit, even when there is no Plan B.

The following year was one of regathering a sense of purpose, redefining new education and career goals, and finding a way to stay productive and positive while living and working on his own, and waiting, once again, through the agonizing and uncertain process of college applications. This time as a transfer student - with fewer slots and greater odds against him wherever he might apply.

Tuesday, September 18th: Move-in day, Convocation, and the new class of 2016 is officially admitted to Stanford University. As parents and students sat in the golden sun on the old Mission-style quadrangle of Stanford's central campus, President Hennessey spoke about the beauty of beginnings, and the uncertainty that can accompany that first step. He reminded the new freshmen that they should believe in themselves, because the school certainly did. The President, and the Dean of Admissions, also specifically referenced the handful of transfer students scattered throughout the audience. How impressed they were by unique backgrounds of achievement and challenge, and their importance, as members of the Class of 2014 and 2015, to the development of ideas and community throughout the university. The faculty acknowledged the same strength and focus in the new class of admitted transfer students I witnessed take hold in my son: The ability to take that first step into the unknown, and if life or expectations change, retake it yet again.

As often as life requires.

I sat beside my son listening to the closing benediction, more proud of him than I had ever been, and for vastly different reasons than most of those parents beside me. There is pride in watching your children accomplish their dreams the first time, but there is a deeper faith seeing them doing so, because they have to, again. Creating Plan B, dusting yourself off and starting over, is character - built from the guts and muscle of life.

“You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”

― Dr. Seuss, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
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A Content Heavy World

Photo credit: BBC News

Yesterday, in the face of escalating MidEast violence, attacks on American Embassies and continuing regional unrest, I felt an intense contrast between what I do now (creative writing) and what I was committed to 22 years ago when I first joined the US State Department. In 1980, I joined State under President Jimmy Carter as a Presidential Fellow, eager to apply my political science education and Masters in Public Administration from the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs to the American diplomatic effort. I was an idealist in fervent support of the goal of international peace and understanding. A decision made in full light of the events of November 4, 1979, when armed rebels in the country of Iran attacked the US Embassy and 52 American Embassy personnel became prisoners of the rebellion for 444 days. That moment to now brackets two points of international unrest that have resulted in the deaths of American Embassy personnel overseas.

Fiction seems so thin a pursuit in the face of real world struggles, and I must ask if the work I do as a writer leverages or wastes my given personal abilities to make a difference in the world. The potential to offer meaningful service to others. I look at the blogs, the book reviews, the novel in progress and think: Too much "lightness of being" in a content heavy world.

My friend, Barb Camberlain, who works in public service, sent me this comment yesterday - Where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need you will find your calling (Frederich Buechner). You can write/serve! These are meaningful words. But the gap between what is one's "greatest joy" and "the world's greatest need" is measured how? Ambassador Chris Stevens worked in the arena of peace and stability for Libyans as well as American interests in Libya. His sad loss can be measured in personal and world terms, as is true for the other Americans killed at the American Consulate in Benghazi. The arena of the arts presents a challenge: How to discern the public value in any one particular painting, poem, story, or dance? Yes, the arts are the receptacle of global culture, and for that alone, are intrinsically valuable. Human history is recorded in the creative: the expression of what evolves from, and beyond, the commonplace. An ongoing translation of the ordinary into a symbolism of deeper human understanding. Yet it is not among equals that social enterprise matters; that what is made is worthy. We know this. There is substance and there is fluff, contribution and dissolution, meaning and what is vacuous. It is for each of us to push the boundary between our talents and the existential yaw, to address the terrible want of the world.

Today, like many of the days since I left public service and turned to a writing life, I think about the value to me and to humanity of the simple, ordinary things I do, and wonder if I've ever tapped the personal extraordinary we are all sometimes capable of. These are extraordinary times, in a world that demands more of us. More of me.  Read More 
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Hope & Remembrance

World Peace Flame, The Hague, The Netherlands

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die

- from "The Charge of the Light Brigade," Alfred, Lord Tennyson

September 11, 2001. No one of our generation will forget this day. The massive losses of human life in the synchronized terrorist attacks shook our ideals as an American nation and as peace-seeking individuals. A shaken national confidence. The lingering sense of confusion, of fear and insecurity. Psychic scars and literal changes to the way we live our daily lives that will last indefinitely.

When I talk to those of the Vietnam generation or listen to the stories of those who lived through World War II, I understand how this profound shattering of souls has happened before. War, famine, and disease spike human history: In just the last approximate 100 years we have witnessed the unspeakable suffering and horrors of World War I. The massive loss of life to the flu pandemic of 1918. Before that, the bloody histories of the Civil War. (Not to mention the horrific impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes and the recent tsunamis.) For as long as people have struggled for peace and prosperity, there have been pivotal outbreaks of violent cataclysmic conflict or sweeping famine and disease to change the years to follow. But I wonder, could we be building a species immunity to these ever-extremes of violence and pandemic? A better sense of what not to do, or how to proceed, or how to avoid what the generations before have experienced or destroyed? Is there an epidemiology of mass tragedy that carries within it even a kernel of resistance to repetition?

On the subject of war alone it would appear not. Part of the heartbreak and melancholy surrounding our remembrance of 9/11 is more than mourning this loss of innocents; we are haunted by an uneasy, subtle knowledge terrorism can occur at any time. Violence breaks through our most enlightened eras, endemic to human nature it appears. I am more hopeful about the progress of science in eradicating disease and famine than its impact on violence. I am more hopeful about positive outcomes from rebellions for civil independence than in the elimination of terrorist attacks of hatred. Yet. The continuing Syrian civil violence marks the worst shredding of human life and morality in contemporary history; following in the footsteps of the unrelenting genocide in Darfur to combine the worst of human cruelty and abuse of power.

Natural disasters and famine unite humanity in efforts of survival and recovery. Threats from disease bring the world scientific community together to research global solutions. But violence lies in the soul. How we handle conflict is a measure of human restraint. Are we evolving as a human race or not? Every generation fervently hopes so. But it is our children who will be the ones to find out.
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Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation: but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last night I, like thousands of Americans, tuned in to watch the Democratic National Convention, which followed closely on the heels of its counterpart, the Republican National Convention. As a former high school debater and lifetime lover of speech and rhetoric, political speeches offer an opportunity to witness the art of persuasive speaking, hopefully at its finest: Fresh new thinking, eloquently expressed passion, thoughtful arguments in continuance of our nation's Presidential debates. What startled me in its complete unexpectedness, was to see a woman I know and admire stand on the podium, and in her friendly, humble way, introduce First Lady Michelle Obama for her keynote address.

In a short introduction, this woman I admire so greatly, spoke softly about those who serve our country and their families; and about our national obligation to our wounded warriors. What few know that I and many many military academy parents know, is that Elaine Brye, whose husband was a combat pilot in Vietnam and who calls home a family farm in Ohio, is more than a veteran, mother, and teacher. Four of her five children serve in different branches of military service, and the fifth, graduating high school, hopes to be on his way soon. She is the kind of woman to devote a year to public service, teaching in Kabul. And most important to my personal experience, a volunteer parent liaison who reaches out to other military academy parents, as she herself has been, to offer the comfort and support necessary to bolster our commitment to our sons and daughters on the unique and challenging journey of attending a military academy on their way to military careers and public service.

In 2009, as my son began his military education and service at the United States Naval Academy, Elaine Brye was the new friend on the other end of a phone call, a hug, an encouraging email. She was the voice of reason, the archive of things past and the wisdom of experience. She was a shoulder to many to cry on when things grew dark or discouraging. She was always that one person, parent-to-parent, you could count on to listen and offer support, knowing that honor and youthful commitment aside, these were our kids. And there she was, smiling and full of light on the stage of the DNC, grasping hands in welcome with our First Lady. I caught my breath in awe, watching her stand there, quiet and real, living testimony to what her passion is - America's men and women in military service and the support of their families.

The post-script to this epic moment for me is that nothing in Elaine's life would have struck any of us as a path to here. She has, as Emerson urged, simply expressed her best. Her unique passion and full-throttle energy, her love of others. Even her warmth to send a Christmas card to the White House, thanking the First Lady for her support of our military families. Her years of selfless dedication made her that right choice to introduce to the DNC and those of us watching at home, the First Lady to America's President and Commander in Chief. Emerson is right: None of us yet knows what our best is, nor can we, until we have exhibited it.

Elaine Brye found her moment, and through her, love shines.
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Savor the World

Swiss mountain village cemetery

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.
- E. B. White

It seems as though the world is tilting again, making that great moon phase change in the rotation of generations. In the face of time, we lose the great icons of contemporary history. Yes, life and death are an endless repeating pattern of loss and replacement, but it seems to me loss is the more poignant. Names and faces, heros and legends... the bookmarks of our lives on earth suddenly depart. Am I the only one who feels the world has lost something significant, saying goodbye this year to Neil Armstrong, Lucille Ball, Hal David, Takane Wantanabe, Hans Einstein, Emmanuel Nues, and so many others who define our history, as well as the familiar? Not all are the brilliant and famous, some are simply those we dearly love. But their loss empties us.

I am reminded by this E.B. White quote that we are often so busy in the world, saving and fixing and doing and making and building and finding, that we forget to enjoy our lives. And enjoy those with us on the journey. To savor the experience of living, to savor the world around us, and to appreciate and fully immerse ourselves in our families and friendships and the beauty of nature. Poet Mary Oliver often writes of the fleeting nature of life itself, calling us to heed the imperative to pay attention and appreciate. I'll close today's note with the final stanza of her poem, "The Summer Day" -

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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