May 1st is a day that many revere. In Oxford (UK) crowds will gather at dawn by Magdalen Bridge to hear the choir at the top of the tower "sing in the summer" with a 10th century ditty no one can hear; "Somer is y-comen in". It's a decorous occasion based on the old pagan and Roman ceremonies which were probably not quite so restrained. Still, it's quite something to be in a crush of 2000 people all of whom are totally silent, straining to hear the voices of the past, birdsong louder than anything else. May Day or International Workers Day is a holiday in some parts of the world. It's the day airline fares are increased for the summer season. It will also, more personally, be the 30th anniversary of my arrival in the US with the intent to make my life here.
As a result of a stringent and utterly scientific survey, conducted over several decades, and including information gleaned from other surveyors (hereafter referred to as "Friends and Neighbors") I have come to a number of conclusions about breakfast cereals. Yes, dear friends, I can reliably report that I have a lifetime of experience in such matters - experience that obviously places me in the expert category. The only reliable way of assessing the healthiness of breakfast cereals, according to the results of this impressive scientific exploration, are always mirrored in the packaging. Ask yourself how easy (or difficult) it was to get your chosen brand of flakes out of the box and into your bowl this morning. If the cardboard box was hard to open, or collapsed under the effort of opening, or the little tuck-in tab at the top tore off - then you are on good ground. If the plastic inner bag was demanding in its resistance and required you to rummage in the kitchen drawer for the scissors, only to discover they weren't there and that your teeth or a knife were your only options - then you can be sure your cereal was of high quality. You see, large cereal companies are the ones that have preservatives, added sugars (3 kinds) and buy grains treated with pesticides and toxic chemicals. They spend so much money on getting the perfectly-easy-to-open box into your hands that they can only afford to fill the package itself with toxic junk. Poor things, they have to think of their shareholders, who demand more and more return on investment. Sometimes I pity them. So here's the result of this milestone of research: If it's customer friendly to open, it's junk inside.
As a memoir writer and memoir coach I often find myself digging into bygone times. I also read on-line about archaeology, and it seems as if every few days a metal detectorist somewhere finds something startling, unearthing unexpected memorials. What constantly astounds me is that a field that was otherwise simply an open space turns out, perhaps, to be the site of a vast Roman villa (like the one just uncovered on a Wiltshire farm), or perhaps it's a village abandoned in antiquity with gold and silver items hastily buried by those who now lie dead amid the ruins. More and more of life's mysteries are uncovered in this way. And that's fascinating. Yet it also reminds me that many empires have risen and fallen, some disappearing without much trace into the mud of every day. We, in the privilege of the 21st Century, believe in progress. That's good. But history suggests that progress is never linear, that enormous amounts of care and effort and money frequently go to waste. Cities crumble; fortunes are lost. I think the ancients understood this better than us. When gorgeous necklaces are buried with corpses, for example, these people cannot have been ignorant that the body would decay rapidly and cease to be attractive, leaving the jewelry nestled against the rotting flesh and bones. Possibly that was part of the joy of expensive ornamentation - the knowledge that today, on that beautiful living, lively girl, the necklace looked wonderful. At that moment it was secondary to her beauty. Tomorrow the situation might be the exact opposite. Cherish the moment. Isn't that what memoir is for, too?
Democracy is an interesting ideal, and one that is not free of certain problems. So let's just state a few thing about it that many of us seem to have forgotten. Democracy depends upon people having a voice and feeling that they have a right to be heard. So far so good. The problems start when some people feel that because they have a voice they therefore have a right to assert that voice above all others, and then impose it on others. Now, let's get back to basics for a moment. Democracy depends upon voices being heard -- and then it also depends upon people listening to all voices before reaching a consensus. That means some folks are going to be disappointed. Some people are going to be in a minority. Some ideas just aren't good enough to get support. We seem to be stuck in a space where folks feel that just because they have an idea it becomes worthy of being a law. That's not democracy. That's nuts.
Looking out of my window, at the chilly beauties of an approaching Spring, I felt strongly how transformative it is to gaze upon something beautiful each day. I live in an urban landscape, and often in winter it feels gray and uninspiring. At such times it doesn't really even feel bleak and grim, which would at least be a powerful effect. No; it tends to feel drab and bland. It seems that we need either beauty to look on, or grim majesty, or both at the same time - if you want to go to things like mountain views and the Grand Canyon. If neither of these things is available then I suspect that we tend to look on objects for comfort - the sleek lines of a car, the harmony of new furnishings or possessions. We substitute things for what we don't have from Nature. So we find ourselves slipping away from Nature and focusing on more trivial concerns. One's house may look out on an urban street devoid of trees, but the kitchen, ah, the kitchen is a haven of good design. Perhaps the fixation we have on possessions and precious things is, at its heart, no more than a disappointment in the conditions of urban and suburban blandness. Perhaps the cure for compulsive consumerism is a walk in the woods.
The people who blew themselves and others up in Brussels did so in a way that bears questioning. The targets were hardly high status or specific. These were the softest of soft targets, and the killing was without anything one could call discrimination. It was simple butchery. What can we do with people who just want to kill someone, anyone, and themselves too? We can't do much, because anyone who embarks on this course of action is already beyond anything we could consider rational thinking. What we can do is quietly reassert human decency. We can be kind to each other. We can also choose to remember that Brussels is stronger than this. Its people withstood an occupation by the Kaiser's armies in World War One. It survived the Nazi occupation in the war that followed. And it did so without ceasing to be populated by decent human beings. This is a strong city, stronger than the cowardly acts we've just witnessed. We must remember - we are stronger than these actions because we know how to be kind.
Do you ever have those days when a whole lot of stuff just goes wrong? Yes, I know you do. Don't lie to me. Those are the days when you discover your car's tires need replacing, but you can't find the time to get to the shop and you need the car every day anyhow. Then your cell loses its ability to recognize your voice for texting; you type instead and promptly lose a glove. Your email locks you out. And so on. Death by a thousand tiny cuts. It drives us all nuts, of course. Unless you decide to treat it as a reminder. All these things are gentle nudges telling us just how good we have it when it all works perfectly. These are things we take for granted when we should take them for gratitude. And then we realize that we can, actually, survive without all these things being perfect. So next time this happens think of them as being like having slightly less icing on your cake today, slightly less cream in your coffee. You'll be just fine. Trust me.
A certain astonishingly crass politician claims he can make America great - although he gives no actual plan for how that might happen or what he means by greatness. I think he means it'll make him and a few buddies wealthy. Well, that's just folks for you. But we can make America great in a very different sense if we agree to be kind. A civil and just society is one where people have decent opportunities, where wealth is not concentrated so that those who have less are crippled by it for life, and their children with them. And their children after them. And their children. A great country cherishes its resources. And people are the greatest resource we have.
One of the things I've been working on for some years is the folktales we know and cherish -- even if Disney shreds them before our eyes just to make a buck. What seems to be emerging is that quite a few of the better folk tales aren't just psychologically revealing but they are also of great age. Going back in time and seeing them as "teaching tales" we discover that there is not very much difference between the popular tales of antiquity and religious tales. Both seem to depend heavily on metaphor; and both seem to use humble and practical every-day experiences as their bases. This is particularly interesting when we get to the Bible, since folk tales were given a moralizing spin. So Noah's Flood, a story about how God got rid of all the sinners, is based on earlier myths of the flood - stories that are almost ubiquitous in human societies, BTW. The precursor of our Flood story seems to have been an actual tale in which inhabitants of the Tigris valley were instructed on how to build large boats to survive the river's periodic catastrophic deluges. We have some interesting ancient cuneiform clay tablets that indicate exactly this. So, at what point does religion co-opt folk tales? Or are folk tales actually an off-shoot of very early religion? This is not written to suggest there is no value in Biblical stories. On the contrary: once we see where some of the stories most likely came from we can begin to appreciate that religion may well be a wider and more prevalent subject than it seems to be these days, days in which one single book is declared to the the be-all and end-all.
I used to go regularly to a certain car muffler repair chain for my oil changes. I liked the manager, trusted him, and he always did right by me. Then he was moved on, and another person replaced him. Next oil change I'm told I need to replace my front struts ($1500). I get a sense from the manager that he's not entirely honest. I decline. I check the struts. I ask an expert. Nothing wrong with them. I'm glad I trusted my instincts. I take my car for an oil change 3 months later. I go to the same place because they have a coupon that is really a bargain. But this time I'm fully on my guard. And sure enough, the manager tells me the sway bar needs replacing ($1300). I decline. I look at the manager long, gently, and without malice of any kind. I tell him I think he's mistaken. I'm hoping he will notice that I know he's trying it on. I know there's nothing wrong with the sway bar. Still, later I have an expert check it. It's fine. In a new frame of mind I go for yet another oil change some months later, same place, same bargain price. Now it turns out my transmission needs flushing ($400). I decline because I know this is not true. The manager of the joint doesn't quite seem to have cottoned on that I have seen through him yet again. I gently point out that he seems to be constantly suggesting repairs that I don't want. I'd like him to be honest so we can be just ordinary people doing ordinary things. I'd like him to be aware that this isn't doing him any good. (Later I checked the transmission, the fluid of which had recently been changed. It's fine. The "sample" I had been shown was not from my transmission, evidently). I feel I've given this person three good chances to act in an honest way, and he refuses to see me as anything but a "mark" he can trick. I don't dislike him. He hasn't actually cheated me - merely tried to. I'm just a little sad that he views the world this way. He must have a really unpleasant life if he sees other human beings as fools to be exploited. I don't know that there's any way I can encourage him to change. I'll probably still go back there for my oil changes. Perhaps something may alter him at some point.