Remembering How to See

I had cataract surgery on my right eye about a week ago, and I now have almost 20/20 vision with an eye that has been terribly weak since childhood.  A new lens has been inserted in place of the old one, apparently, and in addition to vastly improved vision, I also am seeing colors that I didn’t even know existed–the river outside out condo window, formerly greenish-gray is now bluish-silver.  Stop lights are exceedingly red and green.  And the bright colors in my wardrobe startle me–is my dress really that blue?

Of course, there was a time–surely not too many decades ago–when I saw all these colors in their true radiance.  But I had forgotten.  It happens gradually, doesn’t it–like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, who sits there and dies if the water is heated gradually.  I wonder–what else have I forgotten?  What else has gradually left me, that I have “adjusted” to?  And have I really adjusted?  Are there dreams, fragments of the self, that have been left behind, but are still alive in me?  Are there people I have left behind, or who have left me behind, whose on-going love I subconsciously covet?  We forget, but we don’t.  Everything, on some level, remains.  The colors have returned, through a medical miracle.  What else is there, on some other plane, that might be restored?  What can never be restored, but will continue to haunt me?

I have become newly thankful for my sight.  Presently, the world is a kind of playground of color, and I am awakened to the incredible beauty of the autumn leaves as well as the man-made brilliance of a bright yellow rain jacket.  And now I’m wondering how soon my new sense of gratitude will diminish, and I’ll begin to take all this beauty for granted.  Will it be like when I travel to a new country, and everything seems utterly fascinating–the first time?  Will it be like finding a new love, and then understanding that every day won’t be like the first day?

I’m going to do my best to remain thankful, to keep seeing the world in all of its glory.  But that won’t be easy, I know.  Each day when I open my eyes, I’ll try to see anew and to remember that vision itself is complex and miraculous and should never to be taken for granted.   


Retirement and Cognitive Decline

A recent article in the NY Times suggests that retiring may be linked with mental decline.  Reseach data from the U.S., England, and 11 other European countries shows that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memories decline.

Of course, it is impossible to really show the one-to-one effect of retirement to mental decline, because causative factors are difficult to isolate.  Reseach has not proved, for example, that cognitive exercises like crossword puzzles and memory games improve brain power.  But the hypothesis in the Times article is even possible because of current comparable data collection in so many countries. 

It seems that the longer people in a given country keep working, the better they do–as a group–on memory tests, when they are in their ’60′s.  But what aspect of work keeps their brains lively?  And what kinds of work?  (The survey does not distinguish among various kinds of work, and some kinds of work are certainly more mentally stimulating.)  One of the authors of the study, Robert Willis, professor of economics at the University of Michigan, believes that social and personality skills may be operating–getting up in the morning, co-operating on a task, being prompt and trustworthy. 

Even though correlation does not prove causation, of course, the study calls for more attention to these issues.  Is it the social engagement that’s important?  Is it the aerobic quality–just getting up and going out?  Is it the exercise of the brain on a task?  Or is it what happens after a person retires–like more sitting around and watching TV?

I would guess, in terms of causation, “all of the above.”  However, we all have heard of the individual who retires and then goes into a decline and even dies.  This is not an unusual response to retirement.  What’s going on here?  I personally think it may have to do with a sense of loss, a lack of belonging. There is no longer the human connection, the accountability, that ties us to one another.  When that is gone, people often lose their sense of usefulness, their power to interact with others in creative ways on a common task which they deem important.  The result is often depression, and we know that depression has an adverse effect on mental functioning.

The scripture says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  Actually, when we humans believe we can no longer give, we lose mental, emotional, and physical vitality. To maintain our vital selves, we have to continue to interact, to create, and to contribute.  No one should ever “retire” to the easy chair and the TV–that’s a killer, literally.


What Do You Regret?

This morning I started thinking about what I regret.  Turns out that it’s not the big decisions that I regret–I’m OK with those.  It’s the smaller things that keep coming back to me, years later.  Three stories:

Once when my children were quite small, I got a puppy for them–a little black and white butterball of fur.  But they didn’t want a puppy.  My older son, Kash, said he would rather have a goldfish, and when I asked why, he said that he wouldn’t have to take a goldfish for a walk.  Good point.  Madison, the younger son, just doesn’t like animals.  It appeared that I wanted the puppy for myself–but with the boys’ negative feelings, I decided that I should give the puppy away.  I put an ad in the classified section of the paper: “Adorable puppy–free to a good home.”  Someone called right away, and I took the puppy over to the address they gave.  It turns out that the home was cluttered, the children had on clothes that were ragged or ill-fitting, the yard was full of debris.  There were a couple of other dogs in the home, looking not so well fed.  I hesitated.  As I remember, I felt it would be terribly impolite to refuse them the puppy.  They would know that I thought they were not worthy.  And who was I to say that this family couldn’t care for the dog, just because they were poor, I reasoned.  I left the dog with them.  Regret #1. 

It was Christmas season sometime in the early 1970′s, and my husband and I and our two toddlers had recently moved into a Victorian home in downtown Lexington, Kentucky.  One of the neighbors was having a fancy holiday party, and we were invited.  My husband stayed home with the children, and I crossed the street to the lights and talk and music.  No sooner than I had arrived than a woman approached me and said, “My husband would like you to come and talk with him.”  And then she guided me over to where John Jacob Niles, the famous folk singer and ballad collector, was sitting.  “He likes to talk to pretty young women,” she said.  So I sat with John Jacob Niles, and he regaled me with stories that evening, and what a delight it was!  I confessed that I had never heard him sing, but I want to very much.  He then offered, “Get a few friends together in your home, and I’ll come and sing for you.”  I know he meant it.  But I thought, “Who am I, to ask this great man to come to my home and sing?”  So I never asked him.  One day a year or so later, I opened the morning paper to the headline: JOHN JACOB NILES DEAD.  Regret #2

I had been dating a man for six years, and then broke off the relationship.  We remained friends, but I was determined to move on.  I had met a new fellow that I was interested in, and we had made plans for the weekend.  But then I got a phone call from my former boyfriend, telling me that his father had died, and asking me to come to the funeral that weekend.  He had been estranged from his father, a good man but an overly strict parent, and now my friend was full of sadness at this loss.  He was in tears.  He needed me.  Wanting to make a clean break, I told him no, that I had other plans.  Regret #3

What do these regrets have in common?  These decisions all failed the “heart test.”  In each case, my heart was telling me what was right–and what I really wanted to do.  But I didn’t listen to my heart.  Instead, I went to my rational mind for the answer, and the reasonable answer failed me.  In each one of these decisions, I failed to exercise power that I had been given, to connect, to love, to care.

In all these cases, I was younger than I am now (of course!)  But I need to remind myself that I have power, and that when I am given a chance to set the earth a little more on the side of love, I should never refuse that opportunity.  And another thing to remember: when I’m confused about which way is right, I need go to a quiet space and ask my heart.  I will not be led astray.


Whatever Happened to Truth?

I was struck by an article on the front page of today’s NY Times: “Rampant Fraud Threatens China’s Brisk Ascent.”  Andrew Jacobs, the reporter, gives us example after example of dishonest practices which characterize Chinese society: students who cheat on college entrance exams, scholars who fake evidence in papers they write, dairies selling contaminated milk to babies.  A plane crash last August killed 42 people in China, and an investigation showed that 100 pilots who worked for the airline had lied about their flying history.  A government study revealed that 1/3 of the country’s top scientists admitted that they had plagiarized or fabricated research data. 

We’re not talking about “a few bad apples” here–we’re talking about an ethical and social systems failure.The problem for China is that when integrity in the system is lacking, other countries will refuse to collaborate with Chinese scholars, and their wish to compete in clean energy, computers, and other technological fields will be seriously damaged.

I began thinking about our country–how does the United States measure up on the truth scale?  I think it’s fair to say that in academics, our universities  and our academic journals are far more discerning than the Chinese.  Yes, the “bad apples” do pop up from time to time–those who fake credentials and fake research–but such behavior is considered scandalous, and these individuals are effectively shut out of further career advancement.  It is not a systemic problem, as it seems to be in China.

But I worry about other kinds of systemic lying in our country which are just as damaging, damaging to our citizens and damaging to our democracy.  I’m talking about a major news network, Fox, that is little more than a propaganda tool for the political right.  I’m talking about political figures who say whatever is needed to be elected–for example, McCain on immigration.  I’m talking about a political party, the Republicans, whose members support with their silence and innuendos the lies of some of their compatriots–for example, the notion that Obama is Muslim.

Worst of all, our very government itself lies to us.  The government lied about Viet Nam.  It lied about our reasons for going into Iraq.  It lied about Pat Tillman and made his fratricide into a propaganda tool.  Has government lying becoming so commonplace that we just accept it?  I think Obama is a man of integrity who is trying to change this pattern of deception, but he’s working within a duplicitous system that’s been operative for a long, long time.

Where did we ever get the idea that winning is everything?  The fact is that if you lose your integrity–as a country, as a media outlet, as a political party, as a politician, or as a person, you’ve lost everything.  You have no ground to stand on, just sinking sand.  There is nothing left to win.

What can we do as individuals?  First of all, we start with ourselves–trying to live as best we can lives of integrity–never, never thinking that the ends justify the means; refusing to stand silent when hurtful lies are being told; saying what we mean and meaning what we say.  And further, eschewing the cynicism that says, “Everybody does it” and “That’s the way things are.”  We can support those candidates for political office who are genuine servants of the people, those who have the courage to tell it like they see it.  And we can continue to be astounded and outraged by lies wherever we encounter them, because we know they lead to death of the spirit and destruction of the body politic.




Rebecca Solnit Speaks at Inaugural Sewell Lecture

Writer, historian, art critic, and social activist Rebecca Solnit will be the inaugural speaker at the new annual “Speaking for Justice” Sewell Lecture, sponsored by the First Unitarian Church, on Thursday, October 28, at 7:00 p.m., at First Unitarian Church, 1211 SW Main St.

Solnit’s lecture will focus on the incredible yet common stories of people helping one another through disastrous circumstances.  Solnit’s research and writing shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization, and mutual aid.  Her book A Paradise Built in Hell was named by The Nation as “the most valuable non-fiction book of 2009.”

The Sewell Lecture is named for Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, Minister Emerita, who retired as Senior Minister in 2009, and honors her commitment to social justice during her long tenure at the church.

Tickets for the event are $10 and are available through BrownPaperTickets, at the church following Sunday services, and at the door.