Finding Balance, Fixing Blame

Missy sat on her pillow, only to find most of it had no mattress underneath.

WHUMP.

Startled but unhurt, our disabled ward looked up from the carpet. And then, with a growl worthy of Yosemite Sam, she pointed fiercely at the nearby nightstand.

“No!” she bellowed, with offended justice ringing in her voice.

I glanced at the object of her ire and then helped her up.

“Missy,” I said gently, “the lamp did not trip you.”

Another scowl resulted. Guilty or not, that nightstand lamp would not be forgiven any time soon.

It’s not the first time I’ve had to act as a defense attorney for an innocent object or creature. When Missy’s coordination issues produce an occasional fall, she’s good at slowing herself down into a soft landing. She’s also good at fixing the blame on anything nearby. In the days when we still had Big Blake, our lovably massive English Lab, the Missy Finger of Judgment would quickly indicate her furry friend … even if he happened to be across the room at the time.

“Missy …”

Other times, the accusation has been leveled at our birds. (A real accomplishment, that.) Or an empty chair. Or maybe a passing poltergeist out for a stroll. Anyone and anything except herself.

But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, many of us do exactly the same thing.

I’ve said before that we’re story-centered beings. We want a cause or an explanation for everything, the simpler the better. But we also don’t want that cause to be us or something we admire. And so, we look for a convenient target.

In sports, we lash out at the ref for making That One Call. (Never mind the 300 bad plays before it that made the call important.) Or we decide that everything’s the fault of one coach or one player – like an ancient king, sacrificing them will prosperity to the land again.

In the larger world, it gets even uglier. I don’t need to recount how many Others we’ve found to blame for the problems of a troubled society or a broken world. Usually we choose a people who are safely powerless and already despised, convenient scapegoats that make us feel good about our prejudice or contempt.

Too often, we don’t look inward. Too often, we don’t dare.

Some of it is simple pride. Many times, we’ve committed ourselves deeply to an action, a cause, a person, a belief. And when someone gives that commitment badly – if the belief is ill-founded or the hero is anything but – turning back means admitting “I was wrong.” Maybe even looking foolish.

That’s hard. Far easier to double down instead, to deny the uncomfortable truth and press on ahead.

The times when we’ve been able to break through those clouds and start to choose a different road are some of the proudest in our history. But they never come without struggle. And the struggle always starts on the inside.

We will find that clear vision again. But how long it takes and how hard it will be depends on us. And when we stumble along the way, I hope we can find our balance in each other and rise again.

Even if it means forgiving that darned lamp.

Picking Up The Peaces

It’s time to enter the deep end.

You know what I mean. The Christmas season. The most full-immersion experience this country offers,  unless you count the marketing for the new Star Wars movie. The wrapping paper and decorations hit the shelves weeks ago. The lights have begun to re-appear, with the music and the online ads not far behind. Soon it’ll even be time for that most communal of American holiday experiences – exchanging profanity and insurance information in a crowded strip mall parking lot.

You gotta admit, it’s a heck of a way to celebrate peace on Earth, good will to men. Or are we?

Pope Francis recently raised that question. Well, actually, he did a bit more than that. In a recent homily, he drew some press attention by calling all the pageantry nothing more than a pretty wrapping over a world at war.

“Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, lighted Christmas trees and manger scenes… it’s all a sham,” he said. “The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path.”

Strong words.

It’s true that we’re a lot better at singing about peace than pursuing it – one of the Christmas traditions that hasn’t changed over the centuries. It’s a rare Silent Night or Joy to the World that hasn’t echoed over a battlefield somewhere. Our own American history even celebrates Washington crossing the Delaware in time to surprise a Hessian army that had been enjoying the season. (No word on whether they had finished watching “It’s A Wonderful Life.”)

Even on a more personal level, I wonder. At the start of this year, around Martin Luther King Day, I wrote about how “peace” means more than an end to war or violence. At its roots, it means a restoration of balance, a revival of how things should be. A sense that all’s right with the world.

Put it like that, and it becomes even more maddeningly difficult to pursue. Especially at this time of year, when the words “chaos,” “hubbub,” and “stress” would be the adjectives chosen by most people – at least, out of the words that can be printed in a family newspaper.

And yet … I wonder.

It’s easy to forget that this time of year is also a time of centering. Under the bustle remains a call to remember the basics: family, friends, faith. To come together. To see faces long missed and think on memories long absent.

Granted, that can sometimes be painful, too. As the season gets closer, I start to hear Grandma Elsie singing carols with us in the car and telling stories with us in the early-early until Mom and Dad woke up. But maybe that’s a different way of being whole, uniting yesterday with now.

Or, for that matter, with tomorrow. Grandma always said Christmas was for children. The eagerness, the decorations, the sense of being part of something special while following a long-established pattern … given all that, I suppose it’s no wonder that our disabled ward Missy starts to celebrate Christmas in July.

Unite all that and it becomes a place where hope and memory can meet — a place where peace, however fragile, is renewed.

Small? Certainly. But of all the season’s lessons, one of the oldest is that wonderful transformations can begin with the smallest of things.

So here’s to a piece of peace for us all. Here’s to the future those pieces may someday create.

And that’s no sham.

Run of the Miller

Don’t look now, but the invasion is underway.

Bang on a storm window, and half a dozen visitors may fall from the screen.

Leave a door open just a little too long, and you’ll turn to find 20 of the newcomers in the front hall … or the laundry room … or your office, charging the fluorescent lights.

The silent whir. The soft collisions. The persistence that keeps them coming back more often than robo-calls in election season.

Ladies and gentlemen of Colorado, it’s “miller time.”

Miller moths have been an annoying feature of Colorado springtimes since I was a kid, but every few years they manage to put together a swarm of epic proportions. About 25 years back, for example, they became so numerous that even the cats stopped stalking them.

“They say that to a cat, miller moths are like pizza,” a radio host said at the time. “But if pizza kept falling out every time you pulled down the sun visor on your car, you’d start to get a little sick of it.”

It’s not even anything inherent to the moth itself. One moth in a room is distracting but tolerable. But like potato chips, you never just have one. You get entire flight patterns.

Anything in those quantities, even things we would normally welcome, starts to get overwhelming and hard to handle. It could be an army of puppies. A cacophony of radio stations. A torrent of water …

Ah, I saw some of you nodding with that last one.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I love a good rainfall. I like to claim that it’s in the blood – Mom’s family came here from England, after all, and my sister even lives near the famously soggy skies of Seattle. So when the Colorado landscape turned into “Home on the Range” in reverse – where the skies remain cloudy all day – I gave a mental “hallelujah” and settled back to enjoy it. Heat? Sunburn? Ha!

And then it kept coming.

And coming.

And … well, somewhere after the 16th iteration of “coming,” it began to be just a tad overdone. Even more than a tad, as rivers rose and anxieties climbed with them.

Water is one of the most precious and treasured things in Colorado. But in such relentless quantities, it can officially become Too Much, a curse of house painters and construction workers and anyone who just needs a little sun. A good thing, made horrific through excess.

As I write that, I wonder how well we’re paying attention.

After all, we’re Americans. We’re good at excess. We eat big meals, work long hours, and rack up the highest credit-card debt of anywhere in the world. And of course, anytime the Powerball total starts to climb sky-high, our attention climbs with it.

And yet … deep down, I think most of us know better. We know that too much food makes you fat, too much work makes you crazy, too much debt ties you into knots that can take years to untie. That there’s such a thing as “enough.”

Heresy, maybe, in a consumer culture. But true. Someone once suggested that the real definition of “wealthy” is to have enough that you no longer need to worry. Anything more than that just starts to create its own problems, as the celebrities of the world seem determined to prove every day, and twice on Sundays.

I don’t mean to suggest that we have to become monks, to simply swing our lives to a different extreme. But there’s a quiet beauty in balance. One that lets you truly enjoy the pieces of life – and eventually, the peace of life – without being overwhelmed.

I’m still working on it myself. But it’s worth working on.

Right after I get these moths out of the laundry room.

On the Other Hand

As I watched Missy reach for a marker and color in a picture, something struck me. I braced Heather about it later.

“Is Missy left-handed?”

“Yes,” my wife said smiling. “I didn’t realize it either until we started painting together.”

I had to chuckle. For a moment, despite no blood relationship, Missy and I had become kin.

No, I’m not a southpaw. Not exactly, anyway. It’s more like I found the cast-off parts of a left-hander and a right-hander in a yard sale and bought the mixed kit. You can call it partial ambidexterity if you want – or you can just call it a total mess. I’ll probably agree either way.

All I know is, I can write slowly and clearly with my left hand – or fast and messy with my right.

I’ll hit a baseball right-handed. But I throw it from the left.

The little bit of clumsy stage fencing I know starts with my left hand. But my rare attempts at clumsy basketball layups start on the right.

Having a foot – pardon me, a hand – in both worlds does have its advantages at times. I’ve never had to fumble at desks and drinking fountains made for a right-handed universe. But I’ve also been able to play a killer game of air hockey, flipping the paddle back and forth to the confusion of merely monodextrous opponents.

It’s kind of fun, actually.

Especially compared to the life I could have had.

When I was little, I had what my folks described as a bilateral syndrome, possibly an offshoot of my epilepsy. You could draw a line right down the center of my body, and past that line, my hands would lose their coordination.

A lot of work with some very patient people finally erased the line. They built up my dexterity – maybe a little too well, looking at the results. But I’m not complaining.

After all, it fits me so perfectly.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized there’s rarely just one right way to do something. Politically, that’s made me a moderate (and yes, shot at by both sides). Practically, that’s made me a curious person, eager to see what someone else might think or how someone else might approach a situation.

The results can be surprising, just as when I pick up a guitar the “wrong” way. But it can also be illuminating. At worst, I notice a detail about someone that I’ve never known before. At best, I pick up an angle or an idea that makes my own life a little easier. (I still owe a lot to the teacher’s assistant who taught me how to write papers back-to-front for instance, starting with my destination and building from there.)

Life doesn’t seal itself into neat boxes. And I’m glad for it. It means a little more work, but a lot more fun.

That’s never wrong. Even when it’s not right.

Now that I think about it, I haven’t tried any serious drawing in a long time. The next time I sit down with Missy, I may have to follow her lead, see if my left hand has another surprise it hasn’t told me about.

It may end up a mess, of course.

But if it doesn’t, I’ll have to thank her for giving me a hand.