All Hail the Storm King

img_20160914_180955254_hdrThere’s something monstrous and all-encompassing about New York City, as though the longer you’re there, your memory of the way the world works elsewhere is slowly cached until it fades into oblivion. Everywhere about the City, nature prevails. The pigeons come close and tilt their heads to look at you as though you’re the one that doesn’t belong amid this concrete, not them. The mice and chipmunks and squirrels are perfectly content to live among the steel-and-glass ignoring you, mostly. The trees manage to climb surprisingly high, a wooden skyscraper unto themselves, their roots searching the dirt beneath until it slams up against the concrete veins and arteries of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Everything here unnatural seems to have grown together so well that it may have become one with Mother Nature herself.

Until, of course, you leave New York City and discover that this is not the norm, that – in fact – it’s a kind of beautiful, artistic and architectural blasphemy unmatched the world over.

img_20160917_104720302_hdrSuffice to say, it is still jarring to me that less than an hour away, the signs of the City are replaced with countless acres of trees and farmland, of mountains and lakes, of the River Valley where the remnants of the Appalachians come crashing into one side of the Hudson and pick up again on the other as though there’d not even been a creek in the way or perhaps as though Moses learnt to part rocks the same way he’d parted water. In the early days of autumn, just when the dog days of summer have tired out, and there’s a light breeze whispering to some of the trees that dying is a part of living, you can escape here and forget there ever was any concrete or steel or glass or plastic or car horns or subways. This is the land of towns with names like Fishkill and Beacon and Doodletown and Stony Point. It could just as easily be Tennessee.

It is not a place without its reminder that New York City is close by, of course. The train to Montreal whistles off the Hudson and churns on the tracks like a tornado rolling through, and the traffic and passers-by are a diverse lot of run-down hooptie cars, the people packed-in tight on their way to the next ‘job,’ juxtaposed with an occasional Tesla driven by a lone Frenchman who wears G Star Raw and is environmentally-conscious. And yet, in the same way the City can make you forget this place over time, this place – this dance with Mother Nature – manages to flood back over you singing, lulling that this is the real America. Cue Paul Simon on a search.

img_20160917_113923636And what is the real America but that hard, tried juxtaposition, that reminder that nothing is simple or can be easily broken into ‘this vs. that’ but is instead some mosaic of anything-and-everything we’ve ever done, imagined, or desired – the best and the worst of us – all thrown into the same mixing pot we once celebrated in this country.

Here is the Catskills, and here, maybe ten minutes west of the river and buried in its rolling hills there is an art gallery stranger than most. Imagine an outdoor museum, five hundred acres of it – something akin a postmodern Stonehenge with giant architectural feats planted like seeds that grew uncontrollably large in a river valley. It is the exact opposite of New York City: these structures that seemingly don’t belong actually make a very good case that they were born and grew up here and couldn’t reside anywhere else but a garden ‘that rivals Versailles.’ Against a backdrop of perfectly groomed green grass, knolls perfect for sledding, and oak and pine, these artistic gods – like a Picasso come to life – tower toward the pristine blue above to kiss the clouds. Their rusted metal – black and red – screams to the sky, but it’s somehow overwhelmingly peaceful. Once again, what didn’t belong found a home, and at home, you can scream loudly and find peace in it.

img_20160917_121225180The name of the place is fitting, too: Storm King, as though just around the mountain to the east there lurks Zeus ready to fire his bolts directly at the towering metal structures. I half-expected a postmodern ‘Night at the Museum’ were I to hang around until after dark.

Maybe that’s because seeing a giant, rusty metal structure next to a pond gives it life. But I think, too, its wild shapes, its shadows, the way the light might hit it at different times of day, leaves you to imagine that this one stationary structure could be a million things to a million people across a million eons. Somebody throws one gargantuan slab into the pasture, sculpted in steel, calls it art, and it tells a vastly different story at sunset from what it told at sunrise. Could it be said to be the same thing on a cloudy day when the sun doesn’t give it its sharp shadow that, arguably, is as much a part of the sculpture as the body the artist built? Or does the absence of its shadow breathe into it new life altogether?

img_20160917_121025271We small creatures who look upon such vastness are made somehow smaller still by this place. What of life is any different? Is not everything we look upon equally as complex? I am caught often, chained even, by my very limited perspective: that how I encounter you or the things you and I have made depends on just how the light hits us, just where we’re found in it, and just the time of day (or week or month or year) that your life and your creation may have graced mine. It is difficult, sometimes, to wait through the cloudy days to see again the shadow. It is that much more difficult, should they remain, to not let the clouds skew our view of what we know or once knew to be true. We are the storm kings and queens tasked to wade through the layers of our limited perspectives, to call out with humility precisely what those layers for us may be and to view it all as the birds of New York City might: looking curiously on and wondering what belonging is while knowing and claiming, this is our home.

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Speaking, Hearing, and a little humility in humanizing others

I reopened Facebook for the first time in over a year. I shut it down to work on a novel, but I won’t say I wasn’t excited to escape the vitriol that overwhelms our public forum in an incredibly divided America. I’d been sick of seeing it; I’d also been guilty of it, too.

Five minutes into scrolling through those blue-and-white pages, it was like being reminded, “Oh yeah – this is the same place I left behind,” though probably a bit more cluttered and starting to feel kind of gunky, like Myspace before Facebook came along. What happened to the old minimalist Facebook of yesteryear?

One of the first posts I saw was a Christian friend demanding drug testing before people can receive food stamps. I thought about posting, “Yeah! Jesus didn’t care for sinners! Take their food away!” But I knew my sarcasm was too harsh; it wouldn’t be heard, and it prompted the very vitriol I’d grown sick of. There’d be something hypocritical about posting that. Even the truth can be hypocritical depending on how it’s delivered.

I thought maybe instead I’d give a light nudge: “I wonder what a Christian response should be to this issue?” Challenge with a question; that’s a bit Socratic and so there’s a good to that, right? But something feels icky to me the way Socrates “stings like a gadfly; births like a midwife.” While that’s a powerful way to teach and an emotive way to learn, something about it is manipulative. It reminds me of a teacher I had once who I loved to death, but I always thought it strange that after tearing apart a student’s paper, she would hand that student a stuffed animal to cry into saying, “You’ll do better next time.” If it’s manipulative but it works, can it still be moral? Behind my “light nudge,” a push to ask, “What would Jesus do,” I was armed with more questions intended to guide and manipulate: Did ancient Rome – in the first century – fail to feed the hungry? Were Jesus and his disciples wrong to glean? Is drug addiction a disease or is it just an illegal action? If it were a disease, would addicts be victims? If addicts were victims, what does it mean to take their food away for a disease they have? Is it right to take away food from a hungry child whose mother is a victim of her addiction? All good points hiding behind those questions, but that didn’t seem like the right way to go.

A third option was to say nothing. Let’s all just be agreeable, can’t we? We can sit around and just sing kumbaya. We can agree to disagree, and then the whole world will get along, wars will end, and everything will be rainbows and unicorns – finally! Without being flippant, I do think there’s a decent argument to be made in recognizing that we won’t change our world over a Facebook conversation or an internet meme – or a blog. I wholeheartedly agree with that. And yet to simply be agreeable, to only surround ourselves with those of like minds – our own convenient filter bubbles – while seething underneath about the folks who live in bubbles so different from our own, and we aren’t being true to ourselves in that. Or to others.

So what do we do? If our goal is to convince others we’re right or to just agree to disagree, either of those seem to be the easy way out to me. In our divisive society, it can be tempting to stir the pot. In our increasingly relativistic society, it can be tempting to throw our hands up and say it doesn’t matter. Regardless of which route we take, whether we’re selling truth or saying there isn’t any, maybe the best approach is to let go – just a little – of whichever end of the spectrum we might find ourselves in. What happens if we start to ask, how do we maintain being true to our own perspective but also willing to let go of that perspective just enough to hear the mind of someone else? I don’t have an answer to that question. But maybe those are the kinds questions we should ask – the ones we don’t think we have an answer to already.

And so, to me, this was never really about whether the government should provide food stamps to drug abusers. It was more about a need to humanize the folks who might think that way. They’re the very same folks who I’ve known to be incredibly loving and, in some ways, far more charitable than me. Their opinion doesn’t rob them of that good – or make me better than them. I hope, not only throughout social media, but in all walks of life, I’d seek to humanize everybody a little, especially the folks I so staunchly disagree with. But I also hope others will learn to do the same. There’s a time and place to speak and be heard, though I suspect the latter is always the greater good. But there’s a place for the former, too, and I recognize it can be really difficult to determine how to walk that line. Like I said, I don’t know how we do that, how best to go about it; I just think trying is a message we’ve gotta promote – to seed a little bit of humility into ourselves. I’ll start with me first.