Dec 13, 2008

More than a feeling

There has been a lot of concern, as of late, about Obamas appointments. For the first 'progressive' president in a generation, he has been appointing staff from across the political spectrum, ranging from Robert Gates, the current Republican Secretary of Defense to stay in office, and rival Hillary Clinton coming in as Secretary of State.

Barack Obama kicked off his presidential campaign by writing a book, Audacity of Hope about this topic. It was an eloquent, and passionate screed against the ‘smallness of American politics.’ How the government today is so fossilized by partisan disputes today it is crippled. Not only is there a Republican/Democrat divide, but there are the extremes in both parties fighting to assert dominance. Obama burst into the national scene targeting this very topic, in his 2004 convention speech (“There is not a red America, and a blue America. There is the United States of America!”). The thesis of that entire book was that this partisan rancor has to change, and that can only done by meaningfully bridge the gap. In other words, get ‘buy in’ and advisors from across the political spectrum.

Obama suggested he wanted to change these political litmus tests (talk about audacity!) but knew he needed to win an election in a partisan society, so he ran a campaign dominated by vague phrases so he could be anything to anyone… Change & Hope (as if everyone else was pushing Stagnation & Despair). He’s said himself in his books and speeches, that people perceive him to share their values even if he doesn’t. There is something about his charisma that makes many of us (myself very much included) feel he agrees on everything important without him ever actually saying it. Obama ran on a feeling… and feelings are not legally or politically binding.

So, contrary to the Obama that I (and many liberals) felt was running, the Obama that is starting to assert himself is the one that he told us he would be. Although he has been against the Iraq war since he ran for the Senate he asked Hillary Clinton, an unapologetic supporter, to run the state department (the office that plans our foreign policy.) Today she can walk into a room and say ‘I, like most of you, supported the war. Now we need to get out.’ It’ll be an opportunity for political redemption for people across the political spectrum, even for those that had the spectacularly bad judgment to get us in the mess in the first place. The main thing that the ‘extreme anti-war liberals’ will have to show from this appointment is an end to a horrible, expensive, bloody never-ending war.

Personally, I think that counts for a lot.

Dec 1, 2008

Discovery of an entirely new direction

Before I moved back to Colorado, I never really understood the point of ritual. When I ask my devout Catholic friends 'Why?' their first answer is never about Heaven nor Hell, it is simply 'tradition.' That seemed harmless enough, but also seemed pointless. Why wake up early every Sunday morning to see something that you've seen before, and that you will always be able to see again?

Don't get me wrong, as a fan of a multicultural world I've never wished (most) human traditions would disappear, I just saw little reason to play a part in them myself. In Japan I joined in an intricate 'Tea Ceremony,' and found it fascinating and amusing. About 800 years ago a man dedicated his long life to 'perfecting' the art of making tea and has been subsequently mimicked by Japanese ever since. It's a long, tedious, detailed process to make cup of gritty tea that could be replicated (more or less) in 20 seconds with a teabag and a microwave. I appreciated it as something cultural that I could attend to get a 'Japan experience' but what could possibly be in it for eight long centuries worth of Japanese who just want something hot to drink?

It took me about a decade and a half after that to figure it out, but it's starting to make sense. Every holiday since I moved to Colorado, I've been a part of some unique family rituals. They are loosely based on Native American traditions adapted heavily by my uncle Stephen. One such tradition, that crops up on every major holiday and gathering, is a prayer to the six directions. In a nutshell, everyone faces each direction (compass direction + up and down) offering a prayer to what we find there. For example, towards the East we pray to the direction where the sun rises, the great plains, and the possibility of new beginnings... etc. After that we each, in turn, wave sagebrush smoke over us as a spiritual cleanse.

When Tyler and I moved to Colorado we dutifully joined in on these quirky family rituals to try to fit in as the prodigal sons from east, but before long I caught myself craving them. There is something I find incredibly powerful each and every time we do it. Every time I play a part I feel connected in some vital way to me, and the others there, doing the same ritual both into the past and into the future. To an outside observer, or a surly teenager, it is nothing more than an incantation spoken into a suburban backyard. And although that may well be accurate, it misses huge impacts in how it can inexplicably change how each participant sees the universe. The effect, for me, in some way fuels energy, focus and understanding that do alter how I face the world. When on Thanksgiving this year I felt myself connected to Thanksgiving '07, '06 I couldn't help but get an understanding of personal, and community evolution. I can't begin to explain it, but I can no longer deny it.

Beyond the personal benefits, rituals like this have a powerful way of connecting people. Although I only started a few years ago, I've been able to watch new people brought into it. Last year I brought my Chinese friend Zhuolun, this year his new wife Katie came too. When people circle up and we start the prayer new people fidget unsure of what they're supposed to do. Somehow, by the end, everyone involved feels a measure closer to the others and that comfort stays with them, long after the ritual is over.

It doesn't really matter why these rituals have such power. What matters is they have it.

For all the power of continuity, this year the ritual changed. Stephen took inspiration from a Lakota speaker and added a whole new direction. In addition to praying East, South, West, North, Up and Down we now also take a moment to focus Inside. It seems apropos, obvious in retrospect, but it also represents a brand new dimension in my spiritual evolution. Going into a new year, I'm looking forward to finding out what something so simple actually means.

Happy Thanksgiving!