Saturday, July 23, 2016

Missing Him Already

The more I look at the two candidates for president of the U.S., the more I start missing Barack Obama. He has some months left in office, but his steady, calm style, more than his policies, remains remarkable in these violent times.

As Timothy Egan wrote recently in the NYTimes (7-15), Obama has been a classy model of dignity whose personal behavior--no scandals--"has set a standard few presidents have ever reached."

As consoler-in-chief, this masterful speaker has been widely praised for providing unity in a time of chaos. This cool, unflappable, patient guy is the same man attacked viciously by the right wing for the past seven years, having his Americanism challenged as well as his religion; yet he has responded with predictable eloquence, not anger.

A careful thinker and writer who spends hours alone reading in his private study after he has said goodnight to his family, Obama is the kind of thoughtful leader we need, the kind who rarely misspeaks or makes embarrassing errors.  He remains who he was in 2008: a family man who reads widely, thinks carefully, and knows who he is.

Obama the man will be missed, even if Obama the president has made decisions that are questionable.  His cautious foreign policy has been far from perfect in dealing with ISIS, yet he has moved away from the ideology of his predecessor to pursue new areas of engagement (with Iran and Cuba and Asia). 

As Fareed Zakaria wrote some months ago, Obama has not been given credit for many significant achievements:  his forceful response to the financial crisis of 2008,  bringing the U.S. out of the Great Recession in better shape than any other major country. And he provided a health care program that covers 20 million more people, even recently taking the time to write, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a critique of Obamacare, offering suggestions as to how it can be improved.  What other president would do this?

He has, says Zakaria, transformed energy policy (solar costs have plunged seventy percent). People will argue about these and other policies, but few can (honestly) say that Obama has acted dishonestly, embarrassing our country in the eyes of the world.

When I look at Donald Trump, I see the antithesis of Obama: I see chaos in the recent convention and campaign, not order; irrationality and anger, not patience or clarity in the face of complexity; carelessness and lies, not a clear policy; and a bleak view of a new dark age that has supposedly fallen on America and the world that only Donald can, single-handedly, fix. Trump is a ludicrous figure who makes Obama's scandal-free White House and his calm, reassuring message of hope and clarity all the more remarkable.

I predict a valuable post-presidency for Barack Obama. He will continue to do important work in the world.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Paying Attention to Light

I advise my writing students to begin by observing: Look closely at someone or something and describe it. Sounds easier than it is.  Paying attention is rarely simple, but it's essential if we are to be in the here and now.

I've been paying attention to the light that, even on hot summer afternoons, floods the room where I work.  Thanks to shady trees and a southerly exposure, the light is diffused, its glare softened. I enjoy looking at it as it pours through the window over my desk, cooling the room. 

Or so it seems.  I have never, until now, put it into words. Light is, after all, a silent presence, and that's the whole point: an encounter with silence and stillness.

I ask myself, Why do I enjoy looking at light?  Maybe the answer has to do with memories, half remembered, of afternoons elsewhere, in hotel rooms when we were on vacation and after a busy morning, a brief siesta was called for. Or maybe it reminds me of certain paintings, especially Vermeer's, where a lady quietly reads by a window in a room filled with natural light.  Thanks to Vermeer, the light is as important as the lady or the room.

I am drawn to light. I can identify with medieval folk in Gothic cathedrals as they felt the power of colored light from the stained glass windows, suggesting a divine presence, as if the barrier between earth and heaven, matter and spirit, had been bridged and they felt, in that lofty space, a bit of eternity.

I think about light because I know the value of contemplation and find too little time for it. Richard Rohr recently wrote that most of our thinking is unstable, a series of self-centered reactions and preferences, of judging and labeling things or worrying, none of which has anything to do with being fully in the present moment.

I need time alone each day--even just ten minutes--so that I can calmly watch everything as it comes and goes, even something as fundamental as light. I need a place in the day when my mind can be still and let things float by, without analysis or judgment or feeling.

Silence and emptiness, when we make room for them in our busy lives, are open to infinite horizons and transcendence in a way that nothing else is, Rohr says.

Time spent gazing out the window, looking at the light, may seem to some busy people time wasted, but it is the overactive, busy mind that is wasting an essential opportunity for something essential to every day: the freedom of contemplation.