The unbearable whiteness of being

I thought up this post title as an attempt at a witticism, but now face the harder part of actually writing something substantial or relevant about whiteness, a serious subject. If you don’t get the humor, think of a movie with a slightly different title from the 90s starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which in turn is based on a novel, I believe.

Anyway, the thought of whiteness came to me in two very different and weird ways. First, I really like dark mode on my devices, and wished there was a way to enforce dark mode on websites I regularly use. (The worst offender? The New York Times, which is blindingly, unbearably white, always and everywhere.) Then I discovered there is a Safari extension that enforces dark mode, giving me full control, and I’ve been enjoying the change this brings about in my reading experience on the web.

Second, as much as I try to avoid any and all photos relating to the current U.S. president and his administration, it is pretty much an impossible task. So as I view them without really wanting to, all I can see are white, white, white, white, white people everywhere, at all times. White people with privilege. Angry, fearful white people who believe in something that doesn’t exist, who believe in a charlatan.

Yes, this assessment is harsh, and perhaps overly broad. And after all, I am a white person myself. However, I strongly believe in the joy and power of diversity that God Himself created and loves more than we can ever imagine. We are equal in His sight and we are to enjoy and reflect differences, not only in skin color, but in other ways as well. This truth is what makes the current, very white White House and administration unbearable to me.

Interestingly, graduate studies in theology have helped open my eyes to the problem of whiteness in new ways. As I read about black and brown theology, I see new insights into the prevalence of whiteness. This does not mean that I agree with everything expressed by black and brown theologians (just as in the same way I do not always agree with white theologians), but their writings bring much needed enrichment and dimension to understanding who God is and how He works and makes Himself known.

An autumn walk near Lake Michigan

It has been a more than usually active day for us. We started out with a morning visit to our oldest son and daughter-in-law, whom we haven’t seen in about seven months. Next, we ate lunch at Jollibee’s, the famous Filipino fast food restaurant we’ve wanted to try for a long time. The food was good although quite a bit different than expected. I tried their palabok, the fried chicken was tasty, and I especially looked forward to eating Halo halo for dessert. Some of us liked it, and some really did not like it at all. From there, we drove to Fort Sheridan Nature Preserve, a pretty impressive place that used to be an army base with beautiful hiking paths and shoreline on Lake Michigan.

Below is a group of photos taken during that visit. Beautiful fall colors were everwhere!

The last rose of summer

Yesterday evening, I went for a walk and happened upon a rose bush still in bloom. It was a cheerful sight in the midst of the usual autumnal flower colors of yellows, golds, and whites. Another flower color that I enjoy seeing in the Fall is the rich, deep purple of wild asters.

On my walk, it was also hard to miss the heightened police presence everywhere. Not a cheerful sight.

Autumn is in full swing where I live, even if it only officially began on Tuesday of this week. The days have generally been mild and the nights have been quite cool. The hours of daylight are noticeably less. I love everything about this time of year except for the reduced daylight and the obnoxious use of pumpkin spice flavoring in everything. I don’t even really like pumpkin pie, to be honest — I never have. Oh yeah, and I also don’t like the ugly, creepy, horror side of Halloween that pops up everywhere.

At work, we were recently informed that the mode adopted for the Fall semester will continue through Spring as well, with a few tweaks. The Spring semester will start later and Spring Break will not happen. It means that I will continue to work fully remotely for several more months, which is a relief. Also, recent mandatory testing of the entire undergraduate student body turned up only one positive COVID case, which is encouraging. However, I also found out that an employee had recently tested positive. Fortunately, the person’s symptoms are mild, although it’s ironic that the affected individual happens to be opposed to use of masks, social distancing, and following lockdown procedures in general.

On a more somber note, we are also in the midst of working through responses to a survey that will be used to assess where, how, and when our organization can be reshaped or changed to achieve necessary cost savings. Notice I didn’t use the word “if.”

Hope flickers

Change, including positive change, is rarely easy and quick. Yesterday, I happened to look back on all of the previous posts I’ve written and I found it encouraging and helpful to see the variety of emotions and circumstances documented in them. In particular, I sensed a pattern of ongoing change in them. Writing things down is, of course, a well known way to process what we go through. Reviewing the past several months of blog posts showed me that hope flickers here and there. I saw signs of good things gradually happening over time.

I’ve reflected before on the realization that once hope is dimmed or expires altogether, it is very difficult to regain it, for it to burn strongly again. I write that hope flickers because that is how it seems to me — not a strong, steady flame, but at least it is igniting into flame here and there.

A favorite Bible verse talks about this imagery when Jesus appears to two of his disciples and walks with them on their way to Emmaus. After they finally recognize their traveling companion for who he is, they say:

Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

Luke 24:32 (KJV)

That is somewhat like what I’m talking about in my own life. Before, everything seemed too much, impossible, and I felt daily despair. Now, not a whole lot has changed for the better in my circumstances, but I somehow feel more hope, that possibly, good things will come. It’s a wonderful thing to realize and to recognize.

Of course, many good things developed over the past several months. I don’t deny that, and I am able to see and I am reminded of the goodness and faithfulness of God through many unexpected acts of kindness and mercy. But in general, most circumstances are not substantially different. What has changed, or is in the process of changing, is my perspective.

With apologies for the navel gazing…

Equilibrium

Equilibrium — a word that sounds vaguely, and indeed is rooted in, Latin. Kind of like Londinium (Roman name for the city of London) or palladium. Anyway, it occurred to me today that this is what I have frequently lacked. Here is a complete definition:

e·qui·lib·ri·um| ˌēkwəˈlibrēəm, ˌekwəˈlibrēəm | noun (plural equilibria | -ˈlibrēə | ) a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced: the maintenance of social equilibrium.
• a state of physical balance: I stumbled over a rock and recovered my equilibrium.
• a calm state of mind: his intensity could unsettle his equilibrium.
• Chemistry a state in which a process and its reverse are occurring at equal rates so that no overall change is taking place: ice is in equilibrium with water.
• Economics a situation in which supply and demand are matched and prices stable: the market is in equilibrium | [as modifier] :  the equilibrium level of income.

New Oxford American Dictionary

Please do not conclude that I am slipping into something New Age-y, and that I’m sitting cross-legged now, uttering weird noises with my hands raised and thumb and middle fingers touching. No, that’s too much effort, anyway 😉

I think the issue of balance, life balance, is very Biblical and consistent with Christianity. One example I can think of off the top of my head is Jesus going away from his disciples and crowds, up into the mountains to pray (Luke 6).

My ability to juggle things has been severely diminished over the last year or so, much more than before, and the pandemic situation has played a big part. I especially grieve the mess I made of teaching a new graduate class this Spring and wonder if students in that class will ever get over it. My second graduate degree progress has crashed to a halt. There is lack of progress in many other work, home, and professional areas of responsibility as well.

Equilibrium helps when going through rough times, and it requires significant work over a significant period of time to work up to. I’m not there yet but I’m working on it and the good news is, I think it’s doable and I’m already able to feel a bit calmer about things than several months ago. Exercise helps, as does many other things but above all else, what helps is trusting and learning to trust more in how much God is in control of all things. There are many things that are mysterious and unknown, things that seem impossible and unfair, which only in retrospect, and only sometimes, can I see and understand that the Lord’s hand was in them.

Flies in the ointment

As I sit this morning in my chair, sipping a cup of royal milk tea from Asia and eating cardamom rusks from Sweden, I think on and read about what’s going on in the world around me. I wonder what the day ahead has in store other than grading a ton of short papers for my course (yuck). And I am thankful for the opportunity to enjoy international flavors in food and drink.

The weather lately has been pretty darn near perfect. The hours of available sunlight are waning but the trade off in lower temperatures and humidity, as well as freedom from most mosquitoes and other annoying insects, is worth it. The windows are open through the night and the cool air is soothing.

Of course, there are flies in the ointment, such as debilitatingly frequent migraines. I wish I could isolate their cause once and for all. I just need to keep trying various things to reduce their frequency and severity. (By the way that phrase, fly in the ointment, has always been an unusual one, and I’m sure it has interesting origins.) Friday night I had to take one of our children to the emergency room with second degree burns after they had accidentally spilled hot water on their leg while at work. Fortunately, I think the leg will heal ok.

In closing, I hope you’ll gain some amusement, as I did, by looking at the following oddly named whiskey bottles spotted in a nearby antique store. Who knew these brands even existed?!

Oddly named whiskey bottles

The greatest danger

There is a lot to be anxious about these days, obviously. Dangers and fears are around every corner and they are especially obvious when reading news headlines. I won’t even mention TV “news” shows and various talking heads spouting their own partisan viewpoints. I am thankful, personally, to not have TV so that I can more easily avoid the constantly blaring of sales pitches (commercials) and images of dressed up people with overly white teeth, fake tans, and smooth talking demeanors.

Many believe the greatest issue of our time is climate change. Others say it is immigration and migration. A good case can be made for political and social polarization, or rampant racism, or gun violence, or drug use, or economic hardship, or that old standby, war. You name it, there is a reason or cause for anxiety.

I’m beginning to think or realize, however, that none of these is anywhere near as important and insidious as the misuse of information. To the extent each of us ingests daily information to guide us in our life paths, we are incredibly dependent on knowing things, hearing or reading about things, and creating and sharing knowledge. We heavily depend on receiving and processing information that is reliable, helpful, good, trustworthy.

We are witnessing rampant misuse of information in key areas today, although the misuse of information is nothing new. It’s as old as time. The scale and reach of today’s information mess, however, seem to me much greater and more dangerous than ever before. Witness what happens with social media, for example.

In libraries, we have a long tradition of something called “information literacy.” The idea is to help others be better, more informed and skilled consumers of information, to build up evaluative techniques that help people to properly assess and use information. It seems like this tradition is more needed than ever before, and in a much more widespread manner than just helping college freshmen write a good persuasive essay.

As daunting and difficult as it may sound, I think it is increasingly important that at some level, we critically assess and evaluate the flows of information that we process on a daily basis, many of them without much thought. Why is someone saying x? What motivates another person to write y statement?

I’m only just beginning to flesh out the implications and details of this idea or assertion, and I realize that someone reading this post may think I’m a little bit crazy, or at the very least, paranoid. However, I stick to my point: it’s the misuse of information that we need to be concerned with the most in today’s society.

A crooked man

Recently, someone I meet with regularly read me a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that he found inspiring. As a librarian, my instinct was to go find the source of that quote, to verify that it was really what Roosevelt said and where he said it. In my experience, quotes are notoriously unreliable and poorly documented.

This led me down a bit of a rabbit hole, although I was able to track down what I wanted after a while. In the process, I came across another quote of his. I have very ambivalent feelings about this famous American president, but the guy certainly was eminently quotable:

This country has nothing to fear from the crooked man who fails. We put him in jail. It is the crooked man who succeeds who is a threat to this country.

From a speech given in Memphis, TN, 25 October 1905.

I wonder, who does that immediately bring to mind? Hmm? Although, as I’ve said many times before, the real problem isn’t one man, it’s the many thousands or millions of people who put him in power and continue to support him.

Walking

Walking — simply, walking — may be the key means by which I get better, physically. I’ve begun to walk 1-2 miles every other day. Honestly, it is not easy. It is quite hard, but at least it is something I can do to get some exercise. I don’t need special equipment or complicated instructions to do it. What is needed, however, is persistence, to keep at it over time, even when I don’t feel like it.

These are early days, but I already feel a bit of encouragement in taking this step, literally and figuratively. It goes against every inclination and habit to be more active, but once I make the effort, I begin to feel better.

Of course, as in many other things, the Bible has a lot to say about walking. Perhaps the most fitting verse I can think of is as follows:

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

John 8:12 (NLT)

I like the imagery of walking in the light rather than in darkness. I have felt a lot of darkness lately, a strong sense of being overwhelmed and overcome by circumstances and situations over which I have little or no control. I have often felt hopeless and broken. But as I trust in the Lord and walk in His ways by His strength, things start to look and feel lighter even if circumstances and situations remain grim.

The art and drudgery of writing

Writing has been a struggle for me lately, and the flow of blog posts has dried up. It is not an issue of great concern for me, however; inspiration and drive to do something creative tend to be cyclical. Also, there is an art to writing, and sometimes a drudgery to it, as well.

I decided some weeks ago to once again put my second Master’s program on hold, and not take any classes this semester. (I didn’t take any during Spring, either.) The biggest reason for doing that, aside from being convinced that I could not handle the extra workload right now, is that it involves a lot of writing. And the pressure of doing that at this point in time is just too much, too stressful. This makes me feel somewhat guilty and like I’ve failed, but on the other hand, it is simply a reality that I need to accept. I think it is a good decision in a bad time.

Those who are good at writing, and studying, and producing essay after essay seemingly without effort, appear to have an innate confidence that I lack. A willingness to spend the time to do the work of putting pen to paper or more likely, fingers to keyboard. It does not seem to faze them, or overwhelm them. They just get on with it. Over the years, I’ve been told many times that my struggle with writing is because I’m a procrastinator (I am), that I’m a perfectionist (also guilty), and that I do not plan or organize my time well (also probably true).

On the other hand, and in my defense, for many years now, I’ve carried a heavy load of too much responsibility, too many metaphorical balls to constantly juggle. The pandemic and other personal circumstances have forced me to pause, to think more deeply about how and whether to be more balanced in what I do or what I commit to. For perhaps the first time, I’m coming to grips with how finite are my abilities and my time. I need to think much more carefully about what I do. If I choose to do x, I have to be prepared to give up y.

I’ve known all of this for years, but again, it seems like I am at an inflection point where I have to face reality. This is a gift of these times of great uncertainty and disruption: to deeply think through and decide on what is really important, and what is not. And then to begin to change one’s life and orientation to fit around what is truly important.

Writing happens to be on that list of truly important things for me. I may not consistently and daily post something here, but I will continue on as best I can, and when I can. Hopefully those who read this blog or care in some way about my writing will stick with me through this whole journey.

On a visit to a nearby antique store, I immediately was struck by the physicality, design, and meaning of an old manual typewriter I saw displayed on a shelf. I took a photo of it and enjoyed the result, which is shown as the featured photo of this post. I hope you like it, too.