Friday, November 28, 2014

Wait and See (A Midlife Thanksgiving Meditation)

 
Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.“Wait and see,” the farmer replied.The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.“Wait and see,” replied the old man.The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.“Wait and see,” answered the farmer.The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.“Wait and see,” said the farmer.

Across America, families will gather around tables laden with comfort food and share their gratitude for events of the last year. My family will be no exception: there will be seventeen of us today at An-di-Fan (the House of Peace), a craftsman home on Baker Street in McMinnville, Oregon, purchased by my grandmother in 1945 and transferred upon her death in 1988 to my parents who have lived in it ever since. We call it An-di-Fan because my grandparents, during their missionary years in Shanghai, took that as their Chinese name.

That name has become something of an ideal for me to ascribe to, especially when I consider how well my grandmother personified it. No matter how great the obstacles in her life, Colena Michael Anderson personified the evangelical cliche of maintaining an "attitude of gratitude." Every day of her 97 years was both a blessing and a preparation for the greater joy to come once she left this earth, and was reunited with those who preceded her in death. Her tranquility was shared with those who met her, as well: however stressful or frightening my own life might be, I knew I could experience peace in my grandmother's presence.

As I've entered into middle age, I have more and more sought to cultivate this same sense of balance in myself, accepting life as it is, knowing that every moment, however difficult, contains seeds of a future that can be either blessing or curse. I've looked for the good, sought to minimize the impact of the bad, and find myself happier overall.

This blog has been about the tao of life, and my quest to find blessings in the midst of frustrations and defeats. The last year has presented me with many such issues, both local and global. I've vented my spleen at the many challenges of teaching in a poor district, while celebrating the rewards of working with children whose poverty seems to make them more open to the gifts I bring to the classroom. I've ranted about the the broken electoral system that permits a small minority of cranky oldsters living in rural states to wield inordinate influence over the partisan makeup of Congress. I've shared the difficulties and wonders of traveling to the Third World, the screw-ups and surprises of attending an Orff conference in Nashville, the things I regret about my younger self and the things I realize can only be known with maturity. As often as possible, I've striven to be balanced, whether ranting, raving, or just meditating.

Which brings me, finally, to Thanksgiving. Everything I've experienced in the past year, whether personal, local, regional, or global, has contained within it both chaos and sublimity. What follows is not a comprehensive list; rather, it will be a few examples, and you'll just have to trust me that (previous sentence) everything contains the same spectrum of potentiality.

Take school. At the beginning of 2014, I was almost halfway through my year teaching in the gymnasiums of schools in neighborhoods distinguished by poverty. The size and acoustics of that environment ultimately defeated me from teaching a comprehensive musical curriculum, and the prospect of another year in such a setting led me to look for work in other districts throughout the summer. At the same time, though, my stubborn insistence on being as successful as I could be, on getting as much musical education into these children as I could, made me a far stronger teacher and a more confident man. Coming back in September to a far better teaching space, I was able to take command of that classroom as never before. In many ways, I feel as if I've come into my own as a music educator; at 53, I'm finally in the prime of my career. I owe that to my hard first year in Reynolds.

Continuing with school, but dovetailing with my home life, Amy and I got married and bought our house this summer. With the two weeks I spent in Ghana consuming me from the moment I left school (a day early) to the first week of July, there wasn't much time this summer to catch my breath. The down time I had was mostly spent preparing for these big events, including planning our honeymoon, and applying for jobs in Beaverton. It was only as we were signing for the house the week before I returned to school that I learned our mortgage application would have been denied if I'd changed jobs. A complicated, stressful transition--from renter to homeowner--would have become far more complicated and extended, as we now had to either go through the process once more or, even worse, found a different, probably much more expensive, home to rent and moved into it. "Wait and see," said the old farmer.

Let's expand it out to the political realm. I've been deeply frustrated by the whimsical nature of the American electorate. Polls show that a sizable majority of Americans favor the policies of the Democratic party, and yet the people who turn out to vote are the cranky but active demographic I belong to: white American men over the age of 50. For some reason, most of my people are fed up with the social contract, refuse to listen to reason, and love to express their ignorance with their votes. That's how we have rewarded four years of Republican obstructionism with an even more empowered Congress of dunderheads whose entire agenda can be summed up in Mitch McConnell's 2010 wish to make Barack Obama a one-term president--a goal his party has, in many ways, accomplished, blocking so many of his initiatives that the White House might as well have been vacant for the last four years. It's infuriating to an idealist like me who believes in the push-and-pull of the balance of powers. At the same time, though, I can see the last four years as something like my year in the gym, toughening our President and convincing him the time has come to use all the powers of his office he has previously held in reserve to govern despite, rather than along with, Congress. Perhaps the next two years, coupled with the productive first two years of his first term, will add up to a great one term Presidency, and we can just forget about the ways in which the Republicans have acted like those one or two high flyers in every class who keep the rest of the kids from learning. (Wow--there's an insight I'll have to give its own post!) "The election results are a horrible catastrophe!" "Wait and see," said the old farmer.

"Wait and see" is no call to complacency, but an acceptance that any judgment about the overall impact of an event is premature. Only in retrospect can we begin to assess the successes and failures of our lives. The tragedy of Michael Brown's shooting may be the catalyst for this country to finally address its congenital racism. Two more years of Republican tantrums may finally teach the American electorate to reject the Grand Obstructionist Party. Having both our names on a mortgage is, I am realizing, as great a bond as any marriage contract. And taking "wait and see" as my personal credo makes the rest of my life far more fulfilling than all the anxieties and passions of my youth.

That, I believe, is the greatest gift my grandparents bequeathed to our family: that our very name means embracing both the chaos and promise in every event, and in that acceptance, making every place we lay our heads a House of An.

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