Thursday, February 25, 2010

Diversity and Friendship

Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day.” ~ Melissa Etheridge

I didn't realize how exceptionally open-minded, inclusive and forward thinking my parents were until I became an adult. My father and mother had an extraordinary group of close friends. These people were vastly intelligent, successful, creative and dynamic. I grew being surrounded by men and women who had grown to prominence in their fields through hard work and inestimable charisma. These friends were of every color in the rainbow of human existence. Some were gay and some were straight. My childhood was not only a melting pot of talents, but also of backgrounds and lifestyles. When people, today, say they are "color blind", I know that there are those who take umbrage with that fact. Yet the way I was raised was not to ignore the color of a person's skin, their age, or their lifestyle choices, but to look within see our commonalities and our bonds. Diversity, when I was growing up, wasn't even a buzz word yet. It was simply how we lived our lives; appreciating people whose company we enjoyed, whom we cherished and who were important to us. I didn't grow up color blind. I grew up looking for friends in whom my heart felt comfortable.

What I've come to realize, as an adult, is that without diversity, life is unbearably bland. In my Theology class, we have a wide variety of backgrounds, age groups, birth nations, financial situations, talents, political leanings and life experiences. Some have their lives already dedicated to church ministry professionally and personally. Others are lay people in various stages of spiritual quests. A group of 10 people with seemingly little in common, but our shared commitment to the class, began in September. In February, we are our own special, unique and deeply caring community. We are there for one another and our differences of opinion make for fascinating intellectual conversation and exploration. Had we all been in the same mindset, our study of Church history, Philosophy, Old and New Testaments and Ancient history would have been dull. It's the wide ranging interests, areas of expertise (or ignorance, in my own case), and perspectives that give our discussions regarding our readings for the week their zest. My class is respectful, curious, inquisitive, opinionated and dedicated. We range in age of from our 30's to our 80's...with every decade represented. We are teachers, artists, ministers, Brothers, mothers, people in the business world and people at home. We are all different, but that makes our community far more intriguing.

My one area of intolerance happens to be ironic: I'm deeply uncomfortable with those who are intolerant themselves. I find all my compassion, my heart for the world and my inner kindness to turn into something bitter and angry when confronted with nasty people. It's an area I'm working on and struggling with, but it remains a place in my heart that is hardened. I've been in situations in which several women (with whom, on paper, I should everything in common) were mean-spirited towards the daughter of a gay friend of mine during a ballet recital dress rehearsal. I have seen people judge a handicapped woman harshly because of the 'inconvenience' of accommodating her. I have heard rude remarks, by a highly educated woman, about the religion I was born into, as well as had anti-Semitic remarks directed to my family. I have born witness to every kind of wretched, ignorant and bigoted train of thought. I have answered back sharply. I have rebuked. I have ignored. I have held grudges. I have let things go. Most of all, over the years, I've learned to pick my battles. I've discovered when to fight and when to retreat in disgust. I have determined with whom to place my friendship and from whom to withdraw it. Initially, the idea of withdrawing friendship seemed to be cut from the same cloth as bigotry. I was uncomfortable with stooping to the same level. And yet, how could I choose to remain friends with people whose mindsets weren't a sign of 'diversity' or 'difference of opinion' but hatred and aggression?

The answer for me, in all of this, is forgiveness. When a person is simply ignorant and has their own issues of insecurity, this person may lash out in fear of the unknown. If that individual continues to grow, to develop and to seek out knowledge....especially about situations she doesn't understand....I believe forgiveness is well in order. I, myself, am far from perfect. I've been rude, unkind and unjust. My impulsive nature has gotten the better of me far too many times. But, through all of that, I've been shown mercy and forgiveness myself when I've actively worked to regain the trust of those I've hurt. It may not be my responsibility to chase after people to educate them, nor is it appropriate for me to require every single person I meet to think just like I do. However, I do have a duty to listen, to comment and to forgive, if forgiveness is warranted.

Through all of this, I have to count my blessings. I have the most exceptional friends any woman could hope for. They are all over the globe, and they are broad ranging in talents, backgrounds, ages, interests and life choices. The fact that they care about me is humbling and mind boggling. I feel like the weakest, dullest link in a beautifully luminous, interwoven chain. I feel profound gratitude to be counted among them....and I realize how vivid my life is because of its heterogeneity.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Farming, Growing Things and a Brown Thumb

I never had any other desire so strong, and so like to covetousness, as that one which I have had always, that I might be master at last of a small house and a large Garden. ~Abraham Cowley, The Garden, 1666

My Grandma Rose was an amazing gardener. She was able to take a tiny cutting from any type of plant, coax out roots from it, and then transplant it into her garden. She lived in a historic Russian Hill Victorian in San Francisco, and despite the house's many period treasures, it was her beautiful English garden that captivated me the most. In the midst of a busy urban center, she cultivated her modest backyard into an enchanted space, complete with winding walkways, unusual breeds of flowers and vegetables, and a yellow wooden playhouse that divided time between her potting shed duties, and my dolls' tea parties. Grandma's garden always had something new to capture my attention, to draw me further in and to cast a spell upon my childhood self. I found peace there during stressful times, and pure joy, during happy ones.

These memories make it all the more tragic for me that I have not inherited Grandma's gifts for plant cultivation and landscape design. Additionally, I lack even the most rudimentary of 'growing' skills. Beyond that, I seem to have become the antithesis of my grandmother: where she could breathe life into any increment of flora, I seem to be the instrument of torture and death to them. I have long joked that I am the Dr. Kevorkian of plants....they seem to find their way into my home and yard when they want to end their own lives. Once, my friend, Mary, was in the midst of a major home remodel and had to remove all her house plants from the construction zone. Mary is one of many friends who are exceptional garden enthusiasts, and her yard has been featured in the House & Garden show several times. When she asked me to mind her houseplants, I begged her to find another host family. Seduced by my bright and sunny front windows, Mary promised that I couldn't possibly kill her indoor plants, if she placed them herself and left me specific instructions. She was wrong, and they were dead within a week. We are still trying to figure out exactly what went wrong....fifteen years later. I bemoan my lack of gardening abilities. I have read books, I have taken nature walks with landscapers and consulted specialists. Everyone is left with the distinct impression that I honestly have a Brown Thumb. It's a "gift". This time of year in northern New England, many of my friends are consulting seed catalogs and beginning to get their orders placed for the coming Spring. I'm simply listening to their conversations and wondering if I missed out on learning the secret handshake in Kindergarten.

Therefore, a game on Facebook has left me particularly excited. Facebook is a social networking site through which I've been able to remain in touch with close friends and family, as well as to rekindle friendships from long ago. The game "Farmville" was initially a sore spot with me. Several of my dearest friends were posting accomplishments, winning blue ribbons and having barn raising events. They were growing everything from rice to roses, and landscaping their virtual plantations beautifully. I had to roll my eyes and wonder how my vastly intelligent, well educated and interesting pals could be so enamored by a silly game. And, then I tried it. Despite the fact that I did manage to kill my first few (okay, more like first dozen) virtual crops, I did begin to enjoy the game. The better I was able to produce my produce, and take care of my livestock, the more I was rewarded. I found that improving my farm's layout, crop rotation, and type of seeds used truly helped them to flourish and grow. With each successful harvest, I was rewarded with the ability to expand my farm and try new seeds. For the first time in my life, I've found some measure of enjoyment in watching my yield accrue. There is something deeply satisfying about sowing fallow ground, choosing which type of plants to produce, watching them blossom and then in-gathering the results. Even though these plots of land are simply virtual squares, and my "Me" is just a character controlled by the click of a mouse, I'm proud of my little farm. I have a barn, a dairy farm, a chicken coop, a silo, scads of animals, a farmhouse and many plots of different crops; from grains to flowers to vegetables. I have grape arbors and cranberry bogs. My tomatoes and red and luscious. My roses are full and hearty. My sheep bah. My cows moo. And my ducks quack. It's a goofy cartoonish game, and yet I find the whole experience to be oddly satisfying. I can almost picture myself walking through the lanes between my fields, brushing my horses and fertilizing my grains. I can wish myself a cup of iced tea as I survey all that I have grown.

I still harbor the hope that someday my real yard will resemble something akin to my virtual garden. And yet, in every day life, I realize that I have the opportunity to create 'something from nothing' through my words. In writing, I have the ability to cultivate the soil of my imagination by reading good books and listening to the advice of others. I can plant my own seeds of ideas and nurture them along with practice. I can wait patiently as I work through rewrites and yank out any literary weeds that are sapping my energy. I can watch those first shoots of persistence spring up, and I can harvest them by finishing a piece over which I've toiled. While my writing will never resemble that of William Shakespeare or even John Grisham, I will have the satisfaction of toiling over each word in the piece, from beginning to end. In that, there is a sort of farming garden of words.

Perhaps someday I'll have rosemary by my garden gate, and a small pond with swans swimming, surrounded by lavender and lilac. Or, perhaps, I'll leave this part of my life as metaphor and leave the real gardening up to experts.