Tigers and Valentines

“I tell you the more I think, the more I feel
that there is nothing more truly artistic
than to love people.”
Vincent van Gogh

So, love is the thing I haven’t wanted to write about.  Maybe it’s not even appropriate for this blog.  Actually, I’ve given some thought to that possible inappropriateness and decided to reject it.

The whole motive for the EX:Change project and its road trip can be boiled down to love.  I love the strength and wisdom that every one of us has – even if we don’t believe it.  Perhaps especially then.  I rely on that strength and wisdom and, secretly, we all do.  That means that, by extension, our nation does, and our world.

This is all fine and dear and lofty here in words on a page.  It’s also worthy of investigation, no matter the cynicism most of us bring to such prose.  Check it out.  See for yourself if it’s so.

Two days ago our country and some others did the Valentine’s Day thing.  Gotta say that, this year I wasn’t really feeling it.  More appealing, and conveniently convergent with February 14, was the dawn of the newest Chinese year – the year of the White Tiger.

It was another opportunity to begin again – and with such a noble icon.  I’m a Rooster.  Things actually look pretty good for Roosters this year.

Twelve months earlier, I’d found myself waking up in the home of two people and three, maybe four dogs, in Albuquerque, NM.  None of us had known one another before Google Maps and the Mini Cooper made it possible for me to navigate my way to their address the night before.

The Schusters are people of vast intellect and heart.  Their thoughts and actions arise from these facts of character in their professions as a medical school professor, now retired, and a mental health care provider.  Also in their deep affection and commitment to dogs that have been abandoned or abused.  They are modest people.  They are people who love.

The Schusters were third on my trip to open their home to a stranger.  It had happened in San Diego with Rudy and Colleen Suwara, and before that in LA with the best friend of my then sweetheart.  All of these people trusted the love they have for the friends who approached them on my behalf so that I would have safe, welcoming places to stay – more safe and welcoming because of the real relationships connecting us.

The conversation with the Schusters the night before was stimulating and encouraging.  We talked about the EX:Change project and I listened to their thoughts on the individual and social psychological implications of the idea and its possibilities.  Dr. Schuster had cleaned the guest room for my stay.  As I recall his re-telling, he had moved and disposed of near 20 boxes of old papers that had been unnecessary for at least that many years.  His wife was smiling.

I slept well after a phone conversation with my sweetheart.  The next morning, I woke up early to a sunny NM dawn, had a bit of coffee with the Schusters and got my things together to leave.  The routine was easy.  I had packed light.

I carried my things to the car and looked up to see a truck pulling up to the curb.  Nondescript, a bit of a beater.  A woman got out, opened the back of the truck and lifted out a vivid bouquet of roses.

Oh yeah.  Valentine’s Day.

She carried them to the unassuming home across the street – a street of very few, if any trees, of small brick homes and brown yards.  She rang the bell and a hand came out.  A big and surprised, “Thank you!” echoed through the brand new day.  What a cool thing to see.

I drove out of the neighborhood to the Flying Star Café on Central Ave. – the hippest breakfast place in Albuquerque.  I was meeting Luis Vargas for an interview over oatmeal and some deft rendition of fried eggs.  Through the noise of people wide awake for a Saturday breakfast, Luis and I talked about change.

Luis is a current and long-time faculty member with the UNM Medical School – he’s in the Child Psychiatry Department.  I described him in a blog entry last year (February 13, 2009 – Trees, Minerals, Water, People) as “a completely gentle and completely incessant activist for the wellbeing of people on the short end of the social justice stick.”

Luis’ eyes seem always to be smiling.  He looks perpetually youthful and conveys an optimism to match.  Threading through our conversation was his complete conviction that our capacity for and practice of relationship is key to human well being as individuals, families, communities, nations.  He sees this relationship realistically based both on the fact of our interdependence and on the compassion that naturally arises from that.  Natural as it may be, Luis suggests, that compassion and the values linked with it are not available – cannot be counted on – unless they are modeled and nurtured.

He used the example of the way human nature is often missing from discussions of economy.  “We don’t take into consideration that placed in certain situations when I can distance myself from you, I can behave in an extremely greedy manner and justify it.  I can convince myself that as a CEO of a major corporation I deserve the $100 million bonus and that the other person doesn’t.  I’m taking part of that $100 million by underpaying everybody below me.  I deserve it and they don’t.

“We don’t take that kind of thought into consideration.  What are we saying about human nature and do we have a role in a society to raise these kinds of issues about the values that we feel are important to espouse in our families, in our children, in our communities?  Do we have a role in beginning to bring some of these up?  Do we have a role in teaching about social and interpersonal justice and responsibility?  Do we have a role in encouraging people to develop a certain set of values and morals?

“Of course that gets into a whole other issue about who decides.  Responding to that question involves true dialogue about what people of different backgrounds and perspectives believe is for the betterment of their immediate society and society in general.  A dialogue that really looks consciously at what we’re doing and espousing, and to make it more overt than it is now.

“Right now I think we teach a lot of values without ever saying we’re teaching values.  Kids can watch a movie and see all kinds of things that, if we really looked at it critically, we’d say, ‘That’s not our value system.’  Corporations can behave in ways that somebody may say to their child, ‘See, if you get into this career, you’re going to do well.’  But it comes at the expense of compromising a lot of personal value.  What responsibility do we have as a society to raise the questions about whether those are the values we want to espouse and about how they’re promoted in such insidious and covert ways that change our society for the worse?”

When I read these words here a year later, I hear the strength and determination of the Tiger in them.  And I hear love for people and our communities.

After Luis and I finished I drove across town to meet Bruce McQuakay.  I’ve known Bruce since he was 8 years old.  Now he’s 26.  He’s a young Native American man.  His mother is Klamath and Cree.  His father is Tlingit and Aleut.  When we spoke, Bruce was working with the Sage Council in Albuquerque.  He was engaged in defense of water and sacred sites, in particular regarding initiatives of Uranium mining.

Like Luis, Bruce’s face held a smile that day.  It was very good to see him.  He has a moustache now.  We sat in the car to talk.  The day was bright and fell through the window on his red jacket – his dark braid over his right shoulder.  Also like Luis, Bruce spoke of relationship as the ground that supports change.

“I count on our community staying together.  I guess the diverse community I have become part of.  Especially places like here in Albuquerque, there’s other organizations we work with.  There’s a Hispanic, Latino, Chicano group that we work with.  And now being part of a Native American organization, I think we’ve recognized that we need to still maintain connections with other diverse groups. There’s a lot of things that will affect us all together that really doesn’t see cultural or color lines. Poverty that doesn’t see any race.  There can be poor White people, poor Asian people, poor Hispanic people, poor Native.

“So I think maintaining unity in that sense, that’s something that I’d like to stay with us – something that we can maybe even bring into the next generation.  The things that are important, that will always affect us like valuing and taking care of community over all, just a bigger picture.  Having a community that will support each other that will work together – for the struggle, I guess.  For the struggle for all people.”

Tigers and Valentines.

I left Bruce to go to the airport.  Anticipation of this part of the day’s plan, had lingered in the back of my thoughts, well, since I’d left Portland.  I was meeting the plane that brought my sweetheart for a visit.

For two days, New Mexico opened up to give the two of us spectral views of starry night skies, pristine blue days.  An afternoon of hiking up and then back down again in Bandelier National Monument and a drive to Zuni revealed the land, its mountains distant and close, its mesas of red and orange and the way that land has held communities – ancient and continuing –of the people indigenous to it, and of the people who have since arrived.

Change.

For sure it happens.  The land shows it.  So do the stories in the faces of people — we humans who rely for our very existence on changing land, on the procession of ancestry and on the shifting matters of being daily in relationship with one another.

Relationship changes.  But the tiger has a heart.  And the compassion that inheres in this shared journey of ours, the love that grounds and fuels that compassion endures as certainly as the land.  Maybe more certainly.  Seems worthy of continuing to check it out.

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