“Glimpses of Buried Treasure”

The other day I was hiking in the Greenbelt here in Austin Texas, a system of trails that follows a seasonal stream, and I stumbled onto the scattered pages of what I thought was someone’s journal.  The pages were spread over about fifty feet of the dry creek bed, a recent rain having weighed them down so the wind hadn’t taken them very far, and I guess I did what anyone else would do when given the chance to read the secret thoughts of a stranger: I started reading.  It turned out to be a community notebook, placed in a cave a few weeks ago for whoever stumbled on it to write in.  Then I did what any responsible citizen would do and picked up the litter so I could throw it away.  Or I did it because I wanted to write about it . . . .

On my mind was something I had just read in A Tale of Two Cities.  I think it does a good enough job explaining why this notebook of random thoughts was so great to have found.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!  Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all.  No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged.  It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. . . .  In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Cave Secrets cover

Cave Secrets

(Click on any of the circular pictures to enter the album)

Greenbelt Journal - Lost mother

I am ever interested in the secret lives of other people and ever impressed at how impossible it is to know them.  As I passed people on the trail and had quick conversations about dogs and the weather, I wondered what they would write on their page and what unknown stories lay hidden further beneath.

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(PS, if by any small chance one of the authors of this journal finds this post, or anyone else who knows, let me know where the “cave” is and I’ll return the book with a new one that is more permanent!)

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Sunrise

This morning there was a beautiful sunrise and I saw myself in it, my own insecurities and anxieties reflected back in a way that helped me understand myself. I thought about society and public opinion, about history and fame, about why none of us really understand each other.

Nature is like poetry in that way–vague and ready to be interpreted for our own use–but I don’t like to stretch symbolism farther than needed. What follows is simply an attempt to describe what I saw while watching the sun rise and the scattered thoughts that followed.

Sunrise1

Silhouetted trees, black with no leaves, set against a stark orange background of a large cloud, waves across its surface. The sun is at just the right angle that, much like the sand of a beach when the sun is low, the cloud’s low points cast shadows across the rest.

Sunrise2

It’s the small things that are so impressive, the things we usually don’t notice and that don’t last long enough to give us a second chance. Here you see loose fog at the bottom of the cloud, closest to me in the picture, that will soon be burned upwards or will become invisible once the sun is too high to reflect through it to my eyes.

Sunrise3

Each phase of this sunrise lasts only a few minutes. The waves on the bottom of the cloud are gone, the sun having risen behind and becoming only an orange glow, and the cloud now blocks most of the light from reaching my eyes.

Sunrise4

Wispy clouds high in the atmosphere now have their moment.  Invisible or unnoticed before, they are now bright, intricate, and delicate, set against a blue sky and above a dark red. These clouds now pull my eyes upward, halt my breath, stretch my mouth into a smile, move my hand to the camera, my finger to the zoom, and cause me to take eight photographs to try to capture their simple but intricate appeal. This is the signature of 7:30 AM.

The rest has been beautiful and unique, but this is my favorite. I can’t explain exactly why.

Sunrise5

Sunrise6

Sunrise7

As the sun rises more, the orange glow begins to disappear, the sun now almost completely darkened behind what has become a very large cloud. Above, the light’s reflection is too much for the intricacies of 7:30 – it too becomes indistinct, the light blending too much for detail.

Sunrise8

New clouds form above the large cloud, bright on the bottom and dark on the top, dotting the sky in a diagonal line.

Sunrise9

Sunrise10

The sun is now finally visible above the large, low-hanging cloud of the early morning.

Sunlight

These clouds were beautiful, but wouldn’t have been anything special without the low-angled sunlight passing through them. In fact, many of them were in the sky before I woke up. Had I looked out my window at four in the morning it isn’t likely I would have felt impelled to get my camera and go outside to capture the view; any clouds would have been dark, gray, or unseen. During the short time of sunrise and sunset the colors are so unique and fleeting that we have to either look at them or admit that we’re out of touch with nature.

Even these clouds were the only ones I noticed among hundreds of others within my view, and even then I only focused on the most brilliant among them for a few short moments before the sun, followed quickly by my eyes, shifted its gaze elsewhere.

Scattered thoughts

I am a lot of different things at once, and so are you. Since I don’t know you, and you don’t know me well enough to speak for me, I’ll speak of myself and hope you can understand. That’s the difficult thing – to be understood. Everything I am influences the way you hear me.

I’m an atheist ex-Mormon. To some, that fact brings an unexpected twinge of curiosity: “There must be a great story here.” Hours of friendly conversation follow. To others it brings genuine emotional pain, a feeling of loss, a felling that a friend is now an enemy, an ally now a critic: “Oh how and why did he do that? He was so faithful and strong.” To others–perhaps to the more insecure or controlling–it brings anger, and results in biting remarks most often unheard by me.

Religion, along with politics, is a topic where most people expect misunderstanding and conflict.

I’m also philanthropist. You are too, most likely – it’s not an exclusive term reserved for the rich or the hipster, it’s just about doing good for other people. I write my honest thoughts about poverty and nonprofits in a way I hope is helpful and interesting. Most find this inspiring: “That’s awesome, I want to do something like that too.” Other people are, as surprising as this has been to me, sincerely offended. I ignored them until I realized they really believed the words they said about me, and then I lamented our inability to be heard correctly and recognized how oversensitive and callous our society is at the same time – ready to react defensively but excited to criticize when we can: “This racist, pampered, pretentious fool actually thinks he’s making a difference. This slum-tourist, this sheltered naive prick, this self-absorbed idiot.” Still others are defensive and distrustful. Within their vague responses I hear what they mean to say: “Would you please just not ask as many questions or discuss our programs so openly? You might mess something up.”

I’ve felt misunderstood at many times in my life, but usually I’ve been able to explain it away. These reactions to writing about philanthropy were startling.

I’m a lot of other things too, some of them controversial, some boring, all of them important to the way I’m heard. I’m a banker for a large bank at a time when large banks are hated; I’m an American; I’m white, tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed; I’m a man; I’m bilingual; I’m liberal; I live with my fiance; I’m talkative when with friends and content to people-watch when with strangers. Each of these things–and thousands of others like them–are seen in a different way by every person who sees them.

Understanding

Sunrise11Consider this cloud. I love how each smaller, individual cloud is pressed together into one large body. It reminds me of a hand-drawn map of an archipelago or the rippled sand on the shore of a mountain lake.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the scenes shown above.  That has nothing to do with the clouds themselves, it has only to do with the sun and I, standing at a particular angle to each other that other clouds are more brilliant and these are more gray.  To someone else though, farther to the north than me, these clustered clouds are in just the right spot to be colored beautifully by the sun.  What is gray to me is beautiful to someone else.

And that’s the truth I want to give here, the only words that really matter to this whole article: understanding is impossible. When I write something, the way it is received by others has far more to to with society and with the prior position of the listener than it does with the words I say.

Consider the scriptures. I used to read the scriptures and get a great spiritual feeling. Now I don’t read them at all, but when I do I notice all the destructive things in them, like the stories that glorify murder in the name of god or the verses that make all other lifestyles seem terribly unhappy, for example. How different my experience is now than it was before. The book hasn’t changed, I haven’t even really “changed,” but my perspective has. Now I get my spiritual feeling elsewhere.

We each interpret the world through our own experiences. What would a life-long atheist understand about the feelings of a Mormon boy reading the scriptures? He might become familiar with the doctrines and the scriptures themselves, but he wouldn’t understand what it was like, not fully. The imaginative and empathetic person can feel a little of what someone else feels, but that has its own limitations. If I had never felt good while reading scriptures, how differently would I view my Mormon friends? How much less would I understand them?

Likewise, how can Mormons understand me and my experience?

Consider politics. A conservative friend hears a speech about protecting the second amendment from “Barrack Hussein Obama” and it rouses within him a righteous anger against those who are attempting to “weaken America.” That feeling is real. I hear the speech and make fun of it right away, titling the speaker as moron, idiot, zealot, dogmatic, and ridiculous. The words we heard were the same, the simplistic meme was the same, but the response it received from me and my friend are completely different.

We’re prepared by society and by our former training to accept some things and reject others instantly. I could list a hundred other examples, but I don’t think we need to bore ourselves with repetitive detail.

If it sounds like I’m playing the victim, I am. I’m realizing now how impossible it is for us to all understand each other for how we really are. We are perpetually prone to misjudge. We’re each victims of our own training.

Being offended

Realizing that full understanding is impossible (with almost everyone) doesn’t relieve us of responsibility to explain ourselves well. Words are powerful – the smallest of them can change the tone of a sentence and affect the way we react to it. Ignoring accountability for the words we choose is silly.

I’ve heard the LDS phrase “It’s your choice to be offended” enough times to cringe when I hear it now, and this seems like a good place to rant about it for a second.

No, it isn’t my choice to be offended. Linguistically it doesn’t even make sense. It’s no more my choice to be offended by someone than it is for me to be slapped – it is an action done to me by someone else. It is my choice how I react to that offense, or whether I’d like to remain upset, just like it’s my choice whether to slap someone back after they slap me, but let’s keep the language clear.

I’m sure the person who authored this unfortunate LDS phrase didn’t realize it was going to be used as a license for members to say whatever they wanted without consequence.  They may have meant the phrase to be used to say a state of mind like “being upset” or “being angry,” in which case it is true that I choose the emotion of being offended.  But if you say something racist or homophobic you can’t toss your hands in the air, repeat this LDS phrase, and avoid apology. Nor can I, after watching people misunderstand me, simply throw my hands in the air and blame it all on how impossible it is to be understood.

So it is that there are two truths, existent at the same time: it is impossible to understand others perfectly and it is my responsibility to make myself as easy to understand as possible.

The best writing

The best writing is true, and that doesn’t necessarily mean people will like it. After all the frivolous words fade from human memory–the vain, the dogmatic, the pretentious–these true words last because people continue to be influenced by them across generations. I wonder which words about our day will survive the passing of time and how many of them I would have agreed with.

If I want to write something true, I have to strike a delicate balance between disinterest and interest in how society responds to my words. On one extreme I would constantly be thinking about how people might react and my writing would become fickle and easily forgotten. On the other extreme I could become pompously disconnected from reality, too sure about my own conclusions.

I think I’ll leave the flatness for politicians that need votes and just be myself. Maybe then I’ll say something true enough that others will appreciate it and it will last. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll be a cloud that will shine resplendently when society becomes aware of my words (and when I’ve written my best). Or maybe I’ll be there in the sky, saying true things but going unnoticed, a midnight cloud with no one to see or a mid-day cloud with few to care, while brighter clouds give porch-sitting watchers their morning thoughts.

All I can do is live my life honestly and explain myself clearly, as disinterested in the sun and the porch-sitting watcher as that 7:30 wisp was in me.

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Oh, and here are some more awesome Texas clouds 🙂