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Climbing Smooth

“If the mountain was smooth, you couldn’t even climb it!” unknown

I was watching a YouTube video about the hymn Amazing Grace with Wintley Phipps yesterday.  What an inspiring bit of film and song!  But I was struck by the proverb above that Wintley quoted in the beginning of  the clip.  How profound 10 ordinary words can be!

What are the mountains in your life?

Webster says:  “Adversity: (noun) a state, condition, or instance of serious or continued difficulty or adverse fortune (see adverse).                  Synonyms:misfortune, ill, knock, misadventure, mischance, mishap, tragedy Antonyms: fortune, luck, serendipity”

Did you ever try to climb up the slide at the playground?  I have.  Tough.  I remember a group of us kids daring each other to make it to the top.  There were dozens of attempts without touching the sides.  All unsuccessful.  It wasn’t until we used our hands to grip the edges of the slide that anyone made it to the top.  A smooth mountain would be like that.  Think of trying to climb the perfect triangle, we would crash every time.

Real mountains are not smooth.  Craggy, rocky, difficult, dangerous, murderous, majestic, beautiful, lofty and huge are words we use to describe them.  Rock climbers know that it requires the gear, the skill, the perseverance,  and the courage to undertake it all.  The climbers that tackle the big ones–K2, Everest, McKinley all know it takes planning and serious preparation to accomplish the task.  Most will also tell you it takes teamwork.  Your climbing partners and your base camp support folks they all have to be committed to the effort and work together.

K2 in summer.

Image via Wikipedia

Watching the news the other night I felt like the kid in the playground, surrounded by the “Super Committee”  trying in vain to climb the slide.  No one was successful.  No one worked together.  Everyone wanted to blame someone–someone else.  It was discouraging!

My own mountain right now has many sharp obstacles.  Kind of like the picture of K2 in Summer to the right.   After a long career of sitting in an office, I am doing retail sales and my body is revolting big time!  My bank account and my retirement account and my real estate are like team mates that are pulling the ropes that keep us together in all different directions.  How can we reach the summit with problems like these?

That’s when it hit me that the craggy bits and the sharp outcroppings and the difficulties with sore tired muscles and stiff joints are part of what makes reaching the summit the true achievement that it is.  The base camp team is vital–family and friends–cheering you on and making the assent possible.  If the way was smooth, how could you climb?

The other thing that hit me is that if you don’t work together, you can’t work at all when it comes to climbing.  The climbers that reach the summit know they did not get there on their own.  The guy at the peak had to have faith in the team, each one contributing their part and all contributing to the achievement.

So what then is the problem–how do we plan to achieve the summit here?  How can we get the team to work together so we’re not climbing smooth?  What can we do to conquer that adversity mountain that our country confronts?  The mountain that represents all the debt and loss of confidence in government and in ourselves?  How do we gain the courage to climb despite the partisan fear and destructive mistrust and being pulled in every direction by special interests?

Ideas?

Balance the Register–Balance the Life

On my kitchen table

Image by HnyBny1969 (Regina) via Flickr

What do you do when there’s more month left at the end of the money?

There’s a lot of attention to budgets these days.  Some is in Washington DC and some is at my house.  How about you?

 The questions are many.  What can we give up?  What ways can we save?  Do we have to liquidate any assets?  Should we scrap the disappearing 401K?  What charity needs our donation the most this year?  How will we afford the Christmas we are accustomed to?  Haircut this week or next month? 

The decisions are painful.  Reduce.  Reuse. Relinquish. Reopen. Relive. Repent.  Recover. Relieve. Repeat.

Attack what we spend with vigor and reduce it–permanently.  Reuse everything we can.  Relinquish the “need” for a particular lifestyle and realize you are not in control of the world.  Reopen the discussion after the anger and accusations to reason and problem-solving.  Relive the old days when you were very young and had nothing but joy.  Repent the waste, blame and shame.  Recover what is really important–laughing, family, friends, quiet evenings, hot soup, board games and companionship.  Relieve the stress with planning, action, evaluation and small forward movement you can see.  Repeat it all again and again! 

Not pretty, not easy, but healthy.  More healthy than trying to pretend it can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t be done.  And, it’s REAL.   I don’t think that Washington is there yet, but the journey has begun–even politicians have to recognize reality once in a while!  We aren’t all the way there, but we are in the middle of the journey.  Where are you?

Where are you on the road to balance?  What ways are you finding to focus on what really matters?  How do you think you can avoid being back here again next month, next year, next decade…..?

Tin Foil Hat

Did you ever know anyone that took up the “tin foil hat“?  You know, that is the thing you construct for yourself out of abject fear–just like in the old black & white science fiction movies to protect yourself against the “rays”.  I heard about two things today to make me think of it.

1.  A state representative from OK confirmed bizarre comments about homosexuality being more dangerous than terrorism.  This is something she first said late in April and again during an interview last week. (I think the timing is right).  And it’s not the first time that she has been unkind and hurtful in public.  She also made racist remarks that caused a tearful apology days later.  Maybe the representative is wearing a tin foil hat.

2.  The “sacred” posts of the International Monetary Fund (traditionally headed by a  European) and the World Bank (traditionally headed by an American) will probably go to emerging and growing economy countries within 5 years.  I heard this on NPR while driving to the office.  The economists that study these things believe that the future of the global economy is a bit bumpy but will eventually lead us to more economic equality.

Tin foil hat 2

Image via Wikipedia

To me, with my mind on my problems, this sounded like excellent news for the emerging markets (China, India, Africa, Mexico etc.)  and time for the USA and Europe to start making tin foil hats.

I feel a bit “challenged” by the current environment and it is clear that

I am not alone.  How’s by you?

The long and the short of it is that trust and confidence is NOT in the tin foil hat, the IMF, WB, developed market economies, emerging market economies, a “good” job, saving money, spending money or anything else.  There is “no ground under our feet” which is a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Martin Marty used in his blog today.  Great blog! That is to say that the things in this realm are not the things we can count on.

When we revile and objectify the other most of the time that comes from the most primal of fears.  The kind of fear that encourages us to put on tin foil hats.  It is this same blind fear that is so very dangerous to civilization.  Instead of seeing ourselves as part of something, we see ourselves threatened by something and as history tells us that can lead to horrible consequences.

What are we to do?  Trust and dependence on the things that change with time and circumstance is misleading.  Trust and dependence on the God who transcends time and circumstance is the way to put some “ground under our feet”.  Do not be afraid, is the message I hear from the God of Love.

Guess I’ll take off the tin foil hat!

Does anyone have a Swiss Army Knife?

Richard Dean Anderson on the set of "MacG...

Image via Wikipedia

Belt tool fans of the world unite!  We know who you are–the tinkerers, the inventors, the thinkers, the ones who are prepared for nearly everything!  We want you to jump into the mess we’re in and put those belt tools to work to get us out of it.  We want you to take bits of duck tape, imagination, faith and know-how and fix it!

We want MacGyver!  We need MacGyver!

Sometimes the problems seem so overwhelming that only the intrepid hero that resolves every crisis and saves the world in 60 minuets will do.  Our hero–he knows how to use what he has instead of what he wishes he has to resolve the crisis.  At least that is what the Wells Fargo Economics Group says in their August 10, 2011 Monthly Outlook about the way out of our economic mess.

Making do with what you have is not a new or trite.  It is reality.  If you stop to think about it, it is something we do all the time.  No staples in the stapler? Use a paper clip. No buttermilk in the fridge?  Take milk, add vinegar, wait for 15 minutes.  Storm take the power out?  Break out the candles and board games.  We really do it without thinking much about it–it needs to be done so we find a way to do it.  And usually that works!

One of the things it is easy to forget is that MacGyver took a moment to notice what there was to work with.  He didn’t panic, he got to work.   What do we have at hand to apply to the economic mess?  Let’s take a minute or two to survey what we have.

What we have is very important.  The freedom to dream and think in a variety of ways continues to be essential.  I read this week that foreign applications to US graduate schools is very high this year.  There is a reason for that–we have a deserved reputation for big ideas and folks that believe in their dreams.  Who doesn’t want that in their lives?

It’s time to take stock of supplies and dream a little.  Time to stop worrying about failure and keep trying until we succeed.  Time to call upon the tinkerers, the inventors and the thinkers to reveal their big ideas so we can believe in their dreams.  We not only want those wonderful visions to come true, frankly we need them to come true.

Then of course we need to take out the belt tools and get to work!

Playing to the Balcony

Picture one of the great Shakespearean soliloquies coming from the actor on the grand stage.  The voice—it is like dark soft velvet as it rises and falls with the poetry that still finds a remarkable audience hundreds of years after it was written.  The old language is unfamiliar yet powerful as though we know it more by instinct than intellect.  The ideas are the classic good vs evil, the corruption of power, and the ruination brought about by secrets.

ActorThe actor is working hard—he wants the good review in the morning paper and besides he loves his craft and hallows the words he is speaking.  He is playing to the balcony.  He wills for the person farthest away from him to feel what he feels and hear what he says.  He knows that is a sure route to success.

As wonderful as great theater is, it is only theater after all.  In the real world the ideas are the same but it is harder to see the nobility in the process when the action is on the floor of the US Congress or the Senate or the White House briefing room.  It is hard not to believe that we have spent the last month seeing real life.  Or has everyone been playing to the balcony?

Yesterday, I got good and mad.  Not just the average angry–but the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” howl at the moon angry.

Grown-ups aren’t supposed to get this way.  I sat dutifully watching both the President and the Speaker of the House with steam coming out of my ears!  It looks like we’re going to do this OK Corral style—or maybe the better metaphor is MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). 

Someone needs to lock these guys in a room and not let them all out till the problem is solved—but who could do that if both are using the Mutual Assured Destruction concept?  What if they stayed in the room and the problem never got solved?  Two huge surreal thoughts!

My reality is somewhat different—small.  I clean up the basement after one foot of flood water and wonder if my homeowners insurance will cover any of the loss.  I drive to work with a full tank that costs more than it did three weeks ago.  I continue to work, drop into bed exhausted and get up to do it all again.  I am contemplating the meaning of life.  It would be comforting to think that this daily “taking care of business” is noble.  I am not sure.  It is, however, very real.  It is real life that is lived 24/7/365.

All it does is beg the question about what is real, who is and who is not playing to the balcony and are they MAD?

Pblilius Syrus

Pubilius Syrus

The ancients are often overlooked today.  No, I’m not talking about grandma and grandpa!  I’m talking about the first century BC.  There was a young slave–captured in Syria and brought to Italy.  This young man’s obvious gift for wit and his quick intelligence made him so popular that he gained his freedom and won a prize from Caesar in 46 BC

Syrus is best known today as the author of some 600 +/- sayings.  Some of which are quoted often—even now .  The sayings were like the punchline of the small vignettes called mimes (not silent) that were performed before thousands of adoring fans in competitions like the pop star contests we are used to today.  The purpose of these mimes was to instruct in an entertaining way.

boat in calm water

North Sea

Perhaps my favorite of all his sayings is this one:  “Any one can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” Pblilius Syrus

I have family members who make a living on the water.  It is an outdoor life, an active life, a hard life but a rewarding one.  This current situation probably mirrors our ancestors who lived in Scandinavia and spent years exploring the seas and we like to think they found the land of North America 500+ years before Columbus.

When you are on the water, there are things you can control.  And there are very big things you cannot control.  Wind, waves and weather are those really big things.  My son on the Great Lakes likes to say “most people enjoy the gentle rocking of Lake Michigan” and adds a bit of a secret smile.  My daughter on the blue water always reassures that she has her survival suit–the one that inflates when it hits the water–always at hand.

Dealing with those really big things can be very hard but heading into the wind and keeping the tiller still so the vessel continues into the wind is required to ride out the storm.  That will take courage and strength, knowledge and skill.  I guess that is what we all have to do when the big trouble comes.  Head her into the wind and keep her there.

Our founding fathers knew this important truth too.  They built-in ways for the tiller to be attended to and the ship to be kept afloat.  Over time we have had to demonstrate our courage, strength, skill, knowledge repeatedly.  Today is not really any different.

Today is our time, our turn to step up to the challenge.  The big trouble, so much out of our direct control, demands us to make a choice.  We can curl into a ball and hope the disaster will disappear or we can take the tiller and head into the wind.  Muster the courage, strength, skill and knowledge that each of us has to offer.  Face the big trouble enjoy the “gentle rocking” with a secret smile–remember the ancients and steer  the course into the wind!

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