Since the solstice I have found myself at the top of Mt. Tabor on many mornings, greeting the sun as she peeks her empowering face over the southeastern horizon. Last week as I started up my familiar trails the ground below was frozen solid like granite. After arctic winds, snow, freezing rain, then rain, the frozen trails were glazed with a delicate sheen of mud. I stepped slowly and carefully, mindful that any slight falter in my center of gravity could shift the viscous earth beneath my feet. Tree roots, dropped branches, and ground cover presented a much appreciated blanket of traction. Veering off the paths and around the sage firs and cedars has meant longer walks with more obstacles. But with friction, foot-holds, hand-holds, and lower grade, my journey to see Sól in recent weeks has been largely steadfast.
One especially wet and icy morning on a steep incline, I paused to reach for the friendly trunk of a waiting fir that has overseen Portland longer than most of the homes in the surrounding neighborhood. I evaluated the well-worn path that I normally use. I looked around the other side of the tree and considered the thick ground cover as an alternative route. The ground cover seemed especially deep, below which I could not see the unevenness of the terrain, nor any lurking obstacles. The distance around the tree would add at least ten or 15 feet, and navigating it, most assuredly, would be slow.
The path directly before me appeared muddy, but thick mud that you sink into, not the icing-on-glass mud. I had encountered both types of mud in the park that day. There were no tree roots offering themselves as anchoring steps, but I only needed to climb a few paces to reach a lush carpet of small dropped branches. There were no limbs reaching out their helping hands. I glanced at the ground covering on the other side of the tree, and back at the muddy trail in front of me. The mud looked navigable. It would be much faster and more direct than going around.
I stepped out onto the muddy trail slowly and paused to feel my footing. As soon as I was sure of myself I took another, careful step upward. Then another. Then another. After a few more steps I felt the earth transform into oily liquid. I was beyond reach of the tree trunk where I had chosen the smooth, direct path, instead of the seemingly more difficult, longer, uncut route. I tried to steady my balance and anchor my feet, but I slid backwards, as if on fresh glide wax. I reached for the hill in front of me and stopped myself with my hands. I righted myself, turned sideways, and inched back down towards the wise, welcoming, firmly-shored tree.
The path of least resistance was a poor choice. Certainly, if I had been descending, the smooth, direct path would have been very efficient sailing. Though without proper training and equipment, slipping and sliding downhill fast might leave a person debilitatingly bruised and battered at the bottom.
The slick layer of mud on icy earth was not amenable to my ascending goal. I would not likely reach the top at all if I stayed on the seemingly easy route. The longer, curving, brush-lain route around the tree should have been the obvious direction, full of obstacles and entanglements to slow the pace and reduce the incline for more reliable results.
This lesson of the change of seasons from the goddess of the sky is not lost on me as we change seasons of our government this week. I admit I have become complacent in my civic engagement in recent years. I identify with many of the principals and symbolic meaning of the outgoing administration, even if I have always not condoned every decision, every outcome, or even every tool or process used to invoke them. Locally, I have been quite satisfied with the policy makers who represent me. Civically, I have been on the smooth and easy path for quite some time, but it is not the effective path to racial and economic justice and equity within and across rural and urban communities.
This week a new government is forming by the hands an individual who has overtly exhibited disrespect toward many classes of people who are often socially restrained from exercising their personal power and free will. To me, the words of the incoming president sound alarmingly like the words of the bullies of my childhood who I used to run and hide from in panic and fear. I am in the adult world now. I learned at a young age that running and hiding changes nothing, nor do idle tears. My easy ride needs to end, lest I find myself debilitated and losing ground rapidly in my efforts to create equity.
The greatest human learning, progress, and growth happens outside of personal comfort zones. Conflict and uncertainty are productive. The node of disagreement can be harvested for the greater good, but only if parties from all perspectives commit to opening their minds and listening to one another with integrity. Making adversity and controversy productive in solving contentious social problems amidst heated dissent requires exhaustive effort, constant searching for untried responses and actions, and welcome friction to stabilize the progress in negotiating meaningful steps towards change. Productive conflict also requires humility, a level head, and persistent focus on a clear goal.
Am I hopeful about this week’s change in government? Hope is not the first word that comes to mind, but I suppose the answer is yes. The only way I can do the work I do is to believe with every ounce of my power that economic, racial, and social justice are possible with every turn of seasons and events. Hope, according to Cornel West, is neither optimism nor pessimism. Hope means sustaining the struggle with meaningful actions. Hope is about doing. I have needed these past two months to rise above myself and get here, but I am hopeful.
Far too many of my neighbors have no safe place to call home or not enough to eat, so I welcome the coming disruption as an opportunity to see, understand, and do things differently. When we have the opportunity to challenge one another to the core—with open hearts and minds—real change is possible. But real change is hard work. Words alone mean nothing. Changing hearts and minds begins with internal attitudes and follow-through with clear, proactive deeds. In other words, I have to be present physically, alert to the daily instances of injustice, and actively engaged socially, emotionally, and financially. I need to make every decision count, no matter how minor.
Like my morning quest for an audience with the sun, some days the most productive and meaningful results are generated through the slow zigzag across uneven terrain, resolving each step carefully in sequence. Usually those are the days when her glory is the most striking and evidence of the power she imbues on our sustenance is most humbling. Her unwavering energy is fuel to persevere in the struggle for justice and makes me eager for the challenges to come.