My Wobbly Bicycle, 127

Posted by on Jan 4, 2017 | 18 comments

imgresI admit I’m thinking this through as I write. My thoughts are a bit raw, but here they are:  I had counted on New Years Eve to hold back the new year. It was an artificial barrier, like all barriers, like walls that, even if built—of bricks, chicken wire, or the mind—don’t really hold anything back.




A more positive-sounding metaphor is “milestone.” We set them to signify change. Jerry’s back brace will come off in two weeks. This will be a welcome change. And here comes the new year. We’re two days into it now. We’ve taken down our old calendars, chosen between a National Wildlife or Nature Conservancy one for 2017.  Jerry’s transferred over all the birthdays—children, grandchildren, sisters, brothers—to the new calendar with a red pen. And, we’re getting older, but not by calendar increments. It’s been happening since we were born.



Forgive me if there’s been no Christmas letter. Forgive me if there’ve been rare blogs. First of all, I’ve been struck speechless by the election. I read what so many others are writing and think, okay, I don’t know how to position myself. I am deeply worried and have no foothold. I’ve worried about that, too—the fact that I hardly know what to think or do. But then, when I keep looking, it’s very

imagesinteresting here, in the land of total unsettledness.


Also, I’ve been spending a great deal of time (Note the implicit barrier-setting of the words “spending” and “time”), taking care of Jerry as he slowly recovers from his back surgery. We’re both hoping that after these three months, he’ll be able to put on his own socks and shoes, dress himself, drive himself. I’ve written very little lately. At least it feels that way. At least my routine, my artificial time-barriers, have been utterly disrupted. Tomorrow instead of sitting in my study, I must do the laundry, take Jerry to the ophthalmologist, take ornaments off the tree so I can stuff it into its box and take it to our storage unit for next year.


images-1Every year at Christmas and New Years, the past ones come crowding in on me. It is hardly accurate to say that they’re gone, since they’re still so present. I wish they wouldn’t haunt me—sometimes I get depressed. A lot of people get depressed this time of year. Depression is another way of setting up barriers, as in, “I was depressed but now I’m not.” As if anything were that clear-cut. What seems more true, at least for me, is that there is a rotation of moods, feelings, and sometimes one feels more dominant. The mood of the country, the mood of our friends, right now—we often call it depressed, but I would say it’s more tentative than that. It’s poised, alert. Which is why I feel silent.  Time to stay unsettled.


Which actually feels like a good way to live, in general. No, not “good way,” but the only authentic way. Not that it’s possible. I scramble for any foothold. Opinions are good footholds. So are actions. I do have opinions, and I do take action.


images-2Yet, as the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”


So, my aspiration for this year and for my life is to avoid flinging myself into opinions and actions. Sometimes I have to take the great risk of action when I don’t have all the facts (I’ll never have all the facts). And I may feel the need to act when I’m not absolutely sure what’s right (when will I ever be?).


As I said, I’m trying to think this through. Trying to get this clear in my own mind: surety is powerful. Our president-elect thinks he’s sure. Dictators take power by the sheer force of their certainty.


Standing up to that kind of surety requires equal surety, but I think it must be of a very different sort.  It’s more like trust. But what I mean is that a dictator’s confidence comes from building reinforced-concrete barriers in his mind. Closing down. Seeing only what he wants to see. The force of opposition must come from keeping all senses open, keeping the mind open.


imgres-1Years ago, I was deeply moved by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who staunchly resisted the Nazi dictatorship, was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was eventually hanged. Cost indeed. You can imagine how he must have hated the idea of murder. Yet he followed a lodestar he couldn’t entirely see, but trusted. (Don’t misunderstand me: this is an extreme example.)


It’s hard to resist tyranny when we keep our senses open, because we’re able to see some good in even the worst. We have to go forward with fear and trembling. We know we don’t see everything or know everything. I think we have to trust that the force of compassion, of true openness and—okay, let’s call it love—are working with us. Not “on our side”—the old battle cry of “God’s on our side”—but more like just plain “at work,” no matter what.


P.S. I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. It is an astoundingly helpful inside look at what’s happened to our country in the last few decades. I can’t recommend it highly enough.





  1. Ven Khandro Rinpoche has some interesting advice. Start at minute 25… Of special interest is her recommendation on humor
    When somebody says, “Laugh” we say “Why should we laugh?” It’s a very short life. So how serious do you want to be with all the time and for what? It would be so much better, especially when you do have all the chaos and confusion everywhere, to have a good laugh. Might be just the right medicine for all of us.

  2. A distraught friend (about the election) said that at least Saturday Night Live had plenty of material… Also as Rinpoche and Adyashanti point
    out…the election results are only our true face broadcast (interdependent arising)…so we can now perhaps do something about it.

    • Yes, both of those things are true, it seems to me. Thank God for SNL, and yes, the true face is at least showing itself. Thanks, Lynne.
      I hope you’re okay.

  3. Hi Fleda,

    As always your thoughts are more collected than my own. I hope to muddle through the new year myself and use a few of the challenges as opportunities, such as visiting New Zealand and Australia for the first time (with an eye to potential future) and presenting some teaching moments to my daughter (11 this month).

    My own reactions to life and to the election change, but I think at times flinging oneself without all the facts is necessary. For instance a rapid response to, for instance, the dismantling of ethics enforcement in congress (as a random example).

    But, I like your thought of “poised” and “tentative.” Perhaps for myself I would add that I will be quick to acknowledge my mistakes and move on. For that seems to be one of the things we are lacking in some areas of public life. Acknowledging mistakes. Learning from them. And to learn one must look back and reflect, which this time of year is appropriate.

    Best wishes on Jerry’s back. My 5 fused vertebrae twinge in sympathy.


    • Thanks on all counts, Stasa. I will report to Jerry that your back in doing twinge-sympathy, and as for the state of things, we will all act, and fiercely, when we see what we need to do. I’m sure of it. It will be hard if the entire justice system is “rigged,” but we’ll figure a way.

  4. Fleda,
    I read Hillbilly Elegy with great interest, hoping for some ideas, which he wasn’t able to deliver, however I recently read that Vance will be moving back to Ohio to try to make a difference. This is great news. Also, read a piece on Krista Tippett of the NPR show “On Being,” which observed that she doesn’t have right wing types on her show. She replied that she likes to interview people who don’t claim to have all the answers. There is no certainty.

    • Haven’t finished the book. I am hoping for at least some “collected” insight, if not answers. Thanks for the thoughts.

  5. With apologies for the l3ength. — Sam
    What Sense I Can Make
    Sam Watson
    What rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? W.B Yeats
    Who knows what answer we shall have to Yeats’ question? No one. I am writing this to friends I especially respect. You and I first met, most of us, in a classroom decades ago. Ever since, I have assumed that if we ever came to a time like this, there would be something I wanted to say to you. But my words ring hollow.
    Ever since the election (and before) I’ve been trying to make what sense I can, of what makes no sense. Those thoughts follow, but I can’t much do it alone. Corresponding could help, me at least..
    The best lack all conviction.
    The Clinton campaign suffered a notable absence of energy. But that is merely a symptom of a pervasive cultural problem.
    What can we know, and how can we know it? “Objectivity” is likely the first word to cross our minds, followed by such others as “critical,” “proof,” “dispassionate,” “rigor,” and “reason.” Fine. Those words echo a liberal epistemology, our inheritance from the Enlightenment, since when we as a culture have welcomed “science” as our god. But ours is merely a pale echo of what science (and, by extension, knowledge) actually is and how it is achieved, and our picture is radically incomplete. Most notably, when objective lenses are turned to human behavior, “persons” cannot be found even to exist. And the Academy has been little help in any of this. Perhaps especially in the Humanities, elite scholars have embraced ill-understood ideas from within which what can be understood is – nothing at all. This is a world of incomprehensible jargon, relentless relativities and reductionisms; it is a recipe for nihilism. Little wonder that the Academy seems so feckless, or that the watchword looming over so much of its campuses is a meek – “whatever.”

    The worst are full of passionate intensity.
    Throughout the Trump campaign, one item was never in short supply – energy. Why would anyone vote for this despicable figure? His one qualification for the presidency seems to have been his utter lack of qualifications for the presidency. Perhaps that is part of the answer. From his supporters I hear the refrain that they do not trust any politician. It may make a kind of absurd sense for them to put their trust in the one politician who most manifestly is NOT to be trusted. By extension, they express disdain if not hatred for “elites” of all sorts, whether in journalism, or the academy, or in science, or in government, favoring ignorance and incompetence instead. May we somehow be spared the fury which ignorance and incompetence easily ignite.
    But there is more to it than that. In ways often angry, inchoate and ill-informed, Trump supporters are objecting against a world in which they do not exist. Now, with passionate intensity they remind us that they DO exist, that their local and rooted traditions, values and, yes, religion are CENTRAL to who they are and are to be DEFENDED, with exclusionary walls and, if need be, with AK47’s. Threatening to all of us is a deeply human trait we all seem to share; I call it “the ecstasy of destruction.” Perhaps it is why deaths-heads loom so large in popular culture. And why young men happily march off to needless wars; why youth, sometimes from comfortable homes, in the name of religion become suicide bombers. But now, with weapons ranging from cellphones to nuclear devices, we could destroy ourselves, each other, and civilization itself. From our election and from the worlds beyond our borders, the ranting, the racism, the threatened (and actual) violence leave us aghast. I am trying to understand its causes. and dynamics. My own motto for our fraught times is simply this: Act for the best; Prepare for the worst.
    What Rough Beast?
    “Surreal” is Merriam-Webster’s word for this year; for the Oxford dictionary, it is “post-truth.” No one yet knows what future we have wrought, no one. But many on all sides seem to be discovering a new sobriety. Professor Andrew Becevich writes, “Our elites manage to combine arrogance and ignorance. . . . In the eyes of some, ‘the people’ has come to stand for anger, ignorance, and bigotry.” In an NPR interview an evangelical leader laments, “We of the Religious Right seem to have become the people that our elders in the Religious Right warned us against.” I read that Glenn Beck now fears the hateful paranoia which his radio rants helped unleash.
    Truth be told, those on both sides share deeply held but mistaken assumptions, and each badly needs the other. Knowledge, even (perhaps especially) science, is not merely what our intellectual elites claim it to be. We, people, are. It is our nature to solve problems, to seek knowledge. We do so passionately, individually and, especially, in communities, defined by often-unacknowledged local, traditions, values, and languages. We uphold our knowledge as true, while we also understand that it is provisional. Except in tautological systems, where terms are true by definition, there are no certainties. Tautologies are necessarily empty; our knowledge of the world is inherently personal. In sum, the “elites” need to hear what the “people” are angrily shouting. And we, “people,” all of us, need what knowledge we can muster.
    Except for my reading of current conservative politics, none of this is original to me. My most abiding intellectual mentor has been the philosopher-scientist Michael Polanyi. Though he was a non-practicing Jew, Polanyi helps me see much more deeply my own Christian heritage. Polanyi writes, [T]he modern scientific outlook, after having been the inspiration of human progress in the nineteenth century, has become a danger to the spiritual conception of man.
    Our current crisis, I am convinced, is finally not one of economics, of social class, of ideologies, important though all of those are. Ours is a crisis of spirit. We don’t experience enough of those Arts which can leave us in awe, aware of both our own comparative insignificance and of our promise. (Pablo Casals was asked what he would say, if the whole world were listening. “I would ask how they like war, and then I would play them some Bach.”) We are largely ignorant of the Histories which have brought us to wherever we now are.
    In our new sobrieties, I find hope that at least some of us may become able to listen to one another across the divides. And I am brought back to my own motto: Act for the best; Prepare for the worst. It brings me some comfort that those two injunctions amount to pretty much the same thing. Acting is a matter of doing something. It includes forming friendships, joining others to embrace causes larger than ourselves, experiencing art, listening to one another, learning from our stories and histories. All of it is a matter of living well, as persons. All of which strengthens us; it helps us prepare for the worst.
    As I write these words the fate of a young whiter racist is being decided; he murdered nine black worshippers in their church, Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Very soon afterwards, survivors of the carnage and families of its victims confessed their forgiveness of him. This is Charleston, where newly-sobered communities are beginning to listen to one another in, I believe, new and lasting ways. Charleston, where the Confederacy was born and the opening shots of our nation’s Civil War were fired. Charleston. If reconciliation can be achieved here, surely it might be possible elsewhere.
    For those filled with passionate intensity, the only redemption is oblivion. Those of a deeper faith should expect some sort of crucifixion. It is a cost of conscience and of consciousness.
    Among my reading.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer. LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON.
    David Brooks. THE ROAD TO CHARACTER.
    Joyce DiDonato. “On Why Art Matters in the Midst of Chaos.”
    Joyce DiDonato. IN WAR AND PEACE: Harmony through Music. DiDonato sings classical arias.
    Amitai Etzioni, “We Must Not Be Enemies,” THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, Winter, 2017.
    Herb Frazier, Bernard Powers, and Marjory Wentworth. WE ARE CHARLESTON: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel.
    Mark Lilla. THE SHIPWRECKED MIND: On Political Reaction.
    Mark Lilla. THE RECKLESS MIND: Intellectuals in Politics.
    Erik Larson, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS. The true story of FDR’s ambassador to Germany and his flighty daughter, as the Thiird Reich was coming to power.
    Thomas Pfau. MINDING THE MODERN: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge.
    Michael Polanyi.
    Fr, Richard Rohr, DAILY MEDITATION, Center for Action and Contemplation.
    Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern. NO ORDINARY MEN: Bonhoeffer and von Dohnanyi. Imprisoned and executed by the Nazi regime, these two remarkable men were sustained by faith, correspondence with their family, and music.
    Timothy Snyder. “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” IN THESE TIMES, November 21, m2016.
    James Boyd White, WHEN WORDS LOSE THEIR MEANING: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community
    Postscript: My Living in Small Parts
    So, what worthwhile causes am I embracing? Well, for the moment it’s a matter of writing these words. Later, I’ll be going back to my readings among. Bemeantimes I’ll be returning to the workshop and small parts of my life – fandangles.
    Fandangles. Our old house in Concord had no air conditioning but lots of ceiling fans, each with a light. How to know which chain to pull for what? That seemed a problem I might solve, so I went to the shop and started making FANDANGLES, small wooden objects designed to dangle from fans – a leaping dolphin (DOLFAN, actually) for the fan and for the light, well, a LIGHTHOUSE. Now I’m back to the shop again, making more while listening to classical music on NPR. If you’d like a free pair, just let me know, but I will need your mailing address. With your pair will be a card, featuring at least part of one of my all-time favorite quotes: [T]o say that there is no meaning or knowledge of one kind is not to deny the possibility of other kinds, and in our actual lives we show that we know how to read and speak, to live with language, texts, and each other, and to do so with considerable confidence. But to do this we must accept the conditions on which we live. When we discover that we have in this world no earth or rock to walk upon but only shifting sea and sky and sand, the mature response is not to lament the loss of fixity but to learn to sail. – James Boyd White, WHEN WORDS LOSE THEIR MEANING: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community, 278.
    May we sail well.

    • Thank you, Sam, for that clear and helpful thinking. And particularly for the list of readings. I will pick through these. And thanks for the offer of fandangles! We have fans but no cords dangling, so I guess they wouldn’t work for us. I like your thought of a small task as a worthwhile endeavor, learning to sail, you might say. All we ever do is sail, anyhow. Once in a while we have to admit that.

  6. I am getting over the election by refusing to look at the tv, doing art, and reading. I, too, am in shock and so repuled by all references to Trump.

    • Jerry and I are watching The News Hour as a religious obligation :) then turning off all news things. I am writing and meditating. Seems like good things to do. As you do your art.

  7. You write: “Years ago, I was deeply moved by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who staunchly resisted the Nazi dictatorship, was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was eventually hanged. …”

    Thank you for reminding me of him and his sacrifice.

    Bonhoeffer saw what Hitler was doing–replacing an” office” with a “person”, himself. This is very much what we have in Trump: He is all too quickly replacing an “office” with a “person”–we should be very, very afraid.

    And another thought: Bonhoeffer went back to Germany because he felt he shouldn’t have left; that he should stand amongst Christians within in Germany. I have sensed this feeling in other writes–sorry for leaving, though not all return. Milosz comes to mind.

    • I am particularly struck by “replacing an ‘office’ with a ‘person.’ What a terrible thought. Rather than being terribly afraid, I want to be, at least, brave. Of course brave doesn’t imply lack of fear, does it? Thanks, Ruth.

      • Brave it is. I’m headed to Washington on Friday. No pink hat, no shouting signs. I’m there to just feel the heatwave, to BE. I’m tired of too many saying Trump won the election fair and square and move on. First, no, he obviously did not. I stand with John Lewis on this account. Second, we all have to keep swimming upstream toward a connected, democratic and free world. The point JD Vance makes is that “choice” matters. Every flip of the fin matters. We just have to watch out for the rocks.

  8. As usual, Fleda, you put into words all of my emotional storm: confusion, fear, anger, etc., that I feel so deeply but can’t express about the political nightmare we’re all living with. I too, tried to comfort myself with the time we had left between the election and the actual inaugural as “time out” to not have to hear it, see it, or think about it. And so, now, here we are: it’s staring us in the face. My sense of reality has been suspended. I’m not sure about anything anymore. Nothing. No doubt there are deep spiritual lessons to be had here, but I’m still “blowing in the wind” and have no idea how to even begin to dig for such a thing. I am grateful, however, that you continue to share “the struggle” of life on this plane with us and with your very beautiful writing hold up a mirror so we can begin to understand our own deepest selves. Thank you Fleda; I appreciate you more than you know.
    Mary Smith

    • Thank you so much, Mary, for your note. It helps a lot to know that my words resonate with you, especially right now when we need all the resonance we can get. We need to be a loud chorus. And I think we will be. As for spiritual lessons, we may never be able to articulate them. But we’ll just live them.

  9. I think that the base (how appropriate is that word!) of Trump voters sees in him, despite his billionaire status, someone much like themselves (although they couldn’t articulate it): someone who has no informed, firm policy views; has only a few callow societal, economic and political notions; has no sense of history; and believes that bullying and shouting, rather than reason and compromise, should always win the day. But here’s a perverse bit of optimism. As we all know, Clinton got almost 3,000,000 more votes than Trump–this despite the bee swarm of conspiracy theories and fake news that surrounded her. I know that Trump and his allies can do a great deal of harm right away, but I predict that his administration will implode before the 2018 mid-terms. He will be fighting with all sorts of groups and individuals, including his own party, which will be unable to keep him in check. There are many who voted for him with great reservations because they objected to Clinton and also have little knowledge of what governance is about. I predict they will soon have buyer’s remorse. Trump already has a host of ethical problems and has surrounded himself with ideologues who push him to further extremes. It just looks bad for him. If enough people are dissatisfied with him by 2018, maybe the Dems will take back the Congress. If they get the House, they can undo the gerrymandering the Republicans did after the 2010 census and election and have a better chance at returning the country to some semblance of responsible governance.

    Maybe if someone could kidnap Trump, hold him in isolation for a month, and force him–on pain of not being fed if he refuses (or maybe he’d prefer to be waterboarded?)–to read and discuss Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays (Richard III anybody?) with, say, Marjorie Garber or, better yet, the redoubtable, erudite Harold Bloom. who, I think, would not back down from anybody. There’s always hope.

    • Ah, I vote for Shakespeare. Thanks for writing, Ron.

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