Angels and Saints … and Gresh Hall

Attended Rev. Ken Beldon’s final message as a minister for WellSprings Congregation, and walked out with all the emotions.

Ken  shared his greatest hits. A mixture of messages and stories he has shared previously. Closed with The Waterboys’ song Angels and Saints.

This is a wide world we travel

And our paths rarely cross

And we do a whole lot of living

In between 

So come and share

More than time

We’ll put our cares

Far behind

While we sail

The ship that never goes to sea

It could be months

It could be years

Before we find each other

Once again standing here

So until then my friend

I have a wish for you

Many hearts

To keep you warm

Many lights

To guide you through the storm

And may the saints and angels

Watch over you

And may the saints and angels

Watch over you

And may the saints and angels

Watch over you

The thing that stuck with me was when Ken said WellSprings as a spiritual community lives in the valley, not the mountain.  and that I mentioned to him afterward, was that the value of spiritual practice is its ordinariness, the way that it suffuses our everyday lives with purpose, and solace, and presence. 

And I was reminded of something Virginia and I had realized, that for all the places we’ve gone with Rev. Ken – Washington DC, Philadelphia, Haiti — the lessons that have stuck and been most useful were learned in participating and co-leading mindfulness classes with him at Gresh Hall. The one example that came to mind was this: we were settling in for a pretty extended time of mindfulness practice, maybe 30 minutes, when out of nowhere the two 3D printers situated in the library room sprung to life. If you have never heard one, they sound like the steroid-infused dot matrix printer from hell. They literally screech.

As they started, I expected Ken to say, “OK, let’s move to another room.” But no. He said something to the effect of “work with it.” And so I worked through my anger and exasperation and finally got to a point where I could hold the noise at arm’s length and take it in without a whole lot of my own commentary. It was never pleasant, but it stopped being about me.

That was the lesson. And it was one I needed, because this specific thing would happen again, and more generally — there are many times the sounds of the world and from my own head are just as distracting as the 3D printers in Gresh Hall. Being unemployed can throw off a lot of noise. Having serious heart disease can throw off a lot of noise. Adult children bring a lot of noise. Relationship in general creates noise. And being able to separate from it, to hold it at a distance, to evaluate what is the thing and what is the noise, what are the stories that I and others are telling me about the thing, that has been an immeasurable benefit in my life.

And that is totally about living in the valley, not on a mountain.

Why Cats?

I get why dogs are man’s best friend. Back 30,000 years ago, when we were a shaggy but sharp biped with an uncertain future, dogs saw something in us and made a bet on our promise. They’d be our biggest boosters, slavishly drooling at our side, and ride our coattails to a better life. It paid off spectacularly. They are so well off they’ve completely forgotten how to fend for themselves, trusting that we’ll spend billions each year to feed them, come hell or high water. And let’s not even get into how codependent they are around bodily functions. You can’t leave!!! they bark anxiously when you approach the door. How will I take a dump without you!!?!?!?

People love feeling important, and dogs make us feel great. I get it.

Why, though, are cats #2?

They are obviously not fans. In fact, they’re the opposite. They disdain us. Not to argue with a great science fiction movie, but the animal most naturally oriented to stab humanity in the back is not a primate. We’re family. It’s a cat. They’d do it cruelly, almost casually, pawing us around till jumping on our collective faces while we sleep, then scratching our eyes out.

The stranger thing is how we fawn over them despite their obvious antipathy for us. It’s your girlfriend from sophomore year in college, the one who mocked your musical tastes and your major and told you she would be sleeping around on you, and yet you begged her to stay together. At least then, you learned your lesson by Thanksgiving of junior year. Like Maya Angelou said, When someone tells you who they are, believe themEven if they occasionally purr.

So why is it? Maybe it’s a size thing? Horses are more generally approving of us, and they’re actually useful in some instances, but they’re hard to keep in the house. Same for pigs, the feral sort excepted. And deer, except they’re a little spooked by us—for good reason, I’d add. And what about snakes? A little cool, but generally they like to wrap around your hand when you pick them up. A little creepy, but unlikely to actually hurt you. Can’t say the same for a baby tabby.

And maybe that’s it: The only thing people like as much as feeling important is feeling hurt and worthless. And cats deliver that in spades.

Anyway, cats. Humanity’s true foe, Joker to our Batman, hiding their contempt for us in plain sight. And yet, somehow, against all odds, humanity’s #2 favorite species.

#3? People, for most of the same reasons.

Happy birthday — to me.

I’ve reached 56. Not a milestone. I did 55 last year. Lots of people told me the ol’ double-nickel was a bit of a trap birthday, that the half-decade hit them in a way the odometer turning to a “5” didn’t. Not my experience, but I get it. There is a certain settling into late middle age/old guy status at 55, and I am 3-plus years into grandparenthood, which drives home the passing of time and march of generations. Honestly, though, I’m currently feeling a bit out of time.

Some of that might be a result of what has grown into the Covid Years. Time has somehow pancaked into irrelevance — or, at least, insufficiency. It’s just not very useful in understanding where and who you or I am. I’m not feeling alone, either, seeing how we are all behind on doctor’s appointments, behind on school, behind on car maintenance, just plain ol’ behind. And it’s not just people. The supply chain. Behind. The fall that didn’t show up till early November. Behind. My wife’s long-awaited Wes Anderson movie. Way, way behind.

So I’m not sweating behind. As I get older, I think less about whether I’m ahead or behind on career arc or accomplishments and more about whether I am simply moving. Do I know more than I used to? Have a forgotten things not worth remembering? Am I a little more skillful at bringing people together? Do I understand that sometimes people need to go?

And that has me thinking about 56 a little differently. I even wrote a haiku:

Fifty-six, it’s one

click over the speed limit,

but not quite speeding.

56 is an adult speed, maybe even a touch of grandpa speed. It’s not passing lane speed. But you can get where you want and enjoy a conversation with your travel partner and the view out the window. At 56, you can brake and pull over to do a little exploring, maybe grab a lobster roll at the place with the hopping parking lot that you blow by at 85.

This is not a resignation to inertia, to stagnation. I can still be impactful and effective, can still pick up and sustain a hard pace if I need to, probably could for a few years if there was a project that required it. But being in motion, not winning the race, is the goal today, because there’s a lot to see and a lot to learn at 56. Of that I’m convinced.

And I think there’s a lot to share. In fact, I’m planning to blog about this and that as close to daily as I can manage in my 56th year. We’ll see where that takes us.

For now, though, I’m headed off to ask my granddaughter to help me blow out my birthday candles. Not because I can’t do it by myself, but because it’s more fun with others.

==

There are lots of ways to 56. I’m reminded of my dad when I remember this guy, who arrived as if from a different planet. As a kid who grew up on New York sports, the only other guy who arrived similarly was probably Doc Gooden (with whom he later shared some recreational problems). They were unblockable/unhittable. For a while it seemed they were playing a different game than the others. My years in Philadelphia have moved me a long way from those days, but even at 56 I can remember watching them and realizing you were seeing something special.

Here, Doggie Doggie

therapist friend was making a point about the ability of pets to sense the emotional stance of their human partners and provide support … and it struck me that this is probably the least surprising thing about dogs and cats. I commented on Facebook:

Pets, dogs especially, from an evolutionary perspective, owe their existence to their ability to read us better than we can read ourselves. If only dogs could talk (and we listened), it might be a very different world. Not sure what it says about me that I’m not a pet person.

Ever since that moment 20,000 years ago, when dogs threw their lot in with a shaggy hominid, it’s been the two of us against the world. And it’s worked out great — for dogs. How else would these little mongrels live high on the hog, ensconced in fine digs and women’s purses, at the right hip of the planet’s preeminent species, with none of the emotional and intellectual baggage of having to solve the ecological and existential conundrums that haunt humans? They filled the psychosocial/evolutionary niche of therapist before people knew it existed, and generally at a steep discount to their human counterparts.

Well played, dog.

Credit: Photo by Catalin Pop on Unsplash

‘People die, but love doesn’t’

Those are the words of my minister that are consoling me this week. Mia’s godmother Caitlin Yakscoe died Sunday morning at the precious age of 30. She has been seriously ill since we’ve known her and I haven’t seen her since Mia’s baptism more than three years ago. 

As I get older, I am increasingly confronted by pain, suffering and death. And honestly, I don’t know how we, as people, do it. How do we get through even a day of pain and suffering when we know where it’s headed? And yet we do. Because we are not just these magnificent, beautiful, flawed and ultimately unreliable bodies. We are will. We are spirit. We are despair. We are denial. We are grief. We are hope. We are love.

If you loved Katy and you showed her that, even knowing she would die someday soon, it mattered. She lived years with her life’s conclusion hanging low upon her. It is a miracle of sorts.

If you loved Katy, but didn’t want to get too close, because you feared the sadness or dying or didn’t think it would matter, I think I understand, and the good news is, it’s OK. Others did, too. The truth is, you’ll have another chance. It’s the nature of living and dying.

A fear many of us share is that loving a losing cause will break us. 

And we’re right. It will. 

But the only chance we stand in this world that, left to its own logic, will ultimately let us down is to believe in the breaking open. Open to God. To our better selves. To each other. To the universe. To something more than this game of decline and decay.

Katy persevered in painful, difficult times. She did her best, and her time of carrying this burden has ended. Amen. Her goddaughter happily carries her name into the future. I know this because Sunday morning, as Katy was breathing her final breaths in this world, Mia was in my house and I was teasing her, calling her “cheese fry” or another of my names, and she said, “Grandguy, you’re so silly. I’m Mia Caitlin.” She said it twice. That stuck with me when I heard the news about Caitlin.

We live in those who remember us, and those who love Caitlin carry her forward. As long as she is remembered, she lives. This life within others when we are no longer physically present is one I place my confidence in. There are a lot of stories about our selves and what comes next. I don’t trust those. I trust people and their memories.

Rest in peace, Caitlin Yakscoe. You are a child of god and mystery and love.

Sad News from Haiti

The people of Haiti have never deserved the hand they’ve been dealt, and that only got worse early this morning, when news broke that the president, Jovenel Moise, known as “the Banana Man,” was assassinated and his wife wounded when an as-yet unidentified team of commandos attacked his home near Port-au-Prince.

Moise is a complicated and corrupt guy in a complicated situation, which is basically the MO on everyone and everything in this island nation, which has paid for two-plus centuries now for having the temerity to throw off colonialist France (and defeat a Napoleonic army!) and become the White World’s worst fear—a nation formed from a slave uprising.

The guy to turn to to understand this is Jonathan Katz, who was a reporter on the scene when Haiti’s calamitous earthquake struck in 2010. He wrote this book about that time in the island’s history. Another good follow, on Twitter, is Michael Diebert, from Lancaster, Pa., of all places. He has spent a lot of time reporting on Haiti and places south of the United States. His feed has a lot of gunfire currently.

Sadly, this is only the latest hardship to visit itself upon the more than 11 million people who call Haiti home. I’m not the one to try to chronicle or make much sense of its past or present, but here’s a link with some thoughts from 2018 that includes links to some resources to better understand the place — some histories and a set of episodes on the Haitian revolution from podcaster Mike Duncan — as well as some posts and poems from my visit. I would like to go back some day, but that day isn’t looking like it’s coming soon.

The Great Shift

shipwreck

Virginia and I went on a Saturday night date (to the Mann Music Center to see Ballet X after a dinner out) for the first time in 16 months and then attended an outdoor church music event the next afternoon and it’s starting to feel like we’re increasingly out of the teeth of the pandemic. (I’ll worry about variants on another day.)

I am very, very curious what things are going to look like on the other side of this, if we ever truly get all the way to the other side (see variants), but for now I feel like alI I know is that there has been a Great Shift. I feel it as if we’re on a ship and some enormous load has moved in the hold. The deck isn’t quite level, but nobody has yet been down in the hold to see what happened. Will it re-settle and we’ll come back to level? Will it keep rolling and we’ll capsize? Or are we just gonna float, a little off-kilter and bobbing, till we all learn to walk on this tilted deck as if this is the way it’s always been? I’m an optimist, and yet. There is some anxiety here.

I’ve been trying to comprehend the Great Shift. It seems that the way people understood the world or behaved in it has changed. A year-plus of retreating into our homes and very limited social bubbles if you were privileged/lucky — or braving a deadly pandemic, if you weren’t — has provided some revelatory space. People have changed, I sense, but also that they don’t quite know how. I don’t either, but here are some lessons that, to me, people seem to have learned:

  • The world can bend a lot when it has to. Things that were seemingly immutable (commutes, weddings, ballgames, live music, movie theaters, beers with the guys, book groups, dating, meeting other humans, monetary policy) either disappeared or were replaced by virtual doppelgängers that were more or less unsatisfactory. And those in-person things are coming back with a drip-drip-drippiness that’s much slower than the faucet-slammed-shut immediacy of March 2020.
  • Or not. For a lot of people, the past year has created a distance that they welcome or prefer to the uncertainty of re-emerging. Either way, they’re satisfied with or resigned to the past year’s status quo.
  • They have more say than they originally thought they had on some of these things and, this is important, that as they reconnect, they want things on their terms. Whether it’s no more supermarket trips or work commutes or going to church on Sunday mornings, if people don’t see value in their presence or attendance, they’ll insist on alternatives.
  • The world is not unipolar. Hybrid might be 2021’s Word of the Year. This will be the year of yes/and, not either/or. Or maybe it will be the year of no/and, as in I won’t do that, but I would do this with some of that. One thing that I don’t think many businesses have reckoned with is that the past year was simple. Work went remote. Many employees haven’t seen an office in more than a year. As companies begin to navigate a world where people work at home AND in an office, it’s going to be a) complicated and b) expensive. You’re going to have to equip both workplaces or risk a productivity trough in one of them. Simply saying, if you don’t like it, come to the office, isn’t going to cut it.
  • They can get away with no as an answer. Don’t like the conditions an employer places on a return to the office? Find a new job. Don’t like the idea of returning to work, period? Then don’t. Don’t like your partner? Well, people seem to have decided that can wait. People have embraced the ambiguities and figured out how to hold their breath. It might be a long time before some of them come up for air.

In short, people want what they want, it isn’t what they had before the pandemic, and they think they have the agency to make it happen, one way or another.

I expect this is going to manifest itself in the biggest mixed bag of a recovery we’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s going to lead to a tumultuous economic year, an explosion of cash being thrown around in pursuit of self-actualization and fulfillment of wishes and missions and delusions, and, sadly, an acceleration of some of the trends toward social isolation and bubble building. I think it’s going to be bad for political polarization, because as people rebuild their social graphs they are going to consider their choices through a partisan lens, which could exacerbate the kind of political sorting that has already become too much a factor in who hangs with whom. Emerging from this with political affiliation as a primary lens is one of the saddest fruits of the pandemic season. If a global pandemic, driven by a remorseless virus whose only affiliation is vulnerability isn’t enough to get us all pulling in one direction, I fear for the Commons. And the Commonwealth.

Also in the sad category, I think education is going to remain a mess for the next year, as unvaccinated kids will remain the biggest pool of viral potential for coronavirus variants. I expect schools, kids, parents and teachers will continue to be stressed and whipsawed by that reality all the way into 2022. The degree to which this is true will depend a lot of your zip code. Vaccinated zip codes will suffer less, those with a lot of vaccine holdouts more.

In short, there’s a lot of tonnage moving around in the hold. We could re-settle into a Better Way, a more seaworthy existence. There are promising signs that people realize it’s time to value sustainability. But it could flip us. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a little worried about slipping off this listing ship. Or that the ship we’re on is about to be tossed by Climate Change in a way that could make all this epidemiological and sociological hullaboo seem like small potatoes—think the lords and ladies of Westeros scrambling for power until, in the penultimate episodes, they notice the unsettling, quiet guy with the blue eyes riding an ice dragon at the head of a zombie army in Game of Thrones. But that’s for another day, and another post.

Above all, I’m curious. And curious how you think it’ll sort itself out.

Basement Leaks and Eternal Beginners

It’s been a weird few days. Saturday was rainy on top of the significant snowpack we’ve got. Late that afternoon I was headed to the basement to put something in the freezer when I saw a puddle on the floor on the front side of the house. I cleaned it up but it returned that evening. I wet-vacced it up a time or two overnight, but Sunday it stayed just warm enough that we had a hellacious rainstorm and the trickle became a flood. Now I was wet-vaccing on the hour and using a rotation of towels to sop up the ice-cold water so it wouldn’t run amok in the basement.

I was up pretty much all night cleaning up the water and cycling towels off the floor, through a spin-and-dry cycle upstairs. I tried to work Monday, but little got done. I called a contractor who was recommended, but he was busy and didn’t get back to me till 5 p.m. And rather than come over, we Zoomed a home visit and he offered some thoughts on how to determine what was happening.

Monday night was much the same, except Virginia took the first overnight shift (god bless her) and I got 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, then took the 3 a.m. shift. By dawn, the flood had returned to more of a trickle and by the evening it had all but stopped.

But the contractor still hadn’t come over, I had chopped into our dry wall to see what was happening behind it, and eventually he and I determined (I hope) the source of the leak and it will be addressed next Tuesday.

Anatomy of my leak, shared with contractor. God, I’m getting old.

The funny thing was that the contractor and I developed a very Karate Kid relationship. He kept instructing me as if I was going to solve this issue. He asked if I was handy, I said no, and then he told me what to do anyway. He never said, “OK, then I’ll come over.” He just said, “Do that and get back to me about what you see.” Wax on. Wax off. That might sound like a critique, but I appreciate that he trusted me to say when I couldn’t do something.

By Tuesday afternoon, we were finally talking about costs, he ran me through what he would handle and what others could help with. He asked if that was OK. I said something like, “It’s fine. That scream you heard Sunday was my wallet realizing what this was gonna cost.” He stopped and he said, “You know, I’ve been dealing with assholes for two days straight. People yelling at me and arguing over everything. You’re the first person to make me laugh. Thanks.”

We’re all beginners, the class can be hard and, my god, if we’ve ever needed a laugh, this past year has been that time. A bow to you, Mr. Miyagi. And pray it doesn’t rain before next week.

Interesting

Interesting is a word I notice in conversation because of how people use it—or misuse it. The two ways that amuse me most:

  1. When asked for an opinion or evaluation, people will say “That’s interesting” or “Hmmmm, interesting.” Often they don’t follow that with insight. Instead, it’s a neutral being used to not offer a more candid (and negative?) assessment. When I hear interesting in this context, I either assume they meant “that’s a bad idea” and I say, “I need more. Give me the next words that are coming to mind.”
  2. The other use of interesting is to say “Let’s talk about something, anything else.” Next time you hear that something is interesting, notice how often the conversation pivots immediately to either a completely new topic or bends to an absurd or hard-to-follow degree toward the speaker’s experience. Best of all, notice it you are doing it yourself.

My point is, if one found a topic or argument truly interesting, they would expand upon or ask about it. In my experience, and counter to its definition, once labeled interesting, you’ve hit a curiosity dead end.

Mouse Mind

We’ve had a mouse problem. It started with a text from Virginia on my Monday morning walk that said, “Mouse! Come home!”

I came home, seemingly trapped it in a bathroom and went to get some mouse traps. By the time I returned, it was gone. But we set our traps and the next morning, there it was — in the trap near the pantry.

Just to be safe, we left the traps out. The next morning: another mouse, smaller than the first, in the same trap.

And the next morning? Yup, the same thing.

Now, this had me mildly freaked out. I didn’t realize there were five mammals sharing this space. What made it even worse was that I didn’t know about these other three despite the fact we were all here ALL THE TIME. Shouldn’t I have seen some signs? (Though maybe the recent cold snap brought them in recently.) That, and the increasing number of COVID-19 infections in our community, had me feeling very much trapped and stuck in my house, in my life.

Until last evening.

I was participating in my congregation’s midweek mindfulness checkin, which occurs on Zoom. After we completed a 30-minute exercise, my minister asked us to hold a thought that had been occupying our attention more lightly. And for whatever reason, this provided a real sense of lightness and relief.

Instead of seeing my home as a punishment and a penalty, as a place where I was stuck, I saw it from the mice’s point of view: my house was warm and a respite from the oncoming cold. It had lots of places to cuddle up and relax. It had more than enough food for all the creatures living under its roof.

I realized what was true for mice was true for me, too. My home is enough. It can keep me safe and happy — if I choose to be safe and happy. All I have to do is embrace mouse mind—without quite embracing mouse—and stay away from the peanut butter smeared underneath those dangerous-looking plastic teeth. Seems doable, and a reminder that the world is equal parts what is and what I perceive it to be.

The lure of sunflowers

I’ve never been much of a flower person. I’ve let Virginia do the work of encouraging things to grow and be beautiful, and I water, yank up weeds and prune when things get unruly. But last year, I decided to try my hand at it. I dug out a garden in our backyard and planted a bunch of sunflowers.

It was a disaster. The ground I chose was wet and the soil poor. We’ve been told that our yard was once a junkyard and I believe it; when it rains enough, you’ll see a sheen of oil pool on the standing water like something from The Beverly Hillbillies. This is not rich soil, though a business called Soil Rich sits behind the treeline in our yard. The few plants that grow even a few inches tall have been consumed quickly by various critters. 

This year, I decided, would be different.

  • I bought a raised bed and filled it with high-quality dirt.
  • I planted only seeds for mammoth varieties, and paid great care to spacing.
  • I put up a fence to fend off herbivores large and small.
  • I devoted meticulous attention to the seeds’ progress.

And it paid off. The darn things grew. Within a week of planting, we had seedlings. They grew into shoots, then just kept growing. Two feet. Three feet. Four feet. Six feet.

Seven feet.

Eight feet! (The tallest reached nearly 11 feet.)

The seed heads began to develop and I anticipated all the fun of a late Summer of looking at them lording over our backyard. And when they bloomed, they were magnificent. I was loving it.

But there’s always a but.

And in this case, the but is this moment of Sunflower Maximus was short-lived. The first to bloom was a harbinger of doom. After two magnificent days, it began to droop. Then wilt. Then the head deteriorated quickly. The seeds never had time to develop, and it was over. The rest of the sunflowers, all two dozen of them, followed a similar arc. Spectacular bloom, sagging under their own fecundity, followed quickly by decline and deterioration. 

In the end, a late summer tropical storm pumped too much water into their stalks and the overheavy heads snapped the stalks and the squirrels gleefully ran up and down their 12-foot lengths. I ended up asking my son Kelly to go and pull them out. I didn’t have the heart.

The lesson for me was one of balance. The sunflowers grew tall, bloomed big, and declined quickly. I’m 54. I fear a similar flowering. The good thing is, I’m a person, not a flower, and I have some say in the matter. If I grow, how I grow, includes some level of choice, and go big, and go home early is an end I am not willing to court. I’ve known this for a while: I’m willing to exchange size for sustainability.

It’s worth noting that we’re about five years to the day from the time I had an operation in which a surgeon placed a stent in my heart. I have been reading my journal entries from when I first noticed that something was happening in my body. When I realized I might need some help. When I realized how close I came to being beyond help. It was a good lesson in things don’t last forever, that the sustainable route is the one that doesn’t fight against physics. That lasting is a good thing. That a bunch of smaller, gorgeous flowers are more than enough in any garden.

So, next year: It will be different. More varieties. Plants with multiple heads, so none are so large as to endanger the stalk’s integrity. More locations around our yard. 

Sunflower 3.0 will be an experiment in variety and resilience. Kevin 2.0 remains a work in progress.

4 thoughts on Celtics-Raptors Game 7

After watching the Celtics’ 92-87 Game 7 win over the Raptors ..

  1. Paskal Siakum took a big step back this postseason. In a series where Toronto really needed Siakum to come up big, he was outplayed by Jaylen Brown consistently. In Game 7, he managed just 13 points (to Brown’s 21). After a great first half of the season, he didn’t play at the same level in the second half, before the March break.
  2. The Raptors, and Kyle Lowry, really impressed me. Tough as nails, it would have been quite the achievement to reach the Conference Finals for a second straight year, especially without Kawhi Leonard. Frankly, I think they would have been a better fit for Miami than Boston. Which leads me to ….
  3. I think the Heat are headed to the NBA Finals. They are rested, immaculately coached and have plenty of ways to score—and Jimmy Butler to bring it home. I think the Heat are a good antidote to the Celtics.
  4. Game 7 was the first time I found the Bubble really lacking. You play all season to earn homecourt advantage and it’s supposed to be worth something. The atmosphere was so unlike a Game 7 crowd that it felt more like other sports where the lack of fans is so jarring.

The Capital Gazette Is All Of Us

I’ve started and stopped writing something about the mass shooting in Annapolis a few times now. It hits close to home for me, in that I have worked in several small newsrooms when I started my journalism career.

Working at a local, non-metro paper is a lot of things: it’s a rite of passage for young journalists; it’s a passion project for those who call these communities home. You don’t do it without learning a lot about the craft AND more about people and communities.

There’s been a lot of politicizing of the Press in the last few years. It goes beyond the President. Even before Mr. Tump rose, I would be asked—exclusively by self-identified conservative friends and acquaintances (that’s not an accusation, simply the truth)—about the political leanings of other journalists.

The honest truth is, I often didn’t know who colleagues voted for. Working in a newsroom, you do find out about each others’ values. From that, I could probably guess which way the other people leaned. But, in most cases, I wouldn’t presume to think I knew. More importantly, it didn’t much matter to me.

That’s a thing about journalists—we are expected to be impartial in our profession and so, we don’t trumpet our political affiliations. I have been an independent voter for almost three decades now (save one electoral season, and I wasn’t a newspaper journalist then) and I am now, even though there is no compelling reason—I am unemployed and my affiliation has no effect on any reporting I do. My wife asks why I don’t choose a side, so I can vote in primaries. But I am more comfortable as an independent. (And though I now lean left, I am not unfailingly partisan: I have voted for multiple presidential candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties.)

So I don’t appreciate the question. The troubling thing for me is the assumption that political affiliation supercedes everything else—that partisanship “leads” and other factors are subservient. Journalists I’ve spent time with don’t talk about our personal viewpoints regarding politics and politicians that much; it certainly wasn’t the most interesting thing about anyone I ever worked with. (Note: I’m not and never have been a political journalist, so I don’t claim to know what their late-night conversations look like. But I’d be surprised to find out that they are much different.)

As a journalist, and from my experience with other journalists, that isn’t where I/we start. We start with these 5 W’s: Who, What, When, Where, Why. We try to understand an issue or a person or a circumstance, so we can tell others about it. And when we find a good story—one that’s important for people to know about, which only a good journalist is going to be able to report and uncover—we throw ourselves at it.

I’d encourage you to read the bios of these five people at The Capital GazetteRob Hiaasen, John McNamaraWendi WintersGerald FischmanRebecca Smith. (And think about how the hell the staff wrote these profiles about friends and colleagues who were alive and kicking just hours earlier.)

Every newsroom has its Rob, its John, its Wendi, its Gerald, its Rebecca. Every office does. In fact, they could be from the sitcom The Office.

They are nobody’s enemies.

I think about them and how gosh-darn American they are, and I think about this affiliation question, and I worry that partisanship is a virus that blinds us to the humanity of our fellow citizens, our fellow humans.

I think about how can I show up when I meet someone for the first time, or the hundredth time, without a preconceived story of who they are and what motivates them. How I can just be with them, listening to their story, understanding their values and motivations and concerns. I think, if I can do this, I will be a better friend, a better neighbor. I’ll be a better journalist and, honestly, that’s what I’ve always wanted to be through the now-long arc of my professional life.

So that is my intention, the devotion I want to offer at the altar of this tragedy.  I want to meet my annoyance and frustration with curiosity and empathy—and without my judgments.

I’d be interested in how this mass shooting has affected you.

 

 

A Letter to Gov. Wolf

I heard this evening that the stay has been lifted on deporting the families who have been held at the Berks County Residential Center for the past year and a half. This is the letter I sent to Gov. Wolf, who apparently has the power to close the facility and free the families. If you want to, you can email the Governor directly or use this form provided by the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC).
Governor Tom Wolf,
I am calling on you to work with Secretary Ted Dallas and the PA DHS to immediately issue an Emergency Removal Order (ERO), which would ensure that the families at the Berks Family Detention Center are released to the care of their families and communities, and work to ensure that the Center is shut down permanently.
As you surely know, Pennsylvania is home to the Berks County Family Detention Center (BCRC), one of several detention centers for immigrant families, where children as young as two-weeks-old have been incarcerated and some families have been held for almost two years.
I have attended several vigils there and spoken to the lawyers  as well as members of the local faith community who have been involved with these families. My heart breaks for these families who have been treated so badly for the “crime” of wanting to escape violence in their home countries. I was further saddened last week when the Supreme Court chose to not hear these families’ cases. I wrote about it here.
As I understand it, Gov. Wolf, you have the power to shut the doors of BCRC and pressure ICE to release these families. If you can, you should, because this place and what has happened here is a stain on our commonwealth and on your stewardship of the people living within it—including the most vulnerable, which these families most certainly are. I am sure it would require great courage—political and otherwise—to do this. And that, sir, is exactly why I voted for you—in the hope that you would have the courage to do the right thing for those who are most vulnerable. That is exactly the crucible of political office. I implore you, Gov. Wolf, to hold up values of compassion and justice.
You did not create this situation, but if you can end it, you should. Period. End of sentence. And be heartened to know that if you do, I and many others will stand with you. More importantly, you’ll be standing with justice and compassion.
With respect,

Justice Delayed, Delayed, Delayed Some More … and Finally Denied

I am sad and frustrated to hear today that the Supreme Court of the United States chose not to hear a case involving women and children who came to this country in late 2015 from violence-plagued Central America seeking asylum.

Some of these women and their children have been detained for more than 400 days at the Berks County (Pa.) Residential Center, awaiting their day in court, which now will never come. Instead, it appears they will be deported shortly.

(This is a pretty good summation of the court decision today (CNN). And this, from the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, is a good catchup if you want to some background.)

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t argue the constitutionality of their case or the ruling. But I am a person, and my heart goes out to these women and their children, who:

  1. Came here from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which these days all have huge problems with poverty and violence.
  2. Announced their intention to apply for asylum as soon as they encountered U.S. border agents. They said they had been targeted, by gangs, as single women with children in their home countries. There is no law against seeking asylum in this country. They didn’t do anything wrong.
  3. Sat in a low-security prison for the next year and a half—even though there were sponsors in the U.S. willing to house them until their cases could be sorted out.
    Raised children and battled despair for more than 400 days while being detained without charges.
  4. I’ve been to vigils several times at the Berks facility over the past year. It usually looked a lot like the photo above—some of the 40 moms lined up along the fence, even when it was a lot colder than this nice November day. As you can see, we’re not talking bad hombres. They look like … moms with kids.

We had to stay across the street, off the detention center’s property, but there was always a speaker system. Musicians would play Latino pop and folk songs, we would wave to each other across the street as we both sang without hearing the other. When the music stopped, local religious leaders and people dedicated to immigration justice would take to the microphone. There were many words, in English and Spanish.

Words of encouragement. Words that they would not be forgotten. Words that they would one day be free.

I hope that at the time they were sustaining words, that they helped these moms to buoy their children’s and their own spirits. In the end, tonight, they feel like cruel words. Empty words. Untrue words.

Not untrue because they were ill-intentioned. No, crueler because the speakers meant them. They were just wrong. Like these words, once a point of pride for Americans, are increasingly untrue.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
That door is shut. That way is closed.

Some of the most vulnerable people in the world packed up and made a run for it. They didn’t do it because America is cushy or so they could suck comfortably at the government teat. That isn’t why people leave everything behind and make a run for it. They did it because they feared for their safety and their children’s safety. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire says in her poem “Home”:

You only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

So they ran looking for a new home. And rather than find a home, they were detained and made vulnerable in a whole new way. Languishing in a prison, many became depressed. One of the women was raped by a guard, who was convicted and sentenced to 23 month in a different prison.

Some of these kids have now spent half their life in a prison, living on prison food. When local community leaders were able to meet with the moms, they didn’t ask for much, but they did ask that people send them some sugary cereal, as a treat for the kids. Oh, and underwear for themselves, because that isn’t provided when you are detained indefinitely by our government. Shampoo, too, because, yeah, the same.

Tonight I’m thinking of those women and their kids, lined up along the fence on a Sunday afternoon. And about how powerless this moment feels. And what more could be done—for them, by me, by us, for us.

I’m thinking about all the people running for their lives, and Shire’s unblinking truth.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side
with go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?

I grieve for these audacious, brave women and their children and what awaits them back in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala.

And alongside that, because I expect I’ll be here after they are long gone, I grieve for my country and its collective heart.

I get that not everyone in the world can come to the United States. I get that there need to be rules. I get why people think walls are solutions.

But I’ve been to Haiti and I’ve seen long, high walls along the main road outside Port au Prince, and I remember wondering, What could be so valuable in Haiti that someone built this wall to protect it, only to come around a corner and see a rubble-strewn yard and a goat munching on the weeds.

Walls are not creative things. Walls are about scarcity, about keeping, about making a fetish of what is mine in this world. And they’re not very effective. The Mongols simply took their horses around the Great Wall to conquer China. Democracy skipped over the one in Berlin. The Roman Emperor Hadrian had one built almost 2,000 years ago to keep the Scots at bay. It’s easier to find a Scotsman almost anywhere in the world than to find a remnant of that wall.

There has been much talk of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year. Some people cheered for it. Others derided the idea as laughable, that America would never put up such a wall.

But what if the wall need not be 30 feet tall, with anti-climbing technology baked in, and cost $16 million a mile? What if the wall need not run along the Rio Grande and through the desserts of New Mexico and Arizona?

Truth is, there already is a wall. Part of it is just 3 1/2 feet tall, made of wooden posts mostly, in Leesport, Pennsylvania. It is backed by prison guards with rifles who depend on that small wall for their employment, and a court system that supports it, that encourages it. And this small wall, the facts show, it is enough to keep out people so at risk that they dropped everything but their children and made a run for it.

And still, amidst this despair—which, I must admit, surprised me with how hard it fell today—I remind myself that walls need not hold people back. Walls can support a roof. Walls can be shelter. And borders should not be walls. Borders should be thresholds. Borders should be opportunities. Borders—my edges, our edges, the nation’s edges, the world’s edges—should be where the growth is.

And still, tonight, the border is blocked. The border is stuck. It is closed.

Today, after freezing 40 families’ lives in an uncomfortable, unaccommodating and uncertain limbo for more than 400 days, the keepers of the wall turned them away.

I will go to Leesport soon, and I will not see these women and children along this short wall. As I imagine that, I think about the first lines of Shire’s poem, the ones you might have seen:

no one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark.

And I grieve for these families—and for those who almost certainly will come after. I invite you to do the same.

It’s a Bat

So I’m sitting at work yesterday afternoon when I see a zig-zagging beam of light to my far left. A couple minutes later, I see it again. It happens maybe 5 times over 90 minutes.

As I prepare to drive to a church meeting about an hour away, as I walk down a hallway, I notice something out of focus in my left eye’s field of vision. I mean, really IN my field of vision. Like, IN my head.

By the time I get to the meeting, this is officially a thing, and I spend half of the time there watching this structure, this blob, hover just outside my ability to focus on it. (The rest I spend listening and offering whatever bizarre metaphors come to mind—if you’ve ever been in a meeting with me, you know, The Usual).

Driving home is good because in the dark I have far less sense of where the damn hairball in my head is. I get home, share a mixture of anxiety and dread with Virginia, and agree to see my ophthalmologist the next day.

Next day, the ophthalmologist is looking in my eye when she says, “This is gonna be uncomfortable.” She proceeds to numb out my left eye, puts gel on the bottom of what looks like a salt shaker, places it firmly against my cornea and looks through it in to my head. The salt shaker has four mirrors, she says, that allow her to look all around my eye. For the floater. Come on, Dr. Jill, you don’t need four mirrors! It’s right there, in the top left quarter of my field of vision!

She sees it.

“Oh,” she says, “that’s a big one.”

I know.

“It looks like a bat.”

Yup.

The bat, I’m told, is a glob of viscous goo that has separated from the retina in my left eye. It’s pretty normal, called “a floater,” and it’s not particularly dangerous—except for that moment of separation, which can tug and tear your retina. Apparently that was the light show in my far-left field of vision. Dr. Jill tells me things look good, but she doesn’t exactly look like it’s good. And when she tells me to come back in a week, and to call if ANYTHING changes, I’m thinking this could be OK but bears non-ignoring. No Thursday basketball this week.

I drive home, sunglasses on, in that hands-groping-through-the-windshield-trying-to-help way that I always drive while my eyes are dilated and I’m too stubborn to tell Virginia I could use a ride home (or even better, to work, 35 miles of physics-defying will). Thankfully, while it’s clear, it’s January, there’s only so much sun, and there’s no reflected light off snow.

So I’m driving home thinking how 18 months ago I basically had never had a “real” health issue in my life. Since then, three visits to the cardiac catheterization theater, three medicated stents—including two in my left anterior descending artery (the proverbial Widowmaker)—as well as a high ankle sprain and co-occurring stress fracture in my lower left leg, and now this damn bat flittering around in my left eye, which has been seeing less and less at night since last winter.

And—duh!—I’m forgetting the basal cell on my nose that was removed 4-5 years ago, with the surgeon suturing me up like stitching together a softball. So ONE health issue in previous 49 years.

Exasperated, I think, What’s left? And I lean on humor, and joke with my wife that I’m almost through the checkboxes. All that’s left is diabetes and sexual dysfunction.

It strikes me that one of life’s mysteries is finally coming into view: the mystery of older men and Viagra jokes, the source of so much of the humor of my dad and his contemporaries over the last third of their lives. I always wondered why so many jokes, told so often, despite the eye rolls and the sighs and the not-agains.

As I stare down and fight back against this creeping obsolescence—heck, this galloping obsolescence—I see the lure of and surrender in the blue-pill joke. The unease expressed in humor. The vulnerability in the repetition and preoccupation with the joke and its deeper truth: age softens us, in different ways. The finality, because, let’s face it, there is not much line left to let out from the great twine-ball of malady-based humor once you’re past the Viagra jokes. Cracks about low-salt diets, about adult diapers, about “Hafzheimers” and fading memories, about St. Peter and the Pearly Gates and what awaits you, and who’s going to miss and not miss you.

So I brush the floater from my attention and set my intention on getting back on the basketball court, and back on the trail, and on writing every day, and making mad, loud, passionate love on a schedule that’s something less than hourly and better than quarterly. And drinking less on weeknights—unless with friends. And cleaning this sloppy desk. And making mad, loud … damn it! I’m repeating myself. The Hafzheimers!

Anyway, so a man and his wife go to the pharmacist to pick up his prescription for Viagra. The man is shocked that it costs $10 per pill, but his wife says …

You’re right. I shouldn’t go there.

“$40 for the year doesn’t sound so bad.”

I’ll be here all year, folks.

What Would Hamilton Do? The Mixed Feelings Of Reading His Bio During Election Season

The musical Hamilton has certainly piqued interest in the Founding Father who did the most among those who never became President—and was also the guy who introduced we Americans to the tawdry sex scandal (if only Gary Hart had delivered as complete and humiliating a public explanation as Hamilton did for his sleazy indiscretions). But not having a vast cash reserve, I skipped on the Broadway show and merely listen to a Hamilton playlist on Spotify and the excellent Ron Chernow biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The audiobook is Russian-novel long—36 hours, 2 minutes on Audible—and fascinating. Of course, I didn’t know much at all about Hamilton except that Aaron Burr shot him dead in Weehawken, and that he did enough before that to get his face on the $10 bill.

And boy, was I missing out on a lot. Hamilton’s fingerprints are all the U.S. government. And his work remains relevant today. The Electoral College is pretty much his doing. He writes about it in the 68th essay of the Federalist Papers (yeah, he wrote the majority of 85 essays explaining and popularizing the Constitution, and almost every one of his is brilliant; it’s one thing to be a gas bag and another to be a brilliant gas bag).

Hamilton’s purpose in inserting the Electoral College was to put a circuit breaker in the system as a check on the electorate, whom he really didn’t trust.

Two-hundred-plus years later, that Electoral College finds itself smack in the middle of it. For those of us, and I count myself among them, who worry that the American people last month made a grievous choice (likely, it now appears, with the help of Russian intervention), this is exactly why Hamilton sought to include this mechanism.

Myself, I think the problem is less with the duties of the Electoral College electors and more with the increasing discrepancies between popular vote and Electoral College vote totals. This excellent piece by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig spells out why the Electoral College isn’t just an increasingly ineffective institution, but an unjust one, as its “winner-take-all” approach in most states effectively disenfranchises nearly half the electorate in every election. I doubt his argument will get a fair hearing before Jan. 20, 2017, but I wish it would. And I hope that it does before the next election, as I think it would move our system closer to every vote counting. (For those who want the Electoral College to take a more Hamiltonian tack and pressure the electors to consider their votes for Mr. Trump, there’s this.)

It’s hard to contemporize an historical figure. I’m not sure that late-18th Century Hamilton would have found Lessig’s argument a particularly comforting thought. Back then, he was no fan of direct representation.

But I think his experience as part of the first Presidential Cabinet—and builder of institutions from scratch—would provide real insight into this time when cabinet nominees seem to be selected precisely to abolish the government institution they are selected to lead. The idea that a president could arrive wearing a suicide vest, elected to blow up those governmental structures, was not foreign to him.

And yet, as a curious, practical immigrant from the West Indies who loved the promise of his adopted country and was always in pursuit of a more-perfect system of governance, he always had his sights set firmly on a better future—to me, it’s his most unabashedly positive American trait. I think he would see the merits in Lessig’s intellectual evolution of fair representation.

At least, that’s the story I tell myself as I alternately listen to the story of this amazing man and the latest news on NPR.

Like the Dixie Chicks sing, I Hope.

History’s Not Done With Barack Obama

In the tumult of processing last week’s election, someone at church asked me Sunday morning who in the world could be the next Martin Luther King — the person who takes the lead on the hard road to a more perfect union—and the answer seemed so obvious.

Barack Obama.

He leaves the presidency a relatively young man (hair notwithstanding, he’s just 55), with a stated desire to return to his community organizing roots and tackle the gerrymandering that distorts our voting like some fun house mirror. That’s noble.

Continue reading “History’s Not Done With Barack Obama”

Concert for Hope at Berks County (Pa.) Detention Center on Sunday, Nov. 19

With the election of Donald Trump as President-elect, there is a lot of anxiety about what will happen to people living on the country’s margins, including those who have entered the country illegally to escape repression and violence elsewhere.

If you live near Southeastern Pennsylvania and are looking for a way to join with others to demand that these vulnerable people be treated with due process and dignity, please attend the Concert for Hope, held outside the Berks County Residential Center from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 19. The event is being hosted by the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry of Pennsylvania.

Continue reading “Concert for Hope at Berks County (Pa.) Detention Center on Sunday, Nov. 19”

My Day at the Million Moms March

Toward the end of today’s Million Moms March at Philly’s City Hall, one of the speakers asked every mom who had lost a child to gun violence to raise their hand, and the air went thick with hands.

Then she asked for their names, and the air filled with voices and names.

This plague of violence, heartbreak and death that has impacted communities of color across this nation, like that moment with all those hands in the air, challenges my ability to bear witness—to acknowledge that this simply IS before I try to solve or blame or simply throw up my hands in despair.

Continue reading “My Day at the Million Moms March”

To Touch My Dad’s Cheek 6 Years After He Died

The anniversary of my dad’s passing arrived this week and it was on my mind. Last week, during a mindfulness exercise with members of my church, we were asked to imagine someone who is suffering or has suffered, and he came to mind.

At one point, Rev. Ken asked us to imagine the person in front of us. I did. And there was my dad, seated in front of me, looking much as he did in the days before he died.

It‘s not the end of my dad’s life, but it is not very far from it. In the hospital. I see the fear on his face, and the softness. We’re past anger now. There’s this: he will die soon.

Then something shifts. I see my dad with a cigarette in his right hand, held in the air. His brow low, his head tilted. This is not the sad guy; this is the frustrated one, the aggrieved one. The one it is harder to love.

And I reach out and put my left hand on his cheek. It’s very strange to extend this hand and touch him a week short of 6 years after he died.

He doesn’t jump, or pull away, and I don’t either. I feel his stubbly cheek on the palm of my hand. It is this incredibly tender moment. It lingers in the quiet. I feel an urge to cry.

My dad doesn’t offer any wisdom beyond his presence. And as I sit there, I become aware of my frustrations and anger with him, mostly about why he hasn’t tried harder to live in a healthier way, why he hasn’t stepped away from the Scotch and the cigarettes.

And then I become aware that in the past year I’ve had two angioplasty surgeries. My dad had his first surgery—a crack-his-chest-wide-open bypass—at 44. I’m 50. At 50, he was still one and done. So despite my intent to eat right and exercise, despite my general desire not to follow in his steps, well, here I am—with a cardiologist and sketchy plumbing and one more hospital stay than him at 50.

And I think about my boys and what happens when I’m not here, and let’s imagine the time comes sooner than any of us would want, how are they going to feel?

And then I am aware of my dad’s cheek in my palm. And this realization: that life is life and loss is loss and all this counting and blaming and judging doesn’t get beyond that.

That I can imagine my dad’s cheek in my palm and realize that, even 6 years later, our lives and legacies intermingle, and that is never going to be untrue. And my intentions matter, but there are truths in this world that run deeper than intention, and that judging or ignoring or writing about it doesn’t change this simple fact.

The only thing that changes all that is living. Every moment. Breathe in. Share a meal. Ride bikes. Watch ballgames. Wake up to birdsong. Breathe out.

Six years after my dad died, I felt his cheek in my palm, and I felt my throat tighten and an urge to cry, and that was what mattered. That’s what will always matter. Until the summoning and the suffering and the loving and the reaching and the intending and the imagining and the softening — until it all ends, it’s all here.

And what a blessing that is.