The Island of Misfit Holiday Newsletters

Do kids watch old TV shows still?  “When I was a kid” (yes, I will go there – it’s the privilege of having survived so far), Christmas shows were few and therefore a major event on one of the 3 networks – and if you had a color tv, even more exciting.  The biggest of all was “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” – created by the unique artistry and vision of Rankin Bass stop motion animation.  Although it was not my favorite – (more on that later) – it was something to look forward to.   The song, of course, is fairly short – so the story was expanded with additional characters, and adventures – including the island of misfit toys, where the playthings no one wanted were abandoned and forgotten.  Very, very sad …. Like Disney, the storytellers behind those specials knew that tales that touched our heart were not filled solely with happy thoughts. 

What was wrong with the dolly? One theory – she had no nose? The debate rages on.

And, of course, not all 60’s homes – maybe none, in fact – were like the tv sitcoms filled with laughs year-round or shimmering with Christmas lights and goodies as the kiddos awaited Santa.  I am grateful for the efforts both my parents made to give us a holiday, in the midst of great challenges; I remember the delight of opening gifts to find unexpected (and hoped for from the Sears wishbook) treasures.  The only picture I think I have with my father’s parents is with a toddler aged NormL holding a styrofoam Santa figure, with my brother alongside.  And I think the earliest color picture of me is at the foot of a Christmas tree, in our then Vacaville California home, alongside my older brother and our new treasures.  I do not remember those moments – but I remember the feeling, the yearning, the hope that “Christmas is coming” brought to my heart, and the carols we sang in the church youth choir, until the big day. 

A very faded photo of my older brother, me in diapers, and our treasures – Christmas 1958

Christmas cards were a mainstay of life then – so many would come, and my Mom would keep seemingly all of them.  Some from friends and family I never knew – some with letters describing what was happening with their own families, kids in school – before technology of mass production enabled the use of the sometimes detested, mass produced holiday newsletter.  I am glad my Mom kept so many of those handwritten notes – I have been able to share them with the children of the authors, bringing memories alive again, like quiet lights from the fireplace of a long-forgotten winter.  I am also grateful to have some of the cards from my Mom to me – remnants not only of her beautiful handwriting, but her heartfelt love.  For a few years, our church youth group tried to raise funds by sending us door to door with gigantic volumes of elegant Christmas cards, that you could order with your name imprinted – I found it difficult to walk up to my neighbors doors, often strangers, knock and show the books, asking for an order – probably the earliest realization that I was not destined for a life in sales or public relations! 

With the broad availability of pcs, home printing and more, Hallmark and other card manufacturers started to lose business to new ways of sharing sentiments. Recently my husband and I enjoyed a classic holiday episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” – from December 2001! “Season’s greetings” finds exquisite, bitter humor in the family receiving a relative’s holiday newsletter and responding with a boastful one of their own.  We laughed a lot – and I thought about it as I feel the clock ticking on our own communications for Christmas and the holidays.  I am happy to say that we still send cards – receiving fewer each year, but that’s ok – and that we have friends who walk all kinds of paths, so some are about Christmas, some about the holidays, and some are just year-end wishes.  Time constraints seem to get tighter every year – even in retirement – so I suggested that this year we get the cards out right after Thanksgiving, without a newsletter, then follow up with an email which awaits my attention this week, with a little over 3 weeks until Christmas day.  I reached out to my friends who observe, to varying degrees, Chanukah (which came early this year) directly; now my thoughts turn to what to include in a communication to our broad circle of family and friends, that many may only glance at briefly.   And time is running out ….. 

There have been years where I tried to be more creative, taking the rhythm and structure of a familiar holiday carol or song and changing the lyrics to reflect the events of the year behind; one year, I wrote a story that was essentially a follow up to “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my favorite movie), where the older angel and his protégé watched the shoppers in a snowy small town scurrying about their tasks on Christmas eve.  I cannot say what year I initially started the habit of writing – maybe 20 years ago, maybe more – and some years, like now, I resorted to email rather than print.  I imagine both are mostly passé now – we no longer receive many, and even the “family photo card” seems to be less common – many probably depend on Instagram, Facebook and other media for ease of use, immediacy or other reasons.   Yet – there have been years, whether printed or electronic, some who got my newsletter wrote back, saying they were touched, encourage, or somehow warmed by my sentiments – that feedback led me in a way to this blog, and writing to a world of strangers who might enjoy my words – including you. 

I try to avoid this kind of result – I really do!!!

The past few years, since our wedding in 2018, the newsletter became more of a cooperative effort – so I tend to not be as freeform in my approach.  My husband and I have talked about the events of the year that we want to include – nothing surprising there – and I will touch on the fact that he has a major birthday in a month that we look forward to celebrating.  There is much to be grateful for; but my heart wants to put something into that email that I find difficult to define.  Add to that the need to be respectful – rightly so – that not everyone in our lives thinks the same way about the holidays, or may even be in a place where they feel like celebrating – we have several friends that are facing immediate and severe health crises, others who have experienced loss and depression.  And it is somewhat egocentric to think that people we don’t see regularly, who were once a part of our circle of life but who are now less present in every sense, want to know about our lives and the events we enjoyed – or endured – the past year. 

Perhaps, in a way, 2021 has been for many of us like being stranded on the island of misfit toys – feeling alone, forgotten, unwanted.  Perhaps the news, the never-ending voices of panic and dissension, the latest shocking school attack or string of store break-ins, and the seemingly deepening sense that better days are too far off to see has just worn us down.  Thinking back to my church days, even into my adulthood, and the sermons and promises, the certainty and assurances that now seem even more phantom like than Dicken’s 3 Spirits of “A Christmas Carol” or Clarence of “It’s a Wonderful life” – I am not qualified, or even assured within myself, of what to turn to for answers.  Yet – it is a kind of faith to still look up, out, and believe that there is a greater hope – a more real, eternal and powerful source of love – that remains in spite of all the turmoil of this era, and this moment in my little spirit.  

I have set my goal, for this year’s email to family and friends, to not be one that belongs on the island of misfit newsletters – but to say something that reaches from my own heart, and outside of it, to our readers, in all their different paths of life.  But what do I have to offer? Sometimes I get a glimpse of what seems to be a truth, around the corner, just moving out of sight but still calling to me – keep looking, I am here.  Was that truth present in a manger?  Was it more, or less present, in any of the millions of lives and thousands of gatherings of dissimilar faiths, yearning, reaching, crying out for hope – for peace and reassurance?  Do we ignore our desire to somehow, if not grasp with finality, to approach to that sense of a sacred place that some long unused chamber of our being senses but cannot inhabit?  Those childhood wishes for Santa came from a deeper place that I think we all share. Whether the readers of whatever I end up writing have some faith, in something, or not – there is something we have in common, and that together we can celebrate as winter begins to deepen. 

Aaron, the “Little Drummer Boy” from the 1968 TV special, and his dancing animals

As I mentioned at the start, my own favorite childhood Christmas show was not Rudolph. I remember the first Charlie Brown Christmas clearly; I detested Frosty, although I cannot say why; and I loved the Andy Williams holiday shows with “Dancing bear” and the ultra large Williams family (along with the Lennon sisters!) in harmony, sweaters, and all smiles by the fireplace.  But the one that touched my heart was one that wasn’t entirely jolly, built on a foundation of less than happy family – also from Rankin Bass, the “Little Drummer Boy” as narrated by Greer Garson.  Even now, it makes my cry –a lonely orphan, his parents murdered and home burned, bitter at how the world treated him, abused by those who took advantage of him – seeking help, and finding a gathering of wanderers, shepherds, and animals in the night.  In 20 minutes or so, he finds a group of very dissimilar people kneeling in awe before a newborn, not understanding why – and he feels his own gift is not fit for a king, not good enough.  But he gives from his heart – and like all good childhood stories, reaches a happy ending.  The Vienna Boys Choir had a hit recording of the title song, still a standard – but the one I loved is less well remembered.  “One Star in the Night”.  It is quiet, reverent – and hopeful.  If there is nothing else that we can take from whatever holiday observance matters to each of us, surely hope is more precious than ever.  

But I feel a kinship to the little drummer boy, uncertain that I have a gift worth offering.  It took me a lot longer than that half hour show, but after a lifetime of beating myself (and others) up for not being perfect, good enough – I begin to see how much sometimes I am afraid to give my own offering of mere words, lacking in poetry or unique charm,  just to say that I love someone.  Because I have not been the model of love that I was taught I should be, I could be – no angel, no wise man, no holy being – and far from what was modeled as ideal within my little world in a time that now seems so long ago – I fear my heart’s attempt to just share my imperfect love, even though I don’t always call, or haven’t seen them in years, will seem like a lie. I have not lived out the love I feel; perhaps few among of has. I am a poor ambassador indeed. Yet I feel that greater love, outside of me, waiting for me to drink it in, and then let it flow on to others somehow still – and I am aware of it as being bigger than myself, or all of us.  The love that I feel is like a glow that exists outside the range of our vision but surrounds us, unseen but alive, and enduring beyond the moment, beyond the fears and frustrations, and well beyond the limits of seasons and holidays, rituals and the ancient rooted traditions that seem to take up so much energy and attention without our stopping to strip away the veneer to find the life underneath awaiting our discovery, perhaps, even where we are not looking.

Perhaps, giving what we have, simple as it may be, is the greatest gift to offer, in love

I will have to do some digging of my own to put into words something of what I feel to those who receive, and take the time to read, our short email with holiday wishes.  There are many ways of celebrating – and many who just need to know they are not alone, and to be there for them as best we can.  Sometimes, I think that for me, writing – this blog, the newsletter, a short note to a friend – is a form of prayer, of connecting with a larger hope.  Perhaps in our words, and actions,  we get beyond thinking we have “no gift to bring” the act of reaching out and saying we care, we miss you, we love you and we hope all good things for you matters in ways we cannot predict.  I will of course listen to my own favorite carols, and reflect on the teachings of my childhood, and the questions of my current years, and the mysteries in the gaps between that seem immeasurable, but there will be moments when what is now, is enough.  Whatever your own heart speaks, I hope you can listen and hear the sounds of hope, the quiet of peace, and the comfort of joy along your walk.  Thanks for sitting a while with me – I wish you, and those you love, a season of promises realized and dreams reborn – until next time. 

One Star in the night … singing silently …

You can hear the music if you listen with your heart.

One Star In The Night, Shown o’er Bethlehem,

Magic in the moment when that lonely star began its lovely song.

Angel’s lullabyOn that holy night, Sung unto a Savior who was born beneath its glow.

One Star In The Night, Rainbow in the dark,

One night to remember; that peaceful night the King of Kings was born.

“One Star in the Night”, music by Maury Laws, Lyrics by Jules Bass – from the 1968 Rankin Bass stop motion animated TV Special, “The little drummer boy”

My gift to you …. freely offered, and worth at least every penny! And – wishing you, and yours, blessings and joy in whatever celebrations you share, now and tomorrow.

Small mercies, great grace, and choices to be made

It was only slightly more than a year ago, March 2020 when our city, our state, and our nation entered a period of what many of us grew quickly tired of hearing was “an abundance of caution”.  Certainly, the steps taken since helped curb the spread of disease and death – sadly, some naysayers came to regret their misplaced beliefs. And almost as certainly, some of the steps we took as individuals, communities and nations were if not unnecessary, ineffective – based on tentative, evolving knowledge that still is far from final.  What worked, what didn’t – time will sort this out, perhaps.  But we all were frustrated and afraid for a very long time – particularly those who lost family and friends forever or came close to an abrupt end of their own lives.  And today, although some indicators here where I live are very encouraging, there are still vast populations of our planet that are struggling under waves of death, loss, and destruction that will not soon disappear.  We have collectively gone through trauma. 

When the vaccines started to be made available early in 2021, first to select populations then slowly widening circles of eligibility, my husband – who fell into a more at-risk category – was able to get his shots, and I was very grateful, and content to wait my “turn”.  Stories began to reach us both – rumors in some cases, personal experiences in others.  Friends with the same insurance coverage but less “eligible” than me had been contacted to receive their first shots; I received multiple, well intended but questionable recommendations to basically go somewhere and simply lie about my employment or status, as others had successfully done.  And, there were individuals in our circle of loved ones who were more at risk than me, still waiting.  You, as well, probably were faced with ethical choices – assuming you wanted to get the shots – and were in an area where there was even any supply. 

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

During the year or so since we first entered varying stages of “shutdown isolation”, I had taken refuge by focusing somewhat on fitness, working out on a limited basis initially at home on the back patio with a few hand weights, then enrolling in a “trainer” session program at a  gym where the equipment was brought out on the sidewalk for individual use.  This blossomed over time into a tent workout area in the gym parking lot, then eventually limited access inside the gym itself.  There were friends who spoke to me, and others who did not speak aloud but their perspective was clear – I was taking unnecessary, foolish risks.  I was being selfish and egotistical.  Like so many issues in what seems like an eternity, our differences become exaggerated; chasms, not cracks, start to divide us. For me, going to the gym – albeit not as effectively as I had hoped (yet) – was a way to direct my energy toward something positive, safely. 

One of countless lines in our world, this is the one I stood in, with tentative Hope.

The San Francisco powers that be had set up a mass vaccination program at a local convention center, and someone at the gym mentioned that they knew of two members who had gone to the “stand by line”, who, like me, were not in an eligible category but “walked right in” with little wait and got their shots.  My frustrations at hearing from friends who were less eligible but vaccinated, other “I know the facts more than you” contacts who proclaimed I could go anywhere for a shot, and the encouragement to simply go lie was overwhelming.  It was a horrible circumstance, made worse by all the voices around me claiming conflicting facts and, in a sense, cheering their own status at the expense of the many eligible but frustrated people trying to book appointments, or simply even find a location with supply. The chorus seemed to be saying – hey, dummy, why don’t you have your shots yet? It was incessant; I could not complain for being healthy; but I decided to take a chance. 

On a drizzly cold March Sunday morning, when the “time change” took effect, I left early for downtown, discovered some nearby street parking (a rarity here), and walked to Moscone center, finding a long line growing longer by the minute even before the doors opened.  After an extensive wait through the line snaking around the building and ultimately through the doors – I was rejected.  I was ineligible; they no longer were allowing folks like me to wait for unclaimed doses.  The next day, the window of eligibility was widening to an even greater population statewide – but, still excluding me.  I felt defeated – I did not blame the outdated information, there was no one at fault – it was simply not my time.  That did not stop me from indulging in comfort food which had no effect on protecting me from COVID but sure was tasty, and also completely contradictory to my fitness efforts.  As I walked to my car, I was greeted by more texts, more advice, more insisting that I could go anywhere now to get a shot, everyone was doing it, etc. etc. etc.   I decided to drop my efforts and just hunker down, waiting (as the app proclaims) “my turn”, and finding some solace in the hope that my more at risk friends and essential workers were getting treated. 

I was very stressed out – it affected my husband and others around me.  It was not healthy to try to find a way to stay healthy, in this case.  I gave it a lot of thought.  It was a few days later before I was at the gym the same day as my contact who had encouraged me to attempt my failed efforts – I sat in the car, awaiting my “entry window” by appointment, and just said a prayer, honestly.  Prayer has different meanings for most everyone – I don’t know what I would like, but there are times that I believe it is something that brings me to a kind of peace, and acceptance.  Sitting outside the gym, I just acknowledged that there was nothing I could do; that I would go on, and wait, and let go of my expectations and efforts, as well as the frustrations I felt towards all the conflicting advisors telling me what I was doing wrong; just set it all aside, live my life daily, and trust. 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

As I have written before, I know my upbringing, with elements of religion and some seed of faith – I differentiate between the two – is uniquely personal, and not everyone looks at the events of life and sees anything other than chance in the outcomes.  Nevertheless, if I had not taken the time that morning to silently pray, accept and let go of the vaccine monkey on my back – or, if I had remained in the car, sulking, for another minute – I would not have walked up to the counter and met a stranger.  My friend who had encouraged me to “line up” was chatting with another member as I signed in – I could hear him asking how work was going, and how they had not seen one another in months.  But it was the strangers comment that he was working 12- and 14-hour days, and that they were treating thousands daily, that let me realize this stranger was one of hundreds who worked at the vaccination center I had been turned away from days before.  Then, unexpectedly, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey Norm – how did your visit to Moscone go this weekend”?  Truly without regret, or intent, I just shared that I had been turned away, and that they were no longer offering “unclaimed” vaccines, especially now that a broader eligible population was competing for appointments and shots – and that I was, of course, not yet among them, but it was ok.  

There are moments of grace in our world.  It’s not a word you hear on the news; rarely are there stories about mercy, and miracles. We don’t always recognize these “gifts” – we don’t always see when someone acts out of kindness, we are blinded by the mountains of things demanding our attention – too busy to “see the invisible” surrounding us everywhere.  But for me, this moment was undeniably a miracle, one not sought or expected.  The stranger turned to me and said – how old are you?  I shared that my 63rd birthday was just a few days away, and that I was ok waiting – I could not complain that I am healthy, or that my needs took priority over others. To me, this was just a kind inquiry from one of the many hundreds of staff and volunteers here, and millions worldwide.  But he was not just one of the many – I honestly don’t know what his role was, or his background – but he asked me if I would like an appointment that day; he could add my name to the list, he had a few daily and I could just come around later and give my name at the door, and get my first shot. 

I am not ashamed to admit I nearly broke down crying.  This was a gift, and only moments after I had let go of my demands, my needs, and decided to just walk on in faith as best I could. 

This “heart of San Francisco” stands in the lobby of the vaccination center

That afternoon, my husband dropped me off – there was no line at the doors this time, and as he drove away, I read the handwritten sign – no more “non appointment” shots today.  For a moment I feared my trip was again in vain – but the stranger had said just give my name.  I explained to the attendant at the door who pulled out the list of additions – my name was not to be found.  I asked for follow up and showed the text I had received confirming my appointment – which led to a period of waiting, in silence, alone.  I once again had to just let go. A few moments later, a friendly administrator came by – trying to call my “gym angel” – to no avail. 

We do not always get what we want.  Certainly, we do not always get what we deserve – whether because of good deeds or bad.  It is a myth, I think, to believe that everything is for a reason – we have choices.  My choice, daily, mostly unconscious, is how I conduct myself with others; what I hold dear; how I show love to my husband and family; how I treat strangers.  I fail miserably a great deal of the time, and there are plenty who can attest to that.  But it is in those choices I grow.  I can’t pick the outcomes, only the kind of person I want to be, and try to take little steps toward that goal. 

Who is to say why things ‘work out”, or don’t?  Or even what is the best outcome – we just want to make what we can of our lives.  In my case, on that day – as the administrator rechecked her records, she did find my name, and my smile shone as I rode the escalator down to a crowded hall where hundreds, like me, waited for their time with a nurse, answered some routine questions, and then, felt a little prick.  A tiny sensation that somehow opened the doors to hope more than they were that morning.  As I ascended the stairs to the crowded exits, a familiar face greeted me – if only in cardboard cutout form.  And I walked into the daylight.  Two weeks later, as scheduled, I received my second shot; and, as I write, I am just past the two week “waiting period”.  I don’t physically feel different, or healthier; but I do feel an immeasurable sense of relief.  I held off posting on Facebook, knowing how frustrated I had felt and that thousands like me here were still waiting their turn, while others sat by their loved ones hoping they would recover; my gratitude was humbled because I had received a gift, undeservedly – perhaps that is a fitting definition for grace, in a way. 

Hey, Tony, thanks a bunch!! Glad you stopped by to say hi – but – no mask??

Today, almost a month later, I know there are many more still waiting for their chance to be in that line, or others like it.  Watching the news this week with my husband,  we silently viewed the drone footage of mass cremations outdoors in India; and we know there are many who still do not want to take the shot, or wear the mask.  We are not “through” with COVID by any means – and our communities, country, and planet will not I think ever fully put all this behind them.  Nor should they; we must grow through this. But somehow, I feel I am at a point of turning in my life.  All the time the past year plus that I spent fearful of losing my husband, other loved ones who did become ill, or leaving him and them without me in their lives – there was a lot of sleepless nights, of questioning what my priorities were, and reassessing what I believe.  There were moments of conflict with others that were exacerbated by our joint tensions; changes in relationships; realizations that things that seemed so very important before perhaps don’t really matter as much as I thought they did. 

I am changed.  When I registered this blog in late 2019, Wuhan was not even in the news; it was not until we were isolated in our home that I began posting, just over a year ago.  I have made 34 posts … I have a few friends that sometimes encourage me; I have followers who are strangers.  Someone asked me recently what my blog was about; perhaps if I had registered “The new Normal”.com I would be discovered, but that was not my goal.  I wanted to share, something undefinable – my growth; my discoveries, my questions and my uncertainties.  My humanity – in hopes that someone who might be in the place once was would find some “light” from my path for their own.  Instead, my sharing has been, in a way, a healing process.  We all need healing today, and we are not going to find it on our own.  We are all going through a process of renewal and discovery, separately and together, stumbling, holding one another up; I cannot pretend that I have more answers today, but somehow, I have peace that as I walk – as we all walk the path ahead, wherever it leads – I will find the steps. 

From the Nat King Cole classic – “Nature boy” – my education continues.

Friends, I hope you too will find your way, and reach out to those near you. For me, this is a period of deep reassessment – including my hopes for this blog. A journey, as I titled it, toward “authenticity”. I hope to see you again soon, and that in some way, for some one out there who happens upon my little thoughtful spot – you too, find and share hope. And, grace. Thank you to the “angels” who helped me get my vaccine – and were part of this lesson learned – I had to let go, to take hold – to have my hands open to receive, not reaching, only waiting. They probably will never see these words, and I probably would not know their faces again – but Alice, Bobby, Clarissa, Daniel, Winnie and all those healthcare workers reaching out around the world – you are my angels. See you soon, friends.

Free, for a limited time … after all, isn’t all time limited? Thanks for stopping by!

Look, up in the sky ….

Friends of a certain age would finish that phrase with “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its SUPERMAN!”  And I have lots of fond memories of those shows, movies, and stories, ranging from good old George Reeves (who my Dad denied resembling), up through the recent expanded “Justice League”.  I’d sure love to have super powers – flying, laser vision,  et al would come in handy for day to day life – but that is of course all fantasy.  But recently, I have been looking up in the sky a bit more, and have some thoughts on what I see there –  starting with our recent trip to Muir Woods, less than an hour north of us in San Francisco. 

I was surprised to learn that John Muir really had very little to do with Muir Woods, but rather the famous naturalist was honored with the naming on his behalf by President Theodore Roosevelt, at the insistence of the land donor, a William Kent.   It was the first national monument created entirely by a donation, and Kent wanted to honor Muir, a Scottish immigrant to California, for his leadership in natural preservation and environmental concerns before the phrase was coined, and a co-founder of the Sierra Club.   I had never visited these world famous “old growth” redwoods; for my birthday in 2020, we had planned a trip north but the park, and most of life, was shuttered days before our visit.  It seemed like a promise kept having the chance to at last drive up a year later, surviving all the tempests in between. 

I had of course heard of the majestic redwoods of the Northern Pacific, and how these trees are among the oldest forms of life on our planet, predating humans by millennia – averaging in age from 800 to 1200 years, but some living for 2000 or more.   My grandfather Richard, a descendant of Oregon pioneers from the first wagon train to settle there, was a virtual stranger to me – but among the items I have from him was a poster from the “Pacific Lumber Company” in 1945, titled, “The Redwoods parallel in history”.   The lumber company itself, based further north here in California, was started in 1863 to provide wood during the civil war; in 1945, they issued this poster showing the “San Francisco Peace Conference” as the top of the chain of historical events over its “lifetime”.    That conference, held in this city where I now live more than 75 years later, led to the United Nations charter. 

My husband had wisely made the reservations for parking and tickets early in the day, but there were many cars in the lot already – still, as we proceeded down the path, seeing these giants stretching like fingers from the earth into the sky surrounding us – we had moments of complete isolation, silent except for the song of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the breeze far above our heads.  This was especially true in the aptly named “Cathedral Grove” where visitors are urged to respect the silence in the oldest trees of the Park.  No architect could create more a more majestic tribute to creation than this natural temple which the earth provided without mankind.  Rather than stained glass windows, the sky overhead drew my attention to that which lies beyond. 

And that is the source of my title for this reflection, friends … look up in the sky … what do you see?  After a year in which many of us have felt torn between being beaten down by fears, disappointed by unmet hopes, and faced with crises of all kinds in our personal as well as shared lives – perhaps you, as I, have looked up and asked ourselves what is the meaning of all this.  As I have written before, my own history has been undeniably shaped and influenced by the teaching of the faith in which I was raised … a faith which, at times, has led to great pain, perhaps not as often as great hope and comfort.  Our world, filled with an unending variety of cultures and beliefs over the far lesser period of history than the redwoods have witnessed, has birthed many faiths – and by that term, I deliberately try to disassociate the desire to understand that which is beyond understanding from the structure of religious practice.   Some have lasted, evolved, and changed over hundreds of years – others, disappeared without much left to document their impact other than ancient writing, illustrations and practices.   At their best. the tenets of faith have brought peace, comfort, and hope;  but it is after all we humans who can take what we believe to be true and use it to oppress, crush, and control, as well. 

I am blessed with a wide variety of friends (I take them where I can find them, folks!).  I appreciate that they do not always share my perspective, history or understanding – really, more of a lack thereof – in matters of belief.  As I have grown old – surely, not as old as a these redwood sentries standing silently around me – but feeling the passage of time a little differently than a decade ago, I am realizing that letting go of a desire for certainty brings me a greater peace than insisting I have answers.  I certainly know and understand how the tendency of organized religion to excoriate “outsiders” – including those, like me, who do not conform to their concepts of wholeness, normalcy, or any other measures of acceptability – proclaiming the power of love, practicing the principles of hatred, exclusion and condemnation.  

I respect that people in my life that I love believe – or, as some might say, choose not to believe whatsoever – differently than I do.  We do not have to all be “right”, and I dare say none of us are.  Certainly, in the faiths that celebrate,  as in this season what Christians call “Easter”,  Jews celebrate “Passover”, and other faiths holy days –  there are vast differences in beliefs.  For those who hold these beliefs dear, many do not know, or seek to understand, why the history behind the evolution of those beliefs bring into question aspects of their practices which they would prefer to accept rather than open a Pandora’s chest of uncertainty.  I have always respected the line in “Inherit the wind” where a potential juror questioned by the agnostic defense attorney in a case regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools says “My wife tends to the religion for both of us”; the attorney replies with the question “In other words, you take care of this life, and your wife takes care of the next one?”   It is so much easier to not ask ourselves why we believe – just to somehow hold on, clinging onto the buoy we have found in an ocean of uncertainty, pretending we can keep our head above the crushing waters.  I have found that neither pretending certainty nor ignoring doubt gives me any kind of lasting peace.

Because this is a time of holy reflection for so many in our world – in different faiths – I offer you a personal observation from my own history.  More than half my lifetime ago, as I struggled with trying to find a way to conform to the expectations of others, and the teachings of my church and those who truly did love me, but like me, had a less than complete understanding – I took a trip to Israel with a noted scholar of both the Jewish Old Testament writing and faith, and the Christian New Testament history and traditions. It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable in many ways; it gave me a sense of the sweep of time and belief over centuries and cultures in the small corner of the globe that reverberates still today. We visited “both” traditional sites of Christ’s tomb – one, buried in an ancient Greek Orthodox structure, the other a Protestant site oddly positioned adjacent to a parking lot; and, many other sites of various sects and incidents throughout the history of that conflicted land.  Not surprisingly, both were empty (I had to go there).  We also visited the Holocaust memorial; and, farther from Jerusalem, the crumbled remains of a pagan temple with the signs of the zodiac in mosaic, and a crumbling yet still striking crusader castle from the struggle for control of the “Holy Lands” against Islam.  We were diverted from one area – Jacob’s well – because of safety issues relating to Palestinian acts of defiance nearby.  Centuries of faiths gaining and losing power, leaving relics behind, each one proclaiming its unique, undeniable right to control.  The devotion to those sites – and the bitterness between rivals – has not lessened over centuries. 

As I reflect on that visit now more than half my lifetime ago – and today, as I stare up the seemingly endless length of the towering trees surrounding me in this chapel of nature – I realize that there are many in this world, many of my friends even in my daily life, who have abandoned, discarded and in some cases would if it were within their power would eradicate the concept of faith in something beyond. They see only the destruction and pain that history records. The words that are holy and sacred to some, are for them the names used to curse and hold in contempt.  The practices and teachings, used as weapons to pronounce judgement are wounding for them; at times, they have wounded me, as well.  It is so hard for us to see the little acts of grace, the kindnesses between strangers, as acts of God, through the pain and despair that seems to pile up daily. I cannot tell my friends they are wrong, and I am right, that I continue to believe we are as much spirit as we are physical beings, or that there is a reality beyond that which is measurable, observable by “science”;  our knowledge on this earth is insufficient to capture all truth, and much of what we experience, we know alone, in a silent place in our deepest consciousness, where no one treads and where the light is often hard to find.  I am not a good example of a person of faith; I serve better as a disciple of worry, fear, and uncertainty – yet I still, somehow, believe in that greater source of power – of life – and yes, love.  That which is eternal, and unknowable – but is present, when I look up in awe at these trees, or see it in the beauty of a brief smile, or an emerging seedling, or a faded petal – or in the slumped body of another child of God on the streets around me.  It does not make sense – but perhaps faith lives apart from that which does.   I can only say that my sense of that love, that grace, that power – in whatever limited understanding of “truth” that my mind can encompass – carried me through.  Carries me, still.  Gives me a glimpse beyond, and some sense of peace, and hope. 

I have not been a regular attendant at church for many years; the hymns of my youth were old even then and are mostly not sung today. In fact, being an old man now, I admit I crankily abhor the dependence on other methods of “worship” and entertainment in church gatherings, and the ignorance and lies that are often spoken as truth to congregations of people who trust in their leaders to know better than listen to something deeper speaking to their souls. But I believe there is a value in the tradition of people of faith, as they understand it however imperfectly and incompletely, to gather in churches, mosques, synagogues; to break bread together; to mourn together, laugh together, and pray for one another.  These practices are the real love in action, where each heart In offering the small glimmer of light it struggles to keep burning inside gathers with others and creates a greater light, a common hope.  

In 1984, director/screenwriter Robert Benton created a film, more of a reflection of the lessons of his rural Texas depression upbringing than a memory, that touched on these elements – struggling, flawed, desperate individuals and families dealing with poverty, racism, unfaithfulness and grief – uncertain lives, abandoned and rejected individuals looking for a moment of hope, coming together.  I remember seeing it in Hollywood, and marveling at the depth of compassion shown by these otherwise unexceptional everyday people, just trying to get by, trying to make sense of a world that did not work, did not always show that love, or justice, or hope, prevails.  It features two hymns that I remember from my childhood in the Methodist church – “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning, before an act of violence ends two lives and sets in motion events affecting those who remain.  And, at the end, as a communion service closes the film in a small church where the choir sings “In the garden”, and the minister reads about love from Paul’s first letter to the tiny, outlying church of believers in a radical new faith in Corinth –  we realize suddenly that there are people in the service that weren’t there a moment before; that somehow, they are together even though they are not in that moment. The last two faces, passing the sacred elements to one another as the light fades, are those whose deaths began the film, joined together.  If you have not seen it recently, or before – it is worth a visit one quiet day. Here is that final sequence from Places in the Heart …  

Today we too are faced with the challenge of survival, and at times, it seems overwhelming. Threats surround us, bury us, choke our hope and our joy. It is so much easier to give up on facing the big questions in life.  We can’t really come up with answers as much as make peace with the uncertainty.  But in believing, as I do, that there is a greater source of love, perhaps our goal should be – at least, for those in our little circles of life, coming in and out seemingly randomly – to try to let that love come through us without putting up more barriers.  For Easter this year, Steve Hartman of CBS “On the Road” shared some reflections on faith – how it is shared in this time, how it survives, why it matters still, to many.

The sentries of time in Muir Woods have endured centuries on earth in a way that you and I will never know; staring up at them, knowing they have witnessed more sunrises and sunsets than I can count, leads me to reconsider my own perspective and priorities. As I look “up in the sky” at the vast expanse beyond these ancient witnesses of our world and hear the hymns that the birds sing to ears more able than my own to understand their joy – I truly sense the presence of that greater love that lies beyond daily perception.  I feel it as I hold my husband’s hand and begin another year of life; I believe that greater love brought us together, to what end, I may never know. I believe that same love is reaching out to each of us, even though we cannot see it or prove it or measure it or hold it.  I cannot say what you should look for as you raise your eyes – but I hope you will keep looking, and that in time, we shall all see what is hidden, and know what we have longed to understand.  One day, we all will know – perhaps, gathered together, in a tomorrow beyond anything we can imagine.  I hope to see you there, and smile, again.    

Two Strangers, Two Christmases

I’ve written more than once about how the power of storytelling, especially through film in my own case, can open our eyes to truths we somehow just didn’t see before.  Certainly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of sharing our own true life experiences – honestly, openly in the hopes that others might find encouragement as they pursue their own unique journeys. But, works of fiction, whether in literature, film or other art forms also can bring inspiration – and have done that for me many times in life.  As this will be posted in time for Christmas 2020 – a year without peer, I dare say – my thoughts drift towards two such tales that have very different origins, yet whose primary characters perhaps more in common than one might expect at first glance. 

Charles Dickens created many great works, but for many his most loved is “A Christmas Carol” first published in 1843.  In 2017, a lovely film (not of course entirely factual) gave some insight into how it was created – “The Man who Invented Christmas”, with Christopher Plummer as the Scrooge of Dicken’s creative process. Endless versions and variations have and will continue to be enjoyed long after this year;  the most vivid in my own memory was a one man performance by Patrick Stewart at Cal Tech decades ago complete with multiple characterizations, sound effects and a sense of energy and discovery that he brought to new life. (The full audio performance is available on iTunes, I believe).  

I will never forget seeing this incredible one man performance by Patrick Stewart!

In film, for me, 1970’s “Scrooge” which I first saw in the little Corona theater at age 12 is still a part of my annual celebrations. The musical starring Albert Finney was in many ways a triumph of casting, art, and song – yet it did not initially register with audiences who were more interested in the new cinema of MASH and five easy pieces than a dancing Ebenezer. 

 I bought the soundtrack LP long before VHS made home viewing possible – listening to the songs by Leslie Bricusse, including my personal favorite over the opening credits – a chorus of joy and encouragement.  

Look around about you and see what a world of wonder this world can be! 

It was probably a few years later, in my teens, when (thanks to a gift from my Dad and stepmother of a small black and white tv) that I began to see older films at home, after school.  The ABC affiliate had a 90 minute afternoon movie time slot at 330 – and one day I turned on a black and white film that was spread over two days.  Later, I would see it first “screened” in its entirety at college – then, eventually in theaters in California, and even one December matinee in London, for it’s 50thanniversary.  At first I was mystified why the audience there didn’t seem to love it as much – but, it is a distinctly “American” narrative, made by a director and star who had worked together previously, won Oscars, and both served in World War 2, one as a pilot, the other making films that still are highly regarded for their honest portrayal of that epic struggle.  When they returned home to eventual peacetime, the director wanted to finance his own production – based on a very short story the original author, Philip Van Doren Stern, had included in a 1943 Christmas card to friends – “The Greatest Gift”.  He expanded on the concept and pooled together some of the best talents in Hollywood, including his prior star actor, and built a small town for the location filming.   Perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t a big hit, from an independent production company; and in time, without the licensing and copyright being maintained, the film fell into “public domain”, like the chopped up airing I saw in the 70’s on that little tv.  That circumstance led in time to it being aired so many times, more people saw it, and came to love it – becoming the classic it is today. 

“It’s a Wonderful life” portrayed an America that endured through the Spanish Flu, depression, and World War 2, through the life of its protagonist, George Bailey, in the small town of Bedford Falls. In the years since then, I cannot say how many times, or with how many friends, I have “visited” the Bailey’s and that little town; last year, my husband and I enjoyed a live performance of the score with the film by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, which was unforgettable. 

The film “finale” as performed by the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus

 I’ve had the chance to meet Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu”, the little girl in the film; collected memorabilia (and given it away!), and decorated my tree and now our home with reminders of that story.  It is such a perfectly detailed story, of a time, a place, a family and a set of circumstances – challenges, failures, love, disappointment, loss and hope.  But, mostly to me, the message was – your life matters.  Even if you cannot achieve your dreams; even if you never become what you hoped, or others expected – you can make a difference in this world, one that is uniquely yours – one that is irreplaceable. In my lonely teens, escaping to a world where the promise of redemption was realized at Christmas was one way to hope for a better future. And there was one that I could not then see, but was waiting for me. 

In 2006, I gifted Karolyn Grimes (“Zuzu”) this British 50th anniversary poster!

Much has changed in my life in the now 50 years since I sat in that little local cinema for Scrooge; and the decades since I first watched George Bailey jump off a bridge to end his life on that little black and white screen.   Of course, both stories have happy endings – life doesn’t always offer those, or at least at times the possibility of happy endings seems very difficult to imagine.  Perhaps Christmas 2020 is one of those times for many more than usual, in a most unusual year, bleakness dimming the lights on our homes and in our hearts. 

So as our TV plays the familiar voice of Clarence, George, Mary (and, my special friend Bert the Cop) on Amazon Prime while write; and tomorrow, as I join my husband to again enjoy the dancing, singing cast of Scrooge (with Alec Guinness as Marley!), I have a lot of feelings come up.  If you’ve read anything I have blogged about this year, you KNOW I share my feelings – because I hope that reaches others, and does some good, perhaps – a little George Bailey in me trying to get out.  And I realize – Old Ebenezer and George have a lot in common. 

For my bunny lover friends (and I know at least one!) – here is a special treat!

History – not just fiction – tells us that most cultures have representatives of that part of life which we cannot understand, whether we consider it the afterlife, some representative of eternity, or other spiritual beings that exist outside our ability to measure, but – somehow, we sense, or want to sense, their existence.   Perhaps as some suggest this is just our desire to understand what is beyond our comprehension; for others, these beliefs become deeper truths, very personal truths.  Centuries of faiths with various representatives of such spirits have uncounted stories which most of us will never read or otherwise enter our thinking.  The 3 spirits of Christmas that visit Ebenezer, and the angel hoping to “earn his wings” that answers the prayers reaching heaven as George considers ending his life in despair, are such beings.  Outside forces that enter the lives of two very different men, both on Christmas eve, in very different times and places. 

If you ever wanted to visit “Bedford Falls” – here is one option …… I hope to one day!

Ebenezer, of course, was a selfish, bitter man, hated by many;  Dickens suggests that the spirits visit him because Marley hopes that will save his only friend in life from a similar, doomed fate.  George, a beloved husband, father and citizen who, through his character as much as through his deeds, touched the lives of so many in his small town, had reached a place of hopelessness; through an act of selfishness by Mr. Potter, a “modern day” Ebenezer of post war America, he stumbles onto a bridge hoping to end the life he sees as wasted as the only way to escape his own, undeserved fate.  The spirits help Scrooge, and Clarence helps George, see his life (and the lives of others around them) from a new perspective – and to realize that they want to embrace life anew.    

Many of us know what despair feels like.  Right now, many of our friends and family may be suffering through it, perhaps not with our awareness; trying to find hope.  In other posts, I have talked about some of those periods in my life; thinking back about those who helped me, who either reached out in love or responded to my own seeking of a new way to move ahead, they were the “spirits” helping me to see there was a promise of a better life, perhaps not obvious or easy, but possible.  I remember a counselor sharing with me about the concept of “liminality” – not something I am qualified to explain, but I feel applies in some way to the experience of both our Christmas Eve characters, and perhaps you and I as well. 

The ending you always wanted to see, but Frank Capra left out!

If you look online, where of course there are MANY interpretations of just about any philosophical concept, you can explore perspectives (here is one) on liminality.  I recall that from a purely anthropological sense, the “liminal” state is that “in between” – the middle stage of a “rite of passage”, or a period of growth and becoming.   In religious traditions, similar concepts exist – a stage from separation, between beginnings and the future.  For our two (eventual) heroes, Eb and George – Christmas Eve became a liminal space, in a way – a place between what was, and what could be.  Where spirits could speak to them, and minds, hearts and souls could be open to new understanding.  

I wish I was learned enough, and literate enough, to bring home some insight, awareness to share from these musings with you; all I find I am able to do is to open the door, or perhaps a small window.  To say – or ask – what are the lessons that I learn, that you can learn (or share with someone you love who needs that more than ever at this very instant) – to be open to this moment, now.  To know there is a possible waiting for discovery; a Christmas morn where the presents are not wrapped in paper, but in a renewed spirit that awakens and cries, just like a child at birth, and embraces the future, in faith.  These are OUR unexpected turning points.

To my “Angels” and guiding spirits – THANK YOU for lifting my heart!!

For now, I can only, as always, share what little I have to offer – the thought comes, “to play my drum” for you, perhaps, on this Christmas.  To remember the words of fictional characters that still represent real truths – from George Bailey, his prayer of despair – 

Answers to prayer may not come in the form we expect ……

And from Tiny Tim – not at the triumphant end of the tale, but during the “Christmas Present” where his family struggles with little food, and he is living what the Spirit shows Scrooge is his final Christmas – despite all their travails, faith –

By the immortal Norman Rockwell

Wherever you are today – know, there is hope.  For you – and for you to share.  Until next time – Merry Christmas, and wishes that the New Year brings new joys, discoveries – and renewal, for us all. 

Christmas 2019 – SF Symphony Hall – God Bless us, Everyone!
Thank YOU for reading my blog, as I finish 2020 – see you NEXT YEAR!!!

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No thanks – but thanks – in 2020

Yes, it’s been nearly half a month since Thanksgiving, I know! Why am I so “late” in writing?  Well, I prefer to think that I needed to get to the right place and time to express something worth offering to you – and, perhaps, to discover for myself.  As I go through my reflective/creative process for sharing here, which (like me) is evolving, I often achieve some realizations, awareness, about the issues that are “troubling the waters” of my soul.  There seems to be more troubling of the water, these days.  Some of my friends might be surprised at how much I struggle, daily, and have for many years, with inner conflicts, doubts, depression and uncertainty.  Whether online – here, Facebook – or in person (or zoom!), it’s not that the words I share, or the photos, are not from my heart – they are deeply sincere – but my day to day existence does not always match my aspirations.  

But I have been thinking about thankfulness, gratitude, where it fits in my life – how easy it is to set aside or pretend and just go through the motions.   In reality, choosing to be and express thankfulness is HARD WORK! But also, a very powerful, even life changing force. At last, for now, here are my own small reconsiderations, and reflections on that subject. Or, as an alternate title – “A heaping plate of regrets and a side of disappointment does not make for a pleasant dinner”.

This is not the Thanksgiving you want to have … but it would be memorable!

Even though I am sure anyone reading this has enough weighing on their hearts and is not seeking to focus on my challenges, I am convinced anything I have of value to share are the lessons for which I paid dearly, whether in blood, sweat or tears – that our mistakes offer more room for growth to lead to hopefully our triumphs.  And I know others are like me – struggling to focus on having a positive attitude, expectations and hopes after so many months of, well, everything.  But in that struggle, somehow, the beacon of grabbing onto gratitude in the midst of disappointment still calls out to me. 

I wonder, in my early morning sleep deprived ruminations, what role does the giving of thanks play in our lives today?  What meaning does it have?  If we do not personally believe in what is generically termed a “higher power”, however we frame or conceptualize that – does giving thanks and prayer have any substantive value in our lives?  Are we just begging for help out of desperation, hoping there is someone, something “out there” that will “deliver us from evil”,  eliminate COVID, wipe out our political enemies who so clearly wrong about whatever we are what so clearly right on, and bring back everything we loved about our lives while somehow vanishing the problematic social, economic and other nasty realities we just want to exclude from our awareness?  Or do we just want our “old lives” back – and in the case of far too many, the lives of our loved ones taken from us, struggling to reconcile our grief with our faith. 

Oh, sure, I can put on the “attitude of gratitude” for a while, to fool myself, or maybe appear to for others. It is so very, very easy to mouth the platitudes that I was taught from an early age, whether they be prayers, or songs, or sayings – being thankful for family, food, shelter.  I am very aware that in the larger reality of population I am among the most fortunate of humans, in terms of basic needs, care, and more.  But just saying words is not enough – it is not from the heart.  Perhaps anger and frustration from the heart are more powerful, more real than the practiced pleasant statements that we feel we are expected to include in our traditional gatherings.  Soaking our hearts daily in anger and frustration is like a poison that seeps into every aspect of life.   Our hearts began to be choked into silence by the thorns of despair. 

I have felt like this too much lately … but as I am discovering, there is another way.

So if I was to describe my Thanksgiving – we (my husband and I, and our two cats) followed our local guidelines, and spent the day without in person contact with family or friends, with a low key meal (we are not the chefs that some of our friends exemplify), zooming instead, and enjoying some entertainment.  In many ways, it was a lovely day.  But underneath the traditions, I am dealing with the same frustrations, anger, fears and uncertainties that swirl around us all, daily.   And in that, in the quiet moments when my heart puts all the chaos briefly on pause, somehow, the thought of gratitude keeps bubbling up, saying – “remember me”.  

And I have been trying to do just that.  To remember what it is like to be truly grateful; to think about what that means, when there is so much going on that seems to be coming from someone else’s nightmare, day after day after day.  I try to turn off the news but find myself obsessively checking websites for the latest edict, the latest data, and the latest projections of doom and death.   I juggle that with planning when to go to the store, when to manage our limited time outside the house, and, oh yes, Christmas!  Because I am not going to lose Christmas, dammit! (Try to picture me saying that with a smile, at least in part!) 

2020 has been the year of unwanted presents – but also unexpected gifts

Yet I sense that the way ahead – whether it is “through”, or “out of”, this current state of frustration is not changing the situation – not getting the reality I want – but accepting, embracing the reality I have.  It’s sort of like reaching for something but you can’t because you are too burdened with what you are throttling, trying to choke the life out of, or dragging along with you – you haven’t released it.  If this sounds similar to an entry a few months ago – you are probably right.  I may be circling the same water because I never stopped to taste it.  

I was raised in the traditional Christian church of the 60’s. I didn’t stay in it; I questioned what I was taught versus what I could see in people’s lives; I couldn’t conform to what I felt was expected of me. I don’t have a background in world religions, but I sense that whatever truths about human nature, the way we are built, the way we learn and grow, are central to many faiths.  After all, in many ways, we are a single race, mixed in innumerous cultures and subcultures, families, neighborhoods, classes.  But all of us, in some way, are trying to reach for something we sense but cannot name.   The answers may be unknowable, for us, today.  But the broader truth may be that we must embrace what we have now, make peace with it, yes, even love it and give thanks for it, to be free to move on. 

It’s as though we are trapped in a room and cannot see the door because we are so desperately trying to break through the walls. Think of yourself as a battery – you have energy stored in you; it goes away; but it can also be replenished.  That energy has a focus, where you are centralizing your attention.  If it is on all the things you are frustrated with, it goes into that and produces – probably next to nothing, other than perhaps more frustration for you and those in your life.  Acknowledging our inability to change something is not what my culture taught me. 

Yet, however contradictory it may seem, I sense that it is in a deeper, daily acceptance of our current reality – through giving thanks, gratitude, whatever you want to call it (and to whomever or whatever you wish to express it) – which allows us to eventually be freed from the expectations, demands, fantasies and dreams that we cannot achieve. They have been so deeply woven into our focus, priorities and purpose that they become a cocoon, eve a prison perhaps.  Focusing on our disappointment prevents us from seeing that the path we wanted to take is not the path before us.   We have fixated on the walls of our cell that we want to escape so firmly that we are blind to the doorways which were there all along. 

If the way ahead is not apparent, we must be open to the unexpected and undiscovered

To put it another way – Accepting, truly and completely making peace with the reality we would like to change (and our expectation that we cannot be otherwise whole) allows us to see choices we that were once invisible.  We cannot fully see the possible while we cling to the wished for or expected.  Creating an equilibrium of peace in our current state opens our eyes, and hearts, to new possibilities. 

I am sure those familiar with the history of philosophy can identify the origins of just about any perspective we might take today – I don’t pretend to know those facts.  I just am trying to listen to my heart, and to something outside of myself speaking to me there.  Surely many are familiar with the 12 step programs, initially formalized with AA, and the Serenity prayer in all it’s iterations – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.   I have learned that we do not always share the same challenges, or purpose, or destiny, or understanding – and we cannot let someone else tell us what ours must be.  We have to find our own way, as individuals, and yet – together.  But we are all facing a lot of what we cannot change today, and we all need serenity, equilibrium – stilling the waters of our souls. 

If you google “gratitude quotes” you’ll find an endless listing of helpful websites.  Two rang true with me today, as I work to bring these thoughts to a close.  First, Charles Dickens, whose own life was far from problem free (here is an excellent profile), but whose words still bring hope to readers around the globe in so many cultures – 

And, author Melody Beattie, whose work is not familiar to me but who has written on addiction related issues and provided helpful insights to many – there is no “one size fits all”, of course – 

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie (follow this link for more) on gratitude
In the process of trying to understand what I cannot know … I discover, anew

Thanks for sitting with me for a while, and for reading my little thoughts.  I hope something here may ring true for you – give you some “food for thought” as a post-Thanksgiving feast for the soul (well, maybe a snack, then).  As challenging as times are, the process of focusing on gratitude gives me hope – and that’s something we all need to find, and share, everyday more than ever.  

Until next time – be safe, and find hope – for yourself, and to share. It’s out there!

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An attorney asks a question

This week, in the events happening in Portland Oregon, among others – a man was brutally beaten senseless in the street; his head viciously kicked after he lay helpless, some cheering, followed by others trying to help. A suspect is arrested, blame is being placed – but it won’t be the last.  Perhaps we have reached a place where this is not as newsworthy as other stories – certainly, there is a lot of chaos poured into our eyes and ears daily, along with promises and blame and threats.  It seems to never end. 

That news footage brought to my memory a story, initially from my childhood, and later … much later .. arising from other events in my life. Perhaps you know it, or at least the major elements of it, from Sunday school lessons about “how to be good”.  It has more meaning to it than usually is shared, lost simply because the historical context is less familiar to us.  It’s always interested me, and so .. let us revisit that possibly familiar tale.  You may recognize it, but I suggest there are some aspects that a little more background can add to its meaning. 

First, though … a memory from my own past whose connection will become apparent later. In 1984, early in my quest to somehow find freedom from my “personal defects” according to church teachings, I took a trip to Israel – not just a routine trip, but an archeological study tour. Here are two pics from that trip – the first, a very young and thin me at the Sea of Galilee; and, a shot of me with the trip leader, on the “dig” at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv, where I did actually uncover the small jug you see (no, I did not get to keep it, it was centuries old, and intact!) I will admit, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I was praying to uncover that relic, but did not. 

The Sea of Galilee at Dawn, and, Tel Qasile (with my California Bean Growers Assn. hat!)

It was a wonderful trip – and it included stops at sites associated with all aspects of the region’s history, not just Christian.  Among them, what is known as “Jacob’s well” in Samaria, where according to New Testament writings in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to the “woman at the well”, promising her that if she knew to whom she was speaking, she would ask for and receive from him “living water”, “welling up to eternal life”.   We did not stay long – this was the early 80’s, and there was what was described as “rock attacks” in the area.  But we did make another stop, because the children of that area, due to inbreeding, were known for their susceptibility to genetic defects, and the tour organizer would always stop along the way to greet them. 

A photo of “Jacob’s Well”G about 100 years ago

The tale that comes to mind originates in this region. As in most faith traditions, there are people who like to point to their own “good housekeeping seal of approval” – they follow the rules, they “do the right thing”, and are generally pretty pleased with themselves.  Another common feature in many faith traditions is pointing to compliance with specific rules, policies, traditions and doing one’s utmost to always be strictly obedient.  In this story, one described as a “lawyer” – an educated man, familiar with religious laws, intellectual and respected in the community – asked a spiritual teacher what he could do to be guaranteed entry into eternal life.  The teacher responded not with an answer, but a question – what does the law say?  After the lawyer faithfully quoted scripture – to love God with all your heart, soul and strength – and your neighbor as yourself. The teacher acknowledged that the lawyer was correct – but the lawyer, perhaps not unlike some we know today centuries later, wanted to be sure he knew all the angles. And so, he asked again – who is my neighbor? 

The teacher responded not with an answer, but with a story.  A man, on a specific road that those from the area knew well – a steep, treacherous, winding road in the wilderness, where dangers were known to be common – fell victim to those laying in wait, who robbed, stripped and beat him, and left him for dead.  That passage is still in use today – in fact, in his “Mountaintop” speech the day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described travelling down that very road – knowing it’s relevance to church teachings – and seeing how dangerous it was still, centuries later. 

It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing….. That’s a dangerous road”.

Martin Luther King Jr.

As the story continues, there is a sign of hope!  A priest is coming and surely sees the beaten body by the side of the road – broken – abandoned – helpless.  But no … the priest crosses to the other side – seeing, but avoiding, perhaps thinking he is dead but – not getting close enough to see if maybe, he might have survived.  Sometime later – another respected, public man of faith, one especially trained in the details of its intricate laws and traditions, so much so that his judgment was sought in matters of “right” and “wrong” – approaches … but he, too, crosses to the other side of the road, moving along his way – the body again, alone.  But, a 3rd passerby stops, sees the body, and chooses to help – described only as the Samaritan.

Now you probably recognize this as the story of the “good Samaritan”.   The teacher, Jesus, or in the original Hebrew more properly Yeshua or Joshua, was an itinerant preacher whose growing crowds and reputation for miracles was growing, becoming a threat to established practice, and a symbol of resistance to his people, occupied by the invading Roman forces.  He (or more properly, Luke) never described the Samaritan as “good”, only by his tribe.  Because – the idea of a Samaritan being of good character was completely alien to his audience.  You see, Samaritans were viewed as “outsiders” by traditional Jewish culture – a rebellious sect who had abandoned the revered practices of their ancestral faith, who had attacked the symbols and were ridiculed and treated as dirt by the majority population of that region.  Samaritans were, for many, the lowest of the low – worthless.  Without value. 

What the road between Jerusalem and Jericho looks like in this century.

Samaritans, like the “woman at the well”, were descendants of ancient Hebrews who had not been taken into captivity during an earlier occupation, who in time developed different sacred beliefs.  There are minimal other references to Samaritans in the Christian New Testament we know; in another Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only one came back to give thanks – the Samaritan. With both examples, Jesus – a Jew – was interacting with someone who, according to Jewish traditions, was to be avoided at all costs, unholy, unworthy.  He defied expectation. 

As Jesus finishes his parable, despite their ancestral traditions of mutual hatred – it was this man, who bandaged his wounds; carried him on his own beast to an inn, and paid for his care, until he returned again to pay the remainder owed.  We do not know what the wounded traveler learned of his rescue; or if he ever met his benefactor.  In finishing his example, Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” – instead, responding only with a question in return. 

Who was a neighbor to the man lying on that wilderness road,

left for dead, beaten and alone? 

For a Jewish teacher to suggest that a Samaritan – members of two very different yet related tribes and traditions – would respond to the need when the victims more direct brethren ignored it, for reasons unspoken and unknown – was a radical challenge to the questioner for self-examination.  Would he have responded to the need of someone who not only had he been taught, all of his life, to hate – and, by all expectations, would have hated him as well? Could he had even known that this man lying in the road was a member of that larger group who treated his people as dirt – was it obvious somehow from his appearance, his dress, his skin, his features? We do not know.  It is, after all, a parable – an allegory.  

Yet, the seed within the story is one of hope – that individuals can choose to set aside what they have been taught; how they have been treated; to show mercy and love, instead of shutting doors, and leaving those in need, behind.  That choice is present for us, today.  Perhaps it is needed most for us to offer to the people that we would ordinarily despise, reject, condemn, “cancel” and write out of our lives – for their sakes, and for ours as well.

I have not always been a good neighbor; I don’t have the purest of hearts nor do I do all that I can to help those in need around me.  Few of us make the choice to fully commit to a life of service, such as Mother Theresa. I certainly don’t expect anyone to consider me a saint or even a good example of tolerance.  But that Samaritan, defying his culture and the expectations of those around him, gives us all a reminder to ask ourselves – how can we, even in just a little way, be part of the answer to the needs of those discard broken, rejected and alone?  Are we embracing hate, labeling, casting aside “others” – for whatever reasons we consider perfectly justifiable in our own reasoning – instead of simply, reaching out? Especially in these times – where daily we see chaos, if not in our neighborhood, on our screens – and need, if not in our homes, well within our ability to impact, somehow.  

We don’t know, fully, what the attorney who asked how to be guaranteed eternal life interpreted the story.  Luke, in his account, merely gives his response to Jesus’ question – who was the neighbor – as “The one who showed him mercy”.   Did his life change after that encounter?  Perhaps what we should ask ourselves is – does ours need to?  Whether you believe in a divine force in whatever form – I think it is worth considering.  But, I will leave the final word, to the final words attributed to Jesus in the account.   

“Go and do likewise”. 

“The Quality of Mercy is not strained” – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

Note -Today, the small Samaritan community still survives and is more open to learning how to use science to reduce the risk of genetic defects in future generations. I found an interesting entry about the genealogical and DNA factors for this small group, here – 

https://blog.23andme.com/ancestry-reports/more-than-just-a-parable-the-genetic-history-of-the-samaritans/

Beyond measure

On Tv this week, we saw a 60’s engineer use a slide rule, and I wondered how many viewers might not have any idea what it was. I never learned to use one myself – but I sure remember how expensive those Texas instrument calculators were before they became more commonplace in the 70s. So much of life seems to be about measurement – starting with learning our numbers in elementary school, or maybe standing in the hallway or garage to have our growth commemorated and celebrated. 

I loved storytelling and the library from my earliest years, and music  – and eventually the old musicals on TV, like Danny Kaye in “ Hans Christian Anderson”. The great Frank Loesser wrote several original songs for that picture, all lovely – but today, the one still performed by artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Muppets,  and John Coltrane. Apparently, unlike “The Ugly Duckling” or “Thumbelina”,  “Inchworm” was not derived from one of Hans’ stories, but it resonates for many through the contrast of school children sadly singing “two and two are four, four and four are eight” while Danny Kaye sings his suggestion the inchworm stop measuring the marigolds, and consider instead their beauty. 

Danny Kaye, “Inch Worm” by Frank Loesser, from “Hans Christian Anderson”

Of course measuring is very important to life – my career was based on it. I chose accounting as a career path, learning to categorize, measure, trend and forecast – almost like a psychic with a calculator instead of a crystal ball. Two of the greatest 20th century minds of business management both emphasized the critical nature of measurement to success. W. Edwards Deming used statistics to reinvigorate production models- but also acknowledged the limits of measurement. 

W. Edwards Deming, a 20th century measurement and statistical manager pioneer

I had the wonderful opportunity to study under another great mind of management theory – Peter Drucker, famous for declaring “what gets measured gets managed”. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and was known for his ability to accurately read trends and their implications. But I vividly recall his words that his secret was simple – he simply would look out at what was happening in the world around him as it passed by, and consider the implications. His principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business. In fact, at one of his annual Claremont graduate university alumni events, evangelist Rick Warren, author of the bestselling “Purpose driven life” paid tribute to Peter as a mentor and friend whose teachings helped him in his own ministry. Drucker’s principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business.

Often we seek to treat everything as reducible to a numeric value – our grades, our weight and blood pressure, our income and budget.  But we also measure, compare and in other ways – “measuring up”, “fitting in”,  conformity, meeting expectations of our social circles, our parents, and even using our children as somehow indicative of our comparative value.  Yet every milestone we have achieved eventually leads not to a place of rest, but a quest for the next goal.  It can become a constant cycle of trying to prove our worth – that we “made it”. But what is – “it”? 

It’s interesting to me that my writings occasionally lead to comments from friends that there are elements of Buddhist perspective in my writing. I am unfamiliar with  Eastern or Buddhist traditions or thinking; my child and early adult religious traditions varied from standard denominational Christianity to evangelical, and beyond. But for me, and many others, unfortunately the emphasis in those lessons and standards was heavily weighted towards measurement, striving, achieving, conforming. I have come to believe and accept that striving to be something we are not yet needs to be balanced with accepting and sharing honestly who we are right now. And, a hand in hand – learning to offer that same acceptance to others. 

Our desire to measure ourselves against one another can lead to more than just faulty reporting. This week, in a zoom meeting of a few dozen LGBT individuals trying to work together towards meeting needs in our community, we were abruptly and viciously “bombed” by intruders.  Loud music, shouted curses, ugly expletives and hateful labeling made speech for a moment impossible. It was shocking. But what struck most deeply was the power of 3 words – an old and deep lie – God hates faggots. The stain remained after they were disconnected. It remains in their hearts.

I don’t consider God to be a four letter word.  But I know and respect that many – including myself – have been scarred, abused and rejected by those who claim to speak in the name of what they consider to be the ultimate authority, by whatever name they think of it. Yet I feel sad for anyone, for all of us, who have put any hope of a loving creative force aside in a box and labeled it as poison, or something destructive to be not embraced but avoided. In our pain, anger, or fear – we limit the ability of a greater spirit to what we have experienced and seen, closing it off from our hearts, or like the voices of hate on that zoom call, using a twisted version of it to tear down those different from ourselves.  Their limited vision is not the truth. Simply put – their God is too small. Do we, with our desire to measure, to limit, to contain and define and control – do the same?

Humanity and societies across our globe throughout centuries have looked beyond what we “know” for a framework to understand that which is perhaps unknowable – the truths outside of our intellects, that we sometimes sense in a way words cannot express and numbers cannot define. Might it be true that that which is eternal is beyond measure in the senses which our culture and society have hammered into our ways of thinking? That the forces we cannot see or understand are inherently bigger than any box or structure, paradigms or writings might try to reduce it to? Could it be that someone in BCE 400 might experience that eternal Power in a way different than someone on the other side of the globe in CE 1200, or than you do where you are in 2020, and how I do today? Is it that hard to stop trying to put God in a box where we control Him/Her/Them, and instead – just try to listen? It’s hard to hear much when you’re doing all the talking. 

Perhaps what we consider to be irrational is based in a different kind of knowledge – not scientific is the traditional sense, but an understanding that cultures and generations have reached towards without ever truly fully grasping – because it is beyond our ability to encompass with our intellects, beyond being able to capture it in words or images.  In my youth choir and years of seeking my own sense of peace for the questions that have both limited and freed me, my traditions have included many of the old hymns that were common more than a century ago.  One such hymn was written by a Frederick M. Lehman, who as I discovered as I  researched for this article, was surprisingly born in the same small region in Germany where my great great grandfather William Granzow emigrated from in the 19th century – Mecklinburg, Schwerin. That hymn, “The love of God”, is most famous for its final, third stanza. By his own account, more than 100 years ago Lehman heard an evangelist quote those words, as found on the walls of an asylum cell.  To me, this simple analogy captures the futility of measuring, and the immense beauty of that unknown infinite –  

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.

Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God”

Interestingly, other background articles on this verse show striking similarities to Hebrew sacred texts dating back to the 11thcentury, and also to a passage in the Quran dating to the 7th century. Perhaps beyond the limits of our precepts there are commonalities in the yearnings of our souls. 

https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/the-love-of-god-is-greater-far/

https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/the-love-of-god-is-greater-far/

Whoever wrote these words, and however they knew them, scrawled on the walls of an asylum, found meaning, and hope from them. For all, our quest to make sense of life – in essence, to obtain what may be only an illusion of control through knowledge – we inevitably reach a juncture where answers fail but questions remain. One of my favorite obscure films is “They might be giants” with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward from 1971.   Scott is a brilliant judge who has retreated after his wife’s death into seeing himself as Sherlock Holmes; his therapist is, perhaps coincidentally, a Dr. Emily Watson. “They might be giants” of course refers to Don Quixote, fighting his windmills who he sees as threats in a quest to become the hero. Holmes tells Watson that only by looking at the things we think we “know” and considering the possibility that they might be something else, do we find the opportunity for new discoveries, new truths. Watson tries to “cure” him as they seek Moriarty in 70’s NYC, featuring an exquisite score by John Barry.  

Photos and John Barry soundtrack theme from 1971’s “They Might Be Giants”

Do they defeat Moriarty, or does he even exist? The film in some ways asks the same questions we all face – or avoid facing. The final words on the screen always struck me as simple, yet profound-

The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.

“They might be giants” screenwriter William Goldman, who also wrote “The Lion in Winter”, “Robin and Marion” and “Nicholas and Alexandra”
Joanne Woodward as Watson and George C. Scott as “Holmes” in They Might be Giants

There are elements in all our lives that may defy measurement or understanding,  yet have for more significance than all the seemingly pressing demands that scream for our attention.  I’ve reached a place where questions without answers are ok. Where measuring still plagues me at times, but is balanced with an awareness that a greater love reaches out to me, and all of us, not limited by the words that demand more from us, but instead offer grace  to us.  This passing era – when all we have taken for granted seems uncertain, when there are no answers – brings a hidden gift.  For a moment – we can choose to pause, cease seeking to know – and to listen.  Not perhaps for answers – but for new questions.  And like the inchworm, to stop measuring, and see the beauty that shimmers around us,  in awe – listening, silently.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not – you can enjoy this film on YouTube – for now.

Tattered pages, echoes of faith

Robert Titus Pence and Elizabeth Conger … their names written in faded ink on a colorful page, along with their children.  Nearly 175 years have passed since they wed in 1847 – but it still speaks.  I hear the whispers as I carefully explore the pages, images, and scraps inserted by those long gone. 

Robert’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Bentz, changed his name to Henry Pence when he emigrated to the colonies in 1749, arriving in Philadelphia with his family at age 9 – hard to imagine a journey like that for a little boy.  Henry married at age 25 and had at least 16 children, raising them in the colony of Virginia, including Robert’s father, “Judge” John Pence. Born there is 1774, John really was a judge, and eventually settled in Oquawka, IL on the western border, married 3 times and fathered 16 children as well.  Just think of how many grandchildren Henry must have had! Robert was born in 1817.  After his first wife and infant daughter passed, Robert married Elizabeth Conger in June 0f 1847, and raised their family of 11 children in Oquawka. 

“RT Pence 1876” is written on an otherwise blank front page of the leather bound bible, making it nearly 150 years old.  It is huge and heavy, worn – perhaps from use, but probably mostly from age.  It is difficult to imagine someone reading this by candlelight, carrying it across the continent over generations. The “family record” page is in color, and legible – but the binding is collapsed, pages missing and torn.    Like many of the items that have found their way to my files, library and stacks of paper – it is irreplaceable.  A reminder of people mostly forgotten except through a few preserved stories and photos with forgotten faces.  They speak to me through these once lost treasures – and their unspoken testimony. 

After their first child, son Harry, was born, Robert captained a wagon train to Hangtown, California, during the gold rush – now, Placerville.  The account of that journey was shared with the readers of the Oquawka “Spectator”, departing in March 1850 and arriving in July.  I had always thought that was how his family came to be here in California, spreading west – but I was wrong.  He returned home, safely but not richer, and remained for nearly 20 more years – their last child, my great grandfather Arthur Sherman Pence, was born there in 1847.  In 1870, Robert and family lived in Kansas, but eventually he bought ranch property in Parkfield, California. 

I have always thought it providential that so many pieces of my family history have somehow found their way into the stacks of paper I now sort through, gaining and understanding of how challenging it was for my ancestors to come from other continents here, hoping for a brighter future.  It was not easy for any of them, from Germany, Portugal, Scotland and Britain, nor from the family members they married from Spain, Mexico, and other areas of Europe – building new lives, surviving, sacrificing and struggling.  Their lives are woven through time into a tapestry whose colors I am just beginning to see – a living legacy across the west and beyond. 

The Sutro library here in San Francisco has a copy of a book written by another son of Robert’s, Kingsley Adolphus Pence – who, although married, died childless, but lived a fascinating life.  Like me, he developed an interest in writing about his family heritage, and published his book in 1912, now available online as well as in many genealogical libraries, including many photos and anecdotes.  Another distant relative, Richard “Dick” Pence, was a pioneer as well, an early advocate of computer based genealogy. He maintained a website about the extended Pence family which I found online, and corresponded with before he passed in 2009.  He provided me with the transcription of my great great grandfather’s journey west.  It is intriguing to me that two generations at least before me were drawn to understanding their family’s past. 

As I turn through the pages of the Bible, I realize I am probably the first in decades to do so.  How it came into my Uncle Morley’s hands I am not certain, but I am grateful to have it now.  There is a letter from Robert Titus written from Parkfield in 1886 – mostly illegible, to one of his sons. I know that my great grandfather, Robert and Elizabeth’s youngest child Richard, eventually worked for the railroad in California and Oregon, where he met his wife Nellie, one of the pioneer Applegate family.  As was the case with many families, unlike his parents, they had only one child – my grandfather, whose two children were my uncle and Mother.  There are letters from Arthur to his brother, thankfully typed – and from them I learn that he needed his brother to provide a notarized statement of the Bible as proof of Arthur’s birthdate and citizenship.  This would make him eligible for the Railroad Retirement act of 1934, in the depths of the depression – he had remarried and was reaching out for help, and the Bible record of his birth gave him the proof he needed to receive it. 

There are also clues to the heritage of Richard Titus Pence wife, Elizabeth Conger, who was little more than a name to me. I find inserted among the pages a copy of the Oquawka Spectator from August, 1902 … describing her passing and burial.  There are also two handwritten brochures from her brother, an O. T. Conger, who is mentioned in the newspaper. One appears to be a treatise on “Foreign Missions” that he presented in Lincoln, Omaha, Malvern and New Albany on occasions ranging from 1874 to 1885; another, in very tiny detailed script, is titled “A quiver of arrows” and includes thoughts and stories – apparently a reference for him in developing sermons, as a little digging shows him to have been a respected Baptist minister.  I find online his obituary showing he left behind a widow and 3 children – I hope one day to find a descendant who would see these as treasures to preserve of their own heritage. 

But it is the remembrance article from 1902 that tells me the most about Elizabeth, her family, and the impact of faith on at least some of her children.  Robert had passed in 1889 and she spent her final years with a daughter’s family in Colorado; at the time of her passing, five sons remained alive, and one, Robert Lincoln Pence, accompanied his mother’s body back by train from Colorado to Illinois, to be buried where her husband family had been laid to rest at Rozetta cemetery.  As I read the words, the depth of feeling is conveyed in a way that still holds power over 100 years later ..

“And now, in the old grave yard, where are laid her father and mother, where he sisters are laid, where he husband and our father, where her daughters and our sisters are sleeping, in the presence of old associates, the casket, borne by the arms of old friends, is our mother laid. Perhaps we, her sons, may never be permitted to see the graves of those near to us again, but in this old haven of rest, the old burial ground at Rozetta, it seems meet to leave her”.  

Oquawka Spectator notice of passing of Elizabeth Conger Pence, August 1902
Memorial Card for Robert Titus Pence, in my grandfather’s papers

I do not know fully the history of how my ancestor’s viewed faith – many families then, and some now, simply had bibles given to them. So, it is impossible to know what meaning faith had to these souls long gone; whether the Bible was simply a volume to record births, or a source of hope and encouragement.  For now, it is time to put it away again, until such time comes as another follows after my quest ends. It and other documents of faith for families over centuries has served many different purposes, and for many today they are of lesser relevance – but the impact of faith itself on their voyages, their quest, reaches into our own even if only buried deep in our DNA.  Whatever answers they sought, and found, are not unlike those that many of us have today, in very different times. They too, perhaps even more so, faced an uncertain future, with hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles. The faith of our fathers and mothers may be one we do not share, or even know – but its seeds brought forth our own lives as well. I find comfort in these letters, and these tattered pages, knowing that as they sought strength and guidance to make their way through the challenge of an emerging world, so shall I.  So shall, hopefully, we all.  

Walking in the darkness

Being trained as an accountant had many, many advantages. For one, it kept me employed, and I am grateful for that. I was drawn math from an early age in school, because I wanted to be able to “get the right answer” – in class, on papers, for grades … and then, in life. Being “right” was just SOOOO important, I am sure I tried the patience of many people over my life with that so called “need”. A lonely child, I didn’t have many close friends in school – so I got some sense of worth by getting grades.

However, life is not a math problem you can solve. Insisting on being “right” didn’t lead me to the life I wanted in my heart. The older I get, the more I begin to see that wisdom is not having knowledge, not having answers, not knowing what is right – but wisdom is rather knowing, even celebrating, that you cannot have the answers all the time. Then, finding a way to live without them, or at least all of them. And in that fundamental ignorance, that powerlessness to know absolutely – to not be able to be “right” – to find contentment. To be at peace with the limitations of your ability to understand.

This week, nearly a month into “shelter in place”, many around the world find they cannot hold their traditional commemorations of traditions of faith together – in particular, Passover and Easter. As a child, I have many memories of Easter morning excitement, egg coloring and hunts, church services, dinners and stories about bunnies and about Christ. And, as was true for many in that time and our society, I was told these things were very, very certain and absolute. In my teens, down the street, I became friends with someone from my junior high whose heritage was Jewish, and came to realize they had very different celebrations. Over the years, through relationships, travel, reading and a lot of personal reflection, I realized that there were a lot of questions about truths that I had been taught – questions I could not answer. Reasonable questions, that for some, could not be discussed or considered.

So today is Easter 2020, one quite different than most of us have known in our lifetimes. Last year we attended a beautiful service at Grace Cathedral, a San Francisco landmark and refuge for decades, with traditional music, ceremony, and readings. This year, Grace and other houses of worship and reflection lie empty. I awoke and made a short trip to our local park with a hillside view to watch the sunrise – trudging along the dark path alone, only the birdsong to greet the dawn. But the dark only turned into a dreary gray, clouds and fog making no space for sun to burst through in glory. Still, I knew it was there, and found comfort in that quiet hour, watching our city awaken.

When we “hold certain truths to be self evident”, or grab tightly on to some belief system because it is so central to our identity that we cannot bear to open our mind to the possibility that it has never been true – we burrow into a cave, close our eyes, and die. Our spirits die, hiding in the dark, afraid to be found out, to be discovered as somehow being “wrong”. But it is in admitting my own flawed character and my ignorance that I begin to see light – a love that transcends the rules and limitations of the past. Our world needs that love. I have many, many friends who have extreme bitterness about their treatment at the hands of people of faith – many faiths – because they did not conform. That works both ways – there is plenty of finger pointing to go around, plenty of blame, plenty of “practice what you preach” and “you didn’t live up to what you expect of me”. Maybe we need to let go of some of the things we grasp and take hold of one another hands instead.

People of faith, many faiths – the world religions but also the smaller, less traditional or more personal belief systems – have done much to reach out with love, to build our world, to support understanding and peace. Great damage has been done as well in the name of religion – power, conquest, dominion, riches at the expense of others. Many have been so hurt by actions done in the name of deity that even the concept of a loving creator is unthinkable. Perhaps they are right, but I have reached a place where I can understand that the actions of individuals or groups don’t necessarily support or refute deeper truths – but also that ultimately I won’t probably ever have the answers to my questions. Being at peace about my lack of answers allows me to acknowledge my own fallibility, and embrace that others imperfections, and move beyond those limits to share with those around me what we have to offer in love and acceptance.

In my friends and family there are many ways of thinking embraced, but every one of those people in my life demonstrate love, and I treasure them all. I still hold many beliefs – some that continue to grow and evolve. I don’t try to explain them or make them fit every situation, because – they don’t. So, at Easter, and Passover, and other times of memories and celebration, in part because my knowledge of them both has increased over the years, I respect the needs of all around me to reach out and be in touch with something Eternal outside themselves. Whether through ritual cleansing, special prayers, songs or moments of reflection – or perhaps outreach and community gatherings – I see the value of holding on and expressing faith in a greater Power.

At last, I am a least a little closer to be able to accept a love that comes from beyond my understanding, walk in it, and try to share it – without understanding it, or labeling it, or trying to put it in a box with a bow for others to accept. Without trying to prove it or convince someone, but … trying to live it a little better. And I feel a kind of peace, at least, in no longer needing to have the answers. For me, the answers are in the hearts, and the loving smiles and acts, of those who turn their eyes upward and seek deliverance, seek forgiveness, even though we sense that on their own, we are undeserving, but the source of that Love they feel offers it freely. Perhaps that is a kind of wisdom, but even if foolish, I will gladly be a fool for the gift of giving and receiving grace. And love. Love, always.