Monday, January 16, 2017

Remembering Those We Lost in 2016

 The life of the dead is placed in the memory
    of the living”    Cicero

     Janus, the Roman god for whom this month is named, has two heads. One is looking forward and one is looking backwards, simultaneously and always. I like that image. That seems fitting to me. Often we have to look at where we have been in order to have an idea of where we are headed and/or want to go. It is a good and necessary practice, and we do that both as individuals and as a culture. Personally, we look back and say, “This worked; I will keep it.” Or we say,” This didn’t work out so well; I need to change some things.” The beginning of the year seems a good time for that type of reflection.


   This is one of the purposes of our New Year’s resolutions. We see the new year as a chance to do some personal housecleaning, and we try to get rid of things that no longer work or fit us. This is a universal human process. Religions and cultures from around the world have practices in which they either break or burn old household items, do ritualized house and/or body cleansing, light massive bonfires and more to symbolize making a new start.  It is both a solemn and celebratory affair. Many religious traditions emphasize special prayers and rituals to mark the beginning of that religion’s New Year. These practices call for people to take a good look at where they are morally and religiously. The hope is that they will re-dedicate themselves to making changes for upcoming year and to reaffirm their devotion to the religion's beliefs and practices.

  There are also rituals that seem to be more secular in purpose. These  often involve special foods, music, dance, but also some type of outrageous celebration. Think of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, which has its roots in a Roman workers’ festival in which, for one day, the social order was turned upside down and serious things were satirized. It is now a big day of music and dress up. It seems that we as humans need to acknowledge this special passage of time in ways that are both solemn and festive.

   One of the things I like to do in January is to look back at the year just gone by and note the people who died during that time.  It is a regular feature of TV news programs, magazines, newspapers, and I like doing it myself. It gives me a chance to slow down and reflect on the ways my life is and was affected by what others have done, stood for and accomplished.  For obvious reasons I am particularly cognizant of writers and musicians-they speak a special language that resonates with me.  We lost a number of both last year, and many of them were important to me.  We lost some big names in music, among them Prince, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. These were folks from very different genres and with very different styles, but each of them dramatically shook up the music world as well as my ways of looking at music in some profound ways. Bowie and Prince did it in part by joyously combining and mixing musical styles, producing outrageous stage performances, giving enigmatic interviews, and emphasizing their ability to call into question gender roles and definitions of “manliness.” They were also consummate musicians, songwriters and arrangers, and they helped me look at rock and rhythm and blues influenced music in some new ways. Cohen gave me an appreciation for the poetry and theater of songwriting and an appreciation of tone in songs.
     We also lost more traditional but unique voices in musician and singer-songwriters Mose Allison and Leon Russell. I first got to know Russell from his playing and arranging on Delaney and Bonnie LP’s and from seeing their tour way back in 1969-1971. I loved his funky piano and guitar riffs and fills, and the way he made gospel, country, and blues all fit together in an unforced, seamless manner. And he was flat-out fun to watch; he seemed to just love playing and making music.  As for Mose, I still recall my first Mose Allison LP and being taken in by his smooth, wry voice, great lyrics, and swinging piano style. I got to see him play a number of times over the years, and it was never disappointing. Songs such as Parchman Farm, Everybody Cryin’ Mercy, Your Mind is On Vacation-their cool and clever lyrics still make me smile, cry and move me deeply. He was an original.

   We lost some great writers as well last year.  Many of them produced works that were important in shaping my thinking and values. I was fortunate to not only read but teach works by several of them. Richard Adam’s Watership Down helped many 8th graders come to understand allegory, fable, and the power of description and detail in a well told story. When I read and later taught Night, Elie Wiesel impressed me as an example of a person who could endure such evil and yet still be such a gentle bringer of illumination, love and truth.
  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” These words Wiesel wrote have a timeless meaning and bear repeating and remembering.

    I never got to teach Gloria Naylor’s, Women of Brewster Place, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting, Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini or The Water is Wide, or the short stories in the collection, Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson. But each of those works took me deeply inside specific places, specific times, specific dilemmas, and specific characters in ways that gave me greater appreciation for and understanding of how ordinary people try to cope with life’s struggles. These considerations of meetign the dilemmas of ordinary life have stayed with me for decades. Someone once wrote that the purpose of good writing is to "make the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary ordinary". These writers were all able to do that, and I am grateful to have come across them. What they wrote will forever be with me, and their ideas and words help shape how I approach the world.

  There were a lot of other people who died in 2016 who both made a difference in the larger world and meant a lot to me. Muhammad Ali, John Glenn and Gwen Ifill are three of them that readily come to mind; there were many others. This happens every year, of course. And that means that as long as I am alive I have the opportunity to do this looking back and to learn from it. It is a treat and it is important. I get the chance to think about these people, reflect on who and where I was when I firstencountered them, and to thank them for the ways in which they have changed my life and being. Like Janus, I get to look back.  And like Janus, I then get to take what these people have given me in the past and bring it forward into a new year and a new time. Not a bad way to start the year. I wish you all good reflection and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Let There Be Lights


  (I originally wrote this in December, 2014. I ran into someone on the train a few days ago who remembered it, and we talked about it.  I thought I would re-run it with some modest additions and changes.)

December is the time of celebration.  There are so many celebrations from so many religious and ethnic traditions taking place during this month. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to and associated with it: Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and specific religious tradition. There is also Hanukkah with its 8 days of oil based food and dreidel playing, and Kwanzaa with its celebration of Pan-African culture and values.  And if you are Buddhist, Hopi, Hindu, West African Dogon, traditional Persian, or Wiccan, there are celebrations for you as well. In fact, what many of us think of as parts of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in the Wiccan and Persian traditions, including the Christmas tree and the story of the 3 Wise Men. We are clearly in the midst of a universally “ritual-rich” time.
What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is a common element, metaphor and symbol world-wide at this time of the year.  And it makes perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. In much of the world this time of the year means very noticable changes in the amount of daylight and darkness surrounding us, and we have to account for that. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us, and for most of our history that has meant looking to the sky.  The sun, the moon and the stars have literally and figuratively been our guideposts. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year, that the winter solstice would be here, and that the length of days and night would be changing. So this became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans.  Ritual, symbol and myth are the ways humans respond to nature,  and this became celebrated in many different ways depending upon geography and culture.

The slow increase in the length of days after the solstice was as if the earth was being reborn, and we had to acknowledge it and honor it else it may not happen again. Many cultures symbolically recognized this time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places associate this time of the year with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to more and more hours of sunlight. To the ancient Persians this was the time of the Yalda      festival, and Mithras, the symbol of truth, strength, goodness and light, emerged from a rock at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the all powerful Roman sun god, was also celebrated in December with torches and bonfires.  It was a timeless and universal process. Long ago we humans knew that we had to celebrate and meet this winter darkness with light.  We had to link our doings and our fates with the universe’s. We had to acknowledge this darkness, and in our rituals fire-light-abounded.               

New beginnings are also important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that as well. Our language today reflects this. We speak of, “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.”  We look to the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Light as transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in many of our religious rituals and ceremonies at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates, among other things, the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem from its desecration when Antiochus made it into a Greek temple. The candles symbolize, in part, the rebirth of the religion. The candles in Kwanzaa symbolize reawakened connection and awareness of African values and traditions for people of African descent. To Buddhists, Bodhi Day in December celebrates the Buddha becoming a Buddha-an enlightened one who suddenly could see beyond illusion. To Christians, the Star of Bethlehem led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. Light was symbolically leading us forward.

And light is as powerful today to us humans as it was when we first figured out the solstice and what it could mean. Tradition has it that Martin Luther saw stars one night as he was composing a sermon and tried to capture their beauty by adding lighted candles to the Christmas tree inside his house. Whether that is true or not, by the time the Germanic tradition of the Christmas tree reached the US the idea of lights on the trees were a fixture.  We decorated the tree, and it took off from there. Now there are lighted houses, yards, shops, malls and more. We are awash in lights; there are even whole streets and neighborhoods that collaborate to plan what their light scheme is going to be each holiday season. Many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays. We need the light.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are still with us, even if we do not recognize them as such. As up to date and modern as we are in this digital age, we are still human, and that means we are still connected to our ancestors’ sense off the universe in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various religious rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up at the night sky and taking some time to note, think about, and marvel at what is going on up there. It is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. And its mystery and beauty link our present very directly to our past.
That is a wonderful and beautiful thing.

Do have a safe, warm, happy, and joyous holiday season.  I hope you find it a time full of good spirits, good company and good food.  And of course, light.                                                  

Friday, November 18, 2016



 “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
                                                                                          Meister Eckhart
 “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of
    Gratitude.”                                                                    A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”                    Epicurus


     Somehow we are in the middle of November, and we are coming up on Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday of the year.  I love the holiday as it is about some things that really please me: good food, being around people in a joyful and happy setting, and expressing gratitude for what I have and for where I am in my life. The relative lack of advertising and the tiny focus on what to buy when compared to Christmas gives me an opportunity to focus more on the day itself and to think about what the holiday is supposed to mean. In that light, I am given a chance to look beyond myself and to acknowledge all the people, things and circumstances that are a part of my life and that I had little, if anything, to do with. While I like to think at times that “I made myself” and that “I am a product of my own efforts,” I know deep down that is not true. This day, Thanksgiving, is one day for me to join with many other people to acknowledge and fully embrace that reality.

   Of course, I am describing and thinking of the modern American version of Thanksgiving. We gather together, probably overeat, watch some football, argue politics, laugh and tell tall stories. We think of "Thanksgiving" as being especially "American" and tell the story of Squanto helping the Pilgrims survive a winter in Massachusetts. But we are far from the only people to have engaged in this practice. The idea of setting aside time for giving thanks is an ancient one found on all continents, in all cultures, and at all times.  As people struggled to survive and reproduce in ancient times, they realized that they were dependent on things way beyond their control. How high would the river be this year, for example? When would the rain come? What grows naturally here in this valley, and how? When and where will the next herd pass by? When would the heat come? Or go? Or stop? These were essential questions, and humans all over the earth would try many things to see if they find some answers and maybe even exert some influence on how things would turn out. Prayers, music, statues, songs, dances, rituals, chants, and sacrifices: these were invented, tried, discovered and passed down the generations in an attempt to give us a say in that which was beyond us. And, at the same time, this led us to the realization that we were not all powerful. We had to appeal to and be grateful to other forces we could not even see. We could not depend only on ourselves.

  This “giving of thanks” was truly human and universal: it would happen at various times of the year all over the world. For many people these observances would coincide with the birth cycle and appearance of some select game or fowl. For others it was when a certain natural development regularly occurred, such as the rise of a river, the form the moon took, a certain period of rainfall, or the growth of a certain wild crop. It was always a cyclical occurrence, and this helped us develop the ideas of “time” and “seasons.” Once agriculture became a part of the human experience, planting and harvest times became ready occasions for giving thanks and acknowledging dependence. In ancient China, for example, this happened in August when the new moon arrived. This was believed to be the birthday of the moon, and it also coincided with the harvesting of certain fruits. The Romans and Greeks celebrated goddesses of growth and fertility and gave thanks both in the spring for planting and in the fall for harvesting. The Hebrews, many Native American cultures, and many European cultures all have autumn harvest celebrations. Whenever it happens, whenever it is celebrated, and however it is carried out, these traditions reflect what seems to be a deep seated human need. We have to set aside some time to get out of ourselves. We have to acknowledge mystery, or God, or gods, or something that is beyond our control and power. We seem to need to do that in order to feel we have a place in this world.

   So I am looking forward to Thanksgiving again. To being together with certain people in a certain way, yes; that is always great. But it is also good to have another opportunity to express in unity with others the gratitude that I feel and to be reminded that we all need others to live well in this world. I hope that you get the chance to reflect on people, situations and things for which you can be truly thankful. Even if things are tough we all have some things, people, memories, and/ or moments for which we can be grateful. Here's hoping we can slow down enough to really acknowledge those things and to discover the quiet pleasure and joy in giving thanks. I hope you all have a good Thanksgiving.

PS: For those who wish to extend your good feelings to those who may be less fortunate, there are a couple groups that do some wonderful work and can use your support always, but particularly at this time of the year:


               (order a MANNA pie-YUM!)