Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Beauty of A Winter Sky


The sky grew darker, painted blue on blue, one stroke at a time, into deeper and deeper shades of night.”

Haruki Murakami,

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.

John Burroughs 

    We have finally started to have a winter we are familiar with around here. We have had several consecutive days of temperatures in the low 30’s and 20’s, and we are all bundled up and wearing ear muffs, gloves, layers, and down coats. The heat has been on for several nights in a row now, and there are oil trucks seen on the streets. We have had a light snow in our immediate area, and people near us had several inches with the discomfort and change in routines and schedules such an event brings. It has been getting darker earlier for several weeks now, but in the past two weeks it seems to have FELT darker earlier as we are now all hunched up and bundled.  I love observing the world around me and paying attention to the changes in wildlife, the natural scenery and especially the sky. And while I am not fan of being cold, I do truly love early winter. It looks and feels like no other time of the year. There is a clarity, crispness and directness about this time of the year that appeals to me. And the winter sky? Well it is absolutely amazing.

     I no longer teach, but I still love being outside in early evening and arising early in the morning. I do that because there is grandeur in the winter night sky for me, and I love to experience it both as it starts and as it ends. The sky somehow seems bigger, bolder, and more dramatic in this part of the year. The blueness and the darkness seem a little more intense, a little more “there” and present. At this time of the year we can look straight up into the night, and we encounter it more directly. There are no leaves on the trees to block out the sky, and there are fewer "scenic distractions” on the ground. The stars are clearer and brighter, the moon is more obvious and radiant, and there just seem to be more planets waiting to be seen. It is a treat for me. I love watching the moon going through its phases at this time of the year; we can see them all so clearly and for such a long time. Full Moon, New Moon, Quarter Moon, waxing and waning, alternately hiding behind clouds on some nights, and shining brightly and boldly on others. The moon seems more present in the early winter sky, more like the ethereal watchman watching over us. And it is on these nights that so many of the ancient myths and tales we heard in school and/or that our parents told us make a little more sense. The night truly seems mysterious, powerful, and beautiful. And maybe a little ominous as well.

    I also like trying to find the planets and constellations that are so much more visible now.  I live in Mt. Airy, and Orion the Hunter has been bold and bright early evenings in the southeast sky. His club is clear and visible, and he makes for a fierce presence over the buildings and the city.  The Dippers will be seen in the northwest sky as well, and I love noting them. When I am out walking at 6 AM in the morning and look to the southwest, Venus and Jupiter are there shining brightly. Venus has been spectacular this winter; it is the third brightest planet in our morning sky, and it has been glowing magnificently, occasionally with a seeming halo around it. And if I make it up to Chestnut Hill and look back the sky from there, I can see Venus fading out of sight just as the sun’s rays color the clouds pink and white and blue and red. A new say is here. And whether it is early morning or early evening, whenever I take a walk around the block or just stand outside my door and look up, I am amazed and comforted by that amazing winter sky. And when I am sad, worried or uneasy or feeling sorry for myself, looking up at that sky. Its many wonders brings me peace and calms me.

   This weekend the sky will outdo itself and present something rare and special as an added treat. From about 11:40 PM Sunday night until 12:45 AM Monday morning in the Philadelphia area the moon will pass between the earth and the sun, entering a total lunar eclipse that will make the moon seem a bright rusty red-a Super Blood Moon.  And the moon will be as close as possible to earth at that time-a Super Moon, so two rare celestial phenomena will be occurring at the same time. I shall be up and out, taking it all in and marveling. Hopefully there will be little cloud cover-if there is a heavy cloud cover the eclipse might not be visible. But visible or not, I will be out there looking up. Knowing it is happening and being in its presence is enough for me. The winter sky makes the cold and the bundling and shivering all just a little more bearable and a little more beautiful and provides wonder. It is truly a treat to behold. It is all free and it is always there; all we have to do is simply look up. Happy viewing.

(If you are looking for info on how to watch the Supper Moon eclipse,  )


  If you have not decided what to do for the King Day of Service, here is a link to the Philadelphia area’s MLK Day of Service activities:


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Reflections on Martin Luther King Day


        It is January and once again we will observe Martin Luther King Day. It is called a “Day Of Service” rather than a holiday because we do things in the real world that show that we honor not just the memory of the man but the meaning of the man’s life as well. We have playground and neighborhood cleanups, raise money for good causes, feed homeless people, attend religious services or conferences on social justice, have petition signing days, voting registration days, and more.  And we have, of course, countless recitations of the “I Have A Dream Speech in school assemblies, prayer services, on the news and everywhere. I have heard that speech for 56 years, and it is always thrilling and moving; I weep a little every time I hear it. But I do wish we would teach more and recognize more than that about King and about the Civil Rights Movement.  That we more publicly acknowledged that long before that moment in Washington, there was a young, unsure of himself Martin Luther King in Montgomery, AL, several important mentors who helped and encouraged him, and the willing actions of hundreds of ordinary people consistently doing things in the face of violence and personal sacrifice that led up to that stirring Washington speech and made it possible. To that end I plan to re-watch the film, Selma, in a few days. It is, to me, a very important film, not only about King but also about how movements grow and come to matter.

   One of the reasons I love this film is because it showed both King and the movement more fully than either are regularly shown in our classrooms and in the media. In Selma, King is shown more as a real person, with foibles, fears, occasional confusion, and at times, bad actions and decisions. He wasn’t a perfect icon; he was a man, a human. And he did many “human” things, The film also showed the ways some people disagreed with and challenged him, and how there were times when his strategies did not work.  Most importantly, the film showed the people who were the infrastructure of the movement. The people whose faith and actions allowed him to accomplish so many of the things he did. He was a great man, yes, but he BECAME a great man. And it took the faith, actions, courage of others to make that growth possible.  It was not him just by himself.

   Take the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. People know Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus and was arrested on Thursday, December 1, 1955. But most people do not know that she had worked with the NAACP for years, was not the first black woman arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, and that she set out to get arrested. Most people also do not know that it was labor leader E.D. Nixon who tricked King into hosting the first boycott planning meeting because King was new in town and the white powers of Montgomery did not know him and had no plans on how to deal with him. And the very first boycott meeting happened not because of King, but because of Jo Ann Robinson, a long-time member of the Montgomery Women’s Council who had been advocating for years to change the Montgomery bus system. She and her family hand mimeographed-not XEROXED or photo copied-hand mimeographed some 52,000 fliers Thursday night after Ms. Park’s arrest that were placed in churches, given to high school students, and placed in barber shops and other places on Friday, December 2, calling people to that first meeting on that same Friday evening.  That initiated a one-day boycott of the bus system on Monday, December 5, and it was that walkout that led to the full- blown year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott that we think of today. Those established black political leaders tricked, guided, and put Martin in a position of leadership in Montgomery that led both to the March to Selma and the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice that featured the “I Have  A Dream” Speech. They helped make that moment and so many others possible.

   Selma also focused on some of these other Civil Rights figures, who though little-remembered today, were vital to the movement and to King’s rise as a leader. Rev Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and John Lewis were all shown in ways that made clear their importance in what came to be known as, “The Movement.”  They helped, advised, and sometimes criticized King as he was moving into his leadership position. Yes, the Reverend Dr. King was a phenomenal and charismatic speaker, had wonderful ideas, and said many wise and inspiring things. But without the help, advice and actions of so many others in the early days of the boycott, he would never have emerged as a leader.

   The film also makes it abundantly clear that without the hundreds of maids, cooks, shoeshine boys, chauffeurs, mechanics, students, teachers, volunteers and others who marched in the streets for years and were willing to be beaten and arrested, the Civil Rights Movement and King’s emergence as a force for change would not have been possible. It was this collection of “ordinary people” that sustained the boycotts and demonstrations and helped bring forth change. Without them nothing would have changed. They were the bricks and mortar-the infrastructure- that held the movement together.  

   We are not all great thinkers, orators, or planners. Most of us are “ordinary.” But being “ordinary” doesn’t mean we have to be regulated to the sidelines. We all can be part of the change we want to see in the world. We can all be, in some small, consistent way a part of making change happen. We can be part of the infrastructure. That is what has made changes happen in the world in the past, and it will continue to do so in the future. That is one of the very important legacies of Dr. King’s story and of the lives of the people shown and portrayed in Selma. All of us have roles to play if we are willing. Each of us, even in small seemingly inconsequential ways, can make a difference. Selma shows that. And knowing and believing that gives me hope, even in these troubled times.

(Here are links to biography pages of some important people connected with Reverend King and/or mentioned in Selma

Here is a link to the Philadelphia area’s MLK Day of Service activities:

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Dropping of the Ball on New Year's Eve

 Something Old, Something New: New Year’s Eve Then and Now

    New Year's is not new. Some form of it has been celebrated for thousands of years on every continent and probably for as long as there have been human communities. The first recorded celebrations come from some 2,5000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq. This is the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the planting season and the harvest season as days of renewal for the cities,  the surrounding areas, and of the earth itself. “Akitu” was the name of the festival, and historians look to those week-long celebrations as the first recorded instances of celebrating what might be called a “new year.” Of course, such celebrations are really much older that that; people did things long before humans invented writing and keeping records.  But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity people simply had to know the when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons became essential to city survival.  We also realized that what happened in the sky influenced and heralded what would happen on earth, so we kept track of what we now call equinoxes, solstices, moon phases and more.  And to attempt to have these occurrences benefit us, we developed rituals, celebrations, and practices to try to influence the force or forces that controlled those things. We were literally hoping and praying for outcomes that would benefit us in the future. New year celebrations were originally a part of this process. And like most human celebrations, the observances involved ritual foods, ritual actions, ritual music, ritual dancing, and ritual prayer and introspection. Humans tend to meet the same realities of life in pretty much the same ways, and ritual, religion, symbol, and music are all among the ways we signify that something important and special is taking place. It is simply what we humans do.

    However, when we think of New Year’s Eve celebrations today most folks are not thinking about global cultural history and/or how what we do today links to what humans have done for thousands of years. Most folks are instead thinking about Times Square, New York City, the countdown, and that big shiny ball dropping down. Even if we are not planning to watch it, we are all aware of this event happening. I used to love to watch it on TV when I was much younger, begging my mother to let me stay up so I could watch it. The crowd, the colors, the noise and the outlandishness all amazed me. There was the confetti, the movie and music stars, the noise, the big ball and the drama of thousands of people counting down all together, me along with them. It was a secular ritual, I realized as I grew older and understood it more. And I was and am still fascinated by how so many aspects of it connect to some of our most ancient ways.  Some 1 million people crowd into Times Square for this celebration-1 MILLION people. The thought that 1 million people would willingly want to stand together in freezing cold weather in New York City for hours is mind-boggling. And many of those people there are drunk, high, and almost out of control. What sense does that make?? No one in their right mind would suggest doing that as a fun way to spend time in New York City.  But of course, we are often “out of our minds” in the midst of a ritual. Ritual can transform us and take us to a totally different state of being in which the irrational makes perfect sense. It is estimated that over 1 billion—1 BILLION- people watch the show on TV around the world, even in places where the time differences mean it may already really be past midnight and a new year where they actually are.  Who knows how many people watch it on the web or YouTube or Facebook Live. It is truly a worldwide phenomenon-one of the very few things that universally and temporarily unite us as a species. Whether we watch it or deliberately avoid it, we are all aware of it. It is that universal. But how did this come to be? How did this place and this particular ceremony come to symbolize the coming of a New Year to so many people of so many different nationalities, colors, religions, and cultures?  Well, it all started with one businessman and some unique things about the early part of the 20th century.

  Adolph Ochs was publisher of the New York Times, for which Times Square was named. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advent of new technologies that could seemingly conquer heights, hold up the new “skyscraper” buildings, light up the whole night sky, create vehicles that did not need animals to move, and much, much more. It seemed as if something new was being developed every day. Ochs and the Times were spearheading the northern and western growth of New York City beyond its Lower Manhattan starting point by the rivers and the ports. He wanted to call attention to and spur this uptown growth; he saw it as essential to the economic growth of the city. Ochs liked to throw lavish parties, and he was one of the early promoters of “grand spectacles” that the 20th century would so regularly produce. To that end he started staging New Year’s Eve parties that filled the air above the Times building with fireworks and bright lights. These events became immensely popular, and they drew thousands of spectators uptown to view them and to think about the area. But fireworks above meant hot ashes falling to the ground below. This was clearly dangerous, so the city banned the fireworks for 1907 going into1908.

  Ochs’s flashy fireworks display had started drawing Manhattanites uptown and away from the traditional New Year’s celebration at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan.  There worshipers and celebrants listened to the tolling of the church’s bells to signal a new year. The bells were amplified on sound trucks and they were still a popular draw. But it was still somewhat “old school.” If Ochs was going to continue to draw people uptown and away from Trinity, he needed a new big draw: a new spectacle. He found one a few blocks away from his office by doing what we now call “re-positioning,”

    “Time balls’ were an answer to the problem of keeping accurate time at sea for ships. Developed in the early 1800’s, most port cities had them by the turn of the century. They were huge colorful balls that would rest atop high buildings. They would descend exactly at noon every day so that maritimers could know the exact time. They could then use that information to set their chronometers, measure longitude, and navigate more accurately.  As the telegraph developed, coastal cities with time balls in place began to telegraph the exact time to other cities.  Humans had managed to figure a way to precisely measure and standardize time in a huge way, just in time for the new factory age of mass production that was to come. Most cities had time balls by the early 1900’s, and most people knew what they were. Philadelphia had one atop the Bourse Building for several years. Western Union, the major telegraph company, had one at its New York office near the Times. It would descend every weekday at noon to let people know exactly what time it was. Ochs had found what he needed; he had a large time ball built, and on December 31st, 1907 thousands of people gazed up at the New York Times building and spied a big, shiny, 700 pound ball atop a flagpole on the building that was awash in huge multi-colored electric lights. As midnight approached, workers began lowering the giant ball by ropes and pullies. On top of the Times building a giant electric sign counted down the seconds until the ball reached the bottom. At the precise moment it landed, the number “1908” lit up the night sky. People went nuts; there were shots fired, people kissing each other, trumpets and noisemakers going off, and these new things called “automobiles” honking their horns. It was a smash hit, and both a tradition and a new ritual were born.

 The ball drop was immensely popular. Promoting and covering it quickly became a staple of magazine and newspaper articles, and when radio came along it went national. It and Times Square eventually became some of the signature things about New York City. When TV came on the scene, it became a big draw for network TV, pulling in millions of viewers and eventually billions of advertising dollars. It is now an international phenomenon, and I cannot see that stopping anytime soon. The ball has been re-designed several times, it has been made of different substances, and it is now run by a computer timed to the atomic clock. It is not the same 700 pond ball that started the tradition.

 But in many important ways it really is the same ball. Beneath all of this technological change and modernization and improvement we can see the age-old themes of meeting important events the world regularly brings to us with ritual, symbol, and as a group. Yes, it started a as a publicity stunt, a smart business move, and perhaps just as a way of showing off. But it has since become something all its own. It is a worldwide, collective ritual now.  It belongs to the world. And for just a little while, that world becomes one big village when it happens. That is the power of ritual taking place, and I think that is a good thing.

So however you celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s, know that you are standing with countless generations of humans who have gone before us; who have collectively looked at what was going on around them and figured out ways to respond to it. Yes, we are digital and modern and “civilized,” whatever that means. Essentially, though, we are just humans navigating our way through the world and trying to cope, survive, and maybe do a little better. Thus it is, and thus it has always been. Do have a very Happy New Year.

 (If you are interested in time balls, here are two links that explain there history and how they were used)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Coming of the Winter Solstice

 “ Heading into the night of the winter solstice, every spiritual tradition has some kind of festival of light. We're all just whistling in the dark, hoping against hope that someone up there will see these little candles and get the hint.” Lawrence Kushner
I love looking at ritual and symbolism, particularly as they relate to mythologies, human celebrations and observances. I think there is something in looking at those things that links us to all of the humans who have come before us from all around the world and across time. We are all human, after all, and when we get past the specific details of our rituals and cultural ways we have done pretty much the same things in pretty much the same ways for most of our existence. Humans, for example, have always had to note, mark, respond to, symbolize and ritualize what we see and experience in the natural world on an ongoing basis. All of us. Humans have developed these things to show our deep dependence on, awareness of, and connection to the natural world. Whether it is just about physical survival, deep emotional fear or hope, reverential worship, or deep spiritual love, or all of these things, we have done this seemingly for as long as we have been on the planet. It is simply what we do; we can’t live in this world without doing it. It is one of the things that make us human. And we always do it most intensely around the time of changes in the seasons.
For Northern Hemisphere residents, next week marks one of those changes. It is the winter solstice-the start of winter. The sun seems higher in the sky as the motion of the earth dramatically changes the location of the sun to us and the amount of daylight we get in a 24 hour period. The solstice is the day with the least amount of sunlight for the year, and we have always been aware of that. On our modern calendar that means December 21stinto the 22.nd For some of us in the ancient world this occurrence meant both fear and reverence. The sun died that day and had to be brought back to life. Prayers, dances, special foods, music and especially ritual were used during this period to accomplish this task. It was vital to our survival.
 Rituals are group events. The whole family or village or town or settlement has to be involved. Unlike a one-day equinox, the solstice lasts for three days, and it was/is believed by many peoples that on that third day, had the rituals been followed correctly, the sun would be reborn and all would be right once more. We would again enjoy the benefits of the sun in the sky. Days following the solstice gradually get longer, so the solstice was looked at as a form of “celestial rebirth.” And coming out of the longest period of night in the year, it’s happening had to be met with light in most of the Hemisphere. There are tons of solstice themed observances around the world, and light and rebirth play a key role in most of them.
  We can see remnants of those ancient traditions in many of our contemporary winter observances. In northern China there is the tradition of Dong Zhi, the arrival of winter. It is a family reunion time, and they eat gluttonous rice balls that symbolize the family and village being back together and facing the winter as one. The days get longer after Dong Zhi, so the rituals provide power and faith to restore the sun and bring positive energy-light-back into our lives. In many cultures candles, burning logs and bonfires pay homage to the missing sun and are employed to bring the sun back. In Scandinavia folks celebrated Jul by lighting fires from special trees, including a log from the previous year’s celebration.

This was an acknowledgement of the sun’s return and a thanks to Thor who made it possible. Yalda in Iran celebrates the snatching of the sun back from the devil and its gradual return to the sky look over the earth.  Again, there are special foods and fires connected with these festivals. Saturnalia, the birthday of the Roman god Saturn, was celebrated from approximately December 17 through the solstice days with feasts, a temporary reversal of social roles and expectations, and what we might call sexual excess. It was a party time similar in many ways to Mardi Gras with parades, music, and grand feasts. In that part of the world it was also the start of the winter sowing season, so the sexual activities that were originally associated with it were symbolic of planting, harvesting and the re-birth of the earth and the sky. There was also gift giving, candle lighting, group singing and feasting-universal components of most Northern Hemisphere winter observances.  Many of these things are now considered standard features of our own Christmas celebrations; in fact here are many historians who consider Saturnalia the most origin of many of today’s Christmas activities.
  So this is a fun time of the year for me. I get to think about us as humans and all of the ways we see and do things similarly. We all have to find ways to acknowledge what is going on around us in the natural world, to figure out how to make the world work for us, and to come to terms with the realization that we don’t have all the answers or all the power. We may work and struggle to have things make sense and to work out, but no matter where we all or when we ae, we all use pretty much the same symbols, rituals, and practices; we all have the same toolbox. Something about that comforts me and lets me know that I am just human and that we are all, despite some obvious differences, essentially the same. I hope you can all find joy and comfort in the coming season.

Monday, December 3, 2018

An Ode to Light


 (We have had a lot of rain and grey days these last few weeks, and frankly, they have had me somewhat depressed. I am an early morning person, and most times waking up to misty fog and the sound of rain is pleasant to me; it almost feels like a movie set or a set piece in a piece of dramatic fiction. But of late, I have just been tired of it. It has been bringing me down and I am tired of it. While I am fortunately not afflicted with it, I can understand why SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a real thing. Humans need light, and lately I am missing it.

To that end, I remembered a newsletter I sent out way back in 2014 about December, celebrations, and light. Reading it helped lift my mood, so I thought I would send it out again, lightly edited, in the week that starts the Hanukkah celebration. Consider it an ode to light.)

Let There Be Lights:

December is the time of many celebrations. There is, of course, Christmas and the minor celebrations leading up to it and associated with it, including Advent, the 12 Days of Christmas, Yule, and others depending on your ethnicity and your 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, traditional Persian, Wiccan, or West African Dogon, there are celebrations for you as well during this month. In fact, what many of us think of as elements of traditional Christmas celebrations actually have their roots in the Wiccan and Persian traditions. And there are many other celebrations from many other different religious and ethnic traditions from around the world taking place during this month. December is a month rich with observances, rituals and celebrations. What so many of these celebrations and observances have in common is the prominence of light in the ceremonies. Candles, bonfires, logs, electric lights, tree lights, flashing lights-light is the common element, metaphor and symbol worldwide at this time of the year. We need and must celebrate light.

It make perfect sense that humans are so light conscious in December. Humans look to nature to try to figure out what is coming and what God or the gods have in store for us. For most of our history that has meant looking to the sky-to the sun, the moon and the stars. Humans have known for centuries that the length of the days was changing at this time of the year and that the winter solstice was coming. This became a time of deep spiritual meaning for early humans, and it was marked in many different ways depending upon geography and culture. As the length of the days shortened and then magically, slowly increased, it was as if the earth was being reborn and we were living through and witnessing that process. We had to acknowledge it and honor it, else it may not happen again. So symbolically, many cultures created rituals that recognized it as a time of rebirth. Many of the stories, myths and traditions from different times and places began to associate this time with miraculous births, enlightenment, miracles, and/or new beginnings. The Druid bonfires and the Germanic and Norse Yule logs, for example, were symbolic and metaphoric symbols of cleansing, sacrifice, and the simultaneous death and rebirth of the earth-from the shortest day of the year to gradually 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, was born to a virgin mother at this time of the year. His birth was celebrated with flame and holy fire. Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, was also celebrated at this time. We humans even long ago seemed to know that we had to meet the darkness with light. 

New beginnings are important in most religious traditions, and light is a strong metaphor for that. Our language shows that it still is. We speak of “seeing the light, or “coming into the light.” There is the “inner light and we “let our light shine.”  Transformation and rebirth are readily spoken of and alluded to in so many of the rituals and ceremonies in our religions, especially at this time of the year. Hanukkah is about rebirth and new beginnings as it celebrates 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 the reawakened connection and awareness of African values and connections 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 symbolically led to a new beginning for humans, as it led the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. In all these traditions, 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 were a fixture.  And now there are lighted houses, malls, streets, yards, shops 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. And many families now have a tradition of driving to visit different neighborhoods just to see the light displays.

So our ancient connection to the rhythms and structures of the natural world are in some ways 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 and their beliefs in some important and primal ways. As we celebrate our various rituals, traditions and personal rituals this season, I hope you can spend some time outside looking up and taking some time to marvel at what is going on up there. The sun, the moon, the constellations: it is quite miraculous, and it still influences so much of what we do down here. Do have a safe, warm, happy, love and light filled holiday season.  Enjoy the magic of light.                                                         

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


 “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into
    joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings”    William Arthur Ward

Next week is Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays. As regular readers of these missives know, I put a lot of store in gratitude and giving thanks. It is one of the ways I get outside myself and remember that I am but a small cog in a much bigger picture, and that I do not get by in this life on my willpower, my ideas, or my actions alone.  It not only takes a village to raise a child; it has also taken a combination of people, alive and dead, of all different ages, from all different times and of all different backgrounds to help make me who I have become and am becoming.  I find that when I am consciously aware of that, the world seems a little easier to navigate and a little brighter. And I find that it lets me know, especially in hard and difficult times, that there is much that I have to be grateful for, even though it may not feel like it at the time. In fact, I find that it is at those times when I especially need to be reminded of the power of gratitude. I need to be lifted beyond myself.

Expressing thanks is one of the simplest and most universal of things we humans do. It has been observed by every culture, religion, and ethnic group and in every time period and everywhere on the planet. Giving thanks is a part of what makes us human. When we as a species were largely living in small groups of migrating hunters and gatherers, we depended on things way beyond our control for survival, and we had to acknowledge that. Things such as the return of wild herbs and plants, the running of the fish in the rivers and streams and the return of birds and eggs and animals to trap and to hunt all depended upon the seasonal changes in weather and climate-things we humans could not directly control. But maybe the spirits or the gods could influence these things, so we developed prayers and songs and rituals to try to give us a better chance of influencing those spirits to bring us a hoped for outcome. And when these things happened in a way that seemed to help us, we had to give thanks to those forces that made those things happen in that fortuitous way. If we did that, then maybe it would happen again.

When humans developed agriculture, this process reached new levels of intensity. Agriculture meant humans could stay in one place, stop wandering, and develop what we now call “civilizations.” But this stability of place required humans to do a hell of a lot of hard work for a hell of a long time over the course of a year. Gathering and planting of seeds, building shelter, defending territory, watering and nurturing the crops, fighting the weather, harvesting crops-these and more factors of agricultural life were all things that demanded a huge amount of labor, a lot of working together, and plenty of luck or divine help. And still the things we depended upon might not turn out as we wished. So the rituals of giving thanks became an even more important and necessary part of life. There are spring planting and fall harvest festivals all over the world, and many of our currently observed spring and fall rituals and holidays have their roots in them.  Although in our modern lives many of us are far from the actual work that goes into sustaining a civilization, we are still resting on that same infrastructure of work and gratitude. No, it doesn’t take as many people to do many of our jobs, and much of the actual work and the people who do it can seem invisible. And we have come up with ways to artificially mimic or replicate Nature-we seem so “advanced.” But if we look closely, we see that our dependence on things beyond ourselves is still there and still necessary. As we all know, when a traffic light is out or our stove breaks or our computer acts up, or the car breaks down or we are in a flood or in the midst of wildfires, we need the help of other people, a little of what we call “luck; and maybe even some divine help. We cannot do this life thing totally on our own, no matter what we may tell ourselves.

 So I want to take time to acknowledge that simple act of expressing gratitude-of acknowledging that we all need other people and more than just ourselves to make our way through this world and this life. We need others’ and help and assistance. And every now and then that human in us needs to stop and say, “Thanks” to some spirit, some ones and/or some things outside of and/or beyond ourselves. We need to acknowledge our dependence upon and interaction with so much more than just ourselves. So in addition to all of the food and the family gatherings and safe travel and rituals and celebrations, I do wish you all a happy, thoughtful, and grateful Thanksgiving. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It's Rainin' Here; Stornin' on the Deep Blue Sea

“Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm…Blew All the People Away”….

   The above line is from Tom Rush’s version of Galveston, one of the first songs I ever heard about a flood outside of the church songs about Noah. I was very moved by this song when I first heard it in the mid -60’s, and it stirred my interest in songs about storms and floods. There have, of course, always been floods, so there have always been songs about the pain, grief, fear, and destruction that accompany these events. Along with Galveston, a great number of them refer to famous storms and floods from the 20th century. John Lee Hooker’s Storming on the Deep Blue Sea, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s, Flooding Down in Texas, Randy Newman’s, Louisiana, and Memphis Minnie’s, When the Levee Breaks are just a few that speak to some of the legendary floods that hit the Gulf areas and the Mississippi River in the last century. It does seem, though, as if we have had a steady number of such epic storms in the 21st century already, and it seems as if they are getting larger, more destructive and more frequent. In the first quarter of this century we have already had several storms whose one-word names bring up images from television and the web of people on rooftops, destroyed buildings and vehicles, people trapped and floating in cars, children being carried into and out of rowboats, and people of all ages and colors fleeing relentless and madly rushing waters. Charley, Harvey, Superstorm Sandy, Katrina, Maria and now Florence: These names conjure images and memories of people, maybe some of our own relatives and acquaintances, being faced with the unbelievable force of nature fully unfurled. (Maria and Katrina, for example, have the third and 6th highest death totals of all storms in US history). More and even larger storms are expected to come in the next few years. And we seem far from ready.

   It seems as if these storms are unleashing more and more of their destructive forces on those least able to endure and survive them. Poor folk and people of color have been especially hard hit, and the neighborhoods where these people live are often the last to get outside help and money. A full year after the devastation Maria wrought on Puerto Rico, for example, a quarter of a million people on the island are still without power, thousands are still living in “temporary’ shelters, and thousands of folks go hungry every day. Much of downtown New Orleans has been restored or rebuilt in the wake of 2005’s Katrina, but the predominantly poor and African-American Lower Ninth Ward of the city has, by comparison, seen little of the money from government agencies and private investors to help it rebuild. FEMA, the national Federal Emergency Management Agency, received a lot of criticism for its role in New Orleans, but it still had a smaller budget and work force devoted to relief in Puerto Rico than in either Florida or Texas hit by Harvey. Maria was much stronger than Harvey, and Puerto Rico sustained more severe damage than either state. Still it got the short end of the Federal stick. And there has been little change in that.

 Local groups and food banks have done the lion’s share of the recovery, relief, medical and rebuilding work in many of the area’s hit by these storms, and they need help. These are the people that are on the ground delivering emergency health care, food, and shelter. The AARP foundation is one reputable charity that directs money to some of these groups, and 100% of the money donated gets matched and goes to the groups doing this work on the ground. To donate, one can go here:

 The people of Puerto Rico can use help as well, and Americares is still involved in helping establishing health services there:

And if you want to support the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans?

I thank you in advance for being willing to support and give money to these trustworthy and reliable groups who have been in involved in disaster relief and disaster aid for years. I believe that ordinary citizens like us have to step up and help wherever and whenever disaster strikes; it is our responsibility as citizens of both this country and of the world. If not us, then who? If we do not do this, then who will?  We cannot leave it to government agencies; it is too vital a need. Others need us. Thank you!

 Speaking of citizenship, there are mid-term elections nationwide this November, and if you are not registered to vote in either PA, NJ, or DE registration deadlines are fast approaching. October 9 is the last day one can register to vote in PA, October 13 is the deadline for DE, and October 16 is the deadline for New Jersey. Mid-term elections generally do not have a large turnout, but hopefully it will be very different this November. Many people are concerned about actions and inaction by both our national and state governments, and participating in elections is one way to effect change. Many members of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate are up for re-election, and it is your chance to have a real say on the national stage. Important state government offices are also on the ballot this November, including governors, state legislators, attorneys general, treasurers, and other important offices. Your vote can go a long way in determining what happens in the nation and the states in the next few years. So please register and show up in November to vote. It is the very least one can do as a citizen. And if you have any questions about voting and/or the election in your state, go to the website of the League of Women Voters for your state. Thanks.
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