Sunday, March 18, 2018


   Mike is an old friend of mine who can be very wise, and one of my favorite sayings of his is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans.”  Last weekend for me was a perfect example of that saying- on steroids. The plan for last weekend was simple-really simple. We had finally secured tickets to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture for Friday, March 2, and we were also registered to be part of a winter bird walk Saturday. March 3 at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge outside of Chestertown, MD one of our favorite towns which also has two of our favorite restaurants. It would all combine into a wonderful weekend out of Philly and away from regular life. We would start Thursday in Baltimore, so we would not have a Friday with a long drive down to DC, hours spent in the museum, and then having to drive another hour and a half to Chestertown. Great plan, well thought out, solid. Routes had been mapped out by Google Maps, and we knew what time we would leave to get the weekend started. Thursday morning came, and we were ready to go.

  We spent Thursday at a hotel at BWI Airport and ate at Olive Grove, one of our favorite restaurants in the Linthicum, MD area. Our wonderful weekend away was off to a great start and we were psyched. But the truth of Mike’s saying started making itself felt subtly and shortly after we awoke. The first indication that things were not going to be as we had planned came when the rain, wind and snowstorm that hit last Friday caused all of the Smithsonian museums-indeed all of DC- to shut down that morning.  DC was pretty much locked down, and we had to re-think our Friday. No problem; Baltimore is home to the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History in Maryland, a great museum that I have loved for years. It is just off Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and its main permanent exhibit uses photos, charts, excerpts from diaries, maps, models, and artifacts to show how people of African descent have been involved in every aspect of life in Maryland, from interactions with Native Americans in the 1500’s up to the current day. I always find something new in that exhibit, and it is always worth seeing again. The museum also had two wonderful changing exhibits: Reflections: An Intimate Portrait of Iconic African Americans, and Freedom: Emancipation Quilted and Stitched. Reflections is a photo exhibit by photographer Terrance Reese who wanted to get to know his subjects by photographing them in the rooms in their dwellings that mean and say a lot about them. The focus is at first on the rooms-each subject’s portraits are hidden in a reflected image in a mirror in the room. But in looking closely at the rooms, the search to find the reflected images takes on on journeys into and around the details of people’s bedrooms, studies, workspaces, kitchens, living rooms, and parlors and provides great insight into how these people lived and saw themselves. The 1500 word captions Reese composed also gave you a sense of who these people were and what they did. Some of them, such as Gordon Parks and activist Daisy Bates, were quite familiar to me. Others, though, such as activists Esther and James Jackson and journalist Marvel Cooke, were new people to me. But as I looked at the photos all of them came alive in a new way to me, and I learned a lot about each of them. It was both a powerful exhibit and a unique way of looking at people. And we had not planned on seeing it.

  Freedom: Emancipation Quilted and Stitched is a series of story quilts done by Joan Gathier, a gifted quilter who sees the form as a way of telling important stories, both personal and beyond, and also as a way of drawing people together to make powerful statements.  From her personal reflections of life in the decades from the 19340’s to the 1990’s, to her examination of how people in and around Baltimore reacted to and took part in Barack Obama’s campaign, her work just sang. Gaither used established traditional quilting stiches, forms  and shapes combined with original design approaches to produce works of  stunning complexity, beauty, and power. My wife, who is a quilter, was awestruck, as was I. I studied each quilt for a while, and it was a joyous, moving and exciting exhibition.

  So we had made changes in our plans, and happily so. The visit to the Lewis was wonderful and inspiring, and I was sort of glad for the switch in plans. Then it was time to leave Baltimore and drive south towards Chestertown. And that is where Mike’s words really hit home. It is normally a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Baltimore to Chestertown. Four hours later we were stuck in a line of very slowly moving traffic on route 50 and listening to the news that the Bay Bridge, the link across the Chesapeake Bay toward Chestertown, was closed- again. For the third time. We were surrounded by the snow, wind and rainstorm and had only driven some 50 miles. We decided to try to re-trace our route, go north around the Bay, and get to Chestertown that way. But the lines of traffic heading north were as long if not longer as the ones we left on route 50. It was clear that was not going to work. After another hour and half, we decided to turn around and head back to Philly.

   We thought having Google Maps on our phone would be a big help to us-it updates routes regularly and suggests better, faster routes. But almost everyone now has Google Maps on their phones; what was at 6PM the fastest route somewhere quickly became the most crowded one by 6:15PM. And we were again in another miles-long jam. We stopped at a gas station, filled up and got a snack, and that was good because the storm continued unabated and we were in a number of never-ending jams for hours. The Philly area may have been spanked by that storm, but Eastern Maryland got absolutely, royally smacked. Over a quarter of a million people lost power in the Baltimore area alone. Hundreds of power lines and trees were knocked down, damaging houses and vehicles and blocking roads. Winds of 60-70 miles an hour battered homes, tearing off roofs and shingles. Every bridge in the eastern portion of the state was closed at some point on Friday afternoon and evening as tractor trailers crossing bridges were blown onto their sides. I-95 was closed three different times. We may have had plans and even had technology with us. But the sheer power and force of nature ruled the day. Fortunately, my wife and I travel very well together, even during hard times, and we managed to support and comfort each other without losing our tempers. And some 11 hours after we first left Baltimore for the wonderful Chestertown, MD we limped into our driveway in Mt. Airy, exhausted, hungry and very, very grateful.

  I gave Mike a call on Sunday and shared our little adventure with him. He laughed and told us how his place in Abington had a tree down in the yard, some minor roof damage, and had lost power for a few hours. We spoke of our gratitude that it was not any worse for either of us and thought about people who lost homes and more and still had no power. And we thought about those who were homeless during all of this and had little or no shelter. And we once again realized that for all of our human smarts and intelligence and technical knowledge, we are but small players on a much bigger and much broader stage. And that broader stage will do whatever it is going to do, humans be damned. Yes, we affect nature in many ways; we may be making serious changes to it. But in the end, on the broader stage, we are almost irrelevant. We can make changes in nature only in small ways Nature will be here long after we a species are gone. In the final run, we are not really in control. And nature finds its ways to remind us of that.  Hopefully we can listen and respond. For as another friend of mine, Kevin, once said, “With nature, the game is never over. It is always the bottom of the ninth, and nature always has the last at bat.” I hope the storm did not cause you too much difficulty.

   (Reginald Lewis Museum
    Dr. Joan Gathier
    Project Home )

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Valentine's Day and the Human Need for Story and Symbol


“We are humans, and that means we are symbol making beings. And symbols can move us as much as or more than facts" 
  Anonymous history teacher 

Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.”     Margot Asquith
“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts”
                                        Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson  
STORY AND SYMBOLWHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN                                                   
    This week we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the ideas of true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion. We are expected to tell people we care about that we love them, to give cards called “valentines” to people we care for, and ideally to play special music, to have special romantic meals, and to spend “romantic times” with someone. Cartoon hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. Of course, we live in a capitalistic and highly commercialized civilization, so there is always an economic interest behind any such cultural observance. Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas. According to the website Business Pundit, we spent over $15 billion dollars on the holiday in 2011, more than on Father’s and Mother’s Day combined. The cards, the dinners, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced by us. And like any other strong cultural occasion, that means this day has to be wrapped in story and symbol. 

  The most accepted story about Valentine’s Day traces its origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine.” Thus was a story and a tradition born.
   Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints who were named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something: an ideal or hope. Historians also know that at that time there was a big February celebration in Rome called the Feast of Lupercalia. It was a pre-Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. As a part of the occasion, the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome many of these ancient Roman festivals were outlawed and/or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia; he declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became forever associated with gift giving in the name of romance and love.

   Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart has been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. This was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart; they actually performed surgery that removed the heart. But the circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; its supposed link to all things emotional and intellectual was. 
    Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart became important to them as well. It was associated with emotions such as love, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards, like a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called silphium, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they took their symbols with them. That heart shape eventually became associated with love in most parts of the world. This hshape now abounds on all those valentine cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked.

   The use of the heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be, even in the face of contrary fact. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies; it had no connection to anything emotional or intellectual. By the middle of the 18th century that had become fairly common medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century that was being widely taught in junior high school biology classes. We all know this as fact. Yet despite all this factual knowledge, we still associate the heart with love. We know that emotions are generated in the brain-we now even know that certain specific things can trigger a given emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our language and common ways of talking regularly ignores what we know to be true. We still say, “I’m heartbroken,” when we are disappointed in love. Or we say, “My heart is heavy with loss” when we acknowledge the death of a loved one. We place our hands over our heart when we say the Pledge of Allegiance. Our "hearts are lifted,” when we feel our mood dramatically improve, and are “downhearted” when the opposite happens. We still talk and think as if all these emotional things are connected to that muscle that keeps our blood flowing despite our knowing the facts. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.”  And we definitely do not know a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.”  It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations. And more knowledge or more education will probably not change that. We have our story and we have our symbol, damnit, and we’re sticking to them.

   In all our celebrations and rituals, then, we can always see this link between story and symbol playing out. As humans we need that interaction between the two; that is where our emotions get touched, where our memories come alive, and where we can join together with other people. A good story with a good symbol helps us make sense of the world, and it also move us, whether it is on the political front, in movies, in art, in literature, in romance, or whatever. We create stories and symbols, and the joining of them is one of the things that mark us as humans-that strange animal that uses these things to try to interpret the world. We need them to make a space for ourselves in this world and to exist comfortably in it. Yes, we are also rational, and the rational side of our brain gets us through a lot and helps us greatly. Our rationality has helped us figure out important things about the universe, solve problems, create impressive inventions, design social and political systems, and much, much more. But we cannot or should not overlook how much we still depend on story and symbol to find our place in the world. If they can be linked to fact, it is so much the better. But even if they can’t, we still make regular use of them in figuring out the world and navigating this thing called life. They give us a way to find a place to stand. We have to use the two of them; we have to. After all, we are human, and this is what humans do.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Beyond the Headlines: The Reverend Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955

Monday, January 15th marks the 32nd national observance of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth. This year the holiday is observed on his actual birthday, which I always find somehow pleasing. With the Federal law mandating us to observe national holidays on Mondays, we sometimes forget when a person was really born, and I think we lose something when that happens. Initially, Ididn’t favor a “King Holiday.” I thought a more powerful and effective tribute would be if people just took January 15th off on their own and did something appropriate-sort of a nationwide act of civil disobedience. That did not happen, so I was feeling nervous in 1986 when the holiday was first observed. I feared that we would soon see a parade of “Martin Luther King Day Sales” in department and furniture stores and in auto showrooms; we would blow right past the messages embodied by his life and by his actions. But before that could happen Georgia Representative John Lewis and PA Senator Harris Wofford co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act. Both men had marched and worked with Dr. King, and the act they wrote encouraged Americans to honor the holiday by performing acts of service in honor of Dr. King. It was signed into law in 1994, and the idea caught on. Numerous civic organizations, cities, and towns all over the country developed volunteer activities for people of all ages, ranging from feeding the homeless, to repairing school playgrounds, to fixing up houses, planting gardens, and more. 32 years later the holiday is still seen as “The Martin Luther King Day of Service,” and Philadelphia continues to lead the nation both in the number of service opportunities offered AND in the number of participants. My fears, I am glad to say, were not realized.

King, of course, stands in the nation’s mind as the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. His quotes about the power of love in the face of hatred and about nonviolence being the way to meet injustice are often quoted around the world. His famous “I Have a Dream Speech” from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice is replayed and recited numerous times on his birthday, everywhere from elementary schools, to dinners and breakfasts, to marches, community celebrations, and on newscasts. He and Rosa Parks are often seen as “birth parents” of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott often being seen as the “birth event.” Montgomery was hugely important, of course, but seeing it as the birth event of the civil rights movement is far from accurate: there have been organized efforts to address the problems facing African Americans since colonial times. The NAACP had gone to court and won some travel segregation cases years before 1955, and there had been constant civil rights activity before the boycott all across the country. What Montgomery and its boycott marked was not the “birth of the movement.” What it marked was the birth of national awareness and attention to the movement. Civil Rights was now a nationwide issue and could not be ignored. Many people also tend to see Dr. King as the leader of the bus boycott, and that is not quite accurate, either. He did become the face of the boycott, but the reality of how that movement happened was more complicated and nuanced than the popular story has it. And it involves at least two other people who have not gotten much recognition due them but without whom there may never have been a boycott.

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger, she was not just “a woman tired from a long day of work.”  She had already been involved in the civil rights struggle. She had attended sessions on both race relations and civil disobedience at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She had been secretary for the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had investigated cases of sexual assault by white men against black women for the NAACP. And she had had an earlier unpleasant interaction with James Blake, the December 1 bus driver. Unlike the stories frequently told about her, she had been an activist for a while. and she had had enough.

In between Rosa’s arrest on December 1st and her trial on Monday, December 5th two notable things happened, both involving people who were pivotal in what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jo Ann Robinson, leader of the Woman’s Political Council, had complained about Jim Crow segregated travel before. In fact she had warned the mayor of Montgomery in 1954 that a boycott would come soon to attack and overthrow the system. When word of Rosa’s arrest became known, she saw her chance. Jo Ann and her family, along with some associates, hand mimeographed and distributed some 35,000 flyers throughout the black community on Friday night and Saturday calling for a one-day boycott of the city buses on Monday, December 5- the day of Rosa’s trial.  On Saturday, December 3rd, many of Montgomery’s African-Americans had heard about the planned action, and many of them did not ride the buses that Saturday. And come Monday, December 5th, the vast majority of Blacks didn’t ride. Buses were nearly empty, and the one-day boycott was a success. Monday night there was to be a mass meeting to see if the boycott should be continued. 

Meanwhile, E.D. Nixon, head of the Montgomery NAACP and a labor leader, called a meeting of local Black ministers to discuss plans to respond to Rosa’s arrest. He, too, had been wanting to take action for years, and he, too, saw an opportunity. When Nixon met with the ministers he suggested they resolve to take further action, that they call themselves, The Montgomery Improvement Association, and that they choose a young minister new to Montgomery to be their spokesperson. He felt that a new person had not yet had time to be either intimidated or known by the city’s power structure and could be more effective. The ministers agreed, and they chose the 26 year-old Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be their spokesperson. At that mass meeting Monday evening King made a short and very well received speech. The assembled crowd decided to continue the boycott, and King became the visible leader of the movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was now under way, largely due to the efforts of Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon.
Both Robinson and Nixon took very important roles during the boycott. Robinson had to be careful: she was a professor and could have lost her job. So she worked behind the scenes, editing the MIA’s weekly newsletterand  arranging schedules for carpools, Black-owned taxis, and groups of people to walk together. She and the Women’s Political Council also raised money. Nixon was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a nationwide black labor union. Through them he was able to raise badly needed money to buy and repair cars for the carpools, post bails, hire lawyers, and get food and other supplies. Along with Ralph Abernathy and other leaders, he also advised Dr. King and helped plan strategies to keep the pressure on the city despite the increased efforts by many whites-violent and non-violent- to break the boycott. Most importantly, Nixon recognized the power of the newly developed technology of television, and he saw what a perfect fit Dr. King was for it. He arranged to get Dr. King and the boycott repeatedly in front of national network news cameras and making what had been a local issue a national one. TV took both Dr. King and civil rights to a national and international stage, energizing the boycott, generating interest in civil rights, and giving it more recognition and support.

Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon are heroes of mine. I like to think of them as human versions of infrastructure; that necessary thing that holds something up, keeps it going, and enables it to function. Both of them played huge roles in keeping the boycott going-shoring up people’s spirits, keeping it organized, standing up to arrests, attacks and bombings, and helping maintain it for over a year. Without the two of them it is easy to imagine the boycott not being effective. They were crucial to its eventual success.

And as I think on Dr. King’s life over this next week I also like to think about all of those unsung people who played such vital parts throughout the movement: in the bus boycott, the voter registration activities, the marches, and more. I have to thank the ones who walked during the boycott, drove cars, got arrested, donated, listened, and sang the freedom songs. I have to acknowledge all of them. Particularly in this day and time it is important to remember that effective movements are about more than one leader, one organization or one event. There must be a strong and stable “us”-a committed, consistent, and long-lasting group of people willing and able to endure whatever it takes to sustain the movement and keep it going. It takes a village to raise a movement, and as Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon demonstrated, that human infrastructure is essential. Thank you, Jo Ann and E.D. You may be largely unknown, but your works are not.

Websites about Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Look Back at People We Lost in 2017

One of the things people do leading up to and just after the start of a new year is to look back at the year just passed and at the events that had an impact on us as a nation, as members of a group or groups, and as individuals. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and podcasts of all sorts do this as a regular part of doing what they do. It is a necessary attempt, I believe to “sum up;" to do that human thing of trying to make sense of what has happened and acknowledging certain things as ‘important’ or “vital” and to construct a narrative. We need to put things in some sort or order and find meaning from that. It is important that we do that.

It also, at least for me, reminds me of the effects of certain people and how what they said or did influenced me. So much of who I am, how I think, and what I do I owe to other people who encouraged me, provided an inspiration, gave me a new idea or new way of looking at things, or helped me see things in a new way. And in 2017, as in all years, I had the opportunity to think back on a number of people who played such a role in my life. I may not have known them personally, but they had an enormous impact on me and my thinking.

Dick Gregory was one such person. His scathing satire and on time stand-up comedy first caught my attention in the 1960’s with his TV appearances, records, and civil rights work. I got to see him live twice, and his pointed humor helped me develop some new ways of looking at this country. Two of his books, nigger, his autobiography, and No More Lies, his correction to the standard high school US history book, both influenced
how and what I taught over my long career in secondary education. While I certainly did not agree with all his positions, reading and listening to him taught me the importance of standing clearly for something and the importance of being willing to go beyond the accepted narrative. That is something that is still with me today, and I owe much of that to Dick Gregory.

Poet, essayist and playwright Derek Walcott introduced me to Caribbean culture and history with the play, Dream on Monkey Island. This allegorical play from the 1970’s found me right at the time I was looking at African and African-American history, and it expanded my research to include Black Caribbean culture as well. His epic poem, Osmero, was shown to me by a friend when we were discussing how ancient the use of poetry as metaphor was. In its use of themes and characters from the works of Homer it opened my eyes to how one could appropriate ideas from another culture and time to talk about what YOU wanted to talk about and say about the present. That struck me as a wonderfully freeing and powerful idea. And when I later taught Homer in some of my classes, I used Osmero to help kids find the relevance in his works to today’s issues. Thank you, Derek, for that.

There were two other major influences on my life whom we lost in 2017: rock and roll inventor Chuck Berry and harp player and singer James Cotton.  I wrote about James in a newsletter last March after hearing about his death. James has influenced me more than any other bluesman, and I was fortunate to meet him many times when I was just starting out as a musician. His willingness to teach, his playing and especially his joy in being on stage are things that are still with me today. Thanks, Superharp.

I came late to Chuck’s work, I am sorry to say. In the late 1950’s when he was breaking out, I was still mostly into old-style blues and soul music. Radio was more segregated and genre-specific then, and I listened to WDAS and WHAT. They were Philly soul stations, and the saxophone was the big instrument in such music. Those stations did not play any guitar-driven rock. But when I got to junior high school, Chuck started to speak to me. It was the cleverness of the rhymes and lyrics which caught me first; I thought it was so cool that someone could put lyrics together like that and do it so fast and in such a rocking way. Then I got into the rhythm and the guitar playing, and when I saw him on TV shows I was knocked out. Again it was the sheer joy of the performance that held me. Music has always been joy to me, and I always loved folks who could put that joy across from the stage. Chuck and James both did that; what a gift.

So as we move on with 2018, I have to tip my hat to these and several other people we lost in 2017. It is good for me to look back and acknowledge how much I owe to these people and to be grateful for their influence. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be me.  So I thank them for helping me be the me I am and the "me" I am still becoming. I could not do it without them, then or now. Thanks to all of you.
(Here are some links to pages about these people:

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Happy 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 am extremely fortunate to be living live in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Living here I get to see each season for approximately an equal amount of time each year, and that is a delight. I love all of the seasons, both the seasons themselves and the transitions that lead up to them. People in this region get to fully experience the arrival of each season, see it develop over time, and then see and feel it fully emerge. And we get to delight in the simultaneous ending of one season and the slow deliberate arrival of the next. I think of all of this as the "endless cycle of the universe," and it has been here and continuing since time before time. I love this cycle, in part, because it links us to all the humans who have been here long before us and will be here long after us. And it links us all to the earth.
Humans have always noted, marked, responded to, and ritualized each of the aspects of this cycle. In all parts of the world we have created symbols, activities, images, music and more to show our deep dependence on and connections to this cycle, whether it has been about pure physical survival, deep emotional fear or hope, reverential worship, and/or deep spiritual love. Doing this is one of the things that seems to make us human; we can’t live in this world without doing it. And I love the coming of winter because it is one of those times when this connection between the cycle and our human need for ritual is so obvious. In all parts of the world the approach of winter is marked by big changes in climate and environment, and we respond. It either starts raining more or snowing. Fog may be more prevalent. Temperatures start to drop, trees, plants and crops go through noticeable changes, and the length of days-the amount of sunlight- changes. This hits a climax at the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the day after, when the days start getting longer. Whether in the Northern Hemisphere, when the winter solstice is in December, or in the Southern Hemisphere, when it is in June, humans have met these changes repeatedly with organized group activities-rituals. There were songs, stories, dances, symbols, and especially fire and light. In the Scandinavian countries Juul feasts involved bringing a Juul log (Yule log) into the house and burning it in the hearth to honor of the god of thunder, Thor and to acknowledge a new beginning. The ashes were kept in the house or on one’s person as a sign of the belief in the rebirth of the world and hope for a better and safer new year. In ancient Rome the solstice was met by Saturnalia, a feast dedicated to Saturn, the father of the gods. It involved a reversal of social order, symbolic fertility gifts of fruits and dolls, and candles. It was the birth-rebirth of the sun and the gods, and things were in chaos for a while until proper order was returned in the days following the solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere descendants of the Inca had the tradition Inti Ramya, a festival welcoming the New Year and involving, among other things, animal sacrifice and the origin story of the Inca. Shab-E-Yalda celebrated the triumph of Mithra the sun god in Iran, parts of Turkey and parts of Afghanistan. Gatherings featured poetry, song, bonfires and wishes/prayers to protect the community from darkness and from evil in the coming year. In all of these traditions there is both a mystical connection to light and some form of symbolic rebirth. These are universal themes of our solstice observances, for we seem to need to meet the winter darkness with light and hope.
The Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa celebrations with which we are familiar are likewise about light and rebirth. Like all rituals they have symbolic meanings for just about every phase of the observance. The lighting of the menorah candles in Hanukkah, for example, recall the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days during the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It is also a rebirth story for both the Temple and for the religion, as it honors the fact that the Jews were able to withstand the attempt by Antiochus to destroy their religion. The story of the Star of Bethlehem in the Christmas story is also about light and rebirth, as Christians believe the story represents the birth of a new “light” for the world. It is also the first part of a longer story of re-birth that culminates with Easter. And the lights on Christmas trees and the date of December 25th show what happens when various cultures come together and their beliefs, symbols and rituals intermingle. They get re-interpreted and take on new meanings. Likewise, Kwanzaa with its candle,s affirms a reverence for the rebirth of links between people of African descent and the continent of Africa. It is intended to represent the birth of a new awareness of African origins; the daily candle lighting, similar to Hanukkah, represent a re-dedication to communal African values. So even if we may not be aware of it, all of these celebrations affirm our continual links to that cycle of the earth and our deep connections to humans from earlier times and places. We may think of ourselves as more “modern” or “advanced” than our ancestors, but scratch the surface of so much of what we do, and the links between them and us are there.
So however you observe the reality of the solstice, know that by doing so you are joining with thousands of years of human history to acknowledge our connection to and reverence for the cycle. It is one of the things it means to be a human animal; one of the things that mark us as different from other living things. Do have a wonderful season of contemplation joy, re-dedication, gift giving and good food. And do stop every now and then to notice the beauty and power of the lights against the darkness. For we are still working to meet the darkness with light.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Inrcedble Disappearing Thanksgiving Holiday

 I love Thanksgiving. It has long been one of my favorite holidays stretching back to when I was a little kid. It was a holiday I loved probably even more than Christmas. There ware a couple of reasons for this: as a kid Thanksgiving meant time off from school; although I liked school, a two-day holiday in the middle of the week was great. Thanksgiving also meant gathering together and eating lots of great food. And everyone was involved in getting the meal ready and setting the table. Often you were with people who were normally at your dinner table, and that could make for fun and/or interesting arguments. And most notably, on Thanksgiving you did not nave to buy gifts. It wasn’t required or expected. So Thanksgiving had all of the wonders of a big deal holiday and few of the drawbacks. I loved it. And as I grew older this idea of everyone pausing their regular lives and gathering together to express some sort of “gratitude” came to mean more and more to me. Thanksgiving gradually became an important way for me to look at the world and my role in it.

  Recently it seems as if Thanksgiving is having a hard time of it in our culture, at least in our most visible media and popular culture. Over the last few years I have seen it become well nigh invisible in commercials, TV references, and even on the little bits of social media I observe. Each year it seems we have Halloween and then jump over Thanksgiving to get to the December holidays, and more importantly, buying things. Christmas sales and specials started appearing this year BEFORE Halloween. Black Friday sales have gotten tons of mentions already, but the day before Black Friday-the day we supposedly express our sincere gratitude for all that we have-hardly draws a mention anymore. I guess there is not a lot of money to be made on it in comparison to the winter holidays; restaurants, grocery stores and bakeries remind you to get your orders in on time, but that is about it. To the culture at large it doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While we definitely still recognize it, our culture doesn’t spend much public (and billable) time talking about it anymore. That saddens me, and not just because it is one of my favorite holidays.

  It saddens me because downplaying this day seems to me to be downplaying some part of our basic humanity. Thanksgiving is one of the most uniquely human occurrences in our lives; it is one of those holidays that may well mark us as a different type of life form on this earth. As far as we know, dogs, protozoa, trees, beetles and other living tings do not develop long lasting group rituals to express this thing we call, “gratitude.” Humans do. And we have been doing it all over the planet and at all different times and in tons of different ways forever. Expressing thanks is one of the most universal of things we humans do, and it is something that people from all faith traditions, and even from no faith traditions at all, do and have done virtually forever. It has been observed by every culture, by every ethnic group, in every time period, and just about everywhere on the planet. It is an important part of what makes us “us.”

   This idea of expressing gratitude is something humans have done since prehistory. The return of wild herbs and plants for the pre-agricultural migrating societies; the running of the fish again in the rivers and streams; the return of birds and eggs and animals to trap and to hunt; the seasonal changes in weather and climate; all of these would have been things our hunting and gathering ancestors hoped and prayed for, and they would have found ways to give “thanks” for them when they occurred. There was a definite perceived link between what humans did and whether of not these resources returned, so group rituals were developed to try to give humans a better chance of influencing the odds. Then when agriculture developed, this process reached new levels of intensity. Yes, agriculture meant humans could stay in one place, but that stability of place required humans to do a hell of a lot of hard work. 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 things still might not work. So the rituals of giving thanks became an important and necessary part of spring planting and fall harvest festivals all over the world and still are. Although in our modern civilized world many of us are far removed from the actual work that goes into sustaining a civilization, our societies today are still resting on and dependent upon that same infrastructure. No, it doesn’t take as many people to do it, and much of the work can seem invisible. But if we look closely we see that it is still there and still necessary. And as we all know when a traffic light is out or our stove breaks or our computer acts up, even with all of this technological “advancement” we still need luck and maybe some divine help.

  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’ help and assistance. And every now and then we have to formally acknowledge that. The human in us needs to stop and say, “Thanks” to some spirit or some ones or some things outside of and/or beyond ourselves. Otherwise we may misread our place in the world and think we did all of this by ourselves.  So in addition to the great food and the family reunions and the football games and the parades, I hope you have a happy, thoughtful, and grateful Thanksgiving. And if you can, please find a way to help some people who are a little less fortunate than you are.


   Chester County Food Bank:

   Mercer Street Friends Food Bank:

   Food Bank of Delaware:

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Two Trains Running...

“Well, there’s two, two  trains runnin’…)
In 1965 I was 15 and a student at Central High in Philadelphia. It was an important time for me: I was doing that teenage thing so many of us did then and maybe still do; trying to define myself. It was a conscious thing; I wanted to figure out who I was, what the world meant, and where I fit into the world.  I did a lot of that searching and discovering by what I chose to explore, experience, study and learn from. The people with whom I hung out, the books I read, the movies I watched, the political events I attended, and most especially, the music I listened to and experienced live were my major ways of trying to do that. A lot of those attempts were misguided, wasted and silly in retrospect, but they put me on a path of looking at connections, considering new ways of expression, thinking about how people and societies change, and exploring things that piqued my curiosity and caught my interest. In many ways those days and what was going on both within me and in the society all around me were, in addition to my mom, the most important factors in leading me to becoming the adult I am now. It was a time of a lot of changes and opportunity for me and for the country.
    I grew up in a house that had a parent who sold encyclopedias and valued schooling, so reading, writing, and learning about things were  always major parts of my life. In elementary school I started haunting libraries and reading always and everywhere, even while walking down the street (I still do that). Mom had records by Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, and Johnny Mathis, and she would play them, particularly during the holidays. I did a lot of dishes at my house because the best radio in the house was in the kitchen. Motown and Stax record labels were my soul music staples, but in high school my ears got bigger. Late at night I could pick up AM stations from as far away as New York City and Buffalo, NY: that is where I first heard some of the sounds that were new and intriguing to me-down home blues, what came to be called rock, and different forms of jazz. FM radio was just starting to take off at this time, and there were new forms of music that was attracting attention. Folk music was big then. Hootenanny was on TV, and I both heard and watched the Weavers, Joan Baez,  the Kingston Trio, and Tom Rush. Rock and Roll music was now called “rock,” and it had started taking over the Top 40 and dominated FM. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Animals, the Byrds, and many more groups that played their own instruments became new food for me. I was scooping up huge chunks of all of this and at the same time reading: Allan Ginsberg, Hermann Hesse, James Baldwin, Gay Snyder, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and many, many more. Politically I was also active, taking part in Civil Rights marches and anti- Vietnam War marches. And I was just starting to play the harmonica. It was a heady sometimes overwheliming, and busy time for a teenager; arts, politics, and culture were all coming together for me in unexpected ways and with unexpected results.
 I've been thinking about  those years because I have recently been reminded of that time. I saw the film, Two Trains Running last week, and that film examines the intersections of race, music and politics in the mid 1960’s in a powerful way and unusual way. Ostensibly, Two Trains starts as a simple look at the attempt by two groups of white folk music fans to try to find legendary country blues musicians Skip James and Son House in 1964.Through interviews, narration and film about the folk music scene, animation, and some good storytelling we follow these teams on their quests, one from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. These searches mean they have to go into the South, and there they suddenly find themselves in the midst of  the drama, tension, hope, and danger connected to Jim Crow and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. They did not start trying to be involved in any of that at all, but events around them brought them suddenly face to face to some realities about the country, their own social attitudes, and things that came to define them and change their lives. With wonderful juxtapositioning by director Don Pollard we get to learn about the music, but we also see some of the events that led to many young whites to become involved in voter registration and Freedom Schools in the South, the events leading up to the brutal murder of 3 Civil Rights workers, and the results of the re-discovery of these 2 black musical legends. The coming together of these things had a huge impact on our culture in an indirect but very real way. Yes, James and House were found and went on to perform and record again- I got to see and meet both musicians at concerts put on by the Central High Folk Club, the Main Point, The 2nd Fret, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the results went way beyond the resurrection of their musical careers. Many white Americans were galvanized to explore and treasure blues music and to help raise its profile in US culture. More people also became supporters of and participants in the Civil Rights Movement as folk, rock and other new music brought Black performers in front of white audiences. (I first saw Howlin’ Wolf on the TV show, Shindig, where he was introduced by the Rolling Stones). Music in the form of gospel and folk helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement. Major changes started happening in the culture and politics of the country and music was a the heart of a lot of it. And little of it was foreseen or planned.
Two Trains Runnin’ is leaving Philadelphia, but I urge you to track down where it goes next. If you are around my age, it will remind you of the mid-60’s in a much more realistic and clear-headed way than most popular references to that time do. And if you are younger, it can help you appreciate the foundations of a lot of the music we take for granted now. It will also bring home how messy, dangerous and ongoing the struggle for social justice is and has to be, something we all need to be aware of in the current political climate. It brought back to me a clear memory of an important time in my life and in the larger life of our nation and culture. The two trains were runnin', and it turned out both were going my way.