WHAT TO DO WHEN CHAOS REIGNS?

By Paul M. Lewis

I’ve asked myself a number of times why I haven’t written much of late, given the unprecedented and disastrous advent of the Trump Administration. Surely, I thought, there has been plenty happening, and I must have something to say about it. There are innumerable topics about which I have deep feelings, opinions that diverge sharply from the reprehensible actions of the president and his staff. These actions have to do with everything from immigration and deportation, to foreign policy, to civil rights, to climate change and environmental policy generally, to healthcare, to international trade, and on and on. In one sense, this itself may have been the problem for me. I’ve felt stymied, sometimes almost paralyzed, by the avalanche of deplorable and reprehensible actions that come willy-nilly from the Trump administration on almost a daily basis.

In the end, however, silence is not a tenable position. While the feeling of being submerged by the events of the day is understandable, what isn’t all right is to sit back and do nothing. Not that it’s my intention to tell anyone else how they should act. Each person will take on what she or he feels is possible to do. But even the smallest thing may contribute in ways that we may not always be aware of. And an accumulation of small actions, bound together in solidarity and common interest and common passion, can often do more than a single large action.

I suppose it could be because of these thoughts I’ve been mulling over lately, but I had a dream the other night in which I saw a poster on which was written in bold letters: “Write Your Blog and Do Your Part.” So, I’ve decided it’s time to stop feeling hobbled and constrained by people and events. After all, I am a believer in the notion that every word spoken has a wide-ranging and resonant effect in the world, and words uttered from the heart, as well as from the head, are all the more powerful.

What then do I think about the Trump Administration? My very first reaction was that it might bring fascism down upon our country. And I should add I’m still concerned that it could. But what strikes me more so these days is not so much its execrable authoritarian bent, as terrible as that is, but instead the disordered, almost anarchical chaos of its dealings with the world. Trump is someone incapable of long-term planning, so very unlike his measured and highly intellectual predecessor. The new president is clearly uncomfortable with logic, forethought and groundwork, anything that hints of a cool, cerebral projection of ideas and policies. By his own admission, he prefers to keep us guessing, so as to keep people off balance and, in so doing, gain the advantage over them. And while such a strategy may work in business, although I have my doubts that it does even there—at least not in the long run—it is a disastrous way to run a government.

Of course, chaos and turmoil are hardly new; neither were they introduced into the world by Donald Trump. He is merely the latest iteration. With very little effort, anyone who studies history can come up with multiple examples of it. To name general categories, rather than specific instances of each (as the list would otherwise be almost endless), we might include the following: wars, slavery and forced labor, massacres, purges, internment camps, human-induced mass starvation, killing in the name of religion or political ideology, forced conversion, human sacrifice, cultural genocide, and on and on. This is what people have done to each other over the millennia, and it continues today.

The Principle of Chaos is seldom far removed from our lives, as much as we may think of ourselves as civilized. Before Hitler, many Germans surely thought of themselves as—and were—refined and enlightened, good solid citizens of the state, well mannered, and compassionate. But in the end, great fear, as well as a certain human willingness to overlook what is happening around one, took over and blinded people as to what they were allowing themselves to become.

The tendency toward chaos appears to be a thing deeply embedded in the human psyche, though most of the time we rouse ourselves to combat and counteract it. Some are more successful at it than others. We see it in our deepest mythic stories. And what are mythologies, but tales we tell ourselves and others in order to help us understand the frightening underlying power of the unconscious mind? Here again, there are countless examples: the coyote trickster in many American Indian traditions; fear of the dark wood in European fairytales; Loki in old Norse stories; the fallen angels—to say nothing of Satan—in Christian thought; and the Fomorians, a group of anti-gods in Irish myth, who fought against the gods of the upper world. Some of the Fomorians wound up marrying the gods (the Tuatha De Danann) and having offspring, a not too unsubtle nod to the idea that we are all mixtures of good and bad.

Along with great uncertainty and tremendous disruption in people’s lives, chaos also brings with it fear and panic. Where there had once been a calm certitude about life, a sort of ordinariness, even a boring routine, though one that induced assurance and confidence that life would go on as it always has, now instead ensues tumult and confusion, mayhem and disarray. We see this in the millions of immigrants—legal and illegal—who are wary of going to work in the morning and to school, or to the market to buy food. They are frightened even to go out into the street, lest an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official stop and arrest them. We see it with Muslims, too, and among transgender students, leery of going to school anymore, with the millions who now fear whether or not they will get to keep their health insurance, and even in the scientific community, where people are justifiably guarded and watchful of government agencies disrupting studies they disapprove of.

Chaos is not just something that appears in myth. It is a real thing that takes place in the world we live in. We see it in mythological stories precisely because it happens in everyday life, because it is part of how humans sometimes act. None of this is meant to say that we must accept it. It is inevitable only to the extent that we acquiesce to it, that we allow it to happen.

Donald Trump may thrive on chaos. He may have chosen his closest advisers, people like Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, exactly because they feed his need for it. But there still remain elements of our government and our society that can fight and counteract the hubbub of despair that comes with chaotic and authoritarian governmental action. So far, at least, the judiciary has stood solid, the press has remained vigilant, and most of all the people themselves have made their voices heard.

That is why I am writing today, and why it is important for all of us to do whatever we can to protest loudly and forcefully, whenever it’s required that we do so. Otherwise, chaos continues to reign; otherwise, the forces of disorder and confusion sap our energies and lay us low. With will and determination, we can counteract at least some of the upheaval of a newly topsy-turvy world. And we can, as well—come 2018—effect dramatic changes of our own making.

LIBERTY and NATURE Embracing for Life

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SOME THOUGHTS ON EMBRACING FOR LIFE

by Paul M. Lewis

Emma Lazarus wrote, as seen on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is—or was—the sacred promise of America, and if that doesn’t sound like today’s refugees and immigrants, the poor and dispossessed of the earth, it’s hard to imagine what else it could describe. What does the notion of liberty actually mean, other than freedom of choice, the ability to do as one wishes, unfettered by physical or social constraint, so long as others are not harmed and, in doing so, one does not unduly trample on the rights of others?

But why, in the picture, do we see Lady Liberty embracing Mother Nature? The two come together because none of us, neither human beings nor any of the other creatures of the earth, can live our normal lives beyond the boundaries of the physical world, or beyond an emotional and social context. What this suggests is that our vaunted freedom to choose is best used in opting for the right and the good, not only for ourselves, but for the life of the planet as a whole. It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize the natural world in all of its diversity. As Yeats put it a century ago: “…the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, or fowl…whatever is begotten, born, or dies.” This is the world of nature, seen, experienced, and lived in by all of us.

The two figures are depicted as holding each other and kissing. Just as with human lovers, each needs and chooses the other in an ultimate exercise of freedom. But that choice can only be made in the absence of coercion and of political or social authoritarianism. If Lady Liberty and Mother Nature hold each other today, it is the duty of each of us to do all we can to ensure that continued ability to embrace and kiss. In so doing, Liberty and Nature engender love and creativity, as well as a hope for a better future for us and for the planet. If the politics of the day work against this, only our will and our eternal vigilance can counteract it.

 

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

from the artist – Kevin L. Miller

Lady Liberty is one of the primary symbols for the United States of America. Mother Nature, of course, represents all of Nature and the Earth itself. When a friend and former colleague suggested that I might consider drawing Lady Liberty and Mother Nature as friends, I thought “What a good idea!” But when I began to develop a composition on the screen of my mind their “friendship” became much more – a deeply committed intimate relationship of love and mutual support. And this seems entirely appropriate, since the U.S. and the Earth need each other in order to survive. America cannot thrive if the Earth becomes unable to sustain life. And the Earth will cease to be able to do so, if the U.S. and all of humanity does not quickly learn how to nurture, honor, and respect our planet. Lady Liberty and Mother Nature are embracing for life. Their intimate embrace is a fundamental necessity, whether we and the world’s nations and leaders acknowledge it or not. If we want to avoid the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and leave a planet where our children and grandchildren can thrive, then we will support and celebrate Lady Liberty and Mother Nature embracing for life.

 

FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE TRUMP HAS WON–NOW WHAT?

By Paul M. Lewis

We will see what the election of Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the United States brings with it. So far, there seems little doubt that it does not bode well for the environment, for the battle against global climate change, for the physical health of millions of Americans, especially the country’s poorest, for international affairs, or for transnational trade. In the end, it might even presage bad news for the working class, those very individuals whose support—due to the eccentricities of the Electoral College—propelled him into the White House in the first place.

Trump claims to have been elected by an overwhelming vote of the people, but the latest count shows that he lost the popular election by 2.8 million. He consistently lost in almost every major urban center in the country, while eking out Electoral College wins in several states. In Michigan, for example, he won by only about 10,000 votes; in Wisconsin the number was approximately 22,000; and in Pennsylvania it was by some 40,000. If we add in two other Trump victories, namely Florida and South Carolina, where he won by 120,00 and 177,000 votes respectively, we come to a total of 370,000. That number cinched for him the 84 electoral votes that come with these states. Compare that to the number of electoral votes Hillary Clinton won by taking California and New York—also 84. In other words, Trump received 84 electoral votes with only 370,000 popular votes, while Clinton got them by winning 4.9 million popular votes (the combined number she received in California and New York). Is it fair, or even democratic, to allot the same number of electoral votes to both candidates, when one took the popular vote in the states mentioned by more than 4 million? Ultimately, the question of the viability of the Electoral College has to be left up to the American people as a whole to consider. But one thing is for sure: in no way can Trump’s win be considered a landslide.

Leaving aside for the moment the whole issue of how, or by how much, he won, what has to be faced now is what will he do with his newly found power? Since he has not even been inaugurated yet, we are mostly left to speculate. We do know that he has already nominated a conglomeration of billionaires for his cabinet. Overall, these individuals represent a group that promises to stymie federal regulations that protect the environment and people’s health and wellbeing, and instead will lobby for the rich and powerful, and who—if confirmed by Congress—would in some cases work to undo the very agencies they were sworn in to protect. Beyond that, his actions, and even his demeanor, so far are not promising. He has already managed to deeply offend the Chinese, cherry pick a company that was going to move its operations to Mexico and prevent—or bribe or bully—them from doing so (whether or not such a policy is sustainable is an open question), cozy up to dictators like Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and now he claims to openly doubt the combined intelligence gathering prowess of the country. We can only presume this is because he fears that Russia’s meddling in our presidential election for the purposes of promoting a Trump win will cast doubt on his legitimacy as the winner. And beyond even this, he continues not only to question, but to deny outright any human part in the warming of the globe, and to name like-minded people to positions that oversee the country’s efforts to do its part in battling climate change.

Given all this, when Trump becomes president of this country on January 20, 2017, what are we going to do about him? For one thing, everyone who believes in American democracy must work through their elected representatives—of both parties—in order to rein in Trump’s excesses. Democrats and Progressives may not agree with much that Republicans stand for, but already senators like John McCain (R-Arizona), and even Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), have expressed concern and are speaking out about Trump’s dangerous dismissal of the CIA’s findings related to Russia’s interference in our electoral process. Unfortunately, the GOP Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has not yet found the courage to do so, but political pressure has worked on him in the past, and he may yet come round to standing up for a full and fair examination into Russia’s role in Trump’s win. The country deserves such an inquiry, and we all ought to be concerned about the president-elect’s blithe and offhand dismissal of such astounding findings. Trump tells us he is an intelligent man and does not even need the daily security briefings that are part and parcel of any learning curve for a new chief executive. But this is not about how smart any individual may be. It’s about knowledge and information; it’s about keeping abreast of what is happening in a changing world. In a word, it’s about what is called intelligence, which Trump clearly needs.

More and more, it will be incumbent upon all Americans to keep themselves informed and to stand up and be counted when, as seems all too likely, Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style and his more than questionable ideas and theories go against the good of the American people. It’s not inconceivable that his bizarre notions and his authoritarian impulses may pose a threat to the country, or even to the world.

If there ever was an expectation that Trump might show himself, after the election, to be more mature, less impulsive, more willing to accommodate the desires of all the American people, the time for it would be now. We can certainly hope that those who voted for Donald Trump were able to see something in him that many of us who didn’t cannot. If he succeeds in renewing the tattered infrastructure of the county, or in legitimately and sustainably bringing jobs back to those who have lost them and who have felt left out by the processes of the automatizing of industry and of globalization, we ought to be glad. But even then, at what cost might such benefits come, if indeed they come at all? What price are we willing to pay for such hoped-for benefits?

In the end, the country is stronger than any one individual, however misguided, or even malign, we may think his intentions to be. While awaiting the answers to the many questions about Donald Trump and the kind of president he will prove himself to be, we should remember and trust in the strengths of the checks and balances built into the Constitution. We would also do well to believe in the patriotism and love of country we see in many, of both parties, in Congress; and as individuals we must live our lives with as much watchfulness, dignity, and integrity as we can muster. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This is a quote often attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Thomas Jefferson. Whether or not it was he who said it is hardly the point. These days, and always, it is a thing we would all do well to remember.

 

 

 

 

WHAT WE WANT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

By Paul M. Lewis

I have always felt that the holidays tend to amplify and magnify both what is good and what is bad in life. The good things seem that much nicer: spending time with family and friends, eating wonderful food, or just enjoying the warmth of a season when people, sometimes at least, really do try to treat each other a little better. And the bad things are that much more hurtful: the continued wars in the world, the violence and killing, all the horrors that people perpetrate on each other, from casual caustic remarks to curses to racial or ethnic slurs. All this when what we’re most longing for is some basic human respect, and maybe even a little bit of kindness.

I have, for a long time now, particularly had mixed feelings about the month of November. That’s because both of my parents died during this month, and now my partner’s father and his sister have, as well. In addition, his mother and brother passed away, one in late October just this year, and the other in mid-December a few years ago. Even so, we make the best effort we can to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with an open heart and mind.

What exactly is it about the holidays that makes us all the more long for those feelings of warmth and closeness or, to put it more simply, the desire to be loved? Because isn’t it a truism that, always and forever, what everyone wants is to be loved? Even the gruffest among us, those who do not make a habit of freely giving their own love to others, nonetheless somehow want love in return. We may do our utmost sometimes to make that wish sound more adult, more mature, more grown up. We call it things like acceptance, or a kind of welcoming or even, minimally, a tolerance of who and what we are. But dig down deep enough, and we see that what’s really meant is simply that we want to be loved.

The other day, my partner and I were going into our local grocery store to do the weekly shopping, and there, next to the door, sat a beggar. There is no other word to use, no other term to soften, mollify or sugarcoat it. He was dressed in the filthiest of rags, his hair was unwashed, and he had a long beard that hung down in tatters. I looked at him and smiled, if for no other reason than that most people were quickly turning away. It was clear that he was about to ask for money (another reason why people were probably avoiding his gaze), even though he had not quite gotten around to it with me yet. So, I walked over to him.

It’s a strange experience to encounter a total stranger who, in a sense, stands naked before you. I don’t mean he was without clothing, of course. His nakedness was psychic, psychological, if you prefer. He sat there with no pretense whatsoever, no attempt to hide who and what he was. Through his unkempt hair and his rumpled and disheveled appearance, he looked up at me and smiled, and he said to me in, I swear to you, the sweetest and most loving way: “I’m an alcoholic.” That’s it, no other words, just a simple declaration of how he thought of himself. Now, I am no stranger to alcoholics. My father was one, as was my brother, and several of my uncles. In a way, I guess, it’s kind of a family trait. My partner’s mother was also, albeit one who was able to achieve a wonderful twenty-eight years of sobriety, and we have other close friends who are recovering alcoholics. I answered him and said, “Yes, I know you are,” and I gave him a dollar. Then, mostly for my own comfort, not his—I do get that—I added, “I hope you spend it on food, not on booze.” We both knew what he would probably do, but by now there was a sense whereby that no longer mattered as much. What felt more important to me was that we’d had at least a moment’s worth of honest human interaction. In that instant, he became no longer just another bum by the market door, not just a piece of human flotsam, washed up on so-called civilized shores to be seen for an instant and avoided by upright and respectable citizens. Instead, he had showed himself in the fullness of his humanity, to be sure, with glaring flaws that were uncomfortable to look at, but still, a magnificent child of the Universe.

Walt Whitman has something interesting to say about how the good people of the polis ought to act toward those who do not follow paths accepted and acceptable to society. In the prelude to his great work, “Leaves Of Grass,” he exhorts us with these words: “Give alms to every one that asks, (and) stand up for the stupid and crazy.”

What does any of this have to do with the holiday season? I wondered about that, mulling over both the unbearable sadnesses I’ve come to associate with the time of year, as well as the multiplicity of its astonishing, sometimes even its staggering sense of happiness, joy and fulfillment. Then, I recalled that the man by the door of the market that day was also singing. As my partner and I walked up to the building, we could hear him intoning some kind of a song, maybe—or so, at least, it was my wish—from a happier time in his life, from a youth perhaps when he had greater hope and, who knows, a plan for his life, someone to love and for whom he longed, whom he wanted more than anything always to be with.

Isn’t that what each of us wants? Doesn’t that get us back to the desire, the need, the awful (awe-filled) longing to be loved, not for our position in life, or what we can give, but just for who we are? Just for being children of the Divine Spirit, who deserve all the love and consideration, and yes, respect, that each of us can muster to give to the other? Here was a man with a song on his lips, who was smiling at people, at passersby who ignored and probably even feared him. What kind of a man can sing his song, all the while being snubbed and disregarded by everyone around him?

If he was crazy, as Whitman says, so what? Maybe it’s a craziness we all should long for: the ability to sing a song, while the world ignores and passes us by. Which one of us has not been hurt, terribly damaged, by the lack of love we see all around us, whether in the form of an angry, selfish, or distracted parent, or spouse, or brother, or sister, or friend—someone whom we think, or hope, should know better—or merely from some passerby, a stranger we rub shoulders with for an instant and who’s gone in the flash of a moment?

Whitman goes on to say, in that same prelude: “Here is what you shall do, love the earth and sun and all the animals.” More good advice and, I think, a good way to end one year and begin another. Because even the earth and the sun and the animals want to be loved. Because that’s part of what it means to be in the physical world. Because it’s what makes us human, and also divine. And what greater joy can any of us have than to be a part of all that?

It could be we’re prone to thinking about such things at the holidays because, for whatever reason, we hope for love more now than at other times of the year. If that’s so, then this longing—and especially this giving—is maybe what they call the holiday spirit, whether we celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanza, or the magnificence of the Winter Solstice. It’s a time when we light candles, so as to epitomize life and hope in the darkness. It’s a time when we should all sing a song, wherever we may be and whatever is in our hearts, as we sit in the warmth of our comfortable homes, or alone, in the cold, by the doorway of the corner market.

OCTOBER ELEGY

By Paul Lewis

As a kid in upstate New York, I always had mixed feelings about the month of October. We were back in school again, and that part wasn’t so good. As such, “the Good Nuns,” as my Irish grandmother always referred to them—who never seemed so good to me—were lording it over us once more. Even so, the horrible shock of the September return to school was over and you were beginning to remember again how best to hide behind the kid in front of you, so as not to be called on in class. All this meant that at least you were getting used to things once more, after a summer of freedom.

On the plus side, there were the trees, which were glorious. In my neighborhood alone, you could see the brilliant red of brash, almost arrogant Sugar Maples, the soothing yellow of tall, wispy American Elms waving in the autumn wind, and the browns of less showy, but always stalwart Sycamores, dropping leaves that rustled like bits of dried paper that crunched as you stepped on them while walking along the street. And the air! Leaving behind the dusty, depressing sultriness of still-warm September, the October air had become crisp and clean and invigorating. As you went outside and walked down the steps of your stoop and looked up, you thought that the sky had never seemed so deep a blue.

There really was no escaping the feeling that something miraculous was happening, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but which was so magical, so otherworldly, and so elusive that, if you could somehow manage to capture it, in that one instant you knew your whole life would change. You would become this massive being of light and spirit, free of the cares of the earth, living an evanescent and ethereal life beyond that of any ordinary mortal being. And if the feeling lasted only for a moment, at least it gave you hope, a kind of assurance that you would not always be a child, utterly powerless and tossed about by the vicissitudes of dread and the fear of failure, and that someday you would grow into adulthood and make your own choices. And if you believed those adult choices to be free of the crippling contortions of restrictive rules and binding regulations that you felt so keenly, so much the better. A good thing it was, probably, that you hadn’t yet come to realize how life at every age brings its own enormities of limitations and confinements.

Remembering those Octobers within a soothing haze of romanticized nostalgia, it’s easy to forget just how murderously complex and full of gripping drama life could also be: my father’s anger and his drinking; my mother, always worried about money and how to make the next payment on an endless list of bills; and my own dread of the horrors of grammar school, a place where I never failed to feel incapable of keeping up with its continuing challenges. But then October would suddenly come once again to the rescue, at least temporarily. In the town where I grew up and in those years of the 1950’s, by mid-October the plate glass windows of the larger stores were painted over in Halloween scenes created by local high school art classes. Each group outdid the next in more frightening depictions of witches, zombies and monsters lurking in darkened cemeteries, where enormous and ominous full moons loomed in the night sky, framing the silhouettes of owls that looked down on headstones leaning and sinking into the crumbling earth of newly dug graves. There was a kind of magic in the air, and an anticipation of something to come. And while Halloween was never my favorite holiday, it did announce the not-far-off coming of Thanksgiving and Christmas—festivals of light and love and a kind of comfort.

For the moment, though, death seemed to be everywhere. As lovely as the trees themselves had been in early October, by the time Halloween came they had become bare, twisted skeletons. Here and there a single dried leaf might cling tenaciously to a branch, all the while writhing in the increasingly chilly wind. And afternoons, soon after we were let go from school, a cold darkness would begin to fall, even before we were called in for supper. No one doubted that, soon enough, the snow would fly, though not before trick-or-treaters ventured along darkened sidewalks, and brash teenagers threatened soapy windows, or worse, if candy wasn’t quickly handed over. Even at that age, I sensed that a mask worn by someone could transform that person, a friend or a classmate, somebody from just down the block, into a wholly different persona, a menacing and aggressive figure that had lost all sense of right and wrong; unrestricted, such a hidden presence was capable of anything. Maybe what I really saw was the wildness of my own burgeoning urges and desires, things I knew I had to control at all cost, lest I lose my own way, offend the Church, and wander forever in the wilderness.

October was like that. It could on the one hand lull you into thinking that you were made of light and of spirit, and then the next moment show you the untamed, savage side of who you were, a side that masked all you thought to be exquisite and unearthly and that risked dragging you down into the freshly dug grave of your most base and craven desires. The Druids of old celebrated the Festival of Samhain beginning on Oct. 31st, a liminal time when the veil between life and death became thin, and fairies, witches and demons freely roamed the earth. Food was typically set out to placate them, an obvious precursor to the treats later handed out that day, so as to avoid an encounter with life’s less welcome tricks. Shakespeare, too, likened this time of the year to death. In his sonnet number 73, he lists a long line of harbingers of the end, everything from falling leaves to the setting of the sun to the glowing embers of a dying fire. And yet, he ends with this hopeful couplet: “This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

October reminds us of our mortality and warns us of a difficult winter to come, a time when we may have to struggle more, work harder. It begins in beauty, and ends in barrenness. Its opening days are still warm and filled with sunshine and light, and its last days are dark and promise yet more darkness to come. But it also shows us the glory of color and of clean, crisp air, and a light that somehow never shows itself at any other time of year. It brings to mind equally that beauty—as we normally think of it—is glorious, if fleeting, and that darkness and even death will surely come.

Living in the moment, seeing all of life as fecund and robust and full of its own kind of energy is what is called for. Was that the magic I sensed in the crisp air all those long years ago? What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the passing moment can be experienced in fullness. What seems ephemeral isn’t, at least not necessarily; instead, it can be eternal. Maybe what I saw that morning back then was a glimpse of eternity, showing itself in a second of time. Like October itself, such seconds can be their own kind of mask; or they can be a rich and luminous gateway, revealing what is, what was, and what always will be, forever and ever more.

MOTHER TERESA, POLITICS, VALUES AND WHAT IS OF ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE

By Paul M. Lewis

Formally, at least in the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has led a holy and exemplary life and about whom an official proclamation has been made by the Pope that she or he is now in heaven, the latter evidenced by the fact that at least two authenticated miracles can be attributed to that individual’s intercession with God. Following these criteria, the Church declared just the other day that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (nowadays, the city is known as Kolkata) has been decreed a saint.

Yet, in spite of this official endorsement, controversy has continued to follow the new saint. There are those who argue against the wisdom of making a claim in favor of her saintly life, to say nothing of her actual sainthood. Their arguments are relatively well known. They include allegations of her having been willing to accept charitable contributions from sometimes highly questionable sources, a supposed over eagerness to hobnob with the rich and famous and powerful of the world, a marked tendency on the part of the nuns trained by her to refrain from administering medication that might have saved lives, or at least alleviated suffering—in favor of the goodness, even Godliness, of suffering—and, finally, attempts at overly enthusiastic, if not outright forced deathbed conversions of lifelong Hindus or Muslims to Christianity. Surely, if any one of these is true, it could be said there may be reason to question at least the first criterion of saintliness, that of having led a holy and exemplary life.

Having said all this, it is not my intention here to try to pass judgment on Mother Teresa. I admit to not having any certainty as to whether the allegations made against her, or the nuns of her order, are true or not; as much as some critics vehemently insist they are. And there are large numbers of people who truly revere her for what she has done and who now pray to her. What interests me, instead, is the complexity, the complications, and the controversies that come to us all as we lead our lives. Mother Teresa’s example is striking for the most part not only because she became famous, but also because her actions have had an outsized impact on many people’s lives.

Knotty and convoluted issues related to what is appropriate or inappropriate, good or bad, and right or wrong regarding our various chosen courses of action plague each of us in our everyday lives. Such choices run the gamut from the relatively small, for example, just how bluntly truthful any of us should be in our interaction with others, on to larger issues, such as whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab, or the burkini, in public. Exactly how accommodating, generally, should one culture be towards another in the face of prevailing opposing local norms, especially given the potential threat of violence; indeed, how obliging or amenable ought a culture be regarding any other way of thinking and acting, when there is a clear-cut clash of values? And there are larger questions still, such as who has the right to decide when a life should be considered viable—whether in the womb or after birth—or having to do with the taking of life generally, either in war or by way of a state-sanctioned death penalty? And what of our human relationship with the environment, with the very earth itself? Was it “put here for man’s use,” or do the animals, all of nature, have their own right to exist, totally separate from anything related to human beings?

Clearly, some people have a lot less trouble with moral ambiguity than others. We don’t have to look far in today’s political landscape to find people willing to condemn entire swaths of humanity because they come from a place somehow deemed to be “less than,” or because they are simply perceived to be too different from the numerically prevailing white population. Or just the other day, when it was reported that Kim Jong-un, the iron-fisted ruler of North Korea, condemned a high-ranking military man to death by firing squad because he was politically incorrect enough to slouch in his seat while the Great Leader was delivering a speech. And, lest we forget about religion with which we began this discussion, members of one faith are hardly immune from condemning millions of others to supposed hellfire because they are infidels or apostates or atheists. And to bring it back to Mother Teresa once more—again if what has been alleged is true—just how certain do you have to be of the righteousness of your religion before prevailing upon a man or woman, in the throes of the death agony, to renounce the beliefs of a lifetime in favor of your supposedly superior religion? Where exactly is common sense there, or simple human understanding, to say nothing of empathy, mercy, or compassion?

I guess it could be argued that it’s just all too human for us to believe that the conclusions we come to are the right ones. And to that extent, we may all be guilty of a blind belief in our own absolute rectitude. After all, isn’t this the very nature of what we mean by a value system, that is, that we possess an unshakable inner assurance in it, and a dogged confidence that our judgments equate to whatever is right and best for the world? Otherwise, how else would we have come to these conclusions in the first place, or why continue to hold to them? And if I am right in my values, than doesn’t it stand to reason that you are wrong in yours if you do not agree with me?

The problem with this argument is that values change, not just from one person to another, but sometimes from one stage in life to another (how many young liberals go on to become old conservatives?), from one culture to another, or from one historical era to another, and if that is the case, how exactly can we be assured that we are so absolutely right? Yet, most of us persist in doing just that. It seems to be almost a part of the human psyche, a kind of biological imperative, or at least an evolutionary accommodation that has proven itself to be somehow advantageous for the species. And yet, I keep coming back to my earlier question: what of understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion? Surely, these are equally human virtues. Where do they come in to play? Are they not perfectly legitimate, too, just as much as any others that can be named?

When it comes to living with other people, whether they be of a different language, culture, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or simply a completely varying worldview in general, what may be of greatest use is an ability to negotiate, to adjust, to enter into a kind of give and take, and the occasional ability to back off a bit, a simple willingness to adjust and habituate. Dare I say, to compromise? It might even be said that this comes with a degree of maturity in life, that is, learning when it’s best to speak forthrightly, and when to make some accommodations. Although, admittedly, there can be a very fine line between diplomacy and not speaking up when one ought to. As Walt Whitman puts it, sometimes you’ve got to “stand up for the stupid and the crazy.” But he also cautions, “argue not about God.”

Following Whitman’s advice, I’ll keep my own counsel about whether or not Mother Teresa is “in heaven.” But I will, on the other hand, say that I think Donald Trump is a mean-spirited ogre of a man, who riles up the fears and hatreds of suffering people for his own aggrandizement and self-promotion. And anyone who doubts that humans have had a disastrously deleterious effect on the earth, our home, simply does not know what he’s talking about. In other words, sometimes I speak out about my values, and sometimes I choose not to. But I always act according to them.

At our innermost core—or so it is my belief, my value system—each of us is the very image of the Divine Spirit. That image sometimes gets hidden, forgotten one could say, by our overwhelming ego needs, our foolishness and our ignorance. And all too often our vaunted values arise out of this state, what’s referred to in Sanskrit as maya, or illusion. In the end, the best we can do is what Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad-Gita, that is, try to become one with Brahman, the One Indivisible. He, Krishna, then goes on to say that, in so doing, the individual who achieves this state becomes so blended that he or she “sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained.”

Now, there’s a heaven I wouldn’t mind inhabiting, with or without Mother Teresa. And there, I think, is a value no longer subject to change.

TEACHING AND LEARNING: WHO TEACHES WHAT TO WHOM?

By Paul M. Lewis

When I was a young man in my early to mid 20’s, I spent four years teaching in a high school in rural upstate New York. There were a number of things I found interesting about the experience, and a few that were annoying, but overall it was a surprisingly positive experience. I say surprisingly because I had taken the job mostly to get a deferment from the draft. This was in the late 1960’s, and the country was enmeshed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Like many people my age, although by no means all, I was very much against the war. So, once I returned from graduate school in France, where I’d gone on scholarship directly after getting my bachelor’s degree, I knew I had to face the music of the military draft. The deferment they gave at the time for teaching came in very handy. My other option, I’d often thought, was to flee to Canada. And what a different life that would have led to. To an extent no doubt, maybe even if half-subconsciously, I’d planned out in advance the possibility of teaching, because I had managed to get a credential during my last year as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany, just before leaving for France.

But, as teaching high school was not really my first choice of a career, I’ll admit I began with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. In my defense, I was only 23 years old, and what does anyone know at that age? While in France, I had perfected my ability to speak the language pretty well, having gone there initially with a good grounding in grammar and literature. Once there, I learned how people in the street really spoke. I learned, for example, that a “cigarette,” which I smoked at the time (Gauloises, s’il vous plaît), was called “une clope,” and “un franc,” the monetary unit then in use (this was decades before the Euro) was more commonly referred to as“une balle.” I also delved into what I thought of as the intricacies of Existentialist philosophy, and considered myself something of a philosopher-poet. Neither of which, as it turned out, I was.

As cringe-worthy as it may be to admit today, I thought of myself as somehow above the crowd when it came to these rural high school teachers. The locale was Lebanon Springs, New York, located in the lovely Berkshires, just a few miles from the Massachusetts border over the mountain from Pittsfield. If a person has any degree of self-awareness or openness, one of the things you soon begin to realize is just how dumb you can be. And I found this out soon enough about myself. If that sounds like too harsh a judgment on a twenty-something year old, maybe the least that can be said is that I discovered just how inexperienced I was in life, particularly when it came to people who actually did something expertly, many of whom had been doing it for a long time, some even before I was born.

That was the first thing that came to light in Lebanon Springs: I saw that the men and women who taught English there, or Social Studies, or Math, or Science were of the highest caliber. They were, by and large, smart, engaged, hardworking, funny, and creative; they cared deeply about their students and about the craft of teaching. And in spite of all, they treated me well, with kindness, courtesy and good grace. There were the occasional yahoos, and here maybe my prejudices further show themselves, gym teachers mostly, who couldn’t distinguish anguish from absurdity (I’m back to Existentialism again), or a Monet from a Manet. But even they, I saw, did their best every day for their students and helped those who most needed it. In four years, I never heard one teacher speak disparagingly of their students; no one ever called them stupid, or fools, or worse. Okay, sometimes they said they were lazy; and some, in fact, were lazy. Just as you can find in pretty much any grouping of a thousand or so human beings anywhere on earth.

As a new teacher, people often asked me if I had any trouble with classroom discipline. As a matter of fact, I did not. But then, this was a rural community and, so far as I knew at the time, recreational drugs were pretty much nonexistent. I’m sure some of the students drank, but that was probably the extent of their substance abuse. I was also working weekends and summers at a local reform school for teenage boys, and I’d learned a few things about how to manage groups of teenagers. Most of the time, it was pretty simple. I decided I would treat my students respectfully, as if they were adults, and intelligent ones at that, and I expected them to act as such; and somehow that seemed to work.

But even at the high school where I taught there were a few outliers. There are always a few, the wise guys who like to mouth off. As odd as it may seem, they were usually my favorites. I liked the bad-boy energy (almost never were they girls), the spirit of rebelliousness, and the intelligence and insight into the bizarreness and absurdity of the world that came with it. These were the ones who were forever asking what the French word for “a seal” was. How they had ever heard in the first place, I don’t think I ever found out, but somebody had told them that the marine mammal we call a seal was, in French, called “un phoque.” And anyone who has even a passing familiarity with French phonetics knows that the pronunciation of this word sounds almost identical with the English word “fuck.” So, this was great hilarity, although by the hundred and fiftieth time I was asked, I will admit to feeling a little bored by it all. Usually I would just stare blankly at them, shake my head, and walk away. For the most part, though, students were in my language classes—French and Spanish—because their fathers had told them that they needed it if they ever had any hope of getting into college. No one, or virtually none, had any real interest. But I had come to expect that, and doing so became just another part of teaching the class.

I liked all of my students. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not; I actually did. They were good kids, and I did my best to teach them something about another culture, another way of being in the world, if not (lastingly anyway) another language. And some seemed to like me, too. One of them, Tommy C., I taught for three years, and it occurred to me he might have had a little bit of crush on me. Not that I ever responded in kind, except—as much as I could—to be kind to him. Or, I don’t know, maybe he just saw me as a father figure, or an older brother. Curiously, it turned out that our birthdays were on the same day, November 2nd, seven or eight years apart. Somehow, he always contrived to secretly pass me a bottle of Courvoisier cognac on or around that date, as a gift. I probably should never have taken it, and no doubt could have gotten in a lot of trouble for having done so, but he seemed so pleased about it, so delighted with doing so that I always took it. How a sixteen year old could have gotten hold of it in the first place, I never asked.

If I were teaching today, I would never accept such a gift. Maybe it was a measure of my own immaturity and insecurity at the time that I did so. Nothing more ever came of it. He never referred to it later, never appeared to expect anything in return; nor did I reciprocate with better grades, or any sort of special attention. He was already an excellent student anyway, so from that point of view there was no need to. But I sometimes think of him, and wonder what became of him, what he did with his life, and if he is happy.

I hope he is, as I hope all of my former students may have gone on to lead useful and fulfilling lives. Chances of that are slim, of course. How often does that happen with any group of people? More likely, some succeeded, some managed to get by, while others struggled, doing what they could to overcome one failure after another. That is, after all, the way of the world, isn’t it?

What I learned in the four years I taught high school has stayed with me all my life; and what I learned from my teaching colleagues may have been even more important. As Walt Whitman says in the preface to his great poem, Leaves of Grass: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy…” Later, he continues, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Isn’t Whitman saying that learning from life is the best kind of learning? How else do we attain anything of real, lasting importance?

A couple of years after I left my job as a high school teacher, I was astounded to receive an invitation from the senior class to be the speaker at their graduation. With gratitude, some reluctance, and a large dose of humility, I accepted. My first partner—lover is the word we used in those days—and I had been living in Brigantine, New Jersey. As ill luck would have it, soon after accepting the invitation he and I decided to split up. I will admit to having been devastated about it all and wanted to withdraw from giving the commencement speech. But, in the end, I soldiered on and went ahead with it: and he came with me. I have no idea now what I said to these students, but the energy in the room did me a lot of good. I remembered that I was liked, if maybe not loved, and that I could like—and love, if I chose—in return. It was the last time I saw these young men and women, but not the last time I have thought about them. There is no doubt in my mind that they were my teachers, as much as I was theirs, and for that I will always be grateful.