SUMMER AND ALL

By Paul M. Lewis

Summer is both a time of year and a state of mind. I suppose the same could be said about every season, but somehow summer seems to loom larger, brighter, more luminous. It surprised me when I first heard that Midsummer was—and still is—celebrated on June 24th . In traditionally Christian countries, this is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, sometimes called St. John’s Day. I was surprised because on or about June 21st is, scientifically speaking, the day of the Summer Solstice, its official beginning. I suppose the explanation is that, in most countries of the northern hemisphere, heading toward the end of the month of June feels like we’ve been at it for a while, as if we’ve more or less reached the middle.

When I was a boy, living in the all-Catholic-all-the-time enclave of an old industrial town of upstate New York, June was a glorious month. The first leafing out of the trees and the spring flowers were long gone. That was the job mostly of late April and early May, the Month of Mary, when we crowned the statue of the Blessed Mother with lilacs and lilies of the valley. By June, everything that grew and blossomed was at its height, and yet the leaves were still new and clean, of an ebullient verdure that made you think the world could not be a better place to live in. At last, school was finally out, and even the nuns appeared to be in a happier mood. They waved us good-bye at the classroom door, and we ran out into the wild world, free at last to explore what and when and wherever our hearts led us. It never occurred to us then that they too may have been hugely relieved to be rid of us, although from my seventy-one year old perspective today I am sure that was true. What nuns did in the summertime I never found out, but perhaps just being away from screaming children was vacation enough.

Even my parents were in a better mood. Summer was a time when we were free of the terrible burden that came with heating the house during the freezing months of winter, bills we could never somehow afford. In summer, money seemed a little less tight. And although my mother still worked—always a great sorrow to me, because I wanted her at home with us—she seemed to walk with a lighter step. As much as she could not buy the lovely clothes she probably wanted, nonetheless she always had an excellent sense of style. She liked looking good, and I always thought her especially beautiful in the flowery, light-colored dresses of summer. On the other hand, my father never dressed in anything but the same work pants and white tee shirts, sitting at home of an evening at the kitchen table after work, drinking glass after glass of Ballantine Ale. Even on his annual, single week of vacation, this is what he did, as going away on a vacation was never even dreamed of in my house. Such a thing was reserved for the houses of the rich, or so we believed. My older brother would play baseball with his buddies, while my younger sister drew hopscotch designs on the sidewalks, skipping and singing rhymes, and I and my friends would ride our bikes to the nether reaches of the city, where we were forbidden to go. Or we would build forts in a local vacant lot, filled with sumac and other trees that needed no tending to and that thrived in poor soil, but which represented jungles and forests, exotic realms of the imagination existing far, far away from where we lived our everyday lives.

Midsummer, in this sense, was a hopeful time of new beginnings. The world had miraculously come round fresh once again after the long gray winter, filled with freezing nights and snowy days, or the half-forgotten ice that turned into the dirty slush of late March and early April. We rejoiced in the heady scent of the roses, carnations and the bachelor buttons that filled people’s gardens. At night, the family would sit on the back porch, listening to the silence (no one watched television in the summer in those years, or no one we knew; that was a diversion saved only for the cold months); and we children seemed entertained enough by chasing after fireflies and enclosing them in glass jars (cruelly so, as I now think). Later, we would lie in bed, sweating in the humid air, hoping for a breeze to come through the window, or for the blessings of thunder and lightning and a great downpour of rain to cool things off. Yet, in spite of the heat and discomfort, we rejoiced in remembering the next morning was not a school day; nor did we have to face the dreaded, unmerciful Sisters of Mercy.

But by the middle of August, something had begun to change. Although we could never pinpoint exactly when that happened, suddenly we realized that the leaves were starting to look dusty, a little bedraggled, as if they had given their best and were beginning to feel the effort. The warm nights had begun to cloy and take their toll, and secretly we longed for the cooler temperatures of the coming autumn. The 15th of August was for us, in those years, that day of days, when we knew the idle moments of summer were coming to an end. Midsummer was long gone, that beginning of endless excess, at least if the very definition of excess could be doing nothing at all. The Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary had arrived, seemingly as a warning. And as if to underline and reinforce the warning, this was a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. That meant it was a day when we were required to attend mass, on pain of mortal sin. Of course, the nuns, too, were there (where had they gone all summer?), and once again we glimpsed, for the first time since the beginning of our halcyon days of freedom, those harsh representatives of discipline, control, authority, strictness, and the punishing regimen of school, class schedules and homework. In other words, what we saw before us was, in essence, the loss of freedom, descending into what Walt Whitman called “the life that exhibits itself,”—against which he railed in Leaves of Grass.

Why does all this come back to me, now that I am gray of hair and long retired from a life of work? I no longer need to care about the assignments Sister Clotilda gave us that I feared I did not know how to complete. Sister Jacinta no longer towers over me, ruler in hand, nor does Sister Barbara quote her favorite phrase to me: “the empty barrel makes the most noise.” My parents, too, are long gone, coming up on fifty years for my father, and forty-five for my mother. My brother, too, is dead, and my sister has her own physical problems. It has been decades, lifetimes it seems, since I felt I obliged to attend mass.

But summer itself still marches on, unconcerned. Here in Southern California, mid-August feels like the real Midsummer. It’s ninety degrees outside, and even September—or on into October—looms large and heat filled. And yet, I remember those far off days of childhood as if they were last week, when we ran and played and biked and explored a world of endless surprises and magical mystery.

Nowadays, I roam elsewhere, traveling the world, as I have done in the past and hope to continue doing. Yet, there is also another kind of travel that I have learned, an interior kind, one that roams the great universe. To quote Whitman again, from the “Calamus” section of his great poem:

 

“In paths untrodden,

In the growth by margins of pond waters…

Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can

respond as I would not dare elsewhere,

Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself,

yet contains all the rest.”

“Yet contains all the rest.” This is the secret of the Leaves of Grass, after all, that the leaves are, themselves, all there is. Another way to say it is the whole universe is contained in every atom, in every subatomic particle. As it is in every summer, and each autumn and winter, every radiant, verdant spring. In the eternity of the moment, it is always Midsummer, or any other time of our choosing. One moment expands to fill all time, and every day is a Holy Day—though one, thankfully, with no obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRIEVING AND GROWING POTATOES

potatoes IMG_5212

by Kevin L Miller

Dad died six weeks ago. I had been with him and Mom three days every week until his last, and then it was every day. Somehow I still managed to plant my garden in April and May, because I had already prepared the 16 big raised beds with amended soil last summer. But as the needs of my 88 and 91-year-old mother and father increased, there was no time for the garden. And when Dad died, it was time to plan and execute a huge memorial service over a period of a month. He was an ordained minister, educator, dean, vice president, and university and seminary president in our little subculture, The Church of the Brethren. He was well known and highly respected. More importantly, he was a saint – a deeply good, humble, generous man – and everyone loved him. Over many decades, thousands looked to him as their mentor, role model, and friend. So did I, especially during these final years, when he was so accessible and open. I am doing my best to help my poor mother cope with her bewilderment and grief. Three weeks from today would have been their 69th wedding anniversary. They knew each other for over 70 years and were devoted to one another. Dad utterly worshipped my mom, and she was born to be adored. It was and is my privilege and honor to serve them as they come to the end of their lives on earth.

Sadly, some things just aren’t getting done. The wild berries on our 12 acres in the woods were not picked this year — at least, not by us — and the weeds took over my garden. I ventured into that jungle just a week ago to see if anything could be salvaged. There may yet be hope of some yield of okra, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Maybe a turnip or two. And I still have lettuce. But so many other crops failed due to neglect, bugs and weeds, and the garden is generally in tatters.

I myself have been feeling at loose ends lately. Now that Dad is gone and the big memorial service and luncheon are over, what’s next? The answer is obvious: I promised Dad during the final moments of his life that I would take very good care of Mother, just before she arrived at his bedside to stroke his cheek and tell him how much she loved him, as he took his last two breaths and left us. He waited for her… and he is waiting now. Mother is relatively functional, but needs lots of help anyway, because her memory is disappearing quickly, and she has serious medical conditions, tons of medications, and weekly doctors’ appointments to be managed. We play Scrabble and Boggle when we can, and she almost always beats me resoundingly. She was a school teacher and an editor of children’s text books. The creeping dementia has not yet taken hold in her language centers, but she cannot remember her best friends’ names or her two stays in the hospital last summer, or who came to visit yesterday. I serve as her memory now.

But sometimes I wonder what comes after this intense period of getting to know both of my parents so much better than ever before. It continues to be a profoundly valuable education. I had already discovered that when one spends time with high souls who are approaching death, the veil between the two world becomes thinner and eventually almost transparent. Sometimes the curtain is drawn back and allowed to flutter in the cosmic breeze for just an instant. Then, occasionally, it is possible to catch a glimpse of Heaven. There were holy moments like that with my father, and I’m sure there will be with my mother as well. But I ask myself, after all of that is over, what will I do with the rest of my life? Then I’m embarrassed by the question, because all is well. I’ve had a productive career. I am happy and content. The world may be collapsing around us, but nothing is amiss for me. Surely, it’s not so much about WHAT one does with one’s life as HOW one does it. Still, there is a feeling of potential… some impending destiny or assignment or adventure just around the corner. I’m having visions of paintings again. Maybe that’s it.

The first time I visited my overgrown garden, I noticed that my once lush 4 x 10 ft potato bed was completely devoid of greens where there had been a thick cover of them just weeks before. I assumed insects or animals must have destroyed all the potatoes. Then it rained hard a few times, and I spied some round tops of potatoes sticking up through the bare soil. So this morning I went into the garden with my three potato spades and began excavating. Two and a half hours later I had a very respectable box of potatoes ranging from smaller than a penny to baking size. Whereas I had recently assumed the potato patch was a total loss, I was fascinated to discover that a lot of the potatoes were growing much deeper than I had thought. I settled into the dirt and really began enjoying my search for hidden treasure. I noticed that some of the best and biggest potatoes were pressed up against the walls of the raised bed, as if they wanted to challenge the boundaries of the potato universe to expand their own individual identities. I couldn’t help thinking what a fine metaphor this potato bed was for life and the development of consciousness in general. I had thought that nothing was happening in the potato patch while I attended to more pressing duties, privileges and honors — taking care of my beloved parents. But it turns out that potatoes of many different sizes and types were growing there secretly, unseen beneath the surface, all along.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about what comes next. I’m happy in the present moment, doing what I am doing now, and isn’t that what matters? While I was sitting in the dirt digging out those potatoes in the sun, I was convinced that no other activity could possibly be more satisfying or fulfilling than finding potatoes in the ground. I could have done that for the rest of my life. And perhaps I will. But maybe… just possibly… some of those more mysterious potatoes growing deep under the surface and pressed up against the walls of their world… some of those unruly potatoes might contain surprises. In fact, if the past is any kind of template, they almost certainly will. But if not, I’ll be happy just digging in the dirt. After all, I realized after two and a half hours of hard labor had yielded $15 worth of produce, that it was not the potatoes I needed… It was that invaluable time in the dirt.

 

 

A TIME TO LOOK BACK, A TIME TO LOOK FORWARD

By Paul M. Lewis

Fifty years ago this month, I had just left the monastery where I’d lived as a monk for the previous seven years. I was twenty-one years old, struggling to find myself in a world that was as totally unfamiliar to me as the inside of a silent monastery is to most people who have never lived there. This “outside world,” as we called it and as I even then thought of it, was loud and overbearing, seemingly both uncontrolled and uncontrollable. If I had landed on an alien moon, or a planet somewhere on the far off edges of the galaxy, I am not sure I would have found it all that much less strange or intimidating. To me, this new world was exotic, incomprehensible, and in conflict with everything I had come to think of and rely on as familiar and stabilizing.

It had been my choice to leave. I knew I could no longer remain locked behind monastic gates, not with the kind of desires I had. As a young gay man, my hormones were roiling and boiling, but as a monk, I had kept my vows, reined in those sometimes almost overwhelming impulses into a kind of control (the “white-knuckle” kind, as people in AA say) and had refrained from all carnal contact with other monks. Much later, I learned that many other young monastics had not, but I took the vows I had pronounced as sacred promises and followed them to the letter. My plan, as bizarre as it may seem to anyone now, was to leave, begin dating girls, which would magically cure me of otherwise unwanted desires, and then eventually rejoin the monastery once more after I had become “normal” again. There is hardly any need to say that this did not happen, could not have happened, and for that I am now more grateful than I can probably ever express.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that during this first year on the outside, that first summer in particular, I was in a kind of constant state of trauma. I flew home—for the first time on my own—from Washington, DC, where the monastery was located, to upstate New York, where my mother and brother lived. But I stayed there for only a few weeks, as I had applied for and been accepted into an NDEA (National Defense Education Act) scholarship, as a future teacher of French. The eight-week immersion course (all day, everyday, only French was to be spoken) was located at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Twenty-five people from all over the United States had been accepted and formed our group. The fact that probably two-thirds were women, while not exactly a surprise, nonetheless still came as a kind of existential shock to me. Up until that point, I had never in my life spent so much time with young women my own age, and I found it both terrifying and enlightening. It was the beginning of a long learning curve for me, during which I slowly came to realize, and to enormously appreciate, the fact that the female sensibility was different from that of men, and that women have marvelous, even almost magical insights to offer.

Even so, dating women—as I had promised myself I would do—was not easy. I had no notion of what to expect, nor what they might expect from me, or how to respond if, in fact, they wanted something I could not provide. I dated Martha first, and found myself liking her very much, though only as a friend, even going so far as to visit her in her family home on Cape Cod. Later on, I dated Bea, perhaps because she looked kind of boyish, but I found her unsettlingly aggressive, to the point almost of making me want to flee. And when it became clear that I was supposed to be kissing her, but did not, even now all these years later I cringe to remember her saying to me: “What? Do I have spinach in my teeth, or something?” As much as it is a useless and futile exercise to regret anything in life, I have to say that I am nevertheless extremely sorry for what I put them through. I know I did my best, but they were both fine women, good human beings, and they deserved better than I was able to give. No doubt, they have gone on to have happy and fulfilled lives; or so it is my hope anyway.

At the same time, I was struggling at least as much with my faith. More and more, I began to realize that I could no longer believe in a rigid, overly doctrinaire, and uncompassionate Church, one that had once been the mainstay of not just my spiritual life, but of my psychological and emotional life as well. This bedrock of what I had felt to be my identity was rapidly beginning to shatter. Everything I knew or was familiar with had begun to flow away, until soon it became a river in flood stage, a torrent that carried with it whatever had previously seemed solid and stable. I was drifting with nothing to cling to. I did not want to confide in my mother, as she had troubles enough of her own, mourning the passing of her husband, my father. And my brother was a young straight man, who spent his time in the local bars with his factory working buddies. I felt I hardly knew him.

But as difficult as all this was, and as lost as I felt, I also realized at some level that it was the beginning of a new and exciting life, something I had never before envisioned for myself. The particular Catholic religious order I had been a member of was made up of teaching brothers. As such, while a monk, I’d also been a student at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Upon leaving, I had one year left to go before getting my bachelor’s degree in French Literature, and I did so at the State University of New York at Albany.

I could not rely on my mother for money, as she had none, and so while finishing my last year at university, I also worked every night, and all day Saturday. The job I got was in a local reform school for teenage boys, working in the recreation department. Obviously, institutional settings somehow attracted me, as much as this one represented what might be thought of as the darker version of a monastic environment. But regimens, schedules, and organized, bureaucratic settings, even institutional food and set and stable mealtimes clearly represented my comfort level. And somehow, I instinctively knew how to empathize and interact with boys who felt bereft and alone, even if they did put on a tough and sometimes off-putting front.

That first year on the outside is one I will never forget. It taught me that I could face what had once seemed frightening and even unbearable to me with a degree of courage and resilience. That said, it was still a long time before I began to feel even minimally adequate, the beginnings of an ability to take care of myself in a world that often felt alien, hostile, and simply inexplicable. Sometimes the smallest task would throw me, a thing that I knew I should know how to do, but did not. The first time I had to make a doctor’s appointment, for example, I remember thinking: “How exactly do you do that?” Until I made myself take this on, I had no clue that it was as simple as calling and scheduling one at a convenient time. That was the degree of my inexperience in the world. Virtually every day was an occasion to learn something new, to be frightened and utterly perplexed, and then slowly to come to see how I was supposed to conduct myself. I didn’t always like what I saw, or even understand it, but ultimately I decided that this was how to make my way toward a hoped-for adulthood, a sense of maturity, from the Latin maturus—as I knew—meaning “ripe.”

The curious thing is that I feel as though I am still learning, all these years later. When does one reach maturity? When are we fully ready to adequately face the unknown, the continuing, ever-changing challenges of life? Perhaps only when we leave this world. As the ripened fruit falls, so ends our struggle to grapple with life. Everything that I have faced and found, the summonses, the dares, the provocations, as well as the prizes, the great rewards that come to fill our hearts and minds, all have been worth the effort. This is the comfort that comes with seeing things from an older perspective.

So, I have learned something in these fifty years. And if it is not as much as I could or should have, at least I do know this: Nothing in life goes to waste. Everything we experience contributes to who we are, to our understanding of our rightful and fitting place in a sometimes wild and unpredictable, but always—ironically—a perfect, and beautifully ordered world.

PLEASE HEAD TOWARD THE EXIT IN AN ORDERLY FASHION

By Paul M. Lewis

The Brexit vote this past week was a great shock to almost everybody, even to those who supported Britain leaving the European Union. And the fact that the decision to exit won by more than a million votes was perhaps even more surprising. The British bookies, too, lost their shirts, since they had placed odds on the UK remaining part of the EU. What happened? Why would so many people want the United Kingdom to part company from the union of European states it had, if slowly and somewhat reluctantly, joined over forty years ago?

There are many answers to that question, as pundits have been reporting on for some time now. Top among them is that many British voters, especially the English (as opposed to the Scots, the Northern Irish, and some of the Welsh) felt as though they were somehow losing their country to immigration. Within that context, many feared specifically for their jobs, in particular those that newcomers might qualify for if they did not come with a great deal of education or experience. Additionally, there has long simmered a feeling among many that the Englishness of England was becoming a thing of the past. That may in fact be true, if things are viewed in the short term. For the past several hundred years now, England has been more or less white, Christian, and of course Anglo-Saxon. It’s worth remembering, though, that those early Germanic settlers were not always there. According to most accounts, the Anglo-Saxons began arriving in the late 5th century. They did not come all at once, instead arriving incrementally for two hundred years or so, while slowly intermingling with the original Celtic inhabitants and the remnants of the Romans who had settled there.

The Celtic language had previously been used for centuries, with Latin coming to replace it as the language of business and culture around the middle of the first century of the Common Era (CE). Later, the Germanic languages of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—grouped together and coming to be known as Early English—began to meld with, and finally replace, both Celtic and Latin; the only exception being that Latin continued on for many hundreds of years as the language of the church and of education. French, too, could be added as an influence, after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The point here is not to attempt, in so short a space, a history of the English people, but merely to point out the multicultural and multilinguistic heritage of England. It wasn’t until the 8th century, for example, that the famous historian, Bede, wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), a time when one could say that England was just becoming English, and so needed a history of its own to explain itself. Bede finished his great work in 731 CE, some 1285 years ago. On a planet that is four and a half billion years old, and within the context of modern humans evolving some one hundred and fifty thousand years ago, it’s not unreasonable to think that this is a relatively short period of time. Indeed, humans have been living and interbreeding among tribes and races ever since the beginning.

Given this longer historical framework, it’s a fair question to ask: What exactly is meant when people say that they want to keep England English? Or keep America American, for that matter? No one needs a lesson on the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, and multilinguistic heritage of the United States. Even the Native Peoples of this continent have been here for only probably 10,000 to 20,000 years, depending on which archeologist you believe. A long time in terms of human memory, to be sure, but not so long from other perspectives. Who, therefore, owns a country and its heritage? And what is a country even, but an arbitrary enough system of geopolitical borders? Granted, within those borders there is a shared history (for however long, or short, it may be), often a shared language, and to an extent anyway, shared religio-cultural values. But there is nothing to say that these borders, or these shared elements of human culture, are forever immutable. That’s not meant to imply that people can’t also have a kind pride in their shared history, but at the same time remember that the narrative chronicle of any country is always a relatively brief one. Countries, whole empires, that once considered themselves solid and unchanging have come and gone, and today we dig up artifacts from out of the dust that once belonged to glorious nations now no longer in existence. Nor should we forget that, not so far back, we all came from the same roots

Britain has made its choice to leave the EU, as much as there are those who are calling for a re-vote, a new referendum, now that the sober light of day is just starting to reveal the magnitude of what has been done. I do not believe that this will happen. The die has been cast, and the United Kingdom—or some form of it, if Scotland and Northern Ireland eventually choose to opt out—will have to make the best of things. Indeed, there is chaos enough already attempting to make sense of the consequences of the vote and to figure out how to disengage from the European Union without too much more damage being done. Further uncertainty and chaos, in the form of a new campaign for and against another vote on the Brexit, is not needed. What is best now is to move toward the exit in an orderly fashion, while preserving as much economic, political, and social stability as possible.

But neither does this mean that the enormity of the decision shouldn’t be studied in depth. It should, in fact, be dissected as cleanly and as clearly as possible, so as to understand both how and why it came about, and what it means in terms of how the British people now think of themselves. Other countries too ought to investigate the whys and wherefores of the vote, in order to understand how similar trends, feelings, and beliefs play out among them, and what that may portend.

Surely, the European Union itself, as a political entity, is not without some culpability. It is all too easy to find fault with the so-called ignorant (as some think) in Britain, who voted out of the union. But there is little doubt that the bureaucracy of the EU is itself partially to blame, as it has become an unresponsive and inflexible monolith. As such, many people—not just the British—believe they have had no real representation in Brussels. Americans in particular ought to remember what happens when a group suffers under the onerous and unfeeling mandate of a government that levies taxation without at the same time providing for equal and fair representation.

That said, I continue to believe that the Brexit was a grave mistake. The flaws of a system can surely be overcome, if there is enough political will to do so. The ideal of a common union of nations is a grand one, especially on a continent that has been the genesis of two utterly devastating world wars. What is needed now is not the resurgence of more and more nationalism, not walls, literal or metaphorical, but a wider, a more inclusive, a more open and welcoming embrace of humanity. In that sense, we can all learn from this serious mistake made so recently by the United Kingdom. And in the process, with luck and a good deal of work, perhaps we can also help our British cousins mitigate, or even begin to reverse, some of the more deleterious effects of so short-sighted a decision.

 

 

COSMIC MYSTERIES AND OUR NEED TO KNOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Watching Stephen Hawking’s “Genius” series on PBS recently has reminded me what fascinating topics theoretical physicists study. They specialize in asking such big questions as “Where did the universe come from?” and “Is there a center to the universe?” And while it’s true that there has always been a degree of contention in regard to how these questions are answered, there is at least general consensus on the Big Bang itself, that is, the very beginning of the universe. That term may be a bit misleading, however, in that physicists do not believe it to have been an actual explosion. In fact, the term Big Bang was coined as a kind of put down of the theory by an early doubter. Instead of an explosion, it was probably more of an almost inconceivably rapid expansion, followed immediately by what is called “an inflation,” indicative of the fact that the infant universe moved rapidly outward, expanding in all directions. And the universe continues to expand even now, 13.7 billion years after the initial expansion. No less a figure than Einstein, himself, long doubted the idea of an expanding universe, but even he finally came to accept it, due to the patient observations of another renowned scientist, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble.

How did the Big Bang come about in the first place? Where was it located? And doesn’t it make sense to think of it as having somehow occurred in what might be thought of as the center of the universe? These are all legitimate questions to ask. The answer to the first, that of how the Big Bang came about, is very simple: no one knows. In that sense, it becomes, at least for now and in the absence of further scientific break throughs, more or less a philosophical or a theological question, although naturally scientists do continue to explore it. Regarding the query having to do with the Big Bang being in the center of the universe, the problem it raises becomes a question of logic. To think in locational terms assumes there was some “place” to be. However, there could have been no place for the universe to begin in until there actually was a universe. In other words, how could there have been a physical place, before there was such thing as space to be in? This also means another way to think of it is that everywhere is the center of the universe.

Before the Big Bang, nothing at all existed. It’s extremely difficult for us to conceive of nothingness. Language itself begins to break down, but it’s clear that nothing cannot be “a thing.” The definition of nothing is “no thing,” a complete non-existence of whatever can be perceived by our senses. How can we imagine what this might be like? Some might suggest we can envision it in terms of outer space being a vacuum, that is, of it “containing nothing,” again, as if nothing could somehow be contained. But even that is not the case, since physicists now understand that space is actually filled with Dark Matter. And as much as Dark Matter is unperceivable, it is known to comprise some 80% of all of the matter in the universe. On the other hand, normal matter that can be seen (i.e. asteroids, comets, stars, planets, galaxies, cosmic gas, as well as you and I and all the creatures of the earth and on any of the other planets) therefore accounts only for about a fifth of the known universe.

Theoretical physics routinely deals with imponderables. It works at the edges, at the border between science and philosophy/theology, between what can be known empirically and what can be inferred, or imagined, or intuited. Take another question that physicists are currently studying, that of the multiverse. The idea is that there may be many universes aside from the one we live in. Some even suggest that evidence points to there possibly being an infinite number of these universes, all existing in parallel form. In part, this originates from studies done by the German physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger is one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics, which studies the mysterious workings of the micro world of atoms and subatomic particles. He posited that a quantum state is the sum, or the “superposition,” of all possible states, hypothesizing in his famous “cat experiment” that an imagined feline in a box could be both dead and alive, and that we simply point to one or the other state as a kind of convenience, a sort of book-keeping device, only knowing if it is one or the other when the box is opened and it is observed. Additionally, according to another famous student of the field, Werner Heisenberg, quantum particles can exist in multiple locations simultaneously. This is referred to as his Uncertainty Principle, whereby the location of a subatomic particle can be calculated, but not its speed; or the speed can be calculated, but not its location. Some subatomic particles even appear to spring automatically, if fleetingly, into existence from nothing. All this happens at the tiniest—the quantum—level.

At the macro level, on the other hand, String Theory has to do with the workings of gravity and the vastness of the universe, and may ultimately help explain both Dark Matter and Dark Energy (the latter being the mysterious force that is thought to drive the expansion of the universe). The holy grail of modern physics is to come up with a theory that would adequately explain the universe using both the laws of Quantum Mechanics and those of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which deals with the macro universe. So far, unfortunately, no genius physicist has yet been able to explain this so-called Grand Unification Theory.

As for the multiverse, speculation on that question has not yet risen to the level of an actual theory. In fact, it is useful to remember exactly what is meant, in scientific terms, by the word theory. What it is not, and what many non-scientists believe it to be since this is how the word is used in everyday speech, is a kind of guess—as in, “your theory (of whatever) is as good as mine.” Instead, scientifically, a theory is a system of ideas meant to explain something, based on principles independent of the thing being explained. Thus, we speak of the Theory of Evolution—which is not a guess at all, but a hypothesis that has been tested and retested over the years, and proven itself to be true beyond any reasonable doubt. This is also the case with Quantum Mechanics, whereas String Theory (admittedly, confusingly) has not yet been fully accepted by the scientific community as a whole.

So, we see from merely a short sketch that there are myriad puzzles, inconsistencies, and mysteries in the universe. Any number of others could be added, such as the inexplicable nature of Black Holes, and other singularities like the Big Bang itself. How the two are alike, or not alike, is as yet unknown. And what happens to Space-Time, when it enters into a Black Hole, if even light itself cannot escape its super gravitational pull? Does intelligent life exist on other planets? How did self-reflective consciousness come about? And what exactly is antimatter, which was created at the time of the Big Bang? In principle, when antimatter comes into contact with matter, the latter is annihilated. So, how do we exist? One possible explanation is because there is one extra particle of matter for every billion particles of anti-matter. And is this a matter of luck, or something more mysterious, more mindful?

Which ultimately brings us to the question of God, or if you prefer, some ultimately unknowable Universal Intelligence. How does he—or she, or it—fit into the picture? Does he exist? My own theory, to use the everyday vernacular form of the word, is that he does, and the way toward understanding him lies within, in private, not out there in the practices of organized religion. As Einstein once famously said: “Teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.”

To be sure, science can help point the way, by examining the mysteries of the universe that we somehow have an innate longing to comprehend. Even if we never get there by using the scientific method, or generally through the normal processes of the human mind, at least we know we are trying to elucidate these ultimate questions. And if, as I believe, there is a Mystery Beyond All Mystery, one we will never fully plumb with our ordinary minds, then I should think such a Divine Being would really be pleased with the efforts of his clever, curious and ever-striving creatures.

HOW TO WIN THE 2016 ELECTION – Don’t Repeat the Nevada Democratic Convention Debacle!

by Kevin L Miller

It’s a gorgeous May in South Central PA, where I have been truly enjoying the preparation and planting of my 16 large raised vegetable beds, while reading and listening with increasing alarm to reports of the sudden split of the Democratic Party into two factions, following the disastrous Nevada State Democratic Convention on Saturday, May 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. Yesterday I planted a lot more tomatoes, okra, zucchini, melons and eggplant on our acreage that is closer to our Trump-loving neighbors here in the woods. Then I devoted yet another hour to reviewing many different videos of the Nevada Democratic Convention debacle. Google “Nevada Democratic Convention videos” and look at any of them that are not edited by conservative organizations. The footage has gone viral and leaves no doubt that the establishment Democrats in Nevada royally screwed the Bernie Sanders constituency.

The result is that the emerging division between Bernie’s Social-Democrats and Hillary’s Centrist-Democrats has suddenly deepened and polarized, so that hundreds of thousands of Bernie’s supporters are now shouting “Hillary NEVER! Bernie FOREVER!” They will NOT vote for Hillary now, and this puts the nation and the world in peril of a Trump presidency, which would be, quite simply, the beginning of the apocalypse. How did we get to this sorry state? The Democratic Party establishment lacked the imagination to recognize and embrace the mushrooming revolutionary movement within their ranks. Instead, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and the establishment, dug in their heels, lectured and scolded the Sanders campaign and supporters, and ultimately misused all their rules in an attempt to silence and subdue the Social-Democrats. This is not the way to heal wounds and achieve reconciliation.

All it took was one filmed and well-documented State Democratic Convention (it happened to be Nevada) to inflame and enrage the Social-Democrats, and the party split in half — or nearly so. At this point, the division may be 3/5 Centrist-Democrats vs 2/5 Social-Democrats. Of course, that split would be enough to cause Democrats to lose the election to Donald Trump, and the schism will likely become closer to 50/50 as the election season rolls on, especially after the impending spectacle of the Philadelphia Democratic Convention which promises to be cataclysmic.

To be clear, no one can condone the behavior of either faction at the recent Nevada Democratic Convention. All reasonable people certainly condemn the implied death threat phone calls made by a few extreme Sanders supporters to Democratic officials, and deplore the fist fights that reportedly may have broken out on the floor of the convention. Violence is never the answer. Never!.. BUT… after watching the videos of the abusive antics of Chairwoman Roberta Lange on the floor of the convention, and reading the accounts of the repeated massacre of Robert’s Rules of Order and the convention’s own rules, any rational person has to understand the rage and profound frustration of the Social-Democrats at that event, and the subsequent bitterness.

In Nevada, the Democratic establishment met secretly, without consulting the Social-Democrats, and changed the rules before the convention. They brought the rules change to the floor for a “Yea or Nay” vote, before a quorum was present. On the videos, when the Nays clearly had it, the very shrill chairwoman, Roberta Lange, nevertheless gave it to the Yeas. When a standing vote count was properly called for, she refused. When a point of order was called, she ignored it. When one of the Social-Democrats politely petitioned the chair for the time to read their minority report, the chair denied them that right, after also ignoring their petitions. Then a slate of 64 contested Sanders delegates was rejected, against the screams of the crowd. And finally, the chair, discarded Robert’s Rules of Order, moved abruptly to adjourn amidst the roar of NAY, and did so, slamming the gavel down on the podium and storming off the stage, which was protected by a line of gray-uniformed big burly armed police who looked for all the world like the Gestapo. The screaming crowd was instructed to leave immediately. These videos have to be seen to be believed. The Democratic establishment’s behavior was completely outrageous, out of line, and undemocratic. While no one can condone any threats or violence perpetrated by the Sanders supporters, anyone who reviews the videos and written factual accounts will completely understand the frustration and rage of the Social-Democrats.

One video records Barbara Boxer’s presentation to the convention. A personal note here: I’ve always adored Barbara Boxer. She looks wonderful, by the way — never better — and her hair and outfit at the Nevada convention were magnificent. She now adds a beautiful, magnetic presence to her obviously superior intelligence and substantive professionalism. I can’t help speculating that she may be positioning herself for a VP nomination. But her approach to the raging convention after Roberta Lange and convention officials had already enraged the Sanders constituency, was NOT cool: “I’m a Hillary supporter. We have the votes! We have victory! Yay!… (loud booing from the crowd) Keep on booing, and boo yourselves out of this election!” It gives me NO pleasure to report this, because I have always been an enthusiastic Boxer supporter. I attended one of her fund raisers at a wealthy private home in southern CA many years ago and met her and bought one of her T-shirts, which I wore proudly for many years. I have very recently mentioned her name several times as one of my personal choices for VP. But she handled this very badly. Basic psychology tells us that such an approach is not the way to win friends and influence people. And it is emblematic of how far the Hillary-supporting Democratic establishment has to go to get to a place where they can reconcile with the Bernie Sanders people. This is NOT good! This approach is exactly the way to hand the election to Trump and kick off the apocalypse. “Yay!…” as Boxer would say.

What is fascinating about our current election is that in the three remaining candidates we have the whole political spectrum. On the extreme right is the fascist authoritarian tyrant Donald Trump. On the far left is the Social-Democrat Bernie Sanders. And smack dab in the middle is the Centrist-Democrat, Hillary Clinton. At this moment no one has any idea who is going to win the general election, because it now appears that all three of these figures are going to remain on the public stage right through the November election, although one of them, probably Bernie Sanders, will not be an official candidate. He is going to get very close to the Democratic nomination, and his supporters will say that he would have won it, if the Democratic primary system had not been rigged and the many super-delegates, pre-selected and pre-committed by the Democratic Party establishment, precisely to prevent an insurgent like Sanders from succeeding. It is likely that Senator Sanders will continue campaigning for a grass-roots political revolution right through the election, in order to keep pulling Hillary Clinton to the left and win in principle if not in fact. The louder her supporters demand that Bernie leave the stage, the larger his crowds will grow.

So, how does anyone WIN this election? Well… If the factional rancor continues as it is developing now, all Trump will have to do to win is sit back and laugh while the Democratic Party splits in half. Democrats have to hope and pray that it is not too late for the Democratic establishment to make nice and offer concessions to the Social-Democrats, or all of us are going to suffer the terminal illness of a Trump presidency. First of all, people like Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer and Debbie Wassermann-Shultz, true liberals in the Democratic establishment, need to STOP lecturing and scolding Bernie’s campaign and his supporters and address them with the respect and deference due a huge constituency within their party, rather than treating them like naughty children who are being disrespectful to their parents’ authority. You can’t reconcile with somebody by berating them.

Then, frankly, the Hillary Clinton campaign needs to co-opt Bernie’s revolution and take away any reason for his supporters to resist them. The Democratic establishment should remove Debbie Wasserman-Shultz from the equation, because she has become a lightning rod in this conflict. They need to reign in the authoritarian voices within their ranks, and they need to change the rules around super-delegates, allowing them to be apportioned according to the popular vote, rather than committed in advance — in many cases long before Bernie ever declared his candidacy. Then Hillary needs to simply adopt Bernie’s playbook, lock, stock and barrel, exactly the way her husband Bill did with all of his opponents to win elections. He proved it works! Finally, after adopting all of Bernie’s positions, Hillary needs to offer him the VP slot on the ticket, whether he takes it or not. If these things were to happen, Bernie and his supporters could declare victory, and Hillary would win the election and send Trump back to his gilded Manhattan cage. There is still hope, if the Democratic establishment can grow the balls and imagination required to to embrace Bernie’s revolution.

But, let’s face it… That’s not likely to happen. It’s not human nature. And although Bill Clinton is probably a highly respected voice within his wife’s campaign, I doubt that she or her operatives have what it takes to see that they need to do exactly what he did to win elections, and steal all the thunder from the opponents by co-opting their messages and swallowing them whole. No… the rule of the day is dogmatic polarization, whereas Bill Clinton’s co-opting tactics require vision that goes far beyond compromise. It is very likely that the Democratic establishment will circle the wagons and become even more authoritarian and abusive with the existing rules, in the mode of the chair of the Nevada Democratic Convention. This will enrage and drive the Social-Democrats even farther away from the established Democratic Party and any hope of supporting Hillary in the general election. The Philadelphia Democratic Convention will now inherit the once-predicted fate of the Cleveland Republican Convention, and become an absolute madhouse of rage and conflict. The Democratic Party will emerge badly damaged and split. And Trump is likely to win the election. The END!

P.S.: By the way… I have not changed my mind. I voted for Bernie in the PA primary, and I am still supporting him and his positions. But if Hillary, or Daffy Duck, or a fence post, wins the Democratic nomination and remains the strongest alternative to Trump in the polls, then I will vote for that alternative that has at least some chance of defeating Trump and averting utter global disaster. But there is now some slight possibility that even if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, she may not emerge by election day as the strongest candidate against Trump. Anything can happen now. A Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. and the world. The Democratic Party establishment must step back and get real about the heroic surgery they will now have to perform if they are to heal the gaping wounds within the progressive electorate body, and win this election.

 

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MAKE A COUNTRY GREAT?

By Paul M. Lewis

A number of people have recommended to me an article written by the brilliant, conservative-leaning intellectual (graduate of Oxford and Harvard), Andrew Sullivan, published in the most recent edition of the New York magazine, entitled “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic.” Its subtitle goes on to say, “And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” In it, Sullivan makes a convincing case for the notion that over time democracies become almost too democratic, what he calls hyper-democratic, and as such they tend to implode on themselves. Within that context, he goes on to quote Plato, who tells us that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

Although Sullivan nonetheless still maintains that democracies are wonderful places to live, he says—no doubt, rightly so—that nothing lasts forever. Indeed, the excesses of democracy are all too often seen in the passions and the tyranny of the mob. The Founding Fathers did what they could to temper this, but over time such protections have eroded away. As an example, just look at the untrammeled chaos, the blind furor of the zealots in the current primary season. Sullivan refers to this as “last stage political democracy.”

The excesses of social media, seen on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, are further examples of unregulated democracy. If it were not so, why would China, and other repressive regimes (North Korea also springs to mind) want to limit, or even forbid, its access? The web itself has virtually no monitors, no elite experts who can serve as intellectually legitimate analysts to correct errors, or to call a lie a lie. Either that, or there are so many claiming to be experts that, in the end, no one knows who is legitimately so, and who is not; there is no longer anyone to modulate people asserting themselves or their pet ideas, or to say, “No, what you are claiming is misleading, untrue, even immoral.” Hyper-democracy, in other words, seems to bring us to the point of what might be called hyper-equality, wherein the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of each person are sacrosanct (we are all equal, after all) and automatically asserted to be on the same level as those of everyone else, no matter how unskilled or inexpert they may be. Where then is judgment, circumspection, logic, prudence, let alone wisdom? As a result, we get a presumptive Republican nominee for the highest office in the land in Donald Trump, who is the very epitome of uncouth, uncultured, uneducated, even unprincipled, self-aggrandizement. In other words, the brashest, to say nothing of the richest, gets to speak the loudest and rises to be the leader of the pack. As Orwell said so presciently back in 1945, speaking, ironically, about communism, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

As brilliant an essayist as Sullivan is, and as thorough and insightful an analysis as the article provides (I highly recommend that it be read in its entirety), it seems to me that virtually any political system can ultimately devolve into tyranny, and that democracy is no more susceptible to doing so than any other. I suppose it could even be asked: how many other forms of government are there, aside from democracy itself and tyranny? Just look at two of the other largest and most powerful countries of the world, Russia and China. Nobody would accuse either of them of ever having been hyper-democratic, as much as Russia may have made a few tentative steps toward democracy once communism fell. There is little doubt today that each is caught up in the throes of an increasingly repressive dictatorship. Indonesia can be cited as another example of a country that went through the horrors of the tyrannical Suharto regime, only to emerge briefly and hopefully into the light of democracy, having elected Joko Widodo (aka, Jokowi) in 2014; sadly, however, he now appears to be leading his country back towards a form of hyper-religious rigidity, if not outright dictatorship. Virtually all of the promising Arab Spring movements toward democracy, too, have surrendered to dictatorship and tyranny. Gen. el-Sisi in Egypt, as just the latest example, has taken away most of the rights of civil society that hopeful democrats had, not so long ago, thought to be within their grasp. And look what happened in Libya once the hated dictator fell, with help from the democratic west. Can it be said that the tyranny of a dictator was any worse than the tyranny of warring clans, or the horror of an emerging ISIS? The point once again is that these, and many other countries that could be cited, collapsed into oppression and subjugation, not out of a context of hyper-democracy, but out of either the chaos of their own recent history, or a long-standing predilection toward autocratic rule.

My fear is that people generally—no matter what form of government they live under—have a built in penchant, even a longing, for a “big daddy” who will take control, rule their lives, and tell them what to do and when to do it. All too often, we want to be relieved of the burden of having to think, analyze, and make difficult decisions on our own. This may especially be so when the world becomes even more complex and confusing than it normally is, or when outside factors over which most of us truly have little or no control, things such as the globalization of the world economy and even the terrible effects of the ever increasing warming of the globe, come into play. When this happens, people become desperate for plain, simple answers, ones which they either do not want to parse out themselves, or which they feel themselves incapable of grappling with. They want relief from the burden of needing to live in a more or less constant state of questioning, uncertainty and unpredictability. When such times come about, the Trumps of the world rush in to offer surety, decisiveness, and an ability to get things done now, not after endless dithering and debate, while democracy makes its slow, messy, erratic, moody, and unpredictable way forward. The supporters of Donald Trump, like those of Xi in China, or Putin in Russian, or Jokowi in Indonesia, or Erdogan in Turkey—many others could be added—want certainty in an uncertain world, and are all too willing to go along with the scapegoating of disempowered minorities by way of easy explanation.

As simple as it sounds, it takes a lot to live with ambiguity. It takes a kind of centeredness within oneself, a sureness of who one is, and a belief that this identity will not change, no matter what happens out there in a disordered and topsy-turvy world. But that is not easy. Many of us (myself included, I admit) are not all that comfortable with change; we find it unsettling, disconcerting, and unnerving. But the world is, by its very nature, variable, fluctuating, inconsistent, an unpredictable place in which to live.

Still, while all of this may certainly be true, it does not relieve each of us of the responsibility of facing the world head on, whether shivering in our boots, or cursing with all our might against the vicissitudes of ill-starred fate. Donald Trump, with his simplistic promises of making American great again, and pointing a finger at whoever his latest scapegoat may be—criminal illegal aliens stealing our American jobs, or terrorist Muslims hiding behind every bush, ready to pounce on an innocent and unsuspecting populace—will not be able to rescue us, no matter how much anyone may want him to.

Democracy, even with all of its flaws and failings, and its all too human tendency toward chaotic imperfection, is still always better than dictatorial tyranny. And if, as Sullivan notes, hyper-democracy can be a gateway to autocratic totalitarianism, then so be it. If this is the case, it’s up to each of us to prevent that from happening. Who else is there to do it? If we can learn to be more comfortable with ambiguity, and take on a little more responsibility for informing ourselves and making things right that have gone wrong, then maybe we don’t need someone out there to do that for us.

Maybe America already is great, not because Donald Trump asserts that he can make it so, but because we, the people—you and I—are capable of taking on the task of responsible self-government. In the end, it’s up to us to make some mature decisions and not opt for the easy fantasy of an imperious and domineering generalissimo, riding in to deliver a hoped-for, if ever illusive, rescue. It’s our choice and, with hard work and determination, we really are capable of making democracy work for all of us, no matter what late stage our political life may find itself in.