REMEMBERING 2014 AND LOOKING FORWARD TO 2015

By Paul M. Lewis

The old year has a funny tendency to slip away, almost without our knowing it, and sometimes even before we’re really ready to say goodbye. What I’m talking about are those things we want to grab hold and not let go of: the memories of those who have left us, gatherings with friends, the adventures of travel, those special, private moments with those we hold most dear, or just the small, funny things that happened, and then melted away like morning dew when the warm sun hits it.

I think this is what that otherwise difficult to comprehend New Year’s Eve song we all intone, “Auld Lang Syne,” is getting at. The first line always seems so puzzling: “May auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.” It sounds as if we’re supposed to forget old friends, and what sense does that make? But a more modern take on a translation from the old Scottish dialect might instead run something like this: if it may be that old acquaintances are forgotten and no longer remembered. Later, we’re admonished to drink a cup of kindness to them, “in days of auld lang syne,” for the sake of old times.

And what do old times bring to mind but questions of what memory actually is, and what good it does? What else is memory but a host of images, thoughts, and feelings related to what was our present, itself a most transient and impermanent point in time? It is an attempt to give that eternal slippage of the present greater permanence. But in so doing, too often, we give it a life it never actually had in the moment; we change it to fit in with the ideal we have of ourselves. I think of my own memories of childhood, of early adulthood in the monastery, of first forays into the adult world, holding down a job, beginning to make enough money to support myself, of waiting, wishing for someone to share my life with, of finally finding that person and of creating a life together with him. Without these recollected thoughts and feelings and pictures, these stories I tell myself about who I was and who I now am, I would not recognize myself as the person I have somehow become.

So it is with each passing year. I take the opportunity to think back, to look at who I was during the arbitrary span of time just now passing, the year that was 2014, a mere number upon a page really. I wonder what I have done, what I could have, should have accomplished, and what the world did, as well. In his third sonnet, Shakespeare writes one of the most achingly beautiful lines of the many that he penned over the years. Speaking to an idealized youth, and urging him not to deprive the world of offspring, he reminds him that all this is to him, just as he is to his mother: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.”

Sometimes this summing up that we do seems to fall short. It does for me, I know. Did it, I wonder, for my own mother, as well? I will never know, as she died suddenly many years ago, almost forty-five years now. Yet, I often call back in my memory “the lovely April of her prime,” when she, a vital young woman filled with hope, and love, and desires both for herself and her children, lived the life she had before her to live. Was she content with how her life unfolded, with her accomplishments, things the world might have thought of as little? I can well say the same for myself. Who cannot, in fact, if we look closely at our lives?

But I believe that the ultimate measurement of life must not be in externals. Its best and truest yardstick is an interior one. Have I achieved the highest that I can be, not in some outward way, considering money made, or titles accumulated, or fame, or gain, or praise, or blame for that matter, but more in terms of knowledge of who I am, how I have treated others, and why I am here in the first place? As humans, it seems to me, we are seldom either ever fully at peace with what we have done, or happy at the most profound level with who we are. There is always something more that we feel we must strive for, though we may never reach it. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great 19th century Anglo-Irish poet, puts it this way: “As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage/Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house dwells.”

Nonetheless, we continually strive to somehow be better than we were, to achieve who we think we can be. That, I think, is the nature of the human spirit. And so, I look back on my own 2014, as many do at this time, and wonder, was it enough? I wrote some 30 essays on this blog, everything from posts related to global warming (many), to thoughts about politics (good and bad), to ones having to do with art, travel, education, science, work, even procrastination (how timely!), and of course, about religion and spirituality. I have been working hard, with help from my partner, on getting a novel I wrote (and thought I finished) a few years ago ready for self-publication, hopefully no later than this spring. And these again are just the externals. Although could it not also be said that what we do externally is the best reflection of who we are internally?

The world at large, too, has had its own things to remember, many unfortunately not very positive: the savagery of ISIS, NSA spying, various and sundry odd Supreme Court rulings, the killings of many a young black man, Puttin’s huffing and puffing and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the GOP takeover of Congress, the horrors of Ebola, often foiled attempts at making immigration into the US right for millions of “illegals,” the supposed end of the Afghan war, though no one is sure, and again let us not forget the continuing ravages of global warming. The list goes on and on, and no doubt each reader could add his or her own items to it. But the news was not all bad, and I look back and think that at least some things got done that were needed: the economy is beginning to look better even for ordinary folk; gay people can now marry in many states, where only a year ago they could not; and many, many more Americans have access to affordable healthcare. It’s true that the negatives on the list may outweigh the positives, but the thing about people that is so wonderful is that we continue to hope, sometimes even in the face of hopelessness.

Hope can almost be seen as the other side of memory. If memory consists of the jumble of thoughts and feelings and images that once were, either in the exactitude of how they happened or in the self-created, idealized way we wish they had, then hope is the desire for all things affirmative, that deep wish to fill the fleeting moments of the new year looming before us with all that is right and good and positive.

In Spanish, the saying is Próspero Año Nuevo, may you have a prosperous new year. In French, they say Bonne Année, meaning, good year. And in Russian, it’s even simpler. Transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet, it looks like S Novim Godom, at the new year. In the end, they all pretty much come down more or less to the same thing: best wishes, and hope for a Happy New Year! May it be better than any we have ever seen, and may we be better than we have ever been. As good, in fact, as we truly wish ourselves to be.

CHRISTMAS — THEN AND NOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Not everyone likes Christmas. Certainly not the way I do. And I’m not just talking about those who weren’t raised within the yuletide tradition. Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, atheist, et al. all have different feelings about the holiday. I get that, and of course, respect it. It even sometimes surprises me that I like the season as much as I do, given the fact that I no longer consider myself a Catholic, or even a Christian, or a member of any organized religion, for that matter.

Even so, I don’t deny that the memories are still there. Childhood in upstate New York with its snow swirling, cold biting, the wind howling. Inside was warm and cozy, or it was supposed to be anyway. And sometimes it was, except when my parents were consumed with worry about money, as they almost always were, or when Dad was drunk, as he was every night, or Mom had to work evenings, as she usually did, at the local department store over in Troy, selling undergarments to ladies much richer than she. Yet there was a tree, and somehow presents under the tree, and always turkey for dinner on the big day itself. So, things could have been much worse, and were for some.

I can also still see our parish church, St. Patrick’s, just across the street from the house: poinsettias, Midnight Mass, and a lovely manger scene set up just in front of the altar in honor of the Blessed Mother. She was, after all, the real star of the show. At least, that’s how the story came down to me back in those years. She and Joseph, who was pretty much a silent partner without a lot of clout, were the ones who had to go searching for a place to stay after Caesar Augustus came forth with his decree about paying taxes, and the two had to travel all the way to Bethlehem and wound up in a stable, when there were no rooms available in the inn. I always figured the stable couldn’t have been a very comfortable place, especially for Mary. But the infant Jesus didn’t know much at that point anyway, except we were always taught that He knew everything, so wouldn’t He have known how hard it was on his mother? And yet, he didn’t do anything about it; He didn’t find a nice warm room for her, even though He could have, being all-powerful and all. We were never told why He didn’t get a nicer room for her, but then I was a kid, and there were lots of things about the adult world that I didn’t get, and even feared I might never understand, so I just accepted things as a sort of given. The Church wasn’t big on being asked too many probing questions anyway, and the nuns could be pretty brutal, so best to keep you head down and your mouth shut. Silence was golden, as my 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary Barbara, was fond of reminding us, and the empty barrel makes the most noise. And who wants to be an empty barrel?

In those years, it seemed natural to believe everything I was told, and I did take things literally. In that, I was no exception. Pretty much everyone I knew did the same thing, and I’m not just talking about the kids. Most of the adults I knew did, too. Some people still do. Remember all of those Christmas cards people used to send with idealized scenes of the manger and the stable, ironically, contradictorily depicting it as simultaneously both ethereal and shoddy? Broken down, open to the weather. Usually a nighttime snowy scene with shepherds, and sheep, and lavishly berobed Magi in flowing garments, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, even though the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi actually were supposed to have arrived, didn’t take place until January 6th. Oddly, I thought, nobody ever looked cold, or uncomfortable, or particularly concerned that this young woman was giving birth surrounded by a bunch of farm animals. Not the most hygienic of places to give birth to the Savior of the world.

So, that was then. But what of now? I live in a different world at this point. It’s true that my partner and I still have a tree, one actually more elaborately decorated than any I ever knew as a kid. And there’s lots of good food, which I eat too much of, and try to burn the calories off at the gym each day. My partner is a terrific cook, so it’s hard to resist. We give gifts, and we make dinner for friends, some of whom we only get to visit with once a year, and we generally have a really nice time. Admittedly, there’s no snow here in Southern California, but we consider ourselves lucky if we have cool, rainy weather, which we’ve had a good amount of so far this season. And of course, there’s music. I love all the singing (well, except for some of the really inane songs that were so popular back in the 50’s and the 60’s that they still play: “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – really?). No, I’m much more attracted to the old standbys, by which I mostly mean the traditional carols.

But I don’t take them literally anymore. I don’t take much of anything related to spirituality literally. The point is it’s all symbolic, and to imagine a God-child born to an earthly mother (in a stable or not), who had conceived Him immaculately, which is to say, asexually, impregnated by the word of a visiting angel, all this seems a little much. Far better to think of it as referencing a kind of beginning, a new birth if you will, of higher consciousness within each person. The angels we have heard on high are our own higher power speaking to us, implanting notions of elevated awareness within ourselves. That’s the birth we ought to be celebrating, since it’s an actual possibility, one that each of us can work to bring about in our own lives.

It doesn’t matter who we are. Whatever our race may be, or our gender, our religious affiliation (if any), our sexual orientation, our nationality, our age, our looks, our degree of material wealth, our state of health, et cetera, we’re all capable of elevating our consciousness. I understand that this doesn’t accord very well what lots of religious teachers preach, but then I don’t listen to them anymore. The birth of our own higher consciousness ought to tell us that the rigidity of the do’s and don’ts of organized religions are too often excuses for manipulating people, making them feel guilty of transgressions (sins, so-called), with the ultimate goal of controlling both how people think and how they act. Glory to the newborn King! Yes, definitely. Except the king is our own elevated understanding of what it means to be both fully human, and more than human. As the Irish poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says so beautifully: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best; but uncumberèd.”

And I’m not even saying I have anything against people taking these stories literally either, if they wish. Why not? If people find comfort in them, and if belief in the virgin birth of Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger puts joy in their hearts, who am I to say it shouldn’t be? I just wish that some of those people who believe these things in a literal way would give those of us who don’t a little room to make that all right, too

It’s true that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But whether we think of Chanukah, the birth of the Infant Jesus, the symbolic birth of Christ Consciousness, or just the turning of the year at the Winter Solstice, there really does seem to be an atmosphere of peace and joy around at this time. Longfellow once famously wrote: “The holiest of all holidays are those/Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;/The secret anniversaries of the heart.”

So, I say, it’s an excellent time for quiet reflection. Dare I even mention meditation? And if, for whatever reason, you still don’t feel some special presence this season, that’s fine, too. What’s maybe most important is that we act properly, treat others with respect, and would it kill any of us to smile a little more? Who knows? As actors discovered long ago, if you play the part right, it could well be you’ll begin to feel it, too. And in the end, that just may be the best holiday present any of us could give to those we love.

PREJUDICE: WHERE IT COMES FROM AND WHAT TO DO WITH IT

By Paul M. Lewis

Prejudice, according to professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a researcher on race and equality at Stanford University, “…is not just about police. It’s not something that is just about white people. It’s a function of how we are socialized.”

There’s no doubt a lot of truth in this statement, and we all have to somehow come to terms with how we are socialized in our society. Even so, the effects of prejudice are felt disproportionately by some, much more than by others. I am, for example, not a black man. I don’t know how it feels to wake up in the morning, wondering if I might be stopped, or arrested, or worse, just because I’m driving to work, or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I don’t know what it feels like to have a frightened older white guy shy away from me, just because I happen to be standing behind him in line to get money out of the ATM, or to see a white woman stare at me, pretending not to, hoping that I don’t see the fear in her eyes, simply because I happened to glance up at her in the grocery store while looking for a ripe avocado. I’m not black. I have never experienced these things.

But this clearly is a commonplace experience of black men – particularly young black men – in this country. Many white people consciously suspect black men of the potential of violent crime, not because of anything a specific man does or says or threatens, but simply because of who he is. In other words, young black men are condemned for no other reason than because of how they look. Neither are the police exempt from these sorts of preconceived ideas, as the country knows only too well and has seen countless times. And we don’t have to go back to the Jim Crow South and de jure segregation for examples, even though countless such instances could be cited. We have seesawed of late from Trayvon Martin in Florida, to Michael Brown in Missouri, to Eric Garner in New York. And that is merely to name those who have come to nationwide attention. Other deaths, less famous but equally as tragic, and equally as devastating to the families of those who loved these men, have taken place during that same time period.

To live and breathe in 21st century America is to live with both conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, no only about black people, but about others as well. Whoever may not be a member of our particular “tribe,” however that group is defined, is fair game. Anyone who lives near a reservation is well aware of the negative stereotypes they have had drilled into them about Indians. They are lazy, shiftless, alcoholic, and drug-addled. They’re just different from you and me (meaning us whites). We were, for example, visiting a private ranch in northern Arizona not long ago, whose owner conducted tours for the public designed to visit a vast number of ancient petroglyphs on the property. The old cowboy who conducted the tour was a sweet guy, someone you’d be happy to have as your granddad and who, according to his own statement, had made many friendships with local Indians. Yet, at one point in the tour, stopping along the way to show us a half-abandoned traditional Navajo dwelling called a hogan, he said, “These people just think different from us. I’m not saying that’s bad, just different.” Such a statement, while no doubt consciously well meant, demonstrates an underlying prejudice. “These people,” first of all, sets Indians up as distinct, different, foreign, “the other,” and asserting that they think differently (really, how so?) only enhances and aggrandizes this kind of separation. It’s the modern, more polite version of the older, less polite “them injins.”

As a gay man, I am not unfamiliar with prejudice myself, of course. Although in the case of gay people, except for those who are “flamboyantly gay” (is there such a thing as a flamboyantly straight person?), many of us can go undetected. In some instances, for all of our lives, unless we choose to make a statement. Such statements can be made overtly, or more subtly. My partner and I, for example, show up at more or less the same time at the grocery store every Sunday morning to do our shopping (we are remarkably regular about such things), month after month, year after year, and the cashiers at the supermarket eventually begin to understand that we are a couple. But even in modern America, where gay marriage has come to be accepted by a majority of the population, I am still hyper-conscious of what is going on while standing next to my partner at the front desk of a hotel when we travel together. “Yes, one room, with one king bed, please,” we say. What does the clerk behind the counter think? Do I detect a raised eyebrow? Is there a widening of the eyes? And don’t even think of holding hands most places in this country, even today, as any “normal” couple, might do. Nor do I forget that there are people out there, some in this country, but many more in places like Africa, or Russia, or parts of the Middle East, whose intolerance and religious zealotry not only sanctions, but demands, that we be put to death, not for what we look like, but for who we love.

The word prejudice comes from two Latin words that separately mean “pre” and “judgment.” What we do, all of us to one extent or another, is to judge people and situations in advance. This means that, before we ever meet “those people,” that is, those we think of as “other,” we project a set of thoughts, ideas, and feelings about them. Some of these notions are conscious, and some may be held unconsciously. But one way or another, such projection frequently results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, so that what we think actually becomes what we see, or hear, or how we interpret people’s behavior. “Indians just think different from us.” “Those young black guys standing in front of that house talking loud, what’ll they do if I walk by them?” “And those gay folks, you know, they’re all pretty much pansies, who at best know all of the show tunes that ever existed, and at worse are leering at your young son, lying in wait to convert him to their deviant lifestyle.” This is the nature of prejudice. It doesn’t give anybody a chance to be a separate, idiosyncratic human being – good or bad – but lumps people into categories we think we know something about already.

A friend of mine once told me that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, and someone whom I consider to be a fully realized avatar, was once traveling on a train in the American South. This was back in the 1920’s, but probably could happen today, as well. A white man seated nearby began to say unkind things to him, wondering how and why he, a brown man, would think it all right to ride in a car along with white folks. Yogananda said one thing only to the man in return: “The Divine Spirit is not pleased when you disparage his brown children.”

The Divine Spirit is not pleased when any of us denigrate and belittle any of his children, be they brown, or black, or red (so-called anyway, although no Indian I ever met actually looked red to me), or gay, or any other category you might care to create. And not just disparage, but pre-judge. Even if being born in America to an extent does predestine us to a degree of racial prejudice, it never means that anyone has to act on it. No one responds in action to every impulse she or he feels. If that were true, there would undoubtedly be a lot more violence in the world than there currently is. And God knows there’s enough already!

When a prejudiced thought comes unbidden into a person’s mind, what is essential is not that it has entered into our head, but what next to do with it. There’s a black man. Be careful! No one has to stop at that. The next thought can, and should be, I don’t know that man as a person; let me not judge him on how he looks, but on how he acts. Let me approach at least with an open mind and heart. Would a smile be so terrible? Or maybe, if we were so inclined, we might even want to say: “There goes my brother, or my sister. No different from me. Just like me, in fact. Of priceless value, and a child of the Divine Spirit.”

CHEAP OIL: GOOD NEWS, OR BAD?

By Paul M. Lewis

Anyone who drives a gas-guzzling car these days is probably happier than they were just a few short months ago. In that space of time, the price of oil has dropped 29%. Brent crude, which serves as the global benchmark for oil, was at $82 a barrel as of mid October, the lowest in four years. This compares to almost $116 per barrel back in June. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average the cost of a gallon of gasoline has also gone down from an average of $3.51 to $3.39 in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and will undoubtedly slip below the three dollar mark next year, to an average of $2.94 per gallon. In some places, it already has.

The question is: who is this good and bad news for? Consumers are among the most obvious winners. Who doesn’t rejoice when it takes twenty to thirty dollars less to fill up your tank? With the possible exception of the wealthiest one percent, most of us count our dollars, and when we don’t have to spend as much to get to work, or to run errands, or to take the kids to soccer practice, then there’s that much more for other everyday needs. The same can be said, by the way, for the cost of heating oil, which has also decreased by almost the same trajectory. Especially for those living in colder climes, this all amounts to substantial savings, and there are a lot of people who are breathing a sigh of relief as a result.

Manufacturers, too, are happy about the current state of affairs. One way or another, it takes energy to produce anything, and although the cost of electricity has not been substantially affected by the volatility in oil prices, other costs certainly have, particularly that of shipping. Airlines are also dancing the cheap-oil jig since, after salaries, jet fuel amounts to their biggest outlay of capital. Maybe this will also result in the cancellation of some of those annoying “energy surcharges” airlines have for some time now been adding on to the cost of tickets; yet another bonus for consumers, and ultimately for businesses that have to send people around the country, or the world, to conduct affairs.

Surprisingly, yet another winner is the stock market, at least for those stocks that do not include oil. As referenced above, manufacturers and airlines, and even healthcare providers, all benefit from lower energy costs. Consequently, the overall value of these companies and corporations has concomitantly risen, and their stocks along with them. People’s investments are, therefore, worth more, and those retirees who live off their savings may be starting to feel less of a belt-tightening.

Even environmentalists may have some reason to rejoice, although not too much. Projects such as the XL pipeline are no longer looking as fiscally advantageous as they once did. If OPEC is selling its product that much cheaper these days, there is no longer such a compelling need – nor is there economic justification – for companies to spend what it takes to extract oil from the tar sands of Alberta and ship it a couple of thousand miles across the United States for processing

This all brings us to the basic reason why there is currently an oil glut, driving down the cost of the product. What happened is that OPEC, at the insistence of 800 pound gorilla Saudi Arabia, decided to keep on pumping lots of oil, almost literally, you might say, flooding the market. The obvious result is that this drives the cost per gallon down, which at first may appear counterintuitive as to how companies normally ought to work. However, it soon becomes clear that OPEC (aka Saudi Arabia) has decided to endure short-term pain for the explicit purpose of long-term gain. Lower energy prices, as noted above, make it far less profitable for newer technologies, such as extracting oil from tar sands, to compete in the open market. The hope is to drive these new sources of oil out of business, so as then to eventually raise prices again, once these companies are no longer viable competitors. After all, this is how capitalism works: do whatever you can to undercut your competitors and then, once they are no longer able to compete, raise your own prices. It all makes good economic sense.

But new energy companies, and in the short-term OPEC members, will not be the only losers in this global energy game of chicken. There are others as well. Governments of all sizes and political persuasions will suffer. Canada, for one, will lose a great deal of money. It’s been estimated that the province of Alberta alone will miss out on as much as 1.2 billion dollars annually because of the price of cheap oil. And that’s only if the price drops below $80 a barrel next year. What will happen if, as many analysts predict, it drops to as low as $65 a barrel? Saskatchewan currently has a budget based on projected revenue coming in with oil set at $100 a barrel. Other Canadian provinces will suffer, as well. And what of poor Vladimir Putin? The ruble has already lost some 40% of its value, and not just because of U.S. and EU sanctions. The plunging cost of oil has contributed majorly to this drop. Everyone knows that much of Putin’s popularity has been based on the fact that the Russian economy has been awash in oil money for years now. What will happen to pension payments, education, food subsidies, infrastructure, even the servicing of debt, to say nothing of the wrath of the oligarchs who have helped prop up his repressive and oppressive government, when people begin to really feel the pinch? Some economists predict deep recession for the Russian economy in 2015. Mexico, too, has reason to be concerned, to say nothing of countries like Nigeria and Venezuela.

But what of yet longer term losers? And by that, I mean all of us. It’s clear that one of the reasons why companies have been interested in investing in clean energy alternatives these past few years is because of the rising cost of oil. If the price of that commodity is now falling, what impetus do companies have to make such an investment? Companies are not philanthropic institutions. They exist for one purpose, and for one purpose only: to make money for themselves and their investors. If they aren’t making money doing a particular thing, they’d better stop doing it, or else they will fail. In addition, cheap oil spurs developing countries to invest in exactly the same kinds of dirty energy policies that richer countries have for years been engaging in.

The result is that all of us risk being washed away in that flood of oil. There are no easy answers. The way the system is set up, if the enormous wealth tied up in energy companies were magically to drop to zero tomorrow, the world would surely be plunged into a recession that would make the last one look like a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park. But if we don’t do something to lessen the impact of our dependence on Big Oil, we will continue down the same road we have long been traveling, to perhaps an even more catastrophic end.

Winners and losers there always will be, no matter what the game. That seems to be how humans are made. But is there a way for us to mitigate the losses, and maximize the gains, not for the few, but for everyone? The immediate issue of the glut of oil in the market is, of course, merely temporary, and a human created one at that. The bigger question by far is this: just how long will the planet be able to sustain the economic growth model of world development? There’s an answer that no one seems to be able to predict this, and one that ought to concern everybody who cares about the world we are living in, or the kind we are leaving for our children.