THE LOVELY APRIL OF HER PRIME

By Paul M. Lewis

If my mother were alive, she would have turned ninety-five years old today. Not an impossibility, of course, since many of us know people whose parents are in their nineties. Yet, she died forty-five years ago, in 1970, when she was just fifty years old.

No doubt, everyone thinks of his or her mother as a special person, and it’s an old saw among the Irish that you practically have to say of your mother: “She was a saint.” But it’s also true that this happens to quite accurately describe my mother. Her name was Kathleen, or Kay, as she usually went by, and she was the most loving and compassionate person whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She worried about everyone: her own children, first of all, but other people’s children, too, as well as friends and relatives. Sadly, she fretted greatly about money, as well, of which we had very little. And she worried especially about her husband, my father, who hated his job in the local sandpaper factory, and whose intelligence—it must be said—ought to have insured a better position for him, one where he could have used his mind, rather than just his hands in so mechanical a way.

Intellectuality was not my mother’s greatest gift. I am not speaking here of native intelligence, you understand, but of what used to glibly be referred to as book-learning. She never graduated from high school, seldom read, aside from the occasional perusal of the local newspaper, and was not drawn to an overly cerebral, philosophical way of looking at the world, as was my father. No, she approached life as a thing to be cherished and taken care of, a gift from God to be nurtured and nourished, cultivated and encouraged. She saw life as a benefit freely bestowed, a thing not to be taken for granted.

Although she grew up during the Great Depression and had very real money worries, I never saw in her that persistent, underlying fear of there not being enough, so prevalent among many of that generation. The household she was reared in was entirely feminine. Her own father, my grandfather, met and married her mother, Katy, in what I always think must have been a whirlwind romance. Although no pictures of him exist, he was—or so my imagination likes to project—a dashing fellow. A baseball player for the Montreal Royals, one of the minor league teams of the era, he came with the team to upstate New York to play against the Albany Senators. Though family lore has not recorded just how, this handsome young French-Canadian, who went by the unlikely name of Pierre-Napoleon, somehow met a local Irish-American girl named Katy, and the two were married soon thereafter. Dates here are fuzzy, but the unstated suggestion has always been that Katy may have conceived before the blessings of wedlock were conferred, and she gave birth to Kathleen, my mother, on the 19th of February 1920. Soon thereafter, Pierre-Napoleon disappeared from sight, presumably hightailing it back to Montreal, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. In those days, such legal niceties as child support did not exist, and so Katy moved back in with her own mother, a widow by that time, and the two ladies raised my mother.

I don’t know where my own parents met. One of the many disadvantages of losing one’s parents early on is that there is no longer the opportunity for their children, later in life, when they might themselves be more settled and possibly interested in such matters, to ask these kinds of question. She married Francis (Frank) Lewis in 1940. Not long after, my father was drafted into the navy and served on a destroyer-escort in the North Atlantic, the USS Moffett, during the Second World War. He came home a few times on leave to spend a week or two with his young bride, and during one of those visits I was conceived. He didn’t return home for good until late 1945.

The years that ensued after the war were typical enough for many young couples of the time. My father got a job in a local factory, and my mother worked in a department store in Troy, New York, selling negligees to ladies much richer than she. We never owned a car, and my father walked the twelve blocks to work each morning; she took the bus because her feet always hurt her. Kathleen had five children, two of whom died soon after they were born, and there was struggle enough to raise the remaining three. Her husband was unhappy at work, and in much of life, although not in his marriage, and drank too much. She often had to work evenings at the department store, and the household was a miserable place when she was not there to lighten and brighten things up.

Because of smoking and drinking and, I always believed, failed aspirations and the bitter disappointment of his own life, my father died even younger than my mother. He was forty-seven years old. A few years later, my mother met a nice Italian man by the name of Carlo, and they enjoyed each other’s company for a few years. By then, she was working in the same sandpaper factory where my father had died, since the money was better than anything that could be made as a saleslady. She and Carlo went dancing on Saturday nights, and occasionally out to dinner, things she could never afford to do with Frank, and she seemed happy.

Not that there hadn’t been sorrows aplenty in her life: my father’s drinking, his early death, my brother’s drinking, my sister’s scoliosis and, I suppose, my own entry into the monastery at age fourteen. Far too young, she thought, as much as she never tried to stop me. It was considered a high honor in those years if one of your children had what was referred to as a vocation. Maybe people just thought of it as insurance for a better place in heaven. The church held great moral suasion in those days, far more than it does today. Even so, years later, after I left the monastery and my mother was still living, she told me that she had confessed to the priest that she and my father used birth control, as they could not afford to raise even the three children they had, let alone any more. In turn, the priest told her: “If you do not repent and stop using artificial birth control, you will burn in hell for all eternity. If you wish not to have any more children, cease having relations with your husband.” This was merely the first of many things that turned me against the Catholic Church, with its inhuman, rigid, and doctrinaire legalism.

Obviously, this priest did not know my mother. Anyone who did could never imagine a God by whatever name condemning her for anything. The Hindus speak of Divine Mother, and I have always felt as though my mother was a kind of reflection of that image, filled with great warmth and kindness and a profound empathy for her fellow beings.

Shakespeare writes in one of his early sonnets: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” It has always seemed to me that the highest goal I could strive for in life was to be some amalgam of my parents, combining my father’s intellectualism, his love for learning and of the written word, with my mother’s immense capacity for sensitivity and her concern for the sufferings of all living creatures.

I’ve never felt that I have been able to fully live up to either one of these aspirations, but it’s enough perhaps to keep on trying. On this day of celebration and remembrance, I wish my mother the happiest of birthdays. I am more thankful than I can ever express that she was born to Katy and Pierre-Napoleon. May she live long in my memory, and in my efforts to be like her. What better way to lead one’s life, I tell myself, than to do what I can to call back that lovely April of her prime?

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.

WRITING “AFTER THE DEVASTATION”

By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (Lulu.com), and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.

OPEN LETTER TO SELF-REALIZATION FELLOWSHIP ON ITS TREATMENT OF LGBT YOUTH

By Paul

It has recently come to my attention that Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) has a practice whereby LGBT youth are excluded from SRF summer camps, and that gay and lesbian camp counselors have been systematically let go. These actions, while not officially called a policy on the part of the organization, have been enacted in a quiet way, and to my knowledge at least, the policy (which is what it is) has not been publically announced on the official website of the organization, nor in any of its publications.

I know a little bit about SRF, inasmuch as I was an active member for several years back in the 1970’s. And even now, having been a daily meditator for over forty years, I still consider myself to be a follower of the founder of SRF, Paramahansa Yogananda, and am immensely grateful for the meditation techniques and other spiritual practices taught by him.

One of the most important teachings of Yogananda, it has always seemed to me, is that everyone is a co-equal creation of the Divine Spirit. Indeed, that the Divine Spirit has become us, and it is our task, aided by deep meditation, to come to realize who we are, our highest identity in Spirit. It, therefore, puzzles and troubles me to hear that the organization founded by such a great mind has descended into exclusionary practices. The Bhagavad-Gita, one of the great works of Hindu philosophy and religion, which Yogananda wrote an extensive commentary on, says in Book VI (I am quoting from the classical Sir Edwin Arnold translation – Lord Krishna is speaking to his disciple, Arjuna): “Whoso thus discerneth Me in all, and all in Me, I never let him go, nor looseneth he hold upon Me.” Who then is included in this “all” spoken of by Krishna? Does it include gay and lesbian youth and camp counselors? And if the answer is “yes,” as I assume it must, then on what grounds does SRF feel they have the right to exempt LGBT people from its groups?

Organized religions seem to have a problem with sexuality in general, and with gay sexuality in particular. Why is this? I can only speculate, but my guess is that too often they are uncomfortable with the body. Religions like to teach that we are spiritual beings, exiled temporarily on the earth (“in this vale of tears,” as I was taught in my Catholic youth), and simply awaiting release into something higher. But is that so?   Why would a Divine Spirit create people, human beings, to say nothing of all of the other creatures on this beautiful planet, only to tell those creatures that they are not good enough? And while it is true that Immortal Spirit has become us, and that our bodies are all too mortal, there is also nothing wrong with those bodies either. As the great Anglo-Irish poet (and Jesuit priest) Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best, but uncumberèd.” Part of being in a body on a planet on the physical plane is to engage in the sexuality of those bodies. The restrictions placed on how and when and with whom that sexuality is expressed are man-made rules, not Divinely inspired, and as such, these rules are subject to the limitations of human consciousness, to say nothing of its penchant toward exclusion, prejudice, and bigotry.

Lesbian and gay people know very well what this means. We have for centuries been excluded, and worse. We have been thought of as immature, immoral, degenerate, or simply insane. It is only now in the 21st century that some small measure of fairness and legal protections have been forthcoming, and then only in certain places. Gays and lesbians continue to be prosecuted, even killed, in many countries of the world, from Russia to Saudi Arabia to Uganda. Even within the United States, there are still areas where, if you are gay or lesbian, it is best if you keep your head down and your mouth shut.

So, does Self-Realization Fellowship wish to add to that kind of intolerant and discriminatory activity? And does it not consider how the exclusionary tactics referenced above are seen and felt by LGBT youth? How does a gay adolescent feel if he or she is told that it is forbidden for them to be part of a youth group, not because of any action on their part, but simply because of who they are? The same can of course be said for lesbian and gay camp counselors. The most immediate reaction, especially for young people whose personalities have not been fully formed and who may be overly swayed by outside opinion, is to feel that they are not good enough, that they are somehow less than their friends and family who are not gay.

At very least, if SRF insists on following these kinds of ostracizing policies, it should have the courage of its convictions. If it truly believes that gay and lesbian youth and youth counselors are somehow toxic to the mix, then let them stand up and say so openly. Let them put it front and center on the website, let them print it in their official publications for all to read. But let them not hide the policy until an unsuspecting youth attempts to join in, only to be told “quietly” that they are not good enough.

Or, as I continue to hope, let them reevaluate such flawed and hurtful policies. If, as the Lord Krishna says, we are all one in Him, then let LGBT people join in as well as part of the human race, created by the all-loving and all-accepting Divine Spirit. Or else, in the end, what is SRF’s teaching? How far have they strayed from the high-minded ideals and goals of the great Yogi who founded the organization?

UNFURLED FLAG: PATRIOTISM, JINGOISM, AND THE TIES THAT BIND US TO THE LAND

By Paul

Aside from picnics and fireworks, what the approach of the July 4th Independence Day holiday brings to mind more than anything is probably the notion of patriotism. Is it, as seems to be the common wisdom, merely a concept which lauds an expected, deep respect and unconditional love for country, or is that today more of an outmoded mindset, an excuse for exclusion, leading to a xenophobic mine-verses-theirs mentality that poisons the welcoming of whatever, or whoever, may be foreign or different? Or is it somewhere in between?

The word “patriotic” itself comes from the Latin “patris,” which is the genitive singular form of “pater,” meaning “of the father.” Some countries – Germany comes to mine – have traditionally referred to themselves in the masculine, as in the Fatherland, while others appear to prefer the feminine. Russians, for example, almost universally reference Mother Russia, and even in the United States, we often feminize reference to the country (see, for example, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America/Land that I love/Stand beside her and guide her etc.).   In French, ambiguously, “la patrie” is a feminine noun, although it is usually translated as Fatherland (note that it has the same masculine Latinate root as the English term).

But whether we envision the notion as of one gender or another in the end may make little difference. For most people, the impact of patriotism comes from much the same place as that of the camaraderie felt by soldiers who go into battle together. On the level of feeling, rather than of intellectual discourse, we are talking quite literally about where we come from, who is there to support us, and what that means for us now, in the moment. In time of war, while facing grave danger, with possible imminent loss of life or limb, what is most important is not the latest camouflage, or protective gear, or even weaponry; it’s whether or not you can count on “your brothers” (and in recent times, “sisters” as well), who are with you to support and protect you, as you support and protect them. “I’ve got your back” is not a term taken lightly under such circumstances. Neither is it for many people when it comes to one’s country as a whole.

What do you think of when you hear the word patriotism? Is it the flag, per se, or is it what that represents to any individual, the story of his or her life, a whole host of memories, of people, of events, of scenes, of sights and sounds, and smells and food, of play and contention, of life and death, and of loved ones longed for but no longer here, of war or peace, of danger or of carefree togetherness, whether all this took place in upstate New York, or California, or the American South, or France, or Russia, or Syria, or the Sudan.

Each individual has his and her own story to tell. My own started almost 70 years ago in upstate New York. Born to a father who was a factory worker and a mother employed as a saleslady in a local department store, we struggled through a life with its own degree of poverty and deprivation. Money seldom lasted all the way to the next payday, and meals approaching that day were often meager and unappealing. New clothes were a distant thought, a luxury for those with money, and doctors or dentists were professionals you saw only when the pain or discomfort was no longer bearable. And no one took what is now thought of as a vacation. In the summer, my father would get a week off, which he spent making repairs on the cold-water flat we lived in. And while I felt myself to be poor, even compared to my friends whom I went to school with, the truth is that no one I knew had any surplus money to spare.

And yet, there was family, as dysfunctional as my own often was, and friends, and other kids to play with, and the Church, Catholic in my case, that provided a kind of moral gravitational pull all its own. Later I came to see it as oppressive, repressive, and even damaging, but as a child I accepted it as a given, and for a while it provided me with a kind of empowering personal nexus.

We can all recount our own such stories which, while differing in every possible detail, carry with them the same profundity of emotional tether and draw. This is because the essentials of the story, of every story, remain the same. There is a place, a setting, a cast of characters, a drama and a plot of sorts, and even whole themes that run through a person’s life. All of the specifics add up to your own unique history, your own depiction, your own version of the greater story that happens to all of us, and it is the individual aspects of that saga that amount to the glue that holds together the idea of what we think of as patriotism.

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I remember going to a 4th of July parade in the town of Poestenkill, New York.   It’s more of a rustic hamlet than a town, with barely 4,500 people in it today, and no doubt a lot fewer back in the early 50’s. It’s located some 25 to 30 miles from the state capital of Albany. My grandmother, whose husband was a French-Canadian baseball player who had abandoned her soon after my mother’s birth, had a kind of boyfriend who came from Poestenkill, and we were visiting some of his relatives there. My recollection of the parade consists mostly of the town fire truck, a few local notables walking in their Sunday best, and a marching band consisting of no more than a dozen players. Later on, there was a picnic with hotdogs and potato salad. I still remember my brother, ever the daring adventurer, throwing a stone at a bird, By some stroke of chance or ill luck, he hit the creature. It was able to limp away, but I felt terrible about it for the rest of the day, and would not speak to him. When we got home, and it had finally gotten dark that evening around 9:30, there were sparklers. I dropped mine, and it went out. In the darkness, I reached and picked up the wrong end, and in so doing burnt my hand; payback, I thought even then, as someone in the family had to atone for the injury done to an innocent bird.

These are the kinds of memories that come to mind for me when people speak of patriotism. The childhood ties that bind you to the land, to the people, and to what happened there. This, and not some concocted idea of abstract pride in a nation, is what evokes feelings for a Motherland or a Fatherland.

As adults, the notion seems somehow less compelling, less riveting, more theoretical and conceptual. Too often these days, the 4th seems like just another excuse for a party, for drinking, and making noise late into the night, when I, at least, would prefer to be in bed asleep. We were in France a few years ago on Bastille Day, the 14th of July, and it felt like much the same thing. But maybe that was because we were in a Paris, and not in “un petit patelin,” the French equivalent of Poestenkill. Crowds and loud music and drunks and fireworks bigger and better than last year’s are not my notion of what makes for patriotism.

I see no reason not to love the land you come from, so long as it never leads to disdain for or hatred of other people or places. Every land, and every people, has its uniqueness, its own special beauty. At least so long as that land, or more specifically the people living there, have treated you decently. Some, unfortunately, have horrible memories of a dangerous and degrading past, and these are the people who need new ties that bind, and hopefully they are lucky enough to escape to a place of relative safety and freedom. Those new and better experiences then become their patriotic remembrances.

But for most of us, notions of patriotism are benign enough, and we are able to distinguish it from the overly aggressive jingoism and chauvinistic flag-waving that speaks of nothing so much as a limited worldview. In the end, it’s more about family, and childhood, and loved ones, and good and bad times, trials and joys, the effort it takes to grow up and to mature, all in a specific place and time in history, in a setting that comes to mean more than merely what it looks like. Place eventually takes on an emotional value all its own, a connectivity to feeling and sentiment, to love and loss, and to hope for a better future yet to come. That’s what I’ll think of, anyway, when I hear the word this holiday. And that’s what I will mean when I wish one and all a Happy 4th of July!

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DOLLAR?

By Paul

“Hello, sir, I’ve got a daughter back in a motel room, and I need money so we can stay there for a few more days. Can you help me out?

These were the words we were confronted with the other day, as my partner and I were leaving our local market, loading a week’s worth of groceries into the back of our car.

I’ll admit I was already in kind of a foul mood, because the cashier who had just rung us up had been paying a lot more attention to the box boy than to what she was doing at the cash register. In the process, she almost overcharged us by a huge amount ($17.00 for porcini mushrooms, instead of a dollar or two for creminis). If my partner hadn’t been watching, we’d have wound up overpaying by something like 80 or 90 percent. So, I wasn’t pleased.

On top of that, my perception of this woman now standing in front of us was that she looked pretty ragged. Not just in terms of clothing, but her face was puffy, and you pretty much got the impression that things hadn’t gone well in her life. In fact, my first thought was that she’d just gotten off what we used to call a “bender.”

So, already in a lousy mood, here’s how I replied: “I’ll be honest with you. I’m afraid if I give you any money, you’ll just go buy some cheap wine with it.”

“Oh, no sir, no wine!” she replied, laughing, maybe a little bit in an embarrassed kind of way. “No wine!”

And I, continuing on in my crummy mood, added: “Well, I don’t believe you. But I’m willing to give you the benefit of a doubt, just in case.” And I took my wallet out and gave her a dollar.

Now this, or something similar to it, is probably an interchange many of you have had before. Maybe many times. The streets of most American cities are filled with homeless people, some of whom really are just down on their luck, some of whom are there because of mental illness, and many of whom are substance abusers of one kind or another. When I was a kid, we called them winos, because they had a penchant for drinking Boon’s Farm, or some other cheap wine that you could buy for a dollar or two a gallon. No doubt, drugs cost a lot more.

The whole encounter left me with a bad taste in my mouth, though. My partner said to me afterwards: “Well, you’re a little grumpy today!” And, of course, he was right.

I got to thinking about it afterwards and it occurred to me that what I probably should have done was one of two things; either I should’ve simply (and politely) said: “No, sorry I can’t help you,” and left it at that, or I should have just given her the damn dollar, minus the high-handed commentary. After all, what’s a dollar to me? It’s not that we’re rich by any means, but for most of us, let’s face it, a dollar isn’t a lot of money anymore.

So, it wasn’t the money per se that was bothering me. What stuck in my craw was how I’d handled things. And note this. I’m a person who actually believes, at least most of the time, at least when I remember to remember, that the Divine Spark glows in every person you encounter on any given day. No matter how hidden it may be. So, what right did I have to say to this woman, this carrier of that Spark, that I didn’t believe her? And yet, the awful truth was that I actually didn’t believe her.

Later on, not to rub my nose in it, mind you, but just by way of filling in the blanks you might say, my partner told me that he’d noticed a Starbucks coffee cup in the basket the woman was dragging along behind her. So, if she could afford a cafelatemochafrappuccinogrande at Starbucks, or whatever they call them, which costs something like 3 or 4 dollars, then why was she hitting me up for a buck to keep a roof over her daughter’s head? At least, supposedly.

Which brings the big question up that I haven’t really posed yet: was I the total dupe? The answer is – probably. All right, maybe almost definitely. But you also never really know. And there’s the rub. I mean, I’m quite capable of imagining a scenario whereby somebody bought her a frappumocha-whatever out of the kindness or his or her heart, or maybe the woman found a half-filled cup and was finishing it off. Or maybe she’d just bought it on her own.

The issue comes down to that. You don’t know. You can think that you’re capable of reading the situation, of using your intuition in the best way possible, of watching and noting the clues and signs, but for most of us, it’s a guessing game, and who knows how many times we get it right?

I wondered later on what I would have done if she’d said to me, instead, something like: “I’ll be honest with you, I need some money for a drink. And I need a drink real bad.” Would I have given her the dollar? Probably not. I’ve seen too much of booze in my life already, and I know the damage it can do, not just to the drinker, but to those around him or her. So, I couldn’t have brought myself to contribute to more of it.   Although I will say I would’ve appreciated the honesty. But no doubt she knew all this. So, in a sense, you might say she felt she was forced into lying, if she had any hope of getting some money.

So, there you have it. Some days are like that. You’re annoyed and get grumpy with a cashier because she can’t, or won’t, concentrate on the job they’re paying her to do, and would rather flirt with the box boy instead, and then you almost get overcharged by a huge amount for half a dozen mushrooms. And a lady in the parking lot hits you up for some money to help keep a roof over her daughter’s head, but you don’t believe her, and maybe you’re right, maybe even most probably you’re right. But what if you’re not? So, you wind up giving her a buck, along with a haughty and overbearing little sermonette-in-a-sentence, and she goes off meekly thanking you.

My partner said to me, as we left the parking lot: “I’m surprised she didn’t tell you to go f… yourself.” And I said: “You’re right. I was forthright with her, so she certainly could have been forthright with me.” But in the end, I didn’t really think I was forthright. I thought I was kind of arrogant and condescending, and a little mean spirited. And maybe all because I was annoyed at a cashier who hadn’t been doing her job, and because I’d forgot to see the Divine in this woman.

I wonder where she is right now. Is she really with her daughter in a motel room somewhere? Or is she downing a bottle of cheap booze, or shooting some drug up, all the while, in part at least, using my money?   I still think there’s a Great Spark of the Divine Spirit in her. I only hope that someday she’ll see it. And maybe, too, I’ll remember all this the next time somebody approaches me, and treat that person a little less imperiously, a little more humanely – whether I choose to give her a buck or not – and a lot more as if that could be me, walking around in her shoes. There aren’t any foolproof answers, but I think you never go wrong if you treat people with a little dignity, and as much compassion as you can muster, even on those days when you’re feeling annoyed and out-of-sorts at distracted cashiers and flirting box boys.

“PHILOMENA,” THE CHURCH, AND THE NATURE OF FORGIVENESS

By Paul

In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away).  A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland.  In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society.  The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby.  Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy.  The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her.  Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son.  The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him.  I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry.  Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for.  From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on.  It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.

Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close.  The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere.  With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era.  Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

But what of the Church nowadays?  Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking?  It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire.  And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen.  To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question.  Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas.  On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity.  However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right.  As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree.  Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.

All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world.  Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days?  Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans.  How many are there left anymore in the middle?

Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland.  Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive.  In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done.  But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him.  She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”

In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life?  But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted.  We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms.  We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair.  Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.

What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so?  This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances.  The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness.  That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions.  The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman.    In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.

So, what lessons may we draw from all this?  Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame.   In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect.  As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.”  Maybe the same could be said about life in general.  Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.

As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion.  To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness.  After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves?  And who knows?  Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.