A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation of four nights to a guest ranch in nearby Wyoming, just two-and-a-half hours away by car. A main attraction turned out to be the night sky. Unlike in our Boulder, Colorado (pop. 110,000), you could really see the stars there: not just the first-magnitude ones as at home, but even the Milky Way in all its star-studded glory.
This little essay, however, is not about astral bodies. Rather, as I approach my 81st birthday on November 6th, a week from this writing, I’m thinking about the well-known people I’ve been fortunate to have met in my life.
The assigned Gospel passage in our church for the Feast of All Saints’ Day is Matthew 5:1-12, AKA the Beatitudes. Sunday School kids are sometimes taught to refer to them as the Be-Attitudes, a useful misunderstanding of the term. Actually, the theological expression comes from the Latin beatus, -a, -um, meaning “blessed” or “saintly.” It’s a fitting concept, and Gospel passage, for All Saints’ Day.
Forgive me! This is a subject I’ve written on before. Still, I consider it so important in today’s world of divisions and divisiveness that I am doing so again. In this morning’s Old Testament Lesson in our Episcopal Church we read in Leviticus 19, in the mid-teen verses, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. . . . You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
As a resident in beautiful, mountainous Colorado, I totally get my fellow Coloradans who say they prefer taking a hike in our Front Range to going to church. They feel something in the silence of 10,000 feet that they don’t in a brick-and-mortar building where lots of words are spoken, many old-fashioned terms about a deity and other beings they have no mental or emotional contact with. Today, I had such an experience myself, although granted I am a regular attendee at and enthusiastic member of Boulder’s historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
As part of my continuing education as a white American and thus a beneficiary of systemic racism, I am reading a helpful, hard-hitting book by the mixed-race author-activist Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk about Race (Seal Press, 2019). In it she asks her readers, especially the white ones, to undertake a simple yet daunting task: To reflect on their privilege in 21st-century America. My list numbers 30 items and counting.
My wife, Dr. Cedar Barstow, is busy this week teaching her “basic” course,” “Right Use of Power—The Heart of Ethics.” She’s been offering it for years, not only here in Boulder, Colorado, but around the U.S. and in a dozen countries abroad. But this year is different for two reasons. First, it’s late-September 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, this is the first time she’s presented it virtually via Zoom. She has some 31 students from five or six countries. Second, as her 76th birthday nears, it’s her last time offering this annual training—a huge milestone since, as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, she finds retirement about as comfortable as eating a full bowl of very hot kim chee.
Cedar and I were on Tinaja Ridge, above Lyons, Colorado, for an all-day outdoor retreat honoring the Fall Equinox. The morning walk was brief, just 30 minutes. I began by greeting the pine tree next to the one I had hugged the last time we were here. I thanked it out loud for being a role model of steadfastness for me. After a few snapshots on my trusty iPhone 6-Plus, I headed downhill maybe 60 yards into a frozen avalanche of pinecones.
Now children—Let’s make some SENTENCES!
Between the movie and various theatrical presentations, I must have seen FIDDLER ON THE ROOF ten or more times. After all, it’s the story of my people. I know most of the lines and lyrics by heart. Each time I see it, I cry. All four of my grandparents came from shtetls like Tevye’s Anatevka, little Jewish enclaves within villages and towns in Eastern and Central Europe from which pogroms or inscription into the czar’s army had driven them. They arrived in the new promised land of America in the decade before the turn of the 20th Century. Israel was not yet available. None spoke English.
New Thought visionary Alan Cohen provides his “Daily Inspiration” bits of wisdom online. You can request them without charge at email@example.com. They arrive every morning in your inbox. What he offers is a sentence or two of sage advice, either from someone else, often a famous person from the past or present, or from himself. Today’s (8/28/20200), one of the latter, struck me as especially thought-provoking: “Your life is a series of opportunities to become yourself.” Indeed. We’ve been down this path before in these weekly blogs. My metaphor for getting there is the pilgrimage, the step-by-step struggle to reach a sacred destination. My wife’s and my walking 120 miles of the Camino to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Campostela, Spain, in 2017 comes to mind.
That’s what the late Fr. Raymond O., an Anglican priest, called our shared spiritual practice, Subud. The concept to be sure is presumptuous. How can anyone snap their fingers and have God? It’s not a matter of adding hot water and stirring.
The concept of transaction is probably value neutral. After all, the verb transact means to make an exchange of equal value. I give you this; you give me that. We each walk away happy. Business is all about transactions. Your money for my good or service. My good or service for your money. It’s all perfectly legal, not to mention American. As Calvin Coolidge famously remarked, “The business of this country is business.” We’re a country built on transactions.
If I were czar of U.S. Education, I’d require every American under 25 to spend a year abroad. Some American colleges, especially well-regarded liberal-arts schools, have such a requirement for bachelor’s-degree candidates already. Of course, there would need to be scholarship funds or work-for-travel arrangements—the Peace Corps and peace-time overseas military deployment come to mind—to ensure that working-class kids and not just the better-off get to go abroad. Then there are nearby places like Mexico, French Canada, Puerto Rico, and Indian/First Nations reservations that are less expensive to get to yet still culturally and/or linguistically diverse enough to make an educational difference for the study-abroad participant.
“The essence of philosophy is that a person should so live that their happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” Thus said Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who lived from c. 50 to 135 C.E. He was born a slave in modern-day Turkey, later lived in Rome, and was banished to northwestern Greece, where he died at the ripe old age of 85. One of his students wrote down his ideas in several books. According to Wikipedia, Epictetus taught that “philosophy is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline. To Epictetus, all external events are beyond our control; we should accept calmly and dispassionately whatever happens. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.”
Zoe, our ten-year-old calico cat, is monumentally unbothered by the pandemic. She lives in an alternate universe where, so long as food miraculously appears at 7 am, noon, and 5 pm, all is well. When the spirit moves her, she goes outside. In the evening she’ll decide whether to make a night of it or stay in my home office instead. Weather is generally a consideration. Wind and thunder are big deterrents. During the day she’ll find just the right spot in the house to take an extended nap. Sometimes, though, she’ll go out, even if she’s already been out all night. She catches the occasional bunny in the interest of keeping their overweening population in check. She’s nothing if not environmentally conscious.
In response to the Black Lives Matter protests, we white people have answered with the truism, “All lives matter.” In fact, with a bow to the Green movement, all life matters, or should. But that’s the point. All life doesn’t and all lives don’t. Not at least to those of us who have lucked out to be born with cultural silver spoons in our mouths: money, two-parent families, a nice neighborhood, the best public schools, and—by a total quirk of fate—white skin. There’s not much room at the top, the thinking goes, and those of us, through no virtue of our own, who happened to be born in the upper reaches of the social hierarchy have little incentive to make room for those below us, let alone to give them a hand up. In a society based on social Darwinism, your win is paid for by my loss. We white Americans live in a gated community of the mind if not of heart and soul. Stay in your place so I can stay in mine seems our belief.
Okay, English majors of the world: For $100, what’s the literary allusion here? The opening line of Melville’s Moby Dick? That’s right! Send that contestant one hundred crisp new greenbacks! Melville’s classic begins with the narrator advising the reader to call him Ishmael. So, what’s that got to do with the spot price of coffee in Brazil or anything else? Nothing and everything. Read on.
I was just at a church-related monthly meeting. Seven of us had gathered on the patio of one of our members, socially distanced, to help the eighth person discern whether or not to go forward with becoming an Episcopal priest or deacon. In the Episcopal Church nationally, this is a required process at the parish level for an individual to determine whether their call to ministry is solid enough to proceed.
In 1992 HarperCollins published my first trade (versus academic) book: A World Treasury of Folk Wisdom. Compiled and edited with a former student, it was a collection of 1,000 proverbs from all over the world. (Hence the title.) My collaborator and I placed ten each in 100 alphabetically arranged categories, from Adversity to Youth and Age. Our rule was never to have more than one saying per country or culture in a category. This was a challenge since sometimes we had five great proverbs from the same country but could select only one. Furthermore, we made sure to recast the sayings in inclusive language. All the many “He who’s..." were strictly forbidden. With 20,000 copies bought, this book became my bestseller.
Although I didn’t support Bernie Sanders this time around—I did in 2016—I am none the less a democratic socialist. Who knows but I might actually join the party of that name and become a literal capitalist, that is, capitalize the D and S. Here’s why.
My wife and I just got back from a weekend workshop. It was our first in-person event since the Covid lockdown. There were five couples plus a husband-and-wife facilitator duo, or 12 people in all. We were at a small retreat location out in the country, some 12 miles north of Boulder, Colorado, our home. For the most part we wore cloth masks or face shields, had many outside sessions, and practiced social distancing as best we could. The workshop, focused on helping couples live more effectively together, was excellent and well worth the risk. All this by way of context.
My wife and I are almost through the third and final season of the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Netflix’s “Anne with an E,” the wonderful latest dramatization of the first of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” books. In an episode we saw the other day, Anne and her classmates are at a beach to celebrate the completion of the college entrance exam they have taken earlier that day. Sharing a bottle of white spirits of some kind that has launched them into high hilarity, they begin playing Red Rover. So that particular kids’ game is in my head right now.
When I was afraid I was allergic to our lovely calico cat, Zoe, I went to the local allergy clinic to find out. Some 120 pin-pricks later, the doctor told me I wasn’t allergic to cat dander or anything else. I do have some allergies, though, that pin-pricks can’t detect. For example, unphonetic words make me sick. I go into a negative alternate state when I discover a word, especially a foreign one in a language I’m learning, that doesn’t sound like the way it’s spelled.
How can a born Jew, a baptized Christian, and, in order, a confirmed Lutheran, Catholic, and Episcopalian be a Moslem? There’s a literal and a metaphorical answer. First, the literal one. When I was in Morocco in 2001 as an adult facilitator at the World Congress of Youth, our local hosts took a busload of us to see the great Mohammad II Mosque in Casa Blanca. Most mosques are open to people of all faiths but not this one. You had to be Moslem to get in. Since as a non-Moslem I knew a lot about the religion Muhammad had founded, our main host, a young woman, said to her male colleagues, “He’s Moslem enough for this place. Take him in by the men’s entrance.” So, in I went. Minutes later a mosque official stopped me: “Excuse me, Monsieur. Are you Moslem?” I recited the Moslem Confession of Faith in Arabic. “Ah, welcome to our mosque,” he said. Since I had offered that short sentence in the presence of three male Moslems—the official and my two hosts—I was both physically and officially in.
It started right outside my window, about 50 feet away, where there are two half-dead cottonwood trees. The taller, more westward trunk had a bark-free area close to the top at the place the tree-man had sawed off a dead section. Several inches below the top, a perfectly round hole started to appear. No, it wasn’t magic let alone a massive rear-end invasion by a swarm of angry bees. But in a way it was magic and flying critters were involved. I doubt, though, that they were angry. What happened is that a pair of persistent flickers, wood-pecking birds, had decided on making a nest there.