Book fan, Barack Obama

tumblr_inline_ojtrxn3ovw1rowsy7_500There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them (Joseph Brodsky)

Regardless of your political views, our former president, Barack Obama, was a phenomenal book fan.

How he found time for his passion baffles me, given the pressing demands on his time as president of the United States.

And I admire the books he’s read and recommended, among them classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks and Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Always  up to date, in an interview with the New York Times (January 18, 2017), Obama gives high praise to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Lauren Gross’ Fates and Furies; Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon; and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Last, but not least, William Shakespeare:

I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that is fundamental for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

As Michiko Kakutani of the NYT comments, “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, conviction and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama.”

I think I know why our president often preferred the company of books. An introvert by temperament and consciously aware of his biracial heritage, books helped assuage a loneliness and provided a source for not only finding his identity, but  enlarging his mind and perspective through exposure to those ambiguities incumbent in the human make-up.

On a personal note, I confess I haven’t read a single one of the books I’ve just mentioned. I read a lot, but never enough, though I should be kind to myself and remember Edmund Wilson’s sage comment on the singularity of our reading experience—that “no two persons ever read the same book,” so even if I had, and you for that matter, we’re always individuals, and that’s the greatest gift of a good book–its capacity to reach each of us, no matter where we’re at in our lives.

Still, when I read that 27% of us never pick-up a book at all, I can’t really get my head around it. For me, we short-change ourselves when we do this. It’s like not giving plants the soil, light and water they need, resulting in stunted growth and preempting full bloom.

Books not only have the potential to reshape our lives, but make them better.

I say this first hand, knowing that they’ve saved me from a parochialism that doubtless would have channeled me into a lifestyle of narrow thoroughfares prodigious in polarized generalizations, born of the emotions, rather than seasoned judgment through exposure to reasoned perspectives, crafted in careful scrutiny, fostering balanced conclusions and wiser living.

Books not only provide pleasure and inform, but the ability to transform us.  In short, anyone who says they’ve only one life to live, needs to sit down and read a good book.

–rj

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Happiness: What it is and How to Find It

happinessI came across this still proverbial Tibetan saying in my pre-meditation reading the other day that I wanted to share with you:

“Seeking happiness outside is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.” In short, our happiness must be found within ourselves and not in events, goods, or even among those we love, for life often doesn’t reciprocate what we want, love, or even deserve.

Happiness can’t be imposed from the outside, since it derives from making peace within ourselves, free from the demons of self-doubt, jealousy, and anger and a critical spirit that can spill over into our daily lives, eroding relationships.

But if happiness is an inner thing, how do we go about having it? The Buddha tells us that our suffering, or unhappiness, derives from our craving. Modern psychologists like Freud and Skinner appear to confirm this, finding that we are creatures of Ego, perpetually seeking gratification.

We find happiness specifically in recognizing the temporality of everything, both of ourselves and of the world to which we belong. When we find it, we no longer react to life’s volatility of event and circumstance.

Accepting change and ourselves as a part of it, we are anchored even in duress.  What happens is that our egos dissolve when we discover the ability to let go through focusing on what really matters in a cosmos of entropy.

Such contentment derives from living mindfully in the moment, celebrating the treasure of being alive, or as Hellen Keller expressed it so wonderfully:

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.

We develop this capacity through practice, or meditation, being kind, not judgmental, about ourselves when our minds wander, as they always do.

Mindfulness meditation, which we can apply to every sphere of experience, disciplines us ultimately into intimate awareness and, with it, a rippling comprehension of not only ourselves, but of others in a wider empathy.

Mindful people find peace not only within themselves, but its enhancement in the outer world through service to others, which psychologists increasingly tell us yields that kind of gratification money, position and power cannot equal.

—rj

Postscript: A book I highly recommend as an amplification of my post is David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I promise that you’ll find it difficult to put down. (While I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve found Buddhism, more a way of life than a religion, offers a redolent wisdom that modern psychotherapy has found worthy of implementation on a universal scale, and validated through empirical research.)

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Tibet’s Tragedy: A Culture Teetering into Oblivion

_90482485_28344675572_e210e10c4e_bThe horror began with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949. In the decades since, Chinese oppression has continued relentlessly, with several hundred thousand Tibetans having been executed, tortured or imprisoned.

Commenting after her recent release, one survivor informs us that “Chinese officials used different torture instruments on me to break my spirit…to make me denounce his Holiness and the aspirations of my people. My fellow political prisoners and I were subjected to electric shocks from batons and prods…I spent weeks in solitary confinement. This torture and mistreatment started when I was just a child of thirteen and continued through most of my life in prison.”

I knew that the Chinese regime had signaled out Buddhists in Tibet to denigrate its culture as one effort among others to suppress their identity and, with it, their desire to be a free people.

Of an original 6,254 monasteries that existed before the Chinese invasion, just 13 remain fully intact, the others either destroyed or severely damaged.

A few days ago, I finished reading Stephen Batchelor’s fascinating book, Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist. Batchelor had converted to Buddhism as a young man and was formally ordained as a monk in 1974, and knows both the Tibetan language well and the woes of Buddhism, Tibet’s ancient faith.

He recalls visiting Lhasa in 1984. While the Potala Palace remains, it’s now a museum. Few traces of Buddhism, in fact, remain in this city once filled with Buddhist shrines and ubiquitous prayer flags.

From the Potala, you can glimpse what remains of the nearby Sera Monastery. 3000 monks lived there in 1959, the year of the Tibetan uprising. Now, only 100 lamas remain, all of them elderly.

Twenty miles east of Lhasa lies the Ganden Monastery, founded in the 14th century. Sadly. the infamous Red Guards ordered the local people to dismantle it, stone by stone. Once the residence of some 5,000 monks, only a scattering of aged monks remains.

Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists continues unabated even beyond Tibet proper. In June 2016, the PRC mandated that half of the world’s largest Buddhist conclave, the Tibetan Buddhist Institute at Larung Gar, with its estimated 40,000 monks and nuns in Szechuan, be razed and its numbers reduced to 3,500 nuns and 1500 monks.

According to Radio Free Asia, expelled monastics must sign a pledge to “uphold the unity of the nation and not to engage in behavior opposing government policy in the area.”

Last month (December 6, 2016), the Tibetan government-in-exile asked the UN to intervene.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament on December 15, 2016, adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of the community.

Here at home, President Obama hosted Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama in both 2010 and 2014, giving verbal support for the preservation of Tibet’s culture, while subsequently restating the U. S. position that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.  (He did not meet with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office.)

China views the Dalai Lama as a separatist, however, and hence a threat to government hegemony, even though the Dalai Llama has never advocated independence..

Meanwhile China is pressing forward with resettling thousands of Chinese in Tibet and plans to build a second railway into the country to expedite commerce and tourism in particular.

Since 1990, China has relocated more than 2 million nomads into barrack settlements under the guise of protecting grazing land.

9-7-15_nomads_before_after_thumbnailIn urban areas, new schools are being built with Mandarin the primary language of instruction.

Though most of Tibet remains overwhelmingly Tibetan, an estimated 17% of Lhasa’s population is now Chinese.

In short, the Chinese have been following the Soviet formula of resettling volatile areas such as Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where a large Russian population now resides.

There are a few Westerners who argue that reports of Chinese repression have been exaggerated.

I have more faith in Amnesty International, which relies upon documentary evidence. In its 2014 report, it concluded that “ethnic Tibetans continued to face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedoms of religious belief, expression, association and assembly.”

We are now into 2017, and while the world largely goes its own way, Tibet’s fate continues to deter towards extinction of its culture as the Chinese People’s Republic recent ordnance demolishing Larung Gar clearly demonstrates in its strident callousness.

Since 2011, American International has documented 131 self-immolations in protest of Chinese incursions upon its way of life.

—rj

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Weighing-in: Reflections on 2016

celebrating-new-year-hd-9952-1920x1080-ymku-comWhen I was in my twenties, I used to keep a running account of what were good and bad years for me. Call it an exercise in ego, or whatever, I still like to weigh each year at its end. On balance, was it a good one? Or one I’d rather not repeat?

And here we are, the last day of 2016. We’re all different, yet I surmise it’s been a year a good many of us would like to toss in the dumpster.

To begin with, am I exaggerating to say it’s ending with a good many people I adored, no longer with us. The list is long, but among the losses was Leonard Cohen, poet-bard who sang life honestly. I loved his music and, thankfully, it will endure like all good art.

It’s also been an unusually volatile year politically, filled with surprises, spilling over into unprecedented acrimony and enduring anxiety as we enter the new year.

For me personally, another surgery, my third in six years after a bout with excruciating sciatica.

But there were good things that happened for me too. We got to be with our children for a week in Maine last June; then again at Thanksgiving in WA and CA.

I also discovered the tranquility of mindfulness meditation.

And then there were the three online courses I completed, two of them in mindfulness; the other, a stimulating Stanford course in modern women poets.

I somehow managed to keep up with this blog, now entering into its sixth year. I had begun Brimmings initially as a diversion from physical distress.

Finally, my surgery was successful.

For a lot of folks, New Year’s Eve calls for celebration. I always view it as a time of sober reflection, assessing the assets vs liabilities of the waning year, trusting I’m still in the black.

To each of you, I hope on the whole you’ve escaped with a balance and that next year will, indeed, prove a Happy New Year!

–rj

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Does the Electoral College Have a Future?

azThe Electoral College has been in the news a lot lately. And why not, considering that the loser in the 2016 election garnered nearly 3 million more votes than the declared winner.

In fact, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote turns out to be greater than those that elected John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush to the presidency. In turn, a good many understandably want the Electoral College abolished. We elect our members of Congress on the basis of vote totals. Why not go national?

But should we? The issue isn’t quite so simple as there exist good arguments either way.

Let’s take a careful look.

Why did the Founding Fathers establish the Electoral College?

The Electoral College goes back to 1787, the year in which our Constitution was first formulated. Because of the expanding geography of the new nation, the Fathers feared local voters wouldn’t have access to the fullest information on a candidate outside their region to choose wisely.

We need to remember there were then just 13 states with a population of only 4 million stretched across a 1000 mile seaboard. There was also the danger that more populated states might dominate lesser populated states. This has remained an issue right up to the present day.

Some, distrusting the electorate, saw the College as a buffer against their folly. Alexander Hamilton, for example, who championed the Electoral College, argued in Federalist Papers 68 that it would preempt “any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications” from taking office.

Ironically, it’s this very set-up that on December 19 will allow electors to rubber-stamp the election into fact, unless they choose to revolt against the norm, which has never occurred.

Hamilton, living in a time when there were no political parties, hadn’t foreseen the rise of partisanship.   On the contrary, electors would be free to vote their conscience. The 12th Amendment changed all that with the rise of political parties and their partisanship that Washington took pangs to warn us about in his sobering farewell address.

Hamilton’s proposal, however, was boosted at the time by the interests of Southerners, particularly Virginians, who feared The Northern states, with their greater population, might threaten slavery. Thus, Blacks were partially counted in the Southern population totals, even though they couldn’t vote, allowing Southern states greater electoral clout. Accordingly, Virginians held the presidency 32 of the first 36 years under the new Constitution.

This ugly truth is yet another reason why some have called for the ending of the Electoral College, since they view it as conceived in slavery.

On the other hand, the Founding Fathers were sincerely troubled about equity at every level, whether within state legislatures, or at the Federal level where it’s embedded in the checks and balances provided by the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, or between larger and smaller states. Balance likewise undergirds resolving the tensions between federal and local sovereignty.

How the Electoral College works:

There are presently 538 electors.

Each state receives as many electors as it has representatives and senators in Congress.

The number of representatives is reapportioned every ten years in conjunction with the census.

States with small populations are assigned 3 electoral votes to promote equity; currently six states, plus D. C.

Residents of U. S. territories, even though they’re American citizens, cannot vote.

Normally, the winner takes all, even if the vote difference is marginal. Two states, however, Maine and Nebraska, proportion their vote, based on the state popular vote.

The major parties nominate electors for their states in the months preceding the election.   Some states resort to primaries for that purpose, or rely on a party committee, or state party convention. Electors are frequently selected on the basis of their service to their party.

No person holding federal office, elected, or appointed, is eligible.

The party winning the state vote determines the ultimate electors.

Every effort is made by political parties to assure their electors vote faithfully as pledged, even though the Constitution allows free choice. Those who don’t comply are known as “faithless” electors and may suffer severe censure from their party.

Each Elector delegation votes in their state capitol, this year, on December 19.

Still, 21 states don’t require a pledge at all, potentially setting up a scenario where a few faithless electors could upset even a candidate receiving a majority vote nationally, wiping out the choice of millions. As I write, this weakness lies at the heart of largely Democrat efforts to halt Trump’s accession to the presidency. So much for the fairness argument for Electoral reform.

Tabulation takes place January 6, 2017, in the House of Representatives in Washington.

If the president-elect fails to muster the 270 vote majority, then the final decision on who becomes president is made within the House of Representatives. It could be someone other than the president-elect.

If the House can’t reach a decision by Inauguration Day, the Vice President elect becomes president until such a decision is reached.

The choice of the Vice President ultimately takes place in the Senate, with each senator having one vote. This actually occurred once in our political history when, in 1836, Martin Van Buren’s running mate fell short of the electoral majority by one vote.

Proposals to change or abolish the Electoral College:

Over 700 proposals re: the Electoral College have been made, virtually none of them successful. Only two proposals concerning the Electoral College have ever passed in Congress and succeeded as amendments to the Constitution (12th and 23rd Amendments).

The process of amending the Constitution under the provisions of Article V in the Constitution makes it exceedingly difficult for any proposal to succeed, since it requires a two thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and legislative approval by three quarters of the states.

There is, however, a bi-partisan movement underway known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would ultimately preserve the Electoral College, yet assure the top national vote winner secures the presidency. No amendment process would apply, since our Constitution, Article II, Section I, allows states to devise their own elector process.

Specifically. It would be a multi-state pledge to cast their electoral votes for the candidate winning the popular vote nationally. So far, ten states and the District of Columbia have signed on, representing a total of 165 electoral votes.   Pro-compact bills, backed by both Democrats and Republicans, have been introduced in other states as well. Imminent passage is anticipated in MN and PA. Should the compact achieve a majority of electoral votes through its member states, it would then go into effect.

One of the chief arguments against its abolishment is that it disenfranchises smaller, less populated states, especially in the American heartland, against the likes of gargantuan states like California and New York.

Candidates wouldn’t visit the small states like New Hampshire, say opponents to change, even if deemed swing states, but shift their focus to metropolitan areas. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Houston would dominate. What happens to rural America?

On the other hand, those for change or abolishing the Electoral College, contend that the small states, if anything, are overly represented. We use the most vote method within our states to elect members to local and national office. Why not go nationwide?

Should the Electoral College be Abolished?

Many think so.  After all, it denied the Presidency on five occasions to candidates receiving a majority of votes: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016.  Polls reveal overwhelming support for abolishing the College.  Even president-elect Donald Trump embraces the idea of a popular vote replacing the Electoral College.

Nonetheless, as I pointed out at the outset, there aren’t any easy answers.

One of the chief arguments against its abolishment is that it disenfranchises smaller, less populated states, especially in the American heartland, against the likes of gargantuan states like California and New York.

Candidates wouldn’t visit the small states like New Hampshire, say opponents to change, even if deemed swing states, but shift their focus to metropolitan areas. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Houston would dominate. What happens to rural America?

On the other hand, those for change or abolishing the Electoral College, contend that the small states, if anything, are overly represented. We use the most vote method within our states to elect members to local and national office. Why not go nationwide?

What’s more, states thought to be in the opposition’s column are already neglected. In 2016, PBS NewsHour found that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just eleven so-called battleground states. Of those visits, nearly two-thirds took place in the four battlegrounds with the most electoral votes — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina.

My own opinion, and that’s all it is, favors the genius argument at the heart of the American experiment, which is balance.   Historically, we’ve been a nation constructed uniquely through a system of checks and balances, derived from compromise, or consensus. Without it, we could never have achieved the initial unity that founded a nation.

Tensions have always existed in our nation, not only between North and South, but the coasts versus heartland America. The Electoral College does sometimes fail, but it has served us well overall, preserving equilibrium between myriad factions.

Of the ten states that have joined the compact thus far, all of them are blue states or jurisdictions (i.e, D. C.) despite bi-partisan advocates. Passage is anticipated in Oregon, another blue state.   While currently red states like Arizona and Oklahoma are possible candidates for inclusion, the movement is largely Democratic in its inspiration. Two states, MN and PA, are likely to join the compact very soon–again, traditional blue states.

Present states along with the District of Columbia that have adopted the National Popular Vote initiative are CA, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA. Collectively, they now represent 165 electoral votes, or nearly two-thirds of the required 270 majority.

I find this proposal that would assign the state electoral vote to the top voter candidate nationally an absurdity, since it would wipe out even a state’s plurality vote, if that candidate drew up short in a national vote. Let’s take PA, for example; if the compact were in effect, the majority wold see their vote cast aside. Now how fair is that that?

Do you remember looking at the 2016 election geographical map, the small blue areas, almost dots, in a vast tapestry of red, what we used to call “fly-over America”? Thirty states voted for Trump. The Compact would nullify their majority vote in all of them.

Now how is that fair?

Instead, I would like to see a mix of both positions with adoption of a proportional vote measure, doing away with the winner take all–why vote?–and honoring the votes cast by the minority. Let’s allow them a voice in the best interests of a democracy. A proportional College has been proposed before, but went down to defeat in the Congress.

I believe it would result in greater vote turnout. It was hard for me, for example, a Democrat progressive, to get motivated to vote here in Kentucky, overwhelmingly Trump country. In the 2012 election, voter turnout was highest in swing states, where the vote could have gone either way.

In that election, Obama massively won the electoral vote, 332 to 206 for Romney. If it had been a proportional vote, the result would be 51% to 47%, much closer indeed and more reflective of the popular vote (Justin Curtis, “Recrafting the Electoral College” (harvardpoltics.com).

Given the continuing growth of America’s metropolitan areas, particularly on both coasts with their predominantly regional interests, we could end-up with a facsimile of Mexico’s Revolutionary Party, which governed that country for seventy-five years. In short, the end of our two party system which, for better or worse, has worked well for us.

As is, these power states are likely to continue their rapid growth, meaning still more electoral votes by way of a substantial increase in population.   Presently, one in every three immigrants chooses CA, FL, OR NY as their residence, exacerbating their population boom.

In life, I’ve learned from the hard places to be wary of peripheries, often embraced by purists. I prefer the middle, drawing from the best of opposing scenarios.

I think a proportional allocation is the reasonable approach. Why resort to a system that like the present Electoral College abrogates the minority vote? Isn’t that the problem now?

Dividing the electoral votes provisionally preempts that unfairness, while achieving recognition for all regional interests like that of coal miners in West Virginia as well as Silicon Valley high techs in CA.

It levels the playing field. I’m all for that!

What does the future hold for the Electoral College?

I think the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is likely to succeed in attracting a sufficient number of states, among them some Republican ones, that will put the measure over the top. This surprises me, since history’s quirk has yielded a Republic president in all five elections featuring a losing candidate who had won the popular vote, the most egregious being Hillary Clinton’s loss, though garnering a nearly 3 million plurality.

My hunch is that the Compact could possibly be in place even by the next election, and surely by the second, making old hat of the so-called “battleground” or “swing” states scenario, distorting the campaign focus. Campaigning would shift to the most populous states with their big cities and metropolitan areas in particular.

This will be great news for minorities, as both Democrats and Republicans will find them especially attractive to a national ticket, given their urban numbers. The sad fact is that Clinton lost the election because of a drop-off in Black voting since the the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

If the vastly white Republicans, regardless of what the future holds for the Electoral College, don’t catch-up with the changing demographic and continue sponsoring legislation that would threaten popular entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, along with alienating immigrants, they are doomed to obsolescence, apart from their remaining clout in rural areas at the state level. It’s just that the Compact will force their hand even sooner.

But there’s also a big if that clouds the future of the Compact, since conservatives are likely to view it as an end run around the Constitution and challenge it, both in Congress and the courts, perhaps ultimately reaching the Supreme Court.

There is, after all, that troublesome clause in the Constitution that states that “no state shall, without the consent of Congress enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power.”

–rj

 

 

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Teach me to measure all my days

speedAnother year, now one of many for me, is about to pass. Life flows incessantly forward. More than ever, I’m thankful for every moment in the present, wanting to indulge, pamper, and exhaust it for its sensory fullness, or like a bowl of chocolate ice cream topped with fresh strawberries, swirling its sweet coldness slowly in my mouth, titillating my tastebuds, in vain effort to prolong its goodness.

I wake to day, rejoicing in its newness, a privilege I no longer take for granted.

Recently I’ve been in contact through Facebook with a member of my 1958 class at Newburyport High School in Massachusetts. It turns out she’s also the class secretary. The other day, she shared that of the 158 graduates, 51 have died. There might be more.

In February I turn 77, so I found this news sobering.

I don’t know how I even got this far. The average lifespan for males in the U. S. is 76.3. My once older brother, so full of life, died on his birthday. He was 47. I’ve had friends who died younger.

There’s no rhyme or reason, no logic you can apply. So much of life is simply a matter of accident, or having luck on your side. Contingency, or  incertitude in the weave of randomness, defines the wise among us in a cosmos absent of Mind.

On several occasions, I’ve missed death by inches, or like in Maryland in 1983 when I foolishly tried to pass a lumbering tractor trailer going up a steep hill, only to find another vehicle in the outside lane coming at me at rocket speed, forcing me to apply the gas pedal for all I was worth and thread the needle, barely, while in my ears, the scream of tires from a careening car, struggling for control.

I taught poetry for some forty years and I know full-well its bottom line is mortality. Think Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson and Hopkins.

Yesterday, I came upon Stephen Batchelor’s thoughtful, eloquent summation on life’s ephemerality in my reading:

Life is a groundless ground: no sooner does it appear, than it disappears, only to renew itself, then immediately break up and vanish again. It pours forth endlessly,
like the river of Heraclitus into which one cannot step twice. If you try to grasp it, it slips away between your fingers (Confession of a  Buddhist Atheist).

And so back to the moment, this moment, its showering of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Teach me to be mindful.

To enjoy what I cannot hold.

–rj

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Solace for the Hard Places: Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic”

Big Sur Jeffers' residence

BIG SUR

I suppose every generation thinks it’s in crisis and, you know, they’re probably right, given the volatility of history; our time, no less so, as we make the transition to a new Washington regime that appears menacing to many of us seeking an America that fulfills its promise to promote the welfare of all its citizenry and not the interests of the privileged few, often White, endowed by wealth and power.

It’s in times like ours that I’m thankful for the healing repository of good poetry in its beauty, counsel and solace.

As I write, Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) sweeps into my mind as a poet with uncanny prescience of America’s soul-ache in his own time, expressed in maybe his finest poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic.” What follows is his relatively short poem, with my own commentary on each stanza, and a final summation:

The Poem:

1.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens.

2.

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

3.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.

4.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thick-
ening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.

5.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught–they say–
God, when he walked on earth.

Commentary

Stanza 1.
In the initial stanza, the persona decries what he sees as burgeoning American imperialism taking its place among the nations. (Robinson lamented what he perceived as a growing “Caesarism.”). Note his “This America,” signaling out contemporary America in contrast perhaps to past America with its espousal of Jeffersonian democracy, harbinging Jeffer’s notion of genesis, maturation and decay in the subsequent stanza.

A striking image also occurs here of lava hardening to depict the insensitivy of a nation, other than for an inconsequential few who protest—“only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out.”

Stanza 2:
What follows is Jeffers’ use of the cyclic, a favorite motif, reflecting his wide reading in Voto, Spengler and Nietzsche. That nature poses not only genesis, but decline suggests consolation. In the scheme of things, humanity must inexorably yield to Nature’s conquest. So much for its arrogance or self-importance. Here, the line rhythms of the stanza’s conclusion reinforce the persona’s notion of the cyclic.

Stanza 3:
A startling, accusatory address begins the stanza: “You making haste on decay.” You perhaps refers to the individual as well as the nation. We who are mortal or perishing committing the folly of investing in the ephemeral (i. e., making haste on decay) should be accepting of our mortality, whether of Self or Nation. Dissolution or demise is Nature’s law.

Whether life is long or short, life is to be affirmed: “meteors (short-lived) are not needed less than mountains (longevity). Everything has its place in Nature’s scheme of things. The imperative then is to live life passionately: “Shine,perishing republic. ”Shine” perhaps also connotes life lived nobly, or honorably. Or like the last shine, as of a fire’s glow just before it goes out. Cf. Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night.”

Note the speaker’s insistence that “life is good”; that is, when lived rightly, despite its governance by mortality.

Stanza 4:
Employing archetype, Jeffers emphasizes that we needn’t capitulate to the nation’s malaise centered in its cities as opposed to the sanctuary of the mountains offering transcendence. In essence, plurality often imposes its own tyranny.

Stanza 5:
The speaker would have his children live cautiously in a time such as this, i.e, with tempered idealism in regard to collective humanity with its intrinsic capacity for chicanery and despotism (“a clever servant, insufferable master”) avoiding the fate of other idealists like Jesus:

Summary: History proceeds in repetitive cycles, implying we learn little from it in ameliorating the human condition in its enamorizing power with its resulting despotism. Live apart with integrity and passion in the solace of Nature. As Jeffers memorably expressed it in his poem, “The Beauty of Things, “To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things/…to feel /Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural/Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.”

In essence, Jeffers gives counsel on how to live in the context of what Buddhists might equate with Dhaka, or disillusion. Given our post-election malaise, I find it’s advice worth heeding.

–rj

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You have every right to be afraid!

cropsprayingMany of us rightfully fear a Trump presidency for what it may mean for the welfare of our citizenry and nation.

Will Affordable Health Care (AHC) and Medicare be on the chopping block?

If you’re an undocumented immigrant, will Trump carry out his often repeated pledge to deport illegals and build a wall on the border with Mexico?

Will he foreclose on refugees, many of them Muslims?

On the the world stage, will he roll back Obama’s executive order that has restored relations with Cuba?

Will he undo the nuclear treaty with Iran?

While all of these concerns are legitimate, I’d argue that they pale up against the incipient threat posed by climate change, an issue virtually missing from the presidential debates, despite the earth’s very survival being at stake.

Alarmingly, in his October 100-day preview, Trump, who has repeatedly declared global warming a hoax, pledged he’d repeal the Clean Power Plan, withdraw from the historic Paris agreement (signed by 120 nations, setting targets for carbon), and lift restrictions on oil and gas development on public lands.

He’s also told us he’ll revive Keystone XL.

In recent days, the press has been focused on his potential choice for the important Secretary of State position. Nobody’s talking, however, about whom he’ll appoint as Secretary of the Interior.

At the moment, the scenario for environmental disaster looms large in Trump’s choice of Myron Ebell to oversee the transition of the Environmental Protection Agency, ironically founded by Richard Nixon. Ebell doesn’t believe in climate change either.

He’s also associated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute (http://SafeChemicalPolicy.org), which underplays the environmental and health consequences of industrial chemicals.

Ebell could also be Trump’s choice to head the EPA. For the record, Ebell opposes government efforts to curb global warming and the Paris Agreement.

As I write, it isn’t far-fetched that Trump might give the nod to Forrest Lucas for Secretary of the Interior. Lukas has contributed mega-bucks to Trump and Pence’s campaigns. An oil executive, he’d be in charge of our national parks and public lands. Native Americans–think North Dakota pipeline–might raise their eyebrows, given that one of the Department’s tasks is to monitor programs relating to Native Americans.

We haven’t heard yet on who’ll fill the Department of Energy either, but if Ebell doesn’t get the EPA or Interior nomination, he’d likely fill this vacancy. This, again, is a pivotal cabinet post, affecting environment in the Department’s mission to research, regulate, and develop energy technology and resources.

In the meantime, climate change isn’t when, but now. Lamentably, we learned just last week that due to the summer melting of Arctic ice, warm waters have swept over the South Pacific, killing coral, and substantially damaging the famed Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s coast.

We ‘re getting more droughts and flooding than the norm..

2016 will go down as our hottest year since we began keeping track of temperatures.

Scientists tell us we’re on pace, despite December’s Paris agreement, for an increase in earth’s average temperature of 3.5 Celsius, if not more, by 2100.

What this means to our children is that coastal cities like NewYork, Míami, and New Orleans will be mere abstracts of memory, or like the Atlantis of ancient myth, lost beneath the sea.

–rj

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Open the door and come right in….

o-mindfulness-practice-facebookMindfulness is everywhere these days. I was at our local Kroger store yesterday, sampling its magazine section and, sure enough, there were two mindfulness magazines. Go to Whole Foods, it’s the same.

Mindfulness has taken off in the medical community as well, where it’s become increasingly a centerpiece in psychological therapy, helping patients cope with stress, anxiety and depression. (For a sample listing of leading medical schools offering mindfulness curricula, see Medical schools.)

It’s also proven a boon to helping cancer patients live with their pain and the stress of chemotherapy.

Last week, I completed an online course, housed at Leiden University in Holland, called “Demystifying Mindfulness.” According to the university’s figures, some 8000 students have now taken the course, which introduces you to mindfulness and its origins and contemporary applications–psychological, cultural, and political, with a look at its future.

You also get right down to practicing it, listening to guided MP3
sessions, generally 30-40 minutes.

To me, that’s the hard part, finding a time for practice removed from the distractions of daily life, compounded by living in a digital age. Of this, I’m well aware, so I try to get at it right out of bed in the early morning.

Mindfulness practice can take on a myriad of formats, as it teaches you to focus, and you soon discover you can focus on just about anything. But it isn’t easy.

Our minds are wanton wanderers. Buddhists call it the “monkey mind,” where your thoughts just seem to jump randomly, or like a monkey, from tree to tree.

I’m okay with that.

The trick is concentrating on some sensory aspect, i.e, taste, sight, smell, etc., and when the chatter comes, as it surely will, getting back on track. You do this by returning to a focus on your breathing, no mantra or chant needed as in most meditation.

Ultimately, mindfulness helps you live more fully in the present, unburdening yourself from the past with its nostalgia, self-pity, regret, and perhaps anger; likewise, helping you toss your worrying about the future.

Mindfulness teaches you how to get on with life, even in the hard places.

You can practice it in so many ways, like focusing on a candy in your mouth, or intently listening to a loved one, or even while walking or listening to music.

If I were to sum up mindfulness, I’d say it primarily aims, not merely at increasing your awareness, but helping you become more insightful as its reward. In turn, you’ll respond more positively to those around you.

Properly done and practiced daily, mindfulness increases your capacity for empathy, or compassion, for others. After all, when you become more mindful of others, that is, when you really start listening to them, you begin to see yourself as kindred in life’s journey.

As my instructor at Leiden put it, the evidence of your having effectively done mindfulness ultimately exhibits itself in an ethical response to your fellows, along with an effort to ameliorate their life contexts, often imposed by seemingly inherent cultural injustice.

Think about it: Just maybe if we’d all get down to mindfulness we could ultimately bring about a world of fraternity. The revolution I’m talking about doesn’t derive from armed struggle, but the collective, incremental empowerment of reconciliation fostered by a salient awareness of the human kinship that bonds us.

Mindfulness even features exercises that have a direct bearing on helping you achieve greater empathy, or what I like to call emotional intelligence (EQ).

An example of this comes from Dr. Ronald Siegel, a mindfulness therapist at Harvard Medical School:

Cross your hands over your heart.

Think of someone you love, or even of someone who’s brought stress into your life.

Visualize them and say the following:

May you be happy.
May you be peaceful.
May you be free from suffering.

Do this several times.

But keep this caveat in mind: You can’t really love others fully without
self-esteem, resulting in your needing others to validate yourself.

Now say to yourself,

May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
May I be free from suffering.

While mindfulness won’t cure all of life’s ills, it helps you cope with them, making you aware we’re all in this together.

Discovering yourself and becoming more mindful of others leads to that reciprocal joy Judy Collins famously sings about, and–yes–it can be yours:

Open the door and come right in
I’m so glad to see you my friend
You’re like a rainbow coming around the bend
And when I see you smilie’
Well, it sets my heart free
I’d like to be as good a friend to you
As you are to me.

–rj

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Introducing my hummingbird friends…

hummingbird-at-a-feeder-1They return every April to our Kentucky backyard, survivors of a 3000 journey from Central America, which includes a non-stop 500 mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a journey my hummingbird friends will repeat again, returning in fall to their winter feeding grounds.

Knowing of their imminent arrival, I had faithfully set out our bright red hummingbird feeder in mid-April. For some reason, they prefer red and orange colors. Every spring, I’d be either sitting in the sunroom or outside, prepping the flower beds, when I would first spot or hear a solitary aerial scout probing, like some overhead helicopter, the landscape below. First of a coming vanguard, this sole wayfarer heralded spring’s rebirth, despite frequent rain, temperature dips, and clouds that frustrate the sun.

Always, as though set on a timer, my guests start their return journey the first week of October. I last saw them here on October 3, busily waging war with each other for first rights to their sugar drink. I know what this is about. It’s important for them to increase their body fat by half to fuel their arduous journey. I’m glad to provide a way station.

I’ve learned enough about hummingbirds to know this remnant flew-in from other haunts this fall, perhaps even from lower Canada, seeking to refuel. If I hadn’t seen any hummingbirds since early August, it was because my regular clientele were already embarked on their long journey. Hummingbirds begin their return migration as early as the waning weeks of July, extending through the second week of September, depending on the locus of their summer habitat.

The next day, they had vanished, nature stamping fall’s passport while signaling my own need to prepare our yard for winter’s long sleep.

Still, I keep the feeder out just in case there’s a straggler about. It happened one year. I had seen this seemingly forlorn hummingbird on our woodpile out back, which is quite unusual, since hummingbirds can’t walk or hop like other birds, given their tiny feet. That’s why their feeders lack perches.

Moving cautiously, I was able to get near enough to cup him in my hands and place him in an old shoebox, uncovered, for a quick trip to our vet. Along the way, Karen and I kept thinking anxious scenarios of what to do if he got loose in the car. But it never happened, thank goodness.

The vet, a bird specialist, shrewdly put sugar solution into a nose dropper and he started drinking–hey, a good sign. Then, suddenly, here he was, zooming around the exam room. Well, we got him back, cradled him into his box again, this time with aerated cover, and took him home.

Releasing him in the backyard, we watched our friend fly eagerly to a high pine branch, rest momentarily, before soaring out of sight, perhaps ready to resume his journey over land and sea.

I’d like to think he did well, but the final fate of migratory birds is an uncertain one at best. Their worst enemies are storms and loss of habitat through human intrusion. An estimated one third don’t make it. That’s why it’s incumbent you and I who have backyards do all we can to lend a helping hand to our aerial friends.

After all, they help us maintain the ecological balance on which life depends, including our own.

Postscript: Fun Facts about Hummingbirds:

  • Of 320 species in America’s, only 8 of them breed in the U.S., among the most notable, the ruby-throated hummingbird. Hummingbirds are found only in the Americas.
  • They live about 3-5 years.
  • Each species makes a different humming sound, determined by wing beats per second.
  • Their wings beat between 50 and 200 flaps per second.
  • Their tiny hearts beat 1200 times a minute.
  • They take 250 breaths per minute at rest, which isn’t often.
  • They can straight fly at 30 mph, dive at 60 mph.
  • Among bird species, they’re your ninja warriors, known to attack jays, crows, and even hawks.
  • In size, some species are so small they’re consumed by other insects such as praying mantis and dragonflies.
  • They’re the only birds that can fly backwards and sometimes upside down.
  • Hummingbirds must eat twice their body weight daily, and to do this, they visit hundreds of flowers, primarily feeding on nectar. (I make a sugar substitute formula for them, changing it every 3 or 4 days to avoid mold.)
  • Unlike other migratory birds, each hummingbird makes a solitary journey, and not as part of a flock. (Hard to imagine, even for a human, crossing the Gulf of Mexico by yourself, without map and compass. But these 3 inch creatures are nature’s miracle. Even more spectacular, young birds travel to a homeland they’ve never seen, depending solely on instinctual navigational skills.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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