Sunday, May 30, 2010

Greek Frogs' Moment in History

Every once in a while, an obsure little newspaper article takes me down remarkable paths. That happened last Thursday.

The headline read: “Flood of frogs shuts down a major Greek highway.” The Associated Press item reported that: “ … a horde of frogs forced the closure of a key northern highway for two hours. According to the [Thessaloniki, Greece] police chief, “millions” of the amphibians covered the pavement Wednesday, May 26. “There was a carpet of frogs.” Authorities closed the highway after three cars skidded off the road trying to dodge the frogs. No human injuries were reported. The chief theorized that the amphibians probably left a nearby lake to look for food.

Thessaloniki has been through a lot. People have lived in or around the city since at least 600 BCE. Orginally called Therma, it became Thessaloniki circa 315 BCE as an autonomous part of the Kingdom of Macedon. *** About 150 years later, the Romans took over and it became an important trade hub and capital of one of the four Roman districts of Macedonia. *** Power shifted again and, while continuing its growth through the twelfth century, the city somehow fell under the control of the Byzantine Greeks. *** In 1204, the Fourth Crusade made Tessaloniki part of first one empire, then two others until in 1246, it was reclaimed by the Byzantines.*** In 1423, the city was handed over to the Republic of Venice which ruled it until 1430 when an Ottoman Sultan captured Thessaloniki and killed or enslaved one fifth of its inhabitants. Under the Ottomans, the city’s Muslim and Jewish populations grew (in part as a refuge for Jews expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella). *** It remained part of the Ottoman Empire, in various permutations, until it fell to the Greek army in 1912, during the First Balkan War. *** During World War I, Thessaloniki was a key Allied stronghold but devasted by a 1917 fire (inadvertently started by French soldiers). *** During World War II, it fell to Nazi forces from 1941 – 1944, during which most of its Jews were murdered in German concentration camps. *** Now part of Greece, Thessaloniki was rebuilt after the war, surviving both a powerful 1978 earthquake and the 2004 Summer Olympics.

So, to review: Greeks, Romans, Greeks, various small kingdoms, Venetians, Turks, Greeks, Nazis, Greeks -- and now frogs.

Did you want to know all this? I didn’t think I did but one thing (via Wikipedia) led to another and there it is. Now part of my understanding of my world.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Copernicus's Sun Rises

On Saturday, May 22, 2010, Copernicus received a hero’s burial. . . . nearly 500 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave, condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was the founder of the heliocentric theory – the belief (now substantiated) that the earth revolves around the sun. In his time, the Church held that Earth and its human inhabitants were at the center of the universe – that everything revolved around us. Let’s call that theory ‘terra-centric.’ We were God’s creation – the center, focal point and, surely, the purpose of all creation. So any statement that we were less than the center was blasphemy.

Last Saturday, after a several week tour, Copernicus’s casket, blessed with holy water, was ceremoniously placed in a cathedral tomb in Frombork, Poland. The local archbishop praised Copernicus for his hard work and scientific genius, while Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, said that he regretted the “excesses of zeal” that led the Church to brand Copernicus a heretic. After centuries in an unmarked grave, his remains are now identified by a black granite tombstone with six planets orbiting a golden sun.

Today, most of us accept that we are on a planet that, along with seven or eight others, revolves around the sun. And that our solar system is but one tiny component of a vast universe. So we tend to be a little smug about our superior understanding and to sneer at the 16th century’s orthodox folly.

But just how superior is that understanding? Sure, we’ve got the cosmos stuff down but, let’s admit it, most of us, at some level, believe that humans are indeed the whole point of creation. That we the people are the grand and final product of eons of protein development.

There’s a problem with that.

I looked it up: “Homocentrism is the attribution of Human qualities to non-human beings, such as God. A homocentric cosmology is one that holds that the Universe was created and fine tuned for the creation of our species in particular.”

If we are the whole point then it follows that everything else is here for our benefit. And we shall have dominion over everything else.

Frankly, that belief really screws things up.

If instead, we held that every component of the universe was of equal value – that it should be treated with equal respect, things might go a bit better.

In fact, if we started treating pelicans, trees, polar bears and reptiles as if they were essential components of the fabric of life – of which we are but one small element – the chances for the survival of all life would improve exponentially.

It’s worth a try. It doesn’t feel as though we have another 500 years to figure this out.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Mothers Day Surprise

In the future I will not create blogs when I have the flu. They turn out to be a bit dour.
I am recuperating, too slowly, but am finally a little more lucid. I think I will try to balance these things between people and cats. Then people will have to check to see whether I’m trying to be brilliant or just recording inter-species communication.

Mothers Day happened recently. Things like Mothers Day and Fathers Day and Valentines Day and New Years Day and Christmas and Thanksgiving can be excruciating for those of us who do not live in a Norman Rockwell world.

I went to church on Mother's Day even though I think I pretty much flunked motherhood. There's a little girl (around 6 or 7 I think) who always runs to sit with me during the first part of the service. I was hoping she would be there. She was. And she ran to sit with me and, later, during the post-service coffee hour, she presented me with a small pot of petunias with a little note that said, "I love you Gram". That helped immensely.

Then a group of us went to the local sculpture park to participate in a Mothers Day 'Stand for Peace'. [Mothers Day was initiated in 1870 by Unitarian Julia Ward Howe to protest the carnage of the Civil War and encourage pacifism.] There were about a dozen of us standing next to a sculpture of a child cradling a dove. When a reporter and photographer from the local paper showed up, they actually recorded our presence and our insistence that Mothers Day was an affirmation of life not death in war.

After our ‘stand’ was over, I walked around the park on a gently warm day brimming with flowers.

That evening, around 6 p.m., my younger son Bruce called (long distance is free from his workplace) and we had a good talk. So a day that I thought would be incredibly hard turned out to be rather amazing.

May we all be open to amazing days.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Invisible People

I used to be invisible.


I would go out into the wide world – to the store, to a restaurant, to a party, to church. And no one would notice me.

Or if they did notice, it was a perfunctory acknowledgement that demonstrated no real interest.

I’m not sure when that changed.

I know it has. I can go anywhere, in any kind of a situation, and have true encounters with other people.

Other people did not change. I did.

I used to exude vibrations of my own unworthiness. Don’t notice me, I’m too boring. Or I’m too fat. Or I’m too lonely. Or too old.

Sometimes I would pretend that I was practicing observation. After all, a writer must notice everything. I used to sit alone in restaurants and write snatches of overheard conversations in a little notebook. I was simply recording the human condition. Someday the results of all my scrutiny would wind up in a brilliant book and people would marvel at my wisdom.

Didn’t she go to our school? Wasn’t she a member of our church? Didn’t she come here for lunch?

Another part of me – the part that probably kept me going – thought I was a tad superior -- too creative, too deep, too individual – whatever – to partake of shallow social intercourse.

Truth is, I’m neither superior nor inferior. I’m not too boring, or too fat, or too lonely, or too old. I am all the places I have been and all the people I have learned from.

And eventually, I figured out that that was enough.

And that if I really looked at other people, really paid attention to their stories, really looked at whatever I could see of who they were, they would reciprocate.

That is, of course, a simplistic statement. Almost naive. But it is as far as I’m going to go in this particular blog post. For one thing, I have the flu. For another, the story of how I came to overcome my sense of unworthiness took me more than 67,000 words in a memoir I called Tree Lines. But I think I can recount some of it in future blog posts. I think that might be a very good idea because there are thousands, perhaps millions, of people trapped in their own sense of unworthiness.

Far too many invisible people.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Feline Prime Time

[I will occasionally interrupt examinations of the endemic isolation of our citizens to consider observations about truly important things such as cats and springtime.]

Monday morning my cats were crazier than usual. It was warm, the windows were open and the air reverberated with birdsong.

My house is currently surrounded by, in addition to flourishing flora, three resident bird families and numerous transient songsters.

Outside there was a feathery frenzy of feeding-- parent birds rushing back and forth with delectable and essential morsels for insatiable appetites. And, as if spurred by their example, squirrels rushed up and down trees and over roofs and across fences.

Herbie and Guinness ran from window to window, following in synchronized movements the activity swirling around us. They perched on the back window, their heads turning in unison, first left to watch the squirrels then right to watch the birds. Then back again. Then they raced to the front of the house to see the southern whirls of scampers and flights. Every movement identical, every muscle focused on the show, they were simultaneous.

This was, apparently, feline prime time.

As always, I fixed their breakfast before mine. As always, I clinked their ceramic bowls to signal that the food was ready. But they paid no attention. There was just too much to see.

It was only after I had eaten and was cleaning up that they stomped into the kitchen looking slightly aggrieved.

Where was breakfast?

Right where it should be, silly creatures. Glad you enjoyed the show. I certainly enjoyed watching your enjoyment.

Later, when I went upstairs to make the bed, I found them both curled and sleeping amid the jumbled sheets. They did not move when I entered the room. They did not move for hours. They were suffering, I am sure, from complete emotional exhaustion.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Intentional Families

There are all kinds of intentional families.

Service clubs, like Rotary and Lions, were part of our response to the increased isolation that paradoxically occurs when city populations reach a certain mass.

Interestingly, women’s clubs -- started in the mid to late 1800s – were the forces behind many ‘civilizing’ changes, such as libraries and juvenile courts. They gave power to the non-yet-franchised and places where women would be listened to … with respect.

Alcoholics Anonymous, and other ‘twelve step’ programs, become family for participants. The kind of family that enables survival, even transformation.

Transformation – or at least personal acknowledgement – can be provided by congregations – of any faith.

And who can discount “Cheers” – ‘where everybody knows your name.’

Isn’t that what we are looking for? Personal acknowledgement, support, people who listen to us and laugh with us?

One way or another, through work or worship or efforts on behalf of a particular cause, we find ways to connect. And if we are not interested in ‘organized’ connections, then we create, as Kerrie commented, networks of friends.

I am wary of cyber-networks but they work for some. And it is nice to open my email to find a message from someone I worked with in Cape Town and another from my grand niece in Denver.

It’s even nicer to sit around a table and share personal news and fears and a corny but slightly bawdy joke that you would not tell just anyone.

Eventually, and sometimes it just takes growing up, we realize that no man – or woman – is an island. We are all part of the vast web of our species – related to each other in ways deeper than those mere accidents of race, religion, geography or culture that too often separate us. And that we too often use as excuses to avoid connections.

What Lincoln warned about a ‘house divided’ is still true – not just of our country, but of our planet. The survival of our species may require us to acknowledge that we are all in this together.

So, if you don’t have a family (or you don’t like the one you have) find one, create one.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Meet Me In St. Louis

I remember watching “Meet Me in St. Louis” (on television, I’m not that old) and thinking, what a wonderful way to live. The big house was full of people – three generations as I recall. Neighbors talked to each other and looked out for each other. Doctors made house calls.

It looked fun and friendly.

About 30 or so years ago, I became part of a support group. All women. All about the same age. Some married or in relationships. Some divorced. All of us had kids. None of us lived in that Hollywood version of the 1904 world.

Support groups are based on honest communication. It takes a while to get past the ‘current events’ phase – stuff going on at work, plumbing problems, teenage tantrums or truancy. But you do. If you keep at it. And keep it honest. Eventually we came to realize that our whole society had isolated nuclear families in theoretically self-sustaining units and the ‘villages’ required to raise a child (or sustain individual sanity) no longer existed. Not in modern American cities and suburbs. None of us could turn our kids over to their grandparents or aunts when we needed a break. There were no breaks.

The only solution, as we saw it, was to create intentional networks or support systems. People who would listen and help because they wanted to – not because it was dictated by some genealogical chart. And it was a solution. Not ideal, but functional. It worked.

Their listening helped me realize that one of my sons might need hospitalization. They came over when I learned my mother had dementia. We celebrated when one of us got her graduate degree. Whenever, whatever, we knew there were people in our world who really knew us and really gave a damn.

We live in three different states now but we’re still a group – still an extended family. We have a history filled with laughter as well as tears. We know we can always count on each other. Living far apart, we know enough to make friends in our new locales and find some kind of network to tap into. And never forget each other.

At least once every year, we gather – strengthening with contact the connections sustained by phone calls, letters and emails.

At least once every year, we recreate “Meet Me In St. Louis.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Lonely People -- The Abyss

Sometimes I fall into the abyss.

You would think that after more than 20 years of living absolutely alone, I’d be used to it. But I don’t think humans are psychologically – or perhaps even physiologically – designed to live alone.

Actually, I don’t live absolutely alone. I live with two cats, plus I belong to a congregation and a writers group and have an incredible network of friends and family.

But sometimes – not often – but nonetheless inexorably – I feel absolutely alone, very lonely. Depressed. It feels as if there is a column of emptiness in my very core.

Climbing out of the abyss – filling myself up/ restoring my soul — can be amazingly difficult.

I think success depends on ‘catching it’ – acknowledging it – early. I know the warning signs. The signals that indicate that solitude is eroding my psyche. I watch too much television, eat too much between dinner and bed, drink too much wine, and play countless – pointless – games of computer solitaire.

If I do catch it early – admit the loneliness and depression – I can pull myself back together with simple remedies: a massage, a walk in the sunshine, sitting by a gentle stream, or absorbing a funny movie or book. I seek connections with friends – preferably in person but at least by telephone (not email). Honest conversation – not necessarily about my dourness – can enliven me, bring me back.

Sometimes the antics of my cats put things into perspective. (They will be introduced in future blogs.)

When none of these work -- when I am still trapped in my terrible black cloud, overwhelmed – I ask for help, seek counseling. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychics can, and have, helped me out of the abyss.

Once, when the abyss was too deep and wide for words, I took antidepressants for a while. They helped enormously. And I would take them again if I should fall that far.

But I think/ hope that won’t be necessary. Paying attention to the state of my soul/ psyche/ mood has become part of who I am. My morning meditative ritual, cobbled from a variety of spiritual traditions, helps keep me centered. Paying attention to the needs of other people, and doing something for them, shifts my focus. Paying attention to beauty can bring me back.

And of course there is my writing. When I capture honest observations, focus on the awesome phenomena that pervade this planet, or share observed ironies, I can fly up again.

I can soar out of the abyss into wholeness.

May it be so for all of us.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Lonely People - Where Do They All Belong?

One of the Beatles’ songs asks:
"All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?"

People assume that the lonely people are those who live alone.

There is an infinite variety of solitudes. All the bachelors and spinsters, widows, widowers, students and starving artists, remnants of failed marriages, or failed careers.

And some of them are lonely. I live alone. Sometimes I am lonely.

Multitudes who live with others are also lonely.

Much of my married life – even when consumed by the needs of my young children – was desperately lonely.

Mine was not the only such marriage.

A crowded household does not prevent loneliness.

In a way, loneliness is built into this country’s culture: the prototypes of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and personal initiative.

A lot of that is good. But it also generates a lot of loneliness.

Our species did not start out like this. The human race began in groups, clans, tribes, and villages. When a parent or spouse or child was lost, the others just closed ranks, filled in whatever empty spaces had developed (or found an appropriate ice flow).

In many cultures – like Japan I think – the group (whether village or corporation) is valued above the individual.

My first assignment outside North America was in Guatemala. My local contact and I developed an excellent and cordial working relationship. But he was utterly baffled by my descriptions of my solitary life – divorced, pushing children out of the nest, dealing with parents who were also divorced. His household included three generations in largely symbiotic harmony.

In this country, citizens seem increasingly isolated. Then we wonder about crime rates.


Other cultures, seeking perceived wealth, now tend to emulate our country’s patterns.

Probably not a good idea.

What’s the answer?

I’m not the best person to ask. But I can still guess. I observe myself coming more alive when I am in my particular group or my congregational community.

That’s the magic ‘c’ word, community -- not virtual communities like Facebook but good old-fashion interpersonal relationships.

This can happen even in America.

It can happen if we begin to seek it out, build it up. Create it if we have to. Wherever we live – whether or not we live alone – we can acknowledge people on the fringes, bring them in. We can look others in the eyes and listen to their stories and, lo! we will discover how much we have in common.

If we would begin to do this (ah! a mammoth ‘if’) if more and more of us did this, it is just possible that fewer and fewer people would live lonely.

And, someday that poignant Beatle’s song would make no sense at all.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lonely People -- Surviving Solitude

Because I live alone, people assume I’m lonely. But most of the time, I’m not.

I like creating and following my own schedule: eating what and when I want. Watching and reading what and when I want. Taking walks whenever. Driving up into the mountains, or not. Plus, I’m a writer. Writing and the pondering that precedes it, is a solitary pursuit. And when it clicks, writing is an all-consuming joy, barely interrupt-able. Energizing and enormously satisfying.

I’ve lived alone for more than 20 years; since my younger son moved out. For many of those years, I was working – part of an organizational community for a good chunk of every day. Alone, only in the evenings.

Then I retired.

It became essential to develop routines that balanced solitude and community. Now I can go for months using my standard survival techniques.

One of them is my system for eating alone. I take two papers: one local, another national. I read the local at breakfast; the special sections of the national paper (art, science, dining) at lunch, and the first section (international and national news and editorials) at dinner. I rarely read books at a meal. Soiling a book’s pages is too great a risk.

I deliberately build encounters with other people into many of my days – going to a store, or the library or a restaurant for lunch – any place where I will talk to other people.

Belonging to a group is important. Especially if it is a group comprised of people with a shared purpose, with whom I can be completely honest. I am part of a writers group.
I am also part of a congregation. Going to church on Sundays is actually the easy part. I also have responsibilities that permeate my weeks. Sometimes they are overwhelming but mostly, they are rewarding. Often I discover myself energized when I am with people who share similar perspectives on the sacred and the decidedly un-sacred.

And I volunteer for one or two community service projects.

It’s a matter of balancing solitude and society. As long as these are balanced, I survive and even thrive.

And I am not lonely.