Monday, September 5, 2016

Meditation for Labor Day

The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; 
only the one who has little business can become wise. 
How can one become wise who handles the plough,
   and who glories in the shaft of a goad,
who drives oxen and is occupied with their
   and whose talk is about bulls? 
He sets his heart on ploughing furrows,
   and he is careful about fodder for the heifers. 
So it is with every artisan and master artisan
   who labours by night as well as by day;
those who cut the signets of seals,
   each is diligent in making a great variety;
they set their heart on painting a lifelike image,
   and they are careful to finish their work. 
So it is with the smith, sitting by the anvil,
   intent on his ironwork;
the breath of the fire melts his flesh,
   and he struggles with the heat of the furnace;
the sound of the hammer deafens his ears,
   and his eyes are on the pattern of the object.
He sets his heart on finishing his handiwork,
   and he is careful to complete its decoration. 
So it is with is the potter sitting at his work
   and turning the wheel with his feet;
he is always deeply concerned over his products,
   and he produces them in quantity. 
He moulds the clay with his arm
   and makes it pliable with his feet;
he sets his heart on finishing the glazing,
   and he takes care in firing the kiln. 

All these rely on their hands,
   and all are skilful in their own work. 
Without them no city can be inhabited,
   and wherever they live, they will not go hungry.
Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, 
   nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly.
They do not sit in the judge’s seat,
   nor do they understand the decisions of the courts;
they cannot expound discipline or judgement,
   and they are not found among the rulers. 
But they maintain the fabric of the world,
   and their concern is for the exercise of their trade
~ Ecclesiasticus 38:24-34

Though he was a craftsman and not an academic, my father was still a scholar. He was always reading. His example is the one I immitate by keeping a stack of books by my chair, picking up one, then another, their subjects ranging from history, to fiction, to health and wellness, to nature. He was a printer and proud of his trade, and he was also widely respected  in our community for his wisdom, his kindness, and his dedication to serving our neighbors. Had the wise preacher of Ecclesiasticus ever met my dad, he would have had a very different opinion of people who work with their hands and their backs.

While the writer may not have known much about working people, the message of this passage is clear. Artisans and craftspeople, the ones who make and build and produce; they are the threads that hold the "fabric of the world" together. Today, our country whose history of labor relations has far too often been an inglorious one, takes a moment to give thanks for the sacrifices and to honor the labor of everyone who helps to carry the burden of civilization.

As we honor the workers of our own age, we also remember those who came before. The ones who struggled and bled and died to win the dignity and respect of powerful people who were eager for profit, but reluctant to reward the laborers who made their profits possible.

On this Labor Day, may we remember that when we work, we honor ourselves and one another. Work connects us to our neighbors and to creation. Everyone deserves the chance to know that connection. And everyone who works deserves to be rewarded and respected.

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen ~ Collect for Labor Day, the Book of Common Prayer, p. 261

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Jury Duty

Fayette County Circuit Court, Lexington KY
August jurors, your service is now complete. The Fayette Circuit Court appreciates your time and effort. 
And with these words I am honorably discharged by the friendly lady on the recorded juror hotline. I know I'll miss her when 4:30 rolls around. We've kept our date every Sunday through Wednesday all month long.

I was't particularly enthusiastic about being summoned. Believe me, I had other stuff to do. There is no convenient time for jury duty. Like voting or serving in the military or stopping to see if you can help at an accident; there are just certain things an honorable person does when neighbors are in need. That's why it isn't a job. It's a duty.

In spite of my apprehension, it was not that much of a burden at all. I missed three days work in August.  I never was chosen to sit on a trial. Considering what little I heard, I was glad of that. Abused kids. Car crashes. Children testifying against their foster parents. Doctors testifying against one another. In many ways, it's a terrible reaponsibility. Others stayed for the trials, I was always thanked and dismissed. So while I didn't get to spend anytime in the jury box, or in the back room with 12 angry men and women, I did get to watch the system work just a little. And I learned a lot.

Lawyers are pretty remarkable people. Yes, there are corrupt lawyers and greedy lawyers and crooks and dirt bags, just like in any other profession. But when it comes down to it, a lawyer's job is to protect people. The commonwealth's attorney is protecting people who are hurt by criminals, making sure that they have a voice. Defense attorneys are protecting people whose freedom the government is trying to take away. Are their clients guilty? That's not the point. The point is that somebody has to make it very hard for the authorities to take away your liberty or your life. It shouldn't be easy to grind someone up between the slowly turning wheels of justice.

Civil lawyers are a different breed: tort lawyers, shysters, "ambulance chasers": the names are not always kind. For some reason, when your practice is about money instead of criminals, your motives are viewed a little more skeptically. But just like in the criminal courts, civil lawyers are making sure that the government can't just snatch up your property and give it to someone else. And they are also making sure that if someone causes you pain and suffering, you have a chance to be heard, even if the people who have caused you harm are rich and powerful and backed by corporations and teams of legal experts who are paid to make you go away.

I know it doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. And I know that good people lose much too often. Still, having professionals who make it their business to give citizens a fighting chance against powers far greater than themselves, comforts me. And it makes me feel kind of bad about all those lawyer jokes. The good attorneys, and there are some great ones, have earned my respect.

The Jury is an amazing institution. I grew up watching Perry Mason, so I never  really considered what a Jury meant the way I had to while I was explaining my absence to my friend from Africa. He didn't understand what I meant by "Jury Duty." "So do you stand guard? Do you just watch the judge like an audience?" he asked. "No. The judge is more like a referee. The judge is the one who makes sure everyone obeys the rules." Still, my friend was puzzled. "But what does the jury do while the judge is deciding who is guilty?" "No," I answered, "the judge doesn't decide that. The jury does." My friend was amazed. "Not the judge or the police? Just regular people?" He paused for a moment and looked out the window into the bright Kentucky afternoon. "That would be wonderful."

We didn't really talk much about how justice works where my friend comes from, but it did my cynical old liberal heart some good to see the idea of a trial by jury through his eyes. "Maybe," I thought, "America is a little more exceptional than I realized."

I don't think I'm being a Pollyanna about this. I know that there are innocent people in jail, and guilty people walking the streets and that far too often those things happen because somebody had the wrong colored skin or the right colored money. Everybody in the justice system isn't Perry Mason. some of them break the law, and I imagine a lot of them stretch it until just before it breaks. But having said all that, if I am ever accused of a crime, I hope there are good people willing to stand by me, hear my case, and judge me as fairly as they can.

Just a couple other things... There are way too many old white guys in the jury pool. I guess those are the people who register to vote and those are the people who have the time to serve, but if you are not an old white guy, you owe it to yourself and your community to make yourself available if you're called. It would help if more people registered to vote. It would also help if people realized how much their vote can count. I'm a Liberal in a state where many people think Jesus founded the Republican party. What I do in the booth isn't likely ever to help anyone be elected President. But on a jury, with an electorate of 12, my voice will always be heard.

Jurors could stand a little more education on the subject of decorum. I know that I'm sounding like Gramma Johnson here, but I think if there's a chance that you are going to be deciding to put someone in prison before the end of the day, you could at least put on something besides sweatpants in the morning. Dress clothes aren't always the most comfortable, but they are what we wear when there is something important going on. And being on a jury is important.

And finally, since I spent all those paragraphs praising their profession, may I just say that every lawyer I saw was a white man and a lot of them were - how do I say this? - not well put together. Most of them wore very nice suits. Many of them had weirdly chosen footwear. And a whole bunch of them had lousy haircuts. One was downright cartoonish. I'm not saying put on a show, but come on, guys, put on a little bit of a show, huh? Run a comb through that mop before you leave the house. Pick up a copy of GQ and figure out how you're supposed to knot that $80 silk around your neck. And as for your sense of humor? Well as a rule, we the jury find your jokes to be condescending and a little insulting, even if we are laughing to be polite.

The judges I saw were a much more diverse group: a white woman, an African American woman, and a white man. One wanted to be a stand-up  (sit-down) comedian. One projected a kind of cool, slightly goofy demeanor. One ran a tight ship with professionalism and an attitude that elicited trust from me from the moment the bailiff called "All rise for the honorable...". I was encouraged by the people I saw in charge of our courtrooms. Even the goofy one. They took the job of jury selection seriously, and treated us with respect.

Finally, the Bailiffs. I mean please. How can you not love the Bailiffs? They are the humble stage managers who open the doors, arrange the chairs, call the room to attention, distribute the parking passes, and add a gentle air of professionalism to the whole scene. Like "Pops" the stage door guard who works at every Broadway theatre, the Bailiff is the one who has "seen em come and seen em go," who keeps people in line and follows them out of the room to make sure they are alright if they have a coughing fit. Bailiffs are sweet and a little comical and you hardly notice until you look twice that every one of them is wearing body armor. They may act like mother hens, but I couldn't help thinking that if they had to, they would put themselves between a shooter and anybody else in the room. That bullet proof vest was a constant reminder to me that this is a place where very important things happen, a place where people protect one another. A place where people do their duty.

 Much as I'd have preferred to be in the swimming pool at the Y, it was an honor to be able to do my own duty for three days in August.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

The first half of Man's Search for Meaning, tells of Dr. Frankl's time in German concentration camps. It's easy for us to become numb to these stories; we've heard them so many times before. But Frankl is not telling them for the sake of horror, rather he is offering a unique lesson. Even in the most terrible situation imaginable, we can give meaning to our lives by finding a purpose, a reason to stay alive. For him, that purpose became service and honoring the inner dignity of every person he encountered. Yes, there is tragedy in every second of life in the camps, but Frankl offers inspiration as well. "After all," he reminds us, "Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auchwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Israel on his lips."

 The second half of the book is an essay entitled Logotherapy in a Nutshell in which Frankl introduces the psychological school of which he is founder. The name Logotherapy derives from the greek word for meaning. For Frankl, healing comes not from analysis of the past, but of creating a meaningful future. Freud built his theories around our desire for pleasure. Adler believed our prime motivation was power. But Frankl proposes that we are motivated by the search for meaningful living and a sense of purpose.

I will not try to describe the entire theory here, but this framework struck me most deeply. The first element is action: we find meaning by doing meaningful things, things that matter to us. The second is love: the active giving of our selves to others. And the third is suffering: or more specifically, responding to suffering, exercising our "uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement."

 I first learned about Victor Frankl years ago while reading Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey recommended this little book (154 pages) so highly that I put it on my personal "Must Read" list. Now that I've finally read Man's Search for Meaning, I wish I'd done so years ago. I echo Dr Covey's recommendation without reservation.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dreams Do Come True, and Some of Them...?

Yes, I am a Rich Man!
Stop me if you've heard this. When they told me I was probably dying, they said my only chance was to fight. So I had to decide what I wanted to fight for. I had to have a reason to live.

Why would I want to stay alive?

I had no career. My insurance company had, through a bit of pre-Obama legerdemain declared my cancer a pre-exiting condition. My life's savings was gone, my mortgage was on the brink of foreclosure, and I had lived 50 years with severe clinical depression that had led me to try to die more than once. So what did I have to live for?

I lived by holding on to three dreams.

The first was literally a dream. Shivering in my Percocet induced haze, I dreamed again and again that I was flying. Not just flying, but running in the air, high above the world. I never did fly, but I finally got to run, first one, then a second full marathon. 

The second dream was about love. I dreamed of growing old with my wife. She nursed me, fed me, held me, cleaned me, and loved me back to health and I thought that dream would also come true, but as so often happens after cancer, our lives drifted apart. The love that kept me alive was not enough to save our marriage so the second dream died instead.

The last dream was partly a memory and partly a hope. Five years before being diagnosed, I had played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on the big stage at the UK Arboretum. Thousands of people saw us play, and I never forgot the feeling of each of them trusting me to carry their hearts along through that beautiful story of love and redemption. "Please God, let me play again. One more time, let me act again." And of the three, my prayerful dream of acting was the one that God would most fully answer.

Shelly Levine, William Hastings, King Lear, Abner Dillon, Edna Turnbladt, Admiral Boom, Ludwig Van Beethoven and Frankenstein's beautiful, terrible Creature: How I loved them all, and how they blessed me. I have walked with giants and geniuses, and gotten the chance to play with people who have taught me so much about a craft I thought I had mastered. And at the end of the closing matinee of Mary Poppins, as an Opera House full of cheering children and teary parents opened their throats and our hearts I thought to myself, "If this is it, if this the last one you have for me Lord, it was worth it."

One quiet evening, a beautiful woman asked me why I acted. "I want to change the world. I want to help people to think; to laugh; to forget; to remember. I want the world to be a better place because I walked around in someone else's skin and told the truth for a few hours."

Dreams don't all come true, but some of them do. Did I change the world? The jury is still out, I suppose. But I'm not giving up yet. God's timetable has some surprising stops along the way. Which reminds me. Waaaay back, late in the middle of the last century, a high school senior glued on some fake sideburns, sprayed on some gray hair,  and spoke these words: they still ring in my mind's ear. Now that I think of it, they may have been the inspiration for this blog's title. Their echoes give me hope that no light, however dim, is ever really doused.

Keystone Oaks High School, 1978
with Anita Martin as Guenivere
"Who is that Arthur?"
"One of what we all are, Pelly. Less than a drop in the great, blue motion of the sunlit sea. But it seems that some of the drops sparkle, Pelly. Some of them do sparkle! Run, boy! Run, boy!"


Monday, October 19, 2015

Honey Psalm

Reverence for the Lord is pure,
lasting forever.
The laws of the Lord are true;
each one is fair.
They are more desirable than gold,
even the finest gold.
They are sweeter than honey,
even honey dripping from the comb.
~Psalm 19: 9-10

Blessing pouring over me,
Warm and heavy,
The rich, amber thickness on my skin and hair,
More abundant than any vessle can contain.

From his own body flows the golden sweeness that encloses me,

Filling my mouth
Drop by drop on my tongue.
Whispering love, light, life,
A winter fire.

He has opened his storehouse to me;
I will never lack again.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Week of Comings and Goings

Survivors, Warriors, Victors
Graduation Time

While many of my friends were sending their children back to school, we at LIVESTRONG at the YMCA were celebrating our participants return out into the world. For twelve weeks, they laughed together, sweated together, wept together, and worked toward the day when each could look back at the accomplishments and say with pride, "I did that." I love this program. Everyone who has ever had cancer should have the chance to be a part of it. (If you are so moved, I invite you to support out work using the form on the right.)

The Value of Names

For some time, it was a source of embarrassment, and even shame to me that I did not know the names of most of the people in the classes I teach at the Y. I mean, I have seen some of them four or five times a week for almost three years now. It just feels disrespectful to me to see someone so often and have to call them, "Buddy," or "Sister," or "Sugar," (you might not want to use that one north of the Mason-Dixon, by the way.) So this summer, I decided it was  time to make a change. Every class begins and ends with the ritual Remembering of the Names. The participants are amazingly good sports about it. We always share a smile when I get them right, especially when we're outside the pool. ("I hardly recognize you with your clothes on!") An unexpected side benefit is that they are learning each others' names, too. It's a little thing, and it isn't the same as actually knowing a person, but it's a start.

Wellllll... Yes, and no...
Love and Hope

Someone who has been a faithful friend to me for a long time, and has had a stormy voyage on the seas of love has finally found safe harbor. Seeing their happiness gives me joy and hope for my own future. Love is always possible. And it is never too late.

On the Other Hand...

You know that book where Colonel Brandon just hangs around for years, being a great guy until Marianne realizes that he is her soul-mate? Turns out that just showing up in a real woman's life every few months makes her feel really uncomfortable and creepy. And so ends the career of an unintentional, well-meaning stalker. Sometimes it's just better to smile, say thank you, and move along. (different lady, by the way. I'm not that creepy.)

Should have studied harder...
Good News and Bad News

Experienced the double edged sword of negative test results from my sleep study last week. Turns out that I'm actually quite good at sleeping. I move a little more than usual, but am well withing normal ranges as far as breathing, snoring, alpha waves, and REM sleep. So while I was glad to learn that I won't have to wear a CPAP machine for the rest of my life, I got to hear the unsettling news from the doc: "I have no explanation for your excessive fatigue." Sometimes, even bad news is better than no news. So it's back to the drawing board.

Over Fifty Singles
Birds of a Ruffled Feather

I am part of several special communities: show folks; cancer folks; depressed and bipolar folks. Our common struggle helps us find our own strength. Well, I find I am part of yet another tribe: divorced folks. Being over fifty and single can feel like you've been dropped onto another planet where the inhabitants are all strange creatures who are at once suspicious and fearful of one another. Nothing works the way it did when you were dating in your twenties. I am finding friends and even, Lord, help me, a "singles group," where we aren't on the make, just hanging out together, learning how to be whole people again. When I was first alone, I thought life would never feel real again until I'd found someone to hug and kiss and share breakfast with. But I'm starting to think that there it might be a good thing to spend some time becoming a person I can love instead. Sounds profound? Trust me, it's a work in progress.

Just Keep Learning

The first half of my year was dedicated to professional development. I read, traveled, took classes, and earned certifications that have made me a better qualified, (and better paid,) teacher and fitness trainer. For the rest of 2015, I am investing in my artistic life. When I was 10 years old I started singing in church, "impressing the grown-ups." Unfortunately, the ego boost turned into a kind of neurotic arrogance that refused to accept any criticism of my voice. I had several teachers who tried to help me, but I always balked, terrified that this one thing I did really well might not be perfect. But life is the best teacher of all. If you can get to your fifty-fifth birthday without learning humility, you have wasted your life. So, I have found a vocal teacher. After all those years, I am finally learning to sing. I don't know how this will turn out. Maybe I'll never be good enough to impress anyone but the people in the pew in front of me at church. But who knows? If I can become a marathoner and an aerobics teacher, there's no telling what other surprises I might have inside me.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Let it Go... Let it Be...

Just a quick thought: I have never been able to wrap my mind around the idea of "let it go," when something bad happens (whether in real life, or in my imagination.) But what if I change that to "let it be?" Let the pain be what it is. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Hearts take time to heal, and nothing I can do will make that happen any faster. But sadness can not keep me from living a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. I can let it be what it is: a temporary emotional state. It will pass, like traffic on the highway or water in the river, and some new feeling will take its place. I have never been any good at letting go of hurt. But maybe I can let it be, and bring it with me as I live a life that is about the things that matter to me.