Happy Fourth of July

The Star Spangled Banner, Currier and Ives, undated.

In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 77% of Americans correctly identified Great Britain as the country we declared independence from on July 4. Fewer (70%) knew that we did so in 1776.

Aside from what that says about our “informed electorate,” it’s a shame because history, in all it’s messy complexity, becomes more fascinating to me as time goes on.

I was not that interested in colonial American history until I came upon Benson Bobrick’s superb history of the revolution, Angel In the Whirlwind, 2011. In contrast to the present, Bobrick notes that colonial citizenry was generally well informed on matters of politics.

Lest we grow nostalgic for such “good old days,” when (white) men were men, and nobody else had any rights, we can look at another fascinating history, Drinking in America: Our Secret History, by Susan Cheever. We learn that the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 may have been fired by a farmer who was three sheets to the wind. The “minute men” had gathered at 5:30 that morning, at the tavern on Concord green, and by the time the British arrived more than four hours later, they had downed a fair amount of ale.

In a related tidbit, Bobrick says the original duty of congressional pages was to keep the beer steins of our legislators filled. Since reading that, I’ve wondered how many brewskis John Hancock had downed when he famously said, “I’ll sign my name so large that King George will be able to read it without his spectacles.”

This Fourth of July finds most us, I suspect, without the stomach for the usual flag waving piety. Piety is a siren song that traps us into believing our own PR and turning away from difficult questions, and nothing else will serve in times like these. For individuals, tribes, political parties, and nations, there are times when things fall apart. Such crossroad periods end with movement, either toward renewal or destruction, and a key determining factor seems to be a willingness to search for and accept the truth.

This is a time to ponder the words of truth-tellers. I’ve been thinking about this week’s buzzword, “civility,” and realizing that it’s much more than being “nice” or “polite” or “politically correct.” It’s nothing less than a pre-requisite for hearing the truth.

Buried in the paper on September 12, 2001, was a statement by Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn, a champion of peace and the truth in the world for more than five decades. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he said, “We will not have peace with the people who did this until we are willing to sit down and ask them why they hate us so much.” After nearly 16 years of constant warfare, with no victory or exit strategy in sight, it is worth remembering his words. As none of our leaders show an inclination to do so, guess what the future holds in store?

Seeds for the divisions that are tearing our nation apart were planted even before our current middle eastern wars, though I think they’re related. Another truth teller, Jimmy Carter told us in 1979 where American Greatness lies and what can destroy it:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.  Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.  But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Unless we as individuals and as a nation, including our elected leaders and their moneyed overlords, are willing to sit down and really listen to each other, things will get more and more dysfunctional. It feels like a worldwide transition is underway, and an unsustainable way of life is ending. Historically, such endings and new beginnings occur at times of disaster, war, pestilence. Are such hard landings inevitable?

I like to think not. I like to think that if enough of our leaders had the wisdom and genuine faith of Jimmy Carter and Thich Nhat Hahn, we as people of America and earth, could steer toward a new course, healthier for the the planet and all its creatures.

I’m not optimistic. With our opportunistic leaders, in a nation where a quarter of us don’t know who we fought in our revolution, I’m afraid it will take more disasters to chasten us enough for any kind of concerted, positive action.

So Happy Fourth of July!  Enjoy the day and your family. Have another hotdog or slice of apple pie. I fear that before long we may look back on these as the “good old days,” and remember how good we had it on July 4, 2017…

Signs of difficult times

March for Science, Sacramento, CA, April 22, 2017

It’s clear that a war for the soul of the nation is underway. The March for Science on Saturday reminded us that the stakes are even higher than that. I snapped this photo because I liked the right-hand sign, “Science – Because you can’t just make shit up.” Only later did I notice the sign to the left – “All Life on the Planet is Counting on US.”

That evening, I noticed a Denver Post article: junior Trump is off to Montana to help a GOP special election candidate by joining him in a prairie dog hunt. Greg Gianforte, the congressional candidate said, “What can be more fun than to spend an afternoon shooting the little rodents?” Apparently, real men think it’s fun to kill the animals during the season when the females nurse their young.

Prairie dogs are considered “agricultural pests,” and ranchers kill them because they damage crops. They are, however, listed as “a species of concern” by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks because their numbers are in decline.

The Humane Society of the United States has condemned the hunt, noting that prairies dogs are a key species in the ecology of the great plains, and “more than 100 other animals depend on the prairie dog as food or move into the burrows they dig.”

In response to HSUS concerns, congressional-hopeful, Gianforte says, “Clearly they’ve never shot a prairie dog. They don’t know how much fun it is.”

Think about that. Think about Gandhi’s words, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Gianforte’s opponent in the May 25 special election is Rob Quist, a popular musician. Who would you rather have in congress – who is more likely to move our country to greatness – a creative artist or someone who thinks killing small creatures is fun?

There are likely to be opportunities for online contributions to Quist’s campaign as the election approaches. I plan to give as much as I can.

The current president and all of his minions and congressional lapdogs represent the greatest threat to the physical, spiritual, and ecological health of this nation of my lifetime. Nothing is more important than resisting their agenda as vigorously as possible and removing them from office as soon as we can.

Notes from 2017 – A New Year

believe-everything-you-think-small

At midnight tonight, something changes – in our minds, and nowhere else. It’s like a graffiti artist once wrote on a step of the local library: “Time does not exist, only clocks exist.”

That could be a Buddhist aphorism, like the image of my all time favorite bumper sticker pictured above. Through Buddhist contemplative practice, we come to experience that the contents of our consciousness – the thoughts, emotions, concepts that shape our reality – are fluid and insubstantial. Like rainbows. Like state lines.

State lines exist because legislators, surveyors, and highway departments put signs saying things like “Welcome to Oregon,” at certain points in the landscape. The mountains and rivers and deserts know nothing of state lines, but I need to. The speed limit drops in Oregon, and I’ll get a ticket if I ignore that gap between consensual and ultimate reality.

Today I am thinking of Joseph Campbell who called out one of the core abstractions that separate people. In the last episode of The Power of Myth series, Campbell said the view of our beautiful planet, photographed from space, might well serve as an emblem of the religion of the future.

Image converted using ifftoany

Not anytime soon, I’m afraid. The Power of Myth was released in 1988, a time of optimism and economic expansion. In our current era of fear and economic decline, nationalism, fascism, xenophobia, and class warfare are becoming the new normal. No national or state boundaries are visible from space, but we, collectively, are killing each other over such abstractions, both with weapons and legislation.

I’d love to have started this post with, “Happy New Year,” but I don’t think that’s very likely. Nobody really believes it. There isn’t much “Happy days are here again” in the air. There’s too much bullshit online these days so I won’t add to it. Not for the first time will I say that I think the road ahead was accurately painted by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 poem, Dover Beach. In the last stanza he said:

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

More than 100 years ago, Arnold saw our world as struggling through the death throes of a dying age and the birth pangs of a new one. That labor continues.

I hope you and your loved ones survive and thrive in 2017.

Notes on Saint Stephen

100-saint-stephen

Today, December 26, is known as Saint Stephen’s Day, and in the UK, as “Boxing Day.” I’ve never understood the latter term – nor does Wikipedia, which says, “There are competing theories for the origins of the term, none of which are definitive.”

Saint Stephen was the first Christian martyr. A young and zealous deacon in the early church, he was tried for blasphemy. After denouncing the authorities who sat in judgement upon him, he was stoned in the year 34. Saul of Tarsus, who later became Saint Paul, famously held the cloaks of those who threw the stones.

The word, “martyr,” has lost much of its meaning through overuse. Now we use the word for someone who complains a lot. In church history, a few of the early martyrs seemed to choose their fate. There are stories of judges who said, “Look, if you just shut up, I’ll let you go,” but they wouldn’t. They believed that this literal following of Christ was a fast-track ticket to heaven.

The last thing the world needs now is religious zealots of any variety – those willing to use physical or legislative violence to try to destroy other people’s freedom to believe what they want to believe. Atrocities committed in the name of God – any God – are especially heinous. I suspect that much of that sort of violence, like politically motivated violence, boils down to fear. If my self-knowledge is so shallow that I don’t really know where I stand, then a contrary opinion that threatens my world view must be discredited or or silenced.

There are ways other than projecting my views onto some vengeful God. The Dalai Lama, one who humbly but joyously lives by the words he speaks, has said, “We could do without religion, and we could do without ritual, but we cannot survive without kindness.”

-Great words to remember on Boxing Day, which I’m pretty sure has to do with re-gifting rather than post-Christmas pugilism…

Notes from 2017 – Stille Nacht

“Stille Nacht” is Silent Night in German. On this night, 102 years ago, millions of young men in Europe lay shivering in trenches in northern France. The finest summer anyone could remember had erupted into the most violent war the world had seen. Longing for home, the German troops began singing Stille Nacht. British soldiers joined in with Silent Night. Before long, soldiers on both sides rose from their trenches to shake hands with “the enemy” and share cigarettes, cookies from home, bottles of wine, and song.

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

British and German soldiers together, Dec. 25, 1914

This is the most moving modern story of Christmas Eve I know. But my subject this evening is not the song but Silence itself. At Solstice time, the earth itself pauses. Religious people of many faiths celebrate different holidays.The external busy-ness of the season stops, at least for a day, but I’ve learned from wise meditation teachers that the inner noise will continue unless we turn toward inner silence with intention.

Awareness of inner stillness and silence is the source of renewal and healing says Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master. “Silence has it’s own language.”

Anam Thubten Rinpoche, of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition tells students who come to him for advice to “Go back home and be quiet. Silence is wiser than our discursive minds.” Tibetan Buddhist practice can be extremely complex, but Anam Thubten gives this simple instruction:

“Meditation is the art of simply sitting in silence. Sitting means just sit, just rest, just let be. Let everything be as it is. When we know how to let everything be as it is, we then we don’t have to try and be some kind of divine terminator attempting to destroy the world of delusion and sorrow. The world of delusion and sorrow is already falling apart and disappearing on its own. It sounds simple but it is also subtle. We just let everything be just as it is. Once we know that, we know everything. We have unlocked the secret to enlightenment. To sit actually means just let everything be as it is, and let the world of ideas, concepts, and sorrow dissolve on its own, which always happens. This is the highest technique.”The Magic of Awareness.

Naturally the hardest part of that instruction is letting myself be as I am – abandoning all the self-improvement projecst, the “Oh, maybe I can blog about this” mentality, and all of that. “Rest,” says Tenzin Wangyal, is nothing less than “the doorway to our true nature.”

More of that in coming episodes. Meanwhile, as a Christmas Eve gift, here is a wonderful rendition of a beautiful Shaker song, by Yo yo Ma and Allison Kraus, a song the places our true nature at the center of this holiday, and all our days…

Notes from 2017 – The war on what???

Intruder Alert! St. Nicholas, by Thomas Nast

Intruder Alert! St. Nicholas, by Thomas Nast

Piety and commercialism, two unlovely attributes, are rampant at this time of year, so it’s time for my annual Christmas history post. If you search on “Christmas” here, you’ll find some interesting info on things like the Ghostly Christmas tree ship (Christmas Tree Facts and Legends), my grinchly rant on “Holiday music,” and most poignantly, the Christmas Truce, when to the chagrin of the generals, peace broke out on the western front on Dec. 25, 1914.

One thing you won’t find are notes on a “war on Christmas,” since there isn’t one. No one out here in the world cares whether you say “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Holidays.” But if you look back in history, you’ll find a number of instances of Christians waging war on Christmas. Consider that:

–Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas. Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, wrote that “only sinners like Herod and Pharaoh celebrate their birthdays.”

–Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas until the ninth century reign of Charlemagne.

–During the middle ages, the Feast of Epiphany was more important than Christmas, which didn’t really emerge as a feast until 1377, when Richard II held a months long blowout with his nobles. Twenty-eight oxen and 300 sheep were slaughtered for the event, which according to chroniclers, featured “drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling.” Early Christmas carols were sung, but they were bawdy.

–In 1645, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England, and the Mayflower pilgrims outlawed it in Boston from 1658-1681.

–The New York City Police Department was formed after a Christmas riot in 1828. We read on History.com that “The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season.”

–The “one percent” of the day responded with a campaign to transform a holiday long known for outlandish behavior into a commercial, family centered time, drafting the work of Thomas Nast, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving and others for the task.

–Victorian sensibilities focused on family and children, and it was only then, in 1870 that Christmas become a legal holiday in America. We’ve been led to believe we celebrate this day as it has been done for centuries, but that simply isn’t so (Humbug Revisited: A Brief History of Christmas).

I have no complaints about Christmas as a spiritual holiday, and it’s a great time to remember family and friends, but I do my best to ignore the cultural trappings. I boycott stores that force employees to work on Thanksgiving. I celebrate “Buy Nothing Day,” instead of Black Friday.

I will end with an observation I once heard an Art History professor share on the iconography of Santa Claus.

Glance at the Thomas Nast illustration at the start of this post. If you saw this guy in your living room, you’d either unlock your gun safe or call 911. He’s looking for your liquor cabinet and fridge, as he carries a sack of loot boosted from the neighbors!

Now look at the “Jolly Old Elf” in this modern representation below – white hair and beard but a child’s nose! This is an infantilized Santa Claus! It may help to get parents of very young children out to Toys R Us, but I don’t think it does much good for the maturity level of the culture…

Happy Solstice everyone!

Santa with puppies, kittens, and the facial features of a child.

Santa with puppies, kittens, and the facial features of a child.

What’s coming to TheFirstGates in 2014?

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Thanks to everyone who visited this year, old friends and new.  Here are a few year end musings on where this blog may be going in 2014.   These are not resolutions.  Remembering Yoda’s words to Luke, “Do or do not, there is no try,” I don’t make resolutions.  These are sort-of-predictions, aka guesses, based on a line from a Grateful Dead song, “I can tell your future / just look what’s in your hand.”

In the case of theFirstGates, it should probably read, “look at what books are piled up on the table beside you.”  Looking at the titles in the stack, I predict more of the same, only new and (hopefully) better.

I’m currently reading a book I got for Christmas, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales.  The key word is complete – I haven’t read all the tales before.  The other great feature is the Arthur Rackham illustrations.  No one has ever painted Faerie like Rackham, and it’s a place I never tire of visiting.

Another new title is Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde.  Not only is Trickster an ongoing object of fascination, but he pervades blogging just like the rest of life.  I’m reminded of this every time I hit Publish while meaning to click on Save.

And perhaps most important for TheFirstGates, I’m rereading The Dream and the Underworld, one of James Hillman’s important early works.  Here he turns the tables on psychology’s habit of translating the night world of dreams into the language of daylight; serving the ego, in other words.

Dream and the Underworld

Instead of asking what a dream means, Hillman asks what it wants.  This shift is fundamental to all of Hillman’s thought – psychology, the science of the psyche, in service to soul and soul-in-the-world.

Of great interest to me as a blogger is Hillman’s effort to see through literal events to the fantasies, the mythical layers that underly the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we see on the evening news.  The reality in our fantasies and the fantasy in all our realities.

The coming year is unique in one respect: 2014 marks the centennial of the start of that worldwide disaster misnamed “The Great War.”  The first world war has haunted me for years with its end-of-an-age immensity and sadness.  There are millions of stories to tell, and I’ll try to post a few here, from the bumbling youths who sparked the conflict to a young lieutenant named Tolkien who was sent to Mordor in 1916, though the generals called it The Somme.

And finally, as always I will continue to be on the lookout for those stranger-than-fiction events that leave us shaking our heads, wanting to laugh or cry or both at the strangeness of it all.

I wish you all a joyous New Year, and I hope we will all continue to share the emerging wonders of this online experience!