Monday, November 03, 2008

Morning in Chicago

I am attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, held at the Chicago Hilton Towers, a sprawling old hotel. I haven’t had much chance to stay in my room because I have been walking and walking the halls and exhibit areas making connections with people and trolling for ideas for journalists and publishers. When I am finally in my room at long day’s end, I don’t sleep well. Yet this is not that bad a situation.

I can look east out the windows of my ninth-floor room and reflect on and admire Lake Michigan and Chicago’s well-planned lakeshore, or I can look south and watch traffic industriously flow and lights turn green and red in coordinated sequence. Right now, the day before the 2008 presidential election, I also have a bird’s eye view, quite literally, of the big tent in Grant Park where presidential candidate Barack Obama, my senator, and 65,000 supporters are planning to party like it’s 2008 tomorrow night. It will be a celebration, or not, although the odds and polls favor the former. The big white tent complex looks like a scene from Camelot. Is it OK to say that, I asked a colleague in describing the tent, wondering if I could invoke the Kennedy-era mystique.

Is it OK to say that Wednesday will be a new morning in America? That’s a Reagan phrase, and would definitely not be associated with the Obama camp. But regardless of who wins, Wednesday will be a new morning. I think of it as literally, and metaphorically, true, prompted to this observation because I watched the sun rise this morning over the Obama party tent. It was a deep pink rectangle peeking out of a grey-blue bank of dawn clouds that sat at the horizon. The sun rose; well, of course, it does that every day. Every day is a new morning, a fact of life and nature always taken for granted and never taken for beautiful unless one takes the time to stop and look, Or one happens to be on the ninth-floor of a lakefront hotel. Or one happens to be finishing up the graveyard shift. Or one happens to be a student finishing an all-nighter. Most people don’t pay attention to a new morning, but it happens every day like clockwork.

I am looking forward to a new morning on Wednesday. These are not the greatest times for America. People are losing jobs, losing savings. The call for change resonates very powerfully in these circumstances. It could be also that people have been losing hope. I haven’t. I know I can’t afford to lose hope; I’m not sure anybody can. When something is really lost, you don’t even know it’s missing.

Since I was awake early, I got up and watched the sunrise. That seemed like an excellent time, and place, to pray: I hope it is a very new morning on Wednesday. God, please let my candidate win, I prayed. God doesn’t vote, but I will, doing my itsy-bitsy part to bring about the outcome I pray for. I was going to say do my part in bringing about God’s will, but I’m not sure I can say that either without being misunderstood. All I really mean is my vote counts in the larger scheme of many millions of votes, and it’s supposed to be a heck of a vote turnout. There are large forces at work.

I look forward to voting and I look forward to a new day on Wednesday. I will take neither of those for granted and continue hoping.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beautiful and poisonous

The garden died in the season's first hard freeze last night. One thing that stands out in my late garden when all else grows weary is monkshood, a late bloomer, and I love late bloomers. This year I had several strong stems of this regal blue flower. Someone asked me about it and I had forgotten that it's poisonous. I won't harvest it, but I will enjoy as this tall delphinium-leafed specimen makes a last stand in the late autumn, after everything else has packed up its summer glory. I wonder if there is a connection between being a monk and being sinister. Could make a good sequel to The Da Vinci Code --- Monkshood, or, Intrigue in the Garden.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

How life works in the garden

Picking green beans a little past their slender prime this morning, I had to give a wide berth to a humungous spider. Humunguous enough to see greenish-yellow stripes on its underside, and fine hairs on its long legs. A small yellow jacket got too close and landed in the web. The spider was on it in a flash, throwing out silk and rapidly rolling its helpless prey. Done. The yellow jacket wiggled a little in its spidery straitjacket. Then the webmaster approached and bit, letting out venom to paralyze the prey. Spiders, it seems, grow more common at the end of season. I should be grateful for their help in keeping down the insect population. In looking to understand what I saw, I read that spiders are nature's physicists in how accurately they construct their webs. This science major was an argiope (rhymes with calliope) spider.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Oprah picks Shakespeare

The new book club pick The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is inspired by Hamlet. And it's 576 pages. I can't wait.

Monday, September 08, 2008

O's kickoff

I use a sports metaphor because she opened her 23rd season with the American athletes from the recently concluded Beijing Olympics in one of Chicago's very nicest settings, Millennium Park in the city's downtown. Mayor Daley (shown in the audience, at his first Oprah taping) must have loved (enough) the idea of showcasing Chicago as the welcoming and world-class host for the 2016 Summer Olympics. You can't pay Oprah to endorse what she doesn't want to endorse, but her home city is one of her favorite things, presumably. All those cheering people and a big balloon drop made me think of two other crowds of people and balloon drops I've seen in the past two weeks, namely, the party conventions. O's audience was the one that truly put country first. Unlike the partisan shows, Team USA brought us together.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Catching up with Oprah

OK, she gets to take the summer off, so I only checked in on the OShow occasionally. But meantime the Soul Series on XM Radio has had a steady stream of guests, and it's clear to me that she's switched media for dispensing spiritual advice. I had a conversation with someone who listen to O's show on XM, and that started me thinking. The TV show has a certain demographic/audience that has to be different -- more mainstream -- than the radio demographic/audience. Talk radio has very distinctive, niche-y audiences. Oprah seems to have figured this out somewhat late, but that's probably because she was busy making billions on TV. The Soul Series is, in its own words, "talk radio that stimulates your brain and feeds your soul." Eclectic, holistic health-oriented, prosperity-oriented, with a dose of brain science and Buddhism. Oprah is far from her Christian home, but so are many Americans, and some come from different homes. More later.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

More green adventures

The Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford were an hour's drive (and gas is now under $4/gallon). They are walkable and shaded, with lots of lovely hardscape, from boulders to bridges to tea houses. The 12-acre site has pools and an impressive waterfall (a 20 foot steel wall supports it), so the sound of water is often in the background as you walk. The koi seem pretty Americanized -- some looked obese. Garden founder John Anderson often did business in Japan, and was inspired to develop this after seeing the wonderful Portland Japanese garden . Anderson is now the #1 ranked Japanese garden in the U.S. and Europe, according to the Roth Journal of Japanese Gardening . I could have stayed there all day, but instead we finished the day by using the Rockford Park District bike trail that runs along the Rock River, since the weather was good for biking. That trail was a lot less crowded than what we might have encountered had we instead chosen to go into Chicago for a lakefront ride.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another green vacation day

I haven't been to the Morton Arboretum in the Chicago area for many years. A museum for trees is a wonderful concept, and offers markedly different walks and views than your average museum, which frequently houses the dead and/or inanimate. Only God can make a tree, poetically opined Joyce Kilmer, and the arboretum collects them in bunches, organized by taxonomy (maples, oaks), geography (plants of Europe, Japan, etc), landscape (acid, dwarf woody, etc). The place seems bigger than 15 years ago, and environmentally friendly parking lots are among newer features that promote friendship with Mother Earth. We caught the tail end of a theater-hike playing Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm at various locations on the grounds. The mosquitoes did not cooperate, but the weather smiled. And summer prairie flowers were in high season.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I met a woman from Burundi

Florence Ntakarutimana is doing astounding and courageous work in Rwanda with the program Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities, sponsored by Quaker groups including the African Great Lakes Initiative. I missed her talk to our whole Illinois Yearly Meeting but learned from her in worship sharing. HROC brings together Hutus and Tutsis to acknowledge the trauma that the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s brought to so many, mourn it, find appropriate ways to express anger and rebuild trust. Forgiveness is not necessary, though it could happen. Florence speaks four languages: Kinyarwandan (the language of Rwanda), French, English and Swahili. The theme of our annual yearly meeting, and hence of the worship sharing, was reconciliation. Florence prays and she listens. That's how she does her work. Her faith impressed me.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Green vacation, day one

This year no 3,000 mile drives to northern Maine. My family and I are doing day trips and using public transportation. We drew up a list of places around Chicago that will delight and edify. Yesterday's destination: Starved Rock State Park near Utica. Starved Rock is formed of St. Peter sandstone, which is pretty soft as rocks go. In the canyons you can see the layers that have been worn through as you inspect the rock walls. (The picture looks like LaSalle Canyon.) It had rained the day before, so the waterfalls and streams were running verdantly well. Andrew's good eye spotted a cedar waxwing. Also a tiny snake that stuck its tiny tongue out at us, two deer in a roadside meadow, many millipedes on the march, a blue butterfly. The flowers were stunning: yellow iris, native columbine, jack-in-the-pulpit, spiderwort, pinks, wild geranium. Small sunny patches in the forest held bouquets of late spring flowers. The kids explored and got wet, the adults named things. It took an hour to get there, a green place to visit in a green way.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The appearance of the bull

changes once you enter the ring. That also comes from Johns Hopkins ethicist Thomas Finucane, whom I heard speak. A friend's father is coming to terms with the end of his life, and is hospitalized. She reports he said this: Do you want to die? hospital staff had asked him, seeking to ascertain his wishes. No, he responded. Do you? Only the terminally unhappy volunteer to leave, and their judgment is not sound.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What I'm reading

When The World Was Young. By Tony Romano.

I remembered a good review of this novel and was happy to find myself at the same table with the author during this year's Society of Midland Authors banquet. It's about the Peccatori family in the 1950s on Chicago's West Side, six kids, mom and dad, zio and zia. My Latin is rusty but I do know that the family's last name is related to the word for sin. It's so '50s Chicago ethnic Catholic I can just about smell the food at the beef stands referred to. Ain't nuthin like an Italian beef sandwich. (Some of us Polish kids preferred Italian beef to Polish sausage. ) It reminds me of home, of Catholic school uniforms, bungalows and hanging out after school. Nicely vivid.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Make way for ducklings

While riding my bike this morning on the Gilman Nature Trail I hit the brakes to watch the passage of the first duck family I've seen this year. Mama duck was leading eight wee ducklings who looked so alike and stuck so close together I couldn't quite count them as they waddled in her wake. 'Tis the season for bird birth. Also seen pathside as spring ripens here in suburban Chicago: a wild geranium in pale purple bloom, rabbit running across the trail, an egret simply standing around in a pond. I may not be in Colorado or Oregon on vacation, but this bike trail grows lovelier the more I ride it, and it's less than 5 minutes from my house.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Spiritual direction points the way inside

The English language (and probably most others) has few good words for the processes that happen inside us: thinking, feeling, sensing. One process that doesn't have a very nuanced language is healing. Sure, we know the process of healing from physical wounds, because science has given us words that describe what's going on. But psychological trauma is relatively less understood. So people with PTSD and awful childhoods and genocide survivors and other experiences that have hurt them are the walking wounded, only they don't have bandages or crutches.

This is by way of introducing a spiritual therapeutic technique I ran across while hunting for story ideas and investigating spiritual direction. Visio divina sounded intriguing; it's a particular type of contemplative prayer practice that can happen in spiritual direction. Spiritual director Karen Kuchan says visio divina might be especially helpful for younger adults -- Gen X -- who as a generation have very good BS detectors and also a deep longing for authenticity, that is, the real McCoy beyond slogans, commercials, and clay-footed idols.

Visio divina involves the use of internal images during contemplation. As Kuchan describes it in an article she wrote for Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction , it's a time of silent opening to the presence of God, which prompts an emotional experience -- what is called cataphatic, or experience- or emotion-based, as opposed to apophatic, the wordless contemplative space that Buddhist meditation teaches. She also suggests that the contemplative process that includes three "persons" -- spiritual director, client (I hate the word "directee") and God -- "reflect the inner life of God imagined in the Trinity. " This is hard to understand at first blush, but I find the notion that God is a process more intriguing than imagining the relationships among an old guy with a white beard, his son and their pet bird.

I hesitated to write about this because it really is hard to find the words for something so internal. Psychology has a very good language for it. But psychology generally doesn't traffic with religion, thanks to Herr Doktor Freud and others who have found religion an illusion. It's up to the mystics of religion and spiritual directors such as Kuchan. Maybe Quakers too. Sitting in silence for an hour at meeting has given me lots of practice in waiting for God, which holds much more promise than waiting for Godot.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

For my absent daughter, on Mother’s Day

Today, while folding laundry you had left behind, I found myself in your room, puzzled. I opened your drawers and I didn’t know where to put things. Where did you get these socks? Hmm, where does the underwear go? What nice pants – how come I’ve never seen them?

Time was, I knew everything you wore. I picked it out, paid for it, put it on you, washed it in baby laundry soap so it wouldn’t irritate your skin, wrote thank-you notes to those who gave you clothing as a gift. I remember those days; they were not all that long ago.

Now you are 19, away at college, and you’ve just spent three days by your all-alone self in the wilderness. Sure, it wasn’t that far from home, but you had to sleep alone, walk alone, get yourself there and back again, cook, put up your little tent house, and trust to the rangers and the stars. I know you took my car, but how did you get there? How did you grow so far and go so far? I am so glad you did. I am so glad you will come back. You will return and tell me your adventures, your travels, your studies, your thoughts, your problems. I am sorry I missed you after you returned. I had some obligations of my own. I look forward to your news, your life. I gave you life, and there you go, running with it, my runner.

The year my own mother died – your Grandma Zdun – I had my first Mother’s Day alone. Today is not my first Mother’s Day alone in our family, in this generation. Your little brother is still home, and I get to take care of him. You also were away once before, off on another journey, that one to Mexico, to learn another language, find another family. You did both of those tasks so well. You also helped me get ready for many Mother’s Days to come, by leaving the nest. I’m glad you will come back.

The year my own mother died, I wrote a very good piece about mothers and children, about being left alone, about death and life and noticing what is taken for granted. I spent days at my mother’s house; I didn’t recognize her clothes, but I recognized her habits. I didn’t recognize your clothes, but I recognize your habits: the way you fold things, which you have taught me. You are teaching me things. You have always taught me things, from second one of day one, your birthday, when you slid out of my womb and they put you on my chest and said, it’s a girl. My daughter. I’m your mom. You have been leaving me since the day you left the sanctuary I provided in your very earliest days, the womb. Keep going. You’re headed in the right direction.

It’s hard to let you go, though, so I’m glad you will come back. Come back as often as you can, as often as you need. Your dad and I will be here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The stranger the better

This counterintuitive idea was the theme of the sermon at the church I dropped in on yesterday because it was too nice to drive an hour to my meeting. Worshipping locally has several good things going for it, and yesterday the benefit was guest preacher Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. Explaining and then applying the multilevel system of rabbinical interpretation used in reading the Hebrew Bible, she argued that an interpretation style that argues with the text makes us better equipped to deal with differences in general -- with diversity, with lack of agreement, with lack of commonality. We go beyond the literal and obvious and look more deeply that way. It's a big idea to pack into a Sunday morning homily -- more like Sunday school with a good teacher.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Boy, do I wish I had written this

I cried with laughter after reading The Onion's "Oprah Launches Own Reality."

Monday, April 14, 2008

We have a deeply held desire

to not be dead. This according to ethicist Thomas E. Finucane at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Finucane ought to know, since he is a geriatrician and so has undoubtedly seen how strongly humans cling to life. I heard him last week during a seminar about longevity put on by the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism . Life looks a lot better as we get closer to leaving it, was his wonderfully succinct point. This becomes easier to understand with age, of course. It also explains the stories I've heard from people waiting for (mostly) loved ones to die, a process that often takes a while as the light of life dims.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Watch your language

This week I'm at a Knight Center for Specialized Journalism seminar on aging. Or do you say longevity? How are we supposed to talk about old people? A number of speakers have talked about the inadequacy of the terms we use, usually "senior" or -- yikes -- "elderly." I've heard "pre-elderly," too. We in journalism lead and follow the culture with respect to language. We create trends and/or wake up to them. The aging we have always had with us, only pretty soon there will be more of them in this country as a percentage of the population (20 percent by 2025 will be over 65). A little word we unconsciously use about people who are older and doing things we don't normally associate with being old: ah, he's 82 and still playing virtuoso violin. The verbal culprit is still, because it bespeaks our values: we don't expect this to be happening when somebody is 82. Well, we are in the process of changing our expectations of what people who are older can do, because people who are older are also healthier than ever before. We shall see what they can still do. Thanks to Abigail Trafford, author of My Time and a veteran journalist, for this fine point about language.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Press three for a list of the ways technology has not improved our lives

My cell phone had run out of juice, so I had no way of knowing whether the person for whom I waited half an hour had called me to say she would be late or simply couldn’t make it. I was waiting, primed to tell her all about my bad day. A collection agency has repeatedly been calling me for the past two months looking for my husband, who unfortunately has a common name. So he is occasionally mixed up with others who share his name, though not necessarily his habit of paying bills on time. Last time a mix-up happened, we ended up with a free subscription to an art museum. This time we, or I should say I, have been the less than happy recipient of persistent phone calls to a phone listed in my name only looking for a deadbeat who shares my husband’s name.

Since my husband and I pay our bills on time, I’ve never had an up close and impersonal encounter with a bill collector. If it weren’t so unpleasant, I might feel sorry for the people who do that sort of work. As it stands, however, I do feel irked about the following, and please listen carefully, as our menu of annoyances is long and has recently changed:

Being called once a week by an automated dialing program (“Hel-lo! I’d like to speak to Will-ee-um the Five Hundred Nel-son! If-you-are Will-ee-um the Five Hundred Nel-son, press one!”)

Hearing a bizarrely perky electronic voice ask for my husband by a bizarre nickname (“the Five Hundred”?) that isn’t his, a nickname I can’t be entirely sure of because the bizarre electronic voice isn’t entirely clear (Is there anybody out there whose nickname really is “The Five Hundred?” They’re looking for you, pal, and they’re not the type to give up.)

Not being given an option to say the collection agency is making a mistake (“Press sixteen if we have the wrong household and this deadbeat doesn’t live here”)

Not being believed after I press option 1, even though I am not “The 500” deadbeat, to tell them they are making a mistake

Being asked for my husband’s birth date, the last four digits of his social security number, the other telephone number our household uses, and the quality of our marital relationship (“Are you still married to him? Why don’t you ask him why he’s using your telephone number?”)

Being told that I need my husband’s permission to discuss the details of what the collection agency is calling about (“Hel-lo! We’re calling your phone repeatedly to reach your husband even though we never asked your permission! Press one if you think this is absurdly sexist! Press two if you think this might be harassment!”)

Having to spend time online reviewing my husband’s credit history, itself a tediously detailed tour that stretches back for years (“Gosh, what the heck did I buy in March 2004 that cost that much?”) and includes credit cards you no longer use, plus several chances to refuse offers from three different credit bureaus for newsletters you don’t want that will give you advice on financial sobriety

Finding a mistake and having to open lots of pop-up windows to figure out how to correct it and praying I don’t close the wrong window since I can only see my credit history for free once a year

Not having the computer hooked up to the printer so I can print out the credit histories (because there’s an annoying incompatibility between my laptop and printer that I have unsuccessfully tried for weeks to resolve)

Has anything like this ever happened to you? If so, press one if you resolved it; press two if you think technology is a hassle; press three if you know where Will-ee-um the 500 is.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I’m with him

The last time I can remember tears coming to my eyes about an American public event is 1986, when the Challenger shuttle exploded. It happened again this week, though, as I read the remarks of Sen. Barack Obama on race in America. Once again, I felt American.

Obama made me proud to be American, and his speech is not at all about how wonderful it is to be American. Obama acknowledges with eloquence that we got problems here, race problems, and have had them for centuries, since before the Mayflower. It’s a terrible history, and my temptation is to conjure up some of those crimes, in order to validate my white liberal guilt ticket once more.

But there’s more. The more is hope – as in the audacity of hope, the title of Obama’s popular book, a title he got from a sermon by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (I incidentally wish we could hear as many references to the sermon that originated the book as we have to Wright’s sermons that have discomfitted white people.) I don’t think of hope as na├»ve, or white, or black, or even Christian. I think of it as divine, necessary and definitely not cheap.

It’s only with hope that I can feel the energy necessary to tackle the difficult conversations needed if we as Americans are to acknowledge the burden of our racist history and how it is more or less present today – more present for those who feel disadvantaged by it, including those white people driven by resentment of perceived preferences based on race. Obama very rightly said that white people don’t experience white privilege, especially if they relate to the immigrant experience, which is one of hard work, not birthright privilege. That’s my own family’s frame of reference. I watched the Reagan coalition get built in my household of origin, as my working-class Polish-American father grew old, grew fearful that he would lose what security his hard work had provided, and grew into a Reagan Republican. Resentful white people can’t be guilt tripped about white privilege, and so the raising of consciousness about white privilege hasn’t exactly attracted them in Kansas, or anyplace else where people will vote their interests and these days their resentments.

Obama is as much white as he is black, a recognition that doesn’t get articulated very often, though it underlies the sentiment that he’s not “black enough.” And so Obama gets to articulate what is needful for both the black and white communities because he belongs to both. “White community” is itself a phrase worth noting – far less used than “black community.” (Try Googling it.) “White” doesn’t get used as frequently because it is the default in our majority-white society. But white people don’t see it. I first understood it when taking part in Community Study Circles, a race-relations discussion group. I’m not holier than the rest of white society, but I have been privileged enough to begin having the conversations about race that our society needs to have. It works better than either sweeping race under the rug or nursing resentments, even if stoking resentments opportunistically fires up a certain segment of the voting public.

So I’m with Obama. I think his hope is both audacious and realistic. Also very American. The way forward is together, but the arc of history is mighty long as it bends toward justice. I pray I live long enough to see hope trump hate.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Poor Oprah

Critics have taken aim at her new reality show The Big Give as crass and exploitive, however well-intentioned. She’s under attack from a vocal wing of Christian conservatives, armed with computers and emails, who say that her newest book pick, A New Earth, is blasphemous and spiritually dangerous. And A Course in Miracles, being taught by Marianne Williamson on the XM Radio show Oprah and Friends, is even more spiritually pernicious.

On the other hand … Oprah has made a career and fortune out of making tasty lemonade out of unlikely lemons. So let’s look at it from another angle.

Oprah is everywhere. You can’t escape her: reality show on ABC-TV Sunday, The Oprah Winfrey Show same network everyday, web cast that reached 139 countries as half a million people log on Monday nights to listen to Oprah and a soft-spoken, non-mediagenic German guy who looks and sounds like a college professor talking about consciousness. Then there’s Oprah and Friends on the radio. O smiling at you from the green March cover of O the Oprah Magazine as you stand in the checkout line at the grocery store. O’s reading club badge on 3.5 million paperback copies of Tolle’s book.

We could also go not much farther back and talk about Oprah on the campaign trail in December, the January announcement of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. The Oprah Store, a retail outlet in Chicago, opened in early February near Oprah’s Harpo Studios.

There are at least two ways to look at this: Oprah is successful way beyond her dreams, as she might put it, or there’s no escape from her if you don’t want to buy her message. Some people seem to love to hate her, since Americans love it when idols fall even as we wait for the next one to survive the cut and make it to the top. Maybe at least some of us feel as strongly or ambivalently about Oprah as we might about America: big, well-intentioned, sometimes mistaken. Some have compared her stature to God, but the more apt comparison may be America, the land of big hearts and big bottoms, hard work and strong opinions, optimism and shrewdness, curiosity and consumerism, and stuff to eat, drink, read and think about.

Oprah is America, and she’s a black woman who doesn’t much resemble Uncle Sam. She’s certainly a face of America in the 136 countries around the world where her TV show is broadcast. Those who criticize her language about God and spirituality invariably forget that her worldwide viewing audience uses different names for God. Just as one size doesn’t fit all, one word doesn’t fit all. Tailoring for a worldwide mass audience is tough.

So is teaching. Oprah is often a didactic entertainer, giving us lessons she really wants us to get. So in an online classroom she can dispense with some of the conventions of entertainment, get away with looking at the camera and talking at an audience, and go ahead and ask really intelligent questions. Unlike many, Oprah has a lot of faith in people’s basic intelligence. She’s picked challenging books and authors like Tolstoy, Faulkner and now Tolle. You can’t say she’s not ambitious.

You also can’t say she does not learn from mistakes. She abandoned the Jerry Springer style, trash-TV talk show format in the middle 1990s and chose a more edifying, and profitable, path. She made author James Frey sit under her wrath on network TV and apologized for her earlier defense of the A Million Little Pieces author accused of fabrication. She has even made fun of some of her own mistakes. After all, recanting makes for more shows.

So, Oprah may stumble here and there. But a woman who believes in The Power of Now, author Tolle’s earlier book, knows that “now” constantly changes. A lot of us are staying tuned, though not necessarily to reality TV or esoteric spirituality books. In the meantime, pass the lemonade.

Monday, March 10, 2008

There will be blood

A little more, anyway, since I gave at the blood center for my birthday. The malingering of winter and the flu season are depleting supplies in many areas. It's not hard to do, either.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What I'm reading

The Namesake. By Jhumpa Lahiri.
This story of immigration, assimilation and cultural dislocation really drew me in. For Indian-Americans, it will be explicitly significant, but as a Polish-American whose father was raised abroad and who moved up the economic ladder and changed classes, I shared the where-do-I-belong disorientation. The conflicting pulls of loyalty, love, duty and desire are rendered with great subtlety. The seductions of the New York life called my name some decades ago. What's most remarkable is her ability to present characters with sympathy but not indulgence. Gogol's wife makes awful choices. The names change, but the immigrant story remains as fresh and relevant as it has in America for centuries, literally.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Man with a red-state accent

I found Kareem Salama through a couple of hyperlinks off Beliefnet's Idol Chatter column. He is an Egyptian-American country and western singer raised in Oklahoma who provides the music for this video

about American Muslims which is charming and funny. What is equally refreshing is an interview he did on Fox News last year. He might convert me -- to country music.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

What I'm reading

Emotions Revealed. By Paul Ekman.

Psychologist Paul Ekman is a smart cookie who has worked with the Dalai Lama at the latter's Mind and Life dialogs. He's done cross-cultural research on the facial expressions that accompany emotions, so he can make the argument that some feelings and their outward show are universal. More interestingly, he shows that emotions are not experiences which we can control. We get angry when someone gets between us and a goal. Even babies do. All of which is to say, you can't try to not be angry. Anger has evolved as a useful response. I bet it was more useful before we had traffic gridlock. In the meantime there are things we can do about our emotional behavior. He talks about developing the habit of attentiveness -- know yourself. The book offers the empirical underpinning for the therapeutic process of working on our bad habits; not surprisingly, it is better at analysis than the how-then-shall-we-live part.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Giving up + taking on = shifting something

As a Quaker, I miss the liturgical calendar of the Catholicism of my youth. To everything there really is a season, including the third snow of the week just outside my window. Lent, which begins today, is a big deal for many Christians, especially Catholics. When I was little, we got little Lenten cans in which to save the money for the candy, or anything else, we gave up. The money went for missions. It was unfortunate spiritual pride that made me want to fill up my can: I gave up big time. Today I understand spiritual discipline, paradoxically enough, through my practice of Buddhist meditation and watching my awareness. Today I am highly aware of how difficult it is to work without a cup of coffee, since I am fasting. In doing some research on Lenten disciplines, I came across the idea that if Lent is about self-examination and self-discipline, one could also take on a practice instead of merely giving something up. I'm adding sacred poetry to my Lenten reading: The Soul is Here for its Own Joy edited by Robert Bly (doesn't sound very sacrificial, does it?) and (in a more orthodox vein) The Poetry of Piety edited by Ben Witherington and Christopher Mead Armitage, which really ought to have had T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual for only one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are ...

Friday, February 01, 2008

I'm in charge here

said Mother Nature before leaving in a windy huff after depositing 10 inches of snow that fell heavily in our driveway, street, schools, etc. At the feeder outside my window is one grateful nuthatch, sharing dining quarters with two chickadees. Our letter carrier seems happy that enough shoveling has been done on the block that he can do his work, come rain, sleet or however many inches of snow. At seven a.m., the view consisted of unbroken planes of white, but the plow has finally come through on the street. We routinely refuse to admit that weather always has the upper hand, although my sister the airline reservation agent will have a busy day today. I love having a grocery store four blocks away, though if I were as smart as all the old folks I saw in there yesterday afternoon, after the snow had begun, I wouldn't have had to return today. It's winter. What do you expect in Chicago ?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Oprah's new pick

No, it's not Hillary Clinton. I'll make hay another time about the correlation between Oprah appearances for him in Iowa and South Carolina and his victories there. Meantime there's a new book club pick, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. Number 38 already at O singled out The Power of Now a few years ago and thereby helped sell a few hundred thousand more. I interviewed Tolle in 2003 for Religion News Service when he published Stillness Speaks, which followed The Power of Now. You can read it here . He was then slightly reclusive, or at least not much given to lots of publicity. The O platform is quite the change. What I'm struck by is his use of "purpose" in his title. Post-Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, purpose got borrowed a couple times by other authors. Eckhart is an original, however, and so much more O's style than Warren. I'm staying tuned, and am in line for the webinar with him and O.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The birds got confused

Last week my husband and I enjoyed our annual retreat to Starved Rock State Park along the Illinois River near the town of Utica. During the winter on a weekday, the place is deserted and we can walk for miles without seeing anybody. We saw things we hadn't seen before, including LaSalle Canyon, with a semi-frozen waterfall. We could walk under the falling water; the rock area was iced and slippery. Equally awesome in a much different way was the flood covering the parking lot of the visitors center. The Illinois has been swollen by snow melt from our temperatures in the 60s in January. We saw park benches and picnic shelters sitting in the river water. We also didn't see things we usually see, namely, wintering bald eagles. Usually a dozen can be found roosting and fishing along the river. This year we saw one on the wing, disappearing. We asked at the lodge (a handsome building of WPA vintage, a memorial to truly useful public work) about the eagles. The birds got confused by the warm weather, someone told us, and were around, but not always.

Monday, January 21, 2008

On MLK Day: remembering the Chicago Freedom Movement

I was 13 the summer of 1966 when activists marched in my Chicago neighborhood, Belmont-Cragin on the city's northwest side. The demonstrators sought an end to slum housing and segregated housing patterns. I was much more interested in the Beatles; my vague memory is of marchers on Central Avenue, a few blocks from my home. I have no memory of the hostile reception the marchers received. Dr. King was in Chicago that summer; in one of the demonstrations, he was hit in the head by a rock hurled at him during a march in Marquette Park/Gage Park, on the city's southwest side. He said later that people from Mississippi should come North to learn how to hate.

The Chicago Freedom Movement is regarded by historians as a failure. Measured by its immediate effect on housing patterns, that's true. A seed fell in my heart, one heart, which is where freedom takes root (as well as in laws). I don't remember exactly when I began the habit of quizzing my parents whenever they used the term "colored" to describe black people -- what color ? Sure, it was obnoxious, and my father died a frightened white working-class Democrat defected to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan. But it made a difference to me, and in the next few years I volunteered for the brand-new Head Start program during the summer, and the Chicago Area Lay Movement (CALM) to tutor kids who lived in the south side projects on Lake Park.

A recent local newspaper column prompted me to look up King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
Its eloquence is breathtaking -- a man sitting in jail writes this. King could as easily speak for justice as he could write his own name: two habits. This is a radical letter that calls on us to be extremists for love ("Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness") and carefully explains the grounds for civil disobedience. Dr. King's image has been softened over time. But history is memory for those who were there. King was radical. The Declaration of Independence was radical in its time, too. Having missed the MLK special at the Church of Oprah this morning, I'm glad to have spent some time today reading this forceful letter.

Monday, January 14, 2008

At home beyond
I was saddened to learn that the Irish writer John O'Donohue, who had a bestseller several years ago with Anam Cara, died on Jan. 3. I loved his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace . It forced me to remember the beautiful in art and literature, especially poetry. O'Donohue was a poet, one of the few philosophers I can think of who transmuted the dry abstractions of philosophy into poetry: "our joy in the beautiful is as native to us as our breath," he wrote. I didn't realize he was an environmental activist as well as a writer, and a former priest as well (that part sure figures). Tributes at his site from people intimately familiar with him and his work are lovely. The last lines of Beauty:

As twilight fills night with bright horizons
May Beauty await you at home beyond.

Rest in peace, John O'Donohue.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

People just want to be heard

While doing some reporting at a preschool this morning (I like those tiny chairs, and the walls are always covered with pictures of animals like Wilma Walrus) I had occasion to talk to one of the children's parents. She is an architect trained in the Philippines. Somehow she started to tell me about her father's role in World War II, helping Americans find occupying Japanese soldiers, after the Americans shot her father's cousin, not knowing who or what they were dealing with when they first encountered the Filipino men foraging for food. The Philippines were an important part of the Asian theater in World War II -- it was that country to which Gen. Douglas MacArthur promised to return. Every person has a story, and this woman has a bookful. Listening is a great discipline.

The sun was shining -- the weather is unnaturally warm for January -- and another generation of four-year-olds is getting ready for kindergarten. At this stage in their lives everything is a lesson; both my 4-year-old subjects said the best thing about school was playing.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Holding Kenya in the light

Evangelical Christians say they "have a heart for" something that especially worries them. We Friends "have a concern." I have a concern for Kenya in light of the violence following the contested election there. Kenya has more Quakers -- 300,000 -- than any other country in the world. (The US has 200,000.) Kenyan Friends have visited us at Illinois Yearly Meeting, and that was spiritually refreshing. Because some of our members have ties to Kenyan Friends, including marital ties, we have access to more information about Kenya (another good blog is here) from people who are there in order to understand what has happened and, more importantly, why. This is helpful, and also hopeful. The press has not done a good job of providing any kind of context, another illustration of messed-up priorities.