Friday, July 23, 2021

Re: The Next Installment

 Our two South Dakota Senators were so happy as they announced the good news. The B21 Raider is coming to Ellsworth Air Force Base. They gave the usual rationale. It meant more recruits, more employment, more economic growth for the Rapid City area.

It’s interesting how one seldom hears any politician speak about the basic mission of Ellsworth and a new bomber, standing ready to deliver nuclear weapons on any deserving adversary. Nor will they address the moral or ethical issues of possessing, with the intention to use, nuclear weapons. It’s also amazing how ignorant many are who live in the heart of nuclear retaliation and annihilation. I recall speaking with a west river college student who spoke about partying with high school friends at missile sites, not knowing they contained nuclear tipped missiles. 

If ever there was bipartisan agreement on anything in Congress, just vote on the Defense Department budget. The result is always more, more, more; so now we spend more than half our national resources on war and preparation for war. Only a few here and there are willing to challenge the Military Industrial Complex (President Eisenhower’s title). Trump or Biden makes little difference. Both have supported the weapons industry and more specifically, the “upgrading” of our nuclear weapons to the tune of billions of dollars. The Pentagon is proposing at least $170 billion to modernize their nuclear weapons over the next five years.

So now we have the latest Air Force installment coming our way. Over the next few years the Air Force expects to order at least one hundred of these new stealth bombers, perhaps as many as 200. They are made to carry cruise missiles and thermonuclear bombs. As to cost, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), estimated in 2018 (in 2016 dollars), developing and procuring the first 100 aircraft would cost $80 billion. The CBO also estimated maintaining one Raider, capable of launching 10 Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missiles and capable of launching eight nuclear warheads would cost $40 million (in 2020 dollars) to maintain. You can do the math. $40 million times 100, simply for maintenance each year, in the hope they will never be used for their ultimate mission.

Northrup Grumman is the primary corporation engaged with the production of this new bomber. Seven other corporations are also major players. As usual, they are placed nicely spaced around the country for maximum affect on members of Congress, who will be able to brag about the economic impact this new system will have on their constituents.

Of course, we have a nuclear triad. B21 Raider Bombers are only one part of the trinity. According to the Defense Department, we need to “upgrade” our ground based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles over the next ten years for a cost of $300 billion. And the Navy and sea based part of the triad will need 12 new nuclear armed submarines, billing us $110 billion.

One place where we are certainly “number one” globally is in military spending. In fiscal year 2019 our Pentagon budget was three times larger than China and ten times larger than Russia. We accounted for 38% of all military spending worldwide.

People have said it in different ways. “You get what you give.” Or, “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” Or even, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We can’t be a warlord and not expect some blowback.  

Some of that blowback has happened to our bodies. It won’t be reported on the evening news, but according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “any person living in the contiguous United Sates since 1951 has been exposed to some radioactive fallout, and all of a person’s organs and tissues have received some exposure.” Ever wonder why cancer has blossomed over the years as our number one disease?

Talking to a west river rancher the other day, he was upset about the environmental pollution coming from Ellsworth. He and others like him are seeing the blowback. Aside from the noise pollution, there is now the problem of ground water pollution. The Air Force has training programs in firefighting using PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This has been going on at bases since the 1970’s, including Ellsworth. The rancher had me look up the story of Art Schaap of Clovis, New Mexico. Because the ground water has been polluted with PFAS from the nearby Canon Air Force base, Art’s cattle are poisoned and must be killed; his milk is poisoned and must be dumped; his hay is not

edible and his body and those of his family are impacted. The Air Force has been providing him with bottled water as the underground poisoned plume spreads. At Ellsworth, several homes are also being provided with bottled water for the same reason.

There are 4,000 Defense Department sites across the country. They are home to 39,000 contaminated sites, 141 of them on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of most polluted sites in the nation. As well, the military is the world’s top petroleum consumer and a significant producer of carbon emissions. One B1 bomber test run, with 20 tons of fuel consumed an hour (14,960 gallons), uses more petroleum than you or I will use in a year.

I saw a man yesterday with a T-Shirt that read, “Start bitching and start a revolution.” I’m bitching and want a revolution in values! Enough of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction)! Bring on the peace economy, Senators!

Carl Kline

Friday, July 16, 2021

A Certain Slant of Light

The house where I live is around 130 years old. It has loads of character from bygone days. In size, it started small, then grew like a family over time. Its exterior is covered with traditional stucco, painted brown. The stucco’s rough texture looks like heavy spattered mud. Together with the bittersweet vines climbing the walls, it gives the house an earthy feel.

You don’t see much traditional stucco here in South Dakota. It doesn’t hold up well in our extremes of hot and cold weather. The older it gets, the more brittle it becomes. It cracks and crumbles. Jihong and I didn’t know this when we bought the house, moving here from the more moderate climes of Ohio in 2000.

We’ve been patching ever since. And whatever we patch, we must paint. That was our family project, last weekend. Next time, we’ll invite you to help!

Painting such rugged stucco requires special long-nap rollers, more paint than you thought would be plenty, and your favorite remedy for sore muscles. (Not to mention sunblock and bugspray.) 

Even if you’re a meticulous painter, on this stucco you won’t manage to coat every bit of the surface. It’s too pitted. That’s one reason why you’ll notice surviving flecks of the cornflower blue paint that preceded the last layer of brown, and freckles of the bubblegum pink that predated the blue. (I’ve always wondered who picked those colors, and why.)

Settling on which shade of brown to paint the latest patch job is always an adventure. Each part of the house weathers differently. The brown stucco here isn’t the same brown as there, let alone over there. Or there.

You’ll pull your hair out, trying to match any of the browns. A gallon will look great while you’re rolling it on, but once it dries, it will turn out too red or too gray, several shades too light or too dark.

This used to drive me crazy. (Just ask Jihong.) But last weekend, instead of getting frustrated by our latest mismatch, I decided that I’m just fine, living in a house of dappled brown. Whatever its color, our house will always still be what it is—our homeplace. A blessed place, in which we dwell and thrive. We’ll keep it in good repair, until it’s somebody else’s turn to patch and paint it.

At one point last weekend, after I’d poured still more paint into my tray, I stood up and walked a ways off, stretching my back and legs. Suddenly I found myself in a magical spot. Brilliant sunlight was falling onto the side of the house just so, causing all the various shades of brown to disappear into one another. Together they formed a single new color that I couldn’t see from anywhere else— 

The house looked grand. All because of where I was standing. All because of my line of vision; a shift in my perspective. All because of the light.

Today, in the U.S., we’re celebrating Independence Day. The Fourth of July. A traditional day of flag-waving and picnics and ice cream and fireworks and, if we’re thoughtful, reflection upon the state of our nation.

Most countries, I suppose, have such a day. It’s only human to love the “house” in which we were born, or to which we’ve come to live.

America’s house has some age on it. Here and there, it’s brittle. It crumbles and cracks in extreme conditions. It’s in constant need of repair.

If we expect this house to be perfect, it’s our mistake. But it’s also our mistake if we don’t work together to perfect it.

So we patch. We paint. When we must, we tear out what’s weak and rotten and replace it with what’s sturdy and fine. All the way down to the foundation, we make sure that this dappled house is a place in which everyone can thrive.

Sometimes, amidst this hard and necessary labor, we suddenly find ourselves standing where a certain slant of light hits the house just so. And, for a moment, all its shades seem to meld to one another. Together they form something brilliant and new. The sight of it brings us up short. We have no words for it. We can’t see it from any other spot.

Then the light moves, or we move, and we’re back to dappled again—

But how beautiful “dappled” is, where the vision of unity lives.

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole Dai  

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, July 9, 2021

Elegy For Winthrop, Their LIght Upon the Water

In Memory of David and Ramona

The shootings seem far away, until they’re not. White supremacist violence has assaulted my hometown of Winthrop, Massachusetts, adding yet another place and its people to the national litany of sorrow and shame. I feel it deeply. I haven’t lived in Winthrop since I was eighteen, and my last Winthrop relatives died a few years ago, but a deep bond of memory and affection still joins me to the town by the sea where I grew up. The sea speaks to all who live in Winthrop, to each one in their own way of hearing, a shared metaphor in all of its ways and moods. Yet another explosion of hate, of racist violence that has taken the lives of two African Americans, this time in a place very familiar to me, the place of my earliest memories of both love and hate among neighbors. First, to say their names, David Green and Ramona Cooper. David and Ramona were killed on Shirley Street, a magical place in my childhood memories. My grandparents had a small store on Shirley Street for a time, the Beach Specialty Shop. A bit further down was Baron’s grocery store, then Appel’s kosher butcher store, and then Kaplow’s, owned by two sets of siblings, Izzy and Fannie, Sadie and Sam, the most wonderful store I have ever known, sawdust on the floor, a large pickle barrel, and a Franklin stove. It was all part of what seemed to me later to have been the Winthrop shtetl. There were also the two shuls, the “little shul,” which was Tifreth Abraham, and the “big shul,” which was Tifereth Israel.


The shootings and the ramming and destruction of a small house with a stolen truck – once the site of a corner store where we would stop for sweets on our way home from school – all happened on a quiet Saturday afternoon, on Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath, the mayhem playing out a short distance from the two shuls. In the Boston synagogue that my wife and I founded, Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue, the reading table comes from one of those shuls, the “little shul.” Our first Torah scroll comes from the other shul, the “big shul.” Our shul is joined with a timeless bond to Winthrop. From antisemitic literature found with the shooter, there is speculation that he may have been headed next to the shuls. First, he killed the two Black people he saw, David Green and Ramona Cooper, systematically sparing those of white skin encountered on the way.

I was stunned and shaken as I read the newspaper on the following Monday morning, more details filling out the story. I thought at first that there must be many Black people in Winthrop now, not like then when there were just a handful of Black families. I was trying to push away any possibility of personal connection to the dead, of knowing the victims. Images of a place and its people, memories held in the amber of time, shimmering as I looked at the photograph of David, something familiar in his warm, quizzical look. I began to read, soon trembling and then crying. When I read that David was a lifelong resident of Winthrop, I knew. I knew David’s family growing up. His older brother Ray and I were co-captains of the High School gymnastics team, that familial warm, quizzical look smiling from the pages of my high school yearbook. His father, whom my siblings and I knew only as Mr. Green, worked as a house cleaner and cleaned our house, as well as my grandmother’s and my aunt’s house. I remember having lunch with him at our kitchen table on days when I must have been off from school, always Mr. Green, the message not lost. Only now, in reading about this grieving family, have I learned that he was Ray Sr. The Greens lived on Shirley Street in a small red house between the two shuls, just down from the beach.

There was a tide of racism that pulsed just beneath the surface of our town in those days. There were times when it came without inhibition, unrestrained and harsh, like the waves that crashed over the Front Beach wall during a nor’easter. At other times it came more subtly, shrouded in a veneer of civility, bringing a sudden chill, like the fog that blew in from the sea. There were parts of town that were known to be restricted, where Jews and Blacks couldn’t live. In the year following my Bar Mitzvah, I would walk after school from Winthrop Junior High School to the post office, which was the town’s only federal building. Through that year, I stood in a vigil with an Episcopal minister, Rev. Bob Barnes, to urge passage of the 1964 Voter Registration Bill, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that has been cruelly and cynically eviscerated today. During that year, as the seasons turned, I heard words that I had never heard before, the hate unmistakable, though, as it was spewed from cars and passersby against Blacks and Jews. Most painful, was then to be back in school and hear the racist jokes and banter of classmates, an invidious reflection of what was heard at home. As the civil rights and anti-war movements found common ground, becoming for many part of one struggle, so too did opposition coalesce, hate and violence simmering just beneath the surface. I sat in the car and waited as my friend and mentor, Rev. Bob Mackie of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Rev. Barnes’ successor, went into the Elks Club building, seeking a town selectman who had been avoiding him in his application for a permit to hold a peace vigil. Rev. Mackie was visibly shaken when he returned to the car, having been threatened by the selectman, warned of “maybe a shot” through his window. The Elks building is across from the far ends of both Veterans Road and Shirley Street, where the violence has now played out.

Some fifty years later, shots rang out in Winthrop. The murders of David and Ramona are part of a pandemic of hate that is not unique to Winthrop. Of guns, guns so easily acquired yet again, the bullets that killed these two beautiful human beings were not of a hate spawned specifically in Winthrop, but spawned by the pandemic of white supremacist violence that is sweeping this land, that is carried deep in the American blood stream. It is the same virus mutated from way back then, just as lethal, but more visible to more people than the lynching, the shootings, the Jim Crow laws. Harder to avert our eyes, today’s violence is more visible to more people in more places, touching all of us more directly wherever we live. Still, the fog of avoidance and confusion rolls in unannounced, easy to loose our way, even as we nurture new clarity and hope.

The lighthouses that for centuries have guided ships home from just off Winthrop’s shore, their light upon the water, become the metaphor for us. My childhood bedroom was touched each night by their steady, rhythmic flashes of light. Winthrop has changed. It is clear in the words and tears of the people who are Winthrop today, heartbroken in solidarity and collective grief. It is clear in the words of town leaders, in there being such town leaders, who say that there is no place for hate in Winthrop. It is clear in the simple, homemade Black Lives Matter signs placed at makeshift memorials for Ramona and David. But the hate is still among us, felt by all of us because we are part of the greater whole that is America. As Winthrop has changed, drawing on the spirit of good people who have always been there, neighbors all, so too, we can all be part of a greater healing. We shall all be safe only when a vaccine of love and respect, of justice and peace, of gentleness, is cultured and injected through word and deed into the lifeblood of this country.

Going home to Winthrop to participate in a memorial vigil, the route into town is as familiar as yesterday’s walk to school, bringing a flood of memories and emotions. The winds of change in Winthrop are as clear and refreshing as the cleansing breeze that follows a storm. There is so much good, and yet avoidance and nervousness, it seems, to address directly the racism and hate that killed David and Ramona. Among all who spoke at the vigil, but for a brief reference to racism in a letter read on behalf of Ramona’s son in memory of his mom, there was no further mention of racism, or of white supremacy, or of gun laws, or of how what happened in Winthrop is part of a greater web of hate and violence. I am troubled. I struggle to understand, and yet to be understanding, to be compassionate, and wary of smugness. I keep waiting, but there is no such mention from faith and civic leaders. Perhaps, responding to the palpable collective grief, they feel called to fill only a pastoral role tonight, only to speak to the heart. Perhaps coming too near to the harsher truths and to the politics of redress and healing threatens a fragile construction of America still nurtured in the old hometown.

I sense a way of uncritical patriotism that is as simple and sincere as it is worrisome in its similarity to the way it was back then. At the same time, I am touched by a certain way of goodness, almost of innocence, in people’s unaffected sense of each other as friends and neighbors. In a moment of sorrowful reunion, Ray conveyed more hope than anger, telling of the good he saw in the wake of his immense personal loss, so moved by the outpouring of love and the coming together of people, hoping that would endure as his brother’s legacy. And yet, sitting on a bench near me during the vigil, an elder Black woman wept inconsolably, crying out in pain, her words and tears profoundly real in their expression of grief and its context. I took a few steps toward her, knelt down and took her hand in mine, trying to offer words of comfort. She whispered, “I’ve lived here for thirty years and no one knows what it was like for me, and now this.”

The shootings seem far away, until they’re not. “And now this.” As much as I try to identify with all of the places and people assaulted by racist violence, this one has touched me more personally. Gathering on the green in front of Winthrop Town Hall, there is no need to search for a permit. From where we stand in vigil, the old junior high school I attended is diagonally across the street to one side. Diagonally across the street to the other side, at the end of the short walk between, is the building that once was the post office, today the police station, where a thirteen year old Jewish boy recently become man stood alone with a Protestant minister and called for justice. In standing together now, may there be hope, the coming of change as real as the tides, for all their ebb and flow, David and Ramona’s souls shining as a blessing, their light upon the water.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein

Friday, July 2, 2021

How Do You Be?

 If you’re a movie buff, as I am, you might remember Awakenings (1990). The main character, played by the late Robin Williams, is Dr. Malcolm Sayer. Though inexperienced, Sayer cares deeply about the residents in the mental hospital where he works as a neurologist. He’s especially curious about the patients who have been immobilized, or even comatose, since an epidemic of “sleeping sickness,” decades earlier.

Eventually Dr. Sayer discovers that a drug called L-Dopa can “awaken” these patients from their strange state. A character named Leonard, portrayed by Robert De Niro, returns to normalcy after thirty years in a coma. He even falls in love, the audience rooting him on. But as the film’s trailer warns, “There’s no such thing as a simple miracle.” 

If you’d like, you can watch the movie and learn the rest of the story. For now, though, I want to tell you that the character of Malcolm Sayer was based on an actual person, Dr. Oliver Sacks. This fascinating, brilliant, compassionate, and often uncouth Brit, whom The New York Times once called “the poet laureate of medicine,” died in 2015 at the age of eighty-two. Yet Sacks lives on through his many best-selling books, some of which have been released since his passing. He also lives on through a generation of physicians who, thanks to his humanizing influence on their profession, seek to approach their patients with the same healing spirit as he did.

Sacks has now been memorialized in a new documentary by Ric Burns. I just watched “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” this week on PBS.

Seven minutes into the film, author Lawrence Weschler says, “[Oliver] was somebody for whom the primary diagnostic question was `How are you? How do you be?’ He was extraordinarily empathic with his patients.”

Journalist Robert Krulwich echoes Weschler’s observation. As he puts it, “[Oliver] was asking, as hard as a person can, `Who are you? I need to know. I need to know more. I need to know even more.’ And his attention would release people…. He would take this thread of them and pull them slowly out. But what he also did simultaneously—and this was the great part—is he pulled the whole world in, the other way, [by telling us their stories].”

In the days since I viewed the documentary, these writers’ striking descriptions of Oliver Sacks have stuck with me. They knew him well, and their remembrances of him resonate like the notes of a magnificent pipe organ in a grand concert hall. In the video, I repeatedly hear Sacks asking his patients “How are you?” just as I plainly see him greeting them with a soft, lingering touch. A shoulder, rubbed. A hand, held. Fingers, caressed or kissed.

Oliver Sacks met his patients, one person at a time. One mystery at a time. One story at a time—and the story was always valuable, whether or not he had the full details.

* * *

“How are you?” Back before the pandemic, when you and I would greet other people by asking this question, we usually didn’t expect or desire a real answer. If we got one, it had better be brief, and not too grim or involved. We weren’t up for longwinded or dreary responses. That’s not how the game was played.

The pandemic might have altered our customary “How are yous?” a bit. It might have made them less superficial, and more sincere. Those three words definitely mean more to me now than they used to. How about you?

As we begin to navigate the waters of postpandemic life (some of us sooner than others), I wonder: Would it be possible for us to move forward more in the spirit of Oliver Sacks? Can we ask each other, with empathy and curiosity, “How are you? How do you be in this world?” Can we invest our attention in real replies?

If enough of us did that, this planet might tilt a significant degree on its kindness axis. Megatons of compassion and understanding might pump into the atmosphere, causing a wondrous kind of global warming—climate change we can all thrive in.

Imagine a police officer approaching a black man in his car with genuine interest about the man’s state of health, his quality of life, his way of being …


Imagine a Democrat approaching a Republican, or a Republican greeting a Democrat, with that spirit...


Imagine a pious person approaching someone of another faith, or no faith, with that spirit …

Imagine a native-born American approaching a refugee at the border with that spirit …

Imagine yourself, approaching the sort of human being you’re most afraid of, or most resentful of, or most ignorant of, with that spirit … Humble. Ready to care. Ready to listen. Ready to learn.

“How are you?” This question can be the portal into every unknown story that needs to be better known; into every undervalued life that needs to be valued more. This question can be, as Oliver Sacks demonstrated, the doorway into radical healing.

How are you, my friend? How do you be in this world?

 Deep Peace,  

Phyllis Cole Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, June 25, 2021

Nuclear Nonsense

 Maybe others remember reading about it back in January of 1966. I missed it, or at least don’t remember it. There was an accident in the skies over the Mediterranean Sea. An airborne B52 carrying four hydrogen bombs was being refueled. Something went wrong and the refueling plane exploded, killing all four crew members aboard and sending the B52 crashing to the earth in pieces.
Three of those seven crew members lost their lives.

 Three of the hydrogen bombs were found on land, near the Spanish fishing village of Palomares. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the bombs detonated when they hit the ground and spread highly radioactive, carcinogenic, pulverized plutonium over the surrounding countryside. The fourth bomb was found in the ocean after a two and a half month search.  

The reason this has come to my attention so many decades later is an ongoing court case. The Air Force sent some 1,500 personnel into the Palomares area to clean up the debris in the midst of all the plutonium dust. They were there for weeks handling that dust, washing it off village surfaces, putting contaminated soil in barrels, cleaning it from clothes, incinerating truckloads of poisoned debris. One small particle of plutonium, inhaled or ingested, can cause cancer.

That was 56 years ago. Some of those veterans are still struggling to get some compensation for their illnesses. Many have died. And only now has a judge ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to revise how it evaluates disability claims from the accident. The Air Force never even included the plutonium cleanup in its list of “radiation risk activities.”

“Thank you for your service.” Sometimes they seem hollow words indeed. I’ll always remember the member of my congregation, laying in the hospital bed where he would soon lose his leg, after years of pain and illness, one of those Army personnel who entered the nuclear testing ground, assured by the Army it was “safe” to do so.

We don’t have to return to the sixties to recognize the consequences of our nuclear death wish. Back in the Cold War era, the French government conducted both underground and above ground nuclear weapons tests in the Algerian Sahara, contaminating local populations, the surrounding desert and French troops carrying out the tests.  

This February, 2021, strong winds blew North from the Sahara, carrying dust over Spain, France, the UK and Ireland. Sometimes the large quantity of dust turned the sky orange. In the meantime, the French Association for Control of Radioactivity in the West, announced the dust was radioactive, blowback from those earlier French tests. Researchers gathered the dust from car windshields and found cesium-137, a radioactive isotope not found in nature but produced in nuclear weapons tests. Some sixty years after using their colony for testing, France receives the fallout.

The British have a massive submarine base near Helensburgh, Scotland. They are intending to increase the discharge of radioactive waste into the ocean, up to 50 times the present discharges. The liquid radioactive waste is generated by the nuclear reactors that drive the submarines and the processing of the nuclear weapons. The increased waste will contain cobalt-60 and tritium.

One supposes the Atlantic should share in our nuclear nonsense. The Pacific has its own problems with the continuing saga at Fukushima. When will all that radioactive water flow unceasingly into the ocean? How many more water tanks can be constructed and where will Tepco place them? What happens in the next earthquake or Tsunami? The last earthquake, in February of this year, caused 20 of those tanks to “slide.”
The Kings Bay Plowshares tried to disturb our conscience almost four years ago with their nuclear disarmament action. The group of seven Catholic activists entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base and carried out a series of symbolic actions, like spray painting “love one another” on the sidewalk. After almost two hours on the base they were willingly arrested. They were charged with conspiracy, destruction of government property, degradation of a naval battalion, and trespassing. Several have been in jail awaiting sentencing.

They take their Plowshares name from the prophet Isaiah, who famously said to “beat swords into plowshares.” During their time on the base, one of them read the statement of Pope Francis denouncing nuclear weapons.
One wonders where the rest of the Christian community is? Too busy preaching individual salvation to address social salvation? Too focused on worshipping God in sanctuaries and too blind to the work of the devil in the world?

Now that nuclear weapons have been declared illegal by the United Nations and the 50 countries who have signed the Treaty, we need an outcry of “enough,” in this country and around the world, before the blowback hits us all.

Carl Kline

Friday, June 18, 2021

It's Up to Us to Finish the work

This weekend in the U.S., we’re observing Father’s Day. We’re also celebrating Juneteenth, a festival that commemorates the end of American slavery.

Juneteenth was just signed into law as a new federal holiday on Thursday. But it’s an old jubilee, held annually on June 19th. On that date in 1865, enslaved people in Galveston Bay finally learned from Union troops that they and over 250,000 others in Texas had been freed from bondage. African American communities have rejoiced with their friends on June 19th ever since—first in Texas, eventually across the nation. On Juneteenth, here in Brookings, I’ll be headed to the park for drumming, dancing, food, and discussions about   “forging a path to racial justice.”

*  *  *

This is my first Father’s Day without my dad. May I tell you a story about him?

One frosty night in March, 1982, Dad was working alone on our farm, using a tractor and agitator to stir a “manure lagoon.” This lagoon was an artificial pond, around fourteen feet deep and surrounded by a dike, into which an underground sewage system piped livestock waste. (I know—eww. Hold your nose!)

Dad, seated inside the cab, had driven the tractor onto the flat crest of the dike. Now he was backing up toward the pit’s edge, positioning the twenty-eight-foot-long agitator to stir the slurry.

He backed up too far. The tractor’s rear wheels dropped over the edge of the dike. The tractor slid into the lagoon and sank.

The submerged cab went deadly dark. As waste gushed in through cracks and holes, Dad pushed and pounded at the door. At the only window big enough to escape through. At the door again.

By now, the slurry was up to his mouth. “God, what a place to die,” he thought.

He twisted himself around in the thick, rising slop. One last try at the window.
This time, no resistance. The window opened as easily as a leaf flutters in wind. He swam out of the cab and up, swallowing some of the toxic crap as he pulled for the surface.

His head popped out of the lagoon. By the light of the moon, he spotted the tip of the tractor’s exhaust pipe, sticking out of the slurry.

He rolled over on his back. Burdened by layers of wet winter clothes, he stroked for the pipe, knowing that the roof of the cab would be somewhere nearby.

Upon locating the roof, he splashed aboard to rest. He perched there, collecting his wits, shivering in the wintry air. He worried about hypothermia. About the sickening sludge all over his body. About the animal shit in his stomach and lungs.

No use hollering for help. His farmhands had long ago clocked out. And Mom didn’t expect him home for hours. No rescue would be coming. He’d have to save himself.

He plunged back into the filth, and broke for the bank …

* * *

In my recollection, what impressed Dad about this episode wasn’t just his brush with death. It was the loss of the keychain he always wore on his belt. On that chain were the keys to all the locks on the farm. It went straight to the bottom of the lagoon.

To Dad, its loss was a dramatic sign from heaven that he should abandon farming and devote himself to other pursuits. At once, he began to prepare for a different kind of life. The change in him amazed me. This always-work, never-play, rarely-show-how-much-you-care kind of guy seemed so much softer, lighter, freer—

For a while.

But, in the end, Dad couldn’t let his old life go. He let go instead of the sign from heaven. He remained a farmer for a couple more decades, until a perfect storm of painful crises forced him to quit.

* * *


Now, imagine that deep lagoon of manure as the horror of slavery and its awful legacy. Imagine that heavy keychain, holding the keys for millions of shackles. Imagine it sinking into the abyss, liberating all the enslaved. Imagine the dreams surging through those newly freed people as they broke through the filth for the bank …

In the almost 160 years since emancipation, African Americans have been trying to swim out of that ungodly lagoon and get themselves onto dry land. But, frankly, many of them struggle up onto the bank only to be shoved right back into the mess: Their bodies, assaulted. Their stories, erased or distorted. Their voting rights, restricted. Their schools, underfunded. Their livelihoods, threatened. Their lives, undervalued …

It’s up to us—all people of good will—to stop filling with fresh waste the lagoon that slavery dug. It’s up to us to stir it up, drain it empty of what’s foul, and gradually replenish it with clear spring water. It’s up to us to abandon the old ways in favor of a different life. It’s up to us to finish the freedom work that our fathers (and mothers) couldn’t.

Heaven has given us all the signs that we need.

Phyllis Cole Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, June 11, 2021

Come Out and Play With Me


There are two articles in interesting juxtaposition in the Saturday June 5th Metro section of the Boston Globe.  The lead article (General Threatens Cape’s Business) tells the story of the lack of public support for the creation of a machine gun range at Joint (military) Base Cape Cod:
 “…the commanding general has threatened to order the thousands of soldiers scheduled to visit the base every weekend this summer not to patronize local restaurants or other business.”
At issue is the base’s intention to clear 170 acres of wooded land in order to establish a training and practice area for the use of machine guns.  The local populace has resisted, using their power to contact their Congressional delegation “swaying opinions against our project.”  According to the article “Brigadier General Christopher M. Faux complained, saying: ‘the only folks that speak up are the naysayers, activists and anti-military groups.’”

Immediately below the first article is another: The Life of a Single Father. The second article has captured the imaginations of the wide population served by the Boston Globe.  Two swans, mated for life, had just begun hatching their flock of cygnets when the mother swan died suddenly of unknown cause, leaving the father swan to care for the brood.  It is known that swans go through a grieving period if they lose a mate. A vet from the New England Wildlife center noted “I think he may be so busy taking care of his babies that he may not be going through a mourning period yet.”

I have been struck by the placement of the stories and what they say about the level of the spirit of cooperation, collaboration and the rise to duty that they impart.

On the one hand, there is an issue about who will determine whether a military effort or a civilian effort will prevail in the decision making process about land use on Cape Cod.  As the headlines describe it, it seems that at least one of the parties, the one with the literal fire power, is ready to “pick up his marbles and go home” if the other party will not play the game according to his wishes.  Meanwhile, in the center of a great city, a father swan struggles to go it alone and assume full responsibility for the nurture and protection of his offspring until they are old enough to fend for themselves, perhaps putting off his own in-born need to grieve his lost mate.

At the risk of over anthropomorphizing, I find myself pondering the level of maturity and intelligence and empathy and cooperation in each situation.  How is it that one member of the animal kingdom can be so limited in its ability to listen and hear and understand, to communicate and collaborate with his fellow human beings to come to some reasonable solution while on the other hand, another, much simpler member of the animal kingdom knows instinctively that some sacrifice on his part is necessary so that survival is possible for his offspring.

The stories, of course, lead my mind to the utter lack of collegiality and cooperation that abounds without limits in the halls of Congress.  I wonder where the ability to sacrifice, to collaborate, to cooperate for the greater good has gone?

In our highest realms of leadership it seems as though the “grown-ups” have forgotten the kindergarten report card assessment: “plays well with others.”  I read recently that there are Eskimo tribes, who when war with another tribe is brewing, hold a contest between the two best poets of each tribe.  The jury is made up of an equal number of members  from each of the tribes.  The winning poet wins the war for both sides.   Imagine such a solution for breaking the gridlock in the US senate!!  The more I think about it, the clearer it is to me that our esteemed houses of congress have lost the spirituality of playing well together.  And when we lose that, we lose our resilience and our capacity for compassion and cooperation.  

Matthew Fox, in his 1983 book, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality points to “our so called defense departments, so creative at building sadistic weaponry, (but)lacking the imagination (such a critical part of play)when it comes to moral equivalents for war. Play is meant to be a way out of aggression. But our culture has forgotten the value of play on so many levels and so we lock ourselves into trillion dollar military budgets, and imagine we can buy security.”

   So - I want to envision members of congress, pulling out all the stops in non-competitive play. Can we see that possibility?  What might it look like for Democrats and Republicans to re-learn the skills of the playground: the cooperation it takes to use the see-saw;  skill and listening required to push one another on a swing so that it is satisfying for both “pusher” and “swinger;”  learning how to take turns with the toys in the sand-box; the cooperation and determination required to run a three-legged race.

The spirit of play seems inherent in the cultivation and nurturing of wisdom. Indeed, the Book of Proverbs reveals wisdom as the Divine playmate: “I (Wisdom) was by God’s side, a master crafter, delighting God day by day, ever at play in God’s Presence, at play everywhere in the world.” (Proverbs 8).  A lot of intellectual knowledge operates in our world, for good or ill, but perhaps we could  put away all that brain stuff for a moment or two, become as creative, imaginative, joyful children and re-learn how to play well with one another, in the service of a happier, more whole and liberated life for us all.

Just for the fun of it, try Googling “Playmate Song.”  It was surfacing from my memory banks in the twilight between sleeping and waking this morning.  If you are old enough, it will bring back memories, for sure.  Enjoy!

Vicky Hanjian