Thursday, June 23, 2016


Lately I've been reading before I go to sleep at night. My preference is novels, fiction. It helps keep me balanced given all the real life, non-fiction nightmares during waking hours. 

Two nightmares I'm considering this morning: the plethora of political propaganda and posturing so perpetual and pervasive these days; or since it's earth day as I write this, the nightmare of the dangerous, dim witted denial by dogmatic decision makers that anything's wrong with the climate, even when Hockley, Texas gets 17 inches of rain in 24 hours. 

That latter category must include Senators Rounds and Thune, as they signed a letter this week asking Secretary Kerry not to fund the United Nations organization working on climate change.

But let's leave the nightmares for another week. There are four books from late night reading to recommend.

The first is "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann.The plot revolves around the tightrope walk of Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974.  A 24 year old Frenchman, Petit held onlookers spellbound for 45 minutes as he made eight separate passes on the 200 foot stretch between the two buildings. Obviously enjoying himself, 1,350 feet in the air, he walked, danced, lay down and knelt on the wire. Later he said he could hear the murmuring and cheers of the crowd below. This event is not fiction. He was arrested by New York City police and later sentenced to performing for children in Central Park. You can even find pictures of his walk on the web. (If you don't like heights you may want to avoid the pictures).

But don't avoid the book. It is fiction. Philippe is not the main character, just that his walk is the event around which the story unfolds. The main characters are others who this event touches with some significance, as onlookers or connected in more obscure ways.

After saying I preferred reading fiction, two of the other books I want to suggest are non-fiction. 

If you sometimes wish for greater solitude, away from the busyness and craziness of contemporary life, you might enjoy "The Consolations of the Forest" by Sylvain Tesson. Here is someone who seeks and finds silence and solitude in a small cabin on Lake Baikal on the Siberian taiga for six months. He wards off cabin fever with almost daily excursions into the forests and mountains and on the frozen lake. He befriends birds, chops wood, eats fresh fish, drinks large quantities of vodka and reads some very heady books. 

Although it isn't fiction, it gives you an opportunity to escape those day time nightmares with him. Dress warm though. Those Siberian winters can be considerably worse than South Dakota.

The third book is very disturbing but hard to put down. It actually sends you to bed with a daytime nightmare instead of a quiet sleep. After the first two nights reading it before bed, I determined to just read the rest in the light of day. The book is "A Mother's Reckoning" by Sue Klebold. 

You may remember that last name from the shooting at Columbine High School back in 1999. Sue's son was one of the two shooters. They killed 12 students, 1 teacher and injured 24 others, before killing themselves. Their intention was to kill many more, given the explosives that failed to detonate. 

The book is the attempt of a mother to come to terms with a horrific act her son has committed, to understand what she might have missed, how it might have been prevented, what contribution she might make to an understanding of what she calls "brain health." 

One of her conclusions is that her son was suicidal. Based on evidence he left behind this is likely accurate. She doesn't use this as an excuse but it seems a stark warning to us all. (The radio news reported this morning there has been a spike in adolescent suicide, especially among girls). And these days we have even coined the phrase "suicide by cop."

The last book I've just begun. It's called "Small Wars" by Sadie Jones. The novel is set in English occupied Cyprus in 1956. Even in the first few chapters I'm beginning to see the challenge of "how honor can exist amid cruelty" and "what becomes of intimacy in the grinding gears of empire."

It's hard to truly recommend a book till one is finished. Suffice it to say "Small Wars" is engaging so far. And, I like the title. It describes too much of life. At our worst, we've strayed from our best sense of being neighbors, co-workers, a human family. Too much of life seems to be made up of small wars. Small wars only lead to bigger wars and I already sense in the novel, bigger wars are coming. 

In the same way, small acts of kindness, or forgiveness, or peacemaking, small acts of conscience,  can lead to bigger blessings. We have a choice. Already, I'm seeing that in "Small Wars" as well. Read on!

Carl Kline

Friday, June 10, 2016

Pollens & Strangers

Summer is about to descend on our island.  Already the streets are more crowded during the day.  The sleepy laid back energy of the off- season gradually shifts to one of greater vigilance as visitors blithely step off the curb in front of a moving vehicle to get the best photo from the middle of the street.  There are more people walking to their destinations at night, on the wrong side of the road, dressed in dark clothing, barely visible until my headlights are almost on them.

The season is here and with it come the strangers.  It is an annual event but somehow we are never quite ready.  

Our sacred texts instruct us to welcome the stranger, to be hospitable to  the “alien within our gates”.  The teaching is ancient, but living it out does not come automatically. Every year I have to grapple with my feelings of discomfort, the sensation of having unfamiliar guests in my “living room.”  Crowded streets, long lines at the post office, no parking spaces anywhere, trash left behind on the usually pristine beaches all make it difficult to embrace the command to welcome the stranger.

This year the abundance of pollens in the air are an apt metaphor for the sense of unwelcome invasion that tries to gain foothold.  It lands everywhere.  Even the keys  of the computer are gritty with it.

The rabbi asked us to look closely at the admonitions for relating to the stranger.  She invited us to understand that there are “concentric layers” of strangers in our lives.  There are strangers in our families - the ones who are estranged -distanced - in some way; there are the strangers who choose to make their home among us and dwell in our midst; and there are strangers who are just passing through, those who will touch our lives, significantly or peripherally, and we will never see them again.

We have also been having discussions about the Biblical injunction to “be holy for I your God am holy” - -  how to be holy, how to bring holiness (wholeness?) into the world around us when the widening gap between the wealthy visitors and the less than affluent “year - rounders”  who provide services becomes more pronounced with each passing season.   Learning how to be “holy be-ings” who can embrace and welcome the stranger is the challenge with the onset of every summer season.

How do I determine what is a “holy being?”   Sheila Peltz Weinberg suggests the following :
Who are holy beings?
They are beloved, clear of mind and courageous.
Their will and God’s will are one.
Raising their voices in constant gratitude
they marvel at every detail of life,
Granting each other loving permission to be exactly who they are.
When we listen for their sweet voices,
we can hear the echo within our own souls.
Ahhh! So there is the challenge to be encountered in the midst of the stress of any particular moment in life!  To give thanks continually - - to marvel in wonder at the immense diversity and beauty of life - - to grant loving permission to all we encounter to be exactly who they are.

And so, as I ponder whether to try one more time to clean up the invasive pollens or to simply let them be for a bit, knowing that they do, indeed, serve a function in the grand scheme of things, I try to shift my perspective - - and be at ease and at peace with their microscopic invasive forces.  Maybe I can just let them be pollens being pollens - - maybe utter a “God Bless You” with each inconvenient sneeze they evoke. Maybe I can let them be my teachers as the season progresses.  

Strangers, like the pollens, come and go.  May they each be blessed with a sense of well-being, a sense of being welcomed, a sense of respite and relief from their daily stresses back home.  May they be whole.  May they find wholeness (holiness) here.  May they be restored and take a measure of holiness home with them.

Wherever we are, the stress of encountering the stranger may give us pause to reflect.  There is much in the worldwide political and social and economic climate of our human existence that summons us to fear the stranger - to see an enemy in the stranger - to resist the presence of the stranger in our midst, to resent whatever the stranger might represent to us.   As a  stumbling peacemaker and as a struggling practitioner of  living nonviolence,  one thing I can do is to give thanks and marvel at the amazing array of human diversity - and perhaps utter a soft “God bless you!” each time an allergic response to the stranger makes itself known.   Pollens and strangers - - they come and go.  May peace be with them.  May they each fulfill their reason for being as this planet turns.

Vicky Hanjian