Friday, March 26, 2021

"When did we see you a stranger...?"

 When we were living in New York City at Union Theological Seminary, young and without much money, we found or invented inexpensive forms of entertainment. One was to take the subway to the tip of Manhattan and ride the Staten Island Ferry. Then we would exit with the crowd and turn around and get right back on again. Sometimes you could get the same seat and you’d be watching a different direction on the return.

If your eyes were open, which wasn’t true of everyone on the ferry, you would see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Especially at night, lit up, it made one proud to be living in a country that welcomed “the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the teeming shore, the homeless tempest tossed.” The lamp was lifted and lit, and said “bring them to me.” The golden door was open!

Seeing lady liberty made me wonder if she was there when my father’s father traveled from Germany to settle in Pennsylvania? Were my mother’s parents first generation homeless, tossed on the seas from some other land, finding a home here? Recalling those old pictures of the scenes on Ellis Island as refugees were processed, I wondered where they came from and what was chasing them.

I just finished reading The Beekeeper of Aleppo. It’s worth putting on your reading list. It’s a contemporary story of a husband and wife and the trials they encounter, as they flee the horrors of war in Syria. You meet other refugees, with their own stories to tell. Predators, police and politicians play their respective roles. Smugglers and volunteer service workers make their appearance and one begins to gain a troubling but true understanding of refugee life.

This is a work of fiction. But the writing emerges from an experience of reality. The author is Christy Lefteri, a child of Cypriot refugees. Christy was brought up in London after her parents fled there in 1974 after the Cyprus war. Knowing little of that story, she wanted to know more about that dark chapter in her family history. The novel is based on her experiences working as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Athens, Greece.

Reading about the beekeeper, his love for his apiaries, the care with which he went about his work, made me think of Mr. Knapp. He was from Estonia. He was a refugee. He was custodian at our church. I can picture him now, standing outside my father’s office, broom in hand, smile on his face. In the years I knew him, although his English was limited, his smile was always large. He was so grateful to be in a country where he and his family were safe and he was employed. His smile was manifested in the way he cleaned and cared for that church.

Having just finished the Beekeeper, I’m deciding whether I’m ready to read Separated: Inside an American Tragedy by Jacob Soboroff. There’s a Wall pictured on the cover. My sister sent the book to me. She keeps sending me non-fiction like this. I keep telling her I want fiction. There’s enough non-fiction in my day to trouble my sleep. I want fiction to read before bedtime to help me sleep. Although even fiction like Beekeeper required several minutes of pondering and prayer time before retiring, as the suffering and trauma of what millions of people are experiencing came home to me with force.

There are at least 79.5 million people who have been forced to flee their homes by war, violence, persecution and human rights violations. 26 million of them are refugees; half under the age of 18; living in generally squid conditions, sometimes for years; often with little hope of changing their situation.

Under the previous administration, the light on lady liberty went dark. In fiscal year 2016, some 84,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. The following year it was around 50,000. The cap was set at 15,000 for 2020 by the former President and as of December of last year, fewer than 1,000 had been processed. The new administration is proposing a 125,000 cap for this next fiscal year.

Since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980, the U.S. was the leading nation in settling refugees in this country. In 2018 and 2019, we were surpassed by Canada, as social service agencies in the U.S. tasked with settling new comers, shut down all over the country. And walls went up!

  I just wish all my Christian brothers and sisters who continue to support the Wall Builder, would get out their Bibles once more and turn to Matthew 25. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

And I’m hopeful a new administration, with determination and hard work, can establish a new immigration policy that represents our core values as a country, and the light in Lady Liberty can blaze again!

 Carl Kline

Friday, March 19, 2021


 Have you ever sat for a formal photograph? When was the last time?  Did you do so by choice or at someone's request?  Did you enjoy it, or did you put up with it, like a root canal at the dentist? 

As an author, I'm advised to get new publicity photos every year, or at least before publishing every new book.  My last photo shoot was eight years and five book releases ago.  That tells you how much I am fond of getting my picture taken. (The phrase "photo shoot" aptly describes how I've always felt in front of a camera: stalked.)

For that last batch of publicity shots, my friend Ruby snapped me sitting on her backyard, out in the countryside.  Because we knew each other well and were in a comfortable summer setting, she got enough quality images to serve the purpose.

But now, eight years later, I wear glasses, and I have a few gray hairs.  I appear to be closer to sixty than fifty.  So I decided, with a collection of essays and poems coming out this spring, I'd better suck it up and freshen my shots.  If I did, maybe I wouldn't have to pose again for another decade. ("Pose."  Another revealing word.  In front of a camera I always felt like an impostor.)

This time, I couldn't ask Ruby to photograph me in her backyard.  We weren't about to dress up in arctic gear for a shivering session in the snow.

So I hired Tammie, a professional photographer. She proposed a socially distanced shoot in her studio, complete with stylist for my make-up and hair.  "Don't make me look like somebody I'm not," I begged, when booking the appointment by phone. "You'll be fine," she said with a laugh.  "Plan on about three hours."

Three hours? Ruby and I had wrapped up in less than thirty minutes.

Oh, how I dreaded that appointment!  Last Friday I arrived at the studio, steeling myself to be made up and shot. ("Made up" - another telltale phrase, as in "imagined" or "invented.")

Then a strange thing happened.  Tammie's stylist introduced herself as Rebecca, a lovely young woman of college age whom I'd known as a schoolgirl. I hadn't seen her in years.  She briefly lowered one side of her mask, showing her face.  I still didn't recognize her.  The child had vanished.

Rebecca told me she was attending the local university, studying leadership and nonprofit organizations.  "Cool," I said.  "What prompted your interest in that?"


Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm going to cry, telling you this," she said, a catch in her voice.  "It all started when you talked to my youth group about how you gave up your home to live awhile on the streets."  Her words stunned me.  I remember that talk, so long ago.  How nervous I'd been, huddling with that flock of kids, struggling to help them imagine "homelessness," for which they had no frame of reference...

"When I finished," I told Rebecca, "I thought that I'd failed you all.  What a gift you have given me now! Thank you so much for telling me."  Tammy, listening nearby, reached for a tissue. "This is making me cry too."     

That's when something inside me clicked like a camera shutter.  This portrait session, I realized, wasn't about publicity photos.  It wasn't about marketing my books.  It wasn't about me at all. It was about you, and everyone else I might ever meet, whether face to face like Rebecca or through the ripples of my work.

The photos that Tammie was about to take could be another way of saying, "I care about you."  Of saying "I invite you to share the journey with me." Of saying, "Let's talk. Let's listen to each other.  Let's change the world together."  The images could express all of this and more. If I let them.

But I had to get out of the way.  I had to wipe the slate clean of all the nonsense about how prying the camera was.  I had to erase all the negative self-talk about how I wasn't worthy enough to sit for a portrait.  Could I empty myself of all that bunk and just be present, as I had been with Rebecca and her group, so many years before?  Could I trust Tammie to bring forward from me a glimmer of light that someone else might need to see?

We began the shoot.  I tuned into Tammie and her camera.  I sensed my spirit pouring toward her lense, then through it, toward the unknown.  Not on every shot - I wasn't so capable as that.  But whenever I wasn't quite "there," Tammie noticed and summoned me further in.  Our three hours together became a sustained lesson in mindfulness, the boundary between self and not-self dropping away, rising up, dropping away again.


Two days later, I received an email message from Diane S., a StayingPower subscriber who lives in Texas.  "Eye smiles," she said, answering my question about what she wanted to carry forward from the pandemic.  "Never look anything but real."

Never look anything but real.  That's a pretty good motto for a photo shoot, don't you think?  And it's a pretty good motto for life.

Deep peace and health to you,

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Friday, March 5, 2021

Top Ten Positive Takeaways

 There is no question that the pandemic has caused enormous pain and suffering all around the world, especially in the U.S. We don't hear anyone yelling "U.S.A., U.S.A.," when it comes to our handling of this deadly disease. First in the world with Covid cases is hardly a reason for pride.

Watching a film of Morocco last evening, I wondered how this small, diverse country was surviving. The figures tell us they weren't doing so well in November but are doing better now. Their population is around 36 and 1/2 million. As of mid January this year, there had been 8,128 total deaths from Covid-19. More than twice that many died in New York City between March 1 and June 1 in 2020, with a total population in the city of 8 1/2 million. Pick any country! We are first in death and grief, waiting anxiously and fearfully for our turn in the long lines for a vaccine.

Given the enormous suffering, is there anything positive to be gained from this experience, for those of us living in what many call "the greatest country on earth?" I believe there are at least ten potentially positive takeaways from this time of pandemic. This is my top ten.

1. We have a new and simple way of expressing our love for the neighbor; wearing a mask!

2. If we have: a roof over our head where we can isolate; work we can do from home; local medical care; health insurance; a computer to zoom with family; possible delivery of groceries; heat in the winter; running water; we are amazingly privileged. Perhaps it will open our eyes of compassion for those less fortunate.

   3. We are gaining a new opportunity to appreciate those who serve us: the restaurant workers; the checker at the supermarket; the ambulance and truck drivers; the post office employees; the teachers of our children; the first responders; the nurses and doctors who care for us and hold the Facetime screen so we can say good bye to the dying.

4. There was a cartoon of Poof and Piglet on social media the other day. They were talking about the pandemic. Piglet mentioned that the thing he missed the most was "touch." Fist pumps, elbow bumps and high fives don't quite make it. Six feet between us can sometimes feel like six miles. If family therapist Virginia Satir is right, we're in trouble. “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Where we can, we should step up! Where we can't, we can at least verbalize.

5. Even those of us who are technical novices can be thankful for long distance vision. What a blessing it is to watch family open Christmas presents or a college present a choral concert when you can't actually be there.

6. A friend and I were talking the other day about how we were feeling. It seems to be a common conversation. When you ask, "How are you?," it has a covid question mark. We agreed that we were more in touch with our bodies these days; what they might be telling us. For men especially, this could be a positive takeaway.

7. Science has taken center stage and is teaching us (once again), there are some things we can know or learn, and some things we can't. We are offered a bit of pride with a vaccine and a dose of humility with new mutations. Science is once again a temper on human arrogance as well as an encouragement for human effort.

8. The world has become smaller. An unseen, previously unknown virus has connected us all in ways airplanes never could.

9. Perhaps our greatest human failing, especially in this country, is our outsized individualism. Somehow we have this idea we stand alone. We forget the air, earth and water that make life possible; the plants and animals that give us sustenance; the love and learning from those around us. Our connections are infinite and we are all related, sometimes in ways as small as a droplet of someone else's breath.

10. Faith! Perhaps the most important of the ten, faith is crucial in times of crisis like this. Faith in a good and loving God; faith in the basic goodness of the human community; faith that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice; faith that we will get through this pandemic a new and more resilient people. May it be so!

Carl Kline