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

Friday, June 4, 2021

"Life Is Too Deep Not To Dive"


Perhaps you’ve noticed: Sometimes, despite meticulous preparations, life just doesn’t go as we planned.

Like when you decide to fly halfway across the continent, retrieve your eighty-one-year-old mother, and bring her back home for an extended visit. When you purchase your mother’s ticket from the airline, you schedule wheelchair assistance. You confirm the arrangements with Customer Service, both by email and phone.

But on the blessed morning when the two of you arrive at the local airport, ready for your day-long journey, no wheelchair is in sight. Anxiously you look up and down the sidewalk beneath the sign that reads “Departing Flights.” Nothing.

With reluctance, you situate your mother on a bench, curbside. You set luggage around her like guard dogs. Then you run inside the terminal to inquire at the ticket counter.

Finally, after negotiations, you’re allowed to borrow a wheelchair. Two more trips back and forth to the curb until, at last, your mother and the suitcases are inside the terminal.

Huffing and puffing, you temporarily abandon the baggage and trundle your mother up to the ticket counter. You yourself have already checked in, online, but “passengers receiving special assistance” must do so in person. (“What `special assistance?’” you wonder.)

The ticket agent registers your mother and checks her bag. Then he calls for a ground agent to deliver her to the gate. Twenty minutes pass. Thirty. Forty. The attendant doesn’t appear. With the clock ticking down toward boarding time, the ticket agent advises you to push your mother to the gate yourself. (Just as you’d offered to do, in the first place.)

This means going through security. The airline had assured you that your mother would be able to bypass all screenings due to her age and her frailty, but alas, no. Security personnel even confiscate her cane, to run it through the X-ray machine.

After they decide your mother isn’t a terrorist or a drug mule, you resettle her back in the wheelchair, gather up all your belongings, then hurry off toward the gate, sweat rolling down. Every bump you hit irritates the arthritic spurs in your mother’s neck…

The rest of your journey continues as it began—nothing going as planned, no “special assistance” at all, from the first airport to the last. Except …

Outside airport #1—do you see the elderly woman seated on the bench, just down from where you perched your mother? When you greet her, her lovely face lights up, above a colorful neck scarf.

“You two take care of each other,” you say to her and to your mother, but you needn’t have said a word. Even as you leave to scrounge up a wheelchair, they’ve started to swap details about their lives.

One of these women is black, the other white; one, a Southerner, the other a Yankee—but they’re laughing like a couple of schoolgirls. Each is eighty-one, they discover, and traveling in the company of a daughter…

And notice now the pilot, after your first flight has landed at Chicago O’Hare. He watches the passengers disembark, wishing them well. When only you and your mother remain aboard, and no wheelchair has yet materialized on the jetway, he surmises the problem. “I’ll take care of it,” he says.

Soon a ground agent, Ashwaghosh, is helping your mother into a wheelchair. Notice how gently he supports her. Notice how he doesn’t rush.

Aware that your connecting flight will soon board in a different terminal, Ashwaghosh rolls your mother rapidly through the crowd. After four years of pushing passengers around O’Hare, he obviously knows every inch of public space in the airport, including the shortcuts. As you hurry to keep up, you ask him questions about his life. He describes how he walks seven or eight miles a day behind wheelchairs—even now, when O’Hare is still operating at reduced capacity, due to the pandemic.

Ashwaghosh pushes buttons on a series of elevators. He tells you how his parents and brother still live in his native India. Numerous people he knows there are suffering terribly from COVID-19. They’re desperate to be vaccinated, even as so many Americans refuse the opportunity.

He himself caught COVID recently, just before his appointment for his first shot. “People think COVID is like the flu,” he said. “Trust me. It isn’t.”

He wheels your mother up to the gate, just as the doors are opening. “Your flight is boarding now,” he says. “I’ll take you down the ramp to the plane.”

You know that you’d never have made this flight without him. Once your mother is safely seated, you follow him back out of the plane. You give him a grateful tip. Then, putting your hands together as if in prayer, you bow slightly. “Namaste,” you say.

He looks confused, as if you’ve spoken English with a strange accent. Then he smiles, realizing you hadn’t spoken English at all, but a Sanskrit greeting of his native land.

* * *
Yes, it’s true—despite all preparations, life doesn’t always go as planned. When it doesn’t, the waters can get choppy, even too rough to swim.

That’s when we would do well to dive deep. To pay attention to what lies beneath our best-laid plans. To notice what’s waiting there—ordinary yet precious things and people that, had our plans gone through, we might have missed forever.

Life’s just too deep not to dive.

Phyllis Cole Dai