Friday, January 29, 2010

So long Joan

I know this is a bit late; sorry about that to all of you who aren't reading.  This past week I have been suffering physically from a dreadful cold that has lingered on for three weeks now.  And I have been suffering spiritually from the news of the death of a high school classmate, Joan Pasterik.  Joan was 56.  I haven't seen or talked to her since high school.  Back then we were never what I could remotely call close friends.  We weren't really friends at all, not really, although we certainly knew who each of us were.  I don't think we ever even shared many classes once we got out of elementary school.  But Joan grew up in Raritan, New Jersey, along with me.  We shared the same small town commonalities that any two people do who go to the same school, the same hangouts, the same parks and so forth.

Joan was always one of the prettiest girls in school.  When we got to high school she became a cheerleader.  But she was a cheerleader who wasn't a Mean Girl.  She was popular without being a Queen Bee.  All the guys adored her and all the girls were friends with her.  Even when we were little kids at Washington School and 98 percent of all the kids tortured me for being the fattest kid in school, or the smartest kid in school, or both (and yes, I was both) Joan always took the high road.  She refused to participate in any of the teasing or mockery.  When we passed in the halls she always had a smile and a hello.  That stayed true right up until we graduated and went our separate ways.  By high school I was no longer fat, and certainly no longer the smartest -- barely in the top ten at best, I think.  Joan still was always nice to me.  She was a Class Act.  I find myself missing her acutely -- someone I have not seen or heard from in forty years.  And yet at our next reunion I know I will find myself missing her acutely.

I understand that Joan went on to get her doctorate in communications.  I know her husband and her family will miss her.  She was laid to rest by the same family funeral home that has served my home town of Raritan since before I was born.  Their motto is "Forever In Our Hearts" and I do believe it will be true for Joanie.  Once, we were kids together; once, we ran around on the same playground and played on swings together; we suffered through the same boring classes and enjoyed the same class trips to the Museum of Natural History in New York City.  Now at age 56 she is gone, and I think that that is a damned, damned shame.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Humanist Me

I discovered that I was a Unitarian-Universalist when I walked into the church in Charlottesville, Virginia, 27 years ago and heard a sermon preached by the Rev. Charles Howe.  That was my “coming home” epiphany.  The congregation was largely  composed of humanists, and while I don’t remember the topic of the sermon, I do remember how much it resonated with me, and how happy I was to have found a community of like-minded individuals.  I want to talk a little bit about how humanist reverence is part of my life.   I personally don’t believe in God, or in any kind of an afterlife, but I DO believe in redemption.  I find redemption from the worst parts of myself, because I share my journey with Pagans and Buddhists and Quakers and Jews, with recent converts and lifelong Unitarian-Universalists.

I didn’t mention the humanists specifically, even though I consider myself one, because I think that deep down I tended to think that most lifelong U-U’s WERE humanists.  That’s what first attracted me to this faith in the 1980’s, and it was only recently that I realized that I might have been doing those U-U’s a disservice.  There’s more to this religion than humanism.  For some time I have seen Unitarians embracing a more spiritual approach and paying more attention to our Judeo-Christian roots, while still respecting the individual's free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

27 years ago, "coming home" for me meant coming to a fairly homogeneous church, where everybody pretty much agreed on everything, from politics to spirituality.  We practiced Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of humanism, trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after we’re dead. We rarely mentioned God or Jesus, although I felt very hip whenever we worked Buddha into a service.  I don’t think that church would feel so much like home any more.  I still share time each week with like-minded people, people I care about.  But now coming home for me means coming to be with people who have many differences as well, and who celebrate both their differences and their commonalities.

I still have no use for God myself, except maybe as a scapegoat for the odd mishap, or as someone I can order to damn the driver who just cut me off.  And yet I still manage to find spirituality in all kinds of places.  Recently I spent an afternoon in the Sierra Nevada mountains surrounded by clouds of wild hummingbirds.  I felt what I can only describe as a holy reverence for the natural world.  I felt the same thing when, as a young man in my 20’s, I went out into the Blue Ridge mountains one night, away from all the lights of people and civilization, and I saw the stars, really SAW the STARS for the first time in my life.  (I grew up in New Jersey.  We’re lucky if we can see the moon there!)  I feel that same feeling when a baby makes eye contact with me from across the room, when I KNOW that baby is really LOOKING at ME, and then smiles.  Just for me.  Vonnegut also says that, “Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us.  Everything else about us is machinery.”  He says that we are the lucky mud that gets to sit up and look around.

I find the holiness of existence all around me.  I wish I appreciated it more, but when I remember to look for it, it’s there.  No God is required.  It’s in the momentary flash of Buddhist mindfulness I sometimes actually achieve, and then promptly lose when I realize, “Hey!  I just achieved mindfulness!”  I find holiness in quiet moments when I see my daughter reading or my wife knitting.  I find it in Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto, I hear it when Sarah Brightman sings “Nessun Dorma”, and I see it in that baby’s smile.  I’ll take that every time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So Far So Good, or Manifest Destiny: The Movie

So far, so good; still a couple of days to go in my second week and here I am. Maybe I can do 52 posts this year after all!

Recently I was asked to come up with some thoughts on the 19th-Century War With Mexico in the context of the questionable morality of today's conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is what I came up with; your comments are most welcome.

Even as a kid, I remember being vaguely troubled in school when I learned about America’s war with Mexico in the 19th Century. I remember that we had to memorize the date of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, because it was going to be On The Test, but we glossed over the truly important stuff and just cut to the fact that when it was all over, the United States had Texas and California and New Mexico and such, because it was, quote, “our young country’s Manifest Destiny,” end quote.

Manifest Destiny. A complete fabrication that was basically marketed to the American people in order to justify an otherwise unjustifiable conflict. I remember my teacher telling me that “manifest” meant “obvious” but she never explained just HOW it was obvious, or to whom. Please remember that this was back when Ike was a President, not a hurricane. Manifest Destiny. It reminds me of a similar phony idea -- the Domino Theory. That was another load of, uh, fabrication used to sell a war with which I DO have some experience, the War in Vietnam.
The Domino Theory was, of course, the idea that if America let Vietnam fall to the communists it would lead to country after country falling like dominoes into the shadow of communist rule. Which sounded like the shadow of Mordor. Y'know. The Bad Kind of shadow.

I never for a second bought the Domino Theory. I was active in the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and found it much easier to believe in American colonialism and even imperialism as the real reason for the war, and as a reason, I found it wanting. I was one of the fortunate souls to get a high number in the last draft lottery, so I was free to remain home, to pursue my education, and to protest the war nonviolently at every opportunity. At one protest at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, the county sheriff literally released the hounds on us, and in the course of running for my life I met a man who would become one of my best friends for a brief time in college. We helped each other over a garden wall to escape the dogs. His name was Shep.
Shep was five years older than I was, and a Vietnam vet. He was one of the first members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He was funny, and brilliant, and convinced that most, if not all, of his health problems were the result of his exposure to the various defoliants used indiscriminately while he was on the front lines. Shep constantly struggled to get the medical care to which we now know he was entitled as a vet. I was young and naive and had no real idea of how much pain Shep must have been in until he took his own life in 1973. He was the first casualty of that war to affect me personally and directly. He was not the last.

I continue to believe that the Vietnam war was an unjust war, that Americans should have been better than that. I remember being called unpatriotic for that belief. I imagine that the Americans who were troubled about the Mexican War (which the Mexicans, by the way, still call “The American Invasion of Mexico”) felt much the same way -- that Americans should have been better than that. And I imagine that those against that war in the 1840’s were also blasted for a lack of patriotism Now again in my lifetime I find my country involved in the prosecution of a conflict I believe to be immoral, and I feel the same shame, that my government used falsehoods and catch-phrases like “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to market the second Iraq war to the American people, when we should be better than that. And again, a minority who is against the war, as I have been from its very beginning, has to contend with being branded as unpatriotic.

There was one more thing that I didn’t learn in school about the Mexican War. I recently learned that when all was said and done, when you added up the deaths from war and wounds and disease and other consequences, the Mexican War had a casualty rate of around 40%, making it the deadliest war in our history. We may never know the exact casualty rate for the War in Vietnam. Shep is probably not counted among them. His name isn’t on the famous Wall, although I can’t visit it without thinking of him. I hope we find a way to end the wars we’re prosecuting now before the cost becomes any higher. I shudder to think of all the Sheps we are creating even now.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A New Year, A New Challenge

Well, here I am, back again after far too long. An acquaintance has come back into my life, a woman I have admired and wanted to know better for a long time, and in our conversation tonight she mentioned that she has resolved to blog every day this year. Yikes! So I have decided to try to at least write something every week this year. Not necessarily related to the Green Lantern or to things related to comics at all, but just to write something and throw it at the blogosphere and hope that something sticks. I hope that if you have found me, you will stick with me! More to come....