Monday, January 30, 2012

Nature's Poetry

White Owl,  yahoo/NYT photo image. They look so soft and lovely. 
When I read fantastic stories about the wonders of nature, like the recent rare phenomenon of flocks of white owls flying further south than usual across the US, or see photos of our earth and planets taken by Voyager or other intrepid spacecraft sent from earth decades ago, I am mesmerized.  Enthralled. 

       I absorb the news with a stunned reverence for the natural beauty that surrounds us.  I wish I could write about it like poet Mary Oliver, whose poems make nature's bounty--a flock of geese, white owls, black bears, mountains, rivers,and wild flowers--come alive in our very being and way of seeing.  My cousin Leo’s wife Kathy noted, when she sent me Oliver’s poetry in Ukraine, “Oliver is so gifted at illuminating the universal truths in small particulars—especially particulars of nature.”   Here’s an Oliver poem that came to mind when I read about those beautiful white Owls venturing further South than normal:

Snow Geese by Mary Oliver (New & Selected Poems, Vol.2  Beacon, 2005)

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!  
   What a task
      To ask

Of anything, or anyone,

Yet it is ours,
   And not by the century or the year, but by the hours.

One fall day I  heard
    Above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was

A flock of snow geese, winging it
     Faster than the ones we usually see,
And, being the color of snow, catching the sun

So they were, in part at least, golden.  I 
Held my breath
As we do
Sometimes
To stop time
When something wonderful
Has touched us

As with a match
Which is lit, and bright,
But does not hurt
In the common way,
But delightfully
As if delight
Were the most serious thing
You ever felt.

The geese
flew on.
I have never seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
Is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
As through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.


Photo of White Geese flying by howardsview.com, yahoo images. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Roman Numerals: Looking back from MMXII

Number LII entrance, still visible, on Colosseum, Rome. 
Super Bowl LXVI is coming up.  That’s number 46.  I had to look it up because I forgot my Roman numerals. The ancient Roman number system isn’t used much anymore.  Hasn’t been since around the 14th century when the Roman empire crumbled.  You see the symbols here and there, in book titles and chapters, the titles of popes and queens, and some special events, like the Olympics and the Super Bowl.  That's about it for lingua Latina in this day and age.  


But the numbers take me back to my high school days at Harley School in Rochester, New York, when I took four years of the Latin language in two years.  Most students gave up at two years, but I went on, alone, with the famed Mrs. Bullock, in my Senior year. 


We read Virgil's Aenead together in the school library, the beautiful epic poem about the founding of Rome, and we read a little Cicero and Horace because she loved them. We read some in Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, too, full of incredible images that have always stayed with me.  It was just the two of us.  She called me her “little scholar.” This made me feel that I had to try to keep up.  She fed me lots of Roman and Greek history, stayed patiently with me while I read in Latin and translated, and encouraged every word along the way.  She gave me her copy of Galey’s “Classic Myths,” which I loved, and cherish to this day. Those fantastic classic myths beloved by Joseph Campbell and other scholars.  Mrs. Bullock was delighted when I picked out an Ovid love poem on my own and read it to her.  I liked Ovid because he wrote about love and not battles, appealing to an 18-year-old girl at the time.  

She’d laugh at my having to look up Roman numerals today.  But I’ve got it down now, again, and have her to thank for it.  In fact, I have her to thank for the best classical education one could get in the late 1950s.  It saw me through college and graduate school; shaped my love of learning and history; taught me to think, question, keep discovering.  It inspired my lifelong interest in the humanities, travel, and learning about different cultures that took me far beyond my classical foundation.  Thanks, Mrs. Bullock, and Harley School!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Life is like a song": For Etta James

Photo from Wikipedia,.Album cover, 1961. Song by Mack Gordon and
Harry Warren for a 1941 musical film, Orchestra Wives.
Celine Dion, Beyonce and many other jazz and blues greats have sung the song,
but the Etta James rendition still moves the heart .



At Last Lyrics by Etta James
At last, my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
Oh, yeah, at last
The skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clovers
The night I looked at you
I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to rest my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
Oh, yeah when you smile, you smile
Oh, and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine
At last


“At Last” has always been one of my favorite romantic songs, and the great blues singer Etta James' version is the best of all.  


The song has been recorded by Celine Dion, Beyonce and almost every famous blues and jazz musician and artist of our time.  I  love  listening to Mile Davis playing "At Last."  A Wikipedia article (glad it's up and running again) also reminds us that President Obama and Michelle danced to various renditions of the song at each of the 10 formal balls honoring his inauguration.  They understood "the tradition," the blues and jazz tradition, and the importance of keeping it alive.


That's why it was sad to learn that Etta James, one of the legends in that tradition, just died of leukemia at her home in California at age 73.  That's not old, but she lived a hard and gritty life, and the years seemed to age her, conflict and pain etched in her face. The song is romantic and joyful, unlike her own life, according to the recent news stories.  


Now she is released.  She will live in her songs forever.  “And here we are in heaven....At last."



Thursday, January 19, 2012

Occupy Congress!

If "we the people," the citizens of a democracy, should occupy anything, it should be the U.S. Congress, the people's house.  Instead the Congress seems to be occupied by self-serving, narrow-minded politicians more interested in making a point than doing what is best for the country as a whole.
US Capital under a cloud.
Photo by Ed Brown/Wikimedia

The third leg of the pillar of democracy, the Legislative branch, is broken.  Some citizens aren’t too happy with the Executive and Judicial branches either, but the Legislative Branch, which is supposed to embody the will of the people, is definitely in  trouble.  

A recent  Washington Post/ABC poll shows the highest disapproval rating in years: 84%  of Americans disapprove of how Congress is doing its business.  An AP-Gfk poll confirms the sorry news, putting the disapproval rating at 87%.  Good heavens, that's nearly unanimous.  Are our elected officials listening to their constituents?

Four out of five people surveyed said the debate on the debt ceiling, for example, was "more about gaining political advantage than doing what is best for the country."  (Yahoo news, 1/17/12).   The branch of government that is supposed to make, amend and repeal the laws of the land has become a circus.  It's devolved into a sophomoric debating club where narrow self-interests take precedence over the common good. And citizens are fed up.    
  
The 435-member House of Representatives, now led by Speaker John Boehner (R, Ohio), is especially contentious.  A majority of Americans think the extreme right wing of the Republican party and its Tea Party members  have  run roughshod over the people’s interest.  The common good?  What's that?  At a time when the economy is hurting, the ideologues are adding fuel to the flames.  We've elected people that don't meet our standards for what makes a good and effective legislative leader.

The 100-member Senate has also fallen victim to partisan bickering, unbecoming to the title "Senator."    Where are the Edward Kennedys and Robert Byrds?  The statesmen and stateswomen? Have a few rotten apples spoiled the whole barrel?  Looks that way.

It looks like personal philosophical differences over jobs, wealth and income disparity, and the role of the federal government have hardened into cement-like positions unmovable by facts, logic, rational inquiry and, more important, the long-term interests of the majority of Americans.  The Occpuy movement gave this impasse a slogan:  Serve the 99%, not the 1%, and restore Americans' faith in government.  It’s now on to “Occupy Congress.”  Will Congress listen?  And just as critical, will the American people hold their elected officials and political candidates to the higher standards they express in public opinion polls? 


  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Struggling with Bridge


I'm still struggling with the game of Bridge.  I join my friends pretty faithfully, and they are quite patient with me.  But I'm not sure I have the devotion required to learn how to play sufficiently, let alone well.  The latter, of course, requires playing a lot of games over many years, like Irene, Phyllis, Carol and Char, I think in that order, too.

I enjoy the friendship, camaraderie, good lunches (at various restaurants and, in the photo at right, at Irene's home),  the satisfaction and angst that go with the game. Bridge bidding and playing are an art requiring skill, lots of cerebral activity (that's always good for the aging mind), thinking ahead. I like watching Irene and Phyllis communicating in bridge language and strategizing their plays. They are so intent, and so good. Keeps them young, their minds agile.

But I'm not there yet.  Not even close.  I might look for a Bridge group in San Miguel.  If I don't master the game, or feel more comfortable playing when I get back to Sylvania in March, well then maybe bridge is not my game.  Or I can say I tried it but want to try something else.  At that point, I'll have to make a commitment, one way or the other.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Haiti Redux: Trapped in its Tragic History

Haiti street looks like a war zone, by Asnsel Herz (yahoo images)


In a small village in Haiti's central plateau lives a woman with seven children. When a visitor asked the oldest what he would like to be when he grows up, his mother spoke up first. "That a very complicated question," she said in Creole, through an interpreter. "There is no hope for him.  He has no future." 

Eyes downcast, the boy glanced sideways at the questioner."Engineer," he said quietly.                
        --From Rev. W. Evan Golden,"Haiti Today: Hope & Despair,"  Church of Christ News.

Hope and despair. A mother’s fear, a child’s dream.  
I think of Haiti a lot.  It's in the news again, for what is not happening.  Economy in shambles, Port-au-Prince in shambles, people's lives in shambles, recovery stalled and "painfully" slow.  

Why does it remain such a poverty-stricken nation, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, unable to get on its feet?  Why can’t it build a civil society based on the rich resources of its people, their joyous traditions and unique culture? Why is Haiti so stuck in its tragic history of slavery, foreign occupation, violent revolution, and misery?
                 
A new book by historian Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, retells the sad story (Henry Holt & Company, 2011).  I saw the book in the library a few days ago and browsed through it.  I wanted to learn more about the post-Duvalier era, but was disappointed; the book focuses on the brutal history of occupation, including the two-decades long US Marine occupation beginning in 1915. Who was paying attention when the world was at war?  The US did a good job of exploiting and confiscating Haiti’s resources, destroying villages, humiliating the people, and killing thousands.

Poor Haiti, caught in the web of history, with no exit, still trying to find a way out.  Efforts to free Haiti from its past continues to this day, exacerbated by man-made disasters like the ruthless dictatorship of the Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc), and by natural disasters, including the devastating earthquake in 2010, two years ago.  I remember watching TV stories in horror, from Ukraine, as the tiny nation on Hispanola Island turned into a wasteland, like what we saw in Japan after the earthquake and giant tsunami.  Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capitol city, was consumed, destroyed, as if hit by an atomic bomb.  It looked like a war zone, like the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, of Vietnam, of World War I and II.  From recent news reports, it still does.

International assistance flowed into Haiti after the earthquake, helped by an international relief committee headed by former president Bill Clinton and also by various nonprofit groups like Partners in Health.  But Clinton’s Recovery Commission closed down in October 2011, when it’s mandate expired (NYT, Haiti Update, 12/27/2011).   Money came and went, God knows where.

Is anything taking the place of the Recovery groups? Can anything help?  Some assistance programs and church volunteer groups remain, like the United Church of Christ, along with hundreds of hard-working but invisible NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). These offer some hope.

Yet Haiti still suffers from every social ill imaginable: no jobs, poor infrastructure, bad roads, descimated farmland, lack of effective rural development and, now, everything from a cholera epidemic to fading international interest and funds.  It’s not clear, actually, what happened to the millions pledged after the earthquake.  Where did the money go? Why is Haiti still a  hell.  Journalist and author Adam Hochschild asked the same question in his review of the Dubois book (NYT, 12/29/2011).  

I have often said Haiti’s best hope is the resilience and strength of its people. Does this diminish with time? 

What will happen to the young boy who dreams of being an engineer? 

What will reverse the web of history which traps Haiti in endless misery?  Hochschild says “the real freeing of Haiti from the burdens of the past…can be done only by Haitians themselves.”  The World Bank cites a leader with vision and the ability to inspire and motivate (http://news.yahoo.com/haiti-quake-victims-stuck-time-warp-211733034.html).  But I wonder. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Raising Chase


“It takes a village to raise a child,” the old African adage says. 

Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, now Secretary of State, borrowed the concept for her 1996 book on raising and educating healthy kids and good citizens.  I’m borrowing the idea to think about what is so special about our newest family member, baby Chase, now eight months old. 

I think I’ve got it:  Chase is being raised by a village, the village of his extended family, my kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, aunts, uncles and cousins of all varieties and generations, from the many branches of his complex, 21st-century family tree.

The place is Sylvania, but the village is the gathering of the clan around this child.

We all watch over Chase, hold him, smile with him, make him laugh, feed him, change his diaper, play with him, play music for him, read to him.  He inspires our maternal instincts, everyone of us, the boys and the girls, the adults and the seniors, from the oldest to the youngest, that would be Philip, and in between.   He usually has three or four faces looking down at him at any given moment.   

Chase will never know what’s it’s like to be an only child, or a lonely child.  There are too many of us.  We are always in his face, and we all take incredible pleasure from it.  He knows it.  It makes him smile, pure joy, and it makes our hearts sing: a chorus from the village that is raising sweet Chase.  


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Year's wishes for my Grandkids


Kyle, Philip and Josh in Peace Corps gifts!
Who knows what the future will hold for my seven grandchildren.  They range in ages from 23 years down to 5 months.  The world, ever-changing, holds both challenges and opportunities, the ying and yang of life.  They have lots of choices. 

I hope they chose wisely.  I hope their wishes come true.  I hope they stay safe and healthy. That the god/goddess who watches over children is always with them.  That angels like my brother Loren sit on their shoulders at all times and protect them, encourage them, give them confidence.  That they stay positive about life, choose a good path to their future, take life’s inevitable ups and downs with strength, even humor, and remain resilient.  


I hope they remember that the content of their character and strong values are more important than material things, that their inner spirit is more important than their outer looks, that following their inner light is  more important than following other people's. 


I hope they remember they live in a global village, that some people are less fortunate than they are, that in gratitude and with hopefulness they can contribute to making the world and their environment a better place. 

These are some of my new year’s wishes for my grandchildren. I pray that they grow in wisdom, follow their dreams, be true to themselves.   And who knows, but some of them might even become Peace Corps Volunteers one day! 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2012: The Age of Aquarius?

2nd blog of 2012: Happy New Year!

The Age of Aquarius


When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
The age of Aquarius
Aquarius!
Aquarius!


Some of us thought we were on the threshold of a new age in the 1960s, the "Age of Aquarius."  The song is from "Hair," the phenomenal iconic musical of the time (1967, lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot). 

So here we are, some 45 years later, and some of us think we’re on the threshold of a new age, again, a new Age of Aguarius. Beginning in 2012.


Astrologists are having a field day.  Some reference the Mayan calendar, others Greek and Egyptian myths and philosophies.  Some study the movement of the planets and the stars and the constellations.  Others foretell the age of computers, electricity, unrest, nonconformity, and rebellion--kind of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.  A few, like author Eric Rankin (www.theaquarianage.com) see a huge “paradigm shift” away from the old ways of being and doing and into a new reality. 

That view resonates with me, looking at the national and international political changes going on in the world, the revolts and protests coming from the bottom up in what I call The Age of Information Democracy.  Protestors' goals and agendas may not be clear, but their discontent with inequity, injustice, and corruption is.  That must mean something.


Writer Ed Perrone (www.innerself.com) sees “the spiritual evolution of consciousness,” individually and collectively, which is another interesting way to look at the Age of Aquarius: the spiritual evolution of life on earth, the social progress of humankind in the global village.  Change on a macro and micro scale.


I find all these ideas intriguing as we enter a new year.  Maybe 2012 will usher in the “Age of Aquarius” embodied in the 1960s anthem.  Some folks think the lyrics are a bunch of giberrish, by the way, but I lean in that dreamy direction of hope.  

Certainly enormous changes are underway in our world, with no end in sight, and little certainty. I’m thinking politically and socially, in the internet era, the power of social networks and online communication, and also environmentally.  A new age is dawning.  

Perhaps if humankind's wishes and dreams could align across the planet, transcend the politics of ruling elites, reject wars and religious extremism, put our tiny world, Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot," in perspective, then the Age of Aquarius might be upon us.   

Monday, January 2, 2012

My Three Ukrainian Host Moms


My three host moms:  Sledding with Luba on Panfelova Street; me and Valya in Chernigov. whose husband Nikolai and dog Jack were also part of the family; sweet Natalia on Kyrova Street in the center of Starobelsk. 

I want to say a special Happy New Year to my three Ukrainian host moms.  These were the wonderful women, Valya in Chernigov and Luba and Natalia in Starobelsk, who put me up in their homes; gave me a cozy bedroom; cooked meals, fantastic meals; washed clothes and helped hang them on the clotheslines outside, in all kinds of weather; taught me how to get around;  how to walk from here to there and how to use the marshruka and other public transportation; how to treat a cold using traditional home remedies.  

They spoke not a word of English, but they made me part of their families. We got along with a dictionary, sometimes google, sometimes an English-speaking friend like Natalia Dohadailo, who taught English at the university, and most often pantomime.  We wanted to communicate on a deeper level, but couldn't and that was the most frustrating part of my PCV experience. 

My host moms helped me with my language studies (it's no fault of theirs, or my wonderful Russian language teachers, that I remained a novice);  made sure I was dressed appropriately before I went out the door, shared their food and friendship.  They were all younger than me.  I could have been their moms.  But under the circumstances, new to the country, unskilled in the language, ignorant of Ukrainian ways and the activities and pace of daily life, totally out of my comfort zone, they mothered me.   I couldn’t have been more fortunate.  I could not have made it without them.   

Valya, Luba, and Natalia.  They made my two-years in Ukraine memorable.  I came to love them, and I miss them.  We opened our hearts to each other, knowing I was only a temporary visitor.  I’ll never begin a new year without thinking of them, their kindness to a stranger, their unstinting caring and generosity of spirit.  How lucky our paths crossed at all.  How lucky I am to have known them.  How grateful for what they gave me!