Our next to last art class before summer break was right before Memorial Day. I had my last cataract surgery on the Tuesday before, so Mike gave me a lift into class. I wasn’t quite ready to drive yet. I thought we’d be finishing the work we began last week, but that wasn’t on the program for the class. Time for an audible.
John Wesley wanted his clergy to be always ready at a moment’s notice to “pray, preach, move, or die.” We art teachers have always been able to think on our feet and pull a project out of thin air. High school debate team extemporaneous speaking events are excellent trading grounds for this life skill.
Memorial Day is one of the official days for displaying the American flag. Arkansas Flag & Banner has an informative paragraph (6d) at the link below on the days to display the flag if you aren’t flying it daily. The origins of Memorial Day are shrouded in mystery, since at least 25 sites claim to be the first to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. From Columbus, MS, on April 25, 1866, to Boalsburg, PA, in 1864, cities north and south claim the fame of being first to decorate soldiers’ graves.
On May 5, 1866, Waterloo, NY, held a ceremony to honor local veterans who fought in the Great War. Businesses closed and citizens flew their flags at half staff. Other sites were not citywide or were one time events. As a result, in 1966, Congress declared Waterlo, NY, the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
The Civil War took the lives of 750,000 men, not counting those who lost limbs or minds as casualties of the war, according to J. David Hacker, a demographic historian at Binghamton University, who has raised the estimate of how many deaths there were in the American Civil War from just under 620,000. One of every four soldiers failed to return home. If this devastating war took place today, 7.5 million people would have died in the fighting. As a reminder, the scourge of COVID-19 has killed 1,123,836 people in the United States alone since 2019.
Of course, as our ability to preserve life improves, our reverence for life increases. We just disagree at which point in time life should be honored and respected, and which lives are worth honoring and respecting. Perhaps we’re just a people given to disagreement and division by nature, or our old wounds from this ancient conflict continue to fester and boil, so we pick new battles to fight with words, rather than blows.
America lost 1,190,085 total service members’ lives from 1775 to 1991. The ongoing Global War on Terror has yet to be accounted because it isn’t finished. Although they underestimated the number of Civil War casualties, this one home grown conflict was responsible for about half of the war deaths of all American service members. It was a cruel war, in a brutal age. Things we take for granted today—dog tags for identification, mobile army surgery hospitals, anesthesia, sanitary camp conditions, humane treatment of prisoners, nutrious rations, and other civilized practices—weren’t part of the Civil War experience. In the American Civil War, twice as many soldiers died of disease as from hostile action.
World War II was the first war to have more deaths caused from the battlefield than from other causes. Greatly improved public health in armies has lowered the toll of disease to a fraction of what it was in earlier centuries. Modern military medicine has now allowed larger and larger armies. In short, military medicine, while greatly improving the care of the individual soldier, has enabled nations to have bigger armies and greater wars. We see the unfortunate consequences of these improvements in the current aggressive Russian attempt to takeover an independent Ukrainian democratic state against its people’s will.
After several years together in our art class, Gail and Mike are both now open to making an artwork that presents an idea or an emotion, more than a representation of a form. Not everything has to be a photorealistic rendering of an object before us. We do this often enough to build our skills of seeing and drawing, but we also need to build our expressive skills also. As an example in the spiritual life, we can spend our days in intercessory prayer, but we also participate in contemplative prayer or meditation to exercise the less analytical ways we can meet God in prayer.
Mike went on vacation recently and had the opportunity to take an art class with a different instructor. He suggested Mike give up his dedication to the small brush, a comment I often make. Now he’s excited about the freedom of the large brush and is exploring this new tool and technique.
Gail mixed the reds and blues to make violet, as if the colors of the flag were washing into to one another. Many artists have changed the colors of the flag, but kept the design, or they kept the colors and destroyed the design. This is artistic license or creative interpretation. We make our statements with our images. She also changed the stars into circles by using a sponge to put down the paint. It was a good day for experimenting.
I came home to finish up my painting with memories of visiting Civil War battlefields on my mind. I thought of those ancient days when families were able to identify their loved ones only by the special knit patterns of the socks on the bodies, or by the last letters to relatives pinned into their shirts. The Gold Star Mothers began during World War I when the mothers of fallen servicemen united to share their grief. By 1928, it was an official organization and the bereaved families were recognized with a pin.
When I lived in San Antonio, I ocassionally visited the various military hospitals in town. There I saw the photos of the Medal of Honor recipients and read the summaries of their noble deeds. I always renewed my dedication to my less dangerous occupation afterward. Those who serve are a different breed from an ordinary person such as I. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best in his 1863 Gettysburg Address:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Amanda Gorman’s excellent 2021 inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” has a section which echoes the sentiments of the post Civil War era, when Memorial Day celebrations first began:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another We seek harm to none and harmony for all Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree And no one shall make them afraid If we’re to live up to our own time Then victory won’t lie in the blade But in all the bridges we’ve made That is the promised glade The hill we climb If only we dare.
On this Memorial Day, over 150 years later, the wheels of justice are setting the sentences for the insurrectionists who attempted to impede the peaceful transfer of power to the newly elected government of the United States. We do well to remember the prescient words of Frederick Douglass, who said at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1871:
“We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers.”
At 3:00 pm on Memorial Day, let’s pause for a moment and remember those who sacrificed body, mind, or life to keep our nation free, or to bring freedom to a nation that so desperately yearns for it.
Joy and Peace, and thanks to those who keep it for us,
Welcome to June! I’ve found my sunshades and my flip flops, so this rabbit is ready for a summer vacation. Old school teachers never die, they just take the summer off. And teachers, as well as students, will need a summer off, along with some intensive counseling, to get them ready to return in a healthy frame of mind next fall.
In my early years in ministry, I served in a certain county where many people were caught up in despair. I often complained to my district superintendent of my desire to pour mood elevators into the public water supply.
“You do know drugging the water supply isn’t exactly an acceptable activity for a Methodist minister?”
“Oh, yeah, but it sure would make my job easier.”
Remember, June 3 is Love Conquerors All Day. I need to remind myself of this on occasion when I want to take the easy road. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
Taking the easy way out isn’t always the best choice, but it’s the one we rabbits most often choose. We rabbits don’t like to rock the boat, and we like to make all the other rabbits happy if at all possible. The only problem is if we please A, B gets upset. If we please B, A gets upset. We don’t even try to please C, since C is so cranky, even the good Lord Jesus couldn’t fry an egg to please them. We set our hearts and minds on pleasing God, as best we can, and hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Chocolate ice cream brings me joy any day of the year, but June 7 is a day dedicated to this frozen delight. Don’t worry about frying eggs, but keep it frozen. I like mine plain, but fresh strawberries or peaches are a nice addition, plus some chopped nuts. Always go for complex, unless you just can’t wait. Then grab a spoon and eat it straight from the pint. (Mark it with your name, since you ate from it.)
Often we cut the Gordian Knot and go for the shortcut to our complex problems. Sometimes this is a good solution, for the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. My daughter used to call my vacation navigation shortcuts “the long cuts,” since I’m directionally challenged. Most of the time, that straight line went through swamp land and alligators. I can hear her voice now, “NOOOOO!!!” I’m known for taking the scenic route, so I often see America’s less known sights, which are off the beaten path.
In the gospel of Luke (14:34), Jesus quotes a proverbial saying:
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Another translation of the latter portion of this verse is “how can it be used for seasoning?”
When I think of loss, I think of a life snuffed out. Some people are burned out, so we can say they’ve lost their seasoning ability. There’s no vim or vigor in them. Other lives are cut short and aren’t able to fulfill their purpose to season the great soup of our community. Our past month was marked by 47 mass shooting incidents in May alone. A mass shooting incident is defined as one in which at least four people are injured or killed, not including the shooter. Suicides aren’t included.
Suicides are also a public health problem. They are the “deaths of despair” that leave ripples of grief and hopelessness in the survivors. They’re the ultimate shortcut solution to a problem, the placing of a period where life has placed a comma or a semicolon. My daughter once attempted suicide by downing half a bottle of aspirin. I noticed the open bottle and pills scattered across the floor. She said the “dog ate it.”
“That’s too bad, I’m going to miss that dog. She won’t be long for this world. We’ll need to make burial plans for her.”
“Well, actually, I’m the one who ate the aspirin.”
“Then we’re going to the hospital. You aren’t going to like getting your stomach pumped, but it’s better than being dead. You want to have a chance to grow up and have a good life. A dog we can replace. You—not so much.”
It was a rough time in her life, and mine too. But God was with us. And we had support from counselors, friends, family, and our church family. My work family and my clients supported me too. I must be the most extroverted rabbit in the patch, because I asked everyone for help. It turned out my problem was shared by everyone else. I discovered I wasn’t alone, but was the most ordinary of rabbits around.
This is a humbling experience, especially when you’re a first child and the only girl. I admit to being spoiled, but don’t let my brother rabbits hear me say this. I’ll deny it to my last breath: I’m like every other rabbit I know. I want to think I’m someone special, even when I’m just as fluffy as every other bunny out there on Gods green earth.
Unfortunately, half the suicides today are committed with a gun, not aspirins. When looking at overall gun deaths, roughly two-thirds are attributed to suicides—a proportion that is consistent across most states. Gun suicides are on the rise and data also indicates men, white Americans, older people, and individuals living in rural areas present higher rates of gun suicides. Another group presenting a unique risk for suicide is current and former members of the armed forces, especially those with PTSD.
Compared with the general population, current and former military members have significantly higher rates of gun ownership. According to a 2015 study, nearly 50% of U.S. veterans own a gun. In contrast, studies suggest that only about 22% of the general U.S. population owns firearms. Similarly, the age groups of 50 to 64 years old and 65 and older have the highest rates of gun ownership, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. This can further explain the high rates of suicide among older veterans.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in 2019, close to 4,332 veterans died by gun suicide in the United States, representing close to 18 percent of the total number of gun suicides reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during that year. Perhaps more alarming is the fact this figure shows a veteran is killed by gun suicide every two hours. In 2019, active duty military members committed suicide by gun 64% of the 498 total (318), almost one gun suicide per day.
Why isn’t anyone speaking about this? For all the lip service our politicians give to the flag and to the armed service members, they seem to forget them once they’re no longer useful to fight their wars or march in their parades. Perhaps because Congress won’t devote any money to study the effects of gun violence on the citizens of our Beautiful America, so we have to fund private studies here and there to piece together a patchwork of facts of this scourge on the peace of our people.
My young neighbor, only 8 years old, was in a panic as he knocked on my door the other day. His parents hadn’t come straight up the elevator, as they’d said they would. He was crying to beat the band and was sure something bad had happened to them. I invited him inside and left the door open so we could see them come past. He was so worked up, he couldn’t sit down. I suggested a call to his daddy, but they came walking past just at that moment.
We don’t realize what terror these school shootings put our children through. There’s no safe place for them any more, no matter how “hardened” we make the buildings. Some person always breaks the shell at the most inopportune moment.
Some rabbits will have empty seats at their family reunion tables because someone decided to act impulsively. Father’s Day (June 19) won’t be a celebration without the son or daughter to give Dad the tie, the golf balls, or breakfast in bed.
I think back to my own childhood. We worried in the 1950’s more about the urban legends of Halloween candy poisoning, when we were more likely to get killed crossing Highway 1, a four lane highway running through our town. My mother rabbit would wait for me to ride the trolley home from school. She would wait until the near lane of traffic cleared before she walked out to the center median and time this so the far lane’s cars would finish passing so she could walk across the newly empty lanes to meet me on the other side. We held hands and crossed in the same manner on the way back to our home.
This was our routine from the start of school until sometime in the autumn. Mother was delayed one day, so I sat down to wait for her and opened my book to read. I was wearing a brown jacket against the early cool spell, and my dirty blonde hair blended in with the pile of dry leaves on the ground. Intent on my book, I failed to see her come outside. She overlooked me and went inside thinking I’d missed my ride.
A bit later, I decided if she wasn’t coming for me, I’d come to her. Gathering up my possessions, I stood on the curbside. I watched the comings and goings of the quickly moving traffic. Once I saw the break in the pattern, I walked out into the clearing, waited at the median, and crossed behind the trailing traffic of the second lane. When I walked inside, my mother had a conniption fit. After this, I began riding my bicycle to school, and my brother got to come with me.
Not everyone is mature enough to cross a four lane busy highway by themselves when they’re in the fourth grade, which is the same age as the children who lost their lives at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. . Some people still need to be supervised at work even in their 20’s. The brain keeps maturing past age 21, as the frontal lobes, which are home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” (such as planning, working memory, and impulse control) are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life. Although neuroscience has been called upon to determine adulthood, there is little empirical evidence to support age 18, the current legal age of majority, as an accurate marker of adult capacities.
Since May 24, the date of this tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, the gunviolencearchive.org has recorded 16 mass shootings in six days, with 79 killed or wounded. Some of these are high school graduation parties where uninvited guests arrived and gunfire broke out, others are the result of young people wandering about in the late hours and getting into trouble with guns. During my time of ministry, youth, alcohol, and firearms were usually a recipe for trouble. Maybe parental rabbits’ brains are still developing too, if they aren’t able to put their rabbit foot down and tell the junior rabbits to leave their weapons at home. Visiting Jack Rabbit in jail for accidental death or intentional use of a firearm will throw a curve into your best laid plans for your progeny.
Instead, cities may have to reinstitute curfews after dark to curtail the opportunities for gun violence. Or they could raise the age to buy a weapon and require a longer waiting time and a more thorough background check. I wouldn’t be opposed to a training class and a test to see if the owner knows how to use the weapon safely. After all, we do this for the 2 ton weapon of mass destruction known as the family automobile. So what if the founding fathers never had autos; they also never had automatic pistols or large magazine weapons, modeled on the ones used in combat.
Did I mention June is National Safety Month? Its emphasis is workplace safety, but as a former teacher, this old rabbit reminds you, between 2009 and 2020, teachers’ workplaces are in schools, which is where 30% of mass shootings occurred in public places (schools, malls, or bars), while 61% of mass shootings occurred entirely in the home and another 9% occurred partially in a home and partially in a public location. The common factor in these is the gun and the presence of domestic violence. In at least 53 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2020, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member during the rampage.
I know y’all usually expect a bright and cheery note from me at the beginning of the month, but my heart is broken. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but they don’t stop the carnage. We need to make some changes. At least one man has turned in his assault weapon to his local police station, so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. He couldn’t bear the thought of it being used to perpetrate a similar crime if he were to sell it. If we parents don’t say no to our children, if we keep voting for politicians who are doing nothing, then we get to keep the distinction of having the highest rate of violent gun deaths for any of the developed countries.
That’s not the American Exceptionalism I believe in. We can do better. These are crimes against the common good and against the innocent. The shooter shares the primary blame, but everyone who does nothing to change our society for the better also shares the blame and shame for the next group of victims. At the rate we’re going, we’re having about one mass shooting per day. Eventually this scourge will come to YourTown, USA, and your small town police force will be just as flabbergasted as poor Uvalde’s. How could this happen in our little corner of the world?
I cry along with Jeremiah ( 8:21-22):
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Sometimes we go along with the attributes of cultural Christianity, rather than practicing the Christianity of Jesus Christ. Romans 12:2 reminds us
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The saying is true: “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” Yet how hard do we humans hold to the past, even if we need to move on into the future? As an artist, I’ve always been caught between my desire to honor the traditions of the past, but also to move into the the unknown realms of the future. Artists already have a vocabulary and boundaries to describe the works of the past, so we can tell if our current works “meet the criteria for excellence.”
When we go beyond this known world into the uncharted territories, we’re like Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean islands, but thought he was on the continent of North America. I wonder if the monarch butterfly, just emerging from the cocoon, has any idea it soon will begin a 3,000 mile migration to its ancestral winter home in Mexico. The butterfly has the innate ability to navigate this path, whereas we humans are like Abram, for we’re going to a land our God will show us. We have no idea where we’ll end up, but we do know we’ll travel by stages and God’s guiding inspiration will always be with us.
During this current protracted COVID pandemic, with cases beginning in mid December 2019, we’ve now lost over 766,206 persons in the US alone and over 47,390,239 individuals have had COVID. Worldwide, the numbers are far greater: over 5 million have died and nearly 255 million have contracted COVID, mostly because vaccines and health care services aren’t available to the extent they are in America and the European Community. Not only has our world as a whole suffered a great grief, but each of us individually have lost friends, neighbors, or loved ones. This adds to our collective grief.
When we see the rest of our world changing around us, we feel another loss, and this becomes the grief leading to the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Just as in our workplaces, when the ideas of the young, the female, and the ethnic individuals aren’t valued, their dismissal leads to devaluation of their perspectives as well as their personhood. When we devalue nature and treat creation as an arena for humanity to restructure for our purposes alone, we can fall into the trap of thinking only for our immediate future, but not for the generations to follow. This is why building lots inside the city get cleaned off and offered as a blank slate, since this makes them valuable to the greatest number of buyers.
Death by a thousand cuts was supposedly a form of torture in ancient China. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as matricide, patricide, treason, and the like. From all the tiny slices, the accused finally bled to death. It was a cruel and unusual punishment, rather like flogging the back of a law breaker until the flesh was raw, but this punishment was intended to cause death because the executioner kept at it until he succeeded.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of the loss of a few trees here and there in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we even want to cut down the trees on our own property because we’re tired of raking leaves every fall, or if we have a magnolia tree, we’re tired of our year round duty of leap reaping. Of course, if you want a high strung, classy tree to show off in your front yard, you also need to sign onto the high maintenance these trees require. “Those that wears the fancy pants has to take care of those fancy pants,” my mother always reminded me.
Yard work is a type of infrastructure most of us can understand. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, those of us hosting the feast are also getting the house and yard ready for family and friends to visit. Infrastructure has been in the news lately also, with politicians debating whether soft or hard infrastructure deserves the most funding.
In Hot Springs, we have “Green Infrastructure,” which includes all the natural assets that make the city livable and healthy: trees, parks, streams, springs, lakes and other open spaces. These assets are ‘infrastructure’ because they support peoples’ existence. For example, tree canopy keeps the city cooler while also absorbing air pollutants and mitigating flooding. The Hot Springs National Park forest area is also an important resource for a variety of reasons. The mountain area is in the recharge zone for the hot springs and the forest provides other important ecosystem services.
In urban areas, we can evaluate the landscape on a smaller scale, so even small patches of green space become important, since together they can make a greater large cumulative impact. Smaller urban spaces, such as linear stream valleys, or even pocket parks, can add up to a connected green landscape. When evaluating the ecological health of an urban area, urban tree canopy is a key green asset. For instance, Hot Springs has 57% tree canopy coverage and an additional 12% green space coverage. This adds to our quality of life, for this isn’t only pleasing to the eye, but the trees and grass convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, thus improving the air we breathe.
Cities are beginning to recognize the importance of their urban trees because they provide tremendous dividends. For example, city trees are a strategic way to reduce excess stormwater runoff and flooding. Even one tree can play an important role in stormwater management. For example, estimates for the amount of water a typical street tree can intercept in its crown range from 760 gallons to 4000 gallons per tree per year, depending on the species and age. Taken city-wide, the trees within the city provide an annual stormwater interception of 1.2 to 1.5 million gallons which equates to 7 to 9 million dollars in benefits. The loss of one tree is worth so much money, replanting our tree cover is an investment in our future wellbeing.
I often heard an old proverbial poem growing up, which may not be repeated much today:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
My nanny would remind me of the same principle in other words, “A stitch in time saves nine.” My daddy was from the school of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While those two schools of thought still persist today, I think making a small, inexpensive repair, rather than a costly replacement, is a better choice, but too many of us live in a throwaway society.
When we lose one small thing, we brush it off as no matter, but after a thousand small losses, we just can’t take it any longer. We look around and wonder what happened to our world, why didn’t we take action sooner, and now we might be in a hole so deep we can’t see the top. When I first painted the trees on this vacant lot, the little coffee kiosk had closed shop and moved on. It was springtime and the violet wisteria vines were bright against a sunlit cerulean sky.
As I was taking a few photos with my iPhone last spring, the local policeman pulled into the circular drive to check on me. We chatted a bit, but he wanted to make sure I was OK. I’m at that age when silver alerts go out for others, but I’m not there yet. I guess “old gal taking photographs of trees” still looks suspicious in my small town. I’m thankful my town is this quiet.
When I told the officer, “These trees called to me,” he might have had second thoughts about my state of mind. Then he realized he was talking to an artist. I was rescued when his radio called him off to take care of some real trouble. I find I do my best work when I feel called to a subject, for I have a spiritual connection with it.
That was this past April, and here at year’s end, this lot is up for auction, with a commercial use zoning. It has easy access to the bypass and would be good for a food place or a fuel stop. Things change and we can’t hold back progress. I know people who buy a vacation home to visit while they still work, but as soon as they retire to this same place, they grouse about all the weekenders who come and spoil their solitude. They put up with it a year or so, griping daily, and then sell and move on. Life changed for them and they didn’t adjust to their new normal. I wonder why they never realized Hot Springs was a vacation destination. We think we need an infrastructure just for the 38,500 people who live here year round, but we actually need an infrastructure to support the over two million visitors to whom we offer the hospitality of our hot springs, our hotels, our fine dining, our attractions, and our natural beauty.
When I saw the trees were gone and the lots had been plowed level, I wondered if the trees had a swift death, or if they had brief dreams and fantasies while the saws pierced their outer skins. I thought of the butterflies encased in their cocoons, and the deep sleep of their transformation. Do butterflies dream in this stage, or do they even dream like we do? I wondered if next April I would see wisteria growing near the ground, for as a weed, it’s hard to kill. I always hope, for I’ve learned over time, if I’m a prisoner of hope, this is better than seeing only the loss.
After traveling and recovering from an autumn sinus infection, I decided to destroy an old mobile sculpture of a butterfly made from found materials and attach it to a canvas. I took some scraps of cloth from some mask projects, and glued the whole to the canvas. Maybe I crammed more than I should have onto the small surface, but I was going with it. This work might be more catharsis than art, or more process and possibility than success. It doesn’t matter, for sometimes art is more therapeutic than anything else.
The first layer held all the colors and shapes of the original Google map. The second layer began to make sense of the shapes and textures, for I started to pull together the small areas into larger spaces. By the third layer, I’d lost most of the color areas and turned them instead into linear shapes. The primary colors of the background I subdued beneath an overall gold tone. The lines now are like an automatic writing or glyphic writing, which might be the language spoken either by the trees or the butterflies, or by all natural living beings.
When we confront suffering in nature, in our lives, or in the world, we often ask, “Where is God in all of this?” In the days past when I suffered, I held on to the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:18-21)
Often we suffer because we can’t change our past, or we think we can’t affect our future. At some point in our lives, we come to accept our suffering. We don’t have to continue to suffer, of course, but we need to accept that what happened to us is over. We can forgive ourselves for not leaving a bad relationship earlier, or being too young to know we were being harmed. Some of us may have survivor guilt from our nation’s wars, and suffer moral injuries from acts of war. Only good and decent human beings would feel this guilt, and they can heal with Christ’s forgiveness. We can be changed and then begin to change the world, even if we begin only with our own selves.
After all, the Psalms promise us God is faithful both to us and to the creation also: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)
After the initial burst of summer excitement, my community is not only sweltering in a heat wave, but we’re also smack dab in the midst of the third wave of this Covid-19 pandemic. We might be more than halfway through 2021, but at the rate my home state of Arkansas is pursuing vaccinations, it’ll be years before we reach the holy grail of herd immunity, estimated to be at 80% immunity. Only 37% of our people are fully immunized, with Alabama and Mississippi pulling up the rear nationally with 35% and the states of Louisiana and Wyoming tied with us at 37%.
Like the old gal who’s always worn a certain size shoe or dress, my state now tries to fit an increasing number of Covid patients into a fixed set of ICU beds in our state. My days of a size seven shoe or skirt are a dim memory, as are the days of empty medical facilities.
“We have nowhere to send COVID-19 patients within the State of Arkansas. There is limited bed capacity at trauma centers increasing pressure on the time-sensitive healthcare system,” said Jeff Tabor, program director for the COVIDComm system, which helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals.
Tabor said the one COVID ICU bed which is available is located in southern Arkansas. There are five hospitals, also in southern Arkansas, showing limited COVID bed space. Tabor said some COVID-19 patients are so critical at rural Arkansas hospitals that they cannot be transferred to other hospitals because the patient is too critical and because of bed space.
Recently our state legislature adjourned a special session without amending their misguided law mandating no masks ever in public schools or government agencies. Act 1002, by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, prohibits state and local governments, including public schools, from requiring people to wear masks. Act 1002 became effective on July 28.
The state’s largest school district, joined by a small district already suffering from Covid quarantine attendance problems in its early opening days, filed suit in court to stop this law from going into effect. The judge issued a temporary restraining order. The reasons for this aren’t political, but are found in the Arkansas constitution.
LRSD and MSD are likely to succeed on the merits. Act 1002 violates the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, Article 14, § 1, which requires that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” A suitable and efficient system of public education would not require students to risk their health and their lives to get the education promised to them in the Arkansas Constitution, especially when the State is required to “adopt all suitable means” to provide them “the advantages and opportunities of education”.
An affidavit provided by Dr. Glen Fenter, the superintendent of the Marion School District, said that incentives, including gift certificates, groceries, and even big-screen televisions, didn’t entice many local citizens to take the vaccine. Only one out of every three students in the district has acceptable home internet service, making remote learning difficult; even then, “very few” students who did “participate in the virtual education option last year achieved an acceptable level of academic progress,” the affidavit said.
The Marion superintendent said that his district was forced to “quarantine over 500 students and employees” based on CDC and state health department guidance after the second week of school. The school year in Marion began July 27, 2021. This rural system has only 3,325 students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year. Their math proficiency score averages 22% and reading averages 31%, compared to the statewide averages of 47% and 45%.
The broader lawsuit argues that the Act violates an education clause of the state constitution, the equal protection clause of the state constitution, and that certain federal laws preempt the state from enforcing the Act. It also argues that the Act violates separation of powers principles, conflicts with a subsequent state law, and violates the premise of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., the 1905 U.S. Supreme court case during the smallpox scourge, which allowed mandatory vaccination policies — and penalties for those who refused to comply — to stand.
On another front, the mayor of Little Rock, Frank Scott, Jr., said the capitol city’s covid-19 task force had recommended to him that “masks be worn again in public spaces for which the city is responsible.” He strongly exhorted businesses to follow suit. Scott made note of the many children who visit city parks and community centers and who will be returning to school later this month, adding that “right now, they don’t have the ability to mask up.”
In the middle of all this stress, I ponder these questions: “What inspires a work of art? In our search for beauty in this world, do we have to forget our pain and become as the lotus eaters of the ancient myths?”
Worn out from the years of the Trojan war fought in a foreign land and tired from an unending journey full of trials and tribulations on the way home, Odysseus found his men succumbing to the hypnotic lure of the magic flower. When eaten, it caused people to forget both their troubles and also their future plans. In the words of the hippies of yore, they were content to “get high and get by.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lotus Eaters, inspired Robert S. Duncanson, an African American landscape painter, prior to the Civil War:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Odysseus had to bodily carry his men back to the ship and tie them to their seats to keep them rowing on a straight course for home. Today we’re treated to videos of airline passengers taped to their seats because of their unruly behaviors. Rage flying has taken the place of rage driving. Neither the roads, the post offices, nor the skies are friendly anymore. “Going postal” has almost lost its meaning when no workplace is safe these days.
In the midst of the record deaths of despair, come now the increasing deaths of our most precious inheritance—our children. The number of children contracting Covid-19 has increased fivefold since the end of June, with a “substantial” 84% jump in the last week alone, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This number comes as numerous states report upticks in child hospitalizations amid the ongoing delta surge. In Arkansas, we’ve had three children die from Covid.
Some would say this is an “acceptable loss or trade off to allow others to have freedom.” I find this line of reasoning heartless at best and cruel in reality. I wonder what these folks would say if their child had lost their life instead. It seems not too long ago some of these same persons were advocating for the elderly to accept a shortened lifespan, since their productive lifetimes were expended. They seem to value people only for their economic ability, rather than for their humanness or for their lived experience. Allowing the “weak” to die in this part of the pandemic also devalues those who aren’t yet ready to produce economic gain for the big machine. (Yet, they fail to recognize the loss of future gain of these young “production units.”)
I would rage blog at the inhumanity of our legislators, who couldn’t find an giant acorn in the midst of an empty football field, even if they had the scales removed from their eyes, but then there’s always the hope they might learn the lesson of Job, for whom suffering brought new understanding of God. Then they’d call themselves back into session and amend their own misbegotten law so it’s flexible enough to meet our current, extreme circumstances. Who knows, they might even rescind this unconscionable law, for persons who truly have the capacity to lead with courage also have the ability to change their minds. Some say it’ll never happen, but I’ve always been afflicted with incurable optimism.
In the meantime, I paint and pray. Even this dire event can inspire a work of art. One of our local hospitals has already canceled elective surgeries in order to concentrate on Covid care. The other hospital has very limited intensive care unit availability. Right now, no one in our tourist town needs to get sick and we certainly don’t need a mass casualty incident. Of course, I could live in a rural county and my nearest medical facility with a trauma unit could be hours away. I remember my early years of ministry when I reminded people, “If I’m ever unconscious, please just have them stabilize me and send me off to the big hospital in Little Rock or Memphis.”
Today I blog about another painting based on a Google map of my adopted city, so it’s another “cognitive map.” I used scraps of an old preaching stole. I made the stole from odd pieces of fabric, plus an old pair of overalls, and a garden glove. I deconstructed the stole, since I’m no longer preaching in my retirement years, and added a few worn out face masks, in which I sewed small pleats. I took some of my grandmother’s old crochet and rickrack trim to mark some of the roads, but let the three dimensional shapes mark the other directional lines. My mother made Belgian lace collars for my young daughter’s dresses, so I’d used these for masks.
I too wore these masks until I was tired of them. I was hopeful when those who know more than I do believed the virus had subsided and we were safe to shed our face coverings. One day in early July at Kroger I had an hour long conversation with a young man who was also glad to be shed of the mask, just to see people’s smiles. We talked for a while and I learned he was just a few weeks past a suicide attempt. This pandemic has been hard on him. We talked some more, for I’ve been in the dark place before too.
I don’t need a preaching stole anymore, for preaching isn’t what I do best in this season of my life. God sets people in my path who need an encouraging or healing word. The world, in its beauty or its sadness, inspires me to paint a new vision of the world as it could be, for I don’t think I’ve ever painted what was ever “real.”
People ask, “Why don’t you make a painting that looks like real life?”
I answer, “We have cameras today for this. In any event, how do we know this ordinary world we see today is what God intended? This could be the fallen world, and not the original world of colors and joy, which God originally created.”
Perhaps we need to rethink our cognitive maps or how we view our world. If we consider all persons to be made in the image of God, then caring for them becomes important also. We can’t separate the Spirit of God from the body in which it resides. We also have to recognize God works through extraordinary events as well as through ordinary events. If we are to reject the inspiration and special providence of God in the matter of scientific discovery, then we’re going to go back to living in caves for a long time.
I remember when my daddy came home from his medical office with a small vial and a special double pronged needle. The windows were open, so it wasn’t yet the heat of summer. He stood next to the light, as he always did in his office when he worked, and gave us children the smallpox vaccine.
“Let’s put a little light on the subject, shall we?” I laughed as I proffered my left arm. He washed it with a cotton swab and alcohol, in his usual calm way. I went first because I was the oldest. Also, I was a role model for my brothers, but I was used to this because of my birth order. I knew to trust my daddy and to show my brothers the way forward. A few tiny pin pricks later, a bandaid, and I was good to go. My brothers followed suit, and we were all told, “Hands off.” We were restricted from playing with our friends because of our parents’ fear we’d end up with a limp or in an iron lung. Polio was eradicated in the USA in 1979, but it still occurs in war torn and poverty areas worldwide.
Finally, while some will write off as heartless idiots the ones using the tired canard of freedom of choice (the ones who fail to protect our vulnerable children), I remind them we require measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to enter schools because medical professionals deem it important for the children’s health and welfare. Of course this same group throws back to us the name “liberal whackdoodles” in return. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought less of our own egos and territory, and cared more about the welfare of our future generations.
We could then fulfill the promise of God in Isaiah 57:19—
“Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;
and I will heal them.”
God is full of grace and love, given to offering gifts of healing to those who are both close to us—our neighbors—and those who are far from us—the strangers. If only we humans could love one another as God loves us all.
Changing the way we see our world, one map at a time, brings
We’ve made it to May, the official door to summer, picnics, swimming pools, backyard cookouts, and slower paced lives. Or so we hope, as the temperatures warm and the pandemic wanes. Of course, this last is dependent not just on our individual responses, or even on our citizens’ cooperative actions, but it also depends on the developed nations of our world sharing our expertise and resources with the larger world’s need. If we ever thought we could build a wall and isolate our people and economy from the outside, our need for imported goods and our desire to travel on cruise ships seems to trump our need for isolation. India’s ongoing coronavirus catastrophe results from an inadequate health care system and a lack of vaccines, oxygen, and PPE. Less than 10 percent of Indians have gotten even one dose, despite India being the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer.
As we come out of our enforced hibernation, like bears we shed our winter coats and start foraging for foods in an ever widening territory. We’re looking for reasons to celebrate and tantalizing foods to taste. The yum factor and new environments suddenly become sirens singing irresistible songs, which have the opportunity to dash our small bark against the rocks if we’re not careful. Like Ulysses, the ancient Greek hero, we travel between Scylla and Charybdis, hoping not to wreck.
Fictional heroes make a big splash in May. On May 1, 1939, Batman, the caped crusader, made his first appearance in Detective Comics Issue #27. Star Wars Day is “May the 4th be with you.” On May 5, 1895, Richard F. Outcault published the first ever cartoon, The Yellow Kid. Since all those years ago, cartoons have seeped into our lives through every media outlet possible. If it weren’t for The Yellow Kid all those years ago, we probably wouldn’t be watching Iron Man and Captain America slugging it out on the big-screen. May 25 is a tribute to author Douglas Adams, who wrote the famed novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
It’s a rather easy day to celebrate and it’s done by taking a towel with you wherever you go: to work, school, or just to the shops. This way you can celebrate such gems of wisdom as, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” The only thing that’s truly important on this day is you don’t forget to bring a towel!
Oh, and the answer to the “Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is “forty-two.” In the 1979 novel, the supercomputer Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to calculate the answer to this ultimate question. The characters tasked with getting that answer are disappointed because it isn’t very useful. Yet, as the computer points out, the question itself was vaguely formulated. To find the correct statement of the query whose answer is 42, the computer will have to build a new version of itself. That, too, will take time. The new version of the computer is Earth. To find out what happens next, you’ll just have to read Adams’s books. For a math geek discussion of the significance of 42, read the link “For Math Fans” below.
Having dispensed with heroes, we can move onto the significant May Days that truly appeal to me. “April showers bring May flowers” is a saying I’ve heard since my childhood ever so long ago. Historians believe this phrase may date back to a 1610 poem, which contained the lines, “Sweet April showers, do spring May flowers.” A longer phrase, “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers,” has also been traced back to 1886. Of course, this tidbit of wisdom depends upon your geographic location, for folks inland and north may wait until what we southern folks call “early summer” before they get their “springtime.”
“The month of May was come, when every lust heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit,” wrote Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur. The early Greeks called this month Maia, after the goddess of fertility, many of the early May festivals relate to agriculture and renewal. May Day, celebrated on the first with the Maypole, is one such festive event that was more debauched in earlier times, but now survives as a chaste minuet of colorful ribbons woven around a tall pole by children dancing in an interweaving circle below it.
Other modern May festivities include No Pants Day on 5/1, originally an end of the college year prank at the University of Texas, Austin, which spread to other realms needing release, and World Laughter Day, celebrated on the first Sunday of May. This holiday helps raise awareness about the benefits of laughing and promotes world peace through laughter. Laughing can instantly help reduce stress and brings us closer to other people, as we share our happiness with them. Those who take part in World Laughter Day can help spread positivity and cheerfulness to help change the world for the better. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What potent blood hath modest May.”
No Diet Day is May 6, a good day to remember our good health isn’t based on a scale number or a pant size. Instead, our health is dependent on nutritious foods, adequate exercise, and sufficient sleep. Extreme weight loss, except under a doctor’s supervision, usually leads to yo-yo weight gain, with the body gaining back the lost weight and more after severe deprivation. Slow, long term, weight loss is more likely to be permanent loss, since we aren’t “dieting,” but changing our habits. May 11th is Eat What You Want Day. I suggest we don’t follow Oscar Wilde’s habit: “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four, unless there are three other people.”
Speaking of breaking a fast, May 12th ends the month of Ramadan, the holy month of observance for Muslims. It was during Ramadan Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, received the revelations from angel Gabriel that allowed him to compile the holy book of Quran. Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad announced Allah had established two days of celebrations for Muslims, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha. The purpose of Eid Al Fitr was to commemorate the end of the fasting of Ramadan, and mark the start of the Shawwal month, as well as to thank Allah for giving Muslims the perseverance to fast during Ramadan. The customary feast day greeting is “Eid Mubarak,” which translates to “blessed celebration” or “Happy Eid.”
The dessert of May is apple pie. Originally invented in England, the earliest apple pie recipe dates all the way back to 1381. The original recipe is very similar to the one we currently know, but it also included figs, raisins, pears, and saffron. The Dutch also created their own version of the apple pie, and the first recipe was published in a 1514 cookbook. This recipe is very similar to the apple pie we know and love today. Apple Pie Day is May 13th.
English and Dutch settlers brought the apple pie recipes into the colonies of what would become the United States, during the 17th and 18th centuries. They had to wait until the apple trees they planted grew and bore fruit, so at first apples were mainly used to make cider. It was only in the 18th century, when the first apple pie recipes were printed in America, that the dessert quickly grew in popularity. Following this came the 19th century Legend of Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. He crisscrossed the expanding American frontier to bring seeds for apple orchards for homesteaders. He also brought news and the gospel for fifty years.
Chapman, or Appleseed, lives on as a barometer of the ever-shifting American ideal. Some see him as a pacifist, others as an example of the White Noble Savage (so remembered long after the settlers drove indigenous peoples from the land), and others see a mere children’s book simpleton. Some see him as a frontier bootlegger, since he helped expand the hard cider industry. Others see Johnny Appleseed as the patron saint of everything from cannabis to evangelical environmentalism and creation care—everything, that is, but the flesh-and-blood man he really was.
Our heroes are too often cardboard cutouts, and we don’t spend much time reflecting on their shadow sides. Of course, much like a Flat Stanley, a two dimensional character doesn’t have enough density to cast much of a shadow, unless the light is just right. This is why continuing Bible study is so important: most of us stop in grammar school and never get an adult insight into the scriptures. When we meet grownup problems, we have to wrestle the questions of faith that we once easily accepted trustingly. Or we walk out the door and never come back.
One of the most difficult sermons I ever preached was on the first Mother’s Day after my mother died. One of my best clergy pals, who was a mentor in my ministry, had arranged for a single rose to be on the pulpit beside me on that morning. It was a gift of grace and an empowering symbol, for roses were my mom’s favorite flower. Every time I thought I might cry, I held on tight to the polished oak wood and inhaled the fragrance of the rose. Even now, nearly two decades later, I can clearly see this rose and pulpit, and while I remember where I was, I recall the congregation’s faces were a blur on that day. It’s always the second Sunday in May.
I talk about my fresh grief from years ago, for during this current Pandemic too many of us have had present grief and stress, but either have no words for it, or perhaps have no safe place to express it. Then again, we may be “managing the grief of others,” and don’t have time for caring for our own needs. I call this Deferred Maintenance Grief. If you have an old, leaky faucet, you can keep turning the handle tighter for only so long. You can keep the leak stopped for a while, but soon you’ll strip out the insides of the faucet. Once it’s stripped down, it both streams steadily and needs a completely new fixture to replace it, instead of a minor repair.
I experienced this DMG once after a spate of ten deaths in a week, or maybe it was seven in ten days, followed by the death of one of the old, beloved black clergymen in my community. As I lay on the parsonage couch watching a rerun of Babylon 5, I was crying as if old E.D. were my own daddy. I then realized I’d been too busy caring for others and doing the “work I was called for,” to do the grief work I needed to do for myself. I needed to honor my loss and give myself dedicated spaces to deal with my feelings, so I could be present for others. That’s Deferred Maintenance Grief in a nutshell. If I were eating Cheetos by the bucketful, I’d be in a deep hole of DMG and digging it deeper!
Most of the churches I served had a “Don’t fix it unless it’s broke” policy. I grew up in a Depression Era family, so I was familiar with this attitude. However, these same people didn’t live this way in their own homes. We usually had a long list of deferred maintenance projects in the church property to finish in my time there. Then I’d go to the next place and do it all over again. “Always leave a place better than you found it, both structurally and theologically. Teach people the law of love. As we learn in Romans 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Most of us human beings have “deferred maintenance projects” also: days off, doctor visits, exercise, healthy meals, quiet times, and family times. Taking time for ourselves means we’re refreshed and eager to serve from the quickening power of the Spirit. Without this resting or love for our own embodied image of God, we end up working from the dying embers of our body’s frail resources—burnout calls our name.
When we get this broken, our families and our ministries both suffer along with us. We know better than to drive our vehicles with the gas gauge on empty past every filling station on the road of life. We aren’t called to die on the cross to prove our worth to Christ or to anyone else. He’s our savior and we claim his work on the cross. Anything else is workaholism or salvation by works. We need to name and claim this.
For clergy moving to a new appointment, this is an opportunity for a reset. For those who remain in place, I suggest a planning book. Mark off in advance quiet times, office hours, and visitation times. Take educational events, even if zoom is the only offering. Read for pleasure. Take a day off out of town. Don’t answer the phone after 9 pm unless it’s an emergency. Boundaries are blessings. I always told people up front, “I take my brain out of my head and put it inside a brain box at 9 pm. I put it back in at 9 am. If you call me between those hours, somebody better have died, be on the way to the ER, or the church is burning down.” They laugh, but I’ve had friends who wanted their pastor to be their bedtime Bible expositor. Boundaries keep us from burning out.
Speaking of burning, the official door to summer begins with Memorial Day Weekend. This holiday celebrates those who gave their lives in the great wars of our nation. It began after the Civil War in 1865 as a way to deal with the shared grief of a nation, which lost 750,000 people, or 2.5% of the population, in the struggle. If we were to translate this to today’s world, the number would equal 7,000,000 deaths. War is a pandemic all its own.
As a parting commentary on Memorial Day, the Pandemic, and Extreme Care Giving, I leave you with a portion of the 1865 Walt Whitman poem, “The Wound Dresser,” which he wrote after serving as a hospital volunteer in the Civil War.
But in silence, in dreams’ projections, While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on, So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand, With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there, Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground, Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital, To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss, An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds, I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable, One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
Remember to wear sunscreen to protect your skin if you plan outdoor activities on the first three day weekend of the summer and watch the temperature of the grill. We don’t want anything to burn if we can help it. Charred meat and burned skin are both indicated for cancer risks. Be safe and continue to mask up in public. Get vaccinated as an act of love for your family, your neighbors, and the world community. Since we’re all wound dressers, as well as the wounded also, we want to give as much care to healing our own wounds as we do to the wounds of others.
Picasso is often thought to have said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” However, just as we tend to view anything on the internet as true, along comes a meme from Abraham Lincoln reminding us of the exact opposite proposition. As one of my old debate team mentors in high school used to say, “Consider the source. Use a verified source. Use a trusted source. Use a legitimate source. Facts, not opinions, count in the argument.” This is the flag we raised, put a light on it, and saluted every day in speech class. This also limited my library quest, for my search engine of choice in those low technology days was the card catalog at my neighborhood library and rummaging through whatever national news magazines came on subscription there.
As much as I love this quote, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” and resonate with it, it doesn’t sound like Picasso. He’s also purported to be the source of “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” It’s not too different from “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” This latter is a famous line paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah, and was spoken at Robert F. Kennedy, Jr’s funeral elegy.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter we aren’t original thinkers, but only that we stretch our thinking beyond what we already know. In 1982, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. By 1982, knowledge doubled every 12-13 months. Today, knowledge doubles about every 12 hours! For some people, this is absolutely too much to bear, and for others, it’s a reason to yearn for simpler times. However, I’m not willing to give up the GPS and maps in my vehicle, for I have a tendency to be chronically lost. I do find some interesting backroads along the detours I take in error. I just get lost less often than I once did.
Art and other creative ventures are the means by which we deal with our anxieties of this world, for if we have pain and troubles there, we can either create a world of beauty to balance our struggles or we can let all that pent up energy out so it doesn’t eat us up from the inside out. If we’re making landscapes, we might have butterflies or forest fires, depending on how we process our soul journeys.
Margaret’s landscape has the breeze blowing through the trees and flowers. The clouds are also carried along by these same winds. She was wanting to paint a flittering butterfly, and wondered out loud “How does a butterfly fly?”
I didn’t know exactly, and wasn’t into acting out my inner butterfly, but Apple Music has a wonderful tune by Ludovico Einaudi called “Day 1: Golden Butterflies.”
I found it on my phone and played it for her. Art class calls upon all the senses, just as reading a biblical text does. How can we get into a mood or intention of a writer or an artist if we don’t use every one of the senses the good Lord gifted us with? Art isn’t just for the eyes, but we should appreciate the textures even if we don’t actually touch them.
In our Friday art class, I always show examples of how other artists have approached our theme for the day. I collect them in my Pinterest account. For Spring Trees, the goal is to use the cool side of the palette, with a variety of greens, and add spring colored flowers of white, pink, or yellows. Blues and violets also show up with wisteria and bluebells. As I showed the group about a dozen different artists’ works, I reminded them: “You can’t go wrong! Every one of these artists solved spring trees in a different way. Some painted only the tree, some painted just the reflection in the water, others painted the whole landscape. Some focused on the people more than the trees. If your colors stay cool, if we can tell these shapes are trees, and if you use your own ideas to elaborate on this basic format, you’ll do a great job! We can always improve on the next one.”
People are so worried about pleasing others, or not measuring up to some standard. What standard are we setting for ourselves anyway? If we want to shoot baskets like LeBron James or Stephen Curry, we’d better be prepared to work. Curry shoots around 2,000 shots a week: He takes a minimum of 250 a day, plus another 100 before every game. It’s a counterintuitive fact that a player with the supplest shot in the NBA, whose overarching quality is feel, has the hands and work habits of a woodchopper. Likewise, LeBron works out even on his “off day,” with only Sunday as a day of rest. Check out this workout. This is why he’s called the “King.”
If we were writing poetry, would we fail to start because we couldn’t produce from our heart and hand the words which move us, as do the passionate lines of Shakespeare’s pen? He had to start somewhere, for sure. “While salvation is by faith,” I always tell folks, “proficiency in arts and crafts usually comes from works.” The more we practice, the better we become. Some of excellence results from acquiring good eye hand coordination, or fine motor control, but also we begin to learn what our media can do and what it won’t do. We enter into a friendship and then into a love affair with it. We begin to anticipate where it will go, just as we often can finish our best friend’s sentences for them. Take a break and read Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet out loud for a moment:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web,” Picasso told Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Just as everything is grist for the poet’s mill, so we bring all that we are to our art experiences. If we’re glad, sad, angry, or any other emotion, this gets poured out into our work through the colors we choose, the subject matter, or the way we use the media. This pandemic will be remembered not only for its cruel loss of life, but also for its neurological complications for the post COVID survivors, since a high percentage have mood and anxiety trouble diagnoses for the first time within six months of their infection. This is how we know COVID isn’t just a bad flu.
I omit the state of depression, for if one feels blue, one can work, but true depression takes away the will to work, to get out of bed, get dressed, or have the energy to brush one’s teeth. No one gets out of that state alone. Help and intervention are needed. I’ve been a chronic depressive for over half a century, and “snapping out of it” isn’t possible for people with this health condition. If I have a sunny and positive outlook on life, it’s because I’ve learned to think optimistically and I’m medicated properly. Plus I attend counseling sessions so I can keep a good perspective on life. If life is getting you down now, please seek help from a trusted medical provider or a pastor. Jesus meant it when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Faith healing also comes from ordinary means.
Our art class gives our group a safe place to stretch their minds, to take self care time, and to try a new skill that won’t kill anyone. It’s not like chainsaw juggling , where if you miss, you get a free ride to the ER or the funeral home. We don’t do that sort of thing. That’s more excitement than I can stand. I used to teach middle school art classes, so I had days, when the moon was full, that I sometimes thought I was juggling chain saws. Juggling plastic spoons is more my style today.
Gail is supervising home schooling during the pandemic. I don’t know how all the other parents and grandparents are doing in this particular time, but I remember the chaos which ensued one spring break as the pink eye ran amuck through the elementary school at which I taught. The headmaster gave everyone an extra week for spring break, an act which caused my students’ parents to call me in a panic, “What am I going to DO with my child for a WHOLE WEEK?!”
I laughed and said, “Keep them away from children who have pink eye.” I suppose I didn’t commiserate with them, as they thought I should. These people are now grandparents and I hope that one week back then showed them they could manage a whole pandemic today.
Gail’s trips to fuel her caffeine need causes her to visit different coffee shops. The cup sleeves come in different patterns of corrugated cardboard. Of course, this paper product originally came from a tree, so she brought them in to be recycled and repurposed into an art piece about spring trees. Since she worked for the forest service, this is right in line with her love of nature and concern for stewardship of our natural resources. Gail also likes to plan and think her way through a theme.
Mike gets his idea in a big, global whole. Then he seems to boil it down to a manageable size in a few moments, as he mentally discards the least workable parts. In a few minutes, he’s ready to paint a scene from memory or from his imagination. He applies lessons learned from other classes. For instance, painting in the background first is easier than trying to paint up to foreground details. This painting began with the stream, the green trees, the white trees, and then the popping pink trees for an accent.
I was painting trees with wisteria vines from a photograph I took near my home. The coffee spot at the Airport and MLK Freeway had moved, so when I turned in that driveway, I came to the notice of one of Hot Springs Finest. As he rolled down his window, I turned around and smiled.
“Hello, I’m just taking photographs of the wisteria in the trees.”
“I saw your car and thought you might be in trouble.”
“Not this time, but thanks for checking on me. I often stop to take pictures of our beautiful city.”
While we were talking, his radio went off and he had to go help someone else. Life interrupts our time together, and we don’t know how much time we have on this side of heaven. Many of the things we fight over will be meaningless in the great arc of history. When we meet each other on the other side, we won’t care about these things, for our whole attention will be God and the Lamb who sits upon the throne. If on this side of heaven, we learn to love more and forgive better, we’ll all be going on to perfection, whether we are in life or art.
The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
“Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.” Plato quoted an older Greek thinker about life’s being constantly in a state of flux or change. We can’t dive into our rabbit holes at every quivering leaf or shadow of every cloud passing over the sun. We rabbits know the world is changing all the time, even if we don’t like it, but we still have to venture outside of our den and hutches to find tasty carrots and spinach leaves.
Fear of Change—
Yet some rabbits have a fear of change or fear of changing the order of things. This goes by another Greek word, Metathesiophobia. This is a new word for this old rabbit, so I guess I’ve modified a few brain cells in learning this. In fact, when we learn new words, we actually get happier! There’s even science behind this. In a study, “increased subjective pleasantness ratings were also related to new-words remembered after seven days. These results suggest that intrinsic—potentially reward-related—signals, triggered by self-monitoring of correct performance, can promote the storage of new information into long-term memory through the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop, possibly via dopaminergic modulation of the midbrain.”
Even if we don’t understand the scientific jargon of that sentence, we know learning new things gives us a feeling of pride and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we accomplish a new trick or master a new skill. Repeating the same experiences over and over leads to dullness,even if we find safety in the predictably.
If we were small bunnies, we’d never find the refrigerators in our homes, since they’d be covered up in our latest glorious art project. Every rabbit parent raves about their genius offspring, if they’re raising them right. We always want to catch our small ones doing something right and praise them for it. We’ll get more cooperation than if we’re always telling them NO, and GO TO YOUR ROOM.
I ask you, which rabbit among us doesn’t want to be happier in this world? Currently we’re in the midst of the worst crisis most of us have ever experienced. We rabbits need to name it and face it, rather than deny it, for this pandemic isn’t not going away anytime soon. This causes some of our bunny friends to find a “boogeyman lurking in every dark corner.” When I was young, my parents scared me, or scarred my memories, over my messy closet.
“You’d better clean up that pile of clothes in there, young lady! If you don’t, a rat might come crawling out of those clothes piled up on the floor!”
EEEK! I was so frightened, I untwisted an old metal coat hanger and stood outside my closet while I fished out my dress up play clothes, one article at a time. If a rat were to come out with them, I wanted a running head start. I was on my own in art school over a decade later before I could sleep with the bedroom closet open. This was a long standing fear to shake. Not everyone can put aside their fears and coping mechanisms, however.
I’ve had rabbit friends who get up in the middle of the night to make sure their closets are neatly arranged, with all the shoes in the right boxes and all the clothes facing the same direction on the hangers. I have no such anxiety, for I hang my clothes up and don’t worry once I’ve done it. I have other tasks to tackle. Uninterrupted sleep is a worthy goal for rabbit health. Plus I have other creative tasks to engage me, and I’m learning new things every day. In any event, I know my salvation won’t be impaired by this failure to act on my part, just as it won’t be earned if I keep a perfect closet.
Change is moving swifter than the atmospheric river that’s currently dumping rain and mudslides on the Pacific coast and ice and snow on the Atlantic coast. Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow regions in the atmosphere—like rivers in the sky—that transport water vapor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Drastic swings from extremely wet to extremely dry and vice versa will be nearly twice as likely, occuring on average once every 25 years, by 2100. Dramatic swings are becoming more common and will continue to do so in the coming decades thanks to man-made climate change.
Of course climate change isn’t the only change we’re dealing with in February.
Today we have one holiday to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Back in this rabbit’s kitten days, we had two holidays for these two presidents, but the times change and the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.
At the time, Congress thought setting three day weekends would end employee absenteeism. Today the coronavirus pandemic has put most white collar workers out of the office and many blue collar workers out of a job. Until we get this pandemic behind us by vaccinating as many of our people as possible and continuing safe practices, we won’t get back to any semblance of normal any time soon. This virus hunts a host, and it’s sure to find a rabbit to use as its own personal Petri dish.
Super Bowl LV—Next Super Spreader Event?
On the first Sunday in February, the big game goes down. While the 7,500 health care workers who’ll be the stadium attendees will be following COVID protocols, the fans at home remain susceptible to infection. A recent Seton Hall Sports Poll collected answers from 1,522 adults spread all over the country from Jan. 22-25. That data shows 25% of respondents said they would gather with people outside of their home (defined as those who aren’t roommates or cohabitants) to watch the game. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would not attend a gathering and 11% said they weren’t sure.
Among avid fans however, 40% of that group said they would indeed gather with members outside of their household. The CDC doesn’t recommend holding these types of gatherings, especially if they are inside and last for the duration of the game. The Super Bowl will be played in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and is scheduled for Sunday, February 7, with a 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff, with an estimated game length of four hours, not counting the additional four hours of preliminary extravaganza programming.
I’ve always gathered the various rabbits who live in my condo building for the game festivities. It’s a good opportunity for us to socialize and since everyone always waits for “someone to take charge,” I just step up. We won’t do it in person this year, however, for we rabbits can best observe safely the whole shebang from the comfort of our couches and Zoom or find other other media connections with our loved ones and friends so we can have a real party next year.
Super Bowl LV Firsts—
There are new changes to the Super Bowl this year. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, will recite an original poem before Super Bowl LV, as part of both the in-stadium pregame ceremony and the TV broadcast. The poem will honor three everyday heroes who have been chosen as honorary game captains by the NFL. These people include Trimaine Davis, a Los Angeles teacher who fought to secure internet access and laptops for his students amid the pandemic; Suzie Dorner, a Tampa nurse who managed the COVID ICU at Tampa General Hospital; and James Martin, a Marine veteran who has helped veterans and their families connect virtually through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Gorman isn’t the only pregame excitement. Miley Cyrus will perform as part of the TikTok Tailgate event for the Health Care Heroes. This will also be televised. Then there’s the The Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show, which is the most-watched musical performance of the year, with more than 104 million viewers tuning in to last year’s show. The rhythm and blues artist known as The Weekend (Abel Makkonen Tesfaye) will be the featured performer.
“The Weeknd has introduced a sound all his own. His soulful uniqueness has defined a new generation of greatness in music and artistry,” said Shawn JAY-Z Carter. “This is an extraordinary moment in time and the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show is going to be an extraordinary experience with an extraordinary performer.” This rabbit has been listening to his oeuvre on Apple Music, and I’m quite excited to hear the show. It ought to be a bang up program with no wardrobe malfunctions.
JAY-Z and his company, Roc Nation, have worked over the past year on the selection of artists playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show as the league’s official Live Music Entertainment Strategists. The partnership aims to “nurture and strengthen community” through music and support the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice initiative, and also has Roc Nation serving as a co-producer of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
GRAMMY-nominated artists Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan are set to pair up for the first time to sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LV pregame festivities. Grammy-award winning artist, H.E.R., will join the pregame lineup with her rendition of America the Beautiful. In addition, on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Warren “Wawa” Snipe, acclaimed Deaf rapper and recording artist, will perform the National Anthem and America the Beautiful in American Sign Language. For Super Bowl LV, the National Anthem will be arranged and produced by Adam Blackstone.
“Sarah Thomas will made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent said. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.” She will be a down judge on a seven-person crew of distinguished game officials. You go girl!
This is just one more change for a world that spins 360 degrees daily and moves around the sun on its invisible circular river which it completes every 365 1/4 days. Our planet never stays in in one place as it courses through the unseen river of time in the heavens, but we see ourselves think we have a fixed place in the universe. If we observe nature, the rising and setting of the sun moves along the horizon line as the seasons change and it rises higher into the sky during the summer than the winter. These changes are part of our ordinary life, and give a structure and rhythm to our days and time upon this world.
Speaking of firsts, the Chiefs are trying to become the first team in 16 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The last team to do it was Tom Brady’s 2003-04 New England Patriots. Tom Brady is set to become one offour quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl for multiple teams and he could join Peyton Manning, who is currently the only quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl start with multiple teams. So while the seasoned champion with a brand new team goes against a young champion trying to make the magic happen two years in a row, we should have a good game, rather than watching it for the commercials.
In other firsts, the Super Bowl is almost always the top rated TV show for audience numbers. Only the final episodes of M.A.S.H. and Cheers have ever pushed it to number two. The commercials are first class also. CBS’s asking price of $5.5 million per 30-second spot is merely the cost of reserving the requisite airtime; after production expenses, ancillary social-media investments and agency fees are accounted for, the actual outlay for a single Super Bowl ad can swell to $20 million. That’s a lot of rabbit feed.
We won’t see the Budweiser Clydesdales for the first time in 37 years, for the company will be focusing on supporting Covid vaccine awareness education spots instead. Other companies related to restaurants may be missing due to lower sales and profits, but this gives other companies an opportunity to take their place. The pandemic has changed our economy in many ways. Avocados are in demand because we rabbits eat our salads at home, not in a restaurant. This is good for grocers, but bad for cooks, wait staff, and restaurant owners.
While parts of our economy are currently staggering along, the middle class and poor are lagging behind, as if they had chains and a huge millstone binding their bodies. Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. People would go to work, but the businesses are either closed or the parent needs to stay home to school the child. Unpaid rents affect landlords, and roll on to the bankers who hold those notes.
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, has provided nearly real-time weekly data on how the unprecedented health and economic crisis is affecting the nation. Nearly 24 million adults—11 percent of all adults in the country— reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. Adults in households with children were likelier to report that the household didn’t get enough to eat: 15 percent, compared to 9 percent for households without children. Hunger in America or food insecurity is linked to a greater chance of cardiovascular mortality in counties throughout the U.S. Researchers believe if the pandemic goes on long enough, more people will begin to die of hunger or famine related circumstances than the disease itself.
Some want to spend a little and let it “trickle down,” but my grandmother rabbit always said that was “penny wise and pound foolish.” After WWII, American generosity rebuilt Germany, the home of the Nazi enemies. If we rebuilt the country of our enemies, I wonder what keeps us from rebuilding our own land? We need a Marshal Plan for America.
St. Valentine’s Day—
As a small bunny, I fondly remember classroom Valentines Day Parties, mostly because I got to decorate a shoebox as my “Valentine Mailbox” and enjoyed all the dime store paper valentines from my bunny friends. Mostly I really enjoyed the pink icing on the chocolate cupcakes and those Necco candy hearts with their pithy, saucy, love quotes. In this pandemic world of Zoom classrooms, gone are class parties, valentines for everyone, and a special gift for the teacher. As a former teacher, my hope is we can get our school teams vaccinated and get our little bunnykins back in a communal setting, so they can learn socialization skills as well as educational materials.
Some grieve about this year as if it’s lost year, and it’ll never be gotten back. This is true, however, there’re other great crises our little bunnies went through in our history, through no fault of their own. The Civil War was one, for it disrupted some youth we wouldn’t let have keys to a car today. One of my grandfather bunnies dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work on the railroad when his own father left home. He made sure his own little bunnies got their education, even if he didn’t get his.
Just because we have a twelve year program for public school doesn’t mean we have to finish it in that length of time. If we have a large monkey wrench thrown into our best laid plans, we might need to cram those twelve years into thirteen years. If we live to seventy-nine years, the average life span in America, this extra year is only 1/79 or 1% of our lives. We spend more time than this sleeping, since we spend about 33% of our lives asleep. No one seems to grieve about this broad swath of time in bed in fact, more of us rabbits are trying their best to get either more or better sleep! Perhaps we need to reframe then way we look at some of these problems to reduce our anxiety about them. Then we’d have more strength to cope with the day to day struggles, which are real and difficult.
Ash Wednesday is moveable feast day, so its date varies. It depends on when Easter is celebrated, and that too is dependent on the lunar calendar. My old daddy rabbit had this ancient piece of lore memorized: “Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.” While we may be able to move certain holidays around the calendar, Easter and its connected rituals of faith, Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, move every year.
Because of coronavirus protocols, the hands on imposition of ashes by pastors, priests, or worship leaders will change in this pandemic year. Some churches will sprinkle ashes upon people’s heads, while others will give out packets of ashes for self imposition. The ashes are a traditional sign of humility. We may ask, if the ritual changes, is it as effective as it once was? The better question to ask is, “Does the ritual save us or does the power of God’s Holy Spirit flowing through the moment change us for the better?” Sometimes we put too much emphasis on the outward and visible elements, rather than the inward and invisible experience of God at work in us.
The Constant in the Midst of Change—
In the midst of a world intent on stoking our fears to a fever pitch, some of us rabbits find ourselves pulled down the proverbial rabbit hole into vast conspiracy theories, which purport to connect unlikely coincidences, but actually push anti-Semitic, far-right or white-supremacist ideology. Some of these ideas are as old as the Middle Ages, while others came from Russia and got passed into the American milieu during the first Red Scare in the 1920’s.
One of the worst examples is “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a classic of paranoid, racist literature. Taken by the gullible as the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave convened in the last years of the nineteenth century, it has been heralded by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are plotting to take over the world. Since its contrivance around the turn of the century by the Russian Okhrana, or Czarist secret police, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” has taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.
When the world is in chaos, fearful rabbits look for a demonic figure to blame, when they should look instead to a positive source of power and strength. Fear paralyzes us, but the power of God sets us free to change our world for the better.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
~~ Psalms 46:1-3
May you make enough small changes every day to get new wrinkles in your brain, rather than on your brow.
Joy and Peace,
Intrinsic monitoring of learning success facilitates memory encoding via the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop | eLife
Millions of Americans are heading into the holidays unemployed and over $5,000 behind on rent. Hefty bills will come due in early 2021 for rent and utilities. Economists warn many unemployed families won’t be able to pay without more stimulus aid from Congress. By Heather Long
I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.
When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.
I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.
Writing Santa a letter
Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
Hanging Christmas lights on the house
Finding the perfect Christmas tree
Decorating the Christmas tree
Making Christmas decorations
Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
Watching the bubble lights
Hanging the Christmas stockings
The brass Angel chimes
Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
Candy lifesavers in a book
Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
Drinking from the Santa mug
Christmas plates and mugs
Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
Wrapping and hiding presents
Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
Visit to Santa Claus
Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
Christmas candlelight service at church
Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
Staying up late to assemble toys
Never enough batteries
New red robe or pajamas
Christmas letters from all our friends
A vain hope for snow
Wreath on the door
Wrapping paper everywhere
Handing out presents
Making a Christmas list
Candles in the window to guide the wise men
Advent wreath candles
Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
Christmas clothes and Sox
Garish Christmas sweaters
At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.
Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:
4 weeks and 2 days or
8.20% of a standard year
These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).
When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”
I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.
Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.
My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.
“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper. “It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.” “Gross!” I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.
All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.
None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.
As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.
When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.
Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.
My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.
All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.
Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.
If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.
While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.
Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.
The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:
1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.
2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.
3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.
4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.
5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.
My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.
December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.
Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”
I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.
The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city.
In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”
Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet.
Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept.
The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.
Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.
May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.