It’s a Happy New Year in Ethiopia

Ethiopia 9.14.18

Some of the host crew

Happy Enkutatash (that’s እንቁጣጣሽ in Ethiopic) to us all. Ethiopian New Year actually fell on September 11th, but we’re still celebrating in San Francisco.

A group of gorgeous young Ethiopian women (and a couple of handsome guys) who work in the dining room of the geezer house where I live put on an Ethiopian New Year’s festival today, complete with a vast assortment of delicious, spicy dishes I cannot pronounce, a coffee roasting demonstration* (see below,) an exhibition of traditional dance (intermittently joined by a few nontraditional American geezers) and one precious but disinterested two-year-old.Ethiopia3 9.14.18

We also got a lesson in international understanding. So herewith, some facts you might not have known about our faraway neighbors:

Ethiopia, founded in 980 BC, is one of the oldest nations in the world, and the only country in Africa that was never colonized. Its citizens had to beat back the Italians twice, but remain independent to this day.

Ethipioa1 9.14.18The official Ethiopian language is Amharic, but more than 80 languages are spoken. None of them are easy for English-speakers – although this writer is proud to have mastered the Amharic word for “good morning” (which I cannot spell.) This may be as far as I go. Ethiopia is also the only country in Africa with its own indigenous alphabet, but there are 33 main alphabets with each containing a row of seven different pronunciations . . .  The Ethiopians I know speak English with beautiful accents.

Ethiopians are famous for being great runners. Some of us are old enough to remember when Abebe Bikila won Africa’s first Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, setting a world record when he ran the marathon – –  barefoot.

While the majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, the country embraces practitioners of all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.Etheopia2 9.14.18

*About the world’s most popular breakfast drink – Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia! Legend has it that a sheep herder in the 11th century noticed his sheep having a fondness for a particular bush, and decided to try a nibble. The coffee industry took off from there. Ethiopia is now the largest coffee producer in Africa.

And finally, Ethiopia and Eritrea are about to sign a peace agreement ending a bitter, long-running dispute. Could we learn something here?

Peace and joy and Happy New Year!

dove of peace

Prayer, Peace & Song to Start the Day

world-peaceOK, this is San Francisco: love and peace reign. But it’s also Thanksgiving: gratitude and community. Celebrations of love, peace, gratitude and community are taking place not just on the left coast but across the country, as we begin to exhale after a bitterly troubled few months. Exhalation in community can be a great way to start the day.

“Hope,” said one speaker at the recent Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast, “is right there where it’s always been, between faith and love.” There was plenty of all three. Some 385 early-risers were gathered for the event, sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council and billed as “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco.”

Marsha Attie

Marsha Attie

It all began with the sounding of a Buddhist Ceremonial In Kin Bell – a successful attempt to bring a little quietude into the amiable masses – followed by Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates’ recitation of the Muslim Call to Prayer, in a voice that certainly reaches to the heavens. Brahma Kumaris Sr. Sukanya Belsare read the interfaith statement of the sponsoring SFIC, which is read at all board meetings and events and says, in effect, “Whatever your faith or faith tradition, it’s okay. We’re here to learn, and understand.”

Led by Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El, the crowd then launched into a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Throughout the two-hour scrambled-eggs-&-mixed-fruit breakfast there were songs, honors, laughs and commentaries. Not to mention prayers in virtually every known faith tradition. A few highlights are encapsulated below:

SFIC Executive Director Michael Pappas: “The interfaith community will always stand for human rights, social justice and equality for all.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (to a standing ovation): “San Francisco will remain a sanctuary city.”

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California, introducing event honorees Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer to the audience and audience to the honorees (loosely paraphrased): “Bringing the mind effectively into the heart to do good works can result in reverence, compassion, forgiveness and courage.” Andrus then did a warm-up exercise, reciting a litany of actions such as feeding the hungry, protecting the oppressed and helping the poor, to an enthusiastic audience response of “We’re Still In!”

Honoree Tom Steyer, Founder and President, NextGen Climate (and major donor to progressive political causes – San Francisco is still San Francisco): “Troubled times give everyone a chance to lead a meaningful life. (A) challenge is to embrace our full humanity. The. U.S. didn’t start with full humanity for everyone.” Steyer then deferred to the co-honoree, his wife Kat Taylor, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Beneficial State Bank and a ferocious advocate for changing the food and banking systems for good through business models and philanthropy.

Mark Leno

Mark Leno

Honoree Taylor: “You knew I would sing” – launching into the Christian hymn standard “Here I Am, Lord,” with several hundred of the guests joining in.

Presented a proclamation by SFIC Board Chair G. L. Hodge – who said he relished the opportunity, since the recipient was famous for issuing proclamations himself, termed-out California State Senator Mark Leno: “I recognize this frame, from something I sent earlier. But I always say, ‘Reuse, Recycle, Re-elect.’”

Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after leading the crowd in reciting “The Prayer of St. Francis”: “Ministering to God’s creation is an act of worship. We must affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and we all have to be instruments of God’s peace.”

 

 

 

A Ramadan Birthday Dinner

Ramadan - dinner crowd

Dates, rice and eggplant moussaka for birthday dinner? It works.

A recent birthday of mine happened to coincide with a long-planned Ramadan Interfaith Iftar Dinner co-hosted by Pacifica Institute and Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Since I was minimally involved in the planning and execution of the event, and maximally involved in the birthday, it made sense to combine the two. Plus, I got a lot of mileage out of responding to questions about birthday plans with news we were expecting 225 or so friends for dinner.

The eventual total number of guests will remain a mystery, because so many kept showing up without reservations and we were simply told not to turn anyone away. Attendees were Muslim and non-Muslim, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Buddhists. (“You know the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?” quipped Rev. Ron Kobata of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco; “The non-Buddhist thinks there is a difference.”)

This was not just a celebratory dinner, it was an Iftar dinner, the sunset meal at which Muslims break the fast they have observed since sunrise. To be clear about it, sunrise on June 8th in San Francisco was at 5:48 AM, and sunset was at 8:37. That is considerably longer than this weak-willed Christian generally goes without sustenance. Having had a perfectly good lunch, and  swiped a half-dozen or so dates while putting bowls on the tables, I still had to sneak a glass of milk from the kitchen to keep from fainting away at the welcome table.

Given that dinner would not be served until after the call to prayer at 8:37, the program preceded the meal. It included a video about Pacifica Institute, which was founded in 2003 by a group of Turkish Muslims dedicated to social justice, interfaith cooperation, relationship-building and partnership for the common good – any tiny advancement of which would make a pretty fine birthday present for anybody. Pacifica is aligned with the worldwide Hizmet Movement (“the Service”) which promotes service to humanity regardless of faith, tradition, gender or ethnicity.

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

Fatih Ferdi Ates giving the call to prayer

We also saw a video about how fasting strengthens one’s spirituality in multiple ways. Muslims observe the fast – abstaining from food, drink, smoking, sexual activity and bad behavior including lying or cursing – every day during the month of Ramadan; which does not exactly compare with giving up chocolate for Lent.

Keynote speaker Dr. Scott Alexander, Assistant Professor of Muslim Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, spoke to the evening’s theme: The Art of Living Together. “Sharing the joy of fasting,” he said, “fills us all with hope. It stands in opposition to the strident voices of hatred that want us to believe our troubles are the fault of others.” Alexander ended with a prayer that “God will allow others different from ourselves in all ways to touch our hearts.”

One of the co-leaders of the event, who served as MC along with Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates, was Calvary member Robin Morjikian, whose father is Armenian. Ates, when thanking her, noted that the evening involved the daughter of an Armenian working with a group of Turkish Muslims on an event held at a Presbyterian church and featuring a keynote speech by a professor from a Catholic University. Buddhist Rev. Kobata presented awards to three honorees.

In lieu of birthday cake, dessert consisted of mixed fruit and baklava. I’m not sure how next year’s birthday will stack up.

A Memorable MLK Day Celebration

MLK on darkness

Dr. King would, I think, have approved.

One celebration of his legacy involved a collaboration between members of a fairly mainline Presbyterian church in an affluent area of San Francisco and members of a soul-spirited Pentecostal church in the city’s Bayview community, where crime and poverty run rampant. The partnership – and friendship – between the two unlikely groups has been growing ever since its beginning in response to the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.

For openers, the African American Pentecostal pastor preached (only minimally more reserved and shorter than is his custom) to the mostly white Presbyterians. His message was primarily about the Biblical admonition to welcome the alien and show hospitality to strangers. He also had a few words about justice rolling down like a river, and about Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion that love will overcome racism, materialism and militarism.

MLK Day cable car

After the service some fifty or so Presbyterians boarded motorized cable cars and sang their way across town to the Pentecostal church. There the white pastor preached to the now-multicolor congregation about the Biblical suggestion that nothing much is required of believers other than to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Creator. He also had a few words about some of the ads he had noticed on the trip over. Dr. King, he suggested, probably didn’t live, work and die primarily so there would be three-day mattress sales, or a 25% MLK Weekend discount on leather jackets.

During the second service, which another minister termed Presbycostal, there was a generous amount of rousing hallelujah music led by the hosts and several gospel pieces from the visitors, whose choir director and trumpet-playing musician in residence made the trip.

MLK Day Dave & choir

After the second service the hosts surprised their guests with lunch in the adjacent social hall: homemade salads, chips and dips and plates of fried chicken. A dozen or so small children, varying shades of white, brown and black, snagged their fried chicken early and set to entertaining themselves by jumping up and down a stairway below a banner that read “The Audacity to Believe.”

One of the visitors remarked to one of the hostesses, as everyone dispersed, “I think we had a lot more fun than anybody at the weekend sales.”

MLK Day lunch

 

A Poetic Happy New Year to Us All

Dawn

The dawn of a new year brings the best and the worst: promise of new beginnings, anguish over old endings.  Great new ideas to nurture, bad old ideas to quash. The new year’s plans, the old year’s mistakes. And, then of course, there are those pesky resolutions.

How about — as opposed to New Year’s resolutions — a little irresolution for 2016? The talented singer/songwriter Michelle Krell apparently turns to poetry from time to time. This rumination on life and time was enclosed with her holiday letter. It is presented below, with her permission, as a New Year’s gift to readers: the procrastinators, the disorganized, the well-intentioned, God bless us every one.

THE BACKLOG

Youth has no unfinished projects

No half-written melodies

No scribbled first lines of a musical comedy starring somebody famous

No first pencil sketch for a rolling 19th century landscape in oils

No first brushstrokes for a portrait, you know, a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa

No evenly-spaced staff lines mapped out with hundreds of tiny sixteenth-notes in pencil, some crossed out

No shoeboxes with unsorted glass beads on broken strings

No velvet bag of unrepaired, unmatched earrings, some plastic, from the 1970s

No shelves of unread books

No socks needing to be matched with mates missing for 9 years or more

No basket of mending from when your aunt was alive, you got it when you cleared out her house

No collection of spools of thread from the ‘30s from the same aunt, the thread permanently, hopelessly tangled

No boxes of unsorted photos from decades of family reunions

No garden that has had no improvements since you bought the house 20 years ago

No roses that are far past their lifetime and needed to be dug up long ago

No battered and faded curtains that would dissolve if washed; and why are they still up?

No seed of a book of poetry in which poems have been re-written until they stopped breathing

No undated lists of good intentions on wide-ruled binder paper

No itemized plans for rearranging small possessions that can now not be found

No single favorite patent leather shoe that knows the mystery of its lost mate, but will not tell

No collection of old toothbrushes that have a use which will reveal itself someday

No half-begun intricate stencil decoration across the upper wall of the baby’s room; he now has a family and lives in Toledo

No splintered and rusted garden shed that would look like Sunset Magazine, or could perhaps…

No pile of gravel overcome with weeds—the beginnings of an elaborate walkway through what are now rusted garden benches next to a ghost of a trellis for grapevines that never climbed anywhere

There are no grapes and no hint of a garden path

But—there could be…

Lunar New Year: Hedging One’s Bets

lunar new year

The Lunar New Year, Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram, is at hand. In honor of the occasion my acupuncturist — this traditionalist writer is an absolute convert to acupuncture – offered a special gift, in the form of instructions about how to start the year in the most auspicious way.

A good start is halfway to success, according to an old Chinese proverb quoted atop the instruction sheet.

“Both the timing and direction of your initial exit from wherever you are on February 19th, 2015 are of utmost importance,” reads the instruction sheet. We are admonished to make our initial exit between 5 AM and 7 AM, or between 11 AM and 1 PM. “To welcome good luck, walk in the South West direction. To invite divine help and wealth-spirit, walk in the West direction. Please do not have initial exit facing the South direction…”

Well, here’s the problem. The only exit from the building in which I live faces south. Walking in a southwest, direction, furthermore, will take me straight into the Post Street traffic, not a good way to start any year. I’m unlikely to get moving early enough to be headed out by 7 AM, and if I wait until 11 there will be meetings missed.

None of this is to disrespect the Lunar New Year.

Depending on which part of the Lunar-calendar-observant world you live in, festivals, rites and customs (such as the above) abound. My current favorite, passed along by a State Department friend newly arrived in Hanoi, is this one: “Vietnamese tradition,” she writes, “holds that, a week before the Lunar New Year, each person should release a live carp into the lake. The Kitchen God then rides the carp to Heaven, and reports to the King of Heaven about whether the people in that person’s family have been ‘naughty or nice.’ The King of Heaven either rewards or punishes the family, based on the Kitchen God’s yearly report.” The tradition strikes my diplomat-wife friend as “A little bit eastern, a little bit Christmas-y and a little bit smelly.” But definitely good for anyone fishing for carp – and unworried about pulling in one with a Kitchen God riding on its back.

Like the eastern mysteries of exit times and feng shui, western religions have plenty of their own.

Soon after studying the instructions about starting the Year of the Goat, I went to a Sunday morning Presbyterian church service about the transfiguration of Jesus. (Transfiguration comes right before Lent, if you’re following these lines of thought.) For serious-but-still-questioning Christians such as this writer, the transfiguration ranks right up there with the resurrection and the ascension. Disputed and discussed from every corner of Christendom (certainly including poor, avowedly neutral Wikipedia), these are central to the faith – and you want to believe, because the faith has such good, basic stuff about how to live in the world – but still. Most Christian beliefs require little more than loving justice, mercy and one’s fellow creatures and working to advance them all. But around holidays we do get pretty zany about Santa and the Easter Bunny; so stockings are hung and eggs are hidden — just in case.

Which brings the story back to personal behavior up to and on February 19. This sideline observer will pass on the carp thing, but my New Year’s Day plan is to exit the building sideways, facing west.

 

Your Life In Review

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

The good people of WordPress opened their Year-End Review with those words – below this worldscape with bursting fireworks – and what blogger could resist? They went on to report that my busiest day was February 24, that one of the most-viewed was a piece on Eleanor Roosevelt from 2013 (Mrs. Roosevelt has nothing if not staying power) and most viewers were from the U.S. “with Brazil and Canada not far behind.” Come on, Brazil? The country of my birth comes through.

The cold, hard truth is that there are plenty of blogs that are viewed 5,800 times a day, of course, but you’ve gotta love the subway train analogy.

The sheer amount of data collected on our life’s work, and our lives, can still give one pause. WordPress is entitled. Without the nifty platform, easy-to-use format, multiple tools and automatic archive this writer would be virtually wordless. (Or restricted to Huffington Post, which attracted way more than 5,800 viewers to essentially these same words, but there’s a lot to be said for freedom of the WordPress.)

But what about Facebook’s now ubiquitous Year-In-Review? Who could resist at least scrolling through her life of the past year (and I hereby admit to posting the thing.) What boggled my mind was the uncanny way Facebook picked almost the exact photos I would have chosen. How did they know? Spooky.

Books have been written – and at least one film made – about The Examined Life, although I seriously doubt the Facebook algorithm-coders have read them. It has to do with trying to make sense of things, figuring out what’s important, sorting the good from the bad. Elevating the good from its place within the ordinary. Occasionally – though the idea was always for one to do it oneself – these Year In Review things may help with such a task.

But any way you look at it, our lives are undoubtedly being examined.

Farewell, 2014, and Happy New Year each and every one.