Season’s Greetings — & New Year’s Hopes

Christmas letter w bowHoliday letters? I am definitely ambivalent. It is lovely catching up with old friends (many of whom, on our holiday list at least, I only hear from once a year.) I’m interested in what’s been happening in their lives over the past year. I’m somewhat less interested in what’s been happening in their children’s or grandchildren’s lives although they’re usually pretty spectacular. But too many paragraphs about the latter and my eyes tend to glaze over. I resist all political messages – whether I agree with them or not. I love the letters that include remarks about books the writer has enjoyed over the year.

This year my own greeting was a learning experience.

I send holiday letters for the reason given at the outset of ours for 2018: Having reached the point at which we figure we’d better keep in touch or somebody will say, Are Fran & Bud still around? . . .   And sometimes I break my own preference rules as happens at the end of this year’s letter from our house: Without getting overly political, we worry about the future of the ever-warming planet, and this being Christmastime we yearn for the day when our country will welcome the stranger, protect the poor, care for those less fortunate, all those things Jesus talked about.Interfaith symbols

Because many of our year-end missiles go to friends who are Jewish (not to mention agnostic, Buddhist, atheist, you name it) I usually include an expansion of some sort when I detour into my own strong Christian faith. This year, searching for accuracy, I mentioned to my pastor friend that I knew there was something very similar to that last line in the Jewish tradition. “Sure,” she said, “Tikkun Olam.” Ah, so. While Christians celebrate a Messiah who preached all those things not being done very effectively right now, Jews seek to prepare the world for a coming Messiah – by welcoming the stranger, protecting the poor, caring for those less fortunate. “Repairing the world,” is how my pastor friend put it, and she is best buddies with a nearby rabbi and both of them know stuff. So if I don’t have this theologically right, I will be happy to forward your comments to them.

In any event, it is worth considering. Perhaps as we emerge from the darkest days (I’m talking Solstice here) we may still welcome a stranger, try to help someone less fortunate, repair the world. Worth a try.Books

Oh, and books. On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World (James Srodes) somehow gave me hope for years ahead, and After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (Julie Dobrow) is fascinating. All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) is a treasure.

Happy New Year to us all.

New Year SF

 

 

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.

 

Tiny pieces of peace on earth

"A Peace Dove to the whole World" al...
“A Peace Dove to the whole World” al-Ma’sara village children, south of Bethlehem (Photo credit: ☪yrl)

BLESSINGS OF PEACE AND LIGHT BE WITH YOU THROUGHOUT THE YEAR. I lifted that line from the web page of the organization discussed below — but it works.

Thanks to the immortality of cyberspace, this brief essay that I posted three years ago re-surfaced this week. Someone sent a comment — “Awesome post, dude!” was the opening line — apparently after reading it for the first time. Maybe he was Googling the word Peace. In any event, it’s still valid and now resurrected:

In the olden days of the 20th century, at least until the latter third or so, there was a quaint custom for newspapers — remember newspapers? — to print nothing but good news on the front page on December 25, in recognition of the historical figure celebrated by Christians around the globe as the Prince of Peace. Even for followers of other religious traditions, or of no religion of all, there was something comforting about picking up the morning paper (another quaint but honorable old custom) or checking the corner newstand without being confronted by headlines screaming of wars and disasters, murder and mayhem.

Couldn’t find such a front page this year. The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle… no luck. On the front page of the Sunday (December 26) Chronicle, though, is a feature article encompassing the message of peace that is the essence of all the religious celebrations of December: Chanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and many more. It’s a profile of the man who, in 2000, launched United Religions Initiative, retired Episcopal Bishop William Swing. U.R.I. is dedicated to fostering cooperation and mutual respect among all religions, and to bringing peace and justice to people everywhere. Hard to argue with that.

From modest beginnings a decade ago U.R.I. now boasts (except U.R.I. folks tend not to be boastful) several hundred “Cooperation Circles” scattered across the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Circles (the San Francisco Interfaith Council, of which I’m pleased to be a part, is one) are made up of ordinary people with extraordinary goals: promoting peace, equality and justice in a limitless variety of ways. U.R.I. also has programs in areas such as women’s rights, youth, environment and peacebuilding. There’s that word again: Peace.

Wouldn’t it be fine to see a little of that in the New Year?

All kinds of greetings this season

Christmas bells
Christmas bells (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first thing that dropped out of the Christmas card was a front page torn from The Flint (MI) Journal of September 5, 2013:

ABORTION CLINIC CLOSES; ONE REMAINS IN AREA read the banner headline at the top of the page.

My friends keep track of things for me. News and notes get saved — sometimes for three months — because holiday cards are still my generation’s catch-up communication of choice. Who went off to college, got married, landed a new job, took an exotic trip, (got sick or died) — news of the old year comes with good wishes for the new. This year’s news, for me, tended to focus on reproductive rights. Thus the clipping from The Flint Journal (on whose payroll Bud Johns appeared as a kid, and a young reporter.)

The story wasn’t one that would have made lasting news much beyond Genessee County, Michigan. An ugly report about a woman saying she was “forced” to have an abortion, a lawsuit, and that was the end of the Feminine Health Care Clinic.

It’s still possible to obtain an abortion in the area, though obviously now more difficult. The closing of FHCC brought the number of abortion-providing clinics in the area down from four not long ago to, currently, one. And that, according to Flint Area Right to Life Director Judy Climer who’s been leading this effort, “makes us feel we’re on the right track.” Climer’s track leads to total denial of abortion access. And the interesting point of the whole long, sad story is summed up later in the article:

Lori Lamerand, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan points out toward the end of the story that all of these things “were not done solely in the best interest of the patient.”

This week will bring more cards. Next week will bring a new year. If miracles happen — and isn’t this the season of miracles? — the new year will bring some sort of rational public dialog about protecting the patient, i.e. pregnant woman, while somehow respecting those who blindly hold that her fetus is all that matters.

Miracles do happen.

 

The season of giving/funding/etc

Cedar Christmas Wreath
Cedar Christmas Wreath (Photo credit: wilsonevergreens)

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year — Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or just getting an annual new start — you are undoubtedly receiving daily invitations to help others get their own new start. With dollars. It’s a tradition of the season. And despite all the despair about consumerism and commercialization, answering all those year-end appeals has an upside.

Your dollars can do good.

Just in case you can’t decide where to send them, this space would like to suggest a few possibilities:

In the end-of-life arena, your dollars can double their value if you send them in the next 10 days to Compassion & Choices, a great organization with a dollar-for-dollar match currently available. Full disclosure: I’ve been a volunteer, board member etc for Compassion & Choices NCA for well over a decade; more disclosure: it has Charity Navigator‘s highest rating.

Planned Parenthood! So some of their facilities offer abortion services — which is making this excellent organization the target of every right-wing anti-women group in the U.S. They also perform invaluable services across the full spectrum of reproductive care, for women and men alike. I get weary with their solicitations, but still send money because they do good. They also have a match waiting for you to double your dollars between now and the end of the year.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, check them out. If you want to support legislative action (and not get a tax deduction) you can send much-needed dollars to the activist group. But the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation also does good, and is a 501(c)3.

On a smaller scale — and the small-scale organizations often need your money the most and do every bit as much good — here are just a couple of suggestions:

SisterSong — mobilizing women of color (and well worth the support of women of all colors) for reproductive justice.

The Women’s Information Network — Many different iterations in different parts of the country, but WIN members: young, progressive, professionals, are the women who will create change as well as the age group with the most to lose as reproductive choice disappears.

Catholics for Choice — just because Catholic officialdom opposes abortion, contraception, women’s reproductive choice and everything else (end-of-life choice included) rational, countless good Catholics do not. My favorite Catholics, a lot of them at least, are pro-choice. And this one Protestant for choice thinks Catholics for Choice is a great group.

These are just a few of the places where your dollars can help make a difference, and a happier new year for many.

Alzheimer's: old music, new songs

Think nursery rhyme. Sing the words. How long is it since you learned that ditty?

Years ago a friend of mine named Alice suffered a stroke that left her with the ability to say only two words: “one, two.” Or she may have been saying “want to.” In the months ahead she developed a skill for packing more meaning into that phrase than most of us can manage in several paragraphs. “ONE two!,” she would fairly shout at her husband, expressing displeasure (something she did with regularity before the stroke.) “OnetwoONEtwo?” she would ask, in a “Do you really like it?” voice. Still, it was tough on friends and family, and had to have been more than frustrating for her.

Eventually Alice and her husband moved into an assisted living facility. Though she was a woman of limited education and resources, she was able to resume a minimal degree of activity within that community. I saw her about once a week there, for a period of months.

At Christmas time, a group of us went caroling in Alice’s building. Midway through one old, familiar song, as we stood facing an assembled group of residents, someone noticed that Alice was singing merrily along, word for word. There was a lot of nudging and head-nodding, and by the end of the last verse not a dry eye. As we left, Alice smiled and said, “One two, one two.”

Now comes another interesting word about music and the mind, from a Science Daily article posted on the PositScience blog. It cites results from research by the Boston University School of Medicine showing that people with Alzheimer’s retain verbal information better when it comes within the context of music. The findings appear online in Neuropsychologia, an international journal to which I admittedly do not subscribe.

To determine whether music can enhance new learning of information, AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) patients and healthy controls were presented with either the words spoken, or the lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment along with the printed lyrics on a computer screen. The participants were presented visually with the lyrics to 40 songs. Twenty of the song lyrics were accompanied by their corresponding sung recording and 20 were accompanied by their spoken recording.

After each presentation, participants were asked to indicate whether or not they were previously familiar with the song they had just heard. The BUSM researchers found accuracy was greater in the sung condition than in the spoken condition for AD patients but not for healthy older controls.

The blog elicited responses ranging roughly from “that’s very interesting” to “so what else is new?” I come down on the “that’s very interesting” side of the issue, because it is.

And the more we know about connections of this sort, the more we begin to understand about the workings of the mind and the broader the possibilities of unlocking its secrets. Those pesky memorizations of yore, set to music, still manage to survive all manner of afflictions.

I still can’t figure out where I put the keys… but I can sing you every line of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Tzedakah, zakat and good deeds

In the very olden days it was traditional, on December 25, for newspapers in many cities to feature front pages encircled by holly leaves and red ribbons, with banner headlines reading “Merry Christmas” or “Peace on Earth.” Another tradition was to carry, on front pages often filled before and after with stories of tragedy, only good news for this one day.

In consideration of the growing numbers of Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s probably just as well that the local paper doesn’t herald other people’s tidings for a day — assuming there are still readers of actual local papers out there. But imagine a whole page of good news. What good news that would be.

So it was heartening to wake up to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s December 25 front page: Senate passes health reform. Photos of smiling kids, street musician and revelers in Santa hats. A big sister home from Iraq. And on page 9, a banner that reads: Detroit area’s Mitzvah Day getting a boost from Muslims.

Many Jews consider Christmas Day an opportunity to serve their community while Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday. This year, what’s also known as Mitzvah Day in southeast Michigan is getting an added boost from Muslims.

For the first time, about 40 Muslims are expected to join 900 Jews for what they call their largest annual day of volunteering. Leaders say it’s a small but significant step in defusing tensions and promoting goodwill between the religions – particularly on a day that is sacred to Christianity, the third Abrahamic faith.

Mitzvah Day, a nearly 20-year tradition in the Detroit area also practiced in other communities, is so named because mitzvah means “commandment” in Hebrew and is generally translated as a good deed.

The new partnership stemmed from a recent meeting among members of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit – which said it was unaware of any similar Mitzvah Day alliances.

The Jewish groups organize Mitzvah Day, which consists of volunteers helping 48 local social service agencies with tasks such as feeding the hungry and delivering toys to children in need.

Victor Begg, chairman of the Islamic council, said he was seeking a public way for the two faith communities to “build bridges of understanding and cooperation,” which led to joining the Mitzvah Day effort.

Not only are most Muslims and Jews available to serve on Christmas Day, but leaders also recognized a shared commitment to community service. Charity in Judaism is known as tzedakah. In Islam, it’s called zakat.

In the sun-filled park en route to my San Francisco church this morning I passed a soundly sleeping, presumably homeless man. On one side of him was a plastic bag that appeared to contain most of his worldly goods. On the other was a brown bag such as Sunday School children around town decorate for the annual Pack-a-Sack program through which the Food Bank distributes bag lunches to those in need. It had a crayon drawing of Santa Claus and a reindeer or two.

So once again: Peace on earth, goodwill to all.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/12/25/MNSB1B9FGT.DTL#ixzz0aix6fvXU