Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Reflection on Christmas: the refugees

Hi. My name is Marty. Phil has created me out of nothing. He puts me in situations and I just get involved. I get around a lot. Phil has had me in his own kitchen eating outdated food; in a cabin in the Southwest, finishing off a meal before I get hustled off to college by my uncles; and roaming Palestine with Jesus.

The Palestine adventure turned sour for me when he took me away from a great night with a woman I met there named Magdalene. (I can't really remember that night.) Phil just put me on an ass and I was traveling to a rendezvous with Jesus in Jerusalem. I wasn't happy. He'll probably send me back there; soon, I hope; Magdalene is waiting.

Las Vegas, the city of light. I'm standing with a few other people holding this sign,
                                                There is lots of room!
Donald Trump is ranting at the crowd.
"There are winners and losers. I'm a winner, way ahead in the polls. Winners win. Losers lose. You don't wanna be a loser. Look at those losers back there with that sign. They aren't even American… they want to turn our country over to the radical Islamists. I want our country to be great again… there's no room for those refugees who want to take over our country. Get them out of here. Rough 'em up a bit…they've lost. Losers lose. You don't wanna be a loser."

About fifty people rush at us. They smash our sign. I'm never this brave, unless you call eating all that stale food in Phil's refrigerator being brave. I ate well. Now, I'm getting trampled. I don't like being roughed up. No free speech with Trump, …unless you're Trump.

I escape that crowd, into a different crowd. The streets are alleys, jammed full of people, animals and carts. The sun is setting as I travel with Joseph and his wife Mary.  She's been riding a donkey all day.

"I never should have come here," Joseph says. "It's crowded and dirty. I hope we can find a place for the night."

"There's gotta be something," I assure him, not sure myself if there is. "There are so many people."

"I thought maybe there would be extra shelters for people who travelled long distances. The government wanted us to enroll for the census. Bethlehem doesn't have many hotels," Joseph says.

"Yes, it's a little sleepy town, not the place you want to be. Maybe we can find something." Marty says with little optimism.  "Mary looks pretty tired after that long ride… Is she due soon?"

"Probably. it's been about eight months since she realized that a baby was coming, so it can happen any time."

I knock on a door. "I'll check this inn." There's a swarm of people inside, huddled together. I could see there wasn't much room.

The innkeeper confirmed my suspicions. "There's no room here. Maybe across the street."

"Thanks," I say as we try to cross the street.

Mary lets out a faint cry , " Oh, oh!...I think the baby is coming."

Joseph storms across the crowded street. "There's gotta be room in an inn somewhere" he says.

He knocks at another Inn, where it seems very quiet.  "There's no room here. Try across the street," the innkeeper says pointing in the direction from which we came.

"Hey, we need a place,"  I shout. "This lady's going to have a baby any minute. We need your help, now." Again, I'm being brave and I don't know why. I don't know what I expect; there are so many people. The Romans have a way of screwing up people, especially the ones they call foreigners, … whose land this happens to be. The "foreigners' is skin is slightly darker than their own. It's odd how some even with similar skin tones manage to side with the powerful Romans against their own.

"We just came from there," I say to the innkeeper. "He's full; there's no room over there."

"Well, I'm full too then…you can go into the alley there with the rest of 'em. Maybe borrow a few blankets. Babies have been born in worse conditions."

"I think she deserves privacy and warmth away from the crowds." I say.

Joseph is comforting Mary. "We'll find something…can you hold on a little longer?"

Mary nods, "Please hurry…Help Us!" she yells at the innkeeper.

"I don't like to be yelled at," he says angrily. "Figure it out yourselves."

I stick my foot in the door as he tries to ignore us. "Wait a minute! You know our problem and you are going to ignore us? Well you can't…we're here….look at her."

Joseph is stunned that I'm so aggressive toward the man. "Slow down, Marty," he cautions. We don't need the guards coming after us."

"Maybe we do," I tell him. "This lout doesn't care about us… maybe he will care more if the guards are here." I glare at the startled innkeeper.

"Look, I don't want to make a big deal about this," he says, "but there is no room in the inn tonight. I can squeeze you in tomorrow night if you're around… wait a minute. Some of the animals in the stable were slaughtered for celebrations this morning. Come through that gate, Sleep in the barn. You can light a fire and be warm there. It's nippy, but the place is safe and quiet… half price for a whole suite."

'A barn," I say. "That's the best you can do!"

Joseph pipes up, "The barn is fine. We need a place now, Marty. Show us the way, sir."

We squeeze though the little gate followed by the donkey. The path is uncluttered. There's no sound coming from the inn. It's like a morgue. I don't see anyone through the windows.

"Why are you snooping around like that?" the innkeeper says.

"Are you sure there's no room inside?" I ask the man.

"Are you calling me a liar?"

"I have to ask… there doesn't seem to be any people inside…what's going on?"

"Bottom line, I don't like you guys. The lady needs help. She should be home instead of traipsing all over the hillside. Now you're making it my problem."

"It's all of us who have the problem," I say.

"Quiet, Marty… the barn is fine," Joseph says.

"Ohhh! unnng! ohhh!" Mary groans.

"Jesus! get into the inn." the innkeeper finally says. "I can't have this lady giving birth in a barn."

He ushers Joseph and Mary into a back door and slams the door in my face. I try the door, but it's bolted. I hear the man yell "Martha, Martha, get some hot water and rags… the water's burst…" He turns to Joseph. "Can you deal with this?"

Joseph says. "Bring the water. She's had other kids, so we know what to do?"

I go out to the barn and wait. When I wake up, it's summer. I'm travelling with a huge crowd through a desert, Syria. There are thousands of us. Bombs, guns blazing. People getting hurt. Starving people, sick kids, mothers giving birth all around. "Where will we go?" a woman shrieks. "I'm tired!" a little boy murmurs. "When will we get there?" a teen aged girl cries. "Allah is great, he'll take care of us," an old man says. "There's lots of room. It's a big world."

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Holiday encounter

“Shabat Shalom” Burt said when he saw me in downtown Chatham the Saturday before Christmas last year.
“Hey! Merry Christmas,” I replied. “Are you finished lighting the candles?”
“No, this is the fifth night with four to go.” he said.
“Just on time for Christmas.”
“It all works out,” he said.
We hugged each other like the old friends that we are. “Happy holidays!” we said simultaneously.

So what’s the big deal. There’s a simple approach to differences of custom that let’s people of all persuasions be friends. It’s called respect. Respect precludes demands or commands. It rests on “I” and “you” and “we”.

I got shalomed...he got merried...we went home happy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving reflection

Image result for Statue of Liberty
When the Europeans invaded America, there was no great cry heard round the world. Only in hindsight do we realize that the welcome portrayed in the first thanksgiving was the beginning of the end for the proud race of natives who inhabited the land we now call home. I’m glad that our ancestors came. I’m proud of the heritage of freedom that developed in America. I’m happy for the progress that has come about because of the discovery of this new land. I’m fortunate to have had my Italian and Irish ancestors welcomed by previous immigrants from the British Isles and their descendants. As we have come together as one nation, we have thrived on a material level more than most of the world. We have accomplished more than most of the world in the precious area called liberty.

It was not large armies that invaded. This may have been more the case in what we now call Latin America. Around here, the invasion was small groups of settlers who befriended and traded with the natives, established small “beachheads” that expanded rapidly by continually encroaching, claiming, “buying”, signing “treaties”, but ever conquering the people and the land. Armies did come, or were raised to protect the burgeoning population of settlers, the new Americans. The armies eventually decimated the native populations, leaving them relatively small areas to foster what little dignity remained.

I do not want to beat up the early settlers of America. They did what they thought they should do. Trade, marketing, riches, religious conversions trumped moral code. The arc of history bent in this direction.

From the efforts of these early settlers, a great country has been formed, but there is the tendency to recidivate, to fall back, to retreat; to take shelter in the cabin or fort; to lash out at the people who are different. Xenophobia surges. So early American, yet so un-American.

I don’t think our values of inclusion and trust should be trumped by knee-jerk reaction to immigrants whether from Latin America or Syria. When America realized the benefits of the second wave of the invasion that started with the settlers, this country became what it is known for, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. I think Americans are brave, and should not cower. I would love it if the spirit that opened Americas’s doors to us would swing open to the many who need the welcome comfort emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet New Colossus worth reflection on this Thanksgiving:

New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Monday, October 12, 2015

If today is everyday 10/11/2015

If today is everyday
it is forever.
The Hillside, photo by Meg

Today we meet on this endless hillside,
valley and peaks in the distance.

Today the eternal sun warms our bodies and hearts,
safe from uncertainty and resistance.

Today we see the beauty, hidden in life’s bustle,
Fair and handsome, beauty insistent.

Today, we listen, to each other;
“I love you”, persistant.

Today, the love found, discovered, recovered,
No longer distant.

And tomorrow,
is today.

When love continues to warm, to discover, to speak, to listen,

When the endless hillside is us.

And the valleys and mountains are us,

And the calm and the beauty are us.

Today is everyday, forever.

(Written for the wedding of my son and his beautiful bride.)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Only One?

"Have you ever gone to a Star Trek movie?" I said as I turned to the gentleman near me on the lawn at Tanglewood. I think he was stunned by the question that had been prompted by the Boston Pops presentation at John Williams' Film Night of the opening sequence of "Star Trek into Darkness."

"Well, I've seen some of the earlier ones," he replied, "but not the latest movies."

"I haven't even seen the early ones, and after seeing the sections of film presented here tonight, I probably won't see any of the movies."

His daughter overheard the conversation. "We (She and her sister) have seen a couple of the movies. You're probably the only person of your generation who has never seen Star Trek."

I was caught again, out of step with more than several generations this time. A few years ago, I was told that I was out of step with the latest generation because I had not read any Harry Potter. I remedied that by reading the first book and watching although it really hurt to do so the second installment. There were some good points made. Certainly there are some unforgettable characters, whom I can't remember now. But I now was in touch with a generation that I had not been in touch with before. Phrases and characters from the Potter series will live on for many years as they are incorporated into the dictionaries and Wikipedia.

While I was at a party a few weeks later, I sat with a couple of young girls, aged 7 and 10. Fresh from reading and seeing Harry Potter, I attempted to relate by using my new arsenal of information gleaned from Potter. "So, do you read Harry Potter?"

The ten year old replied, "Not really. I like Lemony Snicket."

She and her sister told me about Lemony Snicket. I listened the best I could, distracted, knowing that I had some more reading to do to relate to another generation. I didn't go out and by a Snicket book, but I Googled it, and found a few things that would help me in the future. On the other hand, the next thing is probably already out there, and the generations keep on coming.

"No, I don't read Lemony Snicket... I just read good stories," is the latest response.

After the Star Wars sequence, I used my flashlight to see what the second half of the pops concert was about, "Jurassic Park," "Jaws," Throne Room and Finale from "Star Wars." Yes, I'm out of touch with something. "Scent of a Woman," "Fiddler on the Roof." I saw those two. Maybe I'm okay.

The daughter was folding up some of the equipment they had used for their banquet on the lawn. I reached down and helped unscrew a table leg. I thanked them for the great crisp chocolate chip cookie that tasted like the ones my mother had made. Then I packed up my chair. The daughter helped me with that. She assured me. "You may be the only one but you seem to be a man who has done a lot over the years, so you probably shouldn't worry about it."

"If I'm that singular, it's one more achievement. This is a big crowd tonight and I'm tired. I need to get to bed early more than I need the second half of this program. Enjoy and thanks."

Am I really the only one who has never seen a full episode of Star Trek?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Transformation: From host to guest

I sat dazed; not entirely sure of my feelings; where to start. I looked up, moved my head as if to speak. She gazed at me coaxing me with her eyes. "You want to say something… take your time…I'm listening." I had just been through one of the most moving experiences life has to offer on a Sunday afternoon in the Berkshires. The Boston symphony just completed a stirring rendition of Beethoven's Ninth. It's a tradition at Tanglewood to close the season with this inspiring piece that includes soloists and choir singing the Ode to Joy in German, but understandable in any language. You just know something great and wonderful is being spoken.

The wonder of this moment began about three weeks before. I am an Airbnb host. My guest was a young man named Nat who described himself as an extra viola player with the BSO. He wanted a clean place, where he could practice, and have some shelf space in the fridge. That was easy. I must say, and he would agree, that he got much more. A garage to park his bike, large bowls for morning cereal, a room with a fourteen foot ceiling and open sliding doors where he could practice without disturbing or being disturbed, and even a dresser that he could use as a workbench for his second career, rejuvenating bows for stringed instruments with horse hair.

Daily we sat at breakfast, he with his huge bowl of mixed cereals, fruits, and yogurt. Me with my cuppa. "So what's on today?" "Rehearsal for Saturday." "Who's performing?" "Andris Nelsons' wife will be singing. She's with the Metropolitan Opera. The second part is Richard Strauss, 'Ein Heldenleben', a story about a heroic life. Usually there is a story portrayed in the music; you notice it by the interaction between musicians and instruments" Nat then told me the story behind each of the movements. The next morning we talked about Beethoven's Ninth.

Although he was an extra, Nat played most of the nights. Over breakfast we covered Mahler "Watch for the hammerschlag, a huge hammer"; Sebelius, "Kavakos on the violin, an imposing presence, but only about six feet tall"(I thought he was a giant).; Mendelssohn "Tetzlaff on the violin loves to play softly, challenging the orchestra to also play very softly; that can be difficult for the conductor"; Berlios "You'll like this one"; Shostakovich "Not everyone likes to play Shostakovich"; and others. We talked about conductors, why one such as Nelsons was able to get so much out of an orchestra with what seemed to me to be such erratic and eccentric movements, and "The orchestra picks up on the passion of the conductor. He puts out. The orchestra responds." "Keith Lockhart, conductor for the Boston Pops, limits his movements and is more precise… it's clear what he wants you to do." We talked about Yo Yo Ma, the renowned cellist who is traveling with the BSO now and on a trip to Europe next month. I went to three of Ma's performances during the three weeks. It's apparent why he is so popular. At least three great violinists also performed revealing different styles and different strokes, each engaging the audience in various ways.

We talked about having a cookout for some members of the BSO, but they were busy entertaining relatives and friends. I wanted Nelsons, and Ma to come. That didn't work out, so we went out to Lagonia's in Chatham for pizza, and talked for about two hours. I prepared and we shared Indian food and lasagna on a couple other nights. Nat's bright charming Irish friend joined us for the lasagna. He brought a different kind of beer in every few days for me to try. We made up beds for a couple of his guests who stayed on some nights. "I don't care how you use the space," I told him. "I'm getting an awful lot from this experience."

So that final Sunday was the culmination of a three week immersion for me into the life of a gifted, struggling musician. He got me passes to the lawn for four weekends. The last Saturday night, he actually found tickets that put us into the fourth row in the Shed, just short of the stage.

The us who sat in the fourth row, and the she who was gazing at me in the first paragraph, was Mary, Nat's friend. She's a PhD. Mathematician from Ireland. I had two mornings of math seminar with her over coffee. Geometry, and specifically symmetry was her field in math. She also baked some terrific bread/cake laced with raisins and chocolate chips. She accompanied me to the Saturday night concert with the soloist and the Strauss piece. She sat next to me on the lawn on Sunday afternoon under a maple tree, entranced by Beethoven's Ninth. The music, the friendship, overwhelmed me. I got my voice back. "I just feel so grateful." I had become the guest in a wonderful world for three weeks.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Treaty with Iran

In February 2002, President George W. Bush, in his second trip to China, recalled the meeting that came out of Ping-Pong diplomacy, telling President Jiang Zemin: "Thirty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon showed the world that two vastly different governments could meet on the grounds of common interest and in a spirit of mutual respect."

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/ping-pong-diplomacy-60307544/#SIHOx8hE6yotZlUq.99

In 1972, the world watched with suspicion the move of China into the gallery of great nations. They came through a back door. A ping pong tournament. Because of the respect born on the tiny table, Richard Nixon and Chou en Lai were able to open the doors to each other's nation. A wary eye from each side has marked this relationship ever since. It would be great if there were no sides and no wary eyes. We know that the world did not end when relationships were normalized between these two great countries. We know that there have been tests of will over the years. We know there has been great good done because of the relationship. China is a huge country still controlled by a powerful few. The results of cooperation have made the world more prosperous for all, and generally more peaceful.

Barack Obama has made a similar opening to another great country, Iran. It too is controlled by a  powerful few. It's a country rich in people, natural resources, and history bearing on our Judeo-Christian heritage. The country has been ostracized as a rogue state, similar in many ways to China. The efforts to open the door to Iran has been monumental, except for missing the ping pong. An agreement has been hammered out, not perfect by any means. Agreements, compromises never are perfect. They can only be evaluated by results. If a war is prevented, if lives are saved, if the breath of freedom can be felt by another country long suffering from sanctions imposed by other nations, then the agreement  is worth it. If it's war that nations want, that can happen anytime. We do that too often. When it comes to waging peace, it takes something else. It will be good to give peace a chance.

The world will not end when relationships are normalized between Iran and the rest of the world. There will be tests of will over the years. Great good will result from this new relationship. Although Iran is a huge country controlled by a powerful few, the results of cooperation will make the world more prosperous for all, and generally more peaceful.