Category Archives: Spiritual musings

Punctuated Devolution

(Purloined and/or penned in memory of my doggerel-writing mother;
posted on what would have been her 105th birthday, August 22, 2022.)

Long ago, when I was a child
My parents said to memorize
A set of poems, some tame, some wild,
About the way time often flies.

I’ve never mastered, ’til today
The longest verse that they suggested–
About the “deacon’s one-hoss shay,”
In days when roads were less congested.

Per Wendell Holmes, the deacon tried
To craft a carriage with strengths so even
It never would just lose a side,
For years could remain fit for driving.

The shay survived through heat and storm,
Through varied owners, steeds, it roamed,
Providing rides in stellar form
‘Til at the last, per Mr. Holmes:

“There are traces of age in the one-hoss-shay, 

A general flavor of mild decay,

But nothing local, as one may say.

There couldn’t be,—for the Deacon’s art

Had made it so like in every part

That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.

For the wheels were just as strong as the thills—

And the floor was just as strong as the sills,

And the panels just as strong as the floor,

And the whippletree neither less nor more.

And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,

And spring and axle and hub encore.

And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt

In another hour it will be worn out!

. . . . . 

You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,

How it went to pieces all at once,—

All at once, and nothing first,—

Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.  

Logic is logic. That’s all I say.” 

Some days my bones ache,
Other days they feel brittle.
Some days my head hurts,
Other days it’s my middle.

Some days I feel fine,
Other days I wither,
Some days I’ve a clear mind,
Other days I dither.

May specific ailments give punctuation
To my inevitable disintegration.
As age advances, I hope and pray
I won’t go like the one-hoss-shay.

I’m not sure which of my parts will break
I hope some may be left to harvest.
May no internist unbeckoned make
Repairs to keep me from my last rest.

 

The Dobbs Case: What Would Solomon Decide?

I wish the Dobbs decision had never happened. For months leading up to it, I dreaded its potential impact on our fractured body politic. Now that it has happened, I am doing my best to find a forward-looking response. I doubt that any legal decision regarding abortion can satisfy anyone completely. I doubt that abortions will ever stop being performed, whether legally or illegally. I doubt we can ever reach an American (or global) polity in which every child is deeply wanted and loved, in which no mother dies from complications of pregnancy or delivery, and each new human is born into a fully functional family and society.

In the wake of Dobbs, activists on all sides of the U.S. abortion debate have increased their fundraising, outreach, and advocacy. Personally, I believe abortion prior to fetal viability should be primarily the decision of the mother-to-be, that her rights supersede any supposed state interests. However, I also believe that some common sense restrictions on abortions can be consistent with goals of family integrity and human rights. How can I best express my views? How do I act on my beliefs? When does life begin? How can we possibly know?  

Headlines tend to emphasize exceptional cases—the 10-year-old girl in Ohio who in May, 2022 was raped. After seeking care in Ohio, she had to travel to Indiana for an abortion because she’d exceeded the six week gestational limit mandated by a 2019 Ohio law triggered by the Dobbs decision. Overall statistics make less absorbing headline fodder, but are still abysmal. Over the preceding five years, Ohio had an average of over one abortion per week for a child aged 15 or younger. 

In ideal cases, a developing fetus is the result of consensual sexual activity between prospective adult parents. Ideally, once a woman’s egg is fertilized, the resulting zygote begins to divide, then implants and thrives in utero throughout the pregnancy, which ends when a healthy mother delivers a healthy infant. Many hazards exist between conception and birth, though—miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, maternal health complications, lethal fetal abnormalities. The rate of spontaneous miscarriage is estimated at between 11 and 22 percent of confirmed pregnancies. Possibly over half of all pregnancies end even before pregnancy is confirmed. About 2% of pregnancies are “ectopic”—the embryo attaches outside the uterine cavity, potentially threatening the life of the mother. In 2020, the US had the highest maternal mortality rate among developed nations: 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. About 3% of babies born in the U.S. have birth defects of varying degrees of severity, with the most severe defects causing about 20% of deaths in infants below the age of one.

Ideally, prospective parents are financially and emotionally ready to raise to adulthood any child they conceive. However, a study from the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 found then that nearly half of pregnancies were either “unplanned” (27%, maybe later?) or “unwanted” (18%, not now, not ever!). Per their research, unintended pregnancy rates are highest among low-income women, women younger than 24, unmarried women cohabiting with a male partner, and women of color. Economic studies repeatedly link limiting access to contraception and/or abortion to increases in child poverty and crime. 

To help ground me since the Dobbs ruling, I’ve returned to my Christian roots, revisiting Biblical stories of King Solomon to try to find wisdom to help me through this most recent set of conflicts over reproductive choice. A seminal account involves Solomon deciding a difficult case shortly after he has asked God in a dream for wisdom in guiding his people. As recorded in I Kings 3:16-28, the case involves the death of a newborn and two frantic mothers’ competing claims on the one surviving child. To help determine the rightful claimant, Solomon threatens to cut the surviving child in two. The real mother cries out to let the other mother keep the child, willing to relinquish her child rather than have it killed. Through his decision, Solomon does his best to honor the mothers, the child, and the child’s future.

The Dobbs decision was injected into a United States with many festering debates. Abortion has been, and continues to be, even thornier than the dilemma posed to Solomon, with no clear one-size-fits-all answers. What seems clear so far is that many women, their families, and their doctors are fearful and upset at Dobbs’ sweeping change in national policy. The change overturned fifty years of judicial precedent, including many cases attempting to strike some sort of balance among competing rights—the mother’s, the developing fetus’s, and that of the governmental apparatus charged with supporting families and children. 

I like to think that Solomon in his wisdom would have come up with ways to help us broaden our focus, leaving us less obsessed with the period between conception and birth. It is a rare pregnancy that lasts more than nine months, a rare (though tragic) instance when a life after birth lasts less than that, a strange anomaly for a girl/woman to conceive before typical puberty, which happens between ages 8 and 13. 

Perhaps we can see beyond our differences to lessen the damage we are causing to the already born and to women not ready to become mothers. Our faith, our gender, our life circumstances can help impart the wisdom we need to navigate post-Dobbs America. If Solomon could consider the mothers, the child, and the future, might we be inspired to behave similarly?  Are we each doing our best for the human family of which we are a part? Are we helping to preserve a livable planet for future generations?  What would Solomon decide?    

Learned Helpfulness

Most of our recent news is bad: warfare in Ukraine, mass shootings in the U.S., wildfires, floods, tornados, hurricanes, the list seems endless. It helps me to remember that most news has always been bad. We tend to take for granted the generosity, kindness, humor, and loving that people bestow on each other much of the time. Pleasant weather is considered unremarkable. We rarely get headlines or breaking news about the nice people or the nice weather. It’s the bad examples, the exceptions, that get the bulk of the publicity. Through our increasingly interconnected global communications, we can more readily and extensively broadcast the negative aspects of reality. They are not the whole picture.  

Last week, after an overload of news about wars and mass shootings and refugees and climate crises and teen anxiety and so on, I was tempted to lapse into “learned helplessness, ” a psychological condition often linked with depression. Problems can seem just too overwhelming to deal with. 

Instead, I made a conscious attempt to find some good news. I started with a basic internet search on altruism, broadly defined as actions taken on behalf of others that provide little or no benefit to the altruist. I sat down with my husband to watch a “Kindness 101” segment created by CBS reporter Steve Hartman in 2020, early in the covid pandemic, when he and his children were stuck at home due to school closures and lockdowns. I marveled at the story of Eugene Youn, a 28-year-old adventurer who quit his job and embarked on a long-distance hike to fundraise the $80,000 needed for a set of prosthetic devices to help paraplegic Arthur Renawinsky, a man Youn had yet to meet, walk again.

Later, I honed in on experiments done with very young children to try to find out how altruism develops. Research at the University of Washington showed that toddlers as young as about a year and a half will help an experimenter they believe needs their assistance (https://www.washington.edu/news/2020/02/04/altruistic-babies-study-shows-infants-are-willing-to-give-up-food-help-others/). 

Much earlier in my own life, a son who was then studying psychology in college urged me to check out the relatively new field of “positive psychology,” focussing on what’s right with us, rather than just diagnosing and treating what’s wrong. At son Scott’s suggestion, I read a pioneering volume, Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman. Later I studied some of the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist with the difficult name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read one of his seminal works, Flow. One of my go-to internet sites, TED, has a subset of 15 positive psychology talks featuring experts in the field: https://positivepsychology.com/positive-psychology-ted-talks/. I recommend them.  

Even earlier in my life, one summer at a family church camp I enrolled Scott as my assistant in the infant nursery. As the “baby of the family,” our younger son had rarely gotten to care for children even younger than he was. His chance at about age 3 to be a “caring older brother” for a week was one of the highlights of his camp that year. It gave him a sense of power to be able to help care for the infants in the nursery. He was very caring, very careful.  

It’s important to me that the war in Ukraine end soon, with as little additional carnage and displacement as possible. It’s important to me that those whose lives and livelihoods were ruined by the war receive humanitarian assistance. It’s important to me that those responsible for conducting the war be held accountable. It’s important to me that we Americans find ways to reduce our epidemic of gun violence. It’s important to me that we take more individual and coilective actions to reduce the future impacts of ongoing climate change and resulting catastrophic weather events. However, if I attempt to “fix” any of these issues by myself, I’m likely to get discouraged. All are big problems. 

Instead of the “learned helplessness” of throwing up my hands or getting angry at slow-to-move officialdom or deciding that all these are somebody else’s problems, I can practice learned helpfulness. I can pick and choose where my individual skills and actions would most likely make a positive difference and then use my skills, do the actions. 

Like my three-year-old nursery assistant, I can engage in the “learned helpfulness” of altruism. I can make small but positive differences in the lives of those I interact with. I can continue to learn from my mistakes and improve. Learned helpfulness will glean better results than its opposite, I’m sure of it. 

Fear Sells, Until…

Half a dozen years ago, on a spring weekend, I went to Washington, D.C. with a small group of peaceful protesters to try to encourage more transparency in campaign financing, along with less influence from huge, often difficult-to-trace donors. I also wanted to network with younger activists and to support wider participation in our democracy. I attended workshops, met with old friends, made new ones, at one point joined a group in a march around the Supreme Court building. 

Later that same year, I attended a ” Decision 2016” rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, headlined by Franklin Graham, son and putative heir to crusading evangelist Billy Graham. 

The constituencies at the two events had little overlap, but themes of fear and “othering” invaded both—at the first, fear of big corporations and wealthy individuals coopting our democracy, at the second, fear of losing our religious underpinnings as a society. Sometime during that year, I bought a small lapel button: “Fear sells, until you stop buying it.”

These days, all sorts of groups all across the political spectrum are trying to sell me fear. Rarely a day goes by when I’m not assaulted by some internet or other media outlet explaining why “others” are destroying the world as we know it, why everything will be lost unless I (choose one or more): 

donate, 

demonstrate, 

denigrate, 

desecrate, maybe even 

detonate. 

I’m willing to participate in the first two, but strongly oppose the final three. 

It’s gotten so intense that I’m inclined to stand on its head the advice of 1960’s countercultural icon Timothy Leary—rather than “turn on, tune in, drop out,” I need to “turn off, tune out, drop in.” This retooled advice fits with my somewhat uptight nature, but I believe is also an appropriate response to our current societal turmoil. The combination of media frenzy and a lingering pandemic caused by a pathogenic virus have left too many of us feeling isolated and in dread of what’s “out there.”

When the cacophony of disparate media voices gets too loud, I find ways to distance myself, even from those opinions I mainly agree with. I “turn off and tune out”: silence the television; ignore the internet; switch off my cell phone. Often, I go outdoors. In addition to lessening the likely danger from viruses, spending time out in nature helps me to experience once more my minor role but valued place in the grand scheme of things. Once away from traffic and mechanical noise, I can think, perhaps reconsider, remember to honor the humanity of those with whom I disagree.  

I can ponder what my own fears are and how I can buy into them less often. At root, I’m afraid sometimes that the surface fractiousness of our human societies is all there is. I need to take intervals to drop into the deeper reaches of my nature, to reconnect with the underlying wholeness of the cosmos. 

The relative isolation of pandemic life has given me multiple chances to experience this deeper connection. I’ve had a hiatus in which to face some of my fears and to strengthen my resistance. As I gradually free myself from fear and isolation, I can participate more fully and more effectively in joint actions to make long-needed changes to the ways humanity has organized itself. 

Fear may occasionally still sell to me, but its market share is dwindling. 

Changing the Rules/Cadences of Warfare

It’s been a struggle lately to decide whether or not to turn on network or cable news. Just when we thought the covid pandemic might be easing, we were slapped with another whammy—a “hot war” between Russia and its southern neighbor Ukraine. Few journalists with fluency in both English and local languages are reporting from Ukraine on American media. As of late March, 2022, coverage is spotty at best. My guess is that were I living in Moscow rather than southern California, the impressions I’d get of the conflict would be quite different. Might I even be persuaded that Mr. Putin was a hero fending off a predatory NATO alliance, with Mr. Zelenskyy as its puppet? I don’t know. 

What I do know is that the war is damaging for all of us, whether directly or indirectly,  wherever we live. Where I live now, I face rising gasoline prices, continuing supply chain disruptions, the renewed specter of nuclear fallout from intentional attacks or tragic accidents, worry about loved ones vulnerable or in harm’s way. Your list may be slightly different from mine, but it’s not likely pleasant, either.  

The older I get, the more aware I am of the difficulty of eliminating warfare altogether. I was spared direct experience of the horrors and deprivations of World War II, but since I was born, there has been nearly continuous warfare among humans somewhere on this planet we share. My childhood not far from Washington, D.C. was spent in anxiety about a possible resumption of nuclear warfare, with a “near miss” during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As I took my first tenuous steps toward adulthood, the U.S. got increasingly involved in an ongoing conflict in Vietnam, part post-colonial struggle, part civil war, part proxy for an increasingly expensive, destructive stand-off between “capitalism” and “communism.”  

When in the late 1980’s, the Berlin Wall fell, ushering in a brief period when warfare seemed somewhat more contained, I cheered. Then the Balkans exploded. Then hijacked planes exploded in American cities. Then the U.S. launched retributive or pre-emptive attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, ostensibly to prevent further terrorism on American soil. Twenty years on, Afghanistan is in tatters, Iraq remains unstable, and home-grown American terrorists have stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

Yet in parallel with “advances” in warfare, there have been corresponding attempts to limit its damage. Since armed conflict became more mechanized and more deadly during the 19th century, there have been repeated efforts to limit the carnage: the International Committee of the Red Cross (founded in 1863), the League of Nations (founded in 1920, dormant after 1940), the United Nations (established in 1944, since expanded to include 193 nations), Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (established in 1971, now operating in 70 countries).  Similarly, various treaties have attempted to limit the weaponry used in warfare, having some impact on the devastation, though ignored by combatant nations and groups from time to time. 

I’m by now somewhat geriatric to be marching in peace demonstrations, so I do what I can from the sidelines. I make donations. I write letters to media outlets and public officials. I blog. I try to make some sense of what is going on. I try to maintain my own mental health. In this effort, it helps me greatly that I still have access to a non-lethal space outdoors. I can take walks. I can garden. I can marvel at the changing seasons, yes, even in southern California. 

Even when indoors, I can listen to music. Recently I did an online search  for beautiful music from Ukraine, and found a YouTube selection I liked a lot. If the English translation of “A Moonlight Night” is accurate, its lyrics fall somewhere between a lullaby and a seduction song. Not that it’s likely to happen, but I wonder what would occur if, instead of the thumping cadences of planes and bombs, wars were required to be conducted in waltz time?   

 

Diaspora

Horrified, we watch the bombs fall,
The buildings crumble. Another
Round of refugees flees
Across artificial borders,
Seeking some sort of
Sanctuary.

Observers or participants, we carry
Revulsion as baggage. Perhaps,
We feel an aggrieved resignation.
Fear, loathing–why such destruction
Mischaracterized as conquest,
Again?

So many have fled our birthplaces,
Impacted by overt violence,
Or, having survived more subtle
Pressures, hunting for better
Lives elsewhere.

Wherever our homeland,
Whatever our current location,
Our wanderings began at birth–
Expelled or pulled from the womb
Once it became confining and
Uncomfortable.

We’re all part of a human diaspora,
Pilgrims, seekers, strangers, yet
Inescapably kin.

Sooner or later, whether
By war, accident, injury,
Illness, or old age,
Our diasporas
Will coalesce.

Each of us will return to earth.
We’ll be subsumed to oneness,
All of us once more at
Home.

My Granny’s Knitting

Until I was eleven years old, I lived with my parents in a family compound, with my maternal grandparents next door. Until age four, I was an only child. Then, during the post-World-War-II baby boom, my three siblings were born over the course of twenty months. While my mom and dad were busiest—mom caring for my younger sister and twin brothers, dad building a fledgeling small business, both of them scrimping and saving up for a larger house—there were several years in the mid-1950’s when “Granny” became my frequent caregiver. 

Granny taught me piano, encouraging me to practice daily on the tuned used upright at her house—as our family grew to four children, our small cottage threatened to burst at the seams and had no room for a piano. Granny also taught me to knit. I noticed that on social occasions, Granny often proudly wore a Red Cross lapel pin that identified her as a World War II “knit your bit” volunteer. She and others like her had knit warm sweaters, hats, and socks for Allied soldiers, both those at the front and the wounded in hospitals. 

During the years when she was teaching me knitting basics, Granny was still knitting warm socks and caps for the Red Cross, probably to be shipped to World War II refugees in Europe. As the 1950’s gave way to the 1960’s, the need for Granny’s knitting diminished. Arthritis eventually put an end to her handicraft efforts. I don’t know what happened to Granny’s lapel pin, but recent events have got me to thinking about her knitting again. 

The February 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops plus threats of nuclear escalation by Russia’s president Putin have struck a nerve for many. They remind me of a previous nuclear stand-off—the Cuban missile crisis. In the fall of 1962, as I entered high school, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), which included the current country of Russia, engaged in a tense stand-off about the deployment of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida. At the time, the U.S. had stationed nuclear missiles in Turkey, near the southern border of the U.S.S.R. Many adults around me worried about the possibility of an exchange of nuclear arms. The widespread destruction and the ongoing aftereffects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that nuclear weapons strikes could obliterate entire U.S. cities. They could also contaminate with long-term nuclear fallout the Maryland countryside where I lived. After a tense couple of weeks, the 1962 crisis was resolved peacefully, with the removal of missiles from both Cuba and Turkey. 

Mr. Putin’s threat to again use nuclear weapons raises the specter of human-induced annihilation. It’s also scary that the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents so far, at Chernobyl, is in northern Ukraine. Escape of radioactivity from that partially hardened reactor might be an ancillary result of ongoing hostilities.  

It now makes more sense to me why Granny did her knitting, and why her Red Cross pin was so special to her. Granny was born in rural Virginia in 1879, when the area where her family lived was still struggling to rebuild after the U.S. Civil War. She lived in various parts of the U.S. before relocating to central Maryland with her husband and growing family about 1915. In April, 1917, when the U.S. entered “the Great War,” Granny was pregnant with my mom. For much of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Granny became the prime family breadwinner, heading the housekeeping department at a Baltimore luxury hotel. 

When war again broke out in Europe in 1939, Granny worried about the draft status of her only son. She followed news reports closely. I’m not sure how early in the conflict Granny began knitting for the Red Cross, but I think she produced warm wear for soldiers and then civilians for much of World War II and its aftermath.  

Last weekend I attended a local rally in support of Ukraine. It was a sunny day in San Diego. War seemed distant. Lots of attendees waved Ukrainian flags, carried bouquets of sunflowers, hoisted hand-lettered signs decrying the Russian government’s aggression, expressing hopes for a speedy end to the killing. Several speakers explained, in Ukrainian, Russian or accented English, that there was no quarrel between the peoples of the two countries, just lethal aggression instigated largely by Mr. Putin.

By now, I too am a “granny.” It’s a continuing joy to watch our two grandchildren grow toward adulthood. Soon, if all goes well, I’ll have three additional step-grandchildren and a third biological grandchild. Since this past weekend’s rally, I’ve arranged further donations to charities working with refugees fleeing the fighting. I’m intensifying my charitable efforts more locally, also reaching out to friends and acquaintances with ties to Ukraine. I’m searching for ways to be more effective in reducing the suffering caused by this senseless war. I’m recalling Granny’s knitting with a renewed sense of respect.  

Hymn: Now I Recall My Childhood

“Now I Recall My Childhood” (UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition #191; words by Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum Corda)  

“Now I recall my childhood when the sun burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise, faith in the marv’lous bloomed anew each dawn, flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.”

The reminiscence below was started as the first of a series of daily journal entries during the month of November about some of my favorite hymns. It seems appropriate this New Year’s Eve to post it to my blog to “finish up” the strange year just ending. I’m taking a look further back to where I came from before facing forward into the coming, as yet uneventful year.  Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the author of the words to this hymn (in English translation here), was a poet, writer, and activist from the Indian state of Bengal. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Two of his compositions have been adapted as national anthems: India’s “Jana Gana Mana” and Bangladesh’s “Amar Shonar Bangla.”  

May all of us have at least some good memories of childhood. May all of us maintain hopes for the future, whatever our stage of life:  

An ear worm of a tune in a hymnal, remembering the joys of childhood—the sun on my face, a smile from a parent, a favorite swing, the wind in my face as spring began. A few darker images, too—a scowling uncle, a bramble patch that scratched my bare legs in summer, an uphill trudge to school. School mornings featured a hurried scramble to get to our elementary school before the Greyhound bus came past, belching diesel.  

I remember playmates, a sandbox, a swing set, a sliding board, some apple trees, a backyard chicken coop. The coop was constructed hastily one spring after my kindergarten classmates offloaded their Easter-gift baby chicks to my former-farmer-father. The cute little fluff balls over time had gotten bigger and grown feathers, outgrowing their initial families’ patience and living quarters. After we’d dispatched the cockerels to the stewpot and installed the laying hens in their expanded coop, it was my job to collect the eggs—a sometimes smelly job, depending on how recently the coop had been cleaned.

I remember a big horse chestnut tree where my dad had flung a long rope for a swing. It was so much more fun that the measly contraption on the store-bought swing set, which would only curve an arc a few feet wide. On the tree swing, I could pump my legs until the arc reached at least ten times higher, or that’s how it seemed to six-year-old me. 

I remember the sweetness of the raspberries my grandfather grew on a hillside behind the housing compound that sheltered my parents, me, my sister, my uncle and aunt, and Pop-pop and Granny. Once we were old enough to save more berries than we ate, my sister and I were given free rein in the berry patch, only occasionally chastised for bringing in half-empty berry containers and ruby-red-stained hands.  

I remember an elementary school building whose lower floors were dark, smelling of a mixture of urine and pine-scented cleaner. I remember Blinka, the cleaning lady, and the long-handled cloth mop she wielded up and down the hallways. 

I remember the elementary school playground, and little boys chanting “I see Paris, I see France, I see sister’s underpants” while we girls practiced dangling upside down, like some of the cartoon monkeys we saw on a neighbor’s TV set on Saturday mornings. 

I remember walks to school a couple of weeks before summer vacation, when the honeysuckle was blooming. I remember the beads of nectar we’d stop to savor just before the one major road crossing, where Mr. O’Casey used his whistle and arm gestures to stop traffic and let us cross. 

I remember the Catholic church and the school building next to it. We didn’t know anyone who went there, but had heard stories about the ruler-wielding nuns, ready to slap your hand if you talked out of turn or didn’t do your homework. I remember church bells ringing for celebrations, weddings, funerals, saints’ days. The most consistent neighborhood sound, though, was the weekly test of the civil defense system, blasting out a pattern on the volunteer fire department’s siren every Friday at noon.

I remember May fairs, with a May court of young girls in frilly dresses—one for each grade. I only played that role once—a first grade alternate pressed into service after the girl we’d voted to be our first choice declined to participate. In preparation for the big event, my mom took me to the beauty parlor to get my usually limp hair tressed into ringlets. She was only slightly mortified when in the excitement of May Day I forgot to take off my hair net before making my princess-ly entrance to “Pomp and Circumstance.” 

I remember snowfalls, some slight, some nearly overwhelming. During the snowiest winter, my preschool twin brothers got snowsuits.  They would jump off the front stoop steps and sink up to their waists. I remember “Pan top” sleds, with handles but no good way to steer. We eventually created ruts enough to guide the things—a sort of primitive luge course.

I remember lullabies, and silly rhyming songs, and bellowing “I’ve been working on the railroad” at the tops of our lungs when returning in the family station wagon after longish car trips. 

I remember sometimes having thought that I’d be even happier when I finally grew up. The growing up part I’m still working on; the happiness part has, more often than not, turned out to be true. 

Hymn: Enter, Rejoice, and Come In

Hymn: “Enter, Rejoice, and Come In” (#361 in UU hymnal, words and music by Louise Ruspini) 

This holiday season here in San Diego is cloudier than the weather we’ve had most of the time since our move here in May. When I first wrote this entry mid-November, we were having a foggy morning. I think of fog as calming, slowing down the pace of life. (Often it also slows the flow of automobile traffic, either through caution or through accident…)  Therefore it’s somewhat counterintuitive that the hymn that came into my mind as the day’s theme was among the “peppiest” of UU hymns. 

This year again we do not have holiday travel plans. Again, we will do our extended family gatherings virtually, wishing for a weakening of the pandemic before next Christmas. At some future time, we’ll have a chance to gather physically, once the infection rate is a lot lower. Perhaps the theme to this hymn can apply to virtual “entries” as well as physical ones:  

“Enter, rejoice, and come in, enter rejoice and come in,
Today will be a joyful day, enter, rejoice and come in.” 

We’re quite fortunate to have the capacity and technical ability to be able to do video conferencing this year. That calls for at least a minimum of rejoicing. 

This hymn about “entering” has a simple set of words, with a lively beat and a lot of repetition. I’ve previously sung it in choirs in several different settings. It typically is used as an “entrance hymn” for festive occasions. This year, it’s festive enough just to be alive and well. 

This Christmas Eve, we’ve just experienced a “real rain,” a somewhat rare event in our lives here so far—over an inch at the gauge I optimistically stationed in our small back yard yesterday. Our part of southern California could use more rain, though drought conditions here have been less severe than further north. The moisture is welcome, especially when some of it comes down gently. A Christmas gift a little early? Another minor cause for rejoicing. 

Postal and email holiday cards from faraway friends have reminded us of the varieties of pandemic responses in different parts of the world—Australian friends have endured six lockdowns so far in the urban center where they live. Yet between surges, they’ve been able to travel some in more rural areas, benefiting from the absence of foreign tourists and the relatively uncrowded conditions. 

This hymn’s second and third verses speak to the different senses we can use in celebration: (2) Open your ears to the song; (3) Open your hearts ev’ryone…

In past years, I’ve sometimes gotten hung up on verse 4: 

“Don’t be afraid of some change, don’t be afraid of some change,
Today will be a joyful day, enter, rejoice and come in.”

This year has seen so much change, some of it intentional, some of it a result of factors and viruses so far beyond anyone’s complete control, that learning to befriend change rather than fear it seems practical advice. 

If there are good antidotes for fear, one of them has to be joy, so the hymn’s words are apt, especially the repetition of welcome in verse 5:

“Enter, rejoice, and come in!”  

May the joy of holiday welcomes, in person or virtual, be with you and yours, wherever and however spread out you may be!  

Hymn: How Can I Keep from Singing

How Can I Keep from Singing  (in Singing the Living Tradition #108, words adapted from Robert Lowry, tune traditional American folksong; during the pandemic, I’ve listened lots of times to a Podd brothers’ version on Youtube:

/watch?v=VLPP3XmYxXg) 

“My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real, though far off hymn, that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging–
It sounds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing”…

As in-person singing has gotten severely curtailed during covid-related lockdowns, I’ve turned more and more often to online sources of music. I don’t have the talent or the patience to participate in a virtual choir, so I’m most grateful to those who have stepped up to fill gaps many of us hadn’t realized we had. 

This song exists with a variety of lyrics, some more Christian-oriented, others more earth-centered. One variation was even used as a protest song during the civil rights era of the 1960’s and 70’s.

The introduction to this version carries the caption: “In times of uncertainty, grief, and isolation, we find strength and joy in making music.”  Before the pandemic hit the New York City area in early 2020 like a ton of bricks, twins Adam and Matt Podd were already experienced musicians and choral directors.  For “How Can I Keep…”, they assembled a group of 140 musicians, both vocal and instrumental. They created a visual and sound collage of the hymn.  

Their virtual rendition was first released on Youtube in May, 2020. Since then it has been viewed over three quarters of a million times. It’s one of the sources of solace I turn to whenever the pandemic seems endless—endless song being a potent antidote.

Each time I watch and listen, I notice new singers and instrumentalists I hadn’t paid attention to in prior views: The trumpeter with the themed t-shirt “Keep Calm and Play On,” the mother-daughter duo featured as two of the first singers after the brothers’ piano introduction, the percussionist carefully watching the video screen to know when to play a part. I notice the interplay of single-frame faces with dual-frame or sometimes quadruple frame images: the Podds at the piano, or a couple of horn players, or a cellist or harpist or drummer. I marvel at the post-performance editing and production that must have gone into creating the finished virtual product. When this pandemic is finally over, my guess is that virtual choirs will lose some of their appeal. The magic of in-person group singing can’t quite be matched virtually. 

Today, December 21, 2021, we in the Northern hemisphere experience the winter solstice. Direct sunlight reaches its furthest point south. We’re partway through a series of the shortest days and longest nights of our year. This winter solstice, we’re reeling from yet another pandemic spike engendered by yet another viral variant—omicron. 

I’m very thankful that music like “How Can I Keep from Singing” continues to help many of us through the darkness, both the physical and the psychological. Though sometimes frightening, dark has redeeming qualities: “songs in the night it giveth.” Thank you to virtual choirs everywhere, and please, keep on singing!