Category Archives: Spiritual musings

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!   

Meditation/Appreciation of “We Are a Gentle, Angry People”

“We are a gentle angry people, and we are singing, singing for our lives…” (#170 in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition)

When I first wrote this entry on November 3, the previous week had been a rough one for someone who wants to be persuaded that humanity is headed in a productive direction for itself and our planet. The U.S. Congress remained mired in deadlock over major infrastructure and social spending bills. A super-restrictive abortion bill had been enacted in Texas and was being challenged at multiple levels. The existing “minority party” had won several elections for state and local offices. Rhetoric on media channels continued to spew forth venom and misinformation. A global summit on climate change seemed mired in controversy, while our weather continued to get more erratic, our glaciers melting, our oceans rising, our forests burning. It was/is easy to feel angry and helpless. (In the weeks since November 3, some heartening changes have occurred, along with continuing and new challenges.) 

So I turned to music, which so often has had the capacity to heal me, to take me someplace better than where I started.  I began humming to myself a song that has often been used in religious services in support of LGBTQ rights: “We Are a Gentle, Angry People,” by Holly Near. I didn’t know a lot about the artist or about the genesis of the song, so I did a bit of internet research and found this Holly quote, transcribed by a concertgoer at one of Holly’s live performances:

“I wrote this song when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated (in 1978). We originally sang ‘we are gay and lesbian together’ but then we were surrounded by the support of allies and so I changed it to ‘we are gay and straight together.’ And now we are learning more and more about gender and sexuality and it now requires many more syllables than I can fit into the song, and so let us now sing ‘we are all in this together.’”

A moving rendition of the song can be found on YouTube as /watch?v=JUAoyE0DFBw, including a description of how the song first came to be sung.

I remember marches and demonstrations for a variety of causes during the 1970’s and 1980’s when we sang songs, either in addition to or rather than chanting slogans. Often, we’d close out with the litany “We Shall Overcome.” 

I wonder if somehow the singing had/has a way of bringing us together, both demonstrators and those being demonstrated about. Could/can we find some way to move forward together despite our many differences, some obvious, others subtle? Might/may it be harder to vilify someone you’ve just shared harmony with?

If the ongoing global covid pandemic is teaching us anything, among the insights is surely the realIzation that indeed, as Holly Near reminds us, we are all in this together. May we continue singing (and/or humming) for our lives.  

Meditation/Appreciation of “Earth Was Given as a Garden”

“Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity; 
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was at a UU music camp a decade or so ago. This paean to our earthly garden echoed a lot of my beliefs about the value of gardens and the importance of caring for our home planet ( hear a rendition of all three verses at YouTube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84). (A later set of words to the same tune also touches some of the same themes: “Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer, in later UU hymnal Singing the Journey as #1064, at YouTube.com/watch?v=0XziR3M2wYk). 

The first time I gardened was in childhood, I don’t remember exactly when. One season that sticks in my mind is a dry summer in Maryland in the mid-1950’s. I would have been about eight years old. During this drought, it was my job to water the bell pepper plants in our small hillside garden. A couple of times a week, I would haul a bucket of water uphill from the nearest outdoor spigot and carefully surround each pepper plant with water. My dad had dug a saucer-shaped trench around each pepper so the water would have more chances to soak in, rather than run off.

Later, when our family moved nearby to a larger house with a lot more land, we had a bigger garden, too far away from the house to water. Most years, extra water was not needed. I don’t think I contributed much to this garden, aside from eating the produce. I remember we used to grow corn. Somehow, the homegrown ears tasted sweeter than anything we could buy at the grocery store. Despite the predations of area raccoons, there was nearly always enough for a few delicious corn-on-the-cob meals. 

We also grew tomatoes. The red fruits were a bone of contention between human eaters and the local turtle population. Nearly every year, we’d find at least a couple of ripe tomatoes with substantial chunks eaten out of them. Actually, we didn’t mind the turtles’ inroads too much. Having turtles in the tomato patch made it easier to find a competitor for that year’s 4th of July turtle race—a neighborhood tradition. For several weeks before the 4th, we kids were busy scouting out turtles and putting them into temporary quarters in cardboard boxes or somewhat more formal animal cages. We’d feed them lettuce and vegetable table scraps and try to “train” them so they’d be in top form for the race.

When the big event came, around noon at the neighborhood picnic, we’d carefully place each turtle under the bushel basket “starting gate” at the center of a roped-off circle. We’d whisper some final words of encouragement, then step back behind the rope circle to cheer our turtle on. Most turtles snoozed through the race, but each year produced a winner—at least one turtle valiantly lumbered toward his/her former remembered home in the tomato patch.   

The year my new husband and I moved from a series of urban environments to Vermont in a somewhat misguided attempt to “return to the land,” I became a part-time adult gardener. We purchased a small house on a wedge-shaped lot in the state’s capital city, Montpelier. Because we moved in November, it was a half year or so before I could put seeds into the ground. I did start some tomatoes indoors—local lore suggested beginning seedlings on “town meeting day,” a set date in March when all Vermont’s towns held local meetings. My seedlings were anemic and spindly. Later, once the danger of frost was mostly past, I replaced my homegrown efforts with hardier young plants from the local garden shop.  

In Vermont, I was able to grow cool weather crops that did not thrive in Maryland when I was growing up—romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a strange shaped brassica called kohlrabi. When my in-laws paid a visit in late summer, I proudly cooked them some homegrown kohlrabi. Afterwards, I belatedly learned that it was one of my father-in-law’s least favorite vegetables. While living with his mom and siblings on a friend’s Midwestern farm during the waning days of World War I, he’d been fed an overabundance of kohlrabi and had sworn off them for the rest of his life. Kohlrabis look like something out of a sci-fi movie—central orbs with little leafy projections sticking out of them. I was not sorry to have experimented with them. I just needed to remember never to serve them to my father-in-law again. 

Our experiment in Vermont living did not last long enough for me to become a very adept northern gardener, but it did whet my appetite for further garden attempts. Our next move, to Richmond, Virginia, included an initial stint of apartment living that did not foster gardening. However,  when we purchased a house with a yard, I was off to the races. The first chore was removing the growth of wild clematis that had vined its way across the back yard. Next came turning the hard soil and deciding what to plant. Tomatoes for sure. Maybe some corn. Peas, carrots, lettuce, scallions, onions, beans, eggplant, and one year, potatoes. My early harvests rarely made much of a dent in our grocery bill, but digging and hoeing and weeding the garden helped me let off steam, forestalling the escalation of many a family fight.    

Partway through our Richmond stay, I wandered further afield—to sub-Saharan Africa for a two-year stint in a Peace-corps-like program. Our younger son Scott and I lived in half of a small duplex at the edge of the United Nations housing complex in the small city of Bujumbura, Burundi. The climate there was much different from any I’d encountered before. Although day length and temperatures varied only a little during the year, the rainfall changes were stark. From May to September or October, it rarely rained at all. Maybe a brief occasional shower, but basically nothing. People who had vegetable gardens either watered them or arranged for anything to be dormant during this “long dry season.”  A smattering of  planting began in advance of the “short rainy season” that typically ran from late September until mid-December, when there could be a harvest of sorts. A “short dry season” in late December and January allowed us expats from Europe and North America several storm-free weeks in which to fly home for the winter holidays with our non-expat relatives. Then it was time to plant in earnest—the “long rainy season” was when most foodstuffs were grown. Staples like manioc, corn, and beans, plus fodder for the cattle and other ruminants, enough to last through the long dry season until pasturage again became available with the short rains. 

I tried growing beans and peas on trellises outside out kitchen door. They were kind of straggly, but I think we may have gotten a couple of meals’ worth. They certainly did little to replace our need for the town market, where our housekeeper bargained for most of our food. During my two-year stint, I learned a little about the predominantly rural, agrarian economy of Burundi. Population pressures were immense, so a diet based mostly on beans, corn, and manioc made much more sense than the western meat-heavy diet I’d been accustomed to before. 

Once back in Richmond, I refined my techniques. Eventually I was able to produce enough vegetables to reduce the carping from other family members about my “less-than-minimum-wage” work. 

“Besides,” I told them, “it’s a lot cheaper than psychotherapy.”  

Then, about the time the younger generation was ready to fly the nest, we moved to a larger house with a huge yard containing a level, sunny spot just perfect for gardening. Over time, I got better at outwitting the bunnies and squirrels. We eventually had lettuces, onions, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, and a little corn. One year I experimented with popcorn—fun, but not all that practical, given the cheaply available store brands. 

The year we put the house up for sale, I went all out in spring planting. Maybe the well-ordered rows of lettuce, scallions and spinach encouraged the eventual buyers, who were also avid gardeners. The following year, my empty-nester husband and I lived in a northwestern Chinese desert. I tried windowsill gardening. Basil grew well with some pampering and watering. Our several other jaunts in China were either too brief or too busy to allow for a real garden. However, I reveled in the variety of produce available in the “garden province”  of Sichuan, where I spent over a year in total during the course of the next five years. 

Now I live in southern California, a climate best described in an earlier environmental book as a “Cadillac desert.” We have long, long dry seasons. If we are lucky, we get enough cool weather rains to green the hills a bit in January and February. I heard recently that some early fall rains this year had been unexpectedly generous, filling some of our parched reservoirs from a third to nearly half full. Still, not enough moisture to break a lingering multi-year drought. I’m studying rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, mulching, and other water conservation techniques. Learning to live in harmony with this climate will make for an interesting, challenging gardening year.   

A Hymn-Inspired Variation on NaNoWriMo

As November 1, 2021 approached, I was intrigued by the concept of writing something special during the month of November. I wasn’t quite read to jump into an effort dubbed “NaNoWriMo,” or “national novel writing month,” now part of a global non-profit effort to encourage creative writing. I was aware that I don’t at this point have a novel in me. However, the discipline of writing something every day was appealing. 

After looking over my bulging bookcase, I decided that I’d try for a few days to write a daily appreciation of a favorite hymn and see where that effort took me. It resulted in 30 short to medium length essays, some fit for blog publication. I’ve included the complete hymn list at the end of this piece. Perhaps a few of my favorite hymns may speak to you as well.  

One of the aspects of social life that I’ve missed most during the pandemic is the practice of group singing, especially of choral singing in religious services. As the season of holiday choirs and caroling approaches, I miss this practice even more. So, for the next couple of weeks, I’ll post some additional “hymn appreciations” to the “Spiritual musings” thread of this blog. Where possible, I’ll include a link to an earlier example of an in-person choir performing the hymn, or to a pandemic-induced “virtual choir” performing. Best holiday wishes to all, and please, keep singing!   

As an introduction, I’ve penned a parody of a tune you may recognize, apologies to “The Sound of Music”…

Coolinge, Mandela, and Scots-English folk songs,
“Nothing but Peace,” tunes for righting of past wrongs,
Melodies passed down through thick and through thin,
These are some tunes to my favorite hymns.

Masten, and Jim Scott, and Denham and Câpek,
Writing last century on multiple topics,
Tunes and words wistful, or teeming with vim–
These authors crafted some favorite hymns.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” “Climb Jacob’s Ladder,”
“We’ll Build a Land” with room for children’s laughter,
“Gather the Spirit” with fife or with drums,
These are a few of my favorite hymns.

In pandemics, when I’m lonely, when life seems too grim,
I simply locate real or virtual choirs, and belt out a favorite hymn.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

List of hymns profiled in November, 2021 writings; hymns included in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition:

Now I Recall My Childhood #191, words Rabindranath Tagore, tune Sursum
Corda
Earth Was Given as a Garden #207, words Roberta Bard, tune Hyfrydol
We Are a Gentle, Angry People #170, words and music Holly Near
Wake Now, My Senses #298, words T.J.S. Mikelson, tune Slane (Irish melody)
How Can I Keep from Singing #108, variation of Quaker hymn, tune traditional
Bright Morning Stars Are Rising #357, words anonymous, tune American folk
song
Nothing But Peace Is Enough #167, words and music Jim Scott

Seek Not Afar for Beauty #77, words M.J. Savage, tune Coolinge
Faith of the Larger Liberty #287, words V.B. Silliman, tune Bit Freuden Zart
Love Will Guide Us #131, words Sally Rogers, tune Olympia
One More Step #168, words and music Joyce Poley
Turn Back #120, words Clifford Bax; and Here We Have Gathered #360, words
Alicia Carpenter; tune Old 124th from 1543 Genevan Psalter
Sleep, My Child #409, words adapted Alicia Carpenter, tune Ar Had Y Nos
Blessed Spirit of My Life #86, words and music Shelley Jackson Denham

For All That Is Our Life #128, words Bruce Findlow, tune Sherman Island
Enter, Rejoice, and Come In #361, words and music Louise Ruspini
Mother Spirit, Father Spirit #8, words and music Norbert Câpek
Every Time I Feel the Spirit #208, African-American spiritual
We Sing Now Together #67, words E.T. Buehrer, tune arr. Edward Kremser
Let It Be a Dance #311, words and music Richard Masten
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing #149, words James Weldon Johnson, music
J.Rosamond Johnson, dubbed by the NAACP as the Negro National Anthem

Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire #34, words Hal Hopson, and Surprised by
Joy #410 words Eric Routley; traditional Scottish or English folk tune
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free #151, words and music Billy Taylor
and Dick Dallas, tune called “Mandela”
We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder #211, African-American spiritual and We Are
Dancing Sarah’s Circle #212, words by Carole A. Etzler
We’ll Build a Land #121m words by Barbara Zanotti, music Carolyn McDade
Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter #51, words Kendyl L.R. Gibbons, music David
Hurd
There Is More Love Somewhere #95, African American hymn, tune Biko
Light One Candle #221, words and music by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and
Mary)

Gather the Spirit #347, words and music Jim Scott
I Know This Rose Will Open #396, words and music Mary Grigolia

 

 

 

Meditation/Appreciation of Hymn “Light One Candle”

(#221 in UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah happens about this time each year. It’s a minor Jewish festival compared to the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which typically occur in September or early October.  However, because of its calendar proximity to Christmas, in many Western countries the holiday has been adapted to include some Christmas-like traditions. Even some non-Jews make respectful references to Hanukkah.  

Hymn 221 is the first of three hymns in the UU hymnal for the Hanukkah season. It’s somewhat contemporary, having been composed in the early 1980’s by Peter Yarrow, member of the former folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. I probably first heard Peter Yarrow when he, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers performed the Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind” at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington. As I grew up and later attended college, songs sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary became part of the soundtrack of my cohort.

This hymn begins with a reference to the Maccabees, a Jewish sect in Palestine during the 2nd century B.C. Depending on which sources you reference, the Maccabees may have been dedicated and self-sacrificing revolutionaries fighting an arrogant Syrian conqueror, or religious bigots bent on enforcing their narrow interpretation of Jewish law, or some combination of the two. Religious observances by Jews of that era ranged along a continuum that placed mostly rural more traditional Jews near one end of the spectrum and urbanized/Hellenized Jews near the other. Sounds vaguely familiar. 

The story most of us hear about the Maccabees is that they reconstructed and then rededicated the main temple in Jerusalem after it had been converted for Hellenistic worship. They wanted to celebrate the temple’s rededication using sacred oil, but had only enough for a single day. Miraculously, this oil lasted eight days, enough time for the worshippers to obtain a further supply. Modern Hanukkah celebrations often use a candelabrum called a menorah, with a central candle and eight surrounding candles, one for each of the eight days that the sacred oil lasted. 

Yarrow, of Jewish background if not active religious practice, asks us first to “light one candle for the Maccabee children with thanks that their light didn’t die.” As the verse continues, it gets more generic: “Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand.” Then it offers something of a sop: “But light one candle for the wisdom to know when the peacemaker’s time is at hand.” 

The second verse offers more reasons to light candles; the third asks mostly rhetorical questions about why to light the candles at all:

“What is the mem’ry that’s valued so highly we keep it alive in that flame?

What’s the commitment to those who have died when we cry out they’ve not died in vain?

Have we come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail?”

And then the zinger:

“This is the burden and this is the promise and this is why we will not fail.” 

All three verses share a rousing chorus:

“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years.

Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.” 

Several performances of the hymn have been posted to YouTube, among them a 1988 holiday concert the trio performed with backup chorus, which you may find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iXadyBSiHQ.  

I had an idealized impression of Peter, Paul, and Mary, so was dismayed to learn when I researched this piece that Peter had much earlier been convicted of taking “indecent liberties with a minor” in 1970 and had served three months in jail. He later got a presidential pardon as Jimmy Carter left office. A legal case has recently been filed accusing Yarrow of a different incident in 1969. 

In typical human fashion, I find it harder to deal with immoral behavior on the part of people I generally hold in high esteem. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of tribalism, condemning bad behavior by those of a different political persuasion or religious denomination while trying to excuse or rationalize such behavior by those I consider “my team.” From what little I can tell, Yarrow is repentant, reformed, and perhaps at age 83 somewhat hazy on what did or did not happen back in 1969. He still performs occasionally with grown daughter Bethany and/or grown son Christopher. Perhaps Carter was wise to realize how far short of the glory of God all of us can fall at times. 

This year’s Hannukah celebration will end well before Christmas, but it’s after Thanksgiving already. Home dwellers, commercial establishments, and religious sites are gradually festooning their venues with candles and lights. 

Because of the part of a time zone I now live in, physical darkness comes early in the evening this time of year. Not a big fan of the dark, I’m counting the days and minutes until our evening light eventually starts lengthening again. In the meantime, I can enjoy illuminated walks in our neighborhood, thrilling to the lights from many more than one candle. 

Now can seem a dark psychological time in our collective history as well, tinged by a pandemic, civil unrest, intermittent resource shortages, and a variety of societal ills. Through it all, may I remember to keep my own candle burning. Please trim and tend yours, too!