Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Spirit Tree in my yard has almost finished shedding its skin.


...a midsummer night in Pine Ridge, Arkansas, when as an nine-year-old I stayed a week with my grandparents.  My mother’s father, my granddad, was a farmer... and the village blacksmith.  He shoed horses and repaired farm equipment and tended his crops.  He plowed his fields with his two mules, which he also used for transportation.  He didn’t have horses of his own. The mules pulled his wagon when he had to haul something or when he and my Grandmother went to church a couple of miles up an unpaved road from their house. 

It was that Baptist church I was remembering this morning as I sat listening to the San Diego United Methodist Church choir sing a lyrical, jazzy arrangement of an American folk hymn, “Bound for the Promised Land,” arranged by Mack Wilberg.  It’s a hymn Methodists don’t sing much any more.  I’m guessing it’s still sung regularly in Baptist Churches.  When I stayed that week with Granddad and Granny Inlow, we went every night to a revival meeting at their church. Granddad drove us there with his mules and wagon.  Granny sat in the wooden buckboard seat with Granddad.  I sat on the back floor of the wagon. I don’t remember much about the early evening trip to the church... the summer sun hadn’t set yet, but I’ve never forgotten the journey home after services. Grannie has spread a couple of blankets in the wagon so I could stretch out back there for the ride home. Millions of stars spangled the black dome of sky... such a glorious mystery.

On at least a couple of evenings when the song leader at the revival meeting invited people to call out their favorite hymns, “Bound for the Promised Land” was requested.  Lying on my back in that wagon creaking along the dirt road on the way back home and gazing up into the starry night, wanting to believe it must surely be there, I wondered where the Promised Land might be in that great expanse of inky sky.  That was a time when people had encyclopedias in their homes. I knew a thing or two, but not much, about the universe... about our solar system and its planets and about our galaxy.  I knew how far the moon was from earth. I could locate Venus quickly.  I knew the planets didn’t “blink” and that stars twinkled. 

Now an old man listening to the words of “Bound for the Promised Land” this morning, I wondered what members of the congregation were visualizing.  I wondered what the pastor waiting in the pulpit to preach a few minutes after the choir sang would say about “the Promised Land” if I asked him if he believes it is an actual place.

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye, to Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie.  There generous fruits that never fail on trees immortal grow; there rocks and hills and brooks and vales with milk and honey flow.  I am bound for the promised land, O who will come and go with me?  O the transporting rapturous scene that rises to my sight, sweet fields arrayed in living green and rivers of delight.  When shall I reach that happy place and be forever blessed?  When shall I see my Father’s face and in His bosom rest? 

I don’t remember when it first occurred to me it was highly unlikely that there is out there somewhere an actual celestial Kingdom of God...and then at some point... the realization that it was a preposterous idea... but it happened, and I have been for many years left to try to figure out what to do with all the other mythologies of the religion which has been part of my identity for all of my life. 

Perhaps the best I can do is try to relate meaningfully to the words of the liturgist in church this morning.

We rejoice in every sign of God’s kingdom: in the upholding of human dignity and community; in every expression of love, justice, and reconciliation; in each act of self-giving on behalf of others; in the abundance of God’s gifts entrusted to us that all may have enough; in all responsible use of the earth’s resources.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Imagine... a river in Southeast Asia where a 12-year-old boy sits watching debris floating down from the upper reaches of the river where its narrow channel passes through a brilliant green bamboo forest. He looks for bamboo stumps that were torn from the river bank and have been washed clean of sand and dirt. He had learned from his father and grandfather to imagine faces in roots. He patiently waits for the right ones to come along, the ones he will drag out of the water and leave to dry before he begins to carve.
My friend gave me one of the carvings today.  In my thinking I’ve elevated the piece from craft to art.  In my house it’s not a carving, it’s sculpture... it’s art. While photographing it, I tried to imagine the young sculptor patiently releasing the figure from the clump of bamboo root.  The section of bamboo is just over two feet in length and a fraction over eight inches in diameter at the part of the root where he carved the face.  
Life is good!  

Friday, June 28, 2013 a friend's back yard... more than beautiful flowers.

J.D. Salinger’s Seymore Glass is one of my favorite fictional characters in all of world literature. I first met Seymore in the short story “For Esme--with Love and Squalor. I wanted to know more about him, so I read “Seymore, an Introduction,”  but it was in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” that I learned about Seymore’s “funny business with the trees.”  I hadn’t thought about my own quite focused interest in trees as “funny business” until today when I reread “A Perfect Day Bananafish.”  Some of my friends, and perhaps some of my family whom I count as friends have wondered why I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of tree bark. It’s reasonable to wonder why someone would stop in the middle of a walk in the woods or down a peaceful street to take close-up pictures of a tree with unusual bark (I was going to say whose bark caught my attention, but decided to avoid such a personal pronoun because that would probably seem really strange). I don’t have an explanation... and I don’t know exactly what Seymore was doing with the trees, but we do know that he did enough damage to his wife’s parents‘ car that it cost around $400 to fix, and that was in the late forties or the fifties.  All we know about it is this little bit of conversation  between his wife Muriel and her Mother.  
"Mother," the girl interrupted, "I just told you. He drove very nicely. Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact."

"Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?"

"I said he drove very nicely, Mother. Now, please. I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did. He was even trying not to look at the trees-you could tell. Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?"

O.K., O.K...  I pay attention to trees. It’s easy to stereotype trees. When someone says or writes “pine tree,” my mental encyclopedic archive of trees comes up with an iconic image of that general kind of tree. The image that comes to my mind is like the pine trees that grew where I lived as a child. I carry around in my head an image for every kind of tree I have ever known, and I assume that's true for every person.  But bark or tree skin, that’s another matter.  Like fingerprints for people, bark is unique to every individual tree.  I find the abstract patterns of the bark to be... at least, interesting... often fascinating... worth a picture.

Today in the backyard of a friend, I was drawn a weathered cross-section from the trunk of a very large tree.  The only camera I had with me was the cell phone, so I took these pictures.  How could I not be interested... in what's inside trees as much as the skin outside. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Today I sat and listened to Speaker Boehner explain why he wouldn't allow the Senate Immigration Bill to come to the floor of the House,  and I thought how like the setting of a Greek tragedy Washington has become and how like a Goat the Speaker has become. Perhaps he was always a goat... I wonder what he was like as a child on a playground in Ohio... and in high school trying to take himself seriously and straining to be taken seriously by his peers... and later crying and braying as he climbed the political rungs to get to his high office, he probably couldn't have imagined he would be the character with the tragic flaw who would be unable to stop great damage from being done to his party.  We get our word “tragedy” from τράγος (tragos), the Greek word for “Goat” and ᾠδή (song or ode). 

On my study wall 
they watch me
like Greek theatre masks...
while I read
think and think some more
then type and think...

But the one that 
doesn’t let me forget
that τραγῳδία
inexorably finds its way
into every enterprise

Is the one
I brought home
across the border
from Mexico...
made appropriately
of grass. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

THE END of the Defense of Marriage Act

IN 1996 President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into federal law. DOMA provided a traditional definition of marriage as being a legal arrangement between one woman and one man, The key provision of the law prohibited “married” same-sex couples such as my son David and son-in-law David, and Dave and Clyde Yoshida, from receiving the same federal tax, health, and retirement benefits that married couples like their parents have traditionally enjoyed.  It exempted all agencies from having to consider that married same-sex couples are related in any way, even if they may have domestic partnership status in their home state.. A particularly onerous consequence of that provision of DOMA was that hospitals could refuse to admit a visiting partner as next-of-kin of a critically ill patient.  An equally distasteful consequence of the passage of the bill into law in 1996 was that it confirmed for many Christians that their churches surely must be right to withhold affirmation and full participation in religious organizations from same-sex couples.  What a shameful denial of the central love basis for the Christian religion!  

Today the Supreme Court of the United States in a 5 to 4 decision has disappointed and angered many Christians by striking down DOMA.  The Supreme Court says “the federal government must provide the same benefits to same-sex spouses as opposite-sex spouses, if the same-sex marriage has been lawfully performed.  In other words, if a gay couple is married in a state that recognizes gay marriage, then the federal government will recognize that marriage on the same basis as traditional marriage.”  Both President Obama and former President Clinton issued statements supporting the Supreme Court decision.  President Clinton insisted that circumstances of the time compelled him to sign DOMA into law in 1996, and that he now views the law as clearly unconstitutional.  “Among other things, homosexual couples cannot file their taxes jointly, take unpaid leave to care for a sick or injured spouse, or receive equal family health and pension benefits as federal civilian employees,” Clinton said. “Yet they pay taxes, contribute to their communities, and, like all couples, aspire to live in committed, loving relationships, recognized and respected by our laws.”  President Obama praised the High Court’s ruling on DOMA  in a statement that the law “treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people.  The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”

Individuals in the religious right will be recognized under the federal law as the religious wrong if they refuse to grant benefits to all citizens equally if they have authority in agencies or organizations which are now directed by the court to do so.  Austin Nimocks, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group, said the High Court “got it wrong... and we need to be able to define what marriage is for state law.  American should be able to continue advancing the truth about marriage between a man and a woman and why it matters for children, civil society, and limited government.”  He said, “marriage--the union of a husband a wife-- is timeless, universal, and special, particularly because children need a mother and a father.  That’s why 38 states and 94 percent of countries worldwide affirm marriage as the union of a man and woman, just as diverse cultures and faiths have through history.”  
Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission called the ruling “far-reaching, with massive implications for family life and religious liberty.  The grounding of this decision in equal protection and human dignity means this is not simply a procedural matter of federalism.  This is a new legal reality.” He also said, “An eclipse of traditional marriage has Gospel implications.  Marriage is a picture, an embedded icon of Christ and the church.”

 The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the decisions a “tragic day for marriage and our nation.”  The decisions have “highlighted troubling questions about how our democratic and judicial system operate,” said a statement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In our house... another reason for celebration:  Edward Markey won the Massachusetts senate race!   Yeaaaah!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Invisible Borders

So... we’re going to build a reinforced fence on the border between the United States and Mexico... all the way from the Pacific Ocean at San Diego and Imperial Beach and Tijuana to the Gulf of Mexico at San Benito, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico.  We’re going to beef up the Border Patrol on the U.S. side (doubling the number to 40,000 agents)so if they were all deployed at the same time we would have an officer every 500 yards along the entire border. The proposal ($40 billion... that’s with a B, over the next decade) by the “gang of Eight” senators was approved by a preliminary vote 67-to-27.  Some on both sides of the aisle in the Senate object.  On the Democratic side, some are saying the measure means undocumented will have to wait for years before they can even seek legal status; and on the Republican side, the Tea Party folks are howling that the program isn’t tough enough and the fence isn’t high enough to keep Mexicans out of the U.S.  

Over coffee this morning my friend used the expression invisible borders; and the idea has been on my mind all day.  My country is ghettoized to a shocking extent. Poor people live near other poor people.  Rich people live on estates or in fine apartments where other people with wealth live.  People neither rich nor poor live in clusters, too.   Even though the boundaries are invisible, children grow up knowing where they are. They are carefully taught where not to go.  They know where they belong.  They grow up knowing where the borders are, and then they forget to remember consciously why they go where they go and why they don’t ever go beyond the borders that separate them from the areas where “the others” live. There are no signs warning that most people who live in distinct sections of the city are poor.  The borders are drawn not so subtly.  Everybody knows.  Yet the people living in clusters rarely talk about what makes the clusters distinct. 

At the end of this day in which I rode my bicycle for a couple of hours through three or four distinct communities in my city, I retreated back to my hill where I met for supper with a dozen other people who are very much like me.  We are roughly the same age; we are white; we are educated; we are politically liberal, we have had professions that gave us retirement with reasonable affluence; we have traveled the world and continue to travel regularly to far-away places.  

But today we were here together for supper by our carefully fenced, perfectly maintained community pool, secure in our ghetto with its invisible borders. Today was Ruth’s birthday.  One of our group ordered pizza.  Someone brought dips and chopped vegetable, and others brought salads.  We enjoyed a modest wine before and during supper.  Irene made a cake. Most people had decaf coffee with the cake. All of those things are typical and utterly predictable in our community. We talked about Edward Snowden, Travon Martin and George Zimmerman, and our favorite Netflix television series; and before the dark of night fell on our community, we retreated to our apartments the way we always do in the place where we live.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Today's photo du jour is of a group posing for publicity for a play.  I happened on it while their real photographer changed lenses.  They seemed delighted to let me horn in on the occasion.  I rode away from the experience thinking about how all of us are playing a part... usually in relative safety... and that reminded me of the Saturday World Refugee Day with people wearing costumes from the countries they left to come for refuge and safety to the U.S.

Still reflecting on last Saturday’s Celebration/observation of World Refugee Day...

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to call attention to the courage, strength and determination of people who have had leave their homeland to find safety in another place.  San Diego’s observation of the day on Saturday, June 22, at Jacobs Community Center in Southeast San Diego, was attended mostly by people who either self-identify as refugees or have been identified as refugees by at least one of several San Diego County organizations affiliated with United Nations.  I had expected the occasion to be a celebration of freedom and sanctuary for world neighbors by Americans whose citizenship is not a gift but a birthright. However, the people who were noticeably absent from the event were the American citizens who are non-refugees.  A few of us who were born to American citizenship attended the event as workers or volunteers with not-for-profit organizations, but otherwise very few people outside the “refugee” community were present.  Congresswoman Susan Davis and City Council member Marti Emerald spoke briefly words of encouragement and welcome to the small crowd.  Performances by groups of all ages from various refugee communities were cheered mostly by others who had left their homes in places like Burma, Haiti, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others seeking sanctuary in the United States. The United Nations estimates that 45 million people globally are displaced from their homes because of war and violence.  

A refuge is a place of protection or shelter, as from danger or hardship.  I am a refugee.  All of us are refugees if we have a place of protection and shelter.  A question before all of is to what extent and under what circumstances are we willing to share our place of protection and shelter with other refugees who need help and relief. 

Immigration issues are being discussed again this month on the Senate floor, and again “amnesty for illegals”  is central to the debate.  Republican John McCain and Democrat Charles Schumer are leaders of their respective parties in the committee that wrote the bill being debated.  The bipartisan group is called “the Gang of Eight” in media reports. 

We wait and watch and listen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The moon was incredibly big and bright and beautiful, but by the time it came up over mountains across from the Johnson's new home it was too bright for the camera equipment I had with me.  The mountain below and surrounding dark sky were in such great contrast to the large, bright moon that the digital image of the moon washed out completely; BUT the experience was amazing.  The top of the mountain seemed for a few minutes to be on fire and then the moon... WOW!  The details of the moon were clear to the naked eye... but my camera was overwhelmed.  What a sight!  The picture is intact... in my mind... which is enough. I settled for this magnificent magnolia blossom from earlier in the day.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Today was World Refugee Day... I "worked" the event as a volunteer and gained an insight...  We are all refugees in one way or another.  I'll write about that tomorrow with pictures tomorrow from today...

But for today, the picture I didn't get is the subject of this BLOG post.  I had been hearing all week that  the moon is closer to earth today and tomorrow than it has been in a long time.  I had in mind all day going out at moonrise time to take a photograph of the moon rising over San Diego.  On my drive out toward a favorite vantage point, I saw the marine layer rolling in fast; so I headed back to Harbor Island where I settled for a picture, without moon, of the San Diego skyline.  I'll try again tomorrow night for moonrise.

Friday, June 21, 2013

How about a little respect for trees...

Across from the Air and Space Museum at the West End
of the Automotive Museum stands a once noble Ficus cluster.
What is the impulse, I wonder, that comes over the people
who can's resist carving onto its trunk their names
and initials and symbols of
their affection?

Thursday, June 20, 2013


The Laurel Street Bridge was open to pedestrians and bikes today, but not to cars.

No more parking in La Plaza de Panama 

Luis' Dog

Fallen Eucalyptus Bark

The Last of the Epiphyllum on our Porch

Agapanthus Blooming in Our Yard

The Embryonic Husk that Falls Away when the Agapanthus Cluster Emerges