On mirror gazing

So I was reading this book “The Hidden Lamp” which is a compilation of stories about Buddhist Awakened women.  Lots of very cool stories that make me want to stop, scratch my chin and think for a bit. And when I do, I often find myself looking at the world just a little bit differently.

The story du jour is about a convent where the abbess would meditate in front of a great mirror in order to see into her own nature.  Over time each generation of nuns would meditate in front of the mirror concentrating on the question “Where is a single feeling, a single thought, in the mirror image at which I gaze?” The good sisters were searching for the purpose of their lives, looking to discover who they were as human beings.

Well reading that story got me to remembering a moment in my life when I was maybe in junior high school, maybe 7th or 8th grade, so just about 12 or 13 years old, just starting to realize that there was something to this becoming a young woman stuff.  I was in a small department store with my mother, wandering around waiting for her to be finished with whatever it was she was doing, and I walked past the jewelry counter. Of course there was a mirror on the counter that caught my eye – that is exactly what mirrors in department stores are supposed to do. I remember looking into it and noticing the zits on my chin – remember I was just barely 13 and not really conscious of much at that point in my life. So, just as I’m starting to notice these fatal flaws on my face, the sales person puts her hand over the mirror, moves it away and says to my mother, something like “these girls are so full of themselves all they want to do is look at their pretty faces.”  Funny, I never really resonated to the pretty faces part. Truth be told, I don’t think of my self as particularly pretty. I’ve always thought of my self as someone people liked because I have “a nice personality” but, anyway, what I resonated to was the critique of looking in the mirror.  So the story about this meditation resonated with me.

The commentary on the meditation included notes from a contemporary Buddhist practitioner who took up the meditation for a week. She brilliantly describes the her distractions from the first several days.  By the seventh day she was able to look into the mirror and see a courageous woman who was at least willing to look at herself.

And that really resonated for me. It took me from being critiqued for being curious about what I look like to an affirmation that it is not only OK, but a good think to take a good long look at who you are – and to find some peace and comfort in it.

So, maybe we should all try this?  Have a look at yourself in the mirror – 5 minutes a day for a week. What do you see? What are your reactions?  Do remember to look with the eyes of compassion!

Thinking about Human Rights on Ordinary Days in Small Places Close to Home

A couple of weeks ago I got to see Audra McDonald perform in concert. The woman is breath-taking. She has such an amazing talent. She had such an open heart. As I listened to her sing, I found myself thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt – it is pretty odd the pathways that my mind is wont to wander, but for the most part they are happy trails, and so I am content to follow the yellow brick road.

So that night, one of the songs that Audra McDonald sang got me to thinking about Eleanor’s often quoted speech fragment from the tenth anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now, I suspect you will either have never heard of this, or you will have heard it SO many times that you can halfway recite it in your sleep. Either way, please give it a read, once more with feeling. Think about what her words are really suggesting as she challenges us to think about the roots of human rights:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Every time I read that paragraph I remember E. F. Schumacher’s injunction to think globally but act locally.

And all of that reminds me that in many ways it is easy to be a verbal, maybe even a financial, advocate for people on the other side of the planet. Truth be told, I find it much harder to consistently be compassionate and to always respect the human dignity of the people I meet closer to home on ordinary days, those people who can frustrate the crap out of me. But I do believe that Miss Eleanor is saying it is those very people who live in the small places close to our homes where the presence and practice of human rights must take its roots. And then of course we should do all that we can to have it spread like kudzu!

So, what tune was it that Audra McDonald sang that got me thinking about all of this? The song is “I’ll be there” from an off Broadway Play called, “Ordinary Days.”  Have a listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aku-s6yPplc    And have a box of tissues with you. When she sang it, there was not a dry eye in the theater.

Accepting Others and Opening Your Heart

Back at the Cloister of the Good Sisters of Mary Magdalene, Sister Septimus and Sister Beatrix were strolling the cloister grounds during the after supper recreation hour. Sister Septimus was sharing some of her struggles in spiritual growth with young Sister Beatrix.

As you might remember from some of the earlier posts about the cloister, dear Sister Septimus has not always been the most empathic or compassionate member of the cloister. But the death of Sister Ludwicka in Hurricane Sandy was an epiphany for her and since then she has become evermore open to accepting the foibles that frolic within human beings.

As they walk, Sister Septimus says to Sister Beatrix, “you know Sister, I think that I have finally learned to be more fully accepting of people just as they are, whatever their eccentricities. However they choose to be in the world, loving or lascivious, optimist or pessimist, thief or philanthropist, I have come to recognize the common core of humanity within them all, they are all the same to me. But, Sister, I must confess to you, that on our special open days here at the cloister, I see a stranger walking down the path to the chapel, and I find myself murmuring, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’ Dear Sister Beatrix, this is a long road we are walking!”


I read a version of this story in Jan Phillips book, “No Ordinary Time” and once I stopped laughing, I found myself thinking about how much the story resonated with my efforts to human rights and to recognizing the basic dignity in everyone. And then I remembered the words of one of my most favorite professors in college, Father Jim Finegan, who would oft opine, “Everyone is redeemable, but some folks are more redeemable than others.” And indeed, I think everyone is loveable, some are more easily loveable than others. And of course it is those who are more challenging to love who are most in need of loving. So, today, for ten minutes, go out there into the world with your heart wide open and accepting, and give it a try!


Chiyono and the bottomless bucket

 “If you are as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, you still will not escape slander! Get thee to a nunnery, go!” Around 1600, by way of William Shakespeare’s pen, that was Hamlet’s advice to Ophelia. A continent away in Japan, and 300 years earlier in 1290, Chiyono found herself facing similar options. So, Chiyono set off to the nunnery, to the Zen temple in Hiromi where she was accepted to work as a servant.  Chiyono journeyed to the temple (and agreed to work there as a servant if that was the only way in) because she wanted to attain enlightenment (for the new agers or feminists among you, think empowerment).  For years – years and years even – Chiyono worked faithfully, diligently moping and cleaning, chopping wood and carrying water for the nuns at the temple. And through all those years her desire to attain enlightenment never wavered.

Chiyono would listen and watch the nuns from a distance. She emulated their sitting posture and practice each evening when her work was done. Chiyono sat facing the wall in her room, quietly breathing, quietly chanting the words she heard the nuns saying. And, over the days, weeks and years, nothing happened. Persistently Chiyono practiced what she observed, and still nothing happened, she could feel no progress towards enlightenment.  Eventually, Chiyono summoned up her courage asked one of the older nuns, “Sister would you please tell me the principles of your practice? How can I attain enlightenment?”

The elder nun looked at Chiyono and recognized her as the woman who cooked and cleaned, who chopped wood and carried the water. The nun was a woman of wisdom and compassion and so she said to her, “In your search for enlightenment, you must not cease your effort. The Buddha tells us that at the end of all our exploring we will arrive where we started, and shall know the place for the first time (who knew that T.S Elliot was quoting the Buddha!?!). Enlightenment is not words; it is looking deeply into your own heart, into your own mind, and nurturing the compassion for all sentient beings, the compassion that is always already there.  Each of us is complete and perfect just as we are. But each of us is best by desires for what we don’t have, and by fears of loosing what we hold dear. We are deluded into thinking that we can hold off changes that we foresee; but changes will happen, indeed that there will be change is the only constant. Let go of your delusions. That is the way of Zen. Practice this diligently as you walk, as you work, as you move through each day.” (Ah, new agers and feminists among you, think empowerment here too! Each of us is complete and perfect just as we are; each of us is fully powerful and need only learn to exercise and manifest our unique strengths, skills and powers.)

And Chiyono took the elder sisters words to heart and practiced letting go of her attachments even as she moped the floors and cleaned the lavatories, even as she chopped wood and carried water.  She moved through her days with one pointed focus and determination. As she worked and practiced her letting go, she became ever more compassionate in her encounters with the other nuns in the temple. As she moved through the days, where once she might have felt some resentment for the younger nuns who were free to sit in meditation throughout the day, now Chiyono saw her own work as actions of caring in support of the other’s practice.

One evening Chiyono was carrying her bucket to the well to bring back some water to the kitchen. As she carried her bucket, the bottom which was held on by bamboo strips fell out, and the reflection of the moon in the water vanished. In that instant Chiyono touched enlightenment. This is her enlightenment poem

With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together
And then the bottom fell out.
Where water does not collect
The moon does not dwell.

            For all of that I like the story about Chiyono for the first two lines of her enlightenment poem: “With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together, and then the bottom fell out.” For her, when the bottom fell out she saw through to enlightenment. That resonates for me as I think about how hard we all try to keep it together, wrapping our lives with bobby pins and bubble gum to hold the pieces together. And for us too, maybe only when things fall apart will we find our way to living lives that allow respect for all sentient beings (and isn’t that just what lived human rights are about?) to live lives that respect all sentient beings, all of them. (It is the all of them part that seems to particularly trip me up. It is so much easier to be fully respectful of people I like, people who agree with me.)

            So, I find myself wondering –  what will I see, what will you see, when the bottom falls out, and we have enough compassion for ourselves to remember to look through to the other side.

Compassion saying ‘no’ and saying ‘yes’

Sister Beatrix’s days as a postulant are unfolding, and each day Mother Magdalene observes her growth and is pleased with what she sees, all but for one thing. Sister Beatrix just is not able to discern when to say ‘no.’ Even in the cloister, with its schedule and practices of discipline and silence, Sister Beatrix is becoming increasingly frenetic with projects she has committed to taking up and to finishing.

Mother Magdalene sits with Sister Beatrix and shares this observation with her. Sister Beatrix replies, “But Mother, I thought that I should be of service to the other Sisters. Isn’t commitment to the life and projects of the community an important part of life in the cloister?”

Mother Magdalene smiled, and agreed that indeed that is so. Then she settled back into her chair and shared this story with Sister Beatrix.

A long, long time ago, when the Sisters of Mary Magdalene were a small cloister in the far off memories of those who live today, three elder women, one of whom had a bad reputation, came one day to Mother Achilles, the head of the cloister in those days.. The first woman asked her, “mother would you weave me a basket?” “I will not,” she replied.

The second woman asked, “Of your charity, weave a basket for me, so that we have a souvenir of you in the monastery.” But she said, “I do not have time.”

Then the third woman, the one with the bad reputation, asked, “Mother, will you weave me a basket, so that I may have something from your hands, Mother.” And Mother Achilles answered her at once, “For you, I will make one.”

The other two women asked her privately, “Why did you not want to do what we asked, but you promised to do what she asked?”

The Wise Woman, Mother Achilles, said to them, “I told you I would  not weave you a basket, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had not time. But, if I had not woven one for her, she would have thought, “The old woman has heard about my sin, and that is why she does not want to make me anything. And our relationship would have broken down. But now I have cheered her soul, so that she will not be overcome with sadness, self recrimination, and grief.”


“Dear Sister Beatrix,” Mother Magdalene continued, “Just as we must attend to authentic commitment and engagement within our community, there are also dangers of over involvement and over engagement that we must be aware of and guard against. Be cautious of anger, greed, a desire to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Be attentive to fining the middle path. Do your best each day, learn each day, and learn from your moments of frustration, learn new skills, learn when to say yes, and when to say no. Each in its own time. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. That is the heart of compassion, compassion that finds its roots in the knowledge that nothing human is alien to us.”



On Solitude and Forgiveness: imagine a world of compassion

Back at the cloister of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene, they tell a story of one of the Mothers of the Dessert (yes, I mean to have 2 ‘s’ in the word) who was living a life of prayer and solitude.  The Sisters of the Dessert committed their lives to celebrating the sweetness of all creation. In those days, the Sisters saw their cloister as a place of solitude, and as a milieu for learning and deepening respect for justice and for the dignity of all sentient beings and for the ecology which nourished and nurtures us. The good sisters also believed in teaching through their example.

According to this story, one of the Sisters had committed a fault, and a council was convened to determine what should be done. The Mother was invited to participate in the council, but she declined to go.  Eventually one of the younger Sisters came to her and said, “Mother everyone is waiting for you.”

So, the Mother got up and found a leaky water skin. She filled it to its capacity with water, and carried it to the place where the council was meeting, with the leaky spot over her left shoulder. When she got to the council, the sisters there said to her, “Mother, why are you carrying that old water skin?”

And the Mother said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them. And yet, today I am coming to judge the error of another.”

When the sisters heard this, they said no more of the fault of the young Sister, but forgave her.  The example of the Wise Mother was all the lesson they needed to be reminded that each of us is in need of forgiveness. In their solitude they learned to see themselves as they truly are, unvarnished, unadorned. In their solitude they took the time to look to their center, into their hearts and find the core of love that nurtures the soul of each of our beings.

For the Sisters of the Dessert, solitude helps them to find the place where they were balanced, gentle and caring. In their solitude they became compassionate through their realization that nothing human is alien to us. They stopped judging others, stooped evaluating themselves and became free to be compassionate.

And so the Sisters of the Cloister of Mary Magdalene practice solitude. We too might take up the practice, each of us in our own small way. Ten to twenty minutes in the morning is not an impossible pathway to solitude. Solitude can help to mould each of us into gentle, caring, forgiving people as we acknowledge our own faults and become aware of the mercy and compassion that have graced our lives. Imagine the world of peace, justice and respect for dignity we might envision and build from a place of solitude. Meditation is not just for navel gazing. It is for healing the wounds of oppression and discrimination. It is for clearing our vision and opening our hearts to the more that is possible. Imagine!

On Gandhi, Greatness and Excellence

I was going to call this “How the Readers Digest made me a Leftist” but I’m not quite sure that that is how I would describe myself. But indeed my mostly to the left (call it progressive, call it radical, call it what you like) political orientation is largely due to the Readers Digest. And yes, it is quite true that the Readers Digest is not known for being in the vanguard of politics or radical reform. But here’s my memory of how it changed my thinking.

I was a child of the 1960’s and 1970’s. That in itself says a lot, I think. So, in April 1968 I was in high school and the Readers Digest published an article about Dr. King and the Poor People’s March on Washington, DC. I read it and was taken with the clarity and courage of Dr. King. Somewhere in what I read (or in listening to others around me talk about what I had read there), I learned that Dr. King had studied the strategy and tactics of someone called Mahatma Gandhi.  This Gandhi fellow was from India and even though he was a leader in securing his country’s freedom from England, people around me then didn’t like him very much. Of course that made him an immediate hero to me. So, when I had to choose something to write about for my senior year Problems of Democracy class, Gandhi was a no brainer selection. He has been a hero of mine ever since. Well, mostly ever since. There was a period of time when I learned that even Gandhi was not an impeccable saint, and I was too through with him for having flaws. Now that I am older and have noticed a flaw or two in myself, I am much more tolerant of the imperfections in others. There are even moments when I’ve learned a bit from the flaws of others. 

So, because of the Reader’s Digest I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and because of Dr. King I learned about Mahatma Gandhi. And eventually because of Mahatma Gandhi I learned about compassion and forgiveness – for others and maybe even for myself. So, here is a bit about Gandhi … just enough to whet your appetite for more, I hope.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a small state in western India. Though his family was lower caste, they were also middle-class, cultured, and devoutly religious Hindus. When Gandhi was thirteen, he was married to Kasturbai, a girl of the same age – child marriages, arranged by the parents, were then the common practice in India.

While he was in school a friend convinced Gandhi that the British were able to rule India only because the British ate meat and the Hindus did not. The friend said that eating meat built strength and with strength freedom could be gained.  Gandhi and his family were strict vegetarians, and his dreams of freedom for India were strong. He struggled with this conflict, and one day, he snuck off to a secluded place with his friend who gave him some cooked goat’s meat. Gandhi disliked the taste of the meat and after he ate it he immediately became ill. He tried to eat meat again several times, but finally decided that it was not worth the guilt. He never ate meat again, and went on to work to free India with a moral strength rather than physical might.

In many ways Mohandas Gandhi was a normal teenager. There is a story that once, when he needed money, stole a bit of gold from his brother. He was overcome by guilt for his crime, and so he confessed to his father, expecting him to be angry and violent. Instead his father wept. “Those pearl drops of love cleansed my heart,” Gandhi later wrote, “and washed my sin away.” It was his first insight into the impressive psychological power of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

When he finished high school Gandhi wanted to go England where he could earn a law degree in three years. After he vowed he would not touch liquor, meat, or women, his mother gave him her blessing and his brother gave him the money. Leaving his wife and their infant son with his family in Rajkot, he sailed for England on September 4, 1888, just one month short of his nineteenth birthday. In England Gandhi was a disciplined student. He was frugal and studied hard. While in England, two English brothers asked him to study the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the sacred Hindu scriptures, with them. The Gita is a dialogue between the Hindu god Krishna and Arjuna, a warrior about to go into battle. At about the same time he was searching through the Gita, a Christian friend persuaded Gandhi to read the Bible. The New Testament, particularly Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply. Both sacred Hindu and Christian texts set the foundations for Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.

Three years later, in 1891 Gandhi returned to his family at Rajkot. He reunited with his wife and son, but he was unable to earn money to support them. He was at his wits end about what to do with his life when a large Indian firm asked him to go to South Africa to assist in complex legal case in the courts there that would take about a year to resolve.  He would be paid all his expenses plus a salary. Gandhi accepted, bade his growing family farewell and in April, 1893, not yet twenty-four years old, he set sail to try his luck in South Africa.  

In South Africa Gandhi found his voice, his philosophy, and his following – but only after much struggle.  When Gandhi arrived in South Africa he had to travel across the country to Pretoria. On the journey he was beset with discrimination because he was a dark skinned man from India. The humiliations he experienced stayed with him even as he worked at resolving the case that brought him to South Africa. Gandhi also worked with the local Indians to discuss their condition. As he met with them his indignation freed him from his shyness and he made his first public speeches.  Through his repeated experiences of harassment, exclusion and discrimination he began to find his voice and his ability to speak out and protest. He formed an organization called the Natal Indian Congress to work for Indian rights in South Africa.  Gandhi liked to live simply and independently, eating mostly fresh fruits and nuts and starching his own shirts.

While he worked, his political aims continued to fuse with his spiritual and emotional life. He studied the Bhagavad Gita pasting portions of it on a wall, memorized verse after verse as he stood brushing his teeth for fifteen minutes every morning. The Gita became his guide to living and he embraced its teaching that truth could be gained only through renunciation of all possessions and all pleasures. While in South Africa, Gandhi often shuttled back and forth between Johannesburg and Durban. On one of his long train journeys he read a book called Unto This Last by John Ruskin, English author and critic. Gandhi said the book transformed his life by teaching him that the good of the individual is contained in the good of the group, that manual occupations are as valuable as intellectual ones, and that the life of the laborer–the man who works with his hands–is the only life worth living.  Immediately, Gandhi translated principle into action. At this point Gandhi’s family rejoined him. They lived as close to Ruskin’s ideal as they could, grinding the meal and baking their bread by hand.  In 1906, not quite thirty-seven years old, he took a vow of celibacy which he never broke, and the bride of his childhood, Kasturbai, relinquished the role of wife to become a devoted follower.

Now all of this sounds quite wonderful – Gandhi the man is finding himself, developing his philosophy and his leadership skills, working hard to help his fellow Indians in South Africa to secure their rights and freedoms. But – think, feminists and freedom fighters among you – all of this was quite wonderful for Mohandas Gandhi. But what about his wife and children? How  was his love for them manifest? How much attention and ‘quality time’ did this great soul devote to his wife and children? Kasturbai doesn’t seem to have a voice or vote in any of this. She is moved from wife to devoted follower in response to his acts. Hmmm… is this the only way to bring about change? Is this the necessary cost of leadership? (And yes, in fairness, please do remember that all of this is taking place in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.)

And the work went on. Gandhi comes to call his work satyagraha, a combination of two words meaning truth and force. Gandhi’s battle was to be fought with truth and love. His soldiers were to be known as satyagrahis.  In July 1914, after nearly twenty years in South Africa Gandhi returned to India having lead a movement that helped to eliminate the major grievances experienced by the Indians in that country.

Back in India Gandhi took up work for Indian independence from England. The independence campaign had thus far been waged by a small clique of upper-class intellectuals who aped the British in manners and aloofness. Gandhi saw this was a path that led nowhere. Until that time he had worn European dress; now he discarded it for the simple trousers of the peasant. Some eighty percent of his countrymen were peasants; freedom could not be won without their support. For Gandhi freedom meant not the substitution of select Hindu rulers for the Viceroy but a truly representative government. It also meant freedom from poverty, ignorance, and discrimination.

In India a religious retreat is called an ashram, and Gandhi’s cooperative community came to be known as the satyagraha ashram. But it was as political as it was religious. “Men say I am a saint losing myself in politics,” Gandhi once commented. “The fact is that I am a politician trying my hardest to be a saint.”  To the horror of orthodox Hindus he admitted into his ashram a family of untouchables, who by implacable Hindu tradition are condemned from birth as unclean and outcaste. Reforming India was as much a part of Gandhi’s program as was home rule.

From 1914 through until August 15, 1947 the struggle for India’s independence from England went on. Gandhi organized strikes and protests. The British physically attacked the protestors, passed oppressive laws; put hundreds of thousands of people in prison. The protests continued; Gandhi fasted, he traveled the country lecturing, he organized ashrams and called for civil disobedience. He worked at newspapers to educate the people about the ideals and the costs of satyagraha. Gandhi spent years in prisons where he took his spinning wheel and his writing tools, he spend days and months fasting.

 Gandhi was widely regarded as a Mahatma, a great soul, across India. Those who did not call him Mahatma often call him bapu or father. And for all of this, Gandhi was not fully the saint he strove to become. His work, his traveling, his advocacy on behalf of the poor was costly.  From about 1921 Gandhi presented himself to the public dressed only in the dhoti (loin cloth) that was worn by the poorest Indians. And yet his followers have noted that it took a lot of Indian millionaires to keep Gandhi in poverty. Gandhi worked tirelessly for the freedom and independence of all Indians. And yet he frequently left his wife and children behind as he set out on his work. Early in his adult life, he committed himself to chastity. It is said that he tested his chastity and demonstrated the strength of his commitment by sleeping in the same bed with naked young women. The appearance of these acts – feigned poverty, neglect of his family, use of others to his own ends – much of this grates on my feminist, my humane sensibilities. I want my heroes to be perfectly heroic. And yet there is so much that I have learned from Gandhi. He is a hero to me. He is also wonderfully human. He is not perfect; maybe he is even far from perfect. Yet, he has taught me about commitment to values and ideals. He has taught me about persistence. From him I learned about satyagraha. And from his imperfections I have learned to cherish the foibles of other human beings, and to open my heart with forgiveness if I will keep open my mind to learning.

The Progressive has published a wonderful biography of Gandhi, written by Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht. You can read it at http://www.progress.org/gandhi/gandhi01.htm

 Why Gandhi? Why now? I am moving ever more deeply into my second year of being retired. On occasion I think about what I have accomplished or not accomplished. On occasion I find myself thinking about greatness and how far I fell from that mark (I never wrote the text book I envisioned, even with the detailed outlines, even with the endless drafts of the first three chapters; I never achieved the rank of full professor, I never … so many things I never). I find myself thinking about excellence, and there I might actually judge myself a bit less harshly (I do believe that I was a reasonable good teacher, with a solid command of my subject; I think I may have touched a life or two for the better). So, early in my retirement, early in my 60th decade, I find myself thinking about greatness and excellence, and wondering about how they are defined. And in all of my feminist arrogance, I find myself challenging working societal definitions, and wondering, what would greatness look like if its definition were wrested from power and grounded in love?

What do greatness and excellence look like to you? Who are some of the heroes in your life? How do you judge the consistency of their lives and their actions?

What are you committed to? What do you struggle and strive for? What compromised have you made in your commitments and values?

What would greatness and excellence look like in a world where there justice, fairness and human dignity were fully respected? What would greatness and excellence look like in a world of compassion, generosity, patience, diligence, wisdom, loving kindness and joy?

Herbert Hoover, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and generosity

Herbert Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa. Both of his parents were Quakers. His father, Jessie Hoover, died in 1880 and his mother, Hulda Randall (Minthorn) Hoover, passed away in 1884, leaving Hoover an orphan at the age of nine. Hoover lived with various relatives until he entered Stanford University in 1891, the very year that it was founded. He earned his way through four years of college working at various jobs on and off campus.

As one of his extracurricular entrepreneurial ventures, in 1892 Hoover and a couple of his friends decided to bring entertainers to campus. They heard that Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the famous Polish pianist, would be touring through California, and so they persuaded him to give a concert on the Palo Alto campus of Stanford. An agreement was reached, contracts were signed, the concert was scheduled, and the young entrepreneurs set about selling tickets with the hope/expectation of being able to cover their tuition costs for the semester with the proceeds.

What the new concert promoters failed to notice was that the concert was scheduled during the University’s Spring Break, so many of the faculty and most of the students were not on campus the day the concert was scheduled. Ticket sales were abysmal. Paderewski had agreed to perform for about $2000, which was substantially less than he would normally charge for a performance. They had sold tickets totally only about $1600. So, the day before the concert, the Hoover and his two associates asked to meet with Paderewski. They explained their situation to him, told him that they would give him the entire $1600, and promised to pay him the remaining $400 as soon as they could raise it from other concerts. Paderewski, who was known for his rather gruff demeanor, looked the young men in the eyes, and told them that would not be acceptable to him. Then they notice bit of a twinkle in his eye, and he said to them that they should keep enough money to cover their expenses for producing the concert and to cover their tuition for the semester. He would take whatever money remained as payment in full for his performance. The young men were stunned and grateful, and thanked him profusely.

As you can imagine, Hoover and his friends were greatly relieved. They learned from this lesson, and became much better event planners and more carefully organized the timing of future events, building in a slush fund from successful events to cover the cost of those events that did not fully cover their costs. In 1985 Hoover graduated from Stanford University with a degree in geology. 

In 1914 World War I broke out. An odd phrase that – to say that war broke out, like a zit on a teen agers face, like a convict from prison. But by 1914 the world was in the midst of World War I. At the beginning of the war, Hoover was working in Belgium to help organize the return of United States citizens back to America from Europe, and then to help organize the distribution of food to war victims. In 1917 the United States entered the war, and President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover to head the U.S. Food Administration, the agency for the administration of the allies’ food reserves.

World War I officially ended on November 11, 1918. Hostilities can be officially declared ended on a specific date, but the effects of hostilities carry on well into the future. By 1919 millions of children in Poland were starving. The newly formed government of Poland had no resources with which it could buy food. Desperate to help his people, the Prime Minister of Poland, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, turned to the United States Food and Relief Administration for help. The request was sent to Herbert Hoover, as head the agency. Hoover was a Quaker and a generous man. He coordinated the transport and shipment of tons of food to help feed the Polish people until the next year’s crops could be planted and harvested.

On his next trip to the United States, Paderewski, the Prime Minister of Poland, sought out the head of the Food and Relief Administration, to express his personal gratitude and that of his nation. When Paderewski began to thank Hoover, Hoover stopped him and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I am the one who should be thanking you. You may not remember this, but several years ago you gave a concert in Palo Alto, California. The young men who organized the concert could not afford to pay you from their ticket sales, and you generously forgave then the debt, helping them to work their way through college. I was one of those young men.”

There is much suffering in our world. There is much that needs to change. And, there are also moments and places of wonder, joy and generosity. What goes around comes around. Pay it forward. Celebrate compassion and generosity with an open heart!

From Paul McCartney on Writing “Let it Be”

I’ve always resonated with Paul McCartney’s song, “Let it be,” probably because of the “Mother Mary” lines in the song. It has a nice soothing feel to it, even while it acknowledges the frustrations of life and work for a better world, even while it encourages us to press on.  So, one day in a moment of aimlessness I did a bit of searching to find the story behind the story.  Here’s what Paul McCartney seems to have to say about writing “Let it be”

McCartney says that he was going through a really difficult time around the autumn of 1968. It was late in the Beatles’ career and they had begun making a new album, a follow-up to the “White Album.” As a group they were starting to have problems. McCartney thought he was sensing that the Beatles were breaking up, so he was staying up late at night, drinking, doing drugs, clubbing, the way a lot of people were at the time. He was really living and playing hard.

The other Beatles were all living out in the country with their partners, but he was still a bachelor in London with his own house in St. John’s Wood. At the back of his mind he says that he was also thinking  that maybe it was about time he found someone. This was before he got together with Linda.

McCartney says that he was exhausted! Then one night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, he had the most comforting dream about his mother, who died when he was only 14. McCartney described his mother, saying, “She had been a nurse, my mum, and very hardworking, because she wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off family- we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television – so both of my parents went out to work, and Mum contributed a good half to the family income. At night when she came home, she would cook, so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other. But she was just a very comforting presence in my life. And when she died, one of the difficulties I had, as the years went by, was that I couldn’t recall her face so easily. That’s how it is for everyone, I think. As each day goes by, you just can’t bring their face into your mind, you have to use photographs and reminders like that.”

So in this dream twelve years later, his mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to him very gently, very reassuringly: “Let it be.”

He said it was a lovely dream. He woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited him at this very difficult point in his life and gave him this message: “Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will all work out.”

So, being a musician, he went right over to the piano and started writing a song: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me”… Mary was his mother’s name… “Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” There will be an answer, let it be.” It didn’t take him a long time to write it. He wrote the main body of it in one go, and then the subsequent verses developed from there: “When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.”

McCartney thought it was special, so he played it for the other Beatles and ’round a lot of people, and later it also became the title of the album, because it had so much value to him, and because it just seemed definitive, those three little syllables. Plus, when something happens like that, as if by magic, it has a resonance that other people notice too.

Not very long after the dream, McCartney got together with Linda, which he says was the saving of him. And it was as if his mum had sent her, you could say.

The song is also one of the first things Linda and Paul ever did together musically. They went over to Abbey Road Studios one day, where the recording sessions were in place. He lived nearby and often used to just drop in when he knew an engineer would be there and do little bits on his own. And he just thought, “Oh it would be good to try harmony in mind, and although Linda wasn’t a professional singer, I’d heard her sing around the house, and knew she could hold a note and sing that high.”

So she tried it, and it worked and it stayed on the record. You can hear it to this day.

These days, the song has become almost like a hymn. McCartney sang it at Linda’s memorial service. And after September 11 the radio played it a lot, which made it the obvious choice for him to sing when I did the benefit concert in New York City. Even before September 11th, people used to lean out of cars and trucks and say, “Yo, Paul, let it be.”

So those words are really very special to him, because not only did his mum come to him in a dream and reassure him with them at a very difficult time in my life – and sure enough, things did get better after that – but also, in putting them into a song, and recording it with the Beatles, it became a comforting, healing statement for other people too.

 From Paul McCartney

The Starfish Thrower

Long ago and far away, in an enchanted place called the Cape of Cod, I was inspired by Loren Eiseley to walk along the  Beach of Naussette  early one morning, continuing far past where other strollers might venture.  As I rounded a bend I came upon a young woman standing and staring at something in the sand. Eventually she bent over with all of the poise and grace of a yogi breathing life into an asana.  She bent, lifted something and flung it as far into the breaking surf as she could. I followed her for a while quietly staying back and watching as she repeated her practice.

Eventually I let myself catch up with her, and I could then see that she was reaching for a starfish.  “It’s alive.” I ventured.

“Yes.” She replied, and with astonishing poise, grace, and gentleness, she reached down, lifted it and cast it back into the waves. “It may live if the undertow is strong enough.”

As she spoke she continued to walk along the wave line carefully searching the sand for starfish. Finding another she reached for it, lifted and threw, continuing her practice even as I watched.

“But there are so many, and you are just one person. You can never succeed at saving them all.  What difference do these little actions make?” I thought I was muttering quietly to myself as I turned and walked back, taken with the momentous enormity of trying to save all the dying starfish along that vast expanse of coastline, feeling the overwhelming frustration of her inevitable failure.

And then I heard her equally quiet, unexpected reply. She said, “Indeed I am just one person, and this starfish is just one starfish. What I do matters very much to this one starfish. I am not trying to save them all, just this one, just each one, one at a time. For this one starfish I may well be successful. One small success at a time, over time matters very much.”

And in that brief interchange I was re-minded once more of the importance of being present to the moment. Yes a long term vision is important. Yes we need to plan and have goals. But when it all comes down to it, there is only this moment. This wonderful moment. Paul Simon had it right: love the one you’re with — love this moment. Even while remembering the interdependence and interconnection of all.