Meditation Retreat

I’ve hesitated to share reflections on the meditation retreat at Spirit Rock — Moment: A Retreat in Mindfulness, Metta and Morality — since so much of what I offer will sound like pabulum.    Yet the three days were exceptionally powerful — alternatively touching, annoying, insightful, perplexing, frustrating and rewarding.

Silence was not a challenge personally except that I had no sense of how to navigate the days.  I walked into the meditation center to find people diligently setting up their spots with items I had never seen before – arranging zabutons, zafus, knee cushions, blankets, benches, back jacks, block cushions, gomdens, . . .  It was only half way through the retreat that I constructed a combination that would allow me to sit for extended sessions of meditation without cramps or aches.

Each day consisted of cycles of silent meditation, lessons, walking meditation, more lessons, eating vegetarian meals together (silently of course), personal hikes in the beautiful Sonoma hills, and work sessions.  For my work, I was a pot washer.  I clearly need some more practice since I would episodically (and accidentally) spray my colleague with the industrial strength hoses while he had to avoid the temptation to yell out.

Throughout the long weekend, there were two teachers for the 90 of us that had gathered.  One looked like Yoda in Star Wars, Sylvia Boorstein, a diminutive 80 year-old Jewish grandmother who wrote (among many other books) That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, and Matthew Brensilver, a forty year old solemn (perhaps even melancholy) man.   I grew quite enamored with them both and took great joy when the quiet was broken by shared laughter as the teachers told stories to illustrate their points.  (As she took delight in a memory or a reflection, Sylvia would often break out in a giggle that still reverberates in my ears.)

One of my favorite silent meditations was oriented around the phrases “May I meet this moment fully.  May I meet it as a friend.”  Each word became quite dear as I repeated it over-and-over again.  There were also loving kindness meditation focusing on extending loving wishes to concentric circles of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers.  I found these attempts to quiet the mind and soften the heart were very moving if you opened yourself to the practice.

There were points however where my frustration boiled over as I got tired of sitting or my mind rebelled against the lesson.  I have much to reflect upon since some of the things that were most vexing reflect aspects of myself that need attention.  Other aspects deserved a little rebellion.

The solitary days on the road ahead in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas will offer me time to reflect further but it is clear that my time at Spirit Rock was a wonderful addition to the array of experiences I’m collecting on this ramble.

retreat center

Our victory will be a double victory

At this time of political discord, it was uplifting to participate in a three day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock —  Awakening in Every Moment: A Retreat in Mindfulness, Metta and Morality.  I’ll need time to reflect before I can offer any synopsis or insights but I did want to share the following from Martin Luther King Jr. since it beautifully encapsulates the concept of metta – (a Buddhist belief in loving-kindness and a meditation techniques that seeks to remove clinging to negative state of mind, by cultivating kindness unto all beings.)

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ”We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Martin Luther King Jr.A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

 

The Oregon Coast and California Redwoods

The marvels continue.  I’ve spent the last week traveling up and down the coasts, valleys and mountain passes of Oregon and Northern California.  Since my childhood watching Captain Kangaroo, I’ve fantasized about the giant redwoods.  At 58, I finally had the opportunity to hike among them.  The photos I post can’t convey the scale of these gentle giants.  It reminds me of my first trip to New York City, straining my neck to peer at the skyscrapers that seemed to reach to the heavens.  While Linda and I walked among a grove of sequoias in Yosemite, the tip of northern California has more than 130 thousand acres with more than 38 thousand acres of old growth.  Literally your jaw drops.

Redwoods

The road to the redwoods also led me down the Oregon coast with rocky monoliths jutting up from the ocean, spouts where the action of the waves sent water high in the air and forests descending down to water’s edge often with trees bent to the powerful winds buffeting the shore.

Oregon Coast

I feel blessed on each step of the trip — the weather and road conditions simply could not be better and each experience has touched me.   I wonder, however, whether I simply am able for the first time in many years to step back and fully appreciate each experience and the wonders that surround us every day.  In the redwoods, it rained throughout my hikes but it seemed to add to the magic with mist shrouded vistas and drops falling from branches high above.  (It also meant that I had the groves to myself.)  Would I have been open to the joy of this experience a few months ago or would I have faced nagging concerns about the weather, time and delays in getting to the next step I had planned.

Oregon also offered the ability to stay with old friends dating from high school and my early years of work on campaign finance reform.  The wonderful thing about friends that have stood the test of time is that they seem to have no expectations of you since they have seen your strengths, quirks and flaws.  They know more about you than you can sometimes remember yourself.  This summer at a 40-year high school reunion I heard stories about some of my pranks that I had totally forgotten.  (Did I really go to one of my friend’s workplace and insist his boss let him leave for a “surprise party” when the truth was I simply wanted him to head out for a night on the town with a carload of friends I had assembled?)

The joy of rambling is that you are not surrounded by expectations and time seems to have no clear boundaries.  Individuals you meet know nothing about you, you have no work or projects to complete, you aren’t responsible for anyone or anything and your day is your own to structure (or not).  Of course it is only a moment in time and you always carry expectations of yourself.  Perhaps that is the true blessing.  The time for self-reflection without distraction (except those inspiring vistas).  The opportunity to contemplate who you want to be and where you want to go in life.

 

I had some great meals in Oregon at local restaurants (don’t go anticipating an upscale experience – just tasty food in a welcoming environment)

Time ♥ and Selfies

I live for the thrill of the road these days.  The vistas changes dramatically myriad times a day – radical changes from plains to mountains and more subtle changes from red hued grasslands that shift to gold and then white tones.  Experiences change as radically.  I renew acquaintances with old friends where we fall into the familiar banter that defined our relationship years before to hikes through idyllic scenery to new experiences that stretch and stress me.

But the last few days have been old and familiar and I loved every moment.  Linda joined me for a shared adventure through national parks as we traversed Arizona, the tip of Nevada and California all as we anticipated a reunion with our daughters and their partners for New Years.  Rather than a multi-course dinner in a gourmet restaurant or a jam-packed celebration at a packed club, we gathered in a lovely home overlooking Bodega Bay and settled in for time together as a family.

New Year's Eve.JPG

It could not have been more glorious.  Jane, Linda and I hiked across the sand dunes to the Pacific (on a much longer and more circuitous path than we ever anticipated).  Leah and Alex joined us to pick up some of the best clam chowder I have ever had at Spud Point Crab Company.  On New Year’s Eve, Alex and Leah prepared an amazing dinner of raclette which, of course, was accompanied with champagne Alex’s parent had brought from Nantes.  Yet more cheese from France was set out on New Year’s day.   Of course, the food was accompanied by board games (Saboteur was the new addition this year), reflections from each of us on personal highlights from 2017, a dance-off to favorite songs and myriad other touching moments luxuriating in each other’s presence.

What a gift and what a great way to start 2018!

The Treasure of Our National Parks

More of a photo montage than a blog post, this entry reflects the residual astonishment of our days traveling through an initial set of national parks – Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite – as well as the natural wonders of Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley) in the Navajo Nation.  I was inspired not only by the natural beauty (poorly conveyed in these images) but also by the vision and passion of the individuals that led to their preservation.

It is hard to believe that in 1864 in the midst of the Civil War with thousands of casualties daily, President Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Congress chose to take time to preserve the Yosemite Valley.  It was a radical step.  The United States became the first nation to set aside natural splendor not for royalty and the rich but for everyone for all time.

I highly recommend the short documentary on Yosemite by Ken Burns.  It highlights many of the hands that contributed to the initial designation and the later growth in the size and ambition of Yosemite National Park.   Frederick Law Olmstead paid for the first boundary survey out of his own pocket and presented a compelling vision for its growth and preservation.  Galen Clark, a failed gold prospector from New Hampshire, fell in love with groves of grand sequoias and became the first overseer persevering even when the government failed to appropriate money for his salary and park maintenance.  John Muir fell in love with Yosemite and found his destiny preserving what he called the “Sanctum Sanctorum of the Sierra.”

Having taken President Theodore Roosevelt on a camping expedition through his favorite sites, Muir was able to weave a convincing forecast of a day when the couple hundred that visited Yosemite Valley in 1903 would grow to millions a year.  The President went on to Sacramento and delivered a stirring call to arms –

We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages. We stand on the threshold of a new century. We look into the dim years that rise before us, knowing that if we are true that the generations that succeed us here shall fall heir to a heritage such as has never been known before. I ask that we keep in mind not only our own interests, but the interests of our children. Any generation fit to do its work must work for the future, for the people of the future, as well as for itself.

President Theodore Roosevelt, May 19, 1903

The seed that was planted grew to more than 400 sites and 84 million acres in the United States and untold acreage in nation’s around the globe.  This legacy deserves reflection when conservation is under assault.

As I benefit from the museums and films that document history such as this and reflect on prophetic individuals and national leaders, I also take a moment to quietly acknowledge the uncounted numbers of contributors that are not documented.  While Lincoln, Roosevelt. Muir, Clark, Ansel Adams and others are lauded for their role, we lose sight of so many others key to any momentous accomplishment.

As founder of a national non-profit, Equal Justice Works (EJW), I often receive praise that far exceeds my contribution.  I take credit and great pride in the effort and devotion I dedicated to founding and building EJW but I also know there are scores who were with me each step of the way who go unheralded and many who have followed and helped EJW attain even greater heights than we could have ever imagined at the outset.  It underscores for me the value of oral history and of cutting edge efforts such as those of my former friend and neighbor Roy Rosenzweig, a social and cultural historian at George Mason University, who set up an institute that continues to pioneer the use of new digital tools to collect and preserve what he called “perspectives of ordinary men and women” to break the myopic focus on the powerful and wealthy reflected in the work of most historians.

Now on to the vistas that truly inspire . . .

Yosemite Valley
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.   – John Muir The Yosemite (1912)
Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias
Tuolumne Grove of Giant Seqoias in Yosemite
Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon
Death Valley
Death Valley
Monument Valley
Monument Valley
Hoover Dam
While not a natural site – Hoover Dam was a great stop on the route

Traversing Colorado

Six days in Colorado and my step count soared.  The contrast with Kansas was astounding once I made it through the High Plains of Eastern Colorado to Denver.  From that point on the mountains rose above my head – often seeming to swallow the sun as the highway cut through narrow passes.  As with Kansas, I took advantage of brew pubs to revive my energy and alternated between ski towns and more rustic accommodations in towns overlooked by the hordes heading to the slopes.

Eagle CabinThanks to AirBnB I found a cozy cabin in Eagle Colorado where I immersed in the small town and recharged.  The PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) were kind enough to invite me to spend time in Aspen at their annual staff and alumni retreat.  While the snow was sparse for skiing I was able to get in some great hikes and luxuriated in the celebration of this network’s accomplishments over the decades.

RedstoneAt the end of that week, Linda flew in and we started the next stage of our adventure.  We spent a lovely night in an old lodge in Redstone with fascinating history.  It was the brainchild of a turn-of-the century entrepreneur that built a coal mining empire and constructed the Inn to house bachelor workers as part of his welfare capitalism approach to break unionizing efforts.

The next day we were off to Mesa Verde, which took our breath away.  This national treasure has more than 600 cliff dwellings dating from 600 to 1300 AD.

Mesa Verde

As startling was the abject poverty in the valleys we drove through on the way to Cortez, Colorado where mobile homes in severe disrepair littered the landscape.  The contrast of the wealth in Aspen, Telluride and Vail with these hamlets was hard to reconcile.

Next is Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Las Vegas . . .

Things not to miss:

Dinosaur Tracks
Dinosaur tracks at Dinosaur Ridge
Tocabe
Delicious Food at Tocabe

Kansas – a state of surprises

Thanks to John McKenzie, I spent five days traveling the back roads of his home state of Kansas, stopping at some of its 8 Wonders and immersing myself wherever possible in its history.  There is so much more to explore but I recognize the wisdom from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America  — we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.

In that light, Kansas unfolded with unanticipated detours and wondrous sights.  As I posted photos on Instagram or exchanged emails with friends, the refrain was consistently – “I didn’t know that Kansas had . . .”  I’m clearly not alone in my failure to appreciate the sunflower state.

Kansas John BrownStopping at the Kansas State House (I’ve been to many state capitols but this building stands out for its beauty.  They were clearly trying to make an impression when it was built immediately after the Civil War.) and the Kansas Museum of History, I immersed myself in the threads of history from the Native American tribes and the Civil War that left its imprint on this land. Many of us remember the phrase “Bloody Kansas” from middle school history or have seen the mural by John Steuart Curry called “Tragic Prelude,” Curry’s interpretation of John Brown and the anti-slavery movement in the Kansas Territory. The fury evident in Brown’s eyes was deeply embedded in the state history as free-staters and pro-slavery forces battled with blood on all of their hands.  Militant bands affiliated with the free-state cause adopted the term Jayhawkers and waged a guerrilla war back and forth across the Missouri-Kansas border.  The Jayhawk lives on as a mascot for University of Kansas and as a term adopted by many Kansans as a point of pride.

The hands of humans are not the only ones that have shaped this land.  Most of us have images of states on the Great Plains with fields of hay and grain sorghum that go on as far as the eye can see.  Driving across Kansas that is genuinely a dominant image.  As the sun’s rays touch upon those fields, the variety of colors from gold to red can take your breath away.  They are matched by the grain silos that define every town and the windmills in every field,

Kansas pastoral scenes

What you don’t anticipate are pillars rising up from the earth, concretions (don’t you love that term) that include spheres up to 27 feet in diameter and other limestone, chalk and shale formations dating from the Cretaceous period when Kansas was part of an inland ocean.  What stands out is that each of these sites are so undeveloped.  When I was visiting, I was the sole person present.  The only noise was the sound of wind – the sense of solitude and adventure was palpable and delicious.  (Although it wasn’t as welcome when I came close to getting stuck in the deeply rutted dirt roads around Castle Rock.  The Kansas badlands was not a spot I wanted to get stuck for the night.)

Kansas Natural Wonders

The deposits of limestone and sandstone also provide the building material for banks, churches, and public buildings that define the landscape of small towns.  Many were built out of sheer determination and hard labor.  St. Fidelis Church (see below) rises up majestically over the plains having been built by German immigrants from the Volga region of Russia with each parishioner required to haul six wagon loads of 100 pound stone blocks from a quarry seven miles south of the construction site.  Its beauty and size inspired William Jennings Bryan (visiting the area in 1912 on a presidential campaign) to dub it the “Cathedral of the Plains.”

As referenced in my earlier post, abandoned “ghost” towns dot the landscape and capture my attention.  What I didn’t expect was to see the Garden of Eden.  It is a fascinating story of a Civil War veteran’s passion.  At the age of 62, Samuel Perry Dinsmoore began construction and only stopped work in 1929 when he went blind.  Forty-foot tall concrete trees, a mausoleum to house his mummified remains, and larger than life figures fill his sculpture garden and convey messages about his populist politics, “modern” civilization and the Bible.  You have to come away chuckling and impressed.

Kansas Garden of Eden.JPG

As I entered the High Plains and headed to Colorado I was almost blown out of the state (literally a gust of wind knocked me over as I was filling the car with gas – great for the wind farms that dot the landscape I guess).  The High Plains known for one of the lowest population densities of any region in the continental United States as well as extreme variations in temperature (once falling more than 90 degrees in one 24-hour period) offered an opportunity for quiet reflection.  Next stop are the ski slopes of Colorado – an unsettling juxtaposition on so many levels.

And now some wisdom from Steinbeck . . .

 “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

If you get to Kansas, don’t miss  (with gratitude to my muse – John McKenzie)

 

Tax Reform: A Cautionary Tale from Kansas

Many of you may have read What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Thanks to books on tape, I spent hours with the author, Thomas Frank, offering his critique as I traveled across Kansas.  The basic thesis is that working Americans have been played by con artists in conservative ranks who generated a “transcendent state of indignation” against liberal elites.  Fueled by promises to roll back social policies they have been sold a return to nineteenth century economic policy.  (This does a great disservice to the book but you can read it yourself.)

It was fascinating to be in Kansas at the time when Congress was striving to get a tax bill on President Trump’s desk.  Kansas offers a cautionary tale.  Governor Brownback strode into office to lead a similar revolution slashing taxes and offering a vision of a glorious new day.

“Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy. It will pave the way to the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs…”

—Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), July 29, 2012

In the intervening five years, reality has not been kind.  While national GDP has grown by 7 percent, Kansas saw a sluggish growth of 3.8 percent (2013-2016).  State government programs have been decimated and Brownback’s poll numbers plummeted.  Out of desperation, the legislature dismantled the tax policy earlier this summer overriding the Governor’s veto.  As Brownback prepares to leave to accept an appointment as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, the state will be left to pick up the pieces and we are facing . . .

“This huge tax cut … will be rocket fuel for our economy. … The biggest winners from this transformation will be everyday families, from all backgrounds, from all walks of life, and our great companies, which will produce the jobs. They are going to produce jobs like you’ve never seen before.”

—President Donald Trump, October 11, 2017

Walking in my Father’s Footsteps

I came to the southeastern corner of Kansas to meet with the sons of my birth mother.  While the story on my adoption and the search for my birth family is for other forums, it led to an unanticipated journey through the life of the father that raised me.

Ken Feagan had been born in Galena Kansas, or at least that is what the 1910 census suggests since they didn’t offer birth certificates when he was born in 1904.  I had never been to Galena but it holds the family graves of my grandparents (Elmer 1880-1928 and Mary Belle 1872-1942) and their daughter (Ina Woda 1892-1966).  For me, Ina was Nana, the closest thing I ever had to a Grandmother.  She came to live with us after spending most of her life in the Alaska territory.  She went to Alaska at the end of the gold rush spending many years on her large boat fishing salmon near Ketchikan.

Dad was on a different frontier.  The family moved to Picher Oklahoma only a few miles from Galena, part of the tri-state mining area of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.  My father mined lead and zinc ore in his teen years as did most of the other family members.  Picher grew rapidly to a population of 14,252 and the area produced more than $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947; more than 50 percent of the lead and zinc consumed in World War I

Picher Old Time
Pictures from Picher in the 1920s

But that mining had a downside. In 1983 the Picher area became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Site and remains the number one Superfund Site in America. With 1,400 mineshafts, seventy million tons of waste tailings, and thirty-six million tons of mill sand and sludge, environmental clean up remains a monumental task.

The town was abandoned after a 2008 tornado devastated it and provided a final incentive for citizens to accept buy-outs.  (NBC story)  The street grid remains but most buildings were razed.  It is a truly surreal vision as the slag heaps of mining detritus tower over the hushed landscapes.

Picher Kansas

Picher Kansas 2
One of the many slag heaps that tower over the remains of Picher

Fortunately, my father was able to escape.  A doctor in Picher helped him attend a pre-med program at the University of Kansas.  I walked that campus in Lawrenceville spending time in front of the buildings that were standing in the 1920s when he was a student.  He didn’t finish college but rose up the ranks to major, earning a Bronze star, and leading a M.A.S.H. unit in Korea.

Fort Leonard Wood

In fact, I stopped on the way to Galena when I saw signs for Fort Leonard Wood, a major army installation in the middle of Missouri, off of Interstate 44.  Having met in post-war Europe, my parents had their first home at this base after getting married.

Reflecting on my father’s life course and his service in Europe and Korea, my mother’s bravery in heading to Korea and Europe with the Red Cross and my Nana’s adventures in the Alaska territory, I walk away inspired and appreciative that I was able to take time to walk in my father’s footsteps.

Beardstown, Illinois

Beardstown – the town I grew up in from birth to around age 10 will always hold a special place in my heart.  Illness plagued my family in the years that followed but these were largely idyllic years.  I had moved away 48 years ago and had not been back in over 28.  The town has struggled since my departure — clearly there was a mourning period throughout the town when I left but I can’t take credit for the economic challenges of small Midwest towns.

I arrived before sunrise to take pictures, hoping that the gentle light would soften the images while still allowing me to glean old memories and ghosts before night fully dispersed.  I plotted a course to see the bridge across the Illinois river with barges passing by; the old grain silos and other buildings in the small port (many now shuttered); the old movie theater and bowling alley where I got such joy – closed many years past; and my first home – so much smaller than I remembered.

Beardstown Montage
From top to bottom: my first home, one of the water towers, the Illinois River, the sign proudly declaring the population is 5,800 (thanks to immigration), the shuttered movie theater, an abandoned building in the port, grain silos and the Congregational church.

While Oscar Mayer pulled out after a labor dispute with the union, others took over the slaughterhouse and meat packing plant that provides the lifeblood for many.  It now attracts a diverse workforce that replaced those that fled to greener pastures.  In the local schools, students speak over 13 languages and small ethnic restaurants fill in some of the empty storefronts on the town square.

My visit was going to be short since there were no friends remaining.  I decided, however to attend a service at the First Congregational Church where I was baptized. There were probably 20 people in the pews when I entered the knave.  The minister appeared to be 80 years old and much of the congregation was in her age bracket.

What was overwhelming was that despite not having been in the church since I was 10, it was exactly as I remembered.  This congregation is QUITE informal.  During the point in the service where you share “the peace of Christ be with you . . . and also with you,” people took 10 or so minutes to walk around to each other shooting the breeze.  One man walked up to me and introduced himself.  When he asked my name, he beamed – “I know you and your family”.

When he was a junior, my mother taught him at the high school.  He was quite a personality, often making vocal fun-loving jibes during the church service (I said it was informal).  He pulled close to me to let me know that my mother, unlike other teachers, cultivated his sarcasm and encouraged him to be more creative in his writing.  He used to just try to make her laugh with his essays and stories.  His memories were a loving tribute, especially since they dated from over 50 years ago and 40 years after my mother died.  You never know the impact of the ripples of your life.

Having finished my visit, I headed to Springfield for an Abraham Lincoln tribute visiting the museum, presidential library, tomb and historical district where his house can be toured. The afternoon of sightseeing was wonderful but my heart was back in Beardstown.  (But of course I rubbed Lincoln’s nose for good luck.)

Springfield Tribute to Lincoln