Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Muse of St. Francis and the Turtles



Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us… 

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Pope Francis Encyclical Letter Laudate Si
On Care for Our Common Home

San Pancho, a charming coastal town north of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, has been a haven for Dan and me for fifteen years. We come for a couple of weeks in the winter, to get warm, to slow down our frenzied American minds, to open our beings to the color, music, and sensuality of a place where the tapestry of life is woven slowly, by different gods so it seems, than our own. This year especially, we were glad to get out of the US during the so–called impeachment trial, when the separation of powers was sacrificed to the growing tyranny, greed and corruption of the executive. Mexico is no example of fairness and democracy but in this little town we have found a rare blend of influences which create unusual harmony.

San Pancho is a nickname for San Francisco—the town’s official name. Its patron saint, of course, is St. Francis. Its small Catholic Church is a bastion of tradition. But the Huichol beadwork jaguars for sale in the square speak to other traditions, as does St. Francis himself; on murals all over town he is in harmony with the birds, the fish, the turtles who lay their eggs on the beach, and are protected by an environmental group— Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde —I call them the Turtle People, who harbor [protect the turtle] eggs until they are self sufficient hatchlings, and then in a sacred ritual, release them to the sea.

It is as though St. Francis had a vision of a place without poverty, where earth, sky, sea and their creatures live in harmony. San Pancho works at being such a place. The local people who own the stores and the restaurants go back to the four families—some say as many as ten families—who peopled the original fishing village. Many people from Mexico City and Guadalajara as well as from the US and Canada own houses here and are engaged in the community. They support the Turtle People, San Pancho Animales, which rescues animals and runs a spay and neuter clinic and Entre Amigos, which runs the recycling program, a program to help local families pay their children’s school fees and send them to college, and much more. Dan and I sponsor a youngster. Her animated drawing of land, sea, sun and birds brightens our refrigerator at home. It has been for us a blessed place, one of those magical spots that draws positive energies. But in recent years St. Francis’ vision has been threatened.


The visible manifestation of that threat is an ugly block of condominiums plopped down on the beach by some developer from another country, against the will of the townspeople and against the law of Mexico, which claims the beach for the people. This monster is in total disharmony with its environment—the palapa covered restaurants, the ocean, the surfers, the frigates high in the sky and a skedaddle of pelicans (sometimes 13 at a time) skimming the waves with their wings, who make Dan and me gasp with pleasure. We are, as is our ritual, on the beach to watch the sunset. But even more, we are here to participate in a demonstration against the monster, Punta Paraìso (Point Paradise), held in synchrony with a release of turtle hatchlings. What a scene this is:

A band of drummers, the Batalá Mundo, associated with the international samba reggae group begun in Brazil, wearing red, white and black clothing, beat their red, white and black drums ferociously, joyously, fiercely, shaking their drumsticks in the air like fists, clearly enjoying the threatening sound they make.


A tall, gaunt St. Francis, towers above it all, looking as though he’s been painted by El Greco, casting his sorrow like a shadow on the people, mystifying the children who approach him warily.



Saint Francis by El Greco
St. Francis is mourning our beautiful beach, the beach that belongs to the dogs who leap and run, to the laughing babies in their daddy’s arms, to the mother who pulls out her breast to nurse her newborn, to the vendors selling sweets, snacks, beaded earrings in vibrant colors, to the turtle hatchlings crawling over each other in two plastic pails, in a rush to get back to the sea, to the children with awed faces reaching into the pails—“can we hold them?”— to the people on their knees in the sand shaping large turtles —offerings to that great animal spirit of peace, patience, endurance and harmony among all forms of life—sacred to San Pancho, sacred to St. Francis.












The surf roars, the sun gets lost behind a cloud, is reflected in the sea. St. Francis dances with the children in front of the big monster building and its effigy—a piñata—which the children will soon destroy with fierce sticks.

The newcomers who bought condos stand on their decks, taking photos of the angry crowd. Did they know what they were getting into? St. Francis speaks for peace but knows that fierceness is required to stand up to the forces of greed, corruption and the desecration of our earth, our sea, our sky.

The drums beat. The crowd shouts “Playas Libra! No a Punta Paraìso!” (Free the Beaches. No to Point Paradise!) TV cameras are the eyes of the world as St. Francis hugs Turtle. A drone hovers over the monster looking like a huge mosquito. Our friend Bill, who lives here, who works hard for the people and the animals of San Pancho, tells us that somewhere, in a courtroom, the monster is on trial. Bill is hopeful.

Seems it takes the endurance of Turtle to defeat a monster. The children keep banging on the piñata. The drums keep on drumming. The hatchlings keep crawling over one another. The Turtle People keep admiring them, enchanted by their fragile beauty. St. Francis keeps shaking his mournful head as the sun slips out of the cloud and spreads rays of glory down to the horizon, creating a pyramid that becomes a circle of light at the horizon. Soon the sun will go down, the children will break up the monster piñata; releasing candy for all. When will the hatchlings be released?


Seems it takes the patience of Turtle to wait for the right time. The keeper of the hatchlings explains: “We need to wait for the end of twilight, when there is almost no light, to let them go, or the fish swimming below them will see their silhouettes and eat them up.” None of us want that to happen. Soon, the keeper of the hatchlings will mark out a space in the wet sand. No one may cross this line—this belongs to the babies. Soon we will watch him, who brings the love of St. Francis to these creatures, release them out of the plastic pails in the near dark. We strain to see them, such tiny beings, heading into the surf. We Turtle People gasp, cry out with joy when a wave comes to carry these babies home. Our babies, our brother turtles, as our sister the sickle moon drifts across the sky, carrying the vision of St Francis—all creatures are kin, pelicans and turtles, dogs and the buyers of condominiums, drummers of Batalia Mundo, mothers and fathers of baby humans, we are all brothers and sisters, all hatchlings of the universe.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Muse of St. Francis and the Turtles



Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us… 

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
Pope Francis Encyclical Letter Laudate Si
On Care for Our Common Home

San Pancho, a charming coastal town north of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, has been a haven for Dan and me for fifteen years. We come for a couple of weeks in the winter, to get warm, to slow down our frenzied American minds, to open our beings to the color, music, and sensuality of a place where the tapestry of life is woven slowly, by different gods so it seems, than our own. This year especially, we were glad to get out of the US during the so–called impeachment trial, when the separation of powers was sacrificed to the growing tyranny, greed and corruption of the executive. Mexico is no example of fairness and democracy but in this little town we have found a rare blend of influences which create unusual harmony.

San Pancho is a nickname for San Francisco—the town’s official name. Its patron saint, of course, is St. Francis. Its small Catholic Church is a bastion of tradition. But the Huichol beadwork jaguars for sale in the square speak to other traditions, as does St. Francis himself; on murals all over town he is in harmony with the birds, the fish, the turtles who lay their eggs on the beach, and are protected by an environmental group— Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde —I call them the Turtle People, who harbor [protect the turtle] eggs until they are self sufficient hatchlings, and then in a sacred ritual, release them to the sea.

It is as though St. Francis had a vision of a place without poverty, where earth, sky, sea and their creatures live in harmony. San Pancho works at being such a place. The local people who own the stores and the restaurants go back to the four families—some say as many as ten families—who peopled the original fishing village. Many people from Mexico City and Guadalajara as well as from the US and Canada own houses here and are engaged in the community. They support the Turtle People, San Pancho Animales, which rescues animals and runs a spay and neuter clinic and Entre Amigos, which runs the recycling program, a program to help local families pay their children’s school fees and send them to college, and much more. Dan and I sponsor a youngster. Her animated drawing of land, sea, sun and birds brightens our refrigerator at home. It has been for us a blessed place, one of those magical spots that draws positive energies. But in recent years St. Francis’ vision has been threatened.


The visible manifestation of that threat is an ugly block of condominiums plopped down on the beach by some developer from another country, against the will of the townspeople and against the law of Mexico, which claims the beach for the people. This monster is in total disharmony with its environment—the palapa covered restaurants, the ocean, the surfers, the frigates high in the sky and a skedaddle of pelicans (sometimes 13 at a time) skimming the waves with their wings, who make Dan and me gasp with pleasure. We are, as is our ritual, on the beach to watch the sunset. But even more, we are here to participate in a demonstration against the monster, Punta Paraìso (Point Paradise), held in synchrony with a release of turtle hatchlings. What a scene this is:

A band of drummers, the Batalá Mundo, associated with the international samba reggae group begun in Brazil, wearing red, white and black clothing, beat their red, white and black drums ferociously, joyously, fiercely, shaking their drumsticks in the air like fists, clearly enjoying the threatening sound they make.

A tall, gaunt St. Francis, towers above it all, looking as though he’s been painted by El Greco, casting his sorrow like a shadow on the people, mystifying the children who approach him warily.


Saint Francis by El Greco
St. Francis is mourning our beautiful beach, the beach that belongs to the dogs who leap and run, to the laughing babies in their daddy’s arms, to the mother who pulls out her breast to nurse her newborn, to the vendors selling sweets, snacks, beaded earrings in vibrant colors, to the turtle hatchlings crawling over each other in two plastic pails, in a rush to get back to the sea, to the children with awed faces reaching into the pails—“can we hold them?”— to the people on their knees in the sand shaping large turtles —offerings to that great animal spirit of peace, patience, endurance and harmony among all forms of life—sacred to San Pancho, sacred to St. Francis.





















The surf roars, the sun gets lost behind a cloud, is reflected in the sea. St. Francis dances with the children in front of the big monster building and its effigy—a piñata—which the children will soon destroy with fierce sticks.

The newcomers who bought condos stand on their decks, taking photos of the angry crowd. Did they know what they were getting into? St. Francis speaks for peace but knows that fierceness is required to stand up to the forces of greed, corruption and the desecration of our earth, our sea, our sky.


The drums beat. The crowd shouts “Playas Libra! No a Punta Paraìso!” (Free the Beaches. No to Point Paradise!) TV cameras are the eyes of the world as St. Francis hugs Turtle. A drone hovers over the monster looking like a huge mosquito. Our friend Bill, who lives here, who works hard for the people and the animals of San Pancho, tells us that somewhere, in a courtroom, the monster is on trial. Bill is hopeful.

Seems it takes the endurance of Turtle to defeat a monster. The children keep banging on the piñata. The drums keep on drumming. The hatchlings keep crawling over one another. The Turtle People keep admiring them, enchanted by their fragile beauty. St. Francis keeps shaking his mournful head as the sun slips out of the cloud and spreads rays of glory down to the horizon, creating a pyramid that becomes a circle of light at the horizon. Soon the sun will go down, the children will break up the monster piñata; releasing candy for all. When will the hatchlings be released?


Seems it takes the patience of Turtle to wait for the right time. The keeper of the hatchlings explains: “We need to wait for the end of twilight, when there is almost no light, to let them go, or the fish swimming below them will see their silhouettes and eat them up.” None of us want that to happen. Soon, the keeper of the hatchlings will mark out a space in the wet sand. No one may cross this line—this belongs to the babies. Soon we will watch him, who brings the love of St. Francis to these creatures, release them out of the plastic pails in the near dark. We strain to see them, such tiny beings, heading into the surf. We Turtle People gasp, cry out with joy when a wave comes to carry these babies home. Our babies, our brother turtles, as our sister the sickle moon drifts across the sky, carrying the vision of St Francis—all creatures are kin, pelicans and turtles, dogs and the buyers of condominiums, drummers of Batalia Mundo, mothers and fathers of baby humans, we are all brothers and sisters, all hatchlings of the universe.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Muse of Elijah


Our children are the living messengers we send into a future we will never see.
—Elijah Cummings

What Did You Do in 2019?
I will fight to the death to make sure everyone gets their right to vote, because it is the essence of our democracy.
—Elijah Cummings
On October 17th 2019, I woke to the news that Elijah Cummings had died. No! That can’t be true. My heart was filled with panic. I hadn’t realized how important this congressman—this chair of the Oversight Committee investigating our President—was to me until that moment. I hadn’t realized that Elijah Cummings was, for me, the point of the America’s moral compass. Nor had I realized that my hope that my children and grandchildren would continue to live and vote in a democracy rested on Elijah Cummings’ integrity and courage.

I can see Elijah Cummings’ smiling face; I can hear his booming voice taking on the Acting Homeland Security Secretary about the conditions in which children are being kept at the border. The Acting Secretary, one Kevin McAleenan, looks uncomfortable. He says: “We’re doing our level best.” Elijah’s voice rises: “What does that mean, when a child is sitting in its own feces? Come on, man! This is the United States of America!” I hear his moral clarity when, it seems a lifetime ago, in Feb. 2019, he turns into a spiritual counselor for Michael Cohen during Cohen’s testimony against his former boss, the President. Here’s Cummings speaking to Cohen: “Hopefully, this portion of your destiny will lead to a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, a better world.” I see his tired face, after hours of testimony, telling reporters, “This is a fight for the soul of our democracy.” I hear his prophetic remarks spanning the realms: “When we’re dancing with the angels the question will be asked, ‘What did you do in 2019 to keep our democracy safe?’” I hadn’t realized that Elijah Cummings was the one I’d been trusting with America’s soul, until he died, and left the work to all of us.

Those who were close to him, Nancy Pelosi, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Kweisi Mfome, Barack Obama, knew he’d been ill for a long time. His wife, Maya, said he was diagnosed with a rare deadly cancer—given six months to live—twenty–five years ago. Those who were close to him knew he came from poverty, that his parents had been sharecroppers, that as a child he’d been put in a special education class, told he’d never be able to read or write. The man was a miracle. Some say an angel.

I Am Freddie Gray
Does Anyone Hear Us Pray
4 Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?

—Prince, “Baltimore”
Freddie Gray

In March of 2016, over half a year before the election, Elijah gave a talk to the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy called “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” He spoke of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old who died after having been given such a “rough ride” in police custody, that his spine was severed and he died. The Grand Jury indicted three police officers on manslaughter charges, and added a second degree count of “depraved-heart murder” for the driver. “Depraved-heart murder.” That says it all. And yet all the officers were acquitted. The people of Baltimore expressed their rage on the day of Gray’s funeral, April 28, 2015. Elijah spoke at the funeral. He saw press from all over the country and the world, and he asked: “You see him now, but did you see him when he lived? Did you see the little boy who sat in the first grade trying to learn to read, but he couldn’t because his body was filled with lead? Did you see him in the fourth grade when he still couldn’t read, and was beginning to get in trouble?” That night Elijah went to Howard University, to give a lecture with Elizabeth Warren, on a Middle Class Prosperity Project. He received a text: “Your city is on fire!” He rushed back to do his best to calm Baltimore. “People were hollering and screaming, throwing rocks, very upset over Freddie Gray.”

At the Taubman Center Elijah told a story of the moment he understood who Freddie Gray was to him. During an interview on CNN he was asked, “How do you deal with these people?” Elijah responded “What people?” The interviewer said, “You know, like Freddie Gray.” Elijah turns to his audience, says: “I’ll never forget it. I had tears running down my cheeks on National TV. And I said ‘I am Freddie Gray. I am the little boy who sat in the classroom probably filled with lead. I am him, who was put in a school system—in the black community we had nine classrooms and one bathroom and about 300 feet away the white school had sixty classrooms and a whole lot of bathrooms… I think of Freddie Gray every day… We have to look at this moment with the fierce urgency of now… When people get to a point where they lose hope there’s a problem. When people are trying to cut off votes, to cut off people’s voices…there’s something wrong with that picture. We all have to speak out… We have a duty to provide our children with a democracy… They’ll take the vote away from African–Americans today. They’ll take it away from Hispanics tomorrow. They’ll take it away from somebody else and the next thing you know you won’t have a democracy.”

Prophet Elijah
The Cup of Elijah
Nothing great has ever been accomplished without passion and patience. Rooted in the same Latin word, “pati,” (to suffer, to endure) passion and patience touch the two poles of the key element in a life that matters: commitment.
—Edward Elias Lowinsky
In the Jewish tradition Elijah is a prophet who stands up to demagogues. He is an angel of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. His work is to protect the needy and the oppressed, to ward off evil. He sees through illusions. At Passover we pour him a cup of wine, and open the door so that he may come to us, bringing his courage and wisdom.

My father, Edward E. Lowinsky, was named Elias (the Latinate form of Elijah) at his birth. The family story is that his mother was concerned about his safety, bearing such a Jewish name in Germany. So he became Edward E. My father had a prophetic temperament, which he passed down to me. He came from a refugee Jewish family—they were illegal aliens. Born in Stuttgart, in 1908, his parents had fled the pogroms in Odessa. My father fled Germany in 1932 for Holland, and then fled Holland in 1938, with his bride, her sisters and parents, headed for America. But the United States was not welcoming Jewish refugees. The family had to stay in Cuba for 20 months until, with false passports—illegal aliens— they arrived in America.

My father never told me about his false passport, or how he became a legal immigrant. The news of his statelessness came long after his death and explained much to me about why my father watched the political scene so intensely, as do I. He called out the dangers he foresaw. His concerns were much like those of Elijah Cummings: racism, anti-Semitism, dangers to the constitution. He wrote thunderous letters to the New York Times when events alarmed him. Often, they were published. He told us children: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He has been rolling over in his grave, causing earthquakes in my soul, since the election of 2016. He would have loved Elijah Cummings. In the light of Elijah Cumming’s death my father’s spirit—with whom I have had a tumultuous relationship—he was an old school patriarch—has come to me in his most luminous form.
Edward Elias Lowinsky [photo by Nikki Arai]
Our Still Small Voice
We should hear our Elijah in the quiet times, in the morning, when we get discouraged—our Elijah should be our still small voice.
—Bill Clinton
My daughter told me I had to watch Elijah Cummings’ funeral. She said it was deeply moving, and strangely healing in our difficult times. And so it was that Dan and I sat down one evening and began to watch the funeral on YouTube. My daughter was right, as she usually is. It is a long funeral—took three evenings to watch—but engaging and powerful. It filled us with the dramatis personae of the political dramas that have shaped our land for over a generation, and with the spirit of “our Elijah” in the voices and stories of those who knew him well. I can’t do justice to all of the speakers. I’ve chosen a few that illuminate “our Elijah” for me.

Hillary Clinton

I have often marveled at the power of a good memorial—at how much I learn that I never knew about the deceased. Watching this event I marveled also at how much I learned about the speakers—public people I thought I knew well. But I didn’t know that Hillary Clinton could turn into an eloquent Baptist preacher, telling gospel stories about a man who had so deeply influenced her, and supported her in difficult times. She said: “It’s no coincidence that our Elijah shared a name with an Old Testament prophet, whose name meant, in Hebrew, ‘The Lord is My God,’ who used the wisdom and power God gave him to uphold the moral law. Like the prophet our Elijah could call down fire from heaven. Like that Old Testament prophet he stood up against the corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.”

Bill Clinton and Elijah Cummings

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, how funny and wise Bill Clinton could be. He told a story about being part of a “get out the vote” effort in Elijah’s church, the very church—New Psalmist—which hosted the funeral, shortly before his election to the presidency. He said: “Talk about a lousy deal. I had to follow Elijah Cummings. At least I’m getting up ahead of you, President Obama, today. In my old age I’m the warm up act.” Bill, another gospel speaking preacher, told us that “our Elijah mirrored the life of Isaiah, to whom the Lord said: ‘Who should I send, and who will go for me?’ And Isaiah said: ‘Here Am I, Lord. Send me.’ Elijah Cummings spent a whole life saying ‘Send me.’”

Elijah at the Cave

Bill told the story of the prophet Elijah in a cave, in a lost and troubled time in his life, when he felt his work had been fruitless. “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and a strong wind rent the mountains…but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a small still voice.” The Lord was in that small still voice. Bill ended his talk advising “We should hear our Elijah in the quiet times, in the morning, when we get discouraged—our Elijah should be our still small voice.”

Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama

Though I know a lot about Nancy Pelosi, our congresswoman from San Francisco and our current Speaker of the House, I didn’t know about her close friendship with “our darling Elijah.” They go way back in their kinship and love of Baltimore. She was raised there in a political family—her brother and father had both been mayors of the city. “Elijah was my Baltimore brother in Congress.” She spoke of the high standard he set for himself. “That’s why I called him the North Star of Congress, our guiding light.” She spoke of his fight against gun violence, and for a bill that would limit the amount people can be charged for prescription drugs—HR3, The Elijah Cummings Low Cost Drug Act.” Write your Congress People!

Kweisi Mfume

I didn’t know much about Kweisi Mfume except that he had been a congressman from Maryland and the head of the NAACP. Turns out he and Elijah had been political buddies since the ‘70s. They had a teasing relationship about who would die first. Kweisi, being three years older, claimed that status. Elijah won the bet. Kweisi said “Elijah Cummings was the twentieth century manifestation of a people who had suffered, endured and survived through centuries of slavery, oppression, depravation, degradation, denial and disprivilege.”

I was moved by his prayerful words: “Let us use this passage to recommit ourselves to sharing Elijah’s dream, also the dream of Martin Luther King and Fanny Lou Hamer, the dream of Dubois, Tubman and Douglas. Also the dream of all of those nameless and faceless sharecroppers of his father’s generation who laid their bodies down on plantations all over this country so that young Elijahs could run across them and get to the Promised Land.”

Barack Obama and Elijah Cummings

I know a lot about Barack Obama. I have missed his calm grace, his thoughtful interiority, his elegant use of language in our nasty rancorous vulgar talk times. What a pleasure to hear and see him speak, using his own eloquent voice to invoke the spirit of Elijah Cummings. Here is some of what he said: “The seed on good soil. Elijah Cummings came from good soil. In this sturdy frame goodness took root. His parents were sharecroppers from the South. Picked tobacco and strawberries, and then sought something better in the city of South Baltimore. Robert worked shifts at a plant and Ruth cleaned other people’s homes. They became parents of seven, preachers to a small flock. I remember I had the pleasure of meeting his mother, Ruth, and she told me she prayed for me everyday, and I knew it was true and I felt better for it. Sometimes people say they’re praying for you and you don’t know…They might be praying about you.” (This was greeted with laughter and applause.) 

Obama went on to speak truth, in his subtle, no drama way, to the bullying and lying spirit of our times. He said: “Being a strong man includes being kind. There’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion…You’re not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect. And Obama reminded us of Elijah’s frequent admonition that our time is too short not to fight for what is true and what is best for America…Elijah has harvested all that he could. And the Lord has now called him home. It now falls on each of us to continue his work.”

Elijah Ascending

A Poem for Our Elijah
The Fierce Urgency of Now
—Elijah Cummings
The Muse came to me in the night like a wrestling angel in the form of Elijah Cummings, in the form of Elias Lowinsky, and insisted I find words for the passion I felt that morning, hearing of Elijah Cummings’ death, for the passion expressed by all the speakers at his funeral, for the passion of his people and my people, words for the “fierce urgency of Now.” She gave me this poem and insisted I send it out into the world. I hope that you who are moved by it will send it on. That is one small thing we can do in 2019.

The Muse came to me in the night like a wrestling angel in the form of Elijah Cummings, in the form of Elias Lowinsky, and insisted I find words for the passion I felt that morning, hearing of Elijah Cummings’ death, for the passion expressed by all the speakers at his funeral, for the passion of his people and my people, words for the “fierce urgency of Now.” She gave me this poem and insisted I send it out into the world. I hope that you who are moved by it will send it on. That is one small thing we can do in 2019.

The Spirit of Elijah Speaks
October 17th, 2019

Open the door      I’m here to haunt    the House
I didn’t mean to leave you all    in the lurch
Covenants broken    The Constitution    under siege
My time has expired      I beg you    guard this moment

I didn’t mean to leave you all    in the lurch
Been signing subpoenas    to the end    of my breath
My time has expired      I beg you    guard this moment
What will you do    to protect    our democracy?

Been signing subpoenas    to the end    of my breath
Was called to earth    to speak truth    to abuse
What will you do    to protect    our democracy?
I come from sharecroppers      from the land    on which our ancestors    were slaves

Was called to earth    to speak truth    to abuse
Became Master of the House    and Chair    of Oversight
I come from sharecroppers      from the land    on which our ancestors    were slaves
Was shown the glory    of the separation    of powers

Became Master of the House    and Chair    of Oversight
Thou shalt not separate children    from parents    seeking asylum
Behold the glory    of the separation    of powers
Thou shalt not arouse the crowd’s    bad blood    high dudgeon
Thou shalt not separate children    in cages    leave them sitting    in feces
We’re better than that
Thou shalt not arouse the crowd’s    bad blood    high dudgeon
Who will speak truth    to the Master    of Mendacity?

We’re better than that
He has slandered    the people    of my home city    Baltimore
Who will speak truth    to the Master    of Mendacity?
You’ve got only    one life     and within you    a small    still    voice

He has slandered    the people    of my home city    Baltimore
The Forefathers warned us      Beware of demagogues
Does he ever listen    to that small    still    voice?
Look in the mirror    poet    that haunt    in your eyes    is the spirit    of your father
This demagogue     this walking catastrophe    has roused me    from the dead
Look in the mirror    America     that haunt in your eyes    is me     your ancestral refugee
Never break your covenant    with Lady Liberty     I beg you      Guard    The Constitution
My name is Elijah      Open the door


Elijah as Fire

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Muse of Red America

You cannot grasp these things unless you stumble over them.
—(Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, p. 163)

Spiritual Exile

Spiritual Exile

          One who descends from the root of roots to the form of forms must walk in
          multiplicity
. —(Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, p.117)


Tucson, AZ

An invitation to speak to the Jung Society of Tucson was the inspiration for a trip to the Southwest. Neither Dan nor I had ever been to Tucson, a desert town, whose terrain makes a sudden leap of mountains at the horizon that takes one’s breath away. Everywhere the giant Saguaro cacti loom, like silent elders of some mystery tribe. The ordinary life of streets and houses is carried on in the presence of the extraordinary—the wild overwhelm of the sacred. It seemed an appropriate landscape for my talk on spiritual wandering, taken from my book The Rabbi, the Goddess and Jung.

I had imagined that being a Jungian in a red state like Arizona must feel like being in spiritual exile. It didn’t seem that way among the people we met. On our first evening we had dinner with Sylvia Simpson, a Jungian analyst and psychiatrist, originally from Canada, and her colleague, Charles Gillispie, author of The Way We Go On, who turned out to be a poet whose work I have chosen for publication in Psychological Perspectives. He uses poetry in therapy with addicts and others. He told me that the poetry in Psychological Perspectives’ is a rich resource; he can always find a poem “to read to a suffering person.” This unexpected feedback made my spirits sing. Sylvia and Charles turned out to be spiritual and political kin for whom Tucson is a sanctuary, close to the natural world, away from the fear and loathing dominating so much of America these days.

On the next day I gave my talk; the audience response was moving and soulful. I was among people who were at home in the realms of the symbolic and the sacred. I told them about a Jewish legend which says that before we are born, an angel, whose name is Lailah, tells us all the secrets of the cosmos, all the mysteries of being and non–being. Then she places her forefinger on our upper lip and says “Shhhh.” She wants us to forget all she has told us, but she leaves her mark—a sign that we have been touched by divinity. Over our lifetimes, if we are open to spirit, to dreams, to the living symbol, we may regain some small portion of what we knew before we were born.

Lailah

I read them my poem in her voice:

Lailah Wants a Word

          Lailah, the Angel of Conception…watches
          over the unborn child

                                        Jewish Legend


You were not born for traffic
Not released into day for hustle

and drive.  I did not send you past moonstone
past glow worm, to ignore the light.  I did not touch

the soft spot on your crown, nor seal
my blessing on your upper lip, to be a slave

to acquisition.  I sent you into the company
of frogs.  I sent you to commune with willows

with oaks.  Pay attention—
the frogs have stopped wooing

the oaks been sold down river
Grandmother Spider   Brother Rabbit

are losing their worlds. You have ears —
Hear them.  You have a heart—feel them

You have two lungs—breathe
I give you the wind

in the grasses. I give you the sight
of Coyote.   She’s meandering up

the mountain.  Follow her.  Perhaps she will throw
your shoe at the moon.  Perhaps the moon

will fill your shoe with shimmer—
Sail it back down to you—Then

will you remember
                                Me?

Sophia

We spent a lot of time talking about Sophia who showed up in my dreams years ago and has become my spirit guide. She is beautiful, dark, wise. She creates a glowing bridge between the Goddess realms and Judaism. She is Wisdom in Proverbs. She is the Shekinah. According to Philo, God creates the world by means of Sophia. (Caitlin Matthews, Sophia, p. 97.) According to Jung, she is an “independent being who exists side by side with God.” (C.G. Jung, “Answer to Job,” CW 11, ¶ 619.) According to Jeffrey Raff, she is the Tree of Life, also the light of the divine. (Raff, The Wedding of Sophia, pp. 54-5.) Perhaps she is the dark Shulamite, that “Priestess of Ishtar,” (C.G. Jung, “Adam and Eve,” CW 14 ¶ 646.) of whom Jung writes in Mysterium Coniunctionis, that she longs to “become like Noah’s dove, which, with the olive leaf in its beak, announced the end of the flood…and God’s reconciliation with the children of men.” (C.G. Jung, CW 14, ¶ 625.) In Tucson we marveled at the fiery serpent around her neck, the glowing egg in her hand, the inward and outward intensity of her gaze. Someone said: “She’s telling us we have to deal with things as they are; we have to deal with unbearable realities.”



It turns out that the Jung Society is not the only oasis of the symbolic life in Tucson. The University of Arizona in Tucson has a well–endowed poetry center, and well known poets come to read there often. We had stumbled into a treasure of a town. On our last morning, on our way out of town, we had breakfast at the Blue Willow, a charming restaurant, where I overheard: “After I’d lived here a year I’d bought 13 guns.” I guess that’s the other side.

Road Trip

          There is a secular world and a holy world…In our limited perception we cannot
          reconcile the sacred and the secular, we cannot harmonize their contradictions.

          —(Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, p. 153.)

Driving out of Tucson we found ourselves in high desert, peopled only by those silent Saguaro elders. The mountains leapt up—exclamation marks, or were they earth giving the finger to the gods? The road hash knifed through a runaway herd of galloping hills as we ascended to Flagstaff, where we spent the night. The Little America Hotel surprised us with its calm beauty, its meditative garden with water flowing over rocks as we ate a fine dinner.

There was snow on the mountains, and hail beating our heads as Dan brought our suitcases out the next morning. Hail rattled the rented Sentra as we drove North. The landscape was as changeable as was the weather. We descended from 7,000 feet to high desert. Snow and hail were gone. The sky was huge, full of white clouds that seemed to brood over the land like an enormous chicken. As we ascended into the belly of the clouds Dan pointed out the Vermillion Cliffs, part of The Grand Staircase, where earth reveals her changes and transmutations in a stair–like formation. We were in an ancestral sandstone dream driving into another cloud burst of hail beating the windshield of our sturdy Nissan Sentra. The dashboard flashed a warning: “Cold Temperature outside.” The temperature had plummeted from 60º to 36º in ten minutes. Vermillion? A fancy word for bright red, but I saw purple orange pink fantasies of mesas rising to the sky as the hail stopped. Dan remembered the road trip he took with his parents when he was twelve, in 1951—no air–conditioning, no freeways, no passing lanes. No big sign on the side of the road as there is now, inviting us to “Shoot a Machine Gun.” We drove through a valley, which Dan guessed was once a riverbed, into Utah. Otherworldly formations greeted us as we turned off into the Lake Powell Resort and Marina, hoping to find lunch. The Driftwood Lounge was a welcoming oasis with good food and wonderful views of sandstone erosion creating wild shapes and colors that dazzle us.

Formations seen though the window

We saw the Hopi and Navajo presence in the faces of many who greeted us with warm smiles, brought us menus and meals, in the signs on the road announcing handmade Indian jewelry up ahead, or the occasional Hogan we passed. Dan told stories of his 12 year old self and his father, who loved to stop and look at Indian handiwork. His father, a refugee from Poland, had a word for sudden rainfalls—a “plughh”—with a guttural growl at the end—an onomatopoetic word he had made up to express the sound of sudden rain, which had just “plughhed” on us. We were in a ghostly scene—shades of gray ringed with spectral mountains—and up ahead an opening to bright sky. Then suddenly we were in the clear and the heavens were full of drifting white clouds, like the boats we saw moored at Lake Powell.

This part of Utah is literally a red state—full of red cliffs, coral and pink sand dunes, peekaboo trailheads, rock formations like ancient castles in some fairy land, long stretches of road between small towns and National Parks, vast valleys inhabited by forests and ancestral rock mounds. We were headed to Zion.



The Promised Land

          Nothing is devoid of its divinity. Everything is within it; it is within everything
          and outside of everything. There is nothing but it.

          —(Daniel C. Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, p. 24.)

I have longed to go to Zion. Dan had been there, once, many years ago. The very name of the park tugged at me. Wikipedia explains:
The Jewish longing for Zion, starting with the deportation and enslavement of Jews during the Babylonian captivity, was adopted as a metaphor by Christian black slaves in the US, and after the Civil War by blacks who were still oppressed. Thus Zion symbolizes a longing by wandering peoples for a safe homeland.
I had told my audience in Tucson of my longing “for myth, for mystery, for those moments when the veils thin, and something uncanny, wild, awesome enters.” I told them that I had “glimpsed it in Hindu temples, in Catholic churches, in Pagan rituals, in poetry, everywhere but in the Jewish world I knew as a child.”
How does a Jew to whom God never spoke in a synagogue, who has wandered the world and the paths of other religions seeking direct experience of the sacred, stumble upon it in her own tradition? How does a spiritual exile, whose life was transformed by the Goddess, get past her issues with the patriarchal God of the Jews?
I told them I had found my way back to Judaism, to my inner Zion, with Jung’s help, because Jung steered me to mystical Judaism, where the uncanny and the awesome are alive and thriving. Now here we were in a difficult time in American history, two children of refugee Jews, seeking an external Zion in the red state of Utah. We learned that to get there we had to pass through dark tunnels, past towering piles of red rock bedecked with pine shrubs, cascades of shale, clusters of cars gathered at trailheads. A queue of cars awaited the first tunnel, which is short and straight–forward once you start moving.

There was a second tunnel—a longer, darker, swervier one. The queue seemed to take forever. We had thought we were making good time. Now our afternoon was being eaten up by long lines of cars. We didn’t come all the way out here for a traffic jam. That mood lifted when we finally made it through the dark passages into a glowing realm of tall stone gods whose ancient bulk, curves and pillars, made us crane our necks, exclaim in wonder. Or perhaps they were ancient temples, where the gods have withdrawn in silence, as they count the species that are disappearing from our earth, allowing us mortals only glimpses of their stony walls. There we were, in our metal Odysseys, our Voyagers, Vagabonds, Land Rovers, Rogues, Mustangs, Wranglers and Quests meandering the slow spirals of this other world until we were released into big sky, tall outcroppings touched by late afternoon’s last light, the town of Springdale and the Desert Pearl Inn.

Desert Pearl Inn

The next day a shuttle bus took us into the park. Another shuttle bus carried us through the park. We were in a crowd of people from myriad cultures speaking myriad tongues with myriad complexions. They had all come to red America—despite our xenophobic president— to see its marvels—to see the Tower of the Virgin, to hear the Piute elder tell us that Zion was called “straight up land” in their language. He said: “Our creator placed us here to care for this land…We are taught that everything has a purpose—rocks, plants, animals, people.” He sounded much like Lailah, the Angel of my Conception. Here were all the graces, in the form of red rocks, rounded female forms, hefty masculine forms, angular, tumbled, pointing at the sky forms that look like temples, like cathedrals. There were hanging gardens, nurturing baby trees as the Virgin River rushed below. “Listen to the rocks, perhaps they’ll tell the story of our people” said the Piute elder. Soft red slopes harbored cottonwoods and box elders, fierce gray rocks hash knifed the sky. This is the land of flash floods. Beware the sudden rain. Beware the long winding path—people have fallen to their deaths.

Beware the Long Winding Path

We were on the bus among so many people in their Patagonias with their phallic camera lenses, their backpacks, their fold up walking sticks, their young. Some got off to see the Court of the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I’d had enough of patriarchs. We stayed on the bus until the end of the line—The Temple of Sinawava—Piute for Coyote—a vertical amphitheater nearly 3,000 feet deep, used by the Indians as a meeting place and a sanctuary. We were among the hordes of the awe struck, throwing back our heads to see the high red cliffs open their thighs to reveal a long, lovely strand of waterfall. The return of the condors was nurtured in these high rocks. They are sanctuary for the peregrine falcon.

At the Temple of Sinawava

The river spoke of rain and so it rained. The river spoke of rock and we saw the rock weep—rain had seeped into the sandstone. This is how hanging gardens are watered.

Our heads were turned by the “Great White Throne.” Whose throne could that be? The gods spoke in the faces of the red rock, in tongues of falling water, in cacti and cottonwoods, in slot canyons and layers of Old Navajo Sandstone, and in the softer Kayenta formations below. “History is written vertically” said Dan.

Weeping Rock

On line for the shuttle bus back to our Inn, I overheard a mustachioed old timer in a cowboy hat tell an urbane forty something couple from California that he’s from Alaska, where fires are taking the forest. “When I was a kid the forests were so dense, so beautiful. Now they’re cut up by swatches of burnt orange.” The couple from California had their own stories of fire. The well-kempt man said “What happens next?” “I hope I’m not around to find out,” said the Alaskan. “I can’t take much more of this.”

The Virgin River from our Balcony

Virgin River

I sat on the balcony of our hotel room listening to the river carry on as clouds gathered and the cotton woods leaves rustled in the breeze. It had been sunny and warm and now it was cloudy and cold——forever changing weather in the company of the high red cliffs and the Virgin who has created all this glory. Is there anything better for the soul than a river running through it?

I sat with my fears and my pain about America. I imagined the homeless, the hungry, the terrified fleeing their dangerous home countries looking for sanctuary, looking for Zion. I imagined the children separated from their parents, the people whose roots go back to primordial times in this land who have lost their cultural roots, been cut off from their ancestors. I thought of the people whose politics may be different from ours, who have been so kind to us travelers, and who take such good care of this sacred place. I remembered the humor in Porter’s Smokehouse and Grill, a place we loved to have breakfast, where there were signs that read:
“No dancing on the tables with your spurs on!”
“Unaccompanied children will be sold to the circus.”
Holy Zion

I called on Lailah, the Angel of my Conception, and on Sophia, my spirit guide, to advise me. They told me: You’ve come to the right place. Red America has returned you to the Goddess in a place called Zion. What casts your head back is the holy—makes no difference where it happens or in what cultural context. What towers over you, millions of years in the making, tells you how small your place is in the presence of the eons. What is it about the rush of water falling over rock that makes human faces glow, lifts spirits, soothes fears? It is the flow of eternity, the rock of ages.

Rock of Ages

What is it about the busy hubbub of babies in snugglies, toddlers proudly pushing their own strollers, the vibrant mix of many tongues: you heard German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, Hindi and many more you could not name, that gives you hope for your land? It is the living experience of diversity, among peoples and species, states of mind and places of sanctuary; it is the hope for continuity, for courage in the face of catastrophic times, and for the glowing egg of rebirth.

Family of Geese

On our last morning I sat on our balcony by the river, sad to leave all this enchantment. I watched pollen floating in the air. I’d seen girls chasing after the white fluff in the meadows, laughing. The family of geese who have charmed us for days arose from their resting place. The five goslings meandered down to the river; their parents kept a close watch. All this was so delicate, so strong, so eternal.

Constant Flux

But the news began to seep into my consciousness. The latest mad kerfuffle: the President walked out of a meeting with the Speaker of the House. They had agreed to work together on mending our torn up infrastructure. He was angry that the democrats are talking about impeachment. She said she was praying for him. He said “She’s losing it.” Doctored fake news videos showed up on line, which made her look drunk. The news, like the weather, is in constant flux. Driving out of Zion we heard that women associated with the unions have taken over the legislature in Nevada. We cheered.

At the Moapa Paiute Traveller Plaza I felt compelled to buy a dream catcher. The young woman with bright orange hair at the register pointed out that a feather had fallen off. She suggested I get another. I thanked her and said: “I don’t want to lose my dreams.” “Right,” she says, “No broken dreams.”

Goddess of Our Dreams