Eclipsed by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Wondrous things are afoot in the heavens. Whether you made it to the seventy-mile-wide Path of Totality that stretched from Oregon to South Carolina and turned day into night for a couple of eerie minutes, or were merely close enough to perceive a hushed mid-day twilight, you have to admit that a total solar eclipse is a pretty awe-inspiring celestial event. So why am I feeling so eclipsed?

It probably has to do with more earthly events: in Barcelona. In Charlottesville. In Kissimmee, Florida. In Afghanistan and Iraq. On the Korean peninsula. In the White House and in Russia. For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, those of us who inhabit this mortal plain don’t seem capable of anything as remotely awe-inspiring as a total eclipse of the sun. In fact, just the opposite seems increasingly true. For example, whether we voted for him or not, we just elected a President without moral authority, a very flawed man-child with a trunk full of personal insecurities and a damnable inability to speak the truth, unwilling to accept any measure of personal responsibility, astoundingly unable to unequivocally condemn white supremacy and the inherent racism that has infected America since its slave-holding roots—a man (in other words) who leaves us all with the kind of dread that makes us open our smart phones every morning just to make sure we’re all still alive.

If you’ve been reading these Musings over the past year-and-a-half, you know I try to keep things light. But recently, like so many others, I can no longer sail blithely past the events of the past couple of weeks. I’m sorry, but avoidance behavior is no longer an option. Like the CEOs who recently resigned from the President’s various Advisory Economic Councils or the the artists who imploded the President’s Arts Council, it’s time to R-E-S-I-S-T.

An eclipse is a natural phenomenon. According to NASA scientists, if you live in the United States, you’re lucky if you experience a total solar eclipse—the brief moments when the moon passes directly between the Earth and the Sun—once or twice in your lifetime. There hasn’t been one visible across the expanse of North America since 1918. (In February 1979—Jimmy Carter was in the White House!—a total eclipse was briefly visible in the northwest corner of the state of Washington. The next total solar eclipse visible in a large part of the United States will be in April 2024; I might get to see that one. After that, we have to wait until 2045. I doubt I’ll be around.

The Trump administration, however, is not a natural phenomenon. It is an aberration brought on by an odious individual who somehow slipped between us and the sunlight of our better selves, casting a long, black umbra of hate, bigotry, and fear over the landscape. But whether as a result of all the daily churning within the West Wing, or through impeachment by disillusioned members of his own party in Congress, or even by his own hand—resignation—Trump’s days seem numbered. I plan to be around for that eclipse, although I’m not at all sure that a Pence administration would be any better. It could well be worse. Sad!

Back on the celestial front, a total eclipse is really only a matter of speed and simple geometry. When the orbit of the moon brings it between the Earth and the sun, the moon’s greater proximity to Earth distorts the relative size of our two favorite heavenly bodies so that the moon seems to obscure the sun, extinguishing daylight for a minute or two along a Path of Totality which moves across the continent at an astonishing speed of 1,800 mph. Meanwhile, back down here on the ground, the political geometry seems much more complicated and hopelessly slow.  Watching it unfold with special glasses won’t help; continuing to protest, elevating the truth, and resisting will.

I’ll be right back.

(PS: if you want to read a hauntingly beautiful description of a total solar eclipse, I highly recommend Annie Dillard’s classic essay,”Total Eclipse.” It first appeared in an anthology of her work titled “Teaching a Stone to Talk” in 1982; it is reprinted in this month’s Atlantic magazine.”)

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

The Sounds of Racism by Fran White

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The sounds of Racism resound in the image above and if we add lyrics to this depiction of rage and racism, the following words from the production, SOUTH PACIFIC, could accompany the horrific concerto that was heard:

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught as sung by Ensign Cable in his role as the conflicted lover of a young Polynesian girl in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s production; You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.”

These very enraged people in the photo, members of the KKK and other supporters of racism have been carefully taught to hate and fear others of different races, facial features, religion and sexual orientation. They are demonstrating a legacy passed onto them from their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and on and on in the family tree.

Racism cannot be eradicated by legislation, nor the destruction of Confederate statues and monuments since these beliefs are so ingrained into the soul and collective unconscious of these racists. Only through their awareness of such destructive beliefs and the motivation, on the part of the racist, can this cancerous, destructive and hateful legacy be finally destroyed. This is a daunting and, perhaps, an unrealistic expectation since racist are so conditioned to believe and follow the expectations of generations of their families who have rewarded their behavior with love and encouragement.

Perhaps, if some of those photographed racists would be aware of the destruction of lives impacted by their irrational behavior and subsequently take ownership of the death of that beautiful young woman in Virginia who was attempting to peacefully change their generational beliefs, their hate, and fears. This quest to eradicate this embedded cancer of racism appears to be almost impossible since this evil has been with us since the beginning of time when human enslavement did accompany racist ideology, and this identical evil was exhibited in the concerto of rage orchestrated in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The cure for this social cancer is for each one of us to attempt to peacefully and cleverly teach, one racist at a time, one despicable deed at a time, not to fear and hate. Yes, this is a monumental task to “unteach” generational ideology and emotionally imbedded beliefs. We must first examine our own beliefs, words, and actions that may reflect unconscious suggestions of racism inherited from our own family of origin. Next, we must target those in our social or professional circles and gently open the channels of awareness within these observed and identified racists.

Change in behavior will never occur unless one is aware of that action or belief and is sincerely motivated to eradicate such offensive and destructive actions. The motivation to change that behavior which deeply offends you is dependent on the value that racist places on your friendship or professional association. Indeed, this is a daunting, overwhelming and highly time-consuming task but street demonstrations and protesting is risky and does not effectively change one racist at a time for a cumulative elimination of racism.

Dr. Fran White is a psychologist and marriage and family therapist who has been in private practice for over three decades. She was a columnist for her regional newspaper and has written about human behavior and problem-solving. Fran resides on the Eastern Shore with her husband, Tom, and is a grandmother of nine grandchildren.

 

A Longing for Love by George Merrill

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The tragic clash in Charlottesville recently and the president’s disappointing equivocation about its perpetrators is one more toxin added to the already poisoned atmosphere in which Americans live daily.

I’ve seen selfless service and goodness exercised in public life: Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dag Hammarskjold and Shimon Peres – to name a few. These are the men and women I’d want my children to emulate. They’re strong and loving people. They care. My concern is that today’s young people are being fed a steady diet of cynicism through sensationalistic media outlets, which, by the way, Americans devour voraciously.

I believe our national discontent indicates a deep hunger for inspired leadership, for authenticity and for the hope that can lift us up and help us live the greatest challenge to our existence: how to love one another. Loving one another is the ultimate challenge in life. Everything else is secondary. Inspiration and hope are available, but today you have to look hard. It’s like panning for gold in a streambed. The constantly moving water stirs up dirt and obscures the gold.

How shall we “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land,” is a challenge as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago when the grieving psalmist, longing for his true home, first spoke these words.

Thomas Merton is a name well known in and out of religious circles. Seven Story Mountain, his autobiography written in 1948, concerned his conversion to Catholicism and his eventual entrance into the Trappist community. The story fascinated believers and non-believers alike. I read it as a teen-ager and I remember little of it. I do recall the feeling that it temporarily awakened in me. It was that feeling all of us have had at one time or another. It’s when on a dark night, we watch the stars and a feeling of awe becomes visceral, working itself up from deep within us and lodging in our throats. Merton’s spiritual vision extended beyond the banks of conventional religion to excite people’s imagination about the awe inspiring wonders of spiritual awareness.

I was surprised to read not long ago about how, years after he wrote it, Merton began to critically examine his own motives in writing it. He had uneasy feelings about it’s tone which he regarded as condescending, giving the impression that the cloistered life of the monk was the ideal spiritual path to follow.

What amazed me was how a spiritual giant like Merton who could “speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” still retained a fearless openness, curiosity and transparency. He was able to take a hard look at himself and what he was about. In one sense, his own spiritual growth process spoke even more loudly about living a life of spiritual depth, perhaps even more than did his thoughts he wrote about earlier. He was not dogmatic and hardwired to defend ideas he once held. He enjoyed enough of the spirit of wisdom to understand that spirituality is a process of constant change, not static “beliefs” that demand unquestioned loyalty.

Years later he said of his book, “this is the work of a man I have never even heard of.” He knew his spirit still missed something and he still hungered.

In 1958 he had an experience that again changed his life, but this change, in my estimation, is the most profound.

He was still writing and had been in Louisville Kentucky to meet his publisher. Merton was walking though a shopping district at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets. He became acutely aware of all the people around him. He was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that he loved them all. In his words: “ . . . they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” He recognized “the secret beauty of their heart.” He described them as shining brilliantly like the sun.” He goes on to say: “If only we could see each other that way all the time; there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

Big problem? Not in my book. That’s a more excellent way than shooting each other, driving cars into crowds and bombing innocents in market places.

I know we hunger for a vision of ourselves and our nation that inspires and lift us up. Witnessing to love is the most compelling vision of all.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

A Letter to the Kent School Family

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Editor’s note: Nancy Mugele, Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, forwarded the following letter she sent to members of the school community,  We offer it to our readers for its relevance to recent events in our country.

Dear Members of the Kent School Community,

In light of the recent events in Charlottesville this past weekend, I have been reflecting upon the Kent School mission and the role of education in our society. I firmly believe that our School mission is more relevant today than it was even last week. In our community of teaching and learning at Kent School moral integrity, kindness and respect for others are values we cherish, nurture, and teach deliberately. I wish all children in our country could receive an education combining excellence in academics, the arts and athletics, with moral excellence.

It is unbelievable to me that in 2017 hate groups and domestic terrorists continue their centuries-old campaigns of racism, discrimination and evil in this country. Sadly, their ideas are not new, even as new misguided members enter their ranks. As an educator, this deeply troubles me on many levels.

Children are not born to hate. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Most children form deep, loving bonds with their parents starting before they can verbally express themselves, according to Lawrence Cohen, PhD, author of Playful Parenting (Ballantine). Even newborns feel attachment from the moment they are born. Thus hate, racism, and discrimination are all taught and learned behaviors.

Education holds the key. Defined as the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life (Dictionary.com), education is the only way forward, but it must be a rich, liberal arts education that includes character education at its heart.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.

At Kent School we strive to live our mission each day and our faculty members are steadfast in their efforts to foster the growth of honorable, responsible citizens for our country and our diverse world. I look forward to the day when Kent School students will lead our communities, our regions, our states and our country, for I know they will lead with their minds and their hearts.

With kindest regards,

Nancy Mugele

Head of School

 

 

 

 

A Defining Moment by Craig Fuller

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In life, there are defining moments. At their best, they may be acts of heroism, selflessness or extraordinary kindness. At worst, they are acts or phrases that simply sear the national psyche and are never or not soon forgotten.

For people in public life, defining moments can literally make them or break them. In a campaign, a candidate and his or her team only hope that if a favorable defining moment comes they will be smart enough and fast enough to take full advantage of it. And, countless hours are spent seeking to avoid the moment that negates much of the good one might otherwise have done.

Consider these brief excerpts and you get the picture:

“Ask not what your country can do for you….”

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall…”

“I am not a crook.”

“Read my lips….”

This August will long be remembered as a time that provided a defining moment for President Trump. Every armchair quarterback can judge just what the moment meant; however, what is clear is that Mr. Trump sought the opportunity to speak his mind on the tragic events in Charlottesville. He found the moment in the lobby of Trump Tower. He spoke and most were outraged with his message and even his usual defenders were silenced.

It was a defining moment that provided instant reaction followed by some strong moral action.

Within a few days, a group as unlikely as the chief executive of Walmart, an individual leading more than 2 million employees who see 100,000,000 customers a week in their stores along with the members of the nation’s Joint Chiefs of Staff who lead America’s military were separating themselves from the views expressed by President Trump. Presidential advisory committees were shut down ahead of all their distinguished members resigning. These were not hastily made political statements. These were carefully considered expressions that took the moral high ground.

Now, we should ask, just how do we move on?

Will this President ever travel without protests?

Will we ever listen to a Presidential speech read from the teleprompter without wanting to wait a few days for the “real views” to emerge?

Can congressional leaders be persuaded by a presidential call for action on important legislation?

Can the American people be moved by Presidential proclamation?

If political leaders ask the nation to move forward to advance an agenda, will anyone really follow?

The defining moment that came days ago has weakened the presidency. About this, I am certain. The critical issues that need to be addressed in Washington in the weeks ahead are the same: health care, national security, the budget, infrastructure, the debt ceiling, tax reform and a serious drug crisis to name a few. Now, only with strong legislative initiative and bipartisanship in our nation’s Capitol will these issues advance. Whether today’s Congress is up to this task is unclear, but even they must know, regardless of party, that in August President Trump managed, at least for a time, to achieve a kind of lame duck status only seven months into his term as president making their obligations all the greater.

Craig Fuller served four years in the White House as assistant to President Reagan for Cabinet Affairs, followed by four years as chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush. Having been engaged in five presidential campaigns and run public affairs firms and associations in Washington, D.C., he now resides on the Eastern Shore with his wife Karen.

Commissioners Should Archive Meeting Videos

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I am a parent of school age kids, a small business owner and an active PTA member. Juggling responsibilities makes it difficult to attend as many government meetings as I would like. Even making the time to watch the live feed from the comfort of home is not always possible. I am not alone. With the school year starting soon my time and the time of most young families in our county will be taken up by afterschool activities, sports and family.

Providing opportunities for residents to be more engaged and better informed is a good thing. It should be a goal of all of our government leaders.  Since the reduction in the number of County Commissioner meetings it can take up to two weeks for minutes to be approved and posted. The latest minutes posted online are from July 18.

On August 10th I started a petition requesting the following –

Currently the Kent County website has a live feed of the County Commissioner meetings but no video archive is available. You have to watch the feed while the meeting is happening. The County Commissioners and IT Department should provide a video archive that is available on the Kent County website. With the recent reduction of monthly County Commissioner meetings it would seem that it would not be an additional workload to continue to provide written minutes of these meetings in addition to a video archive.

Rock Hall provides a live stream and video archive. Their fee is $150 per month. Chestertown has a consultant record and post meetings on YouTube. I believe the consultant’s fee runs around $100 per month. Kent County is currently paying around $200 per month for just live streaming.

What was once considered a courtesy is becoming the standard.  More than half of all Maryland counties provide written minutes as well as a video archive or link to a YouTube channel on their websites – Talbot, Queen Anne’s, Harford, Allegheny, St. Mary’s, Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore, Montgomery, Washington, Calvert, Wicomico.  And two counties in Maryland provide written minutes as well as audio archive on their websites – Cecil and Garrett.

Last night I made my request in person at the County Commissioners meeting. They said they would consider it. If you would like to join me in my request please sign the petition at https://goo.gl/4fxybJ

Francoise Sullivan
Kent County

Rock On! By Jamie Kirkpatrick

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We stopped in Plymouth on our way to Cape Cod last week. It’s a lovely summer town, famous, of course, for the rock on the beach that was the Pilgrim’s first toehold in the New World. I could tell it was THE rock because it was right across the street from the Mayflower Grocery Store, the Pillory Pub, Bradford’s Package Store, and Ye Olde John Alden Gift Shoppe.

The Mayflower had 102 souls on board when it finally landed in New England. Among them were about 40 Puritans, descendants of Brownist English Dissenters who didn’t care much for the pomp and circumstance of the Church of England. (The remaining sixty-plus Mayflower passengers were tradesmen or indentured servants.) The Pilgrims (they called themselves “Saints”) and their not-quite-so-religious friends (“Strangers) were the second group of pesky illegal immigrants to settle in the New World. (The first were the English settlers who established the Jamestown colony in Virginia in 1607.) They were Separatists who left England to form independent congregations that adhered to stricter, more divine requirements. When things didn’t go all that well for them in their first refuge at Leiden in Holland, they naturally decided to try their luck over here in the New World. Since no one had built a wall in 1620, when the Mayflower finally arrived in Plymouth harbor after more than two months at sea, the new immigrants made themselves right at home and began to make life difficult for the good people who were already lived nearby and had steady jobs, plenty of corn, and spoke perfect Native American. Apparently, that’s what immigrants do.

Despite not having visas, green cards, drivers’ licenses, or any other form of documentation for that matter, some of our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers turned out pretty well. John Alden, the Mayflower’s cooper (not a Puritan), finally spoke for himself and married fellow passenger Priscilla Mullins, much to the chagrin of his roommate, the bumbling Captain Miles Standish who also had his eye on Miss Mullins. (She was, after all, the only single woman of marriageable age on the Mayflower.) William Brewster, the only Pilgrim with a university education, served as the new colony’s first religious leader. He fathered several children and gave them wonderful names like Patience, Fear, Love, and (my favorite) Wrestling. William Bradford became the second Governor of the new Plymouth Colony after the colony’s first Governor (James Carver) dropped dead working in the fields after only a few months on the job. Bradford is best known for the rich historic detail of his journal, his contributions to the Mayflower Compact which attempted to create a “civil body politic” in the new colony (we’re still working on that), and for forming a military alliance with Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanoket Indians. Needless to say, that treaty didn’t go down very well with the Pokanoket’s two main rivals, the Narraganset and Massachusetts Indians who were understandably suspicious of the new immigrants who wore funny hats with buckles, spoke a strange language, didn’t know much about farming, and carried those noisy blunderbusses.

The great irony in all this is that the Mayflower and its passengers and crew composed of “Saints” and “Strangers” never intended to land on Plymouth Rock. The ship was originally bound for Virginia but gales forced it off course and eventually into what is today Provincetown harbor at the tip of Cape Cod and from there on to that rock on the beach across from the grocery store, pub, package store, and gift shoppe; the very one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow labeled “the cornerstone of a nation.” I guess you could say that although the Pilgrims did manage to evade Homeland Security, they were actually lost. Sad!

Oh well; despite a rough first winter or two, things turned out pretty well for the Pilgrims and the other passengers aboard the Mayflower. Plymouth today is a happening place. As for the Pokanoket, Narraganset, and Massachusetts Indians: uh, not so much.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

 

From South of Left Field: Shaking the Ground by Jimmie Galbreath

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Lets pick up where ‘Definite Problems’ left off last week. From the chart in ‘Definite Problems’ over the last 30 years the bottom 80% of us have experienced continuingly falling income. This decline has occurred under both the Democrats and Republicans; the D-R Axis or DRAxis. Finally re-electing the DRAxis or doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a good definition of insanity.

If you are like me the idea of being in numerous mass protests waving signs or trying to run for office is too overwhelming. Leading a political charge is just not my cup of tea, although I am anxious to vote for it. Right now it seems all the new energy is out protesting after the elections are over. This ‘after the fact’ burst of activity makes a big splash and feels good for those engaged in it, but the real power lies in what befalls down the road at the polls. So how do we take the DRAxis out behind the woodshed?

Let’s discuss what needs to happen around the backside of the woodshed. Our current existing gaggle of miscreants lives for the financial support and the wealth that they get by selling their elected power. The key words here are ‘elected power.’ As long as we can be lured into voting the DRAxis by slick media and PAC ads, then we have no power. If we don’t vote at all, we have no power. The only way to take the DRAxis behind the woodshed would be large numbers of us refusing to vote for DRAxis candidates. This approach would have a dramatic impact. Chaos would ensue even greater than the Tea Party in the Republican henhouse. The more incumbents toppled, and the more people coming in from outside the DRAxis, the harder it would be for money to get what it wants. The DRAxis would fight back of course, and there would be plenty of stalemates and raging in the press. Like any path to real reform, it would take time, stubbornness, and pain. Is anyone salivating at the thought of this fight like I am?

It is true that the fundamental structure of our Government as laid down by the Founding Fathers will always resolve itself into a two party system. There is nothing about the structure that prevents new parties from gaining power and struggling with the two parties we already have.

At least one of the existing parties has to go! The internal structure of the DRAxis has proven itself highly capable of smothering any effort at internal reform. What will not bend must be broken.

Behind the real woodshed, there will be no votes for anyone with an (R) or (D) behind their names. It doesn’t matter if the new candidates are wing-nuts as long as they are not DRAxis. Until we pave the road outside of DRAxis with votes, no quality people or parties are going to be out there for us. Set your jaw, keep casting the votes, and in time better candidates will come. Keep doing this until they do.

The thing to remember is that wing-nut laws and tax codes can be reversed and failed policies overturned. Don’t let the fear of them stop you from paving a new path for new candidates and new parties. Until we are willing to provide a path to office for better candidates, there will be no better candidates. DRAxis will not change, we must. This is especially important for those who have stopped voting. Find your rage, turn your disillusionment into rage if you need too. Don’t wait for others. Pull the lever! Fire the shot! Keep doing it!

If there are only DRAxis candidates then utterly reject the incumbent. DRAxis uses polished spin doctors to sell these people, so reject every effort to paint them as being for you. If they were, we wouldn’t need to do this. Thirty years of data does not lie! Go to the primary of your choice and fire the first shot, it is the only bullet we have in this fight. Go to the general and fire another! As an example for us here in the First District

I currently have my hopes for Ben Jealous for Governor and Michael Pullen for The House of Representatives. I happen to personally know both and trust them. Their choice to run within DRAxis is unfortunate, but like Bernie Sanders, the current landscape drives them into the DRAxis meat grinder where money and tremendous pressure has successfully co-opted so many well-meaning people before. My choice will be very hard if a non-DRAxis candidate pops up, but the road to reform must be paved with votes to defeat the DRAxis. Nothing less will do. Good people like Ben and Mike who want to support us don’t see another path because we have not been paving another path with votes.

The choice I face will be faced by a lot of us. DRAxis will not reverse our falling standard of living because they are supported, elected, and ultimately paid by the wealth. It is our own fault that this has happened. We let them buy our votes with empty promises and slick advertising.

The DRAxis committees, DNC and RNC, are funded by the wealthy. They will continue to support the wealthy gathering ever greater income at our expense. Don’t let poverty and want swallow us slowly. Don’t turn away from those already swallowed, because if this decline is not reversed, it will swallow us all.

Let’s keep taking the trip to the woodshed, year after year until….

Jimmie Galbreath is a retired Engineer originally from a small family owned dairy farm in Jefferson County, MS. He earned a B.S in Petroleum Engineering from MS State University, accumulating 20 years Nuclear experience at Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Station. Along the way he worked as a roustabout on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, served 3 years active service as a Quartermaster Officer in the US Army, Supervised brick kilns first in MS than in Atlanta GA and whatever else it took to skin the cat. He now lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Saddle Shoes and The Kingdom of Heaven by George Merrill

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Getting to the right place for the wrong reasons is more the rule than an exception.

For a long time my parents were uncertain which church to affiliate with. My father had been raised Methodist, and my mother Dutch Reformed. Neither was an active churchgoer but – as many middle class people – they thought their children could use the respectability of some religious affiliation. Proximity I think finally clinched their decision: the Church of the Ascension was much closer to our house than either the Methodist or the Dutch Reformed Church. The parish was an easy walk from home so there was no need for transportation. My religious journey began not with aspirations to greater piety but for proximity and convenience. I was baptized there. I was ten at the time, considerably older than the typical baptismal candidate.

I had little sense of what baptism was about. The rite assured that I would become an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. At my age, these theological formulations went over my head and I remember my baptism now only because of the relief I felt that my suit and especially my saddle shoes remained dry during the ritual. Prior to the baptism, my parents bought me a glen plaid suit and the shoes for the occasion. I was a clotheshorse and eager to wear my new clothes. The solemnity of the occasion was of secondary importance to me if I was aware of it at all.  Dressing up was first priority– a shallow motivation to be sure – but I was nevertheless respectfully clothed to claim whatever my new status was as a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Even during the baptism my worldly desires dominated.

During the baptism, my head was slightly inclined over the baptismal font in preparation for the priest to pour water on top of my head. This was done three times in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”  I could think only of how to protect my saddle shoes from any cascading water. Fr. Rogers was skilled at this maneuver so the shoes remained dry while I received my new inheritance. For all the wrong reasons I was initiated into a spiritual community, which grew in importance as I became older and more aware.  I would say, the choice of that parish also turned out to be a good call, even as my parents, or me for that matter, had little if any sense of the implications that belonging to this community carried.

How many decisions do we make or in which we enthusiastically participate during our lives without having any idea of what’s really going on?  It’s probably most of them. Those decisions cause no great harm. A fortuitous outcome of many of mine has led me to believe there is an overarching reality that redeems us even as we muddle through life. To see such grace at work during our lives requires a hard look at the erratic course a life follows.

Voting, marriage, and buying a first home are three decisions I imagine most of us make while poorly informed. Studying up on your candidate, engaging in pre-marital counseling or contracting for a house inspection can offer some assurances that we’re acting with our eyes open. However wide our eyes may be opened, there are always surprises. Many blindside us but some are welcomed.

Scientists deal with this reality regularly. In investigating one phenomenon, they invariably discover something radically new and altogether different.

One day, scientist Perry Spencer of Raytheon was fiddling around with a microwave emitting magnetron used in radar when he felt an odd sensation in his pocket. He felt something sizzling. A chocolate bar in his pocket had begun melting. By a fluke he discovered what we know as today’s microwave ovens.

Navy engineer Richard James was experimenting to find ways to stabilize delicate instruments on ships that were always rolling and pitching at sea. What he inadvertently stumbled upon is what delights the heart of every child; the ubiquitous “Slinky.” Three hundred million sold worldwide.

There’s a spiritual message in this. It’s a dead-end to insist we have to get it right.  There’s a piece of scripture that has suggested this but only because it has been misinterpreted. “Be ye perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect.” Know anyone who is up to that? If you do they will probably bore you to death. The English word ‘perfect’ is an inadequate rendition of a word that at its root means ‘compassionate.’ As human beings we are not challenged to “get it right” but to be compassionate, a far more challenging ideal. Aspirations to perfection lay an enormous burden on you and me. Perfectionists can drive themselves and everyone around them nuts.

The election of Ascension to be my spiritual home and the baptism that followed it was hardly the result of high-minded piety or idealism. It’s nevertheless where the full story began. I became a part of a nurturing community through my turbulent adolescence, aware of the healing power words and music while I discovered some of the timeless tools by which I could attempt to plumb the mysteries of God and of my own soul.

And all I knew when all this began was that my parents were delighted not to have to drive us to church and the saddle shoes remained dry during my initiation into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.