Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Gander, Newfoundland update

My thanks to CathiefromCanada over at MyDD for finding and posting a link to the Gander International Airport where you can find links and stories about The Day the World came to Town. I've included the link here and also permanently in the links in the right hand side column.

Some very moving stuff there.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

How dare they!

It was Sunday, Sept. 9. My sister had called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. My family has been blessed with generally good health and this was the first serious illness to strike one of my siblings. She was scared. She remained on my mind the rest of the day and through the next. I woke up on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 thinking I needed to call her and arrange to go see her. A phone conversation wasn't good enough. Face to face time and hugs were required.

I arrived at the office just about 9:00am. I work in what my son likes to call "cubicle hell." I saw several concerned faces sticking up over the wall in the cubicle next to mine. Generally that means one of our systems is down. That's what I thought so I asked, "What's up?" The answer was that the World Trade Center towers had just fallen. I said, "You're kidding, right?" Somebody saying, "He doesn't know." A very serious head shaking no. "You're not kidding. What's going on?"

I was told that airplanes had hit both the Trade Center towers and that the Pentagon had been hit as well. Someone said the Capital Building too. I looked out the window across the river where I can see the Empire State Plaza and New York State capital office buildings. They were still standing. I think I asked if we were under attack. It was obvious that we were. I don't recall wondering with whom. I guess the use of airplanes and the attack on the World Trade Center had me sure it was Islamic Terrorists. I kept looking out that window all day.

I asked if anything had happened in Europe. Puzzled faces seemed to be wondering why I asked. This was clearly a coordinated attack. I'd wondered in the past why Europe seemed to get more terrorist attacks then we ever did. Why didn't they happen here? However, the reason I asked was that my parents were on vacation in France. I knew they were supposed to be returning home sometime soon. No one knew of any other attacks but web sites were down and information was sketchy. A cell phone rang and it was my colleague's brother calling as he ran down the street away from the towers. He had gotten out of the first one and didn't stop running until he reached midtown. By then the towers had fallen. He didn’t know since he had never stopped running and never looked back. Adrenaline is a good thing sometimes.

I sat down and looked over my email trying to find my parent's itinerary. I called my sister. She had the note from Mom. For the return flight it said Sept. 11 but it also said Thursday rather than Tuesday. My sister speculated Mom probably had the day right and the date wrong. We didn’t know what to think.

I told her I loved her and had woken up wanting to come see her, that the phone was not enough. She said yes, we should do that. In the meantime there were other concerns and our family crisis had to wait. We set about contacting other siblings and to see if we could determine the location and status of our parents.

As the day unfolded my other sister took charge of tracking down flights. It turned out their flight was scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 11 and it was the day of the week Mom had gotten wrong. At first Continental said their flight never took off. Sign of relief. Then we were told that the flight had taken off but then been turned around and sent back to France. Later we were told that they had taken off but not returned to France. In the meantime there were stories of unaccounted for planes still in the air and the U.S. airforce with orders to shoot them down. Later still it became clear that they had taken off, not returned to France, but that their flight had been diverted. We didn't know where.

Eventually we learned that flights had been diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. At some point in there, late that night I think (my sense of time around this is a little fuzzy) my sister managed to get a number and a call through to Gander. A very nice woman on the other end of the phone confirmed that their flight was on the ground, that they had opened up the school gymnasium for people to sleep in and that right now they were on a nature walk that had been arranged for them. Huge sign of very grateful relief.

The people of Gander and the surrounding towns that opened their homes, their lives, and their hearts to the thousands of stranded travelers that arrived that day are a story unto themselves. They are the lesson the world should have learned from Sept. 11. They showed us all how life is supposed to be lived, how neighbors are supposed to treat neighbors and strangers alike. That their story has been drowned out by all that has happened since is a tragic loss for us all.

The next several days were full of fits and starts around when and how they would return home. The borders were locked down. All flights were grounded. My sister and I discussed driving to Newfoundland and bringing them home that way. Each day brought a new story and a new letdown about how to bring them home.

In the meantime, my oldest sister wanted nothing more then for her Mommy and Daddy to come home. We had decided not to tell them about the cancer diagnosis until they got home. I was left in the role of comforting my older sister. As best as I tried I was a poor substitute for her parents. Dealing with our family crisis continued on hold.

Eventually the airline decided to return their plane to France. Some stranded passengers had been able to get on with their travels others had not. Remaining passengers went with the plane back to France. So my parents ended up in Paris were they attended a service at the American Cathedral. There they joined people of all nations in tears over this international tragedy. It was very moving for them. Try as they might they were unable to get a return flight home from Paris. They managed a flight to London and after some finagling managed a flight from there to Newark were they rented a car and drove to Logan Airport in Boston where their car was.
They had been over the Atlantic 2 hours out of Newark when the attacks occurred. It took them a full week to finish that 2 hour trip.

We were amongst the lucky ones. Our parents made it home. The father of a friend of my niece and nephew died in the towers that day. He went there once a month for his job. For September it happened to be that day. Being only a few hours north of New York City there are many stories of friends, neighbors, relatives that were in the towers that day.

My father is an Episcopal Priest. My mother, an organist and choir director that was raised a Quaker. My preschool and after school hours were split between my Dad’s church and my Mother’s office at the Seminary she helped run. I am not quite a pacifist but do not believe in violence as a solution to problems. Violence begets nothing but more violence. It is a sure sign of a failure to find solutions to problems.

But I also grew up on the streets of the south side of Chicago. There are times when we are left with no choice. My wife was amazed to hear me say that we needed to hunt down and kill every member of Al Queda. If it meant a knife in the back on a dark street corner then so be it. If it meant launching Cruise missiles into training camps then so be it. If it meant poison slipped into their drinks then so be it. This would not solve the root causes of terrorism but it was clear that we had an enemy intent on killing us and when it comes to kill or be killed you damn well make sure it is the other guy that dies.

Like I said, I am not quite a pacifist.

Sept. 11 was one of those rare opportunities to change the world. Virtually every nation was ready to follow our lead. NATO invoked its mutual defense agreement for the first time ever. We were all Americans those days. We were all New Yorkers for a few days there.

The President of the United States could have used this great tragedy and great opportunity to bring the whole world to the table and craft real solutions to the problems that beset this world and cause the great depth of despair from which terrorism springs. Instead, he issued TV platitudes like "dead or alive." Would that Al Gore had been President that day instead. The world is a lesser place for George Bush and the Republican's inability to think outside the box, learn from history, and try to craft real solutions to very real problems. A great opportunity was missed and the world is doomed to decades more of such violence as a result if this administration.

When we went into Afghanistan I supported it completely. That was were the enemy was and the enemy needed to be killed. I read accounts of our preparations and was dismayed at some of it. Dismayed that we weren't sending in half a million men. Dismayed that we weren't bringing along NATO, the UN, and any other allies that wanted to come along. Dismayed that we weren't taking a hard line with Pakistan and Iran. Dismayed that we weren't allowing them the opportunity to join us in the effort and prove their sincere desire to disassociate themselves with terrorists and associate themselves with the responsible nations of the world.

Dismayed that we failed to capture and kill the enemy. Dismayed that this administration was so arrogant and incompetent that they let the enemy get away.

My dismay has only increased since them.

And turned to anger.

Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on this nation on Sept. 11, 2001. This administration let the real enemy get away and instead went on it's own agenda. It lied and deceived the nation. It has been criminally negligent in its failure to pursue the enemy and its diversion of our military resources to pursue it’s own agenda instead of allocating them in defense of the United States of America against it’s real enemy.

How dare they!

It was obvious every step of the way through their build up to the invasion of Iraq. We knew it. We said it. We were derided and dismissed. The various reports and commissions since then have proven us right. The Downing Street Memo's have proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. This administration lied and led us falsely into an illegal and unnecessary war. This administration doesn't care about Al Queda, Osama Bin Laden, and the 3000 that died on Sept. 11. They care only about their own profits and those of their friends. They are only about power, obtaining power, consolidating power, and keeping power.

How dare they!

And how dare the likes of Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, Scott McClellan, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Bush lecture or deride Democrats and liberals for our position on the defense of the United States of American when they have proven themselves to be so criminally negligent and incompetent in that role. How dare they open their mouths to speak even a word that does not begin "I beg the forgiveness of the people of the United States of America."

How dare they!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Karl Rove and the politics of ugly

Karl Rove, George Bush's chief political adviser, in a speech to the Conservative Party of New York said Wednesday...

"liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Conservatives, he told the New York state Conservative Party just a few miles north of Ground Zero, "saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."

In a fashion now typical of the modern day Republican Party leadership this modern day Rovism, or McCarthyism, seeks to brand anyone that doesn't agree with their view of the world as traitors or cowards. It is not allowed in their view that dissenting voices or other points of view be allowed in this country any longer.

Who can respect people like that?

I do not agree with the administration. I strongly do not agree with this current administration. I generally disagree with conservatives. I generally disagree with Republicans. My disagreements with Republican and Conservative viewpoints is generally one of different priorities and approaches to common problems.

This administration, and the modern day Republican Party leadership in general, are neither conservative nor anything even remotely resembling the traditional Republican view of the world. Karl Rove, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and their ilk are all about power... gathering power, retaining power, and eliminating all opposition from power. It is clear from their tactics and rhetoric that they do not truly believe in democracy and do not truly believe in the power of their ideas. They are filled with greed, lust, and hubris.

They are an unhealthy lot.

Karl Rove ought to apologize for his callous, ugly, and divisive comments. President Bush, as the President of all the people, ought to repudiate Rove's comments. Our Republican Senators and Representatives ought to reject and repudiate his comments and call for his censure.

Playing the game of politics is all well and good but public servants ought to place the health and well being of the nation and the people of the nation above politics, above their party, and above their personal ambitions.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Value of Words

As for the Way, the Way that can be spoken of is not the constant Way;
As for names, the name that can be named is not the constant name.
The nameless is the beginning of the ten thousand things;
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Therefore, those constantly without desires, by this means will perceive its subtlety.
Those constantly with desires, by this means will see only that which they yearn for and seek.

These two together emerge;
They have different names yet they're called the same;
That which is even more profound than the profound -
The gateway of all subtleties.

- Tao Te Ching #1 - Robert G. Henricks translation


Words are limited... and limiting. The Divine or God or the Way is without limitations. The name that can be named is not the constant name.

We are unable in our limited linguistic capabilities to truly express our experience... especially when it comes to the more subtle things of life such as belief or faith. We try. We try hard but it cannot be done.

The Gospel according to John begins with a wonderful piece of writing:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

A few verses down it says further:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...full of grace and truth.

Why? Why was the word made flesh? The simple answer is that the Word could not be spoken. It had to be experienced. It has to be lived. Language is limited. In my struggles to make sense of my Christian upbringing I have never been able to completely accept the idea of Jesus of Nazareth as the "only son of God." However, "the word made flesh" has been one that has spoken to me and opened up the possibility of reconciliation between my own doubt filled beliefs and those that are generally held by mainstream Christian religions. The idea of the word of God represented in the life, actions, and being of a living, breathing creature is not one that I find the need to struggle with.

The Bible is a rich book full of wonder. It must be experienced. For this reason so much of it is written in parable, allegory, and life experience. It was written by the hand of man in man's language. Man's limited language could not, cannot capture the essence of the divine way. Only an approximation. It has been translated and retranslated. The literalist interpretation is not the way. What is not the way soon parishes.

The Way that can be spoken is not the true way. This is an important concept for me to understand. It frees me from that search for the "one true way" or the holy scripture that contains all the answers and is the be all, end all. The "true way" cannot be captured in words. It can be pointed to and hinted at but the moment words are used to describe it they fail to contain it due to their own limitations and the limitlessness of the Way. The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.

Apparently this is an important concept to wrap our minds around. A later chapter of Tao Te Ching contains these words:

Who knows doesn't talk.
Who talks doesn't know.

Following up on the idea that words cannot be made to frame the truth of the Way it becomes clear that one who has found the way is wise enough to know that they could not possibly contain it with mere words.

Another Taoist writer, Chuang Tzu, wrote a story called…

"Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright"

"The world values books, and thinks that in so doing it is valuing Tao. But books contain words only. And yet there is something else which gives value to the books. Not the words only, nor the thought in the words, but something else within the thought, swinging it in a certain direction that words cannot apprehend. But it is the words themselves that the world values when it commits them to books: and though the world values them, these words are worthless as long as that which gives them value is not held in honor.

"That which man apprehends by observation is only outward form and color, name and noise: and he thinks that this will put him in possession of Tao. Form and color, name and sound, do not reach to reality. That is why: "He who knows does not say, he who says, does not know." (Tao Te Ching #56)

"How then is the world going to know Tao through words?

"Duke Hwan of Khi,
First in his dynasty,
Sat under his canopy
Reading his philosophy;
And Phien the wheelwright
Was out in the yard
Making a wheel.
Phien laid aside
Hammer and chisel,
Climbed the steps,
And said to Duke Hwan:
"May I ask you, Lord,
What is this you are
Reading?"

"The Duke said:
"The experts, The authorities."
And Phien asked:"Alive or dead?"
"Dead a long time.""Then," said the wheelwright,
"You are reading only
The dirt they left behind."
Then the Duke replied:
"What do you know about it?"
You are only a wheelwright.
You had better give me a good explanation
Or else you must die."
The wheelwright said:
"Let us look at the affair
From my point of view.

When I make wheels
If I go easy, they fall apart,
If I am too rough, they do not fit.
If I am neither too easy nor too violent
They come out right. The work is what
I want it to be.
You cannot put this into words:
You just have to know how it is.
I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,
And my own son cannot learn it from me.
So here I am, seventy years old,
Still making wheels!
The men of old
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them."
The Way of Chuang Tzu – Thomas Merton

And here again is freedom from the idea of holy scriptures that contain the whole truth. Even this story itself is but the dirt the wise old Chinese sages left behind them. Does it contain what they really knew? No. But it does point in the general direction for us to search in ourselves.

So while I don’t claim to follow all of this I do get the impression that the words we speak are important but that they do not contain the whole truth. A Taoist friend of mine that has been helping me to find my way through these writings has made the point that he cannot tell another person the truth or describe the Way. All he is capable of doing with words is to point in the general direction of where he has found it for himself.

As I transcribed the story of Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright I thought of my own father, an Episcopal priest and deeply religious man. Like the master wheelwright he has not been able to transfer to me what he so deeply believes. Nor has my mother who was raised as a Quaker. Her depth and strength of character was apparent to me as a real and tangible thing. It is something I believe she did pass on to me to some degree but the understanding of what she felt and believed has escaped me. Certainly as a child I learned morality and the specifics of Christian beliefs but I have always felt like I was missing something. Try as I might, I just didn’t get it. On the other hand, as I think this over, perhaps this whole spiritual journey I am on is a result of the teachings my parents passed on to me and that sense of something missing. It is certainly that something I have been searching for these past few years.

I have just finished reading a book by a now retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church (that of my youth). His thoughts are very radical for that particular body. But in it, in his opening pages he says, "The God I know is not concrete or specific. This God is rather shrouded in mystery, wonder, and awe. The deeper I journey into this divine presence, the less any literalized phrases, including the phrases of the Christian creed, seem relevant. The God I know can only be pointed to; this God can never be enclosed by propositional statements." – Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong.

Words and definition, naming, it is the mother of the ten thousand things. Division and interpretation. Desire and opinion. Right and wrong, good and bad, the dualities of the human mind. Name a thing and it is limited to that definition. It has been cut and set apart by description, by naming. The Tao Te Ching speaks in other places of the "uncarved block." All possibilities exist and limitations have not been placed on it.

To experience the divine in ones life is grace. Without words or description, limitation or definition... It is the word, the constant way, the nameless. The uncarved block. The beginning of all things.