Wonder, I wonder

The rain had been heavy through the night, but the morning dawned with brilliant sunshine, so I decided to have my morning meditation out on the porch. The breeze was light, just gently rustling the leaves, when a diamond caught my eye. Actually, it was a single leaf, wet from the rain, twinkling down at me from the tree opposite. It so arrested my attention that I marveled at the simplicity of its beauty and its mesmerizing effect on me. And then, I looked down to my meditation prompt, a poem titled “Presence,” by the Irish writer John O’Donohue. He’d written “Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.” Clearly this little leaf was one of those quiet miracles, posing unwittingly as a diamond.

O’Donohue writes frequently about “wonder” and its power to take us out of ourselves and to lead us to frontiers of awareness. How rare such moments are in my own life, I realized with embarrassment. This experience of unexpected beauty stimulated so many related reactions. And then, from the other room, came the all-too-familiar sound from my smartphone that a text had arrived. It almost pulled me back into that world, but I resisted and stayed in my chair.

So much of the time, as O’Donohue notes, we run along the “rail tracks of purpose.” Routines and schedules, obligations, and responsibilities: These all cause us to be productive, no doubt, but perhaps they also keep us so directed that our sense of wonder — that capacity we see so much in young children — is frustrated.

So, then my meditation turned to the tension that exists between the openness to wonder and the distraction, the control imposed by the very technologies that purportedly make our lives better. Efficient? Yes. Richer? I doubt it. And now comes AI, with its great promises. No Luddite, I, but still I wonder, how wonder will survive. AI may be able eventually to replicate human reasoning, but I rather think the gift of wonder will always be uniquely our own.

Noah benShea wrote, “Eternity is any moment opened with patience.” Patience and wonder in tandem. Not a bad start to my day!

You can contact Steve Reno at stepreno@gmail.com.

A sacred place

Growing up in a small town in California, I learned early on there were two places where I was to be on my best behavior. One was our parish church and the other was the town library. Both were somewhat monumental structures in terms of their outward appearance: the former a red brick Gothic with a very tall steeple, and the other a granite classical Greek style building. Both were presided over by equally imposing and formidable people: the former by Monsignor Jacobs, and the latter by Miss Emily Richardson. In their own distinctive ways, these two exercised considerable influence over me and my contemporaries. In church, we learned religious teachings, ritual, music and a good smattering of Latin. At the library, we learned that information, and eventually knowledge, is acquired by hard work, persistence and curiosity.

Miss Richardson was a strict teacher, but one whose love for her profession came to the fore when she saw the expression of discovery on our faces after helping us find a reference or a book that took us to new places. Of course, we had to obey the rules: no unnecessary talking, never reshelve a book yourself, and never write on or in, other otherwise deface, any library materials. During our pre-teens, when the hormones were stirring, she would carefully monitor our visits to those stacks where there were to be found graphic anatomical illustrations, asking if there were a specific research paper we might be doing that required such materials. Shamefaced, we’d slide back to our chairs.

At the regular library board meetings, however, Miss Richardson was a completely different person. A passionate advocate for her collection to be as up-to-date as possible, she would forcefully rebut the objection of the occasional patron who expressed the view that Peyton Place or Lady Chatterley’s Lover should not be in our stacks. “Our library should be a place where the judgment of the librarian to select and the judgment of the reader to read can both be accommodated without conflict.” She once affirmed. That value stayed with me, and I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was when Miss Richardson, having read a book report I’d written for my freshman high school English class, commented, “Stephen. You should be reading better literature than this.”

My story harks back to a time when professional judgment was valued, and its exercise respected. That is in sharp contrast with the challenges of librarians today. A friend recently told me she had resigned from her town’s library board because she could not find a way to mediate the good-faith efforts of her librarian and the protests of concerned parents and even local legislators demanding the removal of certain books.

As I reflect on my early years, I appreciate the complementary of the First Amendment right to read and the First Amendment right to religion. It is a balance we must work harder to maintain.

You can contact Steve Reno at stepreno@gmail.com.

Roots & branches

One of my favorite childhood memories is of those family Thanksgiving dinners when, after everyone had finished the meal, the adults sat around the table telling stories and just reminiscing. For some reason, I enjoyed especially hearing about family events that took place before I was born. After hearing such stories, I admit, I looked differently at my aunts and uncles as I now saw them as characters in a larger family drama that extended many years earlier. As I grew older, I often found an opportunity to ask them for further details. Taken together, these stories and their subsequent developments grounded me in a way I didn’t understand at the time.

Now fast forward many years and the young people are my own adult children. The same phenomenon seems to be repeating as they ask their mother and me about details of our childhood, college years, times before we met, and subsequent events before they were born. What has helped greatly in the occasional telling of our family story is the journal I’ve kept for more than 50 years. While not replete with details, it does record events large and small that complement my own memory of the past. And now, as I read back through them, I appreciate even more my record of some of those post-Thanksgiving dinner story sessions of my childhood and can share them. They help me satisfy what seems now to be an apparently inherited curiosity about our family’s past.

Across society these days, curiosity about family history takes many forms, from the popular PBS program Finding Our Roots and the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are? to such widely used genealogical tools as Ancestry.com or 23 and Me. Templates for making a family tree are plentiful and becoming easier to populate thanks to online access to a trove of databases. And if you think journaling is a quaint custom of earlier days, Google “journals” and you will find websites that will sell you a book in which to record your experiences or even how to get started. Storyworth, an online facility, sends the subscriber a prompt each week to write a family story and then collects and prints them in a book at the end of the year.

With the recent death of my last surviving uncle, I have now become the eldest of my family generation. So it is not surprising that now it is my turn to encourage the younger generation to begin adding to our family’s growing storybook.

Might it be your turn to do something similar?

You can contact Steve Reno at stepreno@gmail.com.

The litany

By the time you read this, December will have slipped into January and another year will have ended. A time of transition, this — new calendars, new dates on checks (if you still write them), a new tax year, and the passing of the shortest day of the year. As has been my custom for many years, I pull out my journal for the year just ending and read over the entries that range from a simple recounting of daily events to musings about family, work or national happenings. There are regular mentions of the books I am reading (or want to read), of conversations with friends and occasionally strangers met by chance. Some of the earliest entries record promises made to myself back in January that I’ll get more exercise, follow less news, FaceTime my children and grandchildren, meditate each morning and take walks with my wife.

In the back of the journal, however, there is a list of the names of relatives, friends and colleagues who have died that year. The list is much longer than a single year, however, as it is one to which names are added regularly and it stretches back five years to when I began so noting the deaths. Akin, I recognize, to the Litany of the Saints that was a liturgical practice in my Catholic youth, I read down that now very long list (more than 50) and softly speak the names. The very sound of a deceased’s name immediately brings to mind some memory of a time spent with them — an event, a snippet of conversation or an image of something they have done. While there is no “Ora pro nobis,” as in the liturgy of my past, there is my own silent expression of gratitude for the time I did have with them. Each name is a so very distinct person who entered my life and left an impression. At the end, the litany itself is a mosaic of vastly different individuals who, together, have enriched my life and to whom I owe great gratitude.

After the hustle and stress of preparations for Christmas, followed by the celebrations of the day itself, there comes each year a more quiet time. The daily emails are fewer, there are fewer appointments to be met, and even, on occasion, a day completely free and clear of obligations. These are truly sacred times in the sense that religions the world over built them into their calendars to give people time to reflect and resolve. They are like a “Sabbath” for the year, a time when we leave off ordinary responsibilities and pay attention to our inner selves as we reflect on the year passing, those we have lost, and begin to set a new course for the year ahead. Soon enough the routine will be reestablished and these treasured days will have passed. One solid resolution is to not lose them in the moment of their quietude and reflection.

How we see others

As more than one observer has noted, most Americans behave with respect to political campaigns and elections as they do toward sports teams and competitions. They have their favorites and then generally sit back and watch. True, some go out and stump for their candidate (or put out lawn signs), but generally most of us just follow the contest by way of cable news or local TV channels. And what those bring us these days, especially in the closing hours before Election Day, is a constant stream of strident messaging that caricatures opposing candidates as irresponsible, incompetent, or perhaps even dangerous. What is especially common is the format of these ads, whether on TV or in other forms of the media. They typically feature an especially unfavorable black and white photo of the opponent, probably snapped at an off moment along the campaign trail, while the favored candidate, featured smiling and in a color-rich setting, is portrayed as trustworthy, honest and friendly.

By extension — and probably without our adverting to the fact — this caricaturing of political candidates can easily lead us to include in our opinion those who support candidates we oppose. In short — and how many times have we all heard this? — they simply become “those people.” It’s a short step, for example, from portraying a candidate who favors a woman’s right to free choice to viewing that candidate’s supporters as “baby killers.” The political ads are replete with such exaggerations; indeed, that is what gives them the desired impact.

In his book Faces of the Enemy: Reflection of the Hostile Imagination, the philosopher and social observer Sam Keen documents the many ways, over time, we tend to conceptualize those who are our opponents as less than ourselves. In the extreme cases of warfare, the dehumanized enemy is portrayed as just that, less than human, and therefore easier to destroy.

But even in the political sphere such characterization can lead to condescension, disregard or even disdain. The higher the moral stakes, the greater the danger of regarding “the others” as unworthy or dangerous. The polarization in our society today, with its attendant imaging, makes the point.

Can we, will we break through this barrier of prejudice and start to engage in civil conversation with those who hold views opposite to ours? We cannot change everything, but we can start by reaching out and seeking not to convince others but to understand how they take the positions they do. The danger of not trying is to further harden difference, and that makes working toward a common good impossible.

To remember

Over lunch a few years ago, a friend asked me a simple, but very direct question: “Steve: when you think of the Holocaust, what image comes to mind?” It caught me off guard as we had been talking about politics prior to the upcoming election. I paused, thought for a moment — my mind flashing through a series of recalled images — and replied: “The picture of an emancipated Elie Wiesel, in a prison suit, standing in a bunk room with similarly starved inmates. The other is the open pits with thousands of bones uncovered in the course of liberating the Nazi concentration camps.”

“Yes,” he said, but a fuller picture — an important additional facet — is an image of the German neighbors who peered from behind their lace curtains, watching, as the Gestapo dragged away their Jewish neighbors. Their silence, their inaction, to what was being done, while understandable given their concern for their own safety, over time, had allowed a totalitarian regime to take such measures without opposition.

That lunch conversation and its insights have stayed with me, deeply impressing on my conscience.

This month marks the appearance of Ken Burns’ new documentary, The Holocaust. While some of Ken’s films give us reason to celebrate the beauty, places and people of our country, this has a very different intention and impact. It is a historical documentary but also a cautionary tale.

A cautionary tale sets out a story, the roots of an event, the impact of an event, and the lessons to be drawn from it. It invites — nay, challenges us — to look around at our present situation and ask, “Could that happen here?” His film does and the answer is “yes.” But with a qualifier: “It is happening now.”

Institutions and movements have arisen since the Holocaust to amplify and instruct regarding the horrors and the lessons of that tragic time, but despite those, bigotry, racism, intolerance, extreme nationalism and supremacy have mushroomed in countries around the world. “Ethnic cleansing” — the term itself proclaiming that only one “pure race” can/should inhabit a country, has set tribalism against multiculturalism. “Difference” has become the criterion of choice, its impact felt in the political ads that blanket our state now in the days leading up to the midterm elections and likely to follow into the voting booths as well.

But we are a country of indigenous people and immigrants. Of the latter, no matter how long we have lived here, we came from someplace else, and we have made our way and enriched this country, this noble experiment in multicultural democracy. To honor our forebears and their epic journey — regardless of race, religion or culture — we must not wait till we can look out our windows to see what is happening. The time to resist is now. Otherwise, the option is complicity. And by now we should know where that can lead.

Lessons from a cathedral

I had breakfast this morning with a fascinating person. She is an architectural historian who has studied Notre Dame cathedral in Paris for many years and is now one of the experts regularly consulted as the 800-year-old building is being restored after the devastating fire of April 2019. For many years earlier, she studied the gradual process by which the cathedral had been built, noting that, over the course of 100 years, its walls had been constructed in stages as the mortar of each course of stone had to dry fully — a process that could take years — before the next layer could be added. In the end, thanks to the patience and skill of the builders, one of the most loved and iconic structures was completed. But it was a very slow process.

As my friend described that process, a comparison was forming in my mind. Our country, too, is a construction in progress, I thought. Yes, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the “foundation” of the U.S. — we regularly refer to “the founding fathers” — but the rest of the work of realizing the vision of our forebears has been entrusted to subsequent generations. As American historians have shown us, this has been a trial-and-error process. We make laws to clarify or safeguard something only to see how it works out and perhaps repeal or modify it later. It’s a slow process. Just as for Notre Dame, each layer is added slowly, waiting and monitoring and then working on the next layer. My friend described the cathedral as a “building in dialogue with itself,” and perhaps that’s true for us as a country as well.

Today, especially in these times of polarization, many of us are impatient with the give and take of the democratic process, and instead would wish to “build it all” simply, with a change of presidential administration or a shift in Congress from one political majority to another. Our fast-paced world, instantaneous global communication, 24/7 news and compulsive social media all make difficult the more fundamental task of thoughtful conversations with our fellow citizens. It takes patience and courage to talk about such critical issues as immigration, abortion, voting rights or gun control in a way that respects difference of opinion while having that conversation based on a shared commitment to our country. Like Notre Dame, this is a slow process.

The elections this fall offer each of us, individual builders in the construction of this country, the challenge of being informed, of listening to one another, not just those in our echo chamber, and registering and voting intelligently. We may not see the completion of the perfect edifice, but we shall have done our part.

Pay attention, get involved

Even though I am a transplant who has lived in this state for more than 20 years, there are occasions when I am especially aware of just what it means to live in a state the motto of which is “Live Free or Die.” Such a recognition came recently. Although the details of the attempt on the part of certain residents of Croydon, New Hampshire, to halve the annual school budget, as well as the successful later counter to restore it, are well known, the lesson for me, as well for all of us, is one worthy of serious self-reflection.

Like many of my fellow Granite Staters, I live in a small town. I am fortunate that mine is one that has an efficient and useful website as well as a robust email alert system. My neighbors and I receive regular announcements of all town meetings as well as their agendas. These I read dutifully, but too often my engagement stops there and I fear I’m not alone in that regard. It is a rare agenda item that would draw me to attend a meeting in person. It must be some kind of utilitarian criterion that I’m applying in such situations, the logic of which would go something like this: “If it’s a really important issue for me that will be discussed or voted on, then I’ll go; if it’s not I won’t.”

What is lost in that logic, however, is the other, equally important aspect of democracy, namely a shared sense of responsibility for our community and a corresponding obligation to participate. Something akin to the latter is what I often feel on town voting day, when, standing in line with neighbors, friends and strangers, I feel a sense of solidarity that together we are doing something important and are seeing one another in the act of doing it, voting on issues of common importance. It is a sense of a common will for a commonweal.

This year will be my 13th serving as executive director of Leadership New Hampshire, an organization founded as a recommendation of the gubernatorial Commission on NH in the 21st Century. Its mission statement is “Building a community of informed and engaged leaders.” Every year, from a large pool of applicants from across our state, LNH selects 32 people to participate in a one-day-a-month intensive program that seeks to familiarize them with the needs, challenges, people and resources of our state, so that, being better informed about our state and its communities, the graduates — and now, in its 30th year, there are more than 1,000 of them — will get even more engaged in their communities, region or state. But the “special chemistry” of LNH is the sense of solidarity the graduates develop over the 10-month together.

It does truly take a community, precisely because the members of one need to feel a sense of community. The people of Croydon found that out the hard way.

Across the aisle

My flight from San Francisco to Boston was full and, as I learned, many of the passengers were on their way to graduation ceremonies across New England. Mine was an aisle seat midway in the Economy section, and across sat — as I found out later — a grandmother traveling with her son and wife to attend the college graduation of the granddaughter. Before long, the grandmother and I began exchanging pleasantries regarding everything from how Covid had curtailed our travel for the last two years to how we each were planning to spend the long weekend. She was excited about her granddaughter’s forthcoming graduation as she herself had graduated from the same college 70 years earlier. She confided to me her age: 92!

That detail of her age quickly led us into a conversation about college life and then the changes she’d lived through over her long life. As our topics moved to more political matters, I noticed other passengers had put down their reading and appeared to be listening. Because she was a bit hard of hearing, I was speaking a tad louder and so it was probably easy for folks seated in front or behind us to catch snatches of our exchange. But we were surprised when a passenger immediately ahead of us turned around and offered a thoughtful comment on our discussion of the forthcoming midterms. That must have prompted the woman behind me to join us also and before long we had a robust four-way conversation going.

The five-plus-hour flight passed quickly as we talked nearly all the way. It was clear we were not all of the same mind about current events and personalities, but we listened respectfully even when differences were very pronounced. As our plane began its approach to Logan Airport, the grandmother leaned over to us and announced, “You know, we’ve just had a substantive conversation ‘across the aisle.’ As a country, we need a great deal more of this.”

Ours was a fortuitous experience because such candid and civil conversations across divides of whatever kind are rare because they are hard and sometimes risky to have these days. In her book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living, Krista Tippett offers “Generous Listening” as a way to learn about both others and ourselves by seeking, through respectful questions, to understand another person’s views. On that flight, four strangers leaned across a physical as well as an ideological aisle. I certainly felt better for it.

Reflections on a gentleman

With age come certain changes, one of which is that I find myself attending more memorial services than weddings these days. This week, it was to attend virtually the Celebration of Life for the actor Emilio Delgado. While all services for the departed carry the deep sorrow of loss, they also offer those so gathered an opportunity to reflect on their experiences of having been part of the late person’s life. The collective remembrances of those times not only console; they also inspire those of us who remain behind to assess our own place in the world.

As did so many others, and as a parent, I first came to know Emilio as Luis, the Fix-it Shop owner on the children’s television series Sesame Street. (He played the same role on U.S. television longer than any other Mexican-American actor.) My wife and I were sparing in the time we allotted our two children to watch TV and so Sesame Street became a special fixture in their early lives and the program inspired their love of Spanish. Many have extolled the early childhood education philosophy that informed the creativity of the program and noted its appeal to not only children but their parents as well. For our family, however, the character Luis was a standout for his gentleness, self-deprecating humor and optimism.

Many years later, when we lived in Ashland, Oregon, our family became friends with Emilio, his wife, Carole, and their daughter Lauren. For several years, it was our good fortune to encounter this wonderful person in real life as well as on the TV. There simply was no difference between the lovable character in the series and the man in our living room or at the supermarket. His kindness was contagious, his optimism uplifting, and his generosity exemplary. On those occasions when we were with him and a stranger who recognized him approached, we saw not only the genuine affection the person had for him but his for one of his admirers. It was never ego-driven, but a true encounter of mutual respect.

As the many speakers at Emilio’s memorial service shared their recollections, the rest of us learned even more of his insatiable curiosity, his love of books and learning, his musical accomplishments, and his deep and long-standing commitment to social justice. On that latter point, one friend cited Cornel West, who wrote, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” His life of activism was exemplary of that value.

Through his life and the character of Luis, Emilio Delgado brought the best to children and adults alike. His passing challenges those who remain behind to carry on those values.

You can contact Steve Reno at stepreno@gmail.com.

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