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.

Change in Leadership for NH

Gov. Sununu made national headlines recently when he announced he would not seek reelection for a fifth term as governor of New Hampshire. He noted, correctly in my opinion, that public service should never be a career.

This creates an opportunity for new leadership in our great state. It will be an interesting 18 months as the candidates line up to garner our votes. To date, former state Senate President Chuck Morse and former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte have both formally announced their candidacies on the Republican side, with Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington running on the Democratic side.

There will be ongoing debate, as there has been for the last seven years, as to how effective Sununu has been as our governor. While he is a Republican, he is a moderate Republican. Fiscally conservative, he has supported lower tax rates for businesses, insisted on balanced budgets, and pushed for a first in the nation paid family leave program. He also supported looser gun laws and a voucher-based school choice program. However, he has demonstrated the ability to find the middle ground on issues such as abortion. While he describes himself as pro-choice, he supported a budget bill banning abortions after 24 weeks. Neither side was happy with the compromise. Sununu disagrees with Republican leaders on parental rights. In a decidedly purple state, this middle ground is the key to success.

Sununu has been vocal with his opinions on the upcoming 2024 presidential election and who he does not want to get the Republican nomination. He is doing everything in his power to make sure Trump is not the nominee. Extremism on either side won’t win. Running on a platform of retribution and old grudges is not a method of solving problems at a national level or a state level. Sununu has demonstrated a proven model of success in New Hampshire. Candidates running for governor would do well to study this model in our independent state.

On surgery & sea sprites

In dark December I found myself hobbling into an urgent care clinic for x-rays. A few clicks by the technician, a glance by an orthopedic PA, and I received my diagnosis: severe osteoarthritis. Never mind that last summer I hiked several 4,000-footers and ran a 5k. Now I am rehabbing after a total hip replacement. Apparently I’m not alone. The Boston Globe ran a piece this spring titled “How the hip replacement became the hot Gen-X surgery.”

Now that my bone-on-bone pain is gone and the incision is healing, what has this slightly older than Gen-Xer learned? First, when I was told my hip replacement was “elective,” what I heard was that it was unnecessary, indulgent even. This descendant of New England Protestants does not put excessive mayonnaise on a sandwich or make-up on her face. Only when I could barely walk did I schedule the surgery. It turns out that “elective” just means that it can be scheduled in advance. Make the appointment. Joint replacement is not a sign of moral weakness.

Second, friendships are vital. Nothing comforted me more than the meals, grocery deliveries, visits, cards, calls, texts and rides my friends provided. What surprised me, though, was the camaraderie of new acquaintances made while waiting for the operation. I joined a water exercise class to keep in shape. As New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui has observed, “At my community pool, the locker room is a tableau on aging.” At the YMCA I found a community of folks who had already discovered the ease of slipping one’s aching body into the water, abandoning gravity and decorum. Flailing about in chlorine-faded swimsuits, the gang laughed, sang to the music, and exchanged tips such as where to thrift canes, walkers and commodes. My fellow aquacizers’ good humor got me through the hardest months. They helped me find joy and courage.

Third, although any diversion, from game apps to crochet, might keep one occupied, for me it was reading. I laughed, cried, and worked my way through everything from Bonnie Garmus’ comic novel Lessons in Chemistry to Marcus Zusak’s YA treasure The Book Thief, to Jill LePore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. I hope to get back to the mountains, but meanwhile I’m happy and grateful to be where I am.

Different priorities

The Union Leader recently reported that Manchester is spending $2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act funds on a community-wide identity and branding initiative for the Queen City. It further noted the project was made a priority by Mayor Craig and the board of aldermen to address the negative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While a property owner in Manchester, I do not reside in the city. Thus, even though we remit tax revenue to Manchester, we have no voting rights in the city. The property owned is near City Hall where, sadly, our maintenance team continues to deal with discarded needles and drug paraphernalia as well as human feces, discarded clothing, shopping carts, and other items strewn about the property. Like many property owners in downtown Manchester, despite repeated calls and requests to the mayor’s office, we have received no assistance or response to this issue that negatively impacts our property, our employees and our guests.

So it is disappointing to learn that a decision was made to spend $2 million on a branding campaign instead of the long-standing issue within Manchester that has not been properly addressed, homelessness. As noted in prior columns, homelessness is a complex issue with many facets. Manchester has failed in almost every area due to a lack of leadership and consistent finger-pointing. Residents of encampments have been evicted and shuffled from one location to another. Blame has been placed on the state for not addressing the problem, and on outlying areas for sending their residents to Manchester. This past winter, the city scrambled at the last minute to provide emergency housing (as though it were a surprise cold weather was coming). Property owners suffer the consequences.

Yet nobody in a leadership position in Manchester has taken the reins and said, “We’re going to address this, put a plan in place to assist this population, and solve this issue within the city.” In fairness, Manchester has hired a Director of Homeless Initiatives. Looking at the website, I see more excuses in the Q&A section as to why things can’t be done versus solutions as to what will be done. At present, it certainly seems as though the plan is to “brand” Manchester away from its problems.

Hospitals, beds & staff

Gov. Sununu has been fired up recently, and his target is the New Hampshire Hospital Association. The conflict was highlighted in a recent Union Leader article, with Sununu’s goal to require hospitals to accept more mental health patients from their emergency rooms. The NHHA has responded with a lawsuit against the state. The state has been court ordered to end the practice of boarding mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms.

Currently, available mental health beds statewide do not meet the level of need. As a result, when patients in crisis enter the emergency room, they are stabilized, but the hospitals have nowhere to send them as licensed treatment facilities have no capacity. Interestingly, the Union Leader article also cited that eight children and 30 adults were housed in hospital emergency rooms around the state at that time. It further noted that the state-run New Hampshire Hospital is unable to fill nearly 30 of its existing beds due to lack of staffing. Even if Sununu were successful in his argument with the hospitals, at a 2.7 percent statewide unemployment rate, the hospitals are facing the same staffing shortages as the state. In fact, WMUR recently reported that NH Hospital Association has an average workforce vacancy rate of 15 percent, but higher in key positions.

Despite these staffing challenges, the state acquired the Hampstead Hospital for juvenile psychiatric care, it is moving forward with its new 24-bed forensic hospital, and most recently it is in the approval stages of a new 125-bed mental health hospital in southern New Hampshire. While the increased capacity that these facilities offer is greatly needed in our state, one is left wondering where the staffing will come from.

While I am no expert on the matter, I do serve as President of the Board of Trustees for Fellowship Housing Opportunities, Inc. in Concord, a nonprofit that provides safe and affordable housing for people living with long-term mental health issues. Our organization has a vested interest in following current events in this arena. Just as Fellowship Housing is challenged to provide affordable housing for our residents, New Hampshire is also challenged to provide affordable housing for its workforce. This is having a tremendous impact on our ability to recruit and attract the talent needed for New Hampshire to not only prosper but properly care for our residents. As the governor and our legislature negotiate the upcoming biennial state budget, it is critical that the domino effect of this issue is understood and addressed.

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.

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