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.

As we progress

A few months ago my husband and I were in Illinois visiting my 82-year-old mother. We pulled into a burger joint for lunch and went inside to eat. This was a favorite spot of my mother’s, and we had always enjoyed it as well. Once inside, I noticed a panicked look on her face when she realized there were no longer any waitstaff, and we were required to use a kiosk to place our order and pay. I assured my mom this was not a problem, and we could do it, which we did. However, my mom noted she wouldn’t be able to come here any longer because she would never be able to order on her own. She seemed resigned to it even though I tried to encourage her to give it a try.

Fast-forward to a conversation I had recently with our 18-year-old son regarding ChatGPT (an AI-powered chatbot) and the utilization of that in various areas. We had a very spirited debate on how it should be used in education, research and communication. We marveled that ChatGPT was able to pass a law school exam, the medical licensing exam and the Wharton MBA exam. My son commented that at some point AI will replace humans in almost everything. I disagreed, but as many of you know, you never win an argument with an 18-year-old.

Ironically, during this debate, we happened to be dining at a restaurant using a tableside tablet to play trivia games and used that to pay. This prompted me to tell our son about the experience with his grandmother. I commented that there is a segment of the population that is getting left behind with the pace of technological advancement. For these folks, the things that we take for granted (ordering from Amazon with one click, online shopping, Apple Pay, online bill paying, etc.) are not only a struggle, but many times simply impossible.

Change is difficult, and we all have different capacities for it. It seems as though we should be addressing this skills/learning gap in our society to encourage engagement and participation versus isolation and withdrawal. In the meantime, be kind and be patient. Lend a helping hand when someone is struggling ahead of you in line. Help to restore faith in mankind.

Not all reasons are equal

By Jeff Rapsis

Every time New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary is in jeopardy, boosters cite many reasons for keeping the tradition intact.

Among them: the New Hampshire primary forces candidates to meet actual people instead of just spending money on advertising; the state is small enough for lesser-known candidates to be heard; Granite State citizens take the responsibility seriously, and so on.

All of these reasons are now being used to argue against the Democratic party’s recent decision to put South Carolina in the lead spot in 2024 instead of New Hampshire. (Republicans are so far sticking with the traditional schedule.)

But there’s one reason that often comes up, and it makes no logical sense.

It’s the one about how in New Hampshire, we have a state law requiring us to hold the nation’s first primary.

Gee, good for us! Yes, we actually passed a state law in the 1970s, when the state’s first-in-the-nation status was being challenged by the idea of a New England-wide “regional” primary.

Am I the only person embarrassed by this law being cited as an actual, legitimate reason to justify the New Hampshire primary going first? I mean, we passed a self-serving, self-referencing law, and we expect voters in 49 other states to take this seriously?

More often than not, it’s a cop-out used by those unable to justify New Hampshire’s role on its own merits.

“Hey, I hear what you say about our state’s lack of diversity and preponderance of elderly people and absence of big urban areas and all the many other reasons it would make sense for other states to go first. But hey, we have a law. We can’t do anything about being first. It’s our law.”

Really? Well, what if Idaho passed the same exact law as New Hampshire? What would happen? If Alabama passed a law requiring the state to hold its presidential primary no later than seven days prior to a similar state, where would that put us?

This makes as much sense as minting a $1 trillion coin to help reduce the U.S. national debt, an idea that’s been seriously floated in some circles. But that’s another topic.

If anything, citing our silly state law actually unmakes the argument that New Hampshire should hold the nation’s first presidential primary. After all, any state capable of passing such a self-serving law really can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions in elections.

Jeff Rapsis is Associate Publisher of HippoPress and Executive Director of the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.

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.

They need us

The girl’s eyes followed me. She glanced sideways, wordlessly imploring for help. I had to respond. But how?

Thankfully, this child was not on the street but in a photo superimposed with the words “CASA of New Hampshire.” It was an ad seeking advocates for abused and neglected kids.

Much as an image like that tugs at my heart, I like to see the big picture before joining anything.

Here’s a sketch of what I’ve learned about CASA of NH and the state’s child protection process.

CASA is a 33-year-old statewide nonprofit organization. With almost 40 paid staff and 642 active volunteers, the organization’s goal is to serve 100 percent of New Hampshire’s abused and neglected kids. In 2022 that meant 1,538 children.

When a problem is reported to the State of New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), a social worker investigates. If corroborated, a petition is filed in family court against the parent for abuse or neglect. A Court Appointed Special Advocate or “CASA” is brought in to represent the best interest of the child.

DCYF proposes a plan to protect the child, either leaving them in-home with services and check-ins or placing them with relatives or foster families. The court specifies what actions must be taken for the family to be reunified, and what supports DCYF must provide.

Over the course of the year, as the parent works to address their issues, the CASA meets once or twice a month with the child. The CASA also gathers information from the parent, foster parents, social workers, health care providers, therapists, educators and others. The CASA writes a quarterly report to the court and attends the case hearings. Everyone’s goal is to get the family back together.

A year is not a lot of time to resolve some of the most difficult physical and mental challenges a person can face — problems such as addiction, domestic violence or mental illness, not to mention housing, food, transportation and employment. Sadly, reunification is not always possible. If the parent can’t convince the court that the child will be safe and secure in their care, DCYF typically requests that the plan be changed to adoption. If the court agrees, then a different legal case is filed to terminate the parent’s rights, and DCYF works to find an appropriate permanent home for the child.

Two years in as a CASA, I am astounded at the twists and turns abuse and neglect cases can take. Much as I want to know what’s ahead, it’s impossible to predict. I do know for certain these children need more advocates as well as foster and adoptive families. They need all of us.

Susan Hatem, former Director of Programs and Grant Making at New Hampshire Humanities, is a CASA of NH guardian ad litem and a connector, mentor and writer. Email her at susanh8m@gmail.com.

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