Monday, November 11, 2013

Thank You For Your Service

I’m usually shy and introverted, so I seldom start up any conversation with someone I’ve never seen before, but sometimes, when I see a soldier or vet in line for a coffee and bagel I’ll forgo my personality deficiencies and at least say hello, where did you serve, are you on duty and oh yeah, I served in the Army last century in Vietnam. That usually stops the conversation, I mean, it’s all over. I’m supposed to say something as I’m courteous to strangers in fatigues, but every time I hear it, I cringe as I am deeply conflicted, okay, even ashamed at what my “service” actually amounted to. This happens a lot. It happens every time I visit with a soldier no matter how brief our time is together. I’m convinced it is part of a day of propaganda in basic training, or exit training, as every single soldier has said the same thing. But it’s getting worse as now I’m hearing it from the spouse of a soldier. I’m trying hard to remember any of my basic or advanced training in Missouri or Oklahoma in 1968. Nope, nothing….no sergeant ever said, when you leave the service and are still alive, be sure to say “thank you for your service” to anyone who says yes I was in the Army (or Navy or Marines or Air Force). No one in South Vietnam every said this as part of the introductory scare-the-living-bejesus-out-of-you with spider filament trip lines and balls of spears swinging out of nowhere if you were stupid enough to not see what’s coming. Nope, no messages of thankfulness there, either. None while we would occasionally take in mortar rounds at night, or day from Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese soldiers. Nope, not even when the company I was in was overrun in June 1969. Nope, nobody said anything like thank you for your service. The stewardesses on the flight home didn’t mention it. While serving my last few days in the States on an Army base on the West Coast, no one ever pulled me aside and said, be sure to say “thank you for your service “ if you ever talk with a living veteran. Here’s the message I did receive on returning home in 1970: Baby killer, murderer, but the other more descriptive terms I’ve since completely forgotten in some kind of PTSD of homecoming receptions. Perhaps this is why the Armed Forces decided to take a positive step, perhaps sometime in the 1990’s, and have vets tell vets something good, like thank you for your service. Just to clarify, I can’t find any of my service awards, pins, badges, fatigues or anything else I was allowed to take home with me. They’re just gone. So are most of my memories except those that put me into a mild state of shock and disbelief that I’m actually back on some hill numbered 477 somewhere in what once was South Vietnam. I’ve even lost all the pictures taken of my buddies sitting on top of bunkers looking out into the mountain ranges that stretched all the way to Cambodia. So it made complete sense that I unconsciously stopped telling anyone who I met that I had once “served” in Vietnam. My service was calculating the range and azimuths, as well as how many powder bags needed for a 105 Howitzer round to explode on suspected North Vietnamese. I’ve never tried to add up how many rounds per day times months in Nam that I actually calculated to fire on the enemy. Nope, I didn’t want to be thanked for this kind of service. Only later much later when learning about Hatha Yoga did I start to listen to my instructor read from a favorite book of hers by a Vietnamese priest known as Thich Nhat Hanh. Like a loud Buddhist gong reverberating for days in my head, I realized I could have inadvertently killed one of the world’s most revered Buddhist teachers. I’ve been in a state of regret ever since, though I’ll admit I don’t think about Vietnam as it’s now a distant nightmare that awakens me only with unexpected “triggers” that come out of nowhere, perhaps as a Huey helicopter buzzing my little village in Wisconsin, or another viewing of “Born on the Fourth of July” or any other Hollywood version of what happened over there. Nope, I’d rather just say hello, how are you, where’d you serve and can I get that coffee for you?

Monday, October 5, 2009

We Have Won

“We have won”
The bus drove and drove and drove and drove and drove much much further than I imagined any bus delivering marathoners for the annual Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon should have to run. I kept thinking, this is taking about 45 minutes at 65 mph by bus to get to the starting position. Perhaps the best part was the 5:30 am Starbucks Mild, a blend I’d recommend on any day that anyone wants to do something stupid/strange/impossible/recklessly endangering massive lower muscle groups. But the little town of Grafton looked mighty north of where we were headed south over the next painless/painful 3-6.5 hours, the times for the fastest, and those not as fast as Pheidippides was when he raced from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks had defeated the Persians (BTW the story has many versions, some believe he actually ran 300 miles in several days…but the sad part is that after making his epic speech, HE DIED.

Of course, marathoners do die, and even recently, but not today, as temperatures were mild to chilly, and the day looked perfect for doing something most would never consider. The approximate 3,000 assembled inside Grafton’s High School cafeteria and hallways, with some reading the Sunday paper, others taking in their PB&J, others just quietly wondering how the day would go. At 15 minutes until the start, we all poured out into the 52 degree weather and immediately began jumping up and down to stay warm. We all lined up beside our predicted times, and one sign even read “Next Day.” Clever. Very clever. I lined up next to the last pace group, a group that if I could stick with long enough, would get me in at 5:00 even. An 11:29 pace is a bit on the slow side if running one mile, but we’re all advised to start slow, end fast. That advice is very sensible on paper, but something sometimes happens out on the road. One woman tripped, on nothing, and injured her elbow. How do you compute that?

The first mile, second mile, third mile ::::::::::: we’re good, smiling, pain free as five Bayer Back and Pain caplets are doing their magic in my blood stream, mixing it up a bit with the mild Starbucks, and earlier, the oatmeal and raisins concoction. In fact, the pace group was a bit too slow for me, so I pulled out a bit ahead of them, though I wonder today if that was a mistake of starting too fast. Hard to tell, as we were hardly moving?! No turkey buzzards in sight, circling possible prey for lunch. Nobody down on the road with an ambulance whirring to assist. In fact, for 13, maybe 15, possibly 16 almost 17 miles, not bad, and now the pace group has caught up with me, and I try to stick with them, running in a pack so tight, I was sure to step on, be stepped on with every pace. I suggested some of my old Army chants, modified to a marathon, but I’m sure some of the youngsters thought that was way too militaristic for the nice day it was.

We’re now walking through the water stops, and I’ve taken the first of two “chocolate mocha goo,” a delicious concoction of electrolytes and sugars that guarantees a successful race. Now the left leg is not getting any of the Bayer Pain and Back caplets….perhaps there is a circulation problem. We pass neighbors who are enjoying the morning with cheers and little kid high 5’s, and then someone in the group brought up what we’re going to eat when we finish. That got me onto blueberry pancakes, and I began to lose focus, losing a bit of stride, in fact, where did my pace group go?

They weren’t behind me, that I was certain of. I could see them as I turned the 100th corner of the race, too far ahead to sprint, when it’s only the 17th mile or something like that. I’ll catch them at the end. But the morning began to get longer, the left leg began to ask incessantly, where’s the f…..Bayer everybody else got? Then the right leg started whining. So now we’re doing our first non water station walk, and I try an Olympic style race walk with elbows pumping so as not to lose too many seconds doing this unscheduled walk. For a first time marathoner, I’d have to say, trying to start a run position in the 19th mile after a 55 second walk is harder than expected.

But finally we (that is everyone behind me) are on the final miles on magnificent and chilly Lake Drive, with all hopes and aspirations remotely possible that I could actually finish not in the “Next Day” group. Shuffling along with two screaming legs isn’t exactly what one could do on a lovely October Sunday next to one of America’s Great Lakes, but it’s what I’m doing right now, and let’s get this F….thing over with! At last, the last loop, we’re in the Lagoon, the last mile, so let’s start the sprint, Sir. Starting? Engine Problems. Engine in idling. Engine not even engaging 1st gear, Sir.

Okay, let’s drive this baby into the finish in NEUTRAL…So that’s how it ended…crossing the finish line in Great Pain, a bit discombobulated as to what I was doing, but somebody called out “and here’s DeWitt from Shorewood” over the loud speaker, and suddenly the legs found a little bit of goo and Bayer Aspirin, and so we crossed the finish line, big congrats from the Race Director, handed a bottle of H2O and the coolest (warmest, really) aluminum wrapping paper coat to wear knowing this was the best time ever, technically WR breaking time, WR breaking time ever, Personal Best, PB ever. We have won?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Have You Consulted Your Dead Philosopher/Therapist Lately

Have You Consulted Your Dead Philosopher/Therapist Lately?

By now, haven’t we all stepped into a “shrink’s” office and had a session or two, or two years, or twenty years, of different kinds of therapy? Obviously something wasn’t working right, and a friend, spouse, parent, friend, somebody sent us to somebody who knows how to deal with these things. Or even if you haven’t had one of those difficult sessions where everything becomes illuminated, haven’t you been to a job counselor, a school counselor, a minister, priest or rabbi to figure things out? A friend’s daughter is now providing therapy for toddlers. Really? That young? And sitting in waiting rooms, I’ve seen a spectrum of the ages walk up to the front desk and check in for an appointment.

I’ve often thought that if someone in this world, or perhaps I should say here in the States, is in need of relief of pain or suffering, they often find the offices of this or that therapist. In fact, it would be surprising to consider any other profession outside of psychology to take up this noble task. But to my surprise, I’ve found, simply by browsing at the reduced books cart in a local bookstore, a book that has raised my eyebrows, created smiles, generated many “a hah’s,” and many other astounding insights. The book, Plato not Prozac is an eye-opening alternative to the natural inclination that when something is wrong “upstairs,” we should consult someone who knows something about psychology, or someone who has worked with psychos….which includes almost all of us at one time or another. But Lou Marinoff’s guide is an excellent introduction to seeing how philosophy (and its many different paths) can be just as valuable an aid for examining the life that is in sorrow, or some other uncomfortable human condition.

Yes, the book is a bit dated, published in the last year of the last century, but it really has been a pleasure to see how philosophy can be applied to what normally is the purview of psychologists and therapists. It does have a bit of a self help tone to it, as it offers plenty of names across the world who are certified philosophical practitioners, but it also offers a rather sensible explanation for why those in the field of psychology can go only so far in helping “the patient” to recover from whatever illness or past event, or relative, or boss, who might be the cause of the illness. The book also offers a significant number of “case studies,” so we can see how philosophy can be applied to the “illness,” but as well, we also get a brief survey of all of the philosophies which we can choose from as our “treatment plan.”
Feeling the angst of existentialism? Feeling too “relative”? Been caught in too many deconstructive moments? Worried about acting out too much with post modern tendencies? Whatever your philosophical grounding, this delighting and edifying medication may help you through your next crisis, or just provide a very necessary antidote from continuing your 20 year relationship with your therapist, who encourages you to return and return for more of what keeps you in therapy. Well, it’s a book that may be out of print, and a bit hard to find, but if you were browsing through 50% off books in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, perhaps you can find it. If not, I can certainly loan out my copy.

Lastly, Marinoff succinctly lets us know why his book might save us all quite a few health care dollars by writing, “How well we live—that is how thoughtfully, how nobly, how virtuously, how joyously, how lovingly—depends both on our philosophy and on the way we apply it to all else. The examined life is a better life…Try Plato, not Prozac.” For a list of mostly dead therapists, he provides a very helpful and short bio with his “Hit Parade of Philosophers.” So if you are a bit exhausted by the same questions from your therapist, perhaps this book might provide some fresh insight.

Plato Not Prozac: Applying Eternal Wisdom To Everyday Problems, Lou Marinoff, MJF Books, 1999.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It All Starts With Doubt, Doesn't It?

It all starts with doubt, doesn’t it?

For some, it may never be acceptable to doubt what we hear from authorities, such as police officers, judges, legislators, or moving into the more divine professions, the clergy. But even as a kid, perhaps you had that moment when things weren’t as clear as they appeared to be. I can still recall the stern warning from my neighbor lady who told me never again to tell her little sons there was no Santa Claus. At the time of the reprimand, she was also breast feeding, and I’m not sure I was a keen listener, but I was somewhat regretful, and wanted to stay in the room as long as possible.

But doesn’t doubt enter into our thinking when things just don’t seem quite right? No one doubts mathematical calculations. Or how many runs were made in the last baseball game. Or how many phonemes can be counted in these words. But every once in a while, we do have to rethink our understanding of the universe, such as when Pluto became a “minor” planet. As we ponder the possibilities of doubt in our everyday existence, I imagine some level of questioning arises over even the most mundane of issues, such as in the statement, I don’t think four jets just flew over our village, I think it was five.

But doubt really seems to get in our bonnet when it comes to matters of faith and belief. After all, isn’t that where you assumed this piece was going? So did the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman commit the possible crime of molestation in the recent movie, “Doubt”? So even though we might keep our skeptical eye open on a daily basis for a variety of inane/mundane comments or remarks, it’s the big questions that spark a never ending debate.

As a preacher’s kid, I always assumed what dad said from the pulpit was pretty much the real thing. But one Sunday, I heard him used the word agnostic, and ever since, I’ve been trying to examine the questions he pondered with his Methodist flock of congregants.

This conversation might begin with whether or not a word can be taken literally, especially old words, especially really old words, as found in The Tanakh, or the New Testament. Some assume, and will jab their finger into my chest, and say, of course it’s true, just like it was written. But as the former Speaker of the House (Tip O’Neill) from Massachusetts would say, all politics are local, I’ve adapted that to all writing is political. Every piece of writing then has a purpose, and most of the time, it is to persuade someone of some opinion. So here is the question, is opinion to be “trusted,” believed beyond doubt?

Those were the quiet reverberations as I began my recent journey through a stack of new books on questioning faith, God, and all between. Several months ago, all right, over last winter break from teaching, I found a fascinating history of this concept, in Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt, a 494 page examination, plus notes and Bibliography, on perhaps one of the most engaging questions we could ever raise, either in our own minds, or those we have conversations with. She has a keen eye for detail, perhaps too many details, but the final picture is astounding for how many cultures, movements, authors and skeptics have raised questions about the authority of this opinion or that. In addition to learning about fascinating movements and their impact on countless civilizations and cultures, the book is also a joy to read.

Casting little doubt on her scholarship, I decided to see and read what all the ruckus was about with the new/old debate of the existence of God, particularly Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, a book that will infuriate those who know better, and enlighten those who might have questions about what “authorities” have said is true regarding the believability of God and God’s wonders. Of course the book is one of those that comprise the Great Questions and so, it is important that one be somewhat open and somewhat receptive to the ideas of the atheistic point of view or the reader will just toss the book away as dribble, or worse. This book is an excellent balance to those who might have refreshed their interest in the history of doubt, through Hecht’s research.

Of course, this new interest can get out of hand, and even be written about badly, as in Christopher Hitchen’s God is not Great. This book falls under the category of “too much complaint, too biased, and too arrogant.” It takes awhile to get used to his brash style, but the content is enlightening, and if you are a fan of his political writing, then perhaps this is one to enjoy as well. Here’s a brief passage that will disturb anyone, making the book a classic text on the art of the provocateur: “Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience” (56). Of course there are many more damning/damaging indictments, but this certainly lets a reader know where the rage is centered in Christopher Hitchen’s text, with a subtitle that has an equally disturbing focus: How Religion Poisons Everything.

After something like that, shouldn’t we be aware of the “counterattack” on the new atheists? Perhaps so, if one is inclined to disbelieve not necessarily all of the above, but the contents of the all above. That’s where Chris Hedges comes in with his retort of When Atheism Becomes Religion: America’s New Fundamentalists. This book is designed to retort the arguments of these godless philosophers, especially the works of Christopher Hitchens and an author we haven’t yet been bombarded by yet, Sam Harris. Hedges’ arguments are of the friendly type, acknowledging quite a few of the basic complaints of the atheists as reasonable, even to the point of agreeing on several key horrors of what religion has brought to the world.

Yet Hedges’ seems to spend a considerable amount of time describing how a godless world leads to a totalitarian world, and so, we can see how those totalitarian philosophies have brought monstrous reigns of terror just in the 20th Century. Dawkins counters this argument that a secular life does not lead to a life of despair and hopelessness, but Hedges seems to think that the likes of Hitler and Stalin and Mao, perhaps, will scare us all back to the pew. Perhaps. What is quite helpful about this text is that it condenses, unfairly I suppose, some of the basic principles of the New Atheists. For that reason, it’s a good counterbalance to all the talk so far about a godless world, or cosmos, if we can only look into black space that deeply.

Are you still here, Dear Reader? Perhaps you gave up long ago. If you have any patience left, I will be brief and close with perhaps the most stunning of all these books, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. I’ve read a few books a second time, and this is one of them. My copy is much bluer as I’ve inked so many passages that make me wonder, reflect and imagine the truthfulness of the many fascinating arguments of this author. As someone who still has a keen interest in both Western and Eastern religions, I have to admit at times I was spellbound by many of the author’s assertions. The chapter on The Holy Inquisition was quite disturbing to read about, as well as his sequel on anti-Semitism. The chapter on Islam is a difficult one to embrace, as so much of it counters the presentations I try to make in an undergraduate course on Islam. Another fascinating and quite absorbing chapter is on Buddhist meditation and consciousness. Be prepared for some deep work.
On finishing the text, I wanted to start all over as much of it was read too quickly.

Well, these are several books which will certainly disturb, agitate, provoke and cause some readers to even throw a few into the fire, that is, if on a summer night, you want to add more flame to the hotdogs and burgers. But perhaps these titles might be an opportunity to examine our own faith, and ask the question, what political interests are imbedded in all of our religious texts? I encourage you to find one of these books, and perhaps even more. Lastly, if commenting on any of these to the blogmeister, please no flaming.

Books Cited:
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Mariner/Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2008.
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith. W.W. Norton: New York, 2004.
Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Doubt. Harper One/Harper Collins: New York, 2003.
Hedges, Chris. When Atheism Becomes Religion. Free Press: New York, 2008.
Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great. Twelve/Grand Central Publishing:
New York, 2007.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Where's Your Universe?

Where’s Your Universe?

Is the Universe “out there,” or is it “in us”? From a simple Buddhist perspective, it’s in us, as all reality is perception. But ever since the great scientists of the European Renaissance, and the Golden Age of Islam, we’ve come to understand (believe) that the universe is a constantly fluctuating maze of this and that “out there.” As a reader of this blog, you are, or you think you are, “out there somewhere” sitting on a three or four legged chair or something like a chair, squinting at your computer screen, and not inside my brain, for if you were, I’d ask everyone to observe decorum, and please whisper, as the space beneath my cranium is actually a small reading room.

Okay? How are we doing so far? Some of you might want to click away from this nonsense and do something that is less associated with time, space, and the Universe. Yet for those who are fascinated with the problem, and it is a problem, I want to bring your attention to a new scientific text with the short title of Biocentrism that essentially will undermine Western views of scientific investigation, particularly as it applies to the nature of the Universe.
The book is featured in the current issue of “Cosmic Log: The Universe in Your Head,” as found in the Tech and Science section of the news website, Do find the blog, and check out this new discovery/insight for I’m sure you’ll want to head to the bookstore to order this fascinating new scientific reassessment of how we perceive the Universe.

Essentially, the two scientists, Robert Lanza “with” Bob Berman, offer a reversal of the notion that the universe creates life. Instead, they suggest “life creates the universe,” which isn’t that hard to grasp, but what is exciting is the second part of their equation, that “observers” [that would be all of us] are now part of the equation.

To clarify, the world keeps changing, constantly, in part, because we are able, as observers, to see these changes and chart the differences. We are all agreed, aren’t we, that the universe is different than our Polish student of the Krakow Academy (see previous blog) Nicolaus Copernicus observed with his Universe cracking telescope.

The two scientists/biologists suggest the world is defined through consciousness, a view not that surprising to Eastern philosophers and teachers, as we know through the teachings of the Buddha that “all is one,” but all that we see and observe is through the eyes of the “observer,” and whatever consciousness that individual brings to the observation.

How many out there are still reading? I hope a few, and if you are there, here’s one last question the scientists ask that will surely send you off to your bookstore for Enlightenment of the Eastern kind, not the Western Enlightenment of the 18th Century Age of Scientific Discovery. Here is their question: Where is the universe even located? Hmmm. Out there, right? But if you are not sure, then I urge you to find what might make for a fascinating summer reading, but maybe not on the beach. The book is Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, by Robert Lanza with Bob Berman, BenBella Books. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Krakow Cracow

One morning, a few days ago, I was sitting with fellow Shoah scholars and educators in a 14th Century chapel- like lecture hall in one of the oldest universities in Europe. We were all waiting for the Chief Rabbi of Poland to open the 2009 Conference on “the Legacy of the Holocaust,” a biennial conference sponsored by the University of Northern Iowa and Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Moments before we had stood in the inner courtyard below, somewhat amazed to learn that Nicolaus Copernicus probably conversed as we did about what was going on in Krakow, and of course, possibly wondering where we all were in relation to the Universe.

Our few days in Krakow were breathtaking, as we not only were treated to the delights and charms of a few days at a European university, but as well, we were able to engage each other in a variety of interdisciplinary subjects of research on the Shoah, or the Holocaust. Scholars from Israel, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K., The Czech Republic, Australia, Poland, Austria and the U.S. participated in two days of on-going research connected to the conference theme of “Family and the Holocaust.”

When not in academic sessions, we left the 14th Century University to enjoy the beautiful and historic town center with its Cloth Hall, churches, horse drawn carriages and perhaps the best lunch anyone can find in this beautiful city.

Conference participants had the opportunity for a day trip to the nearby shtetls (small Jewish villages), a walking tour of the Krakow Jewish Ghetto during World War II, as well as the Plaszow Labor Camp (featured in “Schlinder’s List”) or a visit to the death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. I chose to revisit Auschwitz as I had just finished teaching a short, introductory course on the Holocaust at my university, and wanted to see if I could absorb any more of the history of this Hell on Earth. On this visit, we were privileged to have one of the best and most informed guides of the Museum who explained to us the many displays and artifacts that are part of the old Polish Army Fort, or Auschwitz I.

I must admit this is one of the oddest places on earth, as the Auschwitz Museum attracts travelers, tourists, and scholars from all over the world. Perhaps the oddest sense is what one sees in the parking lot outside the admissions building. At any time of the day we could see 20 or more buses parked neatly to accommodate the many visitors who come to this place. And in order to hear our guide over the other 20 or so guides leading tours, we all wore headphones in case we wandered too far from our leader. Of course Auschwitz was a tower of Babel, with few hardly able to understand the various barking order of the German SS officers. But I will admit that as we walked through the Polish barracks to see photographic and artifact evidence of what happened here, I couldn’t help but see hundred of adolescents as well as parents and grandparents who were making their somber way through building after building.

Let me say this, that every single display of horror and torture was stunning, paralyzing, and profoundly disturbing. I still cannot get out of my mind a blurry photo taken by a prisoner (how was that possible?) of naked women running across a field. The image simply brought on the same immediate response I had when I last saw it. I’ve not seen another picture that has ever created such an instant overwhelming emotion. The open windows of the second floor exhibits provided fresh, cool air, knowing that other barracks contained similar kinds of evidence of this Final Solution. The room sized display of shorn hair was also deeply disturbing, knowing that what was collected had not yet been shipped to Germany for a variety of macabre purposes.

Our afternoon visit included a guided tour of Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, the expanded death camp where more than a million or million and a half were slaughtered in the gas chambers and crematoria, or survived as slave laborers in the IG Farben Factory complex. We walked through the public latrines, barracks, and slowly made our way toward the Final Solution, where we could see the destroyed gas chambers and crematoria. A few of us left our tour guide, and wondered further back and to the fourth and fifth gas/crematoria buildings, one of which was destroyed by fearless sonderkommandos who were Jewish prisoners who had to handle the grisly task of moving the dead from the gas chambers to the furnaces. Briefly, the whole walk was quite chilling. I’ve presented this information to underclass juniors at the university where I teach, but still, standing and breathing at this place is quite different than standing and breathing while talking about this place in far away Wisconsin.

After showers and clean clothes following our “tour,” we all gathered at the Galicia (the province of Poland we were in) Jewish Museum back in Krakow for kiddush and motsi (blessing of wine and challah before the Jewish Sabbath), and a delightful buffet before a guided tour of a photographic exhibit of images of Jewish life and culture in Poland. Later, we were treated to an hour concert of Yiddish songs, the perfect way to end this extraordinary day.

Almost every morning I would rise quite early and jog along the Vistula River, passing cyclists, other joggers, and men sweeping their restaurant/bar boats anchored along the banks. My jog became longer and longer each morning as I felt more confident that I would not get lost, counting bridges going and coming back, passing by the Jewish Quarter, and the Wawel Castle, where I would visit in the last hours of Krakow.

My colleague Ron Berger presented his work on second generation Holocaust survivors with a talk about how his father and uncle survived their horrific experiences, one in Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and the other by surviving in forests for the duration of the War. Following his talk we continued with our last morning and afternoon concurrent sessions on a variety of Shoah topics, including my own artistic interpretation of fusing the lyrics of the Tao de Ching with Chinese-like lyrics of images of Auschwitz. By the end of the day, I suggested we find one of the many evening concerts to balance all the intensity of the various presentations, so we listened to arias and oratorios by a gifted female soloist and her organ accompanist as a fitting way to balance all of the presentations earlier in the day.

The next morning I ran even further on my route, perhaps in exasperation and exhaustion for the last few days, but also, to just keep tiny little embolisms from breaking out in my legs or lungs as we were flying home at 36,000 feet. A few hours later I sauntered up to the Wawel Castle in time to observe one of the Sunday masses at the Royal Cathedral. Following the service I wandered toward the front of the nave, taking in all of the royal and Catholic history with the different chapels and ancient crypts. When visiting Poland, one always wants to return with jewelry made from amber, so I returned to the Cloth Hall in the Market Square to find something that might glimmer in the sunlight, finishing off the visit to Krakow with a delightful café au lait in a bookstore filled with the different languages of Europe. I wasn’t ready to return home, but then I found myself in a cab dashing to the airport in time to follow the sun all the way back to Chicago. Perhaps I have forgotten to mention how many large Polish Zywiec beer steins I emptied.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Where Were You at Sunrise This Morning?

Where Were You at Sunrise This Morning?

Just a few hours ago, Orthodox, and some non-Orthodox Jews around the world celebrated the rising of the Sun as they had not done so since 1981, for that was the last time the Sun was in, according to the Talmud, the exact position in the Heavens as it was when it was first put into orbit by The Creator. Of course this is a bit different from the Sun worshippers on Summer Solstice, for most of them are just glad to have a long day of sunlight, as the days will start to get shorter and shorter until mid December. But we can also be reminded of a celebration of the sun known as the Festival of Sol Invictus, an ancient winter solstice holiday that was later designated as Christmas Day.

But even before that, we had Egyptian priests stepping out into the morning dawn in full priestly garb, awaiting the Sun Creator Ra in hopes that the sun would return from a long night in the underworld, or whatever the Sun chose to do when not lighting the Egyptian Kingdom. Perhaps the Sun worshippers today perform the same rituals as did our ancient priests, just glad to have the warmth return again after a chilly night.

Sun worship was quite essential to the ancient Hindus, for Surya did not only kept the Sun on a timely calendar, but also battled against forces of darkness for his followers below. And of course the Incas certainly had their closest to the Sun worship, high up in the Andes.

We’ve gotten away from saying thanks for the light, so even though we might be a bit late with our Birkat Hachamah, Hebrew for the blessing of the Sun, it wouldn’t hurt if all of us stepped out of our shelters for just a moment and looked up to the sky, even if the Sun has already lighted your way. Or I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if you tried it on your own tomorrow morning, for we will all have to wait another 28 years before we have this opportunity again. If you can’t say the Hebrew, then just follow along with the transliteration:

"ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית"
"Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the Universe who makes the works of Creation."