Monday, January 22, 2007

THE AMERICAN SOUL

delivered at Ellijay, Georgia Jan. 21, 2007

Yesterday afternoon I did a memorial service for a man, a barely middle aged man, who succumbed to a nine year battle with lymphoma. The cause of death was officially a freak brain inflammation, but it was the cancer and the drugs associated with keeping it in remission that led to his rapid disintegration following some years of relative recovery.

Years, I was to learn from listening to the many friends and colleagues who came to share their memories of him, being a pioneer and innovator in the field of human factors in the telecommunications industry: inventing things that got patents, inventing ways of solving problems among employees that brought harmony, always with an eye to creativity and perfection. Always with wit and a love of life that made his lunch hours memorable and his social life rich and never dull. He loved movies, loved fine dining, loved to tell awful puns, was a political liberal who risked alienating his more conservative Bellsouth colleagues when he felt moved to criticize this administration, the state of the world.

From talking with his mother, who has now buried both of her adult children, his really was an American boyhood . He grew up in the Midwest, was a cub scout and a boy scout, who loved to camp and be in nature. He wasn’t much of an athlete but played chess and convinced his high school that there should be letters and jackets for academic “sports” as well . He had a snake and teased girls with it. He loved his single mom and made corny birthday cards for her.

He worked hard, put himself through college, wanted to be a biologist, then a psychologist.

Couldn’t handle the pain though of all of those patients he came in contact with in his first year working at a state mental hospital, so he switched to industrial psychology.

He was a logical, practical, diligent kid who also loved magic, and so while he ended up working in the world of cellular technology, he was equally if not more so a spiritual seeker. He moved from one religious community to another, as curious and challenging and driven to find inner meaning as he was to explore the outer reaches of cyber space.

He was, it came to me, a quintessential American Soul, at least as defined by Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University ( where I did my first graduate work in theater) and the former director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. In his book The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, he took a new measure of the inner beliefs and spiritual sensibilities of what he calls the great iconic figures of American history: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, and Fredrick Douglas, and the enduring influence of America’s all but forgotten early mystical communities.

He was after timeless truths unfettered by all religious and philosophical dogma, taking us on , as historian Ken Burns has noted, an amazing spiritual journey to the heart of those complicated, interesting people who liked to call themselves American. More on this momentarily.

The genesis for this talk, this conversation, was not of course the unexpected, premature and tragic death this week of a former member of the congregation I currently serve, nor the occasion of having to conduct his funeral and celebration of life.

The inspiration-- or rather the fodder-- came from the responses by some other elected officials and pundits to the announcement by Keith Ellison, a new Democratic Congressman from Minnesota, and the first Muslim elected to the United States Congress, that he would not take his oath of office on the Jewish/Christian bible but on the bible of Islam, the Koran. Critics argued that any holy book other than the traditional bible was a sacrilege, folks like Virginia Representative Virgil Goode, who warned that unless immigration is tightened “many more Muslims” will be elected and follow Ellison’s lead. Ellison, by the way, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college.

Dennis Prager, a conservative talk show host and columnist, responded on the air and in print that Ellison should not have been allowed to do so-- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because, according to Prager’s belief, the act undermined American civilization.

Prager wrote that it was an act of hubris that perfectly exemplified what he disdainfully calls multicultural activism-- my culture trumps America’s culture. What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters, Prager alleged, is that it s of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book. All that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

Forgive me, Prager penned, but America should not give a hoot what Keith Ellison’s favorite book is. Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, he continued, the Bible. It’s the way it has always been and the way it needs to be. So why are we allowing one man to do what no other member of Congress has ever done-- choose his own most revered book for his oath?

This attack, echoed by numbers of others of the same ideology, sent journalists and historians running into the law books and archives to find out just exactly what the rules and regulations are about being sworn into public service, and what our past elected officials have used-- or not used-- in their initiation into the Halls of Congress.

Turns out, of course, that it is a ceremonial act, removed from the legal requirements of the oath of office. And while many of our past Presidents, for example, have taken the occasion to put their right hand on the Bible, even selecting certain passages, the actions of others, in fact some of our most famous others, are unknown. And others passed on it altogether, apparently without infamy.

George Washington did indeed get sworn in with a Masonic Bible-- highly controversial at the time-- and it was randomly opened to a passage from Genesis 49:13 , which is the one about Jacob’s last words to his sons: “ Zebulon shall settle at the shore of the sea; He shall be a haven for ships and his border shall be at Sidon,” which is at least worth a PHD dissertation to unpack its relevance, if it had not been such a care-less, accidental selection.

We have no record at all of whether John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, or John Quincy Adams--founders all-- swore their oath on a bible or if so, which verse. Unitarian President Franklin Pierce refused to swear an oath or kiss the Bible. Lincoln, his first time around, placed his hand on a closed bible, as did John F. Kennedy. Richard Nixon insisted on being sworn in using two family bibles, both opened to Isaiah 2:4: “ The haughty eyes of the people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled, and the Lord alone shall the exalted in the day.”

Bill Clinton, interestingly, put his hand on a King James Bible, given him by his grandmother, open to of all passages: “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”

George W. Bush swore on a closed family bible. We do not know, therefore, on which scripture he claimed or swore his American soul.

The controversy over being sworn in using a Koran seems to have evaporated, replaced by a dozen other hot stories and axes to grind. Even before the ceremony, the coverage had died down, and by the time Congressman Ellison put his hand on Thomas Jefferson’s personal Koran, an English translation of the Arabic, later sold to the congressional library to replaced what had been burned by British troops during the War of 1812.

Ellison told reporters that he wanted his swearing in to be a special day and using Thomas Jefferson’s person copy, the version librarians believe shaped Europe’s understanding of the Muslim bible, made it even more special because Jefferson’s Koran dates religious tolerance to the founders of this country/

So the delicious, revealing irony has mostly been missed. That the principal author of The Declaration of Independence, whose religious affections were undeniably Deist and Unitarian, who had little use for most of the bible at all and cut it down to a small shell of its original, calling it the Jefferson Bible, owned a Koran, and considered it instructive to his own spiritual affection.

Ironic and delicious because when the conservative myth of what makes for an American religious sensibility and an American soul does not hold true: swearing oaths on a single holy book.

So if not this simplistic vision, what do we know--really-- about the American Soul?

There was a forum held back in September 2003 in Faneuil Hall, that famous meeting place of revolutionaries in Boston, called “Reawakening the American Soul,” a forum put together in celebration, not of our political founders, the usual suspects, but of the life and work of Unitarian minister, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. It featured three prominent writers and scholars, including Jacob Needleman.

The opening remarks by Richard Geldard, recalled that Emerson was born just one month after President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, effectively doubling the size of our young country. As Ralph Waldo took his first steps, Merriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the wilderness, he said, and report its wonders to a curious nation. This foundation in wilderness, in proximity to nature, has as much to tell us about our American Soul-- as the philosophies of John Locke or Calvinist guilt-ridden interpretation of biblical scripture.

When Emerson published his essay Nature in l836, he described the essential American Soul: its distinctive character, which he understood, Professor Geldard said, to embody the need for physical, intellectual and spiritual freedom, a restless power, and a need for transcendence. Whose God is not the God of material providence and prosperity or harsh prosecutor and persecutor.

God in this New World expansive spirituality is Nature, is natural law, that which encompasses all, that which makes us aware at once of our individual dignity and worth as part of creation and yet, only that, part of something so much more significant and powerful than our desires and our egos. It is a deeply mystic sensibility.

It is a noble and liberating vision of America and its essence, its character, its soul.

It took a foreigner, a friend and colleague of Jacob Needleman, to rouse him from his despair in the summer of l974 when the Vietnam War was tearing the country apart as surely as the war in Iraq is doing so today. The image of America’s invincibility, Needleman writes, and goodness was crashing down around us.

As the young student Needleman and 15 or so of his fellow students were railing not only against the morass in Southeast Asia and our loss of standing in the world but the whole structure of its government, institutions, and laws-- a British diplomat who was visiting this country- stopped the cynical and despairing conversation by stopping one husky, bearded young man who had just been speaking about the crimes of America. What he said to the young man and of course to all of those present was only this:

You simply don’t know what you have here. You simply don’t know what you have.

What was it that this Brit understood and appreciated about, even revered in America?

Needleman embarked on a journey of study and reflection on those icons we remember now so dimly, with such skeptical distance, and discovered as a progressive and a religious liberal a treasure trove of insight and wisdom, even prophetic splendor.

From George Washington, whose birthday we celebrate on President’s three day sale weekend next month, he learned about the virtue and value of what he calls serene will, whose physical and emotional strength was truly legendary, a demi-God in the best sense of the word who was grounded in the principles of conscience, the cultivation of compassion, self-respect and what can be called inner collected-ness.

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” he said, a commitment in other words to self-examination and self-improvement, of working intentionally and methodically on one’s faults.

Not self-improvement for material gain, unless a free republic be that gain, but for spiritual growth and interior clarity.

As for his notion of formal religion, in his farewell address, Washington inserted a comment on the role of religion in the political and economic life of the nation. He said that there can be no democracy or social survival when the social order is based only on the “material” self-interest of the parts or the individual. No authentic human life rooted only in the motives of personal gain. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, he said, religion and morality are indispensable supports.

At the same time, no religion or religious faith can be imposed on or demanded of people.

This is the mystery of the American nation, Jacob Needleman learned from our first President and inarguable founder. This is the paradox that has nourished, he writes, much of what has been alive in America for more than two hundred years. There must be religion ( or its intense inner equivalent) and there must be no imposition-physical, economic or psychological-- to compel individuals to open their lives to the sacred.

There must be a sense of God-- though not the gendered judgmental God of one aspect of a single religious text-- and at the same time there must be the freedom to accept or reject God.

Washington and those who shared his perspective at the founding of this nation, did not think of religious symbols and practices as ends in themselves, we are told, but as instruments leading toward an inner human condition, a condition they believed that certain individuals might strive for with great intensity under forms not explicitly bound to conventional religious language or rituals.

Needleman has discovered for himself-- through careful reading of the lives and letters and text by and about our Founding Fathers, for men they were, Jefferson included and Franklin, that the idea of freedom of religion opens up in ways, he writes, that are not usually what is thought. Freedom of religion means not only the liberty to practice whatever religion one chooses, which, contemporary conservative pundit opinion making aside, indeed was their deep conviction. It also means, he tells us, that genuine freedom must, freely and naturally, lead toward and be based on the religious dimension.

A religion that is not freely chosen is not religion, he is convinced, and freedom that is not in the deepest sense religious, is not freedom.

Only by working to create a depthful interior life, one that helps us to examine our attachments, entanglements and inner slavery, Washington believed that we might know the meanings of independence, liberty and strength for the nation

Observe good faith and justice toward all nations, he said in his farewell address, cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation, to give to humankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.

This is indeed what we might yet have here. This indeed is what we might know as the American soul.

May it be so.

© Jan. 21, 2007

Homily for Vespers - January 17, 2007 - (Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta

Back in the Day, not in the Day meaning the golden era of protest and social change, but back in the Day when I was younger and a more organized home-keeper, I dated a man who told me–not without some judgment and chagrin– that he could eat off my floors, they were so clean, and all was organized and tidy.

Not so now. In fact, there are places that have not seen pine cleaner in many( many)months, closets and cupboards that cry out for attention: cull me, scrub me they beg as I throw them open in search of umbrellas or ground nutmeg— and then slam them shut.

There was a Day, a time when my holiday decorations got up before the third week in December and were down by New Years Day. Not so now. In fact, there is still an artificial wreath on my front door ( another concession over the years to convenience and sloth) waiting for my attention. Take me down, it reminds me every time I turn the key in the lock, and store me properly, not shoved unprotected from the damp in the recesses of the basement, somewhere behind the rusting bicycles.

It was a very full and wonderful and chaotic holiday season here this year. Christmas Eve was a marvelous three ring circus, and things didn’t calm down much until the lovely and quiet Taize service on New Year’s Eve Day.

It was a very full and mostly wonderful and even more chaotic holiday season at home, with adult children visiting and Chinese meals, and shopping trips and lots of colliding schedules and agendas.

Being at home more than usual also meant more time to read all the world news, all the editorials, all the letters to the editor, and catch up on all the political periodicals that had been stacking up in my gym bag, each one more upsetting and agitating than the last.

By the end of all the visits, shortly before New Years, I was very frankly not feeling peac-able

.No, that would not be the word I would use to describe my state of physical and emotional dis-order. Calm me, my inner voice weakly requested. Find a stillness.
It was a call made to longtime friends and members of this congregation–she a practicing Buddhist– on New Years Day that finally got my attention. Got me my like a righteous whack on the right side of my brain, and brought forth my first poem in a long time, my first poem of 2007. It described how she told me that she had spent the first day of this new year cleaning up, getting prepared. How I had not even taken down my tree and with it favorite decorations from Tibet and Prague, but that I had cleaned out my spices: tossing two year old bay leaves and dried thyme. leaving a bottle of olive oil from Tuscany and an unremembered little jar of bourbon molasses mustard I had rescued from my father’s kitchen shelf before we moved him into assisted living, where he no longer even had a stove.

There it was– my path, my salvation. Just go down the list of all the neglected spaces in my own house: after the spice cupboard, the junk drawer, and after that, the hall closet. Maybe even the attic with its rodent droppings or the spare room with its boxes and boxes of old greeting cards and back tax information.

After all, the Taoist prophet Lao-Tse tells us, that before there is peace among nations and in the world there must be peace in the heart. And if cleaning our homes will make this happen, then so be it.

This return to domestic Goddess-ing: world peace through household order, lasted perhaps a week, probably less. And then the King Memorial holiday loomed again, with the usual ( and necessary) run-up. The recitation of past injustices: racial injustices, gender injustices, and of course the ghosts of past wars , Vietnam in particular, which Dr.King deplored, telling us back in l967 that we neither have peace within nor peace without, observing that Wisdom born of experience would tell us that war is obsolete. Urging us that if we are to have peace on earth our loyalties must be ecumenical, rather than sectional. That our personal and collective interests and our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation. No individual, he preached, can live alone, no country can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world.

So on Monday, I put down my mop and bucket, abandoned my whining windows, the endless unfinished chores, all the potential candidates for mindfulness, and took to the streets. Me and two hundred other Unitarians, me and thousands of other Atlantans, called out by the news that in the face of 3,000 U.S. deaths in Iraq, 22,000 U.S wounded, an estimated 600,000 Iraqi civilian deaths– 34,000 last year alone– our president is asking for more military on the ground, 20,000 more women and men sent to kill and to die.

Me and the multitudes across the country– carried along by the need to shout :not one more death, not one more dollar. The people have spoken. Troops Home Now.

Teaching our children and our children’s children the old mantra: What do we want ? Peace. When do we want it? Now.

We marched, we chanted, we sang the old songs– Down by the Riverside, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, We shall Overcome, We shall live in peace someday. Still only someday.
There is more of this ahead, because as Dr. King will not let us forget, we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of Destiny. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

There is still time to toss spices, wash windows, scrub corners.

Spring cleaning lies ahead.

May it be so.

© November 17, 2006

Happiness Runs in a Circular Motion

Ellijay, Georgia Nov. 19, 2006

I begin with this morning’s holy scripture:

Little pebble upon the sand
Now you’re lying here in my hand,
How many years have you been here?
Little human upon the sand
From where I am lying here in your hand,
You are to me but a passing breeze.
The sun will always shine where you stand
Depending in which land
You may find yourself.
Now you have my blessing, go on your way.
Happiness runs in a circular motion.
Thought is a little boat upon the sea.
Everybody is a part of everything anyway,
You can have everything if you let yourself be.
Happiness runs, happiness runs. Happiness runs, happiness runs.
The word of Donovan for the people.

I am so sure it is a generational thing, but for some of us of a certain baby boomer age, for a brief shining time, Scottish folk-rock star Donovan epitomized a carefree, mellow yellow kind of eternal happiness.
I can testify to my belief in this, my belief in him, sitting high on cushions on an auditorium stage, dressed in a pure and saintly white loose sort of shirt and pants, rose petals strewn around him ( or so I remember). A slightly older but still baby faced foreign cousin to the flower children who lived across the Bay from where I spent my college years,an antidote in a slight human form to the tear gas canisters that regularly wafted through the stormy plaza, the war blazing in the jungles thousands of miles away but so close you could smell the napalm and hear the children screaming.

His world was for me a respite, if ever so brief, if ever so whimsical and maybe even ludicrous, from the Eve of Destruction we seemed always just hours away from: one push of the button and death the world wide. In Donovan’s song, in his perhaps hallucinogenic universe, little pebbles lay on the sand unharmed over the millenniums, human beings were inconsequential to the shape and shiftings of time, passing breezes lighting momentarily in this plane of existence. Thought, all the existential angst, all the trying to make sense of madness, was like a little boat upon the sea: so small in the midst of a large deep ocean.

You will always shine where you stand, he sang to me, to us. Depending in which land you find yourself, you have my blessing, go on your way.

Happiness runs, happiness runs.

He may not have been thinking about this, but it really does depend in what land you find yourself what happiness seems to mean. The pursuit of happiness, as our founders declared, looks quite different to an American than to a citizen of Bhutan, for example. Or even whether happiness really is an important goal.

The recently released film –"Pursuit of Happyness"—starring Will Smith and his adorable young son—is a look at the thwarted search for happiness of an African American man in San Francisco in the l980’s. He is stuck in a loveless relationship, in a profitless sales job, broke and owing for a slew of luckless parking tickets .The metaphor for this 21st century man’s life is running after things: stolen bone scanning machines, taxis, places in line for the homeless shelter he eventually ends up bedding down in.

His epiphany early on in the movie is that when Thomas Jefferson talked about happiness in our Declaration of Independence, he only wanted to guarantee pursuit of—the right to chase it—not that happiness was some sort of built-in birth right. We can’t control or expect a certain portion.

For this character in a Hollywood biopic, happiness ( not the word misspelled and scrawled on a wall of a Chinatown alley) but happiness as he understands and craves it, means a high end car and all that goes with those who own these vehicles. Happiness as stock market success. Happiness as box seats for a pro football team. That’s what he is pursuing and that’s what he gets.

Eric Weiner, who is the author of the upcoming book “ The Geography of Bliss”, which some would say is a synonym for a certain feeling of happiness, asks us to consider what the following have in common: the war in Iraq, sales of cigarettes, a series of spectacular and destructive fires in Southern California.

The answer is that they all contribute to the U.S. gross national product, or GDP as economists like to speak it, and therefore they are all considered – for the purpose of pumping up these money numbers- “good.”

GDP, he explains, is the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. GDP measures the size of the pie, not the quality of the ingredients—fresh apples or rotten to the core apples are counted the same. Or, as he so bluntly puts it, the sale of an assault rifle that ends up used in a high school massacre, and the sale of an antibiotic that saves the lungs of a pneumonia patient contribute equally to the national tally ( assuming the sales price is the same).

GDP does not register those monetarily intangible things, as Robert Kennedy reminded us, “ the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.” It does not register my experience for the then modest price of a ticket of seeing Donovan in that white white shirt, propped up on those silk pillows on that bare stage in the middle of the Vietnam War, or Donovan’s own experience of lying on a beach letting himself get small enough to realize that, as he sang, everybody is a part of everything, anyway: inconsequential and ephemeral, grand and eternal.

GDP measures everything, Bobby Kennedy concluded, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Yet, Eric Weiner points out in his soon to be published book,, we continue to track this quarterly statistic as if nothing else matters. If our GDP is up—at least for some segment of our population and a powerful one at that—nothing else matters. If the number is high, we feel good. If the number is down, if there are low rates or growth or, God forbid, a shrinking economy, this means we are less well off and presumably less happy, he tells us.

This assumption flies in the face of what economists and psychologists have spent decades studying, concluding that wealth increases people ( and societies by inference) when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class, but it does next to nothing as the dollars increase. Americans who make $50,000 a year, they have discovered, are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million a year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 a year.

People who live in poor nations are much less happy than those who live in what they call moderately wealthy nations, but people who live in moderately wealthy nations are not much less happy than people who live in extremely wealthy nations.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist himself who has written a fascinating look at how the mind works, explains that what studies tell us is that wealth has declining marginal utility, which he says is a fancy way of saying that it hurts to be hungry, cold, sick, tired and scared, but once you’ve bought your way out of these burdens, the rest of your money is quite frankly an increasingly useless pile of papers.

So while a capitalist economy likes profit—which comes from the association between making money and spending it on products you can count—individuals in their core being, in their brain cells and tissue, really don’t benefit all that much.

Americans are three times wealthier than we were a half century ago, but objectively ( or as objectively as we can be about this emotion, experience, or intention which is called by social scientists subjective well-being ) we are no happier. This is also true of Japan and other industrialized nations. Yet we continue to treat our gross and individual economic growth and happiness or well-being as one and the same.

We just get a lot of information, propaganda if truth be told, that the opposite is true. It’s all around us, especially these past couple of months when even the most innocuous Christmas songs like that crazy making Andy Williams classic “ It’s the hap-happiest time of the year,” with much mistletoe-ing and everyone showing to be of good cheer,” filled us with images of folks bustling around with arms full of packages and return receipts.

The news media regularly reported on the holy bottom line—whether this year’s retail sales were higher or lower than previous holidays, whether the post Christmas gift card redemptions would raise the totals.

The fall release of the opulent film “ Marie Antoinette” gave an early boost to the shopping frenzy, with its retelling of the story of a young woman who almost more than any historical figure has come to represent what one economist has called luxury fever in the midst of chaos. We are, in some ways, an entire nation of Marie Antoinettes: binge consumers. As one fashionista article gushed, we are all golden again. Whether it’s mod or a Marie Antoinette kind if thing, white gloves are hot this year, the coveted ones coming in at $250a pair, lavish elbow length affairs with intricate beading.

Think positive guides linking happiness to prosperity are in abundance. We are once again concocting a fantasy world, as one writer penned, a bubble to seal ourselves off from the traumas of our times.

Personal disclosure: I have gone through waves, pun intended, of feeding into this myth about happiness and money and buying things that might cause a microscopic blip in the GNP.

When I was living in the Donovan era, I remember living in my then husband’s blue work shirts and jeans, eating grilled cheese sandwiches on day old bakery outlet bread.

When we drove across the country in the dead of winter to visit his parents in Detroit I remember being incredibly grateful and feeling incredibly well off when his mother bought me a warm purple wool hat – a new one from Hudson’s Department store. That, in those lean and counter culture days, was wealth to me.

I have subsequently gone through years, even decades, of spending weekends in retail malls, then years of loudly shunning them. Buying everything in thrift stores and then buying most everything from the latest glossy catalogues. I might have stopped going to Wal-Mart and paid off one credit card, only to just sign up for one for J.Jill., with its creamy blouses and suede-ed skirts. On a recent flight to Washington D.C. and back, I studied the Sky Mall magazine, enraptured, I will confess, with all the stuff: the sumptuous upside down tomato garden for $69.95, the genuine fluffy Turkish bath robe for $99.95, the magically lighted slippers that let you see in the dark, the leopard spotted personalized airline seat cover.

Continuing in a confessional mode, I, like seemingly thousands of other Georgians, have been eagerly awaiting the opening of Trade Joe’s markets, described as a paradise for foodies. I have missed the food-focused special products that I had taken so for granted: the two buck ( OK three buck) Chuck: cheap red wine, the dense fruity breads, the frozen vegetable dumplings, the thick corn chowder, and most especially the almost to die for organic chunky peanut butter. Opening weekend in Roswell, I was there. Opening weekend in Sandy Spring, I was there, basket full.

I plan on being on hand for the final two store openings, sharing the experience with those for whom Trade Joe is a familiar friend, a shopping comfort, and those who are, as they say, virgins to the rush.

Just a shade past Christmas, we all had the opportunity to peek into the nether-lands world of the American CEO, as the head of Home Depot was rewarded $210 million for his poor stock market performance during his tenure there, all the better to buy the$425 a gram tins of beluga caviar featured in the executive pursuits column in the business section of the New York Times.

Donovan wrote in his tome on happiness that the sun will always shine where you stand depending on what land you live in, that happiness is available to us, but does it look different? If my Americanized happiness is so shaped by the need to feed the GNP, so measured by my individual pursuit of it, what then is happiness in another part of the world?

My recent travels to Central Europe, formerly Eastern Europe, showed me developing countries that have largely emulated the United States in this regard, with centuries-old plazas ringed with chain stores selling all manner of designer jeans and Ipods. Even my travel to China a dozen years ago showed me a Beijing in any case that could shop with the best of us.

In a quick cell phone poll of my world traveled and traveling children, I asked my daughter who lived in New Zealand for a year what she thought made Kiwis as they are called happy. Adventure, she told me. Give them a hiking trail that is steeper and longer than they expected and they are in bliss.

I asked my youngest child, who is studying in Paris until May, what makes Parisians happy.

Nothing, he said glumly, now well into his difficult relationship with the French, especially those who live in Paris, who he reports are too busy or too miserable to be of any help to him at all.

My oldest child, who has lived in China off and on over the years, told me to look beneath the secular shopping surface of this country to the underlying moral and religious value of this ancient country. He pointed to the three major religious traditions there, traditions that have survived despite years of censure.

In Confucianism, happiness is not transient shallow pleasure. It is an eternal meaningful world of reason. Confucians regard happiness as spiritual, not material, as moral not circumstantial, as self-identified , not other- judged..

Happiness in Taoism is the personal liberation from all human desires, through following the Natural Force as it is called, not doing anything, accepting fate calmly and facing life with a peaceful mind. In so doing, one may reach the ultimate happiness of merging with the universe, termed “ tian ren he yi”

Happiness in Buddhism can only be found in the “Paradise of the West,” after Nirvana, which promises eternal bliss beyond what is viewed as the everyday misery of this world. Physical exercise, meditation, doing charitable deeds are all ways to lift up the soul to reach this state.

Closer to our Western core religious tradition, what some people call our Judeo-Christian foundations, is what Rabbi Irwin Kula calls the ethics of joy. He tells the story of being in Israel on an unusually cold winter day. He was visiting a temporary village that helped and housed newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants.

They had just arrived after a long journey and decades of struggle in their country, where they had been an oppressed minority. He writes that they stood around makeshift caravans of prefabricated housing, shivering in the new experience of being chilled after a life near the Equator.

The Rabbi walked around, not knowing what he could do that would be helpful, when he spotted two boys about 10 years old. They were rubbing their hands in an effort to get warmer, their eyes wide as they took in a new landscape and a new culture.

He walked over and offered them his gloves. They hesitated at first, the rabbi recalls, glancing from one to another until one of them took the gloves and put them on. He’d never worn gloves before. He immediately started laughing, a laugh of sheer delight at these second hands over his skin, at once warming and scratchy. He took one of the gloves off and offered it to his friend, who also started laughing in that wonderful way, both their faces beaming with joy.

The rabbi writes that he too felt a rush of warmth, of happiness, even though his hands were by then very cold. He bought himself a new pair of gloves when he got back to Jerusalem, gloves that are now more than 20 years old, pretty worn out., but serviceable, and reminders of the gleeful laughs of those two young boys, each with a single gloved hand.

For the rabbi, this experience was a rich intersection of happiness- the boys experienced physical warmth and then the joy of sharing. For me, the rabbi writes, there was the joy of offering something of himself, a happiness born of giving pleasure and creating the opportunity for others to do the same.

Rabbi Kula tells us that a side effect of the longstanding tendency in Western culture to separate happiness from goodness, pleasure from morality, is that we don’t allow ourselves to associate personal joy from charity—doing for others- mitzvoth in Jewish tradition: loving kindness. We can be good, we are taught, or happy. Either/or.

The truth is, the Rabbi says, he does not spend much time calibrating, indexing how much pleasure he receives from doing good deeds, whether it is giving away his gloves to shivering young boys in Israel or spending a Saturday on an AIDS walk. But he knows viscerally, beyond measure, that when he visits a friend in the hospital rather than spend hours in front of the television watching his favorite shows that his contentment is richer and more abiding.

To be sure, he notes, the intensity and flash of happiness that flows from sensual experience is more brilliant and enlivening than the experience of dong for others. The intensity of fine pleasures, Sigmund Freud wrote, is mild compared with that of crude, primary, instinctual impulses: that can of wild salmon I threw into my grocery cart, that sumptuous bouquet of fall flowers, the precious bottle of pinot noir.

But with these sensual pleasures, the rabbi tells us both the joy and insights quickly evaporate. The higher state of awareness and understanding attained through an ethical practice is always more sustaining and embracing. Doing good is a practice and takes discipline, but the discipline is an ingredient in the joy.

This is what can be called the joy of doing good deeds, or the pleasure of acting as we should. This is age-old, age-less wisdom, like Donovan’s eternal pebbles in the sand. Everyone is a part of everything anyway: connected. The new science of happiness is now making the same discovery: doing acts of kindness in an interconnected way creates more happiness than just about anything else.

We are just past the time when we most frequently think of being charitable, of doing good deeds.

It is the time when we tended to be the most disciplined about this, most observant of this practice. We collected food, we donated warm clothing, we sent off our tithing checks to the causes we believe in.

Some of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are beginning to very consciously extend and deepen this practice, which can bring us so much pleasure and generate so much good..

We are Giving Away the Plate, all of the undesignated money that we collect in our weekly offerings, to a variety of people and places: groups that deliver meals to the sick and the fragile elderly; shelters of all sorts; refugee and immigrant services; environmental law organizations. We have let go of scarcity and regained our faith in generosity, raising in some cases, many cases thousands of dollars each Sunday, and miraculously increasing the amount people give to support the basic needs of our congregations.

I commend this to you, this and other conscious ways to link personal joy and collective goodness.

The little country of Bhutan high in the Himalyas has invented a radically new metric: Gross National Happiness. It’s no joke, Eric Weiner says, and the mountain people are not oxygen deprived. Bhutanese officials are dead serious about making policy decisions based at least partly on whether they will contribute to their nations’ mutual happiness. Or how they see it at least.

They are restricting tourist access to their breathtaking natural wonders, they are protecting their Tibetan arts and culture. They are puzzling their way through what is genuine happiness for their people in these times.

Not without critique, justifiable it would seem, that there is a dark side of this effort to promote and in fact require a kind of uniform definition of bliss: ethnic cleansing of Nepali Hindus living in Southern Bhutan for one, and cultural militancy.

Focusing on narrow cultural particulars, trying to tribalize happiness, they seem to have forgotten Donovan’s original sacred words to us- every one is part of everything anyway- that there is a dynamic interconnected universalism in human happiness that lies out there somewhere in the ocean of time.

Happiness runs in a circular motion.

Happiness runs.


© November 19, 2006

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tuscan Oil

The letter to the editor said
It is useless to work for world peace
under this administration
so I will just work on peace in my own home.
When I spoke to the Buddhist
She told me that she had spent the first day
cleaning up.
After what, I asked.
Just life, she answered in that quiet contained voice
I will never have.
Here and there, restoring some order, so I can go on.
I didn’t even take down my tree, the ornaments from Tibet and Prague.
I cleaned my spice cupboard though, tossing the bag of bulk bay leaves from 2005, and the dried out thyme.
In the back I rediscovered a jar of bourbon molasses mustard from my father’s shelf.
We only complete what is most necessary
the Buddhist instructed me,
learning what the few remaining herbs and Tuscan oil can teach us about
starting over.
Marti Keller
New Years Day 2007