Saturday, August 11, 2018

Building Bridges with Letters

Image result for painting of woman writing letters   

    The other day I came across a magazine article that advised readers to slow the pace of modern life by handwriting a letter – on stationery – and putting some pretty stamps on the envelope. What a novel idea!  And what a way to make us seniors feel old, telling people how to enjoy an old custom that used to be a common practice. As a high school student in the 1960s I had a dozen pen pals – several in different states, and others in England, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. We loved filling each other’s mail boxes with the letters we decorated with a variety of stamps, because stamp collecting was part of the fun of receiving mail. Our letters were handwritten, because very few kids knew how to type in those days. Typewriters weren’t used for personal letters anyway. They were used for school papers and business letters, if at all.

I learned to type during the summer of 1969, between my sophomore and junior years in high school, because typing was not part of the regular curriculum for college-bound students. When I started college in the fall of 1971, my parents gave me a manual typewriter that I would use to type papers for my classes. I have to wonder why typing was not included in the college prep curriculum since it was an essential skill for a college student. Some of my peers had to pay a typist to do what they had never learned to do themselves!

I was still using the old manual in graduate school and beyond, to bang out the stories I submitted for publication by obscure periodicals. The term “bang out” applies to manuals because the keys have to be hit pretty hard to make a mark on a sheet of paper. The carriage had to be returned manually at the end of every line. Errors had to be repaired with correcting or liquid paper, and sometimes a page looked so patched up it had to be re-typed. No wonder we preferred to handwrite letters – and pretty stationery was always a welcome gift.

After college and graduate school, I held several office jobs where I learned to use an electric typewriter that didn’t require as much muscle as the manual.  In my job as an editorial assistant I used an IBM Selectric – a new-fangled machine that used a typing element or “type ball” instead of individual typebars. Wow, did that thing go fast!  But I would have been happy to have a regular electric typewriter to type the stories that I wrote when I got home from work. I planned to buy one when my husband graduated from the surgeon’s assistant program at UAB and got a job. Little did I know that Mark was selling his blood to the plasmapheresis bank in order to surprise me with an electric Smith Corona for Christmas in 1979!

That Smith Corona served me well for nearly twenty years. Then the “Q” typebar malfunctioned, and I had to ink in a ‘q’ every time I wrote about a queen, a quilt, or a quintet. In 1999 I broke down and took a computer class at the Utica School of Commerce in Oneonta. I realized I would have to learn to use a computer if I was to be a part of the twenty-first century working world. A computer keyboard has so many keys that aren’t found on a typewriter! Crazy things happened to my manuscript when I hit the wrong key: entire paragraphs would disappear in a millisecond. Sometimes I cried and called a computer-savvy friend, who came over on her lunch break to rescue me from despair.

The first position where I had to use my new-found computer skills was as administrative assistant for the local Girl Scout office. I thought I was doing fine until a Girl Scout leader called to find out why I wasn’t answering the email messages she was sending. Email? What was that? So, I learned about email and eventually set up my own email account.

These days I check my email about once an hour. I receive messages from family and friends, as well as clients. My business, Custom Ceremonies, would not exist without access to the internet. My clients, mainly prospective brides and grooms, find me online, and their personalized ceremonies are created on the computer and sent to them for approval via email. But I still check my mailbox every day – the one on the front porch – because I occasionally receive a letter from one of my friends who likes to write letters the old-fashioned way. And I answer their letters in handwritten prose, affixing a pretty stamp to the envelopes, because I know my friends will enjoy receiving them as much as I enjoy receiving theirs.

The Trials and Tribulations of Gardening

Image result for images of deer in gardens

When we moved to our home in Oneonta, New York 29 years ago our driveway was bordered by hosta and daylilies in a variety of colors. Tulips bloomed in the spring alongside daffodils and forget-me-nots. The kids liked to pop the hosta buds and the orange and yellow striped day lilies were Mark’s favorite flower. I was thrilled to have a good head start on the perennial flower beds I planned to have in abundance. Knowing that perennials would return every year, I figured I could look forward to many lazy summers once I had done the initial work of establishing my gardens.  

I started by reading books on perennial gardening and how to plan a color scheme with continuous bloom from spring through early fall. I dug up my garden beds, amending the soil with the free horse manure Mark helped me collect from a local farm. Then I went shopping for plants!

The first few years I was very pleased with the results of my labors. Then strange things began to happen. Some of the perennials that I thought would last forever disappeared. Volunteer plants would show up in odd spots – ruining my scheme but looking too pretty to remove. Slugs nibbled holes in hosta leaves, powdery mildew mottled the leaves of phlox and beebalm, and aphids devoured my lupines. I tried to deal with each problem organically, but without success. Purchasing a package of ladybugs to kill the aphids, I followed the directions to pour coke on the ladybugs before releasing them into the garden so they wouldn’t fly away. Why would they want to leave when there was a feast of aphids just waiting to be consumed? But leave they did. The coke dried up, the ladybugs flew off, and the lupines had to be dug up.

One spring I found tulips petals lying on the ground, but I never discovered which garden pest lopped off blossoms just for the fun of it. When the deer invaded our neighborhood, they came to feast. Our hosta bed was their salad bar and the tulips were dessert. The demolished hosta were ugly and had to be removed. Digging up those colossal root balls was a formidable task. I posted an ad in the paper: “Deer-nibbled hosta. You dig it, you can have it.” Gardeners from deer-free neighborhoods came to take the hosta, and then the deer attacked my daylilies.

So much for the lazy gardening life I had anticipated. I learned that gardening is an ongoing challenge. Many of the plants I started out with had to be replaced with deer-resistant varieties. After Mark fenced in the backyard I was able to have hosta again, but the backyard is so shady that many of our favorites will not bloom there. I am still digging up daylilies, hydrangea, and other deer favorites in the front yard, replacing them with sage, ferns, fuzzy lamb’s ears, and other things that are distasteful to our ruminant neighbors.

The deer are not the only culprits that turn gardening from a labor of love to a battle with nature. Sometimes a flower that looks beautiful one year will be riddled with bugs the next. Plants with runner roots, such as lily-of-the-valley and creeping bellflower take over an entire flower bed. All of this digging is hard on the body of someone of a certain age and I have suffered back and hip pain as a result. Cutting back plants can be dangerous, too. One year I contracted tennis elbow after using my garden shears too enthusiastically. Another year I clipped off the end of my left pinky while shearing a clump of dead flowers.

Last year I conceded to myself that I can no longer maintain all of the flower beds I planted in my younger years. I started digging up three beds that I planned to cover with grass seed. This spring I commenced digging again. I found that I could not throw my beautiful plants in the compost pile, and with the daylilies and bellflower nearly gone, I thought, why not replant the empty spots with deer-resistant coreopsis and daisies? So I did, and I even added some annual marigolds and ageratum, to ensure long-lasting color.

While I have the time and ambition for the gardening challenge this year, I know I can’t count on continued health and energy as I age. So, I’m still digging up the one large bed next to our driveway – the one that used to bloom with Mark’s beloved daylilies. I work on it little-by-little – putting my spade down when my back starts to ache – and when I am done we will spread grass seed over this once colorful space. Next year I will have more time to tend the remaining beds and foil the invasion of pests and runner roots. At least that is my plan.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Building Bridges with Spiritual Fiction

     It looks like I've discovered a new favorite author this year. In January I read Breakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo, a humorous novel that builds bridges between people of different faiths. The guru, Rinpoche, who answers questions about the meaning of life while sharing breakfast with the protagonist, Otto Ringling, is not actually Buddhist, and encourages his students to embrace a more inclusive, universal spirituality. 

     The second book I have read by Merullo is Vatican Waltz, which I like even better than Breakfast. In this novel the protagonist is a young Catholic woman, Cynthia Piantedosi, whose deep spiritual life leads her to the understanding that one does not need to adhere to any particular religion in order to know God. As she says at the outset of her story: "The God I imagine and worship, the Being I give thanks to for every breath and pulse, doesn't care as much about labels as about love; and my style of prayer isn't so much about asking for things (though I sometimes ask) as it is about searching, in an interior silence, for my truest self, my reason for being here, in this place, in this body, at this particular point in the endless sweep of time.  I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, and to this day I hold a good deal of reverence for those rituals and beliefs, but my story is really about what happened as that label fell away, as I found the courage to un-name God, as I came, so slowly, to understand who I really am."

     From there, the story of Cynthia's life unfolds. Most of the novels I read involve romance, but there is no romance in this young woman's life. Her deep love is for God, with whom she spends hours of devotion every day. For her adoration she receives the visions that send her on a journey of danger, intrigue, and discovery. I won't give away the plot, which will keep you turning the pages, but for the purpose of our building bridges theme, I will say that Cynthias' story testifies to the common bond of truly spiritual people who see beyond the rules of particular churches and religions. She echos my feelings about leaving the Christian Church when she thinks: "Why be a Catholic or Protestant or Jew or anything else with a label and rules? Why not . . . just lead a simple life of prayer and work, try to love, try to give, and not do anything at all that separated me from other people?"

     I used to have a deep longing to find the one church or spiritual organization where I would feel completely at home and totally in sync with its teachings and practices. After a lifetime of exploring different paths, I came to the realization that there is no system of belief that I can claim as the ONE I want to follow. And I have decided that I prefer it this way, because I agree with Cynthia that labels separate us from one another, and separation creates misunderstanding and discord. Of course I realize that it's not Cynthia, but her creator, Roland Merullo, with whom I feel a deep connection. I highly recommend his books for bridge building inspiration.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Building Bridges to Mexico

     There's a lot of talk these days about building a wall between the United States and Mexico. I'd like to suggest a better idea would be to build bridges with our neighbor, in order to improve relations between our two countries. 

    One way to build bridges is for Americans to visit Mexico and meet some of the people who live there. Last year Mark and I had the opportunity to do just that, when we rented a gulf-front house from my cousin, Bob Lissandrello, who lives in Mexico with his wife, Cristy. Bob and Cristy met on the internet about 15 years ago. Bob lived in Albany at the time, so when Cristy told him she lived in Mexico, he thought she meant Mexico, New York. He soon learned the truth, but that didn't prevent him from falling in love, getting married, and moving to another country to be with his beloved. Now Bob and Cristy run a real estate business together: Homes for Sale in Yucatan

Bob and Cristy with their dogs at the
Gulf of Mexico.
Peter and me at the Mayan Ruins
     So last February, Mark and I flew into Mérida, Mexico, where we met our son, Peter, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. We were met at the airport by Bob and Cristy who took us to our rental house in the gulf-side village of Chuburna. During our week there we met many friendly Mexicans who welcomed us to their country with helpful service everywhere we ate or shopped. One day we visited the Dzibilchaltún Mayan Ruins where our Mayan guide, Juan, taught us much about his ancestors. He was passionate about his subject and obviously loved to share it with visitors. I was especially fascinated with the fact that the ancient Mayans started a "new world" every 52 years by destroying their belongings and making new ones. Juan explained this when he showed us a pit full of broken bits of pottery. 
Juan at the Mayan Ruins

     During our time in Mexico we met quite a few Americans and Canadians who have moved to Mexico permanently and seem to be well-accepted in their communities. I can't help but wonder if North American immigrants and visitors will be quite so welcome If our government builds a wall between us and them. I understand the reasoning some give for building such a wall, as an attempt to cut down on illegal immigration and drug-trafficking. Nevertheless, I feel certain that a wall would damage relations between our two countries, and I have to agree with the Mexicans who have good reasons for hating the wall proposal: Four Reasons Mexico Hates the Border Wall

     Mexico has much to offer Americans in the way of people who are willing to work hard at jobs Americans won't perform, fruits and vegetables that we can't grow in the winter, and a beautiful country to visit when we need to escape to a warmer climate and explore a rich and fascinating culture that's just beyond our borders. I hope that Mark and I will be able to return there one day, and that the people will still be as warm and welcoming as they were last year. I think this is more likely to happen if we treat them as the friends and neighbors they are. 
Mark and me near an old cathedral in Mérida


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Building Bridges with Healing Prayer


     Today I am especially grateful for my health, because I am in the final days of recuperation from a bout with pneumonia that began a month ago. I have never been so sick for such a long time, and the experience gave me a little insight into what it's like to live with a chronic illness. I also found out what it's like to be the recipient of many prayers and lots of love and healing energy. My husband took care of me for three weeks, making sure I drank enough liquids and ate when I had no appetite, taking me to the doctor, listening to my lungs, taking my pulse, reassuring me that I wasn't going to die, as well as managing all the chores that are usually mine, shoveling snow, and taking care of the grandchildren. My children sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers and messages of love. And then there were the dozens of Facebook friends who sent me good wishes for healing, and promised to pray for me. 

     Among my Facebook friends are friends, acquaintances, and relatives, some who share my political and world views, and some who do not. Some of them like to argue with me on issues we disagree about. But ALL of them sent me love and wishes for healing when I was sick. This made me think how prayers for healing and well-being can serve as a bridge between people of differing opinions and values. No matter what your political or religious persuasion may be, you probably realize that humanity and the earth itself, are in great need of healing. 

     I like to think that many of my readers participate in prayers for the healing of our world and our race. If we pray that God's will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that the results will be good. Whether you are of a particular religion or no religion, you can add your thoughts and energy to help bring about the healing that is so sorely needed. 

     Here are a few samples to use for guidance as we seek healing for our planet and its people:

Sacred one,
Teach us love, compassion,
and honor.
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.
 - Ojibway Prayer

We gently caress you, the Earth, our planet and our home. 
Our vision has brought us closer to you, making us aware of the harm we have done to the life-network upon which we ourselves depend. 
We are reminded that we have poisoned your waters, your lands, your air.  
We have filled you with the bones of our dead from war and greed.  
Your pain is our pain. 
Touching you gently, we pray that we may become peace-bringers and life-bringers so that our home in its journey around the Sun not become a sterile and lonely place.  
May this prayer and its power last forever.   
 - Sensei Ulrich, Manitoba Buddhist Temple

O Lord, you love justice and you establish peace on earth.
We bring before you the disunity of today’s world;
the absurd violence, and the many wars,
which are breaking the courage of the peoples of the world;
human greed and injustice,
which breed hatred and strife.
Send your spirit and renew the face of the earth;
teach us to be compassionate towards the whole human family;
strengthen the will of all those
who fight for justice and for peace,
and give us that peace which the world cannot give.
 - Ecumenical Centre Prayer

May the winds, the oceans, the herbs, and night and days, the mother earth, 
the father heaven, all vegetation, the sun, be all sweet to us. 
Let us follow the path of goodness for all times, 
like the sun and the moon moving eternally in the sky. 
Let us be charitable to one another. 
Let us not kill or be violent with one another. 
Let us know and appreciate the points of view of others. And let us unite. 
 - Hindu Prayer

Send Thy peace, O Lord, which is perfect and everlasting,
that our souls may radiate peace.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that we may think, act,
and speak harmoniously.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that we may be contented
and thankful for Thy bountiful gifts.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that amidst our worldly strife
we may enjoy thy bliss.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that we may endure all,
tolerate all in the thought of thy grace and mercy.
Send Thy peace, O Lord, that our lives may become a
divine vision, and in Thy light all darkness may vanish. 
Send Thy peace, O Lord, our Father and Mother, that we
Thy children on earth may all unite in one family.
 - Sufi Prayer

We pray for all who come here this evening. 
Although differences in thought and belief divide us, 
let the desire to serve you, 
the love of truth 
and the pursuit of holiness unite us.
Strengthen the spirit of friendship 
among people of various faiths 
and increase mutual understanding between us.
We look to a time 
when greater knowledge of you and your word 
shall bind all who serve you 
into one holy fellowship. 
 - Liberal Jewish Prayer Book

These prayers and many more can be found on the World Healing Prayers page.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Building Bridges to Russia

Troitsky Bridge across Neva River

     I'm very curious when I look at the stats on my blog and see that I have a huge fan base in Russia. Since these readers don't leave comments, I have no idea who they are and why they are interested in "Building Bridges of Oneness." 

     For most of my life the United States and Russia - or the Soviet Union - have been political enemies. I have never thought of the Russian people as enemies, and I've always been interested in Russian culture and literature. When I was fourteen, I wrote my first letter to the editor of a newspaper about the space race, and how we could achieve more if we were to work together with the Soviets rather than trying to beat them into space. I thought then, as I do now, that we should be looking for ways to cooperate and learn from each other.

     In the early 1980's, Mark and I were active in the peace movement, seeking an end to the arms race. We started to take a class in Russian at East Tennessee University, and were saving our money for a trip to the Soviet Union where we hoped to make connections with some Russian people. Then, on September 1st of 1983, a South Korean airliner, in flight from New York City to Seoul, was shot down by a Soviet Su-a5 interceptor. After that we cancelled our travel plans and used the money we'd saved to purchase a piano. 

     Mark and I never did get to Russia, but our niece studied at the Performance Art Theater in Moscow for two years, and sent us some beautiful decorated eggs and a bowl. I love Russian art, and have several sets of Russian stacking dolls displayed in our home. 

     I also have a friend whose daughter, Emily, went to Russia as an exchange student in 2009 and loved it so much, she went back and worked at the Anglo-American School in St. Petersburg for a year and a half. My friend. Debbie, and her husband, visited their daughter there in 2011. Debbie says that the country was beautiful, and yet she felt a heaviness, as if the people were all weighed down by the centuries of oppression their ancestors had known. However, Emily explained to her mother that while Russians do not smile a lot in public, it doesn't mean they aren't happy. They tend to be more joyful in their private lives, so while they may not be smiling on the subway, they are probably smiling in their homes and at the jobs they enjoy. 

     Debbie and Bruce stayed in an apartment overlooking the ethereal Neva River, and she enjoyed watching the men clean their boats every morning, in preparation for the tours they would give later. She got a lighter feeling while watching them take breaks to jump into the water, and seeing an artist who was painting the scenes below their window. 

Debbie and daughter, Emily, in St. Petersburg

     During her visit, Debbie found the shopkeepers to be very friendly, and Emily certainly found friends during her time in Russia - in fact, one of them has recently moved to the United States to marry her! I like to think that the American and Russian people would find much in common on which to base friendships, if given the opportunity. The quarrels between our governments should not influence the way common people feel about one another. It is up to us, the people of the world, to build bridges when our governments attempt to build walls. 

     I really hope that some of my Russian readers will comment here and tell me a little bit about themselves and their interest in building bridges of oneness. мир

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Build Bridges, Not Walls

Emily VanLaeys 1-21-17

    Recent studies show that 61,000 bridges in the United States are in need of repair. One might wonder if it wouldn't be more beneficial for the American people to have our bridges repaired rather than to build a wall between our country and Mexico. The cost of the wall proposed by Donald Trump would be phenomenal, and its future success in making our country more secure is doubtful, as explained in this article: Estimating the True Cost of Trump's Wall

   When I decided to join the Oneonta People's March for human rights on January 21st, I knew my sign would say: "Build Bridges, Not Walls." Building bridges between different faiths, cultures, and groups of people has always been my passion. Now, more than ever,
it is time to think about ways to build bridges and promote understanding with people we may not have a lot in common with. I am proud to live in a community where people are working to build bridges, where we frequently have forums to promote understanding between people of different faiths or races, where my UU minister traveled to Standing Rock to support the Native Americans in protecting their land and water, and where the Presbyterian minister is co-teaching a class with a Muslim friend: Muslim Women: Myths and Realities.

     One thing I have come to realize over the past year is that I cannot build bridges by discussing politics with people of different persuasions. These discussions turn into arguments which generate bad feelings between friends and create walls between people of different opinions. So it is my intention to focus my efforts on peaceful work, whether demonstrating for human rights, sending messages to my representatives in D.C., or praying and focusing on Love and Light in my meditations. 

     Changing the world for the better takes both action and spiritual work. Some people are better suited to one kind of work more than the other. I try to do some of each, but political work is harder because it requires that I stay focused on Love and Light while thinking about the devastating decisions being made by leaders who have no compassion for anyone who isn't lining their pockets with more money. Perhaps this is the main challenge for my life: to remain a beacon of Light no matter what tempest is swirling all around me. 

     We hear over and over that gratitude is the key to a blessed life. Despite the horrors I see in the world around me, I am continually buoyed up by the way negative actions beget actions of love and compassion. We see this with the outpourings of assistance that come from neighbors when disaster strikes.  We saw it when thousands of people from all walks of life, including at least 2,000 vets, travelled to Standing Rock to support the water protectors. We saw it when over 2 million people around the world demonstrated for human rights on January 21st. We saw it when tens of thousands of people rallied in U.S. cities and in airports to protest the order to prevent immigrants and green card holders from coming into the country. I am grateful for all of these outpourings of compassion, and hope to see even more demonstrations of love and unity as we, the people of the world, seek ways to build bridges of oneness. 



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