At the end of the bar, I saw old Mason Snyder sitting in his semi-usual ruminating funk, so I decided to slide my beer down there to here him out and see if we could repair the world a bit together.
After asking why the long face, Mase said, “Last week, I saw a study that broke down the average life expectancy in all the States and the spot with the longest living residents–at 85 years–was in some Colorado ski resort area, while the shortest are in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, where on average, people there can expect to live to age 67,” Mase said.
“Beyond the obvious disparity, is that what’s pissing you off so much?” I asked.
Mase had a long pull on his Bud, took a deep breath and said, “I saw some news bunny ask if the lives of Oglala Lakota County residents there were so short there because they died of boredom out there in the high plains.”
“Uh oh,” I said, knowing the righteous wrath coming in three, two,….
“Yeah, honey, the type of boredom that sets in where you have no prospects to change your life from the grinding poverty of being members of families who’ve essentially been prisoners of war for a century and a half. The type of boredom that drives people to drink and drug themselves into oblivion because they lost the home version of the Manifest Destiny game show. The type of boredom that causes kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation to kill themselves at a ridiculously high rate,” Mase said in his indignant and borderline angry tone when he talked about the treatment of America’s native people.
“That’s pretty tragic,” I said, feeling both sad and guilty watching Mase, who was of mixed Navaho and German heritage, take another gulp of his beer and the breath to go on.
“Oh, and by the way, Miss Talking Hairdo, that average life expectancy was for the whole of Oglala Lakota County, where the numbers just a few years ago for Pine Ridge Reservation residents only were 52 years for women and fuckin’ 48 for men– 48 years of age and done,” Mase said, spun on his stool and stalked out the bar entrance.
“What the hell was Big Chief Bottom-of-the-Bottle going on about?” Charlie the bartender asked me in the wake of Mase’s diatribe on the mistreatment of red folks by the sorry-ass Great White (absentee) Father over the years.
“C’mon we’re as guilty as any White Americans in not doing enough–or anything–to help these fellow Americans live better, safer, healthier lives,” I said in my own Mase-stoked righteously indignant tone.
“Yeah, well you tell him for me if he–and you, for that matter–expects to get his firewater in my joint anymore, he’d better keep it down or, better yet, take his whiny shit to some liberal fern bar, ’cause us real Americans don’t want to hear it,” Charlie said, flipping the channel from the fifth inning in Cleveland of another one-sided Mets matinee loss over to Fox News Channel.
The American Problem with GunsThrough a Jewish Ethical Lens
As a new immigrant to the USA, I am deeply disturbed by the magnitude of gun incidents, in which 100,000 Americans are killed or maimed every year. Coming from Europe, where guns are not a major problem, I wonder why there is not more moral outrage in the States.
Context is crucial, whether we’re examining the ideals of the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution or the Torah in deciding what is useful to us today in addressing ethical issues. In the West, our established ways of thinking about ethics are very much based in Greek, Christian and Enlightenment thought, which means Jewish perspectives can introduce alternative modes of exploring current issues, particularly in relation to collective responsibility, the value of human life, resisting oppression, the will towards a more just and peaceful society, compassion and care and the avoidance of harm.
In preparation for the Days of Awe this September, when Jews endeavor to attend to the most important spiritual matters of our lives—our relationships with each other and with the divine—I am advocating for a necessary return to greater collective responsibility. It is both intrinsic to Jewish values and, I argue, to the intentions of the Founding Fathers.
Gun deaths in the US feel all the more tragic because they are largely avoidable. The root of the problem lies in easy access to firearms. There is a direct correlation between ease of access to weapons and the high numbers of gun-related deaths.
Countries with the lowest rates of gun violence have legislation to decrease the number of firearms in circulation. The United States desperately needs such measures but is prevented from instituting them by the gun industry and its supporters in politics and government.
Compared with other high-income countries with populations over 10 million, the US has the highest number of firearm homicides in the world. Already this year, there have been 30,000 gun deaths, of which 1,100 were children. Many tens of thousands more are suffering the physiological and psychological consequences of gun-related injuries.
Anyone would have thought these horrifying statistics would be enough to galvanize a sea-change in American attitudes towards stricter controls. It seems nearly every American I speak with is just as appalled but there is despair and a sense of impotence in the face of the power of the gun lobby.
Deaths by guns are often blamed on those at the margins, on criminals and the mentally ill, and on ineffective security measures. The conversation tends to focus on how to better defend ourselves (often entailing more guns), rather than looking at where the problem originates.
According to many legal and health experts, we should be examining the role of the firearms industry rather than focusing on a criminal justice or mental health angle. Professor Timothy Lytton, an expert on tort law and firearms at Georgia State University says, “The real problem in gun violence we should focus on is the firearm industry’s sales, marketing and distribution practices.”
Just a handful of companies dominate the $19.5 billion firearms market and encourage the glorification of guns as a symbol of supposed empowerment by a culture that is increasingly insecure. Gun purchasing is exponentially on the rise with Americans purchasing more than 20 million guns every year and the industry profits massively each time a mass shooting hits public consciousness. Within hours of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, shares in gun companies were up by as much as 8%.
The industry capitalizes on fearful Americans who lack trust in public institutions to keep them safe and are now navigating mass anxiety generated by social, health and economic pressures. In the last decade, buyers cited security as their primary reason for purchase rather than hunting or recreation.
Fear also fuels the market for services and products aimed to protect us against guns, such as: security guards and trainings, domestic and school security measures, alarm and door locking systems, bullet-proof paraphernalia and more. A Forbes article published in 2018 pointed out that the security industry is worth many times more than the firearms one. Both industries employ hundreds of thousands of people and contribute billions in tax revenues.
The gun lobby’s reach into politics and government is deep and it is wide. A recent survey by the New York Times shows that 49 of the current 50 Republican Senators have received money from the NRA over the course of their careers, many of them receiving millions of dollars each—up to $13.6 million in the case of Mitt Romney. In 2016, the NRA donated a record $30 million to Trump’s campaign and last year, according to OpenSecrets, five gun lobbying organizations donated almost $16 million to Republican politicians.
The NRA claims to advocate for the rights of ordinary gun owners but, in reality, it is a trade association whose sacred cow is the industry’s profit margins. According to Josh Sugarmann, Executive Director of the Violence Policy Center, “it’s very important to understand the political battle in terms of the interests of the industry and in terms of marketing.”
Parents of school shooting victims are challenging the industry’s irresponsible marketing practices. They argue gun companies have targeted young, at-risk males with ads such as “Consider Your Man Card Reissued” and that they produce ads resembling video games appealing to young men attracted to thrill-seeking behavior.
In the course of writing this article, algorithms detected that I was researching firearms and a plethora of advertisements for guns started popping up on my screen. It seems purchasing a gun these days is as easy as ordering household items from Amazon.
Since 2004, there has been a proliferation of semi-automatic weapons and other types of firearms that are more deadly and those that are easier to conceal. Lytton has compared trends in the market with the type and volume of firearms recovered in crime and has found a clear connection.
Yet gun companies adopt a willfully blind approach to the supply chain, denying evidence linking the industry to gun deaths, lobbying to remove obstacles to easy purchase and persisting in mass production of ever deadlier weapons. Dealers often engage in practices that facilitate diversion of gun products into the illegal market by selling guns off the books and failing to prevent illegal sales to buyers acting on behalf of others.
Clearly, in American culture today, the pendulum has swung in the direction of extreme individualist defenses of ‘freedoms’ overriding the notion of collective ‘responsibilities.’ Such individualistic thinking and its exploitation by the gun lobby have given rise to a situation of widespread loss of life, injury and moral harm to American society, which flies in the face of Jewish ethics as well as other faith and secular ethics traditions.
The gun lobby presents individual rights and collective responsibilities as if they are mutually exclusive, that a right to have a gun overrules our collective responsibility to ensure gun safety for all. There is also the implied suggestion that the individual right to have guns is Constitutional while a collective right to safety arising from gun control is not. But both perspectives—individual and collective—must be balanced for the common good, an idea in fact enshrined in the Constitution.
Both individualistic and collective priorities can be found in the original spirit and purpose of the Second Amendment, which was to provide for the security and the right of citizens to resist a tyrannical government. The Supreme Court’s recent interpretations of the Second Amendment divorce individual and collective needs so that the debate becomes an either/or discussion—either we look after our own needs or we band together as a society. This was never the intention of the Founding Fathers.
Jewish values seek to look after individual needs through collective responsibility. From a Jewish ethical standpoint, we must take responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. We should try to love our neighbor as our self because it is our moral duty. We must work towards a peaceful and orderly society in which human life is protected.
We have a right to personally defend ourselves, however we must not go out and cause harm to others directly or indirectly. If we cause one life to be lost, it is as if we have destroyed the entire world, and if we save one life, it is as if we have preserved an entire world.
In fact, saving life (pikuach nefesh) supersedes all other obligations, and laws can be overruled or interpreted anew if they incur harm between human beings. Each generation reinterprets Jewish teachings according to context and circumstance. It is not a fixed, didactic system but a discussion with multiple voices and opinions and we can add our own as new issues arise. So too, the American legal system must evolve to serve current needs.
Upon closer inspection, extreme American individualism appears at odds with any genuine concern for the wellbeing of actual individuals. Whilst writing this, I met Dr Michael Wolf, an MD from Tennessee specializing in pediatric critical injuries. He said that one of the saddest parts of his job is treating children with catastrophic gun injuries whose parents originally believed that keeping guns in the home was a good thing but, after their child was hurt, expressed immense regret for not having understood the risks.
Gun-related suffering is widespread in the US but suppressed in the American psyche. When horrific mass shootings occur, short-term outrage arises but soon sinks below consciousness again, whilst gun usage is an intrinsic part of film and video game fantasy. The parents of Dr Wolf’s patients were not fully awake to the real and devastating experiences of other victims’ families who turn out to be just like them. The lack of visibility of the suffering is a major problem—its hiddenness exploited by the gun industry in treating humans as tools for its own ends.
Ancient Jewish texts as well as modern Jewish thinkers speak of the importance of acknowledging the full humanness of others. Philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas wrote that responsibility towards each other follows from ‘face-to-face’ encounters. Meaningful social change requires consciousness-raising about people’s suffering.
In many ways, the Torah provided the basis for modern ethics of the social contract. The idea that we must relinquish some aspects of personal autonomy in exchange for the protection of our rights by the governing body is found in the laws accepted by the people at Sinai.
In the Mishna there is a discussion of laws of the social contract between people and their neighbors, and of laws that link a person to the divine. The only path to God is through keeping our ethical obligations towards other human beings.
We are not allowed to put a stumbling block before the blind nor cause another person to transgress, meaning gun manufacturers and dealers are accountable even if indirectly. They must not profit by the blood of others or engage in corporate sponsorship of politicians as to do so is tantamount to bribes and perverting justice.
The Rabbis said we must put safety measures in place so as to avoid potential harm. In this spirit, legislation could be enacted to force the firearms industry to put monitoring systems in place to prevent firearms from being diverted into illegal markets and to require credit companies to track firearms sales.
Guns are idolized in American culture, yet Jews are warned not to worship idols. The Rabbis considered weapons to be an indignity, a disgrace even.
The free rein given to the gun industry flies in the face of our collective responsibility not to stand idly by while our neighbor’s blood is shed. Every life is sacred, each one of us being made in the image of the divine. When a person dies, holiness in our world is diminished so we are compelled to act against a system that trivializes human life and results in its wanton destruction. We must act to counter the dehumanization inherent in prioritizing profits at the expense of human life.
Ironically, the tyranny that the Second Amendment was designed to resist appears to have been re-created in new forms. As Jews we are particularly sensitive to oppression and must work to free society of systemic abuses—from political corruption to judicial decisions that are unrepresentative of the views of the majority of Americans. We must speak up about the Supreme Court eroding the powers of local governments to regulate firearms.
Many of us feel overwhelmed at taking on the gun industry but we must not allow ourselves to be paralyzed. We can take heart from progress being made whilst engaging more at both grassroots and policy levels.
The US can learn a lot from successes abroad, such as Australia’s firearms amnesty and corporate manslaughter penalties in various countries. International measures taken against the tobacco industry have been effective at reducing smoking-related deaths and a similar strategy could be applied to firearms with the goal of making guns less socially acceptable.
Supporting campaigns and lawsuits brought by organizations such as Everytown, Brady and Giffords will prompt insurers and financial backers to pressure the industry. Just a few gun manufacturing companies wield enormous power in driving market practices so if one or two are made to act more responsibly, it will reap dramatic benefits.
We can raise consciousness about the risks of guns, teach our children about civic values, democracy and about healthy constructions of strength and masculinity. As individuals we can sign petitions, vote, write to members of Congress and Senators about gun industry practices, and examine our pensions and investments to ensure that we do not hold shares in firearms companies unwittingly.
It is incumbent upon us to pursue justice for our ourselves, our children and the whole of society. We need more transparency about the extent of the interests of the firearms industry and the reach of its power. We need to tackle its economic might through a longterm strategy in governance, law and the financial sector. And we need to vote and choose leaders who represent all of our views.
Rabbi Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
If each of us takes action, we can face the collective challenge together. In taking action, we support each other as holy reflections of the divine in trying to stem the flow of unnecessary bloodshed of our brothers, sisters and children.
…grew up in London and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University in Scotland. After completing legal training at the University of Law, she worked in family law in London for a few years. During this time, Deborah went to Jerusalem on a ten-day trip where she met and fell in love with her husband, who happens to be a Rabbi. They got married and Deborah moved to Jerusalem. There she worked as a yoga and mindfulness teacher while mothering their three rambunctious children. Since 2020, Deborah has been living in New York. She is currently teaching mindfulness and pursuing graduate Jewish Studies with Spertus Institute.
 The Australian National Firearms Agreement restricts the use of firearms by civilians. This legislation has been credited with ending mass shootings and reducing firearm suicides in Australia according to a study published by JAMA. In South Africa, rates of violent deaths decreased after the enactment of the Firearms Control Act of 2000 according to The South African Medical Journal. See www.healthdata.org/acting-data/gun-violence-united-states-outler
Also see www.psychiatrictimes.com/couch-crisis/moving-beyond-motives-mass-shootings “There is no credible evidence that most mass shootings are carried out by “deranged individuals with identifiable mental illness.” Scapegoating people with mental illness is an easy evasion of the underlying problem in the US—namely, the unconscionable ease with which rage-filled, alienated young men can acquire weapons of mass killing.” Dr Ronald W.Pies, MD 8/8/2019
 According to Scott Bach, board member of the NRA, on June 27, 2016 in a statement to the Asbury Park Press: “In an emergency, you’re on your own. Some of us have made the decision to be lawfully armed to own firearms for the purpose of self-protection in the gravest extreme.” He also stated to WKXW-FM on May 9, 2016 that “the [State] government has abandoned its obligation” to protect citizens and provide for their safety in certain jurisdictions in New Jersey.
Recent increases in purchases of firearms are also a result of the widespread introduction of ‘stand your ground’ laws, permitting people to shoot as a first resort if they perceive a physical threat. These laws have been adopted across more than half of the US after intense lobbying by the NRA (National Rifle Association). They have assisted in normalizing the ownership of firearms for self-defense.
 Increased production and retail in a given year equate with larger numbers of gun homicides in subsequent years—the same types of weapons reach illegal circulation within a year or two of being sold ‘legally’.
 District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) which overturned 200 years of jurisprudence in 2008 by a slim majority that interpreted the Second Amendment as an absolute individual right to arms. That decision was, and is, highly controversial, contested by anti-gun activists, lawyers, constitutional scholars and many others. It prioritizes individual rights over collective responsibility. It should have balanced the individual right with the ‘well-regulated militia’ clause, which was supposed to guarantee the safety of all through a well-regulated, collective system. The previous stance agreed by SCOTUS in United States v. Miller 1939 was that “the Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have ‘some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia’.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Second-Amendment/Origins-and-historical-antecedents
 The Second Amendment was adopted at a time when the tyranny of the British monarchy was a recent memory and there were no well-trained, disciplined State-run security forces. It was based on an English law that protected Parliament from a tyrannical crown and was never designed to allow private individuals to arm themselves for personal self-defense. Its convoluted language is confusing and has been exploited by the gun lobby to serve its own vested interests at the expense of ordinary citizens.
 Leviticus 19:14 “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am יהוה.” This is a consequentialist approach; its aim is to avoid a situation resulting in harm.
 “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are not free to avoid it” Pirkei Avot 2:16
 The approach of the current Supreme Court is out of step with democratic principles. Governor Kathy Hochul called the recent decision to overturn a one-hundred year old New York law restricting concealed firearms “reckless” pointing out that it puts the people of New York in greater danger and that the ruling goes directly against the wishes of the majority of New Yorkers. According to a Siena College Research Institute poll in June 2022, 79% of New Yorkers favored upholding the New York law restricting concealed carry www.politico.com/amp/news/2022/06/23/new-york-hochul-supreme-court-gun-00041715
 “Justice, justice you shall pursue” Deuteronomy 16:20
In the four-year history of TheBeZine, this is the most significant edition.All of our concerns – peace, environmental sustainability, human rights, freedom of expression – depend on a more equal distribution of wealth, on making sure no one goes hungry and on breaking-down barriers to employment, healthcare, education and racial and gender equity.
This pyramid (courtesy of Wikipedia) reveals that:
half of the world’s wealth belongs to the top 1%,
top 10% of adults hold 85%, while the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth,
top 30% of adults hold 97% of the total wealth.
We’re all cognizant of that profile, but if you feel you’re sitting pretty and you’re not at risk, you’re employed, educated and middle class after all, you’d be well-advised to reconsider. The middle class is now – and has been for some time – dramatically challenged to find work, to acquire jobs that are fairly paid, offer stability and reasonable hours, and in the U.S., enable them to send their children to college.
The implications of a concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the oligarchs and mega-corporations, are horrendous. Not the least is the undermining of democracy. Those who vote for and support the oligarchs because they think that’s where their security lies are victims of propaganda and bound for disappointment. The shadow of catastrophe (not too strong a word) that hangs over us is not due to the poor or the “other” who doesn’t look like us, worship the same God, or speak the same language, but to the 1%. Huxley was disconcertingly prescient.
This month our core team and guest contributors create a picture that beckons and behoves us to abandon stereotypes and propaganda about the poor, to recognize slave labor in its most absolute terms (human trafficking and prison labor) and more subtly in the conditions faced by workers at almost all levels of the corporate pyramid. We are called to ethically source the products we buy, to study our history, to bravely speak out against injustice and stupidity and, by implication, to shine a light on best-practices, those programs, services and unofficial efforts in your city/town, region or country that are helping and that can easily be implemented anywhere in the world. (You can share these with everyone via our Facebook discussion group.)
Beginning with Juli’s impassioned editorial, The Exponential Demise of Our Well-being, and moving to our BeAttitudes: John Anstie’s powerful Dictators and Desperadoes … Delegation and Democracy; Corina Ravenscraft’s and Trace Lara Hentz’ thoughtful invitations to awareness; Phillip T. Stephens on prison injustice; Sue Dreamwalker’s encouragement to see the homeless as fully human (and she connects us with homeless poets and artists in England); and Joe Hesch’s honest exploration of self, we are called to responsibly participate in history.
We present a memoir from Renee Espriu and a short story from Joe Hesch this month. These are followed by yet another stellar poetry collection from poets around the world, including work by core-team members: Charles W. Martin and John Anstie.
New to our pages, a warm welcome to: Juli [Juxtaposed], Sue Dreamwalker, Michael Odiah, Evelyn Augusto, Michele Riedele, Irene Emmanuel and bogpan. We welcome work from among our previous and regular contributors: Paul Brookes, Trace Lara Hentz, Renee Espriu, Sonja Benskin Mescher, Denise Fletcher, Phillip T. Stephens, R.S. Chappell, Rob Cullen and Mark Heathcote.
In the spirit of peace, love (respect) and community
and on behalf of The Bardo Group Beguines, Jamie Dedes, Founding and Managing Editor, The BeZine
HUNGER, POVERTY and THE WORKING CLASS AS SLAVE LABOR
How to read this issue of THE BeZINE:
Click HERE to read the entire magazine by scrolling, or
You can read each piece individually by clicking the links in the Table of Contents.
To learn more about our guests contributors, please link HERE.
To learn more about our core team members, please link HERE.
It was tough. TOUGH! If I could I would nominate everyone who has contributed, but there were constraints on the types of submissions, dates of publication, and number of nominations editors can submit. So, here we are … The BeZine Best of Net nominations for June 2017 – July 2018.
blue on one end of the scale
yellow at the opposite end
a kind of magnetic needle in between
blue, a feeling of down or calm
yellow feels up, vibrant, bright
somewhere in the middle, green
in the middle, they meld and transform
yellow and blue become green
three for the price of two
this gauge is invisible, yet lives within
it is carried eternally
it is the human tachometer
a reminder that nothing stays the same
everything can change
it can go from blue to yellow to green
unaware of its change
remarkable in being seen
When the World is on Fire
When the world is on fire
do you close your eyes? Ignore it?
Fuelled by racial discrimination
is a spirit abomination
this IS my nation
home of my education
playground of my indoctrination
to a world of justification
looking for integration
knowing that communication
is the way forward
I say I want a revolution, a human revolution
it’s gonna have to start with me
the only solution for this revolution
Has to start with me
We’re all in the same war
but not all in the same trenches
these flames are deep, embedded
we need more than hammers and wrenches
reformation, inner reformation
no longer subjugation
seeing ourselves as real
my own revolution
lighting my way and seeing you
Yasher Koiech Nefesh Yehudi
These words, “yasher koiech, mein nefesh Yehuda”
“Have strength, my Jewish soul” is like the mantra
used to encloak myself when leaving the comfort of home.
Even with broad-minded people, there is always the risk
of awakening the sleeping dragon of the Jew-baiting anti-semite
ready to pounce. Will this feeling, ever so deeply engrained
leave the awareness I call myself?
I choose one Jewish metaphor to describe myself,
“charoseth”, the sweet, dark, spicy, nutty, tart mixture
made for the Passover Seder, one of the six Seder plates,
an homage to the slave labour in Egypt’s Pharoah time,
the reason for the Exodus.
Charoseth resembles mortar.
Mortar builds things—houses, outdoor ovens.
Because Jews number few in population,
we are noticed and well-known for high achievements.
I try to build friendships
while remembering the charoseth of
apples and dates and wine and nuts.
I think of people this way,
full of goodness, sweetness and with the
intoxicating alluring risks hidden in the dangers of nuts.
I want to be accepted—not tolerated,
therefore I must accept others
just as different to me as I am to them.
Not easy, but definitely doable.
I think of our foremother Esther whose intelligence
saved her people.
My own orphaned, biological mother Yocheved
was responsible, at age 7, for a younger brother and sister.
These women and Ruth, whose compassion became
synonymous with empathy used the mortar of their own wisdom
to build better societies.
They are the woof and weft of the weaving of these cultures.
When Vashti refused to parade naked
in front of her husband’s cadre of supporters
she was replaced by Esther and through
cunning and fortuitousness exposed calumniaty
for what it is.
At 7 years of age, at cheder (religious school),
there was an Esther contest.
I had no hope of winning.
My family was unable to purchase my costume.
Being self-conscious, yet enjoying the participation,
I took a brown paper bag, drew a crown of crayon coloured jewels,
borrowed my mother’s flowery cotton skirt and elastic-necked blouse,
marched down the aisle with a devil-may-care smile,
fully expecting nothing but a good time, and
for my ingenuity, I won and won more than flowers
I won a confidence that is sewn irrevocably
in the decision-making process of my every day
Never give up, give in, go forth, be creative,
with the directive Yasher Koiech, Nefesh Yehudi
the mortar is in you, build with sweetness, goodness,
tartness, nuttiness, chutzpah and always with the
knowledge that with a Nefesh Yehudi
we are together, we are strong,
I am with you, I am strong,
I and you are strong and we are all together
…was privileged to record with bill bissett for the Secret Handshake Reading Series in December 2021. The Secret Handshake also published her chapbook, Bob Dylan, My Rabbi. Two copies were purchased by the Robards Library, University of Toronto. “Kaleidoscopic Wonderful” was published in January 2022 by the Taj Mahal Review. She was commissioned by the Friendly Spike Theatre Band to write the history of mad people’s theatre in Toronto with “I’m Mad, I Matter, Making a Difference,” and also edited the anthology, POEMDEMIC.
I think of her often. I only met her that once, but she brought with her a voice from God that has never left me. Her heart was the first bloom of that warm spring.
I was teaching at the diocesan seminary. It was spring, time of renewal, but mostly it brought unbearable heat in the provinces of Mindanao. So I decided to escape the oven-like classroom and had everyone bring a chair under the ancient tree that seemed to preside over the whole front yard. Just as a really lively discussion on prayer began, I noticed her walking on the road beyond the fence. She was small, with a filthy flowered dress frayed at the edges and stained just about everywhere. Her hair hadn’t met a brush in months, yet she walk with a regal calm and serenity. As she got to the open gate, she turned.
I groaned inwardly. It seemed like every day people came to beg, to ask for money, food, medicine. Sometimes with that “help keep their dignity” idea, we’d ask them to help rake leaves, but that often backfired and they got annoyed demanding what they wanted, often waving a reproaching finger in our faces, telling us that we are supposed to be like Jesus and give. And now, just as I had a wonderful discussion on prayer going, we would be once again interrupted by a beggar asking for a handout.
Then I immediately felt guilty. So as if to redeem myself from my unspoken lack of goodness, I interrupted the class discussion and told the seminarians that an older woman was coming, probably to ask for food or help, but that in spite of her being so dirty and messy, they should stand when she arrives, do “mano po”, the typical Filipino greeting of respect where you take the hand of the elder and touch it to your forehead, and call her “Tita” (Auntie). Ah, it looked like I was back to being the wise holy man I was supposed to be…but it was just me still treading water.
The woman came right up to where I stood, totally disrupting the class like I knew she would. She was even dirtier up close, mud on her face and her sandaled feet black. The ever obedient seminarians (or make that “usually obedient”) stood politely, blessed her and mumbled pleasantries calling her “tita”.
She began in Cebuano, “Father, I was walking by and saw you teaching the boys under this big shade tree. And I had this idea, so I came in.”
To myself I figured I knew the “idea”, a good place to ask for help. But she seemed so sweet, I suddenly thought of volunteering to get her something from the kitchen myself…being that holy and wise person I thought I was. Yes, yes, I would make up for all those negative thoughts about her by being of personal service!! Gee, what a guy!!
Then she dug deep into her pocket, as it was an endless cavern, and finally pulled out a kind of moldy rag and then opened it slowly, as if the British Crown Jewels were inside. There appeared an old 20 peso bill, only a little cleaner than she. She continued her story, “When I saw you there, teaching these boys about God, how to love God and be faithful…well, I thought, you know what…I want to buy them a snack. So here.” And she shyly handed me the 20 pesos, somehow not fully able to look me in the eyes.
I took the filthy bill and suddenly didn’t know what to do. This woman came to give, to share, to help, to encourage…She turned to leave, and I asked her to stay and have snacks with us. She smiled serenely, with the kind of peace that comes from knowing you live in God’s heart, and turned and left. All the boys just looked at me blankly. 20 pesos wasn’t, of course, enough to have snacks for the class. It’s about 50 cents in the US. But I decided to go to my office and get money and have the guys buy something from the little store across the way. If Auntie wanted us to have snacks, that’s exactly what we’d do. I told the guys I’d be right back…but in fact I was a little longer than expected. I had to wash my face so they wouldn’t see how hard I had been crying once I was out of sight.
I never saw her again, but she remains one of the finest teachers I’ve ever had, and a voice of God that has never been silenced. It was spring, and a part of me was reborn.
Recently, I read dragonkatet’s piece on “Perfection and Creation.” This got me to ruminating on the nature of perfection. In the United Methodist Church, clergy wannabe’s are required to answer the question, “Are you going on to perfection in this lifetime?” And the expected answer is “yes!”
I had heard a rumor in seminary by Dr. Jack Olive that perhaps our understanding of perfection is different than the understanding that early theologians and philosophers had. And that John Wesley turned to Eastern Orthodox wisdom in an effort to better understand perfection. That appealed to me because perfection seems so unattainable. What if there is a different way?
Corina got me thinking about all of this again! Is perfection unattainable? Is perfection only attributable to the Divine? What is up with this kind of pressure we put on ourselves? And as with everything, the truth is that our understanding has drastically changed over time. Which leaves us free to define perfection in a way that leads to greater life.
The Greek concept is where it all begins for western cultures. That word was “teleos.” In many cases, this word is understood to be completeness rather than the common understanding of perfection—“without flaw.”
Aristotle defines three meanings of perfection:
That which is complete.
That which is so good that nothing can be found better.
That which has attained its purpose.
Thomas Aquinas goes on to give perfection a dual-fold meaning: That which is perfect in itself (its substance) andwhen it perfectly suits its purpose.
Other philosophers and theologians have defined perfection to be:
Plato and Parmenides thought that the world was perfect. That it had perfect shape and motion (spherical/circular). The world is perfect, God is not. Attributing perfection, an intellectual concept of humanity, to the Divine, was a heresy.
However, later came the pantheist Stoics who attributed perfection to the Divine. Why? Because the Divine was equivalent with the world. Here, we are just one short step away from the modern idea that only the Divine is perfect and that we all suffer from an inability to be complete in our own bodies and to find and fulfill our purpose. Eventually, Aristotle’s First Cause and Christianity’s Creator became comingled in theology. Although perfection was still not attributed to the Divine as perfection was believed to be finite.
In the 9th century, philosopher Paschasius Radbertus said that “Everything is the more perfect, the more it resembles God.” But still, God was not perfect because of the finiteness ascribed to the concept of perfection. It is Rene Descartes who introduces perfection as applied to the Divine as he introduces the “perfections of God.” However, Descartes also states that “existence itself is perfection.” They may just have been going through a confusion of perfections!
The concept of perfection has undergone great changes throughout human history. “Nothing in the world is perfect”, to “Everything is perfect”; and from “Perfection is not an attribute of God”, to “Perfection is an attribute of God.” (Tatarkiewicz, “Ontological and Theological Perfection,” Dialetics and Humanism, vol. VIII, no. 1 (winter 1981), p. 192.)
Perhaps it is time to render a definition of perfection that lifts us up and allows us to achieve completeness and fulfill our purpose. In Christianity, we often go back to “The Greatest Commandment.” That is “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” We then focus on the loving God part and then sometimes the loving your neighbor part but totally neglect the implied love yourself part. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we love ourselves, we can achieve completeness, find and fulfill a purpose! Artists gotta art. Preachers gotta preach. Poets gotta poem. Architects gotta design. Caretakers gotta care. And so on. Of course, within all of this is the tension between what we want and what we have. There are limits and sometimes part of loving is setting aside the dream and doing the chore. But that is still part of purpose. And it is still part of perfection.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, totally subscribes to the “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” approach to perfection. He writes,
O grant that nothing in my soul May dwell, but thy pure love alone! O may thy love possess me whole, My joy, my treasure, and my crown ! Strange fires far from my heart remove; My every act, word, thought, be love!
I never heard that any one objected to this. And indeed who can object? Is not this the language, not only of every believer, but of every one that is truly awakened? But what have I wrote, to this day, which is either stronger or plainer? John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection
Perfection is living life in such a way that “every act, word, thought, be love!” Easy peasy.
Perhaps living a life where everything is derived from love is not so easy. But it is something that I can ascribe to, and with practice, grow into. So perhaps perfection is the process that leads to a complete life fulfilled in acts of love–love that leads to justice, mercy, and humility.
The months have been busy with storytelling– dusting off old stories, rehearsing new ones, attending to related business correspondence. Last week I was pressed for time, polishing a story for its public debut, when I heard a little thump. I peeked through the French doors onto the deck. A tiny olive gray creature, scarcely bigger than a hummingbird, lay stunned and shivering where it fell after flying into the glass.
It was a male Golden-crowned Kinglet, with a bright orange and gold crown. They favor coniferous forest; this one was likely nesting in the grove of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir in our backyard. Kinglets are monogamous, and raise two broods each season. As soon as the first nestlings can fly, Mama Bird lays another batch. While she protects the new eggs, Papa feeds up to ten fledglings until they can take care of themselves. Good Daddy!
Perhaps the little bird was an adolescent, driving too fast on his first solo flight, or maybe he was an exhausted frantic father trying to feed his hungry brood. Birds are delicate, and often die of stress. Not wanting to frighten it, I didn’t open the door, but I kept watch through the glass for neighborhood cats and hungry crows. What would happen, I wondered, to the fledglings if their Papa died? How might his mate manage as a single parent when the next brood hatched?
As The Bard said, all the world is a stage. Everywhere tiny dramas–life and death performances–are played out. Most will never be witnessed or even imagined, completely lost in the big picture. Or worse, they will be observed by cold and uncaring eyes.
On my deck, in city streets, in our wealthy country, and all over the world, baby birds are not the only creatures who slip between the cracks, with no voice, and no champion to speak out for them or watch over them.
I turned for an instant to check the clock. When I looked again, the little bird was gone. My eyes stung with tears of relief. Someone looking through the glass onto my deck would see only a few bird droppings, but to me it’s a reminder that life can get messy. Not everyone has a safety net. Not every story has a happy ending. Sometimes we can only look helplessly through the glass at the world’s suffering. But sometimes it falls within our power to change the world, one tiny story at a time.
Something to think about.
All words and images c2013 Naomi Baltuck
NAOMI BALTUCK ~ is a Contributing Editor and Resident Storyteller here at Bardo. She is a world-traveler and an award-winning writer, photographer, and story-teller whose works of fiction and nonfiction are available through Amazon HERE. Naomi presents her wonderful photo-stories – always interesting and rich with meaning and humor – at Writing Between the Lines, Life from the Writer’s POV. She also conducts workshops such as Peace Porridge (multicultural stories to promote cooperation, goodwill, and peaceful coexistence), Whispers in the Graveyard (a spellbinding array of haunting and mysterious stories), Tandem Tales, Traveling Light Around the World, and others. For more on her programs visit Naomi Baltuck.com