Remembering Steve Crawford (1942-2022)

I first met Steve as a neighbor living just around the corner from our home in Derwood, MD.  My wife Andrea had encountered Steve’s wife, Liliane Floge, at a nearby YMCA facility that both our families used. Shortly after that, we met Steve.  He and Liliane had just moved down into the DC metropolitan area from Frederick, MD after Steve started a job with the National Governors’ Association in downtown DC. They had recently adopted their young daughter, Pascal, from Vietnam. Andrea and I had adopted two older children from Brazil around the same time. As aging adoptive parents, we had a lot in common.

My first real encounters with Steve occurred while we were both working in downtown DC. We would frequently connect on our Metro commute and had many good conversations about our work and our lives.  Steve and Liliane were both former academics, both highly credentialed in the social sciences. Steve’s job at the Governor’s Association gave him a lot of high-level political connections which he was happy to talk about. I found out that Steve himself had made a run for Congress, but the conservative Frederick district he ran in wasn’t quite ready for a liberal Democrat like Steve.

Andrea and I shared with Steve and Liliane a similar left-of-center political perspective and we all shared our interests during election time. Steve was highly informed about local, state and national issues and I learned a lot just listening to him.  He read voluminously – the New York Times as well as the Washington Post, and a slew of magazines and public policy books.

Andrea and I also shared with Steve and Liliane a mutual love of classical music.  After the Strathmore Music Center opened in our county in 2005, we attended a number of Baltimore Symphony concerts together.

Liliane was an avid gardener and I remember spending a day working with Steve to break ground for a vegetable garden next to their home. A friend of ours helped them build a 6 foot enclosing fence to keep out the neighborhood deer. Andrea and I would look after the garden during their annual summer vacations in Maine and we still recall the sweet, succulent tomatos we got to partake in then.

Our friendship with Steve deepened during the Obama presidency when we shared many hopeful conversations about the future of our country.  We both despaired after Trump’s election in 2016. When Andrea and I decided to start a small Indivisible group in early 2017 to try to counter the rightwing ascendancy, Steve was happy to join us.  We met monthly with a half-dozen other politically motivated neighbors and friends for over five years, initially in each other’s home, but on Zoom after Covid appeared. We mobilized to help secure a $15 minimum wage in Montgomery county, and also lent our energy to a number of country, state, and national issues and candidates.

Another important commonality with Steve and Liliane was our shared interest in spiritual growth. Andrea and I were longtime meditators, and were impressed when they started a Buddhist sangha within the Rockville Unitarian Church that they attended. Steve and Liliane had both visited Thich Nhat Hanh’s spiritual community in southern France. Andrea and I had read a number of his books, and had even attended a talk that Thich Nhat Hanh had given in DC in the 1990’s.

Steve had served as an officer in the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the late 1960’s. He trained paratroopers and also served in combat, receiving a Bronze Star. But he returned from Vietnam utterly disillusioned with the war and joined forces with John Kerry in the early days of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Like many veterans, Steve returned to Vietnam after the war seeking to offer positive help and support.  He and Liliane were big supporters of Vietnam Friendship Village, a social service agency there, and eventually decided to adopt from Vietnam, bringing home Pascal to share their lives with. Steve recalled how the adoption helped him convert his bad feelings about the Vietnam War into positive feelings for the Vietnam that emerged from the ashes.

I vividly remember Steve joining Andrea and me one evening to watch part of the Ken Burns’ riveting documentary series on the Vietnam War. At one point, Steve broke down in tears, reflecting back on his own horrific experiences in combat during that ill-begotten war.

After Covid hit and social life was dampened, Steve and I still got together regularly for walks and bicycle rides. He walked the cute little family dog, Jojo, past our house most mornings and he’d often stop to chat about the day’s news. Even though he was half a dozen years older, I was always impressed with his physical vigor and stamina. To the end, he was playing tennis three times per week.

Our last encounter with Steve occurred only a week before his sudden and unexpected death.  Andrea and I had moved into a nearby retirement community in March, and sold our Derwood home in late April.  The day after our closing, we had a memorable evening at Steve and Liliane’s home. They wanted to affirm their friendship for us after so many years as neighbors. It was a delightful evening, with a fine dinner and a special French gourmet cake for dessert. We left feeling closer to Steve, Liliane and Pascal than ever.

We were shocked to hear of Steve’s accidental fall and subsequent heart attack and strokes just one week later. It’s taken us this long to begin to emerge from our grief over the loss of a beloved neighbor, friend and political ally.  It’s been heartbreaking to witness Liliane and Pascal’s deep grief as well.  We attended Steve’s funeral at historic Mt. Olivet cemetery in Frederick yesterday. Another Buddhist sangha leader, a personal friend of Steve and Liliane, led a deeply soulful and gracious remembering of Steve and his rich contributions to family, friends, and community. She read a poem of Thich Nhat Hanh that called for our tears of grief to be converted into nourishing rain. She affirmed Steve’s depth of soul and his commitments to the highest ideals of justice, peace, and love.

One of Steve’s last contributions to our political group was his recommendation that we watch the short video on the life of Thich Nhat Hanh called “A Cloud Never Dies.” Andrea and I sat down to watch that video on the night after we learned of Steve’s passing. We took consolation that Steve’s life, like that of his Teacher’s, partook of the eternal nature of spirit.  He will remain in my heart for the rest of my days.

John Bayerl

5/17/2022

Maron Alsop’s Swan Song — A Rousing Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony


Andrea and I attended the rousing performance of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore Music Center last night. It was conductor Maron Alsop’s last appearance of the season, and we were intent on attending after having recently viewed a rich documentary called “The Conductor” about her life and career as the first woman Musical Director of a major symphony orchestra.

Maron Alsop


Her ascendance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had a rocky start when anonymous musicians objected to her appointment back in 2007. In the documentary, she had admitted being “traumatized” by that initial rejection, but had then met with the whole orchestra to speak her intentions, winning them over (she had previously guest-conducted them with good results). Andrea and I have been big fans of hers over her fabulous 15-year tenure, facilitated by the BSO’s having contracted to play regular concerts at the Strathmore in suburban DC, as well as at their home base in Baltimore.

Alsop always brought a unique verve to her music-making. Her “Off the Cuff” talks about featured music prior to the concert were a big hit, inspired by her own experience of Leonard Bernstein’s lively pre-concert talks. She had an animated, no-nonsense approach to the classical repertoire and brought out the best in her musicians. She garnered the BSO’s first recording contracts in decades and took the orchestra on the road for acclaimed tours of Europe and Asia as well as the U.S.. Closer to home, she had a strong commitment to serving the local Baltimore community and instituted a children’s music instruction program among inner city kids that has yielded phenomenal results. And she had commissioned many new compositions from  up-and-coming classical composers, especially from women and people of color.

This was our 4th BSO concert of the season and by far the most inspiring. For one, the concert hall was packed full, in contrast to the previous Covid-dominated, less-than-half full events. There was an excited buzz as the orchestra attuned and a rousing welcome to the Maestra when she came on stage. She graciously received the adulation but then quickly turned to the musicians to begin.

The concert began in an unorthodox way with a new composition written expressly as a choral prelude to Beethoven’s masterpiece. In addition to the main chorus singing from above and behind the stage, there were two soprano soloists standing in upper boxes on either side of the stage. In addition, singers entered down both central entryways of the orchestra. The composer, Renna Esmail, had written a deeply spiritual piece that began with sacred Hindu chants evoking the primordial darkness before the creation of the physical universe. It’s called “See Me” and is an invitation to witness the first Light permeating the fluid darkness. It’s a relatively short piece and was immediately followed by Alsop leading the orchestra into the somber yet awe inspiring tones of the Ninth Symphony’s opening movement.

The Ninth Symphony long first movement has been described as “the most daring instrumental movement Beethoven ever composed” (from the program notes by Janet Bedell). It was a powerful segue from the choral chanting on the primordial darkness in “See Me.” The opening could well be a depiction of the force of creative order emerging from dark emptiness, tentatively at first, but with mounting force and grandeur.

Before the vivacious scherzo movement began, four colorfully dressed African drummers entered onto the stage, playing a strong, multi-faceted rhythm that kept growing in complexity and intensity. They were members of Baltimore’s Keur Khaleyi African Dance and Cultural Institute who had a lot of experience bringing their rhythmic artistry to multi-cultural events like this one. For me, the complex rhythms of the drumming were a good prelude to the rhythmic scherzo movement.

The slow (“Adagio”) third movement of the symphony contains some of the most lyrical and heartfelt music of Beethoven’s many works. For me it as an expression of the deepest spiritual values of caring, compassion, and abiding love. This movement was preceded by a brief jazz combo (guitar and trombone) riffing on a sweet melody while Wordsmith (Anthony Parker) spoke words of care, tenderness, and commitment. The program notes describe Wordsmith as a “Baltimore-based songwriter, performer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.” It was he who penned new lyrics for the Ode to Joy of the fourth movement.

Wordsmith (Anthony Parker)

The performance had been advertised as a “21st-century call to unity, justice, and empowerment… a bold interpretation of Beethoven’s ideas in response to today’s world”. The powerful fourth movement is among the best-known pieces of classical music. The famous melody for the Ode to Joy was one that Beethoven had heard decades earlier during the French Revolution. He used the romantic poet Shiller’s poem for the words. My sense was that Wordsmith’s 21st century poetry matched Beethoven’s intent to a tee. The full feeling of the music itself was only enhanced by the humane call for empathy and decency that Wordsmith had written.

The music ended with a spontaneous standing ovation continued for a good long while. Alsop gracefully showcased the four soloist singers, the three choruses, Wordsmith, and her entire orchestra. She returned for one last solo bow and the audience remained standing and applauding to the end. Maestra Alsop was visibly moved, as were many of us in the audience. Most of us have had few recent opportunities to come together to celebrate the power and beauty of the highest human ideals and creativity on the level we had experienced together for ninety minutes that splendid evening.

…but not everyone. As we were leaving, we noticed a debonair-looking middle-aged man in a striking pin-striped suit who was speaking loudly and animatedly on his phone about how crass and sacrilegious the concert had been, loudly dismissing it as “rubbish.” I gave him a big thumbs-down as I passed him. He was a reminder of the many conservative forces that have kept classical music within the domain of a stuffy, stultified culture for all too long.

John Bayerl, 4/8/2022

A Pre-Valentine Concert Treat at the Strathmore Music Center


As the covid pandemic persists, our usual rhythm of periodic ventures out to cultural events has slowed considerably. We bucked the trend last Saturday night, attending an inspiring concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) at the nearby Strathmore music center.


Andrea had the idea for it in the morning, and I promptly got online to order tickets. We’ve been fans of the BSO almost since moving to the Rockville area two decades ago. The Strathmore opened in 2005. It has an aesthetically magnificent concert hall, visually and acoustically. When the BSO began having regular concerts there, we started going often, especially after Maestra Marin Alsop became its Music Director and Chief Conductor in 2007.

Andrea and I are both ardent fans of classical music. I got hooked by listening to recordings of Beethoven symphonies in my Catholic boys’ high school’s music education class. I later became a regular at Buffalo Philharmonic concerts at the stately Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. NY. Andrea’s Italian American family participated in a rich culture of live music in New Castle, PA, where learning to play an instrument was an important part of public education. Her Dad, a hard-working machinist, also sang professionally in local churches, and harbored aspirations of becoming an opera singer. Her brother was a first-rate trumpeter who went on to teach and play music as his career. Andrea played clarinet and oboe in high school and also became a talented keyboard musician in her days at Oberlin College. I also had picked up clarinet and alto sax as an adult. Andrea’s wedding gift to me was a new alto sax, and we had many fun times together playing arrangements for piano and sax.

A shared love for good music was an important ingredient in the glue that has held us together for 35 years. Attending concerts together has been a mainstay of our marriage for all of those years. So we both jumped at the opportunity to hear a live symphony orchestra last night — happy to comply with the required masking and showing of vaccination credentials.

The program last night was a lesser-known Beethoven symphony (#8) and a selection from Act 3 of Wagner’s opera “Die Walkure”. We arrived early after enjoying a delicious supper from the food bar at a Rockville Whole Foods. I’d splurged on orchestra seats, as much as to hear well as to support the BSO in the midst of the economic challenges of the pandemic. Being early, we had time to read the extensive program notes for the pieces being played.

James Conlon was the conductor and he did a masterful job bringing out the complex rhythmic and melodic spirit of Beethoven’s Eighth. His forte, however, is as an opera conductor and his rendition of the Wagner was positively thrilling. The seasoned professionals Christine Goerke and Greer Grimsley were the soprano and bass soloists. They entered into the psychological space of their characters before either had sung a note. Surtitles were projected so we could follow along exactly on their sonorous German arias. They brought the tension between the Norse god Wotan and his daughter Brunhilde to a stirring dramatic pitch, bolstered by the sheer volume and lyricism of the orchestra, including an especially large wind and brass section.

The concert was well attended by an enthusiastic audience that gave the soloists, conductor, and orchestra three curtain calls replete with enthusiastic “bravos”. We felt privileged to be in their number and drove home happy and satisfied with our rare night out. It was a pre-Valentine gift for both of us, a validation of our shared love of music that has helped keep our marriage harmonious for decades.

John Bayerl, 2-14-2022

Love as Destiny

A few weeks ago, my spouse Andrea gave me an essay to read by the recently departed writer and teacher “bell hooks” (penname of Gloria Jean Watkins), who had taught at her alma mater, Oberlin College. The essay was directed to political activists like ourselves and focused on the importance of staying connected with our deepest human values. Specifically, she stressed the centrality of Martin Luther King’s holding to Love as the driving principle behind all his civil rights work.

Like many of our friends, our spirits were frayed by the distrust and animosity of the current political environment. The reminder of King’s spirit and vision has helped us to recalibrate, reminding us that our quest for the “common good” needs to be grounded in a deeper spiritual purpose.

Reading that essay inspired me to learn more about bell hooks, a widely respected and admired African American feminist. Among other talents, she was a prolific writer, public speaker, and cultural critic. I read her biography on Wikipedia, watched some YouTube videos of her talks, and decided to read her 1999 book of essays entitled All About Love.

Reading that book is what inspired to me give an Alanon talk on the subject “Love with Detachment” (my previous blog posting). Ms. hooks based a lot of her ideas on some essential principles articulated by Scott Peck in his monumental book, The Road Less Traveled. That book was seminal to my own sense of personhood as I entered adulthood in the 1970’s. So I felt I had discovered a kindred spirit in bell hooks, and relished my bedtime reading of one chapter per night in All About Love.

bell hooks 1952-2021

The last chapter of the book really grabbed me. It is titled “Love as Destiny” and begins with a quote from the 20th century Christian mystic, Fr. Thomas Merton: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with one another.” Knowing that Merton was a Trappist monk who spent much of his life in silent, solitary meditation, I was especially intrigued.

The earlier chapters were largely about the psychological and emotional elements of becoming a loving person. Ms. hooks revealed a lot about her own internal process, including how she was shaped by her working class, African American family, and how her quest for higher education led her to the deepest examination of her beliefs and her identity. She made a name for herself with the depth of her scholarship and intellect and went on to become a leading African American feminist in academic circles. Her inner journey included a deep grounding in the non-violent principles of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. She found a unique voice as a strong feminist, challenging the male supremacist tendencies within the civil rights movement, but also challenging her white feminist colleagues for their blindness to issues of race and class.

Ms. hooks shares her deep confusion and depression in her late teen years. In the depths of her inner darkness, she attended a spiritual retreat and was taken in by the retreat leader, who sensed her inner struggle and provided compassionate understanding and guidance. The leader knew of her interest in literature and creative writing and presented her with a copy of the German poet Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet. Ms. hooks devoured that book, taking spiritual sustenance from each page. She describes the event as receiving spiritual direction from an angel.

She describes other experiences in her life when an outside force appeared to provide needed direction. In each case, she realizes that she is not alone, and that some mysterious force for the good continued to reassure and inspire her whenever her doubts threatened to destabilize her spirit. She describes these as angelic events that helped her learn that the spiritual journey was real.

One of the themes she learned from Rilke involves the Biblical story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with an angel. She shares her experience that the inner life of spirit requires ongoing wrestling with one’s own doubts, fears, and confusions. Angelic appearances don’t always manifest as uplifting infusions of light and love, but also require an ongoing confrontation with the forces of opposition and darkness, both within and without. From this she learns the real meaning of peace: “our own capacity to be with hardship without judgment, prejudice, and resistance.”

In the story of Jacob wresting with the angel, Jacob suffers a wound, which becomes a lifelong reminder of the initiatory suffering required to manifest his own spiritual destiny. Ms. hooks observes that all spiritual seekers inevitably suffer some significant wounding. How a person deals with her wounding is important. For some, the wounding can become a source of toxic shame that makes it difficult to move forward. The psychological and emotional healing that come with real recovery involves a coming to terms with our shame. On the one hand, it becomes important to acknowledge our shame and our pain – insisting on accountability and responsibility from those who harmed us, intentionally or not. But at some point, we need to move beyond blaming, accepting the inevitable wounding of life, letting it become a badge of initiatory honor rather than a source of shame.

As Ms. hooks writes: “We are all wounded at times. A great many of us remain wounded in the place where we would know love. We carry the wound from childhood into adulthood and on into old age.” And yet, if we learn to accept and learn from our wounding, without undue victimization, we cease resisting and begin to understand and heal. This process of healing and recovery opens our inner senses of the mind and heart. In short, “facing this struggle with the angel gives a person the courage to face conflicts and reconcile them rather than live in alienation and estrangement. In this way, recognition of the wound is a blessing because we are able to tend to it, to care for our soul in ways that make us ready to receive the love that is promised.”

For the young bel hooks, beloved authors became her enlightened witnesses and guides. Real life teachers and mentors, like her retreat leader, served as angelic presences to point her in a productive and purposeful direction. Through it all, she found the comfort, support and guidance she needed to overcome resistance and become a generative force herself.

Our destiny is another way of saying our mission for being alive. Accepting and affirming love in all our relationships is how we fulfill that mission. Bell hooks demonstrated this in the openness and generosity of spirit in her teaching, writing, public speaking, and mentoring of her students.

bell hooks — Light of Love

Each of our lives is a variation on that theme to the extent that, as we overcome fear and darkness to manifest the essential light and life force of our own being, we fulfill our destiny. And because of our innate interdependence as human beings, it is always a shared, communal destiny. Gratitude to bell hooks for guiding the way!

John Bayerl

1/20/2022

Love with Detachment

(I spoke this piece to our parents’ Alanon group this evening. I believe it has some general significance.)

I’d like to begin with some words from the inspired writer and spiritual teacher, Kahlil Gibran:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

A slogan I’ve been workin with for many years in Alanon is “Detachment with Love”.

In spiritual terms,  I’m learning that this is a “fine study”, a paradox. There’s something about the practice of love that requires us to be “all in”, yet, when we mistakenly confuse enabling with love, the results are usually disastrous.

It’s helping me to take a step back to consider what real love is all about. Scott Peck’s 1978 bestseller, “The Road Less Traveled”, remains an important book for me. The first line of the book, “Life is difficult”, was an eye-opener. Peck writes that love is “extending yourself for the spiritual benefit of yourself and others.” I’m still chewing on that line today.

Peck says that love involves attraction, emotional bonding, and obligations, but that its most salient element is that it is always a choice. We have to consciously choose to extend ourselves for someone’s spiritual benefit. Clearly, enabling a loved one’s addiction doesn’t bring spiritual benefit to anyone.

We describe our Alanon program as “spiritual but not religious”. But what exactly do we mean by “spiritual”? Peck describes a person’s soul or spirit as their “essential animating life force.” In this understanding, “spiritual benefit” means anything that furthers the essential animating life force of someone. In a healthy love relationship, each party holds the spiritual benefit of the other as dearly as for themselves. As good parents, we extend ourselves to our children, but without the assumption of balanced reciprocity.

With this understanding, I’m moving towards a deeper understanding of “Detachment with Love”. In doing my Step 4 inventory, I came to realize that I am a pretty mental person. I learned that I needed to pay more attention to the feeling elements of living, to develop more emotional intelligence. Mental detachment comes easy for me, but detachment while maintaining a caring, feeling connection is challenging.  For that reason, I’m slightly adapting the slogan to “Love with Detachment” — affirming the primacy of love.

I’d like to end with a simple graphic, “The Laws of Detachment” by James Sebastiano, that I found online. I’ve added some comments about each of the colored circles.

Allow others to be who they are.  Acceptance of others is affirming the essential integrity and individuality of our loved one, even when we strongly disagree.

Allow ourselves to be who we are. This involves a fundamental acceptance of our own values and beliefs. We don’t have to violate our own integrity.

Don’t force situations. Remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone else’s forcng current. It almost always creates tension and can lead to animosity and conflict.

Solutions will emerge. Our Alanon program espouses a longterm attitudinal change within ourselves that can open the door to new possibilities.

Uncertainty is reality. This is part of our work with Step 1 – admitting our powerlessness.

Embrace it. Surrendering to the uncertainty of powerlessness is something that takes time to learn, especially for those of us who think we have to be in charge. In Alanon, we can learn to affirm the reality that our Higher Power is in charge.

John Bayerl, 1/10/2022

Extraordinary Grace

William Kent Krueger’s masterful 2013 novel, Ordinary Grace, transported me to the summer of 1961 in a small town on the Minnesota River. I was 12 years old that year, one year younger than the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Frank Drum.

The reading experience was deeply affecting. I’d read two of Krueger’s spellbinding Cork O’Connor mysteries, and his 2017 masterpiece, This Tender Land. I thoroughly enjoyed all three, but Ordinary Grace had the deepest emotional impact.

Krueger is a first-rate storyteller. He develops complex plots with a wide range of characters. His well-honed skill as a mystery writer is clearly evident in Ordinary Grace, yet this book transcends the sometimes-formulaic structure of that genre. Like This Tender Land, the narrative lens is that of a youngster but as told by his much older self.  This allows for a churning immediacy in the depiction of a young, troubled teenager, but with the perspective of someone of considerable experience and wisdom.

My favorite character in the novel is Frank’s father, Nathan Drum. Nathan is a devoted Methodist minister who came by his spiritual beliefs honestly. He came from a hard-scrabble, working-class family with a hard-drinking father. He was smart and had a strong ambition to become a lawyer. In college he met and wooed a pretty music major who was taken with Nathan’s worldly drive. Ruth and Nathan married and had a daughter just before he entered the U.S. Army as a combat officer who served on the front lines of World War II from North Africa, to Sicily, Italy, and the final bloody year in Germany.

Something happened to Nathan during that time that set his post-war life on a completely different track. Overwhelmed with the cruelty and carnage of war, Nathan found refuge in his latent Christian faith. Returning home to Ruth and young Ariel, he promptly entered divinity school and became an ordained Methodist minister.

Ruth was taken aback by Nathan’s newly found religious commitment, but her love was such that she went along, reluctantly at times, to become a minister’s wife. The saving grace was that she found a rich avenue to manifest her musical talents and leadership. Their daughter Ariel proved to be a musical prodigy and the family found a sustainable mission in leading small Protestant churches, Methodist and otherwise, in rural Minnesota. Ruth became a first-rate choral director and Ariel composed and performed hymns and other spiritual music that gave the whole family a favorable reputation. Two boys were born in the 1950’s, Frank, and his younger brother, Jake – a boy afflicted with a chronic stutter. Ruth was completely devoted to Ariel, seeing in her the hope for a musical career that she herself had missed. She delegated most of the parenting of the boys to their father.

As the novel begins, the Drum family has been happily ensconced for five years at a small church in New Bremen, the town that Ruth hailed from. School has just let out for the summer, and Frank and Jake enjoy their free time with frequent jaunts along the Minnesota River, which runs near their home. Ariel  has just graduated high school with a scholarship to Julliard Music School in New York awaiting her in the fall.

The bucolic atmosphere is soon interrupted by two strange deaths. First, a young boy’s body is found badly mutilated from having been run over by a freight train at a trestle over the river. The young boy is around Jake’s age (10-11) and like Jake, had been regarded as “different” – an only child to aging parents, spacey and unsociable. Nathan is charged with organizing and leading the funeral and he’s deeply chagrined at the violent death of this gentle boy. He counsels the parents, as well as his own two boys who are deeply disturbed by the death.

The second death is even more disturbing for the two boys, who discover a dead man’s body one afternoon under the same trestle where the young boy was found. The “Itinerant” is never identified, yet Nathan handles the funeral with the same respect and care as he would for a parishioner. He has memories of the first time he witnessed a dead soldier, and the profound effect it has upon him.

Events in New Bremen heat up as July 4 approaches. Both boys are drawn to illicit fireworks, but both are shocked when they witness a psychopathic police officer blow up a bullfrog with a firecracker.

Ariel and her mother lead the main event of the town’s July 4 celebration, a choral concert featuring one of Ariel’s compositions, and with the town’s celebrity pianist-composer, Emil Brandt, featured on piano. The concert is a resounding success, followed by a fabulous fireworks display. But later that night, Ariel fails to return from a drunken bonfire-party that her classmates have on a sandy beach along the riverfront. Her steady boyfriend, Karl Brandt, says he got drunk and lost track of her. The whole Drum family is distraught as days go by with no news about Ariel. Ruth becomes completely despondent, and then violently angry at Nathan when he tries to soothe her. The atmosphere at the Drum home becomes toxic, despite the sympathy and food donations coming their way. Frank and Jake are deeply bereft at the loss of their generous and big-hearted sister. Even Nathan is shaken to the core.

After four days, Ariel’s dead body is finally discovered in the river below the train trestle by Frank. Discovering their beloved sister’s corpse is deeply traumatic for both boys. After the body is firmly identified, Ruth’s anger at Nathan’s religiosity boils over and she leaves the family home, completely broken in spirit.

An autopsy reveals that Ariel was pregnant. The boyfriend Karl is immediately suspected but he desperately pleads his innocence. Not only has he not killed her, he has never slept with her. The tragedy is compounded when Karl’s dead body is found on a country road after having been thrown from his sports car.

At this moment of utter bleakness, Nathan is faced with leading a Sunday service at his church. All his friends and church members rally to his side and the church is packed. His spirit is deeply wounded, not only at the death of his daughter, but by the desertion of his wife and life partner. Nathan emerges from his bleak despair as he preaches. He reaches into the deepest recesses of his soul to find and affirm the faith, hope and love that got him through the horrors of war.

At the funeral meal for Ariel, Nathan rises to offer grace but is cut short by a hostile Ruth, who curtly tells him to keep it short with an “ordinary grace.” Her coldness leaves Nathan unhinged, and he asks if someone else can lead grace. In the most moving moment of the book for me, Jake rises to say he will lead grace. Frank and everyone else freeze in horror, knowing the severity of Jake’s speech defect. After a stuttering start, Jake finds his own inner spirit and delivers a simple, heartfelt prayer of gratitude and appreciation.

This moment of “ordinary grace” is a reminder of all the moments of beauty and love that had permeated the life of the Drum family before tragedy hit. Later that evening, Nathan and Frank are alone in the car. Frank wishes aloud that he could have been oblivious to all the tragedy that has transpired. His father turns to him and shares the essence of his own hard-won acceptance:

“There was a playwright, Son, a Greek by the name of Aeschylus.  He wrote that he who lives and learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

John Bayerl, 1/4/2022

A Christmas Surprise

Today is Christmas. Waking up with a newly broken left wrist, I’m feeling my vulnerability. I’m also feeling gratitude for the excellent care I received from my spouse Andrea and from the professional and caring staff at Shady Grove hospital yesterday.

I was on a beautiful solo hike in the woods yesterday morning. It was warm and sunny and I was enjoying a relaxing walk along Mill Run Creek in our nearby woods. I was returning home in good spirits as I threaded my way through a narrow footpath that skirts a ravine. My thoughts were on the holiday and last-minute preparations. I was also considering the possibility of a major life change. Andrea and I had toured a nearby retirement community the day before. We liked what we saw— the social and cultural elements of the community, and the large nature preserve that was part of the property. We’d gotten as far as revisiting a lovely two-bedroom apartment overlooking the nature preserve there.

I’m a careful hiker most of the time. I knew to be particularly vigilant on the return footpath along the ravine. But yesterday morning I was not vigilant enough. With my thoughts elsewhere, my left foot slipped slightly off the path, enough for me to lose my balance and tumble head over heels down the steep bank of the ravine.

I yelled out as I tumbled uncontrollably down the twenty-foot drop into the little brook below. Hitting bottom, face down in the shallow brook, I was immobilized for some minutes, stunned by my instantaneous reversal of fortune. I was wet and scared and disturbed by throbbing pain in my left wrist. Gazing up at the steep bank, I was overwhelmed at the challenge of climbing out.

Slowly, some equilibrium emerged as I turned to evaluate possible routes up and out of the ravine. My throbbing wrist made the climb seem daunting. I realized I needed help and desperately reached into my coat pocket. There it was — my phone — miraculously intact after the freefall.

My favored left hand was useless but I carefully used my clumsy right forefinger to select Andrea’s number and call. Thankfully, she was home and able to make the short drive down our street to the trailhead. In about ten minutes, I could see her approaching.

Those ten minutes gave me an opportunity to regain equilibrium. Studying my situation, I spotted a small tree whose roots descended into the edge of the ravine. I pictured myself using my legs and good right hand to push and pull myself up and out of the ravine.

Seeing Andrea approaching gave me the determination to attempt that climb. When she arrived, I showed her my idea and she concurred. I was able to pull myself up along that tree root more than halfway up. At that point, l needed my left hand to get me further. The hand cooperated but the pain within the wrist was excruciating. With Andrea’s helping hand, I slowly and gratefully pulled myself up to the footpath.


The subsequent events have slowly brought me back to a sense of normalcy after the trauma of the fall and broken bone. Remarkably, the only other injuries were minor cuts and abrasions. My clothes were wet and muddy from my time in the brook, but that was soon remedied. I was going to say “easily remedied” except for experiencing the challenging handicap of dressing and undressing with one hand. The repercussions of the injury are becoming all too apparent.

Andrea drove me to the ER after a video call with our beloved nurse-friend Edie. Andrea had actually been talking with Edie when my emergency call came in. Edie saw the ugly hematoma bump on my wrist and my hand’s immobility and urged immediate medical attention with x-rays.


Andrea made sandwiches for lunch and I had the appetite to eat one. She then drove us the four miles to Shady Grove Hospital where she is currently receiving cancer treatment. She was able to enter and fill out the needed forms for me at the entrance to the ER, but then had to leave – only patients are allowed under current Covid restrictions.

I expected a Christmas Covid overflow there but that wasn’t the case. Still, a staffer made sure that the dozen or so of us there in the waiting room were seated far apart. After a half hour wait, my name was called and I was ushered into a treatment area. Within another half hour, a technician entered with a portable x-ray machine.

The ER X-rays showed a “non-displaced” break in my left distal ulna. That means a clean break with no bone obtrusion. A capable young man took great care to make a custom splint out of thick gauze and ace wraps. A kind Physician Assistant expressed relief that there were no apparent complications. I’m to see an orthopedic doc next week for evaluation and full cast.

Projected healing time is 4-6 weeks plus physical therapy. All in all, I’m grateful that my injury is no worse than it is. During my hours in the ER, I overheard gruesome stories of unrelieved hip pain and and dire heart palpitations. My broken wrist likely qualifies as a garden variety ER ailment. I have a lot more empathy for all those experiencing much worse hardship on this day that celebrates Peace, Joy and Love. The spirit of Christmas persists.

Two Empathic Books About Refugees

I just finished reading the compelling 2018 novel The The Boat People by the young Canadian writer Sharon Bala. It’s a gripping yet challenging story inspired by actual events in 2009 when two large boatfuls of Tamil refugees landed in Vancouver, BC, fleeing the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war. Ms. Bala’s father, a Tamil, fled Sri Lanka after previous onslaughts of violence against his people by the Sinhalese majority in the 1980’s. She credits her father for providing some of the historical background to her story.

I was only dimly aware of the Sri Lankan civil war prior to reading this book. The author tells her story with frequent flashbacks that fill in scenes of the gruesome persecution of the mostly Hindu Tamils by the mostly-Buddhist Sinhalese majority for much of the 20th century. The “Tamil Tigers” were a militant insurgent group that took up arms against the Sinhalese in a failed attempt to gain an independent Tamil state on the island. The author does not hesitate to reveal the outright terrorist practices that the Tigers employed. In the end, the larger and better-armed Sinhalese armed forces crushed the Tamil resistance in 2009, and according to international human rights organizations, perpetrated significant human rights abuses on the Tamil civilian population as well.

Most of Ms. Bala’s novel takes place during the months after 500 Tamil “The Boat people” arrive in Vancouver awaiting disposition of their refugee applications. There are three main characters. Priya is an up-and-coming young law student who is recruited, against her inclination, to help represent some of the refugees. She is from a second-generation Tamil immigrant family, and she is mostly intent on furthering a lucrative career in corporate law. During her encounters with her Tamil clients, she is drawn, almost against her will, into the intimacies of their lives.  Grace is a third-generation Japanese Canadian lawyer who works for the Canadian federal government. She has just received a political appointment as an immigration judge and presides over the refugee hearings. Her political mentor is a conservative, terrorist-fearing Canadian nationalist who encourages her to take a firm stand against the refugees. Grace is torn between the urgings of her mentor and her aging mother’s late-in-life politicization over the rank injustices of Canada’s internment of its Japanese population during World War Two. Finally, there is Mahindan, a 36-year-old Tamil widower who has escaped a nightmarish detention camp after the civil war and invested his life savings to bring himself and his 6-year-old son to a new life in Canada. Mahindan’s refugee claims are initially thwarted when it is revealed that his work as a civilian auto mechanic included the servicing of a bus used in a Tamil Tiger terrorist attack. Mahindan’s son is placed in foster care and the heartbreaking separation of father and son is poignantly presented.

“The Boat People” is a masterfully written first novel. Each chapter reads like a well-told short story. The author’s imaginative skill in bringing the three main characters’ widely different perspectives together into a compelling, unified story is artfully and organically accomplished.  Ms. Bala has written that her main intention in writing the book was to increase the human empathy of her readers for the plight of refugees. In that she surely succeeded with this reader.

Another book I read this summer was a 2019 best-seller, American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. This novel received some negative publicity at publication from some Hispanic writers claiming that Ms. Cummins lacked first-hand knowledge of the Mexican refugee characters in the book. Two of my book club sisters had read it and highly recommended it. I first watched an excellent interview of Ms. Cummins by the acclaimed NPR reviewer Maureen Corrigan. The interview dealt at length with the initial criticisms. Ms. Cummins won me over with the grace, openness, and sensitivity of her responses to them.

Like “The Boat People”, “American Dirt” is a dramatically intense read. Both novels depict ordinary people living ordinary lives until they are completely upended by shocking violence and cruelty. In this case, Lydia Quixano Perez is living a content, middle class life in Acapulco as mother and small bookstore owner. When her journalist husband publishes a story exposing the leader of the local drug cartel, the reprisals against her family are horrifying. Lydia manages to escape Acapulco with her 8-year-old son Luca, embarking on a thousand-mile journey north seeking safety in the U.S. Their life-threatening journey north through much of cartel-controlled Mexico is harrowing, including long, dangerous passages riding the open rooftops of freight trains. They magically bond with two teenage Indian sisters from Honduras, who are similarly fleeing for their lives from a male gang leader.

Both books have dramatic twists and turns that include incidents of rape, wanton disregard for human life, dire poverty, hunger, thirst and exposure to the elements. It’s not easy reading and required of me an ongoing assent to be a literary witness to the excruciating, undeserved sufferings of innocent people.

Janine Cummins doesn’t say it overtly, but her book also reflects a profound empathy for the unspoken misery of those fleeing their homelands in hope of finding safety and opportunity in a new land. Both novels end with realistic rays of light showing that the brutality of the refugee experience sometimes ends with positive outcomes. Mostly, I’m left with a sober appreciation for refugees, knowing that no one flees their homeland without great cause. And in the tradition of great literature, I also experience an uplifted spirit from having been willing to share in the extreme hardship of these fictional refugees, and to share in their dignity and essential uniqueness as fellow human beings.

Lastly, I want to share that these two novels gave me a renewed appreciation for printed books. I ventured into our local Barnes and Nobles bookstore to purchase the hardcover version of “American Dirt”. I did this after learning that Ms. Cummins comes from Gaithersburg, MD – a few miles from our home near Rockville. I wanted to support both the bookstore and Ms. Cummins in sustaining the culture of reading and discussion that good books can inspire. (My sisters Marian and Anna from Western New York have ventured down to Gaithersburg for our annual book festival for many years, pre-Covid. We’ve missed the festival immensely – especially the opportunity to speak directly with some of our favorite authors.)

 I read a soft-cover version of “The Boat People” that my sister Kathy sent me. Kathy has been a book club convener in New Brunswick, NJ for many years and has steered me to some great reads over the years. She’s a stalwart for physical books, preferring not to embrace the burgeoning culture of e-books that my wife and I are party to. I formed an emotional attachment with both books described here that had something to do with holding, touching, and paging back and forth through the physical book itself.

John Bayerl

9/29/2021

From Impeachment Upset to Inner Resolution

Impeachment Prosecutors: REAR– Madeleine Dean(PA), Eric Swalwell(CA), Ted Liu(CA), Joaquin Castro(TX) FRONT– David Cicilline(RI), Stacey Plaskett(VI), Jaime Raskin(MD), Diana DeGette(CO), Joe Neguse(CO), Courtesy CNN

After three days of watching the televised impeachment trial last week, my wife and I decided to take a break from it.  We gave ourselves a Saturday of quiet and media-free space in our home while a winter storm raged outside.  We do this periodically when either or both of us become jangled or upset.

I’d awakened that morning with swirling feelings of righteous indignation with the Republican Senators who remained locked in their loyalty to Trump despite the overwhelming evidence of his having incited the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Underneath the anger was a sense of futility and despair. These feelings had been building in me the previous evening and disturbed my sleep. I was more than ready to begin sorting out this upset, and grateful to have the time and space, and a willing partner, with whom to do so.

After a light breakfast, we sat together to begin our work. It was a wintry day but warm and comfortable inside. We created an informal altar in our living room, replete with flowers, a candle, and a few other objects of spiritual importance to us.  After lighting the candle, we each spoke our intentions for our time together. I spoke of both the anger and despair within me and asked for spiritual help to move through this upset. I also affirmed my gratitude for my wife and for the environment that we were able to co-create to enter more deeply into our feelings. Though not as engulfed in negativity herself, my wife expressed her intention to use our time together to enter a deeper bonding that could help get us through the unsettled feelings that the impeachment trial had provoked.

We then used a meditation bell to usher in a period of silent prayer and meditation. My own meditation practice involves using prayer beads.  I begin by simply focusing on my breathing, one bead for each inhale and exhale. This takes more conscious attention when I’m emotionally upset.  By allowing my breath to slow and deepen, the focus usually becomes easier.  But that morning, I was having a hard time dropping into a relaxed state. I continued with the breathing exercise for ten minutes or so but noticed that my body was still quite tense and my negative emotions still swirling.  I decided to stand up and begin a walking meditation around the living room.  It felt right to connect with my body in that simple way, and I continued to slowly pace around the room, still using my beads to help focus on my breath.

At some point in my walking meditation, I began feeling a current of energy rising through my body. It felt closely related to the anger I’d been feeling about the Republican Senators who were opposing impeachment. I allowed the energy to move up from my belly into my chest and shoulders. The current of self-righteous anger seemed to be mobilizing my body for a fight. I appreciated the energy but also knew that the aggressive hostility coming with it was not productive for me or anyone else. I recalled Jesus’ teaching to “Resist Not Evil” and began speaking it as a mantra that I repeated using my prayer beads. I continued the walking meditation, slowly, deliberately repeating the words, “Resist Not Evil”, for quite a file before I started to settle down.

When we finished our meditation, my wife and I each spoke about what was going on inside ourselves.  We then sat in silence again until she suggested that we listen to some music from her playlist.  I agreed. The piece she chose was an orchestral work by Phillip Glass called “The Light”.

There are times when I am particularly open and receptive to new music and this was such a time.  From the opening chords I experienced a sense of haunting mystery and grandeur. As Glass’ characteristically repetitive melodies began to emerge, I resonated with some primal conflict that I felt was building. I allowed my own inner feelings of conflict to emerge again as well, seemingly in synchrony with the music, which began building in complexity and in volume.

I experienced in the music a primordial battle between the forces of Light and Darkness.  The conflict was dramatic and intense, and continued on with what felt like one gargantuan battle after another. I began visualizing myself as a Union soldier during the American Civil War, entering into violent conflicts, with men shouting and advancing and cutting down the rebels with our rifles and bayonets. I felt exhilaration as the battle began, but then began noticing the bloodshed and maiming, men crying out in fear and pain, hundreds of bodies left lying in the battlefield as our army charged forward. As the music continued to grow in intensity, I felt stretched to my emotional limits as I imagined battle after battle in the long bloody war between countrymen.  Familiar with the history, I knew that the Civil War was an inevitable clash between irreconcilable beliefs about the essential dignity of all human beings. It was ghastly in its ferocity, yet necessary.  The music continued for what felt like hours and I felt relieved when it finally resolved with beautiful modulations and recapitulations.

The epic battles I’d imagined actually occurred within less than a half hour of music. At the end, I could feel that the heavy weight of anger and despair I was carrying that morning had passed through, leaving me feeling lighter and brighter.  We listened and moved to more music before we brought our session to an end. I had enough energy afterward to go outside and begin shoveling out the wet snow that was accumulating on our sidewalks and driveway. The physical work felt purposeful and enlivening.

That evening, we watched the news reporting the expected outcome of the vote in the Senate.  While seven Republicans joined fifty Democratic Senators in voting guilty, it was well short of the 2/3 needed to convict. I still felt disappointment, but I no longer was enraged or despairing. Instead, my admiration for the skill and determination of the team of impeachment prosecutors inspired me with hope.

Our personal ritual that day had succeeded in bringing me to a place of acceptance.  Jesus’ “Resist Not Evil” teaching reminded me that stoking angry partisanship leads only to more evil. And the strong energetic current I experienced while listening to “The Light” helped inspire a necessary inner firmness in the face of assaults to dearly held values.  I was ready to redouble my political activism with purpose and resolve.

John Bayerl, 2/22/2021

“The Hill We Climb” — Reflections on the Inauguration

Washington Post photo, 1/20/2021

It’s been a few days since the inspiring inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris here in Washington. The hopeful feeling that I, my wife, and our political friends experienced then has survived the first days of the new administration and is showing some possibility of sustaining itself through at least the proverbial “first hundred days” of the Biden administration.

The not-entirely-peaceful transfer of power, performed within the Red Zone of the Capitol and Washington Mall, guarded over by thousands of police and National Guard troops, was an event that we’d long anticipated. Yet I awoke Wednesday with doubts whether a meaningful inauguration ceremony could be enacted on the very site where Trump’s insurrectionists had seized the Capitol and threatened the lives of the entire U.S. Congress only two weeks earlier.

During the three decades I worked as a spiritual counselor at a non-denominational rural retreat center, I made a careful study and practice of ceremony and ritual.   I had learned that I and others are hungry for meaningful rituals, especially at threshold events in our lives: weddings, divorces, births, deaths – any event representing a significant passage into another way of being.

For many of us, the recent presidential inauguration qualifies as such a significant passage. As a practitioner of ritual, I had learned the importance of physical setting. Churches and other temples of worship consciously provide safe, protected, beautiful, sometimes awe-inspiring venues for experiencing a divine presence. Working with Native American teachers and healers, I had learned that the natural world could also provide the environment for profound experiences of the sacred.

Our U.S. Capitol building is the principal temple of our national political life. Many Congressional representatives spoke of the January 6 insurrection as a desecration of our national political temple.  I myself held a reverence for the Capitol since my first visit there as a 12-year-old. Yet after the murder and mayhem waged by the insurrectionist mob on January 6, and the ensuing militarization to prevent further disturbance, I wondered whether the sense of sacred space could still be invoked.

The inspiring unfolding of the Biden-Harris inauguration was therefore especially gratifying to behold.  Despite the restricted number of attendees and the raw memories of the traumatic upheaval two weeks earlier, I felt transported to a place of renewed political commitment and genuine love for our nation and for the institutions that had allowed us to move forward.

The two moderators of the event, Senators Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota and Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri were gracious and upbeat.  The swearing-in ceremony was preceded by a series of prayers, short speeches, and songs that served to lift the energy and spirit of the occasion. President Biden is a genuinely spiritual person and his choice for the clergy to speak the Invocation (a Catholic priest friend) and the Benediction (a protestant minister) demonstrated that his brand of Christianity was of the “servant leadership” variety.  Lady Gaga’s rendition of the National Anthem stirred me with her soaring vocal artistry and unusual wardrobe.  Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks each brought their uniquely soulful styles to “This Land Is Your Land” and “Amazing Grace” respectively.

Vice President Kamala Harris’ swearing-in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor followed.  The history-making ascendance of the first woman to attain that office was all that needed to be affirmed.

After swearing his fealty to the Constitution and to the responsibilities of the presidency, new President Joe Biden delivered a forceful and moving speech, focused mainly on finding common ground within our deeply divided country. He spoke to the fragility of democracy, as witnessed by ongoing denial of the election results and the violent insurrection exactly two weeks earlier.  He also spoke to the resiliency of our democratic institutions as demonstrated by both houses of Congress reconvening at the Capitol just hours after the attack to formally certify the election.

“So now, on this hallowed ground where just days ago violence sought to shake this Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”

Those words had greater weight by virtue of three former presidents (Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama) attending, and Biden’s also sharing his phone conversation with Jimmy Carter the night before.

President Biden’s speech was an affirmation of his optimistic, spiritually grounded belief that we are capable of meeting and overcoming the many existential challenges facing us:

“The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.

“Over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war we’ve endured, but we still have far to go.

“We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain.”

A neighbor had joined my wife and me to watch the inauguration on television.  We found ourselves spontaneously standing up and clapping together at various points, as if we were physically there!  It was then that I realized that the concentrated commitment and energy of the ceremony had transcended the recent insurrection, the necessary military security, and the still raging pandemic.

Inspiring as President Biden’s speech was, the capstone of the ceremony for me was what followed:  the reading of an inauguration poem by the twenty-something African American woman poet, Amanda Gorman.

Associated Press photo of Ms. Amanda Gorman

Ms. Gorman wore a bright yellow coat and red headband.  She was a slight in her physical presence, but exhibited a poise and grace that was visually, as well as poetically, compelling, especially in her fluid, graceful hand-arm movements, and clear, strong elocution.  Her poem is titled “The Hill We Climb” and it uncannily echoed many of the themes just spoken by our new President, as evinced by the following segments:

“We are a nation that isn’t broken

but simply unfinished…

We are striving to compose a country

committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions…

We close the divide because we know

to put our future first

we must put our differences aside….

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped,

That even as we tired, we tried…

The hill we climb,

If only we dare

Is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into

And how we repair it.”

After the long¸ dark, dispiriting years of the Trump presidency, I felt my soul being washed and healed.  A strong, positive feeling continued throughout the day and was reinforced by the inspiring, televised “celebration event” sponsored by the inauguration committee that evening.

Like President Biden and everyone else I know, I have no illusion that the road ahead for our country will be an easy one.  But Inauguration Day’s ceremonial events succeeded in opening a genuine sense of hope that enough of us had come together to begin the long, hard climb ahead.

John Bayerl, 1/24/2021