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

The Battle for Washington

The Battle for Washington

January 6 was a tragic yet historic day here in the Washington D.C. area. Like many others watching the live broadcasts from the Capitol, my wife and I were horrified to see the most sacred bastion of our American republic stormed, looted, and otherwise desecrated in unspeakable ways while both houses of Congress were meeting to formally certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President. That the riotous mob of insurrectionists had been incited by the sitting president made the spectacle even more appalling. The fact that five people lost their lives in the melee and that the lives of every one of our Representatives and Senators, as well as that of the Vice President, were put at risk, made the whole event downright criminal.

The ensuing week was like recovering from a battle. As Congress regrouped and completed their work of certifying the election in the wee hours of the following morning, the slow, painful climb back to a semblance of normalcy began. There is little doubt that Trump incited the mob to this shameful act of treasonous sedition. As he sought to diminish and disavow his involvement, it became clear that the only suitable response would be a second impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Congressional lieutenants rose to the occasion to fulfill their Constitutional responsibility by formally impeaching Trump for a second time. This time even a handful of Republicans voted to sanction Trump,

By last week my wife and I and another couple were feeling a desire to remove ourselves from Washington for a brief respite. A friend of mine living in Frederick, MD had recently escorted me on a beautiful walk along the Monocacy River, not far from his home. I suggested that spot as a good place for a nature walk and we all agreed to meet there one clear, bright morning.

I hadn’t paid much attention to it in my first walk there, but the pastoral site along the Monocacy is actually a National Park, commemorating the Civil War “Battle of Monocacy”. This time I took the initiative to do a little research before our visit. The National Parks website had excellent historical information and maps of what transpired there on July 9, 1864, now sometimes called “The Battle for Washington”.

In brief, by July 1864 Ulysses Grant and the Army of the Potomac had Lee’s Confederate army bottled up in Petersburg, VA (south of Richmond). Lee recognized that the city of Washington was being only lighted guarded and he saw an opportunity. He ordered one of his cavalry commanders, Jubal Early, to take about 15,000 men and ride up the Shenandoah Valley through Virginia and proceed to cross into Maryland for an assault on the capital. Union troops prevented Early’s crossing of the Potomac by burning the bridge at Harper’s Ferry. Early proceeded east to Frederick, MD with an eye to marching down to Washington on what is now Route 355. He threatened to burn Frederick to the ground but was appeased when city officials paid his requested fee of $200,000.

Meanwhile, the Union general Lew Wallace (author of “Ben Hur”), stationed in Baltimore, was informed of Early’s entry into Maryland by an official from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He traveled by train to the Monocacy Junction station, just south of Frederick on the Monocacy River. Knowing that Early was then approaching Frederick and that Washington itself was lightly defended, Wallace devised a plan to block Early’s cavalry from crossing the Monocacy. He summoned about 5,000 troops from Baltimore to deploy to Monocacy Junction and soon had them setting up defenses along the riverfront.

When Early’s men approached the river crossing at Monocacy Junction on the morning of July 9, they encountered Union soldiers and artillery commanding the bluffs across the river. Their first attempt to cross the bridge was repulsed. Early then ordered some of his cavalry to attempt crossing at the Worthington Ford, about one mile downstream (now the site of the pastoral hiking trail). The Confederate cavalrymen got across but were soon met by massive volleys of rifle fire from Wallace’s men hidden behind a long wooden fence. Hundreds of Confederate cavalrymen were killed or wounded in this ambush, and the rest were forced to retreat.

By late afternoon though, it became clear that Early’s forces outnumbered Wallace’s by about 2 to 1. Continued fighting along the riverfront resulted in Wallace having to pull his forces back. Wallace’s army retreated back to Baltimore, but not before having delayed Early’s march south by an entire day.

In his autobiography, Ulysses Grant commended General Lew Wallace’s foresight and initiative at the Battle for Washington. The extra day was enough time for Grant’s dispatch of his VI Corps to reach and secure the capital. Jubal Early’s cavalry made it to the outskirts of Washington, but were repulsed at Fort Steven, with President Lincoln himself observing the Union victory there.

Studying up on this other “Battle for Washington” helped me to put last week’s insurrection at the Capitol into better perspective. I realized that it was no accident to see Confederate flags among Trump’s mob on January 6. The site of those flags inside the Capitol was especially alarming. And the ghastly site of portable gallows on the Mall in front of the Capitol was a clear statement that the insurgents would even dare to threaten lynching. The Confederacy may have lost the Civil War, but it’s clear that present-day advocates for the “Lost Cause” continue to advance their ideology of racism, now joined with Trump’s unique blend of fascism which shows little respect for the Constitution or the rule of law.

The small Indivisible group that my wife and I started four years ago is called “For The Common Good”. We initiated it largely because of our deep disturbance by Trump’s election in 2016. We resolved ourselves to countering the ugly racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant programs that Trump and his lieutenants were promulgating. After the white supremacy outbreak in Charlottesville in 2017, it became clear just how closely allied Trump was with the most reactionary forces in our country.

With President-elect Biden’s decisive victory in November, our group has re-doubled our commitment to finding dialog with Republicans, even those who may have supported Trump. Our commitment to understanding and dialog continues. Yet the events at the Capitol last week cannot simply be swept under the rug.

Lincoln was temperamentally a master of negotiation and compromise. Yet in his first inaugural address, with more southern states still seceding, he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. He realized that the nation had reached a point at which the southern slave states could no longer be simply appeased.

The Civil War was a violent expression of deep-seated divisions that had been extant since our country’s Constitutional beginning. The insurrection at the Capitol last week is an indication that some of the basest beliefs of the Confederacy are still alive in our midst. Before we can move ahead with real healing, the fundamental racism at the heart of Trumpism needs to be fully repudiated. Before President Biden can move us forward towards healing and unity, the Robert E. Lee’s and Jubal Early’s in our midst need to be called out, exposed, and fully repudiated. There is no compromise possible with those who avow that the most secure election in American history can simply be denied by fiat.

A slogan from Al-Anon is: “Without consequences, there is no healing”. Trump has shown himself to be an existential threat to the principles of our republic. Those who supported and enabled him now have to face the consequences of their obeisance. The latest “Battle for Washington” is a sobering reminder that dialog and reconciliation can occur only after perpetrators of sedition are firmly stopped and brought to justice.

John Bayerl, 1/17/2021

Experiencing Biophilia on the Delaware Shore

9/16/2020, Fenwick Island, DE

A mild, summery morning, very still, mostly clear, temperatures in the low 70’s. My spouse Andrea and I have been relaxing in our friend’s modest bay-side cottage for a few days. We agree that it’s a perfect time for a kayak jaunt around the nearby sea marshes.

After careful preparation, we embark in our friends kayaks to explore Jefferson Creek, Lucky Island, and other enchanted spots in Little Assawoman Bay.

Gliding through the calm, marsh-bordering channel fronting our cottage, we spot movement in the branches of a distant tree. As we quietly approach the half-dead pine, we see that its many bare branches are supporting dozens of diverse waterfowl – gulls, egrets, and a band of ibises. We slow our kayaks and gaze in wonder at this confluence of waterbirds, sunning themselves on multiple levels of parallel branches. Binoculars bring them into clearer focus. We sit in silence, taking in the splendor of the sight.

The ibises are a rare find for us on the Delaware Shore, with their distinctively long, downward-curved-bills, four of them sitting adjacent. After a goodly time, a cool breeze rises and stirs many of the birds to fly elsewhere. The spirit of biophilia has ushered in its first enchantment.

Our spirits lifted by this first sighting, we paddle contently through the placid waters of Jefferson Creek on the far end of Lucky’s Island. This half-mile channel offers its own enchantment, with the overhanging tree branches creating a protected avenue of dappled sunlight and a plentiful population of diverse songbirds.

Emerging into the wide, lake-like expanse of the southern part of Assawoman Bay, we decide to hug the shoreline. Before long, we come upon a threesome of cormorants, sitting abreast, calmly sunning themselves. We’d seen cormorants for the first time twenty years ago in the sub-tropical waters of the Florida Gulf. With the steadily warming climate, we’d occasionally seen others in the lake waters of central Maryland where we live. Never before had we seen three together at rest. They seemed contentedly oblivious to our presence. By keeping our distance, we were able to keep them in view for a good long time.

The rest of our circumnavigation of Lucky’s Island was peaceful and uneventful. We arrived back at the cottage feeling relaxed, yet emotionally expanded at having had the good fortune to share time and close proximity with the local waterbirds.

A nature-loving friend of ours introduced us to the term “biophilia” some years ago. It was brought into common parlance by the renowned entomologist E.O. Wilson in a book by the same name. Wilson defines “biophilia” as “an innate love for the natural world felt universally by humankind; an urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.

The good feeling my wife and I shared had to do with feeling a part of the greater natural world in which we live. That expanded feeling included wonder, admiration, respect, and gratitude. We felt somehow privileged that the natural world had opened its doors to us so bounteously.

John Bayerl (as “recollected in tranquility” on Solstice Day, 12/21/2020)

2020 ELECTION WORK — A PERSONAL RECAP

from my journal of 11/3/20 —

“Today, Election Day, is one that many of us have anticipated since 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency in a bitter defeat for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic party, and those who feared the destabilizing leadership of someone who thrived on flouting normal standards of human decency and the political norms governing our country since its birth. A positive outcome is possible, perhaps even likely. But after the crushing disappointment of 2016, many of us are on edge.  The future of the American political system is at stake, and with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging, the safety, health and well-being of millions of ordinary people.”

The edginess I described then didn’t subside until four days later when all major news outlets concluded that Joe Biden had won Pennsylvania, putting him over the needed 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.  Saturday, November 7 was a balmy, Indian Summer day in much of the Mid-Atlantic. It was my wife Andrea’s birthday and we’d decided to enjoy the fine weather by spending a few hours in the secluded woods of a nearby park.  We’d been enjoying the sunshine and remnants of fall foliage as we sat beside a creek when she received a text message from a friend wishing her a happy birthday and congratulating us on the just-announced news of Biden’s victory.  Andrea stood and let out a victory yelp, jumping up and down with unmitigated joy. I joined her in the celebration, both of us laughing and weeping tears of joy. It was the perfect birthday present, the culmination of many months of concentrated effort by us both.

Writing Letters to Infrequent Voters

Back in mid-October we had completed a voter letter-writing project we’d been working on since the spring.  The project was called Vote Forward and was organized by an activist political group called Swing Left. Members of our monthly political group became interested in the letter-writing project and a number of us took the Zoom-based training and began writing. Andrea and I reached our goal of completing 500 letters each,  dropping them off at our local post office on date that Vote Forward had pre-determined.

The Vote Forward project gathers lists of “infrequent voters” in mostly Democratic-leaning localities in important battleground states.  It developed a form letter focusing on the importance of voting in the upcoming election. An essential element of the project is to focus on voting itself and not recommending any particular candidate or political party.  We participants in the project simply hand-wrote the person’s name, a few lines of our own about why we voted in every election, and signed it.  We were responsible for purchasing business envelopes and first-class stamps, and for hand-addressing each envelope to the designated recipient.

I started writing letters in April, initially in batches of five per week.  I was attracted to the project because I recognized the importance I gave to any hand-addressed, first class mail that I received. I imagined myself as the recipient, curiously opening the letter with their handwritten name and address on the envelope. 

Vote Forward allows you to choose which state to write to.  I started with Texas and out of curiosity would use my phone’s map-application to look up the specific locality I was writing to.  That helped me to better visualize who I was writing to, and also helped open in me an empathic connection with that area of the country.

I’m retired and have a lot of freedom to determine my daily schedule. As I began to enter into a positive flow with the letter-writing, I slowly increased my volume, first to batches of 20 per week, and ultimately to 40.  Andrea joined me in the project in early summer, and three members of our monthly political group were also continuing to write.  We encouraged one another when the work felt tedious, reminding ourselves that energy focused on the project helped to alleviate negative feelings about our current political reality. 

A neighbor asked if we knew of any letter-writing campaigns and I was happy to recruit her to the Vote Forward effort.  The project has been in existence for years and has gathered hard data showing that high-volume letter-writing increased turnout by multiple percentage points.  Knowing the extremely close voting margins in many states in 2016 gave us added incentive to stay with the work. In addition, the project was in keeping with the greater Democratic party strategy to increase voter turnout (“We Vote, We Win!”)

Phone Banking into North Carolina

As the letter-writing campaign was winding down, I decided to turn my energies to phone banking. My friend Barbara in our political group was coordinating phone banking efforts to infrequent voters of color in North Carolina.  She gave me a personal tutorial on North Carolina politics and the importance of turning out African American and Latino voters there.  I was able to make calls from home using my own phone.  The project was endorsed by the North Carolina NAACP which gave added credibility to our effort.  As with the letter-writing, I started slowly and deliberately, limiting myself to an hour per day.  I increased to two hours per day by month’s end as I found a rhythm to the work, continually refining and simplifying the script I used at the beginning of each call.   This project encouraged us to leave voice messages, and a majority of my contacts involved leaving succinct, upbeat encouragements to vote.

I spent a few days at the end of October participating in a phone banking project to “cure” mail-in ballots that had been rejected by the local Boards of Election in North Carolina.  Again, Barbara recruited me for this special project. The messaging mostly involved encouraging people whose mail-in ballots had been rejected to pursue in-person voting, either through Early Voting, or on Election Day itself.  This was rewarding work as many people were most grateful to learn of the in-person voting alternative.

Volunteering as an Election Worker

The last election project I undertook was working as an election judge here in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Back in the late spring, with the pandemic still active and Donald Trump falsely impugning the legitimacy of mail-in voting, I began feeling unsettled about the election process itself.  Trump’s ongoing refusal to agree to abide by the election outcome also contributed to this.  Our county had run a successful, 95% mail-in primary election in June.  But for the general election, our governor was requiring more in-person voting. A majority of election judges here were seniors and most of them were opting out of the close personal contact implicit in in-person voting.  I decided to take the training to become an election worker myself.  Although I had my own COVID-19 concerns, my desire to make a contribution to the election process won out.

Most of the election training was online.  It was rigorously detailed and took me a full day to get through it and pass the required quizzes.  An in-person training was required in order to familiarize ourselves with the voting technology at the polling sites. This was a 2-hour session at a county recreation center.  Elaborate COVID-19 self-protection procedures were used, and we were also instructed on how to enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing during the election.

I signed up for two days of Early Voting and for Election Day itself. The posted hours for election workers are 6am to 11pm.  At 71, the prospect of working those long hours was overwhelming, but I was able to secure half-day service on each of the three days I worked.  I’d decided to work as an unpaid volunteer and that seemed to help me get the half-days.

I remember the feeling of anticipatory excitement as I drove to the evening set-up session on the eve of Early Voting.  Maryland was offering eight days of in-person voting just before Election Day itself.  On that Sunday evening, 70 or so of us gathered to set up the election equipment in the big gymnasium at the Bohrer Park Recreation Center about three miles from our home.  We got a pep-talk from a supervisor and got to meet the two Chief Judges at our site, a man and a woman, one Republican the other Democratic though we were never told which was which.  The best part of the meeting was meeting some of my colleagues, most of whom were doing this for the first time.  There was a healthy spirit of camaraderie and cooperation as we worked together to learn what was needed and how best to accomplish it.

My first stint was the second shift on opening day, Monday, 10/26. I reported to one of the Chief Judges at 2pm and she suggested that I roam and observe for a while to see where I was needed.  In the course of the next hour, I was able to get a better sense of the discrete jobs and where I could contribute.  I introduced myself to a few of my fellow workers and asked if I could shadow them for a while. They were universally happy to help me get oriented into the various jobs.  I ended up spending most of my shift at the line of Ballot Marking Devices (BMD’s) arranged on long tables along the far side of the gym.

BMD’s are machines that assist the voter in making their selections, producing a narrow-printed sheet with their encoded vote. The printed sheet becomes a ballot that is then inserted into a Scanner machine which tallies the votes. My job was to orient voters to the machine and help them get started. Voters had a choice of marking paper ballots manually or using a BMD to facilitate the process.  For Early Voting, the great majority of voters were choosing to use the machines. Lines often formed to wait for a free machine, and line workers pointed voters to the next available BMD. 

There were six of us working the 18 BMD’s that afternoon and evening.  When I first came on, it was to relieve people who needed a break. When they returned, I would relieve someone else. Two people left at 3pm in completion of the “morning” shift so I eventually had a more permanent station. I soon became proficient in the routine of politely greeting the voter and explaining how I would help them get started.  We were all wearing masks, of course, and I had to remember to observe social distancing.  I used an alcohol wipe to clean the table and machine surface after each voter was finished.

I enjoyed my first day because I had an opportunity to assist many different people, and also was interacting regularly with my fellow workers.  We had an opportunity to chat when the lines thinned, and were always looking out for how we could help each other to streamline the process.  After voting ended at 8pm, three of us who had worked together for the last hours gathered to compare notes and socialize.  One was a corporate consultant, the other an experienced chef, both of them, like me, looking to make a civic contribution. None of us had previous experience as election workers, but we bonded nicely in working together.  I left that night with a feeling of community and accomplishment. I was also exhausted from being on my feet for so many hours and was glad that my next shift was not until Friday.

I set my alarm for 5am on Friday in order to arrive at Bohrer Park by 6.  When I arrived, I ran into many of the same workers I’d met earlier.  Some were working for the full 8-day extent of Early Voting, eager to get the $100/day bonus that came with that commitment.  I also talked with a state employee who said she was working the election in lieu of her regular state job, earning personal leave time as well as the $180/day stipend that the Board of Elections offered.  Given the grueling hours, it was well earned.

That Friday was the 5th day of Early Voting and the number of voters was much smaller than the 1st day.  Bohrer Park was one of only 11 sites available for Early Voting in our large county.  But early reports indicated that 50% of the vote in our county was coming in via mail-in ballots.  In any event, my early shift that day was considerably slower paced.  I worked for a couple of hours at the initial voter-greeting table, looking up voters in the a computer “pollbook”, verifying their name, address and birthdate, and printing out a small slip of paper called a Voter Activation Card (VAC), which they signed and I initialed.  The VAC was initialed by another worker at either the ballot table (for getting paper ballots) or at the BMV.  A final worker initial was placed at the Scanning Device (SD) and the VAC was carefully stored there as the voter left.  The SD worker collected the VAC’s in bundles of 25, and regularly verified the number collected with the SD’s indication of ballots scanned.

My hearing and vision are not the best, so I asked to be relieved at the pollbook and took up an opening at one of the SD’s.  I’d trained briefly in that job on Monday.  It was pretty straightforward, collecting the VAC from each voter as they approached and guiding them to insert either their hand-marked ballot or electronically generated ballot from a BMD.  After the ballots were scanned into the machine, a verifying message was displayed, confirming that the vote had been registered. I initialed each VAC and wrote the SD number on it as well, carefully placing it an envelope.  Every hour or so, I’d count the VAC’s and use a paperclip to bundle them into groups of 25.  Being a slow day, I had the opportunity to chat with my colleagues operating SD’s near mine.  One was a 17-year-old high school student who was earning some required volunteer credits that day.  She was eagerly planning to be a political science student in college and was excited at participating in real election work.

For Election Day itself, I had to attend another preliminary meeting for setup and orientation.  This time I was assigned to Magruder High School, about 2 miles from our home.  I had communicated with one of the Chief Judges there the previous week in order to secure a half-day, volunteer position.  She was an older, experienced election judge who shared with me her own dilemma about working during the pandemic.  We were united in our discernment that it was worth the risk.

I worked the second shift on Election Day, starting at 2pm and ending about an hour after the polls closed at 8pm.  It was even slower than it had been on my second shift at Early Voting.  I worked primarily at a Scanner Device again, taking over for a high school student who left at 3.  He was a junior at the high school with a particular interest in computer scientist.  More interestingly, he was from Indonesia and had come to the U.S. with his older brother in order to further their educations.  I was taken with his immigrant story, and with his desire to participate in a U.S. presidential election.  Later in the day, I met an American-born man whose parents had emigrated from Bangladesh in the 1980’s. He was a very successful business consultant who wanted to give back as a volunteer election worker. 

In the three days I worked, I was impressed by the orderliness of the process, and the high level of cooperation among election workers and voters alike. There were a few people who couldn’t or wouldn’t wear masks and they were able   vote outside in the presence of a Chief Judge.  One woman on Election Day refused to wear a mask and threatened retribution by getting her lawyer on the phone.  A Chief Judge calmly talked her down and the woman left.  There were a few instances when a judge had to remind a voter to keep their mask over both nose and mouth. These were all met with compliance.

Renewed Commitment

I decided to write this account as an affirmation of the concerted effort that many of us have made to maintain our country’s democratic traditions, the most precious of which is voting.  As Donald Trump continues to malign the integrity of the election and refuses to concede, I want to stand up for all the thousands of people who worked so diligently to uphold an electoral process that Trump prefers to trample on (unless he wins, of course).

Andrea and I started our small political group after the 2016 election because we understood that we could no longer take for granted the democratic institutions that we’d inherited.  With President-elect Biden’s victory, we know that our work is far from complete, but that we now have a chance to move forward.  The shared energy and enthusiasm of the 2020 election are spurring us on to continue our work.  We’re engraving the recent memories of unfettered jubilation when it became clear that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were ultimately victorious.

We call our group “For The Common Good”.  It’s an affirmation that, as citizens, we need to rise above our purely personal comforts and interests to work with others towards shared goals. Participating in this communal political effort has helped us to remain focused, purposeful, and committed through some very dark times. And we trust that it will continue to keep us together through the challenges ahead.

John Bayerl

November 23, 2020

For the Common Good, Year 4

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In January 2017, just after Trump’s inauguration and the ensuing counter-inaugural Women’s March, my wife and I formed a small political group that we named “For the Common Good”.  We had both been politically active for most of our time in the Washington, DC area, but like many, had “coasted” through  President Obama’s second term under the mistaken belief that our beloved President alone could take care of guiding the ship of state.  We did take the 2016 presidential election seriously, donating to both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, displaying yard signs, working phone banks, and presiding at a Democratic Party table at our polling place on election day.  I even signed up to fill the empty position of Democratic Precinct Chair in our suburban Maryland town and attended the trainings and pep-rallies that went with that job.

Andrea and I had re-connected with some old friends during the 2016 campaign.  Most of us had ended up working for Hillary, and all of us were stunned at the enormity of what we had lost.  We had a few informal meetings and dinners at our home to share our grief, support one another, and begin to plot a response.  Andrea and I are longtime supporters of the MoveOn political organization and we also hosted a couple of political meetings under the MoveOn banner in the weeks preceding the 2017 inauguration.

We were inspired and energized by the Women’s March and began planning to dig in for a long period of political resistance. A younger friend (Andrea and I are both retirees) suggested that we investigate a new group called Indivisible that he had read about on the Vox news-site.  I eagerly studied the group’s founding document – the Indivisible Guide – and Andrea and I both responded positively to the political resistance strategy described there.  But more than that, we were drawn to Indivisible’s call for groups of citizens to join together in regular face-to-face meetings, to support one another as friends and neighbors, and to re-invigorate the kind of grassroots, participatory democracy that we were hungering for.

In late January 2017 we met with a dozen of our politically oriented friends and neighbors to discuss the idea of establishing an ongoing Indivisible chapter.  Some had already read the Indivisible Guide online, and everyone was drawn to forming a mostly autonomous small group of friends that would have an Indivisible affiliation.  I agreed to be the group convener, suggesting that we meet monthly and that we limit our numbers so as to be able to meet in our homes.  Andrea suggested a name for us, “For the Common Good”, to affirm the kind of political culture we were most interested in co-creating. Everyone agreed and I proceeded with the simple process of registering us online.

As we enter our fourth year, I’m inspired at how far our group has come.  I’ve taken my role as “convener” seriously and have helped ensure that we meet one Sunday morning every month.  I maintain a list of member contacts, monitor the group’s email discussions, and create suggested agendas.  We’ve lost 3 or 4 people from our founding group, but have added about that number of new members as well. Other group members have come forward to host meetings in their homes and that has added to the feeling of a group of committed political friends.

When we started the group, Andrea and I were interested in co-creating a kind of support group that also took on specific politically oriented projects. About half of our monthly meetings consist of an opening “go-round” in which everyone is free to share virtually anything they care to.  All of us felt burdened by the daily flow of bad news we were hearing and seeing from TV and radio, print media, and increasingly, social media.  Our group gives everyone an opportunity to share these burdens, to feel less alone, and to join in solidarity in projects of our choosing.  As trained counselors, Andrea and I were well aware of the kind of isolation and despair that often emerges when people feel defeated and depressed.  We weren’t running a therapy group, but an important goal was to provide support when any of our members’ spirits were sagging.

Andrea and I lived in Takoma Park, MD in the 1980’s and 90’s when the town had come alive with widespread community involvement in local, national, and international issues.  We volunteered to serve on town commissions, helped organize annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations, and worked to elect progressively minded citizens to the town Council and Mayor’s office.  We adopted the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” and see our work with Indivisible as a continuation of our earlier grassroots experience in Takoma Park.

An early local project that our new Indivisible group took on was a successful, year-long effort to get our county (Montgomery County, MD) to adopt a stronger minimum wage law, up to $15 per hour.  We studied up on the issue, attended public hearings, Council meetings, and rallies, and even set up meetings to lobby individual Council members.  (I’ve written in more detail about this effort on my Blog piece of 11/13/2017.)

Some people in our group were health care administrators and practitioners and wanted to do a deep study of the existing healthcare insurance system and consider some of the new proposals that were emerging — especially Medicare for All. We spent many of our meetings focused on the goal of achieving universal health care, with health care regarded as a universal human right.  We joined forces with an established group called Physicians for Universal Healthcare to meet with Sen. Ben Cardin on two separate occasions. Others of us met with our respective Congressional representatives.  In this we were fulfilling one of the main strategies of the national Indivisible – to meet regularly with our Congress people.

In the 2018 state and county election, many of us attended candidate debates and even worked for specific candidates.  There were a plethora of Democratic candidates in the primaries and our meetings gave us a forum to discuss the pros and cons of individual candidates.

One local issue that occupied us in Year 3 was the State’s proposed construction of added lanes to our congested traffic arterials in the DC-Maryland area.  Our members have attended the State’s formal presentations as well as those of local citizens’ groups opposed to specific aspects of the highway widening.  Earlier this month, we engaged in a successful letter-writing campaign for the state Board of Public Works to delay moving forward until local elected officials had a chance to weigh in.

We had a special holiday meeting last Sunday that included a potluck brunch after a shortened group discussion.  We were all in a festive mood as we were joined by two of our younger members as well as two spouses of established members. Some of us reported on our attendance at a local “Impeach and Remove” rally on the night before the historic House vote for impeachment on 12/18.

The group has clearly become what Andrea and I were hoping for – friends who have come to more deeply know and trust one another, and who are willing to invest time and energy to protect, defend, and advance our precious democratic traditions and institutions.

John Bayerl, 12/26/2019

 

Autumn Leaves and Cosmetic Lawn Chemicals

trees-lawnIt’s early November in central Maryland and some classic fall weather arrived with the turning back of the clocks last Saturday night. The clear, crisp days this week were perfect for my ongoing efforts to deal with the abundance of fallen leaves on our half-acre suburban property. Our lot has more than a dozen tall hardwood trees – mostly oaks, with a few maples, wild cherries, and hickories. A hard rain over the weekend brought down a plethora of leaves, with many more still clinging to overhead branches.

In the early stages of autumn leaf-fall I use my lawn mower to simply shred them where they lie. This has become “best practice” for many environment-minded suburban property owners. The finely shredded leaves are further broken down by the fall rains and become a useful soil nutrient.

As the season progresses and the lawn gets saturated with leaf residue, other strategies are needed. Some people rake the leaves and place them in large, special-purpose paper bags for curbside pickup. I’ve done this in the past, but my 70-year-old lower back now prevents me from doing so. Instead, I often rake the leaves onto large tarps and drag them to the back of my yard where I use the mower to mulch them in piles. After a year or two, the resulting leaf mulch becomes a useful soil additive for my gardens and planting beds. We were travelling a lot last fall, so I resorted in the late stages to hiring a contracting crew to blow the remaining leaves to curbside for removal to our nearby dump/recycling center.

I was finishing a morning of mower-mulching in place today when an older neighbor-friend came by to say hello. We shared strategies for leaf removal and also talked about hiring lawn treatment companies for next year. As we were talking, a younger man arrived and approached us. Serendipitously, he was the new site-inspector for the lawncare company I had contracted with this past year, Save-A-Lawn. He introduced himself as Ryan, apologized for the interruption, and said he only wanted to inspect the state of my lawn before drawing up a proposed contract renewal. We both agreed that the lawn had benefitted from the bi-monthly fertilizing and “hybrid-organic” weed and pesticide treatments. The full lawn aeration and over-seeding done in September had resulted in a filling-in of many bare spots as well.

After his inspection, Ryan proceeded to tell us that a recent court decision, sustaining our county’s anti-chemical strictures on lawn treatment, was now in full force and was dramatically affecting the entire lawncare industry in Montgomery County, MD. No chemical pesticides or herbicides would be allowed for lawn treatment next year. Ryan reminded me that I already had a “hybrid-organic” treatment in effect, but that the requirement for 100% organic treatment was a major challenge to implement. He was confident that his company would be able to fulfill the new law, but he wondered about the large-scale companies like Tru-Green and Chem-Lawn who currently had no organic alternatives within their chemical-driven offerings.

I count myself as a political and environmental activist and was chagrined at my ignorance of what had transpired with the lawn-care “cosmetic chemical” ban. I’d been motivated to upgrade my mostly raggedy lawn last year after starting to consider selling our “empty nest” 4-bedroom home. My wife and I take frequent walks around our neighborhood and were keenly aware that the appearance of our own lawn was not up to neighborhood standards. We didn’t want to go over to the full chemical pesticide/herbicide approach, but we did want to upgrade our lawn’s appearance. We were happy to have found a smaller lawncare company that offered some organic alternatives.

The Web made it easy for me to get up to speed about what had transpired. Our local lawncare chemical ban was actually passed by the Montgomery County Council in 2015. We were the first major jurisdiction in the country to have passed such a ban. The measure targeted certain chemicals that have federal approval, but which contain substances linked to cancer. The law exempted agricultural land and golf courses and didn’t actually ban the sale of the chemicals within the county. Upon its 6-3 vote passage, the measure was immediately challenged in court by a group of lawn-care companies, a trade association, and some private citizens.

In 2017, a county Circuit Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs, concluding that the county measure was preempted by state law. A Maryland Court of Special Appeals overruled that decision in May 2019, opening the doors for county enforcement of the chemical ban for “cosmetic” lawncare use. The measure had the strong support of the county Sierra Club chapter as well as a large number of local environmental activists and Councilmembers.

The opposing trade association lamented the state court’s ruling and promised to consider other options for possible appeal. The state judge’s ruling simply asserted that localities had the authority to create regulations on potentially harmful chemical products. His ruling states:

“We conclude that the citizens of Montgomery County are not powerless to restrict the use of certain toxins that have long been recognized as ‘economic poisons’ and which pose risks to the public health and environment.”

I for one am fully supportive of our county’s lawn-care chemical ban, despite its radical effects on the lawn-care industry and on the pristine state of suburban lawns. Ryan told me that his company’s need to find fully organic fertilizers would likely mean an immediate price increase for next year’s lawn care service. That’s a price I’m happy to pay.

John Bayerl, 11/7/2019

Colorado Vacation – Part 2

The “family” part of our trip began on the Saturday we arrived in Estes Park.  My sister Meg and her husband Luiz had driven up from their Denver home that afternoon.  The five-person Buffalo group flew into Denver that morning and rented a van to drive up from the airport.  It included my sister Marian and her husband Bob, my brother Tom and his wife Karen, and my sister Anna.  My sister Meg had rented a three-bedroom “cabin” for the week where she, Luiz, Marian, Bob and Anna would stay.  Tom and Karen had a room at the same family resort motel as Andrea and me, about two miles from the rest of our family.

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 Settling In

Everyone was happy to get settled in their respective digs.  The Buffalo crew was especially fatigued from their long-layover flight and ensuing drive from Denver.  Communication was a challenge in that only half of us had reliable cell phone service.  Once we figured out who did and who didn’t, we were able to agree that we would all rest for the evening and get together on Sunday.  Andrea and I connected with my brother Tom and his wife Karen and made a date to do some grocery shopping that evening.  They were without their own car for the week, and we were happy to help with their logistics.

 First Forays into the National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) encompasses 415 square miles of mountain wilderness in northeastern Colorado. It includes some of the Rockies highest peaks along the Continental Divide – the geographical backbone of the North American continent. The entire park received official “wilderness” status by the U.S. Congress in 2009, further safeguarding its pristine natural state.

mapAndrea and I made our first drive into the park on Sunday via the Fall River entry station on Route 34, about five miles west of Estes Park.  A welcoming Park Ranger greeted us at the booth, scanning our recently acquired National Park entry card and driver’s license.  We’d heard of strictures on the number of car s entering but the Ranger assured us that we could go up as far as we wanted that late afternoon.  Our goal was to drive in just far enough to get a taste of what was in store.  Route 34 becomes Trail Ridge Road at the Park, the highest continuous 2-lane highway in the country.

The excellent RMNP brochure and map accurately describes three distinct natural environments.  The large area below 9,000 feet is called “Montane”.  We entered this area at around 8,000 feet and immediately passed through an expansive meadow area with good views of the approaching peaks.  After a few miles we entered a heavily forested area and really began to climb.  The trees were mostly aspens and tall ponderosa pines whose fragrance wafted into the car.

It wasn’t long before we entered the next major ecosystem, the “Subalpine” level of 9,000-11,400 feet. This is a generally wetter environment with smaller size spruce and fir trees and lots of undergrowth.  I made a note about an intriguing turn-off to “Hidden Valley trail” as we continued to ascend on a series of switchbacks that offered great vistas and a somewhat scary view straight down from the steep edge of the 2-lane road.  We remained in the Subalpine level for another five miles or so, stopping to park and walk at two well-known vistas: “Many Parks Curve” and “Rainbow Curve”.  Both offered fabulous views of some of the highest peaks and we were happy to join the parade of other tourists, mostly families with children, eager to catch the view and stretch our legs.

The official RMNP brochure describes our experience well: “To ascend Trail Ridge Road is to leave this world and enter another.  It carries you, breathless with wonder and altitude, into a wild yet fragile alpine realm.”  We took a lot of photos, but none of them do justice to the expanded feeling brought on by such altitude and such intimate proximity to this wild, rugged mountain range.

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Acclimating to Estes Park

The National Park was certainly the major draw, but definitely not the only source of fun and relaxation for the week.  For one, the cooler, drier, clearer weather all week was a welcome relief for those of us who had been enduring still another hot, wet, humid summer back east.  Waking up to temperatures in the 60’s was a real delight.  Some afternoons made it to the low 80’s, but the humidity seldom went over 60%.  Heavy clouds masses would often blow in from the western mountains in the afternoon, and we even had an impressive hailstorm on our second day. But by evening the skies had usually cleared and temperatures dropped.

We had some delightful times at our own family resort as well as at my family’s rented “cabin” on the other end of town.  Andrea and I are both swimmers and our daily afternoon dips in the outdoor pool never failed to refresh. The adjoining hot tub was an added bonus.  I’d been suffering with some chronic neck pain and discovered that I could position my neck on the tub’s jets in a way that was amazingly relaxing.  I also purchased some CBD oil that the resort had for sale and received a noticeable decrease in discomfort after twice daily doses for the week.

The family cabin was actually a very comfortable 3-bedroom, 3-bath home set on a hill with a great view of the surrounding Rockies.  The cabin was  owned by the Clatworthy family, who had been a major force in bringing a culture of quality photography to the region in the previous centuries.  On Monday, we all walked from the cabin into town along the impressive Big Thompson river.  There was a weekly artists’ market open along the Riverwalk downtown, and we all enjoyed the scenic walk down, as well as perusing the quality arts and crafts there.

Clatworthy photos

 

Excursions to Hidden Valley and Kruger’s Rock

On our second trip into RMNP we returned to Hidden Valley, at a signpost I’d noted Sunday.  We set out in the afternoon again and the clouds began building up up to menacing greys and blacks.  By the time we arrived at our destination’s parking lot and trailhead, thunder was rumbling loudly.  The wind picked up and it started raining quite hard, forcing us to wait in our car for over 30 minutes.  The rain stopped, the clouds lightened and soon the afternoon sun was shining down again, creating a sparkling play of waterdrops on grass, brush and trees.

Hidden Valley is a classic Subalpine environment.  We took the mile-long trail out and back, crossing a strong running creek, stopping to take photos in the magnificent light.  It was a great pleasure being there in the magic time after the storm and we lingered on for a good long while.

Before leaving we took note of a National Park sign describing the history of Hidden Valley.  It turns out that it had been a popular ski area for many decades.  But beginning in the 1980’s, snowfalls became progressively less until snow-making machinery had to be used.  By 1992 even that wasn’t enough snow and the ski area closed down for good.  It was a sober reminder that even this pristine natural paradise was not immune from the climate crisis we are already far into.

We took a different exit from the park and drove south to Estes Park’s famous YMCA Conference Center.  A friend had told us he attended a spiritual retreat for over 900 people there some years ago. As we entered the large campus with surrounding mountain vistas, I had to alter my prior conceptions of YMCA as an urban phenomenon.  Here was a massive summer camp environment with large dormitory buildings, conference rooms, and dining halls.  It was supper time when we arrived, and we were happy to join the thronging kids and few adults in one of the cafeteria lines for a high-quality meal at a reasonable price.

The next day we got up early to hike a trail up to Kruger Rock, a 9,000-foot promontory overlooking Estes Park, contained within a local county park (Hermit Park) about five miles south of town. There were far fewer people there and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of morning in the Montane with a bounty of multi-colored wildflowers and fragrant ponderosa pines.  We found a great lookout spot shy of Kruger Rock itself and relaxed on the rocks to take photos and examine the town below with binoculars.

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Coming down we came upon a boy furiously peddling his mountain bike up the steep, rocky path.  He looked overheated and upset and Andrea stopped to ask if he was okay.  He wondered if we had seen other mountain bikers going up.  We said no and he said he’d gotten separated from his family.  She suggested he might have taken a wrong turn at the fork a few hundred feet below.  We were actually able to text his grandfather and saw the boy a little later re-united with his family in a pickup truck laden with mountain bikes.

Lily Lake and the Church on a Rock

One morning mid-week we all gathered at the cabin for a ride up a nearby cable car to Prospect Mountain, another peak over Estes Park. When we saw the long line, we decided to postpone that ride and drove instead to a beautiful mountain lake about 10 miles south on Route 7.

Lily Lake straddles RMNP but is accessible without entering the park itself via a large parking area off Route 7.  The lake features a flat, mile-long hiking path on its perimeter which was perfect for a family jaunt (we even encountered people in wheelchairs).  The lake was surrounded by a meadow bursting with wildflowers, with the towering Longs Peak visible to the west.  The easy hike gave us an opportunity to socialize and take photos.

We all drove (in our two rented cars) a few miles further south on Route 7 to what Meg was calling “the church on the rock”.  St. Catherine of Siena chapel is indeed a small stone church perched above a large outcropping on the side of the road.  We all got out to visit the inspiring little sanctuary and adjacent visitor’s center.

Church on rock

Ascending to the Alpine Heights

Near the end of the week, Andrea and I took a morning drive back into RMNP via Trail Ridge Road. This time we stayed on past the Rainbow Curve lookout, making our first stop at the Forest Canyon overlook.  This was the Alpine realm (above the tree line at 11,400 feet) and the air was noticeably thinner and the views all the more spectacular.  The canyon was cut by the Big Thompson, the same river we’d been delighting in all week at the Estes Park Riverwalk. (We thought of our friend Linda trekking down into the Grand Canyon that very week.)

Andrea connected with two older gentlemen from Estes Park who were volunteering as aides for the Park Service at the lookout.  She asked about the patches of dead pines we’d seen a few miles back and they described an infestation of pine beetles that had appeared with the warming climate.

Our last stop on the Trail Ridge was the Park’s Alpine Visitor Center at just above 12,000 feet.  By this point there were numerous snowfields on the nearby hills and cliffs.  The parking lot was almost filled but we found a spot and toured the impressive gift shop and café.  Fortified, we ascended the trail to the 12,400-foot summit where we had a fabulous 360-degree view of the Continental Divide.  The climb left us light-headed but happy, the culmination of our summer mountain adventure.

Andrea-John-at-top

A Last Meal on Lake Estes, and Further “Chance” Encounters

We had a memorable last meal back in Estes Park at a quality restaurant with a great view of Lake Estes.  Our family from the cabin joined us that Friday evening as we savored the last of our time together.  Andrea and I had eaten there earlier in the week and met a charming Russian waitress – a student working there for the summer.  Meg’s college son Inti was a Russian major at PENN State and was currently in St. Petersburg in an intensive language program. We were happy to have the same waitress that evening, and to share in the surprise and serendipity of our Russian connection.

Earlier that day, Andrea and I had stopped for coffee in a charming shop near Mary’s Lake.  There we encountered a man from the DC area, like us.  After a few minutes of sharing pleasantries, we discovered that this gentleman was a close friend of a couple we knew well back home. We celebrated that synchronicity by taking selfies and texting the photos to our DC friends, much to their surprise and delight.

On the plane ride home from Denver the next day, Andrea happened to sit next to a man who she discovered was a close business associate of some other close DC-area friends.  A memorable delight of our trip were these “chance” encounters that gave a magical feeling of connection and mystery.

John Bayerl, 8/23/2019

A Colorado Vacation, Part 1

My wife and I just returned from a marvelous 10-day vacation in the Colorado Rockies.  My youngest sister, Meg, a longtime Denver resident, arranged the trip for us and three other siblings and significant others.  Meg is the only westerner among the ten of us Buffalo-born sibs and she really enjoys showing off the splendors of the mountains to her East Coast family and friends.

 Arrival in Denver

Our 4-hour, early morning flight to Denver was uneventful. But while waiting for our rental car at Denver airport, we met another retired couple who lived just a mile from us in Rockville, MD.  It was fun sharing travel plans and celebrating the serendipity of our encounter.  This would be the first of three chance encounters that added spice to our trip.

2 Shaded characters

Our first stop was the Denver home of one of Andrea’s old Oberlin college chums.  We successfully navigated a missed exit on the freeway to arrive at Debbie’s lovely home in southeast Denver. Debbie is an active retiree but made time to prepare a delicious pizza and salad for us.  She also took us on a short walk of her neighborhood, allowing us to begin taking in the decidedly different flora and landscape.  We became aware of the mile-high elevation as we quickly tired in the thinner air.  Our only regret was that we couldn’t visit longer.  Andrea had booked concert tickets for us that evening in nearby Boulder and we were eager to check into our hotel there and get settled before our night out.

A Day-and-a-Half in Boulder

The 45-minute drive to Boulder gave us our first glimpses of real mountains. We’d also heard a lot about Boulder as a cultural and educational mecca and were eager to have a day-and-a-half there to explore.  After checking into “The Broker Inn” and resting, we dressed for our evening concert at the Chautauqua Auditorium, about two miles down the road.  It was one of the last classical concerts of the annual Colorado Music Festival, and featured Beethoven’s well-known Pastoral Symphony (#6) and a violin concerto by Phillip Glass.  Andrea had communicated with two old friends of ours who had moved from the DC area back to Boulder some years ago.  They actually lived within the Chautauqua community in Boulder and had alerted Andrea to the concert.

The auditorium was a cozy 19th century barn-like structure located on the sprawling campus of the Chautauqua community.  We were happy to find street parking about a half-mile away and settled in for a first-rate performance, introduced and conducted masterfully by the Canadian musician Peter Oundjian.  Beethoven’s 6th symphony is a beautiful and lively evocation of the natural world and includes a famous depiction of a gathering thunderstorm.  Shortly after the piece came to an end, a hard, steady rain began to fall outside, curtailing our intermission excursion.

The ensuing concerto was deeply evocative and stirring, played by the accomplished violinist Robert McDuff.  The stated theme of the concert was minimalism in music.  The composer Phillip Glass is a master of using simple repeated chords and phrasings to build music of substantial depth and lyricism.  Mr. Oundjian had provided some background about the piece, dedicated to Glass’ father, a man unlettered in musical complexity.  We enthusiastically joined the standing ovation for the masterful performance of this modern piece that uncharacteristically communicated great depth of feeling.  The expanded feeling of the concert helped us to navigate the steady rain falling on us as we walked back to our car.  Soaked but happy, we found a fast-food restaurant on the way back to our hotel where we could dry off and eat a very late supper.

We slept well that night and got up to the hotel’s full breakfast offering in an ornate old dining room overlooking one of the University of Colorado’s sprawling campuses.  Our ensuing drive to the downtown area took us past further expanses of this impressive public university.  With limited time we had to forego a tour of the university in favor of visiting the old historic area of Boulder.  We parked and walked to the tourist-friendly pedestrian mall along Pearl Street.  It reminded us of a similar car-free area in downtown Charlottesville, VA where we had recently visited.

Boulder-sky-tree

It soon became clear that the increased elevation of Boulder was taking a toll on both of us.  We had to stop regularly to sit and rest on the benches and in a coffee shop along the Pearl Street mall.  A highlight of our morning was visiting the exquisite Rembrandt Yard Gallery, a glass-walled building with wonderful views of the downtown area and surrounding mountains.  The gallery was featuring an exhibit of original Maori paintings.  The natural light-filled ambience of the gallery, including a sound system playing late-Beatles, psychedelic music, transported me to a relaxed, expanded state of awareness in which the “primitive” paintings communicated profound, universal messages.

Maori arrows

On the walk back to our car, we stopped to buy just-made quesadillas from a Mexican American food truck.  They were delicious and substantial, impressing on us the pervading Hispanic cultural presence all around us.

After a refreshing dip in our hotel’s small outdoor pool, we rested for a while before going out for dinner at our old friends’ home back at the Chautauqua.  Rob and Alice are Boulder natives who were happy to “retire” to their hometown after successful careers in the DC area.  We had gotten to know them more deeply after spending three weeks together on an extended retreat in Brazil four years ago. They warmly received us in their renovated “cottage” located next to a hiking path up to the “Flatirons”, Boulder’s highest ascent.

It was a wonderful evening sitting out in their back patio for a delicious supper.  Their mid-twenties daughter, Naomi, was visiting and it was good catching up with her as well.  She and our son had been classmates at the Washington Waldorf School for a few years.  As with many good friendships, we were able to pick up the conversation from where we’d left off.  Rob and Alice have similar cultural and spiritual interests in addition to shared friends and history.  How rich for us to arrive in a new place and feel so known and taken in!

Arrival in Estes Park

After a post-breakfast stroll through the Univ. of Colorado campus across the street from our hotel, we loaded our rental car for the 90-minute drive up into the mountains.  The city of Boulder quickly gave way to bare, brown hillsides and longer and steeper ascents on Route 36.  Driving the 2-lane road became challenging when we encountered the bicycle leg of an “Iron Man” triathlon, with spread-out riders hugging the shoulder.  We were mightily impressed at the riders’ stamina on the long ascents in the thinning atmosphere.  There was a bona-fide traffic jam on arriving at the town of Lyons, but the cyclists diverged there, and we were soon moving again.  As we continued to ascend, occasional mountain vistas began opening up.  About ten miles from our destination in Estes Park, we got a good look at some snow-covered peaks.  As we pulled into our modest motel-resort on the outskirts of town, the Rockies presented themselves in all their raw majesty.

Lake Estes mounts

We arrived around noon.  Our room wasn’t ready, but the warm, welcoming desk woman suggested a short drive down to the town’s visitor center where we could park and explore the town by foot.  The visitor’s center proved to be a hive of activity as it was the embarkation point for hikers waiting for buses into the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  The impressive Big Thompson River ran behind the visitor’s center with crashing whitewater rapids.  We joined a small stream of other visitors for a stroll along the town’s famous “Riverwalk”.  The half-mile-long walkway is a landscape architect’s paradise, with benches and rocky inlets and sculptures and cleverly designed children’s play areas along the riverfront.  The opposite side of the walkway faces the rear entrances of a stream of up-scale coffee shops, restaurants, and gift shops.  We had a nice stroll, stopping to take photos and appreciate the wonderful zen-like atmosphere.  At 7500 feet, we also noticed our growing fatigue and made stops for coffee and lunch before heading back.

Our room was almost ready on our return and we took some time to explore the comfortable grounds, which included a large outdoor swimming pool and adjoining, enclosed hot tub.  This was clearly a family-oriented resort, with open playgrounds and green space and lots of kids in the pool.  It was laid out as a quadrangle of traditional one-story motel units around a large central green space.  In addition, we were just a stone’s throw from the picturesque Lake Estes. We were happy with our spacious digs that included a front sitting room, comfortable king size bed, and rear dining area with table and chairs, small refrigerator, microwave, and adequate bathroom.  This was our home for the week and we were quite pleased with it.

Murphys1

[TO BE CONTINUED…]