A Day to Remember in London

My spouse Andrea and I recently returned from a 10-day stay in London, celebrating her birthday and our 30th anniversary.  It was our first trip “across the pond” together and we enjoyed it immensely, heightened by the beautiful fall weather we were fortunate to experience there.  We rented a comfortable one-bedroom, basement apartment in the Earl’s Court area of central London, a short walk from fashionable Chelsea, and within easy bus and tube (subway) access to the entire city.

Our visit coincided with Britain’s “Remembrance Day” on Sunday, November 11 (our Veteran’s Day).  The Brits’ “remembrance” focuses mostly on the day of armistice that ended the hostilities of World War One on 11/11/1918.  The country had been marking hundred-year anniversaries of that “Great War” since 2014, and this Remembrance Day was a grand culmination of all the various memorial events that had been going on for the past four years.  We were alerted to the event shortly after we arrived on 11/8, mostly by the red paper poppies that many people wore pinned to their clothing.

On the day itself, the BBC broadcast a solemn, outdoor, morning ceremony of the laying of flowers at the Cenotaph monument in the Whitehall plaza in central London.  The Royal British Legion conducted the ceremony, featuring the royal family and all the the major political leaders of the country, along with representatives of the many Commonwealth countries who had sent soldiers to that war.  Andrea and I were glued to our large screen TV for the event, genuinely impressed with both the “pomp and circumstance” of it as well as the genuine veneration for the fallen.

It was a bright, sunny fall day so afterwards we set out for a hike to explore the nearby areas bordering the Thames river.  We were surprised at a community of houseboats on the river, reminding us of the houseboat community on the Anacostia in downtown Washington.  The Thames is an impressive river – albeit a bit narrower than our Potomac, and with bridges every half-mile or so in central London.  The sky was a brilliant blue with a few billowing white clouds, making for some magnificent vistas.

We crossed the Battersea Bridge to the southern embankment, enjoying the views and taking lots of photos.  We followed the riverside walking-path east past the Albert Bridge to the entrance to Battersea Park.  It was early afternoon and the narrowly forested riverside park had a constant stream of people of all ages and nationalities strolling on the wide pedestrian path.  We joined the stream of humanity, enjoying the relaxed, Sunday atmosphere and the fabulous views of river, trees, bridges, and the city on the other side.

Within a quarter-mile or so, we noticed a temple-like structure ahead within a grove of trees.  As we got closer, we could see that it was a pagoda, and we went over for a better view of it.  It was built on a surrounding stone platform with stone staircases on each side.  Even from the foot of the platform we could see large golden panels with engravings on each of the four sides.  An informational placard informed us that this was the Battersea Peace Pagoda, built in 1985 by a Japanese Buddhist sect per the last wishes of their dying leader, the Most Venerable Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985).  We were struck by the following words of this spiritual leader as engraved on the panel:

“Civilisation is neither to have electric lights, nor airplanes, nor to produce nuclear bombs.

“Civilisation is not to kill human beings, not to destroy things, nor to make war.

“Civilisation is to hold mutual affection and to respect each other.”

Each of the four golden panels near the base of the pagoda were representations of phases in the life of the Buddha, corresponding to the four cardinal directions.  I was most taken with the panel in the west, representing the Buddha’s passage into death.  He lies prone, surrounded by disciples and loved ones, with spiritual entities in the clouds above ready to receive him.

We spent some time taking in the pagoda, with its dramatic perch over the Thames, within a city in the midst of remembering the massive carnage of a world war.  We had planned to attend a Choral Evensong service across the river in Chelsea, so we re-traced our steps back to the Albert Bridge and crossed back over.  The mile-long walk through the city gave us further time to digest the experience.

Evensong is an Anglican religious service comprised of a formal set of prayers and psalms that are often sung.  St. Luke’s church in Chelsea is a towering gothic structure that has been compared to King’s College chapel in Cambridge.  The hour-long choral service we attended there was as beautiful and moving an experience of choral signing as either of us have heard.  The priest announced the theme as the honoring of all those who had fallen in war.  In addition to the gorgeous singing, we were able to take in the beauty and majesty of the church itself.

We were a bit tired by the time we finished our walk back to our flat that evening.  The sun set around 4pm there so it was dark by then as well.  After a brief rest, we had a bite to eat and went back to our TV for the BBC’s coverage of the closing event of Remembrance Day, a formal church service in Westminster Cathedral.  More pomp and circumstance, more beautiful music and stirring words. And yet, what stayed with me the most from that day was the simple message of the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park.

“Civilisation is to hold mutual affection and to respect each other.”

John Bayerl, 12/2/2018

SOME PICTURES BELOW:

 

 

Angels in New York

My spouse Andrea and I recently returned from a full, satisfying 5-day sojourn in NYC. We took a round-trip bus and enjoyed a comfortable stay at a small hotel not far from the Empire State Building. The main focus of our trip was participation in two sacred ceremonies conducted by a couple visiting from Brazil whom we had known for decades.

Our bus arrived near Penn Station on September 27, just before the festival of Michaelmas begins. This festival honors the Archangel Michael as well as the angels Gabriel and Rafael, all of whom are recognized in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The two services we would be attending over the weekend would be celebrating these angelic forces, and inviting us to recognize the possibility of their presence in our lives.

But first we had two full days to enjoy the rich offerings of New York in autumn. Our hotel’s central location on W. 29th Street and Broadway allowed us to walk to almost all the places we were to visit. As we walked our bags there from the bus stop that first afternoon, we were taken with the lively street life all around us. I appreciated this indomitable energy of the city while also relishing the relative peace and quiet of our small but comfortable hotel room once we arrived.

After settling in and resting for a bit, we headed out again around 5pm, walking west to find the High Line that we’d heard so much about. The High Line is an elevated pedestrian walkway built on an abandoned train line. It runs on the far west side of Manhattan from 34th down to 14th Streets. The walkway has wonderful gardens on either side and sports marvelous views of the Hudson River and many new high-rise buildings of unique architecture. We joined a steady throng of fellow pedestrians heading up the walkway to its northern terminus at 34th Street and were taken with the scope and vitality of the westside waterfront.

The sun was setting and our legs tiring as we trudged back to mid-town to find a restaurant. Along 34th Street we came upon a mid-size church with open doors and decided to venture in. It was Roman Catholic and a small number of congregants were praying aloud together near the main altar. We sat in a back pew and realized that the prayers were that of the Rosary of Mary being recited in French and English by black Haitian women. A glance at the church bulletin revealed that this was the church of St. Michael. The bulletin included a long statement from the pastor extolling the virtues of the “Prince of Angels” and reminding parishioners of the special Novena to St. Michael being prayed that weekend for Michaelmas. A large statue of Michael graced the church entrance and we took pictures.

Angelic Service in a Mid-town McDonalds

Our first morning in the city was cool, cloudy and drizzly. We’d reserved 11am tickets for the Whitney Museum and decided to brave the weather and walk down to it. But first we stopped off for breakfast at a nearby McDonalds on 6th Avenue. It was roomy and more nicely appointed than what we were used to. As we were enjoying our coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we witnessed an interaction that left a distinct impression.

When we sat down, I’d noticed a late-middle-aged woman busily cleaning off tables. I was taken with her graceful bearing and well-cut clothing (not the usual McDonald’s uniform). I also noticed a tall, disheveled, middle-aged man, perhaps a street person, in well-worn attire eating his meal alone at a corner table near the restroom. He appeared to be talking to himself. As I was getting up to go to the restroom, I saw him spill his large cup of coffee on himself, his table, and the floor. Within an instant, the cleaning woman rushed to his table with rags and napkins. She was calm yet attentive, helping the man dry his sopped clothing, and then calmly cleaning the table and surrounding floor. When this was completed, she returned to the table with another full cup of coffee for the man. Her manner throughout was gracious, respectful, and solicitous for the man’s well-being.

While I was waiting for Andrea to take her turn in the restroom, I got up to stretch my legs. The cleaning woman continued to move from table to table, clearing debris, and inquiring of customers’ needs. Once again, I was taken by her grace and flair. As I disposed of my coffee cup, she was emptying the trash container. I paused and said what an attentive and hard-working employee she was. She stopped for a moment and we took each other in.

She asked if I was visiting New York and I said yes, that my wife and I were there for a long weekend. She asked if we were acquainted with the High Line and I said we were planning to walk it to the Whitney just then. She nodded her approval and proceeded to recommend some of the exhibits that the Whitney was currently featuring. Surprised, I asked if she was an artist herself. She said no but that she loved New York’s galleries and museums, recommending the Frick and Pierpont-Morgan museums in particular. When I mentioned that we lived in the DC area, she nodded knowingly and said her son had graduated from Georgetown.

As Andrea and I were leaving, I said that McDonald’s was very fortunate to have such a high caliber employee as herself. She demurred, saying that she enjoyed the work and that the ongoing flow of customers was what made it so pleasing. I was utterly amazed by this encounter and kept thinking back to it during the rest of our stay: how someone could feel so satisfied and purposeful serving in such a humble job.

“History Keeps Me Awake at Night”

The Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new building in the West Village in 2015 after about 50 years on the East Side. It’s a large glass and concrete structure right at the southern end of the High Line, overlooking the Hudson river. The two exhibits that drew us were one featuring “Indigenous Space”, and a retrospective of th iconic late-20th century New York artist, David Wojnarowicz.

The first exhibit included an extended video of a woman dressed in a leopard-striped leotard, moving sinuously, sometimes seductively, about a sunlit Mayan-style Frank Lloyd Wright home in Los Angeles. The brown-skinned woman moved with the grace and ease of a professional dancer, evoking the sacred, magisterial feeling of the architecture. It was shown continuously on a large screen within an open theatre-like space. I was mesmerized and kept coming back to it. It was as if the dancer was evoking the creative spirit of an ancient Mayan spiritual entity.

The expansive exhibit of Wojnarowicz’s multi-faceted paintings and sculpture was entitled “History Keeps Me Awake at Night”. The artist was keenly involved in the social and political world of gay identity in New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic. He was a fierce advocate for people with AIDS and succumbed himself at age 38 in 1992. The breadth and vitality of his art filled almost an entire floor. I couldn’t help thinking of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America”, and how the scourge of AIDS had elicited both callous indifference and an immense outpouring of compassionate service.

A Night on the Town with a Fully Human Michael

A highlight of our stay was a Friday night out in Times Square. We walked up Broadway from our hotel around 5:30p. By 34th street, we were in the middle of a large crowd making our way through narrow sidewalks to the splendiferous lights and activity that represent iconic New York. We were meeting Michael, an old high school friend from Buffalo who’d arranged dinner and an Off-Broadway show for us. Our meeting place was a Thai restaurant on 48th street, a few blocks from the New World Stages where we had tickets for the long-running musical “Avenue Q”.

Michael and I have maintained an ongoing friendship since high school. He won me over by his daring and creativity when he played the part of Simon Stimson, the drunken choir director, in our high school production of “Our Town”. Andrea and I had had a fun overnight with Michael and his spouse, Suzanne, back in July. At dinner we had an opportunity to catch up.

“Avenue Q” won numerous Tony awards when it opened in 2003. The show was celebrating a continuous run of 15 years and we soon found out why. The music is upbeat Broadway at its best, and the seven characters, and their puppet friends, kept us laughing delightedly for the entire evening with their witty, irreverent, as well as heart-warming antics and songs.

Celebrations of St. Michael

Our first spiritual work was on Saturday evening at the rented Silent Mind Zen Center in Chelsea, walking distance from our hotel. We arrived early and had a chance to interact with some old friends and helped them re-arrange the space for our gathering of about 50 people.

Our visitors from Brazil would be leading the prayers, music and dancing that would comprise our celebration of St. Michael that evening. The “comitiva” (committee) of leaders included a female lead singer, a male guitarist, and an older married couple who had been pioneers and leaders in our Brazilian spiritual tradition since the 1980’s.

Saturday’s event was a special dancing work honoring the spirit of the angel Michael as channeled through the life and work of another one of our Brazilian Elders, Manoel Corrente. We first sang and danced to special hymns inspired by the life of this simple man of the Amazonian rainforest who had dedicated his life to the spiritual and material well-being of his family and community. After a brief interval, we resumed the ceremony with more singing and dancing, this time to the hymns of a man from urban Brazil, Lucio Mortimer, who had come upon a rainforest spiritual community and decided to stay and live there. One of Lucio’s hymns, “Sao Miguel”, has become a favorite of mine for both its rousing melody and spiritual message of service and devotion:

“I asked for this Light to make me clear/  I asked that I might have this Love,                            I asked for the strength to help  / All the suffering spirits of this world…

With Sao Miguel, my Archangel Protector/  I have the strength to pass every test.                I keep trusting that I’m with my Lord/ Who promised the victor a New Life.”

The second spiritual work was held the next afternoon in a beautifully decorated art studio in Brooklyn. We took the subway there and then walked a few minutes through blocks of warehouses to our destination. Once again we were early enough to share deeply with some of our old and new friends who had gathered.

This second event was a seated “Concentration” work. We sat in rows of chairs around a central altar with the comitiva seated at the altar. In addition to the singing of sacred hymns in Portuguese, we also sat in silent meditation for about an hour. Alex, the leader of the work, is a master teacher of meditation. Many of his own hymns are compact instructions for using silence and conscious breathing to quiet our minds and enter into a deeper experience of our true divine nature. Andrea and I had been singing his latest hymn for weeks. It’s called “Atencao Plena” – “Full Attention”:

“I received this message / To  be able to help you.                                                                                       If you find it beneficial/ Try to amplify it.

When people are suffering/ There is no need for alarm,                                                              Because often the pain/ Comes from the act of thinking.

So open your mind/ For pain to manifest.                                                                                   Thoughts come and go,/ There is no need to avoid them.

All this I discovered/ When I went to meditate:                                                                                 That I am not just my thoughts, / And in my Being I want to be.

Don’t give up what brings you joy,/ It is your true home.                                                                     It’s enough to acknowledge/ The trials that life brings.

Remember well this counsel/ When passing through your trials —                                        Awareness is reached/With a simple breath.”

Wings of Desire

As I sat down to write this account, I remembered a Wim Wenders film Andrea and I had seen in the late 1980’s. It’s called “Wings of Desire” and is about a group of angels who hover over Berlin, watching over the lives of the inhabitants with keen interest and compassion, and occasionally intervening. One of the angels falls in love with a lonely woman who works in the circus and decides to incarnate so that he can join her with the full range of human experience.

The feeling of that film was of a suffering human world held and cared for by compassionate angels. The cleanup woman in McDonald’s came to mind, as well as the humble life of Manoel Corrente who lived his life in service to his spiritual community. I also thought of our Brazilian teacher and friend, Alex, who had been imprisoned in Brazil during the military’s rule in the 1980’s; of how a compassionate woman who visited him in prison became his wife; and of how the two of them had raised a beautiful family while serving as leaders of a number of Brazilian spiritual communities that have continued to thrive for decades.

Riding back to Washington on the bus last Monday, my heart was filled with memories of the many blessings Andrea and I had received during that memorable weekend in New York.

Praise God!                                                                                                                                        John Bayerl, 10/11/2018

SOME PHOTOS OF OUR TRIP BELOW:

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Statue of the Archangel in St. Michael’s RC Church on 34th Street

 

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The view from our hotel window.

 

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Celebrating Greater NY’s 11 million humans on the High Line

 

MK-JB in NYC

Two high school actors who still love live theater.

 

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An angel appearing on 28th Street’s entire block of wholesale florists

Discovering Cognitive Resilience in My Approach to Alzheimers Risk

Background

Shortly after retiring three years ago, I got interested in the growing field of research into some promising new preventative approaches to Alzheimers Disease (AD).  My initial acquaintance with the latest preventative drug research came via an episode of the “Nova” science show on PBS.  I was so intrigued that I immediately investigated clinical trials in the Washington, DC area where I live.  Sure enough, an NIH-sponsored trial at Georgetown University Hospital was currently open and after a few encouraging phone calls, I decided to enroll.

My interest in AD prevention is personal.  My mother was diagnosed in her early 70’s (I’m 69).  She would live almost two decades longer, suffering the ravages of Alzheimers dementia such that she couldn’t recognize any of her ten children by her late 70’s.  One of my father’s sisters was diagnosed with early-onset AD in her 50’s.

It took about four months between my first inquiry until I was called to make my first visit to Georgetown Hospital in DC.  There was a lot of preliminary paperwork as well as interview sessions with a Nurse Practitioner and various Research Assistants.  The first session confirmed my eligibility in three of the four main criteria: 1) a family history of AD ,  2) age 65 or over and 3) no indication of present cognitive impairment.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but my final acceptance was contingent on the result of a PET-scan to detect any existing amyloid plaque in my brain.  I had this PET-scan soon after my first visit to Georgetown.

I went for another visit to Georgetown about two weeks later with my required “study partner” – my wife Andrea.  The study partner was to report to staff on my ongoing, day-to-day mental performance.  To verify my mental competence, Andrea met separately with a staff person and was asked to describe any notable event we had experienced recently.  The staff person then met privately with me to ask if I could fill in some details about the reported event.  In addition, I took another battery of cognitive tests using an iPad, and person-to-person memory testing.  I was feeling pretty good about my overall mental competence at that point.

The last part of that second visit proved to be quite disturbing, however.  The Nurse Practitioner told me and my wife the results of my recent PET-scan, which had used a very expensive radioactive dye to determine if I had any amyloid plaque in my brain.  Beta-amyloid plaques are a primary indicator of the likelihood of AD.  Unfortunately, I was in the 15% of people in my age bracket who had detectable amyloid.  This bad news was deeply sobering, but Andrea, a four-time cancer survivor, reassured me by saying: “John, it’s not brain cancer!”

I spent the next few months in various stages of fearful rumination about my long-term mental status.  I kept picturing the last decade of my mother’s deterioration and contemplating the very real possibility that the same fate could be awaiting me.  I had always prided myself on my intellect.  My ego took a big hit from accepting the possibility that I might become mentally incompetent.  At some point, I had to admit my arrogance in thinking that I was just too smart for all of this.  I took some comfort from remembering that Nova television program I had been so impressed by, especially by the camaraderie of those who had volunteered for the preventive clinical trials.

I somehow hadn’t realized it, but if I’d tested negative for amyloid, I would have been eliminated from the clinical trial.  Now I had satisfied all four criteria of this new anti-amyloid drug trial, aptly called the “A4” – Asymptomatic Alzheimers Anti-Amyloid.  The test drug, solenazumab, was created by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.  This monoclonal-antibody drug had proven amyloid-eliminating properties but had as yet failed to produce any statistically significant improvements in people with Alzheimers dementia. Current thinking about AD was that a brain deterioration process developed for decades before noticeable declines in cognition.  The A4 was designed for people like me who are asymptomatic despite high risk factors.  Perhaps if amyloid plaque could be removed before it had a chance to proliferate, AD dementia could be delayed, or even indefinitely forestalled.

 

Monthly IV Drug Infusions

I started my monthly trips to Georgetown in the fall of 2016.  I had worked in downtown DC for decades, and I was happy enough to ride a DC Metro train from my home in the outer suburbs down to Dupont Circle, from where I walked the 2.5 miles over to Georgetown Hospital.  The Clinical Trials section is on the top floor and I quickly learned my way around.  The project staff for the A4 were universally friendly and professional.

My appointments were for 10am, starting with taking vital signs, queries regarding medications and supplements, and then insertion of an IV needle.  The test drug had to be ordered from the hospital pharmacy and could take up to an hour to arrive.  The standard hospital rooms were comfortable and featured wide windows overlooking the Georgetown University campus and surrounding neighborhoods.

In addition to the IV drip, there were periodic cognitive tests.  These were pretty straightforward yet required a degree of mental concentration and stamina that I found initially quite challenging.  I found my performance improved when I stopped off for a Starbucks coffee on my way in.

The A4 is a “gold standard” double-blind drug study.  This means that 50% of participants get the test drug, the other 50% a placebo.  Neither participants nor staff knew which group any participant was in.  The IV bags themselves were labelled “Solanezumab or placebo”.  In the beginning, the 400mg infusion took only about a half-hour.  But in the second year of my participation, the dosage was increased to 800mg and then 1600mg, requiring well over an hour for the full infusion and flush.

One of the questions I was asked at the beginning of each visit was whether I was feeling any effects from the drug.  A long list of possible physical reactions and side-effects was recited.  I answered no to all these queries, and after a few months, I began suspecting that I was receiving a placebo.  Even after the dosage was increased four-fold, I still felt nothing.

I realized when I entered the trial that I had a 50% chance of getting the placebo.  I thought hard about this and decided to participate anyway.  Even if I didn’t benefit persoally, I felt that I was contributing to the greater good of scientific research.  If solanezumab proved effective, my participation would have contributed to that conclusion.  And an effective Alzheimers prevention drug could benefit the many millions of fellow-boomers who, like me, were entering their twilight years with the cloud of Alzheimers menacing the horizon.

 

Deciding to Opt Out of the A4

As I approached the end of my second year of participation in the A4, I began feeling burdened by the monthly outings to Georgetown. In my “retirement”, I was continuing a small counseling practice, started writing this blog, and was becoming much more active politically.  In addition, we had four grandchildren we wanted to see more, and a spiritual community that Andrea and I were both committed to.  My concern about Alzheimers was still real, and I had implemented some significant lifestyle changes to keep my mind and body active and healthy.  These included a low-carb diet, daily exercise, daily meditation, improved sleep, and conscious cultivation of new friendships and new interests.

I wanted to find out my possible genetic pre-disposition for AD, so I signed up for one of the Web-based, commercial genetic testing services.  I was chagrined to find out that I had two of the APOE4 mutations that indicated a higher likelihood for AD.  Statistically, my genetic cohort had a 27% chance of having AD dementia by age 75; 55% by age 85.  I reported this to the A4 staff and they noted it in my record without comment.

Receiving this news was a factor in keeping me participating in the A4 for a few more months. In the end though, weighing the benefits versus my increasing time constraints, I decided to opt out.  The Georgetown staff took my decision without much fanfare.  The study was currently geared for four years, but participation was completely voluntary, and participants could terminate their involvement at any time.

 

A New Focus:  Cognitive Resilience

I was still of two minds about continuing in the A4 when I consulted informally with a friend who is a medical research administrator and who had some expertise in the latest AD research.  He reminded me that the “amyloid hypothesis” was just that, a hypothesis.  Even though 80% or more of AD brain autopsies indicated the presence of amyloid plaques, there was no real scientific understanding of amyloid as a causative agent.  Some AD researchers regarded amyloid as part of an inflammatory response in the brain.  Removal of amyloid, in and of itself, was no guarantee that AD would be averted.  And removing it might also contribute to more inflammation.

My friend also pointed out that autopsies were revealing a significant percentage (20-30%) of mentally healthy, non-demented individuals who nevertheless had significant amyloid plaque deposits in their brains.  This puzzling phenomenon had led him to seriously doubt the efficacy of the amyloid hypothesis.

My friend shared that researchers were using the term “cognitive resilience” to describe the large set of people who, despite amyloid and family history and higher genetic risk, never manifested symptoms of AD dementia.  He noted that the research was showing that the population manifesting this resilience were mostly among those who had opted for a healthy, active lifestyle.

“Cognitive resilience” has become the mantra in my current attitude towards AD.  Much of my initial motivation for entering the A4 clinical trial was a pervading fear that I was doomed to have AD like my mother, starting in my early 70’s.  I no longer feel that sense of doom.  Though I’m still very consciously aware of my AD risk factors, I no longer shrink in fear at the prospect of dementia.  Instead, I’ve chosen to live my remaining years with hope and commitment, no matter what transpires.  As my focus on resilience grows, day by day, I’m becoming much more sanguine about my prospects for a healthy, productive aging process.

John Bayerl, 9/9/2018

A Candidate Of and For the People

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Caption: Marc Elrich (center, in blue shirt) celebrates Montgomery County Council’s passage of a $15/hour minimum wage plan.

We’ve just completed a very full and complex primary election season here in Maryland.  The Democratic party races included those for U.S. House and Senate, Governor, and the entire state legislature.  I live in Montgomery County, a large, populous, relatively affluent, and 65% Democratic county northwest of Washington, DC.  This election cycle included Democratic primary races for our County Executive, the nine-member County Council, the school board, circuit court judges, and sundry other county offices, as well as the Central Committees of both parties.

Newly retired, I had decided to re-commit myself to the political process as the fateful 2016 presidential race unfolded.  I was an early backer of Bernie Sanders’ bid, but shifted my efforts to Hillary after she garnered the Democratic nomination.  I volunteered to fill the empty precinct-leadership job for our local Democratic party and spent the presidential election day manning a Democratic candidate information table at our local polling place.

Hillary’s defeat was devastating for us Democrats, but after emerging from the trauma of it, I decided to re-double my commitment.  After the historic Women’s March of January 2017, my wife and I formed a small Indivisible group and committed ourselves to meeting regularly with a group of similarly minded friends to take up specific political projects.  We enlisted our efforts in support of the “Fight for 15” minimum wage campaign in our county and were gratified that our efforts paid off in a victory after a year-long battle within our County Council.  We attended rallies and meetings, testified at public hearings, and met privately with Council members who were on the fence.  This process acquainted us with many of the local political leaders who would emerge as candidates in our recent primary election.

I spent a lot of time this spring reading and getting to know many of the candidates via numerous public debates. The candidate who I ended up focusing the most energy on was Marc Elrich, who I had known from our days living in Takoma Park, MD in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Marc is a three-term Councilman-at-Large in Montgomery county, and was running for the County Executive slot the in the Democratic primary.  I had known him personally during his multi-term service on the Takoma Park City Council.  Marc was also a community organizer, best known for his indefatigable work in getting the Takoma Park Food Co-op started (the Co-op is still flourishing some thirty years later).  I reconnected with Marc during the year-long “Fight for 15” which he single-mindedly shepherded through to its final Council approval last fall.  Seven other Democratic candidates were also running campaigns in the County Executive primary, two of them fellow Council members who we had witnessed during numerous open Council meetings.

At first, I wasn’t convinced that Marc would make the best Executive.  His two rivals from the Council, George Leventhal and Roger Berliner, both seemed more polished in their mastery of the Council’s complex political machinations.  In addition, George was another Takoma Park political activist who I’d known and admired, and Roger was the father of one of our son’s friends in grade school.

One of the highlights of this year’s county elections was the implementation of a long-awaited public-private funding mechanism for candidates who meet the criteria in terms of number of donors and amount raised. To receive the public subsidy, candidates had to limit total individual donations to $150 and refuse financial help from other entities.  The entire process is carefully regulated and stands as a major advance in the democratization of our county’s election process, long plagued by large-scale property developer donations to candidates who may then be beholden.  Participation in the “public option” is entirely voluntarily.  For the County Executive race, three of the candidates opted for it, and another four pursued purely private funding.

Both Marc and George were early participants and I actually gave preliminary $50 donations to both of their campaigns.  The public option rewards the first $50 from a donor with three times that much in county funding.  So my initial $50 to each candidate netted $150 from the county as well.

Around New Years, my wife and I decided to unequivocally back Marc. The reason was that Marc was consistently prioritizing the well-being of the county’s middle and lower-income families.  Montgomery county had become prohibitively expensive for many working people, such that even county teachers and police often had to live in less expensive areas outside the county.  Marc’s championing of the $15 minimum wage had been an attempt to ameliorate the large income gap.  He had also been in the forefront to guarantee that a percentage of all new housing units in the county contain affordable units for lower income families. And he was also insisting that new housing constructed around new Metro extensions not obliterate existing low-income housing units.

A newcomer to county politics, the wealthy businessman David Blair soon became the lead contender in the Democratic County Executive primary.  Blair didn’t participate in the public funding system, opting instead to take unlimited private donations as well as spending some $3 million of his own on his campaign.  Blair garnered the endorsement of the Washington Post, which was long opposed to Marc Elrich’s brand of citizen activism, and more comfortable with Blair’s carefully centrist and business-oriented focus.

By the spring, I’d maxed out with my $150 contribution to the Elrich campaign.  I put up a yard sign and began talking Marc up with friends and relatives.  Marc had a fiery pre-election pep-rally attended by the wide spectrum of his political base: labor union members, immigration rights activists, Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” members and supporters, Hispanic and African American civics groups, community-based environmentalists, and an eloquent spokesperson for the burgeoning movement of young people for gun control.  I was inspired to volunteer in passing out campaign literature at busy Metro stops.  I got a “Marc Elrich for County Executive” tee shirt and started wearing it regularly.

By election day, local polling was reporting a close race between Blair and Elrich.  I worked the polls for the Democratic party but had to maintain neutrality there for all Democratic primary races.  I was encouraged that other groups were out in force advocating for Marc at my polling place, including the Jews United for Justice organization and a polite, articulate young man from the Democratic Socialists of America.

The election returns yielded a virtual tie between Blair and Elrich, each with about 30% of the count.  Marc was ahead by 80 votes, but the absentee and provisional ballots remained to be hand-counted.  This labor-intensive process took over a week to complete and Marc maintained his slim lead.  Blair lodged a challenge and a selective re-count was performed.  Marc’s victory held for the re-count and Blair finally conceded in late July.

But Marc’s victory in the Democratic primary, which usually guarantees success in November against the outnumbered Republicans, had still one more storm cloud on the horizon.  A few days after the election, another longtime Democratic Council member, Nancy Floreen, announced her intention to run an independent campaign for County Executive in the fall election.  Floreen had spoken out against what she claimed was Marc’s “socialist agenda”, and hoped to garner support from the more centrist, business-oriented elements of the Democratic party.  She’ll need to garner some 4,000 signatures before August 6 in order to get on the ballot.

This primary election has only confirmed my belief that it is not the time for Democrats to play business-as-usual in the 2018 elections.  We need candidates who have a proven track record of working for the 90% of Americans who aren’t sharing in the current economic expansion.  Marc Elrich is one of the few politicians I know who has remained committed to improving the lot of the 90% of our citizens who struggle every day to make ends meet.  Like Bernie Sanders, he articulates a clear and convincing message of working for the greatest good of the greatest number.  He is neither anti-business nor anti-development, but wants to make sure that businesses and developers pay their fare share from the prosperity they continue to enjoy in our wealthy county.

John Bayerl, 7/26/2018

Finding Relaxation and Focus in Coloring Mandalas

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“Mandala” means “circle” in Sanskrit.  The Hindu and Buddhist traditions use circular designs with concentric geometric forms as sacred symbols representing an experience of unity or wholeness. These mandalas are used in sacred rituals as well as for visual focus during silent meditation.

I first discovered the value of working with mandalas when I was participating, and sometimes co-leading, holotropic breathwork sessions at a non-denominational retreat center where I’ve worked for over twenty years.  Breathwork is a ritual practice in which participants lie down and breath very deeply for long periods of time while strong rhythmic, and often spiritually oriented, music is played.  The experience often induces altered psychic states which can be quite emotionally intense and spiritually enlivening.  At the conclusion of breathwork sessions, we provided paper and colored pencils to participants.  The paper had a large circle pre-drawn on it.  We invited people to try expressing the essence of their experience by filling in the circle with their own unique mandala drawing.  The results were often quite beautiful and quite poignant.

I reconnected with mandalas last year when my wife and I started using some adult coloring books which contained various mandala representations.  The outlines of the mandalas are provided, and a user simply employs colored pencils to fill in a unique color pattern of their choosing.  I’ve never been very artistically inclined but over time I found myself relaxing into the act of adding color to some mandala designs that I found myself attracted to.   I noticed that I could enter into a relaxed yet focused inner space while coloring in the sometimes-intricate patterns of the outlined mandalas.  Sometimes I listened to classical music while coloring, and that often added to the positive feeling.  My first enjoyable coloring experiences occurred while on vacation at a beautiful seaside house in Puerto Rico.  Returning home, I found that I could often reproduce the feelings of freedom and enjoyment that I had thought were limited to “vacation time” by simply finding some quiet time and space for mandala coloring.

I’m sharing some of my home-made mandalas here on my blog.  Over the last few months, they have given me a creative focus that I had begun to lose touch with in my writing.

We recently returned from a week’s vacation with four sisters at Lake Vanare in the Adirondack region of northeastern New York state.  While there, I discovered that one of my sisters was also a fan of coloring mandalas. We had some quiet time together working on our latest creations and have begun sharing photos of them with each other.  This has added a social dimension to the experience which only adds to the pleasure and satisfaction.  I’m including some of my favorite hand-drawn mandelas below (and above).

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Gaithersburg Book Festival 2018

Saturday, May 19, in Gaithersburg, MD was overcast and chilly all day, with regular, periodic rains.  My two sisters from western New York state had driven down the day before and spent the night with my wife and me in nearby Derwood.  We all got up early that Saturday to watch the royal wedding.  The ceremony felt like a welcome celebration of the new multi-racial, multi-ethnic universe that the Obamas had helped usher in ten years ago.  We all reveled in the joyous affirmation of human diversity and human love, embodied in Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.  The clear blue skies and bright, warm sun over Windsor Castle also warmed our hearts on that cold, damp morning.

The previous evening, the three of us had studied the rich program that the GBF was offering this year, with ten tent-covered venues and more than a hundred recently-published authors.  As usual, we marked our preferred authors and sites on our program sheets to best facilitate our experience.

Politics and Prose

All three of us started our participation in the large “Gertrude Stein”” tent near the entrance to the City Hall grounds in Old Town Gaithersburg.  A well-spoken historian, John Binknell, was presenting his new book: “Lincoln’s Pathfinder:  John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856”.

Mr. Binknell prefaced his remarks by saying how often he heard in the media that our current time was the most divisive period in the history of our country.  Binknell strongly disagreed with this, saying that the entire decade leading up to the American Civil War was far more divisive and more violent.  He proceeded to illustrate his point with a litany of foreboding events in the 1850’s that led to the Confederacy and ensuing war.  Things were already so badly divided by 1856 that Binknell asserts unequivocally that had the Republican John Fremont won that presidential election, the Southern states would surely have seceded then.

I stayed on in “Gertrude Stein” for the next author, E.J. Dionne, who is also one of my favorite political columnists for the Washington Post.  The tent was filled to capacity (60 or so) by the time Mr. Dionne arrived, accompanied by his interviewer, Bradley Graham, co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookstore in DC.  The two had started together as young reporters for the Post many decades earlier and were now good friends.  Mr. Graham introduced E.J. as one of the earliest journalistic voices of the political resistance to articulate a coherent response to the Trump agenda.  Mr. Dionne’s 2017 book is aptly titled: “One Nation after Trump:  A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.”

Dionne was relaxed and at ease as he entered the tent from a steady rain outside.  He joked with familiars in the audience and spoke appreciatively of his friend Mr. Graham’s many years of work in nurturing the Politics and Prose enterprise, which was co-sponsoring the festival.  Dionne reminded us all that “his” book was actually a collaboration among himself, Norman Orenstein, and Thomas E. Mann. Like many of us in the tent that morning, he had been taken off guard by Trump’s victory.  Recovering from the shock of it, he had sketched a way for progressive-minded people to organize and fight back, not losing a sense of historical perspective and a basic faith that the American people and traditional democratic values could eventually regain the upper hand.

For me, the most memorable part of Dionne’s talk that morning had to do with his son deciding to do grass-roots political organizing work in Connecticut after graduating from college last year.  During his year-long tenure, his son’s progressive community organization succeeded in helping multiple towns to flip from Republican to Democratic control in local elections.  Dionne pointed out that thousands of other people, old and young, had been inspired after Trump’s election to work tirelessly for progressive political values. This was a radical new force that Dionne believed could lead to more hopeful election outcomes in 2018 and 2020.

Back from the Brink of Madness

After a welcome snack of coffee and bagel, I walked over to another tent to hear Dr. Barbara Lipska speak about her new book: “The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind – My Tale of Madness and Recovery,” written with the help of journalist Elaine McArdle.  I was late and had to stand in the back, but still got a clear sense of the author’s story.  Dr. Lipska was a leading brain researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) when she herself developed a malignant brain melanoma in 2015.  She described her own descent into both dementia and schizophrenia as the cancer manifested in some 20 tumors on her pre-frontal and parietal lobes.  Dr. Lipska said that her behavior became that of a tantrum-ridden two-year-old, completely lacking in motivation, self-awareness, or human empathy.  She received state-of-the-art brain cancer treatment, including radiation, immunotherapy, steroids, and targeted chemotherapy.  The tumors soon began to shrink and then disappear, and she slowly began to feel and act more like her normal self.

Soon after her recovery, Dr. Lipska gave a famous TED-talk in which she described her ordeal.  The video of that talk soon went viral and she became something of a celebrity.  Dr. Lipska was able to return to work and continues her research today as Director of the Human Brain Collection Core at NIMH.  She is extremely grateful to her family and friends who stood with her through the depths of her illness.  She expressed deep gratitude for her return to sanity and the ability to work and love again.  The lasting price she’s paid is loss of vision in one eye, weaker physical stamina (she’d been a marathoner and tri-athlete), unsteady balance, and slight spacial disorientation. Dr. Lipska’s message to her audience was lucid and uncompromising: that mental illness is a brain disease.

“Somewhere People” Living Anywhere

I joined up with my sisters again for our last author presentation, which they had selected.  It was a panel discussion with a moderator and two Washington-based women novelists:  Aminatta Forna and Adrienne Benson.  Both of their recent novels (Forna’s “Happiness” and Benson’s “The Brightest Sun”) deal broadly with the lasting effects of trauma on mostly third-world people.  The skilled moderator, Susi Wyss, is a counselor and writing coach for women at a local rape crisis center.

Aminatta Forna is a dark-skinned, honey-voiced Afro-British author with a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Scotland.  Her father, a medical doctor, worked for the government of Sierra Leone in the 1970’s but became disillusioned with the blatant corruption and resigned.  He was subsequently imprisoned and executed.  Ms. Forna regards Sierra Leone as her home even though she has lived for long periods in Britain, the States, and elsewhere.  She was deeply affected by the recent wars in her country and has contributed to and written about the ongoing healing required in the aftermath of the many atrocities.

Ms. Forna’s latest novel, “Happiness”, is set in contemporary London and deals with two characters, a Ghanaian male psychotherapist, and an American female anthropologist, coming to terms with the challenges of their private lives and their professions.  One of Ms. Forna’s core beliefs is that life is inherently difficult and challenging but that human beings, more often than not, are able to find an inner resiliency and a desire to connect that can eventually lead to deep healing and peace.  She questions some present-day psychological trends that she believes often serve to pathologize people’s struggles with the inevitable challenges of life.

Adrienne Benson is a self-described “third culture kid” who grew up in Africa where her parents worked a variety of assignments for USAID.  Returning to the States at age 16 was the deepest culture shock of her life.  It took her many years to acclimate here and she has finally found a home in Washington where she works as a lawyer and is a wife and mother of three young children.

Ms. Benson has become something of an expert on ADHD and how it has affected herself, her family, and our greater culture.  This challenging experience has also given her hope that individuals, families, and communities can learn to accept and adapt to behaviors involving loss of focus and of become overwhelmed and mentally scattered.

Ms. Benson’s book is set in a Masai village in Kenya and deals with three women from different backgrounds, all of whom are coming to terms with the core issue of becoming mothers.  As with Ms. Forna’s novel, “The Brightest Sun” describes deep and complex bonds of connection and interaction that enable the characters to eventually make sense of their challenges and move forward.

Both women spoke knowingly and revealingly about the difficult adjustments that many third world people, but especially women, have adapting to modernity.  Ms. Forna spoke her observation that there are “somewhere people” and “anywhere people”.  “Somewhere people” are deeply rooted in a culture and geographical place and feel out of sorts when transplanted.  “Anywhere people” also have a cultural/geographical grounding but are able to better adapt to whatever place they land in.

Both authors’ books include characters who have suffered early traumas that continue to affect them in adult life.  Ms. Forna worked closely with people in Sierra Leone after the horrible brutality of their civil war.  From that experience, she learned just how resilient human beings can be.  For while some people remained physically and emotionally scarred for life, a greater number were able to work through their traumas and pursue lives of purpose and meaning.

Susi Wyss did a masterful job finding common themes between the two authors and giving them both ample time and space to articulate their unique visions.

Afterwards, my sisters and I stopped at a local tavern for a late lunch and local craft beers. It was interesting to share and discuss what we had seen and heard.  We all agreed that this year’s festival was as compelling as any, despite the bad weather.  We participate together in an ongoing family book group and shared possible titles for our group going forward. Once again, the Gaithersburg Book Festival had exceeded our expectations and confirmed our mutual love for good books and the creative lives of the authors who write them.

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John Bayerl, 5/28/2018

 

 

 

 

Friends Meeting

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PHOTO: Guardian trees standing over the Meeting House and cemetery at Sandy Spring Quaker Meeting

My spouse and I participated in the Sandy Springs (MD) Quaker Meeting this morning at their 11am gathering.  Our own church had rented their adjacent Lyceum for two of our own services in recent weeks.  We were taken with the natural beauty of the grounds, the historic nature of the local Quaker community (dating back to 1752), and the sincerity and genuineness of the local Quaker leaders we’d encountered there.

We arrived about ten minutes early and found our way to a pew in the historic old Meeting House.  There were only a handful of others present then, but people continued to flow in in silence until the pews were half full — maybe 80 to 90 attendees all told.  Everyone simply sat in silence and I called on my meditation training to close my eyes, focus on the breath, and allow a deeper level of inner calmness to emerge.

I was struck by the absence of any ritual marking of a start time.  We all simply continued to sit in our pews as new people entered, noticing but not engaging with the sounds of doors opening and new people joining.  There were a dozen or so children with their parents, but the kids all left together after about twenty minutes or so, presumably for Sunday school.

At that point, one of the Meeting elders got up to speak.  I recognized him as the man who had provided a tour of the buildings and grounds when I’d inquired about rentals.  He was a tall, healthily built yet aging man with a ponytail and rustic clothes.  He spoke slowly and deliberately, acknowledging the departing young people, and recognizing the advancing age of most of those of us who remained.  He wove this reality into a natural, organic observation about life’s many comings and goings.  He spoke to the importance of Quaker culture and identity in helping to shape his own young sense of self, and prayed that the young people of this meeting would also find the spiritual nurturance needed to find and maintain a life-sustaining faith.  He acknowledged a longtime meeting member who had passed recently, and ended with a prayer for acceptance and peace with the many comings and goings that marked all of our lives.

This brief talk was followed by another long period of silence which gave me an opportunity to really take in his words.  I reflected on my own spiritual community and on a number of longstanding members and leaders who had recently left us.  James’ words helped me hold a sense of loss and diminishment within a greater reality of life’s ongoing cycles of growth, change, inevitable decline, and yet ongoing perseverance and meaning

After more silence, another late-middle-aged man rose to speak.  He was dressed in a saffron-colored robe and turban though his face was of a ruddy American kind.  He said he was visiting this meeting for a second time while travelling around the country on a book tour.  He practiced a form of yoga meditation that he said was inspired by his initial experience of silent Quaker meetings while he’d attended Earlham College in Indiana.  He remembered how much he valued the sense of deep inner quiet and peace he experienced at those Quaker meetings as a young college student.  He also spoke to the deep commitment to peace and justice that he had found at Earlham, and how that had shaped the rest of his life.  He had spent most of the previous forty years travelling in southeast Asia and South America, teaching yoga meditation and trying to exemplify a selfless devotion to the well-being of all human souls, teaching in schools, hospitals and prisons.

The second man’s sharing also affected me with its genuineness and deep commitment to spiritual values.  He had traveled the world attempting to live out his spiritual vision of peace, service, and social justice.  And he was offering gratitude and appreciation to the Quaker roots which had inspired him.

Another man and then many women also spoke during that hour of heightened presence and attention.  Many of the women testified to various social action projects they were engaged in.  One woman expressed gratitude to her Methodist father for teaching her the value and importance of healthy philanthropy.  Another spoke of her attempt to use Quaker methods of calm listening and attention as she tried to engage productively with a loud group of anti-abortion protesters in downtown DC.

The last part of the meeting began with a spoken invitation to share any immediate human concerns that people were experiencing.  Many people rose to speak short prayers of healing for loved ones and community members, and for those who had recently died.  There were also prayers for people getting married, starting new jobs, moving, or experiencing other major life-changes.

The gathering ended as unceremoniously as it had begun, with people simply getting up to walk over to the Lyceum for coffee and fellowship, talking among themselves as the old friends that many of them clearly were.

After coffee, we were heading back to our car when we ran into the man who had spoken first.  After he shared some about the grand old “guardian” trees standing over the old Meeting House, I expressed my appreciation to him for his talk about “comings and goings”.  I said that my wife and I were longtime practitioners of meditation and appreciated the deep sense of quiet and peace from which his words seemed to emanate.  The man thanked me but also corrected something about my compliment.  As a Quaker, he said, he believed that such “inspirations” came directly from Spirit, and that he couldn’t take personal credit for whatever he had shared.  I took in this correction and my appreciation for the Quaker way increased even more.  I had a distinct sense that I would be returning soon.

John Bayerl, 4/29/18

Personal Renewal in the Vigor of Swamp Cabbage

I’ve been appreciating a vigorous leafy plant that emerges from the boggy soils of a nearby wetland/forest each spring, often as early as February.  Its purplish-green flower sometimes even pushes its way up through snow.  I’ve learned that the plant has a thermogenic property, emitting warm gases that enable it to thaw the frozen ground enough for its stalk to emerge.

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The plant’s botanical name is Symplocarpus Foetidus.  The “Foetidus” part describes an alleged fetid smell emitted by the leaves, hence the common name, “skunk cabbage”.  But truth be known, I’ve not been able to smell anything fetid or “skunkish” despite numerous attempts to elicit it by grinding the leaves or even bending down with my nose fully immersed in it.  So for me, it’s simply “swamp cabbage”.

I’m someone who suffers a bit of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD) during the long winter months here in the Mid-Atlantic.  First spottings of the emerging stalk of this plant help to lift me out of my winter doldrums, reassuring me that spring is on the way.  Regular re-inspections reveal a vibrantly green organism enclosing the purplish flower. (The plant is botanically regarded as a wildflower).

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Another element that inspires me about skunk cabbage is its profligacy.  Some grow directly from seed but many of them emerge from a thick rhizome – a common root which extended families and clans of the plants share.  Initial groupings of three or four can multiply over time into dozens of related plants within a few square feet of one another.

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Swamp cabbage has an extensive and brawny root structure.  They grow in marshy soil and along stream banks and help to stabilize muddy soil.  They like partial sun and can propagate extensively.

A naturalist friend recommended a book by the brilliant contemporary plant-healer, Stephen Harrod Buhner. “The Secret Teachings of Plants” has a section in which the author describes the process of harvesting a swamp cabbage for the well-known medicinal power of its roots (used for asthma and other respiratory ailments).  I followed his instructions when I tried to replant a swamp cabbage in my garden a few years ago, without much success.  Digging out the plant from its muddy soil takes persistence and a willingness to get “down and dirty”.  The plant’s roots noticeably retract when you try pulling up on the stalk.  Skunk cabbage is a model of a well-rooted organism that fiercely guards any attempt to remove it.

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Stephen Buhner describes the ancient heritage of this plant, with fossil records dating them back millions of years:

“The plant and flower are …throwback to a time when dinosaurs ruled the land.  There is a silence which reigns where skunk cabbage grows.  The mind quiets as it nears the plant, becoming more silent than even the stillness coming from the forest that surrounds you.  You approach it slowly, reverently, and kneel at its side, the muddy, watery soil soaking through the knees of your pants.”

By mid-April the plant’s leaves extend out for up to 18 inches and take on the appearance of edible cabbage.  The leaves are edible only after they’ve been dried.

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The vigor and the profligacy of swamp cabbage inspires in me a feeling of vibrant health and rooted well-being.  The plant is a model of sustainability, continuing to make its mark on planet Earth through the course of multiple geologic ages.  I’m left with feelings of awe and appreciation each spring when the swamp cabbage returns, pulling me out of the muck of winter’s gloom and opening my spirit to new possibilities of growth and connection.

John Bayerl, Derwood MD, 4/14/2018

In Celebration of David Estrada

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(This is my sharing for David’s “Celebration of Life” held at Sevenoaks Retreat Center on April 1 – Easter Sundaay)

from Pathwork Guide Lecture #82, 3/31/1961 (Good Friday), “The Conquest of Duality Symbolized in the Life and Death of Jesus Christ:”

 “This day, very appropriately, commemorates a very important event in your human history, which is closely linked to duality. On this day, Good Friday, Jesus Christ brought his life to a culmination in the greatest suffering and the greatest joy.  This is meant in a very human and concrete sense.  Suffering and joy, pleasure and pain are dualities that, in the final analysis, are only subdivisions of the great duality:  life and death — never life or death.

“Jesus’ last words on the cross expressed his doubt and fear that he was forsaken by God.  This has puzzled many people.  How could that great spirit doubt and fear?  Human illusion and idealization would have preferred that Jesus died in a glory of faith without the human doubts and fears he expressed in the hour of the culmination of his suffering.  But it was very important that this utterance be transmitted to humanity.

“In his last hour, Jesus forgot all he had known, all the revelations and insights he had gained.  Has it not happened to each one of you to some degree, in hours of depression and anxiety, that even though your intellectual memory retained what you have learned and known, you were not in command of this knowledge?  Your soul was in a dark night of unbelief and doubt.  Deceiving yourself about this state of mind, and not acknowledging how you really felt, is not the right solution. 

 “Jesus illustrated this most clearly.  He, the greatest of all created spirits, was in doubt too.  He too had lost faith for a moment.  But he acknowledged it and did not hide it from himself or from others.  What does that mean?  It means the stark, naked fear of the unknown — death — and the acute suffering of physical, mental and spiritual pain.  Jesus met it squarely, without pretense, without self-deception, without deceiving those who had faith in him.  He was truthful to himself and therefore to all who believed in him.  He was truthful even in his last moment.

 “It is only when you accept death in its undisguised nakedness, without running from it, that you can truly live”.

 Those of us who visited with David in his last months and weeks knew that he had entered a conscious process of facing this “undisguised nakedness” of physical death.

I was David’s Pathwork helper during the five years when he lived and worked here at Sevenoaks, and for a few years thereafter.  During that time, I witnessed David’s slow, evolving inner process of psychological and emotional transformation, culminating in an awareness that his Higher Self was his essential nature.

When he entered his first battle with his colon cancer a few years ago, I started visiting him in the hospital. I met his devoted mother, Isabel, and several of his close friends during those weeks.  By this point in our relationship, David was no longer my worker or client, but simply a longtime spiritual friend who I wanted to support in his healing process.

Some of you may have received David’s brave and affirming email back in the fall, announcing that his cancer had recurred with a vengeance and that he had decided not to take further treatment.  In David’s words, he was actively “transitioning”.

David decided to experience his transition in the DC area at the home of a beloved aunt.  Most of his medical support team was there, and David also had many longtime friends in DC, as he did here at Sevenoaks.  I visited David regularly through the winter, and always came away inspired by his courage and loving spirit.

In our first meeting, David had just decided to go forward with an idea to have his ashes placed in the sacred oak grove here at Sevenoaks.  He asked my assistance in helping to manifest his plan and I readily agreed.  Once this plan was in place, David seemed more settled and at peace.

 In all my visits with David, I seldom saw him waver from his full, conscious knowledge and acceptance of his dying process.  He was committed to approach his dying as consciously as he could.  He was alert and articulate, and usually greeted me with a big smile and a hearty hug.  That said, there were a number of challenging setbacks.  He was admitted to the hospice unit of Providence hospital at one point, and his discomfort brought with it discouragement and confusion.  David had to work hard to remember his intention to face his dying process squarely.

 There’s a saying in the cancer survivor community that “Cancer is not for sissies”.  As David was sharing with his closest friends and family and friends about a beautiful inner process that was opening him to deeper and deeper spiritual realizations, his body was falling part. David’s courage to stay conscious through this difficult process, no matter what, allowed him to accept the part of him that was disintegrating as he more and more came to identify with that in him which is eternal.

Puerto Rico Part 2 — Birds of a Feather

Andrea and I have been back from PR for three weeks now, but the good memories linger.  This was a special vacation for us in that we hosted our longtime friends from Rome (Italy!), who like us, were feeling worn-down by winter, and jumped at our invitation to R&R with us in the tropical Caribbean.  Andrea had met Linda and Bruno back in the 1970’s while she was on a year-long sabbatical in Rome.  They remained fast friends, and after Andrea and I married in 1988, they became my friends as well.

Andrea and I arrived in PR a week before our friends, acclimating to the post-hurricane realities of life on the island.  The two-hour drive west from the San Juan airport to Isabela gave us an eyeful of houses with blue-tarped roofs, downed power lines, and non-functioning traffic lights.  But the natural landscape was returning to its former beauty, with bright green vegetation after four ensuing months of tropical sun and rain.  We arrived at our familiar seaside destination happy to be soaking up the sun’s warmth and the raw Atlantic’s greater than usual ferocity.

I wrote some about our first week in Isabela in my previous posting.  We happily adapted to the easy-going rhythms of a beach vacation, enjoying the fabulous summery weather and dramatic coastline that had been drawing us back each February for the past twelve years.  Mostly, we felt a physical and emotional thawing out, a gradually deepening sense of relaxation and inner well-being after catching up on sleep and spending many hours in the full sun.

By the time we drove back to San Juan one week later, we were ready to receive our guests.  Andrea had visited Linda and Bruno in Italy two years earlier, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade.   Our reunion at their airport hotel was a joyous one, and the drive back filled with animated conversation.  Linda is an Italian- American from Cleveland OH who has lived and worked in Rome for most of her adult life, most of it  with her Italian-born husband, Bruno.  Both are now retired, like us, though Bruno, an architect by training, continues to work a small, family farm where he grows the multi-use, subtropical grass, vetiver.  Linda only recently retired from her position as a university linguistics professor.

Half-way back, we stopped for lunch at our favorite roadside restaurant, El Buen Café in the town of Hatillo, and feasted on some traditional local sandwiches – Cubanos and Media Noches.   As we finally approached the Isabela shoreline, we pulled over for the fine coastal view.L-B-A-1

Our guests were as pleased as we were with our spacious, 3-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a coral-colored condominium complex right on the ocean.  The complex is adjacent to Isabela’s old fishing village (Villa Pesquera) which now consists of mostly open-air bars.  After helping our guests settle into their new digs, we all don shorts, sandals and t-shirts for a sunset walk along the beach.

The next day is Valentine’s and Bruno reminds me of my offer the night before to drive into town to find suitable gifts for our ladies.  It’s fun navigating the narrow streets of Isabela Centro with him in search of flowers, and the locals are happy to point us to one of the many shops offering such.  My Spanish is sufficient to accomplish the simple transactions that yield us some beautiful roses and sunflowers. L-A-1

Over the next two weeks together, we fall into a gentle rhythm of breakfast on the ocean-front patio, morning yoga or a refreshing swim in a marvelous outdoor pool, and planning for a daily outing.  The northwest coast of the island has a succession of expansive beaches and swimmable tidal pools, ideal for snorkeling.  Because the Atlantic is so windswept and wavy this season, we settle on just a couple of swimmable beaches.  The beach at Jobos is protected on its eastern side by large montones and we enjoy several afternoons there, laying our towels and gear under the shade-bearing palm trees along the beach.  This beach is a favorite of the locals as well as being the center for the gringo surfing community on its western side.  A couple of the restaurants there have excellent fresh seafood and we enjoy some hearty lunches there.3-in-water

After returning from our outings, we often rest and plan for our evening meal – most of which we prepare ourselves.  Bruno is an excellent cook – mostly vegetarian soups and other dishes, many with pasta, and often with fresh seafood as well.  Linda is the regular salad maker.  We’ve discovered a very decent supermarket near the Aguadilla airport where we can get fresh organic produce and many of the other whole foods we’ve grown accustomed to. Our dinners are always festive, sometimes complemented with wine or beer.  But we all find ourselves content to mostly just take in the beauty of our immediate surroundings.  The roar of the surf is a 24-7 backdrop that supports us all in its dependability and regularity.

After supper, we sometimes drive up the steep hill to the Isabela central plaza for an evening stroll and some delicious ice cream.  A mass is being celebrated in the plaza’s Catholic church one evening and we all sit in the back, taking in the enthusiastic singing, and the magnificent seascape mural behind the main altar.  On many evenings, we get out the cards after supper to play a fun Neapolitan card game that Bruno and Linda have taught us.  None of us miss our lack of a TV connection.

A few days before we returned to San Juan for a fun-filled last weekend there, Andrea and I were walking along the Isabela beach at dusk.  We noticed some small shore birds in the distance, nibbling treats from the sand as the waves receded.  Among the tiny sandpipers were a pair of larger birds with large orange bills.  As we tentatively got closer, we identified them definitively as oyster catchers, and stopped to attempt photos.  There was such a bounty of small shellfish to feast on that they tolerated our intrusion for some precious minutes.

We’d occasionally seen these distinctive shorebirds in prior years and had carefully read their description in Andrea’s Puerto Rico birding guide.  They usually appear in pairs yet maintain some yards distance between them when hunting.  Their long narrow bills, bright orange, are chisel-shaped – perfect for opening mollusks.  They cut the hinge muscles of clams and mussels with surgical precision, and then easily pry them open.  Larger waves sent them scurrying, and sometimes taking flight with a high-pitched squeal, usually returning to their original spots. AMOY-by-Alan-Wilde

Watching this amazing pair in action as the sun set into the Atlantic, I thought about couples, and the synchronized dance of closeness and cooperation, yet a certain respectful distance, that allows a species to mate for life. Turning to my life partner Andrea, and thinking about our bonded Italian friends, I took pleasure in the knowledge that our mutual pairings partake of a natural and universal prototype.

John B, 3/24/2018