Love as Destiny

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

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

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

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

bell hooks 1952-2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bell hooks — Light of Love

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

John Bayerl


Love with Detachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Bayerl, 1/10/2022

Extraordinary Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Bayerl, 1/4/2022

A Christmas Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Empathic Books About Refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Bayerl


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)


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