Vultures Roosting in Our Backyard


My spouse Andrea and I returned from our annual winter vacation on the ocean in northwestern Puerto Rico in late February. We’d rented an oceanside home situated on a high cliff with a magnificent 180-degree view of the tropical Atlantic. At that elevation we were frequently at sight level with high-flying hawks, falcons, osprey, frigate birds, and pelicans. We kept binoculars handy to better track these flight-loving raptors. Burgeoning birders that we were, we’d brought our much-used guidebook, Birds of Puerto Rico, studying up on the habits and nesting preferences of each species that we identified.

Soon after returning to our home in Maryland, we started noticing a preponderance of turkey vultures around our suburban home in the early evening hours. We regarded this phenomenon with curiosity and interest. It seemed to be an extension of our two-week encounter with the sea raptors of Puerto Rico. The early March weather felt colder and harsher after our stay in the tropics, so our only venture outdoors on many days was our evening walk.

One evening we noticed that a number of the vultures were resting among the high branches of our backyard loblolly pine grove. The grove is on the northwest corner of our 1/2-acre property and consists of about a dozen tall, mature pines, planted fairly close together such that their upper branches intertwine. We noticed a few pair of vultures occupying adjacent higher branches. My only thought was, “Well, that explains what we’ve been seeing each evening!”


We’d been home for two weeks at that point and most of my interest and attention were still turned to indoor pursuits. However, I began noticing large white splatterings of bird poop on our driveway, increasing in volume and frequency as the weeks went on. I went out a couple of times with a hard-wired brush, hot water and strong detergent to clean the driveway. That experience tied me to those vultures in a different way. I began thinking of them as pests, even though my ecological mindset kept reminding me of the essential role that vultures play in our suburban environment. In addition, I’d always marveled at the site of vultures soaring in the late afternoon sky, riding thermals for the sheer joy of it. My sweat lodge teacher used to call them “peace eagles” and that’s how I tried to think of them.

Whenever Andrea and I talked about the vultures, we ended up agreeing that we had little choice but to “wait and see”. But then one evening I was standing in our backyard as the “kettle” of vultures (about 12 of them) began descending on our property. For the first time, I felt pangs of fear in my gut as I took in the size and purposefulness of these large flying creatures. They flew down in what appeared to be an orderly way, following a lead “scouting party” of three larger birds. The sight of their 3-4 feet wingspans circling our home rattled me. I experienced them as invading hordes, guests who had overstayed their welcome.

My feelings of being invaded stayed with me for a number of ensuing days. I felt hemmed in, trapped in my own home, unable to imagine a way out. I went outside one morning to another massive effluent of vulture poop, not only on the driveway now, but also on the back patio and the entire area below the pines. A strong odor emanated from that area — that of an extremely acrid urine.

That morning I rallied myself to get more information about what was happening. I sought out the “vultures” entry in Wikipedia and spent some hours learning about their nature and habits. I was particularly taken with the description of a vulture’s digestive system, which secretes corrosive acids capable of digesting the carrion that was the species’ primary diet. But nowhere in the long discussion of vulture biology did I see any mention of issues like mine.

I next googled “vultures in the suburbs” and before long, came upon an excellent story in an old Audubon Society magazine. The story detailed an event in Leesburg, VA in which over a hundred vultures had established their roosting place. The residents became perturbed and called their local officials. Eventually, city officials agreed to contract with a special unit in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help remove the vultures. The crew came in with air-horns, fireworks and effigies of dead vultures that they hung from the trees. The vultures took flight but later returned and the whole process was repeated. Finally, they left for good.

That process seemed a little extreme to me. After all, we had a much smaller number of birds. After more searching on the Web, I found the phone number for a Wildlife Information Hotline provided by our state’s Department of Natural Resources. I called and was transferred to another line. That line had a recorded message which was actually quite informative about vultures. After carefully listening to it a couple of times, I left my number to have an agent call me.

At that point, my resolve was set. One thing I learned online was that vultures liked to roost in tall pine trees, and that they would lay their eggs there in springtime. Once the eggs were laid, the parents would warm them for up to 60 days before the little ones broke through and eventually fledged. It felt important to act before any eggs were laid.


That afternoon I went down to our basement to retrieve two large hoop drums that we had used in our many years attending sweat lodges. As the sun dropped in the west, I took the drums onto our back patio, close to the pine grove. I knew that the vultures would be returning soon, but now I was ready for them. As the first three “scout” vultures descended, I commenced playing one of the hoop drums as loudly as I could with a strong, steady beat. They soon veered off from the pines but made a large circle and returned. I continued drumming strongly but this time the lead vultures landed anyway. Even as I continued to drum, the rest of the kettle soon arrived and began settling in the pines. I persisted and began hooting and hollering as well. I took the second, larger, louder “buffalo drum” and began striking it strongly. Within a minute, one of the vultures flew away, and the rest followed in quick succession. I continued playing the drum for another 5-10 minutes, but at that point I was growing tired. My wife came out and drummed for a while and, as it became dark, the vultures failed to return. We both felt relieved and buoyed by our success.

The next evening we were out there again. Again the three lead vultures appeared and descended to their perch in the pines. But this time, the force and persistence of both of us drumming was enough to drive the lead birds away. The rest of the kettle stayed away as well.

I had a neighborhood civic club meeting to attend at 7:30 and a neighbor drove into our driveway to pick me up. As I approached his car, I heard drumbeats coming from the backyard and realized that the vultures were returning. I invited my neighbor to join me in the yard where my wife was drumming fiercely. She approached our neighbor and handed him the other drum. To my surprise, my mild-mannered neighbor started drumming with a frenzy of his own. After some time, the vultures left again and we went on to our meeting, laughing heartily at our unexpected adventure.

On the third evening my wife and I were going out to friends’ for supper. I was worried that the vultures would return, but I had an idea for keeping them at bay while we were away. I retrieved my old 1980’s “boom box” radio/tape player from our basement and set it up on the patio using a long extension cord. I pointed the two speakers straight up, put on our favorite FM jazz station, and turned the volume all the way up. It was loud! I worried about our neighbors, but it was a chilly evening and windows were closed. Our friends lived within a few miles and I reasoned that we would return early enough to avoid problems.

While telling our hosts about the situation that evening, they suggested that we use an electronic timer to control when the boom box went on and off. We implemented that the following evening, setting it to go on at 6:30p and off at 8. Using the radio/timer for the next few nights, we saw no sign of vultures and thought our problem was solved.

The man from the Wildlife Information Hotline called me back and said that I might have to be even more persistent. He said that vultures loved clumps of tall pine trees. The fact that they had been roosting there for at least four weeks before we acted indicated that they well might return. And sure enough they did. One week later, observing the beautiful dusk out our back window, I saw the lead birds descending once more to make wide circles around our house. I immediately went out with a drum and within a few minutes, they left without ever landing. That was two weeks ago and we’ve had no sighting of them since.


Thinking back over this experience, it occurs to me that my encounter with the vultures can be described in four stages: denial, awareness, acceptance, action. My initial fascination and interest in the vultures were real and important to me, yet it prevented me from realizing the effects of hosting these creatures indefinitely. Gradually, my daily observations led to an awareness that these wild creatures’ nesting at such close proximity had undeniable negative ramifications for my wife and me. It was difficult to accept the negative aspects because I am an ecologist and believe that all God’s creatures have inherent worth, dignity and purpose. By denying my negative feelings, however, I was becoming a victim of them. Accepting the unacceptability of having the vultures as close neighbors indefinitely allowed me to act. As I stood out in my yard with my drum that first evening, I felt energized and aligned with my deepest instincts. As the vultures swooped down, I felt their energy and grace and responded with my own energy, and determination. I’d grown to deeply admire and respect these creatures, and yet felt no guilt about shooing them away to a roost that didn’t impinge directly on my space. I could still affirm the Lakota Indian prayer that I’d learned in the sweat lodge — “We are all related” – AND that I had a real need to sometimes enforce a respectful distance.

John Bayerl, 4/17/2019

Legacies of World War Two in Fact and Fiction

I’ve been actively involved with a family book group since retiring from my day-job four years ago.  I’m from a family of ten post-WW2 “baby boomers”.  Many of us became inveterate readers at an early age, inspired by our book-loving Mom.  When I was looking for a book group to join in my retirement, I eventually realized that the makings of one existed right in my immediate family, in which two of my sisters had been longtime book club conveners.  It didn’t take much persuasion to recruit five of my sibs to join me in regular teleconference calls to discuss books that we take turns choosing. The group consists of three sisters and three brothers, divided by geography, but able to meet regularly via free, multi-party teleconference calls.

Our Dad was a WW2 veteran, having served as an artilleryman in the U.S. Army for the North African campaign of 1942-43, and the Italian campaign in 1943-44.  After the war, he became active in an American Legion veteran’s group and he met our mother at an American Legion function.  They courted and wed in 1946, and started a family soon after.  Unlike many veterans, our Dad spoke often of his war experiences to us.   Uncles on both sides of the family had also served in WW2, and the telling of war stories was common at our extended family’s social events.  Both our Mom and Dad lost brothers in the war.

WW2 in northern Italy, 1943-45

With this common background, it’s not surprising that five of the books we’ve chosen to read so far are set during WW2.  The one we’ve just finished discussing is the 2017 best-selling novel “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by American writer Mark Sullivan.  It’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction set in northern Italy during the last two years of the seldom-told story of the Italian campaign.  It’s based on the real-life exploits of a late-teenage Italian, Pino Lella, whose experiences in the Italian underground are both death-defying and inspiring.  The author spent over a decade interviewing the elderly Pino Lella, fleshing out his incredible story with substantial independent research.  Sullivan was initially intent on a straight historical account, but then opted for historical fiction to better shape and fill out Pino Lella’s spellbinding stories.  The book contains a wealth of background information and description, focused around Milan from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945.  The trials and tribulations of the Italian citizenry living under the harsh oppression of Fascist and Nazi militarism are a main focus.  During our recent book discussion, I vaguely remembered our Dad talking about his involvement in the bloody battle of Monte Cassino in southern Italy in early 1944.  One of my brothers confirmed that memory, and the events of the book took on new relevance.

WW2 for French Women Living under the Yoke of the Nazis

We’ve also read together two other recent historical novels set in Europe during WW2, both by women.  The first was the 2015 sensation “The Nightingale” by the prolific American novelist Kristin Hannah.  This novel is set mostly in a French village during the Nazi occupation.  It focuses on the day-to-day lives of two sisters, both of whom serve the French Resistance in very different ways.  The older sister, Vianne, sees her husband Antoine conscripted into the French army just before the Nazi invasion in 1940.  Antoine is captured and spends the next five years in a prisoner-of-war camp.  Vianne has a young daughter and her main concern becomes tending her garden so that they will have enough to eat.  Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle, is fiery and rebellious and an active participant in the French underground from the very beginning.  Her courage and ingenuity allow her to rise in the ranks of the Resistance, culminating in her being assigned to guide to safety Allied pilots shot down over France.  Her code name is “the nightingale”.

Ms. Hannah has said that she wanted to write the untold stories of the many women who risked their lives and families to contribute to the anti-Nazi resistance.  Like Mr. Sullivan, she spent years researching those stories, focusing particularly on that of a Belgian woman whose pilot-rescuing exploits became the basis for her story.  The older sister, Vianne, also serves the resistance by working to hide Jewish children.  Both sisters survive the war after untold risk and hardship.  The entire story is told from the point of view of the aging Vianne, living in the U.S. in 1995 and preparing for a last trip home to receive an award being presented in honor of her deceased sister, “the nightingale”.  The novel has a riveting first sentence that has stayed with me: “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:  In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

WW2 in a Small German Town in 1944

Perhaps our most memorable book club meeting to date was our discussion of the recent historical novel, “The Good at Heart”, by the German-American writer Ursula Werner.  Two of my book club sisters and I had met Ms. Werner after her intriguing presentation at the 2017 Gaithersburg Book Festival.  Her novel is based on her own family story that included a relative who had a high position in Hitler’s civilian government.  As Ms. Werner autographed our purchased copies of her book, we told her that we had a family book group and would likely read her book in that context.  Ms. Werner said that she would love to attend that book discussion and gave us her contact information.  A few months later, we emailed her with the details of the teleconference call when we would have the discussion.  Sure enough, Ms. Werner dialed into our call and offered many illuminating insights about the historical origins of the story and how she came to write it.

“The Good at Heart” takes place over the course of three days, July 18-20, 1944, in a small, picturesque German town, Blumental, near the Swiss border.  Although the town has been spared much direct combat, a sense of dark foreboding hangs like a cloud.  The story centers around the Eberhardt family whose patriarch, Oskar, is a finance minister within Hitler’s cabinet.  He has moved his family from Berlin to their simple country home in Blumental for safety purposes.  His wife and adult daughter are sick at heart over Nazism.  The daughter is involved in an underground operation to get Jews over the Swiss border to safety.  She is close friends with a radical Protestant minister (roughly modeled on Dietrich Bonhoeffer) who is even more deeply involved in the German underground.  Ms. Werner draws a carefully detailed picture of the small town and its inhabitants, some of whom are rabid Nazis, but many of whom are simple farmers and merchants trying to live their lives under harsh economic conditions.  When the Fuhrer himself decides to visit his finance minister’s town, events come to a head.  An assassination attempt on Hitler almost succeeds, but has lasting repercussions for the Eberhardts and the rest of the townspeople.

Ms. Werner’s title comes from an entry in Anne Frank’s diary: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”  Ms. Werner’s family research led her to believe that her relative managed to serve as a higher up in Hitler’s government without losing his integrity or his humanity.  By casting his wife and daughter as sickened by Nazism, she makes a case that not all Germans need be implicated by the evil deeds of their leaders.  Whether one fully agrees with her or not, her novel is a richly rewarding reading experience, with carefully developed characters and an abundance of local color.  When Hitler finally arrives at Blumental, Ms. Werner is able to communicate a feeling of both his charisma and his fundamental narcissism and depravity.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

We’ve also read two non-fiction books with stories that have WW2 as their backdrop.  The first was Daniel James Brown’s 2013 best-seller “The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics”.  The book inspired an excellent documentary film, “Boys in the Boat”, which essentially tells the same story using historical film footage.  The book documents the historic 9-man rowing team from the unheralded University of Washington which rose from a humble start in college competition to become the gold-medal winner at the 1936 Olympics.  The book painstakingly recreates a detailed picture of hard-scrabble lives in the Pacific Northwest during the depression era.  The main character, Joe Rantz, is abandoned by his parents as a teenager because they simply cannot afford to feed him.  This abandonment plagues Joe emotionally yet, with the help of a loyal girlfriend and her family, he’s able to slowly overcome his personal limitations.  The most dramatic emotional healing for Joe comes as he learns to let down his defenses, to trust his coaches and teammates, and to allow himself to give a sustained, maximum effort to a group of men who would remain connected by tight bonds on friendship for the rest of their lives,

Brown’s account of he 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin is detailed and poignant.  Hitler’s goal was to show the world the universal power and skill of his German athletes as representatives of the “master Aryan race” that deserved dominion over the entire world.  Stunning upsets in track by the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens and in the premier rowing competition by the American team from Washington state caused Hitler supreme disappointment and unbridled anger.  As an American reading the account, one can’t help but feel that these victories were prophetic of our G.I.’s victories on the battlefields when hostilities broke out a few years later.

Lasting Physical and Emotional Wounds from WW2

A book that had particular relevance to me and my siblings was Thomas Childers’ 2009 non-fiction “Soldier from the War Returning”.  In his Introduction, Childers laments “the now pervasive public view of the Second World War and its aftermath, a view that seems increasingly intent on sentimentalizing and sanitizing a conflict that killed fifty-five million people around the world and left millions more broken, either physically or emotionally”.  The book focuses on a few detailed case studies of U.S. soldiers’ war experiences as well as the experience of returning home and trying to get on with their lives.

Our own Dad, though often a good husband and father, had shown noticeable emotional and psychological effects from his years of active combat.  An aunt told me that he had spent time in an institution for the “shell-shocked” after returning home from the brutal Italian campaign in 1944.  He recovered enough to get a job, get married and start a family.  But his life was filled with stretches of melancholy, often medicated away with alcohol.  The drinking got worse over time and he slid into retirement as a full-scale, unacknowledged alcoholic.  None of us family members really understood the nature of Dad’s emotional malaise, and Childers book did a good job describing the kind of war trauma that, left untreated, yields lasting emotional scars.  Reading cases that were similar to Dad’s, I developed a better understanding, acceptance, and compassion for what he must have gone through during those terrible war years.

WW2 and Today’s “Existential Threats”

As I observe the readily apparent manifestations of climate change and read the sobering scientific assessments, I often think back to Al Gore’s challenging words at the end of his documentary film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”  After reporting on how dire the trajectory of climate change is for the human race in the 21st century, Gore argued that it’s not too late to launch a frontal assault on the problem, involving a complete re-do of energy generation away from fossil fuels.  He reminded us how dire the future of the human race looked after the Axis conquests in the first years of WW2.  But after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. under FDR responded with the fullest possible investment of human capital, money,, energy, and human blood that we were capable of.  It was enough to eventually turn the tide and defeat the Axis forces on all fronts.  We did it as a nation in WW2 when the entire world was under threat of tyranny. And perhaps we can do it again now.  That’s the legacy of WW2 that I most want to remember and affirm.

John Bayerl, 3/9/2019

More Mandalas

Circle-of-Life mandala

Circle of Life, 2/4/19

I’ve been continuing to color mandalas for relaxation and personal centering over the last few months.  In Eastern traditions, mandalas are used as a focus for meditation.  The inherent coherence of these often complex figures can help the beholder to find his or her own inner coherence within a greater unity.

Coloring a mandala requires some hours of my focused attention.  I sometimes listen to music while coloring, and even occasionally work with the TV on.  But mostly I seek to avoid distractions and simply concentrate on the pattern.  I’ve learned that I work better when I restrict my palette to just a few colors.

Early on, I noticed a positive physical relaxation when I started coloring.  Ordinarily, I have an “essential tremor” that manifests with a shaking hand, noticeable while eating or writing longhand.  When I begin coloring, the tremor miraculously disappears, no matter how long I stay with it.  My acupuncturist tells me it’s because I’m using different brain pathways.

Another enjoyable part of coloring is sharing the activity with my spouse, and showing each other our latest efforts.  I’ve also taken to photographing my finished products and sharing them with friends via text or email.

A close friends of ours, Alison Hammer, died last October after living a highly productive and creative  last five years while dealing with metastatic breast cancer. Alison introduced many of us to the art and artistry of mandalas, carrying on with her marvelous creations into her last days.  I was honored to receive a box of her favorite colored pencils as her legacy to me.

The book that my spouse and I are mostly using is called “Mandala Meditation Coloring Book”, published by Sterling Ethos in 2015.

Arrival in Isabela, 2/12/2019

Arrival in Isabela, 2/12/2019


New Years Day, 2019


5-pointed star compass


Multi-colored lotus, 1/19/19


Firmeza, 1/29/19


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




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



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



The view from our hotel window.



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



Two high school actors who still love live theater.



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

Discovering Cognitive Resilience in My Approach to Alzheimers Risk


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


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


“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).






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.


John Bayerl, 5/28/2018





Friends Meeting

Guardian trees

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