Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reflections on my 68th Birthday

© 2007 by Julius Lester

Reflections on Reaching Age 68

Today I am 68. The number of years I have lived greatly outnumber the years I will live. I have more than 50 years of memories. I have a kind of quiet confidence that comes from having prevailed over the many challenges life presented. I also live with the pain of regrets about words and deeds that hurt others as well as sorrows at opportunities I was too shy to take advantage of.

But I like being old. Geriatricians classify age 68 as “young old age.” I accept. Please don’t say to me, as some have, “You’re not old,” as if being old is not desirable. I have earned these years, and I cherish them.

I have no desire to be young. I look at the young and do not envy them the struggles they will face – marriage, career, raising children, learning to live with stresses of all kinds without falling apart – at least, not often. At age 68 I can say that I really like my marriage, my third and final one; I was successful in my various careers, and the five children I helped to raise are grown and in the world and doing well.

As I near the end of my traversal through the sixties, I think a lot about death, even being curious as to what it is like – if it is anything more than the final sleep. Some of you may remember the Redd Foxx television show, and the scenes in which he would feel a twinge of pain, grab his chest, and holler, “Oh, Elizabeth! I’m coming! This is the big one!” (Elizabeth was the character’s dead wife). I understand now. When I was young and had a slight sore throat, I’d think I was coming down with something. Now I wonder if such soreness is a sign of throat cancer. Any little twinge of pain in the chest is a heart attack. But one of these days, a twinge of pain will be more than an intimation of my mortality. It will be the announcement of it.

I understand now why old people like to talk about their aches and pains. My body is beginning to break down, and I am fascinated by this. I have arthritis in my hands, the left one in particular, and the first joints of my little finger on the left hand, and the index finger on the right are detached from the middle joint. I played piano throughout my childhood and youth, and my adult years have been spent pounding typewriter and computer keyboards. The joints in my fingers have worn away, and now bone sits atop bone. Every couple of months I get cortisone shots in my fingers. The pain when the needle is inserted between the joints of my fingers is incredible, but brief.

My major health challenge is living with emphysema, which I’ve had since 1991. Although I stopped smoking on July 13, 1988, at 2:45 p.m., that was not soon enough to escape the damage done to my lungs. Except for needing oxygen when I fly or go to altitudes over 6,000 feet, my daily living, until recently, had not been effected. My pulmonologist has put me on supplemental oxygen to be used with exertion – going up stairs, working in the yard, etc. There is going to be a period of adjustment, as people get used to seeing me with a cannula in my nose, a portable oxygen tank over my shoulder, and I get used to being seen.

But I was amused and delighted when I learned that the name of the portable oxygen system is Spirit. In Hebrew the word for spirit and breath is the same – nefesh. My lungs are not in the greatest of shape, but my spirit? My spirit has never been stronger or more vibrant, or more wholly engaged by this incredible adventure of living.


"Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be swift to love and make haste to be kind."

Henri-Frederic Amiel


Me at ages 12 and 62.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Found Poem #6

© 2007 by Julius Lester

Found Poem #6

One of the interesting things
about being the
president is
you don’t see much mail,
curiously enough.
The only thing I can tell
you is that
I rely
on my instincts.
I just knew
that at some point in time,
the American people were going to say,
Where is he?
What are you doing?
Where’s your leadership?
Where is the United States?
You are all powerful.
Do something.

George W. Bush, in the fall, 2001, quoted in Bush at War by Bob Woodward, [168]


above-wonderful more than wonderful.


Tell someone he or she is "above-wonderful".


This is #5 in the series "Alone, Herself".
This was taken in January, 2001, in Santa Monica, California, where
my wife saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and danced with it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Crossword Puzzles

© 2007 by Julius Lester

One of my daily pleasures is doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. I have been doing it for 20 years or so, though now I do it on the computer. For anyone who has a passion for words, the Times puzzle is an everyday delight.

A friend of mine who teaches French (and is my teacher) is teaching English in France. She told me that it is much harder for the French to learn English than for Americans to learn French. The major clues in two crossword puzzles demonstrate why the French might find English difficult. The first line is the clue, the answer is in italics:

Hanging sculpture in Alabama?
Mobile Mobile
Warsaw refinement?
Polish Polish
Majestic summer time?
August August
Puzzle of Oct. 4, 2004

1981 Mel Gibson film, with “The”
Road Warrior
The Ocean State
Rhode Island
Arrived like Michael in an old song?
Rowed Ashore
Had the passenger seat
Rode Shotgun
Puzzle of 1/10/1995


Whinge - "To complain fretfully"
This is not a variant spelling of whine, but a completely different word.
"Whine" comes from an Old English root meaning "to make a humming or whirring sound, to wail distressfully" "Whinge"comes from an Old English verb meaning "to wail or moan discontentedly".

I don't know about you, but I've had a few days over the years on which whinging was the proper response.


“Hope can arrive only when you recognize that there are real options and that you have genuine choices. Hope can flourish only when you believe that what you do can make a difference, that your actions can bring a future different from the present. To have hope, then, is to acquire a belief in your ability to have some control over your circumstances. You are no longer entirely at the mercy of forces outside yourself.” [26]

Jerome Groopman, M.D., How People Prevail in the Face of Illness: The Anatomy of Hope


The two figures in this collage are from photographs of the statuary in front of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The words are by author and Jungian analyst, James Hillman

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"The Historian"

© 2007 by Julius Lester

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was one of the big books of 2005, big both in pages (642) and sales. It is about the search by primarily one family for Dracula. The descriptions of the European settings are quite good, as well as the depictions of the many characters, not to mention the extensive compilation of lore about Dracula. But when I finished it, I was not elated. It is a well-conceived and well-written book, but it did not touch my soul. When I finished it, I was not sure what it added up to.

But there were some lovely passages in it.

“For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history’s terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen that truth – really seen it, you can’t look away.” [37]

“…history could be…a splash of blood whose agony didn’t fade overnight, or over centuries.” [50]

Those passages are even more apt in light of the carnage taking place in Iraq, especially the image of history as "a splash of blood".

“It also gave me my first faint quaver of sexual belonging, the elusive feeling that if I slipped my hand into his as we walked along, a door would fall open somewhere in the long wall of reality as I knew it, never to be closed again.” [158]

This is said by the daughter who is one of the novel's narrators and is falling in love for the first time. I love the image of a "faint quaver of sexual belonging". It is so apt as is the metaphor of the door which falls "open somewhere in the long wall of reality," and with each act of sexual belonging, a new door falls open.

“I stood watching a wave of loss come through the celestial air toward me, through that beautiful morning. Then my grief reached me, an unspeakable fire.” [614]

These words are by the girl's father, another one of the narrative voices, who believes his wife has committed suicide. I have never seen grief described more accurately. Yes, grief is "an unspeakable fire" that burns and burns and burns, and never burns completely out. The coals linger hotly until it is someone else's turn to experience that grief at your own death.


FOGBOW - A faint white or yellowish arc-shaped light, similar to a rainbow, that sometimes appears in fog opposite the sun. A fogbow is also now as a seadog.

And, I suppose I can't leave out

FOGPATE - A stupid, muddle-headed person.

We will take a moment to think of the fogpates we know, or who hold elective offices.


Lady's slippers are wild orchids and tend to be rare in nature. There are a small patch of them on our property. This is one.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bush, Dr. King, and the War in Iraq

© 2007 by Julius Lester

I hope President Bush lets Martin Luther King, Jr. Day pass without saying anything about Dr. King and what he stood for. Although Bush professes to be a devout Christian, there is no comparison between his practice of Christianity and Dr. King's. If Dr. King were alive, we know that his mellifluous voice would be raised against the sending of more young men to be killed in Iraq, would be raised against the one billion dollars a week our nation is spending in a vain effort to impose democracy on a country whose cultural and political values are alien to us. Dr. King would be calling the president to task for the ease with which he spends a billion dollars a week on this ridiculous and obscene war and the ease with which the president ignored New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck and the ease with which he continues to ignore New Orleans.

Even worse is that people are not in the streets protesting against a war every bit as wrong as was the war in Vietnam. But during the Vietnam war every young man 18 years old and over was subject to be drafted. That war came knocking at the door of a significant number of parents with sons eligible to be sent to war, and those parents finally said, you can't have my child. There is no draft now, and although the majority of Americans oppose Bush's latest act of immoral stupidity, the war has no impact on the lives of most of us. We register our opinions to pollsters, and
Bush ignores our opposition because it is an opposition that exists only on paper.

One billion dollars a week devoted to killing people whose names we cannot pronounce. One billion dollars a week to wage war in a country whose people we cannot talk with because we don't know their language. One billion dollars a week to wage war in a country whose people want us to leave them alone.

And fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Republicans think pornography is obscene. Compared to spending one billion dollars a week on the war in Iraq, pornography is a wholesome as mom and apple pie.

The following is excerpted from a sermon Dr. King gave at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. In the months preceding this sermon, Dr. King had begun criticizing the war in Vietnam and had been attacked by many, even liberals, who thought he should restrict his words and activities to civil rights. In this speech Dr. King laid out the reasons why he would be remiss if he did not speak out against the war as well as his reasons for opposing the war. The words below are from the end of the speech.

"We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing-oriented' society to a 'person-oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

"This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept -- so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force -- has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

"'Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.'

"Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history."


In the spring of 1966, someone in a small Mississippi town felt compelled to write out his or her concern about another war on a piece of paper and nail it to a tree. I do not know if anyone came to that prayer meeting. I do not know if any prayers that may have been offered did any good. But the results are secondary to the fact that this person felt that he or she had to do something and did what was in their power to do.

So should we all.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

More on Football and Religion

© 2007 by Julius Lester

When I was telling my wife about my previous blog, she reminded me that in America football is truly a religion. And it's true. Games are played on Saturdays and Sundays, days which cover the sabbath for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The teams are akin to sects, which are devout and fanatical. Each football sect believes that its team is the only team worthy of worhsipping. But the best thing part of the religion of football is that you do not have to die to go to heaven. A Super Bowl victory by your sect's team transports you to heaven. As a devout member of the Patriot sect, I have been to heaven three times in the past four years, and it was wonderful!

Some years ago I spoke at Penn State University, a football power led by its 80 year old coach, the legendery Joe Paterno. The rabbi at the school told me that during his first year there Yom Kippur was on a Saturday that year. (Of course, Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, and next to the Sabbath, Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It is a day on which we fast, do not wear leather, and spend the entire day in synagogue reciting penitential prayers.) The rabbi said services were going well until 12:30 when, as one, the entire congregation left. Penn State was playing that day and kick off was 1 p.m. The rabbi said he understood then what was true religion at Penn State.


Ablend - "to dazzle, to take away the sight (temporarily), to blind the moral vision"


“I began then to know words as immortal things one could see and touch, each having a color and shape like a pebble that never suffers disease or death. I dreamed of bags of polished pebbles; each bag a story; each bag holding one precious jewel among the many pebbles or a dark, black stone that was death’s eye.”

Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley, p. 9


For those like me who have seen no snow, this is what winter used to look like through the window where I sit at this computer.

Monday, January 8, 2007

This and That

© 2006 by Julius Lester

I do not understand why the emotional lives of so many people, including me, are tied to the fate of our favorite sports team. In Europe soccer fans have been killed in riots when a favorite team wins or loses. I have been a fan of the New England Patriots since 1975 and have seen every televised game since then. Well, "seen" is not quite right. I can't watch the games. I listen to the television announcer. Only when the Patriots score do I get up and watch the replay.

However, I will watch if the Patriots are ahead by 21 points in the fourth quarter with five minutes to play. When the Patriots win, I am very happy. When the Patriots lose, I am depressed for 24 hours, longer if they lose to the New York Jets or Indianapolis Colts. Why does the outcome of a football game matter so much to me?

Perhaps it's because all of us need to identify with an entity larger than ourselves. We need the feeling of community that comes from shared identity. Although sports fans often riot and destroy property, they do not fill cars with explosives and drive into crowds of women and children. Sports fans do not take rifles and kill people at random. And, for the most part, sports fans accept with good humor than there are people who root for other teams and do not seek to pass laws demanding that everyone root for their particular team.

O.K. I'll stop being embarrassed about my fanatical (root of "fan") love for the New England Patriots. There are worse ways to feel a sense of belonging.


“The most difficult kind of ethic is the kind which impels you to follow what seems to be your own inner truth. And, of course, you always make plenty of mistakes that way. But that is the point. I cease to understand any reason for wanting to be always right. It is so hard to do the one thing that matters, which is to be not right, but sincere.” Ibid. p. 393

The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters of Thomas Merton, p. 393

I am adding a new section called TODAY'S WORD. It will consist of words from other languages as well as words that have fallen out of use in English.

To lose a word is to lose an experience, a nuance of being human.


Abhominal - from the Latin, ab homine, away from man, inhuman, beastly, Unworthy of a man, inhuman, unmanly.


A family in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1966

Friday, January 5, 2007

This and That

© 2007 by Julius Lester

1. In the aftermath of the hanging of Saddam Hussein, I saw a photograph in the New York Times that startled me. It was a photograph of one of his daughters, crying. The image made me wonder: Is it possible for a child to see its parents as others do? Does a child even want to know its parents in the way(s) others do? And even if a child knows the evils a parent commits, does it change the child's feelings about the parent? Sometimes yes, but most of the time, no. After all, to the child - and as long as our parents are alive, a part of us remains a child - parents have no existence separate from that of being his or her parents, and whatever else they do is irrelevant compared to their existence as parents. Mother and father are eternal verities.

Seeing the photograph of Hussein's daughter crying at the news of his death, I was glad to know that someone loved him.

2. In New York City earlier this week, a man named Wesley Autry was waiting for the subway with his two daughters, ages 4 and 6. A young man waiting on the subway platform had a seizure and fell onto the tracks into the path of an oncoming train. Mr. Autry jumped onto the tracks, pulled the young man into the space between the rails, and lay flat. The train passed over them.

Mr. Autry has become a national hero. He was given a medal by the mayor of New York; he was on Letterman last night; Donald Trump gave him $10,000; editorial writers are waxing eloquent over what they see as an act of heroism.

Am I the only one who is thinking: What if he had been killed? He chose to try and save the life of a stranger rather than insure that his daughters would have a living father. If he had been killed, his daughters would have been left to wonder why their father thought the life of a stranger was more important than theirs? And, if he had died, all the newspapers and talk shows now extolling him would be calling him irresponsible.

Is our nation so desperate for heroes that it would see heroism in an act of parental irresponsibility? Apparently so.


"Don't believe everything you think."

Bumper sticker


Navy Recruiting Center, New York City, 1966

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Found Poem #5

© 2007 by Julius Lester

Found Poem #5

3,000 Deaths
In Iraq
Countless Tears
At Home.

Front page headline, New York Times, January 1, 2007

I can't recall ever reading such a headline on the front page of any newspaper. Monday's NY Times published photographs of those 3,000 Americans who have been killed in Iraq. For any who did not see it, the photographs are on line at

To see how incredibly young so many of them were is heartbreaking. Fifty-eight percent were between the ages of 18-24. I wish it were possible to see the faces of each of the estimated 52,000 Iraqi civilians who have also been killed.


"History is not prelude," she said once. "We don't justify the suffering of people in the past because everything turned out well enough by the time we came along. Their suffering counts just as much as our peace and happiness....Good people do not let others suffer needlessly."

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card, p. 15-16


Milkweed Pod