Sunday, June 20, 2021

MY FATHER'S FAITH

I always understood the underpinning of my father's religious faith to be rooted in his dedication to deeply-held socialist values (I use the small "s" advisedly). At the time of my birth, in the mid-1930s, he was the incumbent of a "slum" parish in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England. His flock consisted mainly of the working poor--coalminers and their families who had a hard time making ends meet. He was not only their pastoral mentor, he was the vocal advocate for the economic improvement of their lives. A "high" churchman, he loved ritual and ceremony, but more than these he loved his pastoral work and the responsibilities he knew came with it.

These thoughts occur to me on Father's Day (though there was no such thing in England, when I was growing up...) because I have been reading in the newspaper about the conference of the Southern Baptist Convention and the very narrow advantage of the already deeply conservative leadership over their aggressively ultra-conservative challengers. My father would not have recognized the "Christianity" espoused by either of these groups. Even accounting for his understanding and acknowledgement of the psychological and moral complexity of his fellow human beings--and indeed his own!--he would have been hard put to understand the continuing support of these loudly self-professed believers in Jesus and his gospels for a political leader whose most salient features are his lack of human empathy, his shameless dishonesty, his incessant lies and his undisputed moral turpitude.

More even than this, however, my father would be dismayed by a form of Christianity that lacked compassion for the economically and socially disadvantaged--predominantly people of color in this white-first society. The Southern Baptist convention was dominated, the newspeper report suggested, by a virulent storm of meretricious outrage directed at "critical race theory", its intellectual complexities insultingly reduced to the hated acronym, CRT. If I understand it right, critical race theory embraces an acknowledgment of the deplorable history of the repression of Black people in this country and an attempt to address its persistence in the form of institutional racism with fresh, analytical integrity. In my view, a noble, long overdue and necessary goal.

The socialism that my father embraced is widely accepted in Europe as the norm today: a health care system that provides coverage for every citizen, a safety net that addresses the needs of the disadvantaged and the unemployed, a retirement system that assures the security of the aging populations. He would have found it incomprehensible that American working people--and an established curch!--would be so hostile to a form of government that addressed such basic human needs. His reading of the Bible responded to a Christ whose qualities were mercy and compassion, who preached love and abhored hatred and exclusion in all its forms.

This is the heritage my father left to me, in the way I view the world. And this is the father's heritage I would wish to leave to my own children and grandchildren. It is no longer, in my case, a heritage of Christian faith, but rather a belief in mutual respect for the dignity of every human being and a sense of shared responsibility for our common welfare, of obligation to do what we can to constantly improve the quality of life for all of us.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

SANGHA

I have lapsed in my attendance at what used to be our regular sitting group here in Laguna Beach. Our "sangha", as we used to call it, had been going for many years. I myself joined the group somewhere in the mid-1990s, perhaps 1994 or 1995, in a lovely home surrounded by a lush garden filled with subtropical greenery. We were privileged to have the noted Thanissaro Bhikkhu ("Than Geoff"), abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery down south, as our friend and once-monthly teacher, and it was with his gentle, always humorous guidance that I had my introduction to the dharma.

When the owners of that original location moved, a handful of us--six or eight, or sometimes more--continued to meet every Sunday at another location, in the home of one of our long-time members that overlooked the Pacific Ocean through a cluster of elegant eucapyltus trees. Before Covid, our practice was to convene to sit in silence for an hour, then spend the next hour in conversation--whether profound discussion of some aspect of the dharma or the exchange of purely personal experiences in meditation, or sometimes merely a chat about whatever happened to be on our minds. Sometimes even politics!

With the arrival of the coronavirus, of course, we could no longer meet in person. It was not long before Zoom came to the rescue in the form of a weekly Sunday venue with a half-hour's sit led by Than Geoff and a dharma talk or question-and-answer session that followed. It seemed initially like a good idea, an adequate, if less-than-ideal substitute for "the real thing," and I joined in on my computer for a few weeks before, first, missing a Sunday here and there, and--though I could not help feeling disappointed in myself--finally opting out altogether.

It has been a long time now since I sat with the group. It was now much larger, with people from many different parts of the country, it seemed, all lovely faces in those little rectangular boxes--page after page of them--very few of whom I recognized. I found myself missing the intimacy and the sense of community in our little sangha, the communal act of breathing--if not quite in unison, than at least all together--in a shared present moment. I came to understand that it was this, much more than a serious dedication to the study of the dharma, that attracted me and assured my commitment to those Sunday sits.

More than this, I have come to realize that it was, as much as anything, about love--a profound sense of brotherhood and sisterhood amongst those of us who met each week to share the experience of meditation. The loss has been one of the attendant costs of the plague that has beset us, this past year and more; and I am left wondering, now that the Zoom "parisa"--no longer, now, a "sangha"--is established, whether we shall ever return to what we had before. As I approach my 85th birthday now, in little more than a month, I realize how keenly I am feeling that loss--and how much I treasure the less dharma-oriented group I have assembled in our Los Angeles neighborhood. There, too, we have resorted to Zoom; but I know that, come the fall, we'll make the effort to reassemble in person in our home. Until then, I'll look forward to that moment.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

D-DAY

I'm sad to say that D-Day slipped past me with barely a thought this year. This morning I woke up remembering, two days late. I was 8 years old at the time. My boarding school had been evacuated from the South Downs, in Sussex, to temporary quarters in the Lake District, a safe distance from the military action. The school itself had been turned over to the armed forces for training purposes--the tank tracks we discovered churning up the ground all around the school on our return after the war were evidence of that, as were the clips of live ammunition and various other delightful boy toys we continued to discover in the undergrowth for months, even years later.

Meanwhile, up in the rocky hillsides and the woods around Ambleside, at the northern tip of Lake Windermere, there were many "Huns" that my friends and I would attack and kill with our long stick "rifles" in the course of our war games, only distantly aware of those thousands of men whose real lives were being ripped from them on those beaches to the south, across the English channel.

Americans, to me, were exotic gum-chewing, Lucky Strike smoking creatures from another world. We watched in awe as their convoys of trucks and Jeeps roared through our village. (Did you ever see "Hope and Glory"? That was so much my boyhood...) Our chant from the roadsides, "Got any gum. chum?" was more than just a trite cliche. We actually stood there shouting the words, and the men would throw us fistfuls of Spearmint pack with big American grins. How many of those men I have often wondered, never lived to return home to their country?

We Europeans--I can't help thinking of myself as one still, after nearly 60 years of living this side of the Atlantic--have so much to be grateful for, to America and Americans. It's a sad, sad feeling, these days, to remember that time, and to want so much for all that goodness and generosity and, yes, joy, to return to the many American hearts that seem to have turned sour and bitter, to long for those broad, unstinting, self-confident grins that represented, for me, as a child, what it meant to be American.

Perhaps, one day, the bitterness and bickering will cease and we'll rediscover what Joe Biden promises to be "the soul of America." I hope so. I truly do. Because I know it well enough, from those distant times, to miss it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

RAGE

 I had some kind and thoughtful messages of sympathy in response to my post yesterday, and am truly grateful--especially for those who have become more vigilant as a result of my saga.

A saga it has turned out to be. It is now more than a week since this sorry event started, and the repercussions seem unending--reports and claims to file, notifications, standing banking and credit card orders to be changed, redoubled efforts to protect identity. I spend entire days on the computer and the telephone, negotiating paths through multiple menu options in the effort to reach an actual person to whom I can explain the situation and ask for the action or the help I need.

What comes home is the realization--as though it were a new one!--that we are all now hooked into an invisible, impenetrable network of communications that no longer serves our human needs and interests but instead cannibalizes everything that's human about being human. It's a sobering experience, to have to face it so immediately and with such a deep sense of frustration and, yes, anger. It erupts constantly, a compulsion to throw the bloody telephone at the wall or toss the computer out the window.

So I get to watch my rage. I am thankful for the 25-odd years of meditation practice that allow me to moderate the impact of all this and give me, at least, small moments of clarity.

Monday, May 10, 2021

BE FOREWARNED

WE WERE SCAMMED I fell victim to an online scam last week. It’s embarrassing and infuriating, and I’m sure I’ll look foolish and na├»ve, but I’d like to share what happened so that others may be forewarned. It was a clever scheme and one that’s worth watching out for. 

It started with an email thanking me for my business and notifying me of an annual automatic deduction to renew an online protection service. Not recognizing the source but knowing that I routinely make arrangements for automatic deductions of this kind (GoDaddy, Earthlink, that kind of thing), I called the number to determine the nature of the service (my first mistake! I should have checked my bank accounts and credit cards to be sure that the deduction had in fact been made). 

Offered the option by the “nice” man who responded (why a nice man, I have to wonder now, and not the whole familiar, exasperating menu of options and lengthy holds?), I chose to cancel the service and receive a refund. To close the (lengthy, tedious!) process I was asked to type in the relatively small refund amount requested, but as I did so, the system mysteriously added some extra zeroes before I could stop the order going through. 

Oh no! My new friend was so distressed! My typing error meant that his company had now refunded me a very much larger sum than was intended. Of course, I needed to get their money back to them. My initial attempt to make a suggested wire transfer did not succeed, so they asked for a good faith payment in Target gift cards. (Okay, at this point I should surely have smelled a rat, but… I was reassured by the knowledge that I had a significant amount of “their money” in my account.) That initial request for gift cards was gradually tripled, by the way, but I won’t go into the excruciating detail of the trek from RiteAid to CVS to BestBuy and loading up our credit cards. 

After which, these people were kind enough to facilitate a wire transfer for the much larger balance… (This was early days, still a long time before I discovered that the “mistaken” refund that had arrived in my checking account was not their money at all, but had somehow been shifted over from another of my own family accounts. Their purported “refund” was in fact my own money from the start!) 

There followed literally days of negotiations to make good on what I was persuaded was a genuine mistake, involving financial shenanigans to avoid (at all costs!) having to pay a huge amount of tax on the mysterious, large sum of money that had appeared in my bank account (the IRS wants an explanation for anything more than $10K). More money was paid into my account to cover the dreaded taxes, and more taken out for the same reason. By this time, my head was spinning. I had become so engaged in the process I was unable to stand outside it and see it for the scam it was so obviously becoming. 

Bottom line, long story short, etc., the evidence piled up beyond my capacity to deny it. I realized I’d been had. I first froze all my bank accounts, then closed them and opened others. I alerted the bank’s fraud department and started a process to recall the major wire transfer—which or course may or may not happen. I tried, without success so far, to find someone in the Los Angeles Police Department interested in hearing the story and taking action. There’s a nightmare of reports to be made and consequences to be dealt with, including of course the revision of all my regular auto-deposits (Social Security, retirement plans…), and deductions to pay monthly bills, donate to charities, and so on. It will cost me at least another week of work to sort things out. 

So, friends, please guard against this particular piece of devilish cleverness. Above all, check to see in advance whether anyone thanking you for your business has actually done business with you before. When you read this story, please don’t attribute it only to my gullibility. Of course, there was some of that involved. But you’d be surprised, no matter how vigilant you are, at how easily you can get hooked. Please don’t!