Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The African American Great Migration

Teola Prior Emanuel, my maternal grandmother, was from Prior Station Georgia. She and my maternal grandfather, Matthew Levi Emanuel, were part of the 1st Great African American Migration out of the Southern states, during early 1920s to escape the lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, and to pursue freedom and greater job opportunities in the industrial North.


She played a large role in my early upbringing. I learned about faith, charity, human dignity and the value of family, community and education through her example. She passed away in 1976, 40 years ago.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Growing Together and Apart in the 1970s


Early '70s photo, when Alex was just beginning to experiment with fashions
This collection is a mix of family photos from the 1970s. My brother, Alex, was constantly innovating with different fashions. Alex was usually dressed sharply in the 70s with platform shoes, wide collared pastel-colored shirts and puffy sleeves. On the other hand, I was known for having no taste for fancy clothes, often wearing raggedy jeans, hiking boots and wrinkled T-shirts. An adult friend of the family once observed that “One boy looks like he’s walking out of the pages of GQ magazine, while the other looks like he’s in Popular Mechanics.”



Two brothers with very different styles of dress and taste

My father was also fond of noting the contrast, not only in our style of dress, but also in our personalities. He called my brother the “diplomat,” saying that Alex never wanted to be offensive and always tried to please. On the other hand, he called me “rebellious,” for being very blunt and sharp-tongued. As adults we both moderated our distinguishing traits somewhat. Alex is certainly much less diplomatic than he was as a child and teenager, and I am less blunt. These days Alex often accuses me of being the “conformist” due to my church affiliations and work with academic institutions; neither of which he has much taste for.

Also our positions on the clothing spectrum have shifted somewhat. I still find it difficult to wear formal attire unless absolutely necessary and generally hold the middle ground on clothing by wearing business casual fashions. Alex, on the other hand tends to wear casual attire, often consisting of jeans, a hoodie and a T-shirt.


Cousin Jeffery, Uncle Jake and Aunt Dot

The photo above is of my cousin Jeffery Pounds and his parents Uncle Jake and Aunt Dot. They lived in East Orange, New Jersey, but often came to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving. They were related to Bishop Turner, who was my grandmother’s second husband after Matthew Emanuel died. We called my mother’s father “Pops” and my grandmother’s second husband “Pop-Pop.” We always called my grandmother, “Grimmommy.”

In many ways Cousin Jeffery was like a third brother during the times he would come to Pittsburgh, but as an only child he was also shy. I remember one time when we visited the Pounds in New Jersey and it was time for us to leave. Rather than come down and say good-bye Jeffery stayed up in his room and watched us pack the car from his window. He hated to say good-bye.


Two brothers: constrasts and similarities in the 1970s

The picture above is of my brother and me, probably in the late 1970s. I am on the left, in typically casual attire, wearing blue jeans and a blue running jacket. Alex is uncharacteristically casual with blue jeans and a beige turtleneck sweater.


My father, the Reverend Doctor A.A. Hawkins, Sr.

The above photo is my father, who was not only a college professor but also a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. My mother didn’t want to be a preacher’s wife and my father promised not to go into the ministry if they got married. They had, however, a difficult time conceiving the first child, and my father made a promise to God that if he could have a son my father would enter the ministry. Every generation on my father’s side of the family has produced AME ministers since the late 19th century, but despite the fact that he had two older brothers, my father’s generation was in danger of being the first generation not to produce clergy. So, my father prayed about it and soon afterward my mother was pregnant with Alex, Jr. After Alex was born, and proved to be a healthy baby, my father kept up his end of the bargain and took up the ministry. He mostly ministered to small churches on the outskirts of the city, and always donated the preacher’s salary to the church. He continued his ministry until the day he died.




The above is a photo of my brother and me with my mother, and photo below is a bit out of place – it is a photo from the mid-1960s from elementary school days. We were attending Lemington Elementary at the time, a school that had recently made the transition from being a primarily working-class Italian school to a school that was predominately African American. The Lincoln-Lemington area in which we lived had become a working-class African American neighborhood with a few whites still remaining.


I was probably in the 3rd grade in this photo
I think Alex is in the 5th grade here

Mid-1970s


By the mid-1970s both of my parents were on the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh in the School of Social Work. My father’s area of specialization was criminal justice, while my mother specialized in children and youth. My father pushed hard to keep the profession of social work involved in the rehabilitation of prisoners, even during a time that states were moving away from an emphasis on rehabilitation. My mother was instrumental in promoting the role of social workers in schools; she realized that children came from a larger context of social and community influences that impacted a child’s physical and psychological preparedness to learn. I remember many dinners where they would talk about the politics of the university. It was “boring adult talk” as far as I was concerned; I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But through these conversations they kept each other sane and were able to coordinate their activities in what I later came to understand was a highly political and often duplicitous environment that, outward images to the contrary, was not always favorable or encouraging when it came to minority achievement.




Both my mother and my father were sociable people. My father was known for his sense of humor and his love of stories, while my mother was known for her love of entertaining guests. She prepared elaborate dinners and attended to details to the point where some guests would express concern that she was not taking enough time to enjoy the meal. Both parents enjoyed company – my father played the role of the playful instigator. He knew how to get his friends worked up, but never in a demeaning or mean-spirited way. My mother would particularly come alive around children; she shared their openness and enthusiasm for life, and would take time to make sure they were enjoying themselves as much as the adults. They both shared and spread laughter.

Early 1970s


The family returned to Pittsburgh in 1968. Will eventually settled in Forest Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. These pictures were taken during a vacation in Atlantic City, probably in 1971 or thereabouts (it could even have been as late as 1973). At that time Atlantic City’s big attraction was the beach and boardwalk. The Casinos had not yet been built. Most of the entertainment took place in small night clubs on a street near the boardwalk. Leftist political newspapers with national circulation were easily available in the college section of Pittsburgh (Oakland) and, as we found, on the streets of Atlantic City. We bought a copy of the Black Panther newspaper for about a quarter.
In the Oakland section of Pittsburgh a local hippie underground newspaper was in wide circulation called “Grock” (sp?). The newspaper feature articles on communes and growing Marijuana. Black nationalist newspapers, such as the Black Panther and Muhammad Speaks, featured articles on black self-determination, Pan-Africanism, and black ownership of land and factories (at least in Muhammad Speaks). The Black Panther and the hippie underground newspaper also gave tips on how to survive encounters with the police, although the papers didn’t usually refer to them as “police.”

St. Petersburg Florida 1967-68


My Father (r) was the first African American city executive in St. Pete Florida
In 1967 we moved to St. Petersburg Florida and remained there through most of 1968. During that time my father was the director of human relations. It was a turbulent time; one memory that stands out is that the sanitation workers in the city went on strike. The situation was not unlike that in Memphis, when Martin Luther King was murdered. The sanitation workers in St. Pete were mostly black and poor; they were demanding a better contract.

At one point there was a large rally in support of the workers. The protest had galvanized much of the African American community, as well as progressive whites. Even though the protest was non-violent, there were arrests. I was glad my mother was willing to take my brother and me to the protest, even though my father held a sensitive job at city hall and journalists from the local newspaper made note of our presence. I seem to recall that my father was not too thrilled about our presence there – it put him in an awkward position.

My father taught us to identify with the "underdog"


But the earliest lesson I learned from my father was a few years earlier – when I asked him why our family was supporting a candidate for governor of Pennsylvania who was behind in the polls and seemed destined to lose – I asked him, why don’t we just support the winner instead? And my father replied, “In this family we always back the underdog.”

It was a defining moment for me; it was a point that clarified my values that set me apart from the other kids at school. What he said has stayed with me and helped to give me a sense of my own identity and that of my family.

Although my father was busy during the week, he would take time on weekends to take my brother and me to professional wrestling matches which were held in Tampa, Florida. These trips were often accompanied by stops in the Cuban section of the city to eat “Cuban Sandwiches,” which were large sandwiches on French bread with different kinds of deli meat, hot peppers, onions, and cheese. Two evenings out of the week, my mother would take us to Judo lessons – since St. Petersburg was still racially segregated when we lived there the Judo lessons were on the “white” side of town, and we were the only African Americans in the class.

Andy Walker lived across the street
and was like a brother to us when we
lived in Florida. He went to wrestling
matches with us.


On Sundays, we initially attended the AME church in St. Petersburg but the Sunday services seemed to go on forever. I recall my parents agreeing that the pastor was “long winded.” Being a good AME minister himself, and a public figure, my father had to continue to attend the church, but my mother was free to take my brother and me to other churches. We visited a Lutheran church, but settled on Florida Presbyterian. This church was somewhat integrated, the services ran about an hour, and emotions were comparatively subdued. It was my first time attending a non-African American church on a regular basis, but I didn’t feel out of place and it didn’t require much of an adjustment.

During my experiences in the AME Church in Pittsburgh I had grown accustomed to my father’s services, which ran about an hour and a half. His sermons were always focused and he would quiz us on their content on the way home. While he had a rhythmic cadence to his delivery, he was strong on content rather than relying mostly on emotion. His favorite theme was the “Prodigal Son”, which he reminded us was essentially about a forgiving father.
My mother made the best of being in St. Pete, but she missed
her own mother, who still lived in Pittsburgh. She also missed
Pittsburgh's topography and four seasons.


On the right is a  picture of my mother in a fancy restaurant in St. Petersburg. Although she missed her own mother, who was still living in Pittsburgh, and the topography and four seasons of Western Pennsylvania -- she also didn't like being in the fishbowl of local media -- she made the best of our stay in St. Pete.

Below is a picture of the Solomons, a family that was progressive and politically active during the time. Our two families were very close in St. Petersburg. My grandmother is also in that picture, in the middle of the back row – this picture was taken during her visit – when we moved to Florida she remained in Pittsburgh.
One of many frequent visits with the Solomon family in St.
Petersburg in 1967-68. Such close interracial friendship
between families was rare, as the city was, de facto, still
largely segregated. 



My brother and me with the Solomon boys,
Richard and Robert (I’m second from the left).

The bottom picture shows me practicing my trumpet. I took trumpet lessons in Florida and played in the elementary school band. A highlight was the experience of marching with the band in a parade.

When I first tried out a trumpet during a music education class, the trumpet I was allowed to use, temporarily, was a shiny new instrument. But when my parents actually bought a trumpet for me to keep, it was smaller and was very dull. I was disappointed. The band was to play that evening for our first public performance, but I was too embarrassed to want to participate; although I went to practice, I did not want to debut with that dull instrument.

My grandmother, however, was visiting us at the time, and she found some silverware polish and went to work on the horn. By the time she was through it looked as shiny as the new instrument I used to have. I remember thinking that she had worked some kind of magic.

Naturally, I was proud to participate in the performance that evening. When the other kids saw the brightly polished horn, they were astonished at the transformation and asked, “what happened to your trumpet?” I told them a lie that best captured what seemed like the essence of the magic of what had occurred, “Oh, it fell in a bucket of water and came out with this shine.”

It seemed to me that the only thing that could make a horn shine like that was a good washing. Although I knew that was not what happened, the notion of metal polish was something I couldn’t quite grasp.


Assorted Old Family Pictures


These are early family pictures. The two photos at the left were taken of my mother in 1947. The picture on the right is of my brother (l) and me (r) in boxing gloves on Christmas. As I look over old Christmas pictures I am reminded that, as boys, we preferred boxing gloves, weights, robots, chemistry sets, train sets and things of that nature.



We also liked cameras and board games. I found a picture of my grandmother and me playing battleship which is not reproduced here. As I said before, she was a very patient woman – I can’t imagine that she had the least interest in the game, yet, in the photo, she looked thoroughly engaged. The bottom photos are of my brother, probably taken when he was in 7th grade, and me, when I was in 4th grade.





My brother, Alex Jr., when he was
in 7th grade (I think) in 1968
This might be a 4th grade picture of me


These are pictures during the 1950s of family and a friend. The picture at the left is my mother burping me. This picture was taken in 1957.











The picture at the right is my brother Alex, taken in 1955.


The picture at the below is my mother and Gladys Hayes, who, along with her husband Harold Sr., were good friends of my parents. They enjoyed getting together and playing bridge on Friday or Saturday nights. They also provided each other with a good support network to share information on child rearing and careers. My parents and the Hayes lived on Travella Boulevard.




My Grandparents



These two photos are of my maternal grandparents, Matthew Levi Emanuel (after whom I got my middle name) and Teola Prior Emanuel. Both came from fairly affluent African American families in northern Georgia.

He was a man who loved to walk, but he had a stroke in the late 1950s. After the stroke he would often become disoriented and would wander into busy streets in East Liberty, which was, perhaps, five miles from where we lived. My mother had her hands full with two babies, my older brother and me, and had been warned by an officer, who repeatedly brought my grandfather home, that if he got struck by a car and killed it will be on her conscience for not keeping him at home.

The officer did not know how strong-willed my Grandfather was (I think I picked up some of his traits in that regard). He would wait until my mother was bathing me to grab his cane and sneak out of the house for his walks – the love of long walks is something else I inherited from him.

In an attempt to keep him from escaping, my mother hid his cane in the bathroom while she had me in the tub. This irritated the man to no end. My mother was not one to disobey her father, who had be a stern disciplinarian when she was growing up, so it must have been difficult for her to defy him when he demanded his cane. She locked herself, the cane, and me in the bathroom and held a shouting match with him behind the bathroom door.

Eventually the family agreed that he had to be institutionalized for his own safety, but nobody felt good about this “solution.” The institution was a long distance from the city, making it difficult for the family to visit him once he was there. Although this was the common practice at that time, the family has since regretted that decision. Not much later he contracted pneumonia and died, without family members at his bedside, in 1958. My grandfather loved his freedom, was accustomed to being independent and had a strong will. My mother always regretted the lonely and confined circumstances under which he died.

My grandmother was an inspiration in my life until she died of a heart attack in 1976. She used to call me “the senator” in order to encourage my political aspirations since I was ten years old. I always felt that she never lost faith in me, even during times when I had doubts about myself. She was, to me, the clearest role model of unconditional love and infinite patience. She was a devout Christian. The Bible always had a prominent place in her home.

My grandparents helped my parents to buy their first home just before I was born. With a growing family they wanted to make sure that we had space to spread out and a large yard to play in. The family moved from the small row house to a much larger single family unit at 253 Travella Boulevard, near the Lincoln Park area. My grandmother eventually moved into a house on Upland Street, which was near Homewood. This meant that we were still close enough for frequent visits. Upland Street is no more than three miles from Travella Boulevard.

Early Family Photos (1955)


These photos were taken before I was born. They were taken in May of 1955. The photo at the top is a photo of my father holding my older brother, Alex Jr., who was about four months old at the time. The photo on the middle left was the row house my mother and father lived in at the time. The home was located in the Lemington section on the East End of Pittsburgh. Their home was near Lincoln and Lemington Aves. Note the piles of snow in this picture. It was probably taken in January or February.

The photo on the mid-left is of my uncle Clinton, who was visiting from Philadelphia. Uncle Clinton came over when both my brother and I was born. He helped to cook and paint and get things ready each time for the arrival of a new baby. My uncle Clinton was an avid reader with a strong interest in markets and investments. During the Second World War he worked as a welder in the ship yards. I think that’s what brought him to Philadelphia, were he settled for the rest of his life. He died of lung cancer in the early 1970s. The photo at the bottom is my father leaning against his car.

I believe my grandparents on my mother’s side of the family lived with my parents in the row house at that time. My grandfather was a Baptist minister who had also been a teacher and farmer in Georgia, before migrating to Pittsburgh in the 1920s. My father affectionately called him “Reverend.”

Being a farmer, my grandfather knew how to grow tasty vegetables and insisted on not over-watering the garden he was cultivating in the yard. One day, after admonishing my father for watering his garden when he thought it should be kept dry there was a sudden cloud burst and downpour. My father gleefully bounded up the stairs to my grandfather’s room and said, “Reverend, it looks like the man upstairs has decided to water your garden after all!”

This is a photo of my parents, Alexander A. Hawkins and Mable T. Hawkins, which was probably taken around the mid-1940s. The original photo was attached to a wooden block.

Hawkins Family and Friends in Pittsburgh in the 1950s (part two)


This second set of photos shows my parents’ social network in the early-to-mid 1950s engaged in leisure activities. I think the photo on the top left was taken in Atlantic City. Playing cards was a popular activity (middle left) and the automobile was a major part of American culture. Once again, I am struck by how well-dressed people were, even on informal occasions.

Hawkins Family and Friends in Pittsburgh in the 1950s (part one)


I am posting a series of family photos I have come across as I am going through family artifacts in our old home. These first photos were probably taken in 1955 or earlier. They consist of family members (I think) or certainly friends of the family. My father probably took most of these photos. I don't recognize anyone in them but they do seem to suggest something about social circles of African American professionals in the City of Pittsburgh in the early to mid-1950s. I note the clothing worn (even on casual occassions), the housing, and the sense of group co-operation that provided a social network that was mutually supportive.

Friday, July 14, 2006

My Father and Social Work

NASW Pioneers: Alexander A. Hawkins, PhD.

By C. Matthew Hawkins

Alexander Amos Hawkins did his undergraduate studies at Moorehouse College in Atlanta Georgia during the early 1940s. He later completed his master’s degree at Atlanta University, and earned his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. His area of specialization within social work was criminal justice. His first job as a social worker was with the Salvation Army in the city of Pittsburgh. He went on to practice social work at Western Psychiatric Institute, before becoming a faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh until he retired in 1987.

Hawkins’ family immigrated to the United States from the West Indies in the 19th century. His father was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, as was his grandfather. His father and grandfather built churches as they moved to different parts of the state of Florida. Hawkins grew up in with his two brothers, George and Clinton. Their parents died while the boys were still young. Hawkins and his brothers spent much of their time living with different relatives, mostly in Jacksonville and Gainesville, Florida. For a while the boys attended a private boarding school.

While studying at Morehouse College, Alexander Hawkins met Mabel T. Emanuel, who was attending Spelman College. They married and had two children, Alexander Amos Hawkins, Jr. and Clinton Matthew Hawkins. Hawkins was ordained in the ministry in the late 1950s and initially became the pastor of Brown Chapel before being appointed to Bethel A.M.E. Church in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania. While serving as a minister, he continued as a social worker for the Salvation Army. The family lived in the Lincoln-Lemington section of Pittsburgh, a predominately working class African American neighborhood, before moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, which was still had racially segregated housing at the time. In 1968 the family returned to Pittsburgh to live in the historic African American community known as the Hill District before settling in Forest Hills, east of the city.

The work that Hawkins did in the field of social work reflected the twin values he held throughout his adult life: rehabilitation and reconciliation. These values originated from his family upbringing, his religious background and service in the ministry. They were also values he developed during his education as a social worker. His commitment to rehabilitation was expressed in his work within the criminal justice system, in which he focused on prisoner rehabilitation and improving police-community relations. His commitment to reconciliation was expressed in his work in community practice, particularly in the area of race and human relations in Pennsylvania and in Florida.

Hawkins worked to rehabilitate offenders during his employment at the Western Psychiatric Institute and the state corrections system in Pennsylvania. He continued this work after he was recruited to serve on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid 1970s. Throughout his professional career he had a strong interest in preparing those who had been incarcerated for re-entry into society. He supported an approach to incarceration that emphasized rehabilitation, where this was possible, rather than merely punishment. In his work he saw evidence that when prisoners were adequately prepared to make the transition from incarceration to re-integration into communities the likelihood of recidivism was reduced. He worked to create programs that would allow prisoners to strengthen their ties to constructive and supportive community networks prior to their release.

Hawkins was also an effective and consistent advocate for continuing the role of social workers in prisons, even at a time when the State of Pennsylvania was moving toward minimizing such involvement. Hawkins chaired the criminal justice skill area at the University of Pittsburgh, and fought for continued preparation of social workers to work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations, reasoning that the profession should not drop its commitment to those who needed its services, even though such services had fallen out of favor with public opinion and elected officials who allowed themselves to believe that working to rehabilitate prisoners was being “soft on crime.”

One of the contributions to the profession that he was proudest of was his critical role in helping to establish the Program for Female Offenders in Western Pennsylvania. The program was established to help female offenders make the transition back to civilian life while they were in prison, and by providing alternative settings for non-violent offenders. It involved him in working with a population that was generally overlooked, even among social workers who were involved in other aspects of criminal justice.

To promote reconciliation, Hawkins worked to improve race relations during a period when such conflicts were reaching a breaking point. While in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1968 – 69 Hawkins worked as the Director of Community Relations. He was the first and only African American to hold a position in city hall at that time. He found himself in a delicate and politically-charged position, in a racially segregated city. He worked to improve cooperation and communication between the different sides who were locked in conflict. The issues concerning race relations were compounded by issues of poverty and limits on economic opportunity. Hawkins maintained an office in the heart of the low-income African American community, in order to ensure that the voices of traditionally-ignored residents would be heard in city hall.

Hawkins was also active in recruitment and retention of African American students for the School of Social Work during a period in which the profession needed to expand the number of social workers who would work with the historically underserved black population. Hawkins not only recruited black graduate students, but provided direct mentorship, assisting them in developing research and writing skills. He was also instrumental in linking students to other faculty members in the university who would help them with statistical analysis and social theories. He did not, however, confine his efforts to assisting only African American students; he made his services available for students of all backgrounds, who found his assistance indispensable for their intellectual and career development.

For Alexander Hawkins, the most pressing issue when he entered the social work profession was the ongoing struggle for civil rights. His concerns in this area centered on the ability of African Americans to gain access to social services, public accommodations, voting rights, and to segregation in schools and housing. Over the years he developed additional concerns that included creating greater opportunities for students of all backgrounds to have access to higher education, increasing employment opportunities, to improve police and community relations, and to implement prison reform with a focus on rehabilitation. Throughout his career, due largely to his background in psychology and his early experiences within the social work profession, he remained an advocate for the humane treatment of the mentally retarded and mental health patients.

Upon his death in 1987, his wife established the Alexander A. Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh. In 2003 this fund was re-named the Alexander and Mabel Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund. He was a loving and compassionate father, who is still dearly missed by his two sons.

My Mother and Social Work

NASW Pioneers: Mabel T. Hawkins, PhD.

By C. Matthew Hawkins

Mabel Teola Emanuel Hawkins, PhD did her undergraduate studies at Spelman College in Atlanta, approximately from 1940 – 44, and later did her masters work at Atlanta University, and earned her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. Her area of specialization within social work was children and youth. Her first job, as a social worker, was to work with juvenile offenders. She later gained employment at Family and Children’s Services with a specialization on adoption before becoming a faculty member in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Hawkins grew up as Mabel T. Emanuel. Her father was Matthew Levi Emanuel and her mother was Teola Prior Emanuel. Her father was a teacher and a Baptist minister, who, upon migrating to Pittsburgh in the early 1920s, became a brick cleaner for the exterior of buildings that were covered with soot from the steel mills. Her mother was a hair dresser. Hawkins grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an historic African American community, as an only child. She nonetheless had many cousins and neighborhood friends who functioned as extended siblings. Nonetheless, she said her passion for issues related to children, and eventually for social work, was being rooted in her desire for siblings when she was a child. Even as a child she had aspirations for opening an orphanage someday.

Although she came from a working class background and her family suffered extended periods of unemployment during the Depression, she had the benefit of parents who strongly emphasized the value of religion and education. Because the family had its origins in Atlanta, they would periodically make return trips to the south to keep in contact with other relatives. It was there that she first developed an appreciation for Spelman College, which was an African American women’s college. Her desire to attend the college, when she got older, became a strong source of motivation for her through most of her primary and secondary education years.

When a guidance counselor at the high school she attended told her she should forget about college and prepare to be a domestic because, according to the counselor, this was the only practical future for a black woman, her father marched into the guidance counselor’s office the next day and firmly informed the woman that it was his job to figure out how to pay for his daughter’s college education and it was their job to see that she was academically prepared to attend upon graduation.

While she grew up in a struggling working class family during the Great Depression, Mabel Hawkins later observed that she was unaware of her family’s poverty. Her parents filled the home with love and did not call attention to their financial situation. They did, however, encourage her to be frugal, and make wise choices. They let her know that she could not have everything she desired and they trusted her judgment. When she wanted both a bicycle and a typewriter upon graduation from high school they had her choose between the two. It was a difficult choice and she knew that her parents would honor her wishes whichever gift she chose. After considerable reflection she settled on the typewriter, convinced that it would be more valuable to her in the long run.

A college friend of hers, from an affluent family, commented during one of her visits to the Emanuel household, “your family may be poor, when it comes to money, but it is rich with love.” It was at Spelman College that she met her future husband, Alexander Amos Hawkins, who was attending Morehouse College at the time. Alexander Hawkins also became a social worker, earning his PhD. in education and teaching in the School of Social Work from late 1960s until 1987.

In college, Mabel Hawkins became friends with students from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. Her closest friend was studying medicine, and eventually became a physician. Hawkins’ values and perspectives on social problems were primarily shaped by the humanitarian emphasis of her religious upbringing. It was this humanitarian background that provided her with a perspective that allowed her to interact with other students on the basis of their character, without regard to class distinctions. Her friends in college often said. “If Mabel can’t get along with somebody then nobody can.”

During the Second World War she worked in the summer as an office clerk for the Pentagon. During her studies for her Masters’ degree at the University of Pittsburgh, her internship was with Juvenile Court. While she appreciated the importance of professional objectivity in social work, she also felt it important to connect with her clients on a human level. Her field placement supervisor noted that this distinguished her from others who had been placed at the site.

Upon completing her Master’s degree, she worked for a while in the field of child adoption until she had two sons of her own, Alexander A. Hawkins, Jr. and Clinton Matthew Hawkins. She took about five years off from work until the youngest of her children entered Kindergarten, which allowed her to gradually re-enter the workforce.

Upon entering the field of social work, the key issues that she encountered centered on racial discrimination and poverty. Mabel Hawkins became a professional social worker during the post-war years, when the civil rights movement was gaining steam in the south and having an impact across the country. In the north, she could see, first hand, the effects of post-war exodus of whites to the suburbs and the growing concentration of poverty in the inner cities. Through her work with youth she became aware of the relationship between the poor living conditions and lack of nutrition that children received at home and behavioral problems as they were manifested in the schools.

While she was studying social work, Mabel Hawkins learned assessment skills and the importance of seeing the client within the context of a larger community. This knowledge led her, in later years as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, to establish a series of community-based tutoring programs in the Hill District and in Homewood Brushton. Graduate students and younger students still in secondary education staffed the tutoring programs she initiated. These programs were as much an education for the tutors as they were for the tutees, because it gave the tutors an opportunity think about and respond to the social conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. This was a reflection of the systemic perspective that Mabel Hawkins gained through her social work education.

Her approach to the tutoring programs she initiated was holistic, allowing graduate students to play a significant role in making hiring decisions and in designing activities and the program for education. Both tutoring locations recognized the importance of child nutrition as being essential for a student’s willingness and ability to learn. Inexpensive breakfasts and lunches were included in the programs. In Homewood Brushton there was a heavy emphasis on community engagement, to point where the tutors met with the parents of the younger students in their homes and talked with them about their children’s lessons. They also assisted some of the parents in registering to vote.

In the early 1980s Mabel Hawkins was elected second Vice-President of NASW. In this capacity she pursued her interest in encouraging at focus in social work education aimed toward preparing students to have an awareness of family dynamics and the continuing role that racism plays in American society. She traveled widely and sought first-hand experience with people from different groups and sub-cultures. Her thirst for knowledge led her to embark on a Semester at Sea upon retirement, in which she took classes on a ship and traveled around the world. She also continued her education by studying and writing poetry and supporting African American cultural events in the city of Pittsburgh.

Mabel Hawkins repeatedly emphasized that social workers should understand the importance of strong family and community networks for individual clients. Through her activities young people, she emphasized the importance of intervener being interested in the things that interest the client, while using such opportunities to strengthen the client’s discernment skills. In her retirement years she became engaged in volunteer work for a Mime Ministry in her church because she could see that young people were interested in dance. She took the opportunity, during this ministry, to expose the members of the troop to the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, among others. When she organized activities for young people to attend plays or movies she built in time for debriefing sessions so that they could talk about, and think through, what they had just seen. As she traveled around the world she brought back distinctive children’s books so that she could broaden the perspectives of young readers.

Toward the end of her life, Mabel Hawkins expressed several concerns that she felt were comparable to, and extensions of, the challenges she faced when she began her career. Central to her concerns was the deterioration of the social fabric once facilitated greater communication between generations. She was concerned about the break-down of families and the increased difficulty in transmitting wholesome values to emerging generations. She observed that young people seemed to be more easily distracted than in the past, and had a shorter attention-span. She also saw evidence that African American males were increasingly being stigmatized and marginalized in ways that diminished their opportunities for education and employment.

She played a central role in establishing the Alexander A. Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh. Upon her death in 2003 this fund was re-named the Alexander and Mabel Hawkins Memorial Scholarship Fund. She was a loving and nurturing mother, whose presence and warmth can never be replaced.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Springtime of Early Winter

I don’t really take the seasons in linear sequence. For me the seasons may come and go within a day. The calendar and the position of the earth have nothing to do with the seasons; it is all in the way a day feels. For example, it doesn’t matter to me that the calendar read “December 28, 2005” on that day it was Mid-March in Pittsburgh. Nothing that anyone could say would convince me otherwise, just as November 25, 2005 turned out to be a day in late December, with its sub-zero wind chill factor. The seasons are all screwed up, but it is none of my doing.

December 28th was clearly a Mid-March day. The temperature was 51 degrees. The remaining patches of ice and snow melted into the ground. The paths across the campus green were slushy dark brown mud. The sky was overcast, pregnant with rain that would not come. The air was crisp and invigorating. It was a day for walking – a day for dreaming.

The hazy gray glow of the late afternoon gave the city a dream-like quality. I could not be less concerned about whatever rush drivers in their cars thought they should be in – I took my time crossing the street and soaking up the atmosphere. This was a not a day for businessmen, this was a day for poets, monks and dreamers. Shame on the man or woman unable to lose themselves in their thoughts on this day.

All of my senses were heightened, not by the rumbling of car and bus engines or the chopping whirl of helicopters overhead, rising from and descending on hospital roofs. My senses were heightened by the crunch of the sandy earth beneath my feet near a construction site, the soft white glow of the overcast sky, and the smell of fresh earth and wet concrete from the melting snow and ice.

The day came as much as a relief from having to walk quickly in order to keep from freezing in the 15 degree windy air just a week earlier as it did from anything. No longer feeling the need to rush, also because this was still the middle of the holiday season and the many indoor and outdoor malls and town centers drained off all the people who are perpetually in a hurry.

No longer feeling the need to rush in order to keep warm, I had time to stop and chat with tourists who asked for directions to the nearest restaurants and wanted to know about the quality of food they offered. No longer feeling the need to rush I dropped in on a musty used bookstore and casually browsed the shelves, thumbing through oversized art books and a dusty 50 volume collection of literature published by Harvard.

No longer feeling the need to rush I took time to savor Tikki Chicken Marsala and Aloo Paratha (heavy with potatoes and green peas and glossed with melted butter) at an Indian restaurant. No longer feeling the need to rush I read the local newspaper and sipped a tall Americano at a nearby coffee shop.

The evil days of rushing about and the weight of anxiety will return soon enough, on their own accord. For now this refreshing and contemplative March day, at the end of December, was here to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

For Some of Us There is a Pause

An unshaven man with wildly strewn hair is slumped in the all-night diner over a dish of spaghetti shoveling forkfuls of the stuff into his mouth. Other than that, the restaurant is empty. Holidays turn this college community into a ghost town. It isn’t as depressing as it sounds – days like today are relief to those of us who remain.

The 20 degree weather feels more invigorating than cold. The iced-over sidewalk makes the world appear brighter. There is more space to move around – there seems to be more time.
I arrive at the library at noon and I still have parking spaces to choose from.

One of my friends is lounging on the comfortable chairs on the ground floor with stacks of printouts spread across the coffee table. He has time to talk for a change, and so do I. We catch up on the projects we have been working on and share tips for research. We also catch up on who we are as people – where our families are, how we are fairing in life. This leisurely conversation would be unimaginable a week ago.

When people are scarce those who remain seem to matter more. There seem to be more dimensions to all of our lives. There is a chance to savor personalities. We slow down enough to see and hear each other for a change.

Not far from where we are the malls are jammed with holiday shoppers. A driver impatiently honks as the car in front of him waits for an opening in the parking lot. A woman looks over the rim of her glasses and scowls at a teenager who muscles his way in line in front of her.

The final sprint to the Christmas finish line has begun.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Trust

Richard Pryor died last Saturday from a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). On Monday, NPR’s “Fresh Air” replayed a 1995 interview that Terri Gross had with the comedian.

In this interview Pryor said something that caught my attention; he said that he considered MS as a blessing. Like many of her listeners, Gross wondered why Pryor saw his disease in this way. Pryor answered that he finds it difficult to depend on other people and difficult to trust them – now, however he is forced to do both.

This point resonated with me. While I have never had a serious illness, especially on the level of MS, I live alone and I know that even with a flu or a broken limb the hardest part of the experience is not the physical illness or injury itself, but the psychological experience of realizing that I can no longer do everything for myself anymore – I must now depend on others. Thoughts torment my mind: can I depend on others? Can I trust them? Will they be there for me?

At such moments we become more profoundly aware of the importance of our social network of friends and family – or the lack thereof. We also become more aware of our membership – or lack of membership – in faith-based or other supportive communities.

There was a time when the United States was characterized, to a much greater degree, by the strength of its communities and voluntary organizations. This is something that Tocqueville commented on in Democracy in America, back in the early 19th Century. While community life and voluntary organizations are still around, to a certain degree, they have much less of a presence in our day-to-day lives. One of the more popular works of sociology, Bowling Alone, captures this transition in contemporary American society.

Sure, we have created new outlets that resemble communities in many ways; these include coffee shops and virtual communities such as chatrooms, usernets, and blogs – but this is no replacement for traditional communities that were defined by geography or a central meeting place. Moreover, the traditional communities provided, in addition to an area for communication, a safety net. They enabled people to help one another in physical and material ways, and to become involved in each other’s lives at a very intimate level.

There were always those who saw such intimate involvement as “meddling,” but it is questionable as to whether or not our lives are enriched by our “liberation” from such “meddling.” Also, there are those who argue that it is harder to depend on one another because we have become a nation of “strangers,” with greater cultural and ethnic diversity than ever before. But the essence of family life is learning to get along with those with whom one may differ. Within families, it is a matter of living with those who have different personalities from one’s own – in communities, it may also include differences of culture.

Nonetheless, we should carefully consider the implications of living in a society where people are unable to trust one another any more; can people be trustworthy if they are no longer able to trust others? What kinds of experiences in life must people have in order for them to be more trustworthy?

Learning to depend on others and learning to trust people is a most difficult thing. Richard Pryor was correct in pointing out that it is an experience well worth having, and part of what it means to be fully human. A society that embraces the ethos of the “rugged individual” not only leaves individuals and families vulnerable in insecure, it also denies history because no such societies have ever been built or able to survive.

The basis of a strong society is not how many guns are hidden in our closets, how many police are patrolling the streets or how many weapons are available for our military – a strong society is based on trust and the ability to depend on one another in times of crisis. A strong society is rooted in the strength of our primary social networks of family and community. We should closely examine what is happing to ours.

The New Insecurity

There was a disturbing news report just before Thanksgiving; the report was about “food insecurity,” i.e. those families and individuals in the United States who do not have reliable access to food. One would think, with food prices being one of the few vital consumer or service needs that has actually decreased in cost over the past generation, and with the United States’ former reputation as being the “bread basket of the world,” that food insecurity would be least of our problems. Apparently that’s not the case.

The problem is not so much the cost of food, as it is the loss of jobs, and health insurance coupled with the rise in housing and energy costs. This is putting a squeeze on the remaining resources available to many Americans to actually spend on food.

Sometimes hardship is due to forces beyond our control. The report cited an example where a couple relied on a bread winner who worked in software engineering but was suddenly laid off because the software he was working on was discontinued. Following the lay-off, he contracted a digestive disease, but (being unemployed) lacked health insurance to pay for the necessary treatment.

The couple received too much income from disability, $1600 a month, to qualify for food stamps, but too little to reasonably pay all the other bills. They are unable to move to cheaper housing because nobody will rent to them. Their credit rating is shot to hell due to all the expenses racked up related to the man's disability. They live from day-to-day relying on cans of food the husband can bring home as a result of his volunteer work at a food pantry.

The problem is not so much that people fall on hard times, such things may be unavoidable. The problem is that we are dismantling our safety nets to support such people when they do fall on hard times, and we are assuming that people should be able to rely on private charity, family and fend for themselves in such situations. The problem is social indifference toward those who are falling through the cracks in the so-called "New Economy," which is breeding a new level of financial insecurity.

Food insecurity goes hand-in-hand with all of those other insecurities we are subject to in the post-industrial economy: housing insecurity, job insecurity, pension insecurity, and health care insecurity to name a few.

The eerie thing about the report was the sense that if people fall on hard times in our society they will be more and more likely to be left twisting in the wind. The new laws that make it harder for families and individuals to file for bankruptcy is just one example in a series of measures that will make it harder for people to pick themselves up after they fall down. When G.W. Bush said that he intended to preside over an “ownership society,” he wasn’t kidding. Under the current rules of the game, “ownership society” means you are on your own. Good luck.

Coupled with growing deterioration of social safety nets is a political and social ideology of social Darwinism. Those who think they are secure right now try to comfort themselves with the belief that they will always be “smart enough” to avoid falling on hard times, and that those who go under are merely being “sorted out” because they are expendable. This may give such people a false sense of being in control of their destiny, and that our rewards system credits those who are "deserving" and penalizes the "undeserving." We are now firmly in the age where we believe in expendable people. There is a certain hard-heartedness to all of this, and it does not bode well for the future.

To be sure, some people in positions of power thrive off of insecurity. The media promote insecurity in order to sell advertising space. Employers promote insecurity in order to hold wages and benefits down. Politicians promote insecurity in order to herd the public to support draconian policies, ill-advised wars, and a roll-back of civil liberties.

It is one thing to enter a new age of insecurity, as we seem to be doing – it is quite something else to believe that such insecurity is inevitable or necessary – something else still, to embrace such insecurity as “desirable.”

Some people use insecurity to trigger a journey to spiritual enlightenment; this is a good thing. The uplifting part of the report on the couple mentioned earlier is that, despite the fact that this man had lost so much weight he only weighs 100 pounds and has very little energy; despite the fact that he can’t enjoy a single meal due to severe stomach cramps and constant diarrhea, despite the fact that he is up to his eyeballs in debt he can never pay off, he still wants to go on living and he still believes he has something to live for. His new wife, whom he married just one month before the onset of all of these problems, is standing by him. This is the resilience of the human spirit.

Most people, however, do desperate things when they become insecure. This should concern us, especially in terms of its implications for social instability. We should also keep in mind that most of us are only a twist and a turn away from change of fate that could destroy the best of our plans and everything we thought we were working for.

In any event, financial insecurity does not seem to be the kind of emotional and economic state we should want to promote in our society. Nobody should have to fear for their job (if they are willing to work), their health care, their housing, their retirement, or their food.

Nobody should be looked at through the lens of social Darwinism, making them “expendable.”

The Power of Story

I am impressed with the power of story that persists in post-modern life. I find it interesting when I listened to speakers at an awards dinner I attended last night that the speakers who had the greatest impact on the audience were those who had a story to tell. When speakers made story the center of their speeches they were able to reach the audience in impressive ways.

One may think that public policies and political elections are decided on the political philosophy and “the issues,” but it is increasingly apparent to me that these elections and policy orientation is determined by whether or not there is a compelling story behind the politics. We want to feel as though we know our politicians, and we don’t believe we know them unless we know their story, or at least a believable story that they use to define themselves.

Likewise, for public policy. The inclination of the general public will be much different if the story they buy about poverty in the United States is that we are suffering the effects of a post-industrial economy which no longer has a place for many who would otherwise have been able to take manufacturing jobs and support their families – as opposed to the story that people who lack ambition and are addicted to drugs have rendered themselves unable to take advantage of the “great opportunities” that are available to them.

Story shapes public sentiment.

Even something that is typical quantitative and dry as business benefits if there is a great story behind it. I know a very intelligent man, who is generally not very attracted to corporate America – but there is one very large corporation that he likes, because the owner of the company tells a compelling story about the company’s origins. It is a personal story that personalizes the company in this otherwise anti-corporate person’s mind.

Story-telling is one of the oldest art forms. I find it interesting that it is still one of the most powerful methods of communication.

Somewhat Rambling Thoughts to Close Out the Year

I’m sitting here and surveying what I think I have learned over the past twelve months. Some of these lessons are “old,” but it is not uncommon that we re-learn what we know. Consider this an early start on my end-of-the-year reflections.

What does it mean if the universe is an intelligent affair? Some people say that the essential sound of the universe is a monotone in the key of A. I think that the universe is more like a fugue. I believe the universe is a complex interweaving of multiple voices in counterpoint. It is the ongoing unraveling of a complex of multiple manifolds. It is a constant anti-entropic process of becoming. It is a personality with intention. Like all personalities, it is complex.

Hear me out; I know it's easy to get lost in that opening paragraph.

If the universe really is complex, if ideas (consciousness) are part of its composition, if it really does have intentionality, then what is this distinctive property of the human species that we call “consciousness”? There would seem to be, in the realm of ideas, a sense of time that defies a purely physical notion of time. There would seem to be simultaneity of eternity.

This simultaneity occurs when we encounter personalities from the past, or communicate to personalities in the future, in the realm of ideas. As I listen to a composition by Bach or read the Socratic dialogues by Plato, I am encountering the minds of the creators of these texts. I am encountering those who have long since physically departed from the scene. They endure as thoughts, whether musical thoughts, artistic thoughts, literary thoughts, scientific discovery or otherwise.

Some ideas are constructive and creative, other ideas are bestial and divisive. Some people love to play to the bloodthristy crowd. Nothing succeeds in politics like playing on the fears of the population. While FDR reminded us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself; today's leadership believes that preying on fear is the best ticket to ongoing power. And popular opinion falls for it, because popular opinion wants to be led -- even if the journey ends at the bottom of a cliff.

Our inclination in politics and religion is to join up sides. We are never as happy as we are when we have an enemy we can hate and fear. So Christianity has needed Islam and Capitalism has needed Communism. Little boys struggle hard to distinguish themselves from little girls. So heterosexuals have needed homosexuals and Europe has needed Africa and the Far East.

When the Cold War ended, we seemed to be drifting at sea until we could construct a new source of terror and fear in the form of radical Islam, which we ironically funded and trained, ostensibly to fight the Russians. For the unsophisticated, it is a conflict with the entire Islamic world – and by our clumsy intervention in Central and South Western Asia, this is what it may yet become.

Fundamentalists never become as animated as when they are talking about the evils of secularism, paganism, and sins of the flesh. Liberals and Conservatives need each other, as do Republicans and Democrats. The entire universe is a dual relationship between the converse and the obverse, between the inside and the outside. Light and shadow seem to go together.

Can individuals, or societies, separate their light and their darkness? Ancient societies relied on slavery in order to free up classes of people to become artists and scholars. Can we affirm the products of those scholars, yet ignore the socio-economic system that produced them? Are we really black and white squares on a chessboard, only fooling ourselves that we can be one and not the other -- that the opposing sides are not inseperable?

Our deepest, most intimate and contradictory curiosities and desires always lie just below the surface. There are some ideas that we only express indirectly, because it is not socially acceptable to speak boldly about such things. We toy with forbidden ideas by way of indirection. It may be a sign of good taste that a part of us remains concealed. But is it a path to growth to ignore or supress that which makes us uncomfortable? Do not be fooled by outward appearances; what they conceal about a person is always much rawer and more interesting.

We are always amazed when we see different sides of people we thought we knew, when they are around a new set of people. The people we "know" are seldom what they seem to us to be. We are social beings. We are very much products of our social environment, far more than we like to admit. But when popular opinion imposes "rules-of-the-game" that we are expected to have the "good sense" to decipher and follow, beware. Such "rules-of-the-game" are the stuff of which tragedies are made of.

The economy of behavior in the contemporary world insists that we choose sides of opposition. It insists that we play according to a set of pre-determined “rules-of-the-game,” than confine us to a logical set of actions and reactions not unlike a train moving down the track – unable to go anywhere that the track does not go. We become committed to a form of inevitability. Our behavior and responses are pre-scripted. We may have a little more lee-way than the train because we can move around in a box that frames our options. The difference between a train and a box is that the box creates the illusion of freedom; but there is still a narrow sense of what is “practical.” You dare not think outside of the parameters of the box.

Thus the invasion of Iraq became inevitable because once the neo-conservatives had set their sights on dismantling Iraq as a sovereign state, back in the mid-1980s, when they goaded Iraq to invade Iran in hopes of destroying both nations it only became a matter of finding or manufacturing an excuse for executing plans for invasion. Mass media has so well conditioned the thinking of the U.S. population that we tend not to question the legitimacy of occupation (as in the Palestinian territories or Iraq) but we don’t think twice about condemning and de-legitimizing resistance to occupation. We condemn the effect without questioning the cause. Then we sit back in comfort thinking that our actions will not come back to haunt us here at home.

We keep thinking that we must continue as we have been doing, never questioning the logic that seems to lead to an accumulation of tragedies. We say, “I have arrived at my conclusion logically; my actions follow logically from my premises." But the paradigms that we have accepted, both in terms of the assumptions behind our premises and in our preconditioned responses, may yet destroy us. It’s like a person who re-traces his motions along a previously established track until he runs out of options.

I sometimes wonder whether or not we are capable of having original thoughts anymore. Is what we call the “self” really just an assembly of odd bits and ends that we have picked up here and there along the way? Are we now reducible to the stereotypes that are constantly being fed to us by popular culture? Are we capable of understanding ourselves, and each other, outside of those stereotypes? Can you have a conversation with anyone about current events without feeling as though you are listening to a re-broadcast of Fox News or CNN?

We communicate ideas by telling stories. Most people do not have the time or patience to wade through dry presentations of facts or theories, especially if they are unfamiliar with the details of the subject matter. Narrative endures as one of the most effective means of human communication. Mastery of narrative is a key element in being effective at persuasion. We must collect, recall, and re-interpret stories.

Stories help us to pay attention. Stories make details more significant. Stories teach us how to “see.” We look at our world with new eyes, new interpretations, new understanding. We re-structure the sequences or scenes in our lives, so that experiences that may otherwise seem random and chaotic begin to make sense. Stories help us to become aware of our surroundings and to care about our world, rather than simply to go through life on auto-pilot as if there were nothing in the ordinary and the everyday experiences that is worthy of our attention, and as if we are really living when all of our responses are mental and physical reflexes.

But what kind of stories do people want? All kinds, really – so long as those stories uplift and inspire them. Life is difficult and frightening enough as it is; one does not need narrative of confirm one’s insecurity in the world. Every day one is confronted with examples of people being mercilessly crushed by deliberate or random action. People turn to story, to narrative, to make sense of their world. They want examples of how individuals confronted the harshness, the cruelty and the indifference in the world and overcame it. They want to know how one survives. They want to know how one thrives.

Can individual behavior break out of the paradigm? As individuals we seem not to question the assumptions of our society, that “success” means popularity and material wealth; that “happiness” means self-indulgence and narcissism; and that “freedom” means arbitrary action, apart from consideration of ethics or morality. We are so committed to these paradigms that if anyone questions us on this we get angry; “everybody does that or thinks this way – you are just lying if you say that you do not do this.” We want to drag everyone down to our impulsive and self-absorbed level. We deny that there is any choice to be had in the matter. We say that it is only “human nature.”

In a world where everything seems to be breaking down, even as we try to hold it together; in a world of ongoing unraveling and decay, in a world where we begin to realize, as the decades pass, that we will never be so healthy or full of energy as we are right now – in such a world where we are constantly trying to hold everything together, we require stories about the triumph of the spirit. We need stories where, despite all odds, the embattled win. We need stories that give us hope.

The Censor Within

One of the reasons for writing in the first place is to write those things that one wants to read, but that nobody has written or published. It is also to write those things that one cannot talk about with others, either because the perceptions are too personal or because others simply are not interested in these topics or what one has to say about them.

This was one of the more powerful motivations for me to sign on to Blogit. At long last, I thought, I will finally have a platform to get my ideas down and have the possibility that someone else might stumble upon it and read them. But this was quickly followed by the realization that I either had to censor myself, because I had become too personally identified with my blogs (even though most readers don’t know me in real time), and the frustration of not being able to put into words those things that I thought would be a departure from what is already out there.

I have dealt with the problem of self-censorship by publishing things, with even greater anonymity, in other parts of the web. I have lots of “naughty” writings circulating out there, and that has had the liberating effect of fine-tuning the expression of those thoughts and impulses without having to “own” them. I think it is important to work out all aspects of one’s personality (advisedly under “safe” conditions) rather than ignore or repress them. Only in this way can one move forward.

The latter problem has been a bit more difficult. As much as we think of ourselves as being original thinkers with a unique perspective, when it comes to laying it down we find ourselves parroting the ideas and opinions of those around us, and is propagated in mass media. Moreover, as much as we talk about “free thought” and “free speech” in this society, we have established conventions of thought and expression that are extremely difficult to move beyond. Even the most “radical” images have become cliché. Long ago, advertisers learned how to market and institutionalize rebellion.

I notice that most of the blogs on Blogit have degenerated into petty sniping and the creation of an artificial sense of “community” in cyberspace. I’m not knocking this – to each his or her own. Some people joined Blogit with that kind of alternative social interaction in mind. But for me, that seems like circulating the same old ideas and patterns of behavior all over again – it is not breaking the cycle, which is my motivation for writing.

The shock comes with the recognition that it is not as easy to break the cycle as one thought it would be. Remove the censors, give me instant publishing Рinstant access to an audience, and I will write what other people have been wanting to read or express, but never found their way into publication before. That is the feeling at the outset; but it soon gives way to something trite, something trivial, something clich̩, something that has already been said before Рmany, many times before.

It is hard to press ourselves to draw out our unique expression. Maybe we are configurations of pre-fabricated personalities that we have grown up with in mass media, schools, religious institutions, families, communities, and so on. Maybe there is little-to-nothing about our perspective that is original. And it certainly doesn’t help if one actually sets out to say something that is “different,” as opposed to digging for one’s own original thoughts, insights and perceptions – aware that if one can express these they will be distinctive.

The first chains we have to be liberated from are inside of us.

Doing the Absurd

I once asked a friend of mine why he moved to Pittsburgh; he answered, “Because it was the most absurd thing I could do. Since the universe itself is absurd, I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong.”

He wasn’t kidding.

Like most people I try to plan my day and control all outcomes. Like most people I fall pretty short from my targets and goals. Budgets are not meant to precise, only approximations of your cash flow. The same is true of lists of tasks for the day.

Still, some days are better than others, in terms of hitting the items on my “to do” list. Funny thing though – my days aren’t necessarily “good” or “bad” based on how well I’ve done in completing the chores and tasks I’ve set for myself.

I am reminded of the saying: It’s not the days that we remember; it is the moments. Strive for memorable moments in your life.

Sometimes I feel like doing the absurd. I am kind of in that mode right now. I would have to be, or I wouldn't be on Blogit.

I have decided to go to live theater, a jazz concert, a caribbean music performance and two lectures, all in the space of one week. These are things I want to do, whether they fit my schedule or not. And since the weather has been unseasonably nice, I have taken time out to walk through the park. It’s nearly 70 degrees and Schenely Park is a golden path of autumn leaves.

My mother used to always say that she preferred living in a place where the seasons change, rather than living in a place that has “good” weather year round. I never understood her until now. I may not understand her again once I’m dealing with frozen water pipes in the dead of winter.

Still, my absurdity is reigned in by my work. There are deadlines that will not go away and the penalties for not meeting them only grow larger over time. There are things I know I HAVE to do NOW, in order to avoid having a real bad week or two down the road.

I suspect that doing the absurd may be cool for the moment – a great thrill for the short term – but one lives to regret it (many times over) as the years pass. A person must live purposefully. Life requires a plan. Yet sticking too closely to that plan can be too confining. It can cause one to miss life altogether.

Doing the absurd is like writing stream-of-consciousness rough drafts (like this one) as opposed to living a purposeful life, which is more like writing with an outline in front of you. But if I can never get done what my rational “to-do” list tells me to do, then why not fly off on a wing and see what adventures lie ahead?

If I cannot structure my days with efficiency, why not cram my days with events that interest me?

The weather will be nice again today. I will be kicking up leaves of gold and red this afternoon in Schenley Park. This evening I will attend an all-star Jazz concert.

The structure will have to return after that. The deadlines may not go away, but at least I will have moments that will make the larger process of life worthwhile.

Gone 'till November

There can be gems in the mud, so journal writing should not be taken lightly.

I thought I would like Autumn. I think I spend most of the year thinking about the arrival of the fall. September, and the world seems to renew itself. This must be a leftover sensation from childhood when we headed back to school in autumn. Always the start of something new. The season also meant there would be a new line-up of shows on television.

What spring is to most people, autumn has been for me -- at least the month of September. A sign of hope; a sign of renewal. A sign of a second chance, of starting over.

Then there is November. By November I am no longer reminded of a young boy headed back to school; instead I think of an aging man, rushing to make a final push in his life before he's too old for it to matter. Winter fast approaches on his heels.

Autumn. Always a promise in spring, but by September I realize I'm not yet ready for it. And by November I feel as though another year has passed me by. Where did it go? Where did all the promised and hoped for dreams and accomplishments go?

It doesn't matter where I am in Autumn -- if I am in Pennsylvania or New York or Ohio, it smells like burning wood. Even in the city, the air smells of burning wood. Maybe its a smell that rotting autumn leaves lend to the air. A crisp smell. A somewhat comforting smell. Almost always associated with hot chocolate, football games, apple cider, pumpkin pie...autumn.

It begins by signaling return: return to old friends -- or new. Return to work. Return to school. A promise of continuity and renewal. But by the end of the season a mild depression sets in -- the passing of time, life slipping through your fingers -- your destiny beyond your control.

By October it is too late to squeeze out the last of summer. November is particularly harsh and barren -- a harsh reality. Dead looking brown tree branches against a gray sky. An image not even softened by the white snows of December or January.

November is reality. November is death.

If poets think that December, January and February are old age, they are wrong. November is death. I guess we die at middle age.

The Chinese see renewal in the dead of winter -- in January or February. We see it too. That's really where the rebirth begins; in the dead of winter. Once we get past the Winter solstice we begin a new cycle of renewal.

The Christmas holiday marks the beginning of our own rebirth. New Years follows fast on its heels to make it official. For many, the Christmas-New Year season is the most depressing of all. More suicides in the West than at any other time of year. Those of us who have lost most of their family are reminded that we are ultimately alone.

But that's not the only way to look at it. Christmas-New Years is yet another time of renewal. Another rebirth. Another second chance.

Spring is also seen as a time of re-birth and second chances.

Turns out there are many second chances and periods of renewal throughout the year. That's what change is all about.

How do I reconcile myself with autumn, though? How do I reconcile myself with the harshness that November brings. The drab gray -- the November death?

When The Word Became Flesh

About a week ago during Mass I was reminded of the way a priest had described the Mass along time ago. He said that Mass is essentially a family gathering. We start with the liturgy of the Word, which includes the public confession of our sins and our need for redemption. It is followed by telling the stories of our faith, much in the same way that a family will gather to recollect the past and tell stories that give their present lives meaning.

For Christians, these stories center on the ongoing Spiritual odyssey depicted in the Old and the New Testaments. This is the liturgy of the Word. In the Mass, these stories are followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist, which is the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. This becomes our spiritual meal; again this is reflective of a family gathering in which the group is united to share a common meal.

In this frame of mind, as I listened to the scripture reading I had a sudden encounter with who Jesus actually was and is – from a uniquely Christian perspective. One starts with the concept put forth at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, which states that in the beginning was the Word or “logos.” This suggests that the universe is actually an intelligent affair, rather than some object that is developing by randomness and chance.

If the universe is actually an intelligent affair, essentially a product of a divine intelligence, then the birth of Christ was (according to the Christian understanding of things) the incarnation of this divine wisdom. Christ was, as stated in the Gospel of John, the Word made flesh. The challenge for contemporary men and women is this: when the Word became flesh, what economy of values did He uphold? How do we measure our lives in comparison to this? How do we partake in this mission?

Think for a moment about what it means for the Wisdom behind the universe to become flesh; to be born homeless, to a unwed mother; to be forced into exile, a refugee the first years of his life; to walk amongst us and to associate with disreputable persons and unpopular minorities; to be betrayed by one of his inner-circle of followers; to be tortured, tried, publically humiliated and sentenced to capital punishment; ultimately to be publically executed. What can we learn through the life of the Wisdom of the universe when He became a man? What can we learn from his teachings about what is really important during the brief span of our mortal lives?

By His words and His example, we are taught that we should devote our lives to love for humanity and to bear witness to Truth. We should seek first the “Kingdom of Heaven;” we should make our highest priority the pursuit of the sublime in our earthly lives. We must live in communion with that which transcends our temporal existence. This means taking on the life of Christ, including His passion for humanity and for life and His selflessness to the point of a painful death on the Cross.

Even though we do not wish to endure the suffering that greets those who live by a different economy of values than are prevalent all around us, we must say with Christ, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

To live in the sublime is to live with passion; not physical passion but the passion of the spirit. Such spiritual passion is otherwise known as “agape,” or “love.” It stands in contrast to physical passion, which is known as “Eros.” When the Word became flesh, He placed it as the highest priority that we seek the “Kingdom of Heaven” and that we live with unconditional – even ontological – love. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Christ answered, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of soul, and all of your mind, (and) Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are called to place the love of God above all idols of money, popularity, power, and material things. We are challenged to love our neighbor – whom we can see – if we are to be true to what we profess is our love of God, whom we cannot see. We are challenged to live in the ongoing pursuit of the sublime, and to make this the basis of our thoughts, words and actions.

When we live with consciousness of the sublime, this means that we do not judge the meaning and quality of our lives by short-term measures, outward appearances, or transitory standards. In the end triumph awaits us, but it is a triumph that defies all human calculation and reasoning. This is where faith and hope come in, completing the three points of the economy of salvation: faith, hope, and love.