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


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.