Music as a Moral Compass

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I spend about 46 weeks of the year preparing for six weeks of music around the world. Berkshire Choral International choristers have been performing the standard repertoire for 35 seasons now. Most of the concerts I’ve heard in eight seasons have been wonderful, but only a few stand out as illustrations of how music and lyrics can reset our moral compasses and make a lasting impression on singers, conductor, and audience alike.

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Stephen Paulus

Such was the oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn by the late Stephen Paulus (composer) and Michael Dennis Browne (librettist), performed August 6 under the baton of Minneapolis-based Kathy Saltzman Romey. She has been a passionate advocate for the work, and I believe that everyone who sang it with her will testify that her passion is not misplaced.

Michael Dennis Browne

Michael Dennis Browne

To Be Certain of the Dawn, which premiered in Minneapolis in 2005, started with the Reverend Michael O’Connell of the Basilica of Saint Mary in that city. The Basilica commissioned the piece as a memorial gift to Temple Israel synagogue on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. The Second Vatican Council released that landmark declaration to call for Christian repentance of anti-Semitism and to foster dialog between Jews and Christians.

vishniacWritten in three parts, To Be Certain of the Dawn opens with the blowing of the shofar and the traditional prayer, Sh’ma Israel, followed by the chorus singing in effect the intent of the Nostra Aetate. The second part of the composition, called “Remembrance,” is a collection of songs and blessings whose lyrics were inspired by photographs taken by Roman Vishniac of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust while storm clouds were looming. This section ends with the haunting “Hymn to the Eternal Flame,” recalling both the children’s memorial at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem and the ages-old image of “God with us” as a flame.

In the final part, “Visions,” Mr. Browne wrote in 2008, “. . . we hear several themes in layers: Jews and Christians desiring to walk together ‘in the country of justice’ (wherever that may be found); B’Tselem Elohim, the Image of God, which suggests that the human face reflects the invisible face of God in the human world; the voices of the children. . . the voices of survivors; the return of the theme ‘You should love your neighbour as yourself’, and the sounding of the shofar, with which we began.”

During the performance, slides of some of Mr. Vishniac’s photographs of children were screened. For me, the moment of tears came as soloist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek sang “I don’t want to live in a world without children” as a picture of several smiling children appeared. One had to wonder how many of them survived the Holocaust.

Unbeknownst to staff at the time, a child survivor of the Holocaust was in the audience. A friend of the survivor wrote me that the gentleman, now 82, was a hidden child in Belgium. He and his brother were taken in by a Christian family with 12 children of their own. He and his brother said good-bye to their parents not knowing they would never see them again.

“(He) does not make a display of his story,” the friend wrote. “He said that he seldom attends events like last night. We were not aware ahead of time of what the evening held in store, except for the Bernstein.

“ ‘WEAR YOUR STARS!’

“He was one of those little boys.

“(He) arrived in the USA with 2 garments that had stars attached, both now donated to museums.

“You never know the power and impact of music, or the effects of weeks of hard work and preparation.

“Last night you made an impact on one old man who had lost everything and almost everyone who was dear to him in the Holocaust.”

“We honored them tonight.”

I was not the only person there seeing the relevance of the piece to the political climate in this country and the violent rhetoric of the Republican candidate.

I was not the only one re-dedicating myself to the command to love my neighbor as myself regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, gender identity and sexual preference.

And I am sure I was not the only one re-orienting myself to the struggle for peace and justice for all.

Read more about Roman Vishniac and view the US Holocaust Museum’s collection at https://www.ushmm.org/research/research-in-collections/overview/photo-archives/vishniac-collection

 

Thoughts on the DNC

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What a gorgeous tapestry the Democratic National Convention presented to the world!

Black, brown, and white faces, hijabs and turbans and flag-adorned straw hats, young people and old people, almost like Norman Rockwell’s iconic “Golden Rule” painting.

golden ruleWhat America is. What America needs to be.

Hearing Anastasia Somoza and Gabby Giffords and the mothers of young men and women killed by police or vigilantes, survivor of the Charleston massacre: profiles in courage, all.

Michelle Obama: dignified, articulate, on point always, passionate.

Joe Biden, who knows too well what loss and grief are, but always optimistic, decent, and on fire this week with hope and encouragement.

Elizabeth Warren, tearing DT a new one in the most wholesome, goshdarnit way, my own senator who I am so glad will continue to serve us in the Senate.

Bernie Sanders, my first choice, making it clear to his supporters that they must not sit out this election; the stakes are too high.

Sarah Silverman, oh my goodness, Sarah, I love you!

And of course, our beloved President, who I really do wish could serve a third term. He will be so missed, and I’ve no doubt that the annals of history will mark his tenure as our finest hour.

Why the feelings of unease, then? Why the nervousness listening to Michael Kelly and Leon Panetta and General Allen go on and on about our military prowess and American exceptionalism?

Yes, I know that the strategy was to show the country that Hillary Clinton will be as hawkish as Donald Trump. But I already knew that. That was why she wasn’t my first choice.

Brian Williams, how dare you criticize the people chanting “No more war”? “Sadly,” you said, referring to them as hecklers, they couldn’t be quiet. You, who lied about being under fire when you have never been under fire, except from your NBC bosses. How hypocritical can you get, when the theme of that convention was supposed to be that EVERYONE is welcome in the Democratic tent?

Yes, history was made at the Democratic National Convention this week, and I was able to watch it without yelling any epithets at the television as I had the week before. I will vote the Democratic ticket no matter what. But I pray, I really pray, that the philosophies expressed to the ideals of justice for all, liberty for all, the pursuit of happiness for all were not just lip service, and that the lip service to military power and aggressiveness were not the real philosophies that will be given priority.

 

Everyone Belongs in the Kingdom

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My little garden in a little town in a little state is my refuge, my haven, my glimpse of the Kingdom.

It is in shade, yet there are flowering plants and lots of green foliage. I did a little work and nature did the rest. In the near distance are trees dappled in sunlight in the late afternoon and a glimpse of the churchyard next door.

Robins and catbirds and sparrows and swifts sit on the fence and call to the universe or fly and dart about. Honeybees cover the cimicifuga and they are more than welcome. Fat bumblebees fly up into the heart of the hosta blossoms. I sit with my coffee and my book and my mature, overweight cat lazes nearby.

A chipmunk runs across the paving stones from one clump of vegetation to another. A poodle pup named Rory charges up the path from next door, tail wagging, to greet me. Onyx flips her tail and eyes him warily. I give him a good patting and send him back to his owner.

Yes, the Kingdom, the harmony, the peace despite a busy major route just yards away. For 45 minutes a day most days I can come to my retreat and, ideally, shed the tensions of the work day.

It is more difficult to shed the tensions of the world. Even more difficult is that I am ever mindful of the fact that there is no haven, no blessed retreat, no Kingdom for so many people on this Earth, our island home spinning through a universe of wonders and horrors.

Is it neurosis or social conscience that never lets me forget how privileged my life has been? I have known loss and grief. My mother died when she was the age I’ll be in September, a short, violent battle with liver cancer that took her before we could even get our minds around what was happening to her. My beloved brother died when he was the age I am now, a long, drawn-out battle with pancreatic cancer that left him a bag of bones loosely covered in flesh, and it was almost impossible to recognize the athletic, handsome, dignified youth and man he had been.

People, pets, jobs, relationships, the losses that are the normal stuff of most lives.

But no one I love has ever been executed because of the color of his skin. No one I love has so far been in the path of a terrorist. No child of mine has ever lived in a war zone or had to risk drowning to reach a shore of safety.

In the late 1980s, the African National Congress toured the world with a documentary called “Every Child is My Child.” Along with all the political and economic and humanitarian efforts to end the evil called apartheid, it galvanized people to look at the struggle in a new way.

For me, it reinforced the feeling that I have known as long as I can remember, that every person is my child, my sister, my brother, my mother, my father, and the Kingdom is not mine alone to enjoy. It won’t be the Kingdom until everyone can live without fear, in safety and peace, in the sure knowledge that when they wake up to a new day, they are not risking their lives by stepping outside their doors.

 

Let Them Rest in Peace, But We Must Not

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I am sick, sick, sick of having to pray for the families of black victims of police What are we white people going to do about it? How the hell can we feel patriotic about a country that values life so little?

I would like to suggest that all white policemen in the United States be pulled from duty immediately and given this test, Project Implicit, as well as a psychiatric evaluation before being allowed back on duty or yanked off the force.

You can’t fudge this Harvard-based test for prejudices. It’s not intuitive, and even if you think you’re giving the “correct” answers, it doesn’t work that way. I took it a few years ago, and I’m pretty good at spotting how to “play” a test.

Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were said to be carrying guns. So? Both of the states they died in allow anyone to carry a gun. Louisiana probably allows 3 year olds to carry guns. They were not using the guns, they were not aiming the guns, they were doing nothing that could ever justify the kangaroo court of idiotic, racist policemen who took their lives.

I hope that no white person ever says in front of me that they couldn’t bear to watch the videos of their murders. We MUST watch them; we MUST bear witness to what white policemen are doing – and probably think they’re doing in our names.

On Saturday, I attended a symposium on the subject of “Driving While Black.” Two black men narrated their experiences of being stopped and the heavy-handedness of the police involved. Thank God Jerome and Jermaine are alive. It broke my heart to listen to them talk about the steps they have to take to try NOT to be killed by a policeman. They talked about their mothers’ fears whenever they left the house. Now they have children, and they talked about their fear for them.

What century is this again? As my friend and activist Maximo Anguiano posted today, don’t forget to set your clocks back 300 years tonight. And tomorrow you’d damn well better start speaking out or you are as complicit as the police in these murders.

 

 

Brexit + Trump = Bad News

Matthew Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Workers' Party, in Sacramento
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In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, we are hearing a lot of apologias for the vote to leave the European Union and are told that we must try to understand why people voted this way.

Many similarities have been seen between those Brexit voters in England and the followers of Donald Trump, so therefore we must also try to understand the Trump followers and find out what they want. Presumably we are also supposed to try to give them what they want without actually making Donald Trump the President.

This is a populist movement, we’re told, by the working class who want a better life, better jobs, better everything, and don’t believe they will get it from the elite ruling establishment. It is not about racism, it is not about immigration and open borders, we’re told. It is simply about wanting a better life and self-determination.

My response? BALLS! It is about self-interest, pure and simple; it is about wanting only what is good for oneself; it is about ignoring the interests of one’s country as a whole; it is about retaliation; above all, in my opinion, it is about the longing of white men to be king of the hill again.

The rise of Donald Trump and the rise of the agitation to leave the EU have one really big thing in common: immigration in the US and the refugee crisis in Europe.

The leaders of the agitation are not working class, are not poor, and most assuredly do not have the interests of the “common man” in their hearts. What they do have is the ability to exploit and manipulate fears of the “other” among their followers, to an almost maniacal degree.

Who suffers most from closed borders? Black and brown people and non-Christians. It’s that simple, friends. And it’s that evil.

Whether it’s a virtual wall or a physical wall, these two phenomena want to keep out the other and keep all the goodies for themselves. But making that wall means getting rid of the other who crossed the border when it was open. What does that lead to?

Thomas Mair, who allegedly murdered British parliamentarian Jo Cox in the cause of Brexit, had well-established ties to Neo-Nazi organizations. Neo-Nazi activists flocked to Donald Trump’s rally in Sacramento. Like Isis, they want to establish their own “caliphate” and return to the “good old days” of white men ruling the world. Don’t believe me? Read what the Southern Poverty Law Center has to say about the right(white)-wing activists who flocked to Sacramento: White Nationalism

But it won’t be the working class white men who benefit from Brexit or a Trump presidency; it will be the wealthy white elite, and they won’t (read don’t) give a rat’s ass about what’s good for the underclass.

I propose that instead of rounding up the black and brown and non-Christian immigrants/refugees, we round up the Trump followers and the England First followers into detention camps. Just for fun, let’s throw in the billionaire Libertarian agitators too. There they could receive the benefit of deep therapy to learn why they’re really so angry and be helped to recover from whatever real or imaginary wounds they have.

Meanwhile, I’ll be praying for all the people for whom Brexit and a possible Trump presidency hold dire, even life-threatening consequences.

AN OPEN LETTER TO DONALD TRUMP

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Candidate Trump,

I guess your mother never played Connect-the-Dots games with you. Do you not understand that the number of hate crimes in the United States has increased since you began spewing your vile racist rhetoric?

Do you not understand that there is a direct link to increased numbers of innocent people being killed and the do-nothing Republican Congress that has somehow been mesmerized into supporting you?

Do you not get that semiautomatic rifles are not used for self-defense, but for offense? For offense against human beings who have mothers and fathers and children and sisters and brothers and who have never done anything to deserve being shot to death?

Do you not get that the majority of these acts are perpetrated by AMERICAN CITIZENS with LEGALLY PURCHASED RIFLES?

Do you not get that there are murderers out there who cannot board an airplane because they’re on the no-fly list but who can purchase a rifle whenever and wherever they want?

Do you not understand that, despite the fringe element that votes for you, this country does not need you and does not want you?

Are you completely lacking in the human qualities of empathy and compassion? Are you completely lacking in the ability to learn from experience? Are you completely lacking in the knowledge of right and wrong, good and evil?

You must be. How else could you continue to say the things you say? To disgorge your idiotic rationalizations.

You are destroying this country, perhaps irreparably. How will we clean up the mess you make day after day?

To misquote the beautiful Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a much better person than I am, “SHUT UP IS SHUT UP IS SHUT UP IS SHUT UP!”

Honor the War Dead by Working for Peace

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The other day I watched an ant towing a dead comrade back to the nest for several minutes. He strove mightily over a pebbled driveway. It reminded me of what I’ve been wanting to write about Memorial Day; I hope it’s not too soon.

I have long wondered why a day to honor those US military people who died in war has not also been a day to advocate for an end to war.

So there will be no more people dying in wars.

Where I live, the Memorial Day parade has a lot of people in uniforms and ends with the firing of rifles.

Which makes me think of war, not the end of war. And which scares the young children and dogs that are always brought along.

I prefer Hawaii’s tradition: setting lamps afloat on the ocean on Memorial Day.

Keith Kamisugi describes the tradition, started in 1999, in his blog, #Hawaii:

“The special gathering allows people a personal moment to remember, reflect and offer gratitude to those who have gone before us. It is also a collective experience where families, friends and even strangers reach out with love and understanding to support one another.

“Lantern Floating Hawaii helps to open hearts in an experience that transcends the human boundaries that usually divide us.”

You can see the 2016 commemoration here: Lantern Floating Hawaii The practice comes from Japan and is centuries old. Lanterns are set floating every year at Hiroshima’s Peace Park and in Nagasaki. There are also places in the US at which organizations such as the Fellowship for Reconciliation follow the practice on August 6.

What do you think? I, for one, would rather be remembered with floating lanterns than with rifle shots.