Morning of 1-20-19

On this day when many of us seek to honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the image of the corkscrew willow in our side yard haunts me.   Fragile, frozen, fractured, fallen are its limbs, not unlike the limbs of the body of this nation, not unlike the soul of this creature we dare to call homo sapiens.  How imbued with wisdom are we?  How committed are we to making a moral dent in the immoral practices of this time that is ours to share—a mere nanosecond in time itself, a mere wonderment that we occupy even this nanosecond?

This morning I had planned to attend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr./Alfred Owens Scholarship Breakfast in Meriden, the venue of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden, where I am amid the seventh and final year of my professional ministry.  Mama Nature had other plans. While I don’t believe she micro-manages, the doors to my means of getting there were frozen shut.  Ergo, I seek to connect with you through my reflections from home.

No, I’m not old enough to have been alive on January 15, 1929—90 years ago—when Dr. King joined this world in Atlanta, Georgia.  I do remember well April 4, 1968, hearing the heart-wrenching news that Dr. King was assassinated that morning while taking a breath of air on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had offered up that now iconic speech the night before on behalf of striking sanitation workers.  It was just two months after my first husband was killed in the War in Viet Nam, a war that I strongly protested. I was in my apartment on East 3rd Street in New York City, sewing a dress—mundane, yes?—and finishing my final studies at Union Theological Seminary.

What in God’s name did the plight of sanitation workers have to do with Dr. King as the more or less leader of the mid-20th century civil rights movement?  Intersectionality is the new term for linked oppressions.  There is nothing new about it.  Dr. King understood this well.  In his speech at Riverside Church a year to the day before his death, he called out this nation’s leaders on their policies and practices in Viet Nam, the venue of my pilgrimage for truth, reconciliation, and healing this past November.  But he went further:

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”

Dr. King called for a revolution of values in this nation and in our world, a prophetic precursor to the proclamation of Rev. Dr. William Barber, who frames the current betrayal of love in this nation as a moral crisis, “a heart problem”.  Like Dr. King, Dr. Barber addresses the woven nature of oppressions. Across time, the bulging receptacle of racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, economic greed, and national hubris holds transgressions that are woven.

When Dr. King went back to Memphis (for he had been there before, countering the powers that be in that city), he knew in the bones of his soul the peril held in the promise of this journey.

“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. …And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”Dr. Michelle Alexander is one of my great heroes and a Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary, my alma matter that holds much of my own history.  In yesterday’s New York Times, (January 20, 2019), Dr. Alexander, like Dr. King before her, directed her fierce and fearless voice to the intersectionality of the moral challenge of this nation, from the War in Viet Nam (the American War, as aptly termed by the Vietnamese), to the moral challenge of this nation’s unquestioning support for the policies and practices of Israel vis-a-vis the human rights of Palestinians.  Like Dr. King’s challenge to the immoral economics of this nation in 1968, Dr. Alexander’s challenge to the immoral collusion with a nation that has become “our ally”, no matter how oppressive their tactics against those whose land they have mapped out as theirs, carries a high risk.  Might we see through the charges of anti-Semitism that immediately greet any questioning of Israeli policy and call to task injustice wherever and by whomever wields it, most especially our own nation in this slice of history through which we are moving.

Above all today, I wonder how we deem spirituality.  There are folks who have left the congregation that I serve as minister because they deem my ministry “too political”, “not sufficiently spiritual”.  “Oh my God,” I say prayerfully and otherwise. How might we affirm that morality and compassion are as much the language of spirit as they are of how we structure ourselves in society—i.e. politics?  Politics isn’t partisanship.  Recognizing the evil in the oval and adjoining offices isn’t partisanship.  On this day of presuming to hold up the life and legacy of Dr. King, might we recognize and bear witness that the “love beyond belief”, which some of us claim as our theological ground, calls us to act on the reality that if all life is connected, all oppressions are woven.  Our calling, my calling, is to speak from the bones of our souls in language that walks and marches and sometimes screams to the powers that be, “Enough!  It is time to be and do into the fullness of love’s promise and peril.  It is time for a resurrection and revolution of values that go beyond Viet Nam, beyond Memphis, beyond the Middle East, beyond knee jerk responses to what is and isn’t acceptable for individuals and communities of faith to be and do.

Spring 2019

Under those fragile, frozen, fractured, and fallen branches of that corkscrew willow, resolute roots are twining and intertwining, moving in a dance so subtle and promising, that with enough encouragement and faith above ground, flora and fauna now unimaginable will spring forth.  Might we join this dance as co-creators of “a world made new and all her people one.”

With love and hope for deep and lasting Hoa Binh (peace) on earth and good will toward all.

Layered Epiphanies

Epiphanies one after another, but intimately linked, describe yesterday and this morning too, but in this final blog from Viet Nam, I offer you yesterday as it resonates today.

Psychologists!  You might think of those who inhabit the  realms of armchairs and academia, but  yesterday such inhabitants rose from their armchairs and thawed academia.  Dr. Hao, Deputy Director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Psychology, welcomed Ed, Barbara, Song and me with grace and warmth, as we met with three women on the faculty of the Institute .  Each of these women had known losses of loved ones in the American War.  With Dr. Hao as facilitator, we shared stories of personal history and current perspectives.  The stories formed the common thread.

Dr. Hoa practices social psychology with Dr. Hao and is a native of Quang Tri City. In 1970, when she was just seven years old, she lost her father in the American War.  He was killed just 10 miles from An Loi, where my first husband, Russ, lost his life two years earlier.  In 1973, the relics of her father were found and brought to the war memorials of their village.  Their family received from the government a “ticket of morals”.   Four members of her grandmother’s family lost their lives in that war.  Her grandmother received the title of “Heroine Mother’.  Such sacrifice brought honor from their government. Then there was Dr. Huyen, only 40 years old.  At the age of five months, she and her three-year-old sister lost their father.  It was 1979. He had survived the American War, but not the war of resistance against China, which invaded Viet Nam not long after the end of the American War and which Viet Nam ultimately resisted. Dr. Khanh’s story is more complicated.  A half-bother had fought in the American War with the ARVN/American allies in the South) and was killed. Two sisters joined the National Liberation Front (aka Viet Cong). Her father went north and fought with the NVA.  “How did you go about loving them,” I asked.  “I loved them all,” was her reply.

Time for a visit with one of Viet Nam’s most revered poets: Colonel Hung.  Yes, he’s a colonel in the Vietnamese army and an internationally celebrated poet in Luc Bat, meaning six-eight.  It’s a poetic form of lines alternating between six and eight syllables—or words, since Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language.  In each six-eight coupling, the rhyming occurs at the sixth syllable of each line.  A bit more challenging than haiku, yes?  Song translated for us, and when we asked Colonel Hung to recite (via Song) one of his poems, he offered his poem of the day!  Ed then took Song’s translation and morphed it into an English more-or-less Luc Bat form!  Also present for this conversation was Thai Minh Chau, a journalist who writes for a women’s magazine and was working with Colonel Hung on a prospective article.  I declined to ask why two men were authoring an article for a women’s magazine.  Once in a rare while, I choose diplomacy over raised eyebrows!

Capping the day was a visit with Huu Ngoc in the home in which he and his wife have lived longer than most of us have been alive.  This 100-year-old scholar, linguist, poet, and author of 43 books (working on his last!) greeted us warmly, speaking perfect English and accompanied by his assistant, Nguyen Viet Dung (76 and not too old to be his son!).  We sat for well over an hour drinking in the seasoned wisdom of this man fondly known as Thay (revered teacher).  Does Thay have a magnum opus?  Perhaps, and it would surely be Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture (2004), a 1200-page tome that delivers far more than its title indicates.  After Viet Nam successfully resisted the invasions of Japan, China, France, and America, Huu Ngoc authored a book on that country’s culture as “a means to humanize the former enemy.” After 1975, for example, he wrote A File on America as a means of facilitating Vietnamese and American friendship.  What is America for him?  “Idealism and pragmatism.” As for his current perspective on his own country? “Viet Nam is now engaged in its most difficult war, the war to save its own soul.”  The materialism that commonly accompanies Western capitalism is undermining values and traditions that have sustained Vietnamese culture for millennia.  His counsel for us all? “Look for happiness in the spirit, in serenity.”

Happiness, serenity, and generosity pour forth from this revered teacher and beloved “lion of literature”, as he is often referred to in Viet Nam.  In a nearby pile of books—and books were piled high nearby—were some copies of his newest work, Viet Nam: Tradition and Change.  Huu Ngoc insisted that we each take a copy as his gift to us, and he graciously inscribed each copy.  When I open its pages, I will be sitting again in the sacred space of this man who has stretched minds and opened hearts across history’s vacillation between war and peace, enmity and friendship.

I write on this last day in a land that has found its sustenance again and again in adaptation to change with community as its core.  Surfacing for me is the Sioux word, tiospaye, “the people with whom one lives”.  In Viet Nam, the people with whom one lives rise from the land that gives life, and the land that gives life nurtures the root structure of the people with whom one lives.  This land and its people will live in me for as long as I live.

Love and Hoa Binh and Good Morning, Viet Nam!


Pilgrimage within Pilgrimage – Revised Edition

“When we tell our story from deep inside” – okay, but it needs to be our story/my story, and if I seek to tap someone else’s story or even part of it, I need to check with that person for permission and invite editing.  So, with apologies to Lynda Bluestein, this is my revised edition, with noted corrections in the third paragraph.

Why did I come here—so far from home, so close to a home of my soul, one of the many homes of my soul. “Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul; return to who you are, return to what you are, return to what you are, born and reborn again.”  It’s a familiar song for some of you.

After bidding farewell to two of our travelers, the remaining eight of us headed north from Hue, into the mountains toward destinations where fellow pilgrim, Lynda Bluestein and I marked returns of soul. Sunlight struggled through the mist to illumine a vista that stretched into densely forested mountains holding the history of lost souls and fallen loved ones on all sides of that war.  As if rising monster-like, the Rock Pile loomed suddenly in the distance.  We stopped on the side of the road, as close as we could get to this quasi mountain of jagged rocks, where Lynda’s first husband, Peter, was, as Lynda explains, a grunt dropped onto the Rockpile to surveille the VC below not having a clue what he was supposed to do or why. The strategic advantage of the Rockpile was not all that the Marines had built it up to be, and it soon became clear the that the NVA never really wanted to control it, so it was quietly abandoned at the end of 1968. The Rockpile’s original justification was to stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply as part of the “McNamara Line”.  The intensive defoliation/Agent Orange use along the Ho Chi Minh Trail around the Rockpile  led to Peter’s cancer when he returned home. Imagine this outcropping as the backdrop for the ceremony that Lynda led with such grace, and a shelved rock serving as a makeshift altar.  Amid song and words spoken from letters written 50 years ago, we placed fresh flowers and sticks of burning incense on the altar, bearing witness and honoring a loved one whose soul was robbed by war and whose body was vulnerable to my nation’s extensive use of Agent Orange.


Now, how to find a cemetery next to a churchyard in the tiny village of Xom An Loi, where Russell Ray Flesher, my first husband, was killed on February 2, 1968—the heart of the Tet Offensive?  The exactness of this site was known to me only through correspondence with a surviving veteran who had fought with Russ. An Loi wasn’t even on the map.  With stalwart perseverance, Song (Tran Dinh Song, our Vietnamese guide), asked the locals.  So many hadn’t a clue, until…he connected with an elderly man whose family had lived in Xom An Loi for six generations!  Nguyen Van Lanh hopped on his moped and led the busload of us into this tiny hamlet overlooked by the map makers. Lanh knew the exact location we sought.

Parking on the outskirts of rice paddies, we saw in the distance a chapel with cross reaching skyward and what appeared to be a cemetery a stone’s throw away. Instinctively I set out solo on the narrow footpaths through the rice paddies, with my companions close behind. We trekked 4-5 km in afternoon sun that did more than its share on this pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.   At last we reached the road linking us to our destination. With the exception of Song and Lanh, we surely appeared as rumpled aliens. Yet a woman with a warm smile and outstretched arms beckoned us to come into her home for rest and refreshment. Family and friends quickly gathered, for we were the first Americans they had seen since the War.  Tea and smiles were fuel for the soul.

We continued on, with Lanh and our new friend accompanying us.  What had likely been a tiny cemetery in 1968 was now formalized with a tile floor, engraved markers, a sarcophagus in the center, and an altar with fresh flowers indicating the veneration paid to the deceased.  Bearing our sticks of incense and the flowers we had brought, we sat in a circle, and the ceremony that I had planned unfolded. Alas, Ed could not join us, given severe back pain, and Sebastian and Wes had left for home the day before. Except for Song and Lanh, it was a circle of women, including our dear new friend.   “Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul,” we sang.  I read a poem by Russ, then spoke free-form. I wonder, have you heard “Are you going to Scarborough Fair” with the sotto voce counterpoint? Thank you, Denise, for giving voice to the counterpoint that contrasts the normalcy of going to a fair with lyric shards of war’s realities.  We placed flowers and incense on an altar, with Lanh and the woman who had hosted us for tea joining us as family.

The heart is not linear; nor is this narrative.  We marked the previous day, Armistice Day (aka Veterans Day) with a boat visit down the Perfume River to the pagoda of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc (who, in protest against the Diem regime, had immolated himself at an intersection in Saigon in June 1963). At his pagoda on this glorious day of November 2018, priests chanted and released a host of caged sparrows,  freeing also the souls of loved ones.  Back in our boat, we headed further down river to the Taoist Hon Chen Temple honoring Po Nagar, goddess of the ancient Cham minority.  As we began to mount the  steps to her altar, we were waylaid by women holding up baskets of squirming fish for sale.  What were we to do with these fish?  Release them into the waters of the river and free the souls of loved ones in need of freeing, on the other side or on this side.  So we did.

And so I concluded the ceremony at the cemetery with a fragment of song: “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”

May we all know such release, the freeing of our souls into whatever waters are home.

Love and Hoa Binh (peace),


Across Generations

So different are the cultures of Viet Nam and that to which most of us have grown accustomed in the U.S.  The notion of children moving far away, parents estranged from their children, elders lonely and alone is rare in this land where my fellow pilgrims and I are meeting with elders surrounded and embraced by their children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins.

The Vietnamese do not engage in ancestor worship, but in ancestor veneration. Throughout one’s lifetime, family is core to identity.  I’ve been so taken by the richness of life for the elders we’ve met, and children born into what we call extended family.  How is this so?

A few years ago, amid one of the Soldier’s Heart pilgrimages here, the bus bound for Black Lady  Mountain (another story for another day), broke down with a flat tire.   Its passengers—mostly U.S. veterans—emptied out into the narrow dirt road.  A diminutive older woman appeared, motioning them to come to her home for tea.  How to believe that the same men who had been on “the other side” were now warmly welcomed by this woman whose brother had fought and died on that side?  Witness Madame Ky and her beautiful family, now welcoming us. Such is the nature of the Vietnamese toward Americans ready to experience such grace.

I can still see the fierce love in his eyes, hear his uproarious laugh, and witness the deep jagged scar in his side (imprint of an M16). Tam Tien is imprinted in my heart. A Viet Cong veteran, he has welcomed Americans, including U.S. veterans of the American War, to his family compound on the banks of a tributary of the Mekong River. Land laid waste by American bombs has been brought back to life by Tam Tien, his family, and Mama Nature and has become Song Tien.  While luxuries are sparse, hospitality is abundant and the evidence of well-knit family is pervasive.  With Tam Tien and one another, we dined every night in a gazebo on cuisine that spanned elephant ear fish and rice to fresh mangos and dragon eyes (think lychee nuts) and above all, captivating conversation and more.  Imagine an evening that held a concert of folk artists dancing, singing, and performing on instruments that included this one-string specimen!

Ah yes, I did take a swim with others in that tributary of the Mekong, and early one morning knew it was time for a swim across the river. BUT I forgot to spot my point of departure; thank heavens for the Song Tien sign rising from the greenery as my daytime “lighthouse”.

The children have won my heart—and the focus of my photography!  Witness a moment of our visit to the kindergarten built by Soldier’s Heart contributions, not far from Song Tien. These little ones are becoming adept in English as well as the wisdom of kindness from the outset.

Jump ahead to now, Armistice Day, one hundred years after that agreement intended as the outer bookend of “The War to End All Wars”.  Our group held a circle ceremony of sharing, prayer, reflection, and incense at an altar in the pagoda (home compound) of Thich Nhat Hanh, on the banks of the Perfume River near Hue.  May all who died in that war now be at peace. In the customs of the Vietnamese, they would no longer be recognized at the family altar, for after 100 years (4-5 generations), their souls would have entered new beings.

May the souls of us all find new ways of being in mindful and compassionate kinship—

Love and Hoa Binh (peace),


Good morning, Viet Nam!

A huddle of prayer halfway around the world.  So those of us on the Soldier’s Heart pilgrimage here in Viet Nam clustered last night as we prayed for the soul of our nation.  Not yet for the Senate.  Yes, for the House!  Miles to go, but hope is alive and in action.

Can it be that I am already a week into this pilgrimage, for which each of the nine of us has our purpose and  varied levels of openness to the epiphanies we are experiencing?  A visit on the first full day here (October 31) to Saigon’s Fine Arts Museum.  Barbara Child and I struck out from our hotel through the non-stop moped traffic to arrive at this magnificent structure that houses Vietnamese art primarily from the past 75 years. Especially striking were sculptures by women of women who took up the weapons of war in defense of their homeland.  I was mesmerized by this sculpture titled simply “Spirituality.”

Gathering for dinner with our group that evening, we shared the stories that led each of us to commit to this pilgrimage.  For four of us, it was the loss of spouses or partners in the war that was. For others, it is professional work with veterans and their families. For yet another, it is research on the impact of war across generations of family.  Our journey intensified the next day, with visits to the Reunification Palace (formerly the Presidential Palace), whose gates were stormed by the North Vietnamese Army on April 30, 1975—Viet Nam’s Day of Liberation from American forces.   It is where South Vietnamese President Thieu conceded defeat, and helicopters lifted off the roof with hundreds of Americans and those who fought with them on board or literally clawing to get on board. Then to the War Remnants Museum, with sectors devoted to the international peace movement, the storied images of international journalists, and photographs bearing the horrific evidence of Agent Orange—with pictures drawn and painted by “Agent Orange children”.  Upon exiting this hall of powerful memory, I was graced by the appearance of this adorable child, dancing and cavorting and ready to play.  May she embody our collective future?

A short walk away is the sculpted larger-than-life bronze memorial to Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who immolated himself at a busy intersection the morning of June 11, 1963, protesting the brutality of the Diem regime.  The single photograph of this act was seen around the world and marked a turning point in Diem’s inept and brutal leadership, fully supported by our country’s leaders, including JFK, until it met enough resistance that he was assassinated by his own people in early November 1963, with the covert support of the Kennedy administration.  JFK had begun to question U.S. policy in Viet Nam; it was perhaps no coincidence that he was assassinated just weeks after Diem’s demise.

Time to head into the countryside and Ao Dai Museum of traditional life.  What exquisitely landscaped grounds surround this museum of traditional Vietnamese women’s attire, each garment with a story from Viet Nam’s history.  Yet the highlight of this visit was not fashion, but intensive conversation over lunch with a Vietnamese woman whose husband who was killed in 1968, fighting on “the other side”.  We connected with our stories, and Madame Nga pronounced me as her “big sister”, an honor in Vietnamese culture.  Then a Then a gift to us: she and her husband “performed” in song and then asked me to sing for them.  I did: “Come sing a song with me, come sing a song with me…that I might know your mind.  And I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find…”  Know that we are finding it anew here in Viet Nam.

Love and hope–

Witness, Retreat, and a Lesson in Paying Attention

How to carry back into the world this season of my sabbatical?  While I’ve not quite left the world, I’ve traveled a track distinctive from that of parish ministry–taking time to reflect, renew, and reconnect in an ongoing way with family and friends and to steep myself in arenas of study and experience that enhance my ministry and the rest of my life. Yesterday and this past weekend embody what I’m talking about.

As for yesterday: Breakfast at Brew Bakers with Dan, off to JC Farms in Durham to purchase plantings for yard and garden, and pausing to inhale the late blooming lilacs gracing planters on our back porch.  As for the remainder of the day, I could not not (double negative intentional) participate in the third weekly witness of the Poor People’s Campaign, a multi-issue campaign begun by Dr. King and cut short by his assassination 50 years ago.  It’s been reinvigorated by Rev. William Barber, familiar to many of us through his founding of the Moral Monday movement, and launched here in CT by Bishop John and Lady Pamela Selders in conjunction with Moral Monday CT.  Off I went to Hartford to join the Selders, Ann Pratt (DUE Justice Coalition), congregants Steve Volpini and Diane Szymaszek, colleague Rev. Josh Pawalek, and so many other friends and allies for this week’s witness—resisting the increasing militarism and runaway gun violence of our nation.  I knew it was time once again to put myself on the line and be arrested. So I was, along with four others “standing our ground” in the street in front of our Capitol.  Yes, your minister was once again in the slammer for a few hours. Court date is June 14, with three days of community service likely this summer.

As for this past weekend: I returned Monday from a deeply resonating retreat at Rowe Camp & Conference Center, sponsored by Soldier’s Heart and led by Dr. Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, the husband-wife team who founded Soldier’s Heart.  The focus? Restoring the Soul after War: A Memorial Day Retreat for People in Military Service, Veterans, and Those Who Love Them.  High intensity, yes!  Participants included veterans of wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf; family of veterans; professionals who work with veterans; and a few who are professionally steeped in the multi-spectrum arena of trauma.  Buoyed by the lush spring of western Massachusetts, with lilacs now at peak, and the rustic comfort and sumptuous cuisine of Rowe, we gathered.

Witness the altar we created on the first evening, made sacred by the artifacts that represented our experiences of memory and loss.  Two of the three items I brought are regularly in my study at church.  Come see me when I return next Tuesday, and I’ll show you what and why they are.   Then…so much deep sharing, who we are, why we were there, “sharing our stories from deep inside” (I introduced them to the song), laughter and tears and meditation and walks in the woods, and budding friendships. Sunday evening brought a simulated sweat lodge in the sauna, with chanting. (No photos here!) For a rather long hour and in the company of mostly women, I sweat and chanted and laughed and shouted and cried and let it all out!  Amazing grace it was, the entire weekend.

I continue to read.  I continue to connect with friends and family and see Dan many more hours of the day.  I’ve restored our lavender garden and today will pot and plant some of those aromatic items I purchased yesterday and later get my stitches out.  What??  Okay, a few weeks ago I was taking the wheelbarrow out of the garage and not paying attention to exactly where I was.  That bothersome metal device through which the garage door slides on the inside wall got in my way, and did a number on my left forearm.  Off to the ER and 11 stitches. A raw lesson in paying attention.

In just a few days I shall pay attention once again to my ministry at UU Meriden.    I will be back in the pulpit on Sunday, June 10, as we observe our Flower Communion, hear the stories of how some of you have sown your “gifted promises”, and convene for our Annual Meeting.  As I have savored this sabbatical, so shall I savor being once again with you!

Reflecting, Connecting and So Much More – Sabbatical Update

Jan’s blog – 5-15-18

From here to there is rarely a straight line.  Starting point and destination shift.  Dots are there for the connecting.  We don’t visit all of them, for they are infinite in number, each an option, a possibility.  So it has been with the here to there of my sabbatical—a time of rest and renewal, reconnection with family and friends, reading and reflection, and anticipation for phase two that includes my November pilgrimage to Vietnam.

While I have read some of the basics, such as Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward’s The War in Vietnam: An Intimate History, and have viewed in corresponding mode each episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part series on that war that hasn’t ended for so many of us, and have immersed myself in a span of media on that war, on trauma and healing, and on restorative justice, I have also joined Dan in connecting with family.  Just yesterday we returned from a visit to Vermont to celebrate grandson Forrest’s 8th Happy Birthday and a birthday party with his friends at a water park (indoors, thank you, we’re not completely crazy!).  After a FULL day of water park fun, what was Forrest’s next move on arriving home: “Let’s go play soccer in the backyard, GramJan!”

What a gift that all three daughters wished me a Happy Mother’s Day, along with Dan who presented me with a recently published novel whose story-line is the jarring aftermath of a U.S. POW returned from Vietnam.  As Dan was at the wheel en route home from Vermont, I was ensconced in the Alaskan venue of The Great Alone.  

As for our larger world, hope and outrage meld as we hear of the scores of Palestinians killed and hundreds wounded in Gaza as they protested the provocative move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. How many more families on “the home front” will be torn apart by the immorality of this ICE age?  How many more of our teachers and children will continue to be disrespected through school budgets voted down and public education undermined by the powers that be?  Yet hope is alive in the launching of the new Poor People’s Campaign.  Yes, to all of you who marched this Monday in Hartford.   Yes, to all who marched in over 30 capital cities across the country.  And Amen, to the words of Rev. Dr. William Barber, who has taken the torch from 50 years ago and stands at the helm of this campaign: “We cannot continue to have a democracy that engages in the kind of policy violence that we see happening every day.”  And Amen to our faith’s fifth principle, which bids us to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.

One can never take a sabbatical from “all that is our life,” from the reality that we are all connected.  Yet this time out is affording fuel for my soul, for the struggle in which we are all engaged and the journey we are on.

I think of you every day.  I think of our sanctuary guests, Sujitno and Dahlia and the hope we hold for their freedom and safety.   I think of the shared ministry demonstrated by a congregation with the minster in sabbatical mode.  And I anticipate the second Sunday of June, when I will return to the pulpit of the congregation that I love.


A Festival of Daffodils and Sabbatical at Mid-point

And then my heart with pleasure thrills
and dan
ces with the Daffodils.”

Such are the final lines of William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” that holds the poignantly poetic meditation inspired by these seasonal blossoms.  As for seasonal, ‘tis the season for a 40th Annual Daffodil Festival at which I know a host of daffodil lovers of all ages are volunteering, and a favorite destination has surely been a booth where my favorite FUNdraisers are selling mouth-watering grilled cheese sandwiches, tummy warming tomato soup, thirst-quenching lime rickeys, and hot chocolate as a liquid dessert!  Hopefully hundreds if not thousands of festival attendees stood in line, eager to order, no matter how long the wait.   After dancing with daffodils and mulling over the crafts and more lining the aisles of the mega-tent, it was time to indulge!

Here at home on my sabbatical, it was hard to stay away from saying, “Okay, I’m ready to sign-up for “daffodil duty”, pragmatic spiritual practice that it is.  I trust that the proceeds were gratifying to all who were there and grilled sandwiches, squeezed limes, stirred soup, and poured hot chocolate.  Bravo and brava!

Perhaps Wordsworth’s wanderer, having been near Hubbard Park this weekend, might have later mused with the great poet:

“I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;”

 which commences this beloved verse.  To you dear William, apologies if I have offended your soul by tapping the gift of your poem for this not quite pastoral celebration.  But might we agree that daffodils are worthy of poetry and festivity however rendered?

As for my sabbatical and my musings on what I am up to.  Yesterday Dan and I saw “1945”, a soul-wrenching film about what happens when an elderly Orthodox Jewish man and his son return to the Hungarian village that betrayed them and their family.  It’s poignant and ever timely and showing at the Madison Arts Cinema.   Tomorrow morning, I’m headed to the Y for a “start-the-week-right” workout.  I continue to read, read, read, AND in the arena of logistics, have now booked my flight for my November pilgrimage to Vietnam.   It becomes real, when I visit Travelocity.com and key in as my destination: Ho Chi Minh City!

As I conclude Ed Tick’s most recent work, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War, I am about to open the pages of beyond forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, an anthology of writings that includes the work of Ed, Kate Dahlstedt (his wife and co-founder of Soldier’s Heart), Rabbi Michael Lerner, Arun Gandhi, and others who have walked this path.

With growing mindfulness and love all around,



Jan’s sabbatical as of mid-April

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ve quite exceeded my word quota.  So be it.

Reading, relaxing, renewing, reconnecting are among those “re’s” that this sabbatical is making possible.  As for reading, I have a companion, a muse you might call him.  Pablo at his most tranquil curls up beside me, head sometimes in my lap, but not so much that I can’t turn the pages of this particularly sizable tome, Geoffrey C. Ward’s and Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a good ten pounds and a scholarly emotive opus that speaks to heart and mind.  I read a chapter, then view with husband Dan the corresponding episode in the Ken Burn’s and Lyn Novick’s     ten-part video series.   This is personal affirmation of those words of trauma therapist and co-leader of my autumn pilgrimage to Vietnam: “Wars do not end when we say they are over.”

On another note, what could be more relaxing than a swing in a park?  Specifically, a swing in the playground of granddaughter Sophie’s school in Glen Ridge with my ever lovin’ spouse?   This past weekend Dan and I headed south to New Jersey to see daughter Lisa and husband Rob and Ollie (10) and Sophie (6) but also to reconnect with my home church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, for a  series of celebrations.   Revs. Any and Scott Sammler-Michael were installed as co-ministers!  A concert that rocked the rafters the evening before, followed by dinner with longtime friends, was prologue to Installation Day, this past Sunday.   Here are Revs. Any and Scott along with UUCM’s (yes, Montclair and Meriden UU congregations have the same acronym) Minister Emeritus Rev. Charlie Blustein Ortman, along with friend and colleague Rev. John Crestwell.  Such were reconnection and renewal in this sacred space in which so much of my UU history was formed!

Reconnection continues with family.  Daughter Sarah and grandson Forrest (almost 8) arrived for a visit with “GramJan and PopPop” this Tuesday.  Off to “Isle of Dogs”, a movie for children of all ages, we went.  As for yesterday, Sarah and Forrest and I reveled in exploring the highly interactive Connecticut Science Center in Hartford.  It’s always hard to see them go home, but home in Vermont they now are.

Retreat is yet another of the re’s, more challenging for me given an energy level that can sometimes be oppressive.  How to channel my energy?  Swimming laps at the Y, working up a sweat on the elliptical, walking “into town” for breakfast with Dan, whose choice is to drive, an occasional lunch with friends.   All mark a retreat from “ministry as usual”.

Reading, relaxing, renewing, reconnecting, retreating are what I am about as my sabbatical continues and evolves.   I cannot, however, fully retreat from you, congregants of the UU Church in Meriden. You’re in my thoughts, my affections, my hopes, and my trust that you are forging onward in the spirit of shared ministry, the ministry of sanctuary, and all the dimensions of congregational life that allow me to sing your praises and bid you, once again, thank you for this gift of sabbatical, a gift received with the outcomes given back in a minister ever more vital upon my return.

Stay tuned for more!

Sing Out to International Women’s Day!

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day.  As Unitarian Universalists, we draw on many sources of truth and meaning, including the words and deeds of prophetic women and men.  Today, we celebrate the words and deeds of prophetic women, many of them in our own time.

Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is the first woman to serve as President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, elected at General Assembly 2017.  Rev. Rosemary Bray-McNatt is President of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkley, California, called to that post almost four years ago.

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, while not a Unitarian Universalist, is President of my own alma mater, New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, from which so many of our UU ministers have graduated, including Rev. Cheryl Walker, President of our Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I sing the praises of Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson and Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, sisters who have served our larger UU world for decades and have both been mentors to me.  I give thanks also for the ministry and mentorship of the late Rev. Dr. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, also author and activist.

Let’s all sing songs of thanksgiving for the life of the late Denise (Denny) Davidoff, who most recently served as relentless fundraiser and publicist for Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago.  For eight years (1993-2001), Denny served as Moderator of our UUA. Let’s sing out praises also for the journey of Elandria Williams, Interim Co-Moderator of our UUA and member of our UUA Board of Trustees.

Historically, how can we not hold up the pioneering ministries of Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Olympia Brown?  As Antoinette Brown, she was the first woman to be ordained to the ministry, though without the full support of her then Congregational denomination.   The year was 1852.  Two years later she became Unitarian and two years after that married and added Blackwell to her name.  As a vocal abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, minister, mother of seven, and grandmother of who knows how many, she cast her first vote at the age of 95 in 1920!  Years earlier she served as mentor to Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained to the ministry of a major denomination (Universalist) and affirmed by that denomination, though not without struggle. The year was 1853. Like her friend and mentor, Olympia Brown was a tireless advocate for women’s suffrage and at the age of 85 cast her first vote in 1920.

Close to a century after we who are women gained the right to vote, we are still downwind from economic injustice and out and out sexual harassment.   The #MeToo movement is grassroots, born of women (as we all are) and sustained by women.  I am among the millions who can say, “Me Too!”   On this International Women’s Day, I raise my voice in praising my sisters across generations, perhaps my own late mother above all.   Born in 1909, Lillian Elizabeth Edwards (late White) became a nurse in rural Iowa, married my father, raised my brother and me, served her community, and nurtured deep and lasting friendships.

Miles we have walked and miles we have yet to go.  Let us pause today to celebrate our journey. As Arundhati Roy, the luminous Indian author and human rights activist proclaimed: “A new world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”

Breathe on,