Monday, March 26, 2007

To Alter and Adorn (2)

The piece of the I-90 lid between MLK and Lake Washington is Sam Smith Park.

Sam was a life-long, African/American, city council member who was wise, wily, and well liked. Most anyone who was involved in Seattle politics during Sam's tenure has a good story. Here's mine:

I was working for the Seattle Tenants Union trying to get a piece of legislation through city council. The legislation would have provided for mandatory housing inspections for rental units. It was an effort to rid the city of sub-standard rentals. We wanted Sam's vote. We met. I asked him if he'd support 100% mandatory housing inspections, and he agreed to cast a "yes" vote.

A compromise was worked out in committee, and when the legislation came up, Sam voted against it. I was shocked, and though I couldn't get another meeting he was easy enough to get ahold of because he often answered his own phone:

"Mr. Smith, what happened? You said you were a guaranteed "yes."

"I was, and I was more than ready to keep my promise. The legislation called for 80% inspections. I gave you my word I'd vote for 100%, but as it turned out - I couldn't"

I just had to laugh.

Sam taught me a valuable lesson in politics, and though he cast a "nay," we did get the inspections - for awhile anyway.

Sam's park got quite a bit of public art: there's the Philosopher's Promenade, the Urban Peace Circle, and the bicycle tunnel mural.

(Click on any image for a full screen view.)

The Philosopher's Promendade is a collection of pithy quotes from the likes of Plato, Isaiah, Nietzshe, Rita Mae Brown, (Rita Mae Brown? I guess you take your philosophers where you can get them) etc. The quotes are in stone, with various plaques, and a series of column like stones of ascending height. The meaning of the columns is beyone me except as an exercise in perspective.

The Peace Circle...

was erected at the height of the crack epidemic when gangsters were shooting each other and anyone else that got in the way.

Here are the credits:

If you're a bicyclist, jogger, or walker, you've probably passed through the bike tunnel.

The mural was painted by kids, with volunteer adult supervision. Considering it's such an easy target for "taggers," it's remarably free of graffitti.

Lord, love a duck.

I don't think these bombs were a part of the original design, but the image is faithful to US foreign policy.

More later...

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

God Bless Everyone - No Exceptions

Possibly the most radical bumper sticker I’ve ever seen, and certainly the only one I’d consider putting on my car. It got me to thinking about God, blessings, and…everyone, so I’d call it pretty effective.


God is always radical, and putting God in the slogan is a sure path to a reaction. Fundamentalists, “Hello Central, get me heaven,” not only have a direct line, but actually call “person to person,” and have heart-to-hearts; social progressives, religious or not, shy away from the word and jump to the conclusion that whoever’s using it is a fundamentalist; atheists are clear that God not only doesn’t belong in the slogan, but should be removed from the equation; agnostics just roll their eyes – oddly enough, heavenward; but most people just kind of accept that God’s out there, and his job is to bless everyone. As for me, I’ve given up trying to define the indefinable; and I’m happy to use the name as shorthand for, “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”

“It is a lie, any talk of God that does not comfort you.”
Meister Eckhart

What is a blessing, then?

A blessing generally implies some kind of reward, or merit. You get a blessing when you’ve done something good, almost a thank you, or a gold star; or when you’re suffering. “God bless you for washing the car,” or “You mean you’re going to give me a full refund? Well bless your heart.”We are rarely blessed just for being, and until I saw that bumper sticker Tiny Tim provided the only unconditional blessing I can recall – and that sets up a whole other line of inquiry as in, “Does a blessing bestowed by a fictional character count as a blessing?” If it does, Tiny Tim has probably blessed more people than the Pope.

I’d define a blessing as a call from one person for a power greater than ourselves to shed a moment of light on another. The power might be God, it might be the universe. One thing’s for sure, we all deserve it, and some of us really, really need it.

When I was a kid, Catholic priests used to give lots of blessings.

They’d bless things: houses, boats, cars, tools, food:

An annual occasion at my uncle’s parish in DuBois, PA, was a harvest blessing. These were the 1950’s, and although the parishioners had, for the most part, made the transition from a rural to an urban economy, the rituals held on, mostly because the “Busias,” (grandmothers) were still alive. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Fr. Louie’s church would be filled with families carrying baskets of food: freshly baked breads, homemade kielbasas, pierogis, newly slaughtered and plucked chickens, roasts, dried and preserved mushrooms, cabbages, mason jars of fruit floating in sweet syrup, canned tomatoes – the bounty. The incense of the day was delicatessen, and was made up of garlic, majoram, yeast, and the rich smell of roast meats. At the end of Mass, family delegates would carry their baskets to the altar to give thanks for the good year that had passed, and pray for a good year to come. Fr. Louie would bless the delegates and their offerings. After mass we’d go back to the rectory and there would be baskets of food at the back door marked either for Fr. Louie, the good Sisters, or the poor. The baskets were blessings themselves, and we’d take lunch out of at least one of them.

And priests would bless people:

There is always a blessing at the beginning of the Mass, or any of the other rites, and in pre-Vatican II days, it was in Latin: “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spritus Sancti. Amen.” Latin gave me the feeling we were speaking God’s language, known only to Catholics, and connecting directly with the Almighty. The translation: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The choreography is the sign of the cross. The priest inscribes a cruciform in the air, from top to bottom, and then left to right, while the person or group being blessed mirrors the inscription from forehead to heart, and left to right shoulder. It’s timed to end with the hands placed finger-to-finger/palm-to-palm, on the “amen.” The priest’s choreography is performed as the occasion demands – formal, linear, and severe over bodies or graves; graceful and balletic before large crowds on High Holy Days; or with the middle and index finger transcribing a sign-of-the-cross about six inches high: perfunctory, stingy, and unimpressive. The stingy option was usually reserved for the individual blessings of dozens of new rosaries, or prayer books, or other Catholic paraphernalia.

The choreography is, of course, in commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion, but I’ve long believed the magic is that it connects the cardinal points on the body, and the earth, and then centers physical energy at the heart with the “amen.” Much like the Hindu greeting of “Namaste.

“Father, Father, give us your blessing!”

Every kid I knew loved being blessed by a priest. Priests were highly revered, at the parish level, second only to Jesus himself, though officially much further removed, and if not unapproachable, certainly approached with respect. Asking for a blessing was a way to be just a little cheeky without going over the line, could be done with your whole gang in tow, and, best, you’d never be refused. Sometimes we’d go the whole nine yards and kneel down to receive the blessing.

As we got older we got a little more reserved in our requests. The last time I asked for a blessing I was at a retreat with a group of fellow teens. We approached the priest, who didn’t look much older than we were, made our request, and went through the routine. But the Latin wasn’t the usual, and when we asked the priest about it he told us that he was just a seminarian, so hadn’t been ordained, and the Latin translated to, “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” He said he hated refusing a blessing when someone asked, so came up with a formula that left people happy, and did no harm. I don’t know why he told us, maybe no one else ever asked. I’ve got to wonder how long he lasted.

On family road trips of any length we’d never leave the driveway without a sign of the cross, and a quick prayer to St. Christopher, patron of travelers, to keep us safe.

Speaking of road trips, last year Reggie, Sarah, John, and I were traveling by road from Hyderabad to Aurangabad, and just before we hit the main highway our driver, Santosh, stopped at a road side pandit’s shack to get the car blessed. It wasn’t clear whether the pandit’s services were too expensive, or if the wait was going to be too long, but Santosh purchased the ritual paraphernalia and performed the blessing himself. He marked the tires with vermillion, cracked a couple of coconuts and poured the water on the hood, festooned the bumper and side mirrors with marigolds, and marked our foreheads with vermillion tikas. I was rather surprised, as Santosh had told me much earlier that he was, “angry with God,” so I asked him about it, and he explained, “Sa’ab, I am angry with God, but this was not for me, this was for you.” Off we drove, and the ways of divinity (and Santosh) remained imponderable.

Everyone – No Exceptions

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Christian Scriptures: Luke 23:34

Whether you believe in God, or that a blessing is at all efficacious, the willingness to bless “everyone – no exceptions” is quite something, and possibly the most radical part of the formula.

It seems to me that in order to bless someone you have to have some positive feelings toward them, or at the very least, an inkling of desire for their well-being. That means that somewhere inside you’ve either got nothing against them, have forgiven or would like to be able to forgive them; and I think that’s as radical as it gets because it’s about love.

And if we’re going to bless everyone – no exceptions we have to forgive everyone – no exceptions.

“The absolute innocence of all within my creation takes a while to understand.”
Catherine of Sienna

Let’s jump right to the personification of evil – Hitler. Who’s ready to forgive Hitler? And, if we are ready for Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are also in line. I’m looking for a hedge here, hoping that blessings only work on the living, and though that may be true, forgiveness extends beyond the grave. This is troublesome territory. As a truly amateur moralist, I’m going to skip the forgiveness of the dead, and stick with the living. But even that won’t move me out of harm’s way, because if I’m talking about all the living, there are some nasty pieces of work out there.

“Everyone;” we’re not just talking the Good Humor Man, we’re talking murderers, rapists, pedophiles, and all the way up and down the negative side of humanity.

This even gets tough on the plus side. Ram Das has said that we have to forgive our parents before we can get on with any kind of spiritual progress…enough said.

According to Unitarian/Universalist Doug Muder, this forgiveness bit, as difficult as it may be has a profound circular action – as we forgive others we heal ourselves. You can check out his sermon here.

Forgiving all, and blessing all, and because of our fallibility Jesus tells us we may have to do it “seventy times seventy times.” (Christian Scriptures, Matthew 18: 21-22.)

When Catholics beg forgiveness from God, through the priest, the priest says, “I absolve you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Go and sin no more.” I never went and sinned no more, but I was blest…

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.”

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi