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Stardust…

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The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.
― Carl Sagan

The great mystics concur
We are
In some inexplicable way
Connected
And that when we harm one
We harm all

Sacred texts tell us
Too
That the creator is in us
As we in them

Researchers say
That we have common ancestors
From which we’ve all come

Modern science
Proves
That we are all
Made from the same stuff
Stardust

Six of one
A half dozen of another
All of this
Says the same thing
To me
And I am not alone

So if this is true
That we are connected
Related
Stardust
Divine

And we know it

Why, then
Do we do the things we do

For if we truly believed
We should be jumping
For pure joy

Each day
And Every day
Because it is all a gift

Cocovan and Her Love Letter to the World

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“Letter writing can be seen as a gift because someone has taken his/her time to write and think and express love.”
― Soraya Diase Coffelt


So this is Cocovan, or simply Coco, as she introduced herself. I first saw her when I was walking through Washington Square Park the other day and she was kneeling an arranging her scroll-like letter on the ground, and then sat at the heart-shaped chair and desk at the head of it. I was mesmerized in a way and had to see what was up. “It’s a love letter to the world from the world,” she said with a smile when I questioned her. She is originally from Paris and has taken the letter across Europe thus far and plans on taking it to all seven continents, collecting signatures and letters of love and drawings along the way. Beautiful, I thought to myself before signing it. It is interesting to think that my short letter to the world is on this scroll along with thousands others and will travel the globe. Safe travels Cocovan, and thank you for spreading love. To read more about the project and the artist, visit Cocovan’s website here.  

Matters at Hand (a New Year Reflection)

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“Fork in the Road”

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
~ Matthew 18:3

So here it is, the first day of the new year. So much anticipation. The above bible verse came to me last evening while contemplating the prospects of all the possibilities of the new year ahead, like a blank page waiting to be written. A clean slate.

I personally have found that in order to make changes in my life I not only have to make changes in my habits but also myself as well. Like the old Buddhist saying goes, “change comes from within.”

The above passage is interesting to me for a number of reasons, especially when thought of in metaphorical terms (which is basically how I treat most of the bible). This said, let’s look at this in a sort of deconstruction, or in sections.

In the first portion of the passage Jesus tells his disciples that unless they change, they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This is from the New International Version, but in other versions the word “change” may be translated as “turn around” or “convert.” Interestingly, the word repent comes from Greek and one of it’s means is to “turn around” or to “change one’s way of thinking.” I bring this up to counter the negative connotations the word repent often conjures. And also (along these same lines) when John was in the desert baptizing and preaching he would cry out, “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). This is also one of the first quotes of Jesus when he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:17). Think about this sentence in this way… Repent (think differently or change your ways) because the kingdom is at hand (or the kingdom is right in front of you). This is spelled out explicitly in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 113), “the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it.

So then, how do we do this? How do we see/enter the kingdom in this life? Well, we are told clearly to “become like little children.” But what does that mean? Are we supposed to act like imbeciles or babies? No, I don’t think so. I’ll give my thoughts on what this means with a brief story.

Recently I was at the local Jewish Community Center where I swim. I had just arrived and was locking up my bike when a father and his young daughter exited the building. It was snowing big fat flakes; they slowly cascaded down to earth. Upon seeing this, the young girl spreads her arms wide, lifts her face skyward and shrieks, “Daddy, it’s snowing.” She then stuck out her tongue and gleefully caught flakes on it as the walked. The father, seeing me, sighed in a low voice, “Yes, it is snowing…again.” The difference is obvious. The young girl was so excited and in awe that in some ways she was experiencing her own slice of heaven right there in the JCC parking lot. Her father, on the other hand, was not; he was miserable.

So my thought on this is that if we change (mostly our thinking) then we too can have what the little girl had, or at least glimpses of it. What the bible passage is saying, I believe, is that we should attempt to be in awe of everyday events, everyday miracles. When we were children everything was new and interesting and innocent, but then somewhere along the way as we grew into adults we began acting like adults, stifling our sense of awe in the everyday activities. When I think about it, I feel as though I should be in awe at the very fact that I awake every morning, at the miracle of this living body that I currently inhabit.

This year I want to return to awe, that sense of innocence. It will not be easy, and it will take work and conscious effort, but I do think it is possible. This, after all, is what we’ve been told for more than two millennia. Even longer if you look at other traditions. To put this in Buddhist terms, this could be compared to being present, or mindful; seeing and appreciating what is right in front of us at this very moment. Walking the middle path. After all, the past is history and the future is just a dream at this point. All we have is the moment in which we live. All we have is now.

But Who Is My Neighbor?

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When you’re kind to people, and you pay attention, you make a field of comfort around them, and you get it back—the Golden Rule meets the Law of Karma meets Murphy’s Law.
― Anne Lamott


At the outset of this paper which is focusing on the ethics of how we, as humans, treat and interact with each other, I’ll begin with a story which I feel is an excellent example of human kindness. I also have to qualify this paper in that while this is for an ethics class in philosophy, I am working towards a dual degree in philosophy and religious studies, thus there is overt religious language ahead.

January 2014 I was in Manhattan taking seminary classes. As is the norm, January in New York was cold. I had just had lunch with a few classmates and was out for a brisk walk then a coffee before returning to class. As I approached the Starbucks on the corner of 35th and 6th I saw a man that was often just outside the front door. He sat on the sidewalk on a piece of cardboard staring straight ahead with a small plastic bucket in front of him and another piece of cardboard written as a sign asking for money. As I approached the door I reached into my pocket and put whatever change I had into the bucket. He looked up at me and said thank you. Our eyes met and for a brief moment time had stopped. We were just two people—humans on planet earth—both of us God’s children trying to make it through this life. “I hope you have a good day,” I told him, he replied “Thank you; God bless you.”

After getting my coffee I looked around and saw that the only available spot was the counter, a shelf really, which is in the window facing 6th Avenue. And as I stood there sipping my two dollar cup of coffee, which cost more than what I put in the man’s bucket, it felt odd; I felt a little guilty. With his back to me, this man was sitting on the sidewalk directly in front of me and the only thing separating us was a thin pane of glass. Yet I was on the inside and he was out in the cold. The biblical passage where Jesus was instructing his disciples how to treat strangers (and how they unknowingly treated him) came to mind, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV).

There was a food cart on the corner of the street, and as I looked out the window sipping my coffee I could see another man talking with the vendor and also looking over at the man on the sidewalk. A minute later he walked over to the guy sitting on sidewalk, and in his hands were hot dogs and sodas, but what happened next brought tears to my eyes. At first I thought he was simply buying food for the guy, but what he did then really amazed me. He sort of knelt down and said something to the man; I of course couldn’t hear him as I was safely ensconced on the “inside.” Then, after a moment, he sat down next to the guy and they both ate their hot dogs together, right there on the cold sidewalk. He did more than simply feed him, he sat with him, saw him as an equal, and gave him dignity.

There are more than 1.6 million people living on Manhattan Island but on that day I saw these two lives converge, and it was beautiful. In a way they were communing together as two souls; the bread they broke were the hot dogs, the wine they drank was soda, and the altar was the cold New York Street.

I wanted to tell this story because I feel what I really saw that day was love in action, and that’s what life is really about isn’t it? Connecting with one another and taking care of each other. The writer and philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that this is not something that is a casual occurrence, but that it is our duty as fellow humans, “Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those who have the great good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families, and still have money or time left to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living an ethical life involves doing the most good we can” (Singer, 2016).

Correct me if I’m wrong, but nowhere in any sacred or philosophical text from any tradition does it say “every person for themselves.” I’ve never heard of a great sage, philosopher, or mystic say to “take what you can because you deserve it,” nor have I heard, “the person who dies with the most stuff wins.” It’s just the opposite. What I’m talking about, of course, is the Golden Rule. This is something that I truly believe is written on each one of our hearts, and deep down each one of us knows it. There are versions of this in every faith tradition, but they all say the same thing. Here are a few examples:

Judaism: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (The Bible, New International Version, 2011).

Hinduism: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

Taoism: The sage does not dwell on his own problems. He is aware of the needs of others. (Tao Te Ching, 2017)

Islam: None of you has faith until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Sacred-texts.com, 2017)

My favorite version of this comes from the Christian text in the tenth chapter of Luke, which is the introduction to the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer quizzes Jesus; he inquires, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, being clever as he was, answered the lawyer’s question with a question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer being an educated man smartly rattles off the answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” To which Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28, NIV). Now just for a minute, let the tail end of this statement sink in…“do this and you will live.”

The lawyer must have thought for a moment, and realized that it would be easy for him to love God with everything he’s got so long as he doesn’t have to love all of his neighbors. So just to be perfectly clear, he asks Jesus his final question, “and who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, NIV) to which Jesus replies by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, which of course is the story of a stranger helping a stranger, and also another excellent example of human kindness, but even more importantly an example of how we should live.

We as a species are hardwired to be caring and want to make a connection with one another. Scientists using advanced imaging technology to study brain function have found that the human brain is wired to reward activities such as caring for each other, cooperation, and service.  Merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in our brain as when a mother sees distress in her baby’s face. But the act of helping another person triggers the brain’s pleasure center (Greater Good, 2017).

In an age where sensationalism sells and good news doesn’t always make the news, the media likes to portray the world as a dangerous self-serving place, but this is not necessarily the case. “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media. There are plenty of violent people, but for any randomly selected person today the chances of meeting a violent death at the hands of his fellow humans is lower now than it has ever been in history (Singer, 2016). Good still abounds all around us, sometimes we just have to look for it.

That same cold winter in New York much of the country had a cold snap, even in unlikely places such as Georgia, and that’s where Dr. Zenko Hrynkiw was at the time. He is an accomplished brain surgeon and was at Brookwood Medical Center and had to travel to Trinity Medical Center, six miles away, to perform an emergency operation…but then the snow hit and Georgia was declared a state of emergency.

The doctor knew that getting to the other hospital by car was not an option. He also knew that his patient had taken a turn for the worse and if he didn’t get to them soon and perform the operation they would die. Dr. Hrynkiw is not a spry 20 or 30 something, he’s not even 40 or 50; he’s in his 60’s. But knowing the facts at hand he didn’t hesitate. He did, what I believe is within each one of us; he set out to help. He walked the six miles with an overcoat covering his surgical scrubs, and booties still on his feet, and made it in time to perform the surgery and save the patient. Later, when asked to be interviewed he commented “he didn’t know what the big deal was, he only did what anyone would have” (NPR.org, 2017).

So I ask again, who are our neighbors? Is it the person living in the next apartment, just beyond a thin wall? Sure, of course. But who else. How about the person you meet on the street? Or a co-worker. Dr. Hrynkiw certainly knew, and deep down so do we. I truly believe this.

I recently finished reading an inspirational travel book by the journalist Mike McIntyre, The Kindness of Strangers, Penniless Across America. The gist of the book is the that author walked and hitchhiked from his comfortable home in San Francisco to the east coast. He did not bring a cent with him and would not accept money, nor would he ask for food or lodging. As the title suggests he was literally relying on the kindness of strangers. During his journey he found that most people just wanted to help one another, “Once again I am amazed at how often it’s the ones with little to eat who are quick to share their food” (McIntyre, 2014).

A couple years ago I was working as chef at a private city club, “the second oldest club of it’s kind in the country,” its members like to proclaim. I would serve the “upper crust” of society while much of the kitchen staff was paid below living wages. Saw Tin was one such person, he was a dishwasher at the time, but prior to fleeing his native Burma he was an engineer. Though with little English skills this was the work he could find in America. I do not speak Burmese so we spent a lot of time pantomiming. He is about my age and was working to save enough money to bring his wife and adult daughter here.

On one Monday morning he came to me with a wallet he had found on his way to work; it was on the sidewalk, he motioned. When I opened it, it contained more than $100 in cash and 10 credit cards. We turned the wallet over to the police who then contacted the owner. When she came to retrieve it she commented that everything was intact; nothing was missing. Saw Tin had full opportunity to take the cash and credit cards without anyone finding out, but he didn’t. The women asked to meet him so she could thank him. When they met, Saw Tin greeted her with clasped hands, a brief bow, and a soft namaste. Namaste is a Sanskrit phrase which loosely translates as, “my soul recognizes your soul” (Geno, 2017).

But who is my neighbor? Saw Tin knew. Acts of kindness, big or small, can really make a huge impact on a person’s life.

The basis of what the philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, refer to as moral philosophy is moral action, and if I’m reading this correctly, this is how a person responds to the world. Kant also argued that the basis for morality is freedom (Palmquist, 2008). If this is true then we have the freedom to choose good action from bad. What I find interesting, and even a bit contradicting, in Kant’s theory is that while he was not necessarily a proponent of compassion (Greater Good, 2017), he also suggested that we listen to the small voice within each of us (Palmquist, 2008). To the philosopher this small voice may be the voice of reason, but to me I truly believe this to be the voice of compassion.

The Epistle of James, which is one of the oldest books of the New Testament and is said to have been penned by James, the brother of Jesus, is really a small book of Christian ethics. Some say it is a blueprint for the way a Christian should live, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save you? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17, NIV).

Richard Taylor in his book, Restoring Pride, suggests this inner knowing and selfless service are a sort rule of manners, and even though he writes of pride, he also argues that this is not pride but refers to it as considerateness, “Thus, the rule of considerateness has no connection with pride, but is a practical rule of manners. It guides you unerringly in your relationships to all other persons, whether they be friends, kin, or total strangers” (Talyor, 1996).

By now you’ve likely gathered that I like to use stories, everyday events, as ways to illustrate my point. Well I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on something that just happened. I was about halfway through writing this paper at a local coffee shop. My head was down and I was “in the zone” typing so I didn’t see the man approach until I heard his scraggly voice say “excuse me.” I looked up and there was a man in front of me who was not pleasant to look at. He was older, looked physically unclean, had a runny nose, and a small open wound on his face. He was asking for money. Here I am writing a paper about the Golden Rule, quoting Jesus and other sacred texts, and there is Christmas music playing in the background. Is this some sort of a test, I thought?

I often give the homeless spare change, and stop and talk with them, but for some reason I was put off by how I was approached; he had a sort of aggressive manner. My first inclination was to say no I can’t. But then I thought to myself (the small voice within), can’t or won’t. I felt my pocket and there was no change, so I reached for my wallet and handed him a dollar. Seeing the loose bills in my wallet he asked if he could have another, I handed him another and as I did an employee came by and shuffled him out. I realized then that his aggressive behavior was likely that he knew he only had a brief moment before he was kicked out, time was of the essence. On their way back in the employee stopped by my table to apologize…apologizing for another human being. Who is my neighbor, I thought to myself?

Philosophy, and even religion for that matter, in many ways seems to be about asking questions, and not necessarily having the answers. Plato, I think, sums this up articulately in his famous but simple statement in his Apology, where Sacrates proclaims “An unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, n.d.), because I believe with self-examination comes growth, and with growth one realizes that they are not they only person that counts.

There are so many questions which I do not have an answer, but there is one that I do: Who is my neighbor? The answer is everyone, but the difficult part is remembering this and treating each and every person the way that I would like to be treated. But this, I suppose, is what makes us human.

In conclusion, I’ll finish with an eloquent quote from the stoic philosopher, Epictetus, from his slim but inspirational volume, The Art of Living, which I feel summarizes the entire premise of the Golden Rule: “One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our contact is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well-educated, but to all our human brethren. View yourself as a citizen of a worldwide community and act accordingly” (Epictetus and Lebell, 2007).

Works Cited

Epictetus and Lebell, S. (2007). The art of living. New York: HarperOne.
Geno, R. (2017). The Meaning of “Namaste”. [online] Yoga Journal. Available at: https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-meaning-of-quot-namaste-quot [Accessed 25 Nov. 2017].

Greater Good. (2017). The Compassionate Instinct. [online] Available at: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

The Holy Bible, New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Bible Publishers.

McIntyre, M. (2014). The kindness of strangers. [Charleston, SC]: CreatSpace.

NPR.org. (2017). Brain Surgeon Walks 6 Miles Through Storm To Save Patient. [online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/01/31/269380564/brain-surgeon-walks-six-miles-through-storm-to-save-patient [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Palmquist, S. (2008, November 8). The Tree of philosophy. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/tp4/

Plato. The Apology. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from The Internet Classics, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). 1:12: Anas: The Prophet said, None of you will have faith till he wishes for his …. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-    texts.com/isl/bukhari/bh1/bh1_11.htm [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). Sacred-Texts: Hinduism. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/ [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017].

Sacred-texts.com. (2017). Introduction and Preface. [online] Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/maha/maha00.htm [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Singer, P. (2016). Most good you can do. New Haven and London: Yale Univ Press.

Tao Te Ching. Acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu. (2017). Tao Te Ching. [online] Available at: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html [Accessed 23 Nov. 2017].

Taylor, R. (1996). Restoring pride: the lost virtue of our age. New York: Prometheus Books. 

Five or Eight Quotes from Howard Thurman…

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November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

 “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” 

“During times of war, hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism.” 

“It is very easy to sit in judgement upon the behavior of others, but often difficult to realize that every judgement is a self-judgement.”

“Often, to be free means the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as not to be overcome by them.” 

“And this is the strangest of all paradoxes of the human adventure; we live inside all experience, but we are permitted to bear witness only to the outside. Such is the riddle of life and the story of the passing of our days.”

“There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathless and beautiful.”

 

“There must be always remaining in every life, some place for the singing of angels, some place for that which in itself is breathless and beautiful.”

More in the Five Quotes series.

The Freedom Wall….is one of inspiration

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On my way home from work this afternoon I took the long way home to ride past this free-art project and see the progress. It is titled the Freedom Wall and is sponsored by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This, to me, in these uncertain times and with all the “wall building talk,” it is so inspiring to see a wall such as this with a positive purpose. Here:s an excerpt from their website:

“This space provides the ideal surface for a mural that will respond to the significance of the location as the entrance into the Historic Corridor and that celebrates our nation’s civil rights legacy. The Freedom Wall project (working title) will utilize the design of the wall, divided into sections, to depict portraits of 28 notable civil rights leaders in American history, past and present. The scale of the wall creates a unique opportunity to present a historical narrative that recognizes well-known national activists alongside equally important but less-widely-known local leaders.”

I was glad to see there were a few people working on the wall when I rode up to it, and they were all too eager to talk to me about it and tell me about some of what was going on. Directly below is one of the artists, Edreys Wajed, he’s working on a portrait of William Wells Brown who spent some time in Buffalo at one point. The photo below is a nice young women who is not one of the artists but described herself as a helper, she helps the artists fill things in, she told me. She also gave me a great deal of information about the project. And in the photo directly below that is a rap artist who was being filmed performing in front of Dr. King. In all, there are 28 portraits being painted by four artists and the wall stretches around the corner for two city blocks.

The project is slated to be completed in the next couple weeks and there will be an opening with a street party. This, to me, is really inspiring and worth pedaling a few blocks out of my way to pass it on my way to work.

To learn more about the project, the artists, and the list of people being portrayed, visit their web site here. For directions to the Freedom Wall, click here.

Urban Simplicity.

 

Seven Photos of One Building, and a Few Words.

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Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.

~Oscar Wilde

A couple things. One is that the event two nights ago was incredible. If you are reading this from somewhere other than Western NY the event I speak of is the illumination of the former Richardson Complex, now known as Hotel Henry. I have posted about these structures before but not in a while. The hotel and the original complex take their names from the architect, HH Richardson. Constructed in the 1800s, for many years it was part of the Buffalo Psychiatric center, which still resides next door. Then it sat vacant and crumbling for many years, decades. It was close to demolition at one point. But as you can see it has been resurrected and in a glorious way. Thus, as a grand opening of sorts, two nights ago the buildings were illuminated and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra played. The light-show was choreographed with the music. As stunning as these photos are they do not do it justice to actually being there..at points the buildings looked to be throbbing and even melting. Incredible. On a slightly different, but at the same time similar note, if you’d like to see images of our grain elevators illuminated, which are now a permanent nightly display, click here. The City of Light.

Six Churches in Three Hours…

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I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, had a day to myself, and went on a sort of self-guided tour to photograph some of that city’s magnificent churches. Whether or not one considers themselves spiritual I cannot imagine not being moved by these incredible buildings. I have, for most of my adult life, enjoyed sitting in the quiet of an empty or near-empty sanctuary. I find it so incredible calming. The first time I noticed this was after not having been in a church for many years. I was in my late twenties and had crossed the border to Tijuana for a day trip. After many beers and walking in the hot sun I passed the Catedral de Nuestra and her doors were open so I went in. I probably sat there in the cool of the silent sanctuary for more than an hour. Since then, whenever I travel, I often find myself sitting in the quiet of a sanctuary if even for just a few minutes. Anyhow, here’s a bit of info with this photo series.

I wanted to start uptown and work my way down, which is what I did. I was staying at Union Square so I took the train to the upper west side, to Riverside, and began at Riverside Church (pictured above). Why I started with this church, and why it has a bit of personal attachment, is because almost three years ago to the day, I sat in the third pew from the front at the isle seat. It was three days after our ordination as interfaith ministers and on that day it was our graduation. The church, on that day, was packed to the gills with nearly fifteen hundred people. It is a day I will never forget. After taking this photo I went and sat in the same spot. It gave me goosebumps.

The rest of the photos I will simply say which church they are as I don’t feel the need to write a dissertation on them. But, if you are at all interested in this type of thing, I urge you to google them and their histories. So many of them have had activist ministers and congregations and interesting histories. Here’s the rest of the churches.

After Riverside, I walked down to St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University (and oddly this is the only one where photography was not allowed…I found out after snapping a photo without a flash). The next church, and the most impressive is is the Cathedral of St. John, which is not only NY’s largest church it takes up multiple city blocks. I then walked over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and arrived just as they were offering Communion at their noontime mass. I sat for a few minutes and then accepted communion as the priests offered it, even though I am not Catholic and the walls did not crumble. From there I took the subway down to lower Manhattan and stopped at two of my favorite churches. First St. Paul’s Chapel (where George Washington worshiped on the eve of his inauguration), and then Trinity Wall Street. Both of these churches are very close to Ground Zero and offered aid and shelter to the rescue workers during their services. Click any image for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

Meet James…He’s Walking for Water

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It’s interesting, the people one may encounter when walking or biking and not rushing by in a 2000lb shell, otherwise known as a car. Such was the case when I was pedaling home from a coffee shop this morning. I noticed this guy walking with a trailer attached to his waist. That’s interesting, I thought. Then I see a newscaster getting her gear set up to interview him. So I stopped. It turns out James is walking across the country, from Princeton, NJ to San Jose, CA to raise money and awareness to the inaccessibility to drinking water in Africa. He was passing through Buffalo today and on to Canada tomorrow. Here’s some info from his website:

“Hi, my name is James Leitner. When I was seventeen, I was completing a project for one of my high school classes and searched for “water issues” on Google. What I wanted to do with my life changed with that simple search. I learned that 1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water. At that moment, I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people gain access to this vital aspect of life. Since then, I have helped various nonprofits raise funds in order to build wells in the Central African Republic and Tanzania. I have provided technical assistance to villages in Tanzania and assisted them in maintaining their wells.”

 

With so much negativity in the news these days it is really refreshing to see the good work so many do in our world, such as what James is doing. To donate or read more about his mission (there’s tons of information), visit his website or Facebook page.

A Day in a Life. Journal entry 5.14.17

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“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

 ~Allen Saunders (but often inaccurately attributed to John Lennon)

Sunday.

I wake before the alarm goes off,

and I lay there for a few minutes.

Thinking.

When I go downstairs I turn on the coffee maker.

The dogs scurry about.

They act as if they haven’t seen me in 8 years instead of 8 hours.

I feed them.

Franklin, the finicky one, just looks at me.

I have to feed him a couple pieces of food by hand to get him started.

Coffee ready and dogs in the backyard,

I check emails, the NY Times, and scroll Facebook.

Looking at the clock I realize I’m running late for church,

and I’m scheduled as head usher.

Showered, I wheel one of the bikes down the plank on the porch,

and when I do I notice a tulip in a neighbor’s yard.

It’s withered.

Just yesterday it was in full bloom.

Nothing is permanent, I think to myself.

I snap it’s photo.

As I pedal to church the air feels good.

It’s chilly but the sun is out.

It’s Mother’s Day, and during worship the pastor speaks of mothers.

I think of my mother, who left us too soon.

I think of a specific time and tears well in my eyes.

I hold back tears as I ready myself for collection.

So many years later and I still feel.

I am grateful.

On my way home I stop at a coffee shop,

to read and write.

But it’s crowded and I can’t focus,

so I leave.

I have an egg sandwich for lunch and feed the dogs pieces of the crust.

I lay down and am surprised that I fall asleep for just a few minutes.

After a few stretches I sit on a cushion in front of the small altar,

which is off to the side of the room.

I pray, asking mostly for guidance.

Then I meditate for a few minutes.

I have to pick up photos from a show that came down last week.

But it’s raining, so I make coffee and scroll Facebook,

and wait.

I use my large bike, and a trailer, to retrieve the photos.

The gallery is about two miles away, and I push hard into a strong headwind.

I huff and puff but know that the wind will be at my back on return.

The reward.

Pushing the bike up the plank I notice the tulip again.

Now is all we have.

I switch bikes,

To a shorter one,

then head to the JCC for a steam and swim.

I love riding this particular bike,

but there is an incessant click in the crank,

and it’s gotten louder.

The street is slow and crowded,

I keep pace with traffic,

but I pull over to the side to inspect the sound.

When I do the person behind me beeps

and yells an obscenity out their window.

I make eye contact as they pass and say nothing.

I feel sorry for them.

Angry and saddled to their car.

When I swim it feels good.

In the buoyancy of the water nothing aches.

The steam room feels even better.

I have leftovers for dinner.

Rice-and-beans with roast vegetables.

My dogs stare at me while I eat.

I don’t give them any; they’ve had their meal.

It’s still early so I decide to stop out for a couple beers.

As I pass my neighbor’s I notice the tulip again.

It’s beautiful, even in its weathered and wilted state.

A snapshot of life, I suppose.

Real life.

I walk to the tavern.

It’s still light outside but dark inside.

The first sip of beer tastes good.

If fizzes across my tongue.

When I return home my dogs greet me as if I’ve been gone for two days.

I sit on the floor and let them crawl all over me.

This is now, I think.

Now.

Tomorrow is tomorrow.

Another day in a life.

But now is now.

And it’s beautiful.

But sometimes I need reminders.

To remember.

To return to now.

And that’s okay.

“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in their soul.”

~Fr. Thomas Merton

James and the Homeless Jesus…

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So the above image is of the Homeless Jesus statue that is outside St Paul’s Cathedral here in Buffalo. If you want to know more about the statue read this blog post from last year (it’s a pretty interesting history).

Anyhow, this is a brief story of what happened tonight. And I’m not sure why I post this stuff but it just needs to come out. I need to share.

I had just gotten off a bus I had ridden to the suburbs where I am taking classes at a campus about 10 miles outside the city. I park my bike downtown and take the bus, which drops me off almost at the front door. It was my last meeting with the professor for the semester and I did well. I was also hungry. So while on the bus home I dialed the local hipster taco joint and ordered a couple tacos to pick up on my way home. Despite the snowy weather, the bus arrived downtown sooner than I thought and I knew the meal would not be ready so I thought I’d ride by the Homeless Jesus statue to take a photo of it in the snow.

When I arrived I saw that someone had draped a quilt over the statue. It really is a striking statue and with the quilt in the snow it looks even more real…like a person sleeping on a park bench in the snow (click here to see better photos of the statue without snow).

There was only one other person on the corner when I arrived. I could tell he was cold as he was visibly shivering and stamping his feet. As I squatted down to take a photo I could see he was watching me so I glanced over at him. He asked me if I was taking a picture of the Christmas tree, which is behind the statue. No, I told him, I was taking a photo of the statue. Statue? What statue? He asked. He hadn’t seen it under the snow, I guess. He came over and I told him about the statue and its history. He then asked me if I knew what time the bus was coming. Which one, I asked, this is a busy corner. The homeless bus, he told me.

Apparently there is a bus that comes by and gives out food and other necessities. I had never seen it but that’s what he was waiting for. I have heard of it though, it’s from a church on the East Side, it’s set up like a food truck. I looked at him and he was shivering. Do you have a place to stay, I asked. Yes, and he told me where. It was on a street in one of our city’s most destitute areas. It was a boarding house, he told me. I asked him if it was warm. He told me it was “warm enough,” but he had nothing to eat, that’s why he was waiting for the homeless bus. And then he walked away to where he was standing before. But he never once asked me for money.

I felt like I was in some sort of movie. There I was standing in front of a statue of Jesus as a homeless person, which is in front of one of our city’s more beautiful cathedrals, and it is just a couple days before Christmas. Yes, I know it’s only a statue, but I actually turned to it and spoke. Are you kidding me, I said. What…is this some sort of a test? Then I stood there for a few minutes, feeling the snow land on my face. And I looked over at James (who declined to have his photo taken). He was still shivering and waiting for his bus. So I walked over and gave him a few bucks. He readily accepted, said thank you, bless you, and Merry Christmas. As I rode away I couldn’t help but think of the circumstances in which I found myself this evening. I was worried (about money and time as usual) which takes me out of the moment. And this brief interaction broke open my heart. I was able to see what was real again. And it was just me and James on a street corner in the snow. That’s what was real.

And this is what happened on this frigid and snowy evening just a couple nights before Christmas and in front of the Homeless Jesus. Now if you’ll excuse me I believe I’ll go eat my hipster tacos.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

~ Matthew 25:35-36 

Buildings and a couple other things…

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I had the day off today and was out on my bike (surprise, right?). It was such a beautiful day, almost spring-like (55F). And after stopping for coffee I meandered around downtown and then stopped to take a photo of the interior of the Ellicott Square Building (pictured above). It was lunch time; the 30″ Christmas tree was lit and there was a high school choir singing Christmas Carols…really nice. And as I stood there listening to the sweet sound of song I marveled at the building. Really incredible. We (the city of Buffalo) have such a rich architectural history, and I never grow tired of the free structural art–the free gift–that is available in our old city; the gift of beautiful architecture. As I have often taken photos of some of our local landmarks, I felt moved to choose a few (I have hundreds) and post them in one place. Some of these you may have seen before; others have not been posted previously. Some were taken today or within the last couple days; others were taken over the last couple years. Anyhow, if you’d like to learn a bit about some of the buildings and the people who designed them, follow this link.


Urban Simplicity

Peace. Free Stuff.

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What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding.”

~Nick Lowe

Precarious. That’s the word that came to mind this morning when thinking about the times in which we live. That could also have been a good descriptor of my emotional state as I rode my bike to a coffee shop. Has the world and everyone in it gone insane? There is just so much darkness. So much disconnect. Yesterday’s shootings are just the tip of the iceberg; just one in many destructive things that are happening as I type these very words. And then I came upon the scene pictured above. An apartment on South Elmwood Avenue here in Buffalo with a table out front on the sidewalk. A few odds and ends; nothing of any real value. But rather than throw them in the trash they took the time to set up a table, lay the items out, and make a sign…Peace; Free Stuff. They took the time to offer this stuff to someone who may need it. It brought a smile to my face then just as it does now. And it made me remember that there is still good.

With all the recent events I will be honest and say that I feel somewhat helpless. How can I possibly make a difference in this world. A difference in anything. And then I saw this and it made me remember. It made me remember that goodness can happen in really small steps. The words of a local and inspiring retired clergyman, the Reverend Phil Smith, came to mind (and I’m paraphrasing)…”America is really good at waging war, the best in the world in fact, but what we really need is to wage peace.”

Our society is seriously broken. And by “our” I don’t just mean American. We really need to do something, but what? What can we as individuals do to make a difference? What came to me was that we as individuals do need to wage peace at a personal level. Simply being nice to people in your own little world, regardless of their gender, skin color, or religion. Help people whenever you can. Maybe it can have a ripple effect.

I really do worry about the next generation, my son’s generation. And his children’s generation after him. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am waiting for the next MLK or Gandhi to appear to inspire us into a revolution, to change things and turn us around to face things differently…to wake us up. Though I’m not sure we’d recognize the next prophet if they did appear on the scene…we don’t have enough space for them. But I also think how it can be us. It can be us to make small changes each day to make ourselves as a society that much more…well, societal.

If we did this maybe it would stop that one person from doing something terrible. Maybe it would stop that one single person and make them think that they shouldn’t do the terrible act they had in mind. Maybe it would soften their heart enough to see the consequences. Maybe it would make them realize that they are loved and they themselves can in fact be love. And if our kindness changed even one single person that would be enough. But then maybe it would have a ripple effect.

We, as collective consciousness, really need to look within. It’s not us against them, or vice versa. It’s just us, the people of planet earth. We really need to do this if we want to survive.

And this is what I was thinking when my heart was warmed when I saw a little table of things out that were offered free for the taking as I was riding my bike to a coffee shop on a grey and chilly December morning.

This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.

John 15:12

Urban Simplicity

A Christmas Message from Paramahansa Yogananda (for the first Sunday of Advent)

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Paramahansa Yogananda at Niagara Falls

 

A Christmas Vow

“I will prepare for the coming of the Omnipresent baby Christ by cleaning the cradle of my consciousness and sense attachments; and by polishing it with deep, daily, divine meditation, introspection, and discrimination. I will remodel the cradle with the dazzling soul-qualities of brotherly love, humbleness, faith, desire for God, will power, self-control, renunciation and unselfishness, that I may fittingly celebrate the birth of the Divine Child.”

Thoughts on gratitude…

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Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

~Psalm 139:7-8

In Your Midst

There is so much,

just so much to be grateful for.

But some days I don’t see it.

Mind-made problems cover me in fog.

Asleep.

Mind narrows.

Heart hardens.

My world becomes small.

Some days,

even in your midst,

I don’t see you.

But I catch glimpses.

The veil is lifted.

However slightly,

and briefly.

And then I remember.

I am humbled,

and tears well.

In gratitude.

Beauty overwhelms.

I have everything.

You are closer to me than I can imagine,

closer than my very breath.

There is so much to be grateful for.

In the midst of everything.

In the midst of you.

Every day; every hour.

Each second.

Right now, in fact.

All I have to do is look.

Urban Simplicity

For the Ghosts of Greenwich Village…

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For the Ghosts of Greenwich Village

As I sit in a basement bar on Macdougal Street.

I feel you.

Your presence is palpable.

Kerouac.

Ginsberg.

Gibran.

Wolf.

Thomas.

And so many others.

I feel you as I walk down the streets.

As I sit in the bars and cafes.

The same streets that you walked.

And some of the cafes that you worked in.

Drank in.

The same streets that you called home.

That inspired you.

And today as I sit in a basement bar.

Drinking a cold beer,

I thank you.

For changing things.

With your art.

With your words.

And for inspiring so many people.

Still; today.

And for—in a way—changing me.

Even if just a little.

That is enough.

Thank you.

October 1982…

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So recently I came across a box with some old things in it. One of them was a composition notebook with some lyrics/poems I had written. One of the poems, which was untitled, was simply dated “October 1982.” At the time I was out of high school for a just few years, both my parents had all ready made their earthly transition, and I was working as a cook in a Greek diner. The thought of a blog or the internet at the time would have been science fiction. So I wrote things down. This was one of my earliest journals. I would have been 21 years old at the time. In many ways I feel like I’m a different person since then, but at the same time I am very much the same. What struck me about this particular poem was my voice…I could have written this today. Some, I think, who may have known me for a while, were surprised when I attended seminary a few years ago (after being a cook for much of my life). It’s not as if I had this sudden epiphany, I’ve been me all these years. I’ve just finally had the courage to say so. Or maybe things simply bubbled over. Anyhow, when I read this poem I realized I hadn’t changed all that much in 34 years (okay, my knees and back didn’t hurt back then). Anyhow, here’s an excerpt…

You may not believe in

organized religion

but the truth of God is real.

Everybody is

created equal

no matter what their race or creed.

We are all the same.


Urban Simplicity.

La Luna Roja!

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Shine and shimmer my harvest moon, Illuminate the shadows of the sky.”

A.F. Stewart, Reflections of Poetry

These photos were all shot a week ago, on the evening of the harvest moon/blood moon/super moon/lunar eclipse. Some were shot on Buffalo’s beautiful waterfront, while others were shot from the sidewalk in front of my house. They are not all of the moon, of course, but that was the real star of the show that evening. It was a pretty incredible sight. Anyhow, click any photo for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

A few of the beautiful animals I saw at the zoo yesterday…

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Urban Simplicity

It’s all around you…

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“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

~Philippians 4:8


So some of you may already know this because you’ve either read a Facebook post or I told you in person, but three days ago a wasp collided with me while on a bike going about 18mph. It entered a vent in my helmet and stung me two, possibly three times. Without going into too much detail I’ll just say that I learned the hard way that I am allergic to wasps. Last night was my second and hopefully last visit to the ER at a local hospital; I was there till 5am and almost admitted. So why am I mentioning all this? Because as I was walking to a coffee shop this afternoon after getting only a few hours sleep I was feeling depleted…physically, emotionally, and spiritually (and soon, financially, given healthcare costs). It’s a rainy and grey day and I was walking in my own personal fog. Just walking but not seeing anything. But even though I was feeling low and sort of zombie-like I was still thinking how we and everything are all connected, I just couldn’t feel it right now. So I sent a thought-vibration out into the Universe on this grey, grey day…Show me your beauty, I really need it right now. And before the thought even left me I got response. Not a voice, more of a hunch…a knowing. And the response was simply…It’s all around you. Arrogantly, I thought to myself that I already knew this, but I needed proof. And then I looked down and saw the leaf pictured above, it was on the wet sidewalk directly in my path. All I needed to do was look at what’s right in front of me. 


Urban Simplicity.

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