A Primer for Voting in 2020

What follows is a primer on voting in 2020. It’s based on California law, but options are given for everyone. I hope it’s helpful.

First: Where to get information.

Your first asset is your computer and your search engine. Just Google how to vote in your state.

Your next assets are your county clerk’s office, your city’s municipal offices, and various voting organizations. The simplest is the League of Women Voters which provides all the information you could want and various forms of help. And your local public library.

Public libraries are, by definition, available to all people, if they are open, and they may not be due to the COVID emergency. They are a huge resource that we don’t often think of in this day of online searches. But a call to your local public library will get you the information you need, whether regarding voting, COVID closures, or any other issue. In addition to reference librarians, public libraries usually have computers that can be used without cost (NOTE: such computers are not private), and many other sources of information.

We no longer have phonebooks in big cities, but I believe you can still find them in smaller cities and rural areas. In any phonebook, you can find the number and street address of the closest library.

All right, let’s get started: I am providing primarily information for California. It is a good start for information about your state, but remember, there are several areas of difference among states.

Who can vote?

Here is a website which gives the requirements for voting state by state: https://www.usvotefoundation.org/vote/sviddomestic.htm

In California, you must be:
• a citizen of the United States (whether birth or naturalized),
• a resident of California,
• be at least 18 years of age on Election Day (this year, November 3),
• not in prison or jail or on parole for a felony conviction,
• not having been found mentally incompetent by a court.


NOTE: If your voting rights have been revoked due to one of the above issues, you can get your voting rights restored in several ways, but that is beyond the scope of this post. I suggest you ask Google how to restore your voting rights. Or your friendly neighborhood librarian.

There are some states that have other requirements, or there are variations on such requirements as age. Some states require an ID to vote. Except for the very first time you vote in person in California, no ID will be requested because your information will be on file.

How do I vote?

You must register to vote. You may register as a Republican, a Democrat, Independent, or without claiming an affiliation. If you believe you are registered, go to http://www.vote.org and find out if you truly are. I don’t know how to check on registration without access to a computer, but I would imagine if you went to or called the Board of Elections you could find out.

Computer databases can be tricky things, plus there are anecdotal statements out there floating around that your registration to vote can disappear without you being aware of it. Please check your registration status immediately.

If you have not registered before, or if you just reached 18, or if you just moved to California or to any other state, please read on. If you are 17 but will be 18 by Election Day, you can pre-register.

Okay, how do I register? And by when?

You may register on-line or by mail. In California, you may request a form and either mail it or hand it in personally at the Board of Elections. Easiest, of course, is online and it takes much less time.

To register online in California, type in RegisterToVote.ca.gov which will provide you with all needed information. Normally, whatever your state, all you need to do is so type into your search engine: how do I register to vote in [name of state].

You need to give them (in the online form) your Driver’s License number, or if you don’t have one, you can get (and should have) an official state ID. You get this at the DMV and for all identification purposes it is valid in the US. You will need to give permission for the state to use the DMV stored digital signature, and the last four digits of your SS number.

If you don’t want to do this, the other option is a mail-in registration. The information required is given on the same web page.

(From the California web page on voting:)
Use the California voter registration form
You can also register to vote using the California voter registration form or obtain a form at your local library, U.S. Post Office, or Department of Motor Vehicles offices. Be sure to read the instructions carefully and fill it out completely. Send the completed form to your county elections official. To register by mail, the form must be postmarked by Monday, October 19.
Use the National Voter Registration Form
1. Print and fill out the National Voter Registration Form.
2. Box 6 – ID Number: When you register to vote, you must provide your California driver’s license or California identification card number, if you have one. If you do not have a driver’s license or ID card, you must provide the last four digits of your Social Security number (SSN). If you do not include this information, you will be required to provide identification when you vote.
3. Box 7 – Choice of Party: California does NOT require that you register with a party to participate in partisan primary elections. However some parties do not allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their party’s presidential, local, or county committee primary elections.
4. Box 8 – Race or Ethnic Group: Leave blank. This information is not required.
5. Review the “Who can vote?” section above and check that you’re eligible.
6. Sign the form.
7. Send the completed form to your local election official. To register by mail, the form must be postmarked by Monday, October 19, 2020.
8. If you are registering to vote for the first time in your jurisdiction and are mailing this registration application, Federal law requires you to show proof of identification the first time you vote. Proof of identification includes: A current and valid photo identification or A current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or government document that shows your name and address. More information here.

(Back to me.)

In California, you can get the form at the Post Office, the local DMV, or the library, all of which may be difficult in this time of COVID. If you have access, even occasionally, to a computer, I recommend using the online registration process. It is simple and private and safe. If you can’t, you can get the forms as above, and submit them at the time or to the address given on the form.

To request a paper voter registration application be mailed to you, please call (800) 345-VOTE(8683) or email Elections Division staff. Considering current difficulties, I would suggest you do this right away.

The primary address of the Elections Division of the Secretary of State of California is:

Mailing Address
Elections Division
1500 11th Street, 5th Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone Number & Email
Phone: (916) 657-2166
Fax: (916) 653-3214
I have not used the address above or the email or phone, but I would imagine at this time they are very busy.


(Again, from the California website:)

Same Day Voter Registration, known as Conditional Voter Registration in state law, is a safety net for Californians who miss the deadline to register to vote or update their voter registration information for an election.
Eligible citizens who need to register or re-register to vote within 14 days of an election, can complete this process to register and vote at their county elections office, polling place, or vote center. Their ballots will be processed and counted once the county elections office has completed the voter registration verification process.
Visit caearlyvoting.sos.ca.gov for a list of early voting locations where you can complete the Same Day Voter Registration Process.
Need to register on Election Day? Use our polling place lookup tool to find your local polling location.
Have additional questions about locations where you can complete the Same Day Voter Registration process? Contact your county elections office
(Back to me.)
NOTE: The Board of Elections will match your signature, whether on a mail-in ballot or in person, to your DMV signature OR to the signature you provide when you register to vote by mail.

NOTE AGAIN: The issue here is to prove your residency in California and that you are a citizen (via the SS number). THERE IS NO OTHER PURPOSE.

NOTE THRICE: In regard to the National voter registration form, please check with your Board of Elections, DMV, or Post Office in your state to see what information your state requires. The above highlighted information applies to California.

Special Circumstances

College Students and Voters Living Abroad
If you are a Californian living away from home while attending a college, trade school or technical school, or a voter living temporarily outside the United States, please see College Students and Voters Living Abroad
Basically, there is NO difference in California law between an “absentee ballot” and a “mail-in ballot”. If you are a California resident but live outside the state temporarily, or a college student ditto, you will need a computer to go to the main website listed above to request a mail-in ballot.
Are You Already Registered to Vote?
To find out if you are currently registered to vote, visit Check Status of Your Voter Registration.
When to Re-Register to Vote
You need to re-register to vote when:
• You change your name, or
• You change your political party choice, or
• You change your address
As a California voter, be aware that local elections in some areas are held on dates that do not coincide with statewide election dates. The 15-day close of registration deadline for these local elections varies depending on the actual date of the election. If you need to know a deadline for a local election, contact your county elections office or visit County Administered Elections.
California Motor Voter
The California Motor Voter program is making registering to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) more convenient. Eligible applicants completing a driver license, identification (ID) card or change of address transaction online, by mail or in person at the DMV, will be automatically registered to vote by the California Secretary of State, unless they choose to opt out of automatic voter registration. For more information, visit California Motor Voter
Okay, I’m registered. How do I vote?

Mail-in ballots in California are supposed to be sent out October 5, 2020. My local mail carrier tells me that they should arrive in voters’ mailboxes within a week. Please ask your mail carrier if you don’t get your ballot in a timely manner.

Please register before then, at least a week before, to give yourself the best assurance that you will receive one. When you register, you will receive, hopefully timely, a card stating that you are a registered voter.

Technically, you may register up to and including Election Day as noted above. If you go to your polling place and you haven’t registered or it can’t be found, you can register there and cast a Provisional Ballot. If this is your situation, make sure you take with you ID (driver’s license or California ID), plus something (printed utility bills are the best here) to prove you live where you say you do. You will also need to do this if this is the first time you’re voting.

However, this year being the carnival ride it is, I would urge you to register now. That means today if you haven’t already registered. If you know you have, check it (see above). I would also urge you to NOT to wait until November 3 to vote, even if you wish to vote in person.

If you wish to vote in person, you can early vote any time between October 5 and November 2. Please check via the Board of Elections or online to determine which polling place is yours (based on address) and whether and during what hours it will be open for voting after October 5. Make sure your registration is active before you do this or it will be an exercise in frustration. NOTE: Not all polling places will be open for early voting. Please check with the California Department of State.

If you want to vote by mail (in spite of everything this is still my plan), fill out your ballot and seal it and DO NOT FORGET TO SIGN THE ENELOPE WHERE STATED. This signature is matched against the signature provided by the DMV or by you on your registration application.

To give it the best chance of arriving while it still can be counted, you can do any of the following:

• Go to your local Post Office and ask that the envelope be postmarked right while you’re there. By law, any mail-in ballot or absentee ballot MUST be counted if it is postmarked on November third or BEFORE.
• To make assurance double sure, sacrifice two stamps (the postage must be 55 cents for the size and weight of the ballot) so that it cannot be mailed bulk rate but must be mailed first class.
• If you are as paranoid as I am, you can at that time mail it registered mail, return receipt requested, which is an additional charge and a nuisance, but the return receipt is postmarked when it is mailed to you so you can prove to yourself that your ballot arrived.

California State Government has a website that provides all polling places and all locations of ballot drop-off boxes. These are not, so far as I can tell, currently up and running as the Board of Elections is searching for safe polling places. My second plan for myself is to fill out my ballot and take it physically over to the drop off box closest to me (probably in a fire house or some other secured location), drop it in and then give a big sigh of relief. The sooner you do this after you receive your ballot, the surer you can be that it will be counted before or on November 3.

I want to say good luck, but this shouldn’t be a matter of luck. If you have special issues that I haven’t covered, the California Secretary of State website is a real resource. Plus, the website allows you to use a language other than English if that’s necessary.

The franchise is a basic citizen’s right and duty in the United States and it has never been more important than now to make your voice heard. Please remember that your local, county, and state governments are run by YOUR elected officials, so this is not merely a matter of the Presidential or other national elections. Your vote can significantly impact the way you live in your neighborhood as much as it does the national government.

Please vote early to make sure it is counted.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you find it helpful.

2019 Winter Solstice: Where do we go from here?

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on our planet.  Among many things, today neo-Druids celebrate the returning of the sun at henges throughout the British Isles, but most particularly at Stonehenge.

(NOTE: I originally wrote this in 2015. I’m sending it out again in celebration of the Solstice, but I am making myself a promise that I will post more often on my blog, so perhaps next year it will be a different posting about the fascination of the Solstice.)

But the Winter Solstice happens all over the Northern Hemisphere and is celebrated in many different ways. Christmas, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Festivus (thank you, Jerry Seinfeld), all base their festivals and celebrations on the Winter Solstice. You may note that the date, December 21, doesn’t seem to match up precisely exactly to the celebrations. Well, calendars drift over time (the Earth takes more or less – which is where a lot of the drift comes from – 365 and 1/4 days to travel around the sun). In another post – someday – I may even go into how humans created calendars and why (other living creatures either have internal calendars and/or clocks or do not seem to find the need to know that they’re running away from that bear on 10:35 am on November 3). It is probably in this world we’re attempting to live that even while (whew!) the earth moving around the sun may precess a bit over time, it still hits the point where the North Pole is farthest away from the sun every year on the 21st. At its simplest, this means that the day time (when the sun is illuminating a wedge of the planet) is the shortest of the year, while the night of the 21st is the longest period of darkness of the year.  (NOTE: The Southern Hemisphere has its Winter Solstice in June of the calendar the world is currently using – the December 21st date is the Southern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, which simply means the longest daylight hours and shortest nighttime hours).

And that shortest day business is why we “celebrate” the Winter Solstice. In this context, “celebrate” means doing our animistic magical best to make the sun come back.

Which is what the Winter Solstice has always been about.  When we were first getting started as a species, perhaps it didn’t matter.  Perhaps the immediate, the now, of life was all that could matter.  Can we run down that gazelle?  Are these roots edible, not poisonous, let alone palatable?  Is that fruit ripe yet and have the birds and the chimpanzees left us enough?  Is that highly smelly (and they are) lion we know is napping on the other side of the hillside going to wake up hungry or can we stay here for another sleep?   But after many thousands of years, we began to grow things on our own instead of merely finding them.  We began to raise the sweeter-natured (and dumber) babies of various kinds of useful animals to have a portable pantry instead of always having to go out and find something to eat.  And we began to notice that during the autumn of the year, the sun spent less time every day shining down on us.  More, the farther north we wandered, the shorter the day, the longer the night during the fall.

And, worst of all, at some time during a period of time that came to be known as a month (meaning then and now the circuit of the moon around the earth), the name of which month came to be known as December (much, much, much, much later – and note it means in Latin the tenth month, not the twelfth and that, too, we’ll get into in a post about calendars), the sun seemed as if it was going to disappear completely, that it was going to keep on spending less time above the horizon and more below until it never came back.  Never. Came. Back.  Imagine that, if you can or will.  The people (not the Celts or the Druids by the way) who raised the henges, the priests whose job it was to bless crops and domestic animals, the populations wandering ever northward as the ice sheets receded, were pretty good jack-leg, practical astronomers, but they had no way of knowing that the sun appeared and disappeared simply because the earth rotated on an axis and revolved around that sun.  The didn’t know that the sun wasn’t doing the dancing, the disappearing and reappearing act, their own solid earth was.  In growing panic, they would watch the sun shine less and less each day.  All the Gods help us, it might at some point, perhaps because of the sinfulness of human beings (that has never changed), not come back at all.  And they were definitely smart enough to realize that without the sun nothing on earth could survive.

We mustn’t think that because the sun always came back no matter what that these tribes of human beings were silly or stupid.  After all, in this 21st century there were quite a few people who believed the world would come to an end when the particular long-count calendar the so-called experts were interpreting ended (ah, that would be this morning about 4:00 a.m. in 2012) and we’re, after all, 21st century humans living in a highly technological civilization.  And we must remember, too, that life was usually short and a generation was considered (and still is for that matter) to be about 25 years.  Even with bards and priests and all those trained to remember the history of the tribe and the knowledge that had been gleaned over many generations, the memory faded of the days when there were no priests praying throughout the longest night so the sun would peep over the horizon again.  The priests had always prayed, always danced, always sung, begging the sun to come back, and it would always be necessary.  (This was a fairly handy situation for the priests, to my cynical (realistic?) eyes, since it certainly meant for job security for those priests.)

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on th...

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We don’t actually know what the huge stone circles were for.  The tribes who made them are long gone and their function and structure changed over time as new tribes came in and took over the henges (which is what the British call the stone circles).  But there are many human-made monuments, monoliths, and cut-outs in certain hills (called granges in Celtic Ireland) all over the world (except in many cases, for reasons that shall be left as an exercise for the class, immediately around the equator where the monuments seem to our eyes to be designed more for the measuring of star movement) whose function makes no sense to us until we watch the moment of sunrise on the day after the Solstice and see a beam of light hitting one particular spot in the monument.  The moment the sun comes back.  The moment of relief, of success, of validation of nights of prayer, of dance, of songs of praise.  It is really a several-day vigil, for the Solstice itself is the longest night and shortest day.  And the monuments are, if not designed so, definitely able to show the incremental increase in daylight after the Solstice each day.  After perhaps a week, the priests would be able to announce, in perfect truth, that the sun was coming back and that in a few cycles of the moon it would be time to plant once more.  They would also, of course, announce that their prayers and the sacrifices of the tribe were the reason for this bounty.  The great god behind the sun was pleased.


Newgrange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of these days, one of these millenia, we hope many millenia from now, the sun may change from a beneficent god who makes life possible on our whirling ball of water and earth into something different.  It may explode.  It may become red and colder, making the earth unfit for habitation unless (and this too is possible) we have changed to fit the new circumstances (we have done so before).  It may wink out one day.  Stars do that, and our sun is merely a star among the billions of stars in our galaxy, amidst the billions of galaxies in our universe.  But until that day, the Winter Solstice will happen in the Northern Hemisphere every year, just as it does six months later in the Southern Hemisphere every year, and the sun will come back to make spring possible, to make food possible, to make life possible.  And the winter will be gone, one more time.

So this day is a marker of hope, still and forever while we live only here on this planet and are as we are, utterly dependent on the sun for everything.  Everything.  Think about that for a moment, this round pale ball we should never look at directly that rises every day and sets every day as our solid-feeling planet (okay, except in certain places like California that wiggle every once a while) rotates and revolves, is the only reason this ball we live on is a planet, the only reason it has water, the only reason it can grow things, the only reason that we exist, that anything on Earth exists.

And we should, I think, even in our sophistication, give a prayer of thanks that this be so.  Religions throughout the history of the world have done so.  Almost all of them have called the celebration of the Winter Solstice a feast of light in one way or the other.  In Jewish tradition, there is Hanukkah, a celebration of a time when the perpetual lamp in the Inner Temple could have gone out but did not because of a miracle.  In Christianity, there are many references to light and the returning of light.  The Christmas tree began as a way of celebrating Christ’s eternal power and meaning.  The evergreen does not lose its leaves in the winter and the lights we put on it symbolize “the light of the world.” Christ, who was born, or so say the priests, on a day less than a week after the Solstice when it could be and was proved that the sun was coming back for another year has always been associated with light.  (That Jesus was probably born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks, thus, at lambing time, is merely a more likely supposition and has very little to do with the symbolism of the timing of his birth.  Many religious scholars and historians say that the Christian Church moved the feast of Christ’s birth to Solstice in order to pre-empt the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was yet another religious feast day celebrating the Solstice.)  Other religions have similar feasts.  And our old friend the Mayan long-count calendar begins and ends on the Winter Solstice.

candlelit Christmas tree

Candlelit Christmas tree
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Just to be clear, the Mayans, who were apparently brilliant astronomers, had many calendars that counted different cycles, some as short as a few months, some as long as millions of years.  The long-count calendar that got some people in such an uproar a few years ago measured a kind of medium-long cycle.  Some of these different measurings of time began and ended on the Winter Solstice.  I don’t know if all do, and at least one source I’ve read said the ending of each calendar was for symmetry’s sake and the beginning of each calendar’s measuring period would be a Solstice primarily for convenience because this is a date easy to pin down. I know very little about the reasons for these differently-counted calendars of theirs, and anthropologists, while learning more all the time, are still more or less at the beginning of figuring this out. Wikipedia has a very interesting discussion of Mayan calendars. Just use the “search” function.)

For the time being (and I recommend without stint W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being” about what happens to each of us during and because of Christmas, which is my own tradition of celebrating the return of light to the world), the Solstice is happening once more.  The sun will come back after this shortest night of the year.  The world will rumble on and most of us will try to make the best of it and some of us, sadly, will still try to make the worst of it.   In honor of the Solstice, in honor of all the people throughout the history of our species who have prayed and danced and sung the sun back above the horizon, this year I will try to see past the Christmas tree and the presents and the special foods and the candles and twinkly sparkly lights all over the place to a calmer center point where the grand dance of our home bringing back the sun to warm us and nurture us continues.  And I will give praise and thanks.


Pondering Mothers on Mother’s Day


Or at least, pondering my mother (that’s her above, with me, a photo taken by my father). She lived to be eighty years old. She gave birth to me, her third and last child, when she was 35. My two brothers, one sixteen years older and one eleven years older than me, both from a different father than mine, I barely knew until I was an adult.  She loved me. I do know that. And she did her best to raise me, not just let me scramble on my own. And I loved her and I still miss her in many ways.

And it wasn’t easy for her. I wasn’t easy for her. My father died when I was eleven and my happy childhood – and it was happy – disappeared at just that moment. My mother loved him enough to change her life for him and her fury and chagrin and misery at his death never really left her. She was 46, she was homeless (although I didn’t realize it at the time), and she was desperate. That summer, my father had quit his job and my parents had put all our things in storage. We took a long driving vacation, ending in Wisconsin where we stayed with friends in the town of Appleton. My dad’s plan was to go back to the University (at Madison) and get his Ed.D. To this day I have no idea what my mother really thought about that idea, but pondering it now, it can’t have been fully what she wanted even if she agreed. I don’t have any inkling that she didn’t agree. She and Daddy had a lot of fights – more like spats, I’d say now looking back – and they both seemed to enjoy the process. A friend of mine now, after I’d described my memory of one of the occasions of watching Daddy watch Mama slamming around the kitchen, laughed and said “foreplay”. Being ten at the time and it was an innocent time, I had no idea, but listening to my friend laughing, I realized that must have been so. They deeply and physically loved each, but I would bet now, looking back, that Mama spent a lot of her time being talked into something she probably didn’t really want to do. That reads way too strangely in our modern day awareness of coercion and abuse. As carefully and objectively as I can (which isn’t very of course, I was a child and a happy child of happy parents), I don’t see my mother putting up with anything, nor my father insisting on anything that wasn’t positive and good. That said, my memories seem to center around my father proposing, creating, organizing – deciding – and my mother reacting, negatively, positively, having some but not much veto power, and finally and often being happy the way things turned out because she agreed with my father’s ideas.

But of course not that time. The damned fool hadn’t listened to his doctors, and up and died on her, of a sudden heart attack (okay, there are mostly no un-sudden heart attacks), left her, an eleven-year-old daughter, and a dog stranded in Appleton, Wisconsin, staying with friends that, face it, weren’t that good friends, and no actual clue what to do. He didn’t have a will, he didn’t have insurance, there was some money in savings and he had a military pension that stopped when he died. Face it, as both my mother and I had to  do over time, although I think we both resisted with all our might and main, my father was a grasshopper, a dreamer, a feckless happy man who was convinced that everything would work out. And it always did – until it didn’t.

My eldest brother, then an adult with a good job in San Diego, took leave, flew with us to Washington, D.C. for my dad’s funeral at Arlington, and then drove us back to Colorado. And then my mother had no blooming idea what to do.

What she did was find us a house to rent in Estes Park (cheaper rent for more and better space than any other place she looked) and got the furniture out of storage (the movers had come before she’d been able to defrost and scrub the refrigerator and I remember our mutual horror when we opened the damned thing in the new house), and set up to begin a new and very unwelcome life without the central reason for living her life.

Looking back now, I’m startled to realize it never occurred to me until today to wonder why she didn’t go “home”, back to Oneida, New York, where she’d lived until after WWII, married once, where her sons were born, where her father still lived. Or back even further, to her relatives in Richmond, Virginia. Why did she strike out all alone, except for a sullen daughter and a spoiled cocker spaniel, to a new home in a place of happy memories (Daddy had loved visiting Estes Park and it had been a favorite picnic destination, but so far as I know, he didn’t have any idea of ever living there) where she literally didn’t know a soul. There is so much about my mother, about her thoughts and dreams and plans, I never knew.

And that is a lot to ponder on this Mother’s Day. Does it mean that with childhood selfishness (and later, adolescent angst) I simply assumed she was on this earth to be my mother, to keep me from doing stupid (or wonderful, sometimes) things, bedevil and nag me, insist I learned what she felt to be important for a young lady to know? Or does it mean that in spite of her voluble tongue and her quick and verbally violent temper, she never really revealed, at least to me, what she deeply felt about it all. It feels like a combination of those, and I suppose it was. It wasn’t until after her death that I found out from a friend of hers that she had spent all the years in between 46 and 80 in a rage at God and at my father for dying. It made perfect sense. She and I had talked when I was growing up and after I’d grown up (sort of) that she had met my father when she was fifteen, that her mother (interesting, that, isn’t it? she never mentioned father ever having any say in her life except for the unforgivable moment when she did marry and her father refused to let her take any money at all into the marriage) forbade her from seeing him because he was unemployed (and this was the depths of the Great Depression), and that she, in spite and fury, married the next man who asked her just to get out of the house.

Odd isn’t it how generations repeat? Her mother had done the exact same thing, married my grandfather, and they definitely lived unhappily ever after, or at least until my grandmother died, tragically, of peritonitis when she was 38. Thirty-eight! And my mother couldn’t then even have what her mother had forbidden her to have – she was married to someone else, with a son, and my father had gone back into the army, and in a spite of his own, married someone else. So there they were, stuck. At least for a while.

During the war years, my mother and her first husband became estranged for reasons she never explained, and my dad came back into her life. I have a bracelet he bought for her in Persia (Iran now) – he was stationed there as an officer of the Quartermaster Corps helping to build a highway across Iran to get materiel to Russia during the buildup to D-Day. The bracelet was inscribed “Mary”, and “Art” (their names), and the year 1943. She never explained the bracelet either and oddly she never wore it, but it stayed among her treasures where I found it after she died. In any event, in 1946, she got a Nevada divorce, Daddy divorced his then wife, and they married. After his retirement from the Army, they moved to San Francisco where they had an apartment in the same building as Daddy’s brother Jack and he planned to go to some college there with an eventual idea of going to law school. He had been retired from the Army for permanent disability resulting from wounds he suffered in a Bedouin attack. I’m leaving so much out of this account, but it’s a book, not an essay – and that’s only the parts I know.

I was born two years later (I’ll let my readers do the math) when they lived in Greeley, Colorado. What happened between those two places and times I’m unsure of, although my brother David, who lived with them until he was eighteen and went to college and later joined the Navy, has some wonderful stories about those years after a glass of wine or three . . . .

In any event, my dad wanted to get an education and he had finally decided he wanted to teach, and so the three of them and a cocker spaniel moved to Greeley. He went to the then titled Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado, but it is now and was then the state “normal” school – that is, the college that was designed by the legislature to train and educate future teachers), and that’s where my brother went to his last year of high school and his first year of college before transferring to Colorado University in Boulder, and that’s where I was born, while my parents were living on his Army pension and while he established residency and was earning his BA in Education. After he got his MA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (my first memories are from living there), he started his career as a high school principal at the high school in Evans, which is a smaller town just outside of Greeley. We lived there so happily, simple family life with a cocker spaniel (there was always a cocker spaniel, just not always the same one), sitting down to dinner at six, bedtime for me at 7:30, picnics in Estes Park, trips to the A&W Drive-In after supper for a root bear float, drive-in movies, me running wild in the summertime. A red letter day always when David visited, first from the Navy and then later from his time getting his own MA in mathematics at Colorado University. We were happy.

And I remember my mother being truly happy to be a housewife (this is definite – she never liked working outside the home), sewing, cooking, reading (constantly), reading to me (constantly), insisting I practice my piano (I hated practicing, I was a fidgety child), house training the pup, being chivied by my dad into going to school (we were back in Greeley, so to CSCE) to get her BA (he did that by saying he knew she couldn’t do it, which made her mad). I remember her teaching me to cook and to sew, I remember the time I was whining about having to practice and she said she’d practice for me if I did the ironing for her and I called her bluff. (I discovered but was too stubborn to admit that I hated ironing worse than practicing the piano, with the results that she probably had in mind: I learned how to iron really damned well (although I never liked it and haven’t ironed anything in years) and I learned the real lesson, that if you don’t practice, you get Hail Columbia from your piano teacher, which is no fun.) That also had the unexpected benefit of her getting back to playing the piano and singing popular songs with Daddy.

She loved getting lots of presents on any present-giving occasion, and since they never had any real money, Daddy managed by getting multiples of small things. Sheet music for songs they both loved from the movies was one of those multiples, and I still have sheaves of old songs transposed (is that the proper word?) for the piano, with lyrics.

Was it idyllic? I have no idea. I was happy, Daddy was blissful being with her, and I know she loved him, but I found out much later how much guilt she carried around about the choices she made – both to marry somebody else while still loving him and to leave her then husband to be with my daddy.

I have so much more to say, mostly about the choices she made after he died, choices that put security first (never Daddy’s priority) and led to her marrying a third time, choices about what was best for me, which never seemed to be aligned with what I wanted or, as it turned out, genuinely needed to be the best possible me – I’m still working on that. And about that deep rage and sorrow she always carried with, let’s be honest here, so much grace. She had that. Grace. And she was charming. Everybody said so even if a daughter wasn’t likely to see it or appreciate it. And I did finally see that, not in photographs (she did not photograph well and hated having her picture taken), but in how friends, acquaintances, strangers would simply light up in her presence throughout her life. And she was tough in a very lady-like way, making decisions, not going home to her family (even though she never could understand why I never came home to her after great pieces of my life fell apart), making the best of things, and never letting on (that was the Southerner in her) any of the ugly little secrets best kept swept under the rug.

And she was ruthless sometimes. In order to be with my Dad without having to have her choice made public (in New York at that time, the only grounds for divorce was adultery, not even insanity or abuse could get you out of a marriage, which led to many people making up things to get divorced), which she could not have borne, she agreed that her then husband could have custody of the children so long as he agreed to her getting a Nevada divorce. My brother David was asked by the court and told the court he wanted to stay with our mother, but my brother Robert was too young and stayed with his father. Or so I was told. She and Robert (called Chaz) never connected until his father had died and he was into adulthood. He wrote her and that started a correspondence (he and David had maintained a connection over the years, thank heavens), but Chaz and our mother never actually met – the guilt cut her too deeply. But she made the choice and she lived with it.

She cut my father’s family completely out of her (and thus my) life after Daddy died, and she more or less lost contact – and the choice was hers – with most of her family. She made up her mind and she refused to look back until she was old and the anger and sadness she had lived with silently sometimes overwhelmed her. She was ruthless with herself too. I’ll close this exceedingly partial (in both senses of the word) essay with the close of her life. She was sick and tired, as she tried to laughingly put it, of being sick and tired. She’d had it. She was hospitalized once again for the always recurring hiatal hernias that plagued her last years, and simply would not put up with it. The on-call doctor and the nurses told me after she died that she had simply pulled the IVs out of her arm and folded her hands and turned her face to the wall and willed herself to die. I didn’t make it back to Estes Park in time to say goodbye and that was so damned hard. But I guess she knew I would have done my damnedest to talk her out of dying and she didn’t want to live any more. She didn’t see the point and she cut to the chase as she always did.

And now, pondering on this Mother’s Day the mother she was, the mother she wanted to be, and the mother I wanted her to be and never really got, that she was far more complex as a human being than I was ever able to see. I don’t really have the resources to find out what was in her heart all that time, only the resources to find out the facts that can be found on paper and in records, and that’s, I realize more and more, not at all who she was. On this Mother’s Day, I salute and remember with tears and a little laughter and a lot of complicated love, the mother she was, the woman she was, the human being she was, and wish with a heartfelt longing that I could actually know who she was.


Thoughts on the 2016 Presidential Election

Yesterday approximately half of registered voters in this country went to the polls (or, previously, as I did, mailed in their ballots). Half. Of those who voted and by a narrow margin, Hillary Clinton gained more votes.  Because, however, the United States does not elect its Presidents by direct popular vote, but by a cumbersome and possibly outdated process called the Electoral College, sufficient electoral votes were awarded to Donald Trump for him to be elected President of the United States of America.

This morning, when the race was called, Ms. Clinton conceded and Mr. Trump gave a speech in which the hate-filled rhetoric of the campaign was noticeably absent. Later, Hillary Clinton gave a gracious speech, calling for the country to rally behind its new President and President Obama invited Mr. Trump to the White House to discuss the transition.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party kept its majorities in both the Senate and the House, which will provide a clear field and no possible obstructions for Mr. Trump’s goals for this country, at least for two years.

Also, in several key states, if those who voted for Stein or Johnson had voted for Clinton, the electoral votes of that state would have gone to her.

And, in something resembling a huge irony, California legalized the recreational use of Marijuana, as did several other states.

And, in something that perhaps was a cosmic joke but more probably was sheer coincidence, the electricity in three buildings at Park La Brea went out for perhaps two hours. One of those buildings was the one in which I rent an apartment. I was irresistibly reminded of a quote often stated during World War I – “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe”.

So much is fact.

But the feelings of loss, of fear, of premonitions of disaster, they linger within me. Perhaps my reaction to the election is overblown, perhaps the checks and balances built into our system of governance, perhaps even Mr. Trump’s own need to be the savior of the country he called himself during the campaign, will ameliorate at least some of his oft-stated goals.

But inside I have a feeling that Leonard Cohen wrote in a song called “Everybody Knows”: “Everybody got this broken feeling, like their father or their dog just died.” I can’t get that our of my head or my heart.

Inside me, the feeling is leaden and sad and, yes, broken, and I think it has something to do with what were obviously mistaken feelings I held and would still love to hold (but no longer can) about my beloved country. There has been a great deal of analysis and head-scratching and astonishment, lots of conviction of disaster, lots of “broken feeling(s)”, as those of us who proudly proclaim ourselves liberals try to understand what just happened. What seems relatively clear is that the last eight years have left a significant section of the population of the United States convinced that their country, the country they grew up expecting to live in, a country wherein they were welcome, a country they believed to the bone was theirs and designed for them, was no longer theirs but was being given away to — and insert your own buzzword here — people who were of a different color or religion or had a different set of values. This section of the populace felt deeply that they were being left behind and at the same time were being pushed into a world they did not recognize nor want to live in. They no longer were the masters of this country, but its victims.  And Mr. Trump spoke to that sense of loss, bitterness and rage, to such an extent that his supporters seemed not to (and probably genuinely did not) care about campaign statements proved to be lies almost as soon as he uttered them and then switched to something else when the wind of citizen reaction blew in a different direction. It is part of my sense of shock today to discover that a significant percentage of women voted for Mr. Trump, either not caring or not believing in Mr. Trump’s self-stated views on the function of women in society.

In my naiveté, I was proud of how as a nation we were moving forward toward diversity and inclusion and considering everybody within or outside our borders to be people with as much right to be here, as much right to be considered individuals of worth, as any of our “founding fathers (and mothers)”. But it seems apparent to me now that a significant part of our citizens did not feel that this was progress, felt instead that, just as Mr. Trump told them, if somebody else got a piece of the pie, there was less for them.  It’s called, in game theory, a “zero-sum game” and it means just what it sounds like – that all the things wanted or needed by someone are a pie, finite and encircled with walls, and if somebody else gets a piece of that pie, there is that much less for those who prior to that time were convinced that the pie was theirs and theirs alone.

So that’s one theory of how this could happen. Another is simpler and uglier – misogyny and racism and xenophobia. Those are labels that are rejected by most of Mr. Trump’s supporters even as they embrace the fact of their continued existence. Some of us thought those ugly values were finally, finally melting from the body politic. It is a horrid realization that they are not. Not only do they still exist but can now be openly once again celebrated.

But right now I’m not thinking about the theories of why it happened. I am only thinking of what will happen now. And I am frightened and sad.  You see, I do not completely believe in what others who voted for Ms. Clinton are clinging to in order to try to make themselves feel better. That it can’t happen here. That we have checks and balances and a constitution that will hold the worst of what Mr. Trump has clearly stated he wants behind a barrier of reason and logic and precedent. That we cannot compare ourselves to the Germany that woke up one day to discover that Herr Hitler, a buffoon they thought, was Chancellor, and then they woke up another day to discover he had dissolved the Reichstag and declared himself Führer.  That can’t happen here. But what I know to be true is that this was said – and believed – in Weimar Germany. And it did happen there.

But wait, there’s more. Mr. Trump is first, last and always a businessman. And anything that interferes with deals and with profits and with the protection of profits must be discarded. I am very frightened by his stated belief that “global warming is a hoax” and by his stated objective that the EPA will be at the very least made smaller with a much more limited purview. People, except the very rich who somehow believe that they can avoid it or move away from it, do not want pollution, but they do not trust government to fix it. Neither does Mr. Trump. But situations like the ongoing disaster in Flint, Michigan are very difficult to fix by private means. Further, it feels to me as if when Mr. Trump looks at sacred lands or the small bits of wilderness we have left, he sees no value in unexploited land or open space. That’s a feeling I can’t back up with any facts, but it feels of a piece with his belief that global warming is not real, but is a conspiracy theory with a monetary goal that will be at his or the United States’ expense.

Further, if I understand at all the workings of his mind (and I don’t, I find his processes of thought incomprehensible), he may have a Cabinet and a set of advisors, but there is no guarantee, not even much hope, of his following their advice, whether that advice be good or ill. I believe that at this moment he is beginning to realize that the achievement of becoming President is only a starting point, and his sense of being completely central in the world will depend not on this win, but on his upcoming performance.  That may be the only hope the world has at this point.

As to the other planks in his platform, the building of walls, the desire to remove all Muslims from the country, the desire to close our borders to all, and to raise tariff walls high, the desire to dismantle certain cabinet departments, the NATO alliance, and the desire that Japan and Korea have nuclear weapons and that the United States use its nuclear weapons as a means to impose its (Mr. Trump’s) will on the world, let alone his admiration of various tyrannical leaders in the world, to say nothing of the conflation of Islam with terrorism, I cannot respond now, it saddens and enrages me too much. I can only hope, and it is a dreary and hopeless hope, that those checks and balances actually work somehow. But I don’t have much faith in checks and balances with a President, Senate and House all in the same party and with one vacancy now on the Supreme Court and at least two (much deserved after a lifetime of tireless work on behalf of this country) upcoming retirements. The make-up of the Supreme Court will be changed fundamentally and soon. And what that will mean for generations to come I can barely begin to contemplate. It is only one topic, and perhaps not the most important, but I am convinced that Roe v. Wade will be reversed, which will not mean that abortions stop; no, it will mean only that rich women can get them, and poor women will die from the butchery of illegal abortions.  I am also convinced that while the Republican-hated Obamacare (as they term it) will be dismantled as quickly as possible, there is no plan to implement anything to replace it.

It is said, and it’s true, that after a period of growth and progressive movement, there is an inevitable reaction and that is what is happening now. That’s sad enough to me, but some of the decisions made during this backlash will outlast the persons who are making them and that is terrifying.

I find all of this terrifying. The country I believe in and love seems not to be the country I believed it to be. For all of us who are mourning a huge loss, for all of us who are frightened of what this will mean, even for those of us who find the thought of a vulgarian in the White House distasteful, there are (apparently) more of us who are thrilled, who are cheering, who believe their country is theirs once more, to do with as they will. They are proud of their votes, proud and thrilled about their new President.

The speeches and statements made by President Obama and Ms. Clinton today implore all of us to recognize that Mr. Trump is the President of the United States, of all of its citizens. I cannot go there yet and may not ever be able to. I will show respect to the office of the Presidency, but I can find no good, nothing to admire, in the person who will, as of January 20, 2017, hold it. And yet, unless I can find a positive (and financially feasible) reason for leaving, this is my country too, and I won’t simply turn tail and run.

However, for the present, I am going to limit my presence on social media. I simply cannot be rational and measured right now, and I have no desire to rant and rave, no matter how deeply angry and frightened I am, and this disaster (and it is a disaster to me and to many others) makes kitten videos and pretty pictures of beautiful places seem trivial. So, perhaps to the relief of many, and the complete indifference of most, I won’t be commenting, retweeting or sharing as much if at all.

I have only three widely separated times in my life imbibed Marijuana. Now that it’s legal here, I may break that precedent.


A Remembrance

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father

Today is Father’s Day in many countries, including of course the United States (although not in Australia, where Father’s Day is in early September – your bit of trivia for the day). My father died many years ago, suddenly, when I was eleven. It shattered my world, and the reverberations from that break I still feel to this day. Some of those singing breaking crystal sounds have helped me mess up my love life, some have made me, perhaps, just a bit more empathetic  than I otherwise might have been, but it’s hard to find an upside to the death of a beloved parent.  People have tried, in that backwards, not really complimentary way they have: Well, look at it this way, he would have been very angry about your choices as a teenager.  Gee, thanks for that, Mom. (I loved my mother in a more complicated way than I loved my father, which is the way of daughters, I guess, and you may notice that I have not written a Mother’s Day entry into this series of blogs and probably won’t.) And others have said it must be easier to grow up with a dead father than a divorced one leaving you alone, which absolutely infuriates me, as if because he couldn’t help it, his absence in my life becomes more okay than if it was a choice. I would far rather have a divorced dad somewhere in the world, even if only occasionally in my life.  It is never easier to have someone you love dead.

My daddy left us, his truly beloved family, via a heart attack nobody expected, while we were in Wisconsin where Daddy planned to get his Ph.D. in education at Madison. We didn’t have a home, our furniture was in storage, we were taking a long car trip across the country, which we did several summers in a row, we were staying with old friends who certainly got something quite different than they expected, including the absence of the linchpin of the family, ambulances and doctors in the night, a furious and grieving woman (my mother never forgave either God or daddy, let alone the United States government, for daddy’s death), a howling cocker spaniel whose world was left in pieces, and a bewildered, numb and increasingly sullen daughter nobody knew how to handle. That last person would be me, and the happy, eager, secure girl I had been before that night never quite came back. I’m not saying that to garner sympathy votes; it’s merely the banal truth.  And it happens to far too many people.

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t feel the hollow place inside where a loved person used to be? In a poem written in remembrance of his father, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote of the place somewhere behind the breastbone that feels both weighted down and weightless. For those who’d like to read that poem and I can recommend doing that, here’s the URL: http://brightweavings.com/journal/2016/06/19/fathers-day/. That day in June in the midst of a Wisconsin heat wave, that day was the first time I felt that heavy hollow place. It has never quite left me. Sandra Bullock once said, in answer to a question about how she went on after the death of her beloved mother, that you open a new room in your heart. And you do. I did. And do. But the lonely, empty room, where the fire has gone out, and the windows have been closed, and it’s cold and bare and still somehow filled, stays in my heart. I go there only sometimes, when the world is too much with me, or not enough with me, and sometimes I dust off the memories. Sometimes I just stay for a while and feel the pain and the heaviness and the lightness again.  There is a nostalgia there, and a distance. It is a room that has echoes rather than life, a reverberation of what used to be. Nothing in that room in my heart is new, or present, or here, but me. There is a distance, rather like having a head cold, where sounds feel muffled. And a chill as if after a snowstorm. And how I long to kindle the fire on the hearth in that room, the warmth and living joy that was my father. But I can’t. I can only remember the fires of long ago. It was a long time ago that he died. And yet, if I go into that room in my heart, I am as bewildered, as numb, as un-understanding of what happened, as sullen, as deep down enraged, as ever I was. As if it was this morning I woke up to him being gone.

I learned to love again, but it is sometimes a limping, scrabbled thing, as if I’m learning to reach for things with my left hand because my right arm has been broken and can no longer be used. I think I am afraid of it, love, though I try to be brave because love is after all the best of what human beings are capable of and love is, I believe, what we humans have incarnated to practice, in all its glory and misery.  I am afraid of it because that hollow, numb, angry, weightless, weighty, sullen room awaits, like a Bluebeard’s Cave, as the possible, and I’m so afraid probable, end point of any love I may try to have.

This was to be a paean to the wonderful man that my father was, not the empty room he left behind in more hearts than mine, but especially in mine. This was going to list the stories he used to tell, each time in the telling growing and changing and getting funnier, and, because he was wise, more thoughtful and important. It was going to be a jolly remembrance of a man who, like Will Rogers, never met a stranger, a man far ahead of his time in the ways he thought about how people did live and the possibilities they had to live in better, more inclusive ways. It was going to remember Christmases and birthdays, and everyday days when he’d turn off the main highway and get us lost somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. It was going to be about finishing dinner and deciding he couldn’t get through the night without a root beer float and piling us all in the car, including the dog, and going to A&W. It was about the man who loved movies, and parties, and playing cards, and being home and having company and talking with his daughter about life and art and human thought.

He was a man who could never leave a good story alone, always tinkering with words and meanings and giving what began as an anecdote an eventual point that made even the slightest moment meaningful as a lesson in living. He lived as some who have come very close to dying live, hugely and with happy greed, drinking it all in, the sights, sounds and joys of life. What he loved, he loved greatly: good food, coffee, cigarettes, dogs, parties, teaching, directing plays, arguing politics and religion, traveling, exploring his world and the ideas of people in it, reading, writing, and the great love of his life, my mother, his wife, and his daughter, his princess, the girl child he had never expected, the small human being he delighted to watch grow. He was immensely proud of me, and his hopes for me were as large as his life. It was for my mother to be the realist, to set all those limits of being a lady, a good girl, to live in the small world she inhabited.  Daddy believed, no, he KNEW, my life was as limitless as his, more so because I was loved and cherished (and I was) and his life had been empty of love until he met my mother. His death didn’t kill those realities for me, but it made some of them dreams unlikely to be fulfilled.

And it makes me rage, still, because he was far from done. He was going to back to school, to get his Ph.D., because he was, fully and deeply, a teacher and he wanted to know, with that hunger for knowledge he imparted to me, as much about how to teach as he possibly could. His love of life, his ability to create out of the poor clay he was handed such a beautiful sculpture, his achievements as a scholar, teacher, human being, husband, lover, father, friend came from him and his open-hearted joy in life, and as a conscious repudiation of a very hard, even bad, childhood. Besides which, he wanted to grab even more life than he already had. He wanted to see every place there was to see, taste every food, drink every drink (except those with alcohol, he simply didn’t like the taste of it), experience everything.

And now I come to think of it, he missed something he deeply wanted to see and take part in: my blossoming as a human being, even through the exasperation my teen years would have been to him. He may have wanted to dance at my wedding, but I believe he was more interested in watching me learn, in feeling the pride that would come when I graduated from college, when I chose a life’s work, when I succeeded at that life’s work, when I made an independent life. He never got that chance, and because of his death, parts of me were clipped, I think, hobbled in some way I can’t quite understand. I know that my heart hurts when I hear about swan’s wings being clipped so they can’t fly, or parrots being kept in cages. Keeping any creature from doing what that creature is made to do, which gives that creature joy, feels more cruel than killing. I’m thinking, right now, oddly, of a video I saw on Facebook last night, of Secretariat, in his happy retirement from racing, galloping around his large pasture, a picture of glossy health and utter joy in the running he was born to do, that was bred into him. Running, galloping, as fast as he could, because it was sheer joy.

My father couldn’t have trotted without gasping for breath, but in his grabbing for all of life with both hands, for his eagerness to meet and talk to people, find out what made them tick, his joy in his family and his accomplishments, and in simply living life, Daddy was Secretariat. That he didn’t get to keep joyfully galloping as long as he wanted is tragic for him and infuriating and miserable for me, for all who knew him or who might have met him.

So here I am, wanting so much to remember the joy. Maybe another time I can write about that without going back into that cold empty room in my heart. Maybe another time I’ll write only about the man as he was, not about my losing him. He wouldn’t have much patience with this wallowing, I know that. He’d tell me to read another book, learn something new, fix a good dinner and laugh with my friends. He’d tell me that my wings aren’t clipped at all, let alone because he’s gone, that everything I’ve done has been reaching past my limitations even if I haven’t yet grabbed on to my dreams exactly as I wish. He’d point out to me the simple truth that I’m still alive and that I can make my dreams reality. And he’d tell me with a hug and a laugh that he liked being compared to Secretariat, but that the real champion is me.


May Day

May Day


Tomorrow, except across the International Date Line where it’s today, is the First of May. It occurred to me that, rather than do the homework I’m supposed to be doing for the class for Avid instructors I’m taking in mid-May, I’d much rather write a blog post (my first since waaaaay last fall because life happens, I moved to Los Angeles, and I got very busy, which is no excuse) about May Day.

I suppose a lot of us in the US and in Europe connect May Day still with the USSR holiday celebrating the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Russian Empire. I can still visualize the grainy videos of marching troops, miles of huge tanks and “floats” that carried huge menacing weapons passing in review in front of a stand holding the Premier and the highest-ranking members of the Politburo. Amazingly enough, I don’t even have to look up those terms to remember them. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, such images inhabited a lot of people’s nightmares.


Even those of us too young to really understand this show of power but still old enough to remember living in the days when there were two superpowers in the world staring at each other across a huge wall bristling with weaponry remember the fear this celebration of sheer might engendered. And even then, so long ago it truly seems like another world, I remember resenting the co-opting of one of the happiest holidays – May Day.

May Day originally started as a Celtic holiday, Beltane, welcoming in spring and the renewal of fertility in the earth. The musical “Camelot” celebrated May Day/Beltane with the song “The Lusty Month of May” (here is a link to Julie Andrews singing the song in the original production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pljyjiIMH9o). But the Celts REALLY celebrated May Day. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on Beltane (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane). Beltane was celebrated approximately halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice (thus, usually on or around May 1) with fires and dances and, admittedly, a good deal of slipping off into the surrounding forest with one’s sweetheart. After all, the whole point was fertility.


Above is a photo of a recent celebration of Beltane held on Calton Hill in Scotland. I’m not entirely sure what fire has to do with fertility, beyond the undoubted fact that burning off a field refertilizes the soil with the carbon residue from the fire, but I would imagine that the Beltane fires were as much a celebration of living through the winter and having fun dancing in the human-created light as anything else. Contained fires, like bonfires and campfires and fireplace fires, are invigorating and calming at the same time.  Fire can be terrifying but a bonfire reminds us (or makes us think) that we humans are in charge of fire. (Mother Nature has her methods of proving us wrong about this as about so many things, which may keep us humble.)  In any event, Beltane was one of the happier holidays celebrated by the Celtic culture throughout Europe even under the rule of Rome and, later, during the advent and spread of Christianity.  (Christian leaders, being canny folk, more or less took over pagan holidays of all sorts, including Yule and Samhain, inserting Christian dogma and saints in the place of the original Druidic lore and Celtic gods and goddesses. This made it possible for the people to transfer over their loyalty to the “new” God, or – and this is probably more likely – continue to worship and celebrate their own culture under the guise of celebrating the Christian God.)

In the process, of course, the holiday became a minor holiday, being so much less important in the calendar than Easter, which is the most important Christian holiday. And while it never completely lost its attributes of fertility, May Day (no longer Beltane) became a rather pretty and, on the surface at least, innocent holiday devoted to flowers and dancing.  In fact, much of the fertility aspect of Beltane got transferred to Easter. Eggs and rabbits are ancient symbols of fertility for entirely obvious reasons. They’re sanitized a bit for the kiddies, but they still mean, like spring itself, the renewal of life. And May Day was left to children and young people entirely, with the symbolism carefully hidden from their innocent minds.

In my childhood, in small town Colorado, May Day primarily became the day on which we took the little baskets we’d made from pieces of construction paper or wallpaper (always in pastel colors), ribbon and sometimes pipe cleaners in pastel colors and filled with candies and flowers to leave on the doorknobs of our friends (or kids that we’d like to be friends with).  The May baskets were projects worked on in grade school classes. Here’s an example:
29578b5b0f46f18af53321cf52b302d7May baskets still hold a place in the world of children and grade schools, but have also become a crafting project. Here’s an article about the history (or part of it anyway) of the May basket: http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/04/30/402817821/a-forgotten-tradition-may-basket-day)

Oh, and this is quite important – when you leave a May basket on somebody’s door, it has to be anonymous! Or the point is lost.  This led to the May basket tradition becoming a part of courtship ritual for teenagers. It takes a lot of craft to leave an anonymous basket of flowers and candy at somebody’s door and still let that somebody know who it might be who left it.

Another tradition that leads directly back to Beltane is that of the Maypole.  This traditional dance has almost disappeared. That’s rather sad because it’s beautiful.  In the town square (or perhaps the grade school schoolyard or gymnasium), set up a tall pole, at least 15 feet high, with many colorful ribbons (at least 20 feet long) attached to the top of the pole. Don’t forget the flowers.  Then have the children of your village (or grade school), or girls on the cusp of womanhood, dress up in their new white or pastel spring dresses, put wreaths of flowers on their heads or entwine flowers and ribbons in their hair, give each one a streamer/ribbon and have them dance around the Maypole in such a way that they weave the ribbons in a cross-hatch pattern all the way down the pole.  When the free ends of the ribbons are too short for those holding them to move, the dance is done, everybody cheers, and then there’ll be a party of punch and cake and cookies and candy with a probable finish after dark of a bonfire.


The particular Maypole above uses the red, white and blue of the American flag as a theme and is obviously part of a larger celebration of spring (note the tent in the background), and it looks like a lot of fun.

I remember once in grade school (which was a while ago, but some things do stick in the mind) being part of a Maypole dance. We started very slowly weaving in and out around each other to make the pattern of the streamers and then they added the music and the dance got faster and faster.  Of course, being me and contrary, when the great day came and we started the Maypole dance (parents and friends sitting in the gymnasium bleachers and believe me everybody more than ready for the Kool-Aid punch and cookies to come), I managed to get my directions mixed up in all the excitement and started unraveling my ribbon.  As I recall (and I recall it with the vividness we all reserve for humiliating moments), our teacher had to stop the whole thing, we had to unravel what we’d done, and start all over again.  I also remember my mother almost lavender with embarrassment for her wrong-way daughter and my father laughing his heart out.  (I also remember getting an extra treat of candy from him to make up for my embarrassment, so it worked out pretty good after all.)

We don’t do many of these relatively innocent (at least on the surface, please do remember that Beltane from which this all descended is an overt fertility festival) celebrations any longer. While (WARNING: editorial coming) we continue to commercialize Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, even Easter, and now Hallowe’en to a point past ridiculous, some holidays like May Day have diminished except in small, usually fairly rural spots.  Kind of a shame.

So, here’s to a resurgence in some holidays, like May Day, and may yours be filled with sunshine and flowers and, maybe, just maybe, a May basket hanging on your door. Hmmnhh, I wonder if I have any pastel construction paper and pipe cleaners in my office supplies . . . .

Film Gems, Part Trois: Some Choice Holiday Movies and TV Shows

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, now that Thanksgiving is over, I am turning my flittering attention to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and the celebration of the New Year. Of course, I have much to do: presents to buy, create, wrap and ship, house to decorate, parties to go to (maybe, if I’m invited), family and friends to enjoy, newsletter to write and send, along with last year’s which never got sent, addresses to update, cards to buy and write in and send, catalogs to recycle (I’m still wondering how I got on the mailing list for “All Things Golf” — I don’t golf and I know only one person who does and he’s already got golf clubs — really not in your demographic, guys), and gluten-filled baked goods to sigh over and not eat.  So what I’m doing this last Saturday in November is writing a blog about holiday movies.  If nothing else, I’m good at misdirection — I’ll sneak up on the other holiday doings somehow and somewhen.

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with a long-time favorite:  “Christmas in Connecticut.” Barbara Stanwyck portrays a columnist in a women’s magazine who pretends to be a happy housewife and cook when in reality if it weren’t for S. A. (“Cuddles”) Sakal (who owns and is chef in the Hungarian restaurant downstairs from her New York studio apartment), she wouldn’t have a thing to write about.  Meanwhile, a sailor rescued from a raft in the Atlantic (all this takes place during WWII), played by Dennis Morgan, sits in a VA hospital and dreams about food, reading the column and drooling because he’s been starving for so long they won’t let him eat what he wants to eat.  (Well, and it’s hospital food, anyway.)  All of this comes back to bite Barbara, who ends up having to pretend in real life at her stick of a fiance’s weekend house in Connecticut that she really is the happy housewife, mother, and superb cook.  It’s funny, charming, shows off  Warner Bros. deep field of character actors at their best, and it gets very very complicated with rocking chairs, horse-drawn carriages, a preacher who has to be smuggled in and out of the house, and two babies instead of just one before the girl gets the guy right at Christmas. If you haven’t seen this one, just skip right by “It’s a Wonderful Life” and try “Christmas in Connecticut”. You’ll be glad you did.

Another oldie but very goodie: “The Apartment.” This one is all the way Billy Wilder, so it’s sharp, cynical, sad-edged, funny and ultimately very positive.  The film stars Jack Lemmon as the mid-level accounting nobody who is working on getting ahead at work by passing around the key to his apartment to his co-workers who want a private place for some private canoodling, Shirley Maclaine as his crush, who herself hopelessly loves Fred MacMurray (who was always at his best cast against type as a selfish, even evil manipulator), and a cast office workers who still resonate today as being way too realistic.  The apartment itself is practically a character in the movie, beautifully realized as a Victorian parlor in a brownstone on West 65th in NYC that has come on slightly seedier times.  Lemmon discovers that Maclaine has tried to kill herself in, duh, his apartment, and the complications that ensue result in a black eye, a fractured compact, a raise and promotion, and a resignation that’s just in time for the happy ending.  And it has Billy Wilder’s second-best last line ever (the first is from “Some Like It Hot”, but that’s not a holiday movie, unless you count the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre): “Shut up and deal.”

English: Screenshot of Jack Lemmon and Shirley...

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine,The Apartment (1960) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one, too, is a lovely old film that manages to be cynical about Christmas and yet the holiday spirit finds the way in spite of everybody involved: “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 34th Street windows of Macy’s in New York still always have decorations about this movie in them, no matter what the other decorations may be.)  Is the gentleman known as Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? Or is he not and he’s actually scamming the populace? In the end, the courts and the United States Post Office state that he is indeed Santa Claus, and who are we to quibble? Especially with Natalie Wood (in one of her first roles while she was still a little girl) getting what she never thought she would, a new daddy and a house, and everybody else in spite of themselves getting what they really need and sometimes actually want.  You’ll like it, I promise.

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie more recently made is “White Christmas”, a star-studded, music-filled, all dancing and singing spectacular from the 1950’s, and one I have to watch each year at least once.  The stars are Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen (was anybody’s waist ever actually that small?), and Danny Kaye, the music is by Irving Berlin, mostly, and the songs and dancing are terrific.  It’s about a two guys who met in WWII and who are now the toasts of Broadway, with one of them (Danny) trying to get Bing married off so that he can have some time off, a sister act in Florida who have to get out of town the quiet way since their landlord wants to sue them for something or other, who cares, since the way they get out of town requires the guys to cross-dress, a train trip to Vermont where there’s no snow, and the classic “we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show” finale.  The romantic complications between Bing and Rosemary have to do with trust and angles and using other people, but it all comes out right in the end as a holiday movie simply must.

Cropped screenshot of Bing Crosby and Danny Ka...

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, White Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also during this time period they shot a film called “My Three Angels”, which stars Walter Slazek.  The film shows three convicts who are repairing a roof on a shop and overhear the shopkeeper and their family trying to find their way out of major difficulties.  The three fix the problems and Christmas happens right on schedule.  I can find very little about this 1959 small gem, and I hope they put it on DVD so I can watch it again.

Then, there’s “While You Were Sleeping.” One of Sandra Bullock’s more charming comedies, which is saying something, it’s about a woman who is alone at Christmas and longs to be part of a family.  While she thinks she’s falling in love with the guy she saves from being run over by a train (and who ends up in a coma for most of the film), she’s really falling in love with his quirky family and, more important than that, his slightly disillusioned brother.  Wonderful supporting performances, many funny lines, and Sandra simply watching as a happy family shares Christmas fill this film with joy and longing.  The theme song is now used for a computer dating service, so every time the commercial comes on, I think of this film, which is not a bad thing.

While You Were Sleeping

While You Were Sleeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love, Actually” is truly one of my favorite films, one I watch when I’m feeling there’s no love in the world.  As Hugh Grant says right at the very beginning, however, there’s lots of love, and some of it is sad, some of it is funny, and a lot of it is hopeful.  Great performances by British actors it’s impossible not to enjoy (and some terrific Americans too), really nifty songs (including “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by a truly talented teenager and “The Trouble With Love” by Kelly Clarkson), and Bill Nighy portraying as only he can a has-been rock star trying for a comeback which somehow seems to involve getting naked on TV.  It’s beautifully shot, too, making modern-day London as much of a holiday destination as it would have been for me in Victorian times.  And Colin Firth.  Ahem.  A movie with Colin Firth in it? I’m so there.

Love Actually

Love Actually (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, by the way, while the primary plot of the movie has to do with the other end of the story, the very beginning of “Ben-Hur” has a gloriously shot nativity pageant at its very beginning with some of the loveliest music ever.  Well, the whole movie is the best of the huge spectaculars and in many ways, one of the most moving.  They’re planning a remake, but I just can’t see how they can improve on the classic.

I finally saw “A Christmas Story” a couple of years ago.  So I now know why there is such a thing as a table lamp made to look like a high-heeled female leg in the world and why you will never get a BB Gun for Christmas (because you’ll put your eye out).  The truly terrifying scene with Santa became an instant favorite and the excruciating (because I did it once when I was a very gullible small child) moment of sticking a wet tongue on a frozen flagpole are all now part of my holiday vocabulary.  This film not only shows us the importance of Christmas to a small child, it fills Christmas with hysterical laughter and still a sense of the wonder of it all.

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a rela...

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a relatively recent reissue. The boxes promote the gun as being “just like the one your Dad had!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about how much I love “The Lion in Winter” in another blog about Film Gems, but yet another reason to watch it is its deliciously cynical (realistic?) portrayal of family Christmas:  “Well, now, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”  So that’s another one for the list. And one I remember enjoying, too: “The Santa Clause”, with Tim Allen, who portrays an unhappily separated father who discovers he’s actually been tapped to be the next Santa Claus and there’s nothing he can do about it, although he tries.  He finally embraces his fate and  takes over in the (ahem) “nick” of  time. Yet another pair of films that occur to me are not specifically about the holidays, but are rather set during them: The first two “Die Hard” films starring Bruce Willis. (Oddly enough, the primary crossover talent in this area is Alan Rickman, who appears in “Love, Actually” and in the first “Die Hard.”)

All of the above have to do with Christmas, I’ve been noticing, and many of them seem to be about love among the commercialism, cynicism and annoyances of the Christmas holidays in modern times.  And you will notice I’ve not mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t happen to like this film much and the plot holes in it, well, Santa could easily drive his sleigh through them without touching the sides.  I also haven’t mentioned, except in “Ben-Hur”, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, about the birth of Jesus Christ.  There aren’t all that many films, however, based on the Winter Solstice (which is the holiday most people celebrated in deepest winter and which Christianity co-opted), or on Kwanzaa, or for that matter (and this surprises me) Hanukkah.  I would be very interested to hear from my reader about such films.  I’m sure they exist.

There are also many television films, specials and cartoons about the holidays, most of which have a Christmas theme, but are based on Santa, Frosty, and other non-religious Christmas icons.  An exception is “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, which is still occasionally shown on network television and which I can recommend for its lovely music and its theme of the people — that is, all of us unknown and sometimes unhappy and distressed folk — that Christmas is supposed to be about.  And don’t forget “A Christmas Carol.” For me, this is a read-aloud yearly treat, but it has been produced as a film or TV special many times and they’re all fun to watch.  Maybe the best is the one with the Muppets.

The best of the Christmas TV specials for me are “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and, of course, the original cartoon TV version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” So enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate, and if you’re so inclined, have some fun watching a few of these classics.  Maybe, like the Grinch, our hearts are sometimes “two sizes too small”, but these films and TV shows just might help us expand our hearts to the size they should be during this season and all year through.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Colorado Gold

The state of Colorado has many colors and is often called “Colorful Colorado“.  The very name (taken from the river that springs up in the western part of the state) is Spanish for the color red or reddish, which is the color of the water in the Colorado river, coming from particles of the red sandstone that is part of the state’s geological heritage.

But more than anything else, Colorado is known for gold.  The gold dug out of the mountains that brought Caucasians and their culture first to Colorado and that kick-started its economy, yes.  But the gold that Colorado is famed for now is the gold of autumn in the high country, the gold of the turning leaves of aspen, their final glory each year before the leaves fall and winter sets in.

On Saturday, I took a drive/hike/walk in Rocky Mountain National Park to see the color (that’s what we call it around here, “going to see the color”). And with just a few comments, I’ll mostly let these photos speak for themselves.

Long's Peak in the distance

Long’s Peak in the distance

My special mountain, Long’s Peak, but look at the patches of gold on its lower flanks.  Those are aspen.  Aspen have some unusual, even fascinating facts, information to share.  For one thing, a grove of aspen does not consist of separate trees, but of one organism connected via a root system and appearing to be individual trees.  Aspen are a member of the birch family of trees, with paperwhite bark and heart-shaped leaves.  These leaves are attached to the twig in such a way that each individual leaf quivers in the slightest breeze — so much so that the tree is often called a “quivering aspen”.  Aspen are first growth trees.  In areas of land with very poor soil or little topsoil, or land that has been burnt over or clear cut, the first trees that will grow on such land are the aspen.  They will seed themselves after scrub oak and other lower, ground-covering bushes and plants, and will help to prepare the soil over time for the more needy pines that, in our part of the world, are considered the “mature” forest.

So, in a sense, aspen are placeholders, but such beautiful placeholders.  Mostly, during fall weather, when temperatures get low enough, the aspen turn gold, with some trees for reasons that are unclear, at least to me, turning orange, rusts or even nearly red.

Small aspen grove

Small aspen grove

Artist and Aspen

Artist and Aspen

Moraine Park View, Aspen Groves

Moraine Park View, Aspen Groves

Moraine on Bear Lake Road

Moraine on Bear Lake Road





Rocks in the River

Rocks in the River


A Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem

Except it isn’t, sometimes.  Sometimes, it’s life long, a constant battle against grayness, against hopelessness, against seeing the world as cliffs surrounding you that you have to climb daily, against feeling as if you live at the bottom of a well and there’s no way out.

Suicide has a checkered history. In some cultures and at some times, it is the honorable way to handle an impossible situation.  In other times, other places, it is the final last gasp of defeat at this sometimes miserable thing called life.  Sometimes it is called, by insensitive people, cowardice, which it almost never is.  Sometimes it is, if something this tragic can be more tragic for some than it is for others, a momentary response of anguish, fury and defiance against a world that just doesn’t understand.

But it is one of those horrible human things that, if successful, is permanent.  No more chances at glory, at happiness, at climbing out of the well, even for a day or an hour.  I once was asked to define death and it was not a “well, duh” moment.  I could only respond that death is the end of choice. But some people feel more and more as if choice has left them while they still exist.

I have only once in my life, a very long time ago, contemplated killing myself. I lived on the sixth floor of my college dorm and I looked out the window for hours one day, not so much imagining myself jumping as fighting the need to jump.  I didn’t think, I didn’t even really feel.  The world was gray.  I had made a huge, horrible mistake and was in more trouble than I had ever been, branded as a  thief.  I saw no way to get back to the other side of the bad thing I had done and be the person I had been.  And I saw no way to become any other kind of person than the bad, no-good person I felt I had become.  Obviously I didn’t jump.  I still don’t quite know why I didn’t. I stared out of that window for hours and then I turned away from the window and made myself a pot of coffee (I could drink coffee then) and I started, step by tiny, backsliding, embarrassing and very hard step, to become another version of me, one that incorporated being a former thief and paying for that and learning new ways to cope with stress and terror and how difficult life could be. And joy and inspiration and zest came back, sometimes intermittently, into my life.

I am in no way comparing myself to Robin Williams or to anyone else who has not found a way to climb out of the well.  As I said, this was for me a one-time, if very long and horrible, moment in my life. For the most part, while I freely admit to being a drama queen, my highs are not manically high, my lows are not suicidal. I have more problems with anxiety than with depression.  But that moment when death did not just seem, but was, preferable to continuing to live happened and it was real.

This is true for a lot of people.  A situation feels hopeless and death seems like the only solution because nothing else is possible.  But the feeling, while real and horrific, passes and the hard climb begins, and life becomes once more possible, hopeful, even good.

But for others, life is a long, hard, and more often than not unremitting battle against depression, against hopelessness.  For the most part, it seems more and more that this “black dog”, as Winston Churchill called it, is a matter of brain chemistry.  And the gray, forever miserable landscape of life felt by a depressed person often does not reflect at all the successful, creative person we on the outside see. Many of our greatest, most admirable people have suffered (and it is suffering, deep suffering) from this debilitating illness of brain chemistry and have created wonders in spite of it. Most of us, ordinary folk that we are, if we have clinical depression, would find our lives more productive, happier, easier, without this scourge of hopelessness.  It is a very hard battle, and as those who have depression would say, it doesn’t lessen with age or wisdom, and the good times get fewer and the lightening of the dark happens less often.

What can be done? There are medications that lift the spirit, but often they flatten the higher end of emotion that is the only candle flame in the darkness of the depressed mind.  There is prayer, there is reaching out to — and by — friends, family, therapy.  There is admitting that the facade of “I’m okay, I’m fine, I’m good” is just that, a facade, and doesn’t match at all the gray landscape within.  We are not talking about sadness here, or grief, or situational depression.  These, while sometimes so bad a person finds it impossible or nearly impossible to live through them, come to us because we have lost something or someone, or have, as in my case, done something we think is horrible and unforgivable.  Sometimes, they come because the road in front of us is just going to get rockier.  I, for one, have no idea how victims of ALS, which is a living death before one inevitably dies, manage to keep going, keep living.  What is life without some kind of hope?

For those who suffer from clinical depression, however, that hopelessness is simply life more days than not. Today I read a story about Robin Williams written by someone who had worked with him. This man saw that Mr. Williams was, when not performing, quiet, sweet, kind, and always somehow sad.  When he was performing, the manic energy poured through him.  I have known artists or of artists, we all have, who seem only to be truly living while they are performing.   It used to be a trope we all believed that artists, by their nature, had to take the bitter — the mental problems, the down times, the depression — with the better — the moments of flow when they felt attached to something wildly creative.  But nobody can work, can flow, can use up all that energy all the time.  The curtain comes down, the applause ends, and you are left with yourself.  And if that self lives at the bottom of a well of hopelessness . . . .

My title for this essay is meant to be unpleasant, even shocking.  Those of us who do not live at the bottom of a well can find it possible to think of suicide that way, that if you, hopeless though you feel, just hang in there, you’ll feel better soon.  As, tragically, the Robin Williams of this world would tell you, were they still here to do so, hanging in there doesn’t much help, because the “feel better soon”  part happens less and less, until all the world is bleak and flat and gray.

Maybe the only possibility is to be kinder, to accept that those around us may be fighting battles we can’t see, can’t know. Sometimes if we listen without judgment, without advice, without telling somebody to pull themselves together, maybe that somebody will be willing to tell us just how gray it is and that might just help a bit. A tiny bit. But maybe not, although that is not a reason to stop trying to help.  We battle many things in our life, valiantly, reluctantly, fearfully, sometimes hopelessly.  And sometimes we lose the battle.  We just do.

I have no solutions to offer, no wise words.  I, after all, am one of the lucky ones whose brain does not routinely bathe itself in the neurotransmitters of hopelessness. But I am sad today because we have lost another creative mind to its own chemical, emotional demons, a life we could not afford to lose, and for such an unhappy reason: Robin Williams could transmit happiness, joy, mirth everlasting to all of us, but could not keep it for himself.

Robin Williams, may your heaven be filled with the joy that so often eluded you in this life.


Rest in Peace

Rest in Peace

The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America


It was written by Thomas Jefferson and amended by the Continental Congress until, as John Adams said, “would you break its spirit?”. It wasn’t signed by all the members of the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776.  In fact, the last signature wasn’t appended until the next January.  It wasn’t printed and distributed until, I believe, August of that very hot summer. It was approved on July 2nd, and John Adams, for one, believed that it would be on July 2nd every year that the country would celebrate the declaration with fireworks and galas.  So he was off by two days.  We were at war, with England, which believed it owned us.  We disagreed. We disagreed with firearms and battles and vituperation, but we also disagreed by writing the glorious words of our Declaration of Independence. And, in the end, it was these words that prevailed, even more than our tough little armies.

Today is Independence Day for the United States of America.  We’re having our problems (we always had our problems), we seem to lurch from one extreme position to the opposite (we always did and probably always will), but we’re still here, and that’s fairly remarkable.  You see, our system of government had been tried once or twice in history, but it never seemed to really catch on. Most governments found the concept of the people being governed also doing the governing to be at the least laughable and at the most much more than alarming.

The very idea, government being instituted and continued for the benefit of the governed!  The whole point of government was to benefit the guy (or much more rarely the gal) at the top.  We laugh about the term today because it feels to us like our elected representatives belly up to the public trough more than serve us, but before the United States, the idea of a “public servant” did not really (except for lip service) exist.  Oh, kings always bowed to God and they knew better than to get too frisky in their kingship or the peasants would make their lives highly inconvenient, but the king was not the servant, everybody else was.

But we in what was then the thirteen colonies of North America didn’t like that and we got real vocal about it.  Maybe we didn’t start it. That was Greece. And the subjects of the all-powerful king in England started upsetting the apple cart a long, long time ago.  And we’re not the only republic or democracy in the world today.  After 1776, quite a few places on the planet created their own styles of government by the people, of the people and for the people — countries such as France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, India, a whole bunch of South America, Africa and Asia, and it still goes on, more or less successfully, throughout the world. Sadly, whether the people succeed or whether they fail, there’s a huge human price to be paid. There always was.  There always will be. “Give me Liberty or give me death” isn’t just a pretty catchphrase.

And sometimes that “public servant” business does feel kind of nominal, doesn’t it? But we not just in the US but all over the world who think all the people have rights believe all of us by right have a say in how we’re governed.  We keep trying and failing and lurching around and enjoying a few sometimes all too brief successes, and we’re still here. And in the US we’re still tinkering with the concept (and with the Constitution we wrote later, which starts, heart-wrenchingly, “we the people”), trying to make it better.

Today is Independence Day.  Being Americans (nothing else seemed to stick to call us, even though it still annoys the heck out of everybody else in our hemisphere, as it should since all the land in the western hemisphere is called America), we celebrate with fireworks and brass bands and barbecue.  But there’s also a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye because — well, we’re still here and we’re still trying, for us and for all the people of the world (meddlers that we are), to show that governments serve us, not the other way around.

People love their countries (when they’re not actively hating them).  We, as citizens of the United States of America, are by no means unique in that.  But this Independence Day is our very own day to celebrate not just a piece of land or a government, but the rebirth of a concept. That concept is simple.  Not easy, but simple. Each individual human being has “certain inalienable rights” because he or she is human.  These rights cannot be granted by a government and they cannot be taken away.

So to enhance that lump in the throat and that tear in the eye, I found this song on YouTube.  Katherine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” while vacationing in Colorado so it has a special meaning for me, and nobody ever sang it like Ray Charles, whom we lost in 2004.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xk1P1913y0  And I would also suggest, in honor of the day, watching the film “1776”, from the Broadway musical of the same name, about the hot summer in Philadelphia when the irascible and quarreling representatives of the thirteen colonies (colonies which agreed on very little except that King George was not the boss of them) created the United States of America.  And there’s always fireworks and barbecue and a brass band.

With my lover’s quarrel with my country because it’s not perfect in abeyance for this Independence Day, here’s to the United States of America, from sea to shining sea.