Saturday, July 25, 2015

At Peace with Death, Making Peace with Life

Asked to share the graveside commital for my 86-year old Aunt Jean Hyden Sheffield today, I found and read to family and friends gathered at South Mound Cemetery in New Castle, Indiana, the following snippet from 'Tuesdays With Morrie' by Mitch Albom:

Emery Sheffield is my mother's brother. He, 89, and Jean, 86, have lived in
Utah and Florida after retirement and living a lifetime in New Castle, Indiana.
Jean died earlier this week. Family and friends gathered in New Castle for
a touching celebration of Aunt Jean's life. 
"Last night..." Morrie said softly.

Yes? Last night?

"...I had a terrible spell. It went on for hours. And I really wasn't sure I was going to make it. No breath. No end to the choking. At one point, I started to get dizzy...and then I felt a certain peace. I felt that I was ready to go."

His eyes widened. "Mitch, it was a most incredible feeling. The sensation of accepting what was happening, being at peace. I was thinking about a dream I had las week, where I was crossing a bridge into something unknown. Being ready to move on to whatever is next."

But you didn't.

Morrie waited a moment. He shook his head slightly. "No, I didn't. But I felt like I could. Do you understand?

"That's what we are all looking for. A certain peace with the idea of dying. If we know, in the end, that we can ultimately have that peace with dying, then we can finally do the really hard thing."

Which is?

"Make peace with living."

He asked me to see the hibiscus plant on the ledge behind him. I cupped it in my hand and held it up near his eyes. He smiled.

"It's natural to die," he said. "The fact that we make such a big hullabaloo over it is all because we don't see ourselves as part of nature. We think because we're human we're something above nature."

He smiled at the plant.

"We're not. Everything that gets born, dies." He looked at me.

"Do you accept that?"


"All right," he whispered, "now here's the payoff. Here is how we are different from these wonderful plants and animals.

"As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on--in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."

His voice was raspy, which usually meant he needed to stop for a while.  I placed the plant back on the ledge and went to shut off the tape recorder. This is the last sentence Morrie got out before I did:

"Death ends a life, not a relationship."

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Planning to Ride the Great Allegheny Passage

Though I've ridden a bike through India, Vietnam, and Kenya, this takes me closer to my roots

Trails in Indiana, like this corn-lined one in Indianapolis,
will yield to hilly vistas and misty valleys when we head
out on the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal.  
For me, cycling is everything from a weekday commute to work to an international weeks-long cross-country sojourn. This ride, from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, is somewhere in the middle.

The plan is to ride the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. From there, the ride will continue along the C&O Canal as it moves southeastward to Washington, D.C.

This is about 335 miles that a few friends and I will cover in six days of riding--almost completely without vehicle traffic. That, for me, will be a first in cross-country cycling.

Several things about this ride, slated for August 10 through 16, compel me.

Foremost is the anticipation of riding through the land of my youth. This territory is my roots. Until I turned 17 years old, I lived in West Virginia--rustic, beautiful, misty hill country. I lived in Parkersburg, along the Ohio River, about 120 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. The hills in the northwest area of West Virginia are smaller than what we will see and experience further east into the Allegheny Mountains, but the shape of the terrain I see in a guidebook looks an awful lot like home. While mostly in Pennsylvania and Maryland, both the GAP and C&O Canal border West Virginia for over 150 miles.

Compelling, also, is what I do not know and have never seen before of this age-old mountainous area. So many small towns and rural areas, each similar but oh so distinct, invite my wanderlust. There is history and mythology here that I am vaguely familiar with (as a child and student, I loved reading of the history and geography of West Virginia), but I'm anxious to learn anew and experience firsthand. Some of what I know is ugly history--of rapacious coal and steel and railroad barons, and Civil War north-south border strife (West Virginia was born as an anti-slavery dissent partition from Virginia). Riding through these places, I hope to learn other stories--perhaps both better and worse.

This will be the first cross-country ride I've undertaken without a SAG (support and gear) wagon. No one will be transporting our supplies or assisting with breakdowns. Whatever we need for the journey will be carried on our bikes--tent, sleeping bag, clothing, food, tools, supplies. We'll be completely self-contained. I'm looking forward to cutting the support cord, actually.

The adventure will be taken with friends with whom I've never before journeyed. That's part of the passage I look forward to, as well. Aaron Spiegel and his son, Eli, are on board to make this trek. Perhaps one or two more riders will join us. I've learned that cross-country cycling creates a bond of friendship that is not easily forgotten or broken. Those who pedal hundreds of miles together, repeatedly break bread together, and share the indignities of unvarnished life together tend to discover a sacredness born only through such a sojourn.

So, it's about a month until this passage. I'll keep you posted as things develop and hope to share the journey (and photos) as we go.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Weight of Freedom's Future

A reflection on American freedom for the July 4th holiday

Much of the content of this post is taken from my 47th letter to President George W. Bush, dated July 17, 2002. These thirteen years later, the opportunities of which I then wrote have passed from that President. Still, this piece expresses my patriotism--a kind of patriotism that tends to get ignored in power brokers' obsessions with hubris, militarism, and reductionistic labeling.

BEYOND HYPED-UP PATRIOTIC FERVOR. Ever since the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001 and the state of war that President Bush declared, I've noticed that the Fourth of July has been celebrated with heightened emphasis. More flags fly, more fireworks flower, and everything considered American and patriotic is trumpeted to the nth degree. This July 4th holiday gives me an opportunity to frame hard-won freedoms beyond typical images and reflect on the weight of freedom’s future.

WHO HATES FREEDOM? For as many times as I have heard it declared that the primary reason terrorists targeted America is that "they hate our freedom," I have been completely baffled by it. I just don’t think it is our freedom that anyone hates. They may loathe our unqualified support for Israel amid Palestinian oppression, they may resent our apparent carelessness in the face of their poverty, they may hate our overwhelming military and economic power, they may completely deplore the more promiscuous and paraded lifestyles of the West that offend Islamic (and, quite frankly, basic Jewish and Christian) sensitivities, but they don’t hate the freedom we enjoy. They may hate what we have done in and with our freedom, but I don’t think they hate freedom.

FEET VOTE FOR FREEDOM. Freedom is desired by all. People vote with their feet for freedom—a freedom that releases the heart, encourages community, and fans the flame of individual growth and opportunity. Across generations, refugees and immigrants seeking freedom have flocked to America, clinging to the image of the Statue of Liberty. And, in our best moments of freedom, we have opened our doors and welcomed in freedom seekers. This is how most of our ancestors came to America. Our tightened borders are still porous and many slip through. As they acclimate and contribute, over time we usually grandfather in even these "illegal" aliens as fellow citizens.

WILLING TO FACE DOWN OUR OWN DEMONS. In our best moments, America has grappled with the challenge of extending the promise of freedom to all of its own citizens. Self-evident truths have not always been treated as such. It has taken prophets and protesters and martyrs to make freedom begin to ring for many of our own citizens. Our own bigotry, prejudice, greed, and fears have divided us and at times cast a long and shameful shadow over American freedom. It is not just an enemy without that we have had to face down, but demons within. Our willingness to do this makes our freedom all the more attractive to those who have lived without it.

SOMETHING OF A GRAND DREAM. I think it is clear that American independence and patriotism in defense of democracy is something all but a twisted handful of people in the world salute. Few have been able to pull off and hold together what America has accomplished. America, even now, is something of a grand dream of freedom and democracy at so many levels it is impossible to separate them and still see the vision.

HOW WE USE OUR FREEDOM MATTERS. It is not freedom that is despised. It is our weighty and sometimes insensitive exercise of freedom that is despised, it seems to me. In light of this, we should carefully consider how, as the world’s dominant democracy, we use our freedom at home and abroad. We could begin by ceasing to dismissively label terrorists and millions of people who harbor resentment toward America as merely “freedom haters.”

DRAIN AWAY SOURCES OF RESENTMENT. As America has repeatedly searched its own soul to extend fairness and freedom to its own disenfranchised residents, let us search our hearts once again. Let us think through to the legitimate sources of pain, anger, and resentment that have led to a level of angst that produces terrorism. And let us consider what we can do to drain away such anger by policies and actions that befit the richest, most free, democracy-loving nation in the world. Let us struggle to cultivate, again, a freedom that is noted for character, understanding, fairness, and compassion.

I welcome your comments and/or questions in the spirit of dialog. Share yours by clicking on "comments" just below. They're moderated only to reduce incivility. Shalom!