Imperfect Serenity

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Saturday, November 22, 2008


Last night I read in the Duke alumni magazine that the rise in asthma rates during the last 25 years may have been caused by the folic acid that pregnant women have been taking in their prenatal vitamins. Have I mentioned that my daughter has asthma and possibly my son? And I was one of those dutiful expectant moms who never missed a vitamin. So instead of being able to feel a little righteous indignation that the asthma and our high pharmacy costs were just caused by pollution, now I feel a more complicated mix of emotions, especially after reading that folic acid was added to prenatal vitamins to prevent birth defects, which my children don’t have, thankfully. The possible side effects of folic acid are certainly important for scientists to evaluate, but for me, it’s too late and a little hard to process this news, which isn’t definitive anyway.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much information is good for a person to know. For example, I’m not sure I need to know that one Facebook friend has a cold, another is answering email, and another is visiting churches (or was, whenever she last updated—information I did not absorb). I can’t imagine that anyone cares that I was up early this morning (my own most recent Facebook update). Of course, none of this is news anyone actually has to remember, so it’s easy to read and dismiss. The stuff that is really messing me up is the information that is supposed to stick, like when the kids are due to see the dentist or when the cookie dough fundraising form is due. I have to remember to water the plants and turn down the heat before we leave for Thanksgiving, not to mention stopping the mail and the paper, booking the dog in the kennel, and making sure he is up to date on his shots first. All these little things I’m expected to remember seem to be cluttering the closets of my brain. Recently I realized I had to write a list of online user names and passwords for the ridiculous number of accounts I have because I just can’t keep straight anymore whether the credit card that I pay online has the six letter password or if that was the company from which I purchased my domain name. (I also realized that if I died suddenly, our banking and bill payment history would be a total mystery to my husband.) So I wrote out the list and hid it in a brilliant hiding place that no thief is likely to discover. Except now I have to remember where I hid it whenever I forget a password.

This may have something to do with the aging process, but I have a sneaking suspicion my leaking brain is also a sign of times when our brains are constantly bombarded with stuff we don’t need to retain anyway. Who cares that I know the Nestle’s chocolate chip cookie recipe by heart when I’m sure I could find it online in a click or two. I don’t need to remember many of the things I do remember, like the date Nixon announced his resignation, or the Zulu word for hello. A friend who is a teacher and the parent of an eighth grader remarked that she was more interested in high schools that taught students to think than to memorize information that they could look up anyway. I agree, but as a college teacher myself, I think it is hard to teach people to think outside of a general base of knowledge. It’s not just that my students don’t know names and dates from history; they don’t know the big picture either. In the age of Google, how do we distinguish information from knowledge?

A quick search for the word knowledge shows that there is no agreed on definition of knowledge, but that the word implies something about understanding. It seems to me that knowledge somehow brings more value to our lives than information. It’s the stuff we don’t forget so easily, whether it’s a sense of history’s importance or the knowledge of how a friend is really doing. Maybe that’s why I can’t help glancing at people’s status updates whenever I’m on Facebook, even though most of them are silly. I am happy to know that one friend has finally made it to Zambia, after years of waiting. Another friend is sharing the news of her engagement. This kind of information does seem important because it helps me feel connected to people and helps build community, off line as well as on.

Among the things I don’t want to forget as we prepare for thanksgiving are the many blessings for which I am grateful. Sometimes they slip through my mind as easily as my Target user name, but they are among the things that are worth remembering.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hope and Hard Work

Between the Phillies winning the World Series and Barack Obama winning the presidency, Philadelphians have been walking around in a mild euphoria. Strangers smile on the street. Supermarket cashiers seem happy. Or at least they did last week. This week the hard realities of the world are creeping back into our consciousness. The Inquirer ran a story Saturday about racist incidents on college campuses since the election, and Mayor Michael Nutter has announced wide-ranging budget cuts that will hit firehouses, libraries, city pools, and services like snow plowing and leaf collection.

Of course most people are focusing on the things that will affect their neighborhood (Our library is safe, but our narrow streets won’t be if they’re not plowed.). But last night I received an email that put all this in a bigger perspective. It was written by Z for Philly Code Pink:
Folks I kid you not. I was just doing some calculations about the cost of the war to Philadelphia residents compared to the city’s projected deficit. Even though I have been doing this kind of calculation for almost 6 years, this time (as happens so often) the result strains my credulity. Please look at this logic and let me know if you see someway I figured this wrong. Cause if I’m right, I don’t know what to do with myself!

1. According to the National Priorities Project, Philadelphia’s share of the total cost of war in Iraq is, in round figures, $2, 100,000,000.

2. The war has been going on since 3/03. I count this to be 68 months of war.

3. I divided $2,100,000,000 by 68 and got ($30,882,353) $31,000,000 per month as the monthly cost of the war in Iraq to Philadelphians.

4. According to the city of Philadelphia Budget Office, the project deficit to the city budget, projected over 5 years is $850,000,000.

5. I divided this by 60 months (5 years) and got ($14,166,667) in round figures, $14,200,000.

6. This leaves me with the comparison.
$31,000,000 Monthly cost to Phila for the war
$14,200,000 Monthly city budget deficit

7. Thus what we pay for the war each month is 2.18 times what we need to cover our budget deficit.

I’m sure some people would question the logic of this equation. After all, city taxes and federal taxes are separate, and we’re just charging the war to future generations anyway. It’s debt, not real money. But as many Americans are discovering, debt is real money, and what we’re willing to run up a tab for says something about our values. Personally, I value books over bombs.

This is all just a reminder that despite my hopes for the Obama administration, I cannot give up my responsibility to continue telling my elected officials what I value. If we want our troops (and money) out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to make that known. While I celebrate the barrier that has been broken, I have to point out what I have always suspected—that the United States would be more willing to elect a black (or biracial) man president before electing a pacifist. Maybe in some future election we will have a pacifist candidate with Obama’s oratory and political skills to test my hypothesis, but for the time being, we must continue to articulate the change we want to see.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The 39 comments and 179 responses that C. Wess Daniels got to his recent survey made me appreciate what a dynamic forum the web can be. It’s prompted me to ask for your feedback this week, instead of just spouting my own numerous opinions.

First, the big excitement here this week is that I have received a draft cover of my book, even though it won’t be out until next fall! I love the design the publisher came up with, especially since the book begins with a story about Irish fishermen and ends with a water analogy. I’m posting it here to ask your feedback on the subtitle which the publisher assigned it, to ask if this speaks to you or if you have any better ideas than "Knowing when to Take Action and when to Let Go." (I noticed that the letters got distorted when I saved it, so no need to comment on that if the letters look odd here. The faint background writing is cursive on the real thing.)

I am also going to ask your feedback on another matter. I’ve been wondering if I should rethink this blog, maybe focus on fewer topics, rather than jumping all over, or change to more frequent but briefer posts (like everyone who writes about web traffic recommends). I’m not clear yet, though, so I’m wondering what you all think. What do you like best about this blog? What frustrates you? Do you wish I’d stick to spirituality or do you like that I jump around? Feel free to post with or without your name. I value your feedback. Thanks in advance!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Quaker Poll

I hate to exclude my non-Quaker readers, but over on Gathering In Light there is a poll of how American Quakers from different branches voted in this election. For those who don't know our history, Quakers have had their share of theological splits, and this is an attempt to see how they have affected our politics. I'll link to the results here when they become available. In the meantime, Friends, the poll is open until Monday.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Beautiful Day

In 1994 Nadine Gordimer (the Nobel prize winning South African novelist) wrote an essay about South Africa’s first democratic election entitled “A Beautiful Day, Com,” describing the comaraderie that existed in the long lines as black people waited to cast their first votes, and whites like Gordimer worked the polls in support. The “Com” in the title refers not to a type of domain name, but to the term “comrade,” an affectionate term of address among many South Africans. While no one in Philadelphia was calling each other comrade—despite the McCain campaign’s attempts to convince voters that Obama is a socialist—it certainly is a beautiful day, despite a little rain. It is not the first time black Americans could vote for president, but there is a feeling in the streets that we are turning a corner in our country’s racial history. It’s not so much Obama’s race, it seems to me, as the races of the people his campaign has brought together in such a spirit of good will. Some of the elderly people we drove to the polls remarked that they were glad they had lived to see this day (even before a victor is declared). Here are a few pictures from my day in North Philadelphia.

Listening Hearts

Grounded in God

The Great Emergence

Who Links Here