Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Year, Old Problem: Learning to Deal With Disappointment

By Claudia Ricci

I arrived on the first day of the four-day silent meditation retreat telling myself not to have any expectations.  But of course I brought them along nonetheless.

What I was hoping for was a lot of silence. Plenty of quiet space in which I could begin to hear the truths buried in my heart.

The woman leading the retreat was nice enough. And very well meaning. But almost immediately I realized that she talked way too much.

In the first three hours of the retreat she led us through maybe 8 different exercises, all of which took considerable explanation.  I kept waiting for her to say, "And now, we will take the next 20 minutes (or 30 or 40) and remain silent."

It never happened. About 10:30 in the morning she took a half hour break.  As I poured a cup of tea, I realized that I was pretty upset that I wasn't getting what I thought I needed from the retreat.  I considered leaving, but decided that I hadn't given it enough time.

After the break, she led two exercises which felt wonderful, and so my hopes were rising.  But soon after, it was noon, time for lunch -- and this break was going to last two and a half hours.

Simultaneously, it started snowing like mad. The teacher told us that four to six inches of white stuff were expected. As I gazed outside the meditation hall tucked into a steep mountainside, all I could think about was the drive home. Me slipping and sliding down the narrow road in the dark (I was commuting.)

That's when I started seriously thinking about leaving.  I approached the teacher and thanked her for the morning session. I told her I was nervous about driving and she was very understanding and instructed me to take my retreat at home for the afternoon.

And so I left. Driving home, the snow tapered off (naturally) and I wondered if I'd made a mistake cutting the day short. And then I started thinking was this whole retreat a mistake?

Something curious happened when I got home.  I decided to sit at my own meditation table and call up a guided meditation on my computer. I listened to Sharon Salzberg and as always, she helped me to focus on and calm my breathing.  And then, while I took leek and potato soup out of the freezer for lunch, I went to Insight Meditation Society's list of "dharma" talks, and found a fantastic lecture by Christina Waldman. Called "The Wisdom of Disappointment," Waldman's lecture explores the way most of us live our lives, tightly bound to expectations for how life should be. When things don't turn out the way we think they should, we get frustrated, or bitter, or resentful. Or disappointed or depressed.

Waldman points out that life by its very nature is guaranteed to disappoint. Disappointments are "small deaths," she says, deaths of our wishes or what we imagine happening in our lives. The more we expect of life, the more likely we will be disappointed. The solution is to accept what is, and to be less tightly bound to expectations or aspirations. Be open to whatever it is that life brings.

And so as I sat eating my soup, I relished the words of this wise teacher.  And I realized that if I hadn't left the retreat center, I would probably never have heard this wonderful lecture.

Waldman pointed out that disappointment often happens to people who go on retreat. Sometimes people expect some dramatic change to emerge out of a retreat. A big turning point in life.  Or some kind of bliss. "We hope for rapture and we get an aching back. We hope for calmness and we get agitation."

Waldman believes in living life through what she calls "shouldlessness," in other words, avoiding mapping the way our lives should be. That's not to say we should have no aspirations. But she suggests we temper those expectations by accepting whatever life delivers up.

Life is unpredictable and uncomfortable and sometimes, downright painful. Bad stuff is guaranteed to happen. The more we fight it, the more we will suffer. Freedom lies in the ability to accept life on its terms. As she points out, life is by its nature "never certain, never sure, unpredictable, full of surprises, full of change. Reliability is just not the nature of this life and that's often what we're expecting and demanding."

By embracing life's disappointments and by holding our demands for life "a little more lightly," the happier we will be.

And so, this afternoon, as the retreat proceeds without me (I'll return tomorrow after the snowstorm ends), I am heading back to my meditation table.

I'm ready to make a few New Year's resolutions: I vow to try out Waldman's notion of "shouldlessness," that is, to live without tight hold of a map about how life should proceed. I vow to try to embrace life exactly the way it is, in all of its imperfections. I also vow to try to learn to live with the discomfort of disappointment.

All in all, I'd say the first day of my retreat was a great success.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Musings on Meditation

Perhaps it's because I am about to do my first four-day silent meditation retreat, starting tomorrow.

Or maybe it's because the last few days, with all the holiday activities, life has been so hectic and I needed space.

All I know is that when I sat down at my meditation table this morning, I immediately felt a glowing energy rise up inside me.

I sat in silence, just feeling my breath slowly coming in, and slowing passing out.

It was completely and utterly peaceful.

And it just went on and on and on. I drank a full cup of tea (which usually means I'm done meditating)
and then went to the kitchen and made a second cup. I came back to sit once again at the table, with the euphoria and peace that I had found just staring into the candle.

At some point I started thinking, "I just never want to stop meditating." I felt a sense of transcendence and joy and love that cannot be described in words.

And so now, I suppose, I'm ready for the retreat.  I don't expect four days of euphoria. I'm not sure what to expect.

But I'm excited to spend this time and space apart from life, listening to the voice, and the silence, within.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!!

This is the Christmas poinsettia that belonged to my grandmother, Michelina Rotondo. I was fortunate enough to inherit the plant, which blooms big-time at Christmas.

And from this mother plant came babies.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Plea to President Obama: Stay Progressive on the Fiscal Negotiations!

By Richard Kirsch

President Obama must remember the message of election night and back away from cutting Social Security benefits.
That progressive stance of Obama's didn’t last nearly as long as I had hoped. I put on my Obama baseball cap – the one I picked up from a street vendor walking to the inauguration four years ago – a few weeks before the November election. I’ve worn it every day since, to both celebrate his victory and cheer on the president for keeping to a progressive promise in the fiscal negotiations. Part of that promise was telling the DesMoines Register that Social Security benefits should not be cut. But it looks like my cap is going back on the shelf if reports that Obama is willing to cut Social Security benefits prove to be true.
There are three things to keep in mind about the president agreeing to cuts in Social Security benefits. The first is that Social Security’s benefits are slim, while retirement savings for most Americans are even thinner. The second is that if we are going to address Social Security’s eventual shortfall, there’s a simple progressive alternative to cutting benefits. The third is that this concession is giving in to the corporate deficit hawks, each of whom has huge personal retirement accounts. Let’s take them – very briefly – one at a time.
Social Security is what American seniors survive on. As Dean Baker reports, “The median income of people over age 65 is less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of the elderly rely on Social Security benefits for more than half of their income and nearly 40 percent rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income. These benefits average less than $15,000 a year.”
And most people don’t have savings to fall back on. Half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings and nearly half of baby boomers are at risk of not having enough savings to pay for basic necessities and health care.
Point number two is if you are going to tackle the eventual Social Security shortfall – which has nothing to do with the fiscal talks since Social Security doesn’t contribute a dime to the deficit – there is a simple, progressive alternative to cutting benefits. Lifting the cap on payments into Social Security for income of greater than $110,100 would only impact 6 percent of wage earners and would extend the life of the trust fund for almost 75 years.
Finally, let’s look at the corporate CEOs who blithely talk cuts in Social Security, like Goldman Sach’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who told CBS News, "You're going to have to do something, undoubtedly, to lower people's expectations of what they're going to get." It’s easy for a guy who has $12 million in retirement assets to dismiss a cut in benefits of $1,000 and more as just lowered expectations. Other CEOs leading the campaign to cut benefits include Honeywell’s David Cote, with $78 million in his retirement account, and GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, with $55 million stashed away for his later years.
Hopefully the president will back away from cutting Social Security benefits. If not, we need Democratic leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep to his pledge to keep Social Security out of the fiscal talks. And if a fiscal package with the cuts is presented, Democrats in both houses should offer an amendment, substituting lifting the cap on 6 percent of upper-income Americans for cutting benefits for all our retirees. That’s the kind of choice we need Congress to face.
But Mr. President, let’s not get to that choice: I really like wearing my Obama cap. 
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform. This post appeared in Next New Deal and the Huffington Post.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chapter 57, Sister Mysteries: Time to Face the Music

By Claudia Ricci 

The sky has a showy golden glow when Renata creeps out of the porch and into the cabin to sit beside Arthur's door. She's brought a blanket with her and the morning air is so cold that she arranges it over her head like a veil.

How ironic. For days now, Arthur has been waking at least an hour earlier than Renata. He's come to the porch, settled in the rocking chair, and sat there, just watching her sleep. Each time she awoke to see him in the chair, staring, creepy feelings circled up from her gut. She would pull the blanket up over her nose and ask him very politely to leave the porch.

Now, though, it's her turn to sit guard outside his bedroom door, waiting for him to wake up. She is anxious to speak to him as soon as he wakes because she will need his help -- and his wagon -- with her plan.

It occurs to her to say the rosary while she's waiting, but no sooner has she said the first four Hail Mary's than there is a scratching noise behind Arthur's door. It sounds like the dog clawing wood.

"OK, OK, I hear ya," Arthur says. And now she hears his feet planted heavily on the floor.

Renata bolts to stand and knocks.

"Mr. Arthur, good morning," she calls brightly.

He's at the door before he even answers. But he only opens it a crack. Renata glances down and instantly realizes why. Inwardly she  groans. She sees a naked hairy leg and swivels 180 degrees to turn her gaze the other way.

"Excuse me Mr. Arthur, I'm so sorry to disturb you before you' to greet the world."

"That's not a problem at all, ma'am, I will be dressed and out before you finish your next prayer."

And so he is, he's emerged from the bedroom before she can even resituate herself on the floor.

"You are the early one today," he says, running his suspenders over each of his shoulders. He ruffles one hand through the mop of curls on his head, and then takes the same hand across the beard growing on his cheeks. For the first time she notices that his beard is reddish in color. His hair, as always, is a swarm of golden curls.

"Yes, well you see, I'm in a hurry, and I need your help, at least I'm hoping you can help me. Shall we go into the porch?" She doesn't wait for his reply but turns and he and the dog follow.

"Excuse me ma'am but you must allow Pete to attend to our morning business." Arthur opens the cabin door and the dog lopes outside. Arthur follows. A short time later he and the dog return.

Inside the porch, Renata takes a seat on one of the benches at the edge of the porch and Arthur has the rocking chair. Pete settles at Arthur's ankles.

"I should say first of all that I put a mighty store into my dreams," she begins. "That's the first thing you should know. It may not make sense to you, but I had a dream last night which was like no ordinary dream. I was at the convent and my dear friend, Sister Teresa, I've told you about her, well, she was very seriously ill. I could see her thrashing in her bed, and the doctor was there, and the other nuns were all gathered around the bed saying prayers."

Arthur nods. "And so?"

"I must go back. I know it's crazy, I know I may pay dearly, but I cannot stand by thinking Teresa is ill and that I will not be there to help."

"But ma'am, she has people there to help her, no?"

"Well of course she does, but must understand Arthur we are as close as real blood sisters. We came to the convent within a month of each other and we've been together ever since. And because of that, I have no choice. What if something were to happen to her? Dear God, I don't want to consider the possibility. If she were to die, I wouldn't see much point in carrying on my own battle. No, no matter that the risk is grave for me, I must go to her. Immediately. And so I will need your wagon. And ... and perhaps you driving if you're willing."  Renata's eyes were two dark flames in wide white pools. Her face was as pink and flushed as a fresh salmon.

Arthur shakes his head and lifts both hands outward. "I hardly know what to say. You're the one who told me all the reasons you wouldn't dare set out from here because the authorities are everywhere looking for you. Are you honestly going to go right back to the convent, right into the mouth of the lion? They'll be waiting for you, and I don't need to tell you, the gallows will finally claim you."

"I know I know." She lifts one hand as if to silence him. "But somehow I think God's hand is at work here. Maybe it's just time I just faced what I haven't been willing to face. I know as God is my witness that I didn't kill Antonie, but perhaps it's my destiny to pay for his death anyway.  I tell you Arthur, I'm ready for whatever happens. I won't be kept away from Teresa another day."

Arthur reaches down to scratch Pete's ears. He looks up.  "I hear you ma'am. And even though I cringe thinking what will happen, I cannot deny you what you're asking."

"So we can get going right away then?"

"Give me a few minutes to pack some vittles, and I'll git the wagon hitched." He eyes her. "You want to ride underneath a blanket, in case we meet anybody in the law along the way?"

Renata shakes her head. "I'll tuck my head beneath your widest-brimmed hat, and we can bring the blanket just in case. But I have had my fill playing the frightened criminal on the run. I won't return to the convent hiding under a blanket." She has a kind of passion in her voice that she hasn't felt for months.

Arthur stares hard at her, his eyes wide and bright. "Ma'am, if I might just say one thing, I am rooting for you, and if there is such a thing as God, and if there is such a thing as a miracle on earth, you would be the way I would see both of them happening in the world. What I'm trying to say is, I am on your side no matter what."

Renata blushes deep. "Oh Arthur, you shouldn't put too much store in me. God has plenty better clay to work with I promise you." She rises from the bench. "Now why you let me take care of packing food and water, I ought to be able to handle that while you take care of the wagon."

And so in less than half an hour, Renata and Arthur are side by side and already riding, with the dog and Arthur's rifle and some provisions covered by a blanket in back.

"I figure if we ride without stopping, we be right about at the valley leading to the convent by nightfall, or shortly after."  That's all Renata has to hear.

"Bless you Arthur. Bless you." She rides with her rosary beads wrapped tightly around both hands.

Sister Mysteries is an on-line novel about a nun, Sister Renata, who was falsely accused of killing her cousin. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


By Kellie Meisl

I have returned to the woods. Some of you reading this know that I come out of the woods in the early spring when deer ticks awaken, and return in the late fall, early winter, when they become mostly dormant. I sometimes wonder if this cycle is for a bigger reason, would I explore as much in the winter if the season did not provide me with this suspended window?

I am humbled by the beauty of the woods. Even on days like today, when I feel chilly and unmotivated to bundle up, when I finally do, and get myself out the door, gratitude instantly melts away the chills. Today, though the daylight was grey, all around me, all I could see were beautiful colors and patterns. Nature is so elegant.

Culturally, December is an ornate season, filled with glitzy trappings, yet I find the most florid decor on walks in the woods, as if it was placed by sentient beings for the sheer pleasure of me discovering it. Even things that would not be traditionally considered beautiful are. It is the energy of the woods that provides me with this sensuous experience. I am certain of it. 

In the woods I am alone yet more connected that ever. The trees remind me of that as I trod upon their roots, knowing that each is joined to another in an endless web buried deeply within the earth. Too, their canopy seems to connect the vast space of sky. The trees remind me to reach.

I often refer back to a dream I had where a beautiful tree sailed toward me in a rushing river, and I was frantic thinking I needed to capture it to place it as a work of art in my home. I could not capture it but has not the artful tree captured my heart hundreds of times as I walk the forest? Indeed it has.

It is hard to put into words just how much the woods and the walks have changed me, for the better, but that has been the mission of my writing about the walks all along. So I try. In a way I have become less tolerant of pretense and more impatient by inauthenticity, even in myself. My walks in nature have challenged me to both reach higher and dig deeper, and in them I have found my true calling.

Kellie Meisl is an artist and writer who lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This piece appeared first on her blog, called "Walk."  All the photos are Kellie's.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

"Just Be"

By Claudia Ricci

Just feel your body.
Just feel.
Just breathe.
Just be in motion.
Just beware of your arms and your legs, your fingers and your toes,
your ears and your eyes, your stomach and your brain.
Just be grateful for all the marvelous things your body can do, mysterious things
like thinking, which we can't even explain.

Just be somewhere, somewhere quiet, and let it sink deep within you.
Just be the rain, or the sound of thunder
or the music from a wooden flute.
Just pretend you are sitting in a canyon
under a cornflower blue sky and that flute
music is floating overhead.

Just be sitting in your dinette
sipping a cup of tea watching
the red-headed woodpecker
snapping his beak against
the suet.

Just watch the birds settle and fly,
settle and fly.

Just let your eyes close and
just be glad for the drumming
that is your heart beat.

Just start to see yourself
a new way
apart from anything you
have ever accomplished.

Just sit still and follow
your breath in
and out
and in
and out
for at least half an hour a day.

Just be.

Painting by Claudia Ricci

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Now Comes a Poem Crying out "Sacred"

Every once in a while along comes a poem and it stops you in your tracks. You read it over and over again and feel the words sinking into your blood and running through your veins. You are astonished that someone has written exactly what it is you needed and wanted to hear. You wish like heck that you'd written it yourself, but most of all you're just so glad somebody else did.

In this case, the poet who wrote the poem I have in mind lived hundreds of years ago. Hafiz, who lived from 1320-1389 (about 100 years after Rumi) is a highly celebrated Persian poet. Wikipedia claims that Hafiz' work can be found "in the homes of most people in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan," and that people "learn his poems by heart and use them as proverbs and sayings to this day." Westerners learned of Hafiz' poetry largely thanks to Goethe, and later to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who translated Hafiz' work in the 19th century.

According to the book where I saw this poem (see citation below), an Indian teacher named Hazrat Inayat Khan, who is said to have brought Sufism to the West, once said of the poet "the words of Hafiz have won every heart that listens."

And so Hafiz has won my heart with a poem called

"Now is the Time."

Now is the time to know
That all that you do is sacred.

Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God.

Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child's training wheels
To be laid aside
When you can finally live
With veracity
and love.

Hafiz is a divine envoy
Whom the Beloved
Has written a hold message upon.

My dear, please tell me,
Why do you still
Throw sticks at your heart
And God?

What is it in that sweet voice inside
That incites you to fear?

Now is the time for the world to know
That every thought and action is sacred.

This is the time
For you to deeply complete the impossibility

That there is anything
But Grace.

Now is the season to know
That everything you do
Is Sacred.

from The Gift, Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translations by Daniel Landinsky. Thanks to my dear friend Leslie Gabosh for loaning me the book! My hubby and I read Hafiz' poetry together in bed the other night; Richard actually found the poem and said, "this one is just right for you." He read it, and then I asked him to read it again. And again. I just lay there letting the words sink right into my body.

Paintings by Claudia Ricci

Monday, December 03, 2012

THIS I BELIEVE: "I Will Live For Her"

By Sira Faizi
               It was a cold winter. Probably the coldest winter I have ever experienced and not because of the snow on the ground, the cold air brushing against my cheeks, or even the wind blowing in my face until my nose was as red as a rose. “Auntie Maeh” was sick and I was very worried. She didn’t look like “Auntie Maeh;” I’d never seen her like this before. Her toes turned brown, she could not move, and I had to feed her. Now if you knew Auntie Maeh, you knew there was something wrong with this picture. My family and I had taken her to the hospital and I assumed that the doctors would fix her because that’s what doctors do, right? I thought they would make her better and that she’d be home in time for Christmas, she’d be home in time for my sisters 13th birthday, she’d be home in time for New Years. Unfortunately, that did not get to happen. On December 16th 2009, at 7:50PM, Auntie Maeh passed away at the age of 69, the victim of kidney failure. Instantly, that moment changed my life forever.
            I was fifteen when I lost my aunt and I could not find the strength to do anything. I gave up on holidays; I gave up on life. I went from a 94 in math to a 55. My other grades dropped drastically. I had a spare key to my aunt’s apartment so sometimes I would ditch school and stay there, hoping she would come home. I would dial her phone and just listen to her voice on voicemail 1,000 times as she simply said “Maryanne McKeever.” But she didn’t pick up. She was never going to pick up no matter how much I wanted her to, no matter how much I needed her to.
            My aunt was more than my aunt. She was like a mother. She never missed a birthday, graduation or any event I had growing up. During my chorus recitals, she would come right after work, traveling two hours just to be there for me because that’s the type of person she was; devoted and caring. Her age was nothing upon her young reflection and attitude towards life. Despite all the cruel events in her life, she never let them make her bitter. I could say a million things about her but the bottom line is Auntie Maeh was the sweetest women alive and will always have a special place in my heart.
            With the help of my brothers and sisters and many endless days and nights of crying, I realized they were mourning for her too. I was not as alone as I thought I was. I had to help them and be strong for them but they were the ones who helped me. I turned to them because I knew they could understand what no one else did. Slowly, we began to heal together, reminiscing on all the memories we had with Auntie Maeh. Eventually, with time, I realized I did not have to forget her but I did have to move on. I had to live my life because that’s what she would have wanted. She wouldn’t have wanted me to be sad. She would say “Stop it Sira. Put a smile on your face, you’re a doll.” So I tried to smile every day until finally, my smile was real. I got back involved with school and I made her proud. I even started celebrating holidays again.
            This I believe: you do not have to forget but you do have to keep living. With time, things get better. My aunt was gone physically but not spiritually. She is my guardian angel now and just like I turn to God for help, I also turn and talk to her. She will always be there in my heart. I will never forget the heartache her death brought me but I will live with her spirit in my heart and remember all the good times I had with her. I will live my life; I will live for her. 
Sira Faizi is a freshman at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Turning Sixty

The sun pours in over my shoulder as I sit down to write this.

I am sitting here trying to absorb the fact that today I turned 60 years old. It's kind of odd and strange to think about it. I recall a neighbor of mine, an older woman, telling me that no matter how old she got, she still always felt inside like the younger person she remembered being. I know what she means. The calendar spins and we are hard pressed to keep our minds in sync with the numbers. However should we "adjust" to advancing age?

One question I asked myself today is why do I feel that I must say something profound and wise on this birthday? I'm not sure there is anything profound to say about living six decades, except I do know this: my mind can play tricks. It takes the year of my birth, 1952, and it shoots back into history sixty years. 1892. How weird is that! 1892 was six years before the Spanish American War. Nine years before Theodore Roosevelt became President. Sixteen years before the first Model T Ford rolled out of the factory. A whopping thirty years (almost) before women had the right to vote.

When I consider sixty years in those terms, it kind of unnerves me. It makes me feel old or at least, it somehow gives me an appreciation of how much time I've lived. Quite a bit.

Lately, I have been dealing with something of an existential crisis. All the things that gave my life meaning for so long suddenly don't quite add up the way they used to.  The worst part of this situation is that I can't for the life of me figure out why it's hit so hard and so suddenly. I told a colleague the other day that I feel like I walked off the end of a pier some months back and I'm still swimming around madly trying to figure out how to get back on solid ground.

What I've found to be most soothing is meditation and spiritual contemplation.  It helps me to focus on the feeling of the breath, one inhalation at a time. Something about staring into a candle, and just breathing, has brought solace. In the midst of mental chaos the breath is the steady and simple reminder that we are here today, and if we're lucky, maybe tomorrow. But all we can really count on is today, this breath, this rising breath, this falling exhalation.

Today, my birthday, has been a nice day. I was blessed by greetings of many kinds: two separate flower deliveries, a host of cards and happy birthdays on Facebook and by phone and email too.

This afternoon, after a special lunch with my husband, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to meditate. And tonight we are going to a Sufi retreat center nearby for a program of meditation and chanting.

Maybe the only important realization that comes with turning sixty is that renewed reminder that life is so incredibly fleeting and precious. And that we should try the best we can to enjoy each moment of every day, preferably surrounded by people we love. Or in their absence, surrounded by their beautiful greeting cards with such wonderfully inspiring and heartfelt messages.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Sculpture to Celebrate the Planet

By Claudia Ricci

The sculpture you see here was commissioned by the Fetzer Institute as part of its Global Gathering conference held in Assisi, Italy in September. The artist is Dimitris Alithinos, of Greece. Fetzer, whose mission is to promote love and forgiveness, brought together for the Gathering an international group of scholars, artists, lawyers, health and business professionals, and governmental leaders, all of whom have been working or supporting projects that in one way or another promote love and forgiveness.

Alithinos' white marble sculpture, part of the contemporary public art exhibit arranged by Fetzer to honor the Gathering, was displayed in the Piazza del Comune, a bit of a climb up one of the cobble-stoned streets in the beautiful old city of Assisi.

The artist, born in Athens in 1945, was present in Assisi for the display. One very novel and highly-effective aspect of the sculpture: the swollen belly of the madonna-like woman in the sculpture -- which is the globe itself -- lights up, creating a particularly impressive effect at night.

Alithinos' slideshow accompanying the sculpture showed him visiting the Italian marble quarry where he carefully selected the block of Carrara marble he would use.

Fetzer's program notes indicated that the maternal body sculpted by Alithinos "expresses an unconditional maternal love, full of hope for the future and forgiveness for the past, devoted not to an individual life coming into being, but to a collectivity, humankind. The young woman is seated and absorbed in cuddling her round belly."

The artist commented: "When I see a pregnant woman, in the ugliness and harshness of the world, I think that in order to make the decision to bring a child in the world, she has probably forgiven humanity for all its sins, for all its cruelty, for all its crimes against the planet and ultimately against itself."

When I asked how he engineered the light in the sculpture's belly, he said "it was quite a challenge."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

We Can Never Say "Thanks" Enough to the Ones We Love

By Claudia Ricci

We had an office lunch party yesterday, with food enough to feed four or five times the number of employees who showed up to eat. There was a big pot of homemade chili with all the fixings, another pot of pasta, and then steaming trays of empanadas (delicious Spanish meat patties), and yummy rice with chicken. Certain of us also insisted on bringing salads and rolls to round out the pre-Thanksgiving feast.

What really made the event special though was the way my boss, Maritza Martinez, who serves as Director of the Educational Opportunities Program at UAlbany, spoke to those of us gathered.

Hers was a hasty lunch, sandwiched as she was by meetings with students and others at the University.

But she stood up and holding her plate, she said she wanted to stop for a moment and thank each of us in the office. She said that she is very very grateful for all of us, and for our contributions.

She told us in no uncertain terms that we really mattered to her. And she encouraged us to tell others in our lives that we are thankful for them. Love, she said, love, love, love -- it's everything.

She got a little choked up when she made this little speech, and I noticed her eyes looking teary.

This is a very very devoted supervisor, and her words have stuck with me. And so I want to pass on Maritza's advice to anyone who happens to be reading.  We can all make long lists of the things for which we are grateful at Thanksgiving, but certainly the people in our lives top that list.

Maritza reminds me that we should all take a moment -- or several moments -- this week to tell the people we value, the people we love, the people who matter to us, just how much they count.

When you think about it, we can never ever say enough "thank you's" to and for the people we love. We can never replace them when they are gone. The precious connections we share are worth our careful attention.  We can't lose by saying some version of "I love you," or "you matter to me so much." Or maybe it's time to get specific. Maybe we can say "this is why you matter," and then spend a few minutes going into detail.

Life sails along so fast that it's understandable we don't take the time to live in gratitude. We don't spend the time really feeling grateful for the things, and especially the people, we so easily can take for granted.

But we should try harder.

So along with preparing the turkey and all the fixings this week, remember to give thanks for the people. Because in the end, they are the ones who keep feeding you long after the dinner is over.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Caressed by November Light, a Poem

By Claudia Ricci

Now the November sun
catches me by surprise.
Now it dances through the lotus flower
hanging on my window pane,
and lands so gently on my shoulder
and thighs.
I feel caressed by November light.

Now I look up to see that the sun has also
Turned me into a dark typing shadow
Against this yellow wall I face.
The temptation is to turn
around, to stare right into the glowing
White drum in the milky sky.
Ah, but that just bleaches out
my eyes and leaves me blinking
blue and yellow spots.
When it comes to the sun, we’ve got so much
more of a spectacle in the moment-by-moment sideshows,
we don’t need to see what’s happening on the main stage.

I bought the lotus wall hanging – a translucent photograph in a frame –
from a woman at a Sufi retreat center. She had magical eyes, large and luminous.
She wrote about the lotus:
“This Lotus combines blue, white and yellow. Blue brings spiritual energy & calm.
White gives purification and peace. Yellow gives illumination and inspiration.
Her instructions: “Hang this flower in a sunny window and let the light shine through bringing its special gifts to you!”

The most curious thing about the hanging is how the woman who made it, Jeanne Cameron, photographs the flowers:

She takes all of the flowers to a special rock quarry all the way up in Maine 
where she floats them there in the water 
until the sun hits the blossoms at just the right angle. 
Only at that moment, when the sun stipples the flower in sparkling points of light, does she snap the photo.

Why a rock quarry in Maine? It turns out that 
was an accidental discovery. One day she happened to be at the quarry, and happened to notice the flood of light sparkling in the water.

I ought to send her this poem and tell her that her lotus has indeed brought its special gift to me.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


By Amanda Espinal

It’s ironic for me to want to be an English major when I don’t even know how to write well. I can read. Barely. I don’t know all the rules of grammar. I don’t know how to read a piece of literature and come up with a meaningful interpretation of it from my thoughts. I don’t know how to write an essay about a book without revising my thesis a couple hundred times because it’s “too vague.” Hell, I’m having trouble writing this very sentence. See? Not English major material at all, although I want to be. It’s funny because I actually loved English at one point. It was my favorite subject. The keyword in that sentence is “was”. Well, I still like English. I guess you can say that English and I have a love/hate relationship.
            English was the one subject I could count on. Reading all those books in the fourth and fifth grade seemed so easy. I remember when how well you read was measured by the letters A through Z. I always felt proud of myself when I would go up a letter. It made me feel accomplished, like a scientist whose lab experiment had just produced the cure for cancer. I think I felt the best when I upgraded to chapter books. That was the greatest feeling, or so I thought. The print on the page got smaller and the vocabulary got more complex. Still, I didn’t mind it too much. As long as the books remained interesting, I was fine. But as I moved up the grade ladder, I quickly learned that every book you read won’t be as interesting as you want it to be. A prime example is Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I had no idea what was going on in that book. All I knew was that a guy was in a plane crash and he was only able to survive in the wilderness because of his hatchet, hence the book title. I think he ends up becoming a cannibal, I don’t know. Anyway, that wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Though reading Hatchet was cruel, it wasn’t nearly as cruel as reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in my senior year of high school. That was like trying to crack the Da Vinci code. The book was extremely confusing and it left you wondering if you were ever going to find the meaning of the book. It’s a miracle I got through it.
            I used to like writing. I mean, I still like writing but I used to write much more in my middle school years. The “it” thing for me was poetry. I adored poetry. I loved how I was able to rearrange words to make them rhyme. That was my thing. Do you know how writers have a signature? That was my signature. If the poem didn’t rhyme, then it wasn’t a poem. My teacher always told me that it didn’t have to rhyme, but I never believed her. You can tell that I was an open minded child (sarcasm).
Writing was fun until I entered the sixth grade. I was expected to write essays. The components of writing an essay were drilled into me. An essay had to be composed of five paragraphs with at least five sentences in each paragraph. The essay also had to have a main idea with three supporting details that would make up your three body paragraphs. The most important components of an essay were the introductory paragraph and the conclusion.  My teacher failed to mention that the introduction and the conclusion were also the hardest to write. I was told that the conclusion was just a summarization of the entire essay. So that’s what I did. I summed it all up. But according to my teacher, I kept repeating myself so I had to come up with a different way of writing a conclusion. Eventually, I got it down. I used the most important points of the essay to write the conclusion. I thought this was going to be the hardest it would get. Boy, was I wrong.
            I noticed just how much I needed to work on my writing when I got to be a senior in high school. I was in AP Literature (I have no idea why). I was expected to write complex paragraphs about what we were reading in class. A complex paragraph? I can’t even write a complex sentence, let alone a complex paragraph. What was this teacher thinking? I struggled so much in that class. I didn’t know how to rearrange words to make myself sound clear and concise. I couldn’t make myself sound like that even if I tried. As I read over several prompts, the words would get jumbled in my head and I wouldn’t be able to form a proper sentence. I would probably read the same sentence about five times before moving on to the next sentence. It was that bad.
I felt I needed someone to help me, so I decided to speak to my AP Literature teacher, Mr. Falciani.  He was an arrogant but brilliantly funny man. He always talked about how he was so intelligent and that we always had to follow his advice because he was just that brilliant. He was joking, of course. I think. Anyway, I walked into his office to speak to him about an assignment. He had given us another prompt for still another essay. I didn’t know how to approach the assignment. Like I said, I sucked at writing at complex paragraphs. So, I asked him for some advice. He handed me a rubric that outlined how the essays were graded. “I want you to look over the rubric and then underline what you think is important. After, I want you to write your essay with the rubric in mind.” That’s it? No mystifying wisdom? “I’ll try but you know that I’m a horrible writer, so don’t expect my essay to be great.” Before I stepped out of that room, he said “Amanda, you’re not a bad writer. To be honest, you’re one of the top writers in your class. You can write this essay. We’ll work on your writing together.” I left his office with my chin up that day. I worked on my writing in preparation for the exam. Once I took the exam, I put everything that had to do with AP literature out of my head. I knew I hadn’t done well. I expected to get a one out of five or at the very least, a two out of five. That’s why I was surprised when I learned that I had gotten a three out of five. Sure, it’s not the best score, but it’s not the worst either. It shows that I have potential, which is what Mr. Falciani was trying to get through my head.
            So, this essay is coming to a close and I feel like I’m running out of things to say. I don’t even know if I did a decent job of explaining my history with English. It’s been a rocky relationship, I can tell you that. I guess writing gets better over time. It also takes practice. I can’t sit on my behind and expect to become a better writer. No, writing is a skill. A skill I have yet to perfect. I’m not even close to perfecting it. Maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I’m only a freshman, after all. I’ll be worried if I’m a senior and I still can’t write a complex paragraph. That would definitely be a “Yikes!” moment.

Amanda Espinal was born in Manhattan and recently graduated from the Community Health Academy of the Heights high school. She is currently freshman at the University At Albany and English is her intended major. She loves creative writing, and hopes to be a Special Education teacher one day. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

With Obama's Election Comes a New Era in Health Care

By Richard Kirsch

Despite the bill's flaws, the passage of the Affordable Care Act -- and Obama's reelection -- ensure a whole new ball game in health care.

Four years ago, my wife and I planted an oak tree on Election Day – our Obama Oak – at the front of our house. The remarkable thing about the tree is how long it holds on to its leaves. I see it from my window, now doubled in height, still holding its crimson leaves, even after Sandy’s winds blew the leaves off of every other tree in the surrounding Taconic Hills. For me, the Obama Oak’s hardiness is a testament to perseverance of a health reform movement and a president, who together completed the 100-year quest to make health care a government-guaranteed right in the United States. With the president’s reelection, that quest is now secure and a new era in American health care begins.

I am sure that skeptics on the left will scoff at the assertion that the ACA launches a new era in health care. After all, a key to securing congressional passage of the Affordable Care Act was that the law did not upend the current system of health care financing in the United States. The ACA maintains and expands the current three pillars of health coverage: coverage at work, coverage from the government, and coverage purchased by individuals. But unlike those skeptics, the opponents of ObamaCare understand that once the government is responsible for arranging affordable health coverage for its citizens, it is a whole new ball game.

There are two ways to get a glimpse of the new world, one by looking at Medicare and Social Security, the other by seeing what’s happening under RomneyCare in Massachusetts.

Congress has debated changes in Social Security and Medicare almost every year since each program was enacted. Throughout that time, conservatives have tried to stop the programs from expanding and pushed to privatize these public gems. They continue to do so today at their continued political peril. But the history of the programs is that each slowly expands to cover more people with more benefits, as Americans increasingly rely on them for their financial security.

Since its passage in 1935, Social Security’s initial meager payments, available to only a limited set of workers, were expanded over time to provide decent (though far from generous) benefits to almost all workers and extended to surviving spouses and dependent children. Medicare also continued to expand the services it covered, including adding prescription drug coverage a decade ago and just last month improving coverage for some chronically ill beneficiaries. Medicaid has also become a very popular part of the social insurance structure, relied upon by low-income families, the disabled, and an increasing number of the aged.

In writing this, I don’t mean to gloss over the flaws and even setbacks in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Each of the programs could be improved. But the vital point is that debates over the programs happen largely in public. Health and retirement security for seniors is not a matter just of market forces or private arrangements; it makes up a substantial amount of federal spending and policy. And politicians have found that Social Security and Medicare are the third rails of American politics.

The same will be true for the Affordable Care Act once its key provisions to expand coverage to tens of millions of people start in 2014. At that point, the mystery that is ObamaCare will begin to be cleared up, as millions of people – touching many more millions of family members – find that they have access to affordable health coverage, either from the government or purchased with government subsidies. People will learn first-hand that if they lose their job, start a small business, or retire early, they will still be able to be insured. All the fear-mongering will lose its bite when instead of the sky falling, people have a new floor of health security.

Congressional fights over the ACA will become an annual staple of American politics. The right will continue to try to gut many of its main provisions. Progressives will work to make the law more affordable, building on the popular support that will be established and pushing for improvements. The health care industry will fight over how it impacts their bottom line. There will be big public debates on how the ACA controls health care spending and how much the government can afford to spend. Through all this, as more people are covered by the ACA, ObamaCare will join Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as integral parts of how Americans attain a basic level of financial security and personal well-being.

We can already see some of this in Massachusetts. RomneyCare is very popular, a settled part of the political landscape. It is working well: Romney even bragged that 98 percent of Massachusetts residents were covered in the third presidential debate. Health costs have gone up less quickly than neighboring states, and more employers are providing coverage.

But because the state is now responsible for more of the cost of health coverage, the Massachusetts legislature, often at the urging of Governor Deval Patrick, has vigorous debates every year on how to better rein in the growth of health spending. This year it passed a law intended to set limits on the rise in health spending. 

Under pressure from the new law, health insurance companies and hospital systems are agreeing to new cost control measures. The people who run the subsidized marketplace for private insurance have used their market clout to get insurers to improve quality while controlling costs. And in liberal Massachusetts – I won’t predict this for Congress – there has been no serious consideration of cutting benefits or subsidies to people.

With President Obama’s reelection and the Democratic majority under Harry Reid in the Senate, there is no doubt that the Affordable Care Act will be fully implemented in 2014. States in which Republican governors and legislatures have delayed taking action will need to decide by November 16th whether to run the new individual and small business marketplaces (the “exchanges”) or hand that authority to the federal government. States and the federal government will start moving aggressively to meet the deadline to begin enrollment next October. A huge new expansion of Medicaid will be agreed to in all but a handful of states. There will be new regulations, furious maneuvering in the health care industry, continued political posturing. And a new era in health care, an era in which the right to health care is a public matter, a matter of regular, government policy, will finally have begun in the United States.

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Monday, November 05, 2012

This Bluebird Will Fly!!

By Edenized Perez

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I just keep her inside
while I walk around with fake laughs and smiles
rather than letting the world see 
the real me.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I lock its cage resisting its escape. 
I fill people’s ears with facts and scenarios
instead of my thoughts.
I never let a soul take a peek through the cracks
to see the real me.

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but instead it’s blinded by the sunlight.
She was out once before but her experiences left
her with a bruised memory
Blank feelings
A cold heart.

Eventually this bluebird will fly.
Soar with pride
Sing with harmony
And walk with grace
But as for now she remains in my heart
And won’t come out.
Edenized Perez is a freshman at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She plans to combine a career of music and journalism.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Chapter 56 of Sister Mysteries: Teresa's in Trouble

By Claudia Ricci   

It seems much too real to be a dream. She is lying there in her bed at the convent, right where she's supposed to be, under a heap of quilts. She knows for certain that she fell asleep there, after an especially quiet dinner with Sister Teresa and the other nuns. Mother Yolla complimented Renata on the beet and apple and onion salad she had fixed. Teresa, looking a little pale, joked after dishes were cleared that "the salad was too too red," and it had given her a stomach ache and could she be excused from doing clean-up chores.

Later Renata brought Teresa a cup of tea, chamomile with honey, just the way she likes it. But Teresa was fast asleep when she pushed open the nun's door.

So why is Renata awake now, tossing and turning in her convent bed, feeling the familiar pinch of the straw on her back and across her shoulders. She is holding her rosary beads, which some nights she will do in order to fall asleep.

She keeps thinking of Señora. The old woman is pouring water into an old ceramic vase, the colorful dark blue vase that once sat on Antonie's kitchen table. It had come with Señora from Mexico so many years before.  It was hand painted in white calla lilies and Señora would fill it every morning with roses or whatever flower was growing in abundance. Antonie ignored the flowers and the vase; what Senora did in the kitchen was Señora's business. "The kitchen is hers," he would often say.

Now for some reason Señora's got the vase in both hands and she has filled the vase with white lilies. Fragrant lilies -- Renata has got the scent of them in her nose as she sleeps.

And then she sees Señora carrying the vase with a towel wrapped beneath it. Somehow, Señora is there in the convent, and she is setting the vase on a night table, right next to Sister Teresa's bed. Señora is speaking soothing words to Teresa. Señora sets a cool cloth over the nun's brow and takes Teresa's hand in both of hers. At just that moment, Teresa arches her back and pulls her hand out of Señora's. She thrashes side to side, and collapses into a fetal position. Her mouth falls open and she cries out. Her face is as white as goat's milk.

Mother Yolla is beside the bed and two or three other nuns have gathered too. They are kneeling around the bed and praying. No one is saying what's wrong with Teresa because apparently no one knows. The doctor is on the other side of the bed, and he has a stethoscope dangling from his neck. Mother Yolla and Señora each take one of Teresa's shoulders, preparing to hold her down while the doctor listens to the nun's chest.

"What? What? Teresa, my dear Teresa, what is wrong?" Renata is trying to wake herself up from the dream, and for a moment she seems to succeed. All she needs to do is wake up and walk down the narrow convent hall and she will be there with Teresa. So simple, so simple.

"She needs me, she needs me," Renata says, but for some reason she is having trouble waking up. She keeps trying to make herself sit up but the quilts are heavy and even when she pushes then aside, she can't get out of the convent bed, she is stuck there in the dark shivering, her head swimming.

But when she is finally sitting up, and she is finally awake, she is not at the convent at all; she sees the thick trees outside Arthur's porch, lit by the sliver of a moon. The night is perfectly still.

Renata pulls the blanket tightly around her shoulders. She is cold but sweating at the same time. Her heart is hammering and a ring of pain is circling her head just above her eyes.

She has only one thought: she will find her back to the convent. She must. This dream has to be a sign that Teresa is in trouble.

She hasn't any idea what time it is, but she gets off the mattress and walks into the cabin still wrapped in the blanket. She stands outside Arthur's door for a moment trying to decide if she should knock. Wake him up. Ask his help. She's going to need a wagon to make the trip.

Biting into her lip, she decides to wait. She goes back to the porch and lays awake until the sky takes its first color from the rising sun.

For the complete novel, go to