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