Postcard From London

Coffee Shop Conversations: Is There Hope for America?

I am in London to work on my millennial-elder project. On Thursday I met and talked with four British college students at a Café Nero coffee shop.  All four are interested in and well read about US politics.  All four are baffled, wondering how a great democracy that thrilled the world with Obama’s election can tumble so far so fast. They are not sure if we will ever recover.

But the general sense I am getting from talking with various folks in the UK is that they have more hope in us then we have in ourselves. As a vacationing Canadian academic I met at a sidewalk cafe said, “The world covets American leadership. It seems that no matter how bad things might appear to be, America has always been a light that leads out of the darkness.”

When I asked how he could think this after our years of blundering through Iraq, Afghanistan and other skirmishes of choice––– and now by blundering in our domestic politics with the election of Trump–––he responded, “The redeeming thing about your country has always been your resilience. You recognize and acknowledge your faults, then turn onto a new path.

“After the Bush years you elected Obama, and despite a brutal assault on everything he tried to do, he made a positive mark internationally on issues of climate change and human rights. He confronted brutal dictators, and supported international cooperation and partnerships. He stood firm in repudiating the “American first and America alone” philosophy of his political opponents.

“Electing Trump was a huge setback for the U.S. and for the world. The question now is whether that disastrous mistake becomes a death march away from hope and into the darkness of isolation; or, a resurgence of your natural progressive spirit that will lead into the renewed light of hope.”

The British Press and US Politics

The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher wrote: “Six months into Donald Trump’s term, and Democratic politicians’ ability to be an opposition party is, in a word, pathetic. When the poll came out saying that “Democrats stand for nothing more than opposing” Trump, I thought to myself, ‘If only that were true!’

“But they can’t even do that well. When House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Crowley was asked by the Associated Press just what his party’s core message was, he “hesitated” and then said, “That message is being worked on.”

Who Is to Blame for Obamacare repeal Failure?

Molly Kiniry writes an American Values column in The Sunday Telegraph. Today she wrote about the apparent demise of the Republican commitment to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). “Who is to blame” for the failure, she asks. “Some point to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who failed to corral his party into backing an Obamacare replacement. Others say McConnell was left with an impossible task by Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, who steered the bill through the lower chamber fully aware it would be dead-on-arrival in the Senate.

“But the sad truth is that this morass is no one’s fault. Rather, it is a symptom of a deeper disease in Washington. The modern two-party system prevents meaningful legislative action except in emergency situations. Individual politicians are so dependent on the party machine that none will break ranks, even if their constituents would benefit from bipartisan cooperation. Disloyalty to party can lead to swift retribution or an evaporation of funding.”

Later in her article she writes, “A failed healthcare system means sick children out of school, and missed cancer diagnoses. This is the sort of human misery which no responsible government should inflict upon its own people—and precisely the sort of indifference which has relegated the Republican Party to the pariah status among those concerned about the welfare of America’s poorest.”



Travel as a Political Act

“Travel rearranges cultural furniture and wallops ethno-centric self- assurance.” Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act

It has been my privilege to have my cultural furniture rearranged several times since 1995. I’ve been immersed in different traditions and have in engaged conversations with a variety of extraordinary people: from England, Ireland, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Belgium… to Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Japan, Korea, India and Ecuador. Continue reading “Travel as a Political Act”

Traveling for the Purpose of Traveling

purpose for travel“For my part I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake.” Robert Louis Stevenson

I am one of those strange people who is infused with energy simply by the act of traveling. I enjoy airplanes and airports and my campervan. I enjoy sitting in parks and watching and meeting people. I enjoy conversations with strangers in coffee houses and pubs. Continue reading “Traveling for the Purpose of Traveling”

Easter in London

P1000075Easter in London was a wondrous experience. I know that this will surprise those of you who know me well, but on Holy Saturday evening I attended a candlelight Bach concert at St. Martin’s in the Fields: the Easter Oratorio and the Magnificat.

While my taste in music is more towards Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Mose Allison, and Eva Cassidy—this presentation moved my spirit.

Then on Easter Day the community of St. Luke’s in Islington took me even deeper.  The building looks like a traditional English parish from the outside, but inside it is one of the warmest and most hospitable churches I have worshiped in. Chairs were arranged in a horseshoe, with the Holy Table in the open space. Continue reading “Easter in London”

My City By The Bay

golden-gate-stockA few years ago my wife Kennon and I were sitting with a group of fellow pilgrims at an outdoor pub in Glendalough, Ireland. One of our colleagues posed this question, “If you could travel to anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

The answers were exotic: Kauai, Edinburgh, Rome, Jerusalem, Marbella, Caribbean beaches, Kenya for a safari, Tahiti, Pukhet in Thailand and Goa in India. My answer was San Francisco. Why, Kennon asked, with the entire world to choose from, would I return to a place so familiar?

The answer is best expressed in this passage from my journal, written in 2011:

“When I visit San Francisco— when I return ‘home’— a vibrant energy fills and buoys my body, mind and spirit. All of my senses come alive as I immerse myself in The City’s eclectic mix of people, places, life styles, vehicles, sounds, smells, weather, and activities.

“I love the hustle-bustle and polite jumble on the sidewalks: tourists craning their necks to see the sights, business people heading to the office, food carts selling hot dogs and pretzels, street people seeking a place of shelter, and wanderers like me.

“The mixture of sounds and the blend of smells entice me–––voices speaking different languages, cable cars clanging, sea gulls squawking, traffic grinding, street merchants hawking; outdoor restaurants, fresh-baked sour dough bread, sea air, garlic in North Beach and the pungency of China Town, crabs boiling in pots at the wharf and hot dogs at the ballpark.

“I grew up in the Bay Area and now live near my grandchildren in the mountains of western North Carolina. As beautiful as it is there, I have a vague feeling of claustrophobia… of being closed in without horizons. When I am in San Francisco I feel the openness: a high blue sky (after the fog burns off) and the ocean horizons that I sense in my body even when walking amidst sky-scrapping buildings. I love climbing the hills through diverse neighborhoods, every now and then catching a glimpse of the bay and the majestic Golden Gate.

“Traveling itself gives me energy; taking to the road stimulates something in my genes. But the feeling I have when I arrive in San Francisco is different and deeper. I am nourished at the soul level.

“As I write these words in my journal I am literally (to paraphrase Otis Redding)  ‘sitting in the morning sun, watching the ships roll in… just sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away…”

I know that San Francisco is beset with big-city problems. Travel + Leisure magazine rated it the 12th dirtiest city in the USA. There are too many food wrappers and other wind-blown trash littering the streets and sidewalks.

On the other hand, It should be noted that San Francisco is a national leader in recycling, was the first city in the nation to ban plastic bags, and is in the “top 10” American cities for environmental friendliness and quality of life.  Travel + Leisure readers rated The City high in diversity, ethnic food, coffee, scenic neighborhoods and views.

I visit there four times a year to attend meetings of the United Religions Initiative (and to take in a couple of baseball games). I spend much of my non-meeting time  — day and night— walking, meeting people in parks and squares, and exploring. I have never felt unsafe or hassled, I have never been treated rudely, and I always find a willing helper if I get lost.

I acknowledge that I love San Francisco, and like many lovers I don’t see the faults of my beloved in the way that others who are emotionally detached view them. And, my powers of reasoning are sometimes overruled by nostalgia. Even though Folgers and MJB no longer roast coffee south of the Bay Bridge, in my imagination I still smell the deep, rich aroma of roasters every time I walk under the bridge on my way from the ballpark toward the Ferry Building.

Most of the jazz and folk music establishments (such as the Matador, Hungry Eye, Velvet Lounge, Jazz Workshop, Purple Onion and various coffee houses) that once dominated North Beach are no longer there. But I can hear in my mind the sounds of Thelonious Monk, Mose Allison, Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand, and The Limelighters when I am making my way to a restaurant on Columbus.

My visits to San Francisco are part reality, part myth and part memory… but they are always refreshing–––and I am returning in May with my wife, daughter and three grandsons to take part in the oldest consecutively run yearly footrace in the world, the Bay to Breakers.