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.


Travels with Amos: Amish Barn-Raising in Maine

Kennon, Amos and I are now moving south towards home. After climbing to the “roof” of Maine on Highway 11 on Thursday, we turned the corner onto Highway 1 Friday and drove out of the hills and potato fields to the sea.

We entered Maine after a beautiful drive through the side roads of Vermont and New Hampshire and camped on Eagle Lake. On the way there we passed one of the most amazing sights of the trip: an Amish community barn-raising. Kennon counted more than 25 men working on the roof, and many more were on the ground, both inside and outside of the structure. It was a symbol of community that is burned forever into my memory.

From Eagle Lake to the top of the state at Madawaska we drove alongside the St. John River, just across from New Brunswick, Canada. Some of the street signs were in French and English, and the two men in the booth next to us at a diner where we had breakfast were speaking a mixture of the two languages (much like the Cajuns of Louisiana). A large Roman Catholic Church was the centerpiece of towns and villages on both sides of the river.

Coming down the other side, New Brunswick remained just across the St. Croix River. We stopped for the night in Machias, Maine and today (Saturday) will drive to Bar Harbor and Stonington.

To see pictures from the New York and Pennsylvania part of the journey click here. I’ll post the Maine pictures when our visit here is completed.

The Amish community barn raising inspired me to ask the following questions: “What does community mean to you?” and “In what ways do we rally around our neighbors and help them construct a life?” Finally, “What are examples in our typical busy American communities of barn-raising?”

Let me know what you think by email ( or in The Pub on my PeoplesVision website.

Thanks to those of you who have sent me comments.

David Keller wrote, “We can become united again with a willingness to accept the fact that diversity is a gift. Along with this challenge is the willingness to honor the integrity of other points of view, solutions, and perspectives, while at the same time realizing that compromise and working together within compromise is a sometimes “messy” process, but worth the effort.

“No…this is not “pie-in-the-sky” liberal dreaming. It is the hard work of living in a diverse democracy and it is a very practical goal. One key is to value being well informed about issues and to get involved in any way possible.

“The art of listening is crucial, to say nothing about compassionate relationships. Compassion is to realize we are all on the same ‘level’ of existence and to have heart felt concern for each other (in the midst of diversity).

“One crucial way to have this discipline of listening is through meditation. Listening to God, or to silence if we do not acknowledge any ‘god’, is the best way to learn to listen to each other.

“If we learn to listen to the ‘voice’ of God in silent meditation (in its variety of forms) we will be able to recognize that same voice in society, in the people, needs, and situations that demand our attention.

“Yes, some situations demand our attention. The alternative is self-serving isolation (the opposite of compassion). Apathy is probably our most serious problem today. Apathy feeds consumerism. As Bruce Springsteen says in his latest album (Wrecking Ball): ‘Let’s stand shoulder-to-shoulder and heart-to-heart.’ Not bad advice!”

Warren Mathews responded to a previous comment from David Keller by writing, “We are so disconnected from the land and from each other that all we can think about is ourselves.”

Matthews wrote, “I would go further to bemoan the extent to which we are disconnected not only from the land, but also from ourselves.  As we have become more and more urbanized, we have become more and more dependent on others, and indeed on impersonal collections of others (companies), for almost all of our needs as well as our wants. 

“There was something solid and meaningful about having to construct our own shelter, raise our own food, take care of our own pains and illnesses as best we could….

“I wouldn’t for a minute want to go back to those days, but I recognize that if, say in a massive disaster, I were suddenly cut off from the utilities (electricity, water, telephone), grocery stores, sources of maintenance for my house and automobile, doctors and pharmacies and hospitals, etc. that I depend on, I’d be almost totally lost. 

“Life has become fundamentally indirect, where we spend most of our time working to earn money (not of tangible use in it own right), with which we then buy (typically in an impersonal interaction with some impersonal enterprise) whatever we need to function, or want for entertainment. Incidentally, I’d guess that we found more real community with not-so-near neighbors in the agrarian society than we find with many of our next-door or close neighbors in the urban setting.”



Travels with Amos: Minnesota and Wisconsin

The journey through the countryside and small towns of Minnesota and Wisconsin was beautiful. Kennon and I particularly enjoyed Bayfield and Ashland, two towns on Lake Superior. You can see the pictures here.

As a political junkie, I appreciated being in Wisconsin as the June 5 gubernatorial recall approached. It was the topic of conversation with almost everyone I met along the way, particularly in Madison where a union worker holding a Tom Barrett sign told me, “If we lose this election, America will have made the final step toward becoming a corporatocracy.”

We camped one night near Milwaukee, spent the morning driving along Lake Michigan, and had an outdoor brunch at a coffee house near the lake.  This part of the journey was a wonderful addition but it put us nearly three days behind the projected schedule I prepared in planning the trip.

Fortunately, we do not have a deadline and are free to wander where our hearts lead us. So instead of pushing it on the toll highways toward Pennsylvania and New York we traveled the back roads of Pennsylvania farmland through the Amish villages of New Westminster and Volant.

In New York, we visited the Niagara Falls, and then drove on local roads along farm fields and wetlands to Pittsford and Fairport, small New York towns on the Erie Canal.

I continue to be amazed at the diversity of our nation and have a growing understanding of why it is so difficult for us to live into the motto “E Pluribus Unum.”

I have met farmers in the countryside, small business people in towns, white-collar corporate types in cities; people who are rich, working and non-working poor and an increasingly anxious middle class.

The style of living, the meaning of family and religion, the challenges of weather and landscapes, and day-to-day work and economic pressures are dramatically varied among Americans. It is no wonder that people in different parts of this nation look at the same issue and reach different conclusions.

I’m finding that one’s immediate context has the greatest influence on her or his interpretation of what needs the most attention. We are all biased by what we consider our urgent concerns.

We too often have conversations with people just like us (listening and reading the same or similar news’ sources) and thus become inured to what is happening in other places around the country. We are in fact divided into “many” and not united as “one.”

While economic, social and political divisions have always been present in America, it has not always been as viciously polarized as it is today.  A small business owner I met in Tomahawk, Wisconsin agreed, and he set the time we began fracturing into win/lose competing interest groups at 1980.

My questions of the week:  “Given our diversity in geography, financial status, educational levels, religion and political outlook, do you think it is possible for Americans to unite as one people around a common vision? If so, how do we do it? If not, why not?”

Let me know what you think by email ( or at The Pub on my PeoplesVision website.

Thanks to those of you who have sent me comments. Leslie Boyd of Asheville, North Carolina offered the following response to my question about diversity:

With each wave of immigrants came a new wave of xenophobia. Our ancestors were confined to tenement slums, to dangerous industrial jobs that paid subsistence wages only if everyone in the family worked. 

“Citizens paid immigrant Irish to take their place in war. Immigrant life was cheap. Factory owners liked having children work for them because their small hands could reach into the machinery and untangle textiles. It didn’t matter that the machines occasionally maimed or killed the children. My grandparents, children of Irish immigrants, were eight when they started working in the textile mills of New England. My grandmother taught herself to read and write and later taught her husband.

“In Pennsylvania, Eastern Europeans worked in the coal mines. My father-in-law had the tip of his finger cut off in a mining accident and was sent back to work immediately by the company ‘doctor.’ Again, there was always someone to replace men who quit or die on the job.

“Company stores accepted company scrip; workers never saw cash. Pay was so low that people couldn’t buy what they needed so they were indebted to the company store and worked as indentured servants.

“This is what we have done historically with the diversity of immigrants, people so desperate for a better life for their children that they were willing to endure the danger and poverty. And their children did better because this country really did offer opportunity. Whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen.”

To my question about hope, Ann Johnson in Arizona wrote, I am not sure that I feel hopeful. Unless we can shut down the news media and their twisting of every event, and those people that believe all the untruths out there, we are in trouble. The last time our son-in-law visited, he asked to watch Faux (Fox) News.

“I told him ‘Not in my house.’ When we visit them, I leave the room when he watches that swill. The Tea Party people scare me. What will happen to our country if they get control? I feel like echoing all the concerns that Parker Palmer raises in his book The Heart of Democracy. But then I balance that with Jesus Freak by Sara Miles. Here in Graham County people are very caring and supportive of those in need, even when they support the Tea Party.”



Travels with Amos: The Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota

This journey continues to unfold new wonders every day. Traveling through the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota (see pictures at ShutterFly) was a deeply spiritual and contemplative time.

The power of the hills, cliffs, canyons, rivers and streams in the Black Hills, and the gallery of shape and color that nature has carved out in the Badlands simply overwhelmed my senses. The small towns along the way, such as Deadwood and Leads, added spice and interesting people.

Kennon joined me in Minneapolis on Saturday and we made some revisions to our itinerary. We spent the last two days driving through lush farmland, along the Root River and through Bluff Country in southeastern Minnesota, and then across the Mississippi River into Wisconsin.

On May 30th we crawled up the eastern side of Wisconsin to the Apostle Islands and Lake Superior, then made our way down to Lake Michigan. I give thanks to my friends Mark, Bonnie and Kathleen for suggesting this diversion.

Thank you to all who responded to my last post.  I continue to ask everyone I meet — even those reading this blog — whether the state of things in our nation gives you hope or leads you to despair. Whether your answer to this query is “yes” or “no,” please let me know why. Thanks so much.


Wayne Dernetz from the San Diego, California area wrote, “I, too, have been ruminating about what besets this great land of strong people. I boil it down to two factors: First, our political process has devolved into a form of political tribalism. We have decamped into three major groups (Republicans, Democrats and Unaffiliated) which view the other ‘tribes’ as un-American…

“Among these groups, we have lost the ability to communicate with one another. We are lead by ‘shamers’ who engage our emotions, rather than our reason, in whipping up animosity toward the other ‘tribes’.

“The second is greed. Greed is the result of unregulated capitalism, and the loss of perspective that our society need not be engaged in constant competition in a zero-sum game… We no longer are willing to give government its due in exchange for the benefits of common good. I don’t have answers, but remain hopeful that someone, someday will find a means to lead us once again into a period in which we are all proud of our country…”

David Keller from Asheville, North Carolina wrote: “This land is more than the people who live in it. It can teach us, as it has taught Native Americans, that we are part of the land and therefore part of each other… To answer your question, I am both hopeful and frustrated. We are so disconnected from the land and from each other that all we can think about is ourselves.”

My reflection for the last few days has been on the physical diversity of our nation. I’ve traveled through forests and farms, along the Pacific Ocean and beside many rivers and streams, up towering mountains and down into valleys.

America truly is exceptional in her geography and in the fruits of her land. My travels have taken me through fruit groves, cornfields, and other rich cropland. I have seen beef ranches and dairies, and towns devoted to commercial fishing of everything from game fish to abalone and oysters. There have been oil fields and wind farms, and corn grown for ethanol.

Our diversity of resources and natural beauty makes us strong. Why is it, then, that many in America consider the diversity of our people as negative?  The “take back my America movement” attempts to set up “English only” laws; and the focus on immigration issues is (in my opinion) primarily aimed at limiting the human diversity in our country.

Most Americans are here because the nation welcomed their ancestors, and welcomed the diversity of language, traditions and skills they brought with them. Over the generations we all became part of the great melting pot, and old traditions blended with new. With each generational turn, America became stronger. What has changed?

Why are so many from the “melting pot” called the United States now turning into xenophobic people? Have we forgotten the extraordinary contributions to American greatness that have been made by Native Americans, Hispanics, Italians, Irish, African Americans, Indians, Asians, Norwegians and those from many other nations?

Why do we celebrate the diversity of “our” land, but try to limit diversity among our people. I’d love to know your answers. Please join me in conversation by sending an email to

Travels with Amos: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

I now truly understand the words in Pete Seegers’ version of the song This Land is Your Land:  “As I went walking that ribbon of highway I saw above me that endless skyway, I saw below me that golden valley…”  From the time I entered Idaho and moved into Montana and Wyoming I have been mostly driving along ribbons of side roads through golden fields and valleys with a never-ending blue sky above me.
This truly is “big” country with hills and valleys, rivers and streams, fertile ranches and colorful mesas. Sometimes the two-lane road I am on is so long and straight it seems as if it will continue forever. And the sky above stretches endlessly to the horizons.  I wonder as I drive whether or not we as Americans are becoming too small  for this magnificent land.
We seem to have lost the capacity to understand the meaning of “common good”, and we spend our time in debates that focus on ideological purity rather than finding consensus solutions to mammoth problems such as combating climate change, repairing our decaying infrastructure, making our education system relevant to the 21st century, establishing fiscal sanity, providing healthcare to all, and ensuring equality of opportunity for all people (including those who are “undocumented”).
But, as I drive and wonder, I feel a sense of hope rather than despair. I do think we are big enough as a people to rise out of the political quick sand we find ourselves sinking in. First, however, we must loosen the straps of ideological purity that hold us so tightly.  What is your opinion? Do you feel hope or despair? Please join me in conversation by sending an email to, or at the Pub at
For pictures of this segment of my journey go to: