Attitudes and Gratitudes at the End of the Mayan Calendar

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(Mayan green ceramic calendar: Stephen Drago – Big Stock)

I have been awaiting this day for months, planning to post a commemoration of the end of the Mayan calendar.  Yesterday, Emi Kolawole published “The world isn’t ending tomorrow. Now what?” on the “ideas @ innovations” page of The Washington Post (here), leading in with this thought:

The world isn’t ending tomorrow. But, judging by the volume of copy generated online, it appears a blog without a post addressing the no-longer-impending end of days will be obliterated by the Three Horsemen of the Blogging Apocalypse on Dec. 21.

Emi is right, in one respect anyway: Just three days from my 67th birthday and four days from Christmas, I cannot conceive of doing anything else right now but writing this post.   But I give fair warning: The humorous ideas about the imagined end of the world that I ordinarily might come up with just aren’t occurring to me.  In all normal respects, 12/21/12 is a trivial date, less noteworthy even than 12/12/12.  We might be tempted to regard today as the “beginning” of the “continuing,” but I cannot argue even that the historical significance of this date is anything but trivial. Certainly the insane notion that this was to be “the end of days” is unworthy of discussion. This is not a time to celebrate superstition.   Not today.

Today I have a heavy heart, filled with urgent concerns.  Just a week ago, we were shockingly reminded by the tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School of the transience and fragility of individual human lives, and all else right now, including the fate of the planet, pales into insignificance.  This is especially true for me, because the Sandy Hook tragedy includes the family of a good friend.

The role of guns in our society is on everyone’s minds.  All of the letters to the editor in today’s  Albany Times Union are on the topic of guns and gun control.  An article about the tradition of guns in America from the Christian Science Monitor in March of this year, “Guns and Freedom” (here), has resurfaced.  As I write, the NRA has just begun a major press conference.  I am paying no attention to it now, though soon enough I will be.  This is a time for reflection, not analysis. Today, my primary focus is not on “attitudes,” but on “gratitudes” — the things that are most important to me.

I am grateful most of all for family and friends. As the ambitions of youth have subsided, I have found friendship, healthful living, peace and contentment to be the major goals of my remaining years.  How lucky I am to still be connected with Skip Christensen, a friend since 1950 when we were Cub Scouts, and to be sharing a blog with him in these troubled times. Skip and his wife Liz, I learned yesterday, are still on the road from Tucson to Seattle, somewhat slowed by the weather, where they will spend Christmas with their two children.

I am grateful for music, and for the many friendships I have made all over the country, over the last fifteen years or so, with talented and creative musicians and singer-songwriters. These are invariably honest, compassionate people, and many of my friends are accustomed to wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  They are courageous people, and they give me the courage I have always needed to open my heart to strangers, as well as family and friends. The spiritual and healing powers of music cannot be overstated. Music gives a special meaning to the word “love,” and performing is always joyful and therapeutic.

Good fortune has allowed me to share my passion for music over the years with many friends at work, caroling at Christmas time and performing at retirement parties.  I am especially grateful that bassist Peter McGowan, who has not yet retired, has joined with me to perform at coffee shops, restaurants, galleries, and farmers markets in recent years. Most recently, we performed this past Saturday with our percussionist Elizabeth Bruyere at the Farmers Market in Delmar, N.Y., and by chance we were followed by good friend and professional singer-songwriter Denise Jordan Findley, whose remarkable song “Memorial Day” was featured on this blog on the tenth anniversary  of 9/11 (here),  performing with bassist Daniel Pagden. I requested “Memorial Day” as Denise and Daniel were setting up, and we were packing up to leave.

It was only then, in the parking lot, that we learned of the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen Peter’s family: His youngest sister, Anne Marie Murphy, had been slain the day before in Newtown, CT, along with six other adults and twenty young children. Peter went home and I went back into the middle school cafeteria where the Farmers Market is held.  Denise sang “Memorial Day,” and as people all around me were joyfully shopping on this last Farmers Market day before Christmas, the last market day of 2012, I broke down in tears.

Two days ago, I traveled to Katonah, N.Y. with two of Peter’s friends, fellow musician Phil Teumim and his wife Marty, for the visitation at a Katonah funeral home.  When we arrived, there was a two-hour line (an estimated 600 people) outside the funeral home.  We met with Peter, his wife Toni, and his sons Casey and Taylor outside the funeral home while inside, his five siblings, his parents and Anne Marie’s family patiently greeted the hundreds who had come to pay their respects.

As the world now knows, Anne Marie died shielding her special needs student, Dylan Hockley, in her arms. The Connecticut Post on Monday reported on their special relationship and the gratitude Dylan’s parents had for her loving devotion to their son (here).  Her funeral was yesterday, at the St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Katonah, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York presiding.  “Like Jesus, Annie was an excellent teacher; like him, she had a favored place in her big, tender heart for children, especially those with struggles,” he said.  “Like Jesus, Annie laid down her life for her friends; like him she has brought together a community, a nation, a world now awed by her own life and death” (The Poughkeepsie Journalhere, and Hollywood Life, here).

The McGowans are a warm and loving family, passionate about music and musical traditions. It is chilling to think that only a week ago they had no inkling of the senseless, horrible tragedy that was to befall them, along with so many others, and that the world would rush into their lives in its wake, changing them forever. Even writing these few words feels like trampling on sacred ground, a feeling that must have overwhelmed Denise Jordan Findley as she wrote “Memorial Day.”  I will add only that I am grateful that Peter was able Saturday morning to  perform music with his band; it was something he needed to do.  I can do no better than offer another opportunity to listen to Nisi’s amazing song:

Memorial Day, by Denise Jordan Findley

I am very grateful, too, for New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand.  She is a close friend of Gabriel Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman whose courageous and remarkable recovery from a gunshot in the head inspired us to dedicate our site to her.  Senator Gillibrand is from the Albany N.Y. area.  Although I do not know her personally, I have played tennis with her father, Doug Rutnick, often over the years (and occasionally with her brother, Doug, Jr.); I was introduced to her briefly once, about twenty years ago.

Doug Rutnick, Sr., at least back then, was an avid duck hunter, and I have always understood the entire family to be hunting and gun enthusiasts.  I was not surprised when Kirsten was attacked during her Senate confirmation process for her perceived opposition to gun control.  Since her promotion from Congresswoman to Senator, however, she has explained that her perspectives on gun control have changed.  I was delighted by her response to the Sandy Hook massacre in an Op ed in The Daily News, published Sunday and updated on Monday (here):

Congress has ducked a serious national debate over common-sense gun laws for too long. While there may be nothing we could have done to have stopped this deranged individual from killing and terrorizing so many people, how many more tragedies must we live through before we say enough is enough?

We have an obligation to act and prevent tomorrow’s senseless deaths by coming together and ensuring that guns stay out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill.

Growing up in South Dakota, I too was a gun enthusiast.  I proudly passed the NRA hunter safety course in junior high school, and occasionally hunted pheasant with a borrowed shotgun. One of my prized possessions was a hexagonal-barreled, Winchester 22-caliber pump-action rifle that had been passed to my mother from her parents out in western Kansas; it was virtually an antique even then.

The NRA has changed over the years, evidently making the promotion of gun rights, rather than gun safety, it’s primary political objective.  The NRA has about four million members today, and as I said at the top, I am not yet aware of what it had to say at its press conference today.  I note that the National Association for Gun Rights, which has about one million members, reacted strongly against President Obama’s call in Newtown on Sunday to restrict the availability of assault weapons (here).  Others are calling for more arms in the elementary schools, or the arming of teachers.

I won’t delve into weapons issues in any detail today.  It seems self-evident, though, that weapons designed only to kill people quickly and efficiently, which do not serve the legitimate interests of hunters and sportsmen, have no legitimate place in society.  It also seems self-evident that the special basis of the “right” to bear arms embedded in the Second Amendment has eroded over the many years since 1791.  But there is a substantial difference in attitudes about this, reflecting I suspect substantial differences in human nature. New York’s other Senator, Chuck Schumer, said this in yesterday’s Washington Post (here):

The gun debate of the past two decades has devolved into a permanent tug-of-war between the National Rifle Association (NRA) and advocates of gun safety. One side has viewed the Second Amendment as absolute; the other has tried to pretend that it doesn’t exist. The result is a failure to find any consensus, even as one mass shooting after another underscores the need for sensible reform.

It seems to me that gun enthusiasts everywhere ought to be able to subscribe to the common-sense viewpoint articulated by Senator Gillibrand, and I assume that most will.

As we contemplate the “continuing” future that symbolically begins today with the end of the Mayan calendar, I fervently hope that the human race can begin to free itself from harmful  superstitions and fears.  It seems to me that the objectives most important to us in our old age are equally important to younger folks.  We should be doing all we can to make sure our children can live safely in a sane, rational world.

JMH – 12/21/12

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