Light in the Darkest Days

Newgrange in Ireland via
These are the darkest of days.

Overcast skies rob us of precious minutes of sunlight in the late afternoons. Veil the sunset in coal dust, ink black with a mist of rain swirling ‘round a 4:30 porch light.

We of northern latitudes and coastal storms hunch our shoulders and steel our minds against the short tongues of daylight wrapped in anemic gray, punctuated by occasional  shards of sunlight, silver knives cutting through woolen clouds down to sodden earth.

This season of dwindling day, coldest days and chill, longest nights robbed of stars, December’s cruelty.

The days shrink and wither away, an erosion or life-giving hope that ebbs as we approach the nadir of the year. Winter solstice arrives Dec. 21st at 2:44 in the afternoon when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. It is the shortest day of the year, late sunrises and early sunsets. Long nights of starless forever-skies.

It is the day when the Sun reaches its southernmost migration on our horizon. It is the first day of astronomical winter - yet from the solstice forward, each day will get fraction longer, each noon the sun will be a little higher in our horizon.

It has been a year full of darkness.

Long before it had a name, or before we really understood what was happening human beings  understood this cycle of ebbing light.

I have stood inside Newgrange in Ireland - a 5,000 year old monumental structure of massive stones and white quartz designed to permit a shaft of light on the winter solstice such that on this one day each year - sunlight will travel down a 60 foot passageway and the interior of this man-made mountain will be illuminated with golden light.  

Newgrange is older than stonehenge, older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Men and women designed and built this complicated structure with stone imported from miles away. Intricate neolithic architecture celebrating light that marks the end of creeping darkness, the return of the hope.

We do not know the minds of Newgrange’s creators, nor  their system of beliefs to be sure. We know only that they went to great effort to capture the sun on the solstice each year - to illuminate hidden decorations deep within.

We know a little more about other solstice traditions that came later.

Yule logs  are a remnant of the Norse feast of Juul. Bonfires were lit as the sun “stood still” on its lowest point on the horizon. The fires heralded the return of the sun -- feasting would carry on while the Yule burned for days.

Yalda was an ancient Persian celebration of light over dark and the birth of the Sun God Mithra. Similar pre-Christian traditions exist around the world.  In parts of Pakistan, the Kalash Kafir celebrate Chaomos -- a time ritual purification with torchlight parades and bonfires. Slavic traditions celebrate Koliada or Koleda in similar fashion.

Jewish families celebrate Hanukkah, the rededication of the second temple, lighting a candle each night in the festival of lights. Symbolizing knowledge and creation, here too was a miracle marked by light as a single night’s oil burned bright for eight days.

Lindsay as St Lucia
Some Scandinavian countries still celebrate St Lucia’s Day -- a festival of lights that evolved out of Norse solstice traditions of lighting bonfires during the longest nights of the year.  Honoring the Christian martyr St. Lucia, young girls dress in white robes with a wreath of burning candles on their heads and serve bright yellow saffron buns to signify the return of the sun.

Early Christians focused more on Easter than Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t until the 4th century that the Church decided to celebrate Christmas and fixed the date in December to coincide -- and perhaps co-opt -- the Roman celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus -- the birthday of the “unconquered sun.”  As Christianity spread, the birth of the son of God and the festivals that celebrated the return of the sun co-mingled and influenced each other.

We fight against the darkness with artificial light. We string up our Christmas tree, light the candles on our menorah or advent wreaths. We make a fire in the fireplace, yule log, bonfire.

It is perhaps not surprising that these cold dark days are when our hearts are most open to our fellow man, when we give a little more, care a little more. Charity and cheer, generosity and forgiveness  are built into all of these solstice traditions because it is understood that in the darkness is when we most need the light.

This is a dark time for our nation and for the world.

Hatred has sunk its teeth into our flesh. Many of our brothers have turned a cold eye to those who don’t look like us, worship like us, love like us. We point fingers rather than open our arms. Hopelessness and fear threaten to curdle our goodwill.

In these darkest days, we can be the light that travels down the cold stone passage, that illuminates the darkness and brings hope of better days.

We can be the light that opens hearts with kindness, charity and goodwill to our neighbors around the world and in our backyard.

We may never know the words or ceremony of 5000 years past or exactly how that thread may be woven into our modern traditions and beliefs.

Yet we understand the need to capture the golden light in darkest December days.


This article originally appeared in the The Daily Astorian on December 19, 2016

Buyers Remorse

Republicans in Washington DC have got to have mixed feelings about this election.

They should be happy.

On the one hand, they can now have everything they want. They control all the levers of power -- the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. They can finally repeal Obamacare, pass tax cuts for the 1 percent, privatize medicare, defund medicaid, planned parenthood. They can finally privatize social security, eliminate environmental regulations.  They can eliminate access to birth control, discriminate at will.

Trump can use the government to exact revenge on his enemies. He can embrace Russia and turn his back on Europe and Asia. He can start trade wars -- which will increase prices for food and other goods.

They have a mandate, but there are smart wonks in Washington and they have to be sounding a note of caution.

You see, all those things aren't very popular and now they have no excuse not to carry out what they have promised to do.

Donald Trump's real victory was based on low voter turnout after a horrible negative election. Only 25 percent of eligible voters, voted for Donald Trump.  Many Trump voters voted against the supervillain mastermind in a pantsuit rather than for the tax-cheating infantile con man.

It was a close vote. That Hillary won the popular vote -- by close to half a million ---  is immaterial from a strategic perspective. From a electoral college perspective just a two percentage point shift could make all the difference in the swing states. Demographics will continue to move against the Republican party -- the future is young and diverse.

Moreover, Trump showed that a lot of the tenants of conservatism are no longer popular with voters.

Many young evangelicals cast their lot for the debauched Caligula because they wanted the political power to overturn abortion rights. Once that key issue is gone, will they continue to stick with him?

Sooner or later enough of them are going to read something Jesus said in the New Testament and realize that maybe they should care about the poor, elderly, diseased and marginalized people that Trump and the Republicans will make life Hell for over the next four years. Young evangelicals are already mobilizing for action on climate change, and even Liberty University students protested the leadership's embrace of the sinner-in-chief.

Trump and the Republicans want to do a lot of things that are the opposite of what people thought they were getting with Trump. Trump has vowed to deregulate Wall Street, repeal Obamacare, and cut taxes for the very wealthy. Paul Ryan wants to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid and privatize social security.  Just repealing Obamacare will leave 22 million without health insurance and there are current no plans to replace it with anything. That will increase health care costs and reduce access - right before the midterm elections.

There aren't a lot of good ways to spin this when the results of their actions start having a real effect on people's lives.

Moreover, Trump's anti-science cabal will be a disaster for health issues far and wide and there are no Republican plans to address the crisis in the Healthcare system. More doctors are going to burn out, fewer will enter the profession and access will get worse, not better.

 Finally, if they go along with Trump they will be helping construct an oppressive and intrusive police state. He is already appointing virulent racists to the highest positions of power. A number of these Republicans got elected saying they wanted to oppose federal intrusion into people's lives.

There really hasn't been much media coverage of any of this - more time was spent on Hillary's emails than any policy question - so some of this going to be a big surprise when in the harsh light of day.

In short Republicans now have no excuses -- they have to fix everything and deliver the impossible -- and they don't believe in facts or science or the data that shows that trickle down economics doesn't work. What they have proposed will make life worse for the majority of Americans.

You only need 1 out of every 100 Trump voters to have buyer's remorse.


Required Reading:
What a Difference Two Percentage Points Makes
Trump's Economic Prescription: First DO Harm
What Trump and the GOP will mean for your Health
Paul Ryan's Better Way is Only For the Wealthy

Building Bridges, Not Walls

Inside a bridge is a strange place for dinner.

Built in 1911, the Grays River Covered Bridge is the last of its kind serving a public road in the state of Washington.

Eight years ago the local WSU Extension office and 4-H organizers had a great idea. A fall community harvest dinner featuring donated salmon and local veggies grown in the valley - served by by 4H kids inside the bridge on a beautiful October night.

While tourists may occasionally venture off highway 4 to see the bridge, for us locals it remains an important way to cross the river to reach the other side of the valley. Just as it has for the past 100 years, this bridge brings us together.

Hans Ahlberg owned both sides of the river back in 1905. He and his neighbors saw the need to get crops and cattle to pasture and to market.  There was a foot bridge at the time but the only way to get a cart across the river was by ford the waters at low tide. Ahlberg and his neighbors convinced the county to pay for it, but many of the locals invested sweat equity in the project to offset their taxes.

It became a covered bridge in 1908 to protect the wood from the ravages of wind and rain. A century later, the bridge was weather beaten and at risk of being torn down. The people of the valley, however, worked to secure funding for a major restoration.

Rarely are bridges manifested by the hands of a single individual. Bridges are creations of community -- monuments to cooperation, knitting peoples across geographic barriers into tighter daily relationships.

Amy and I were married at this bridge 24 years ago. She and her bridesmaids arriving by horse drawn wagon through the covered bridge to Ahlberg park.  On hot summer days children cool off on the smooth stone beach and swim clear waters the flow below.

It is one of two bridges that are constants in our lives.

The Astoria-Megler bridge just celebrated its 50th birthday this year.
The Astoria bridge shows how these works of infrastructure don’t happen overnight. It was almost 40 years between the first proposal span the Columbia at Astoria, to the dedication ceremony in 1966.  It was not an easy task. Washington and Oregon had very different ideas about the necessity of the bridge and how it should be paid for. Washington opposed having a toll on the bridge and wanted Oregon to pay the lion’s share of the cost.

When it finally came together, it did so through bare-knuckle negotiation and compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word of late -- as if it is tainted with weakness. Yet compromise is the loamy soil that yields value and progress in a democracy.

When the link between Washington and Oregon was finally established, a reported 30,000 people came down for the dedication of the so-called “bridge to nowhere.” Thousands more paid the toll to cross it each year, the numbers growing each decade.

The bridge was paid off early and the toll taken down. Amy and I remember one Christmas eve on our way to midnight mass in Astoria in 1993, the toll collectors waving us through.

These creations elegantly change the landscape of our possibilities. They open to us easy access to neighbors and friends, jobs and education, culture and life bound no longer by the natural obstruction of indignant rivers.

Stone Walls in Ireland. Credit Amusing Planet
When I lived in Ireland a lifetime ago, I would walk the back roads of crushed white gravel. The hills interlaced by rough little scars of stone. Walls - built up hundreds of years long past as men and women cleared the fields of the hard blue limestone. Walls of stone upon stone without mortar to hold them together. Only the weight of each rock’s indignation kept these crooked little walls standing angry centuries against the coastal winds.

The lots bound by these stones were small and tragic, without gates.

If bridges are built of compromise and community, walls are built up of grievances.  

Like our grievances, walls can last years -- indeed well outlast their builders -- yet be held together by nothing. Gateless hard little grids that let nothing out, or nothing in.

Bridges are different.

This marks 25 years since I first set foot into this valley - a college boy visiting his true love’s parent’s home for the first time. In that quarter century I have become a fixed point in a living, breathing community of characters. I am still best known as Amy’s husband, no doubt, but I have unintentionally made my mark here and there upon the landscape.

Being part of a community is not always easy for me. I am in no ways shy, but I have an inner  hermit that would much rather sit alone by the fire.  Most at ease when I am hiding behind a keyboard or camera, I avoid parties and crowds. I am a poor friend and a distant brother. Never had a clique of friends, never joined a softball team or bowling league.

When I do join, I worry over the poverty of my contributions.

Yet, I have lived here longer than any other place in my lifetime, and I know I am a part of my beloved rain-soaked forest.

The connections we form with other people are the cement that holds our lives together. We are social animals, we thrive with ties to other people. Research has shown that the number of people we interact with on a daily basis is a predictor of our sense of belonging and well being.

Studies indicate that “social capital” is one of the biggest predictors for health, happiness, and longevity,” explains Cecile Andrews, author of Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good. “The problem: we often do not recognize the importance of social connection. Our culture values hard work, success, and wealth, so it’s no surprise some of us do not set aside enough time for social ties when we think security lies in material things rather than other people.”

Community is what people do to help one another.

In our little valley there is a food bank, community education, a wildly successful locally-organized blood drive. There are adoptions, weddings, births and funerals. Houses hold the names of their previous occupants long after they are gone.

No one is perfect, every face has a flaw. Like a family, however, like your brothers and sisters you learn to live together. As new people move in, they either adapt to the ebb and flow of the river and the rain, or they find a reason not to stay.

We are, after all, a long way from anywhere and the winter is dark and gray.

So it was that we found ourselves inside a covered bridge on a rain-soaked October night. Hundreds of us, feasting on salmon and ham, potatoes and squash, under amber lights and violin, tin roof and wood walls against the early-autumn storm outside.  The rain held off just long enough to get the salmon barbequed, to get everyone seated at the long tables.

So it was that we were warm and dry, shoulder to shoulder while the wind and rain battered aged tin and cedar, while mud-clouded river flowed below our feet.

Here we were together the people of the Grays River Valley.

Here we were together, a community, a bridge.


This essay was originally published in the Daily Astorian and Chinook Observer newspapers.

The Myth of Islands

An Island is a lie.

On my way to work, I drive along Willapa Bay and pass by the two Islands that can be seen from the mainland. Long Island crowds just feet from the highway that hugs the shore. Heavily forested it stretches away to the horizon, appearing as solid shoreline. Long Island holds a grove of ancient forest and in days past was inhabited with settlements. There is a ferry landing just off the road that used to bring trucks back and forth across the narrow thread of water that separates it from the rest of Washington state.

A little farther on is a defiant little islet several hundred yards from where the tourist pass by on their way to the beach.. The US Geographic survey named it Round Island back in 1858. Locals call it Baby Island. Its shoulders’ hunched and spiked with snags and cedar that burl in the winter storms. Only a few acres of brush and trees, it appears a picturesque myth centered in the waters of the bay. Steep rocks rising from the silver gray waters and lonely alone.

We like to think of ourselves as islands, as individuals, as ecosystems wholly within ourselves. We like to believe that our actions affect no one beyond our ragged shore. We like to believe ourselves surrounded by waters isolated from the world outside. We like to think ourselves individuals, the center of our own solar systems -- centered yet separated by time and space from mothers, wives, children and friends who dip into our orbit for time only to swing away again.

It is easy to feel alone.

It is easy to think that our actions do not shatter the mirrored water that flows around us, yet the decisions we make ripple out into the world.

We see it in politics, where the temptation is to live and let live, assuming no responsibility for the community, the state, the nation or the world.

I hear it all the time. I’ll take care of myself, do what I want, and it won’t affect anyone else. If other people make bad choices, can’t access health care or mental health services or run out of money when they are too old to work, that’s their problem. It won’t affect me.

Yet it does.

I work as a nurse in an emergency room. It is the front line of the consequences of bad choices.
I meet a lot of people who until that moment thought that they were islands. Many thought their decisions affected no one but them and them alone.  Some have long suffering loved ones at bedside, others have long since burned those bridges to the mainland. Perhaps they justified this as a way to limit that damage they caused, or perhaps the connection was never very good in the first place.

If not family and friends, there are always the professionals -- the police officers, EMTs, nurses, doctors and socials workers -- who crash in waves trying to make a difference until the last breath.

Every wave recedes taking a little away from the beach and leaving a little of itself behind. Yet, the ocean itself is not unchanged.

I have watched as addiction destroys families and devastates public resources. I have seen suicide shatter communities. I have seen health care professionals struggle to make a difference in the face of increasing needs and decreasing resources.

I have seen doctors and law enforcement officers that I worked with take their own life.

Studies have shown that nurses experience depression at twice the rate of the general population. Doctors have a suicide rate that is at least twice that of the general population and that rate is even greater for female physicians. The stresses come from long hours, increasing work loads and the crushing expectations of health care systems that are always demanding more and paying less. Unfortunately, few seek professional help.

So too some of the stress comes from our own expectations. Physician Pranay Sinha, in a 2014 essay entitled “Why Do Doctors Commit Suicide?”  in the New York Times explained it this way:

“There is a strange machismo that pervades medicine. Doctors, especially fledgling doctors like me, feel the need to project intellectually, emotional and physical prowess beyond what we truly possess. We masquerade as strong and untroubled professionals even in our darkest and most self doubting moments. How, then, are we supposed to identify colleagues in trouble -- or admit that we need help ourselves?”

Individual strength, resilience  and freedom are cultural virtues in our nation.Yet we achieve most when we come together and recognize our connections and that through those connections our individual decisions have repercussions on the world around us.

This far north the tides are impressive - a dozen feet in sea level change can drastically alter your perspective in a few hours time. When the tide is low, the water drains out of old Shoalwater bay and Round Island is exposed as connected to mainland by mudflats that the unwary may be tempted to walk across.

Drain away the oceans that appear to separate us, and you will find underneath the connections that tie us all together. 

What we do and say and how we act affects those near and far.

How we treat each other and how we take care of ourselves matters.

If you think you are an island, just wait until low tide.


This essay was originally written for the The Daily Astorian and published on 4/29/2016.