April Showers

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

– T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

 

What is it about April?  It should be the welcome rise of Spring, but it also holds something back.  From the beginning, it seems to kick you in the gut.  According to Mark Twain, “The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.”   Thomas Tusser put a half-hearted positive spin on it in 1557, “Sweet April showers do spring May flowers.”

Among other notable ignominies, Galileo was convicted of heresy, Oscar Wilde was arrested, Martin Luther King was killed, Lincoln was assassinated, William Henry Harrison died in office of pneumonia, and FDR passed away of a cerebral hemorage.   The Titanic sank this month, and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 occurred.  Suicides peak in April, with Kurt Cobain being one of those to have succumbed.  Perversely, Dr. Kervorkain even participated in his first assisted suicide during April.  Just to round things out, George Orwell’s 1984 begins, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

On a more hopeful note, Earth Day is held in April, as is Arbor Day.  April is National Humor Month, no doubt in association with its opening day.  April 2 is appropriately designated as Fact Check Day.  Buddha’s birthday is celebrated in April.  Raphael was born this month, as was William Shakespeare.

April is most often associated with religious significance. The story of the Passover, also called Pesah, is told in the Bible in the book of Exodus, Chapter 12. It begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nisan, which falls in March or April, given the fact that the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar year.

Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25, since it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon in the Northern Hemisphere.  One might assume that Passover and Easter would always coincide, since the events leading to the Crucifixion occurred during Passover.   History, however, doesn’t always repeat itself.  For a good primer on the topic, see this site.

In appreciation of T.S. Eliot’s line above and all that he contributed to Twentieth Century poetry (and the struggles of students attempting to make sense of his The Wasteland), the community of poets arranged for April to be named National Poetry Month.  It is richly and widely observed, and my favorite source is YourDailyPoem.com.

In recognition of the month, I thought I’d offer a short poem of mine, in memory of my mother, who died all too many years ago.

 

September Elegy

I passed by your grave today

and happened this time to pause.

 

It was the first day to smell of Fall –

cool, as it was, with an early dark.

 

Kneeling beside your name,

I saw what seemed a scrap of yellow –

 

a frayed silk petal in a poignant shade,

from another’s memory of you.

 

Time, it seems, may fade the finest flower,

but the memory of love lives on.

 

 

 

 

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Meaning

I have been rereading the same article for weeks now and each time learning more.  It is not necessarily that I am slow, but more that it has something to say that resonates richly with me.

Four Ways to Bring More Meaning to Your Life, by Eric Barker, writing for The Week, has a message for anyone searching for relevance in the world.  He doesn’t speak of success, and there is nothing necessarily religious in his message, although there is certainly a significant place for religion in his advice.

Basically, he offers these four related pieces of advice (I’ve included my own commentary, for what it may be worth):

  1.  Belong to a group.  We need each other, and we also need, in some way, to be there for others in need.  It is a basic human need.  One’s group may be small and informal, or for some that group may be a church, synagogue or mosque.  Beware of considering work as a group, because one’s belonging may be deceptive, whence the term, “work friends.”
  2. Have a Purpose.  I happen to teach, but it is not about the subject matter.  It is about preparing law students for life as an attorney, a transition that is difficult without training or a mentor.
  3. Embrace Storytelling.  This, it seems to me, is a way to give a personal context to oner’s purpose.  I love to relate how a Korean student now gives me a hug each time I see him, simply because I believe in him and have encouraged him.
  4. Know Transcendence.  Know and have a role in the bigger world.  In that context, your problems are small, but your place matters.  I’m reading Einstein’s God, by Krista Tippet, in which some of the foremost minds ponder questions of religion, meaning and transcendence.

I suggest to my students that they evaluate various aspects of their lives and careers periodically.  When all is said and all is done, that is good advice for anyone, including myself.

 

 

 

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They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait

Arthur C. Brooks published a recent article in the New York Times that asks and answers the question, “Depressed by Politics?”.   In these troubling and divisive times, he suggests that the answer to anxiety over current events is to, “Just let go.”

Before agreeing with Brooks, I’d like to first commend all those who feel empowered to protect so many of the positive steps that have been taken through compromise, bipartisan efforts and good judgment over many decades and are at risk of undoing.  In describing his “Shining City on the Hill” image of America, Reagan referenced funding for the arts as one bright spot.  George W. Bush supported immigration.  Supporting these and other causes should be mainstream thinking, and debate over them should be about particulars and not over blocking them all together.  I honor those who are willing and able to be the voice of reason in a time when denying the truth is an accepted norm among those in power.

My thoughts here, however, are for those, like me, who have to avoid much of the news in order to carry on with life in our presently surreal world.  Brooks talks in terms of anxiety and depression, but, if you have ever experienced the feeling, it can be as debilitating as seasickness on unsteady waters.  If you read the article, you will find how politics can be like clinging to a tree.  The metaphor works better than it sounds, so read it and see.

My own thought is that we must be grounded in what we know to be true and in our values, in a way a bit like a tree.  Pendulums swing, sometimes wildly.  There will be a time when a firm place will be needed again for the pendulum to swing from.  They call that place “the bearing,” akin to the phrase, “getting your bearings.”  Interestingly, the term for the swinging end of a pendulum is a “bob”, which in some settings means darting and weaving erratically.

There are more scientific reasons for those names, of course, and metaphors themselves are only illustrations.  Still, for those of us who can’t take the madness of politics today, our time and place will come.  The blind poet, John Milton, wrote aptly in this sonnet:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

We have not yet heard the last word.  Until then: hope, purpose, and as much faith as you may believe in, will more than suffice.

 

 

 

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Regrets

What do you do with regret, especially when your heart is torn, and it is your own fault.  That should be a question, but it is more of a fact for me today, in all its ugly truth.  A mistake that, like a bad tattoo, will never go away and cannot be fully erased.  When you rue a decision, it is forever.  Time may blur its edges and circumstances might even make it matter less to others, but the pain is for as long as you continue to care.  That, when love is involved, is at least forever.

I’ve never been one to dwell on the past, but my life has had its share of mistakes, mostly due to immaturity or masculine cluelessness.  As I think about it, most of my regrets are from making things worse by not deciding until someone else did it for me, out of frustration and sometimes anger.  Often the result has been worse than if I had acted when I should have known to.  Trying to be nice, it turns out, may simply be cruel in the end.  I feel that way today.

Today’s example matters less than finding how to go on, now that I let life decide for me.  Living with your own remorse is cruel company.  I suppose that no one would have been happy with whatever I had decided to do, but the same is true now and the problem is now out of my hands.  Here in the South, the best someone might say about me is, “Bless his heart, he meant well.”  Faint praise that may well be my epitaph.

I have no silver lining to end this post, only sorrow and regret.  A hole left in three lives – in the hollow shape of a heart.

When all is said, and all is done, mostly we try not to cry.

 

 

 

 

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Reality Check Time

During the night of November 8, I didn’t sleep.  The disturbing outcome of the election continued to keep me awake for the next two nights, as I tried to absorb the shock of a reality show host and serial business failure becoming President.  Like most Americans, I had long given up hope that Congress could reign in its extremists to craft sensible legislation, but I had hope that Hillary Clinton could manage to keep the government doing its job using the pragmatism that truthfully is her nature.

I had described Donald Trump as the equivalent of the joke candidate that often ends up on the Student Council ballot in high school but never wins, because – even in that low stakes setting – an electorate has some sense.  To those who couldn’t imagine Hilary Clinton as President, I offered that, if she won, there would be a divided government in which little would be done.  This, I explained, was a traditional Republican’s dream outcome.

I took a long time to regain my sense of balance in what seemed a world turned upside down.  Outright racist conduct suddenly became public and common.  Much of what had been crafted to assist those on the margins of society was suddenly on the table for repeal.  The small steps taken over decades to end environmental protections for ourselves and our children were set to be walked back.

The shocks came almost like physical blows to me, as one who cares about people and their future.  If that makes me a liberal, I’ll accept your label, though I prefer being considered simply thoughtful in both meanings of the word.  Regardless, I genuinely feared for the survival of what we take for granted as the world we have lived in.  This was, after all, a candidate who, when briefed on the nuclear arsenal to be at his fingertips, asked why we couldn’t simply use nuclear weapons.

Nothing that Donald Trump did following the election gave me comfort.  Many of his Cabinet appointees were openly hostile to the laws and values that their agencies were to enforce and pursue.  The list is long, and the addition of family members and right wing ideologues to his inner circle left me shaking my head somewhere between disbelief and disabling fear.

Out of the free fall that I felt our world had stepped into, I slowly found voices of reason coming from places once tagged by many as extremists in their own right.  The ACLU, which has always been stalwartly devoted to the Constitution as the lodestar for the country, spoke up saying it intended to see Donald Trump in court.  Many thousands of donors added their support.  Planned Parenthood received unheard of support from a great many who feared all the good they do might be thrown out with the bathwater, an apt metaphor.  Other voices followed, leaving me still reeling, but knowing that I was far from alone.  I am grateful for their courage, dedication and thoughtfulness.  They are who actually have made America great, along with those of every background who work every day to make a place for themselves in a world that they make better and safer for all.

Sometimes through the courage of only one, we have survived demagogues set on gaining power through spreading fear through lies.  Consider the integrity of the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, who said to Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”  His voice of reason and compassion exposed the Senator for the fraud that he was.  When Welch finished, the record shows that the audience applauded.  McCarthy soon fell from favor and died three years later, a nearly-friendless alcoholic.

We live in a time and place in which lies are accepted as the truth by those whose ends they serve.  “Alternative facts” now abound and sadly, our sitting President not only openly lies, but clearly believes his lies himself.  I hope the majority of us still all agree that no one is above the truth.

It is too soon to reflect on the most recent claim that President Obama wiretapped candidate and President-Elect Trump.  Far from all has been said.  I hope, however, that seemingly paranoid Twitter rants from the early morning hours will be judged by the light of day and the truth that it exposes.  We need more than mere decency now.  We need sincere thinking, far-sighted judgment and decisions that have common ground.

If you are the praying type, this is a good time.  If your voice is for hearing by those merely around you, have the decency to use it.

Follow up:  The FBI Director has now testified before Congress, saying that he has found no basis for the President’s wiretap claim.  More forbiddingly, he confirmed that the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

It took over two years for the Watergate scandal to force President Nixon to resign.  History may not repeat itself and the truth does not always reveal itself.  Still, time will tell.

 

 

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The Only True Wisdom…

“A sailor spends his life

living stories to tell.”

RJC

I’ve come to believe you are truly old when you have more stories to tell than things left to do.  It is not that I’ve finished my bucket list, but I have done much more – not always well – than I still dream of or am able to do.

I keep a board littered with Post-It notes containing things I’d like to do before I am done.  I have a few more sailing trips to tick off, but the list of museums to see is growing longer, although more than a few are about sailing and boats.

The point I meant to make, before I digressed into that story, was that I’m beginning to understand that I don’t have any answers to life’s hard questions, only anecdotes:  stories to tell.  One of the first things they teach in law school is that the answer to every question is, “It depends.”  I still teach law school, and I am more and more uncertain what to say when asked questions by students who are trying to make decisions about their careers and the lives they have ahead.

When asked how I decided to join an honored, though often seen as less than honorable, profession, I’m left with only my own story to tell.  In my senior year of High School, some friends said they were going to UGA and that I should come too and join the party.  I asked what I would study, and they answered, “You should be a lawyer, you would be great!”  After the student laughs a little and rolls his eyes, I say, “I suppose the moral of the story is that sometimes the decision is less about making the right choice, than doing what it takes to make it the right one.”

When my son was the same age, he asked me  to help with his calculus homework.  It was the first time I’d ever had no idea how to help, and while I was summoning the humility to admit I didn’t know, I had a thought.  “Well, if you were trying to teach this to someone,” I said, “how would you do it?”  Fortunately, he took the bait – hook, line and barrel, or perhaps it was lock, stock and sinker.  Whatever, it was at that moment that I sensed what I’ve come to know too well: the closest thing I have to good advice are stories to share.  What you glean from them will be your own wisdom, someday to share in your own tales.

And about the title, look it up.  When all else is said, try Socrates.

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Language of the Sea

I happen to be a lifelong sailor.  I took to the sport from the start as if it was what I was born to do, just the way they depict in Disney movies.  I’ve owned more sailboats than cars and am most at ease with the motion of a boat under my feet.  A friend once told me that he never quite “got me” until he saw me sailing.

One particularly good sailing website is Scuttlebutt Sailing News.  The site recently featured an article you should catch, Nine Everyday Things a Sailor is Better At.  Item number two is the best of the lot:  walking straight when drunk.  It should almost go without saying.

There is an ocean of sailing trivia to draw from.  One fact in keeping with the note above is that sailing is one of only three sports for which drinking beer is considered part of training.  The only other two are bowling and rugby, and there is some doubt as to the former being a sport.  The phrase “three sheets to the wind” originally described a sailing boat out of control (sheets meaning the lines that control sails).  That said, a sailor will tell you there are no “ropes” on a boat, only lines with varying names based on their use.

Men, and sometimes women, often wear blazers, but the word first referred to the jackets worn by sailors aboard the H.M.S. Blazer.  A church pennant is the only flag authorized to fly above a ship’s national ensign, but only during a religious service, when one might well be wearing a blazer.

A crows’ nest is a straightforward term, but “as the crow flies” reflects the fact that crows abhor the water and will fly straight to land.  To fathom something today is to grasp it in your mind.  Originally, however, it was the distance between the outstretched arms of a man, or what we now define as six feet.

Sailors are supersticious about setting sail on a Friday.  To prove them wrong, the Brits named a boat the H.M.S. Friday, placed her under a captain of the same name, christened and set her to sea on a Friday.  She was never heard from again.

The term “starboard”, representing what we think of as right, grew originally from an Old English term meaning “steering oar”.  In ancient times boats were steered by an oar or board attached to the side of the boat.  Since most sailors were right-handed, it was attached to the right side of the boat.  It was not until the Common Era that boats began to use the more efficient stern mounted rudders.  The first recorded example is from China, but it seemed to appear quickly around the world, without any apparent sharing of knowledge.

Perhaps my favorite nautical term is the knot.  In order to measure speed at sea, sailors would toss a floating wood chip, attached to a line, overboard.  Knots were spaced on the line and the number of knots that “payed out” in the time for a small hourglass (or before that a verse of a chanty) to empty became the number of knots, or speed, of the boat.  As measurements became more precise, the term “knot” was retained, but was refined to mean the time taken to pass one nautical mile (1.15 mile as we know it in the US).  A nautical mile itself is one “minute” of the distance between meridians of longitude along the globe.  If I have lost you, my point is that sailors grow more precise, but they never forget the heritage that led them there.

One last bit of trivia.  The “bitter end” originally referred to the end of a line that was secured around a bit, such as might secure the end of an anchor rode (notice that it too is not a rope).  It was indeed a bitter end if the anchor was lost because it was not secured to the boat.

 

 

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What’s In A Symbol?

The power of symbols to crystalize a sense of commonality can be extraordinary.  The Eiffel Tower was intended to be a temporary structure, but now universally represents the spirit of France.  Queen Elizabeth is the living embodiment of Great Britain, as will be her heirs.

Symbols’ meaning have a way of evolving to meet the needs of those they represent.  The cross, originally a cruel means to a torturous death, became the adopted icon for Christianity, for example.  Tea became a symbol of rebellion once, and again more recently, in this country.

I’ve had an increasingly ambivalent sense of the symbol that is our flag for some time now.  You can fly it with national pride, wear it as a patch on your jeans, and burn it as an exercise of free speech.  Children, and sometimes adults, pledge allegience to our flag, but only incidentally to the “nation for which it stands”, something that more than a few intelligent students have found anomolous at times.

The Stars and Stripes certainly is a reminder of the sacrifices of many who fought to protect our country and to keep it one nation.  It represents the values and traits that helped set our country apart, but its image is simultaneously soiled by a history of slavery, trails of tears, Japanese internment and all too many more shameful times.  I suppose that in these ways it serves its role well, representing the best and the worst of what we, as a collective people, are and have been.

My ambivalence began, I believe, with the flag waving patriots of my youth who used the flag as an emblem of the motto, “My country, right or wrong.”  I have seen its meaning misunderstood, as when Ronald Reagan adopted as a campaign theme, Bruce Springsteen’s protest anthem, Born in the U.S.A. 

Recently, I’ve begun to recognize a mantra from some that could be characterized as, “My truth, right or wrong, and all who challenge it are traitors or worse.”  Their stance has passed beyond partisanship to one preferring that our house burn rather than allowing others in.  Their motives have become purely about winning and not about governing according to any coherent principles.

I’d like to be wrong, but I have begun to sense that displaying the flag can easily be interpreted as identifying with “them”.  It shouldn’t be that way, of course.  We should be proud of our diverse roots and of our freedom to be who we choose. The flag should belong to all of us, regardless of the meaningless things that make us each different and diverse.  Still, I never see the flag displayed any longer by people who just want to carry on with life and have us all get along.  I certainly never see it displayed by those who support “liberal” causes.

With all that in mind, I spent some time looking for a symbol that is universally recognized as a positive emblem of our country and the broader values of its people.  As it turns out, nothing could better represent that aspect of America than the Statue of Liberty.  It, like our nation, is a beacon to the world.  The words read at its dedication from the poem by Emma Lazarus speak perfectly to the spirit of those who came to this country and who made it great:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Woody Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land as a protest anthem in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.  Ironically, Ronald Reagan used Guthrie’s lyrics as part of his re-election campaign speeches, once again not recognizing the song’s original purpose.

At least for me, the Statue of Liberty symbolizes the America that Woody sang of: the welcoming of the “masses yearning to be free.” It does nothing to fade the literal and figurative colors of our flag, but at least to me, it is more inclusive and thus vastly more welcoming of the many shades of color that make up a people drawn by the common dream of freedom.

Without criticizing or demeaning any who might not share or grasp my point (which I apologize for not sharing well), I suggest a symbol of our country that we might all rally around, however tentatively in these distrustful times.  Let the Statue of Liberty share the stage with all the images that define us as a people.

As a personal statement, I’ve created my own bumper sticker with the image you see here.  I’m working on a flag to display outside my door and a burgee for my boat (ah, sailboats are for one or many future posts).  Still, I offer the symbol of the statue to you, but leave to you the choice of expression.

I dare say that this is a moment in history in which what we choose and what we do as individuals weighs more meaningfully than most.  I’ve shared one measure of my own attempt to reclaim and redefine all of us as something resembling one people.  Find your own place, but for the sake of anything holy, find and claim shared common ground.

For me, it is Liberty Island.  It is a stone’s throw from Ellis Island, the teeming shore of the homeless, yearning to be free – a vision we need to revive.

Look into your own heritage.  Contemplate and appreciate all that it represents.  The vision of those who sacrificed to become us, lives on.

 

 

 

 

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Reflections in the Rain

“Life is short, but the days and nights are long.”

Cheryl Wheeler

 

Today is one of those mid-winter days in which you can’t recall when you last saw the sun, and the damp, grey afternoon is distinguished only by occasional raindrops disturbing puddles that have taken residence outside my window.  These are, they tell us, the shortest days of the year, but too many seem cold and hollow, and the nights, indeed, so long.

At this point in the season, family gatherings are gone and forgotten, with children scattered to the four corners and to lives and children of their own.  Even football, for those so inclined, is only a memory, though it may have seemed important at the time.

With the business of life at ebb, days like this may provoke one to ponder what they should mean when you string them all together and reflect on life and its meaning.  There are so many answers, and none seem complete.  The best that Rousseau and Tolstoy seemed to offer was to “tend your garden”, in a figurative and perhaps literal way.   Religion satisfies many, although Marx had a bit of a point in describing it as an opiate.

Pop culture often offers enigmatic or simply shallow answers.  One of the best comes from a scene in the movie, City Slickers:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

In a more serious vein, Emerson once wrote:

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.  It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

There is an Internet page from years ago, but still available, that offers examples of the claim that many complicated things in life can be distilled into “Two Things”.  Here is one example, which as a lawyer, I can say is a bit too true:

The Two Things about Practicing Law in the Real World:
1. Billable hours.
2. Deep pockets.

For what passes as fun, as the rain takes command and punctuates this afternoon with thunder, I took a shot at what might be the two things about life.  Here is my offer:

  1. Remember to breathe.  For a few of us, and more in times of stress, this is not flippant advice, so take it.  For many others though, you can interpret it figuratively as a reminder to live in the moment.
  2. Have a reason to continue.  Consider why you add value to “life” in the larger context.  That may not be “one thing” or even two, but if you haven’t taken time to consider your place in the bigger picture of things, you probably aren’t experiencing life in any meaningful way.

I don’t mean to pontificate and have spent more than a little time this season considering my second point without any definitive answer.  Today, simply seemed like a good time to share the question, because life can well be short.

 

 

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In a Different Light

Please don’t get me wrong.  I believe every girl and every woman should enjoy the moment of wearing a pretty dress and being a princess at a ball.  (Don’t bother to comment on whether the dress you see is pretty, and don’t go off on women who don’t like to wear dresses, men who do, or even kilts.  You get my point.)  I imagine that the little refugee girl you see has imagined her own moment in a figurative glass slippers.

I happen to have known more than a few refugees in my sheltered life.  I know one who was the son of  Cuban doctor and was smuggled out during the revolution with his siblings.  His parents escaped years later.  His father could not practice, but they lived a modest life and raised a son who became a corporate executive and a good and caring man.  There are others, but I need to share one particular example.

My church and a related nonprofit sponsored a Cambodian family during the Pol Pot regime.  The family grew in numbers as others escaped and joined them to form a community that resembled what the values we think of as American much more than any “native” ones I know.

One Cambodian child stood out, and I’d like to share his story with you.  I doubt that he would mind my giving his name, but his story is not unique among those of refugees, so let him simply be an example.

This child crawled through the mud of rice fields in Cambodia with his family, while bullets passed overhead to escape horrors comparable to the Syrian girl you see above.  I had the honor of helping him when he arrived, but he quickly proved himself a better and more directed person than I could have been.  He learned English, excelled in school, and earned a scholarship to Duke.  There he became a nurse practitioner, so that he could return to Cambodia and help heal his people.  He is still there today, serving humbly but with more dignity and grace than words can relate.

I fond it hard at times to carry on in this world that has gone wrong in so many ways.  If you have a moment like that, find yourself a refugee and ask for his or her story. The power of yearning to be free can be miraculous, and we need some miracles today.

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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