Living in History

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

John F. Kennedy

During this month in 1917, John F. Kennedy was born – one hundred remarkable years ago.  It was truly a different time.  Women could not yet vote.  The U.S. had just been drawn into a World War (the first).  Russia was experiencing its Communist Revolution.  The best selling car of the time was Ford’s Model T.  The flu pandemic that ultimately killed over 20 million was spreading across the world.  Mary and Jack Pickford won the acting Academy Awards in its fourth year, and presciently, The Little American won the award for best picture.

I was in the first grade when JFK was elected.  I (would have) voted for Nixon, echoing my father’s opinion that Kennedy did not have enough life experience.  Ironically, I ultimately did vote for Nixon when I turned 18 in 1972, a fact I soon and have long regretted.

Kennedy’s election came at a turning point in history.  The Baby Boom generation was coming of age and his vision inspired them to believe in ideals and in change in ways that their more conformist parents did not, bearing their childhood memories of the Great Depression.

Some of that optimism suffered when Kennedy was shot three years later.  While he had experienced mixed results in foreign affairs, he had set the country on a path toward equal rights for all races.  He has even set our sights on the moon itself.

There are events in life when you remember where you were when they happened.  Shuttle disasters, September 11th, and even Elvis Presley’s (alleged) death come to mind.

The first such occasion for me was November 22, 1963.  I was in Mrs. Wilson’s third grade class when the Principal made a cryptic announcement over the loud speaker.  Word of the shooting began to spread and we saw Mrs. Wilson cry, which left us confused and disturbed.  As the afternoon passed, the school office placed its microphone next to its radio, and we heard the news as it transpired.  There was no school the next day, but everyone’s shock dampened any joy we might have had.

A reporter who followed in his father’s path asked his dad on his 75th birthday if writing about JFK’s death was his favorite story.  “No,” he said, “It stunk.”  As a lawyer, I can also say that having to do my job on days when the outcome was unfair and stunk in the same sense, even if my client won as a result.

The first unforgettable event for my children was the explosion of the space shuttle.  When I learned of the disaster, I went home to be with my young daughter.  I sat down with her and asked what she had heard.  She replied, The space ship blew up and all the people cried.”  With young children, it is important to explain things at a level they can understand.  I could not have said it better.

When JFK took office he was as far off in time from Teddy Roosevelt as we are now from Kennedy’s time.  Much has changed for us, and change itself has become our norm.  The key now, as it was then, is to know yourself and to live expectantly.

 

 

 

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Knowing Where You Stand

There have been more inventions in my lifetime than, just possibly, all of time.  The microchip, the Internet, and intermittent windshield wipers are just a few.  The one that never ceases to amaze and to help me the most, however, is GPS.  The thought that you could use satellites to navigate here on earth may seem routine to many at this point, but it still boggles my mind.

Add to that invention the fact that a handheld device can hold and locate you on a map of virtually all the world’s roads or its waters, and you have a modern miracle.  And it is fairly affordable as well!

Paper maps are nearly a thing of the past, and paper water navigation charts are being phased out.  Before satellites, sailors had to rely on stars to navigate, using a sextant.  If that option wasn’t available, they relied on dead reckoning, a  foreboding name for knowing where you are.

I was sailing west across the Bahamas one night before GPS was available to the public.  My dead reckoning was off by several miles, and I was saved from an unfortunate collision with a reef only because I kept a good watch.

An incident in 1983 was the catalyst for opening GPS to commercial and public use.  Russia shot down a Korean Air flight after it strayed into Russian airspace.

Operation of the system is so precise that each satellite’s internal clock is programmed to within nanoseconds of the others.  In fact, the effects of Einstein’s relativity have to be taken into account to read a satellite’s signal.

The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation for a number of years, because of the availability and accuracy of GPS.  They may know something that we don’t, because the course is now back in the curriculum. There is a good piece in the New Yorker about what might happen if the GPS system failed.

On the road I rely on the Waze app nearly everywhere I drive.  It maps your route and goes one step further to check against the traffic data from other users.  If traffic is bad, the app searches for a faster route.

There are plenty of examples of GPS leading folks astray.  More than once, it has routed me to places I didn’t intend, because I put in the wrong address.  Waze has routed me through some strange places just to save me one minute in travel time.  Part of the reason for its usefulness is that it tracks your location even when you are not using it, a privacy issue that few know about.  A few of the better, or worse, examples of GPS gone wrong can be found here.

GPS will soon enable a leap in navigation with the advent of self-driving cars, something I’m somewhat wary of.  I remember though when my mother bought an electronic calculator to help her with math.  She never quite got to trusting it, and I often saw her with pencil and paper to check its work.

We may have come far technologically, but human nature remains the same.

 

 

 

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About Nothing

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

Albert Einstein

Infinity is more than the  misspelled name for a car.  It is a number that is the sum of all numbers.  It is a time that is forever and then some.  In cosmology, it is used to define a singularity, or black hole.  In golf, it the odds of my making a hole in one – theoretically possible, but never going to happen.

Galileo was perhaps the first to say that “mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe,” or at least that history records.  There are sadly, however, too many who espouse that the language of God was English (presumably the American dialect) and that his only message was captured in the Bible.

Although not quite the point of this post, the thing that makes humor most funny is how closely it resembles the truth.  Humor often highlights the distinctions between truth and what we believe.  Sometimes though, it reveals the absurdity in our beliefs.  It was a particularly pedantic version of this sense that cost Socrates his life.

One interesting insight into history is the discovery of nothing, or at least how to account for it.  Many books haves been written about nothing and a few about the invention or discovery of zero and how to represent it.  I recommend Who Invented Zero?, by Jesse Szalay.  The Sumerians used a symbol for it as a placeholder in counting to distinguish 2 from 20, which the Babylonians picked up, trade being the beginning of the only true common language – mathematics.

Some time later, the Mayans independently created their version the same placeholder, perhaps to denote the rough date of their invention – 350 C.E.  (Note my rough consistency with the reference to English above.)

Perhaps a few years earlier, Hindus in India appear to have begun using words to reference nothing.  There began the use of nothing as a true number.  From there the concept spread, although the Italians banned it out of suspicion for a time.  In the end, or at least until now, it became elemental and essential in base two, which is the binary system by which all current computers operate.

I am sure I could continue on into how all this equates to existential nihilism, but I’ve come to think that  nihilism is itself a placeholder for one seeking for meaning that we fundamentally need.

Instead, I hint at a topic for another day – “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This one may new the question that links religion, cosmology and physics into one as yet Gordian knot.  Pray, consider and calculate.

 

 

 

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Preexistence

Healthcare is in the news again – this time for passage of a Congressional House bill that few if any had read and none had had the opportunity to determine its costs or likely effects.  What little that is known is that the rich will receive a significant tax cut, while the old and most vulnerable – including those with preexisting conditions – will suffer  substantially.  The bill was criticized by the AMA and opposed by the health insurance industry.  Under the present Congress, the mentally ill have the right to own guns, but not to receive health care.  The only logic to apply to this anomaly is that Congress supports the concept of the Darwin Awards.

Rather than rant further, I suggest that we follow the old-fashioned and conservative approach to the issue, which is to weigh the importance of the issue, consider the alternative solutions and craft sensible solutions that serve the public in a meaningful and cost-effective manner.

Many consider effective healthcare a human right, and it is recognized as such in many countries, including most of Europe and even in poorer lands, such as Cuba where healthcare is one of the nation’s sources of pride.  The noticeable absence of the US from this group is defended by some under the concept of “personal responsibility”; that is,  we should all live upright lives, so that we will not get sick.  That logic, if one deigns dignify it with the word, fails in the face of most accidents and diseases that afflict individuals and it certainly holds no sway in most other countries.

The truth is that wealth or the simple luck of the insurance draw is all that protects the fortunate here.  Surely we can agree that neither should determine who should live or die.  Considering the lifetime full coverage that Congress gives itself, it is fair to conclude that they deem it so.

Healthcare is too expensive to provide to all Americans, some say.  The fact is, however, that much of the world disagrees, and 36 countries actually provide healthcare superior to ours under objective standards.  These range from most of Europe to Japan, Columbia and even Morocco.  That said, it is the case that healthcare in the US is by far the most expensive in the world.  Costs here are 30 percent higher than even the second most expensive country – Sweden, which ranks substantially higher than us in the quality of care.

Healthcare here takes up almost 20 percent of economic output, which is dramatically more that even what we spend on national defense.  To see how we might do better, we need merely look at other examples.  Experts categorize the alternatives into four groups.

Under the Beveridge model countries like Great Britain provide and fund most healthcare.  Hong Kong still uses this approach, and neither country has been accused of using “death panels” and other silliness.  England is one of the countries that provides better and less costly care than here.

The Bismarck model from Germany and Japan relies on government and employer health insurance.  Most insurers are nonprofit, which holds down costs.

National Health Insurance in countries like Canada is paid into by its citizens.  This primarily single source option is the reason that prescriptions there are available at costs tempting to Americans, who shop there for their pills.

There is also the out-of-pocket model which exists in most impoverished countries.  One gets care if he or she can pay, and only to that extent.  Until the Affordable Care Act, the poorest in the US operated mostly under this model, while those fortunate enough for employer-provided insurance received care as long as they remain employed or until their COBRA coverage (paid at their own cost) expired.  Medicare and Medicaid existed for limited other social classes, if they qualified.  Interestingly, both have proven relatively cost-effective over many years.

I don’t believe anyone claims that our current system is a worthy model, but what some now call “Trumpcare” is anything but that.  Surely any honest, thinking person who read and voted for it (if there are any) can rationally defend it.

Don Henley wrote that “we get the government we deserve”, a line penned first by Alexis de Tocqueville.  Whatever one’s political leanings, surely we can agree that we need responsible adults legislating for us.

I have read that marches, letters, tweets and such do little to sway politicians.  It is money that talks, and it is time, I believe, to speak up.

 

 

 

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One Acorn

If I haven’t mentioned it before, my wife and I teach a law school course for students engaged in public interest internships.  This story is less about the course than about one of the many students who pass through our class.  His name wasn’t Ed, but that will do for this story.

Ed was in his final semester of law school.  We spend a lot of individual time with our students, so we got to know him pretty well.  Ed had gone to law school because his parents are lawyers, and he had no other particular direction for his life.  Nearing the end of his formal schooling, Ed confided that he didn’t think he wanted to be a lawyer and had decided not to take the bar exam.

As nice a young man as he was, you could see something resembling surrender in his eyes.  When he spoke in public, I could detect a stammer in the soft voice that came from his always downcast face.  We took a particular liking to Ed, not in spite of his lack purpose, but perhaps because of it.

After my first year of practice, I had similar doubts about whether the law was my calling.  The adversarial approach to practice and the necessity of pursuing clients for your own profit troubled me, as it did Ed, who clearly didn’t have the heart for that rat race.

We both encouraged Ed to take the bar exam and continue to look for a role for himself in the law.  I tried to tell him that there was a place for a lawyer who preferred helping by solving others’ problems, rather than fighting to win.  When we parted at the end of the semester, he promised to keep an open mind.

Time passed and students have come and moved on, each one different, but none have been as conflicted and as honest about it as Ed.  We hear occasionally from students, but the email from Ed was a surprise.  He wanted us to know that he had passed the bar and taken a position at his local legal aid organization.  He thanked us for encouraging him.

Life doesn’t make much sense as you live it day to day.  Sometimes you search for a direction or wonder if you have taken the right path.  People come and go with the days and both seem to run together in muddled memories.  Just often enough though, someone or something special stands out that you realize you had a hand in.

In Ed’s case, we believed in him when he doubted himself.  Now he will be able to do the same for his clients.  Who knows but the chain may go on and multiply in others’ lives.

I often think there is not enough good in the world to justify having hope.  Then an email like Ed’s appears, and I am encouraged to carry on.  Who knows what the seed of a kind word may sprout by and by.

 

 

 

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The Persistence of Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Emily Dickinson

 

 

There have been many things once thought of as unique to humans that turned out not to be quite so. Crows can use tools, dogs at least seem to smile, elephants mourn their dead, octopuses hoard treasures, and more than a few creatures can recognize themselves in a mirror.  What’s left, the scientists say, is that mankind is the only species to “self-reflect,” to be capable of considering himself from a different perspective.  Only humans can contemplate their own purpose and mortality.

If that is true, I have to say that some people are more human than others, because I’ve known more than a few who hide behind dogma to avoid their own reflections and also the occasional one whose gene pool was not deep enough to cast a reflection.

Still, what I wonder is why we continue to hope in the face of all the tragedy of this world.  For some reason, that characteristic seems to color our self-reflection with its rosy tone.  The evidence against a reliable basis for hope is pretty substantial, and yet we continue to believe that we will rise again with the sun each morning.  We believe the future will be better for our children, and we believe that hard work will be rewarded.  The lottery industry is even based on this premise, but the odds of making it out of this world alive are even worse than those.

I suppose some say that optimism is a Darwinian necessity – we have to be blind to the odds in order not to be eaten alive by our fears.  But if that is true for humans, how do you distinguish the non-sentient rest of the animal kingdom which carries on without the reason to know better?

I claim no expertise, other than having pondered the question for some time, but perhaps the onus of knowing we will die comes with a balancing gift of hope.  The Greeks offered something like this bargain in the myth of Pandora, who found hope remaining in her box after its contents of woe were freed.  Judeo-Christian scripture pairs the knowledge of good and evil with its corresponding curse that we shall all surely die.

Some years ago, I kept a blog named after Emily Dickinson’s poem above, which documented the time when my son was diagnosed and treated for a rare form of leukemia.  It was hope that kept me going and that drove me to help him see the ordeal through.  There was little medical basis for hope, but it sustained me and I marvel still at both its persistence and the stamina that it gave me.  One can read the same story in the language of faith, and I would respect that point of view, as well.

In any language, hope is a mystery from which miracles arise, or in the words of L.J. Suenens, “Hope is not a dream, but a way of making dreams a reality.”

 

 

 

 

 

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How to Talk Southern

A Guide to those who “ain’t from round here.”

It may come as a surprise to some that a “Southern Drawl” is the way people really talk in “these parts” and not just a way for pretentious Hollywood types to get cheap laughs in an evening sitcom. There is, however, no reason to be intimidated by the natives here. They really do talk slowly, which is a help (as long as you don’t laugh).

 

I have enjoyed an amused life here in the South from birth and not suffered from the experience. My wife has grown to be loved and admired by all for her ability to speak the language almost as if she were a native. With this handy guide should be able to “git along jes’ fin” (do quite well) yourself.

 

The most important word to “larn” (learn) is the ubiquitous “y’all”, pronounced “yawl”, using as many syllables as you can draw out of four letters. Y’all is technically both the singular and plural form of the second person pronoun, you, in the King’s English. It can be used more liberally (a word to be used thoughtfully, by the way), such as in seeking another’s attention, when it might seem rude to simply say, “Hey you!”

 

Please do not be confused by derivative forms you may hear of the word y’all. Those who make careers out of studying language have tried without avail to distinguish y’all from “you all” (an optional form for use in referring to more than one “you”) and the less common “all y’all” (a version for use in reference to larger numbers or to a group that may not all be present at the time).

 

So, if someone says, “Y’all are welcome to come,” you should consider that a genuine invitation (Southern hospitality is as real as “Co-Cola” – No, don’t dare ask for a Pepsi). If they say, “All y’all come,” you should feel free to invite friends and family, particularly if they have more than one first name, like “Billy Bob” or “Peggy Sue”. (Hyphenated last names are looked on with skepticism here, perhaps because of the fear that if cousins married one might end up being “Jolene Jones-Jones.”)

 

Another well-used term is the much-maligned contraction for the words “am not”, the ubiquitous “ain’t.” An example of common usage might be, “We ain’t had that much fun since the hogs got in the hornet’s nest.” Related and equally useful contractions you may hear are “wern’t” for “were not” (which is pronounced much like “rurnt”, though that term is used to describe good bait when made into sardines.

 

A related term to listen for is “t’wern’t”, which means, “there were not”. The words “did” and “you” are often formed into the contraction “d’jew” and should not be considered a reference to one’s family history, which, by the way, most Southerners consider a matter of pride, so long as no direct ancestors can be traced to Alabama. For entertainment, you might try using contractions of your own making and see if the locals recognize them.

 

You may be confused by the word “fixin’”, though in the context of slow Southern life, it has a special place in the parlance. To say that one is “fixin’” to do something is not unlike a husband on the couch telling his wife he is going to mow the grass. Fixin’ to go to town means simply thinking about it and does not imply that one should get the hounds in the truck. If you happen to hear the related term, “goin’ to”, it may have no relation at all to a destination at all and more to do with an intended act at some, as yet unplanned, future time.

 

Unlike the Eskimos, Southerners have no real word for “snow”, but a great many ways of saying, “guess”. One can “reckon”, “figure”, or “thank”, all of which show that we from the South are thoughtful in more than just our hospitality. “Hail”, which you may here, is not a form of precipitation, but rather where Yankees go when the die.

 

You may find yourself served with “greens”. These are not part of a golf course, but a bitter vegetable eaten by Southerners only in the presence of unsuspecting Northerners, who are smilingly offered generous helpings. Turnip greens and black-eyed peas are traditionally served on New Years Day as an augury of good luck for those who survive the experience.

For many more insights, and a great deal of humor, I recommend The Liberal Redneck Manifesto, by a trio of Southern humorists.  Read it and weep a few tears of laughter.

 

 

 

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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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The Last Word

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

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