God Bless America/God Save the Queen

The Guards

Ironclad plans for a trip are fine until they fail. One of the most positive aspects of traveling independently is the ability to make last minute corrections. Such was our decision one morning at breakfast when we realized that if we hurried over to the Russell Square underground station and headed for Buckingham Palace we might be just in time to see the changing of the guard that was to be held that morning. After all the rest of our day was dedicated to places where there was no need of tickets, so we had all of the flexibility that we needed. We took a deep breath, entered the fray of early morning crowds headed to work and girded our loins for whatever we might find ahead.

The train was so packed that we felt like sardines and it only became worse as we drew closer to our destination. Our foray inside a crowded train would be good practice for the swarm of humanity that we would find waiting at the gates to Buckingham Palace. We realized immediately that we would not get a prime view of the proceedings, but at least we were there and we’d have to just do our best to catch a glimpse of the proceedings here and there.

Unfortunately most of the best spots right along the fence line were taken by very tall men who further blocked the view by raising their arms to hold their cameras high in the air. Husband Mike and my brothers had no trouble looking over the shoulders of the lucky ones who had arrived early enough to stake out a claim to prime property, but my sisters-in-law and I were unable to see much even when we stood on tippy toe. Sister-in-law Becky decided to choose a different point of view and went to the very back of the crowd so that she might see the troops as they marched into the palace grounds. Allison and I found ways of glancing down low and in between the bodies of those who blocked our normal sight of vision. All in all it was a frustrating situation but one that we learned how to eventually make work.

By the time the proceedings began the area was a mass of humanity all craning their necks to see the red coated military men marching proudly across the grounds. They played traditional pieces that most of us had expected to hear, so a sense of great satisfaction swelled over the crowd. I saw enough of the upper half of their bodies to feel a sense of exhilaration, and I had perfected my method of finding tiny holes in the wall of people to make me feel as though I was part of something quite grand.

Standing on my toes and bending down became my official “modus operandi” so I hardly noticed that people from behind were pushing forward to get a view of their own. A woman who had a birds eye view in the front row suddenly became overcome by claustrophobia and decided to leave. Before doing so she offered her spot to me. I could not believe my good fortune as I suddenly stood right behind the fence along with the row of tall men. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of what I saw.

The soldiers with their red jackets and polished brass buttons stood tall and stately with their heads proudly bearing the black bearskin helmets that are the trademark of their station and their duties. I saw that they were not just showmen because the guns that they carried were real and quite powerful. They were indeed trained and equipped to be guards. I later learned that many of them had served in dangerous places like Afghanistan. Their precision bespoke of discipline and pride in their work. I was almost giddy at the wondrous sight that I was watching unfold. It was as though I was part of a living fairytale not unlike the ones that my father had so often read to me. I felt like Cinderella.

We were entertained by military songs and modern music, marching, and even a mounted cavalry wearing riding boots and a different sort of cap featuring horse hair. The pageantry was even more glorious than I had imagined it would be and my companions and I were quite delighted.

As is my way I found myself thinking of the rag tag revolutionaries of the colonies of north America who had the audacity to rebel against such a well trained and disciplined army of red coats back in the eighteenth century. It must have required an enormous amount of frustration over the political situation to risk fighting such a group. Little wonder that the prevailing belief was that the so called patriots would soon be put down by the seemingly superior forces and normalcy would return. I’m not so sure that I would have had the courage to side against such a powerful army, and yet I know from the study of my family tree that there were indeed ancestors who chose to join the revolution to free themselves from what felt like tyranny.

I suppose that we Yanks are the wild children of Great Britain. We came from the same stock but the new world changed us. We were far enough away from the old ways that we began to question the authority of a king who was making our lives more and more difficult. We had risk taking in our DNA. Our thinking diverged from the land of our origin and in the end we eschewed royalty and opted for freedom, even though our first form of it was far from perfect. It would take some time before we freed our slaves and allowed women to move to the front so that they too might participate in the grand experiment of the republic.

My spot along the fence of Buckingham Palace standing as an equal to the big tall men who had at first blocked my view felt like yet another metaphor for how far I have come from the time of my ancestors. I have roots in Great Britain that make me proud, but in the end I am a foreigner in that land. Neither I nor anyone not born of the Windsor family will ever be royal, but in my country anyone might aspire to be President. That is the grand difference that came from the revolution of long ago.

I possess all of the traits of an American including great pride in my country and a kind of brash sense of equality with every other human, but I still cherish the traditions of my history. I felt a kinship and a sense of friendship as I watched the ceremony unfolding before me, knowing also that I would not have been standing there were it not for the opportunities that the United States has given me. God bless America and God save the Queen!

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A Walking Timeline Through History

Trafalgar Square

When the best laid plans go awry, pathways to new adventures often show themselves. We were to have spent our morning watching the changing of the guards and our afternoon at Westminster Abbey. The cancellation of the tradition of pomp and circumstance at the palace had sent us scurrying to the Gothic church far earlier than intended, so once we were finished with our tour we became untethered and aimless wanderers around London.

The roads almost inevitably lead us past the halls of Parliament where protests centering on the Brexit issue were a constant feature during our time in the capitol city. We glanced disappointedly at Big Ben which was shrouded by the apparatus of reconstruction save for the face which never changed because it was not working. We wondered as we longed to hear the famous chimes if somehow all of our planning was doomed to go up in flames, but we soldiered on, walking past a highly secured area that housed the home of the outgoing Prime Minister.

There was much stirring behind the gates. We saw official looking men wearing formal  jackets filled with medals leaving the premises with grim expressions. It told us that Theresa May was no closer to creating a plan for transitioning Britain from the European Union to a  more nationalist entity. There was a noticeable tension in the air that hovered over the halls of government and the silence of Big Ben added a metaphorical touch to the chaos.

After walking for what had seemed like many miles Trafalgar Square was in view and husband Mike became quite animated by the thought of seeing the iconic tribute to those who had fought so valiantly in World War I. First, however we would pause for lunch in a nearby pub where I admittedly struggled to find something that appealed to me on the menu. I generally eat a very light midday meal and there was very little of that sort to be found among the traditional English food being offered, so I essentially skipped eating and instead enjoyed a lemonade and a much needed rest for my feet. I used the time to find and purchase the tickets that we would use later that night to see the choral concert at Westminster Abbey.

Once everyone was refueled we headed to Trafalgar Square which was quite joyfully bursting with life, mostly from tourists and street artists. The atmosphere reminded me of the area around St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were accomplished musicians and singers entertaining the crowd with performances worthy of Albert Hall. Using only chalk and their imaginations many individuals drew masterpieces on the grand sidewalks of the square. A gigantic fountain surrounded by enormous lion sculptures served as a photo opportunity for everyone who passed by, and of course there was the famous obleisk honoring the courage of those who defended the nation in World War I.

This was indeed a happy area where the tension surrounding the government buildings was replaced with a kind of serendipitous celebration of art and humanity. It felt good to be there and somehow made up for the botched intentions of our morning. We all realized that while we had not achieved what we had planned, we had stumbled upon something that was nonetheless glorious.

Just beyond all of the revelry lay the National Gallery which like so many sights in London was open to the public at no cost, so we decided to partake of its vast collection of paintings and sculpture in the time remaining before our evening engagement. This would prove to be a wonderful decision because some the the most famous artists the world has ever known were featured in the multi-story galleries.

I enjoyed so many of my favorite painters and was filled with appreciation for some about whom I had known nothing. Without a doubt, however, the experience of wandering without warning into a room containing the work of Leonardo da Vinci was the highlight of the visit for me. The funny thing is that I had spied his drawings from out of the corner of my eye and had noted that I felt drawn to to them before I realized that the great master had created them. There was a kind of lively charisma to even the preliminary sketches that elevated the pieces to a level unmatched by any of the other artists.

I might have stood transfixed in that room for hours were it not for the fact that we had agreed upon a meeting time in the coffee shop, and that hour was drawing near. It was with great reluctance that I took one final glance at the glorious paintings and headed down to meet with the rest of our party.

We enjoyed a bit of respite and a great deal of animated conversation over steaming cups of Earl Grey tea as we spoke of our favorite works of art. We all agreed that we had somehow been led to a most enjoyable afternoon by the “gods of travel” and we promised that if we had some additional time later in our trip we would gladly return to this wondrous place to be certain that we had not missed anything.

When we emerged into the late afternoon air we saw that the festivities taking place in Trafalgar Square had not abated. It seemed to be an oasis of cheer and goodwill which was perhaps the intent when it had been designated as a memorial to all that is good about Britain. After the horrors of World War I the citizens needed to remember, appreciate, and celebrate the many sacrifices made. I thought it fitting that the joy of peace time was still very much in the air.

We walked away with an even greater sense of the spirit of London and its people. In a single day we had looked far back into their history and gazed at the gravity of their present. It had been like walking a human timeline during which we witnessed the resilience of the people. We realized that they had made mistakes before, and perhaps were enduring them even now, but always they seemed capable of adjusting their course and moving on the right side of history.

Wonders of the World

British MuseumThe Bloomsbury area of London is the home of the university of London, Kings Cross Station, and the British Museum. A short stroll in almost any direction leads to lovely sights. In May the gardens and window boxes are filled with lovely flowers of every hue. Tiny markets offer fresh fruit and sweet bouquets. It’s a pedestrian world in which the sidewalks are filled with walkers strolling more leisurely than in the heart of the city. It is a place where lingering just a bit longer is in fashion.

On the first full day of our trip we chose to eschew hurry, and instead enjoyed a scrumptious English breakfast buffet in our hotel. We feasted on fried, scrambled and poached eggs with little English sausages, baked tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms. We enjoyed steaming pots of Earl Gray tea or tasted the brew from the latte machine. Crusty loaves of bread beckoned us and a bounty of pastries were ours for the taking. We had our choice of cereal and fresh fruit, cheese and pancakes. It was a good way to start our adventures for we would walk ten of thousands of steps, many miles in a single day.

Our quest was to visit the British Museum about which we had long heard. The building in which great treasures are housed is an imposing structure which would be worth a look even without ever going inside. Once we had entered we were in awe of the great halls and sensed that we were about to see magical things that we had only before read about in books. After gathering and studying a map we decided to go first to the Egyptian section where we were immediately taken aback by the presence of the Rosetta Stone, an imposing treasure that would have been worth the trip all by itself. 

From that first moment we were in awe of the treasures that were displayed for what seemed like miles. It was difficult to know where to first look or what direction to follow. The trove of artifacts was so expansive that it gave me the feeling of being an adventurous archeologist who had suddenly stumbled upon a great find. I felt humbled as I gazed at items so exquisite and so old that I had difficulty processing an image of the creative and skilled people who had made such things in a time when tools were simple and scarce. I found my mind going far back into the history of mankind, and I marveled at the human connections that I felt with the people who had left such incredible marks on the world. I also thought of those who were simply nameless persons attempting to deal with the challenges of living, often under great duress.

I was brought back to present day reality only when I saw a group of young school boys careful taking notes about what they were seeing. They were so cute in their jackets with crests on the breast pockets and their earnestness in deciphering the mysteries of the many artifacts that they passed. I suppose that I will always love children and feel proud of the tiny contribution that I have made in the long range history of a generation. I think that we humans create because we have always desired to find some kind of purpose to our existence,

I was so caught up in seeing Roman statues, Greek urns, and Chinese porcelain that I hardly noticed that six hours had passed and it was time to enjoy a traditional afternoon tea gathering. Our group ate little sandwiches filled with chicken, salmon and eggs. There were scones and cakes and tiny cookies. We relaxed and chatted about what we had seen and how we felt. We worried just a bit about how so many things had been brought to Britain from the places where they were found. We wondered if they had simply been confiscated or if there had been permission, agreements, and payments for taking such things. I suppose that there are many different points of view as to the ethics of having such museums, particularly when the items include actual mummies. Is it wrong to raid a sacred tomb, or should we honor the purpose of such rituals by leaving them intact?

After refueling ourselves and debating the pros and cons of how and whether or not we were somehow complicit in the rightness or wrongness of such a museum we continued our study of the many different rooms. We saw Mayan carvings, and intricate woodworking from Abysinnia. We walked past glorious creations from India and Japan. Our heads were swirling from trying to read the descriptions of what we saw and achieve some kind of understanding of the magnitude of the glories of each culture represented in space after space.

Soon it was nearing five in the afternoon, and we realized that we had literally spent an entire day mesmerized by what we had viewed. Nonetheless there was still more to see, but that would have to be for another day, perhaps on another trip. The doors were closing and we were explorers forced to reluctantly set our adventures aside.

Russell Square near the museum was by that time filled with tourists and locals enjoying the coolness of the afternoon under enormous trees. They lolled in the grass and sat smiling on benches. There was an unspoken collegiality between all of us as we exchanged smiles and greetings. We felt as though we welcome in this place and it felt so good.

We finished our day in Callahan’s pub in our hotel. We feasted on a variety of food. I chose bangers and mash which were as tasty as I had hoped they would be. I enjoyed a nice glass of wine while my travel companions chose ciders and beers. We played a game on a large table and watched soccer on the television above our heads. We got to know some of the locals who came to the pub of an evening just to have a swig and a bit of conversation. It was a fun closing of a perfect day in Bloomsbury in London town.

Our Hidden Universe

person holding string lights photo
Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

As an educator I have always been interested in the human brain and how it works. Sadly because it is so complex and we still have much to learn about it and what information we do have is sadly incomplete. Part of our difficulty in understanding it lies with the fact that we have only been seriously studying the brain for a little over a hundred years. Superstitions giving the brain a kind of spiritual aura actually prevented examinations out of a sense that it is wrong to invade the sacred nature of the mind. We are far behind the kind of knowledge that we have of our hearts and other organs of the body when it comes to the brain. Unlocking the inner workings of that most marvelous aspect of who we are may one day help us to eradicate some of the most life changing and difficult of the diseases that stalk us.

I dream of a day when we will literally be able to mend our brains in the same ways that we repair hearts. Surely the universe of our minds holds secrets to eradicating mental illnesses, learning difficulties, and other diseases that now so confound us. I can’t think of more challenging and ultimately rewarding research than studying how and why our minds work. As an educator I have seen the heartbreak of those who struggle to grasp ideas and concepts. As a caretaker I have watched my mother’s beautiful mind attacked by mental illness. As a friend I observed a delightful man slowly losing his ability to think and remember. I have seen the ravages of Parkinson disease steal away a cousin’s adventurous life, and I watched with horror as a brain tumor killed another a dear sweet loved one. I witnessed in great sadness as a friend succumbed to the ravages of ALS. It seems obvious to me that we need to support the people who are quietly working to find out how the mechanisms in the brain that control the very functions of our bodies work, and why the processes sometimes go awry.

I’ve often heard that we use only a small portion of our brain’s potential. Why is that so? Are the geniuses among us simply those who have unconsciously tapped into the power of their minds in a better way than the rest of us? What differentiates such souls from the crowd? Think of how wonderful it might be to truly understand how to coax more of those abilities out of each and every human. How exciting would it be to eradicate the kind of learning disabilities that educators see all of the time?

Our brains are encased in a bony structure that both protects them and hides their inner workings from us. We have machines that can record blood flow and even demonstrate where thinking is happening, but what we really know about the brain is rudimentary. It is as though we are still working with theories about humors and using leeches and blood letting to fix problems. Our psychotropic drugs work only sometime, and our therapies are often hit and miss at best. We do what we can with our limited knowledge and in the meantime some of the most intense suffering on earth continues in those with diseases of the brain.

I often think of how smallpox ravaged the world for centuries and is now almost unseen in the world. I dream of a time when we might be able to identify all forms of brain disease and cure them with medications or surgeries. I know that there are indeed individuals devoting their lives to discovering such miracles. We don’t often hear about them or even send our monetary support to their efforts, at least not until someone that we know is struck by brain disorders that rob them of the ability to care for themselves.

We spend a fortune on pizzas on the day of the Superbowl. We rush out to see the latest movies hardly thinking about the cost of entertainment. We treat ourselves to a four dollar cup of coffee without much regret. Our expenditures make us feel good, but think of how much better we might feel if they were deliberately aimed at the kind of research that is slowly unlocking more and more secrets of the brain. A slight change in our budgets here and there might allow us to invest in work that is as important as anything we humans do.

I know young people who are earnestly concerned about phenomena like PTSD, depression, dementia, strokes, multiple sclerosis. They want to earn the knowledge and the credentials that will allow them to delve into to inner workings of the brain, but doing so costs money that they sometimes do not have. It is important that we all agree to support the efforts of those who might one day discover how to eradicate some of our most confounding problems. The work may be tedious and may require more time than we wish, but in the end the efforts may lead mankind to solutions for difficulties that have plagued us since the beginning of time. If we can make to the moon or Mars surely we have the power to have better understanding of the hidden universe of our minds. 

We have the foundations for success in place. We just need to be sure that the momentum continues. Individuals and families are waiting for the answers that will change their lives and end incalculable suffering. They keys are inside our brains waiting to be found. This is who we really are as humans. By using the triumphant side of our natures to find the good, we may be able to counteract the conditions that cause us to despair. Then we will truly be able to proclaim, “What a piece of work is man!”

Forgiveness

gray scale photography of jesus christ head
Photo by Alem Sánchez on Pexels.com

When I was twenty years old I became the caretaker for my mother when her bipolar disorder sent her into a psychotic state. At the time I was sorely ignorant of mental illness and lacking confidence in my own abilities to assess the situation and advocate for the very best care for her. I would make a decision regarding her therapy that would haunt me for well over forty years. I allowed my own instincts to fold under pressure from her doctor mostly due to my ignorance and non confrontational nature. I agreed to a treatment for her that I knew she would hate. I did not have the courage to stand my ground and insist that the doctor try something else. Nonetheless I learned from this incident and grew exponentially into a person who would never again be influenced to act against my own sense of right and wrong. Sadly, even though I changed I was never quite able to forgive myself and whenever my mother’s illness reared its most profound ugliness she would remind me again and again of what she saw as my betrayal of her. It took a great deal of internal reflection and wise counseling for me to finally accept that I was worthy of mercy.

Each of us has a story of something that we handled badly, something that we replay in our minds over and over again as though we might somehow change the outcome or at least assuage our guilt. On a rational level we know that we just need to genuinely apologize to anyone whom we have hurt, and then demonstrate through our actions that we have genuinely learned and changed. If we are willing to become better then there is little reason to continue to berate ourselves or to be reminded by others of our transgressions. Forgiveness should mean that our faults will never be mentioned again, and yet we all know of situations in which an offender is never allowed to fully transform because someone continually thinks of them as the incarnation of their sins rather than their contrition.

In the gospel of a few Sundays ago Jesus had died, risen from the dead and was with some of his apostles once again. Lovingly he chose not to remind them of how some of them had denied him when he most needed their support. He did not focus on the moments when their human frailties caused them to react badly. Instead he loved them for coming back to him and demonstrating their belated faith in him. It did not matter what had happened in the past because he knew that they loved him at that moment.

The Christian message is one of forgiveness, and yet so many of us pridefully hold grudges against people whom we believe have hurt us. Particularly in today’s society once an individual has displayed egregious behavior we tend to forever hold that person in infamy even when he/she makes attempts to repent. It is a prideful thing that we do forgetting that each of us has fallen from grace at one time or another. We want understanding for ourselves without granting it for those whom we have stereotyped with a broad brush of negative judgement.

Certainly there are acts that seem unforgivable and make it almost impossible to associate with any kind of absolution. When we think of the Holocaust we sense a special kind of evil that only God himself might unravel and pass judgement upon, but for the most part the hurts that we inflict on ourselves and others can be reversed. When people truly attempt to become better it is important that like Jesus we embrace them as they have become rather than what they used to be. Continually reminding them of the past is as cruel and hurtful as any wrong that they may have done.

I’ve always been impressed by stories of forgiveness and the people who demonstrated great love and compassion to those who had wronged them. They abound in our history, but of late they are the exception rather than the rule. Abraham Lincoln understood that if our country was to survive as a union we would have to have to embrace the people who had attempted to rebel against the nation, forgiving them for what they had done and moving forward without continually chastising them. Of course he was tragically assassinated and the resulting tendency to punish has bled over into the current political environment. As a society we focus on missteps rather than the evolution of character. It is not what a man or woman may have once done in a moment of thoughtlessness that should matter, but rather what kind of person he or she has ultimately become. 

I am a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr. not just because he is a highly entertaining actor but because I believe him to be a good man. There was a time when his addictions were so severe that he almost lost himself and his career. He was slowly dying in a haze of drugs and alcohol that made him unreliable. Nobody trusted him even after he had done much work to rehabilitate himself. He could not get the insurance necessary to land even a minor part in a motion picture. It was Mel Gibson who was fighting demons of his own who came to the rescue, offering his own money as faith in Robert Downey, Jr. Ultimately Downey’s career was resurrected, but the loveliest thing about him is that he never forgot the kindness form Gibson who also became a pariah because of an outburst when he was drunk and under the influence of his own mental illness. Downey has appealed to the motion picture industry and one time fans to demonstrate some compassion for Mel Gibson just as he was given. He understands as well as anyone that life is a continuum, a journey in which we struggle to become better versions of ourselves. He knows how important it is to cherish those who make great efforts to change.

We seem to forget that Jesus modeled forgiveness again and again. The stories of his mercy resound in the Bible, and yet even many who profess to believe in his words turn their backs on those who fall. It sometimes feels as though our society has become a judgmental nag when what we really need is more absolution. The strongest people in our world are not the ones who are unwilling to see the goodness emerging in a fallen soul, but those who embrace those who change with love and clemency.