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John Roosevelt Boettiger
Mill Valley, CA, Seattle, WA, Phoenix, AZ, Los Angeles, CA, Amherst, MA, Hyde Park, NY, New York City (Manhattan), Dedham, MA, Vikersund, Norway, Paris, France, Sebastopol, CA, Berkeley, CA
Author, writer, editor, psychologist, father, grandfather, great-grandfather
Interests: Writing, reading, conversation, hiking, walking, bicycling, asking and responding to intriguing questions, metta, silence, prayer, meditation, justice (social, economic, judicial, political, familial, personal), the wily craft of coyote politics, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, family trees, redwood trees and live oaks, marsh land, hillsides, mountains, geese in flight, birds of a feather
Recent Activity
Maria Popova so often evokes a grateful response from me in her own online journal, BrainPickings. Here she is again, describing the poet Mary Oliver's long love of her partner Molly Malone Cook, in Oliver's book Our World. Oliver says she drew from Molly, "Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter." "Our World — part memoir, part deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves. Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.' "Oliver — who refers to Cook simply as M. in most of her writings — reflects in the opening essay: 'Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a... Continue reading
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Circle of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ca. 1590-95, Museum van Buuren, Brussels, Belgium (double-click to enlarge) Musée des Beaux Arts W. H. Auden About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling... Continue reading
Editor's notes (JRB): Long reads of more than more than 5 or 10 minutes are seldom posted on Reckonings, but I hope readers will enjoy this exception. (Anyway, it barely makes it into the long-read category.) Notto Thelle is an old and dear friend. We came to know each other during my years living and working in Norway. We continue to nourish our conversation via Skype every other week or so. He is professor of theology at the University of Oslo, a Christian minister in the long-prevailing Church of Norway, and a longtime student of diverse spiritual traditions, especially those whose homes include China and Japan, to both of which he has been a frequent visitor. Whatever my talents as an adult, they have not included facility in the learning of languages other than English, which remains late in my eighth decade a deeply pleasurable work-in-progress. It is partially in anticipation of the response I would elicit that I don't say, when asked, that my favorite book is the Oxford English Dictionary. As a psychologist, I have necessarily become adept in the practice, as Notto puts it, of "taking the dark side seriously." Doing so, indeed, is essential to our... Continue reading
From Wendell Berry: "Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns." Continue reading The address above points to an article that appeared in the NYT Magazine last Sunday, and I find myself circling back on it: reading of deep consequence. I found it fascinating and deeply troubling, confirming much that I knew but often extending my understanding and making connections I hadn't made. It sticks in my mind. Here's the last paragraph: "In addition to extinction (the complete loss of a species) and extirpation (a localized extinction), scientists now speak of defaunation: the loss of individuals, the loss of abundance, the loss of a place’s absolute animalness. In a 2014 article in Science, researchers argued that the word should become as familiar, and influential, as the concept of deforestation. In 2017 another paper reported that major population and range losses extended even to species considered to be at low risk for extinction. They predicted “negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining civilization” and the authors offered another term for the widespread loss of the world’s wild fauna: 'biological annihilation.'" Continue reading
Vincent Van Gogh, "The Starry Night" I was reading today an essay about turbulence, and came across a comment about Van Gogh's "Starry Night." He painted it in June 1889, depicting the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just before sunrise, with the addition of a village that was wholly of his creation. He had voluntarily admitted himself to the asylum after cutting off his left ear. From the essay I was reading: "Recently, when physicists examined Van Gogh's work, they found something remarkable. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of fluid structures which are nearly identical to those found in Van Gogh's sky in 'The Starry Night.' This pattern is not found in works he created when not in periods of mental distress; only in periods of great mental anguish was Van Gogh able to illustrate one of the most complex processes in all of physics." "Vincent Van Gogh transformed the chaos in his mind into beauty on the canvas. And, without any proper training in mathematics or physics, he was able to illuminate a concept which confounds physicists to this day: turbulence." Continue reading
I confess that I am at a loss on the very first line of this fine parable by Louise Glück: I have failed, at least thus far, to divest myself of worldly goods, as I use my computer to maintain this journal and remain in touch with friends and family near and far; and my closets are full. Since argument is a prevailing presence in this parable, however, I can quibble about whether electronic possessions are really worldly, but I would surely lose that argument. Unless... ah, another opening, perhaps a bit more accessible than the first: is it possible that those particular worldly goods do not distract me by gain and loss? Sometimes — right now, in fact — I do not feel such distraction. But truthfully that case feels a slippery slope. I think I'd do OK on the mountain passes. On the second question, should we have purpose, I am among the pilgrims more than the wanderers, though I partake of both modes. I am more among those who dream, who seek glimmering among the stones. My journey began long ago, continues to this day and beyond, I expect until I die and perhaps beyond. I am... Continue reading
Florida Scott-Maxwell (1883-1979), whose striking thought Parker Palmer uses as an epigraph in the short essay below, was a remarkable woman, a young actress who moved from New York City to Baillieston House, a 17th century home east of Glasgow, Scotland, when she married John Maxwell Scott-Maxwell in 1910. In addition to raising four children, she worked for women's suffrage and as a playwright. Later, living in London as a divorcee, she studied analytical psychology in Zurich with Carl Jung, and afterwards practiced as an analytical psychologist in both England and Scotland. She is best known for The Measure of My Days, an autobiography begun as a private journal about the experience of growing old, published when she was 82. Deeply engaging and insightful, sometimes stark, often with quiet humor, something of the book's spirit can be gleaned from these six passages: “I was astonished to find how intensely one lives in one’s eighties. The last years seemed a culmination and by concentrating on them one became more truly oneself. Though old, I felt full of potential life. It pulsed in me even as I was conscious of shrinking into a final form which it was my task and stimulus... Continue reading
Audacious is one of those words whose splendor consists, at least in part, of its representation of two diametrically opposed meanings. Most of the information herein is from the incomparable Oxford English Dictionary; Merriam-Webster is a useful adjunct to the OED, not a substitute. It may be characterized (as it is audaciously on its website) as "America's most trusted online dictionary;" the OED is English. On the one hand, daring, bold, confident, intrepid, as in T. Nicolls' translation of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War ii. cvi. 67: "More bolde and audacious in this thing, wherein we have much experyence." On the other, unrestrained by or expressing defiance of the principles of decorum and morality; presumptuously wicked, impudent, shameless, rash, insolent, as in Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), 323: "I grew more hardn'd and audacious than ever." Merriam-Webster has a helpful descriptive paragraph: "Audacious first appeared in English in the mid-1500s. It was borrowed from the Middle French adjective audacieux, which was derived from the noun audace ('boldness, audacity'). Audace came from the Latin audacia, a derivative of the Latin root audac- ('bold'). Audac- is also the source of audacity, which appeared in Middle English (as audacite) in the 1400s.... Continue reading
My model of a place dedicated to the nourishment of soul—the one I know best—is the Meditation Room at The United Nations in New York City. It was conceived and designed by Dag Hammarskjöld when he was the UN’s Secretary General. He wrote this description: "We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer. People of many faiths will meet here, and for that reason none of the symbols to which we are accustomed in our meditation could be used. However, there are simple things which speak to us all with the same language. We have sought for such things and we believe that we have found them in the shaft of light striking the shimmering surface of solid rock. So, in the middle of the room we see a symbol of how, daily, the light of the skies gives life... Continue reading
My gifted age-mate Parker Palmer is a Quaker elder, an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He is the founder and Senior Partner Emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His most recent book is On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old. (2018). He is a regular columnist for Krista Tippett's wonderful project, On Being. When some of us in my community thought of redesigning a small lounge into a room for meditation we decided to call The Sanctuary, I had Palmer's words in mind, especially his personal understanding: "Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival." Palmer wrote the following short essay in the year of Trump's election in 2016. I will not call the culture Trump has stimulated and drawn upon "the new normal," but certainly violence and conflict, Trump's ego, narcissism, bigotry and crudeness are a larger force in our public life than has been true of any time in living memory.... Continue reading
Some years ago I shared in Reckonings a poem by Denise Levertov that she called simply "A Gift." I want to reprint it here because it seems a good introduction to the entry that follows on the subject of sanctuary and soul. All of us surely know the feeling with which Levertov begins: when "you seem to yourself nothing but a flimsy web of questions." The apparent fragility of our internal web of consciousness and of the questions—the threads—themselves, speak of our confusion, the elusiveness of satisfying meaning or response. In confusion and absent of meaning, our lives lose their luster. As another poet, Gunilla Norris, writes, "We endure our days rather than embrace the living of them. To enter the realm of meaning requires attention and dedication. It requires an interior, reflective life. It requires the calming of our usual chattering minds. It requires trusting the life-giving nourishment of silence, that vast field of permission and sustenance in which our lives are held." It requires truly being with others rather than merely passing on the sidewalk or a hallway with a "How are you?" and an "OK." Now read Levertov's "A Gift" with Norris's thoughts in mind: at least... Continue reading
In the midst of an evening meditation yesterday, I recalled the beautiful poem below. There are at least two versions of the poem available in English, one a skillful Christian adaptation, the second probably closer to Hafiz's original. I reprint here both of them, because they are both lovely, it's interesting to see them at the same time, and perhaps there are readers of Reckonings and readers of Hafiz who may shed further light. Despite my lack of Persian, I'm still in search of a translation true to what Hafiz composed. I found the Christian version in David Ladinsky, (ed.), Love Poems from God. Wikipedia offers: "A standard modern edition in English of Hafiz's poems is Faces of Love (2012), translated by Dick Davis for Penguin Classics. "Peter Avery translated a complete edition of Hafiz in English, The Collected Lyrics of Hafiz of Shiraz, published in 2007. It has been awarded Iran's Farabi prize. Avery's translations are published with notes explaining allusions in the text and filling in what the poets would have expected their readers to know. An abridged version exists, titled Hafiz of Shiraz: Thirty Poems: An Introduction to the Sufi Master." I Have Come into This World... Continue reading
Prompted by my fellow journal-writer Maria Popova, I've begun reading poet and philosopher David Whyte's new book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Whyte's attention to anger is illustrative of his often counter-intuitive contemplations: "Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love... Continue reading
You’re a hero if and only if you serve The Leader’s interests. by Paul Krugman Remember when freedom was just another word for nothing left to lose? These days it’s just another word for giving lots of money to Donald Trump. What with the midterm elections — and the baseless Republican cries of voting fraud — I don’t know how many people heard about Trump’s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Miriam Adelson, wife of casino owner and Trump megadonor Sheldon Adelson. The medal is normally an acknowledgment of extraordinary achievement or public service; on rare occasions this includes philanthropy. But does anyone think the Adelsons’ charitable activities were responsible for this honor? Now, this may seem like a trivial story. But it’s a reminder that the Trumpian attitude toward truth — which is that it’s defined by what benefits Trump and his friends, not by verifiable facts — also applies to virtue. There is no heroism, there are no good works, except those that serve Trump. About truth: Trump, of course, lies a lot — in the run-up to the midterms he was lying in public more than 100 times each week. But his assault on... Continue reading
Orion Magazine > Articles > Ecology & Science > Wild and Domestic Wild and Domestic by Wendell Berry I. Gary Snyder said that we know our minds are wild because of the difficulty of making ourselves think what we think we ought to think. II. That is the fundamental sense of “wild” or of “wilderness”: undomesticated, unrestrained, out of control, disorderly. III. There are two ways to value this, as exemplified by the sense of “wild party”: from the point of view of the participants and that of the neighbors. IV. To our people, as pioneers, “the wilderness” looked disorderly, undomestic, out of control. V. According to that judgment, it needed to be brought under control, put in order by domestication. VI. But our word “domestic” comes from the Latin domus, meaning “house” or “home.” To domesticate a place is to make a home of it. To be domesticated is to be at home. VII. It is a sort of betrayal, then, that our version of domestication has imposed ruination, not only upon “wilderness,” as we are inclined to think, but upon the natural or given world, the basis of our economy, our health, in short, our existence. VIII. It... Continue reading
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - The Talmud Continue reading
In the nearly 20 years I have been editing and writing Reckonings, I haven't once urged readers to vote, much less to vote for a particular party. I'm doing so now for the first time, because I believe the forthcoming elections on November 6 are the most important midterms in U.S. history. I've been tempted to do so for a while, but the following column by Paul Krugman in The New York Times today offered eloquent and well-reasoned rationale. Others have made the case, but I believe none so clearly and compellingly as Krugman does. Please read, and please vote. A Party Defined by Its Lies At this point, good people can’t be good Republicans. By Paul Krugman Nov. 1, 2018 During my first year as an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, I wasn’t allowed to use the word “lie.” That first year coincided with the 2000 election, and George W. Bush was, in fact, being systematically dishonest about his economic proposals — saying false things about who would benefit from his tax cut and the implications of Social Security privatization. But the notion that a major party’s presidential candidate would go beyond spin to outright lies still... Continue reading
Maria Popova's "Brain Pickings" remains a collection of valuable reflections on important issues, especially now that she has added a midweek message devoted to themes she has addressed in past years. I encourage readers of Reckonings to subscribe to her now twice-weekly mailings. Here is a current example of her work. Tchaikovsky on Depression and Finding Beauty Amid the Wreckage of the Soul “An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Joni Mitchell once told an interviewer. Indeed, the history of the arts is the history of the complex relationship between creativity and mental illness. But while psychologists have found that a low dose of melancholy enhances creativity, its clinical extreme in depression can be creatively debilitating. Few artists have walked that fine line with more tenacity and self-awareness than the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893). Frequently throughout his correspondence with family and friends, collected in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) — the source of his enduring ideas on work ethic vs. inspiration, the paradox of client work, and why you should never allow interruptions in your creative process — Tchaikovsky notes his cyclical lapses... Continue reading
No Wall Between Amigos The crisis continues at the U.S.-Mexico border. By Sandi Villarreal November 2018, Soujourners A SMALL WHITE CHAPEL sits just a couple hundred yards north of the Rio Grande river in Mission, Texas. While the chapel no longer hosts an active parish, its interior shows signs of frequent use. Prayer candles and silk flowers line the altar and the base of a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. An entryway table holds dozens of prayers, written on folded loose-leaf paper. Children’s composition notebooks, filled with more handwritten prayers, are stacked in piles. “Please watch over our brothers, sisters, and all the children being held hostage at the border,” one prayer says. And another: “Please bless our health & the children being separated from their parents @ the border.” La Lomita Chapel is now part of a municipal park and serves as a rest stop for passersby—while Border Patrol trucks sit just outside the park entrance and a helicopter circles overhead. The chapel land was originally granted to Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate priests in the mid-1800s. Given its location—midway between mission centers in Brownsville and Roma, Texas—La Lomita served as a meeting place and “housed transient visitors... Continue reading
Likely more than you want to know: fugacious: according to Merriam-Webster, lasting a short time, evanescent. "Fugacious is often used to describe immaterial things like emotions, but not always. Botanists, for example, use it to describe plant parts that wither or fall off before the usual time. Things that are fugacious are fleeting, and etymologically they can also be said to be fleeing. Fugacious derives from the Latin verb fugere, which means "to flee." Other descendants of fugere include fugitive, refuge, and subterfuge." Examples of fugacious: The rock band's rise in popularity turned out to be fugacious, and within two years its members had moved on to other careers. "The maple leaves are a yellow light signaling me to slow down and take in the last pulse of color of a fugacious fall." — David Johnson, The Daily News of Newburyport (Massachusetts), 26 Nov. 2013 If one turns to the OED, fugacious is defined as "apt to flee away or flit," and then breaks the definition down into its uses in different contexts: a. Of immaterial things: Tending to disappear, of short duration; evanescent, fleeting, transient, fugitive. b. Of persons: †Ready to run away. Also humorously (of persons), fleeing; (of... Continue reading
One of the pleasures of being a writer—or a reader for that matter—is an affection for words and their meanings. The finest and most well known English dictionary, far and away, is, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary, largely because of its inclusion of the historical evolution of each word's usage. The OED is published in several volumes, and in two volumes requiring a magnifying glass to read, but in this digital age, it is far more easily accessed online, with its own website. The OED, even on its website, is not inexpensive to use. An annual subscription to the online version now normally costs $295/year, but now, in celebration of its 90th year of publication, the OED is available for $90/year in the U.S. and £90 in the U.K. Most public libraries subscribe to the OED, and the library subscription can be used for free from one's home. Obviously, there are other reputable dictionaries, of which one, Merriam-Webster, has a "Word of the Day" email newsletter, with definition, usage, pronunciation, and commentary about word origins. The occasion for these notes is that today's Word of the Day is one of my favorite words which I have too little occasion... Continue reading
I don’t know why, but it's been a while since I have received the wonderful weekly called Brainpickings, a splendid collection of short essays by its creator, Maria Popova. So I was glad when today’s email included her most recent issue. Of the several intriguing pieces therein I found one that particularly stands out for me, because it is focused on the theme of storytelling, and because it is a description of the latest book of essays by a favorite writer, Rebecca Solnit: Call Them by Their True Names. Since coming to my current abode among the redwoods of northern California, I've had many opportunities for exploration and growth, one of them being membership in a weekly group called "Searching for Meaning." We focus each week on aspects of our experience during the past few days in which we have found ourselves seeking and sometimes finding new meaning in our lives. So I found particular satisfaction in Rebecca Solnit's characterization of that process: "Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it's an individual or the earth itself.; and toward the historical record. It's also a kind of self-respect...The... Continue reading
I don't usually post longer pieces on Reckonings, but this one is a great exception, and in the accessible form of a conversation, an interview by Krista Tippett, founder of the valuable online program "On Being," with well-known scholar, writer and teacher Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her many books include The Managed Heart, The Second Shift, and Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. If you would rather listen to their conversation rather than read it, you may do so here. FROM KRISTA TIPPETT’S “ON BEING,” October 18, 2018 ARLIE HOCHSCHILD The Deep Stories of Our Time One of the voices many have been turning to in recent years is Arlie Hochschild. She helped create the field of the sociology of emotion — our stories as “felt” rather than merely factual. When she published her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, in the fall of 2016, it felt like she had chronicled the human dynamics that have now come to upend American culture. It was based on five years of friendship and research in Tea Party country at that movement’s... Continue reading
Drawn from an excellent article in The New Yorker by Pankaj Mishra, "Gandhi for the Post-Truth Age," in the issue of October 22, 2018. Satyagraha, literally translated as “holding fast to truth,” obliged protesters to “always keep an open mind and be ever ready to find that what we believed to be truth was, after all, untruth.” Gandhi recognized early on that societies with diverse populations inhabit a post-truth age. “We will never all think alike and we shall always see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision,” he wrote. And even Gandhi’s harshest detractors do not deny that he steadfastly defended, and eventually sacrificed his life for, many values under assault today—fellow-feeling for the weak, and solidarity and sympathy between people of different nations, religions, and races. No one would be less surprised than Gandhi by neo-Fascist upsurges in what he called “nominal” Western democracies, which in his view were merely better at concealing their foundations of violence and exploitation than explicitly Fascist nations were. He thought that democracy in the West was “clearly an impossibility so long as the wide gulf between the rich and the hungry millions persists,” and as long as legislators act like... Continue reading