Journal Entries

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Window Shopping - Salem County, NJ

(A Sign of the Times?)

June 2022

The crucifix is a powerful symbol. The shop owner who placed these crucifixes in this store window is undoubtedly aware of that, and I'm sure he placed them here with good intentions. But at what point does a faith's most sacred symbol become reduced to a mere commodity for sale? I wonder how Jesus would react to seeing the symbol of his greatest sacrifice being peddled for sale in a shop window alongside a utility knife and a plastic ukulele? The story in the Bible of Jesus violently overturning the tables of the merchants  working inside the temple is well known.  His response was clear: "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house a house of merchandise".  A week later he would be crucified.  

Money and faith have been at odds for a long time.  When we reduce faith to a commodity, when wealth and power are to be gained at the expense of solemn beliefs, we reach a dangerous intersection. Power and money have always been intertwined, but when we add religion to the mix the brew becomes toxic. The world has always been polarized by differences in beliefs, cultures, and values. The veil of religion is too often a device to wield power. Societies constantly simmer in a state of shifting power struggles and eventually erupt when the balance of power becomes too lopsided in favor of the few against the will of the many.

In one week's time we have witnessed a seismic shift in the foundation of established laws in this country, all with religious undercurrents. Longstanding laws on diverse issues such as taxpayer funding of religious schools, the carrying of firearms in public places, and the rights of women to choose to have an abortion have all been reversed in the past week. Rights affecting tens of millions of people have been decided by just five people; five people who are not elected representatives and answer to no one but themselves.  Whether one is in favor of these rulings or opposed is hardly the issue. The issue is that the lives of so many should not be in the hands of so few.  Power of this magnitude should not go unchecked. Something is terribly amiss. 

Life in the Woods (revisiting Thoreau)

June 2022

To understand the world of today, hold it up to the world of long ago"

    – Kamo no Chomei (from Hojoki)

What do a thirteenth century Japanese Buddhist monk and a nineteenth century American Transcendentalist have in common? A lot, it would seem…

On July 4th 1845 Henry David Thoreau moved into a small cabin that he built on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He made his home there for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days. The book he wrote about his experience “Walden; or Life in the Woods” would become his thesis on nature, philosophy, and politics. At its essence, it is a guidebook on living a life of simplicity and meaning. In the opening lines he states his intentions: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The book would become the defining literary contribution to the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement.

Six hundred years before Thoreau – in the year 1205 – the Japanese writer Kamo no Chomei moved into a small hut he constructed in the woods near Kyoto, Japan and remained there for the rest of his days. The book he wrote about his experience, “Hojoki”, is a poetic work of Buddhist teachings using metaphors to illustrate the impermanence of material things.

Hojoki opens with:

"The flowing river never stops

and yet the water never stays the same.

Foam floats upon the pools,

scattering, re-forming, 

never lingering long.

     So it is with man

     and all his dwelling places

     here on earth."

If the two books are read in tandem, the message is of a single voice, but the styles are as distant as the woods both authors retreated to. Thoreau and Chomei lived centuries apart on opposite ends of the earth, in cultures completely foreign to each other. Yet it was in the woods where they would find their common voice. It was the woods that provided the solace from the material world that each grew increasingly disaffected with. The woods would be their common denominator.

In Hojoki, Chomei chronicles the earthquakes, wildfires, floods, famine, plague, and civil war that would serve as the backdrop to his life in Kyoto. He witnessed firsthand how vulnerable humanity is against the forces of nature, how easily the possessions we cherish can be lost in an instant. His experience taught him the Buddhist lesson that the desire for material possessions, pleasure, and immortality will only lead to pain and suffering. Chomei writes: "If your mind is not at peace, what use are riches?“ The woods provided all that Chomei needed: “I wish for nothing and do not work to acquire things.”

Thoreau lived in an era of rapid industrial change and witnessed the destructive consequences of those changes. He lamented against the expanding reach of the railroad (which to this day infringes on the shores of his beloved Walden Pond): “I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its hissing”. He was a staunch abolitionist in a country that was on a path to civil war. He exhorted the American values of self-reliance and individualism, but harbored no interest in material wealth. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes of Thoreau: “He chose to be rich by making his wants few, and supplying them himself”. But above all, Thoreau held a firm belief in the Transcendentalist’s view of the divinity of nature. For Thoreau, a walk in the woods was a source of spiritual enlightenment.

If both men could be magically transplanted to the present day they would recognize much that is consistent with their own times. In fact, our times are not that far removed from either of their worlds. We live in a world today defined by rapidly expanding technological change, natural disasters, plagues, famine, and political unrest. These would all be familiar circumstances that Chomei would easily recognize, as would Thoreau. Times may change, but humanity adapts, and nature is the constant that endures. Perhaps this is why the writings of Thoreau and Chomei have endured over the centuries. Why schoolchildren today are still taught the lessons that each has to offer. And why these lessons are as eternal as nature itself.

This image is from Lake Henry, in Mahwah NJ. The lake is similar to Walden Pond in many respects. It is nestled in the woods of a suburban area, lightly traveled, and serves as a peaceful sanctuary for those looking for a reprieve from the trappings of the modern world. I consider it my personal time portal into the world of Thoreau. I can easily picture his cabin at the end of the lake, and his figure fitted with his straw hat and his notepad in hand, walking along the shoreline in observance of nature, in order “to see if I could not learn what it had to teach”.  Perhaps one lesson we could all learn from both men is that we can make our lives much richer in simple ways. And to start, all we would need to do, is simply take a walk in the woods.

Click here to read Ralph Waldo Emerson's eulogy for Thoreau in the August 1862 issue of The Atlantic

Cabbage Key (Redux)

A Return to Normalcy?

March 2022

It was two years ago this month that I spent a week sailing the waters of Florida’s Pine Island Sound (see March 2020 journal entry). It had been an idyllic week of sailing up to the moment when I arrived back on shore only to discover that the life I left behind had abruptly departed from any sense of normalcy: the Covid-19 pandemic ambushed me as I stepped off the boat. So here I am now two years later, with the lockdown restrictions mercifully easing, sailing these same Florida waters in pursuit of the normalcy that eluded me upon my prior trip’s return. But I quickly realized the folly of that pursuit, for there is no turning back time. There is no reset button in the space-time continuum. What I deemed normal back then, is no longer normal today. The world moves forward constantly, with change being the only constant. Heraclitus knew this 2,500 years ago when he famously declared: “it is impossible to step in the same river twice”. He understood that the waters of the river would change, as too would the person. Normalcy, it seems, is an illusion we strive for but can never attain. What is normal one day is lost the next. Normalcy implies a constancy that does not exist in nature. There can be no going “back to normal” as we knew it, and there can be no striving for a “new normal” as we wish it. All we have is the present moment with an eye towards an uncertain future. And it is up to us to make the best of it.

Cabbage Key is a small, quiet, family-owned island in the Pine Island Sound. It has the feeling of being frozen in time, or at the very least it seems to change at a much slower pace than the world around it. That has always been its allure, and the reason it is often referred to as “old Florida”. The amenities are sparse, and the attractions are few. There are few people and no cars, with just one small inn and a few cottages. It is small, at roughly 100 acres in size, and is accessible only by boat (or seaplane). I always enjoy my visits here as they serve as a refuge from the unrelenting pace of the modern world. It is one of the closest things possible to stepping back in time.  But as much as I enjoy each of my visits here, I’m realizing now that I enjoy each visit differently. And that may be the closest thing to normalcy I should expect. I wonder if Heraclitus would agree?

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