Saturday, December 09, 2017

Christmas Letter 2017

For three months this year, our neighborhood park hosted an installation that delighted and challenged everyone who saw it. We were one of five parks selected for the city’s Monuments Lab, a project that explored the nature and meaning of monuments in today’s world.

The artist’s concept was straightforward. She covered an existing monument with reflective material. Visitors to the park could then look at the installation and see, not the past, but the present and future, for themselves and the neighborhood.

The installation was simple. Its meaning was complex and many-layered. At times it seemed to melt into the surrounding trees, and visitors wondered where it had gone. One visitor called it a portal to another dimension. Others took photos of themselves and their reflections. Everyone who saw it found a different meaning—often more than one.

As summer came to an end and autumn approached, the light and the surrounding trees changed. The installation seemed to change as well.

When our monument’s time ended, some wondered whether it would be moved or have a permanent place in another part of the park. It had become a part of our lives, if only for a short time—a thing of beauty and wonder for all to see, enjoy, and contemplate. Now it is gone, but the monument it covered stays with us, perhaps with added meaning,

Monuments can remind us of good works and great people—but some honor men who betrayed their country to preserve a slave system that destroyed human lives and corrupted everything it touched. Remembering that part of our past is essential if we are to overcome it, but honoring it makes the task of rebuilding more difficult.

Our monument brought people together, delighted the eye, and challenged the mind. It honored the present and the future in ways that we had not seen before. It affirmed the power of art to change us for the better.

May you find beauty and hope wherever it awaits you—in the power of art, in kindness from others, and in the love that you give to those around you. May you find your own monuments and may they help you to build a better future, for everyone.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas Letter 2016

Nearly three million years ago in East Africa’s Rift Valley, a new species appeared. It was both hunter and hunted, and the odds against its survival were great. It was weak, small and slow. Its senses—eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell—were no match for other predators. They would provide little protection against more powerful attackers.

As a solitary hunter, it would quickly have disappeared. But that was not its instinct or its nature. It built families to care for its vulnerable young and small communities to protect its families. It learned to hunt with teamwork, not strength. It learned to gather plants to supplement meat from the hunt.

The new species—our common ancestor—survived by cooperating, by caring about others in its community, and by working together for the common good. In the end, it became the dominant species on our planet.

Today it can be hard to remember that, despite our faults, we did not survive by practicing hatred, division, and greed. All of these in their many forms have made our journey more difficult, sometimes nearly destroying us. But at bottom they are not who we are. We evolved to cooperate with each other. We would not have survived if we had not.

All that we know about ourselves—our science, our spiritual traditions, our arts, and the wisdom of our philosophers—tells us that we can overcome our divisions and build a better world, if we have the will and if we listen to our better nature.

The voices of that nature are very quiet now. But we have been here before. The world has seemed broken, divided and hopeless before. Yet we have survived, and we have overcome hatred and division when that seemed impossible.

Even in times like these, we can make a start. We can be good neighbors. We can support our communities. We can reject hatred. We can do the healing tasks that lie before us. Together, we can create a better future.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christmas Letter 2015

A few blocks from our house, there is a small neighborhood park. It is a quiet, attractive green space, with old trees, a historic house, playground equipment for children, and a space laid out for softball games.

Like most urban parks, it had suffered over the years from neglect and lack of funding. The playground area had become unsafe and unattractive, and there was no money to rebuild it. The sidewalks needed repairs. There were not enough light fixtures, and many were missing or broken.

For the past four years, a small group of supporters, including our family, has worked to revitalize the park and make it the community treasure that we believed it could be.

This year the city and two local non-profit groups chose our park as one of six to receive makeovers. When the park reopened this fall, the sidewalks were repaired, the playground was renewed, and, most important, the lighting was abundant and beautiful. It was a gift to the community. It would not have happened without the work of our group and the help of many people and agencies.

In a world beset by climate change, wars, terrorism, economic recession, and poisonous politics, giving a small park new life seems like a small victory—but it is not. Urban parks lift a community’s spirits, improve its health, and spark changes that benefit all the park’s neighbors and the earth itself.

So it is with many changes for the better. They begin with small victories, achieved because ordinary people took the first step and dedicated themselves to the task before them. We cannot know how our work will end, but we can know that it is right for us to do it. And, with good fortune and help from many hands, we can build a better future.

May all your good works prosper in the year to come, and may they be fruitful beyond your hopes and your expectations.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Letter, 2014

Just before Halloween this year, we turned on our holiday porch lights. The days were getting shorter. Daylight Saving Time was about to end. The headlines during the week had been discouraging. We hoped that our lights might help to cheer up the neighborhood in a time that seemed very dark.

It was a purely symbolic act. Two strings of white lights could transform our porch, but they could not transform the world.

We turn the lights on every night now, and our porch looks very attractive in the dark. The world has not changed, but at least there is one more string of lights to challenge the darkness—literally, in a small way, and, in a much larger way, symbolically.

We are a species that creates symbols. We live by them. We die for them. They point toward realms of the spirit where mere words fail us. They sustain us through difficult times and enrich our lives when times are better.

In the darkest time of the year, we celebrate our holidays with light. This is no accident. Light symbolizes hope. With it, we can find a way forward.

Happy holidays, and may your light never fail.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Letter 2013

At the end of each year, the days grow short. Darkness prevails—but only for a brief time. We know this, and we celebrate not the dark, but the light that is coming and the hope that it brings.

This year we also celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, who brought liberation to South Africa and hope to a world that badly needs it.

Mandela would say that he did not do this, that change in his country was the work of many, not one. No great work—in politics, in science, even in more solitary disciplines like literature—happens in isolation. All build on the work of those who came before and depend for their success on the cooperation of others. That is what Mandela would probably say, and he would be right.

Yet he would also be wrong. The change in South Africa was the work of many, but it would not have come about without the vision of one who saw that he could not liberate the oppressed without also liberating their oppressors.

That was Mandela's central quest: to bring justice and healing to all who had been damaged by apartheid. South Africa's break with its past came, in the end, peacefully. Its rebuilding process has not ended, and we still do not know whether it will succeed. What we do know is that Nelson Mandela saw further and understood what was needed more deeply than any of us.

Mandela succeeded beyond all hope. He had been labeled a terrorist, yet he brought not revenge but reconciliation. He had been a prisoner of his country, yet he became its president. In the end he voluntarily relinquished his office, thereby affirming the future of democracy in South Africa.

As we observe the holidays this year, let us also remember Nelson Mandela. As we seek justice, peace, and hope, in small ways or large, we will honor his life and help to build a world that is better than the one we inherited. That is the best way to celebrate.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Letter 2012

Every year after Thanksgiving, we decorate the house for the year-end holidays. Our decorations are simple: some wreaths, a string of lights and a small display on the porch,  another string of lights in the dining room, and some tinsel and ornaments on the mantelpiece in the living room.
We grew up with Christmas, so we think of our decorations as Christmas decorations. In other households they would look different and celebrate different traditions, but the similarities in spirit would remain. Many people from many traditions—or no formal tradition at all—mark the end of the year with music, special days, special food, and family gatherings. For some it is a religious occasion; for others, a special time for family. For many it is both.
Like many other families, we decorate and celebrate in good years and in bad. Even in a year of drought, storms, floods, and conflict, like the one just ending, we try to find hope for the future. So, in their own ways, do other families and other traditions.
The end of each year is a time of darkness. The days grow shorter, and the light seems to fail. In our part of the world, the weather grows colder and more dismal. Our holidays celebrate the coming of light, and with it the triumph of hope over despair, of love over hate, of community over chaos. They help us to find a way forward even when there appears to be none.
Whatever your tradition, may you bring greater light to your home and the world in the coming year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Letter 2011

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
—Robert Frost

A few weeks ago I watched a video of the planet Jupiter from the Pic du Midi observatory in France. The clarity of the film and the sheer beauty of the planet left me feeling awestruck, small, humble, and proud of my species all at the same time.

We will probably never know all the secrets of Jupiter. It is too far away, and its environment is too hostile for us to explore it directly. We can only, as Frost put it, dance in a ring and suppose. But in the process we have learned much and seen much that we would have missed if we had not joined the dance.

Frost’s couplet reminds us that we are human and limited—but we also try to get beyond our limitations. Our search for truth, beauty, and meaning, however, is not just a struggle. It is also a dance.

Dance requires discipline and concentration. It is never perfect. But in the search for perfection, the dancer finds great beauty, a kind of truth, and deep meaning—and in the end, great joy for dancer and audience.

So it is with all of us. We may never penetrate the Secret, but our effort to do so—our science, our philosophy, our religious and moral traditions—is what makes us fully human and reveals to us worlds we had not expected to find. It gives us hope, even in the most discouraging times.