A Revolution of Civility ~ 10 rules from George Washington for today

Portrait of George Washington by Thomas Sully circa 1820

America’s annual holiday in honor of George Washington came a little more than a month after an unsettling display of incivility at our nation’s Capitol. The event shook many of us to our core and increased our desperate longing for a more gracious society.

I recently picked up a book on the clearance shelf titled Civility ~ George Washington’s 110 Rules for Today by Steven Michael Selzer. According to the author, when George Washington was just fourteen, he copied 110 principles for personal conduct from a manual composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Washington titled his list Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation and carried it with him throughout his life.

As America’s first president, perhaps Washington understood that civil behavior is not just desirable but essential to a successful democratic nation. In a letter written to the people of Baltimore in 1789, Washington wrote what could easily be applied to us today, “It appears to me that little more than common sense and common honesty, in the transactions of the community at large, would be necessary to make us a great and happy nation.”

Most of Washington’s rules are as apropos in 2021 as they were 250 years ago, though a few have become less relevant. One such rule states, “Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle, put your foot dexterously upon it.” Ew, George.

Out of Washington’s 110 rules, I’ve chosen just ten (keeping his original language) that could start a revolution of civility.

  1. Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present. This was Washington’s rule number one, and if we truly followed it, the others might be unnecessary. Everyone deserves kindness and respect, and though the rules are apolitical, it does pair nicely with a nation founded upon principles of democracy.
  2. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet. This rule makes me think Washington may have spent some time as an eighth grade teacher. We should all keep in mind that our music, talking, fidgeting, pencil tapping, phone use, and other behaviors might be disturbing to others.
  3. Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty. I’ve heard it said we Americans often know our rights better than our wrongs. We are gloriously endowed with freedom of speech, but we should do so carefully, respectfully, and wisely.
  4. Use no reproachful language against anyone. Neither curse nor revile. One of the most distressing scenes from January 6 was that of a woman, old enough to be a grandmother, standing in the halls of our Capitol repeatedly calling someone a most vile name. Cursing others may be commonplace in today’s society, but civil it is not.
  5. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company. In business, politics, and our personal life, we should be careful of the company we keep. It was Washington’s pal Benjamin Franklin who said, “He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”
  6. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. I’m not sure Washington could have foreseen the abounding dishonesty paraded as truth in our society. Now more than ever, we have the responsibility to get our information from trustworthy sources and share it judiciously.
  7. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly. In the words of another great president, Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
  8. Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private. In an age when many over-share details of their personal lives, it’s still important to respect people’s privacy. It takes a certain amount of maturity and discretion to stay out of the rumor mill.
  9. Put not another bite into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls. Though poor table manners may not be immoral, they can be unpleasant. A revival of basic etiquette would go far in increasing our respect towards one another.
  10. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. This delightful quote is Washington’s 110th and final rule. Deep down we know civil from uncivil, courteous from discourteous, polite from impolite. Imagine if we all endeavored to keep that heavenly flame of our conscience burning bright. §

Mangoes ~ life-changing words from a child in Africa

The first piece of mail I opened in 2021 was a letter from a 7-year-old boy who lives in a village outside of Entebbe, Uganda. Nothing sets you straight faster than the cheerful words of a child who lives in one of the poorest nations in the world.

I was attending my own pity party when I saw the letter on the kitchen counter. It was from Lukas, a child we sponsor through Compassion International. Just seeing the familiar envelope was enough to make me flush with embarrassment. I stopped whining and opened the letter. On one side was a colorful picture drawn by Lukas, and on the other, a letter written in English by a translator.

Lukas was responding to a letter I’d written to him during the summer. Normally our letter cycle takes about three months, but the pandemic made the process twice as long. Lukas asked how we were doing and told us more about himself. We already knew the names of his brothers and sisters, that he likes to play soccer with his friends, and his favorite color is green.

Reading the letter out loud to my husband, my voice cracked when I read, “Lukas also adds that he appreciates so much his birthday gift of 86,350. With that money, he bought a mattress and a piece of candy.”

We’d forgotten his annual birthday gift of $25 had been automatically withdrawn from our bank account. Lukas didn’t replace an old mattress with a new one. He bought the first mattress he’d ever had to go with the mosquito netting he bought with last year’s Christmas gift.

The little boy’s grateful words hung tangibly in the air next to my greedy ones.

I’d just been listing the next bushel of things I needed to happen, needed to do, needed to get in order to sit squarely in the lap of happiness – things Lukas has no idea even exist or would ever believe he was entitled.

Then Lukas told us something neither Mike nor I can get out of our minds – something incredibly simple and utterly life-changing.

The thing that makes him happiest is climbing trees for mangoes.

We love mangoes. We buy them at the grocery store when they’re available. Mike is good at picking a perfectly ripe one. He slices through the yellow-red skin and then makes neat cuts in the bright yellow flesh to release cubes of the tropical treat. Biting into the fruit brings a burst of floral sweetness with a slight hint of pine. If eaten mindfully, it’s heaven.

I imagine our young friend nimbly skitter up a mango tree in his village. His bright brown eyes spy a ripe fruit. His tiny hand picks it off the limb and stuffs it in his pocket. He climbs back down the tree, laughing. He sits on the ground and leans against the base of the tree. Pulling the golden prize from his pocket, he takes a big bite, juice dripping down his smiling face.

When we find ourselves getting caught up in our first world delusions and disillusions, Mike and I need only say one word to remind us of the good life.

Mangoes. §

About Compassion International ~ When you sponsor a child through Compassion International, you become the single sponsor of a specific child. You get updated pictures and profiles of your child, and you can exchange letters. Your donation help your child’s local church provide medical care, education, nutritious meals, and other needs. To find out more about sponsoring a child through Compassion International, go to http://www.compassion.com/Child/Sponsorship.  

An Optimist’s Guide to Politics

Politics and optimism seem to mix like oil and water, but formidable British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Those of us with such dispositions can successfully navigate a contentious election year by clinging to some simple values most optimists hold dear to their hearts.

At the end of the day, optimists just want everyone to be happy. It’s an idea our founding fathers shared, at least in theory. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When optimists vote, they want nothing more than our country to keep moving towards fulfilling those promising words adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

Most optimists believe good character to be the most important quality in any person, particularly someone who wishes to hold a public office. Voters who don’t care about a politician’s character, just their policies and party, are probably not optimists. Abraham Lincoln reminded us, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think about the personal qualities you admire and likely insist upon in the people you want in your inner circle. Before you vote, consider how well the candidates hold up against that basic measure.

Optimists have heaps of trust in their fellow citizens and in democracy itself. We have faith in the democratic process and take seriously our right and responsibility to vote. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote after decades of protest and civil disobedience. When we go to the polls we must keep in mind that democracy, the cornerstone of an optimistic nation, is always at stake.

At the risk of sounding like a Miss America contestant, optimists really do want world peace. George Washington said, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Here at home, we want to live in a country that’s peaceful and united in the belief that we all deserve to feel safe and respected, despite our differences. Support the candidate who wants that, too.

For those of us who like to keep things light, the next few weeks are going to be pretty heavy. Let’s stay true to our ideals of happiness, character, trust, and harmony. Don’t worry when the cynics call us dreamers, because they will. Finally, remember another thing Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

The Joy of a Hopeful Spirit

Like a tired child, America is having a melt-down. Overwhelmed by the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, injustice, unemployment, violence, and division, she sobs breathlessly, too distraught to make any sense at all. She needs an adult, someone like you, to pick her up and soothe her with a lullaby of hope.

Speaking of hope in times like these may seem excessively optimistic and naive, but Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try.” Where can we find hope enough to calm ourselves, let alone ease others?

First, we can find hope in our country’s history. America has pulled through many times of darkness. In his book The Soul of America, author Jon Meacham reminds us that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and offers reassurance that they are survivable. Through slavery, war, inequality, depression, and disaster, our nation has marched steadily forward to a hopeful chorus touched by what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Secondly, we can find hope in our country’s citizens. Mr. Rogers often told the story about being a young boy who was frightened by things he saw in the news. Fred’s mom told him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s as true today as it was then. Each and every day there are good people working for the well-being of others, and good people always bring out the good in people.

Finally, we can find hope in ourselves. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” The famous poem honors the individual’s capacity for hope. Think of all the times you mustered hope to get through a difficult challenge. Facing our personal trials and tribulations with a spirit of sanguinity offers inspiration to those around us.

With everything that’s going on right now, we may want to throw ourselves on the floor in an all-out temper-tantrum fueled by fear, anxiety, or anger. But we are adults, and children are watching. We must choose to face our struggles head-on while humming a song of hope. As Helen Keller said, “Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.”

Why I Asked My Community to Remove Confederate Flags

After three months of being cooped up due to the Coronavirus lockdown, we knew our nephews, who live north of Indianapolis, would enjoy a couple of days visiting our home in the woods of southern Indiana.

They filled their stay to the brim with boating, fishing, swimming and kayaking. Wide-eyed, they watched a deer amble into the yard early one morning. Under the setting sun, they saw four young foxes play with abandon on the shore of the lake. It was almost enough fun to take their minds off these uncertain, tumultuous and frightening times.

Almost.

When they arrived, the boys tumbled out of the car and asked curiously, “Why are there so many Confederate flags around here?” My heart sunk. I hoped they’d be too busy playing on their phones to notice the symbol that dots the hilly drive to our home.

Along the country roads, at least a dozen Confederate flags proudly hang from trees, fly from houses, stick to truck bumpers and decorate front porches. (Note that Indiana was not part of the Confederacy, and the ubiquitous design seen on the Rebel flag never actually represented the Confederacy.)

 While roasting marshmallows one evening, I asked the boys what the Confederate flag meant to them. My eleven-year-old nephew quietly said, “It means they hate black people.” His thirteen-year-old brother added so softly it was nearly inaudible, “They wish the South won the Civil War and that there was still slavery.” Despite the warmth of the fire, a chill went down my spine.

A few days later, something I read by Martin Luther King, Jr. demanded my action, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency.”

Fueled by the fierce urgency of now, I submitted my column to our local newspaper, unsure if it would be published, which read in part –

This is neither a history lesson nor a political discussion. Rather, it is a plea to consider what that flag means to the people who pass by your house or vehicle. Neighbor to neighbor, it is a huge and humble request to consider removing Confederate flags from your property.

The editor of the paper emailed me back almost immediately. She thanked me for my column and assured me it would be featured in the next issue. She also invited me to be part of a newly formed county commission for human rights and told me about an upcoming solidarity rally for racial justice to be held that weekend smack in the middle of Brown County, Indiana.

The Confederate flag has generated controversy and impassioned debates for 155 years. What makes this time any different?

Because right now we are emerging from the unique stillness of a quarantine. Thanks to the pandemic, we were forced to take a collective time-out. Without our usual distractions, we are in a heighten state of awareness to better see the realities of our country and ourselves.

The headlines aren’t any different. But we are.

We find ourselves in what may be a once-in-a-lifetime position to finally open our eyes to the causes of racial injustice, pain and division. It will take much more than removing Confederate flags, but it would be a tangible start to making positive, lasting change for our children and our grandchildren.

And for my nephews – smart, kind, beautiful brown boys – who simply deserve to run among the wildflowers, jump in the lake and feel welcomed when they visit the joyful rural countryside of America’s Heartland.

To Bee or Not to Bee

Drinks in hand, Mike and I stepped onto our boat for a quiet evening ride around the lake. We noticed a few bees buzzing around the front of the pontoon and absent-mindedly shooed them away.

Bees are the world’s leading crop pollinators.

I was getting settled in my usual spot when I flicked away a bee and spilled my entire glass of wine. While lamenting that tragedy, I felt a sharp sting on my right middle finger. I held it up in what appeared to be an angry gesture I don’t usually use. “Stupid bee!” I wailed.

Since 2006, the bee population has declined considerably.

Looking to Mike for sympathy, I saw him dancing erratically on the dock. His gin and tonic glass lay empty on the ground. He was holding his cheek, and I could see a welt beginning to form. We realized the bees were darting in and out of a small opening between the boat seat cushions.

The causes for decline include pesticides, disease, parasites and climate change.

We ran to the top of the wooden stairs to regroup and come up with a battle plan. This was war.

If we lose the bees, we could lose all the plants they pollinate. 

While I explained to our neighbors what all the buzz was about, Mike disappeared toward the house. He returned with fresh drinks in one hand and a can of insect spray in the other.

Eventually, we could lose the herbivorous animals that depend on those plants to live.

He violently sprayed directly into the opening where the bees were coming from. When the melee was over, we realized Mike had been stung several times on his arm, hand and face. He said he was fine and still wanted go on a short ride to watch the sunset.

Ultimately, this could work up the food chain leading to worldwide famine, poverty and possible extinction. 

We were not yet out of our cove, when I saw Mike’s face getting blotchy and swollen. “My mips meel a mimmel mummm,” he said. “What? Your lips feel numb?” He nodded. We went back to the house and I gave him some Benadryl and an ice pack. I was dabbing his stings with vinegar when he mumbled his throat felt weird.

More immediately, we could say goodbye to honey as well as carrots, apples, lemons, onions, melons, almonds and coconuts.

Mike didn’t argue with me about going to the emergency room thirty-five minutes away. By the time we arrived, he looked a little like the Elephant Man. He got a shot in his rear and was monitored for a few hours. We left the hospital with a prescription for prednisone and a lifetime of bad bee puns.

To really bring it home, there would be no limes for a gin and tonic. No grapes for a glass of wine. 

A couple of days later, we went down to the boat. Mike carefully lifted the seat cushion with a wooden oar, and we saw an empty bee hive the size of my head. He muttered something about losing the battle but winning the war.

A world without bees couldn’t possibly sustain our planet’s human population.

Looking at the destroyed hive, I expressed my concern for the bees and our environment. Mike stared at me incredulously, his hand and face still visibly swollen, and said, “If the bees want to survive, they need to stay off my boat.” Waving the oar, he added emphatically, “Bee-lieve me!” §

(Source for italicized information is BBC.com ~ pun not intended.)

The Mourning Doves’ Call for Peace

Note: This post was written in response to a weekend marked by gun violence in our country. 

A quiet sadness hung in the air defying the bright August morning. The rising sun was still behind the treetops, but slivers of light cut through thick branches in stark, illuminating shafts. Nature seemed to know mankind awoke again to unnatural hate and violence.

Under the mysterious stillness was a low, haunting call of a mourning dove. Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo!  

A pair of doves landed on the ground, their fluttering wings breaking the strange silence. They moved gracefully searching for seeds below the bird feeders. Oddly, they foraged alone. No squirrels scurried around them. The cardinals, finches and orioles reverently relinquished the morning to the soft gray, slender-tailed doves.

In the distance another soft, slow coo was heard. Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo!  

Their distinctive melancholy song gives mourning doves their name, but the birds are not associated with despair. To the contrary, they are universally recognized as symbols of peace. Since the beginning of time, the dove has represented a transformative symbol of optimism and hope in folklore, mythology, literature and scripture. Doves are referenced in the Bible more than any other species.

Artists and musicians often turn to doves for inspiration. In 1949, the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso drew the iconic Dove of Peace-Blue for the World Peace Congress, becoming a lasting symbol of respect and harmony between people of all nations.

The mourning dove is one of our country’s most common birds. It’s found in nearly every environment and has adapted well to man-altered habitats. Yet despite their abundance, despite their well-known symbolism, despite our love for the idea of peace on Earth, we aren’t getting their message. We’re moving further and further off the path of civility, kindness and goodwill that leads to peacefulness.

A third mourning dove joined the other two at the bird bath. Noticeable was their calm and serene demeanor. They sipped the water delicately, occasionally looking up with round, dark eyes. They elegantly cocked their heads as if understanding the sacred beauty of the world and their role in it.

Just as the sun peeked over the top of the trees, flooding the new day with golden light, a mourning dove sang its pleading song of peace. Oo-woo-oo  oooo oooo! Oo-woo-oo oooo oooo! §

 

 

Under the Same Stars

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made a wish on the first star I see at night. This week, I will make a wish for a ten-year-old boy who lives in a small village in Uganda.

When I was a child, my wishes were those of a child. As I got older, they became less self-centered and foolish. Eventually, most of my wishes turned to prayers for the health and happiness of the people I love. After my children went out on their own, I found it comforting to know they might look up in the sky and wish upon the very same star as I.

Many years ago, my husband and I began sponsoring a little boy named Pascal through Compassion International, a humanitarian aid organization. I love knowing he, too, is under the same blanket of stars.

Pascal lives with his brothers, sisters, and mother, who has been ill for some time. His home has been described as a small shelter cobbled together with discarded materials. Fortunately, Pascal and many of the children in his village are able to attend a church-sponsored school.

I don’t know if Pascal understands he lives in poverty. If so, his smiling school photos and drawings of himself playing soccer, laughing with friends, and helping his mother belie the fact. When I find myself wishing for material things or for even more ease in my life, I think of Pascal and the three billion people on our planet who live in poverty.

There’s a quote I turn to when my life seems inadequate, when I let advertisements, HGTV, and social media make me feel small and envious. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches. For to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

Rilke’s words shame me. I keep the quote close at hand, just in case I need to snap out of it.

I sent a birthday card to Pascal, which an interpreter will help him read. I asked him to look up at the night sky. “Remember that you and I are on the same planet, under the same sky, looking up at the same stars,” I wrote. “I am making a special wish upon one of those stars for your birthday and always.”

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. 

Please Note: About a year after I wrote this essay, we received a letter that Pascal’s mother passed away, and his guardian chose to remove Pascal from the Compassion project. Mike and I could no longer sponsor him. I called Compassion International in Colorado and was told this is a common problem with sponsored children. One of the most important feature of child sponsorship programs is tracking children so that they are not easily sold into slavery or recruited into rebellion armies. I was allowed to write Pascal a final letter and risked sending him our address and phone number, hoping he might contact us on his own at some point. We have not heard from him yet, but I pray he knows I will look up at our same stars this week and make a birthday wish for him. §

Starting the Year on the Right Foot

When I signed us up for the First Day Hike, it sounded like an exhilarating way to begin the new year in the peace and quiet of Brown County State Park, but the experience proved to be more challenging and eye-opening than expected.

When Mike and I reached the trailhead where the New Year’s Day trek began, we were surprised to be joined by more than 200 hikers. There were loud hikers. Pushy hikers. Slow hikers. Hikers on cell phones. Hikers with unruly yapping dogs and children. So many children.

I looked at my husband like a deer in the headlights. “This might be the hardest two-mile hike I’ve ever been on,” I whispered unnecessarily, as he knew exactly what I was thinking. We almost bailed on the First Day Hike before it even began, but I felt it might be a test, not of my endurance, but of my tolerance.

I used to have a wealth of patience. When I was a teacher and mom to young children, patience was my superpower. For more than 25 years, I willingly trapped myself in a small square room with more than a hundred middle schoolers a day. Although I’ve always enjoyed time alone, I loved interacting with students, co-workers, neighbors, family, friends, and even strangers.

Now I’m retired and live in the boonies. I go days without talking to anyone save my easy-going husband and the forest critters. If not for the necessary task of grocery shopping, I would happily remain in the woods like a hermit. I’ve admittedly become a tad intolerant of my fellow man.

We fell into line with the army of hikers who snaked single-file through the hills of Brown County at a steady comfortable pace. I noticed how nature worked its magic to cast a spell of courtesy and civility over the group. While navigating the rugged trail covered in wet leaves and squishy mud, we chatted quietly, as hikers often do, about the weather, foliage and fauna, wildlife, and other favorite hiking spots.

I talked at length with a loquacious teenage boy whose mother seemed to welcome the break. I discovered one of the hikers was from the same small Illinois town as my dad. I petted a cute scruffy dog whose owner had come to the event alone with her rescued pup.

Our First Day Hike was over before we knew it. We said goodbye to our new friends and wished each other a happy new year. Hiking is often a chance for solitude in the great outdoors, but our walk in the woods with 200 other nature-lovers gave me a feeling of community and comradery I didn’t realize was missing from my life.

My new year got off on the right foot with a burst of energy, an appreciation for nature, and most surprisingly, a reminder to have a gracious and open heart towards all of the people I meet on my path along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

Common Ground

 

Since the first day of fall, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the woods to transform into a magnificent tapestry of autumnal colors.

For weeks, I dragged my husband on long walks and country drives hoping to be amazed. I squinted my eyes, imagining the trees painted russet, scarlet, bronze, brown, and gold, but I was beginning to give up on splendid fall foliage this year.

Along with gusty winds, a hateful force blew over the land last week. I took a walk in the forest to clear my head of gnawing images. I wanted to shake them off and leave them there in the woods with the echo of angry voices unable or unwilling to find common ground.

Hot tears stung my eyes and burned my chilly face. I sat on a log and stared at a thin shaft of sunlight that fell on a patch of spongy moss. The light slowly spread across the log and over the ground. Low morning clouds parted, and golden sunlight filled the woods.

It was then I noticed the trees. Oaks and sugar maples had adorned themselves in gorgeous rich hues. Aspens, black maples, hickories, and birch trees had been gilded. Autumn’s brilliance had finally, faithfully, arrived just in time to fill my aching heart with serenity and hope.

Millions of Americans make pilgrimages each year to see the multi-colored leaves. They explore byroads, trails, and backyards. The Japanese have a similar custom called momijigari, loosely translated to mean “leaf hunting.” Human beings across time and space seem to share an appreciation for seeking nature’s beauty.

So we do have something in common.

I don’t have the answers to our world’s problems, but I think nature can help us find common ground. A young girl named Anne Frank left us this advice, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”