Thoughts on the opening of the 112th Congress

The new governor of Wisconsin raised some eyebrows the other day with something noncontroversial that he said during his inauguration speech.

Gov. Scott Walker said, among other things, “Our rights as free people are given by our creator, not the government. Among these rights is the right to nurture our freedom and vitality through limited government.”

Some made a small fuss about the insertion of a supernatural creator into a secular event. They had little recourse, seeing as Walker was quoting from the Wisconsin Constitution when he talked about being “grateful to almighty God for our freedom.”

For centuries and even millennia, humanity has operated on the presumption that some people are better than others, that common people are born to serve superior people, and that the kindest superior people bestow freedoms on commoners who find favor with them.

In 1776 the Founders of the United States of America turned this notion on its head, declaring that we are born free.

“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,” declared the Founders, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

They instituted regular elections, a peaceful way of securing the next clause in their declaration: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Now, you can quarrel if you wish regarding whether this creator exists, but it would not change the basic fact on which American government was founded: Public servants live to serve the people — the people do not live to serve the government.

Each individual is created with certain, inherent rights, beginning with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, comprise what has been dubbed a secular 10 commandments, but rather than God prescribing individual behavior — you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery — these commandments are directed at the government: You shall not restrain what people say, you shall not search their persons or property in an unreasonable fashion, etc.

From the beginning the struggle has continued between those who believe in these principles and those who believe having a king was a better idea. Indeed, it was many years before a majority acknowledged that the words “all men are created equal” really do apply to all men — of all skin colors and faiths — and to women, as well.

As a recent president put it so well, “as government expands, liberty contracts.”

For at least the past four years — and I would argue it has been much longer — the majority in power has held to the belief that the people exist for the government, which is comprised of superior people who know better how the common people should live their lives.

For all of my lifetime, the president of the United States has been accorded the kinds of perks and honors previously reserved for monarchs, and those who work for the government have increasingly applied the notion that they exist to dictate terms to the people.

In the last election the notion that all men are created equal, and that government serves the people, seems to have prevailed. We shall see whether those who were elected really believe the principles that got them elected.

They will have to struggle against those who still believe that government exists to govern, with or without the consent of the governed. It is a struggle that began in July 1776. The revolution, it seems, never ended.

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Opening the book on a new year

Lyrics to a little ditty I wrote back in the day …

Live Till You Die

Nobody said that it would be easy,
Everyone said it could not be done,
But nobody said it would not be worth it,
So go for it now — you’ve only just begun.

There’s no shame in failing before the end comes.
While there’s life, there is hope, there’s a seed.
It’s better to try, give it all that you have,
Than attempt to do nothing and succeed.

There’s just too many people out there
Not caring if they live or die
There’s just so much to find out there —
You can’t laugh if you’re afraid to cry.

So this is my plea: Live till you die.
There’s no reason you should give up now.
Tomorrow’s a blank page to write what you wish —
The rising sun will show you how.

Cross posted to Uncle Warren’s Attic

Find Your Passion

Nearly halfway through my fifth decade on this world, I met a little red-haired girl. Well, “girl” is a bit of a misnomer, since she had also spent almost four and a half decades on this planet. When I began writing newspaper columns, she became Red — well, actually, her dad had been Red, and she was known as Little Red when she was a little red-haired girl. But for all practical intents and purposes, she is Red now. And more than a decade later, she is still my best friend and dearest companion, a relationship I suspect will continue until my last breath.

Red is a joy to behold in a garden. She will spend hours digging in the soil, trimming wild growth into some semblance of order, planting seeds and nursing them into bloom. Sometimes I will step into our yard, where wildflowers and roses and morning glories and cedar trees compete for the eye’s attention, and am overcome with the beauty of the fruits of Red’s labors. I can only imagine what she feels when she steps back to see what her dirt-smudged hands have wrought.

Well, I can do a little bit more than imagine, because she has converted me to the cause to a certain extent. I need a little more a reward at the end of my journey, so my focus has been in the realm of growing food. I know the thrill of biting into a radish or a tomato that I planted, and I know the frustration of tending a plant that never yields what it promised, so I guess I have an idea how Red feels about her gardens.

But as wise souls know, in many many ways the journey is the reward. Although there is some satisfaction in the finished product, the point of digging in the soil is the joy of digging in the soil. Red just has a passion for working with the natural processes of nurturing and growing. Often the results are spectacular, sometimes not so much — but as she follows her passion, she retains a focus that simultaneously settles, recharges and energizes her soul.

I have a similar feeling when I sit at a typewriter keyboard typing words like this, or holding my guitar trying to coax a new song out of it. I suspect the process of creation is inherent to human nature.

The X-Files was a popular TV series of the 1990s, and at the end of each program creator Chris Carter inserted the sound of a child’s voice saying with pride, “I made this!” It was a charming moment. An indescribable exhilaration accompanies the completion of a project, as you step back and admire the task and then realize, “I made this!” Studies have shown that people feel more motivated when they have a sense of ownership in what they create during the course of a workday, whether it’s a physical product or a more existential or intellectual handiwork.

We were built this way. It is said that God made human beings in His image, and “In the beginning God created …” The act of creation puts us in touch with something essential to our very being.

And especially gratifying is when we can step back, examine our finished creation and conclude, “It is good.”

How do we maximize the number of moments when we can cry “I made this!” or sigh with satisfaction, “It is good”?

Find your passion.

What is it that you enjoy doing so much that it feels more like play than work even when you’re working on it? What makes your heart beat faster when you do it or even just start thinking about it? What gets your attention to the point that when you’re learning about it or finding out how to do it or readin about it, hours can go by and it’s like time stood still? That’s very likely your passion.

Happy is the soul who is making a living doing what he or she loves best. Those are the people who have found their passion, for whom “work” is more like play. Well, maybe not quite — people who love their work still work hard; it’s just that the drudge work doesn’t seem so bad. For Red digging in the soil is a release and a source of satisfaction; for someone who is not passionate about gardening, it’s just digging in the dirt. When I’m not writing tomes like this or composing songs, I’m a small-town newspaper editor. Editing can be a time-consuming and repetitive task, but often the end of the workday takes me by surprise, because I enjoy the work.

“Hang on a second,” you might be asking at this stage. “Is Red a gardener by trade? Does she ‘make a living’ digging in the dirt?” Good question. No, she isn’t and no, she doesn’t, at least not as of this writing. But she is more fully alive because of the time she spends following her passion, and that helps her focus on her chosen field.

When you are following your passion, it’s easier to remain conscious. Your attention zeroes in, your senses are fully engaged, and your thoughts are focused. It’s possible to look up and discover that hours have gone by. You have stayed “in the moment” for many, many moments. You were here now, and many many “nows” have gone by.

It is a scream of consciousness: I love doing this!

Staying in the moment

Inspiration can strike in the most exciting ways when you keep your eyes and ears open to the moment at hand.

All you have to do is stay conscious and be aware of the moment. Every moment. Tend to this moment; it’s all we have.

Easier said than done. Every day is full of traps to rob you of your consciousness, lull you with a dull routine, and pretty much turn your brain off. Ever arrive at work taking the same route as any other day, and suddenly realize you didn’t remember the trip? What a day for a daydream!

How do you stay awake moment to moment, so that when the idea of a lifetime presents itself, you can seize it?

A scream of consciousness!

Sinking into the moment, one is suddenly struck by the realization that the moment is all there is.

There is no time. Yesterday is a collection of moments like this. They cannot be retrieved; what’s done is done. Tomorrow will be another such collection; it cannot be accessed, not yet, not ever.

A joke I heard from Barry McGuire, the folk singer who gave the world “Eve of Destruction” and has contributed so much more since that 1965 hit song:

Guy walks into a bar (as so many guys do in jokes) and sees a sign: “Free beer, noon tomorrow.” All right, sez he, I’m coming back to this little gin joint tomorrow for the free beer.

The next day, right before noon, the guy walks in, plants his hands on the counter and says, “Line ’em up. I’m ready for the free beer.” Bartender looks at him as if he’s nuts. “What are you talkin’ about? There’s no free beer today.” The two men quarrel for a few moments, and to emphasis their arguments, they both point at the sign: “Free beer, noon tomorrow.”

That’s when the first guy gets the joke.

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow doesn’t exist. Only this moment is real.

What does this moment require? That’s the most important question. The conscious person considers the needs of the moment, and acts.

When Barry talked about this, it reminded me of the cover of a book that had a bit of a cult following years ago when I lived in the 1960s (I was very surprised to discover it was published in 1971): Be Here Now. It has always sounded like as good a good philosophy of life as can be summarized in three words.

Mr. McGuire said he encountered the idea in The Sacrament of the Present Moment, written 350 years ago by a priest named Jean-Pierre de Caussade. I ran out and found the priest’s book; it is slow going but it is amazing if a person is so inclined.

Here’s the gist of it: Only this moment is real. You have control only over your actions of this moment.

What do you need to do? Do it. Now.

Do you have a task that appears too much for you? Do you think you can’t possibly handle all that the task requires? Well, do you think you can handle it just for this moment?

Barry spoke in the context of a friend who was trying to stay sober. He asked the man, Do you think you can keep from drinking just for this moment?

“Sure, that’s not so hard.”

OK, How about this moment, now?

“Yeah, I can do that.”

And now this moment, can you keep from drinking for this moment? Great. Now you’re getting the hang of it.

Each day is a collection of moments. Stay in the moment at hand, and do what the moment requires.
Don’t fret over past moments; you cannot change what happened then. Don’t fret over tomorrow; tomorrow doesn’t exist — and if you tend to the moment, the needs of future moments will become self-evident. Stay in the present moment.

I believe a scream of consciousness occurs when you drift away for a while, only to occasionally wake up and say to yourself or to the world, “I am here! I can do this!” Staying in the present moment is the key to staying conscious once you’re back.

A scream of consciousness

I have no doubt God has a sense of humor. Here is a case in point.


This fall I made a homemade album of songs I wrote last year, and I gave it the title Ten Thousand Days. One of the tunes was deliberately written as a nonsense song.

I had been sitting at a park bench and, more as a kind of exercise than any real intention to write a song, started stringing phrases together at random, as fast as I could.

Orange dogs and old black cats are crying at the door;
A painted lady called my name, but I don’t go there no more.
Pained ecstacy haunts aging dreams, and it’s time to go to bed …

The song became “All That’s Left You” when my wandering brain stumbled across a fragment from the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bookends” — “A time of innocence, a time of confidences … Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”

So the first verse of my new song became “A stream of consciousness, a stream of confidences, Protect your innocence; it’s all that’s left you.”

And when I came to that line while recording, I goofed. I sang, “A scream of consciousness.” I laughed, and because it was a nonsense song, for a time I thought about leaving the song that way. I’m still not sure I made the right decision by going back and re-recording the line with the original lyric.

But I got to thinking about that phrase. What would a “scream of consciousness” be, anyway? When it hit me, I had the idea behind the book.

Have you ever, figuratively or literally, awakened from a stupor and become accutely aware of who you are and what you’re doing?

You were lulled to sleep by a stifling everyday routine, and suddenly you woke up and said, “Wait a minute. There’s got to be more to life than this!”

Someone was abusing you, psychologically or physically, and suddenly you stood up and said, “I don’t deserve this!”

You were enslaved by a bad habit and suddenly you became aware that you were headed in the wrong direction. You stopped in your tracks and said, “I’m not going to do this anymore!”

Or maybe you just were Sitting by a window on a cool summer morning and became aware of the call of a bird, or several birds, and all you could concentrate on was that beautiful sound, and that caused you to feel suddenly very much alive.

That, I would argue, is a scream of consciousness.

You rose out of your psychic fog and realized you didn’t want to keep going in the direction your life was going. You may not have known where you want to go and what you wanted to do, but you knew you didn’t want this.

You gained consciousness and screamed, perhaps literally. It was a scream of consciousness. It may have been borne from the frustration of realizing you had been unconscious, or it may have been borne from the joy of discovering beauty. But the moment you gain consciousness — when you realize or remember that you are what the science-fiction writers call a sentient being — is exhilarating.

There’s more to life!

God, with his big sense of humor, expanded my view of life when I stumbled over the words while singing a nonsense song.

How cool is that?

If not the government’s job, whose?

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Thoughts from King Solomon, son of David, king of ancient Israel … Proverbs 14: 30-31 (NIV)

What springs to mind as I read those words is that for many years I have argued that charity is not the work of government. Public-sector schemes to redistribute wealth are based on envy – punishing achievement based on an envious and false belief that great wealth is inevitably ill-gotten. But

it is not enough to say it’s an improper use of government power. Yes, seizing citizens’ personal assets in the name of helping the needy is wrong – government is a tool for tasks that require force, but it is an unwieldy and inefficient institution for feeding the hungry. Private charities and individual help have always managed to feed, clothe and shelter people faster and better than government can.

But again, it is not enough to make that philosophical point. Saying “it’s not the government’s job” does not relieve us of responsibility to the hungry, homeless and truly needy. To the contrary, relieving the government of its so-called charitable functions puts added responsibilities on individuals and private charities – as is right and proper. Each of us needs to decide for ourselves what those responsibilities are. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver,” and only we know the limits of our giving.

It is not the job of Washington, the state capitol or city hall to love our neighbors. Taxing for those purposes is wrong – but the hungry still need food, and the homeless still need a place to stay.

We are responsible as individuals for our personal and families’ well-being. But sometimes we stumble and even fall – and when we see a brother or sister in need, we have an obligation. Oppress them and we show contempt for their maker. Be kind to them and we honor God.