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Joy, the Munchkin and I have been in London for a week. This makes us experts entitled to generate a list. Originated by Joy and compiled by all three of us, here it is:

Things at which the British excel:

Smoked salmon. Specifically, the smoked salmon at the Mall Tavern, conveniently located across the street from the Kensington Unitarians–eating that salmon was a religious experience of its own–but elsewhere too.


Playing the xylophone the fun way in the Sound Garden of the Diana Memorial Playground (Photo: Joy Morgenstern)

Playgrounds, and we’re not just talking about the astoundingly fantastic Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens, though it is astoundingly fantastic. There are four or five playgrounds within an easy walk of our flat. It’s not just outdoor space where they grok kids, either. It seems like every museum has highly developed children’s activities (watch and learn, San Francisco).

Coming up with creative pronunciations of non-English words. Yesterday we encountered a name that is pronounced Joe-a-kim, probably spelled Joachim.

Parks and gardens. Joy theorizes that while the men were off expanding and shoring up the Empire, the women had time to garden like mad.


Writing plays. Acting in them too, especially character roles.

IMG_6243Double-decker buses. Why doesn’t every place have them? This is the way to see a city, as Doggie attests.

Self-deprecation and understatement. I love the ad I’ve been seeing on the buses for a moisturizer. After the tagline comes the hard-selling line, “This moisturizer isn’t the whole answer, but at least it’s a start.” Where I come from, the right moisturizer makes you beautiful, wins you the love of a sexy partner, gets you that dream job, and brings about world peace, so this is refreshing.

Takeaway food. In fact, food in general.  We haven’t had a bad meal yet. (Though even one of the best places, where Joy got a delicious roast dinner, boiled the carrots into flavorlessness. Roasted carrots are so yummy that it seemed like a particularly sadly wasted opportunity.)

Ethnic diversity. Of course, most big cities have people from all over, but it’s really striking here. It doesn’t hurt the food situation, either.

Funding museums. Admissions are mostly free.

Sweets. Fortnum and Mason’s toffees are just one shining example (I hope our dentist isn’t reading this).

Tea, the beverage and the meal. Again, why don’t all other countries have a meal that consists of tiny sandwiches, rolls, cakes, and tea? Such a brilliant idea.

Not so much:

Quitting smoking. Man, do Londoners smoke. I thought San Francisco was bad (people smoke there so much more than twenty miles south on the Peninsula, you would think the surgeon general’s warnings didn’t apply to city folk), but London leaves it standing. I am starting to suspect that every twenty-something who comes to London is issued an Oyster card and a pack of cigarettes. And while the restaurants seem to have a smoking ban, people can and do smoke at the tables just outside the doors, which are open for the summer so that the indoor diners can breathe the fumes. England, your food is unfairly maligned, but to have great food you have to remove the tobacco smell.

Not acquiring head injuries while biking. To be fair, maybe they don’t fall off their bikes often. I hope not, because almost none of them wear helmets.

Still and all, well done, Brits. You’re showing us a lovely time.


Falling water drops

A Unitarian Universalist friend and I were talking about class tensions in church, and he said that he found Water Communion hard to bear because it was so much about the places people had gone on their summer vacations.

Oh yeah. I’ve been to some Water Communions that felt that way too. It is so easy for our ingathering ceremony, in which people bring water and pour it into a communal bowl, to turn into a “what I did on my summer vacation” recitation, which can make the ritual obliviously exclusive of those who don’t have summer homes, or summer vacations, or the money for airfare, or the luxury to stop working for even one week out of the year. What a shame; it’s so opposite of what the Water Communion can be.

The core symbolism of the Water Communion is that we all come from water: as a species on a planet where life began in the ocean, as mammals who float in amniotic fluid as we are readied for birth, as beings whose cells are mostly water. And yet we are separate from each other, and we have been apart–since there tends to be a slowing-down, a different rhythm in the summer months, even in churches that have services and religious education right on through the summer–and now we are reuniting. We are separate and together, the way water scatters into rain and streams and clouds and springs and ponds and puddles and yet flows together again and again, one great planetary ocean. Not only is no drop of water superior to any other; all water comes from the same place.

So the class issue is only a part of what’s awry with the “where I went this summer” approach to the ritual. Even if everyone in the world had a summer home in Provence, “This water comes from our summer home in Provence” would not be what I wanted this ceremony to be about. It’s so trivial, whereas “We are separate beings and yet all one” is one of the profoundest truths we try to encompass.

I’ve deliberately shaped our Water Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA) with these concerns in mind, and that conversation with my friend made me realize that other UUs could learn from that process, so I’m going to share it here. I’d also like to learn from readers: judging by this description, or by your experience of UUCPA’s Water Communion if you’ve been there, have we succeeded? And what do you do in your congregation to keep our attention focused on the deepest meanings of the Water Communion?

Here are some dos and don’ts that have guided me.

Don’t: have an open mike where everyone describes where the water came from. Not only is this impractical for any but the smallest congregations, but it just about orders people to say “We brought this from the Mediterranean, where we went on a beautiful cruise.”

Do: provide a way for people to share the significance of the water they’ve brought, and have a leader or leaders share a precis. Doing this has allowed me to rephrase people’s descriptions in a way that honors the most important aspects, while playing down the others. So, for example, if someone writes, “This water comes from our family’s summer home on Cape Cod, where I’ve gone since I was a small child visiting my grandparents–this year I was there with my grandchildren,” I might share, “Water from the Atlantic Ocean,” or “Water from a place made sacred by five generations of one family,” or “Water from a multigenerational family gathering,” or some combination of those.

Do: frequently model modest origins for your own water. I usually bring mine from my home tap, even if I’ve been somewhere exotic. (In the spirit of full disclosure, one reason is that when I do travel, I always forget to bring back a little bottleful . . . !)

Do: make reference to the water’s many sources. At UUCPA, we have banners that artistically express the four directions and elements; sometimes we use those in this service and people pour their water into a bowl under one of the banners. They can have a time of meditation to think about where their water comes from, symbolically or literally, and choose the direction/element accordingly. Jane Altman Page wrote nice words to accompany something like that here, on the Worship Web.

Don’t: just pour the water down the drain. While keeping it in the water cycle, that doesn’t honor the sacredness of the ritual. People are bringing something of themselves when they bring that “water from a special day at the beach” or “tap water from my great-grandfather’s house,” so it’s important to let them know that it will be treated with due reverence.

Do: do something important with the water. For example, carry it out ceremoniously after the service and water a special tree. . . . Bless it and invite everyone to put it on their foreheads / hands / feet / hearts. . . . We save some of ours for dedications throughout the year, and pour some in from last year’s dedication water so that the water is now gathered from many years of rituals (does anyone else do this? I don’t even remember if I came up with that idea, or inherited it on arriving in Palo Alto). I usually pour the rest out on our grounds with some words of thanks and praise. (A comment by a church member just reminded me of another possibility: invite people to bring some of the mingled water home, the way we do with the flowers at Flower Sunday, and encourage them to mindfully use it, e.g., to water a plant.)

Do: frame the ritual in terms of its larger meanings. There are so many. Our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, has done a wonderful, geeky demonstration of just how many molecules of water we’re talking about, and how big a number that is. (Remember, we’re serving in Silicon Valley. When you ask, “Are there any geeks here who can come hold this paper for me?,” many hands shoot up.) He uses that to prove our literal interdependence. The year Water Communion was preceded by Hurricane Katrina, we had to talk about the destructive power of water, and that was a chance to go into some theological depth.

And, if you’re reminding folks about Water Communion now, as summer starts, don’t emphasize that they should bring their water back from special travels. There’s no need to mention travel at all. This year, my reminder in the newsletter said “We bring water from the places of our lives.”

I’d love to hear what others do.

June 3 has come around again. Even though I was only not-quite-six years old on this date in 1974, when my aunt, Roslyn Shapiro Lewisohn, died, I think of her each year. She was 38 years old, which means she has now been dead for as long as she was alive. Her four children grew up without her. Her younger sister, my mother, was suddenly rendered an only child, and when their mother died several years later, my mother mourned without a sister to share her sorrow and memories.

Aunt Rozi was shot by her husband. He was drinking–he was often drinking–and they had an argument. At the end of it, she was dead on their kitchen floor. The reason he had a gun, according to what he had said some years earlier, was to defend himself from his enemies. What enemies a poet and college professor might have had to worry about, there in their home on the Maine coast, is hard to imagine. His own demons, I guess, and when those are your enemies, the very last thing you need is a gun. But he certainly didn’t have to prove he had anything rationally to fear in order to own a handgun and keep it loaded. He didn’t have to show that he didn’t abuse substances or his wife. He didn’t even have to show that he didn’t have a criminal record or any dangerous mental illnesses. It was just the way the “no to background checks” people want it to be.

When people talk about how we need to make sure “the good guys” are allowed guns, they are talking about people like my uncle Jimmy. He was a middle-aged, middle-class, white, college-educated poet and English professor. He was Jewish, for crying out loud. If we had decided to arm the good citizens of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, so that they might protect us from machine-gun-wielding drug dealers and mass murderers, Jimmy could have been first in line, and he would have been handed a lethal weapon with a smile. And taken it home and used it exactly the way he did use it.

Twenty-one years after Rozi’s death by handgun, another good guy tried his best to murder my father. This good guy was also middle-aged, middle-class–no, wealthy; white, a college graduate, a member of the Congregational church in town, a respected businessman and pillar of his community: again, just the kind of person who, in the mythical world of black hats and white hats, is supposed to defend us from the bad guys. When his wife left him for my father, Malcolm went berserk. He sought Dad out at the college where he (my father) taught, and stabbed him half a dozen times. Fortunately for Dad, Malcolm was scared of guns; otherwise he would surely have used one. Two very brave students wrestled him off my dad. Would they have dared to if he’d been wielding a gun instead of a knife? Not that it would have mattered. If Dad had been shot even once in some of the places he was stabbed–his chest, his temple–he would have died then and there, instead of arriving at Yale-New Haven Hospital on the brink of death and being dragged back from it by their highly expert trauma team. Not a visit goes by without my being keenly aware how close I came to losing him at age 26. Not a fatal shooting appears in the newspaper without my thinking, That would have been my family, if Malcolm had had a gun.

We have a myth taking hold in this country, a myth of bad guys vs. good guys. It says that there are violent thugs, or crazed mass-murderers, and then there are fine, upstanding citizens. But as we know, most murders aren’t Aurora or Newtown. They happen in ones and twos, and aren’t planned, but result from the heat of the moment combined with a highly fatal weapon. Most murder victims know their killer; many, in fact, are killed by a relative, or a girlfriend or boyfriend. My aunt’s death and my father’s near-miss were typical: personal dispute + alcohol or other drugs + a person who is prone to irrational thinking and violent behavior. The difference between them was that in one case, the attacker had a gun, and in the other one, he didn’t. You can certainly kill someone with a knife, with a baseball bat, even with your bare hands, but bullets are vastly more likely than any of these to be fatal.

To those who say that good guys with guns could have saved my aunt, or made a more effective rescue of my dad, I have several questions from the real world.

  • Can you imagine my aunt pulling out a gun and telling Jimmy to back off? It would only have confirmed his paranoia, and paranoid people do not surrender their weapons. In a movie, he’d drop the gun, but in real life, he was drunk and enraged and irrational, and he didn’t take any crap from his wife (let me translate that for you: he was in the habit of beating her up). He’d be more likely to pull the trigger than to drop the gun.
  • Can you imagine being a college student who hears cries for help and comes running, to find one man stabbing another over and over? If you have a gun, what do you do with it? Shoot the assailant? Please don’t–that’s my dad a few inches from him, the walls are tile and metal, and the chances of you or Dad getting killed by a ricocheting bullet are high (a hostage was just killed, instead of rescued, by police in such a situation). Or should you yell, “Freeze!”? Great idea, but again, this guy is not exactly in the grip of reason. If he were, he wouldn’t have wrecked his own life by committing a felony just because his wife had had an affair.
  • Now, turning to the mass-murder scenario, where millions of Americans fantasize that an armed security guard or elementary school teacher or heroic passerby will save the day by plugging the bad guy. We’ll set aside the fact that this being the real world, heroes are not protected by the Principle of Evil Marksmanship,  and even trained gun users can’t just pull out their guns and hit their target (and while the linked-to video is not of a scientifically rigorous experiment, the attempts to debunk it are comical in their desperation. The experiment didn’t happen when Diane Sawyer told the subjects it would! The defender was wearing a long shirt over his gun! How unrealistic!). As my brother-in-law points out, if we follow the advice of the NRA and Gun Owners of America, when someone starts shooting in a crowd, what you will have now is a crowd with several people pointing guns. How is anyone–police, terrified bystanders, other would-be heroes–supposed to know which of them is a good guy and which was the original shooter? The scenario resembles nothing so much as the firing squad in the ethnic joke, except with dozens of innocent parade-watchers or elementary school students or moviegoers added to the mix.

There are good guys and bad guys in the world, definitely. But it’s not usually that simple. Often, a bad guy is someone who was a good guy until the moment he had too much liquor in him, too much wounded pride, too little ability to manage his anger, and a deadly weapon in his hands. That is one reason the gun in your house is far more likely to kill you or someone you love than any of your “enemies.” (Another reason is that it’s more likely to become a suicide weapon than anything else, but that’s another subject. So is the Second Amendment, which in my opinion doesn’t mean remotely what the gun-rights advocates, or half the gun-control advocates for that matter, think it does.) Let’s be clear, “armed citizenry” advocates: when you set out to arm the “good guys,” you are talking about handing guns to Jimmy Lewisohn and Malcolm Todt.

Of all the grief and fear that a tragedy like the Newtown massacre instills in me, the most terrifying development is the advance of the notion that arming more citizens will make us safer. It’s a profoundly dangerous idea, based on fiction and fantasy, and it is just plain wrong.

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