A Pilgrimage: Day One

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Authors of books about walking the camino want the pilgrim to have a clear answer about why you are doing this. I figured I might know the “why” of it when I got to the end, but am not very clear at the beginning. I can begin with two possible why’s, both true, if not the complete answer. First, a chance to spend time with my newly-graduated, cusp-of-adulthood son, and second, I walk in memory of my friend’s son, who died at 22.  My friend will never get to walk with her son and I am doing this in part because she can’t. I wonder if people who begin their pilgrimage with a clear idea of “why,” find that reasons change over the journey’s course. If our lives are pilgrimages, we can probably all agree, midway or more through our time on earth as we likely are, that our lives have gone in lots of unexpected directions. How can you possibly know the “why” of pilgrimage at the beginning?

If one beginsimages-2 a pilgrimage by flying to Barcelona, then the journey must begin with some experiences of that city! Breakfast at our hotel, Hotel Lloret – faded elegance right on La Rambla. What a noisy night. Late night drunken shouts simply evolved into morning delivery sounds. A walk through the city’s Gotic neighborhood of narrow streets, and a tour of the beautiful Palace of Catalonian Music, which is a dazzling example of the Modernist movement that Barcelona is so famous for. The Palau celebrates music, Catalonian culture, and nature in equal measure, and it seems that maybe the architect wanted to bring nature inside. A local amateur choral organization commissioned the building in the early 20th century….could that happen now?

images-5We walked then to architect Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, Sagrada Familia. A cathedral-sized church of such strangeness that Gaudi is more aptly spelled gaudy, in my humble opinion. A woman sitting next to us at lunch across the street opined that Gaudi was surely manic depressive, that such a creation could only have come about during a period of mania.  And yes, she was a psychologist by profession.

440px-Σαγράδα_Φαμίλια_2941I admit, the place left me cold, but perhaps I’m too far removed from Catholic piety? The building soars, but in a bizarre, seemingly random way that looks like a creation from Dr. Seuss’s imagination.

In contrast, our visit to the local Dali Museum (not the large and better known one an hour from Barcelona) made me think that Salvador Dali was something closer to “normal.” Many drawings on Biblical topics, very few wilting clocks, lots and lots of horses, a fixation on Don Quixote.

My big disappointment of the day –– the evening’s treat of kiwi gelato did not taste very good! See, I’ve learned something already.

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Next week: our camino begins

On Pilgrimage

We are all on pilgrimage – it’s called living your life.  And, like life, pilgrimages have beginnings and endings, are full of plans that go awry and serendipitous moments, boredom and hardships, times of confusion and others of utter clarity. Important touchstones to which we later long to return are created during this pilgrimage – our birthplaces and ancestral homes, places that nurtured us in one way or another, and others that we yearn to be part of.

Pilgrimages are usually made to holy sites that have called generations before us, but “holy” is in the eyes of the beholder. Tuscany or Machu Picchu or the Great Barrier Reef are holy sites for some. Six years ago I made one such pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – the way of St. James in northern Spain. It was a gift – nearly four weeks of walking during a sabbatical period – and I kept a journal which I revisited not long ago. Over the next few months I will share those entries in this blog, affirming some of the lessons I learned and perhaps including some new insights too. We’re never not on a pilgrimage after all.

There is something about walking that causes us to clear out our minds and which allows us to notice what is right around us. Just as computers and air travel collapse the world, walking expands it again. As I walked that journey six years ago I felt that the world had slowed, and my place in the continuum of time seemed clearer.  The rootlessness of my sabbatical made me all the more aware of my rootedness in a life of family and music, and a belief that we can find our joy in simply being the connection between past and future.

A book that I read a few years before going to Spain, and again – with much more appreciation – afterwards was Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Walking from one end of England to the other, a man wounded by life finds that by living completely in the present as he walks, he is able to understand his past more fully and to have hope for his future. On the face of it, his pilgrimage makes no sense, anymore than walking the Way of St. James across Spain, or threading through the crowds at Graceland makes sense. Harold was walking because he believed that as long as he did so his friend would not die. Near the end of the book he wonders if what the world needs is “a little less sense and a little more faith.”

We don’t always know why we’ve gone on a pilgrimage, we certainly don’t understand life’s purpose most of the time, nor can we fully fathom the tragedies of our life or say that we deserve our good fortunes. Perhaps we need Harold’s words to take root in us so that we begin to need a little less sense out of our existence, and rely more on faith that our lives have meaning in ways we’ll never understand as long as we keep from getting stuck in one place, whether that be mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally.

Journey on!

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Next week: Day one of a pilgrimage on the camino

 

 

Compassion

I attended a concert recently by a college choir that was performing Handel’s Messiah. The conductor introduced the concert to his likely mostly unchurched audience by telling them that it didn’t matter what they believed, that this was music which told a story of hope in the form of a baby, and which ended with the pain of a mother watching her son die a horrible death. Anyone could feel some connection to those parts of the Christian narrative, he posited, and I have to agree.  Babies do imply hope for the future, and is there anything more harrowing than a grieving mother’s pain?

There is a 13th century Italian poem about one mother’s grief, Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross.  These words have been set to music by composers some 600 times –Stabat mater dolorosa, “the sorrowful mother was standing” –  and it is a text which has inspired composers from Josquin des Prez to Arvo Pärt, Palestrina to Verdi.

At Church of the Epiphany this Good Friday at 12:10 p.m. a quartet of soloists will sing the Stabat Mater by Emanuele d’Astorga (1680-1757?).  D’Astorga has largely fallen into obscurity, but I can’t imagine why. There are more than 150 known works of his in existence, and his life was operatic in scope – a noble birth, attempted murder of his mother, his father executed for treason, adventures under an assumed name, a wife less than half his age whom he abandoned with three small children.  A 19th century fascination with d’Astorga led one J.J. Abert to compose an opera in 1866 – aptly named Astorga – that further embellished an already colorful story.

All of this is an aside, however, to what is a beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater text. Real life grief takes many forms, of course, and none is ever elegant, as is the music that accompanies Mary’s grief in so many of the Stabat Mater settings I have heard. I am reminded of the equally elegant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber accompanying the horrifying war scenes in the film Platoon. The disconnect is jarring, but perhaps there is a message for us in those things which seem irreconcilable, I don’t know.

Whatever the musical language, d’Astorga’s work is the story of Good Friday, seen through Mary’s eyes. Would any of us have been able to stand with her at the foot of that cross, knowing that we couldn’t do anything to stop the violence inflicted on her son? All we can do sometimes is bear witness to someone’s pain and hold some part of it in our heart. Compassion – to understand another’s pain – has its roots in the Latin word for suffering, passio. We hear the Passion narrative read on Good Friday, but I believe experiencing the crucifixion through Mary’s eyes in the Stabat Mater, and suffering with Mary, causes us to have even greater compassion, and our world could use more of that.

 

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Ecologue

As we move into Holy Week, an achingly beautiful, elegiac piece, written by British composer Gerald Finzi — his Eclogue for piano and strings:

This will be one part of a program I am doing on Tuesday, April 16 at 12:10 at Church of the Epiphany — more details are found here: TCS-April 16, 2019. Please come if you’re able – sometimes the message we need to hear is said without words.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Why Bother?

(from November, 2011 and July, 2014 posts)

I remember going into a church some time ago as a woman was putting finishing touches on the altar’s flower arrangements. I made a few admiring comments and she said that her purpose had been to recall the blood of martyrs by using the dramatic streaks of red gladiolus I was seeing, in honor of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, whose feast day it was that day and for Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast day was to come two days later.

Well, I’m sure you would have made that connection right away, but I admit it eluded me at first glance. Having read a charming book called The Language of Flowers (an enjoyable beach read), I knew that flowers carry symbolic meanings for some, and that in the language of flowers the gladiolus represents strength of character and honor.  Would anyone else seeing those flowers have all those bits of knowledge at hand?  Irenaeus….symbolic meaning of flowers… Probably not, but does that matter?  Not at all, in my opinion. Our days are filled with small connections and invisible acts that enrich our lives without us even realizing it.

Several years ago I wondered aloud with a colleague why I put so much thought into hymn choices, making key relationships with prelude and postlude music, thinking about meters for walking hymns and texts that are theologically sound, on top of relating the hymns to readings and liturgical seasons. He assured me that the flow of the liturgy was enhanced and appreciated in ways that no one would ever be able to verbalize, and I took that heart.  I remember now a conversation with another colleague about Evensong and other Daily Offices, and the comfort she found in simply knowing that prayers and music have been sung in cathedrals and monasteries on our behalf for many hundreds of years. Swirling around us at any given time is an invisible world of prayers and intentions.

I am reminded of something I heard years ago about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. He insisted that the miniature sets being created to simulate some parts of the Middle Earth be constructed so that even the backs of the sets – the parts never seen by an audience – were as completely and authentically built as the parts that would be seen on film.  And I read somewhere that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling created many more characters and events for her stories than ever made it into the series’ seven books.  A whole world beyond what was on the page somehow lurked behind what we were reading and made the experience all the more rich.

We may not ever be aware of the unheard thoughts – red flowers, a prelude in C minor before a hymn in Eb Major, characters that didn’t make it to the page – that thread through our lives, but that doesn’t diminish their value. I appreciate those moments of subtlety versus conspicuousness, humility versus flamboyance, poetry versus prose. Every day we might remind ourselves that the uncelebrated work of our lives still carries a beauty and importance about it.  Kindness, joy, friendship, faith…these are the often unheralded things which create a richly led life.

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Mysterious Ways

originally published March 27, 2014

Perhaps you have occasionally answered difficult or puzzling situations with a shake of your head and the words “God moves in mysterious ways.” That phrase can be a flippant or a serious answer to just about everything we don’t understand, and its popularity would suggest to me that it must have come from one of two possible sources – the Bible or Shakespeare, but surprisingly it comes from neither. Rather, it is the first line of a hymn by the 18th century poet and hymn writer, William Cowper. In the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 his text is found at Hymn 677:

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a case study in woe. His mother died when he was very young, an unhappy relationship with his father caused him to enter a law practice he abhorred. He suffered from severe depression and horrifying delusions all his life, making several suicide attempts. It was while he was an inmate at the St. Albans Insane Asylum that he became a believer in God’s power to be the strength and guide he needed in his life. A prolific poet, he was urged by his friend and mentor, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame), to write hymn texts as a form of therapy. Together they created a hymnal with nearly 350 hymns in it, many of which are still sung today. He shared Newton’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, writing poems that were quoted by Martin Luther King nearly 200 years later.

Knowing that he struggled with mental illness, I find the words of his hymn God moves in a mysterious way all the meaningful. The trust required to believe and write about God’s ability to bring bright designs (gems) from unfathomable mines (v. 2) speaks to Cowper’s ability to have hope in the midst of his anguish. The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy (v. 3), the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower (v. 5) encourage us to trust that goodness can emerge from our struggles. The more we trust, the more we believe.

A trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen, Cowper seems to tell us. The eyes opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in this stormy life. Cowper channeled his tortured mind to craft poetry. For his sake I wish he could have created without suffering, but God’s ways are indeed mysterious and I want to take Cowper’s words to heart and simply trust in the presence of goodness, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There are a surprising large number of recordings on YouTube of settings of Cowper’s most famous words, and they come from so many different traditions. These are a few that I enjoyed. Though the first doesn’t exactly stick to Cowper’s text, it’s pretty fun:

and a more sober approach:

And then there’s this one, which just cracks me up – in a good way. If the Monkees had sung this hymn on their show it would have looked like this:

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Failure

In March of 1832 Frederic Chopin wrote a very polite letter to the concert committee at the Paris Conservatoire, requesting that he be considered for a performance on their concert series. Chopin was artistically lauded by this point in his life, but financially insecure and he really needed the concert fee. The committee turned him down.

I would like to think that the Paris Conservatoire’s committee regretted their decision sometime later! In the same vein, a dozen or so publishing houses rejected the first Harry Potter manuscript and are surely still rueing that decision. History is littered with these kinds of stories, and it’s easy to read about them and marvel at the blindness of decision-makers to real talent. We might shake our heads and chuckle, knowing who got the last laugh, but surely it stung to receive those rejection letters in the first place, and no doubt the recipients had their confidence as artists temporarily shaken.

The beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of penitence in the Christian church which began with Ash Wednesday last week, seems like a great time to think about failure. It’s a season which ends in five weeks with one colossal failure after all – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Spoiler alert, he gets the last laugh.

Not everyone has the gift of summoning entire worlds of magic from their imagination which can be shared with millions of adoring fans, as Chopin and Rowling have. Nor can we show our friends that we’ve risen from the dead. Most of us are fairly normal, workaday sorts who feel our failures deeply by questioning our self-worth. History probably really doesn’t care about our failures, but we likely wouldn’t take much pleasure anyway in knowing that we might be vindicated by history if we persevere and continue to believe in ourselves in the face of all those rejection letters. Speculating about the future isn’t a great use for our energy, but it is good to remember that success and failure are best measured by time.

Unfortunately, I have to toss in a few platitudes about failure, because they do hold a lot of truth. Those hopeful ideas about failure’s capacity to help us appreciate our successes more, to prepare us for the next time we fail, to show us who our real friends are, and to teach us about humility.

If you are still looking for a Lenten discipline, perhaps examining life’s failures through more discerning eyes will prove useful. Certainly more useful than giving up chocolate, which is a short path to failure for some of us anyway.

Chopin was harshly criticized for failing as an orchestral composer, but any of us would be fortunate to fail so beautifully.

Recent news about Big Pharma’s role in creating opioid addiction reminds me that I have left out an essential aspect of failure – the fact that failure is all too often enabled by people (and their institutions) who act out of malice, fear, greed, ignorance, lack of imagination, or pedantic fussiness (Chopin’s request reached the Paris Conservatoire after their deadline). I have to think that causing someone to fail is far worse than failing itself.

My inspiration today is the new biography of Chopin by Alan Walker. I read his three volume biography of Liszt – twice – over the past decade or so and I knew that the quality of research and his writing would not disappoint. I didn’t know that I would enjoy getting to know Chopin as a person so much or that reading a rejection letter from the Paris Conservatoire would make me so angry on his behalf!

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Breathe

As the Christian church begins a forty day journey through Lent, consider ways to incorporate more chant into your life, whether singing or listening. The quality of breathing which chant requires will carry your prayers more deeply within and further afield at the same time. The two likely beginnings of chant, after all, were as a natural amplification of the voice which allowed words to travel further in large spaces, and as a tool for meditation which combined breath and sound in an effort to internalize sacred words.

Below are two very different chants, both of which move me deeply. Each takes me somewhere else and stops me in the moment at the same time. Each connects me with an ancient wordless longing and also gives me a sense of fullness. Many of you have likely seen the first, a chant from Taize with a text by Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,

nothing frighten you,

All things are passing.

God never changes.

But the second one is new to me, shared with me this week by a singer who honored me by saying it made her think of me. I was mesmerized the first time I heard it, almost to the point of forgetting to breathe myself. The text is Psalm 53. The power of their sound has a life-force of its own.

Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Transfiguration

(updated from a 2009 posting)

I admit it – I love Harry Potter.  I love the stories, the rich details, its complexities, and the colorful characters.  I wish I had gone to Hogwarts School myself, where among other things I would have studied Transfiguration, and learned there such skills as transforming inanimate objects into animals, along with conjuring and vanishing spells –  so useful for changing a scary thing into something funny (riddikulus!) or filling a room with flowers (orchideous!).  Sadly, we can rarely transform other things or people, much less make them appear or disappear just by wishing it so. We’re really only able to change ourselves and our responses to life’s twists and turns.

The words transformation and transfiguration are usually thought to be synonymous, equivalent to the radical changes of metamorphosis. They all point to an external change in appearance – a caterpillar-to-butterfly kind of change in form/figure. We usually save transfiguration, however, for those times when something or someone is not just changed, but also elevated to a new level of beauty. I’m not prepared to say that butterflies are always more beautiful than caterpillars, and I don’t believe there are  any objective measures for beauty anyway, but we might agree that our hearts are able to discern what is truly beautiful and transfiguring in our lives.

This Sunday is something known on the liturgical calendar as Transfiguration Sunday.  Actually, in our lovely mastery of compromise, Episcopalians celebrate this event twice. Once on the last Sunday of Epiphany (March 3 in 2019) in accordance with Protestant practice and again on August 6, in line with the Roman Catholic Church. Celebrate might be too strong a word, since I’m doubtful that you’ve sent out your Transfiguration greeting cards or planned the traditional Transfiguration meal for your family. But these dates in the lectionary ask us to remember that moment in the Bible when Jesus was suddenly filled with radiant light, while on a mountain with his disciples. He transfigured himself, dazzling their eyes with light and giving the disciples another sign that he was indeed the Son of God. And so it was that by changing himself he was able to change the hearts and minds of others.

The Roman Catholic Church calls this day one of five “Luminous Mysteries” and it is an occasion to pray with the rosary.  Luminous mystery – isn’t that a beautiful phrase?  This choral work by the American composer Eric Whitacre captures luminous mystery for me.

Changing ourselves doesn’t happen by accident. We have to want to change, and we probably have to do it without enrolling in a Transfiguration class. No magic spells, just the hard work of changing those habits that keep us stuck in the dark places of ignorance, fear and selfishness.

But if I could send you a Transfiguration card it would read:

May you be filled with luminous mystery

It’s really the only way to bring light to our world after all, and fortunately there is a spell for that!  Lumos!

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Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

The Cynical Optimist

I know I’ve been described as cynical by some, which I suppose might be partly true, but I do strive to be optimistic, and I’m not so sure that optimism and cynicism are mutually exclusive anyway. Maybe I could be a cynical optimist? The cynic in me is elated when I find I’m wrong about someone I’ve prematurely judged to be haughty or boring. The optimist in me is crushed when I discover that self-styled kind people can have layers of cruelty or ignorance just below the surface. My cynical side feels that I have gained some wisdom from life’s experiences, earning the right to feel wary. My optimistic side admires the ability I occasionally see in others to move through this life with open-eyed wonder. And that’s the side of me I want to encourage – the part that is quick to see the surprisingly special bits of life all around me.

This juxtaposition of optimism and cynicism came to me in part because of an article in a recent issue of Time magazine titled The Art of OptimismThe issue’s guest editor, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, makes a case for why “art is the antidote for our times,” and writes beautifully about art’s power to instigate engagement with others.

I was inspired as well by the time I’ve spent recently with Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5, known as the “Spring” Sonata. We generally think of Beethoven as awkward and complicated at best, but also erratic, headstrong, and rude. The anger, melancholy and deafness which defined his adult life often kept him isolated, and yet his churlishness gave way on occasion to gorgeously expressed optimism. Like this:

What I know is that cynicism is easy and optimism can be hard. Cynics shut down conversations and build walls against creativity. Optimists crave new ways of interpreting a situation and cultivate curiosity.

Optimism overtakes cynicism, via Brahms and Beethoven, in a concert I’m playing with a friend this Sunday, February 24, and you are warmly invited to join us at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church at 4:00. Concert Flyer.

Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.