Ex Libris: From the Reference Desk

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Oxford English Dictionary has no rival, and most would say, “Thank goodness for that. Eight volumes of verbal minutia is enough.”

For the average user of the English language—those for whom a dictionary and thesaurus are sources of pedantic, annoying correction only occasionally consulted—the OED could be a nightmare. For the linguaphile it can produce hours of amusement, amazement, insight, and beauty.

A student of Norwegian, Danish, Old Norse, English, German, and French, and also a singer of Latin and Italian, I’m reasonably comfortable navigating through the landscape of Indo-European languages. I can triangulate my way to a rudimentary understanding of Dutch by relying on Norwegian, German, and English. Among the major modern languages of Western Europe, only Spanish and Portuguese remain a mystery to me.

Lacking knowledge of Ancient Greek poses a greater obstacle to historical research. But never mind, the Internet holds an astonishing amount of excellent translations.

For those who are fascinated with etymology and the history of the Indo-European languages, the OED offers an outstanding window on the linguistic evolution, cross-pollination, and borrowings that take place over centuries and across hundreds, even thousands, of miles.

The field of linguistics tells as much about history as does biography, geography, topography, or geology. Ancient languages long in disuse still hold the same kind of clues to life in the past as do fossils or skeletal remains.

Like forensic scientists piecing together a picture of events from evidence left behind, the linguist. or any other type of lover of language, uses words as data to create detailed computer graphics models of any timeframe or cultural entity. Based solely on what is known about the language a people spoke, linguists can resurrect the lifestyle and conditions of our ancestors and give us entrance into their world.

The spelling and pronunciation of a word can be placed on the timeline with the accuracy of carbon dating. Its latitude, environment, and growth rate can be ascertained with the certainty offered by studying tree rings.

Words trace trade routes and migration patterns, conquests, and the spread of religious ideas. They reveal people’s relationship to the divine, their ideals and mores, the structure of their society, and their literature and technology.

In short, language is a key to consciousness, and the OED is a key to language. It is therefore much more than a reference book for spelling and definitions; it is at once a telescope and a microscope that allows us to see distant times and people in great detail. Not many literary works can claim such far-reaching powers.

What Would R.W. Say?

It appears to be Emerson month around here on a consistent basis lately. And why not — Ralph Waldo had something true and helpful to say about just about everything. He was therefore a man for all seasons.

Emerson was perhaps America’s most influential 19th Century writer and philosopher. A quintessential American individualist thinker, his non-conformist and slightly Gnostic religious understanding was typical of his Transcendentalism. He believed that consciousness, not matter, was the fundamental stuff and state of the universe. His division of humans into two groups, the materialists and the idealists, recall the classical difference between Aristotle and Plato — the one looking to the sensory world for answers, the other to the realm of consciousness as the ultimate source of our knowledge of life. It also applies in the 20th and 21st centuries in the separation between the secular socialist (materialist) forces and those who believe in a transcendent reality beyond the realm of matter affecting human lives.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a long discussion with the old man. We should think he’d be pleased to know that his unique take on things is still appreciated more than 130 years (April 27, 2012) after his death. Being quoted would probably annoy him, however. One of the many quotes attributed to Emerson is, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

He had a point. But then he lost it again, right around the time he decided to impress upon that malleable consciousness of ours his own particular brand of perception. Were he to object to being quoted, we might have to resort to using his own words against him: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Take that, buddy. If we’re still crowding onto your front porch, that’s what you get for building a better philosophical body of writing. What’s true for the inventor and merchant bringing new goods to the market also applies to the dealer in ideas. He would surely have acquiesced, at least once we reminded him that, “The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.” Inspire, and you get quoted. Live with it. Or, if you’re long dead, as the great poets tend to be, deal with it anyway. In Emerson’s case, it is the price of genius.

Churchill on Attlee

Clement Attlee was a lawyer, World War I captain, socialist, Labour Party leader, and Deputy Prime Minister from 1942-1945 under Winston Churchill in his war-time coalition government. Attlee was to follow Churchill as PM from 1945 until 1951.

Despite his accomplishments, Attlee had a rather laconic, unimpressive personality more reminiscent of a bureaucrat or manager than a national leader in times of great change. While Churchill was on a bold mission to rescue the free world from the greedy claws of the German iron eagle, Attlee was more interested in civic life in Great Britain. As a member of the Labour Party, Attlee stood for policies that were in opposition to Churchill’s conservative ideals.

To Churchill, it must have appeared a little like the divide between the hunter husband battling off rival tribes and hunting fierce wild boar while his wife tended the hearth and waited for something to cook on the fire. Churchill was certainly well aware that there would be no society for Attlee to attend to, engineer, or micro-manage unless he himself succeeded in his hunt.

Churchill’s prey was of course the dictators of the 1930’s who became the despots on a quest for world domination in the 1940’s. As one of the few with the foresight to see the evil trajectory long before the intelligentsia or masses caught on, he became liberty’s staunchest defender, the lion who would not back down even in the face of a pack of hyenas—his own party members and countrymen, no less. In true Churchillian style he “never, never, never” gave in, and the world was saved an ignoble fate.

Thus, when someone referred to Attlee as modest, we can understand why the courageous and colorful Winston Churchill, with his familiar dry wit and sense of irony, said: “Well, he has much to be modest about.”

Photo: Winter Trees

091225_0035 Edit Filter C Watercolor2 Filter Edits White

Copyright © 2009-2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved. 21 December, 2012. For more images go to http://www.gardenoflightphotography.com

Putting a little warmth into winter on this chilly Minnesota day of 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 to -15 Celsius). The good news: from now on the days become longer, brighter, and eventually (after February, that is) warmer.

Even Souls in Heaven Keep Growing

A friend was looking back at her life and wondering if she could have done better. Had she been living up to her potential so far? Was there something she had missed, she wondered: opportunities for personal growth, for walking the high road, for giving herself more fully to God. She’s a spiritual individual with a deep desire to serve God, and she was making an assessment of her efforts.

“Of course you could have done better,” I said. “We can always do better because there is always room for improvement.” God is infinite, so reaching for the divine within ourselves involves a stretch with no end point. We may gain some measure of enlightenment along the way, but there is no single moment of final bliss, no entry into nirvana or a state of Heaven once and for all with no further growth to follow. Thank God for that. To stop growing would be spiritual death.

The soul, our true self, is divine in nature and thus also timeless, like God. That gives us eternity in which to grow, which means even the souls in Heaven continue to unfold. On a particularly difficult day on Earth, when we feel the weight of our Earth-bound existence too acutely, it helps to know that we have this in common with the angels.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

On Being and Becoming

We sat curled up on the couch and a comfy chair, feet on ottomans to avoid the cool winter floor, warm cups of tea in hand. There we sat for hours, my friend and I, like armchair explorers traveling to distant lands and through the ages. Foreign dictionaries, a world atlas, and search engines were at the ready, should we require facts and figures along the way.

Students of history and the timeless quest for higher truths, we have few topics we won’t examine, or on which we haven’t already found some answers along with new questions. Asking questions is the fastest way to open the door to what you don’t yet know. After all, growing comes from investigating the unknown as much as from understanding what you already know, and we were fully prepared for a foray into the mysteries and wonders of life.

Soon we found ourselves considering the art of being and becoming. Whatever we are today, whatever state of consciousness we hold, is the sum total of all our past experience. More specifically, it’s the result of what we have learned from our experiences. In other words, living much is not the objective, learning much from even the smallest experience is.

Becoming, we agreed, is not a matter of alchemy—of transmuting a substance into something it was not—but of gaining an awareness of what we already are. It sounds esoteric, I know, but it’s really quite simple. Growth is not a process of adding something that was missing but of gradually tuning in to what we had all along. We are divine beings at the outset, it isn’t something we must be transformed into. Becoming is simply a matter of realizing who and what we are.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

The Altar of Love

The vast majority of us aren’t prone to anti-social behavior, but we aren’t always civil and courteous either. We don’t always keep to the highest principles and side with the force of love. Every day we make decisions that are either debasing or civilizing. So what are our standards? Do we give ourselves, then others, the dignity we all deserve as children of God? What kind of an example do we set?

Big or small, depending on our character, the tests are always there. When others seek to pull us in the wrong direction, do we stand our ground? Do we resist the temptation to succumb to our lower instincts and turn instead to the wisdom of our higher self? Do we choose the lazy way forward or will we work for the blessings of an ever-expanding heart?

The tests can be subtle, hidden in things so common, even widely encouraged, that they are easy to dismiss. “Breaking down” and eating foods we know we shouldn’t—it’s just one piece of cake, pie, or chocolate, or one donut or pint of ice cream, so no big deal, right? Watching silly online videos that claim to be funny yet show a cruel streak. Or bending rules when we know it’s wrong. Indulgences we wouldn’t be proud to announce. Cheating on a test. Lying to a spouse. All harm our dignity and civility and tear at the bonds of love that exist between us and others. Although God never stops loving us, our choices may indicate an unfortunate lack of reciprocity.

At home, at work, and with friends we are faced with the daily, implied question of where to draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t, what is constructive and what brings about a degree of collapse, what is wise or kind and what is foolish or hurtful. Every choice is between creation and destruction, love and power, life and death.

From moment to moment, even in the little decisions—such as the attitude we hold and the words we speak—it comes down to this: at which altar will you worship today? Darkness is simply what automatically fills the vacuum produced by an absence of love. It’s the default state that results if we stop living in the name of God.

So why would we? Willfulness. Selfishness. Fear. Our human nature tends in the opposite direction of our divine nature. Creatures of both Heaven and Earth, we choose the source of our influence one decision at a time. Whether we walk a high road or a low road depends on where we place our attention. Those who open their hearts to a higher power through prayer, meditation, and contemplation of the wonders of life act with wisdom and goodness.

A life centered on the divine—as both the source and the ultimate aim of our thoughts and actions—invariably leads to worshipping life. Love the life-giver and you will also love that which God imbues with life. Serve God and you must serve others, listening to their cares and attending to their wounds, walking with them when they pass through a valley of shadows and rejoicing with them in their times of triumph. The only way to open the heart to light and life is to find our way to the altar of love.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

The Death Worshippers

Destruction is a tempting force for those who do not recognize the sanctity of life. Darkness pulls on individuals who have turned their backs on the light and have given their hearts over to the god of destruction. Evil worships death, and death worshippers commit evil acts.

When cold hearts and calculating minds release the hounds of hell upon innocents, society seeks a motive. But evil does not run on reason and logic, that’s what makes it evil. Typically, the action is not compulsive but a choice. What stuns us most is that someone would use the divine gift of free will not to glorify God and serve Creation but to end a precious life.

Psychologists and criminologists will offer their assessments, assigning labels such as criminal psychopathy, sociopathy, and narcissism. You think? We don’t need fancy terms where experience and common sense provide all the insight we require into human nature.

We’ve seen it all before: Caligula and Nero in antiquity, Hitler and Mussolini not so long ago. Pick a century and you will find them—sometimes on the world stage, sometimes on their own pathetic little soap boxes, raining anger (from whatever weapons are in the arsenal of their place and time) down upon an unsuspecting populace.

Evil cannot be eradicated, nor often prevented, but it can be predicted as a social phenomenon if we will only look through the lens of history. Societies that revel in destruction tend to devolve until they burn themselves out. Recall the blood-bath of the Roman circus on any day of the week; state-sponsored entertainment for all classes of citizens and a mark of Roman-ness exported even to the farthest reaches of the Empire.

In the Christian era, despite centuries of preaching about the God of love and forgiveness, the Inquisition yielded bonfire festivals of executions as authorities put an end to what they considered heretics. And after the so-called Age of Enlightenment, no brighter than the others as the French Revolution proved, Western civilization still descended to the unspeakable sorrows of the Holocaust.

The Ancient Romans used living humans and animals in deadly spectacles staged for the public. We, meanwhile, have the technology to create virtual reality and indulge in its mind-bending perversions in the privacy of our homes. The fact that we are ever so willing to use our God-given imagination to design, then worship at, altars to the god of death says all we need to know about the state of our own consciousness and the destiny of our culture. Like dying fireworks, such cultures ultimately plummet to the ground, empty shells devoid of either a light to be admired or the power that once sent them soaring for all to see.

Where, then, did the modern world begin to lose altitude? How and when did it submit to the god of destruction? As always in the human story, it was the moment it stopped serving life. Once it turned from gratitude to entitlement, from giving in charity to taking what it hadn’t earned, from creating to tearing down, its trajectory was set. It is a timeless recipe for cultural collapse repeated in every age.

How does a culture make a one-eighty and turn toward darkness—apparently without noticing since it does little to stop it? It is a feature of darkness that those who are in it cannot see where they are headed. Also, it happens by degree: by subtle shifts and the pushing back of the line between acceptable and depraved a few inches at a time.

It happens when we allow ourselves and those we choose to admire, our children and their teachers, and our intellectual and political leaders to settle for less and indulge more. We set the bar lower to make it easier for more people to jump it rather than teach the culture to jump higher. The lowest common denominator is something most can handle, the thinking goes, so why force people to stretch? Exercise, most will agree, is an unpleasant business. Some even rationalize their lack of self-discipline as kindness toward others: we wouldn’t want anyone to strain themselves.

Nothing keeps us from succeeding more than not even trying.

After an attack such as the recent one on the school in Newtown, Connecticut it is always clear that the perpetrator has reduced beings of flesh and spirit to props in his own play—not even a supporting cast but mere scenery. In such cases, people are simply things to be added or subtracted on his whim, like set pieces in his production. Or like virtual figures in a violent video game. In the real world, however, you can’t bring the characters back by restarting the program.

The conditions of the moment speak loudly about the way we apply our imagination and how we direct our attention. But that doesn’t mean we’re listening. Despite a growing body of studies to the contrary, we insist that our obsessions and indulgences have no significant effects on us or others. “Oh, but make-believe isn’t real,” we say, “so it causes no real harm.”

Hollywood nods vigorously in agreement as it rakes in hundreds of millions a year on carefully constructed and lavishly appointed cinematic altars—not so much to the human spirit or the art of creativity but to death and destruction. And there’s no chance hot-shot producers will turn down the volume on their war-games any time soon.

With unabashed hypocrisy Hollywood glorifies violence, desensitizes young minds, and wires brains of all ages for gun abuse even as it decries the Second Amendment and responsible gun use. Leave it to the glitterati, who have benefited more than most from The Constitution’s free speech and other freedoms, to seek to curtail the rights of their audience. Chutzpa doesn’t begin to cover it. But self-service might.

It may be true that “no humans were harmed in the making of this video game or movie.” But can the same be said for the weeks, months, and years that follow repeated watching? A daily regimen of de-sensitizing, de-valuing, and de-humanizing fare must eventually destroy a culture by stripping all dignity from the soul.

Playing with the forces of darkness leads to an inevitable end: it’s a game we can’t win. And we can ill afford the personal or social cost of cultural bankruptcy.

This is but one of many lessons for us to learn from such violation of human life and common decency as occurred in Newtown, and they will all be covered by boundless analysis and philosophical wrangling in the times ahead. School security and procedures, gun laws, how to train citizens to recognize warning signs, the mental health system, the quality and quantity of parenting, the lack of spiritual focus and guidance in an increasingly secular society, and many other subjects will crowd the airwaves and dig into bandwidth.

There will be plenty of time for all that and more; time must eventually be made for it, because we sorely need to address our culture’s broken spiritual compass. But for now, and certainly this week, we can only say, God bless.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Full Faith

PART 1

A friend was having a difficult time. Life was really pushing her to the wall, and she was trying to figure out how to keep from falling in a heap on the ground. Life has a way of stretching us to what we perceive as our limits in order to teach us to let go. It keeps after us until we surrender all our cares, and finally trust in a higher power to get us through. All the while it demands of us that we become strong enough to remain standing.

Sometimes the pressures of daily life seem too much to bear. When the road ahead is hard to see, we wonder, what about our hopes and dreams for the future? We ask ourselves, and perhaps God too, how we’ll ever get there from here.

And if things get tough enough, if we feel desperate enough, we might even rail against God, shaking our fist at the Almighty in defiance or reproach. As if the Supreme Deity cares what we think of the divine plan. As if our personal opinion carries any weight and will be taken under consideration at the next council meeting in Heaven. What folly—our objections to the way things are hardly deserve a form letter in response, so we get no answers to our prayers. We really should know better.

My friend was not in a state of resentment or rebellion, but she was wondering, would there ever be something in it for her? So she asked, “Isn’t it possible for me to walk the walk God is asking of me and still have some personal happiness too?”

Sure, that might be possible; it might even be what God was intending for her anyway. But that wasn’t the point: it wasn’t the right question to ask. When we want to have our cake and eat it too, we haven’t yet arrived at surrender. We’re nowhere near trusting in God, and that’s what the lesson is all about. The reason life has our backs against the bricks in the first place is to teach us how to put our full faith in the Holy Spirit.

“Love your dreams with all your heart, and then love God more,” I said. She knew what I meant: put your love into your vision of yourself living a good and happy life, but also surrender your agenda to the will of God. There is always a greater plan, and it is in our best interest to go with God rather than to insist, like stubborn adolescents, on doing things our way.

Besides, there is no negotiating with God. Still, people do try. They say, God, if you’ll just let me keep this, I’ll give up that. Or they set a timeline that puts the deadline for personal changes conveniently far off into the future. For example, they promise themselves or God that they’ll change their diet after a family event two months out. Or lose weight, but not until after New Year’s. Somehow, there is always something that makes right now seem an inconvenient, unpleasant, or even unkind time to take that next step in life. So, they put God on a schedule—their own schedule, of course.

Change just isn’t our favorite thing, so when we finally have to undertake it we feel that we should be allowed to play a part in the decision making. After all, isn’t it our lives? Don’t we have a right to decide what we want? It only seems fair that we play a significant role in determining the course of our own lives—and that we should therefore expect to not only be consulted, but also to get a seat at the table so we can present our list of demands. After all, God wouldn’t be so callous as to expect of us deep and lasting changes without making the process to our liking…right?

Deep down we know better. We suspect that, if we were to remain that comfy and content amidst the changes, we wouldn’t really be growing. It leaves us with a niggling feeling that substantial growth necessitates a degree of growing pains. Life insists on us moving out of old comfort zones the moment they are no longer in our best interest. The only question is whether we’ll do it willingly—maybe even enthusiastically, if we can just remember to see it as a promotion instead of a punishment—or whether we’ll dig in our heals and make it a struggle. That part is up to us. What isn’t, is that God’s in charge of the production, and our best hope of happiness lies in getting with the program.

The moment we do—that sweet moment when we realize that we can let go and safely follow the divine’s promptings wherever they lead—our lives change for the better. We discover that a higher happiness follows as soon as we surrender our own will in favor of the will of God.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Living Our Dreams

PART 2

In the previous article, called Full Faith, I discuss the folly of setting our own agenda and trying to negotiate with God. I suggest that a higher happiness follows once we surrender our own will in favor of the will of God. Here’s the flip side. Oh yes, there always is one.

What does God want from us? In the history of religion there are as many theologies and mythologies to answer that question as there are faiths, and there are as many perspectives as there are believers.

Religions seek to codify and explain the nature of the “contract” between God and man, the perception that we’re in a tit-for-tat deal with the divine. God created the world, and thus the Creator expects our obedience. God gave us life, so we owe worship in return. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Of the original 613 religious laws of Judaism, some 250 are still in play (closer to 270 if the believer lives in Israel). Moses’s encounter with the burning bush, which carried both the divine light and the voice of God, mercifully reduced the unmanageable count to a memorable few, leaving just 10 Commandments to be carried down from the mountain and out into the world for millennia to come.

Jesus further simplified the art of righteous living by raising one principle above the rest, love. When the Pharisees put Jesus to the test, asking which of the Ten Commandments was most important, he answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (1) In what is known as the Golden Rule Jesus also said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (2) To that he added, “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (3)

Thus the law of God has been distilled down to its essence, to a simple principle that on a daily basis requires no interlocutor or translator, to a spirit that lives in our hearts and directs our thoughts and actions. Having arrived at love, we have found the highest and eternal truth of God’s nature and purpose. And so love—for God, ourselves, our neighbor, and all life—becomes who and what we are and also our modus operandi.

And with that, we carry the key to our holy scriptures within us, be that the Holy Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Vedas and Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Avesta, the Book of Mormon, or any other inspired book in which we find sustenance and succor.

Being now inspired—inspirited, imbued with Spirit, lit with the flame of divine love—we have the opportunity to put that inspiration into everything we do. It becomes our muse and teacher, our calling and guide. It leads our heart into action, and we therefore make choices that are of a higher order. We act in the name of God, even when we make the small decisions of our daily life.

By willingly setting our agenda aside to live in accordance with the will of God, we have opened the door to greater personal freedom. The result is that we are allowed, indeed expected, to have a hand in designing our own lives. We may now set goals and manifest our dreams. We thereby become active participants in a divine artwork in which our own life is but a pixel on a screen. The point is, it is now our pixel to do with as we wish. Because God sees that we have learned to tune in to the larger picture, and that we can be counted on to cooperate with the divine color scheme, we are free to express ourselves and follow our passion.

In other words, our love for God has turned us into a brush in the service of the divine artist, and our individuality, our vision and dream, our love, becomes a useful tool in God’s paint kit. So the Creator lets us create in His name.

This is how we discover that we were created to create. We were designed to envision and invent, to make something good out of good ideas, to develop things that serve others well, and to do all we can to help the next person take another step in life. And we serve best when we serve from the heart—when we live in accordance with our dreams, when our actions are fueled by our deepest passion.

Love brings out the best in people, and our love for God brings out the best in us. Whatever it is we love to do, however we love to give, will transmit that love and serve God’s purpose.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

After the Feast

Thanksgiving is behind us. It’s the first feast of the season, with more to come. So how do you feel? Specifically, how did you feel the day after?

My husband and I did an experiment this year. It wasn’t done in the name of science as much as by the necessities of health, but it yielded interesting results nonetheless.

For one, we had not a smidge of added sugar—white, brown, honey, or agave. Sugars, starches, and fruits do more harm to our bodies than any other group of foodstuffs. They are the key source of inflammation; throw off our insulin/glucagon balance and make weight gain a certainty; and mess with our mood and make our neurotransmitters go off kilter. Moreover, sugars feed all the harmful entities within our bodies such as viruses, bacteria, yeasts, molds, and cancer cells. Is the immediate gratification of cupcakes and pies really worth the ongoing price? We think not.

Our turkey was raised on clean feed and cooked without the skin; the fat in poultry skin is inevitably rancid, and when roasted it is loaded with harmful trans-fats that cause inflammation, worsening conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine, and digestive issues. Crispy skin followed by pain is a holiday tradition we can do without.

We’re religiously gluten free too: the stuffing was a lovely blend of vegetables spruced up with fresh herbs and a hint of dried fruits, with just a smidge of brown rice added. We follow a blend of Paleolithic and partially raw diet and hardly ever eat grains; the two that remain on our acceptable list, brown rice and quinoa, are saved for special occasions.

There was steamed, mashed yam with butter in place of potatoes; red cabbage cooked Norwegian-style; and our own spiced cranberry sauce sweetened with stevia. Dessert was a pudding of steamed sweet squash, cream, and magic flavors.

We wanted for nothing, and despite eating our fill we felt not the least bit heavy or sluggish after the meal. Although turkey is a good source of tryptophan, a precursor to the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, it doesn’t supply nearly enough to account for the universal symptoms of America on Thanksgiving. Most are on a sliding scale from a dip in energy to outright sedation, and are due to chemicals in the food and post-sugar-high hypoglycemia.

The next day we woke up refreshed and ready to go, and headed out before lunch for visits with two sets of friends. Along the way we drove through nearby towns and repeatedly encountered the same unreal scenes.

They reminded us of the old TV show, The Twilight Zone, or perhaps an episode from some comparable British production. I’m sure you can picture the story: a couple on a road trip drives into a small town and soon realizes that something is very wrong. The people on the street don’t appear to notice them, and even cross the street right in their path. The villagers don’t look at their surroundings, nor do they talk to each other. Everyone is on the move as if by remote control, with no clear destination. The threat to the visitors is more implied than apparent, yet still they can’t leave the ghost town behind fast enough.

In similar fashion, the world around us on Black Friday seemed to move at half speed, sleep-walkers stumbling into traffic without as much as a glance in our direction, and drivers turning or crossing intersections like automatons with glitchy programming.

On an average Friday it’s all we can do to avoid running into shoppers as twitchy as squirrels collecting nuts in fall. What was troubling now was not their espresso speed, but that it appeared no amount of caffeine could re-engage their brains. Suddenly finding ourselves in the land of food-induced dullness only the dedicated health food eater can circumvent, we seemed to be the only awake individuals in a movie populated with zombies.

Back to the question of how you felt after Thanksgiving. Did you have food cravings, especially for carbs and sweets? Did you find yourself reaching for snacks more often, and perhaps eating more at mealtime, even adding dessert when you wouldn’t have before? And what about now? Have you resigned yourself to a “holiday diet” that will last through Christmas and leave you battling the bulge in January?

If you have fallen into what I call the honey trap, blame the sugar load. Here’s how it works: sweet foods first spiked your blood sugar, then, thanks to a comparably massive release of insulin to pull the toxic sugar out of the blood, crashed it. To fix the crash you ate something else sweet, which got the yoyo bouncing once more. And then again, and again. If you’re like the typical person, that yoyo keeps bouncing all the way to the New Year’s resolution, effortlessly packing on the sugar-induced pounds of estrogen-raising, LDL cholesterol-raising, inflammation-raising fat. In six weeks, that can amount to a whole size in clothes.

In the process, the other hormones (that’s what insulin is, a powerful hormone) drain away: testosterone and progesterone, adrenals, thyroid, pituitary, and neurotransmitters. Hormones control our energy levels, emotions, libido, brain functions, organs, and cellular health. In other words, our diet either supplies adequate building blocks for ample hormone production in the correct balance, or it does not. And hormones, in turn, determine our health and quality of life.

If you fell into the honey trap after Thanksgiving, remember this: it’s your body, and you’re the one who is going to have to live in it, so make it a healthy body for a happy life. Before the next feast, read the labels on the turkey or prepared meat (or just go straight to the whole foods grocer), make more of the dishes from scratch using clean ingredients, and think twice before reaching for the next sweet snack, jam, or dessert. Make wise choices, or you’ll be carrying your poor decisions around for a long time.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Arctic Circle

Winter in Minnesota. Need I say more?

To my relatives in Norway, hardly. There isn’t much they haven’t already seen, or felt in their bones. But if you happen to live in, say, Florida or Rio de Janeiro, you may not have had the dubious pleasure of waking up to a stone cold house and venturing out into a world where lakes have been known to freeze right down to the bottom. Sure, the landscape looks like a Christmas postcard, delightful and fitting for exactly 10 days. But for the rest of the four to six months of polar bear weather it’s nothing to write home about.

And yet, here I am, talking about it anyway. I’m not a complainer by nature; I always, but always, see the glass as not just half full but overflowing. In fact, I live in a state of gratitude, ever filled with a sense of abundance. Over the years I’ve faced copious amounts of life, some of it unbearably difficult, and I have faced death. Still, I’m an unrepentant and ardent optimist.

But there is one thing, one lone matter, to which I have not yet resigned myself and for which I fail to see a divine purpose: temperatures down in the -20 F range (anything lower I plain refuse to acknowledge as a possibility north of the South Pole). Really, I’ll go along with anything between freezing and 0 F. I’ll even give you 5 F and a stiff wind, for a combined wind chill factor in the arctic range. But once the mercury hits negative numbers, count me out. At that level of frigidity, I’ve stopped paying attention because measurements have become irrelevant. I have, for the foreseeable future, reflexively gone into a state of hibernation.

You won’t see me outside. You know, on the outside of houses, beyond the walls that offer enclosed chambers with environmental controls. Where the snow is, that side. I’ll cross the threshold of my front door only for absolutely necessary activities that take place on the inside of somewhere else, that is, in another house, office, or church. If I really must, I’ll even go out to shop, as long as the buying takes place indoors and assuming it can’t be accomplished online.

Beyond that, I’ll see you around late April or so. And if you’re in Rio, send me a postcard, will you? Hey, at this point, I’ll even take a shot of the crooked palm tree in the back yard of someone’s house in Florida. Its ragged fronds aside, it’s a sign of life, a guarantee that at least some part of the world escaped this latest Ice Age. It gives me hope that, after the mind-numbing (and limb-numbing) stretch of time ahead, there will be another summer, even in the Northern Plains.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved

With Gratitude for Innumerable Bounties

Giving thanks to God for blessings—life, health, and a successful harvest—had led to a tradition of holding festivals throughout the colonies going back to the early 1600’s.

A century and a half later, both Presidents Washington and Madison called for days of thanksgiving. In November 1777, during the War of Independence, the Continental Congress declared a holiday for the thirteen colonies that began this way:

“Forasmuch as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties….”

On August 6, 1863, a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving celebration. It was the height of the Civil War, and there was a deep need for national unification and healing. In late September, Lincoln received a letter from Sarah J. Hale, a women’s magazine editor and nursery rhyme author, who had campaigned for a number of years for a “national and fixed Union Festival.” On October 3, Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November.

By the President of the United States
A Proclamation

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”

Abraham Lincoln

Let us carry forward the nearly four centuries of American wisdom and gratitude for “innumerable bounties,” and continue to hold this day dear as an opportunity for “thanksgiving and praise.” There is no such thing as too much gratitude, too much giving thanks for blessings, or an excess of praise for the “Almighty Hand” that heals and uplifts. So let us on this day, above all, pause and give our heart-felt thanks for divine love and protection.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

The Pointe of Precision

A friend I’ll call Margaret teaches dance. One day I visited the school to watch a class. A narrow entrance in an old brick building led to steep stairs up to the second floor. There, a balustrade guided us down an old-fashioned hallway interrupted frequently by tall doors leading in all directions. Beyond lay a series of large and small rooms in which ballet students learned plié, jeté, arabesque, and eventually how to dance en pointe like the professionals.

Margaret’s class took place in the largest hall, a ballroom with moldings, double doors, and a raised ceiling lifting the space a dozen feet in all. Now a little worse for wear, it had been painted a plain ivory from head to toe as a neutral background for instructional purposes. It was still easy to envision how, once upon a time, it must have been dressed up for festive social occasions or perhaps somber association meetings, the sort of thing that represented culture in late Victorian times and took place in small and medium-sized towns across the country.

But on that day, it housed an elegant flock of fifteen or eighteen adolescent swans in formal ballet attire (a sign on the door warned them to be properly dressed or sit out the class). Mild flapping and a few wobbles aside, the mostly attentive high schoolers were on the whole impressive. They had the conditioning and stamina to stay in motion for the better part of two hours—arms up and out, spinning and leaning, sometimes one leg raised heavenward with a flexibility that seemed unearthly, at least from the seated viewpoint of a woman in her 50’s.

Margaret is German and well trained in the rigors of classical dance; patient and gentle by nature, she is also disciplined and persistent by culture and education. As she made her rounds among the students lined up at the bars—a long index finger silently adjusting the angle of a foot here and the level of an elbow there, or giving a brief verbal correction—I could not help but see the Old World Fräulein coming through.

As a former European myself, and a student (and later teacher) of classical music, I recognized the attention to detail: I still recall the sonorous voice of our choir conductor cutting off our hundred voices with incontestable and precise instructions such as “a little flat in the tenors there on the De-o in bar nine” or “altos, in bar sixteen, don’t all take a breath at once at the comma.”

After days of exhausting rehearsals, her quibbling sometimes seemed petty then. But was she ever actually wrong? Hardly. So I smiled appreciatively as my lanky friend glided up and down among the pliés and the arabesques, her sharp eye catching things the students missed.

Good for her, I thought. And, undoubtedly, good for them. However they felt about their teacher’s precise approach at that moment, someday soon they would thank her for it. As I had learned under the tutelage of a teacher who would not compromise on quality and artistic merit, they would come to know that anything worth doing should be done well, and that does not happen without utmost attention to detail.

Excellence lies in the little things, not in talent applied with a broad brush. Precision makes the difference between a pro and a decent amateur and is only achieved through exact aim and diligent practice. Keenly aware of that difference, Margaret will continue to keep her students on their toes.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

The Humble People and the Beautiful People

People come in many flavors. Like the varied foods at a smorgasbord, some are sweet while others are sour. Next to the hard and tough we find tender ones too. The great thing about a buffet is that we can pick and choose what we like, and stay away from what doesn’t suit us. Individual freedom is great that way.

We can pick our friends, but in daily life it’s not quite as easy to avoid the sour pickles or the hot peppers should we find them too intense for our liking. These are the sort of times we’re grateful to believe in a Creator, assuming that we do, because it reminds us that we are all God’s children. It’s easier to work the hot and sour people into the mix when we know that God loves us all regardless of our personal traits. It helps to remember too that we don’t have to like everyone, we just have to give them the freedom to be.

This simple rule of thumb comes in particularly handy when we are faced with the tension between people of heart and people of mind, those who come from love and those who operate from power. It’s particularly tough when we find ourselves in environments where the latter seem to outnumber the former five to one. It happens—in school, at work, in church, in sports, even in our neighborhoods.

On the one hand we have the common folk, hard-working and earnest, kind of heart and generous of spirit. On the other, we find the self-styled social standard, such as the artsy literati of New York and the surgically perfected “glitterati” of Hollywood. Or, as a friend of mine puts it, there are the humble people and then there are the beautiful people.

These two groups represent an age-old choice posed to every individual throughout history: What will it be, substance or surface? Which offers the greatest treasure life can offer: The fine gold dust mixed into the dirt road of a humble life of love and service, or the baubles and bangles of costume jewels that line the path of the self-important? Most are fooled by colorful glass, but a few know real gold when they see it.

The divide between the humble and showy, the deep and superficial, the givers and takers is not based on economic status or social standing. It is a measure of character and wisdom. Thus every corporation, organization, civic group, church, or small town has its corollaries.

Wherever we go, human nature is what it is. Who doesn’t know someone at the office who takes credit for other people’s work, or someone in their church or synagogue who hogs the limelight to garner personal accolades? Who hasn’t marveled at the near-caricature characters in real-life small-town leadership positions? No wonder both Charles Dickens and Mark Twain found ample material for their stories on their own sides of the Pond.

Vanity and pride are integral drivers of human action, and tend to relegate kindness and compassion to the back seat. Those who are driven to act on their baser instincts, along with those who reach for a higher standard, all wake up each day with a choice. 365 times a year life presents us all with a new day—a blank slate if we wish it to be, if we accept the gift and take the opportunity to re-prioritize and start fresh. It is a chance to not only be a better person but to create a better life for ourselves, our loved ones, and even the strangers we meet along the way.

Each day is a choice between the unimportant and what really matters, between wasting a day or living a life of significance, between self-service and serving others. It’s our choice, yours and mine. What will you do with today?

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Divided We Fall

A CALL TO UNITY

It is now amply clear that a decade into the new millennium our culture is divided. Reminiscent of the two-faced Roman god Janus, looking both back and ahead, our dualistic character puts us at risk for tearing ourselves in two.

Our saving grace is that the country has not further fragmented into a European-style multi-party system dependent on coalitions, a format that produces unstable and short-lived administrations subject to pressures from an electorate which tends to change its mind with the seasons. The danger remains that we eventually succumb to the temptation to limit our allegiance to the lowest common denominator: the ancient tribal impulse to relate to “our people” in the most limited sense has returned in the 21st century.

In the early days of American life, a broader perception of unity allowed diverse colonies—English, Dutch, and German; Puritan, Quaker, Anglican, and Huguenot; North and South; merchants, tradesmen, and farmers—to band together in a supreme, and divinely guided, effort to form the first nation ever to be founded on the ideal of freedom.

That sense of unity held the fractured nation together through the Civil War even as other aspects of our national character were tested or overturned. World War II required people from coast to coast to set their own lives aside for the goal of protecting their hard-won liberty from the iron cross hounds of hell, once more reminding us of the need to fight for the wonders of the American experiment.

When the push for civil rights brought front and center the unresolved issues of past national tests—racial inequities beyond the reach of negotiation at the time of the founding, and the cultural and economic differences that separated northern and southern states—we worked it out. Time and again, we have faced our differences and reunited on the other side of a literal or figurative battlefield, and most of the time we have celebrated and benefited from our exceptionally richly textured culture.

The nation is now divided between the secular who place man at the pinnacle of the universe and the religious who look to a higher power; between those who seek to check out or tune in through drugs and those who trust in the divine to provide enlightenment; between the collectivists who think what’s yours is just as much theirs and the individualists who regard the right to their own thoughts, words, and property sacrosanct; and finally, between the statists who think the government is better equipped to make decisions for them than they themselves are and the self-reliant who believe that a nation is only as strong as its citizens are free.

As we know, water and oil do not mix. Or, at least, they do not blend harmoniously unless united by a stronger force. Something more powerful than the chemical or magnetic repulsion of the two opposing elements—either an internal impetus or an external threat—must be introduced to create a singular substance.

An emulsifier—in particularly the binding agents of love and goodwill—is the preferable ingredient. If that fails, however, nature has another way to fuse elements: intense pressure and heat from an external source. Even the most cursory glance at history will let us glimpse two facts about human nature: one, in every culture there is a period when the choice is offered, and two, if rising above internal strife to a minimal state of harmony is not achieved in time, just one option remains, and hardship follows.

Half of the nation holds to the conviction that the nation was inspired by a higher truth and guided by the hand of providence. It makes the American experiment—not intended as a pain-free realm with easy access to material goods but as a land of opportunity for individual liberty and self-responsibility—a precious gift to those who treasure their right to live according to their own conscience. They recognize that, if God gave humanity this rare chance at exercising free will at the highest levels, they are walking on holy ground.

The other half, less interested in religious ideas or higher principles and more concerned with feeling safe and provided for, are content to trade their personal freedom for free stuff like “universal” health “care”—read equal access to whatever treatment the state-run health bureaucracy allows, which is frequently too limited to provide good health and too little and too late to save lives.

This second group likewise has no problem exchanging the right to find their own way through life, which they see as a chore, for a micromanaging government that takes the hassle out of thinking about daily survival. Important decisions—anything more challenging than which Internet service provider or cellphone carrier to go with—are just so boring. Coping with 500 daily mouse clicks or finger pokes to choose Yes or No is sufficiently taxing that, at the end of a long day in the virtual world, facing the real world is just overwhelming. Consequently, this half of the country is, in essence, asking, Is there an app for that? The state is happy to text back a link to .gov.

Like the two-headed Janus looking in opposite directions, we must find a shared vision to occupy our attention or we will inexorably drift apart. This separation based on diverging views and objectives can be seen everywhere. Business offices are divided into two cultural camps. Churches come down on one side of the ideological line or the other, or they divide internally along the center aisle, like Congress. Professional organizations and charities lean one way or the other, serving different constituents.

Political philosophy, not unity, is the new organizing principle, ensuring a departure from the ideal of a single nation under God and a gradual arrival at the station of looking out for numero uno. Do as you please has replaced the will of God. Multiculturalism has devolved from making room for everyone at the table to the various factions fighting over the turkey. Contrary to Dr. King’s noble goal of a color-blind nation we have instead set up quotas that lead to downsides for all ethnic groups. An economy choking on redistributionist policies and regulations is putting equal strain on businesses and employees.

Listening and compromise, the way healthy families resolve their differences, have fallen by the wayside. With everyone pointing fingers at everyone else, trying to out-shout each other, there is no peace to be had. Calmer heads have no chance to prevail, so those endowed with common sense simply leave the table and go home.

Benjamin Franklin, the paragon of practical wisdom and writer of classic headlines, said about the Founders’ treasonous act at the signing of Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Some eighty years later, at another crossroads in American history, another man of wisdom spoke at the Republican State Convention of 1858. Abraham Lincoln, not to be outdone in the communications department, put the principle thusly: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The effort to achieve unity seems to bog down over a fundamental misunderstanding of what unity is. It does not entail giving up one’s point of view or relinquishing cherished principles. In fact, differences can be so fundamental as to leave little on which to agree. What it takes to unite groups that don’t see eye to eye is not agreement on substance but an agreement to live together in peace even though they disagree on most things.

All it really takes to achieve unity is that intrinsic respect for the other outweighs any distaste for their values or lifestyle. The idea is simple: we don’t have to like each other, or even understand each other; we only have to respect each other’s right to be who we are. We don’t have to share much except a desire to remain the rich and varied tapestry that America has always been since the beginning.

If we won’t continue to create unity on our own, life will surely offer us a less palatable way to hold together. Under duress, structural weaknesses will emerge that threaten national cohesiveness, even as new bonds are formed under the pounding of the blacksmith’s hammer. Pain, both psychological and physical, is an effective teacher for those who refused the lesson under lighter terms. As we tell our children: to do it willingly now takes less time and energy than to do it later under parental coercion.

Those who balk at the hard work ahead should know that uniting by choice is the easy way; every other way forward comes at a greater cost. It is also the only choice, as divided we would indeed fall. To survive times of trouble we must come together, and to maintain for ourselves and our grandchildren the hard-won land of the free, we must stand united.

© 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

Finding Common Ground

The light of God and the light of reason are not mutually exclusive, no matter how hard some in both camps try to reject the other. At the outer edges of these groups we find those who seek to advance their own cause not on its own merits but by denigrating, or outright denying the legitimacy of, the other. Thus, never the twain shall meet, nor shall harmony be found.

It’s a pity. If only they would have enough confidence in their own truths to let these face the world and be scrutinized in the light of day, chances are that they would discover that what brings enlightenment to one person is not materially different from what illumines the next. Across the spectrum, light is still light whatever the color of its particular frequency.

With that understanding, what previously seemed incompatible turns out to be just two sides of the same coin. That the two don’t overlap is not proof of irreconcilable differences but of the simple fact that this world is distracted by the limited perspective of duality.

Measurably present, yet intuitively false, duality catches us in an endless chase to resolve opposition between pros and cons, heart and mind, man and woman, past and future, left and right, young and old, or give and take.

The higher truth is that life, despite its diversity and divergent objectives, is held together by the greater force of unity. It is an innate principle in all life—from the leaves on a tree to the cells in our bodies—which seeks to hold reality together in a unified whole. This invisible magnetic force of unity attracts the particles of stuff and ideas alike and draws life toward the center of existence. Life is, it appears, either programmed or directed to aim for common ground.

Scientists would likely look to gravity, electromagnetism, dark matter, or the unified field theory for an explanation. The religious, meanwhile, call it the love of God. Whatever the label, this wondrous force works, and we’re here because of it, and that’s a good thing. So let’s leave our definitions at the door, enter the room in a spirit of cooperation, and share what we’re learning while we’re here.

Copyright 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

What Else Is Blank Paper for?

An incorrigible writer of marginalia, I have given up on library books. Kindle books and smartphone texts are equally useless. If I can’t underline, circle, highlight, and write vertically in the margin with a fountain pen, it’s not for me.

I don’t just read, I process. I study and contemplate, chew and digest until I have milked every idea for hidden inferences and conclusions and turned over every conceptual stone in search of the truth. This cannot be accomplished without putting pen to paper.

And not just any paper either, but every square inch of blank paper adjacent to the words that launched the investigation in the first place; the closer the better. There is a particular satisfaction in the immediacy of time and space. It offers a canvas for an intuitive blending of colors – the author’s ideas and mine, mixing to form a new shade if we think synchronously, or contrasting until the colors pop when placed side by side if we don’t see eye to eye.

Either way, our experience of life will remain linked in a verbal duet or concerto grosso, my quartet chiming in – or impetuously interrupting, as the case may be – the author’s rich orchestral tones.

Why let blank paper go to waste? Why turn down an opportunity for a debate with an ancient scholar, a duet with a dead poet, or a fan letter to a brilliant thinker? Blank paper beckons us – nay, it compels us – to get involved, to live life out loud, to speak up even in the margins. There is no time like the present for taking part in life’s grand discourse and letting our unique voice soar.

Copyright 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.

When a Door Opens, Take the First Step

All too often in life we hold back, not sure what awaits us on the other side of the doorway. It could be good, of course, but then again, we just don’t know, and that’s the problem: we’re not all that keen on uncertainty. And yet, that’s life. So what’s the alternative? In the end there is but one way forward, and that is to boldly go where no individual has gone before: into the next moment of our own future.

Sometimes we linger on the threshold for days, perhaps even years, looking for the strength to keep going. When we finally let our preconceptions and agendas go and take a leap of faith, more often than not we discover that our fears were unfounded. We regret not opening our wings sooner and vow to trust our flight muscles the next time around.

With increased experience come growing faith, courage, and spirit of adventure. The more we take a chance on life, the better we get at flight.

Copyright 2012 Ilona Goin. All rights reserved.