Wake up! ‘How far the unknown transcends …’

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Author, columnist and teacher

I have had surgery three times in my life. In my first two experiences, I was a reluctant child and the anesthesia had already sent me to sleep prior to entering the operating room.

In my most recent experience I was taken into the surgery fully awake, wholly reassured and comforted by the caring nurses. I looked around in awe at this inner sanctum of medical toys as the efficient nurses attended to the tasks of preparation.

As if taken by the hand, I was gently led to sleep, scarcely knowing if I wished to stay in awe of the objects of this unknown world or go into the darkness.

Darkness came quickly and without awareness. I surrendered, the mystery of trust mingling with sleep.

Then, suddenly, I was in an unexpected place, a familiar but long ago place. Chattering voices and gentle laughs formed the image of children standing in front of an ice cream truck, eagerly trying to place an order for their own frosty delight.

Groggy. Confused. I heard a warm voice proclaiming, “You did so well.”

I raised my hand and garbled, “At what?”

The woman with the welcoming voice gently took my hand and leaned down to give me a tender hug.

I blubbered: “Are you an angel?”

She laughed and continued to caress my hand. Slowly, I began to see, to understand, to remember. I started to smile, then to laugh and feel giddy. A deep gratitude filled my soul!

Even in this now commonplace experience, awakening from anesthesia, I imagined I had  experienced the miracle of grace that holds the mysterious promise of a time beyond my final sleep.

When our toys of life are taken away and we face the eternal sleep we are entering a realm that Longfellow once tried to describe as a powerful and progressive matter of “Nature.” With a glimpse of that journey in the surgery—gratitude shivers my aching bones.

Awakening is a grace-filled miracle.



As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.


Wake Up! What are you sweeping away? Look closely.

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

So far, this winter feels like a dark continuation of autumn—leaden skies, rains and very little snow. That means we enter the new year 2015 with the fallen leaves of 2014 still littering the ground.

Do you keep mulling over the past year’s highs and lows? Remembering past successes—and wondering how you could have handled those … well, those moments of failure … more effectively? As many times as we have raked and swept and composted our fallen leaves, this bleak Michigan winter keeps stirring up the old leaves from all those hidden places: stuck in flower beds, hidden under bushes, stuck under steps and lawn furniture.

We enter a new year still sweeping.

But the Buddhist writer Geri Larkin called out to me, once again, from the midst of my labors: Wake up!

Here’s how it happened: I’ve known Geri since her early days as a Buddhist priest in Ann Arbor, through her era of running a Buddhist center in one of Detroit’s most impoverished neighborhoods, and I keep her books close at hand to remind me of her wisdom, especially Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment and Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life.

Now that Geri has moved to the West Coast, I rarely get to see her. I was able to spend a day with her in 2010 as I wrote a series of columns called American Journey.

Since that time, Geri has kept in touch mainly by sending me surprises for Christmas—my holiday, not hers, but she always marks the occasion for my benefit. It’s a mark of her overflowing compassion, I know, and something that I treasure. More than once, she has startled me with thought-provoking hand-painted images, sent in December as her year-end best wishes to me and my family. Her year-end mailings always seem perfectly attuned to our spiritual needs.

So, this year in mid-December, I walked down the driveway through yet another scattering of leaves toward the mailbox, and I was elated to find an envelope from Geri in the fistful of letters and catalogs awaiting me at the side of the road. I ripped open the envelope as I was heading back into the house and called to my wife, Amy: “It’s a card from Geri! Look!”

And it was just that—just a card. Nothing hand made, this year. And a scribbled note that said:

“Something wonderful is going to happen soon.”

I read it twice. Then, a third time. Searching for the meaning, I told my wife: “It’s so nice she remembered us.”

And I popped the card into the basket we set out each December to hold greeting cards.

I forgot it, I have to admit. I was thinking about those darned leaves! Where do they keep coming from? Why can’t I conquer them?

And, that afternoon, I took a break from some editing work, pulled on my coat again, and armed myself with broom and dust pan. I swept! Golden leaves heaped into my dust pan, then slid into a composting bag. I was almost finished, when …

I realized that one golden leaf was a perfect rectangle. Reaching into my dustpan, I pulled out that strange leaf.

It was a tiny picture of the Buddha!

It must have dropped out of Geri’s envelope as I hurriedly ripped it open earlier.

I laughed. “Geri! Geri!” I chuckled, forgetting the leaves.

Thinking about this tiny Buddha—almost lost in the debris—I flipped over the image.

On that other side, Geri had written two words:

“Pay attention!”

And, now, I’ll never forget that card—and that surprising gift it held: a fragile reminder that I almost lost, a clarion call to …

Wake up!

Wake Up! 35 reasons we should see Cuba

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Author and Peacemaker

To commemorate US President Barack Obama’s stunning announcement on 17 December 2014 of executive action reestablishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, here are a few facts that might surprise, spark curiosity—and inspire you to think about visiting the island nation. Feel free to share this list with friends. See what the resulting eye-opening conversations might produce in 2015.

1. The worlds’ smallest hummingbird and smallest frog are found in Cuba.

2. Christmas did not become an official holiday in Cuba until 1997.

3. Cuba sent more medical professionals to combat the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa than any other country.

4. In 1820 Thomas Jefferson thought Cuba “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States” and told Secretary of War John C. Calhoun that the United States “ought, at the first possible opportunity, to take Cuba.”

5. There are no animals or plants in Cuba that are poisonous or lethal to humans.

6. In May 2001 Texas state legislators were the first to officially petition for an end to the US embargo of Cuba. One possible reason: Cuba imports more than two-thirds of its rice, mostly from Asia.

7. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea while he lived in Cuba.

8. The 1898 Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War. The US took control of several Spanish colonies, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, parts of the Spanish West Indies, the Island of Guam in the Marianas Islands, and the Philippines. Cuba was later granted its independence after agreeing to assert the 1901 Platt Amendment into its 1902 constitution. That Amendment guaranteed the US the right to unilaterally intervene in Cuban affairs. In arguing for US Senate approval of the Platt Amendment, Senator Knute Nelson said, “Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots.” On the other (losing) side of the debate, Senator George Frisbie Hoar argued, “This Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and other classes must forever obey.” Immediately after the signing of the treaty, the US-owned “Island of Cuba Real Estate Company” opened for business to sell Cuban land to Americans.

9. From the air, the island of Cuba resembles a crocodile or alligator and so Cuba is often referred to in Spanish as “El Cocodrilo” or “El Caimá”.

10. Cuba has the highest doctor to patient ratio in the world. More than two-thirds of Cuban physicians are women.

11. In October 2014 the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly approved—for the twenty-third year in a row—a resolution calling on the US to end its embargo against Cuba. The US and Israel have always voted against the resolution. Several times Palau and the Marshall Islands have joined the opposition. Some time ago, for three years running, Uzbekistan voted no. There are 193 United Nations member states.

12. Fidel Castro stopped smoking cigars in 1985.

13. Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in the Americas was on 28 October 1492, in Barlay, a bay on the northeast coast in what is now the Holguin Province. He thought he was in India.

14. Hatuey, legendary chief of the Taino people of Ayiti (now Hispaniola, shared by the modern nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), is celebrated in Cuba as its “First National Hero.” Leading the first indigenous resistance to the invading Spanish, Hatuey fled to Caobana (Cuba) to warn the inhabitants. Eventually captured by the Spaniards, he was burned at the stake. Beforehand, a Roman Catholic priest asked Hatuey if he wished to be baptized before dying so he could escape hell and go to heaven. The chief asked the priest if Spaniards went to heaven. Yes, if baptized, came the reply. “Then I don’t want to go there, but to hell so as not to be where they were and where he would not see such cruel people.” Monuments to Hatuey are located in the Baracoa and in Yara.

15. Havana, Cuba, and Mobile, Alabama, are sister cities.

16. Among the businesses itching to get into Cuba is Major League Baseball, where the sport is a passion and has been since the 1870s.

17. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US.

18. In spite of the embargo, the US sends a monthly $4,085 check to Cuba as rent for Guantanamo Bay. Cuba has never cashed them.

19. There are at least three nightclubs/love music venues paying tribute to the Beatles: The Yellow Submarine in Havana, The Beatles Bar-Restaurant in Varadero, and The Cavern in Holguin. And there is an official statue of John Lennon in Havana, where Lennon is named a “true revolutionary.” However, the Cuban government initially banned music by the Beatles, considering it “decadent” and declared a nationwide ban of Beatles music in 1964.

20. According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2007, Cuba is the only country with sustainable development, based on its ecological footprint.

21. In 1975 the US Senate’s Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities substantiated eight attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate Cuba’s President Fidel Castro. Fabian Escalante, a retired chief of Cuba’s counterintelligence, who has been tasked with protecting Fidel Castro, estimated the number of assassination schemes or actual attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency to be 638.

22. In 1906, the Chicago Tribune editorialized, “The possession of Cuba has been the dream of American statesmen ever since our government was organized. . . . We have as righteous a claim to it as the people who are now occupying it.” Leonard Wood, the general who governed the island under US occupation, said that the United States “must always control the destinies of Cuba.”

23. A recent ecumenical retreat for young pastors (35 and younger) hosted by the Cuban Council of Churches had over 40 participants representing 19 different denominations including Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Quaker, and several branches of Pentecostalism.

24. US President John F. Kennedy purchased 1,200 Cuban cigars hours before signing the executive order to embargo Cuba.

25. Cuban rum is, hands down, the best around.

26. Cuba’s inclusion on the US State Department’s “state-sponsored terrorism” list has been called into question by numerous sources. The independent Council on Foreign Relations 2010 report says “intelligence experts have been hard pressed to find evidence that Cuba currently provides weapons or military training to terrorist groups. The State Department’s most recent “Country Report on Terrorism” report says “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

27. The literacy rate in Cuba is higher than in US.

28. In 1992 Cuba’s constitution was revised to remove the word “atheistic” as a descriptive term. In that same year Rev. Raúl Suarez, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Havana, was the first Christian elected to the Cuban National Assembly. Rev. Suarez, a pacifist and founder of the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, was wounded while driving an ambulance for the Cuban army as it repelled the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the US.

29. Fidel Castro is rumored to be the only Cuban who doesn’t dance well.

30. At any given time some 25,000 Cuban medical professionals are performing national service in underdeveloped countries. Currently there are approximately 500 US citizens studying to be doctors at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine. Cuba is often referred to a medical research superpower, though the simplest of medications are often scarce.

31. All Cuban government vehicles are legally required to pick up hitchhikers.

32. Over the years the US Congress has approved a handful of exemptions to the embargo of Cuba, which currently buys (cash only) a half billion dollars worth of agricultural products from US growers.

33. While churches were never closed by the government following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Castro and other leaders’ opinions of the church was colored by its close association with the former military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At the time of the Revolution, US companies owned about 40 percent of Cuba’s sugar cane plantations, almost all the cattle ranches, 90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions, 80 percent of the utilities, practically all the oil industry, and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports. Oh . . . and the American crime syndicates had found Batista a welcoming host for their casino and brothel businesses.

34. A June 2014 opinion poll of Cuban-Americans in South Florida revealed that 68 percent favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and 52 percent said the US should end the embargo. Just this week a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 68 percent of all US citizens support ending the embargo of Cuba. That includes 57 percent of Republicans.

35. The official flower of Cuba is the Butterfly Jasmine.

KEN SEHESTED is an internationally known peacemaker and writer. He writes regularly at the www.PrayerAndPolitiks.org website, which he describes as situated “at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.” He also is author of In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public.

Wake Up! Massimo Vignelli helped us see our world in new ways

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Wake Up!

Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

As 2014 ended, the New York Times devoted an entire page to remembering Massimo Vignelli, the designer who was born in 1931 and died in May. You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his work a million times in countless forms.

In a dozen photos and a brief profile of Vignelli, The Times explains how this one Italian-American immigrant and his wife Lella shaped contemporary America, calling Massimo “a modern-design missionary. His signature simplicity cut away the clutter found in much commercial design.”

That’s why the release of Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli by documentary filmmakers Kathy Brew and Roberto Guera is such an eye-opening experience. Close your eyes for a moment and envision the “look” of American Airlines, Ford, IBM, Xerox, Gillette, JCPenney, Bloomingdales and Saks. Chances are your mind’s eye holds snapshots of Vignelli logos, products, signs, shopping bags and more. You’ve already got image after image of the Vignellis’ work stored away; seeing this film will unlock new insights into how those images connect.

Why are we reviewing this documentary in ReadTheSpirit—an online magazine widely read by people who care about spirituality and cultural diversity? Because this film is a terrific discussion-starter for small groups. You’ll find a host of associations with themes of faith and the goal of building healthy, diverse communities. In the film, the Vignellis say that their proudest accomplishment is the design of St. Peter’s Church in New York City, where they both planned to be interred and, of course, Massimo arrived in 2014.

As we tour this church in the film, Massimo points to the St. Peter’s columbarium and says, “That’s our permanent residence. It makes me so happy to know that we will be here forever.” If you discuss this film with friends, you’ll have an evening of spirited conversation on the St. Peter’s sequence, alone.

And, as the filmmakers show us in the course of the documentary, the Vignellis were interfaith pioneers, also designing a number of gorgeous pieces for Jewish families, especially focusing on silver candle-holders in various forms.

Stepping back from the specifically religious content of the film, the Vignellis spare modernist approach to design had the overall mission of encouraging healthy communities by bringing greater clarity to the treasures that can unite us as a body of diverse people. One of Massimo Vignelli’s most enduring projects was a redesign of the “look” of our National Parks.

Even the National Parks Conservation Association says that the graphical “look” of National Parks publications and maps was “an idiosyncratic hodgepodge” before Vignelli arrived in 1977 with the goal of popping Americans’ eyes open to the wonders awaiting us in our parks. Because of federal-government bureaucracy before that time, National Parks publications were printed in black and white in a crazy quilt of designs. Vignelli (with support from National Parks publications chief Vincent Gleason) designed maps and brochures and paperback books that featured gorgeous color photographs, simplified maps and a standardized design that welcomed visitors to any of the hundreds of nationally administered parks.

In the film, we hear Lella and Massimo repeatedly explain that their lives were dedicated to helping millions of Americans understand our country in clear and inviting ways. From home furnishings to subway maps, from chairs to books, from jewelry to magazines, from watches to calendars—this couple’s hands made our world more hospitable. As they accomplished their goal through a remarkably long career, they made America a more welcoming place for the growing diversity of our people.