Where Two Roads Diverge (with apologies to Robert Frost)

Isolation over the past eight months has given me a new perspective, particularly about The United States, where I was born, raised, educated, and where I have lived since I was born in 1946. As a senior citizen, I remember the era of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s, the fear, division, and rancor he generated in narrowing the definition of being an American. He honed it down to a snide view, tiny enough to fit on the head of a pin. Though young and not yet aware of the wider perspective that would come from experience and education, I was conscious of a fear in watching beloved entertainers being grilled mercilessly about the faintest possibility that they could be Communists. The phony heroism of McCarthy and the narrow-minded bigots who were his cronies fanned the flames of hate, often in the name of religion. Lives were destroyed. Truth didn’t really matter. It was merely a stage production to make McCarthy appear to be some kind of protector or savior.

Over the past four years, a similar, simplistic patriotism that excludes rather than includes, has turned fear mongering and suspicion into art forms that make race demonstrations and political protests of the 1960’s look like mere football skirmishes. Like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, our leader is gifted in his astounding ability to find and stoke terror about imagined foes, funneling the blame for social ills down to stereotypes of race and political party. Mistrust is intensified by biased accusation and malevolently blurred fault. That adrenalin rush for many is simply too irresistible and gives the gullible a feeling of satisfaction at finding easy scapegoats.

The peace and prosperity we might now have, had the pandemic been taken more seriously by our egomaniacal braggart of a leader, who is in everlasting denial about any responsibility he might have for anything, has little chance in a society of bored deniers of science and facts (a view that they emulate from its source in Washington). Self-righteous indignation has replaced civilized discussion, respect for real knowledge and social healing. Eloquence, compassion, decency, and goodwill have been replaced by screaming insults, blame, and fear that we may never again find the American dream, because “the other side” is trying to snatch it away and replace it with some apocalyptic nightmare. I suppose the two opposing fears, based upon the extremely oversimplified views of the two political sides are socialism versus totalitarianism (dictatorship, which we already seem to have). Few seem even remotely interested in any middle ground, but such compromise may prove the only way we can, as a nation, survive. Either way, the world is watching.   JB

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A Monumental Division

The phrase “one nation under God” has lost most of its former meaning and power over the past four years. Even the name The United States of America can now seem only a memory that sticks in one’s throat. The terms “conservative” and “liberal” have now also become oversimplified and almost airtight stereotypes that can automatically summon unspeakable horrors (real or imagined) on both sides of our social and political landscape. Racism, inequality, and ill-feeling are rampantly triggered by our haughty assumptions of right and wrong being as simple to identify and judge as black and white.

For example, even wearing or not wearing a mask in public places has become a label for being a Republican or Democrat. Flouting science and facts has become, on one side, an act of heroism or bravery instead of the thoughtless and ignorant gesture it really is. Respect for others has become less important than appearing to be heroic. The word “fact” has been abused by our nation’s leader by his using the adjective “fake” whenever he feels cornered by actual truth. His messages are convoluted to the point of absurdity, but his followers still worship him without question or interest in veracity on any level. Perhaps they’re too embarrassed to admit their initial adoration for a man who makes Benito Mussolini look like Mr. Rogers. Braggadocio is much more fun than boring common sense. Phony heroism and modest acceptance of facts have locked horns on the world stage, where any attempts to define or face facts is met with a resentment of tarnishing the imagined luster of the current administration and its blithe disciples. “I have my rights” has become something our forefathers might not even recognize in terms of its descent into egomania over the past four years.

Boredom for some is more and more opening doors to reckless behavior on a national scale.  On a recent evening newscast one woman screamed at the idea of having to wear a mask in public. “I don’t have to wear a mask. I have the right to die if I want to.” Of course, she forgot that perhaps she didn’t have the right to kill others by exposing them to the microbes she might be carting round. Her self-righteous view of “freedom” during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic might also have defied the quarantine laws. During World War II, she would not have honored the laws governing black-outs during bombing raids, the result of which no one knew from day to day. During the 1960’s she would have ignored the new laws regarding seatbelts for herself and her children. In those instances, the scream of “I have my rights!” rings hollow in the face of public safety and shared responsibility.

It’s almost too easy to imagine outside forces from foreign governments fanning the flames of our national division. Destroying ourselves would most certainly save Russia, North Korea, China, Iran and other hostile nations the trouble of doing it themselves. Their input into our politics now is, I suspect, more powerful than we can yet imagine. The Dems and GOP, by and large, have become two separate and mutually hostile countries, digging through their daily battles the trenches between what we used to be as a nation and what we’re becoming. The adrenalin rush of snide, selfish, one-upmanship on both sides has given us an almost video game mentality, where we don’t share the benefits of cooperation, but rather feel the need to score points that make the struggle between Generals Grant and Lee look like a children’s puppet show.

It seems unlikely that the nation will wake up any time soon, coming together with shared values that honor what we perhaps once were or thought we could become. It may yet become the most methodical and diabolical self-destruction since ancient Rome.  JB

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A Steep, Downward Slope

President Trump, over the past six months, has been almost literally painting a huge smile face over the pandemic and riots, editing out the horror of them with his self-image of a supposed savior at every turn, while others in power wink at his deceptions in order to maintain the control and privilege that they have already clawed out of the nation’s very bone marrow. The President’s method is to brag about his mythical effectiveness as a leader and to deny any blame for anything at any time. His divisive swagger is sadly invisible to a base that worships him as their only hope in destroying a mythical liberal army who can be accused of any national “evil” of the moment.

Loud banter is the President’s weapon of choice. Compassion, foresight, planning to help the masses are not parts of this absolute monarch’s method. Bluster and noise of accusation in blaming others are the distractions that seem to fool so many into believing that this is what leadership really is. Boasting and yelling seem to work best for the current president, which is perhaps why we hear him speaking almost exclusively outside, where there are other noises like traffic, so he can scream his messages. So much more impressive to his flock as a deception of power.

All this brings to mind the methods and styles of past world leaders of the 1920’s and 1930’s…Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, strutting majestically upon the stage-set of their own design so that the audience doesn’t see what’s really there until it’s too late. This mass hypnosis has its powerful effect, because the real values the president espouses were bubbling under the surface before he was even elected. Racism, resentment against real national equality for all citizens are strange to some whose sense of privilege has been threatened by laws passed under President Obama that were just too inclusive to keep those who believed themselves to be the top layer comfortable. It reminds me of the quotation, “Equal right for others doesn’t mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.”

But the views on our TV screens of cities on fire set by anarchists have created war zones that seem to be getting more violent as our leader fans the flames yet further with more threats and insults instead of discussion for real change. The original purpose of discussing real equality has shifted to a national confusion that fails to separate the criminal element of looters and arsonists from the majority who have legitimate needs and complaints that are being side-tracked by the hype of suspicion and accusation. Where this will end is anyone’s guess, but change is essential for us as a nation to move on as a more inclusive and compassionate country with shared hopes instead of rancor and division. The Civil War of the 1860’s never really ended. We’re still fighting on the world stage, where other nations like China and Russia are biding their time while smiling at the hope that we destroy ourselves and save them the trouble.  JB

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A Sharp Turn in the Road

Though I’m on FaceBook and enjoy seeing news and humor from friends and former students, there are changes I’ve been observing over the past few months that are draping an ugly shroud over that social experience.

I thought that, especially during the Covid-19 Pandemic, we might all be able to lift up one another in supportive and sympathetic ways as a nation. My miscalculation in that regard has been nothing less than cosmic. The increasing rancor and division in our nation, often based upon blind party loyalty, social class, skin color, misguided and twisted religious fervor, and utter paranoia, have turned the country upside down in a vortex of suspicion. I suspect that all these reasons have been bubbling like molten lava beneath the surface of whatever social equanimity we at least thought we had before.

Composure, discussion (not wrangling), and actual reasoning seem now to be on hiatus in favor of passionate denunciation of one group or political party by another in the most insultingly simple ways. Both sides are guilty of this, but the problem is that the two sides rarely if ever anymore merge for the good of the nation, where there is terrible need amid the rage of name-calling and constant accusation hurled hourly by one party at the other…in both directions. What does this solve? “Nothing” is the correct response, friends. If Vladimir Putin himself were the puppet master (which I believe he may well be), he couldn’t be pulling the strings for his own benefit more successfully in order to encourage our self-destruction.

On FaceBook there are posts every few minutes, not of news and facts, but of stories about supposed evil plots (i.e. mail fraud, blown way out of proportion for the benefit of the current administration) that make the National Enquirer look like The Farmer’s Almanac. Much of this, of course, has to do with terrified and suspicious people who find comfort in myths about conspiracy theories, ones that are shared as “factual” instead of the absurd, dangerous lies they are. Such terror and hopelessness are, I believe,  origins and nursemaids of the terrifying “Q” phenomenon upon which history will someday look back the way we now see the appalling ignorance and horror of The Dark Ages. High emotion based upon hunches and preconceptions are being systematically tweaked and polished as actual news by those whose blind worship of our current leader in The White House couldn’t be more terrifyingly strange if it were based upon Voodoo, or secret mass lobotomies after which the scars are covered by hair and the victims continue to function, but in the most bizarre ways. The real reason for the sudden and massive changes in limiting voting rights has nothing to do with facts, but rather with fear that the current jig may be up for our current absolute monarch.  JB

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Regarding Change through Race Relations in America

In 1963 I read Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, for the first time in the American Literature class of a superb teacher, Mrs. Bernice Johnson. She taught the book through free discussion and application to whatever was familiar to us in Northern Indiana, where at that time there were only a few black students in our school. Our city was next to Gary, the place where the number of black residents had risen dramatically during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I knew little about race relations then until after reading Harper Lee’s wonderful book. My only contacts with black people were at bus depots and occasionally at the public library. Some of my experiences with them involved friendly discussion or just getting or giving directions to certain places. There was little idea in my mind about oppression or the treatment blacks received in their daily lives in Northwest Indiana.

Some level of change came gradually through the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Stokley Carmichael, Shirley Chisolm, and others renowned for their compassion, intelligence, and ability to lead and bring about some level of change. That change became more visible in the mid 1960’s through peaceful marches, books, and visibility of eloquent blacks who conveyed messages of hope for those who were oppressed in a nation filled with white denial and lack of sympathy, due to an appalling lack of experience with black folks (and vice versa). There was so much presumption on both sides through comments like one from an uncle of mine who deemed black people “lazy” even though he was unable to name even one black person he had met and knew.

I remember being at the home of my maternal grandparents for a visit one afternoon after school, and on the news was a film clip of Dr. King and a huge number of other people singing “We Shall Overcome.” I thought I understood what was intended by the lyric, but my grandmother peered over her eyeglasses to ask (quite innocently), “Overcome what?” As my grandparents had grown up with blacks as servants and workers (who were treated kindly and generously), they actually didn’t begin to understand or see the oppression until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus, or the young men who demanded to be served at a lunch counter in the South, where a sign read “NO NEGROES.” Those images began to gnaw at the undercurrent of conscience in many Americans sixty years ago, and the peaceful marches at that time slowly brought visibility until riots came with flames and hatred rekindled, mostly by white Southerners, who were used to ruling the roost, especially being what my parents called “white trash,” those whose only illusion of dignity came from mistreating their black brothers and sisters as inferiors. The Civil Was had not really ended in the South.

Over the past few months, I have been watching news casts about new protests, most of which have been well-meaning, even if impractical and annoying to commuters and others whose use of a few large cities was impeded by massive crowds, some of which became destructive mobs lashing out at everything and everyone in a blind scatter shot of rage against anyone who was the wrong color. There seemed to be some level of karma in all this.  Of course, it’s possible that some of those mobs were staged and supported by whites who wanted the tide of racial equality to be stopped. In any case, my original level of sympathy ebbed when I saw the wanton destruction of historical monuments, which often really need to remind us of history so that we don’t repeat it. The ugly parts of history are perhaps among the most important ones to preserve if only to goad us into doing better in the present and future. Blind indignation is bad if it doesn’t remind us that we can and must do better. The wake of such pointless ruins serves no purpose but to inflame more anger on the part of those who have been mistreated by the already abused. I wonder about what level of success is expected by violent and visionless rage that leaves in its path only destruction, ugliness, and horror.

Abuse shouldn’t occur on either side of this argument over racial equality. It serves no purpose but to ruin any progress that may already have been made or is yet to be achieved.

I just came in from my front yard, where Adjou and his Haitian work crew trimmed my lawn and the trees, which they have been doing for several years now. Their work is exceptionally good. There are also black lawyers, teachers, doctors, everywhere. That connection is a microcosm of a larger view of race. We all in this society need each other and can make things work well through mutual respect, honesty and hard work. Change is occurring, but utopia is not in sight for us as a nation…or as a world. Much remains to be done through all our efforts and hopes. If I sound like Pollyanna, so be it. I do see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel (Please excuse the tired cliché, but hope is the only thing we have right now). As a teacher of high school English for thirty-five years, I taught the novel To Kill a Mockingbird many times, and when I still read it now and again, it still gives me hope that change can and will continue to benefit all of us, not just the few.  We need to see all sides if we can, and hold up values espoused by Atticus Finch.  We need him now more than ever before.  JB

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The Terrible Need for Change

The Terrible Need for Change

It’s disturbing to me that constructive discussion and meetings with positive agendas are, in too many places, being replaced by destruction of property of innocent people in order to be noticed in the media. That will not win sympathy or understanding from those in power. There is a middle ground where change is necessary and can benefit everyone, but blind and pompous destruction is not the answer. It gets attention but really only fans the flames of rage on both sides. There are better ways to win allies.

Change is absolutely needed, but it won’t happen overnight, and certainly won’t happen by tearing down every monument or other symbol that smacks of controversy on one side or the other. Resentment on both sides is being intensified. We change history by civil discussion and understanding each other’s needs and shared history, not by trying to erase them. We need history at times to remind ourselves not to repeat it. Injustice is still rampant and felt most by minorities, who have waited too long for change and compassion. It’s not difficult to understand the fury and exasperation of the oppressed, but forcing that anger upon innocent people doesn’t help to eradicate it. Determination is only increased on both sides, instead of finding middle ground for compassion and real change for everyone’s benefit. Turning our nation into a war zone is simply not the solution.  It’s only making things even worse than before.  JB



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Uncivil Disobedience

We Americans have been nurtured for more than two centuries by the idea of personal freedom. Emblazoned upon our collective consciousness are phrases like, “the land of the free” from Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner. We have clung to the idea of free choice as a result of our history classes showing us the horrors of strict dictatorships and oligarchies across the globe. Freedom of speech is of prime importance among our many liberties, though our broader freedoms of choice have sometimes been more blurred by varied experience, wealth, race, sexual orientation, education, religious affiliation, etc.

I have noticed more bravado recently on the evening news in comments made by people who seem to refuse recognizing recommendations and even laws about wearing masks in public places and keeping safe distances during the Covid 19 pandemic. In my entire life, I have never witnessed such bravado in dismissing established science facts and safeguards with the standard, “I’m an American and have freedom of speech and assembly.” Such grandstanding and disregard for the safety of others filters down, of course, from “the top” in an egomaniacal avalanche of refutation, posturing and pretense. The result is a perilous fantasy that everything is just fine, and that everything is under control by our capable leaders. The argument by others who flout current etiquette and law about masks and distancing is the terror that we could too easily become “a nanny state.”


The title of Frank Sinatra’s hit song of the 1960’s, “My Way” sums up the growing attitude of many Americans, who are weary of being cooped up and want to hear or pretend that everything is just fine again. During World War II Americans thoroughly observed in their homes and businesses black-out laws, as did the citizens of The British Isles. People may have whined about the inconvenience, but people were less likely to flout the laws, because there was a deeper sense that errors could harm others too. Our sense of community seems to have suffered set-backs since then. People grumbled in the 1960’s about seatbelts in their cars, but the facts about saved lives made most people less likely to disregard the law. I liken this to the current attitude of some in their reluctance to immunize against Small Pox, Polio, Measles, or any other dreaded disease that can be fought effectively through such serums. Science is not in the list of important considerations for such people. Our national “ME FIRST” mentality has risen to the surface again through those who would prefer a display of braggadocio and poor betting instead of protecting their own lives or those of others.

People are certainly weary of being cooped up and are nostalgic about what life was even six months ago. The Bubonic Plague of the middle ages and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 must have made folks feel similarly imprisoned and bored. Today, the media give us a much wider view with many more mixed messages that can confuse and imperil many, who want or need to be dangerously optimistic instead of hearing heart-rending facts.

As a nation, we have not been this pessimistic since the Great Depression and World War II. We need to remember that some of our freedoms become blurred and even compromised when their misuse threatens the very lives of others. So many interviews I’ve watched on television showed people wearing swimwear and no masks on crowded beaches, enjoying the limelight and bragging at not being concerned about the virus, as though their stand is heroic instead of just plain stupid and possibly dangerous to others. As much as I admire and love the writing of Henry David Thoreau, his powerful essay, Civil Disobedience is not currently helpful or especially wise. “For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it.”

The worst current problem we have is mixed messaging, a yin/yang of careless disregard versus healthy fear and respect. We have to realize that this is all temporary and can be reduced only by everyone’s cooperation. In that regard, the Me Too movement has become the Me First mentality for too many. Our charity and patience are essential to our survival, and it is that mind-set that can and must prevail.     JB


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Rage Gone Awry

I’m sure that anyone can stand back far enough to see the widest view of what occurred in Minneapolis last week, but I need to express some deep feelings (maybe even thoughts) about that tragedy and what followed.

Our national history is certainly smeared by racism and unfair entitlement, despite that part of our credo that asserts “All men are created equal.” That history even includes a devastating war that, based mostly upon skin color, almost destroyed the nation. Many of the wounds on both sides have never really been healed. Being forced to exist at the bottom of such a social totem pole, due to skin color, is something many don’t even begin to understand, but the unmitigated murder of George Floyd by “law enforcement” was the most recent of such atrocities going back over two hundred years.

Each time such a travesty occurs (and this is certainly not the first) mass demonstrations and rage have resulted. The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, will be reviled (justifiably) until the next malefaction by police of his ilk bring more empty apologies to families of the deceased or maimed. Such folly and the resentments that accompany it are an awful blight on the nation and upon law-abiding, hard-working police officers across the nation. One fear I have is that all policemen will be clumped together in one unfair stereotype based upon villains like Chauvin. That will also be a blight upon our country’s ethos and history.

I was so proud of all those demonstrators of all ages and races, who peacefully made their voices heard with intelligence and compassion. The frustration and rage of many can be understood without effort, considering the scene played too many times a day on every possible newscast and talk show. The horror of it is embedded in the national conscience (if we have one), those torturous nine minutes reminding many of thumbscrews and other tortures without trial during the Middle Ages. I do understand the resulting wrath and exasperation of so many who feel powerless to stop such corrupt and evil behavior from those sworn to protect justice.

The other reaction I had was in conflict with the pride I had felt earlier in those thousands of people who created emotional posters and speeches evoking tremendous sympathy before the dark side of people returned in the form of looting stores of innocent businesses owned by struggling merchants who also have families to feed in a time of deep crisis beyond what can be measured by lawlessness. Seeing those masked bandits leaving destroyed stores in flames with TV sets and other appliances, clothing and more made my heart sink at any progress that seemed in those moments evaporating by those who set upon destroying the efforts of so many to bring peace and understanding through actual justice. I understand the feeling of hopelessness over laws that work for some and not others. It was as though all the work and compassion from the peaceful marchers across the country had been erased by yet more hate and desire for revenge, which are not always the same thing as justice.

No one knows how all this will play out. Much of the optimism and hope I had of so many thousands of people coming together for a common, powerful sharing of peace and hope for change melted away with every masked looter smashing his or her way through neighborhoods of cities all over the nation, only increasing the angst while solving nothing. Even though I still want to believe that progress can be made, it seems that too many among us insist on remaining where they are with no real attempt to change anything or anyone.  JB

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A View of Our Current Political Landscape

       I’ve never comfortably labeled myself as a liberal or a conservative, as I see myself somewhere in between the stiff definitions both seem to have, especially now. The terms in our current political arena have lost their broader meanings to become almost comic caricatures of their former selves.

The American political landscape has become a war zone of almost cosmic proportions, based too much upon snide innuendo and self-righteous posturing. The two extremes are rich fodder for SNL skits, but the rivalry is no longer amusing, but rather poses an ugly and dangerous precedent that may leave other nations like Russia and North Korea in fits of laughter at seeing us destroy ourselves on the world stage. The far right has turned President Trump into an icon who can do no wrong, so that wearing blinders has become the norm for them, as they bristle when others point out his gaffs and sarcastic tweets. It is a kind of worship without any criticism of someone whose ego is already grotesquely inflated and makes the more liberal voters see him as being worse than Nero and Caligula ever were in ancient Rome. Everything the president thinks is blithely tweeted, which may comfort some into believing that anyone who is so apparently transparent and naïve, blurting his every thought, must be an honest man.

There seems to be no middle ground anymore. Extreme conservatives seem to excuse every gaff and cruel, fifth-grade insult (or at least seem not to care) the White House makes on a daily basis. While those on the more liberal left attack almost everything the president says or does. I don’t know if his fifth-grade vocabulary is a political tactic to woo the majority of his base or if it is no guise at all and represents his true intellectual level. I do know that he’s on stage all the time anyway and sees himself as the star of every event at every moment.

I believe we’re all weary of trying to prop up our beliefs in the face of vicious verbal attack. We have become a battlefield of righteous opposition, like the North versus the South during our horrendous Civil War of the 1860’s. There is bitterness and rancor on both sides. Our once shared values seem to be terribly out of focus.

It’s time to see again what we might share as a nation, despite our many other splintered and varied values (under only one flag) and stop constantly reducing one side or the other  to comic rubble. Both sides have issues and values worth considering and sharing, especially if we can stand back far enough to see the broader view. There have always been disagreements between Dems and the GOP, but I don’t recall another era (even the 1960’s) when the political arena was often just a Punch and Judy show, based too often solely upon the words “conservative” or “liberal.” We need a clearer and more accurate view of what those terms actually mean by stepping back to see them with greater clarity and honesty.

The term “one nation” in the Pledge of Allegiance has lost its meaning since the days when, as children, we recited the words in elementary schools of the 1950’s. Boxing gloves aren’t as effective for the nation as discussion and reasoning, minus the red-hot emotions we have seen so frequently the past three years, replacing those gloves with a reluctance to turn every issue into a political scoreboard. 

In fact, everything boils down to the next election. Having observed carefully and honestly (we hope) everything over the past three years, people just need to make sure they vote after taking all the hyped up rage manufactured by those who prefer an adrenalin rush instead of facts and balance. Gut feelings and truth don’t always agree, and it’s hard to admit this whenever we go astray of honesty, especially in politics. Whether the nation will be for us all, or just for the chosen few will turn out to be either a shared triumph or our undoing. It’s not too late to come together again under whatever president is chosen by the nation, but first we have to recall what our values truly are, if we can even remember them.   JB

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Effects of Isolation

One irony of our international need for isolation is that we are all feeling the effects of it from our own homes at the same time. That sentiment is universal and somehow brings us together in a collective sympathy for others who may feel the terrible absence of loved ones and friends in a time of fear and mystery too.

This afternoon I had on my earphones and listened to something on YouTube that moved me deeply. It was a Spanish choir and orchestra performing the song Moon River. The song is a favorite of mine, but beyond that, it was the faces of the musicians as they performed the music that brought back that joy of being in a large venue, like a theater or concert hall with many other people all sharing something beautiful and moving…together. Use earphones if you watch this little video and look at the faces of the performers, remembering the joy of being in large groups for a united purpose, whether it’s a play, concert, baseball, football, or basketball game, or rally…and that uplifting feeling of sharing with others something special.

Let’s remember that eventually such freedom of happy, safe crowds will return. For now, we have the telephone, FaceBook, and computers to connect with one another. Here is a link that I hope works to find what I was enjoying earlier. Paste it in the web search box.

Voces para la paz singing Moon River

We’re all in this together.


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