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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog


Of calendars and light ...

The calendar is an amazing thing. From antiquity, when time was measured by the cycles of the moon, until the present, when years are measured to the fraction of a second, humans have wanted a system that allows them to organize time, plan for the future, and remember the past.

I spent some time this morning working on calendar dates several months in advance, but also remembering years in the past: my calendar tells me that today is the 20th anniversary of my daughter Bethany's death.

Twenty years. It's amazing how sharp memories can be, even after two decades -- and how full the heart can be in reflecting on all the things we've missed over these years. Bethany would have turned 28 on March 9 -- you can imagine how many significant events typically occur during those years. To this day, when attending weddings, I can't stay in the same room when the bride and her father have the first dance.

But there's more to memory and imagination than being maudlin. A lot of joy was packed into the almost eight years of Bethany's life on earth, and though her death changed other lives forever, life has continued and brought other unexpected joys with it.

My son Samuel was born two years after Bethany's death, and brings joy of his own. He knows Bethany only from stories and pictures, and yet he remembers, too. For a project in Latin class this year, he used clay to create a memorial inscription for his sister "Bethaniae." He patterned it after those of early Christians in the Roman empire, which typically expressed the hope of a reunion in Jesus. His teacher liked it so much that she kept it, but not before I took a picture, knowing I'd want to use it today.

I continue to be amazed at others who remember this day, and who send kind words year after year. For a time after Bethany's death, I became fixated on heaven, realizing that if my religious tradition didn't already include some sort of life beyond death, I would have created one on my own. I couldn't bear the thought that Bethany's light had gone out of the universe.

I have no idea if the New Testament's metaphorical images of heaven are anything like what we can really expect after death, but I know this: every memory of Bethany and every person who remembers is testimony to a life and a light that will not be extinguished.


[For more memories and lessons learned, see this post from Bethany's mom.]


Thank you, President Obama

I've spent a good part of today sitting in a hospital room with my oldest son, who will leave in a couple of days with an astronomical hospital bill and no major medical insurance to apply to it.

Because of pre-existing medical conditions, he has been unable to purchase individual health insurance for several years, and his employer did not offer it. The limited indemnity plan he was able to get is aptly named: "limited" is the operative word.

While sitting in his room today, however, we were able to access the website and with little trouble (other than a slow wifi connection) sign him up for an excellent policy at affordable rates (while deeply regretting we hadn't done so earlier!).

My son has worked hard to complete his college education and some post-graduate work while struggling to find a full-time job that offers an adequate income and any sort of healthcare benefits. He doesn't go around asking the government for help -- but he wouldn't have been able to obtain health insurance if not for the Affordable Care Act. For me, his is the face of why this law, with all of it's growing pains, was sorely needed.

When the "Bridgegate" involving New Jersey governor Christie's staff hit the news last week, Republicans and Democrats alike decried the notion of blocking traffic as a political vendetta against a mayor who didn't endorse their candidate. Yet, a determined passell of politicians in both Washington and right-leaning states has been doing precisely that for the past two years, throwing up every roadblock they could possibly find to sidetrack or delay the Affordable Care Act and embarrass President Obama in the process. 

I know that many of these folk are well-meaning and may have real issues with the law: but there also seems to be an undeniable element of anti-Obamaism involved -- anything to obstruct the president's initiatives seems to be fair game, but it's the hardworking but underserved citizens of our country who've been sitting in the politically contrived traffic jam that, thankfully, is finally beginning to move. 

I for one am grateful for a president whose concern for the citizenry goes beyond posturing to take the risks and do the work of real change that will make an amazing difference for millions of deserving Americans. 


Seven reasons to love really old stuff (and you won't believe number six)

Have you noticed how many web stories have titles like "17 Life Hacks for Girls," "10 Foods You Should Never Eat," or "8 Places You Must See Before You Die"? They often include subtitles like "You won't believe number four!"

Articles are written and pitched that way for several reasons, I think. They're easy to write (no real development of an article or essay is required), for one thing, and easy to read -- appealing to the short attention spans of many web surfers. 

They're also ideally designed for maximum ad content, whether between each numbered entry or on the side. Often one must click to see each element, bringing a new page with new ads. And they're all tagged to be easily shared on social media sites.

Those are all good reasons to dislike the format, so there's an admitted bit of sarcasm in my adopting it here. But, a number of interesting articles have come across my screen recently, and I thought I'd share a few highlights.

1. A group of tour guides in Jerusalem claim they've found a 740-foot ancient water tunnel beneath east Jerusalem that dates back to the pre-exilic period, before 586 BCE. We've long known about the quarter-mile-long Hezekiah's tunnel and an older tunnel beside it, both designed to bring water from the Gihon Spring into the city. The discovery of another tunnel is bound to stir excitement among those who want to know more about the history of Jerusalem.

2. Animal dung played a key role in a recent excavation designed to discover how a substantial city managed to survive deep in the Negev about 5,000 years ago. The land, a mountainous region in the southernmost part of Israel, is a wilderness then as it is now, but several large settlements rose and fell during the Intermediate Bronze age. How did they make a living? At a site called Mashaabe Sadeh, excavators sifted a large urban site for coprolites -- fossilized animal dung -- as evidence that residents relied on farming and animal husbandry. Finds of fossil feces were few, however, suggesting that the economy must have been based on something else, such as trade or mining.

Credit: University of Cincinnati3. Google Earth helped one researcher establish trade routes and to measure the economic influence of ancient Antioch, in Syria. Kristina Neumann took data about locally minted coins found in excavations of surrounding areas and plugged it into Google Earth, creating a map that shows how the coins were distributed, indicating Antioch's reach in terms of commerce.

4. An Israeli scholar claims to have discovered the remains of an ancient palace that may date as far back as King David. Binyamin Tropper says the discovery of a massive proto-aeolic capital (a type of column) indicates that an unexcavated monumental building could lie beneath it. He asserts that the Israeli Antiquities Authority has known about the site for some time, and told him to keep quiet about it. Stay tuned for further developments. 

5. An international research group is studying mummies for evidence of atherosclerosis, the primary cause of heart disease. In a project known as the Horus study, researchers are attempting to do whole-body CT scans on as many mummies as possible, looking for evidence of arterial calcification. So far, mummies from a variety of sites around the world have been studied, and most of them show some level of calcified arteries, leading researchers to question whether humans are genetically disposed to atherosclerosis, regardless of diet. The team has scanned 137 mummies thus far and hopes to scan many more, but the study has been delayed by political instability in Egypt. Don't go back to the full-fat diet just yet.

6. Egypt's King Tut suffered a number of indignities after his death. Not only was his mummy and its case covered with a thick layer of black ooze that may have spontaneously combusted, but he was also buried without a heart or a replacement heart scarab. In addition, he was mummified with his penis in an erect position, at a 90 degree angle to his body (not surprisingly, it broke off). A recent paper by Salima Ikram, a professor at the American University in Cairo, proposes that the priests who prepared his body wanted to portray the boy king as the personification of Osiris in order to combat his father Akhenaten's attempt to introduce a monotheistic system that worshiped only Aten, the solar deity. Osiris, among other things, was sometimes portrayed as the dark god of the underworld, known for his fertility. Now you know. 

7. An Israeli team of scientists has analyzed core samples drilled from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee, counting various types of pollen grains embedded in the sediment. By analyzing the amount and types of pollen as clues to changes in vegetation at different periods, they were able to demonstrate that a severe drought more than 3,000 years ago (about 1250-1100 BCE) may be the prime cause behind the collapse of several major civilizations during that period. Fascinating stuff!

But the one most readers will remember is number six.

Some things never change.

Kristina Neumann
Kristina Neumann

Inside, outside

Downton Abbey fans were cheered Sunday night by the American premier of the "upstairs/downstairs" drama's fourth season on PBS. That's true, at least, for those who haven't cheated by watching the previously-aired British version.

One of the challenges for script-writer Julian Fellowes has been finding ways to explain the departure of actors who, despite the popularity of the show, decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere once their three-year initial contracts were up.

The first was Jessica Brown Findlay, who played Lady Sybil and decided she'd learned all she could from the Downton experience. Findlay has gone on to star in an American movie (Lullaby, not yet released) and a German-South African mini-series called Labyrinth. Knowing of her imminent departure, Fellowes had her die in childbirth from a rare condition called preeclampsia.

Explaining the upcoming absence of Dan Stevens, the actor behind the charming Matthew Crawley, was more difficult. Though often caught between romance and principle, Matthew relieved faithful viewers when he finally married Lady Mary after an up-and-down courtship, managing to tease some softness from her prickly personality. When Stevens chose not to re-up for Season 4, Fellowes had little choice but to kill off the vibrant young aristocrat, but not until the final scene of Season 3, when he crashed his AC convertible to avoid a delivery truck on a one-lane road. Crawley, who wanted to explore other roles, has gone on to act on-stage in The Heiress in New York, and to make several movies.

Season 4 opened with the departure of Siobhan Finneran, who played the snippy senior lady's maid Miss O'Brien. Whether colluding with footman-turned underbutler Thomas or conspiring against him (and anyone else who got in her way), O'Brien was dependably self-focused. Finneran said she had fun playing the role, but opted out after three seasons because "When I stop loving something, I stop doing it." Rather than script another demise, Fellowes set up O'Brien's departure with a family visit to the Scottish highlands, where she became a favorite of unhappy cousin Susan Fincher, who recruited O'Brien to accompany her and husband Shrimpy to a government post in India.

I've never been a fan of soap operas and don't watch any other TV dramas, so it remains a surprise to me that I enjoy Downton Abbey. Perhaps it's because Fellowes finds ways to redeem even the nastiest of characters while showing that the more upright folk have their lapses, too. Perhaps it's because even the sternest of characters are shown to have hearts and show unexpected compassion.

And, perhaps, because every unexpected departure reminds me to cherish the people of my own world, with all their positives and their peccadilloes. One never knows when life may take them in a different direction.


Same old, good old ...

Image from here it is, another new year, and I find myself making the same resolutions I made last year, and the year before. Perhaps you've had that experience?

Surprisingly, I don't find that frustrating at all.

Such resolutions as I have are not on a formal list, and not overly specific, but they're the sort of things I routinely strive for. If something is worth doing, it's generally worth doing all the time.

New Year's, by dint of the calendar, always follows Thanksgiving and Christmas, both of which involve lots of tempting food and the inevitable addition of a few pounds, so healthier eating habits and adequate exercise are always at the forefront of my goals for a new year. God has given me a healthy, functioning body, and taking care of it is a matter of responsible stewardship.

The holidays also remind me of how important people are, and how easy it is to get self-focused and fail to be as compassionate and kind to others as I would like to be. Taking more time for others, then, is always near the top of my list.

If I'm serious about caring for others, that also means I should do what I can to promote social justice for all people, including people I've never met and am unlikely to know. That includes speaking up for folks who are especially close to God's heart, those who are poor or oppressed or discriminated against, whether close to home or in other parts of the world.

All of these things are aspects of what I think it means to follow the prophet Micah's admonition:

    He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
        and what does the LORD require of you
    but to do justice, and to love kindness,
        and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

These ideals never get old, and as long as we live, they are never fully accomplished. So, if I find myself making the same resolutions every year, perhaps that doesn't suggest failure as much as trying to stay on track with what God has set as a life-long path.

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