Living With A Wild God

Living With A Wild God is a 2014 book by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I recently read for a book group. The author wrote Nickel and Dimed, a book about her experience working for a three-month period as a minimum wage worker, an insightful book about the new working class, which I enjoyed immensely. This book, however, is very different. It is the story of her struggle to make sense out of the world (her “quest for truth”), having grown up in a somewhat dysfunctional, working class household with two avowed atheists for parents. The subtitle on the cover of the book is “ A non-believers search for the truth about everything.”

What I find most engaging about the book is despite describing herself as an atheist, what Ehrenreich  describes is her lack of belief in a certain type of god–a rigid, monotheistic god.  Mariann Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, made the comment at a recent gathering at our neighborhood Episcopal church that when someone says he or she is an atheist, she often asks, “Now tell me the characteristics of this god you do not believe in.” She often answers that she does not believe in that god either.

Now while Ehrenreich’s concept of “The Other” or “The Presence” would probably not fit nicely into an Episcopal bishop’s understanding of God, it comes dangerously close to mine. She acknowledges a Divine “Presence” in all of life  and the validity of mystical experiences. These experiences–like the one she had at age 17 in a Death Valley town called Lone Pine– cannot be explained by science but are nonetheless real. She also believes humans are not fundamentally different from other animals but rather only higher up on the food chain and that the presence of “The Other” is throughout all of creation. If this sounds a lot like animism, I suppose it is. I have always described myself unapologetically as a closet animist.

Most people today are aware that the mainstream Christian Church in the U.S. and most developed countries is in decline. I think that one reason for this is the association of the Christian Church with the kind of rigid description of God that Ehrenreich rejects. We Christians should enlarge the tent and broaden our understanding of the Divine Presence in our lives. Rigid, strict “orthodoxy” is a turnoff for many GenXers and Millennials and for a lot of people who like Ehrenreich are on their own spiritual journey. Most humans ask these questions: Why are we here? Why do we die? What is this all about? Simplistic, pat answers may satisfy some people, but they are fewer and fewer in our secular age.

Now I have been an active church-person almost all my life. I am an Episcopalian, and the Episcopal Church is very progressive in a lot of ways. It has led the way on issues of inclusiveness and sexuality and is generally  pretty good on social justice issues. But we still have to say the Nicene or Apostles Creed at every service. These ancient creeds describe the type of God that makes no sense to Ehrenreich or, for that matter, to me. Here are some of my questions:

[We believe in] God the Father: Is God really  a human-like deity? Why a “he” and not a “she”? Does God really have two hands, two feet and male organs? Ok, maybe we should not take this literally, but if that is the case, why is this language in there?

Jesus his “only son.”Now I know that for some this is the absolute essence of Christianity. But if God is not really a “he” but, like Ehrenreich says, more a Divine Presence, how can a “Divine Presence” or “Other” have a son? Even if God is a he, how exactly does this fatherhood thing work? I mean he is up there and Mary was  down here, right? But where exactly might “up there” be? And what about Joseph? The Gospel of Mathew traces Jesus’s linage through Joseph, not Mary, all the way back to  Abraham. That would imply that Joseph was the father. And how come Jesus is God’s only son? There are a lot of planets in the universe, probably well into the trillions. Isn’t it possible that there might be another son somewhere else? Keep in mind, we say in the creed that God is the maker of “heaven and earth and all that is seen and unseen.”

Jesus came down from heaven. So if he came down here from up there, what was he doing up there before he came down here? And why did he come down here to save us? I know, you really aren’t supposed to take this literally and that this idea is the cornerstone of Paul’s theology, but still…

Jesus descended into hell. (Apostle’s Creed) Why did he do that and where exactly might hell be?  Is it below the Earth’s surface? How far down? What was he doing there for three days?

Ascended Into Heaven.I suppose what comes down goes back up, but you get the picture.

[Jesus is now] seated at the right hand of God.  Back to his god-man thing. Why would God have hands and why the right hand? And why are God and Jesus just sitting there and not doing anything?

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. So what about judging all these dead people? I thought that Christians believed that when you die you go to heaven or to hell and do not have to wait around until Jesus comes back. Some or maybe all of these dead people have been waiting around over 2,100 years  for his return.

We look to the resurrection of the dead (“body” in the Apostles Creed). Does this imply we are stuck with the bodies we die with for eternity?  Given a choice between living in eternity as a 25-year old versus an eternity as a 90-year old, wouldn’t most people choose the former?

I can hear some of my Union Seminary classmates groaning along with a lot of others who are devout Christians.  Doesn’t this guy get it? Doesn’t he understand? This language is symbolic. It is not supposed to be taken literally.

Well, maybe not, but the challenge is that even if the language is not taken literally, it still represents an effort of humans to describe in human language what is beyond description and beyond human understanding. Short answer:  much of the creed that Episcopalians are supposed to say at every service just does not make sense. At least it does not make sense to me though it is perfectly ok to conclude that this is just another nail in the coffin that proves I wasted four years of my life going to seminary. In any event, I don’t say the creed anymore myself. 

 The God that is meticulously described in the two major creeds of the Christian Church is what Ehrenreich has rebelled against and a lot of other, self identified “atheists” are rebelling against. I am not an atheist, but I have to agree with her that rigid monotheism is a turnoff for many. It should not have to be this way. God by definition is too vast and mysterious for us humans to fully understand or keep in a box constructed by us.  If truly “believing” the Nicene Creed is the only ticket to being Christian, it represents a pretty high bar. Good luck on turning around the decline of mainstream Christianity. 

Living With A Wild God if nothing else raises a lot of questions. It is honest—brutally honest at times—and, like most of what Ehrenreich has written, insightful. It surely gets you thinking.  It also suggests that we who have stuck with the church–albeit painfully at times–should pay attention.

Faux News: Hurricane Warning Issued By The President For Iowa

At 4:00 PM today President Trump issued an official hurricane warning for Iowa, which he said was in the direct path of Hurricane Dorian. Despite an immediate rebuttal by the U.S. Weather Service, the president persisted and upped the ante to declare the entire state of Iowa a disaster area, thus qualifying for millions of dollars for federal relief aid. Republicans universally applauded the action, citing among other things his warnings regarding Alabama issued earlier in the week.  Several senators, led by Lindsey Graham, argued that were it not for the president, the entire state could have been destroyed. The Governor of Alabama praised the president for his courage and forethought and thanked him for the millions of dollars that have been diverted from schools, shelters and day care centers in states like Maryland, New York and Massachusetts to assist the citizens of Alabama. 

Trump lashed out again about fake news and lambasted the press for not giving adequate coverage to the hurricane in Alabama and then against the “deep state” for posting government information contrary to what the president was saying. He announced that by Executive Order he was permanently closing down the Weather Service.

Several citizens in Iowa interviewed by Faux News expressed bewilderment that the state would be in the direct path of a hurricane since there is no evidence that any hurricane has ever reached the state or any state close to it. They went on to add however, that they were grateful to the president for shutting down schools, shelters, and day care centers in Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts to divert funds to Iowa, which would be received just in time for the Iowa primary. 

You Can’t Hold A Good Woman Down

If you are reading this post, chances are that you know Embry Howell. Scots-Irish to the core, she is earnest, hard working and determined. She is also stubborn and fearless. But this time has she gone too far?

Embry will turn 74 in a couple of months. No spring chicken, right? In fact for quite a while I thought she had retired from the Urban Institute since I personally attended at least two retirement parties for her with speeches and accolades, and I think there were others. She continued to go to the office, however, as is the custom at the Urban Institute for “emeritus” retirees; but she was not as fully engaged as she would like to be.  After about a year or so of getting a bit bored with “retirement,” she decided to reinvent herself as an international consultant with a specialty in evaluating government programs. Her target was Africa. She had dreamed of becoming a missionary to the heathens in Africa when she was a child, and while still working at the Urban Institute had managed to get interesting moonlighting, pro bono assignments in Tanzania and South Africa. You would think that would suffice for most people.

Embry’s plan of action was to tweak her resume, create a few business cards, and attend as many networking events in Washington as she could involving firms consulting in Africa, mostly companies doing work for USAID.  To my astonishment she returned home beaming a couple of months ago, announcing that she had landed her first consulting gig, working for a small government contractor doing USAID work in Mali.

Hmm, I thought, Mali. The location sounded pretty good to me since my image was that of a tropical paradise in the Pacific, but was quickly reminded that what I was thinking about  was Bali, not Mali. Mali is actually in West Africa, just below Algeria and above Ghana, a bridge country between the Sahara and the rain forest. It is most famous for the ancient city of Timbuktu.

What she did not tell me at the time was that Mali is one of the most dangerous countries on the planet. This small tidbit of information was conveyed to me, not by Embry, but by a friend with work overseas. His response was simply, “What? Certainly you must be kidding!” It turns out that Mali is the center of a fight to the death by several warring, radical Islamic factions; and the country is in the middle of a bloody civil war with no end in sight.  Yet in the middle of all this, USAID has invested millions of dollars in boosting agricultural production. Embry’s job is to evaluate whether these programs are working. Her role is to help design the research, monitor the research effort and help write the report.  A bunch of other people will be working with her, many in Africa.

So how bad could this be, I thought. That is, until I heard the conference call between her and colleagues this morning that being kidnapped for ransom money would “not be all that pleasant of an experience” and whether ransom money was an allowable expense item by USAID. But certainly they were exaggerating and over reacting. And then with a sheepish reluctance, Embry shared with me an official communiqué she received from the U.S. State Department as shown below verbatim:

If you decide to travel to Mali:

  • Draft a will, and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
  • Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.
  • Share important documents, login information, and points of contact with loved ones so that they can manage your affairs if you are unable to return as planned to the United States. Establish your own personal security plan in coordination with your employer or host organization, or consider consulting with a professional security organization.
  • Be sure to appoint one family member to serve as the point of contact with hostage-takers, media, U.S. and host country government agencies, and Members of Congress if you are taken hostage or detained.
  • Establish a proof of life protocol with your loved ones so that, if you are taken hostage, your loved ones will know specific questions and answers to ask the hostage-takers to be sure you are alive and to rule out a hoax.
  • Leave DNA samples with your medical provider in case it is necessary for your family to access them.

Oh my goodness!

If you think that Embry is deterred in any way or rethinking her decision to get back into the fray of the consulting world, you do not know Embry Howell. She is chomping at the bit and ready for a new adventure—this time in one of the most dangerous spots on Earth where foreign firms doing business there routinely have line items in their budgets for AK 47s, ammunition, body guards and, yes, ransom money. She will leave for Mali in about a month and be on site for about a week—hopefully with fully armed bodyguards standing by.  The day after she returns we head off for our trip around South America. 

Stay tuned. More will follow. 

You can’t hold a good woman down.

Chautauqua Revisited

Our visit to Chautauqua, the vacation/retreat center in upstate New York founded in the late 19thCentury, was so successful last summer that we decided to do it again this year and to bring along our granddaughter, Sadie, Andrew and Karen’s 11-year old, part of our tradition of taking each grandchild on a trip with us, one at a time. This was Sadie’s turn. The idea was for Sadie to attend the day camp during the day and to meet us for lunch and spend the late afternoon and evening with us. We also were scheduled to be here at the same time with John and Grace, old friends from Chapel Hill and Davidson days, and with friends from DC—Wendy and Charlie, Connie, and Sally, who spends the whole summer here. It was a fabulous week—especially being with our granddaughter, Sadie. The highlights for her were the camp activities, the magic show and the bat in our room that woke us all up at 2:30 a.m. But there was a whole lot more.

Last summer I posted several blogs about this magical place. There is simply nothing quite like it–at least not that I have seen. Moments after you drop off your bags at the cottage or rooming house where you are staying, park your car in the main parking lot off campus, and reenter the Chautauqua Institute on foot, you immediately feel the difference. Nineteenth Century, three-story, gingerbread cottages with huge front porches and balconies line the streets surrounded by towering pines, ancient hemlocks and maples, and engulfed in a sea of flowers and greenery. Pedestrians, not cars, dominate the narrow streets, and the pace is slow except for kids shooting by on bicycles and scooters. Someone is always walking a dog or two, and there always seems to be someone pushing a baby carriage or an older person riding on an electric cart. The population of the town is listed as about 4,500 permanent residents, but there are surely a lot more during the summer months. The amphitheater holds over 6,000, and for the big morning lectures it is usually close to full and not everyone attends.

One thing that stands out most to me is how many old folks there are, people my age or older. My guess is that well over half are over the age of 70 and still going strong, rushing from lecture to lecture and taking in as much as they can. One lady I sat beside talked about her youngest great grandchild just turning 20. How old could she be? Many people here are part of intergenerational families, often returning year after year. My only question about the demographics is why are there so few persons of color.

What brings people to Chautauqua besides the cooler temperatures, clean mountain air, and its delightful setting are the educational, religious, cultural, and artistic programs that begin before eight in the morning and go on all day and into the evening without letup. The place is a combination of a summer camp for grownups, an old-fashioned, religious retreat center, and a major university. Each day there are over 40 lectures, discussion groups, religious services, plays or concerts and another 30 or so classes plus three or four films every day.  There is a tennis center, sailing center, golf course, ball fields, lawn bowling, and swimming in the lake. Entertainment—symphonies, concerts, and this year a magic show—begin every evening around eight. When one of the speakers this week described this place as a utopia, you could see heads nodding.

Over the course of the nine-week summer season, each week there is a different theme. The theme this week, Week Eight, was “shifting global power.”  I do not know how they do it,  but Chautauqua prides itself in attracting the best and brightest to do the lectures—a kind of superstar system with lots of people who are famous and well-known and others whom you may not have heard of but whose credentials take about ten minutes to read. They all seem to have written numerous books, been highly successful in their careers, mostly in academia, and won all sorts of prestigious awards. Just like last year, they did not disappoint.

While the published theme this year was shifting global power, the actual theme which undergirded most of the presentations could be summed up in one word: doomsday. This was present both in the main morning lectures and in many of the spiritual forums that happen every afternoon at two pm. I do not know about others, but my takeaway from most of what I heard was enough to scare the bejesus out of me. I learned from Robin Wright (U.S. Institute for Peace) that the Information Age has accelerated the speed we need to respond, and it is beyond our human capacity to do this–jeopardizing our ability to address crises in a timely and thoughtful way. This suggests to me, anyway, that we are not even close to being ready for the scary future that awaits us.

 I learned from  Ken Weinstein (The Hoover Institute) that technology has fundamentally changed the nature of warfare, that China, which is now our number one adversary,  is moving forward faster than we are in developing  technology. China’s new social credit score system now tracks behavior of its citizens and rates each one according to criteria like loyalty to the state.  Your social credit score will determine if you get job, a college degree or a mortgage, making the novel 1984 look like a child’s bedtime story. We are in a sort of Sputnik moment, he said; and if we do not respond in kind, the world’s superpower will be China, not us. 

I learned from tech star, Joi Ito (Harvard Media Lab) that the early optimism about the power of the internet to make the world more democratic has a dark side that is just the opposite of what he and others had predicted when the Digital Age was beginning to ramp up, only a couple of decades ago. Its future direction is uncertain.

 I learned from Environmentalist Bill McKibben ( that the Greenland ice cap is much closer to a meltdown that anyone imagined 30 years ago when it was beginning to become apparent that global warming was real.  We are very near a tipping point, which if it happens, will mean that there is nothing humans can do to prevent a total Greenland meltdown, which would result in the seas  rising over 20 feet, causing  a refugee crisis of over a billion people, no way to feed the Earth’s population, and uncertainty about the future existence of human life on the planet. 

McKibben argued that the only hope we have is for a worldwide, massive effort to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere from over 400 particles per million to 350 or less. Nothing close to that is happening now. Others in smaller lectures and discussion groups tended to migrate to the same warning themes: Beware, these are dangerous times like none that we humans on Earth have known or experienced. The future could be bleak.

As terrible and compelling as all these wakeup calls were, what disturbed me as much as anything were Bill Moyers’ comments about the deterioration of civic life in the U.S. and the threats to democracy from within rather than from coups or hostile takeovers by adversaries. In countries like Turkey, Poland, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, and Venezuela this has already happened. It could happen in the U.S. Some say it already is happening here. 

Another speaker warned us that Trump is a symptom, not a cause of the divisions in our country; and until we address the issues of class, race and inequality, these divisions will only worsen. But how do you do that given our history of race and class divisions and that we are now in a global economy where corporations rather than increase wages in the U.S., move their factories to other countries where wages are lower?

So here is the irony. You are sitting in an extraordinary, bucolic, and beautiful setting among people who would seem to share your values and taking all this in, and you are hearing these dire warnings that the Earth is going to hell in a hand basket. What are you supposed to do?

Well, there are some hopeful signs, and most speakers tried to throw in a tidbit of optimism. Several pointed to the GenZ generation, those born between 1995 and 2015, as our best hope for the future. They seem to get it when it comes to climate change, inequality and the need for action. Millennials are also more aware of these threats than the Boomers though many are watching from the sidelines. The so called “Silent Generation,” which I am part of, is leavening behind some big problems for our children and grandchildren. 

  Others talked about the potential for grassroots organizing and the power of protest. The 350 Movement is having a lot of impact all across the globe in putting climate change on radar screens using protests and grass roots organizing, and the #MeToo Movement has had enormous worldwide impact changing behavior toward women, using social media. The head of that movement, Tarana Burke, who spoke on the last day, was very inspiring. In fact most of the speakers were inspiring because they have not decided to throw in the towel and they still have a dog in the fight. Perhaps the most hopeful comment was by McKibben, who said that we now have the technology to convert from a carbon-based energy system to solar and wind based. The issue is human willpower.  People working together in common cause can make a difference. All of these threats require action, but with climate change—by far the most ominous—the clock is clicking. Time is running out.

It reminded me a bit of the early civil rights movement and how the big push was to get people of good will involved in the movement, regardless of their race. In 1964 I was inspired by civil rights leaders at a conference I  attended in Philadelphia to do something to further the cause. I returned to Davidson College after the conference and my senior year organized a march in Charlotte supporting the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. It was not such a big deal in the larger context, but it was big for us Southern, white boys at Davidson who participated and was another small stick of kindling added to the civil rights fire. When you get enough kindling burning, big logs catch on fire.

 Maybe we are at that time again, a time for massive protests, marches, sit ins and nonviolent civil disobedience. Maybe it is time to take to the streets to pressure the politicians to act.  Regarding global warming, McKibben challenged us old folks in particular, saying, “What have you seniors got to lose? An arrest record on your resume is not going to make any difference to someone who is retired!”

Maybe it is that time again. 

Faux News Returns: Republicans Offer Revised Plan To Prevent Gun Deaths

Senator Mitch McConnell, flanked by every Republican elected official in the Senate and standing in front of a huge MAGA photo of President Trump, today presented the Republicans’ revised plan to end all gun violence. After a brief moment of silence preceded by the words “The thoughts and prayers of the Republican Party are with the victims and their families killed in the most recent incidents in El Paso and Toledo,” Senator McConnell began to read his prepared remarks. When interrupted by a reporter who shouted from the audience that the second massacre actually happened in Dayton, Ohio, McConnell responded that he was standing by his president but would “look into it.”

The plan, which has been offered before but without some of the important additions, is to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring all Americans over the age of 18 to be armed at all times and that any infraction of this law would be ruled a felony resulting in penalties of up to life in prison. In his short address he explained that this would create a deterrent that would result in the elimination of all mass killings and most gun deaths of all kinds. 

“It is real simple,” the senator stated, “If you knew you would be immediately gunned down if you shot someone, you would keep your gun in your pocket or in the case of an assault weapon, on your back. It is like the MAD concept in nuclear war, mutually assured destruction, and that has worked just fine. We are still here, aren’t we? And besides, in every country where there is a universal gun-carriage law, gun deaths have been zero.” He cited several studies funded by the non-partisan NRA Foundation that supported his statement.

While the idea of “universal carriage,” not to be confused with “universal coverage,” has been around for some time, the new twist offered by the Republicans is to pass accompanying legislation that would require any person seeing a mental health professional for any reason to wear an orange arm band, so that everyone would alerted that someone wearing the band was a potential murderer and mass killer. Psychologists and psychiatrists and other mental health professionals would be required to report all patients and clients to the federal government.

“The president has spoken, and he is right,” said McConnell, “We do not have a gun problem in the U.S., we have a mental health problem. People who kill people are mentally ill. Requiring all mentally ill people to wear orange arm bands will alert others to beware and keep a hand on their revolver when they see someone who is mentally ill walking down the street. It is a brilliant idea and will assure our goal of zero gun violence. But this is not discriminatory. All the arm-banders, as they will be called, will still be allowed to carry weapons. In fact they will be required to. It would not be fair to exclude someone from carrying a weapon just because they wear an arm band.”

As expected the proposal received strong approval from the Trump base and rebuke by most Democrats. The president immediately weighed in with the tweet, “Hooray for Mitch! Keep the nutcases in line. Keep America armed and an end to all gun violence forever.”

The chances of getting the Constitution amended to require universal carriage is considered low as is the “arm-bander” legislation, which is expected to pass the Senate but be voted down in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

And so it appears that the United States will continue to slog along with more massacres and more condolences, more offerings of “thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.” and more tweets from the president that he single-handedly has made our country great again.

Back Home, Lessons Learned

The choir trip to the Baltic States turned out to be far more than I had expected, mainly because I had not expected very much. Before we left I had viewed the experience as primarily coming along for the ride. If you have been following the blog, however, you know that is was more than that. Here are two big takeaways for me:

  • The horror of the Holocaust and how it–or something like it– could happen again.

In June of 1941, the world pretty much knew that Hitler was up to no good and that Jews were being treated badly. Shops owned by Jews in Germany and Poland had been closed or destroyed, books burned and Jews beaten, humiliated, and disenfranchised. Some had been rounded up and carted off to places unknown. Few, however, had any idea of what Hitler was actually up to, including those in Lithuania, who had no inkling of what was about to happen to them. Lithuania was low hanging fruit for the Nazis because it was small, defenseless, and had the highest percentage of Jews anywhere in the world, about 25 percent of the country’s population. Five months later almost all were dead, shot and dumped into mass graves—probably more than 150,000 men, women and children with another 50,000 or so men retained for hard labor for the war effort, almost all of whom would eventually die in concentration camps. Jews were being shot at a rate exceeding 1,000 persons a day. Fewer than ten percent were able to escape or survive in hiding. A similar fate was in store for Latvia with a smaller Jewish population of around 70,000. The smaller number of Jews in Estonia, fewer than 10,000, got wind of what was happening, and most escaped before the Nazis arrived, mainly by boat.

Meanwhile the world stood by, doing nothing.

What do you make of that? Were (are) the Germans “evil people” for turning a blind eye or, even worse, participating in these atrocities? Were (are) the Christians in the Baltic states “evil people” for allowing this to happen in their countries, not fighting back, and even aiding and abetting the enemy?  Why did  other countries not do more to help the Jews? How could this have happened?  Could something like this happen again?

The answer is, I believe, not only that something like this could happen again but that something like this has already happened in places like Rwanda, Myanmar, Cambodia and in China during the Cultural Revolution. But I also think the answer is no, that the Germans as a people  were not–and are not– “evil people,” nor were the Christians who did not do more to protect the Jews in the Baltic States. Nor were the World War II Japanese, many of whom did terrible things during the war, nor the Chinese people, some of whom tortured and murdered intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, nor the Russians who enthusiastically supported Stalin’s atrocities. Embry and I have been to all of these countries. We have met and talked to people and have made friends in some of these places. These people are not any more “evil” than the rest of us. And we Americans have our grim past with slavery and Jim Crow. I grew up in the South during the tail end of the Jim Crow period and as a child and adolescent did not question whether there was anything innately wrong with segregation.

Yes, evil exists in this world, and clearly there are evil people. But the potential for evil is in all of us. It is part of the human condition. If the circumstances are right, “good people” can do heinous things. We humans are basically herd animals. We follow the leader. We do as we are told.  Most of us are wimps. We do not take big risks, especially when the consequences of not following orders leads to dire consequences for us.

That is why leaders are so important, and a bad–or evil– leader is capable of inflicting harm on human beings far exceeding anything we can contemplate. My guess is that in the spring of 1941 if someone had told a Jewish Lithuanian that in five months, almost every Jew in the country would be dead or doing hard labor, that person would have said, no way, no how.

And that is why right now in the United States of America, President Trump scares the bejesus out of me. This is not to imply that he is a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao, but rather that his leadership is taking us in dangerous directions, especially with regard to immigrants, the new “enemies,” just as the Jews were cast as enemies. On top of that his personality is certainly leaning authoritarian. And we do not know how this story is going to end.

  • The resilience of the human spirit. 

This is the other side of the coin of the human condition.  While we humans—all of us—have the capacity for evil, we also have the capacity for good. There were brave people during the Holocaust who came to the aid of the Jews, protecting them in their attics and basements. Many paid for this with their lives. In this troubled world, there are ordinary people who are heroes and saints. 

And we humans come back. After they had experienced the Holocaust in 1941 and then the Soviet Occupation from 1945-1998, you would think that those in the Baltic States would be a beaten and downtrodden people. But no. These countries are now thriving in many ways. They have strong educational systems, universal, affordable health care; and all are stable democracies. 

The churches, almost all of which were locked up or converted to other uses, are all now open and back on their feet, many having been renovated and restored. While most do not attend church except on Christmas and Easter (Lithuania, which is Catholic rather than Lutheran, being the exception), you still get the idea that religion has an important role in the life and culture of these countries.

There are few signs of poverty, and as far as their troubled history goes, the horrendous record is there for people to see in museums and read about in history books, but they have moved on. It has taken some time. The end of the Soviet period was  30 years ago, a full generation. But if you did not know the history and were visiting for the first time, what would impress you would be the preservation of the medieval old towns, the shops and outdoor cafes, and the positive energy. You would not have a clue about the suffering they have been through.

Part of what has fueled the comeback of the Baltic is their culture and language. While we were in Lithuania, there was a huge cultural festival in Latvia, which we watched on television. Tens of thousands of people participated, wearing colorful dress, singing folksongs and folk dancing. These songs, dances and music have been going on for centuries, long before Latvia became a nation-state in the Twentieth Century, and you get the idea that the fundamental cornerstones of family, religion, culture, and language will long outlast the politics and governance in these countries or, for that matter, in any country. That countries go through periods of hell and despair and then bounce back gives me hope that maybe somehow, someway, our fragile planet will survive long term the challenges of human conflict and profound social and environmental change that we are experiencing right now.

Baltic Blog 9: Helsinki

Finland was our last stop before returning to the U.S. It turned out to be more than we had hoped for. My advice: Go there. Helsinki is a world class city, which I think deserves a lot more attention than it gets. Like the three Baltic capitals we visited, it is worthy to be on any bucket list. 

After a shaky start we settled into our “backup living  unit”—a comfortable “2ndHome” (a local competitor of Airbnb) studio apartment, located about a half block from the first, ill-fated, Airbnb apartment. (I am petitioning the Airbnb executives to require the owners of that apartment to stipulate that at least one guest must be over six-feet-six or guests must bring their own stepladder.)

Our first full day in Helsinki was one of those like we had in Vilnius, drop-dead-gorgeous, with temperatures near 70, a gentle breeze, and the few clouds that occasionally decorated the blue sky looking like cotton candy. This is when the typical Finn orders a cappuccino or a beer in one of the cozy, outside cafes and sighs, “Ok, it is worth the 18 hours a day of  December darkness and  the bitter cold from  November through March.”

We spent almost the entire day on a Hop-on, Hop-off bus getting a good feel for this compact city of only about 650,000 (1.3 million metro). The entire population of  Finland is only 5.5 million, less than the population of greater Washington DC in a country roughly the size of  California, though admittedly few people live in the northern part of Finland. Helsinki is different from  the other Baltic cities we visited due to its decidedly international flavor. Streets are buzzing with people of all shapes, sizes, languages, and complexions, and restaurants advertise in addition to Scandinavian food, Japanese, Italian, Asian, French, and American  (McDonalds, Burger King and Subway).

The closest city to Helsinki that I can think of in the U.S. would be San Francisco because the Baltic Sea—today sparkling blue, not the gray mist we experienced the day before– surrounds three-quarters of the city, which is also hilly like San  Francisco (though not as extreme). Boating  activity of all sorts was underway in the harbor, and most of the downtown pedestrian malls and sidewalks were in heavy use. Cafes, fancy stores and beautifully manicured parks seemed to pop up around every corner. On a day like today if you concluded that the entire population of the city was outside basking in the delightful weather, you probably would not be that far off.

What immediately stands out about Helsinki compared to the Baltic state capitals we have visited on this trip is the absence of a Medieval old town section, the presence of tower cranes with buildings going up, a lot of newer buildings mixed in with the old, far fewer churches, and fewer, conspicuous tourists. While there is a lot of energy and vitality, the atmosphere is more laidback, friendly, and casual than you find in DC or New York. Graffiti, while present as it is in almost every European city, is not as hideously prominent as it is elsewhere. Practically everyone speaks at least some English, many fluently. Like in the U.S. scooters are now ubiquitous, as are bikes,  and skateboarding would appear to be the national sport. On a day like today it would be hard not to fall in love with this special place.

The next two days we spent in Helsinki were much like the first except that since it was a weekend, the mood was even more festive, casual and relaxed. The highlight for me was a two-hour, “canal tour” aboard a small, sightseeing boat, which motored  around the Helsinki harbor and  a dozen or so of the myriad islands that dot the Baltic around Helsinki. We bought a three-day “Helsinki pass,” which allowed us to hop on and  hop off the tourist buses all we wanted to,  to use  public transportation at no charge (buses and trolleys), free museum admissions, a free harbor tour, and a free train ride to the airport. We took advantage of all the options  though whether we actually saved money is not certain. What is certain is that we saw a whole lot of the city that we would not have seen otherwise and loved it.

Now you may recall that we often choose  bargain  options such as taking public transportation whenever we can, staying in Airbnbs or windowless , subterranean rental units rather than hotels, and avoiding fancy restaurants. This is due to Embry’s Scotch-Irish DNA, which tends to prevent her from choosing a more expensive option when there is a cheaper one available. She can’t help it—unless I put my foot down, as I do occasionally, such as insisting on business class when flying overseas. That is why I was somewhat surprised when Embry enthusiastically announced she had made a reservation  at a restaurant for our “goodbye, farewell dinner,” called Olo, which had gotten a rating of four stars in the Michelin Guide, the highest rating of all  the restaurants in Helsinki, and considered in the guide to be one of the best restaurants in the world. There was no mention of prices. There was a hint via email from the restaurant, however, warning that for any guest that did not show up, the credit card on file for the reservation would be charged 69 euros and that we should allow a minimum of three hours for our dining experience.  I smiled skeptically wondering if Embry knew what exactly we might be getting ourselves into.

Walking about two miles from our hotel to the restaurant, we were a few minutes late and panting as we opened a heavy, wooden door in a nondescript, six-story, aging building facing the waterfront. A tiny sign that read “oLo” hung over the door. To describe the décor as “understated” would itself be an understatement, but the restaurant did have a kind of worn, old-world charm with very high ceilings and green drapes that blocked out light from the high windows. A cheerful hostess greeted us warmly and immediately escorted us to a small, quiet room containing four tables, all occupied except the one reserved for us. We later learned that the restaurant has only 15 tables situated in four separate rooms and can accommodate no more than 50 people at one time. 

Within a minute or so after being seated, our main waiter, a guy in his early thirties, dressed in a black vest, white shirt, black pants, a red bow tie, and sporting a handlebar mustache, greeted us. He spoke perfect English with a British accent.  During our three-hours in the restaurant, we were served by four, attentive, wait staff—all in their thirties and several with full tattoos on their right arm. (Why the right arm and not the left or both?) In addition three chefs, also about the same age, who were dressed in full white, chef’s attire, complete with apron and hat, also checked on us from time to time. After a waiter or waitress had carefully placed a dish in its proper place, moments later one of the chefs would appear, kneel  down so that his head was even with ours and then  describe the dish in detail– where it came from, how it was prepared, and what subtle flavors to look for. The menu listed the names of the entire staff that were on duty that day—some 19 people, a ratio of almost one staff person for every two dinner guests. 

When the waiter with the handlebar mustache explained that this was a six course, fixed price, tasting menu, Embry asked if we were supposed to pick one offering from each of the six courses. He smiled and replied that all the items listed in the menu would be served—some 19 in all.

Within a minute or two the first item was carefully placed on the table before us —a rare kind of Russian caviar, elegantly presented in a small bowl resting on top of round stones. And so the evening began with only moments between the time we had devoured a delicious morsel and another one, even tastier, was carefully placed before us, then meticulously described by the chef who prepared it. 

To be accurate, I have to say that since the portions were not large, eating or “tasting” 19 items was not pure gluttony. But it came close: Several varieties of rare shell fish, fresh fish from the Baltic, local mushrooms, fresh garden vegetables hand picked that day, various varieties of carefully prepared beef or pork, delicious sauces, and reindeer liver, you name it. Most, but not all dishes, were Scandinavian. Each savory dish was not so much to be eaten as “experienced,” and that is what we did. And of course, each offering was paired with the appropriate wine. Three hours later we had polished off 18 dishes plus the most delicious dessert I had ever tasted and were ready for the bill. 

When it was finally time to go, I fully expected the six or seven people that had so enthusiastically taken care of us to rush out and embrace us with goodbye hugs. It was one of those evenings.

 I did finally get up the courage to tell Embry how much it was (a figure which will remain secret); and in a few seconds after the look of horror disappeared from her face, she smiled sheepishly. Her Scottish ancestors would be turning over in their graves. We both agreed it was worth every euro, the dining experience of a lifetime. And it was a fine way to finish up the trip. 

The time we spent in this part of the world, just short of three weeks, turned out to be something very special. These countries were certainly not on our bucket list; and had it not been for the choir tour, we would have never gotten there. Life, it turns out, is a series of chances and opportunities taken or passed by. We both are grateful we took this one.

Guest Baltic Blog from Embry: The Music Part

Joe has been filling you in about our very enjoyable trip to the Baltic countries, but I thought I would write a short “guest blog” about the singing part of the trip.  (I know he has some readers who are fellow singers, who might be wanting a bit more detail.)

The idea for this trip got started when I was invited by Ben Hutchens, the former choir director at our church, All Souls Episcopal Church, to sing with his current choir (Westminster Presbyterian in Alexandria, Va.) on their tour to Latvia and Estonia.  I had always wanted to visit this part of the world, and this gave me a good excuse to go along as an extra alto singer.  Joe threw up his hand to go along as a “non-singer,” and we added stays in Lithuania and Finland on at the beginning and end of the trip to round it out.

Ben’s choir brought about 30 singers and bell ringers, and there were other non-singers and a few of Ben’s other choir members for a total group of 42.  He picked a wonderful repertoire of mostly American music (with some British).  If you are a singer, particularly in a church choir, take a look at what we sang (if not, skip down!):

Laudate Nomen Domini:  Christopher Tye

Panis Angelicus:  Thomas Pavlechko (modern American composer)

Chorale for Bells (bell choir)

Ubi Caritas: Maurice Duruffle

O Nata Lux:  Charles Villiers Stanford

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree:  Stanford Scriven

There is No Rose:  Donald MacDonald  (modern American composer, sung by a female octet)

Easter Anthem: William Billings

How Can I Keep from Singing:  Sondra K. Tucker (bell choir)

How Can I Keep from Singing:  Robert Lehman

My God is a Rock:  Alice Parker and Robert Shaw

Ain’t a That Good News: William Dawson

In His Care-O:  William Dawson

In addition, an organist (from another Northern Virginia church) performed two pieces. (I do not have the information on the names or composers of those pieces, as they were not in the printed program and I didn’t recognize them.) She performed them beautifully.  That was challenging, since each organ was different and she had little rehearsal time. She also conducted three of our pieces so that Ben could fill in with his nice voice and sing along with us.  All pieces were performed A Capella.

We performed all of this music in three concerts, one each in Riga (Latvia), Parnu (Estonia), and Tallinn (Estonia)—about a 1 ½ hour program with no intermission. We also participated in the Sunday service in Riga.  In each case, the concerts were in beautiful historic Lutheran churches with good acoustics. We had (barely) enough time to rehearse together ahead of each program, but obviously we got better as the trip went on and learned how to sing the music!

The concerts were all well attended, and the audiences were so attentive and enthusiastic. (The especially were fascinated with the bell ringing, which does not seem to be common here.)  Ben had prepared an encore, and it was requested at the end of each concert by enthusiastic clapping, which in Europe proceeds from random clapping to the audience clapping in unison with a loud “CLAP, CLAP, CLAP…” until you give the encore.  We were glad to do it, since their enthusiasm made it worth the effort of preparing the music and traveling so far to perform it.  In spite of this, I think we were all relieved when the last concert was over, and we could take off our concert dress and just relax.

This is my fourth choir tour to Europe, starting with a tour with my mother in 1988. We joined a tour of the Cathedral Choral Society and Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, which performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the old square of Warsaw with the Warsaw Opera Chorus.  It was just before the Berlin Wall came down.  This was a life-changing experience for me.  I have never forgotten the thrill of singing in a historic place, and ho–in that setting–Beethoven’s joyful music seemed to overcome the sadness from the past and lead to optimism about the future.  Indeed, at just that moment, all was about to change dramatically for Poland and all of Eastern Europe.

The Baltic Countries also suffered horribly through the World Wars and the Cold War, but they never gave up hope.  Singing was a huge factor in uniting the people of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia ( through the “Singing Revolution”).  Now an entirely new, free society has emerged. As with my first choir tour to Poland, this choir tour made me feel that I could be just a tiny part of that wonderful, historic process.  Once I finally learned the notes and rhythms, I began to think about the words of the songs we sang, and how appropriate they were for the place and time.  I will close with the words of “How Can I Keep from Singing”:

I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—how can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die, the Lord my Savior liveth.

What though the darkness gather round, songs in the night he giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that refuge clinging.

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes, the clouds grow thin; I see the blue above it.

And day by day this pathway smooths, since I first learned to love it.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing.

All things are mine, since I am His.  How can I keep from singing?

Baltic Blog 7: On Our Own Again!

The choir tour was terrific! But now it is over.  At 2:00 pm we boarded the ferry to Helsinki, a three hour cruise about 75 miles due north on the misty, gray, Baltic Sea. We were free from follow-the-leader, group conformity and were on our own to explore the nooks and grannies of another interesting and fascinating foreign land.

The ferry ride was aboard a huge vessel along with, I would guess, several thousand other passengers, many families with toddlers and lots of baby carriages. After all, this is the height of the summer tourist season even though it is cloudy with drizzle and temperatures  in the mid 50s. 

The odd thing about the huge ferry was that the only place where there were any seats available for passengers to sit was at a dining table in one of the several gigantic dining areas or in one of the several hundred staterooms that were unoccupied and cordoned off. Embry was lucky to grab a seat in one of the small eateries, “Coffee and Joy,” the latter of which I would have eagerly ordered if I could have found it. About five minutes after we had sat down, a waitress appeared and alerted us that the only people allowed to sit there were paying customers. Unable to find “joy,” I bought a small sandwich and a coke and then left Embry with her green tea in order to find an empty passenger seat somewhere, which we would need after we ceased being “paying customers.” No luck. I investigated each of the eight decks of the ship only to find hundreds of people sitting or lying  on floors  on every deck. What is wrong with this picture, I could not help asking—hundreds of state rooms just sitting there empty and passengers forced to sit on the floor, if they could even find an open spot? Please.

Back to “Coffee and Joy” and the purchase of a fruit cup to meet the paying customer criteria. That was enough to allow us to remain for the full three hour crossing.

The entry under steel gray skies into the channel leading to Helsinki was quite stunning with hundreds of islands, many inhabited, and a large number of vessels ranging from mega cruise ships to tiny dinghies. We were easily able to get a cab, which took us through the thriving center city to our pre arranged Airbnb apartment, about a 20-minute and 45 euro cab ride. Feeling confident and liberated by  being on our own, we found the address and entered through the large front door, which had been left open by someone just exiting. It was a green, five-story, stucco building on a quiet side street in what would appear to be a nice part of the city. As instructed we took the lift up to floor five, found our unit, and then started following instructions regarding entry, just like we did with the Airbnb in Vilnius when we ended up in the dungeon. 

First step: open the box above the door and get the key.

First problem: The box above the door was located about six inches above the sill—a reach of at least eight feet. I stood on my tiptoes and could barely touch the bottom of the box. There was no way I could read–let alone reset–any code, which was on a very small dial near the top of the box.

First solution: Embry, at risk of life and limb, would stand on my suitcase and try to reach the dial. After several failed efforts, she proudly announced that she had managed to reset the code according to the instructions, a Herculean effort to be sure.

Second problem: Nothing happened. The box did not open. At further risk of serious injury, she tried again and again. Nothing. I then gave it a try standing on my tiptoes and using every ounce of brute strength in me, admittedly not a lot. No movement.

Second solution: Try to reach the owner. 

Third problem: The only way to reach the owner was via the internet. No Wi-Fi connection. You had to be inside the unit to find the password.

Third solution: Fiddle with Embry’s smart phone, hoping for a lucky break. I do not know what or how Embry did it, but somehow she managed to get a number for the owner and to call that number. All this took about thirty minutes—it was by then almost seven pm– during which most of the time I sat silently on the stairs with my head in my hands, sulking, exhausted, and pondering what it would be like to be homeless and on the street in Helsinki.  I managed to get up the courage at one point to ask Embry if she could remind me why we were staying in an Airbnb instead of a hotel. She gave me a faint, forced smile.

Fourth problem: No answer. Embry waited for fifteen minutes then tried again. Still no answer. She was able to leave a callback number but no callbacks. It was now starting to get late—not dark, that does not happen until eleven o’clock—but close to eight, and that was late for us since we had had a meager lunch and no dinner. Spending the night on the street was starting to look more like a real possibility.

Fourth solution: Ask Siri on my iPhone: “hotels near me.” Bingo! In five seconds a bunch of names and addresses appeared, one being only .1 kilometer away, practically across the street. It was described as a studio apartment managed by a company called 2ndHomes, with the adage, “Act fast, the only option that is left near you.” I feverishly typed in all the information and breathed a long sigh of relief when the “approved” message came on. The only glitch was that to get the key to the apartment we had to walk to the office of 2ndHomes, about a mile away in the opposite direction, pick up the key, and then walk a mile back, lugging our suitcases all the way. Hey, no problem given the alternative of sleeping on the street or having to pay a fortune for a hotel room during high tourist season. Cost for the studio—60 euros. The two 30-something attendants at 2ndHomes were cheerful, understanding, supportive and spoke English without a hint of an accent. 

We made the trek back to find our unit without incident. It is a somewhat modest studio apartment located on the ground level of a five story building, but comfortable and spacious enough with a small kitchen and tiny bathroom, sort of like being on a sailboat. And it even has windows!

So here we are in Helsinki. Embry is still haggling with the owner, who finally did call her back around nine, about how much we have to pay and with Airbnb, but we have a roof over our heads. 

And to be honest I do have to admit that being “liberated” from a tour group does have its down side.

Baltic Blog 6: Estonia

We are  now traveling with the choir on a large tour bus complete with a gentle but firm guide, Lena, who is Latvian. No nonsense tolerated by this lady. After getting on the bus, the drill is for each person to announce his or her “number” in numerical order—some 42 call-outs in all. My number,“26,” will  be etched in my memory for years. Even though most people are from Westminster Presbyterian Church and many were already close friends, the group seemed to start to come together after the first concert and the Sunday service. The mood on the bus was upbeat, positive and enthusiastic; and perhaps most important, there have been no complainers– no surprise  since most are Presbyterians.

I have got to admit that there are certain advantages to group travel. Almost all decisions are taken care of, and all you really have to do is to get on and off the bus, follow the guide, obey the rules, remember your number during the call-out exercise, and stagger up to your hotel room at the end of a tiring day. You stay in nice hotels, see interesting sights, eat pretty good food, drink excellent local, draft lager, and try to stay awake when your guide tells you about what you are seeing. You do not have to worry about being imprisoned in a dungeon or having your car towed or not being able to get into an obscure AirBnb in a dangerous neighborhood.

On the other hand, a lot is lost—the thrill of actually finding your destination on your own, moving at your own pace, overcoming hardship and confusion, and discovering a new place without the aid of someone whom you can’t hear or understand very well in the first place. 

And there are risks with group travel. You could end up sitting  next to a born-again, Evangelical Christian, who has identified you as low hanging fruit for another notch on his conversion score card. I don’t know what it is about me that suggests I might be putty in their hands, but it does seem to happen to me more than to others. I guess they can look at me and see that I need help. In any event that was my fate on this tour, and I have to say that the missionary, who was about my age, had a lot going for him. The  issue was you got to hear his (rather inspiring) life story at each meal and then had to bite your tongue when he praised Jerry Falwell, described Liberty University as “the best college in America,” and complained about all the atheists teaching in “so called, good colleges.” I did pretty well, just listening and keeping my mouth shut. He mercifully did not say one word about Trump, which would have been the proverbial straw for me. As the tour progressed into the third day, he pulled me off to the side and looked me straight in the eye as he became deadly serious.

 “You know,” he said earnestly. “There are two options and only two options. You are  getting older and do not have a lot of time left. You can accept Jesus Christ as your savior and be born again and spend eternity with Jesus or you can burn in hell. That’s it. And if you are born again, you must accept every single word in the bible as the word of God, every word. It is your choice.”

This guy was a born again Presbyterian? My goodness! I did not know there was such a thing.

All  I could think about was that if the salvation option also included spending eternity with the likes of Jerry Falwell, it was a tough decision. I managed to quickly change the subject to  the weather, and that ended all the talk about religion.

Our first stop in Estonia was in Parnu, a small, resort town of several thousand people located on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The town had its  old town  with the usual charm and medieval character along with a lot of spas and resort hotels. Our hotel was located along the shore and was about a 20-minute walk to the town center where the choir performed its second concert in another old Lutheran church. Like the first concert, the audience filled the large nave and seemed to me to be very engaged in listening to the music, which was mostly modern, American, choral music including  several spirituals. The choir director, Ben Hutchens, is  a rare mix (for a choir director, according to Embry, who has lots of experience with choir directors ) of friendliness, charm, patience, and extraordinary musical talent. He is also an early 40-something, fellow Tar Heel graduate.

The most amazing thing about the Parnu experience was that when we visited the beach area on our morning tour, it was comfortably accommodating several hundred sunbathers in weather that had barely topped 60  degrees for the past two days. Even more amazing, a number of families with kids were splashing around in the water. The sun was out, however, and that seemed to be enough to entice them. These Baltic folks are tough! Only six hours of sunlight in the depths of winter, snow all winter-long,  no spring arrival until June. But the summers are nice and comfortable with 18 hours of light, and we have experienced (along with some cool, rainy days) several near perfect days with mid 70s temperatures, low humidity, gentle breezes and sunny skies. That’s the trade off. I do not think many Estonians would trade what they have for our 90 degree, high humidity days during Washington summers.

The next day we piled on the bus again, shouted out our numbers in turn, and drove through beautiful countryside for five hours to Tallinn, the  capital of Estonia and its largest city with a population of around 400,000—tiny and compact with a very large and robust old town. Because of its large port, which can accommodates five or six, huge cruise ships a day, the tourist population is very large and diverse and includes Asians and other people of color not usually seen in the other Baltic countries.

Estonia is the smallest of the three countries with a population of around 1.3 million and has a totally different language, which is very close to the Finnish language. Like Latvia, it did not become a nation state until 1918. Some guidebooks describe Estonia as the most progressive Baltic country, with a woman prime minister, universal, affordable health care, a strong social safety net, and “E-voting,” whatever that is. It escaped the worst of the Nazi atrocities during the war only because the Jewish population was quite small, under 10,000, and most fled the country once it became apparent what was going on in Lithuania. That did not keep the Germans from establishing concentration camps in Estonia toward the end of the war where Jews from other countries were sent to die. 

The post war occupation by the Soviets was similar to the that of the two other Baltic countries with thousands of civic leaders, liberal politicians, intellectuals, teachers and clergy exiled to Siberia, religion outlawed, churches closed or converted to museums or warehouses, and requirements that everyone learn to speak Russian. 

The last two days of the tour were spent in Tallinn with the final concert in a huge Lutheran Church on one of the main, old town plazas. I have been very impressed with how hard the singers have worked with almost every afternoon devoted to rehearsals, some  followed by an evening concert. The choristers seemed to feel very good about the final concert, relieved that the hard work was over and that the concerts had been such a success. Of the 42 call-outs on the bus, all but a handful were  singers. Five or six of us were spouses (mainly men) along for the ride. 

The final day was  a much needed, free day for people to see more of the city or just get some rest. For a farewell diner, the tour organizers had booked an entire restaurant in the old town section. The food was the best of the tour. There were several short speeches (including remarks by Embry), toasts, and hugs all around when we returned to our hotel just before ten. The next morning at breakfast most of the others had already departed for home. Not us, we were ready for our final leg: on our own in Finland. Reflections on the Baltic experience will follow.