30 Days With Abraham Lincoln: Help Us Launch a Whole New Way to Bring Americans Together

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Cover of 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln by Duncan Newcomer.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

At a time when Americans are more divided than ever, Abraham Lincoln still calls us back together.

That’s why Lincoln remains the soul of America, appealing to everyone from the staunchest conservative Republican to progressive Democrats. And, that’s how a radio station in Maine built a loyal audience for a short weekly feature by Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer called Quiet Fire.

Now, you can join in this call to spiritually reunite our nation by becoming part of the first wave of readers of: 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire. This inspirational book collects 30 of Newcomer’s best radio stories in recent years along with links to listen to the original broadcast of each daily story, as well.

Free Resources

Our team has worked with Duncan to produce a host of free resources to help readers spread the word. On this new 30 Days With Resource Page, you will find two videos about the book that are easy to share via YouTube, as well as a downloadable press release with praise from a wide cross-section of scholars and educators. There’s even a colorful 1-page flyer you can hang on the wall to encourage friends to take part in a discussion group.

‘One of Our Greatest Souls’

Sally Kane, CEO of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, is urging men and women to discover this series that already is well known in Maine. She says:

“Since its beginning, radio has offered a warm medium for connecting the heart, the head, and the imagination. This delightful collection of Lincoln’s wisdom was seeded in a creative radio show, Quiet Fire. It has morphed into a daily companion for readers who connect the dots between time and space to map a new understanding of the chaotic times in which we live. Lincoln’s words resonate more urgently than ever, and Duncan has played alchemist in Quiet Fire to one of our country’s greatest souls and distilled an essence that can guide and comfort us.”

‘Surprise and Insight’

“30 Days With Abraham Lincoln” also has noted Lincoln scholars and educators praising the historical content.

Author and storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis portrays seven “Friends of Lincoln” on stage. Ellis says:

“This book is full of surprise and insight, head-scratching thoughts and images that will linger in your mind beyond the thirty days. In each of the 30 Days With Abraham Lincoln, Duncan Newcomer humbly asks his readers to contemplate a great thought from a great man, to sit staring into a Quiet Fire. Between Lincoln’s wisdom and Newcomer’s insights the reader will wish the month had many more days.”

‘Launch a Life-Changing Practice’

This praise is echoed, as well, by beloved spiritual teachers, including author and Day1 radio host Peter M. Wallace, who has produced many of his own inspirational books as well as his daily, nationwide broadcasts. In the Foreword to this new book, Peter says:

“Duncan captures Lincoln’s spirit in every one of these thirty meditations, each springboarded by a potent quote by Lincoln or someone who knew him. (I love the fact that these began life as radio essays since I am a radio guy as well.) By reading these sublime and soulful reflections, possessed—as Duncan puts it—by a quiet fire, you will find inspiration and insight that will make sense in your own life, in your own battles with fear and grief, in your own decisions over the best path to take in a certain situation, in your own yearning for deep meaning and purpose.

As an author of spiritual meditations myself, I am thrilled by this first in a new series of “Thirty Days With …” books from Front Edge Publishing. What a powerful concept for today’s readers who are so bombarded by electronic messages of all kinds from all sides: to simply take a few minutes each day to read and ponder and question and enjoy. This book, focusing so winsomely on the spiritual wisdom of the sixteenth president, will help you launch a life-changing practice you will want to continue.

Please Help

On our new 30 Days With Resource Page, you will find free media you can use to help spark interest with friends. The book is designed for a month of individual reading, but it also is ideal for small-group discussion.

The Resource Page also has many other endorsements from a wide range of professionals.

So many of our readers are deeply concerned about the dangerous divisions in our world today. Here’s an easy way to make day-by-day progress toward a new unity. Why not visit the Amazon book page right now?

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Spiritual struggles at the heart of football, ‘The Fight Within’

Austin in his prime as player No. 43.

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

When we watch mighty giants collide on the gridiron, we might think that football is a suitable metaphor for war. But as a part-time coach and a father, I can tell you: For the best in amateur and professional teams, the real struggle lies within the heart of each player.

In my monthly columns, I explore the spiritual realms that lay outside houses of worship—the world where one in four Americans looks for wonderment and meaning, these days. Right now many harvest-season rituals are unfolding within the world’s religious traditions. Jews just marked the week-long festival of Sukkot. This week, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists will begin the Diwali festival of light overcoming the autumn darkness. As colors change outdoors and frost greets us many mornings—all of us are pondering deeper life lessons in autumnal cycles.

For millions of Americans, one of the most eagerly anticipated fall cycles is the football season. Gallup and Pew researchers have tracked football’s popularity over the past decade and, despite controversies, it remains Americans’ favorite sport.

Depending on when Americans have been polled across the past decade, between 40 and 60 percent of us have told pollsters we look forward to these games. That makes sense. Beyond the games themselves, hit movies and TV series have celebrated football. We know all about the pride of American small towns in their local teams, the headline stories involving elite professional players—and the millions more of us who tune in the Super Bowl each year just to host a great party—or to enjoy the clever new TV ads.

But there is something much deeper in the souls of players that unfolds before, during and after h each game—an experience that certainly touches on spiritual realms.

My column this month is as close to home for me as my son’s battered football helmet with these words inked across the brow: “The Fight Within.”

Sam Foltz’s story

My son Austin brought those powerful words into our family, given to him by Sam Foltz, the star punter at the University of Nebraska.

Do you remember Foltz’s story? Here is how it unfolded—and forever marked Austin’s life.

Austin showed great promise playing football during his high school years. Eventually, he was invited to the prestigious, invitation-only Kohl’s National Scholarship Camp in Wisconsin in 2016. Austin’s invitation came from Jamie Kohl, the camp founder, who was impressed with Austin’s performance at a Kohl’s event at the University of Virginia earlier that year.

One of the players assisting with the camp that year was Foltz, whose role was to mentor the younger punters—an assignment Foltz carried out with personal passion. In those few days at that camp, Foltz’s own years of hard-earned wisdom connected with Austin’s challenges.

Austin was a rising high school junior, bursting with talent, but struggling to gain command of his kicking game. Wracked with doubt, frustrated with his inconsistency as a punter, and worried heading into summer camp that he might not win the starting job, he found in Sam Foltz a true friend.

Foltz shared with Austin his own struggles, and helped him understand that his battle was not with his fellow campers, or with the players he would be competing against at Riverbend High School for a starting slot. Rather, Foltz said, he only had to focus on the fight within.

Sam spent several hours on a Saturday night talking with Austin and his roommates, and then left early Sunday morning with former Michigan State punter Mike Sadler, and Louisiana State University kicker Colby Delahoussaye to return to Lincoln, Nebraska.

That morning, the driver lost control of the car on a wet road and hit a tree. Foltz and Sadler were killed at the scene. (Here is a 1-minute video of the University of Nebraska’s moving “missing-man formation” tribute to Foltz.)

Austin was devastated by Foltz’s untimely death—and dedicated his season to Foltz.

Over the next two years, Austin was among the premier high school kickers in the state of Virginia, won numerous awards, several college scholarship offers, and set several kicking records at Riverbend. He managed this by embracing and living three words that he had inscribed on the padding inside his helmet, “The Fight Within.”

Regular readers may recall that Austin walked away from a college football scholarship to join the United States Marine Corps. Still, every day, he continues to wage the fight within.

Regardless of the problems we face

Football teaches players not only to face their struggles, but to put those troubles in perspective and manage them in a way that allows them to work the problem while not letting down their teammates.

As a member of a team, each man knows that come Friday night, regardless the problems they face, they will take the field against an opponent as eager to win as they are. This reality requires every player to learn to place team over self. To master the struggle within for the betterment of those around them.

At times, of course, injuries or extreme situations mean players cannot take the field with their teammates. And in these moments, players rally together to fill the void. The mentality is “next man up.” Ready or not, the next man has to take the field.

I’ve seen this played out multiple times this season. I’ve been within feet of violent hits that forced players to leave games, and watched as those who couldn’t earn a starting job suddenly be forced into service.

The overall quality of their performance sometime surprises. Other times, it quickly becomes evident why they were back-up players and not starters. Regardless of the realities of what happens on the field, however, without fail their teammates rally around and urge them on. Offering support and advice when he is on the sideline, and yelling instructions and encouragement when he is on the field.

Us vs. Them? Or a larger community?

Learning to handle the struggle within involves a skillset that too many adults fail to master. Every young football player is afforded an opportunity to learn in the very earliest stages of their lives.

As a coach, I work daily to help young players understand and manage their time and the vast expectations that are placed upon them. Their internal struggles can take many forms. Some are related to the game itself (injuries, learning assignments, mastering playbooks). Others are associated with the schools they attend (maintaining grades, learning to manage the higher expectations that come with being a member of a football team). Still others are related to the personal struggles we all face.

As players learn to focus on the struggle within, and the way they form solid bonds with other players facing similar challenges, they learn that the world is not divided into “us” and “them.” The other team is part of a larger community—which may seem like a simple lesson but clearly is missing in a lot of our national and international conflicts these days.

Those who play football share great respect for one another. The other team they line up against for four quarters of action may represent the enemy, while on the field. At the end of the game, they appreciate the sweat and work of their opponents. It is a community, in the very best sense of that word.

Anyone can see the respect played out when the game is over, and the teams line up at midfield to shake hands.

But those are not the most telling examples I have seen. The more compelling signs are in the pat on the head that a player on the receiving end of a big hit gives to the man who hit him. Or, as happened to me two weeks ago, it’s an opposing backer crashing into the sidelines to make a play and hitting a coach instead of a player.

After that player nailed me, his first words to me were a sincere: “Are you OK, coach?”

Mine to him: “I’m good; play ball.”

Strife and violence are inevitable components of life. Learning to find the common good in our enemies, however, is essential to moving us toward peaceful resolutions that yield a better world for our children.

A Game worth Cheering

Football is not for everyone–not to play, not to watch. But football, I believe, is one of the few communities in our world that encourages young men to learn to harness aggression, stand tall in the face of struggle, and respect even those who for four quarters on a Friday night want nothing more than to stop them in their tracks.

It’s not a perfect game. But then, nothing in life really is.

Life, like football, is brutal. Football teaches us to face brutality head on, and not be broken by it. To use force intelligently, while respecting those you face. And to win the greatest struggles of all: The fight within ourselves, whatever shape that takes.

For all these reasons, football is a game worth cheering.

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Care to see more?

The following video is less than 5 minutes, illustrating the high spirits aroused in football. Austin appears very briefly at the 1:41 mark. He’s writing on his wristband.

What is he writing? What he wrote before every game: “The Fight Within. #27 Sam Foltz”

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For the 25th anniversary of Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Step into the Adventure with Kent Nerburn

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“Always teach by stories because stories lodge deep in the heart,” Kent Nerburn told me as I talked with him for this week’s author profile—celebrating the 25th anniversary of his best-selling adventure Neither Wolf Nor Dog. “The Native man who was the inspiration for that book taught me that lesson. So, I wrote the book as a story full of the real places, real people and real experiences I had come to know among Native people. But, the key to that book’s success is that my role in the story was as a traveler facilitating this rare journey of discovery for readers.”

Since ReadTheSpirit magazine was founded more than a dozen years ago, Kent has appeared many times in our weekly issues. We even visited him in person at his home in a long 2010 road trip and, during those few days, Kent took us to spend a day with an Ojibwe teacher and practitioner of traditional medicine in his forest home. One of our most popular conversations was published at the 20th anniversary of Neither Wolf Nor Dog, when Kent spoke at length about his own life story and, in particular, his vocation of writing about the many Native American people who have befriended him.

What we have not done in our many years of writing about Kent is publish an excerpt of his classic, which was chosen for the 2019 One Book South Dakota state-wide reading campaign.

Kent’s publisher, New World Library, has provided the following excerpt from the opening of Kent’s classic Neither Wolf Nor Dog. If you’ve heard about this famous book and Kent’s equally famous friend “Dan,” it may help to know that the old man in this excerpt is Dan—even though his name does not actually emerge in the story until page 25.

In the following passage, you are stepping into this famous journey just as Kent stepped into it with his first readers way back in the late 20th Century …

Excerpt from the opening
of Neither Wolf Nor Dog
by Kent Nerburn

I got to the phone on the second ring. I could hear the scratchy connection even before the voice spoke.

“Is this Nerburn?”

Kent Nerburn

It was a woman. I recognized the clipped tones of an Indian accent.

“Yes,” I responded.

“You don’t know me,” she continued, without even giving a name. “My grandpa wants to talk to you. He saw those ‘Red Road’ books you did.”

I felt a tightening in my chest. Several years before, I had worked with students on the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation collecting the memories of the students’ parents and grandparents. The two books that had resulted, To Walk the Red Road and We Choose to Remember, had gained some notoriety in the Indian community across North America. Most of the Indians had loved them for the history they had captured. But some found old wounds opened, or familial feuds rekindled.

Occasionally, I would receive phone calls from people who wanted to challenge something we had written or to set the record straight on something their grandfather or grandmother was supposed to have said.

“Sure,” I answered. “Let me talk to him.”

“He doesn’t like to talk on the phone,” the woman said.

I had grown accustomed to Indian reticence about talking to white people, and I knew there were still a few of the very traditional elders who didn’t like to use the telephone or have their picture taken.

“Is he upset?” I ventured.

“He just wants to talk to you.”

My nervousness was growing. “Where is he?”

She told me the name of a reservation. It was a long way from my home.

“What does he want?”

“Could you come and see him?”

The request took me aback. It was a strange request on any terms, coming as it did from someone I didn’t even know. But the distance involved made it even stranger.

“I guess it’s important for me to know if he’s angry,” I said.

The woman betrayed no emotion. “He’s not angry. He just saw those books and he wants to talk to you.”

I rubbed my eyes and thought of the travel. When I had left the oral history project, I had made a silent promise that I would keep using such skills as I had for the good of the Indian people. I had never enjoyed a people so much and had never found such a joyful sense of humor and lack of pretension. But more than that, I had felt a sense of peace and simplicity among the Indians that transcended the stereotypes of either drunkenness or wisdom. They were simply the most grounded people I had ever met, in both the good and bad senses of that word. They were different from white people, different from black people, different from the images that I had been taught, different from anything I had ever encountered. I felt happy among them, and I felt honored to be there.

Sometimes I would stand on the land in Red Lake and think to myself, “This land has never been owned by the United States. This land has never been touched by the movement of European civilization.” It was as if I were feeling a direct link to something elemental, something beneath the flow of history, and it was powerful beyond imagining. Though I was a white man, and all too aware of the effects of well-intentioned white people on the well-being of the Indian people, I wanted, from within my world, to help them retain the goodness in theirs.

Now, a voice had come to me from a place far away, asking me to come back to that world and hear what an old man had to say.

“I’ll come,” I said, half hating myself for my hesitancy, half hating myself for agreeing at all. “It won’t be right away, though.”

“He’s pretty old,” she responded.

“Soon,” I said.

“Just ask at the store in town. He doesn’t go anywhere much. He really wants to talk to you.” She gave me his name and hung up.

And so this book began.

.

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It was several months before I could make the trip. I packed a few clothes in the truck and made my way across the bleak landscape of America’s northern tier. Scrub pines gave way to fields. Morning mist rose over rolling prairies. Small towns, signaled in the distance by towering grain elevators or church steeples, shot by on the side of the highway, unnoticed, unvisited, undisturbed.

The radio came in and out, offering moments of rock or classical music before disappearing into static. I switched from fm to am. Farm reports, local ads for hardware stores, specials on rakes and fertilizer and feed.

I checked the map and marked my progress. The reservations were defined only by slightly off-color squares surrounded by dotted lines. I tried to imagine an America seen from within these tiny islands in a sea of invading cities and farms. I thought of how a mild sense of discomfort overcame me whenever I crossed one of these borders into a reservation, and how I felt vaguely alien, unwanted, even threatened. How must it be for the Indians themselves, traveling across great expanses of country, feeling that same threat and alienation until they could reach the protective confines of one of the tiny off-color squares that were so few and separated on the vast map of our country?

I arrived on the old man’s reservation shortly after dark. The clerk at the local store was a heavyset Indian girl. She eyed me suspiciously when I gave her the name. Three young boys who were standing at the video rack stopped talking and watched me quietly.

“Over there,” she said, pointing toward the west. “He lives about three miles out. It’s kind of hard to find.”

I assured her that I was good at directions.

She drew a tiny map on the back of a napkin. It was full of turns and cutbacks and natural landmarks like creekbeds and fallen trees. I thanked her, bought a pack of Prince Albert tobacco, and set out.

Her map was good, better than I had expected. I soon found myself bouncing up a rutted path with weeds growing in its middle. The headlights formed a vague halo in the darkness. The eyes of small animals would gleam for a second on the side of the road, then disappear as shadowy forms made their way into the underbrush.

The road made a quick turn, then opened into a clearing. My headlights were shining directly onto a small clapboard house. Two cars sat outside. One was up on blocks. Three wooden steps made their way up to the front door. An old, low-bellied dog lay on the top stoop. When I opened the car door she came running toward me, barking and wagging her tail.

The front door opened and a figure emerged, silhouetted against the light inside the house.

“I’m Nerburn,” I said.

“Yeah. Come on in,” came the reply, as if he had been expecting me. The voice was old but warm. Suddenly I felt more at ease. There was that Indian sense of humor and grace —
almost a twinkle — in its tone.

The dog continued barking. “Get away, Fatback,” the old man yelled. The dog fell silent and scrabbled her way under the car that was sitting on blocks. “Damn thing. Just showed up here one day. Now she thinks she owns the place.” The old man turned and walked back inside. He was slow and deliberate, hardly lifting his feet as he walked.

I made my way up the steps and into the door.

.

Care to Read More?

VISIT KENT at his website for more information about his travels and his other books.

OUR OWN PUBLISHING HOUSE worked with Native American journalists and Michigan State University School of Journalism professor Joe Grimm to produce 100 Questions, 500 Nations: A Guide to Native America.

SPECIAL BIAS-BUSTERS OFFER: Through October, we are offering that MSU guide along with a whole series of other MSU guides to cultural diversity as a special Bias-Busters library.

WANT A NATIVE AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE?
We also publish Warren Petoskey’s memoir Dancing My Dream. Over the years, Warren has been a strong supporter of Kent’s work and often has praised his books, including Neither Wolf Nor Dog, at Warren’s own public appearances. Warren traces his family to the leadership of Native families who lived in northwest Michigan and gave their name to one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations.

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Capt. Dan Willis and ‘Bulletproof Heart’ offers lifelines to first responders as suicide rates rise

PARIS (Reuters) – Thousands of French police officers marched in the streets of Paris, protesting against poor working conditions they say have led to dozens of suicides among their ranks since the beginning of the year. The number 52 on this coffin is the total of suicides among their colleagues so far in 2019. (Click on this photo to read the original Reuters October 2, 2019, story.)

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

This book could save a life.

I write that sentence after watching thousands of French police officers protesting conditions that have led to a tidal wave of suicides—52 so far this year from among their ranks. They certainly are not alone.

A growing number of professional organizations, researchers, journalists and public-health agencies are calling for more training and other practical resources to save the lives of their colleagues.

A widely cited research report shows that first responders—police and firefighters in this particular study—are more likely to die by suicide than by any threat they encounter in their careers. That’s due to the accumulated impact of hundreds of traumatic incidents many first responders encounter in the course of their career.

So, this week, we are recommending Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart. We also are publishing this interview with the author, Capt. Dan Willis.

(Please, stay tuned: Yet to come this autumn, we  will feature a new interview with psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wick, author of many books on trauma and resilience including Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled WorldWick’s book underlines principles that are similar to what readers will find in Willis’s newly updated book.)

We also recommend that you organize a small-group discussion of Willis’s new book in your congregation, library or community center. To help you spark interest from friends in hosting such a discussion, here are some recent headlines that show the urgency of these issues:

‘PRACTICAL, EFFECTIVE METHODS’

Although he is best known for his work with police officers, Dan Willis welcomes a wide range of first responders in the opening pages of his book. Standard definitions of “first responders” always have included police, firefighters and often military personnel who are deployed in tragedies.

U.S. Homeland Security has expanded that list further to include all “individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers, as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel and equipment officers who provide immediate support services during prevention, response and recovery operations.”

Researchers and educators who have devoted their lives to helping men and women cope with trauma, such as psychologist and author Robert J. Wicks, point out that there are other professionals who share similar challenges. That even longer list can include doctors and sometimes teachers or clergy or other.

Willis opens his book with a similarly broad invitation to readers who find themselves regularly confronting trauma. He lays out the purpose of his book in a concise paragraph:

“There are practical, effective methods to help first responders survive emotionally and to heal their spirits. It is no longer inevitable that these careers will lead to broken lives and irreparable harm. There is absolutely no reason why police officers, as well as firefighters, career military officers, and all other first responders, cannot thrive and be well throughout their careers and retire from a lifetime of noble service with a vibrant mind, body, and spirit. They deserve to enjoy their careers and the rest of their lives in peace, happiness, and good health. They should be able to look back on their careers with pride while looking forward to savoring all the good that’s still to come.”

FROM WARNING SIGNS TO LIFELINES

What’s in this book?

The success of Willis’s book since its first edition in 2014 is proof of the pragmatic value of these 288 pages. That’s also why Willis has now expanded the book, after years of crisscrossing the nation with educational programs. He has now added a couple of chapters, reorganized others and updated some of the data since his first edition. For example, readers now will find thoughtful new chapters on “The Spirituality of Service” and “Brain Injuries Caused by Trauma.”

Reading this book in light of the long-standing work by Wicks and other experts in coping with trauma, I can affirm that Willis is in the mainstream in the advice he provides. What he adds is the authentic voice, and stories, of a lifetime in the trenches of public service.

Willis writes about both the strengths and the vulnerabilities that are present in a vocation that calls men and women to “be consciously aware, purposeful, compassionate and spiritual in our service.” He then writes in plain, helpful language about the steps professionals can take to ensure that they are not suffocating their vocational desire to compassionately serve.

Among the dangers he points out are the tendencies we all share to expect success when we devote all of our energy to a cause. First responders, in particular, often see as many tragic outcomes as they do life-saving ones. Balancing the spiritual vocation to serve with the realization of frequent tragedy becomes a lifelong journey for both the first responders and their friends, family and community.

That’s why his book has chapters, including “Peer Support,” “Support from Home,” and “Effective Use of Chaplain Services.”

‘TRULY A VOCATION OF THE HEART’

Willis talked about the double-edged sword of public service in our interview about his book and his ongoing educational work.

“There is a deep spiritual component in this vocation, but we have to balance our lives outside the job, and our expectations while on the job, so that this job does not eat us alive,” he said in our interview.

He continued, “I can tell you this as an absolute fact: This is truly a vocation of the heart, and it is possible to withstand the repeated trauma that first-responders will encounter. The values of selflessness and humble service can be the cornerstones of a fulfilling career. We have to learn the ways to balance our lives so that our hearts are not suffocated by all the trauma we will encounter throughout our careers.”

“So, why publish this second edition?” I asked. “Some of our audience may have the first edition on their shelves already. How is this new second edition different?”

Willis said, “Since the first edition came out, I have traveled all over the country and have learned a lot. This book includes some new chapters, plus a lot of things needed to be updated since the first version five years ago.”

“One thing that is consistent is your message that—while there is more data compiled on suicides among police—these dangers run across all the professions that are on the front lines after tragedies strike,” I said.

“That’s right. It’s harder to get all the data on trauma and suicide among firefighters, because so many of them are volunteers and there’s no standardized reporting procedure in place for many of them. As a result, it’s true: We have better data on police,” Willis said. “But it’s clear to all of us who are trying to respond to this problem that trauma touches many professions. Doctors and nurses who work in emergency medicine, the military, and also other men and women whose skills are needed in response to catastrophes.”

“You’re saying that they share a long-term vocational challenge,” I said. “That challenge is not always triggered by a single big event. In many cases, it’s an accumulation of years of tragedies.”

‘A Powerful Cumulative Effect’

“My message is that it’s not as simple as saying: Let’s focus on the people who responded to one particularly horrible scene. While that one big trauma may be particularly difficult to deal with—my message is that the greater danger is the debilitating effects of all of the smaller cases and scenes we are part of day after day. That has a powerful cumulative effect.”

“So there are many potential readers for this book,” I said. “That means lots of people who read this column today know someone who might benefit from receiving a copy of the book.”

“That’s right,” Willis said.

“Anyone who reads your book will get your message: Compassion ultimately is the solution, not the problem,” I said.

Willis said, “One response to this ongoing, almost daily exposure to trauma—at least in the careers of some first responders—might be to say: Well, we can’t continue to be compassionate. We have to harden our hearts. If we are too compassionate, that will lead to fatigue. But it’s not compassion that is the danger. The real danger comes when we start to isolate ourselves, to become irritable, to deaden our hearts, to stop talking to the people around us, and even to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.”

“That’s a good outline of your chapter on ‘Warning Signs,’ ” I said.

“That’s right,” Willis said.

‘Compassion is the DNA of Service’

He continued, “I say to people that compassion is the DNA of a career in service. And, when I talk about compassion, I relate that to other values: to the desire to be helpful, to act in a selfless way, to serve the public humbly. Altogether, compassion is the breath of life in our professions and, if we understand that correctly, then we realize that compassion ultimately is the key to a long and healthy career.

“In this book and in my classes, we go through many reasons that we can become confused and frustrated. We can lose our balance. For example, we can tie our compassionate response to an unrealistic expectation that we have the power to save everyone. Of course, we don’t. We have to realize that there will be as many tragedies as there are success stories in our work over the years.”

DISCUSSION GROUPS: ‘EVERYONE KNOWS SOMEONE’

I talked with Willis about the value of discussing his book in community groups.

“I can see a lot of value in church-based classes or discussion groups devoting a series of weeks to discussing chapters from this book,” I said. “I can see hospitals offering community discussions of the book, perhaps even public schools or libraries in their community-outreach programs.”

“I certainly encourage that kind of community conversation,” Willis said. “Pretty much everyone, if they stop and think about it, knows someone who could be helped with this kind of information as at least a starting point to dealing with accumulated trauma.

“I hope some people who read this article about the book will respond that way,” he continued. “And here’s another way to think about this: The safety of any community is intrinsically linked to the health and wellness of the first responders who serve that community. When those first responders are struggling, members of the community are likely to feel the effects. So, even if you are not a first-responder yourself, you can still play a helpful role by calling together a discussion group. I hope we see more of that happening across the country.”

Care to read more?

LEARN MORE ABOUT WILLIS’S WORK: His website is FirstResponderWellness.com and on this “about us” page, you can watch a 7-minute video featuring Willis and his new book. That page also includes Willis’s extensive travel schedule for classes and public events. If you have further questions, including inquiries about Willis’s availability, you can contact him through this page. Willis also offers an online course through his website, which he built around a video lessons.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

LEARN MORE ABOUT POLICE: One reason we are featuring this Cover Story on Willis and Bulletproof Spirit is that our Front Edge Publishing house has a long-standing commitment to improving community relationships with police and other first-responders. That includes the valuable book, 100 Questions & Answers about Police Officers, which was produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism—with input from law enforcement professionals. We also have published an inspiring story about the teams of MSU students, The Bias Busters, who have produced these helpful books. If you want to move beyond the volume on police officers to explore more of the Bias Busters’ work, we have a new 2019 “library” of their guides to help community groups nationwide promote a positive awareness of diversity.

 

 

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Fields of Dreams: In October, our ‘American Odyssey’ calls us home

Ed and Jean Pratt grave Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania Photo by Debra DeSantis

The Pratt family gravesite at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Debra DeSantis.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author and Contributing Columnist

Baseball—
The crack of the bat,
The sweep of the curve,
The slide into second base.

My dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

As millions of Americans step into October, each year, the liturgical season of baseball either brings elation or somber reflection on what might happen next year.

Yes, there’s always next year, isn’t there?

Filmmaker Ken Burns understood this kind of timeless spiritual yearning, calling baseball the “American Odyssey.” In his 18-hour documentary, Baseball, narrator John Chancellor tells us: “It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions, between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope—and coming home.”

If we are true fans of the game, those words give us a little shiver, don’t they?

What that soaring description misses is that each American’s odyssey is as much a solitary pilgrimage as it is collective. Surely, you have your own.

And, this is mine. The memories and dreams all flowed back recently as I walked across my father’s final field.

My wife Judith and I had not visited my parents’ gravesite in a decade. Like Odysseus, we came back armed—packing grass clippers, fearing that we might need to catch up on 10 years of grave tending.

At journey’s end, we rolled our car to a stop along the lane through Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Got out. Stretched our legs.

Strolled across the lush green.

Sure enough, the grass had crept right over the evidence of his name and lifespan—Mom’s too, etched beside him in stone. I couldn’t help but think of Carl Sandburg: “I am the grass. I cover all.”

In that granite, now partially obscured, all that is left of these two people for the world to see is a few words and dates—the simplest of signs that, somewhere below that verdant expanse, lies:

PRATT
THOMAS EDWIN, 1908-1985
GENEVIEVE OPAL, 1917-1980

Time has obscured so much. Yes, those are facts. But those weren’t their names. They were Ed and Jean to friends.

To us: Dad and Mom.

In Ken Burns’ potent phrase—”between workers and owners”—Mom and Dad lived their lives on the “workers” half of that balance. They labored so hard, and yet remained so poor, that I only made it into college because of a scholarship.

In fact, they were so poor that, despite my failing eyesight in high school, we had no money for me to afford an eye exam and glasses. There went my own baseball career! I will never forget a ball nearly taking my head off in one big game—a ball I never saw coming.

We were so poor that, for years, some of us slept in an unheated attic in a tiny house we shared with other family.

So poor, I told Judith, “I don’t think Dad could have ever afforded a ticket to a world series game when his beloved Pirates were playing.”

She shook her head. “Never heard any mention of a world series game.”

“During the regular season, I know he made it to the old Forbes Field more than once,” I said. “Remember that old story he loved to tell about going with his buddies, one time, and downing so many hot dogs that—”

“Of course!” Judith said. She has heard these tales far too many times, already, but she was game once more on this special occasion. “Fourteen hotdogs, wasn’t it? I think that’s how the story went.”

“Maybe 14 hotdogs,” I said, “but I think, by the time he told it the last time, it was 16 or more. Who knows?”

We looked at each other and smiled. The truth is: All too soon, given our own stage in life, there won’t be anyone left to keep telling that story.

The work at hand refocused our resolve. We stooped to trim the grave.

“One thing’s sure,” I said at length. “He loved baseball more than anything or anyone in life.”

Judith looked it me. That was quite a statement. She had heard me say that many times before, but it remains a startling truth. Dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

“It’s just a fact,” I said.

As a young man in the Great Depression, Dad did whatever he could to survive. He hustled pool in the winter—and pitched semi-pro ball in the spring, summer and fall.

“His greatest dream was that I’d grow up to be a major league ball player,” I said. “Too bad we didn’t have the money to figure out why I was losing my eyesight.”

Judith, always the reality check, said, “Oh, and you think glasses was the only reason you didn’t turn into Willie Stargell or Barry Bonds?”

Yeah, right.

I chuckled. “But, that’s not the kind of baseball I’m thinking about right now,” I said. “I’m talking about the baseball in his blood.”

Dad grew up playing rough and eventually made it onto a semi-pro team sponsored by a gas company. He loved to tell about a game in the 1930s in a country field just over the Pennsylvania line in rural West Virginia—so poorly suited to the sport that a dirt road ran right through the diamond.

“No kidding,” Dad would say, “I’m talking right smack through the pitcher’s mound and home plate! If we heard a car coming, we had to pause the game. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The left fielder could not even see the right fielder, because there was a hill between them!”

He lived for baseball.

He paid the bills as an auto mechanic, which meant his fingernails always were tinged with black grease, no matter how hard he scrubbed. I can still see that left hand with the black-rimmed nails pressing a transistor radio to his ear, so that he could hear his Pirates play. When we moved from southwestern Pennsylvania up to Erie—blocks from the lake—he used to hole up in the attic to listen.

“So, I won’t disturb anyone,” he would say.

The truth was: He didn’t want anyone interrupting the best part of his week—those exciting adventures at the ball park brought to life by the creative narration of the Pirates’ Rosey Rowswell.

An extra-base hit wasn’t just a stat to Rosey. It was “a doozie maroonie!” Oh, he had a million of ’em.

And the best? When a Pirate slugged a home run, Rosey’s voice would soar as if yelling over his shoulder: “Raise the window, Aunt Minnie! Here it comes! Right into your petunia patch!” Then, we all heard it—the glass shattering! “Awww, that’s too bad,” Rosey would say. “Aunt Minnie never made it in time.”

I suppose there’s a prayer in that vibrant life of eternal hope, as Dad curled up in the sweltering attic on a hot summer’s afternoon with that little radio piping Rosey’s voice directly into his ear.

I mean: God, Dad loved baseball.

Baseball was his odyssey and, for a time, our shared journey. The hard truth about all such pilgrimages, though, is that they span time and expose all manner of human frailty. Dad’s body stooped more each year—the weight of his own life and limitations. He was bent even further by the burden of Mom’s debilitating illness—rheumatoid arthritis—that took the ferocious form of insufferable pain. Dad was helpless in the face of it—no way he could make her feel better. Every day, her body was wracked with pain, the joints distorted so much her hands would not close.

Somewhere in that saga, a particular line of that family story was draped around my shoulders: Mom became an invalid because I was born. That became part of our family odyssey—and I had to live with that onus for many years.

All in all: A curse from Hell played out in our tiny home. Eventually, Mom died too young. Just 63.

When we first laid that shared cemetery marker for them, more than three decades ago, the granite slab stood just above the blades of grass, formally proclaiming the family name even from a distance: PRATT.

Now, as Judith and I paid our respects, we could see Sandburg’s sod swallowing what we had tried to establish there.

I was about to say something about that to Judith—when another vivid memory stopped me cold.

It was Dad, standing right there in that field just after Mom’s death. We had just buried her and Dad raised his hand toward the distance—pointing over toward a line of far bigger stones in the distance. My eye followed his fingertip.

“This cemetery has two sides,” he said, “that one over there with the big monuments—and our side where everyone is equal.”

I can still hear his matter-of-fact intonation of that phrase: “Our side where everyone is equal.”

It wasn’t a boast. It wasn’t a political statement. It was fact. Just a fact about his place in this world.

And, somewhere in those words, I think there might have been another prayer.

God, in the end, we are all equal.

I stood beside Judith, as we stared at their granite marker all these decades later.

I gazed up along the cemetery’s gentle, sloping hillside with a lane running through it.

This could be that West Virginia ballpark with that lane right through the pitcher’s mound all the way to home plate.

For a moment, I closed my eyes. Someday—

Someday, before the grave marker is completely swallowed by the sod, perhaps my father will rise.

He might use the marker as the rubber on his pitching mound to hurl a few fastballs again.

He just might pitch a no hitter! Why not? Our dream once was to be baseball stars. Make it a no hitter!

We both set out on that journey with high hopes—and only discovered life’s many truths along the way.

Dad did make it to Forbes Field a few times, at least, as a spectator. But, no, I don’t think he ever could have afforded a ticket to a World Series game—and there were precious few, of course, in the span of his life. He was only a baby in 1909 when the Pirates won their first World Series. Then, throughout the rest of his life, there were only five more trips to the Series: ’25, ’27, ’60, ’71 and ’79.

Yet, every autumn—whatever had unfolded since March—October was a special season all its own, defined by hope. If not for this year, then for another.

Yes, there definitely is a prayer somewhere in that odyssey. One day—

One day—we might stand together in a field of our dreams, once again.

And tell the stories that define our lives.

At the end of our journey to Dad’s final field, Judith and I packed up our clippers and returned to our car.

We buckled up, started the car. All too soon, reality set in again. You can’t avoid the truth. All too soon, who will be left to tell these stories we love so much?

Well, in this moment, I’ve given this story to you. Even in this instant, it’s a part of your own odyssey.

Ben and Ed Pratt during Little League season.

Dad as my Little League coach. He is in the upper right and I’m sitting second from his right.

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Public school teacher William Meyer shares the good news about meditation in 2 new books

‘BIG BREATH’ and ‘THREE BREATHS AND BEGIN’

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Cover of Three Breaths and Begin book by William Meyer

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Story By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

The moment I read this paragraph, I wanted to talk to high school teacher William Meyer—because I am certain that our readers will find this very good news. In his new book, Three Breaths and Begin—A Meditation Guide in the Classroom, Meyer writes:

Since 2012 I have introduced meditation to my classroom as a tool to deal with the growing stresses of the school day, but also as a lens by which to facilitate greater connection between the students and the curriculum. What started out as part of a student research experiment involving a small group of six students sitting in the corner of a science classroom has grown into a club, a common occurrence in my classroom, and now an integral part of the community. As a result of the growth of this practice in the school over the years, students can be found meditating before tests, performances, speeches, sports games and even assemblies. The meditation bug has not only bitten the students, but it has also caught the attention of the administration, faculty, and community. It has become incorporated into weekly department meetings and has become a part of professional development workshops, book studies, and even faculty wellness programs of the school. The parents have been equally enthusiastic, embracing meditation in the form of a weekly Thursday evening circle.

Are you as surprised as I was by what Meyer has achieved throughout his high school? He teaches at Bronxville High School in Westchester County north of New York City.  In seven years of developing what is now a very popular practice among students and staff—and extending it into a public invitation to the community on Thursday nights—Meyer has not encountered one angry parent. That’s what he writes in his book; and that’s what he told me in our interview this week. I will admit that, as a journalist who has covered religious diversity for 40 years, I was surprised to hear this.

Of course, it helps with community-wide acceptance that some of the past leaders of his student meditation club wound up going on to top Ivy League schools—and these students credit meditation as one of the practices that boosted their academic abilities.

COVER Big Breath by William Meyer

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Aren’t you eager to find out how Meyer has developed this program? Now, thanks to New World Library, two books bring Meyer’s guidance on meditation to the world. Three Breaths and Begin is a 256-page overview of his approach to meditation and mindfulness, especially geared toward teachers who want to bring these ideas into their classrooms. Then—although Meyer teaches high school students—he also has published a brief, beautifully illustrated introduction to meditation for children, Big Breath—A Guided Meditation for Kids.

In addition, he has an information-packed website with links to lots more news-media coverage of his work. If you dig a little deeper into that website, you’ll find a section with contact details and links to his schedule as he occasionally travels to teach and consult.

With the publication of Meyers’ two new books, I expect his travel schedule for the coming year will quickly fill to capacity. So, if you are discovering his work today through this column, and you might want to invite him into your community or upcoming conference—then, you will want to act quickly.

MYTH BUSTING:
THE POPULARITY OF MEDITATION

Pew Research Center chart on frequency of meditation

Click on this chart to read the entire Pew story.

In my interview with Meyer this week, I asked him about a Pew Research report on how widely meditation has been accepted across the American landscape. He had not spotted this particular Pew report, so I asked him several questions about the data.

I began by telling him, “First of all, here’s the headline news: Pew’s conclusion—drawing on their in-depth Religious Landscape Study—is that meditation is very popular these days. I think that’s one reason you have been so successful in winning over your community. Millions of Americans regularly meditate. Overall, Pew reports that 40 percent of Americans meditate at least weekly. You’re a Catholic yourself. Does that level of meditation surprise you?”

“Not at all,” he said. “My dissertation work includes Thomas Merton and his connections with meditation, so I’m very familiar with this practice among Catholics.”

I said, “When Pew divides up the data by religious groups, Catholics are exactly at 40 percent—the same as the overall population. So, now, let me ask you about a couple of other groups. You haven’t seen this chart yet, but would you guess that ‘evangelical Protestants,’ as a group, meditate more or less than the average 40 percent?”

“Less,” he said.

“No, actually, a higher percentage—49 percent,” I said. “Clearly the concept and terminology of ‘meditation’ has changed quite a bit over the decades. I think this is another reason you’re finding such a wide-open acceptance. Millions of Americans are quite comfortable using the term. So, what about members of black churches? More or less than 40 percent?”

“Less again?” he asked in response.

“Nope. Even higher—55 percent meditate at least weekly,” I said.

Of course, traditional approaches to meditation around the world do vary. A Zen approach to meditation might be closer to “clearing out minds,” while Christian contemplation might be described more like “deepening our focus” on a prayerful concern. The Pew researchers point out that people overall are using the word to describe quiet, personal reflections—even though their exact steps will differ, based on a person’s tradition.

However, the Pew researchers stress that meditation has never been foreign to Christianity. Meditative prayer goes back to the early centuries of Christianity, Pew points out: “Within Christianity, the practice of meditation or silent contemplation dates back to the Desert Fathers (early Christian monks and nuns who sought God in the quiet and solitude of the Egyptian wilderness) during the first centuries after the death of Jesus. Today Christians of various traditions still encourage meditation as a means to try to get closer to God.”

HOW WILLIAM MEYER DISTILLS MEDITATION

As we continued the interview, I said, “Having read both of your books—including this wonderful new children’s book—one thing that struck me is that you have distilled meditation down to its essentials in many ways. You don’t include elements that could raise community concerns. Let’s start with the fact that you’re not clergy, and you’re not trying to bring in an outside spiritual teacher to lead these sessions. And you’re not teaching someone’s religious doctrine.”

“That’s right. And, that’s a big factor in the acceptance. I’m just a high school teacher and we started all of this as a way for students to connect better with their studies,” he said. “It helps that the founder of our student meditation club went on to Harvard. Another leader of the club went on to Dartmouth. The word gets around that this really does help students.”

I continued: “I think there’s another factor. Given your looks, and the way you dress in the photos I’ve seen online, you seem more like a Fortune 500 vice president taking part in a corporate conference—rather than any kind of religious leader. There are no eccentric visual symbols or garb.”

He laughed, “Yeah, that’s true.”

“Plus, you don’t use music, or incense, or bells,” I said.

“That’s right,”  he said. “We don’t need that stuff. I don’t have students bring in yoga mats and sit on the floor. We just make a circle of chairs and sit there. I usually turn down the lights. But that’s right. When I lead these guided meditations, I am stripping away many of the trappings that might raise people’s anxiety.

“And there’s nothing secretive about what we do,” he added. “We do the same kinds of things for the students, the faculty, the members of the community who come on Thursday evenings—and I’ve published the texts of some of my guided meditations in Three Breaths and Begin. I’m taking the mystery out of what we do—what millions of Americans like to do every week, according to that Pew report.”

‘TAKE A BIG BREATH’

Both of Meyer’s books are as straight forward as his successful introduction of meditation has been in his community. Anyone who has visited a meditation group or has taken instruction in meditation will recognize his techniques. They start with relaxation and awareness of one’s own breathing.

The first meditation in the book for adults begins this way:

“Find a comfortable spot on a chair or cushion. Make any adjustments you might need, rotate your shoulders, relax your arms, and let your legs be loose. When you are ready, either lower your eyes into a soft forward gaze or, if you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes.

“Now take three breaths and begin.

“Feel yourself breathing in and breathing out. Feel the space around you and within you.” (And the text for this guided meditation continues from that point.)

The children’s book begins this way:

“Find a comfy spot.” (A cute little girl is shown hugging a big, fluffy, red blanket.)

“Maybe on a squishy cushion or a soft blanket.” (A different child arranges some pillows.)

“Let your arms be long and your hands be soft. Place one palm in the other and gently squeeze your hands together. Take a BIG BREATH and close your eyes.” (A third child sits in a meditative posture.)

“Can you hear your breath? Can you feel it? What does it sound like?” (Now, the illustrations open up to evoke an abstract blue swirl of sky and water behind this seated child as the process expands awareness.)

WHY THIS MATTERS

These practices work. They have worked for thousands of years to improve mindfulness, attention to work, compassion toward others and a general sense of wellbeing.

But bringing these practices into a public school can be tricky, Meyer admits.

“How we carefully introduce these practices is important, because as educators we all know that it only takes one really angry parent to rise up and scare school administrators,” he said.

“What I’m sharing in these books is our story of how much difference this has made in so many lives—students, teachers and members of the community. I know that we are fortunate to have the whole community really embracing what we’re doing. The good news is: I know this is possible—we’ve done it here.”

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Care to Read More?

William Meyer’s work involves offering students tools to develop what educators often refer to as their social-emotional resources. Our publishing house has worked extensively with educators on these issues, including in early childhood—the audience for Meyers’ colorful book Big Breath.

Funding cuts and shifting public priorities nationwide mean it’s more important than ever to get involved in your local community. Front Edge Publishing partnered with United Way to produce a book series highlighting six nonprofits that work tirelessly to improve early childhood education. In order to help you facilitate early learning in your own community, we’re also offering free discussion guides for the books in this series.

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ARDA Ahead of the Trend: Studies follow uneven paths of secularization while debunking popular myths

Click on this photo of Dr. Kelley Strawn to read Richard Cimino’s entire column about the stalemate between religious and secularizing movements.

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By Richard Cimino

The debate about whether the world is entering a more secular age and whether the growth of religiously non-affiliated people is hastening such secularization in part revolves around questions of timing.

In other words, when did these trends start and what led to them?

Two new studies using time-related data argue that the growth of secularism and non-affiliation has been happening for some time, that its causes are far from clear, and that they don’t necessarily signal a one-way secular future.

A recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion looks particularly at “political secularization,” which relates to the degree that nations show religious influence in their political life.

The study finds that most of the secular changes took place several decades ago.

Read the rest of Richard’s article …

Visit the website for ARDA. Here is a direct link to Richard Cimino’s complete August column. ARDA welcomes sharing of these columns, of course with a proper attribution. Plus, there is also a lot more fascinating data about religion to discover on ARDA’s website.

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