Monday, July 20, 2015

A Litany of Gratitude

It’s a bit surreal announcing your retirement over Facebook. Wonderful, supportive comments flow in from former colleagues, students, family and friends. It’s like attending your own funeral while you’re still alive. And, at some level, I suppose retirement is a death of sorts.

It has been deeply gratifying to read these comments and to sense that perhaps my life as a teacher has actually made a difference in the world. With no biological children of my own, it is the students I have known in my long career as a teacher who will carry on whatever legacy I might have bequeathed them. Hearing these words of support from those whose lives I have touched and which have in turn touched my own has been truly wonderful even in this somewhat surreal cyber cemetery. I am grateful for every comment.

Soul searching, Isle of Iona, Scotland, UK  July 7, 2015

A Very Long List of Givers

I came to the university somewhat unexpectedly, having just completed my Ph.D. at Florida State and suddenly finding myself feeling strangely out of place at the community college where I had taught off and on for 12 years sandwiched around seminary and grad school. I had no guarantee of anything when I left my tenure line at Valencia and began teaching as an adjunct at UCF. Fortune smiled upon me as I landed first a visiting instructor line, four years later a permanent instructorship and two years ago saw my job description change to assistant lecturer.

Now, 13 years later, I unexpectedly find myself retiring at 62. In reviewing that history I am reminded of a rabbinical proverb which is one of my favorite sayings: “If you want to make G-d laugh, tell G-d your plans.”

As I assess my 13 years at the University of Central Florida, I am struck by the many aspects of my life there for which I am grateful. I am a strong believer in expressing gratitude. Most of the primal religions of the world which preceded and in some cases have survived the rise of major world religions are centered on gratitude. I observe that gratitude is too often a lost practice in an insatiable consumerist world of instant gratification. And so let me take a moment to enumerate some of the people and their contributions to my life for which I am grateful.

First of all, I am deeply grateful for the department chair who encouraged me to apply for the visiting line instructor position I eventually won. It was my entree into the university at a point I was deeply uncertain of where I needed to be and what I needed to be doing. I am also grateful for the department who agreed to hire me after just a year of adjuncting for them. They took a chance on me and I am thankful.

I am grateful for the many, many fine students I have had the privilege to know at the university. They have taught me much, stretched me, enriched my life, moved my heart and challenged my soul. I watch their progress in the worlds they are creating and I feel no small amount of pride and excitement for them. No longer their teacher, I am now proud to call many my friends. I am decidedly a better person for having known them and I know the world will be a better place because of them. For the privilege of playing a small role in their lives I am deeply grateful.

I am also grateful for the very fine people I have worked with at the Philosophy Department beginning with the very fine office staff and student assistants whose assistance in doing my own job has always been indispensable. Their hard work and their value to the department is rarely recognized. But without them, the department simply could not function. I want to extend my deepest thanks to them and to wish them G-dspeed.

I am deeply grateful to those I have called colleagues for 13 years. Just conversing with them day to day has inevitably proven stimulating and challenging. As a result I have continued to learn and grow as a result of constant exposure to new ideas, thinkers and systems of thought. It has been a privilege to work with so many very bright and thoughtful people. They have changed my life and for that I am deeply grateful and I am proud to call many of them my friends. As one of my colleagues said in her note to me, “I look forward to seeing you outside the factory.”


I am also very grateful to the regional campus staff at Osceola Campus, Kississimmee, who took me in and made me feel a part of that campus family. One of my great regrets in leaving UCF is that the active teaching we had all hoped would happen there never was able to develop. But I thank everyone in that very fine office staff and administration who did their best to try to make that happen.  

I am grateful to a very fine library staff whose helpfulness in helping faculty locate research and classroom materials which may or may not be on-site is matched by its willingness to help largely disinterested students become familiar with the workings of an actual library. Like many of us today, their jobs are performed in the growing shadow of major changes that may well render libraries and higher education very different animals from their current incarnation in the near future.

There are also many unsung heroes at the university for whom I am grateful. I give thanks for the men and women who regularly clean our classrooms and offices, buildings long since pushed well past their capacities by an irresponsible admissions policy at an overcrowded credentials factory. Their work in the routine cleaning of these overtaxed facilities is no doubt a challenge. I am grateful for the many clerks and secretaries, grounds crews and maintenance people, food preparers and vendors whose labor ensures that the university can work properly. 

And while I question the wisdom and the cost of the bloated bureaucracy that our corporate management has created as well as the security forces that periodically provide glaring examples of how not to police a college campus, I recognize that without them, this ever expanding leviathan that the university has become could not function. Begrudgingly, I am grateful for them as well.

Deep Gratitude for Their Many Gifts

Fulbright scholars at Carneval show, Rio de Janeiro 2011

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to continue growing and learning as a scholar and as a human being because of my affiliation with the university. Over my 13 years there, I have been able to continue my love for learning in seven foreign countries representing four different languages. I was able to become a Fulbright scholar, a fellow at an NEH seminar on global ethics and a Schusterman Institute fellow in Israel Studies. My world has expanded greatly as a result of my time at the university and for that I am grateful.

I am grateful for the recognition my work has upon occasion received from the university. In particular I am grateful for being named to one of 10 Excellence in Undergraduate Education awards university-wide in 2009 and for my Outstanding evaluations in my department for nine of the last 11 years. It is these kinds of moral rewards that keep many of us going in jobs whose financial compensation rarely reflects the quality or the quantity of service we offer and whose often untenable work conditions make such offerings a sacrifice on a good day.   

I am also begrudgingly grateful for the years I spent teaching in the Honors College. A challenge on a good day, a major pain on the worst (no one does entitlement better than honors students or self-congratulatory elitism better than honors college staffs), I did come to know some truly outstanding young men and women there. More than that, I am grateful for the many fine students I helped navigate through the Honors in the Majors program. They are among the young Jedis I have been privileged to assist in the long process of finding their voices. I truly believe they have much to say and with that the ability to change the world.

One of my greatest reasons for gratitude is a little orange tabby once feral cat who came to live at our home as a result of the efforts of our office manager who served in our campus feral cat feeding program. When an apartment building the university had been renting changed hands and its management decided to liquidate the feral cat colony living in its parking lot, our office manager managed to capture this beautiful little girl and asked me if I could take her. The cat registered her response to this new arrangement once at my home by promptly opening a two inch long running wound on my right hand which still bears the scar. She lived behind our water heater in the utility room for the first six weeks of her time here.

My students named her Frida given my love for the Mexicana artist and, gradually warming up to life inside a house with two human animals, two other cats and two dogs, she has become one of the great joys in my life these last eight years. Frida never grew much and even now is about the size of a large kitten. I greet “my little golden dew drop” each day when I come into give her a kiss good morning on her perch atop the water heater. She organizes snack time each morning for all five of the animals by loudly and insistently reminding me beginning about 9 AM that “It’s SNACK time!”  and bumping my leg with her head by about 10 AM if I ignore her. For this little love of my life whom I deeply cherish I will always be grateful.

Most of all, I am grateful that the timing of my employment at the university allowed me to retire when the time came for me to finally leave the factory and not simply quit with nothing to show for it. My retirement check after 20 years working for the State of Florida will, not surprisingly, be rather minimal. (At least I won’t have to pee in a cup to get it) But it will serve as an unemployment compensation of sorts for the time being as I lick my wounds, catch my breath and discern my next calling in life.

I am not unmindful that many people end up stuck at jobs which, like mine, come to make their lives miserable and yet do not have the option to leave. For the privilege of being able to depart on my own schedule, to not lose my medical coverage in the process (because my husband’s policy at Valencia will cover me), to rest and recover before beginning the search for the next chapter of my life, I am profoundly grateful.

Finally, for the many people whose lives have played a role in my own whom I may have neglected to mention here, I ask your pardon. I take no one for granted, receive no gift without gratitude and I assure you that I am thankful for your role in my life.

Goodbye, UCF. And thank you.

For today, I am grateful
For tomorrow, I am hopeful
For my life, I am blessed
I thank my ancestors for their labors and survival
I thank my contemporaries for their companionship
I thank my descendants for carrying me with them

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Saturday, July 04, 2015

A Birthday in an America Finding Its Way

It’s Independence Day in the United States of America. In years past, this was the day for chasing greased pigs in the local park, for eating watermelon in abundance and lots of fried chicken. It’s a day when every flag dealer in the world (including the factories in China which make most of them these days) would have a big day as flags are waved from holiday celebrations to national monuments to used car lots. 

If history is any guide to this day in Central Florida, before the day is over we will have a thunderstorm, its cloud-to-ground lightning a prelude to evening pyrotechnics which will light up our skies - and frighten our dogs and our veterans suffering from PTSD. My guess is that history will repeat itself today, perhaps minus the grease if the pig is lucky.

“What in the hell is wrong with America?”

I have just returned to this country I have called home for nearly 62 years after a three week sojourn through parts of western Europe and Canada. I was in the middle of France awaiting my engagement with the Taize community when I saw television news for the first time in nearly three weeks. The BBC was reporting on a shooting at a church in Charleston. Eight people were dead and a young white shooter who had been welcomed into their midst for a prayer meeting was being intensively sought. The next day the Taize monks would pray for the people of Charleston and for America as it sought to find its way out of the darkness of violence. 

As I began my long journey home, from Taize to Geneva, Switzerland by bus and train and then my 18 hour flight from Geneva to Orlando with a three hour layover in Montreal, again and again I heard discussions of the events of Charleston. Virtually all of them focused around the pointed question, “What in the hell is wrong with America?”

This was my fourth trip to Europe over my lifetime. I love Europe. Each country has its own charms from the warmth and wines of Italia to the collected brain power and vibrant culture in Geneva to the rocky pastures full of beautiful sheep and the dry humor of Scotland. There is much in Europe that America could learn from beginning with sane policies regulating the weapons of war in their societies whose low gun mortality rate reflect those policies.

It is tempting to dream of what it would be like to leave behind an America whose electoral politics have devolved into an auction to the highest moneyed bidder, whose criminal system insists upon locking up inordinate proportions of its population, particularly its young men of color. Europe has found a way to end its “tinker(ing) with the machinery of death” as our own Supreme Court Justice Blackmun once described our bloody system of state killing in which the chances are one in 10 that an innocent human being will be murdered. 

 It is tempting to leave behind a failing educational system whose public schools test our children to death destroying their love of learning in the process and whose higher education has largely become mass production factories which stamp out worker drones with a modicum of vocational training but limited capacities for critical thought. Most of Europe’s elementary and secondary international test scores surpass those of their American counterparts and many universities, while selectively admitting students, provide tuition-free higher educations to them. Their graduates do not emerge from four years of largely vocational training saddled in crippling debt. 

Of course Europe has its own problems. It faces the same surge of increasingly desperate immigrants seeking to escape a southern hemisphere cursed with natural resources and cannibalized by voracious northern hemisphere consumers. The news in Italy last summer was full of accounts of flimsy boats packed with human cargo disintegrating within sight of European shores, their occupants suddenly finding themselves in sea water but unable to swim even that short distance to the coast.

Europe’s monetary problems are also well known here in the US where corporate media are more than willing to report stories of austerity measures and resistance in places like Greece and Spain if for no other reason than to bolster consumer confidence in our own floundering and increasingly inequitable system. In some places like the UK, the corporatization of higher education and the consumerization of their student bodies increasingly mimic American practice. And ancient and even more recent class distinctions still hold European society within their grasp making social mobility largely impossible in many aspects of life there. 

A Prescient Framer 

 Over the past few years as I have struggled to decide what I should do with what remains of my life, I have often dreamed of escaping to Europe.  Geneva is a hub of international work on concerns I have served all my life: education, justice, religion. It is a vibrant city largely dominated by international banking with an exorbitant cost of living but whose side benefits are the ability to speak with people on the city buses in a wide range of languages about a wide range of subjects. What might a man with graduate degrees in law, religion and a doctorate combining the two who has varying degrees of proficiency in several languages find to do there?

And yet it is in the street cafés of Geneva where between my tortured French and the occasional bursts of Spanish and English I can more readily comprehend that I heard that question: “What in the hell is wrong with America?” It is a question that haunts me.

It is also a fair question. While Europeans may well pose it rhetorically out of a sense of cultural superiority, the context of the question – the shootings in Charleston of people at worship in a church – makes it impossible for this American and any of my countrymen and women who truly care about our country to ignore it. Churches have long been places of asylum. Their very precincts are seen as sacred. To turn such holy ground into a human slaughterhouse is truly an abomination. 

The events in Charleston reveal two of a number of malignancies within the American soul today: the cancer of racism and the cancer of gun violence. These two realities belie the many ideals that we as Americans celebrate this day. The former reminds us that while “liberty and justice for all” are our stated ideals, their achievement still lies in the future. The latter reminds us that we remain an adolescent society, focused on rights while ignoring the duties to others that flow from them. It reminds us that an individualism pursued at the expense of community can only result in isolation and atomization, a gaping hole in the soul that no amount of consumer goods can ever fill. 

James Madison’s Preamble has proven prescient as it spoke of our duty as Americans to pursue “a more perfect union.” On the one hand he was humble enough to reject the unlimited optimism of his own Enlightenment culture which suggested perfection was within the grasp of reason-driven human beings. On the other hand, he did not lapse into a determinism that let his countrymen and women off the hook for its imperfections as simply “the way things are.” While we may never achieve perfection in the pursuit of ideals we say we hold –a just society which promotes the general welfare of all of us and not the interests of the few at the expense of the many – we are always charged with the ongoing responsibility of seeking it.

Pursuing a More Perfect Union

As I sat in the café in Geneva nursing my beer bought with the last of my Swiss francs, I thought about my country and my place in it. I have long operated out of the maxim that we like people because but we love people in spite of. And some give us a lot to work with in that latter category. The same is true of America. 

For better or worse, it is my homeland and I love it. I never fail to get a lump in my throat when passing by the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and it is always a joyous moment for me when our flight touches down on American soil. But I think the Europeans are raising an important question: “What is wrong with America?” And that question contains a second, more immediate question: “And what are you going to do about it?”

As I approach the next phase of my life, those are important questions. And, frankly, they should be for all Americans. While we have nothing to prove to anyone outside our borders, we are indicted by our own ideals as a people when our actions fall short within those borders. 

Those indictments cannot be met by America’s sons and daughters fleeing to more sanguine shores to wait out a potential apocalypse. They also cannot be met by blustering rhetoric which demands Americans join in a mindless mantra of “We’re Number One!” when everything around us suggests just the opposite. Patriotism means the love of one’s country, with all its warts, not the indulgence of a feel good denial. The demands of our homeland seeking the achievement of a more perfect union call us. And as life-long beneficiaries of its goodness and bounty, it is our duty to respond. 

For those of us born amidst a Cold War in the shadows of WWII, a world where American dominance was countered by Soviet might, the world we encounter today is a new and strange place. Our military, largest in the world by far, flounders in quagmires in the middle east and central Asia, places our school children and most of their parents cannot locate on a map. Our sons and daughters are returning to our midst from these places with overwhelming physical and mental wounds unheard of in previous conflicts to poorly funded public medical facilities long since overtaxed in their abilities to meet these new demands.

Around the world our economic might meets new challengers from a European Union and from increasingly powerful Asian giants. Within our nation we see signs of disintegration from the abandonment of social responsibility to public institutions to talk of secession not heard in a century and a half. And on our city streets, gang violence thriving on a failed drug policy encounters an increasingly militarized police in highly publicized exchanges. Here the cancers of racism and the dangers of a society armed to the teeth and worked into a fearful frenzy by sensationalist media are exposed in their rawness. 

We have our work cut out for us if we wish to remain “One nation… with liberty and justice for all.” G-d will not save us from ourselves.  And our problems, unlike our teeth,  will not go away if we ignore them. 

This day I express my gratitude for the country which has provided me with a standard of living that is unheard of by the vast majority of our planet’s populations. Even  as I say this I am not unmindful of those around the world at whose expense that privilege has come. I give thanks to my teachers who taught me the ideals of my native land and for those few responsible leaders who continue to call us to meet them. 

This day, I once again pledge myself to the calling of making America what it says it is, a land of liberty and justice for all. I once again enjoin the pursuit of a more perfect union and call my fellow Americans to join me in that endeavor. Let us remember that as Americans, we are called to nothing less.  

Happy Birthday, America.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Professed: Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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