Monthly Archives: December 2014

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Winter Solstice (But not really)

The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year. In our calendaring system, it also marks the first night of winter.

But in many ancient European calendars, the solstice marked mid-winter. In Gaelic calendars, for example there were eight major calendar markers – though it’s disputed how greatly each was celebrated.

The eight markers were made up of the two solstices, the two equinoxes, and then four cross-quarter days – the days halfway between the a solstice and an equinox. These markers divided the year into eighths and governed what is now referred to as the Wheel of the Year.

We essentially still have eight year marker days, but they’ve shifted names and meaning.

Groundhog’s Day, for example, is essentially the cross-quarter day between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Today, Groundhog’s Day marks the middle of winter – will the groundhog see his shadow? But more traditionally, it – or more properly Imbolc marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

I’ve never been quite clear on how the Solstice went from representing the middle of winter to representing the beginning of winter – perhaps it’s just one of those things, like the Great Vowel Shift.

Also, there was an interesting piece yesterday claiming that this year’s solstice was, in fact, the longest night EVER. Pointing to the continual slowing of the earth’s rotation, the article estimated that every year’s solstice was negligibly longer than the last.

Of course, that could only make me think of Office Space’s Peter Gibbons reflecting that “every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.”

But, it turns out the original article is not quiet true. They quickly posted a correction, clarifying that while the earth’s rotation is trending towards slowing down, there’s actually quite a bit of year-to-year variation.

And by “quite a bit,” of course, I actually mean changes so miniscule that nobody without a properly calibrated device of some sort would ever know the difference.

In this graphic you can see the average length of a day charted over time. As you can see – maybe – “the longest night in Earth’s history likely occurred in 1912.”

So that was the longest night ever.

Work, Dialogue, and Liberation

I was struck this morning by this excerpt from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

I shall start by reaffirming that humankind, as beings of the praxis, differ from animals, which are beings of pure activity. Animals do not consider the world; they are immersed in it. In contrast, human beings emerge from the world, objectify it, and in so doing can understand it and transform it with their labor.

Animals, which do not labor, live in a setting which they cannot transcend. Hence, each animal species lives in the context appropriate to it, and these contexts, while open to humans, cannot communicate among themselves.

Animals are “beings of pure activity,” but animals “do not labor.” Only human beings – through their self-awareness, through their naming of the world – only human beings labor and thus transform the world.

Harry Boyte has written extensively about “public work,” an approach which seeks to move civic activity beyond the voluntary sector, to bring work and workplaces into an understanding of active citizenship.

This approach powerfully considers the ability of people to physically and creatively transform their world – not only through their thoughts and ideas, but through their work: through their work imagining, building, and creating something together. This public work, Boyte argues, is the true heart of civic efforts, the core of what it means to live and co-create together.

Freire’s understanding seems importantly related, yet subtly different.

Freire argues that “human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action. It cannot…be reduced to either verbalism or activism.”

in many ways, that argument seems near the core to an understanding of public work. To be is not simply to be, to think does not simply imply I am. To be, to think, to exist as a free and conscious agent – this is synonymous with action.

I think. I am. I do.

For the “fully human,” as Freire would say, for the liberated person, these things are synonymous. They cannot be separated.

For Freire, the power of “public work” comes from the connection of thinking and doing:

…the revolutionary effort to transform these structures radically cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers….true commitment to the people…cannot fail to assign the people a fundamental role in the transformation process. The leaders cannot treat the oppressed as mere activists to be denied the opportunity of reflection and allowed merely the illusion of acting.

While Freire never uses the phrase “public work,” all this seems very much in line with the views of Boyte and other proponents of the approach.

But Freire adds another piece to the puzzle. For Freire, communication is a critical piece of understanding, it is a critical piece of liberation. In his view, human beings first express their freedom as they name their world. As beings of consciousness, humans recognize the world around them. By naming, they identify themselves as as free beings of agency, with power to shape the world around them.

This power of communication has important implications for the value of deliberative dialogue as a tool to transform, as a tool of liberation, as a tool of action.

Dialogue with the people is radically necessary to every authentic revolution, Freire writes.

Sooner or later, a true revolution must initiate a courageous dialogue with the people. Its very legitimacy lies in that dialogue. It cannot fear the people, their expression, their effective participation in power. It must be accountable to them, must speak frankly to them of its achievements, its mistakes, its miscalculations and its difficulties.

And make no mistake, this dialogue isn’t “just talk.” For Freire, this dialogue is the embodiment of action:

Let me emphasize that my defense of the praxis implies no dichotomy by which this praxis could be divided into a prior stage of reflection and a subsequent stage of of action. Action and reflection occur simultaneously…Critical reflection is also action.

The revolution is made neither by the leaders for the people no by the people for the leaders, but by both acting together in unshakeable solidarity. This solidarity is born only when the leaders witness to it by their humble, loving, and courageous encounter with the people. Not all men and women have sufficient courage for this encounter – but when they avoid encounter they become inflexible and treat others as mere objects; instead of nurturing life, the kill life; instead of searching for life, they flee from it. And these are oppressor characteristics.

Some may think that to affirm dialogue – the encounter of women and men in the the world in order to transform the world – is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans – and some people against others, as oppressing and oppressed classes.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Getting to the end of the year always seems a bit of a struggle.

There may be warm delights and holiday cheer, but there’s also ever shortening days. Ever increasing darkness.

Faded, dreary skies.

It’s like the world holds its breath, just waiting for the end.

Waiting for a few moments of peace and silence.

Come January, folks will have their energy back. They’ll feel rested, refreshed, and ready to tackle life’s challenges.

But right now, we’re all just slouching along, desperate to put down our load.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
I’ve had too much processed sugar

Yeats could have written.

Indeed, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, with toys, and books, and more holiday parties than I can count.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
If I could think clearly it would be at hand

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Would not be enough to give me rest
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards the new year to be reborn?


I’m not a big fan of the word nice.

Well, I suppose, not the word itself but rather the connotation it implies. Nice is so fake, so superficial, so lacking in real substance.

Don’t get me wrong, I am generally in favor of being polite, considerate, friendly, thoughtful, or empathic. Those all sound like good things to be. But nice…never quite sounded so appealing.

I don’t think I want to be nice.

I’d rather be honest. I’d rather be genuine. I’d rather say things that are difficult to say and have conversations which are uncomfortable to have.

Nice is too clean, too sterile. It blithely glosses over the messiness, the grittiness of life.

I like that mess.

I want that mess.

Perhaps its okay to do nice things in the moment. Perhaps its okay to occasionally play nice. But as a general philosophy –

Well, I should be disappointed if nice was what I accomplished in life.

Being nice can be challenging, but there’s also some troublingly easy about being nice. As if the best thing to do is avoid confrontation, to avoid difficult decisions, to make sure everything is clean and pristine at all times.

The real challenge, I think, is to recognize when you genuinely differ with someone. To embrace that confrontation, to discuss, debate, and critique. To have those impassioned conversations, to raise those difficult issues, to disagree vehemently –

– and to emerge as friends.

Organic or Institutionalized

There are many healthy tensions in civic work. One I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the tension between organic processes and institutionalized processes.

Both have benefits – organic processes feel more genuine, more creative, more tailored for the moment. Institutionalized processes feel more efficient, established, and well-resourced.

Of course, both have drawbacks – organic processes tend to be more disordered, institutionalized processes more hierarchical.

Organic processes tend to be perceived as less strategic, which may be a downside, but a misstep in an institutionalized processes is often assumed to be intentional.

I like the tension between these processes. I like the interplay between each approach.

Perhaps our goal, as individuals moving through the world, shouldn’t be to commit to one approach or the other, but rather to embrace the tension between the two.

If you’re following an institutionalized process, ask what you might learn by loosening the process a little bit. If you’re following an organic process, ask what you might learn by formalizing it.

Really no approach is perfect. Things will go right and wrong either way. But there’s something in that middle ground – innovative and organic, but institutional and efficient.

Millions March Boston

On Saturday, I went into Boston. A rare occurrence for someone who rarely leaves the four square miles of my home city.

But I went into Boston for Millions March Boston.

A day of anger and sadness. A day of action. A day of reflection.

I went into Boston because black lives matter.

Media reports say one thousand people were there.  Twenty three people got arrested. But it was hard for me to tell. I was lost in the throng of the crowd.


There were more police officers than I knew what to do with.

I have been to many protests. I have been to many rallies. I’ve seen men with assault rifles guard the streets during the Boston DNC. I have never seen so many police officers.

I was surprised.

I didn’t feel that threatening.

The officers were dressed to make a statement. They were dressed for battle. In full riot gear with long, threatening batons and bright green vests. They stood still. Unmoving. Some revolutionary version of the British Royal Guard.

I know people who are police officers, but these police officers didn’t feel like people.

I wondered what they were like in real life.

We marched to the Nashua Street County Jail. A jail which houses 700 pretrial detainees.

We stood chanting in the street while inmates beat on the windows.

I wondered who was in there. I wondered what they were accused of. I wondered if they’d ever seen something like this.

And I wondered what they were like in real life.IMG_6590

No Enemies

Years ago I ran across a poem by Charles Mackay. Finding it was entirely incidental – I was in grade school, I think, and it happened to be photocopied from the same page as Invicitus; the poem we were actually studying.

Nonetheless, the poem stuck with me:

You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

The Moon Is Down

Periodically, along with other Tufts faculty and staff, I am asked to share a short book recommendation.

This time I recommended The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck. It’s one of those books I never seem to own because every time I get a copy I immediate give it away. I’m a big fan of Steinbeck, who, as a California native, I consider Steinbeck a “local boy.” This is one of his few books which doesn’t take place along the dusty plains of Salinas, but it may just be my favorite.

Here is the recommendation I submitted:

Published in 1942 and distributed illegally in Nazi-occupied France, this novel tells the story of the military invasion of a small, northern European town. Under cover of darkness the town is taken by surprise in a swift and bloodless maneuver. Wanting nothing more than a simple life, the townspeople initially accept the suppression of their democratically elected officials and consent to military rule. In the hopes of maintaining the town’s submission, military leaders seek to be benevolent in their rule. But a surface of civility masks a deeper oppression. As winter sets in, relationships begin to fray and the absence of democracy is more deeply felt. Steinbeck expertly details the motivations of townspeople and invaders alike, illustrating how subtle and insidious oppression can be. A tale of oppression and resistance, the Moon is Down inspires resisters everywhere to push for a truly free and democratic society.

There’s one line I really love in the book – [Spoiler Alert] – though since I never actually have a copy, I am left to rely on my memory and can only paraphrase here.

At the moment when it truly crystallizes for the townspeople that they are oppressed, when they realize just how much they have lost their freedom, Steinbeck writes:

It was as if a cry went through the town: Resist. Resist today. Resist tomorrow. Resist. Resist. Resist.

On Being an Ally or, I CAN Breathe

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an ally.

Allies, of course, can be found in all kinds of movements; there are white allies and straight allies, male allies and upper class allies. And allies serve an important role – even if you don’t face a certain type of oppression directly, you have, I believe, an obligation to recognize and work against that oppression.

But being an ally is also complicated.

Complicated, but not that complicated. It’s complicated the way every day life is complicated. The way it’s complicated when someone asks how they look in an outfit, or its complicated when you move from “dating” to “exclusive.”

It’s complicated because social interactions are complicated.

I wonder how complicated being an ally would seem if we were all more used to talking about issues of discrimination and oppression. It would still be complicated, I imagine, but perhaps not paralyzingly complicated.

I heard a white man on TV the other day frustratedly complain that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to use the term “African American” or if it was okay to call somebody “black.” I just don’t know what you people want me to say! he exclaimed.

I think it was at “you people” where he really went wrong.

Being an ally is full of tension. It’s full of competing concerns and changing expectations. And that’s okay –

Life is full of tension.

As an ally, you should defer to the leadership of those most directly affected. You should be mindful of your power and privilege and do everything possible not to exert that power over others. You should listen, you should learn, and you should engage in the ways you are asked to.

But as an ally, you can’t let the work of speaking out always fall to those most directly affected. You should be the one raising questions of equity. You should be the one pointing to areas that need to change. You should be the one pushing the envelope and speaking out.

On the surface, it sounds like those things can’t co-exist – how can you simultaneously defer leadership and lead the charge?

It’s possible, I believe. And it’s complicated, but not that complicated.

Listen and learn, speak up and fight. Do the best you can, but always know you will make mistakes. Do your best to encourage those around you to point out those mistakes. Do your best to learn from those mistakes and do your best to help others learn from those mistakes as well.

It’s a journey for all of us.

In the wake of the recent grand jury decisions, I’ve been faced with some specific questions about what it means to be an ally.

Should a white person participate in a die-in about police killings of African Americans? Should a white person gesture “don’t shoot”? Should a white person yell, “I CAN’T BREATHE!”?

I’m not sure there’s a universal answer to these question, but doing the above doesn’t feel quite right to me.

I CAN breathe. Police are unlikely to shoot me without repercussions. I am white. That comes with privileges, and claiming too much understanding of things I don’t experience is inappropriate.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t fight. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t fight. It just means my role in the fight is different, just as my experience in the world is different.

I don’t know if the word “ally” is too passive, I don’t know if a more active word would abuse too much power.

But I do know I have a responsibility to speak up and to speak out. I know I have a responsibility to do so in a way that is respectful of all people. I know there’s not a secret activist etiquette handbook, and I know I will make mistakes along the way.

I know I will do my best to apologize for those mistakes, and I know I will resolve to do better next time.

Institutions as Bystanders

Much has been said about the negative impact individuals have when they are bystanders – when they remain silent in the face of hate.

As Elie Wiesel eloquently described, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Being a bystander is not being neutral – it is being complicit.

Much education and advocacy has gone into helping individuals realize the wrongness of being a bystander. Much education and advocacy has gone into giving individuals the tools to speak up and to take action. Much education and advocacy has focused on the role of individuals in countering injustice.

But what of the role of institutions?

Institutional racism and other forms of discrimination are, after all, institutional. But what is the role of an institution is speaking out and acting against injustice?

The question, in part, may depend on the type of institution – does a corporation have the same responsibility as a school?

Probably not – a school has a responsibility to educate, while a corporation has a responsibly, I suppose, to profit.

It’s not that you would never see this issues addressed in the corporate sector, but you would really only expect a brand to speak up on an issue under a certain set of conditions.

Most notably, if a bias incident at a company makes big news, that would certainly force a crisis-communications response. But if that’s the only time an institution reacts – I’m not sure that’s any different from being a bystander.

Companies may arguably also take a stand through their editorial decisions. After all, it seems we are not past the days when an advertisement featuring an interracial couple or a gay couple counts as a political statement.

But this is rather light support. A general a nod to inclusivity, without the teeth that real activism requires. As one of my grad school professors described it, its often done as an attempt to reach out to a target demographic while not offending another target demographic.

That still sounds like a bystander.

And perhaps this is all well and good for corporations – which do have an obligation to make a profit – or perhaps we should ask for more. Perhaps instead of boycotting company’s whose stances we disagree with, we should boycott companies who think they can take no stance at all.

And perhaps we should push other types of institutions – schools, cities, associations. These institutions which do have a social mission, which do have a duty to the public and not just to stockholders. Perhaps we should push all institutions to take a stand and speak out against bias.

Perhaps being neutral should not be an option.