A Sunday Morning Meditation
Muhammad Ali
Lance Armstrong

Don't get me wrong. I've never been a sports maven. Oh there was a time when I'd follow a team or stick with a tournament or do an Olympics watch from beginning to end, but those days are gone and now I just dip in - 10 minutes of Andy Roddick here, 5 minutes of marathon there. So I didn't choose these two champions of their sport for that reason. I'm not sure if the dedication, agility, intelligence, and competitiveness required for them to excel in boxing and bicycle racing contributed to what interests me or not. I suspect it did. The bottom line for me is that when Ali became a practicing Muslim in 1964, he was willing to take the 3-1/2-year ban from boxing at a peak moment in his career in order to resist the Vietnam draft. This man whose in-your-face personality danced him to the top in the brutal boxing ring drew the line at war. Despite Parkinson's disease, he continues to travel for causes today and is one of the most beloved figures of sport on the planet. As for Armstrong, I'd be only slightly more likely to watch a bicycle race than I would a boxing match and I'm amused to see that he's become attached to a rock star after leaving his marriage of however many years; however, in this case the fascination for me is that at only 26 he beat advanced cancer, and as if that wasn't enough won his first Tour de France two years afterwards. Five Tours later, at 32 his mantra is "Don't make any long-term plans." He too spends time giving back with his cancer foundation. For me, it isn't their sport that defines these two men - it's character. When they made up their minds, you just didn't want to mess with them. They opted to win and to live. Armstrong has said, "Dying and losing, it's the same thing."


After sifting through thoughts of Bach, the Beatles, Jeff Bezos, and Alec Baldwin, I looked up at my old battered copy of Siddhartha (by Hermann Hesse) sitting on the shelf above me and made the decision to go with the man of peace. I don't listen to Bach or the Beatles much anymore (though I once did and still adore them), who doesn't use in their daily lives? and although he seems to have an anger management problem, I always enjoy A. Baldwin's wicked sense of humor and political savvy. But nothing has affected me as deeply as discovering there is a particular spiritual mindset that is so clearly about nonviolence and simplicity. Buddha ("the awakened") was the title given to Siddhartha Guatama, the son of a Nepalese rajah. According to tradition, Guatama left a life of luxury at age 30 and devoted himself to years of contemplation and self-denial, finally reaching enlightenment while sitting beneath a tree. Henceforth known as Buddha, he spent his life teaching disciples about his beliefs (embodied in the Four Noble Truths) and the goal of achieving the enlightened state of Nirvana. The Four Noble Truths are
1. Life includes suffering.
2. The cause of suffering is craving.
3. Suffering stops with the cessation of craving.
4. There is a path to the cessation of craving called the Noble Eightfold Path.
I've been checking out this path ever since. I'm a fool for lists and plans. But I have to get a gut feeling about them. I don't call myself a Buddhist (or anything else for that matter in terms of religion), but the story of Siddhartha is one of the few I've kept close at hand all these years.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter

They're not flashy or sexy. They don't have any good scandal to gossip about (oh there was Billy, but come on!). He's not ruggedly handsome and she's not a fashionplate. He just turned 80, and she's close. He didn't have the most glamorous presidency, but here's just a little list of what he accomplished just in this past year:

In February, traveled to Ghana, Togo and Mali to help eradicate Guinea worm. In June spent week in rural Alabama and Georgia with Habitat for Humanity, an annual tradition. In July, joined Carter Center staff in Indonesia to monitor first round of elections. In May and August traveled to Venezuela for more election monitoring. In August spoke at the national convention in Boston. And throughout the year continues to teach Sunday school in Plains and lecture once a month at Emory University. He published his 19th book, "Sharing Good Times" and is working on a sequel. And he continued with hobbies that include woodworking and oil painting. And let's not forget he won the Nobel Peace Prize just two years ago.

As for Rosalynn, this woman has been hard at work since her father died of leukemia when she was 13 and she helped raise the rest of her family.

She married Jimmy 58 years ago and produced 3 sons and daughter Amy. She helped him run the family peanut-farming business, backed him in his candidacies, and conceived a lifelong dedication to fighting the stigma of mental illness and improving mental health care. Also found time to work for senior citizens, women, equal rights amendment, refugees in Cambodia, helped found the Carter Center that works to advance peace and health worldwide, has traveled with him on his peace negotiations in Bosnia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and North Korea, has published four books, and became only the third first lady named to the National Women's Hall of Fame (joining Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt). AND THE LIST GOES ON.

No, they're not sexy and they don't start wars. They're just plain good people and they do peace, thank you very much.

Bob Dylan

As the first volume of Dylan's long-awaited 3-part memoirs, Chronicles, Volume One, hits the stands, it's time for everybody to remember the first time they heard the tiny troubador from Hibbing, Minnesota who changed the landscape of music in the early '60's. I was in a commune in Pacific Grove, California when Dylan played the first Monterey Folk Festival right next door in 1963 and though I didn't go to the festival his first album was played nonstop, full-blast for days where I lived. And then it seemed like the hippest thing ever that Dylan and Joan Baez would have a romance. What can I say, the voice is unique, the lyrics powerful (he says he doesn't like the word "poet"), and the persona mystical. I like that he's kept his life so private - not because private is important for everyone but because it is for him. And yet, like everyone who felt Dylan belonged to our generation, I can't wait to read whatever he's been willing to share about it. The kids of today listen to somebody else, but then most of them don't vote either. In those days we had Dylan to sing out about the war, along with others of that time. Who is singing out today? I grew up alongside him - and so Bobbie Zimmerman, Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You.

Albert Einstein, 1879-1955

Who in their lives hasn't said at some point some version of, "Well, I'm no einstein but......" And none of us are. He was a one-of-a-kind, not just because he invented E=MCsquared but because he was this little nebbish-looking guy with fly-away white hair who also played the violin, failed early exams, had a hard time getting a teaching job, just up and wrote theoretical physics papers on his own while working menial jobs, and by the time he was 30 was recognized as a leading scientific thinker. He visited the U.S first when he was 42, the same year he got the Nobel Prize for his work on photoelectric effect. On the eve of the Nazis coming to power, he moved to America for good when he was 53 and taught at Princeton from then on. He made many contributions to peace in his life, including a week before his death when he signed a letter to Bertrand Russell saying that his name should go on a manifesto urging all nations to give up nuclear weapons. He was cremated at Trenton, NJ and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed place. It sure makes me wonder what he would say today about the "weapons of mass destruction". I would hope it would be something really, really brilliant because god knows, "we ain't no einsteins." (If you want to read a little more in depth about him click here.)

Jane Fonda

She's 67 now and I've been following her journey with admiration for some 40 years. Besides speaking up against the war in Vietnam and taking never-ending flak for it, she also married Tom Hayden and supported his career financially, and for her third choice in husbands (first was Roger Vadim - French director) took on Ted Turner, liberal media mogul. She has never been afraid to contend, but while she was at it she just managed to win 6 Golden Globes, 2 Academy Awards (one for Coming Home - now there was an anti-war movie to die for), and an Emmy. From a famous film family and a Vassar graduate, she was also flexible, becoming an exercise icon in the early '80's and starting the video fitness craze. And all the way along, she looked Fabulous. I hear she's become a born-again Christian (details of which should be fascinating). I'm afraid I can't follow her there, but she will be a forever role model among my peers for her moxie and take-it-on-the-chin integrity

Jane Goodall

Stepping away for a moment from the endless talk of war and killing and greed and fear that is now part of our everyday world thanks to the media and politicians and corporate entities, I'm thinking about the simple, friendly, gentle life of one woman who found her calling early and followed it into graceful old age where she is still working for the health of one species of creature on our doomed planet. I went with my grandchildren a few months ago to see an Imax film of Jane Goodall returning to visit her original site of study in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve on Lake Tanganyika in Africa. There were clips of her walks in the forest as a young woman in her 20's, and as she walked these same paths in her 60's you could hardly tell the difference - the same graceful, slender, pretty, pony-tailed woman moving quietly through the trees. Over the years she has married twice, had one child, and devoted her life to raising awareness for wildlife research and conservation. In a little autobiographical piece I have, she says: From the time I was very small I had this love of animals, including insects and all natural life. My mother always supported and encouraged this interest. For example, when my mother found a whole handful of earthworms in bed with me, she didn't say, "Yuck," and throw them out. She just said that if I left them there, they'd be dead in the morning. They needed the earth. So I ran with them into the garden." It's like parallel worlds - stepping into that garden while somewhere out there bombs are falling on more of this earth and its inhabitants.

Stephen William Hawking (1942-present)

Precisely 300 years after the death of Galileo Galilei, an English boy was born who had a normal childhood other than being slow to read and who resisted his father's wish for him to become a doctor, turning to his real interest, astronomy. At just 21, an unusually early age for onset of the disease, he was stricken with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), which kills the nerve cells in the upper spinal cord so that signals cannot be carried from the brain to the muscles of the body. It is incurable and most of its victims die with five years of diagnosis. Stephen Hawking has now survived over four decades and can only breathe with aid of a tracheotomy that leaves him unable to speak. During those 40 years, he has become the most renowned theoretical physicist alive. He is a quantum cosmologist at Cambridge University, studying the universe at a time when it was so small that atoms had not yet formed, and is best known for his exploration into the nature of black holes. When he was 46, he published his first book, A Brief History of Time, which became the best-selling scientific work in history. For most of us, just trying to figure out how the universe would bestow both this great intellect and a catastrophic illness upon the same person is mind-boggling enough. If there is a god out there who can explain it, Stephen Hawking is probably just the man to hear it first.

Mary Draper Ingles

There being no depiction of this woman anywhere on the web that I could find, I've posted the map of her famous journey. If you think we're having a stressful time of it in 2004, consider her story:

She was born in 1732 in Philadelphia but moved to Draper's Meadow in Virginia where in 1750 she married William Ingles. They were the first white couple married west of the Allegheny Mountains. Five years later, in a November snow during the French and Indian War, two farmers heard a faint voice calling. It was Mary, virtually naked, white-haired, teeth gone, and only 23 years old. She had just walked 800 miles (including backtracking) in 42 days to reach home. What happened in the preceding five months was that Shawnee Indians attacked the settlement where Mary and William lived, capturing Mary and her two sons, George and Tommy. Her husband was in the field without weapons and could only look for them after they were gone. Because of her courageous and calm demeanor on the trail, she and her children were allowed to live. Over the month of the journey, Mary tied knots in a string to count the days and marked that they followed rivers. At the Indian village Mary made blankets and shirts for the Indians and French trappers in exchange for keeping blankets for her sons who eventually were sold away from her. She was moved again another 150 miles further away from home and became the first white woman to enter Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. From here she finally escaped with a German/Dutch woman who had also been captured. With two blankets and a single tomohawk they walked into the woods. Twice, half-mad from hunger, the older Dutch woman tried to kill and eat Mary. When Mary reached home finally, she had to send help back for her. Mary Ingles lived another 60 years, during which time she bore four more children and was able to ransom her son Tommy back after 15 years with the Indians, George having died in captivity. She and William continued to contribute to their community. William was a Colonel in the Revolution. They narrowly escaped another massacre. Their son Thomas followed the frontier westward and his own family was attacked by Indians in 1781 with the loss of 2 of his children and his wife. Mary continued to live in the windowless log home shown in the photo until her death because she felt safer there. Her story has been the subject of the books, Follow the River and Shawnee Captive, as well as a made-for-television movie, "The Long Way Home."

We say life was simpler then, and I wonder....

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce

For the second week in a row, I'm including a map, this time of one of the most brilliant military retreats in American history, that of 700 (only 200 of whom were warriors) Native Americans pursued by 2000 U.S. soldiers for 1400 miles, as they attempted to reach the tiny reservation in Idaho that was all that was left of a former reservation that had stretched from Oregon into Idaho. Joseph's father had been a convert to Christianity and supported peace with the whites until 1863 when the federal government took back almost 6 million acres of the Nez Perce reservation he had helped set up. Then he denounced the U.S., destroyed his American flag and Bible, and refused to move his band from the Wallowa Valley or sign a treaty to make the new reservation legal. Seven years later, when he died and Joseph became the tribe's leader, he continued to resist until 1877 when he finally began to lead his people toward Idaho. Because a few young warriors staged a raid on nearby settlements in their rage at this turn of events, the army began to pursue them. Over the long march, the Nez Perce fought with courage and skill in four major battles and numerous skirmishes. Finally in October of that year, Joseph formally surrendered with this famous speech:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, "Yes" or "No." He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are--perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

Even after surrender, Joseph and his people were never allowed to return home to the Wallowa Valley. Chief Joseph died in 1904, still in exile from his homeland, according to his doctor "of a broken heart." Today our weapons are bigger than rifles, spears, and bow and arrow but apparently we are not sick enough yet of killing and dying. How many more years before enough of us will "fight no more forever?"

Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr.

First of all, I've been meaning to mention that I'm having such a good time doing this series because I'm learning a lot about people already familiar to me and some I've never heard of before. It's kind of like being back in school and not having to be graded. When I was deciding on the person(s) for today, I was actually going to go with Bernard Kouchner, the French humanitarian who co-founded Doctors Without Borders among many other things until I discovered he agreed with starting the war in Iraq. I also considered Jack Kerouac, but I've mentioned him already in past blogs, or Garrison Keillor whose radio show always cheers me up when I happen upon it while driving around on Sundays. But I chose Keller and King because they had something fascinating in common. The lives of both these famous Americans were shaped by the very nature of their being - one born African-American in a country unfortunately still suffering the disease of racism today, the other left blind and deaf by an illness before she was two years old. In spite of being in this world with the deck significantly stacked against them, they rose to the occasion. Helen Keller was born in 1880 in a small Alabama community to parents who had supported the Confederacy. She was blessed by acquiring a teacher who taught her to read, write and speak, but then took that gift and went on to graduate with honors from Radcliffe College and receive degrees from Harvard and other universities. She lectured throughout the world and served on councils and foundations for the blind and deaf, and sometimes for causes like socialism and women's rights. She also wrote an autobiography, The Story of My Life, and several other books that gave hope and inspiration to many. When she was already 49 years old, another Southerner was born in Atlanta, Georgia, his father and grandfather both Christian ministers. Like Helen Keller, his name is a household word today, as he took the circumstances of his life and turned them into a fight for social justice and civil rights that eventually led to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Four years later, on April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed while in Tennessee to support a strike of black garbage men. He was 39 years old. Two months after his death and many miles away in Connecticut, at the age of 88, Helen Keller also left her legacy behind. For both of them, the words on King's tombstone ring out, "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last."

John Lennon and Annie Leibowitz

John Lennon was born in Liverpool in 1940 and raised by his aunt and uncle. We all know the story by now, how he met Paul McCartney and together they brought the Beatles to the world. We know he eventually met Yoko Ono and began to perform with her and on his own. We know that in 1979 he had a very bad year when she threw him out to get drugs, sex and other women out of his system and that in 1980 he returned to her, having kicked heroin cold turkey, and cut his final album Double Fantasy to critical acclaim. In 1949, Annie Leibowitz was born in Connecticut to an air force officer and modern dance instructor parents. A product of the San Francisco Art Institute, she got her big break in 1970 with a shot of Allen Ginsberg smoking dope on a peace march that she sold to Rolling Stone magazine for $25. Three years later she became the magazine's chief photographer. Her expertise was celebrities, especially rock musicians. On the afternoon of December 8, 1980, she produced this famous shot of John and Yoko in their hotel room in New York City. By that evening Lennon would be dead. Today Annie Leibowitz works out of a converted garage on Manhattan's West Side with as many as 30 assistants. In 1983, she left Rolling Stone for another trendy radical magazine, Vanity Fair, where she has been ever since turning out her very personal, stylized photos of famous people. John Lennon's death was traumatizing to all of us who admired him for his outrageous, in-your-face activism and his incredible talent. On that afternoon in December 1980 Annie Leibowitz captured for us the essence of his capacity for love. (Other famous photos by Leibowitz)