Don’t be a Lone Ranger!

Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout.  If you are paid staff or a volunteer in a church, civic organization, or other kind of non-business organization, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or failing to find, train and support new leaders.

In describing the work of corporations, economists invented a fictional character called the residual claimant.  That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid.  That leftover is called profit—or loss.  In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.

In nonprofit organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit.  But there is something similar.  In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee.  But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligants.  In a church the residual obligant.is often the minister.  In most volunteer organizations, it’s the president, or the secretary (paid or volunteer), or some of each.  Think about the times when you were the residual obligant.  How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way.

The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has droped an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/cake provider/greeter.  I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick.  The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it.  Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to.  It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house.  I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator.  I wrote the speech, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator.

One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome.  It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in another dimension of leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family. 

The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms.  The first is the delusion of superman. The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly.  Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.

The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular familiar to college faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control.  The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate, I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways in which we learn.

The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help.  It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out.  Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming.  I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better. 

If you think I have real people in mind, you are right. And at various times in my leadership roles, I have been guilty of at least the last two. What all three have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on.  All three styles are also an invitation to burnout.

A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic. Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative.

Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to avoid becoming the residual obligant. Delegating doesn’t mean that you do nothing.  You are a part of a team, and everyone on the team pitches in to make things happen.  Just don’t take on more than your share of the responsibility. If the team is sponsoring an even that requires food, bring one item. When you are functioning in your president role to conduct a membership meeting or introduce a speaker, it’s someone else’s job to set up chairs, greet visitors, or make the coffee. Your job in that moment is to be the president. The next time you are tempted to say, I can take care of that—stifle yourself. Failure to delegate is a form of enabling others to shirk.  Ask someone else. Wait for the silence to get someone to step forward. Or consider whether that particular event, or action, needs to happen at all if nobody cares enough to do it. It’s a teachable moment. Make the most of it.

I Am the Matriarch!

I am the last surviving member of my birth family. My sister died in 2008, followed two years later by her husband. My brother died in May, and I am not close to his wife or their children. I am, however close to my sisters two offspring, so for my 80th Birthday part 2, I found an air BnB and invited my three daughters, three sons-in-law, four grandchildren and my niece and nephew to spend a few days together in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville. Despite some ups and downs, it was a really good experience, one I promised to repeat next year. A good mix of outdoor stuff, swimming and hiking, lots of interesting food, and city stuff in Asheville, an oasis of liberal and folk culture in the South.

I grew up with family reunions on my father’s side on my Uncle Duane’s farm, My Grandmother was the matriarch, sharing that role with her two sisters and their descendants, including some relatives that I never quite figured out–I think maybe they were my grandmother’s cousins. We shot off fireworks and drank water from a tin cup at the well and picked corn in the garden only when the water was boiling. This year the fireworks were courtesy of the city of Asheville and there was corn and burgers and watermelon. I am convinced that the 4th of July celebration is really a modern embodiment of the summer solstice, which was celebrated with bonfires at noon.

My uncle died in 1969 and there were no more family reunions until a single one in the 1990s on his sister Olive’s farm about a mile away–and a generation away, because the planning was done by my cousins,, the matriarchal great-aunts were all long dead and only a few survived from my parents’ generation–now they are all gone. So for my children, niece and nephew (who graciously offered me his arm on a fairly rocky hike!), I as the youngest in my birth family have been promoted to matriarch. Which means I am now responsible for planning family reunions (but not for cooking!. There are, currently 13 of us, but we expect an addition to the family in November 2022 when my #2 granddaughter gets married. I try to maintain a link to the eight people in my children’s generation with a weekly email newsletter and an invitation to reply. Growing up, most of my relatives lived in my home town, but we rarely saw them except at the reunion. Now because only two of the five families are close by–the others are scattered in Washington DC, New Jersey and Connecticut. My niece and nephew have children, but I’m not sure they are interested in being included.

I am new to the matriarchy thing. I like the fact that it apparently means that my adult children and my sister’s children are stepping up to the plate, letting me provide the venue but doing the driving, planning the expeditions and the meals, and cleaning up the kitchen. I accept the fact that not everyone loves everyone else, that there is sibling friction and accommodations for different eating styles and needs (including allergies and vegetarians), and sharing two bathrooms among nine people in the main building can be challenging–especially when one bathroom has four doors!.

In the Olympic sprint from birth to death, I have become the torch bearer, looking behind me to see to whom the torch will be passed. For all of my readers who have reached that pinnacle of matriarchy (or patriarchy in the positive sense!), welcome to the club. Old age has its frustrations, but also its celebrations. May yours be joyous and memorable in knitting together across the generations.

Don’t Wait Till Your Obituary

I lost four close friends and a brother in the past year. I dutifully sent a charitable contribution to the designated causes each of them favored, but it got me to thinking. About eight years ago my friend Dianne (who died four years ago) threw herself an 80th birthday party. She asked guests to bring, not gifts, but a contribution to one of her three favorite local charities. So when my turn at reaching that 80 year milestone came about on June 30th, I decided to build on her example–both the party and the request. I had a specific charity in mind.

I love books. I read them, I write them, I share them, I give them as gifts, I donate to libraries. In December, one of my four granddaughters, Caroline, will receive her BA in elementary education and embark on her teaching career. (No worries about finding a job. She’s a great student and a natural teacher, and there’s a serious shortage of teachers in our state.) She and her cohort of December 2021 gradates from the University of South Carolina–Aiken are building their libraries with a plan to pool and divide their stashes of books when they get their teaching assignments and find out what grades each of them will be teaching. I have been buying books for Caroline for the past year, but Dianne’s example led me to say to my invited birthday guests: no gifts please, but if you want to contribute a new or lightly used book suitable for grades 1-5, it would be appreciated. My 25 party guests contributed 60 books to the cause and had great fun picking them out.

I am sure that when I die, people will be invited to contribute to a charity in my name. In fact, I have written out instructions for my executor to that effect. But as we get older, and birthdays become a celebration of just still being alive, we need fewer things and more legacies. It can be a source of joy to experience that legacy while we are still here. My passion for books will be embodied in six classroom libraries of brand new teachers come January 2022. I encourage you all to consider what your passion is and how it can become a part of the next big birthday number coming up that ends in a zero or a five.

Summer Solstice

Monday marks the summer solstice,the longest day of the year. In Celtic mythology, the sun God is at the peak of his powers, the mother Goddess is pregnant with his child who will be born at the winter solstice. In Australia, New Zealand, and a chunk of South America, it is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There they huddle before a warm fire, and celebrate the opposite solstice in December at the beach.

The four sky holidays (equinoxes ans solstices) are celebrated with bonfires–spring at dawn, summer and midday,autumn at dusk, winter at midnight. If those times of day remind you of Easter sunrise services and midnight mass, you have penetrated the Celtic roots of some of our non-biblical religious customs. Many of the quaint practices of Easter–rabbits, eggs, lilies, new clothes–are vestiges of pre-Christian religious customs celebrating the arrival of spring.

The ancient Celts, according to tradition, observed eight evenly spaced nature holidays. Solstices and equinoxes were dictated by the rotation of the earth around the sun, while the four cross-quarter holidays were earth-centered. The Celtic New year (Samhain) was on November 1st, surviving as Halloween and All Saints Day and the Mexican Day of he Dead (November 2nd). Like the Jews, whose New Year is observed in the fall, the Celts began their days at desk and went through the darkness of both night and winter into the light of renewal, revival, and rebirth.Samhain was the time of the final harvest and bringing the animals back from pasture for the winter.

Anticipation of spring with the birth of lambs gave the February 1st the name of Imbolc, or ewe’s milk. We observe it as Groundhog Day on February 2nd. This ancient holiday was a time to clean house n anticipation of spring. (Last chance to take down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations!) .

Beltane was a fertility festival celebrated on May 1st. May Day was originally a flower-centered festival, gathering wildflowers and planting crops, not an international labor holiday. Lammas or Lughnasad, August 1st, celebrated the first harvest. It comes much sooner in warmer climates in the northern hemisphere, but these holidays originated in Northern Europe. Colonial New Englanders continued the ancient Celtic custom of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to church to be blessed and shared at Lammas. (I prefer a blessing of the vegetables to a blessing of the animals. Vegetables are much better behaved in church.)

We modern humans are largely disconnected from these rhythms of earth and sky, insulated by air-conditioning and food from the grocery store that can be frozen or refrigerated. WE can eat blueberries and watermelon year-round even if it means shipping them long distance from Chile or other pints far south. Change of clothing is one of our few requirements as the seasons change and we swap coats and sweaters for t-shirts and bathing suits. And yet, the pull of the rhythm of the seasons is still strong. The urge to plant is evident int he spring, even if we are more often planting for beauty than for sustenance. Recreation moves outdoors in the warm summer months, while long winter nights are a time to huddle in front of the fireplace, with short daytime forays for snow sports in colder climates. We can try to insulate ourselves from nature,but we are in fact a part of nature,and our bodies and hearts pulsate to its changes. We are also dependent on nature for all the resources that sustain us–food, water, electricity, fossil fuels, metals and minerals, plants and animals.

Each season brings different gifts of both beauty and sustenance, challenge and opportunity. If a single word unites these eight ancient holidays into a common thread, it should be gratitude. Gratitude for rain and sun, soil and water, food and fuel,beauty and wonder. Eight chances to county our blessings and honor Mother Earth and Father Sky. A joyous summer solstice to all my readers!

I Can Do It Myself!

Bet you said that when you were two years old. And five. And ten. And maybe 70. Most of us take pride in our competence, or strength, and our know-how,whether it is tying one’s shoes (before Velcro), fixing one’s faucet, or making a garden grow. We enjoy using our powers to take care of ourselves and others. As we grow older we gain strength and skills, but somewhere between 60 and 80, our physical ability to perform those tasks becomes more limited with declining vision, hearing, and physical stamina and strength.

As I approach 80, I look forward to the end of my mowing days, either by replacing my last patch of lawn with ground cover or paying someone else to do it. Many of my friends and neighbors are more enthusiastic about offloading chores than I am. The service sector has grown immensely to serve that preference in recent decades. You don’t have to wash your own car, cook your own meals, pay your own bills, walk or bath your own dog. (Full disclosure: my neighbor Anne fixed my faucet while showing me how to do it, and my dog always went to the groomer because I couldn’t manage to bath a 55 pound dog.) I have also concluded that it is probably a good idea to pay someone else to change the furnace filer in the ceiling so that I don’t have to climb a ladder, look up, unscrew the cover in order to exchange filters..

Maybe the Myers-Briggs scale needs another pair of Letters, MY, for Me do it or You do it. In fairness to my aging neighbors, there are increasing limitations on our abilities to do certain things as we get older and have to cope with impaired vision and hearing, arthritis, balance problems, and heath issues. We old folks are faced with a continuous series of choices about what we try to manage for ourselves and what we turn over to others as we cycle away from the autonomy of adolescence and adulthood back to more dependence on help from others.

I’ve been an M most of my life. I think my “M-ness” comes from a frugal New England upbringing. I prefer to do my own house and yard work , and I was raised to make my own clothes (I’ve given that one up!) and cook my own meals (I am open to compromise on that one). But I have to admit that just because I can do something, it doesn’t mean that I can do it as well or as quickly as someone who specializes in that particular kind of work.

Part of my “I can do it myself!” attitude is a desire to stay connected to my habitat–to clean my own floors, wash my own windows, weed my own flower beds, prune my now shrubs. On the other hand, I have an inner Y that reminds me that there is someone out there who can do a better job of painting my walls, troubleshooting my computer, and mulching my former front lawn (see my earlier blog, My War on Grass). I have always enjoyed practicing and honing my own skills as a teacher, writer, preacher, organizational leader and policy analyst.But fragmenting myself among many tasks means that few of them get treated with the respect and attention needed to perform them well. At the same time, I notice the pride others take in their skills such as painting, landscaping, gardening, and getting my computer humming smoothly along. Anyone who can earn a living doing something they enjoy and are good at deserves to have that opportunity. ‘

Me-do and You-do are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Most of us don’t have the means to live like ancient aristocrats (or modern billionaires) with an army of servants to relieve them of the daily chores of living. And some of us are grateful that we don’t! Most of us are neither very rich or very poor, so we have to make choices about how to spend our money, our time, and our energy, and outsource some of those tasks. Each of us needs to assess our skills, our abilities (which change over the decades), and the other uses for our time in choosing which tasks to do ourselves and which ones to outsource–and why.

Two for the Price of One

Two recent news items about the fading of the pandemic in this country converged in my head to emerge as serendipity..  We have spent more than a year in our sweatpants, sitting in front of our computers to work, shop, socialize, and eat. Especially eat.  Being home all the time is dangerous for your resistance to food.. Plus being home all the time is boring, and lonely (or if you have kids, stressful), all of which encourage more shopping online and eating.

So here is Doctor Holley’s prescription for how to do something for yourself and your country at the same time .(Yes, I know, PhDs aren’t empowered to write prescriptions.). This twofer reminds me of the activists who just won seats on Exxon-Mobil’s board, demanding higher profits THROUGH emerging technologies.  Social responsibility and shareholder wealth in the same package? Who knew?

So, what are you being asked to do? Go shopping in real stores. Grocery stores. Clothing stores. Big box stores. Boutiques. Eat at a restaurant.  How does that help you lose the pandemic ten? Or twenty?  Well, in March I started on a new weight loss program that strongly encourages walking, so I have been tracking my steps.  The days I track the most steps are the ones when I go shopping. Don’t make your fingers do the walking (an old slogan that transfers easily form the yellow pages to the keyboard). Walking, regular walking, is one of the healthiest ways to control or even lose weight. It doesn’t require equipment or a personal trainer or a class (although exercise classes can provide a social outlet as you emerge from hibernation). Just download a free app on your iPhone and start counting your steps.

Your presence in stores also boosts the local retail establishment, which is good for the local economy. Yes, online shopping is great for finding obscure things, like a replacement flag for your mailbox, but local stores and services create jobs pay taxes and support high school teams and lots of other good community endeavors. Retailers and service provides have had a tough 14 months, and the survivors need your patronage.

Stand strong for America! Get up, get moving, and go shopping!

Last Surviving Member

Ever read an obituary that says, “she was the last surviving member of her immediate family?”  Which is to say, birth family.  My father left home when I was a toddler, and died in 1977. My mother died in 2002 at the ripe age of 92, my older sister at 71 in 2008, and last week, my older  brother, age 81.  I am now the last surviving member, the memory keeper, and as a widow, the matriarch of a family of ten (three daughters, three sons-in-law, four granddaughters). How did I become the survivor on the island? Probably as the youngest and healthiest of the three siblings. More important, how do I pass on those memories to the next two generations?

My mother and my Aunt Marion, my father’s sister, were both good storytellers.  I know so much about my forebears because they told stories.  I continued the tradition.  My  #3 grandchild, Bella, used to sit at my dining room table and say, Tell me another family story, Grandma. I would tell how we missed seeing my husband’s Coast Guard cutter Acushnet on our way to Bar Harbor Maine, only to learn that it was being relocated the next day to the west coast. Or the time my daughters wanted to know if there were birds in the birdhouse on the tree in the backyard.  My husband obligingly climbed a ladder to look, a bird flew out into his face, and he fell and landed in a trash can.  The answer was yes. Or the time my mother and her sister and brother each inherited $1000 from their grandmother.  My mother’s sister bought a car.  My mother, age 18, was eager to learn to drive.  She decided to borrow Laura’s car and practice one more time before taking her test.  She totaled the car, was arrested for driving without a license, had to give most of her inheritance to Laura to buy another car, and didn’t get a license until she was 55 years old. I have interspersed pictures and begats with many of these family memories in a volume called “Stories for My Grandchildren,” printing just 22 copies for daughters, granddaughters, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nieces and nephews.

Humans told stories long before there was writing.  The Druids refused to write things down because they thought it impaired the ability to remember.  They spent years memorizing the Druid stories, customs, knowledge, and folkways. Telling stories is good, but so is writing them down. The next generation is not always ready to hear what we have to tell when we are there to tell it, and sometimes the stories are lost.  My Aunt Marion died at the age of 96 and even then , I  hadn’t asked her all the questions I wanted  her to answer.

It is said that even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, you will at least survive in memory until the last person who remembers you dies.  That thought is comforting, but too narrow a measure of the power of memory. I believe we all have eternal life in the people whom we have influenced, comforted, supported, and challenged who become better because of us, and lives on in them and those they influence in turn, long after the persons who were the source of their strength and wisdom have been buried in the earth.

We in turn are the bearers of the wisdom and experience of whom we knew, or knew of, and the people who shaped them. By that standard, I was shaped by my grandfather Charles Stewart, architect and motorcyclist who died in 1916 in a motorcycle accident, leaving his wife to raise three young children alone. And by his mother, my great grandmother Alice Munger Stewart, who marched for women’s suffrage and lived long enough to vote, passing on her passion for politics to my mother, me, and my daughters. Even though both of them died before I was born, they live on in me and  past me, because I have shared their stories with my children. I do not know who shaped them, but those unknown forebears, some genetic, some not, also live on in me. Alice’s father’s desk, restored to its glory from its creation in the 18940s, sits in my living room as a visible link to that past.

In 1973, my husband and I and our 2-1/2 children were driving back too South Carolina on our way home from Christmas with family in Connecticut when we ran out of gas. Looking like a bunch of hippies, my bearded husband and his pregnant wife and two little girls stood by the side of the road. A local man stopped, had a gas can in his car, and took my husband into town to get gas. He told Carl that just before Christmas he and his son went out to buy a tree and saw a sign in a year saying “free Christmas tree.” He knocked. Yes, the man said, take it. It’s my gift. Pass it on. So our rescuer said to us, I’m passing it on.

So, I invite you to commit yourself to memory keeping and memory sharing. To asking questions of older family members and getting them to tell their stories,. To passing these stories on to the next generations so their stories will not be lost. Life is good, life is rich, life is challenging, life is meaningful.  Pass it on!

Let Them Be People!

Beware, dear reader, my economist self is on the warpath, but I think this is worthy of your attention. The ongoing move for corporate personhood is even more persistent than the pressure for fetal personhood, dating back to the 19th  century. At least fetuses and their advocates are not asking for free speech or lower tax rates. Yes, corporations can’t vote, but the Koch brothers and others are working hard to ensure that fewer humans have that privilege either by funding a rash of voting restrictions. Especially those humans—people of color and young people—whose voting patterns are not favorable to corporate interests. Corporations use the “money is speech” defense approved by the Supreme Court in Citizens United to influence elections.

Corporate persons are owned by actual humans, known as shareholders, which might be regarded as a privileged form of slavery. However,corporations actually enjoy several privileges not available to actual living human beings, including limited liability and the prospect of eternal life. (Not in heaven, but on earth.) Corporations are also absolved of some responsibilities that affect actual humans. Unlike humans, they are not subject to the military draft. Bankruptcy is much easier for corporations that for real people, especially those with student loan debt. Corporations have managed to get Americans to accept the fiction that their sole responsibility to society is to maximize shareholder wealth (another form of slavery), which is a misreading of a 1930s Supreme Court case protecting minority shareholders in a battle bet ween Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers.

Corporations can play local and state governments off against each other in a race to the bottom—bottom meaning tax breaks and other incentives in exchange for the promise of jobs. They pay lower federal income taxes than most human citizens. Profitable corporations paid U.S. income taxes amounting to just 11.3% of their worldwide net income in a 2019 study reported in Fortune. That low rate reflects the 2017 tax cut directed mainly at corporations and wealthy Americans who own them.  For humans, the average effective federal income tax rate is 14.7%. Corporations have access to many ways of avoiding taxes with offshore tax havens, shifting profits to subsidiaries, and a wide range of deductible business expenses that are thinly disguised perks for board members and senior management.

Yes, I know about the argument that corporate profits are taxed twice, once at the corporate level and again when shareholders receive them, although some dividends are excluded and capital gains are taxed at a lower rate.  But workers—despite robotics, most workers are actual living breathing people—are also taxed twice on the same income.  They pay social security taxes on their wages and income taxes on the same wages, so even just counting the part of the social security tax paid by the employee, that average individual tax rate jumps to 22.3%.

So…if they want them to be people, let’s treat them like people.  People expire. Corporate charters should not be in perpetuity. Bankruptcy should be just as difficult and consequential for corporations as for real people, not just a tool of financial management. In case of war, corporations could be conscripted to provide resources for defense.   Their tax liability should be equal to that of real persons, not less, and their tax dodges should be carefully scrutinized by an adequately funded IRS. Politicians should have to divulge where money comes from for their campaigns without laundering it through several washings so that sources cannot be easily traced.

Brother and sister corporations, welcome to the human family, with all the rights, privileges, and RESPONSIBILITIES appertaining thereunto.

The Communities We Build Together

I have spent the past four years as co-president, of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.    I have been a member of the League for 53 years serving both the local and state League in many capacities. The League is a force for good, a place of calm and thoughtful discussion in a whirl of nose, partisan  rhetoric, ,and a lot of half-truths and outright misinformation on social media platforms.

My three daughters and I have given much thought to our chosen communities. For my oldest daughter, it is her professional association of college and university graphic designers, of which she is currently president, and Jazzercise. For my middle daughter it is the national and even global community of singers/songwriters and musicians. For my youngest daughter, mother of three daughters, for the past  dozen years it has been dance moms and girl scouts.  For me, it is my congregation and its faith tradition, my profession of economics, and the League.  Each of these has served to shape my vocation and find my place in the world to be useful, to find meaning, and to be grounded in community.

Each of these three communities exists to serve and promote shared values and purposes.. For the League, those shared values are  democracy and democratic process. The idea of covenanted communities in which decisions are not handed down by authorities but worked out in the give and take among members, who determine what values the group shares, what purposes it serves, and how those values and purposes are best expressed in concrete situations. The idea of covenant is a gift of the Jews and the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Latin roots of the word community mean building together.  The chief rabbi of Britain wrote a book in 2007 called The House We Build Together. A democratic nation, he says, is a house we build together. We build it from the ground up in the civic organizations, schools and churches and neighborhood associations that we have built together, learning to work through differences and find common ground. Some of that building is glamorous and exciting when League members get to  testify, lobby, and empower voters through helping them register and find reliable information about candidates and issues..  Some of the work of that community is as pedestrian as routine maintenance, painting the walls, shoring up the foundations, patching the roof, For the League, those tasks include producing the newsletter, organizing meetings, managing the finances,  attending Zoom meetings, and monitoring pending legislation.

At the two statewide gatherings each  year, members engage in community building—a celebration of shared values, a renewal of commitment, a pause to see each other as people, companions on the journey, fellow builders of the house even as we work together at our own version of shoring up the foundation and patching the roof. I know most of the 85 members of my local League. I have come to know at least 100  members of other Leagues around the state in the through my work at the state level. 

The League, along with church, family, close friends, and neighborhood, is my community. It inspires challenges, and encourages me to use my gifts and to learn to collaborate and seek common ground both within the organization and beyond as we try to influence public policy and protect democratic process against external threats. It is my hope that each of you has found or  can find at least one community that offers you the same kind of opportunities, challenges, and support.

Discovering My Inner Celt

I grew up being told that I was a Yankee, which in Connecticut meant a New Englander of English descent.   Most of my ancestors were in New England a century or more before the American Revolution.  But it turns out that they were not all English. I did know there was some Scottish in there, but wasn’t sure how much.  My mother, after all, was a Stewart. As ancestry.com continued to refine my ethnic heritage, I turned out to be 50% English (my father’s side), 40% a mix of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, and the rest Norwegian—those Vikings visiting the British Isles and leaving their DNA behind.

Along with a mostly Welsh friend and a mostly Irish friend, I had watched the Great Courses series The Celtic World as we celebrated our shred ancestry. But my proudest moments of being 40 percent Celtic came with two unrelated discoveries, the Irish monk and heretic Pelagius and the delightful historical mystery series by Peter Tremayne, set in seventh century Ireland with Sister Fidelma as the heroine.

Pelagius was a fourth century monk who differed significantly from the emerging Augustinian orthodoxy of original sin and predestination. Arguing that we were created in the image of God, Pelagius believed in free will and the opportunity for all to be saved.  That might sound obvious to modern ears, but it was heresy in his day. When my Monday night discussion group discovered Pelagius, we agreed that those of us who had been to seminary who had heard of him at all had been told he was a heretic. He was, indeed, a Christian Universalist like the second century theologian Origen, affirming a heresy that has been embraced by most of contemporary mainstream Christianity

More important than the theology to me was the culture embodied by Sister Fidelma.  Fidelma was the sister of the king of Muman (later Munster, one of five Irish kingdoms under the High King).  She was a well-educated person and a dalaigh—an officer of the court, a lawyer with investigatory powers under Brehon law. She was not alone. Other women held positions of authority in law, religion, and governance.  Although she left the convent and renounced her vows to pursue a more worldly career in collaboration with her brother, she was still known as Sister Fidelma.  She married an Angle, Brother Eadulf, and bore a child.

Kings in 7th century Ireland were selected by a quasi- democratic process.  When a king (or queen) died, there would be a designated heir  already in place.  A conclave of at least three generations of the ruling family would crown the designated heir and select from within the family a new designated heir based on the fitness of that person to rule. It could be a woman.  

Through Sister Fidelma’s adventures, we discover a great deal that was different about Celtic religion and culture, especially the role of women and an egalitarian view of the world. Nuns and monks lived in co-houses under the joint rule of an abbot and an abbess, in which monks and nuns could marry and raise their children in the faith.  There was no attempt to wipe out the old religion; many of its beliefs and practices were retained and integrated into their Christian faith. It was a faith deeply grounded in the earth, a practice that some segments of modern Christianity have somewhat belatedly embraced. 

Women in that culture could choose to marry or not, divorce, and own  property. They could enter a trial marriage for a year, as Sister Fidelma did, after which they made it permanent or parted ways without penalty, free to remarry or remain single . While misogyny flourished in areas of Western Europe under Roman rule and /or influence, Ireland was never part of the Holy Roman Empire, too far away to be subjected to patriarchy until much later.  

I have always celebrated my Scotch-Irish great grandmother Alice Munger Stewart, who marched for women’s suffrage  in the early 20th century  It is heartening to learn from Peter Tremayne and Sister Fidelma how deep in my DNA runs the belief that women are fully human, competent, and equal, and deserve to be treated accordingly. I defied my mother’s expectation that I could become a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, and became an academic economist instead.

I was fortunate to come of age in the time of the women’s movement in this country, led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and countless others. I was blessed with a feminist husband who told me early in our marriage that he did not want a wife who lived vicariously through him.  I assured him that such an arrangement was fine with me.  We raised three feminist daughters who in turn raised our four granddaughters to be all that they can be. 

I wish the same for women everywhere striving to reassert their full humanity and their right to be treated as equals.