Friday, December 21, 2012

Journey of Awakening - 53: Back to La La Land

The feeling had begun to creep into me during that long hard winter and spring of 77-78. Whether it was those weeks on the road, the weather, being away from Linda and Eric, seeing the Town Meeting campaign coming to its final stages, the fading of spiritual commitment, or just plain burn-out, I can't say. What was working on my psyche was a sense of spiritual aridity, of lostness, of wandering in a desert, and it was subtly coming into consciousness, like the first scent of orange blossoms that after a day or two overwhelms the senses and seems to permeate every molecule of the body/mind.

It may have begun when our visionary leader Joe Mathews was taken from us in the fall of 1977. The Order/ICA was now heading into a season of struggle for an identity without Joe. There was also the phone call during the winter while I was in Richmond: "Dad, I'm in a little trouble."

My son Robb was in 8th grade in a Minneapolis middle school. He was getting increasingly difficult for his mother to handle and was getting into drugs and cutting classes. By the summer Robb's mother in league with the courts had sent him to a teen work camp in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. When I finally called her to discuss Robb's future, Sue was adamant that he could not return home and it was about time "his father took over and gave him the guidance he so desperately needs."

When Linda and I got back to Chicago after our glorious Greyhound summer adventure, we were somewhat at odds as to whether we could return to Boston for another year or just up and leave the staff, which was the only solution my foggy brain was entertaining. Our area Prior, Justin Morrill, not failing to show his frustration with my state of mind, finally came up with an offer I could not ignore: "Would you consider taking the assignment of the Los Angeles House?"

OK, that was in California. Linda and I had been married in that house. My mother lived in Van Nuys. I had worked in Southern California and knew the territory. Maybe it would work? At least it would give me a year to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

I agreed to go. Linda agreed to go with me. Now all we had to do was figure out what to do about son Robbin who was up in a youth work camp in northern Minnesota, get ourselves from Chicago to Green Bay and back to Boston to get our stuff and show up in Los Angeles by September. A piece of cake.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Adventures of Obama – 8

(I began these a couple of years ago—the others are in the archives and were written in response to events at the time they were written)


Obama wasn’t supposed to win,

Was going to take it right on the chin.

Pundits and polls had counted him out;

The economy was what it was all about.

Romney and Ryan were coming on strong.

Tea Partiers were saying “It won’t be long!”

Barack Obama, he didn’t flinch;

He held his ground, didn’t give an inch.

He meant what he said and he said what he meant,

And AGAIN got elected our president.

(Thanks again to Ogden Nash – Adventures of Isobel)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Journey of Awakening - 52: The Summer of Content

The summer of '78 approaching, Linda and I made an apparent choice to skip our assignment to spend the summer in Chicago basking in the heat and humidity with several hundred of our colleagues in a smoke-filled room. Actually, it was the only choice, after the year we'd had, work-wise and family-wise. We took our monthly stipend and the few dollars we had managed to save from our family budget and purchased a Greyhound Ameri-pass, two cheap backpacks, made arrangements for the kids, and took off for a summer adventure.

Greyhound Bus 1970s

The month-long bus pass allowed us to travel on any Greyhound route. The buses were a mixed bag and still had smoking sections in the back, which was ok with me since I was still addicted, although because Linda was not, I tried to limit my smoke breaks. The tobacco odor permeated the interior constantly. Added to this often was the sickeningly sweet perfume that came from someone in the back sharing some of the "good stuff."

Our travel budget did not include much hotel money, so we planned our itinerary to travel at night, grabbing as much shut-eye as possible, then spending the day sightseeing and snoozing in a public park, not necessarily in that order. This made for interesting encounters with other travelers and challenges in locating restrooms for bathing, shaving, quick underwear changes and all other necessities. But we were having a glorious adventure with no one making demands on us. And besides, we had many years experience knowing how to be poor and "living off the land."

Our itinerary took us through Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee on our first night out, landing in downtown Memphis just after the sun came up. After a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and grits at a local greasy spoon cafe suggested by the bus driver, we asked where there was a park with grass within walking distance. Spreading our one blanket out under a big shade tree, we drifted off for a couple of hours, than explored as much of Memphis as we could before catching the Greyhound for a night-time ride to New Orleans. Linda and I were interested in local history and found that each city had museums and historic sites easily accessible to walkers. Had we been driving ourselves we would have passed over so much of the richness of culture that these southeastern states offered. One uniqueness of the culture of the south that it was difficult not to notice was the leftover signs of the Jim Crow days. The bathrooms, the drinking fountains, the segregated housing, even the looks of displeasure should a black person take a seat next to a white person on the bus. This was not so noticeable in the large cities, but at each of the smaller town bus stops the years of segregation and oppressive social structures were so evident you could smell and taste them.

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Memphis, Tennessee – Beale Street

Our most memorable and pleasurable stay during our adventure was the three days we spent in New Orleans. We decided to spend our meagre hotel budget for two nights right on Bourbon Street. The weather was hot and the humidity steamy. Strolling through the French Quarter, stopping to watch the street performers, and best of all taking in the night life made us feel like rich tourists. A highlight was getting inside for an evening with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

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New Orleans – Preservation Hall

The next leg of our bus tour took us through Mobile, Tallahassee, Tampa, Miami, all the way to Key West, where we decided to 'blow' the last two nights of our budget for lodging. The weather was hot but the ocean breezes made for balmy evenings, so we would walk along the beach in the mornings and evenings and take long naps in the afternoons. We soaked up the luxurious surroundings like drunken sailors, thinking we would probably never get the chance to be in Key West again.

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The return trip went up the Florida coast through Jacksonville to Atlanta, then on through Chattanooga, Knoxville, and stopping for a couple of nights in Lexington, Kentucky, where we sponged off of Linda's sister Sandra. And we needed sponging off. We did not want to leave that bathtub.

All good things must end. We braced ourselves for the last leg back to Chicago to 'face the music'. We arrived at the end of July at 4750 North Sheridan, formerly known as the Kemper building, to be confronted with Justin Morrill's contemptuous look and brief but painful grilling.

"So we could have used you here where you were assigned to be, you know."

We knew we were going to be in for it, so we just lowered our heads and said we just needed the time away.

Now it was time to deal with next year's assignments. Would we be sent back to Boston? Overseas? Or?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Journey of Awakening - 51: Mainer Again

It had been a grueling year so far. I had been home in Boston with my family a total of seven weeks out of the seven months on the road. It was good to be back in my home turf again, even though I was sent out immediately to travel along the Maine coastline all the way to New Brunswick. My assignment was to search out a fishing village that might meet the ICA's criteria for a Human Development Project. An HDP was, as I think of it, an extended and continuous Town Meeting. During the time when our staff and volunteers were engaged in the campaign of 5000 Town Meetings across the United States the ICA was also sending staff into villages and towns in places as diverse as India, Egypt, Africa, Australia, Indonesia, Korea, The Philippines to work with local residents on sustainable futures for themselves and their communities.

We would begin these projects with a week-long "consult" bringing together local leadership and citizens with our ICA staff and volunteers to design together a plan that the community would implement with assistance from a small resident ICA staff who would live and work in the community for two to three years, after which local leaders who had been trained in participatory methods would carry on with actualizing their vision for their community.

In addition to the overseas communities, we selected 12 regions of the United States where we could initiate these demonstration projects, most of them in rural communities where the economy had left people feeling abandoned and hopeless. One of these was to be in Maine and since I had worked and travelled throughout the state the previous fall I was sent out as an advance scout with the thought that it might be one of the hundreds of fishing villages along the Maine coast that would be right for one an HDP. Of course, in the tradition of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, without consulting our resident Maine "expert," (me), someone in the ICA's Chicago headquarters sent another team out into the interior farmlands of the state and, by the time I returned from one of my forays, the town of Starks, Maine had been selected as a better choice for the project. So I dutifully "packed it in" and filed the voluminous notes on fishing villages and returned to Boston, awaiting further orders.


These came quickly. Our House was to host the teams of staff and about twenty volunteers who would be arriving for the consult to be held in May. Preparations included selling the powers-that-be on the advantages of not only a bunch of outsiders descending on their town for a couple of weeks, but inviting two or three families to stay on for a couple more years, and finding suitable housing for them to boot. Miraculously, gaining permission happened with hardly a question about our motives, in spite of the fact that many of these small rural communities had been suspicious of do-gooders offering gifts and being taken advantage of during the years of the "war on poverty" in the sixties. Somehow, our approach of development of local leadership and self-reliance struck a positive chord among these Maine farmers.

The week of the consult was scheduled for May. In advance of the date our ICA staff in New England was assigned to work with the team from Chicago who would be the staff on-site for the years following the consult. We had to arrange lodging for the consult team and more permanent housing for the staff. Someone from Starks offered free use of an old abandoned farmhouse outside of town. So we were set. When we arrived we found that abandoned was a mild word. This house was forlorn. It was set in a beautiful wooded area but the years of neglect showed in its leaky roof, broken windows, creaking floors, and a well that was somewhat suspect. There was actually an indoor toilet but the septic tank didn’t work and there was no outhouse in sight. This meant we had to live in the house for a couple of weeks, carry water from town, and dig a temporary latrine out in the woods while the repairs were being made and the “terrible awful” septic tank was dug out. That was accomplished in a weekend with the help of our son Eric, a fourth grader, who, after his parents along with the other adults on our crew stood in a circle staring down into this murky cauldron of filth waiting for volunteers, jumped in with both feet, asked for a shovel, and began digging out.

Somehow the house was readied, lodging for the consult team was secured, and this all was accomplished in a couple of weeks. The consult team members arrived and were housed in a tent camp which may have built for hunting and fishing. One item of pre-planning, however, had been overlooked. May was “black fly season.” Having grown up in Minnesota, where mosquito stories abound, I was totally unaware of the black fly. I soon discovered that mosquito netting was of no use to keep them out. These pesky critters were so small they were almost invisible. They swarmed. And their bite was not just annoying. It stung.

The week did come off without a hitch. The town leaders and the townspeople were satisfied with the work they had done planning for their future and were ready to dive into the practical work ahead.

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We had a big celebration at the end of the week with a cookout and games on the town square. Then all of us who were there for the consult packed up and left our small staff team led by a young couple, John and Katy Chafee, to carry on with the implementation of the project. We felt like we were abandoning them to an unbelievable on-the-job-training experience. They were so young. But they assured us they were ready.

Linda and I and Eric headed back to Boston to finish up and prepare for the summer and for our next year’s assignment, somewhere in the world.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Journey of Awakening – 50: The Paper Caper

I was fully intending to get back to Boston by spring in 1978—writing about it, that is. But another intrusion into my writing career had to do with the need to prepare my mother’s home for a summer repair project. Our son Eric and his lovely wife Tina had generously offered Eric’s services for a month this summer to do some much needed upgrades of the place. A bonus is that he is bringing our two granddaughters, Katy, 9 and Grace, 6 to spend the summer with Grandma and Grandpa. They will be staying in Mom’s cottage, which will also be known as “the job site.” Granddaughter Samantha, 7 is flying out from Iowa and will be staying in our newly remodeled guest room. We are pleased that these cousins will be able to meet for the first time.

That was the good news. When I mentioned preparing my mother’s home for the repair project, I didn’t say that a good part of the preparation entailed stripping 25-year-old decorative wallpaper from two bathrooms, a hallway, and an enormous vaulted-ceiling living and dining room. Linda and I researched “best practices” for removing old wallpaper and received a bazillion pieces of advice from Googlers and others, including products they swore by and simple home remedies. We finally decided to buy an inexpensive steamer contraption at Lowe’s after exploring renting a similar but larger one at Home Depot. I was soon to have a great deal of clarity on what all of our Google friends meant when they referred to “swearing by” their various recommended methods.

We had one asset that helped immensely—our Gang. I had also read Tom Sawyer. We enticed Frank, 78, Paul, 65, and Tomi, 67 to a “Beer-Pizza-Wallpaper Party” at Mom’s Place on a Saturday. This gave us a rolling start as Tomi and Linda worked in one bathroom and I in the other while we put Frank and Paul on the steamer in the dining room. We are grateful for friends who can turn work projects into fun. They even volunteered to put in a few extra hours in the week following the party.

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Frank suggested that I go back to Home Depot and find out if their rented steamer, which was larger than the one I had purchased for fifty bucks but which rented for thirty dollars for four hours, would make the work go faster. The friendly HD guy just shook his head with the comment “It’s wallpaper, Dude!”

Today after writing class I will finish the last remaining patch of freakin’ flowered wallpaper. Can someone tell me why anyone thought putting paper on walls was a good idea?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Journey of Awakening – 49: My Last Town Meeting

I remember the day we left Pittsburgh, Suzanne Heilman and I, heading for the town of Snow Shoe, at the summit of I-80, before making the descent to Philadelphia. Suzanne, Burna Dunn and I had been assigned to travel from Richmond, Virginia to the Pittsburgh ICA House, which was Burna and David Dunn’s home base, to mop up the remaining towns in the western half of the state. We spent several days on phones scheduling Town Meetings, which our volunteers would then be assigned to show up and conduct, often on one day’s notice.

Finally, we were down to the last two or three counties. Once the dates were set and the teams assigned, there was just one small town left—Snow Shoe. It was decided that Suzanne and I would cover it on the way to our Washington, D.C. House where the rest of our set-up teams were gathering.

SnowShoe_PA on map

The light snowfall began about noon and then kept on falling. We were on I-80, too far to turn back, we concluded. Then the windshield wipers on the borrowed car stopped working. It was a wet snowfall. I ended up driving with the window down holding the wheel with my right hand and swishing the wiper blades across my side of the windshield with my left. It was slow going and we began to notice the highway becoming slick. At one point we were alongside a semi-trailer which began what looked like a jack-knifing motion. There was not much I could do except hope and pray so I just took my foot off the accelerator and let the huge truck swing sideways, hoping it would miss us. It did. We pushed on.

Around 6 o’clock we stopped at a roadside cafĂ© for a bite. It was now snowing hard enough that we decided there was no way people were going to come out for a Town Meeting, even if we got there. So we phoned the Snow Shoe town hall before getting back on the road. The meeting was set for 7 p.m. and we were at least an hour away. The cheery voice of the mayor, who was hosting the meeting, answered and let us know they were used to weather like this. Most of the attendees were already there and they were looking forward to this meeting and would wait for us.

Snow Shoe Welcome  SnowShoePABoroughHall

We arrived about an hour late and this little group of about a dozen Snow Shoers welcomed us warmly and stayed for two hours, gathered around a wood-burning stove for one of the more memorable events of the Town Meeting campaign. I don’t recall any of their issues or proposals, but the enthusiasm for their town and their active participation still finds a welcome niche in my memory bank.

We were lucky we needed neither chains nor snow shoes to get there. That Town Meeting in the late winter of 1978 was the last one I recall having participated in. I was looking forward to returning to the Boston House and Linda and Eric, and preparing for my last journey into Maine in the spring.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Journey of Awakening – 48: A Three Month Interlude

Life does not correspond to timelines—mine or anyone’s. I was intending to finish off writing about the Town Meeting campaign in Pennsylvania, winter of ’78. But on February 12 of this year Linda and I got a call that changed our lives: “This is the Redlands Police Department. Your mother has run her car into a tree and we are taking her to Redlands Community Hospital Emergency.”


Mom’s car after arguing with a tree

So began a three-plus month interruption in my life story. My mother, Opal, at age 95, had two broken legs at the knees and a fractured neck. She was transferred to Arrowhead Regional trauma center where she underwent five hours of surgery followed by a couple of weeks back at Redlands Community and then a transfer to Asistencia Villa for skilled nursing care and physical therapy rehab. She remains there, struggling with persistent bacterial infections that slow her recovery progress.


Easter Brunch at Asistencia Villa

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Mother’s Day 2012 at Asistencia Villa

We have been introduced to the California Medi-Cal system in an entirely new way. Since Mom has very limited assets, she has no way of covering the hundreds of thousands of dollars that her care is costing. We have been fortunate to be referred to an advocate who is helping us work through the process of getting Mom qualified for Medi-Cal. Meanwhile, we have had to transfer all of Mom’s assets to me as part of the process. She was actually planning to stop driving at the end of May. Did I mention that life does not correspond to timelines?

I don’t want to make excuses for my lapse into the realm of non-writing, but this was not the only impediment I encountered. We had begun a complete renovation of our little apartment in early February, which required moving out for at least three weeks, storing all of our furniture and belongings on our neighbor’s patio, and living in a friend’s apartment. Neither did all go as planned with this project. Just as the last of the hardwood flooring was laid a leak was discovered in the wall adjoining the bathroom and our new guest room. The flooring had to be completely ripped up and replaced, adding an additional two weeks to the completion date.

A third and final distraction was my son Rob’s two trips to the emergency room with a still undiagnosed condition but one which it seems he has since recovered from.

My conclusion is that life seems to present itself to us in “3’s” but I cannot guarantee this.

I hope to get back to my Journey of Awakening saga next week. Sometimes awakening happens even without the journey, even without the story. It just happens. That’s amazing!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Journey of Awakening – 47: A Memorable Town

New Year week 1978. Somehow, call it Linda’s miraculous recovery or sheer determination, our family, me, Linda, Eric, and Troy who was in our Student House in Chicago, all were in one place for about a week in Boston. We decided to take a family one day trip to Cape Cod, stopping at Plymouth Rock on the way.

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We drove all the way to Provincetown   Cape Cod from Above

January was definitely not the time to visit Cape Cod. And we were disappointed that we could not actually stand on Plymouth Rock which was several feet below us with a fence surrounding its enclosure. Troy’s only comment was “Is that it?”

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That was the extent of our family holiday before I headed back out on the Town Meeting circuit.

By the time I joined the team we were moving our base of operations to Richmond, Virginia. Assignments were a little saner for the two weeks we were in Virginia. We had more volunteers so could go out in teams of two. We had a couple of us stay back in Richmond phoning to set up the meetings and appointments so the rest of us could concentrate on scheduling and conducting the forums.


My Colleague Burna Dunn in front of Richmond ICA House

I remember one foray I and another volunteer made all the way out to the point where Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee connect. A little town nestled in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The name is lost to memory. Let’s call it Jonesville.

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Many of the small mountain towns in SW Virginia were “Company Towns”

The only issue that seemed to be on the mind of the town leaders as we discussed scheduling their Town Meeting was that they were really disappointed that they could not get the participation of the black folks in the community in town affairs. I am sure they were well-intentioned sentiments. I couldn’t help wondering whether they realized how deep were the scars of more than two hundred years of slavery and being treated as less than human. We knew that whatever issues a town expressed on the surface, it was most difficult for the citizens to see with clarity the underlying contradictions that kept them from addressing their real situations.

Of course, one Town Meeting would not resolve all of the community issues. But we were often amazed at how much could be accomplished when people came together, left their entrenched beliefs at the door, and used appropriate methods aimed at building consensus.

I sometimes wonder if that little Virginia mountain town ever got it together.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Journey of Awakening – 46: Snowed in – in Harrisburg, PA

December 1977 - Working my way toward western Pennsylvania on the Town Meeting circuit. Our team of ten volunteers was to meet up in Harrisburg, the capitol of Pennsylvania, at the home of Ellen and Dick Howie, who were expecting to put us up for a couple of nights.

The snow flurries began the week before Christmas. By the time we arrived in Harrisburg most of the highways east and north all the way to upstate New York and as far as Boston were closed. The blizzard of ’77 was upon the eastern states with all its fury.

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             Harrisburg                            Boston

Linda and Eric were stuck in Boston and I was stuck in Harrisburg. Airports were closing and even the trains were not running. So our colleagues, the Howies, were stuck with ten of us, sleeping in their living and dining room for about a week. We made due, huddling around the fireplace, singing Town Meeting songs and Christmas carols, played lots of chess and card games, and tried not to wear out our welcome. A couple of days before the New Year I was able to get a train and made it back to Boston in time to greet 1978 and find Linda with a bad case of flu. As I remember I had to walk through the as yet unplowed streets from Copley Plaza station to our house, dragging my bag through the snow. But it was good to be home.

The streets were not cleared for another eight days, which was fine because we were both recovering from sickness and Town Meeting travel. Eric, who was in fourth grade, had to take care of both of his parents. And he did so without complaining.

When I returned to Pennsylvania in the middle of January, the snow was no longer an impediment and the roads were clear. So back on the Town Meeting circuit.

The only additional memory I have of my time in Harrisburg was driving by these huge cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power generating station, unaware that in just one year this would be the scene of the worst nuclear disaster in our nation’s history and the occasion for major changes in the world’s nuclear power industry.

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The Meltdown

It always amazes me how the day-to-day focus on what is in front of us as our particular piece of the human adventure allows us to go on in the midst of impending world-altering events. Another sign of how little control we actually have over the world—or over our own lives.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Journey of Awakening – 45: December Surprise

Thanksgiving 1977 was spent in the ICA’s New York Regional House on the lower east side of Manhattan preparing for the next phase of the Town Meeting campaign. Our campaign team, which we named our “Strike Force” (a term stolen from our reading of the famous Chinese general Sun Tzu), had the ominous task of completing community forums throughout the eastern states. We were intent on conquering the eastern seaboard before Spring. After a weekend of celebration and planning Linda and Eric, Nancy Trask, and Tom Reemtsma were all sent back to hold down the Boston House and Region. I was assigned to go with the 15 or 20 volunteers making up the Strike Force.

We headed for Philadelphia, which was our base for the first two weeks of December. I was immediately dispatched to cover southeastern Pennsylvania. So I began my next solitary journey on a cloudy December day with only a highway map and a story to tell. Highway 30 took me to Downington, Coatesville, Lancaster, York, New Oxford, Hanover, and on the second or third day out on my circuit, I came upon a highway sign that gave me a little shiver and caused me to pull the car over to the side of the road: “Gettysburg 10 miles.”


I had of course memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as most of my generation did, while still in grade school. And I had always felt this connection to Abraham Lincoln, the log cabin lawyer who rose to the highest office in the land and then was tragically taken down just as the war over which he presided to save the Union was finally over. Carl Sandberg’s Lincoln was my Lincoln. So I decided to take the afternoon off and spend it at the Gettysburg battlefield. It was an eerie experience for me. There was not a soul at the museum center. I literally was able to walk around the battleground undisturbed. I could almost hear the cannon and rifle fire and the yells of the soldiers as they charged up one hill after another and the screams of the wounded and dying men as they lay waiting to die or be picked up and taken to a field hospital. I stayed there until dusk, in a contemplative state, not wanting to leave.

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I don’t recall much about how many towns were scheduled for Town Meetings during the two weeks working out of Philadelphia. But I will never forget the afternoon spent at Gettysburg.

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Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.