My Mother’s Day (and Life)


I hope she now rests in peace because the last years of her life were a long goodbye, most of which she never seemed to comprehend. My mother, Margaret Lyon Morgan, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s being the first sign something was wrong. She tried to control what was happening. I witnessed her having the same meals every day, rechecking things to make sure they were still there, then slowly receding into the long dark night that ended in her death, which also took its toll on my sister, herself a nurse, and my father, a minister. I came to really appreciate their steadfastness. I once was angry at my father for neglecting her, but in the last years of her life he became a real caregiver. Love has many forms; he showed me the most important.

I was the last of five children, the one unexpected (it makes life much easier knowing you were never meant to be because anything you do is a plus), and therefore the one closest to my mother. I can say I never heard her say an unkind word to me or anyone else. I know there were times I deserved harsh words, but I think knowing she might be disappointed in me served better than a spanking. One is best shaped by kindness, not punishment.

We would travel by train together many summers between our Philadelphia home and Denver, Colorado where my grandparents lived. My mother, who always wanted to be an actress but got married and raised children instead, used that time to give what she called “dramatic readings,” which really were long stories she told with great flair. She had a fantastic memory in those days. I can almost hear her now telling the story of the bald headed man and the fly or the other wise man. She would tell the same stories before many groups, mostly in the churches served by my father.

As I have thought back to those years, I have realized how much I owe her. Thanks to her, I love to tell and write stories. I realize now the reason I love an audience, whether in writing books or giving talks, is her legacy. Seeds planted early in the life of a child bear fruit later. Thanks to her, there is a gentle side to my personality.

It’s strange how we are led to believe the influences fathers have upon sons, but my life story is about the influence of my mother upon me. While she was alive, I never told her this, but this week while driving to a class, I remembered and thanked her. Did she hear? I don’t know, but I hope so. She deserved to know my gratitude for giving me words and stories and kindness.

When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and her mind began to cloud over, I took my daughter, Lynne, to visit her. She had given Lynne her middle name, Marie. I have a picture of Lynne on her lap. My mother is smiling, but I can see in her eyes a look of bewilderment, wondering who this was but knowing at some level this was her granddaughter. For the few years living nearby, I could see the gradual but steady decline.

And then she started the long descent into the night. I went off to do graduate work in Ohio. My sister and father took care of her and gave steadily somber reports, until a phone call came one night telling me she had died. I felt a strange mixture of sadness that she was gone and relief her suffering was over. I wrote a poem to her, some of the words were:

Mother, if I had known how you wept, I would have come,
but you died hardly remembering your name.
We die the death we deserve, some say;
but you never deserved this.
Mother, I try to remember for you hoping
you may finally rest.
Women: listen to this one man-child:
Do not forget your names….

Strange, I think of her now more than ever. I have flashbacks of her giving a dramatic reading before a woman’s group or on the train to Denver. I see her pulling a grocery cart to the nearest market because she never learned how to drive. I go with her every week as she takes a small portion of the money my father gave her for groceries to put in a savings account. I watch her making dinner, cleaning the house, like a mother hen watching over everyone else.

I said to one of my brothers this week that if there’s a life beyond this one, I’d like to see our mother again. I have some questions for her, as every child has questions for every parent they really don’t know, but mostly I would like to thank her for the gifts she has given me–life being the chief one, but also of good memories listening to stories while travelling the long journey to Denver.

I have a little book of daily readings I start each day with. The one today was: “You cannot ask the darkness to leave, you must turn on the light” (Sogyal Rinpoche). The darkness into which my mother descended was real, but I choose now to turn on the light and remember her before the descent into a place she didn’t choose and we had to witness. May you truly rest in peace. Maybe one day we can stop or treat this terrible disease for so many others who are or will suffer.

(For more information, I would suggest you visit the website or Facebook page of USAgainstAlzheimer’s)

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Filed under Dr. John C. Morgan, Mothers, Parents, Spirituality, Trains, wisdom

Boston Strong


“Everybody has our back.” The words of a Boston columnist reflecting on how he and many residents of the city feel, even as they mourn the day of marathon last year when four persons died and others lost limbs.

I love Boston, having gone to school, worked, and lived there. It is a fantastic small great city. It is “Boston strong.”

Some have called it “the Athens of America,” and I cannot disagree because of its rich spiritual, literary, and musical heritage. It’s not just the past history, but the current culture and learning potential there. I went to school nearby and worked near the Boston Commons. I have ridden the “T” rather than driven in the city. I remember once being warned not to walk on the sidewalk near the state house because a “car might hit you.” I have sat in Fenway Park and felt it was another century before players were millionaires. I have walked past the state house and eaten lunch in Boston Common gardens. I’ve wrestled for bargains in Filenes and ordered my coffee “regular” in restaurants. I endured feet of snow, fireworks on July Fourth, and Boston drivers. I’ve walked the lamp lit back streets blocks past Beacon Street, and I’ve done an internship in Boston City Hospital, a place I still believe was kept intact only by faith and masking tape. I’ve watched the city adopt progressive positions others only talk about and some resist. I’ve walked in hallways where Emerson walked and pass the pond where Thoreau warned about living “lives of quiet desperation.”

I’ve heard though it could be said of Boston as one writer said of London: If you don’t love Boston, you don’t love life.

I may have been born in Philadelphia but my spiritual home remains Boston.

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Suddenly they appear, not at my bidding, these yellow daffodils
from the earth raw with promise, ready to come alive
and bring hope full force.
What a miracle right now in front of me,
I had forgotten them in deadly Winter.
I need to remind myself again and again
of how they speak of new life
arising out of the ground–
saviors from my dry despair.
Give thanks, people, they are heralds of Spring.

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Through the Window


I guess it all depends on whether you are inside looking out or outside looking in as to what you see.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

What do you see now looking out your window?

And what do you really see looking out the window of your soul?

We shape and become what we see.

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“The Last Lecture”

A ten-minute lecture I gave every group of students I teach.

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April 10, 2014 · 6:06 PM

Trash, Trash, and More Trash


Students at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, participate in a day of service, one part of which was picking up trash along a few blocks.

Around this area Saturday groups of people were out collecting trash thrown out carelessly.   One wonders how people can toss their papers and cigarettes and tin cans wherever they might be, even within a few feet of a trash can.   Obviously they are not thinking, but also not caring at the same time about the earth itself.

I once saw a cartoon of Mother Earth crying, struggling to get out of miles and miles of trash.  We are destroying the very earth which gives us life, whether with our industrial or residential waste or the drilling for oil or gas.   Somewhere we lost the respect for the earth upon which we depend, leading me to believe the only ethic which makes sense today is one that includes the entire planet.

A recent report on climate change from the United Nations showed we are far worse off than we thought, even as some political pundits who want to “drill, baby, drill,” and wouldn’t know a melting ice cap if standing on one, are saying the report is flawed and driven by environmentalists.   I have even heard some preachers say God wouldn’t permit us to destroy ourselves–not only bad theology given their own beliefs in the f”great flood” but dangerous, protecting those who continue to pollute and destroy our home.

We could argue for years about whether climate change is true or false, but we don’t have years.  Think of it this way: If you knew the very planet on which we live might be destroyed by what we are doing, wouldn’t it make sense to err on the side of those who want us to safeguard our own future?  

Underneath some of the discussions about climate change, I suspect are economic factors–greed, if you want it put bluntly. Whenever there’s talk of building a new pipeline or drilling into the earth, the issue is presented as an either/or one–it’s either the environment or jobs?   What if it’s not either jobs or the environment, but both.  Can’t we do both with new forms of energy and more sane use of our resources?

If you realized your life and that of your children and grandchildren and all life on this planet depended on taking better care of the earth (and it does), there are ways to lessen the possibility of a doomsday scenario.  


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In Praise of Newspapers

Once upon a time with a graduate degree in philosophy in hand I went to work as a journalist. Don’t ask me why. I remember the low marks given to newspapers long ago by the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, who said that if he had a daughter who became a prostitute he would forgive her, but if he had a daughter who became a journalist, he would give her up as lost.

Contrary to common belief, philosophy majors tend to have high job placement rates. Perhaps that’s because the study of philosophy is a path for people with lots of questions who are interested in many things which can lead into many careers. I don’t know of any philosophers walking the streets to argue with citizens as Socrates did, but, then, on the other hand, I do know of philosophy majors who have gone into teaching, the law, social work, counseling, journalism, even running a restaurant or working in a bank. What do philosophy majors do? Whatever they want. Where do they work? Wherever they can find a job.

So, with a philosophy degree in hand, I went to work on a newspaper where I got a different kind of education from court records and police reports, calamities and movements. As a journalist my special area of concern was the civil rights movement. I went along on the poor peoples’ campaign in Washington, D.C.; I wrote about clashes in the city between police and residents; I did a series on discrimination in housing. I kept a long cherished journalist’s ethical code on my wall to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I won a number of newspaper awards for my series and columns but I also kept another sentence there to keep me humble: “Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s kitty litter.”

I am really grateful for these first years of my career as a journalist. Besides giving me a real world view, the experiences helped me write as clearly as I could with as few words as possible. It took a few months to get the academic jargon out of my blood stream, but eventually I did.

I also miss the colleagues in the newsroom. In those days we did not sit apart from each other in isolated cubicles but next to one another, the smoke of cigars and cigarettes in the air, the sounds of typewriter keys in our ears, and blotches of ink on our hands. We used x-rated, politically incorrect words most of the time, shouted at each other across the newsroom, and otherwise resembled the human equivalent of a wild kingdom of animals. On the other hand, come deadline time, we pitched in to help one another. Many decades later, I can still see those with whom I worked and almost hear their voices.

So in this digital world where the printed word on a real page now seems more like something in a museum and we are beset with bells and whistles announcing the latest news on our cell phones, let me pause today and remember the days when newspapers were the consciences of communities and the main sources information about our towns and the world. The words on newspapers, magazines, and books may be disappearing, but I am not resigned and do not go gentle into this informational night. I am reminded of a writer who used a metaphor for describing what he thought hell might be: Confusion. That’s an apt metaphor for our times where information is spread upon the earth like manure in the fields and where each one of us is a heartbeat away from the latest disaster.

Newspaper pix

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Filed under John C. Morgan, journalism