Tuesday, October 31, 2006

back in our old haunt

When Ginger and I first moved to Massachusetts in 1990, we settled in Charlestown, one of the neighborhoods of Boston and home to the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument. We lived first in a small apartment on Pleasant Street, in the shadow of the Monument, and then in a row house, circa 1840, at 14 Hill Street, looking down over the Mystic River.

I had never known what it was like to live in a neighborhood until I moved to Charlestown.

Boston residents, for the most part, don’t have air-conditioning in their homes. Summertime means the windows are open. Moving from Texas, where I drove into the garage, closing the door behind me, and then entered my sealed home, I never knew much at all about what was happening next door. Three days in Charlestown and we could tell you what our neighbors were cooking, what TV shows they watched, and what they called each other when they were mad. Ginger said the day she felt like a real Bostonian was when our friend Marilyn yelled up from the street, “Hey, Ginga! Open the dowah!” (Translation: “Hey Ginger! Open the door!”)

We moved in around Labor Day, so Halloween was our first holiday without boxes. Our new friend, Rosemary, told us about a tradition we worked hard never to miss: at five o’clock (because this time of year it’s dark by six), all the children gather at the Bunker Hill Monument – in costume of course – and are led in a Halloween Parade, complete with band, to walk around the Monument and chase away the evil spirits. The good people who live in the surrounding houses reward their efforts with candy.

Each of the Halloweens since we moved south, we have tried to get back to Charlestown. Tonight we finally made it. I didn’t have to work, Ginger left work early, and we drove into the city and the neighborhood we called home for so many years. About 5:15 the crowd began to gather, and by the time the band got there (a little late), there were between three and four hundred children and parents, dressed as pumpkins, puppies, princesses, Power Rangers, super heroes, Chicken Littles, lady bugs, bunnies, pirates, and flowers. Since we’re in Boston, there were also a couple of lobsters. The gathering worked its magic once again: there were only good spirits on the wind as they circled on a perfect autumn evening.

People in New England celebrate Halloween with a great deal of gusto. Garrison Kellior points out that Irish immigrants brought Halloween to America in the 1840s, when the immigrated because of the Potato Famine. He goes on to say:

Halloween no longer has any real connection to the festival it came from. Unlike most major holidays in this country, it is not a religious holiday, it does not celebrate an event in our nation's past, it does not involve traveling to visit family, it doesn't even give us a day off work. But it gives us the chance to try out other identities. For one day, people can feel free to dress as the opposite gender, as criminals, as superheroes, celebrities, animals, or even inanimate objects.

Some see cities as troubled, if not evil, much the same as some see Halloween as a holiday. But what I miss about living in the city is the same creative energy that swirled around the Monument tonight. You see people who don’t look like you, who come from other places, who ask different questions, who cause you to think about who you are. Pressed up against each other, you have to figure out how to live together in a way that chases away the evil spirits and makes room for the good to thrive.

It’s not easy; it’s not always pretty -- but, damn, it’s fun.


songs to learn and sing

Sleep came before words last night. They aren't coming so easily this morning either, so I'll pass along some words and music that have been collecting in my mental jukebox recently.

Thanks to John Brashier for pointing me to the new John Mellencamp song, "Our Country," which you can listen to here. Makes me want to pull out my copy of Scarecrow for another listen.

I also spent some time looking at the NPR Song of the Day for the last week or two, which led me to a sample of Amos Lee's new album. I gave his first record to Ginger for Christmas last year. If you have not heard him, here's your chance:

Another John, one of our seminarians at church, gave me two CDs by Girlyman, a three person group who know a thing or two about harmony. They have some sound clips on their website. I would recommend checking out "Kittery Tide," "Fall Stories," and "Montpelier."

On James Taylor's website, there are two exceptional covers you can listen to on the home page: Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" and Joni Mitchell's "The River." Even though it's only Halloween, it's never too early for me to hear, "It's coming on Christmas and they're cutting down trees. . ."

Bob Bennett, an old friend and a wonderful song writer, has written "My Heart Across the Ocean," about what it feels like to have a son in Iraq. You can download the song for free. Bob also offers a "song of the month" from his previous recordings for download.

Over the Rhine offers has an MP3 Attic on their site that has some cool stuff, as well as an MP3 Rarity (though not recently updated). "Flown Free" is a song based on lines for Psalms 124 &129. You can download all of the songs for free.

One more blast from my past. I don't remember how I came across her website, but Karla Bonoff has some free downloads as well. I have two favorites: "Let It Be Me" (a duet with J. D. Souther) and "If He's Ever Near" (recorded live).

That ought to keep you busy until it's time to start handing out the candy.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

darkness and light

I begin with thanks to Mark Heybo for pointing me to some of Frederick Buechner’s words:

The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind and it can be cruel. It can be beatiful and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running the stongest. When good things happen, we rise to heaven; when bad things happen, we descend to hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits roar. I know how just the weather can effect my whole state of mind for good or ill, how just getting stuck in a traffic jam can ruin an afternoon that in every other way is so beautiful that it dazzles the heart. We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.
In church today, Ginger baptized Harrison, a wonderful, globe-headed, chubby-cheeked kid who seemed completely taken with the whole experience. Baptism in our church is full of energy. All of the children come down to the front and gather round while Ginger leads us all – parents, godparents, congregation – in the promises we make to God to bring up our new family member to follow Christ. When I became a part of the UCC, many years ago now, “infant baptism” (as I learned to call it growing up Baptist) was unfamiliar. To me baptism meant going all the way under. I’ve come to see that we use one word for two different things. I’ve also come to find deep meaning in the watermark we place on our children as they begin their journey with God.

After the baptism Ginger carried Harrison up and down the aisles so we all could see him up close and personal – another one of my favorite parts of the service. Today something new and incredible happened. Heather, our new minister of Christian Education, who was with the kids at the front, caught the kids’ attention just as Harrison was drawing near to them and said, “Ready?” Together all the children said, “Welcome, Harrison!”

The kids were all over church today. They not only read the Gospel lesson – as a dramatic reading, but also sponsored Coffee Hour with a wonderful assortment of cheeses, cookies, and candy corn. It was not too many years back that we spent some time in Church Council worrying about what to do with the children during Coffee Hour; today they served us. I like that.

In the midst of such wonder came a request for prayer from one of our members who is a nurse in Boston. She told us about one of her patients, a young Haitian girl who came to this country with her mother and siblings after being granted asylum. As a five year old, she witnessed some sort of “police” come into her house in Haiti and hack off her mother’s legs. Once they got to the States, they learned that everyone in the family was HIV positive. The little girl is now in the hospital and very ill.

Darkness and light smashed one against the other. How do I make wholeness out of these fragments?

The distance between Charlestown High School and Winchester High is about seven miles. My last year in Charlestown, I taught all the seniors, which added up to about 140 students. About half of them were girls. Of those seventy or so, over thirty of them had children. When I got to Winchester, I had no mothers in any of my classes. One day, some of the students brought bags of flour into class as a part of a mock parenting exercise for a Marriage and Family class. What was fiction to them was real life for people their age just seven miles away. Such is the power of geography.

Part of the reason Harrison was welcomed today is because he wasn’t born in Haiti or India or Zambia. For the same reason, he will get to grow up and dream about his life and have a shot at seeing those dreams come true. The little girl from Haiti is one of a much larger number of children who will never know what that feels like.

Darkness and light smashed one against the other. How do I make wholeness out of these fragments?

One of the ways I’ve heard people try and cope with such disparity is to say, "There but for the grace of God, go I.” I’ve said it, too. I don’t want to say it anymore because that’s not what I want to say about God’s grace. I don’t see a possibility for wholeness if my perspective begins with, “Thank God that’s not me.” That only heightens the fragmentation of our existence. Grace is not a reprieve from hardship and the realities of life. Grace calls us into the pain, not to give thanks that we weren’t the ones who got hit by the train.

“We are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our own lives but reactors,” Buechner says. Life in our time feels too much like being in a batting cage with seven or twelve or twenty pitching machines throwing all at once. One of the powerful things about the sacrament of baptism is we are not reacting; we are intentionally dedicating one of our own to God and saying, “Welcome,” even as the pitches whiz past our ears. But for the grace of God, we would not have a chance for such a moment.

By the grace of God, we are called to carry what light we have into the darkness shouting, “Welcome” all the way.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

this is the way the world ends

I was almost a teenager when Planet of the Apes hit the theaters in 1968. The film was a futuristic cautionary tale of what we were in for if we kept living like we were living, ending with a shocking image of the Statue of Liberty buried up to her armpits in desert sand.

My experiences today showed me exactly how that’s going to happen.

For some time now, the faucet in our kitchen sink has dripped. Today was the day I finally decided to do something about it. I’m not necessarily the quickest to take care of such tasks, but once I take it on I stick with it until I get it done (because I know if I don’t finish it while I’m somewhat motivated I will let it lay there for another six weeks). I took the faucet off – after turning off the water – and removed the cartridge assembly (as I learned it was called) to take with me to the hardware store so I could make sure and get the right part. I stopped first at Taylor Lumber, our local hardware store, because they’re our local hardware store. The last time we had a drip, they had the part. Not this time.

From there I headed to Lowes, where we bought the faucet five years ago when we moved in. The first guy I talked to seemed fascinated with the concept of running water inside the house. He had no idea where to find the part. I went back to the kitchen faucet display and found the exact faucet we have at home. With the model number in hand, I went back to the plumbing aisle and moved one step up the food chain to a guy who did know something about plumbing. He said,

“How old is your faucet?”
“Five years,” I answered.
“Oh! Well, we don’t keep parts for anything that old.”

I was holding a solid metal part for a faucet they still had on the shelf and they did not stock the part. His answer was to buy a whole new unit.

I left and drove to Republic Plumbing Supply, which had been recommended by the guy at Taylor Lumber. The guy looked at the part and asked me what brand it was. When I told him Price Pfister, he said, “That’s one of the home warehouse brands (meaning Lowes and Home Depot) and we don’t carry those parts.” When I asked who did, he pointed me to a place in Quincy – fifteen miles away – and then suggested I go on line. After two hours of running all over the area looking for a ten dollar part, I stopped at a local coffee shop that has free wireless internet access, logged on to the Price Pfister web site and, after a ridiculous number of steps, found and ordered the part I needed. It will be here in a week.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

I’m talking a solid metal piece here with a ceramic center. When I was with the first guy at Lowes, as he methodically pulled down every part on the wall trying to find a match, I couldn’t help but notice everything was plastic; the metal parts were long gone. The parts were created to be replaced quickly. The life expectancy of kitchen fixtures should be longer than five years. How can a culture survive if we treat everything as disposable?

Last night at the restaurant we got to talking about the state of the world and the talk turned to unusual food products. Actually, it started with one of the servers talking about how much she loved Velveeta. Though I will admit it makes a mean chile con queso, I’m not much of a fan of “cheese food.” What exactly is it? From there we moved to Cheez Whiz and then on to Go-Gurt. My issue with the latter (“The Grab-n-Go Yogurt”) is this: if you’re five years old and your schedule doesn’t allow you time to sit down and eat your yogurt, your life is seriously messed up. A five year old should have nowhere to be other than being five in the midst of loved ones who surround and protect him or her, not rushing them off to wherever carrying a tube of cultured nutrition. To put our kids under than kind of pressure is to say we consider them as disposable as our faucet parts.

Why should we throw away either one?

As a youth minister and a high school teacher, I worked with five year olds who were fifteen and sixteen. One summer in Fort Worth, I put an afternoon on the calendar for the kids to meet me at the park between the Amon Carter Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum. About twenty kids showed up. We sat around in a circle for a few minutes and then one of them asked what we were doing.

“This,” I answered. “All we are doing this afternoon is being together.”

We spent an afternoon like that almost every week that followed for the whole summer. It was the most popular youth event by far.

Though this post is starting to smell as though we are heading for a “You see, Timmy” moment, I’m not looking to teach a lesson as much as mark the time. Somewhere around four o’clock on Thursday, October 26, 2006 I realized how the Statue of Liberty will end up buried in the sand: one grain, one faucet, one package of Go-gurt at a time, stacked one on top of the other.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I say I want a revolution

I discovered a new website today in a rather circuitous way.

Quotidian Grace was kind enough to comment on my post about Zambia yesterday, so I clicked over to find out what she has been talking about. Scolling down over the past few days, I read about the theme for the PCUSA General Assembly and her vote for a more prophetic word, which led me to Kruse Kronicle, a blog I had never visited. Reading through some of his posts, I found this map from Maps of War. It's worth spending the ninety seconds to watch and see what history looks like.

When we were in Cappadocia on what may have been my favorite day of our trip, our guide Seref was talking about the region being the place you invaded on the way to what you really wanted to conquer. In a little over a paragraph, he gave us a list of all the peoples to whom Cappadocia had belonged. He finished by saying, "Today it is inhabited by the Turkish people; we do not know who will be next."

Iraq became a nation, idependent of its colonizers, in 1932. It's borders were drawn for the first time -- by non-Iraqis -- around 1920. This was Persia. In the same way Seref described Cappadocia, this land had belonged to everyone from the Babylonians and the Sassanids to the Mongol hoardes (why are they always "hoardes"?). Bush tried another one of his if-I-say-it-I-can-make-it-happen speeches today in his press conference. At least this time he admitted things were not going so well. One of the things that troubles me is he seems to think Iraq only came on the world stage with any sense of importance when we invaded. He doesn't have any sense of how five thousand years of history have shaped the land and its peoples.

But he's not the whole problem. In all the verbal flailing going on as our midterm election nears, I have yet to find anyone who speaks with any clarity and sense of history when they talk about what we should do. Most of the words that come out of the mouths of both Democrats and Republicans sound like little more than playground chatter:

"Your idea sucks."
"No, your idea sucks."
"Oh, yeah -- well your party sucks."
"No, your party sucks."
"You suck."
"No, I don't."
"Do too."
"Shut up."

Isn't there someone who can speak cogently about the situation we have created by our invasion in words and not be defensive or condescending? (The question is mostly rhetorical: I can't think of anyone.)

I have one other question: why aren't we, the people, angry enough to do something? In Hungary, demonstrations have been going on for over a month with people calling for their president to resign because he lied. Thousands of people are still in the streets. Maybe we have become so cynical that we expect our leaders to lie. While we spend two billion dollars a week to establish a democracy in Iraq, our democratic process is a sham. We have leaders with no vision and a people with no hope. Harsh as it sounds, I know no other way to explain it.

The other night when I wrote about Billy Bragg, I used a Sydney Harris quote that said

A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, but is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.
I feel cynical tonight. I am more cynical than I was a year ago, or a month ago when it comes to our political process. I'm so cynical that I'm reusing quotes while they are still warm. I did see one hopeful sign this week. I was in Hingham Center a couple days ago and saw about six or seven people, most of them fairly elderly, holding signs that said "Peace" and "Get out of Iraq." The town has a municpal referendum on the ballot to tell President Bush they don't sanction the war. No one was screaming, but they were out there.

I need to be reminded they aren't the only ones.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

stand and sing of zambia

Today is the forty-second anniversary of Zambian Independence.

I was living in Lusaka, the capital of the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, on the day it became the nation of Zambia. For months we had practiced our new national anthem in school so we would be able to sing out proudly when we became our own country. They had songs on television to help us learn about our new decimal currency, the Kwacha, after years of British pounds and pence, which was not decimal in those days. We were hopeful.

On the evening of October 22, 1964, we gathered in Lusaka City Stadium around seven o’clock. There were military bands, dancers and drummers from all the provinces, local pop stars, and all kinds of stuff to help us count down the hours. At about 11:45, the British colonial leader made a brief speech and, as the day came to a close, we sang “God Save the Queen” and watched the British flag come down for the last time. As midnight struck, our new Zambian flag was raised and together we sang the anthem of our new nation:

Stand and sing of Zambia, proud and free,
Land of work and joy in unity,
Victors in the struggle for the right,
We have won freedom's fight.
All one, strong and free.

Africa is our own motherland,
Fashioned with and blessed by God's good hand,
Let us all her people join as one,
Brothers under the sun.
All one, strong and free.

One land and one nation is our cry,
Dignity and peace 'neath Zambia's sky,
Like our noble eagle in its flight,
Zambia, praise to thee.
All one, strong and free.

Praise be to God.
Praise be, praise be, praise be,

Bless our great nation,

Zambia, Z
ambia, Zambia.
Free men we stand
Under the flag of our land.
Zambia, praise to thee!

All one, strong and free.

I still stand in the living room and sing it with great feeling every October 24.

Zambia’s most promising natural resource was copper. When they built the new Parliament building, the top had a burnished copper veneer to show our wealth. But the biggest copper producer in the world was not Zambia, but the United States. With Britain out of the picture, any arrangements protecting Zambian copper fell by the wayside. The new nation could not compete with the big boys; the US flooded the copper market and Zambia never recovered.

The colonialists did very little to give the new nation a chance. The British did not educate the people of Northern Rhodesia very well so they could keep telling them they were not prepared for independence. Zambia’s first university was built after independence. The point of a colony was to use it up, not to help it grow to statehood. The British, politically and economically, did to Zambia what Kathy Bates did to James Caan in Misery, hobbling the nation and then having the audacity to concede independence with a straight face.

Today, Zambia is one of the poorest nations in Africa. Somewhere between twenty-five and forty percent of the population is HIV positive. Zambia is bordered by Angola, Zimbabwe, and the Demcratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania, all countries in turmoil, which means there are many refugees looking for shelter. Zambia is dying and we, as Americans, don’t know because it has no oil and it’s in Africa.

I still want to stand and sing of Zambia.

When I was in fourth grade, the den mother of my Wolf Cub pack (that’s British for Cub Scouts) made arrangements for us to sing Christmas carols at State House, our presidential residence. There were eighteen or twenty in our troop and we worked up several numbers and then went on a December evening and began to sing on the front porch of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president. He and his wife answered the door and stood there smiling as we sang “The First Noel,” complete with soprano descant. After we sang four or five songs, they invited us in for tea and we sat around the living room with our president who seemed quite happy to sit and chat with a room full of ten year olds. After a few minutes, he put down his cup and sat down at the grand piano in the middle of the room.

“You were kind enough to sing of the birth of Jesus,” he said. “Now I would like to sing for you of my faith.” With that, he began to play and sing, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .. when he finished singing, he sat down with us again and continued to converse.

Much of David Livingstone’s work was in Zambia, where he died. His colleagues prepared to take his body back to England, but the people with whom he worked said his heart belonged to Africa. Though he has a tomb in Westminster Abbey, Livingstone’s heart was buried in Zambia. Part of mine is still there, also.

As I was driving today, I listened to Tom Ashbrook interview Casey Parks, a young journalist who spent time in Africa with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times reporter who is one of the few in our country committed to keeping the genocide in Darfur, Sudan in our consciousness. She told a story of watching a young woman die because the fetus had died in her body and the doctor had delayed doing a caesarian section because she didn’t have the hundred dollars for the operation. By the time he did operate, the woman had contracted a severe infection for which there were no antibiotics in the country.

Zambia is not unique in its problems among the other nations of Africa. Malawi, Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Liberia, Togo, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Ghana are all countries where the average annual income is about $200 and the biggest killer is malaria. While they die for lack of a hundred dollars, our government is spending $2 billion dollars a week in Iraq and our pharmaceutical companies are doing all they can to keep coming up with new products for male erectile dysfunction and female contraception. (Talk about creating your own market!)

I hope I live long enough to see America treat the African continent as if it really mattered. It is no accident that most Africans will not live that long. The governments of America and Europe have done little more than offer feeble lip service to the continent they labeled “dark.” A change in policy and approach is unlikely because our lip service, as the American public, is even feebler.

We don’t stand and sing about much more than ourselves.


listen to linda

Yesterday was a day outside; today was a day inside: I worked for twelve and a half hours. I came up to write tonight with few words anywhere in or on my person, so I decided to go back through last week’s poems at The Writer’s Almanac. Maybe reading how someone else puts words together, I thought, would push me to do the same. And I found this poem by Linda Pastan:

Rereading Frost

Sometimes I think all the best poems
have been written already,
and no one has time to read them,
so why try to write more?

At other times though,
I remember how one flower
in a meadow already full of flowers
somehow adds to the general fireworks effect

as you get to the top of a hill
in Colorado, say, in high summer
and just look down at all that brimming color.
I also try to convince myself

that the smallest note of the smallest
instrument in the band,
the triangle for instance,
is important to the conductor

who stands there, pointing his finger
in the direction of the percussions,
demanding that one silvery ping.
And I decide not to stop trying,

at least not for a while, though in truth
I'd rather just sit here reading
how someone else has been acquainted
with the night already, and perfectly.
I had never heard of Linda Pastan before tonight. My loss. I took a little time to try and find more written about her and by her. Inspired by her own willingness to sit and read how someone else has already captured the moment, I offer you two more poems I found.

Pierre Bonnard would enter
the museum with a tube of paint
in his pocket and a sable brush.
Then violating the sanctity
of one of his own frames
he'd add a stroke of vermilion
to the skin of a flower.
Just so I stopped you
at the door this morning
and licking my index finger, removed
an invisible crumb
from your vermilion mouth. As if
at the ritual moment of departure
I had to show you still belonged to me.
As if revision were
the purest form of love.
That last sentence kills me. I’ve lived that sentence more than once.
Women on the Shore

The pills I take to postpone death
are killing me, and the healing
journey we pack for waits
with its broken airplane,
the malarial hum of mosquitoes.
Even the newly mowed grass
hides fault lines in the earth
which could open at any time

and swallow us.
In Edvard Munch's woodcut,
the pure geometry of color—an arctic sky,
the luminescent blues and greens of water—
surrounds the woman in black
whose head is turning to a skull.
If death is everywhere we look,
at least let's marry it to beauty.
I don’t want to say much. Her words need room to resonate, not to be drowned out, even if it is applause. Suffice it to say, if there is not a Linda Pastan Fan Club, I’m starting one.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

how can I keep from singing?

Today was a quintessential slice of New England autumn: crisp, cool air; brilliant sunshine; trees ablaze with color; and a hymn sing in our little white clapboard church next to the cemetery.

Ginger left a message on my cell phone yesterday suggesting we spend time together after church driving around to see the leaves and to buy some pumpkins to decorate our yard, one of our family traditions. (What follows is a somewhat unintentional tradition: I leave the pumpkin in the yard way too long and it sort of melts into a big pile of orange goop.) We have had an incredibly beautiful fall this year and it has lasted a long time. As we drove along Route 3A, we saw beautiful stands of trees lining the banks of the North River and variegated forests dappled by streams of sunlight breaking through the leaves. Amongst all the color were the bare branches of those trees whose leaves had already fallen, harbingers of the winter that is to come.

I’m struck every year by the profound irony of the most intense beauty of the foliage coming as the leaves fall and die. They don’t slip away quietly, but blaze to the end, making their last moments their most intense and amazing. For all the lush green of spring and summer, I don’t really notice the leaves until they fire and fall.

We found our pumpkins and we also bought a small bale of hay for one of them to sit on outside our gate. By the time we got back to the house, we knew quite well that they don’t call it “hay fever” for nothing. Thank God for Benadryl. Between the mums and the pumpkins, our house is officially decorated for Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Tonight about twenty of us gathered at the church to sing. Growing up Southern Baptist meant I went to church most every Sunday night for evening worship. What I loved best about it was the singing. The service was less formal and had much more music. Those who were there seemed to be the ones who loved to sing and we all joined in on our gospel favorites to close out the day. Here we gather to sing on Sunday evenings once or twice a year, but many of the songs are the ones so ingrained in me from childhood that I still know them by heart. One in particular seemed to catch the spirit of my entire day, “How Can I Keep From Singing” by Robert Lowry. (You can play the melody in the background while you read if you wish.)

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;

What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:

All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?
As I sat down to write tonight, I did a little research on Robert Lowry, the hymn writer. He is responsible for several of my favorite hymns: "I Need Thee Every Hour," "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," "Savior, Thy Dying Love," "We're Marching to Zion," and "Shall We Gather at the River?" The last hymn was written in 1864 when he was pastoring. As the Civil War was raging, so was an epidemic in New York and Lowry wondered what prospects for Christian community lay on the other side of death. He wrote “How Can I Keep From Singing?” in 1860, before the war began. In Lowry’s mind, what mattered most was his preaching, yet his music is his enduring contribution. As his biographer wrote:
While Dr. Lowry said, "I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn," yet in spite of his preferences, his hymns have gone on and on, translated into many languages, preaching and comforting thousands upon thousands of souls, furnishing them expression for their deepest feelings of praise and gratitude to God . . .. What he had thought in his inmost soul has become a part of the emotions of the whole Christian world. We are all his debtors.
The Brazilian woman who is our incredible cake maker at the Red Lion loves to sing while she works. She sang when she was a dishwasher, too, before we discovered she was a wonderful baker. She has not seen her husband and her children for three or four years now. She is still struggling to speak and understand English. She doesn’t have an easy life and, most any day you might choose to eavesdrop on the bakery, she will be in there singing. There is an ongoing lamentation to our humanity: we, like the leaves, will only hang on so long before we fall. Hopefully, we, too, can go out blazing. But there is a melody more enduring than the sounds of grief and pain, a song that permeates life at every level, one that we were given from birth.

As life and death swirled around me today, one not so easily separated from the other, how could I keep from singing?


Thursday, October 19, 2006

the circle game

I spent some time on my recipe blog today because I was cooking dinner for someone in our congregation who just had surgery and I realized I’ve not posted any new recipes recently or with any consistency. When I started blogging, recipes were part of the deal for me. In that spirit, I posted my Autumn Bisque recipe, a soup I concocted with what I could find in the walk-in refrigerator at work. The combination of ingredients sounds a bit strange, but it tastes great.

Since I’m the lunch chef four days out of seven, making soup has become my job. I’m the one who’s there all afternoon to let the soup simmer to tastiness. Other than our clam chowder, we don’t have any set soups on the menu, which means we don’t have any set recipes either. I start with basics – bacon, onion, celery, and (sometimes) carrots – and then see what else grabs my attention as I stand in the walk-in. It’s cold enough to spur me to creativity; I can’t stand in there for long. I try to pay attention to what soup we’ve just had. I made meatball and mushroom soup before the bisque, so it was time for something with more vegetables. Since the bisque has cream in it, I’ll do something with broth or lentils or beans tomorrow (I saw some cannelloni beans and pintos in our dry storage).

The metaphor of making something good out of what you have on hand isn’t lost on me these days, though I have to say it’s easier with soup than it is with life. Ginger and I are both getting to do things we love, as far as jobs go, and we are trying to figure out a recipe for finding the time we need together when we don’t share any days off. Her best chance at a day off, Friday is one of the two busiest days in most any restaurant. The other is Saturday, which is her second best chance at some free time. My days off, Tuesday and Thursday, are everyone else’s workday. We’re still in the process of figuring out how to make soup of it all.

While she was at a meeting tonight, I put in some Joni Mitchell while I was cleaning up the kitchen. We bought her Hits CD on a trip some years back when we realized the rental car had a CD player. I washed dishes and sang along with tunes that have carried me across many years. When I heard one particular guitar intro, I stopped what I was doing. opened the window to let the early evening breeze sneak in, and stood there looking out as the day faded while she sang "The Circle Game":

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar

Fearful when the sky was full of thunder

And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams

Words like when you're older must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down

We're captive on the carousel of time

We can't return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game
In fifty-odd days I will complete my fiftieth year on the planet and begin my fifty first time round the seasons. I remember in college religion classes, and then again in seminary, being told that the Judeo-Christian perspective of time was unique because it was linear rather than circular: history was going somewhere. So we sang, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Forward Through The Ages” (both to the same tune) knowing that we were headed for some sort of cosmic finish line. Somewhere in the middle of those discussions, I bought James Taylor’s wonderful album, JT. And he sang:
The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it

There ain't nothing to it

Nobody knows how we got to

The top of the hill

But since we're on our way down

We might as well enjoy the ride

The secret of love is in opening up your heart

It's okay to feel afraid
But don't let that stand in your way no

'Cause anyone knows that love is the only road

And since we're only here for a while yeah
Might as well show some style

Give us a smile now

Isn't it a lovely ride

Sliding down

And gliding down

Try not to try too hard

It's just a lovely ride
Maybe seven weeks before my birthday is too early to start waxing philosophic, but Joni and James have been circling with me for a long time, so they encourage me to reflect. Most of our images of circling are not productive: planes circle waiting to land, going in circles means getting nothing done. In 1991, Sergei Krikalev, a Soviet cosmonaut, spent nearly 312 days in space circling the earth because the Soviet Union collapsed while he was in orbit and he had to wait up there until the new governments figured out who could get him down. But we do circle, over and over.

But there’s more to circling than Clark Griswold saying, “There it is – Parliament, Big Ben” while trapped in a London roundabout. Just as our linear history is made up of one daily revolution after another, so are my years – and yours.

I sang the last verse with Joni and changed one word.
So the years spin by and now the boy is [fifty]
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true

There'll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down

We're captive on the carousel of time

We can't return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Even on hard days, it’s still a lovely ride.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

born again and again

Today was yet another busy day at the restaurant. October and November are our busiest months. Between tomorrow and Sunday we have seven weddings, four rehearsal dinners, a surprise party, and a couple of other small groups (20-25). And we have a total of seven cooks, one baker, and four dishwashers.

Anybody looking for part-time weekend work?

On the way home tonight I listened to the replay of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She was interviewing David Kuo, the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He has written a very critical book about the way in which the Bush administration has not followed through on its touting of faith-based initiatives, but I was too tired to stay interested for long. What did hook me was one statement Kuo made in talking about “born again Christians.” That term just flies all over me.

As I know I have mentioned more than once, I grew up Southern Baptist, so I know about being “born again.” I think I even know the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus by heart (King James Version), so I know Jesus said, “You must be born again.” What bothers me is the way it has become a label to divide the “real” Christians from the posers – or at least that’s the way I hear it. Sometimes, it’s also used in somewhat of a derogatory manner by those who are critical of evangelicals or don’t understand much about Christians to begin with.

Either way, the term bothers me. I think, first of all, it’s redundant. To be a serious disciple of Christ means you’re not coming out of the same chute as you were before (pun intended). What I hear in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus is a call to see everything differently: his birth, his family, himself, his job, his faith, his sense of belonging on the planet. Nicodemus was flummoxed by Jesus’ words. Nobody can climb back up the birth canal anymore than you can back up your rental car once you’ve gone over those spiky things. Jesus never referred to anyone as a born again believer as though it were some special category. Neither did Paul, or John, or George, or Ringo. (Pete Best did once and they threw him out of the band.)

I’m also troubled by the phrase because it divides the people of God into us and them. Since Jesus’ time there have been divergent views on life, theology, and just about everything in Christianity. For almost a millennium and a half, the Church was controlled by bishops and the like who could declare those divergent views as heresy and have those people thrown out. Many of those decisions had to do with church politics than anything else. There are a lot of differences between churches, between denominations, between people. Some of them are important and some are circumstantial. However, once we reduce the variety to who’s right and who’s wrong, which is how I hear “born again” versus not born again, we knock grace right out of the conversation because we’ve reduced our faith to being primarily about who gets to go to heaven. It reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw once that said, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”

(Apropos of nothing, my favorite bad bumper sticker: “I found Jesus. He was behind the couch the whole time.”)

I understand “born again” as a euphemism for conversion. When I was five years old, while my father was preaching a revival at First Baptist Church of Conroe, Texas, I turned from a life of sin and sex and drugs and gave my heart to Jesus. I remember it more because it has been told to me over and over again and I take the experience as an pivotal moment in my young life. But do I think that one decision in my life is what made me heaven bound, or set my spiritual course? No, I don’t.

What I've learned from my experience and listening to the experiences of others is that we must be born again and again and again if we want to follow Christ. Jesus was telling Nicodemus to throw out the most basic paradigm of what it meant to be human and allow God to redefine existence. That’s not a one time deal; it has to happen over and over again. Using death instead of life as a metaphor, Jesus said it this way: “take up your cross daily.” We read those words and think about Jesus’ crucifixion as a model: be willing to sacrifice like he did (not that we really plan to do it) -- and we know about his resurrection. They heard those words and thought about the way in which criminals were brutally executed: Jesus was calling them to lose everything. Whether talking about life or death, Jesus was deconstructing the very foundations of our existence and reframing what it means to be fully human, as he was: born again.

Ginger keeps saying she wants me to write a book about how a liberal Christian can have heart faith. Here’s where I’ll start: I’m a part of the United Church of Christ because I’m born again. I’m not the same guy who gave his heart to Jesus when he was five. Since that time, I’ve been born again and again and again, leading me to a place in my faith a long way away from what I learned growing up. What I took with me was a love for good hymn singing, a belief in the power of God to change lives, a heart for missions, and gratitude for the way they taught me to study the Bible. Along the way, I was born again when I saw that Paul wasn’t kidding when he said in Christ there is no male or female. I was born again when I saw that what is true for gender is also true for sexual orientation. I was born again when I realized responding to violence with violence accomplishes nothing. I was born again when I sat at the wedding of my good friends Ken and George in Old South Congregational Church. I was born again when I married Ginger. I was born again as I learned how to choose reconciling with my family over my pride and hurt. I am a man of many births. Now God is laboring to give birth to me once more as I seek to find my calling vocationally. All along the way, I have been blessed with an amazing group of midwives who have helped to bring me into these new worlds and even as I struggle to learn to speak and walk anew, I hear Jesus saying, “You must be born again.”

Whatever that means for the days to come, I know Jesus never meant it to be used as a defining label or a condition of membership. I think he did mean to say that none of us has a corner on the truth.

It’s not about being right; it’s about being loved.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

hand to hand

I opened and closed the restaurant today.

I swapped days with the head chef because today is his wedding anniversary. I usually work Mondays. I came in today to find I had a great deal of prep work to do. We were out of clam chowder (our signature soup), caramelized onions, and sliced tomatoes, just to name a few things. Several of the bins in the cold station were empty, or nearly so, and a good bit of stuff was not put where it usually is, so I had to hunt for it. Needless to say, I was frustrated. As with most kitchen issues, I made a list of what I needed to get done, put my head down, and things were alright within an hour or two. Both folks who worked last night know what it takes to open in the morning. I couldn't help but wonder what they were thinking. I assumed they had forgotten what it feels like to come to work in the morning and find yourself, as we say, "in the weeds" because the night crew didn't leave you prepared.

Tonight we got slammed. We used up most of the prep work we had done during the day. By the time we closed, we had used up all the cole slaw, most of the soup du jour, all the boiled shrimp, and -- one again -- sliced tomatoes. The other cook who was working with me tonight asked if I wanted him to slice tomatoes (I'm opening again tomorrow).

"No," I said, "It's late and we're tired; I'll do it in the morning."

As I watched him put the pan of whole Roma tomatoes in the refrigerator, I smiled to myself. I know what it feels like to get to the end of a long day, or even just an incredibly busy evening, and only be able to hang in there long enough to get stuff cleaned and put away. That slipped my mind this morning.

Many years ago, when my brother and sister-in-law were living in Tucson, I went to visit them. We went to see the University of Arizona play football. Their stadium is a bowl, where the rows of seats angle continuously from the field all the way to the top row. At one point in the game, one of the cheerleaders stood up on the short wall in front of the first row, turned her back, and fell backwards on to the upraised arms of the people in the first couple of rows. In what seemed like lightning speed to me, the folks in the stands began passing her up towards the top; it felt like she got there in a matter of seconds.

That's how life gets lived, I think, passed on hand to hand.

At least, that's how it feels in the kitchen.


Monday, October 16, 2006

cards from africa

First things first: my dad's report was good. The tumor was a stage two and had not broken through the bladder wall. They found no other cancer cells in the other samples they took from his bladder. He goes back for another checkup in three months, but that's all he has to do.

And there was much rejoicing.

I had a couple of things on my mind when I came up to write tonight, but they will wait. I want to point you to something I found out about through Africakid called The World Challenge. Here's how they describe themselves:

The World Challenge is back and looking to reward projects that make a real difference to local communities. World Challenge 2006, brought to you by BBC World and Newsweek, in association with Shell, aims to find individuals or groups from around the world who have shown enterprise and innovation at a grass roots level.

World Challenge 2006 is all about global involvement, casting a net for ideas from individuals or groups deserving recognition.

The twelve finalists are doing amazing work. Africakid made specific mention of Cards From Africa, a business in Rwanda that was organized by her brother's friend, whose aim is to provide "quality employment to the poorest and neediest young people in Rwanda." You can read an article about CFA, along with the other finalists, in the issue of Newsweek that came out today (dated October 23). The winning business will get $20,000 and the two runners-up will each get $10,000.

Please take time to vote and then tell as many people as you can.

Voting ends November 19. The winners will be announced in December.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

finding an old friend

On the way to work yesterday I found an old friend, thanks to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday.

Back in the mid-eighties, a couple of the guys in my youth group in Fort Worth showed up with Billy Bragg’s record, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. Bragg is an English folk singer with punk roots who has been a prophetic and progressive voice for twenty-five years. We even got to see him one night at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas (where you can still hear some great music). One of the songs that stuck with me from that album was “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” an amazingly sad song about the power of music to help us name our loneliness:

With the money from her accident
She bought herself a mobile home

So at least she could get some enjoyment

Out of being alone

No one could say that she was left up on the shelf

It's you and me against the World kid she mumbled to herself

When the world falls apart some things stay in place

Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face
The next record I bought was Back to Basics, which contained a tune called “The Milkman of Human Kindness.”
If you're lonely, I will call -
If you're poorly, I will send poetry

I love you

I am the milkman of human kindness

I will leave an extra pint

If you are falling, I'll put out my hands

If you feel bitter, I will understand

I love you

I am the milkman of human kindness

I will leave an extra pint
In the interview, Simon referenced a song I didn’t know called “The Space Race is Over,” which Bragg wrote for his son whose first word besides “Mommy” and “Daddy” was “moon.” For Bragg, the space race was a metaphor for our decreasing ability to dream.
Now that the space race is over
It's been and it's gone and I'll never get to the moon

Because the space race is over

And I can't help but feel we've all grown up too soon

Now my dreams have all been shattered

And my wings are tattered too

And I can still fly but not half as high

As once I wanted to
I was twelve when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. I can remember standing in my yard in Lusaka, Zambia and staring up at the sky on that July night, lost in wonder that people just like me were standing on the moon shining down at me. The possibilities seemed limitless. I never imagined that would be as far as we would go, or that “space travel” would reduce rockets to the equivalent of astronomic eighteen-wheelers. Somewhere we lost sight of the possibilities.

Billy Bragg has never given up being a dreamer and an activist; he still sings about what’s possible. Much of his music has a strong political edge. He makes no bones about coming from the Left, and he is determined to speak hopefully. When Scott Simon asked him to describe what it meant to him to be a songwriter, Bragg said:
You have to kind of discern issues that other people might not be talking about that you might have something to say about and write about those things . . . You have to learn to overcome your cynicism and believe in humanity and the ability of people working together to make the world a better place. Cynicism is the enemy of that – not capitalism, not conservativism, but cynicism -- and to do this job you have to be able to overcome your own to help people overcome theirs.
Today at Church Council, one of the folks handed out a sheet from our State Conference office that did not do much for me other than this quote from the late columnist Sydney Harris:
A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past, but is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.
We had some friends over for dinner tonight and the talk turned, at least for a while, to politics. The consensus around the table was our elected officials are directed by polls and lobbyists for the big corporations and not by their own integrity or the people they supposedly represent. When it comes to our national leaders, I am prematurely disappointed in the future. I want desperately to be able to trust someone we have elected to office and I’m not sure I think that is possible anymore.

I hate feeling that way.

The November election is drawing closer. As it does, our gubernatorial race is descending into the ditches. As much as I would like to see the Republicans lose control of Congress, the Democrats have offered little vision more than “we’re not them.” Dreams are not fueled by who we don’t want to be. Ginger preached this morning on Jesus’ encounter with one we’ve come to know as the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus offered him a chance at love, but the young man’s wealth-induced cynicism caused him to turn away.

In the late Nineties, Bragg collaborated with Wilco to record some of Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics on a project called Mermaid Avenue. One of the songs is called “Christ for President.”
Let's have Christ for President.
Let us have him for our King.
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
that you call the Nazarene.

The only way we can ever beat

these crooked politician men

Is to run the money changers out of the temple

And put the Carpenter in

O It's Jesus Christ for president

God above our king

With a job and a pension for young and old

We will make hallelujah ring

Every year we waste enough

to feed the ones who starve

We build our civilization up

and we shoot it down with wars

But with the Carpenter on the seat

away up in the capital town

The USA would be on the way
prosperity bound!
I don’t know much about the song, other than the lyric I found on Bragg’s web site. I know enough about Woody Guthrie to imagine at least some sense of irony in the words; I know he was not writing an anthem for Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed by any stretch. What Woody saw in Jesus was someone who was not beholden to wealth and power and was determined to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed. He saw hope – a reason to move beyond cynicism. Billy Bragg is living in that legacy and doing it well.

I’m glad to find him again.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

the terrorists win

The eleven o’clock news started last night with the story of Corey Lidle, the Yankee pitcher who crashed his plane into an apartment building in New York. He was a fairly new pilot who was flying with a friend. Who knows exactly what happened. Since it was late and I don’t like going to bed with heavy stuff on my mind, we listened to the most basic details and then changed over to The Daily Show. When I turned on the news this morning, the spin on the story had moved from being one about a man in a small plane to wondering if it could have been a terrorist attack. Granted, I don’t like the Yankees, but I’ve never thought they were terrorists – except, perhaps for Derek Jeter. Beyond the obvious visual similarities between this incident and the planes going into the Twin Towers, which plays upon our fears (though different by degree, without question), I struggle to find any reason to think an accident in which a small plane crashes into an apartment building would bring us to a point of almost contemplating a change in the color on our national terror alert warning system.

Yes, the accident happened in New York City.
Yes, it involved a plane and a building.
Yes, it is frightening to see the video of the aftermath.
And have we so capitulated to the way in which our leaders and our media play to our fears that we jump like lemmings into the sea at the assumption that terrorists have struck again?

Who is a terrorist, anyway?

The dictionary says it’s “a person who terrorizes or frightens others.” In the darkness last night cranes razed the Amish schoolhouse where the girls were executed by Charles Carl Roberts IV last week. He was described as a troubled man and a murderer. The media even used all three of his names, as they do with serial killers. But no one called him a terrorist. Why not? Have we loaded that word with so much power that it explodes our capacity for thoughtfulness most every time it’s detonated? We have been conditioned to run scared and to think of it as a euphemism for Muslim extremists. We don’t even talk about Timothy McVeigh in the same context as Osama bin Laden or Mohammed Atta.

If a terrorist’s intent is to incite terror in the hearts and minds of his or her victims, then those we do call terrorists are quite successful: we are a frightened, frightened nation. How can we see ourselves as The World Power and cower in fear at the same time? I think the biggest reason is we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that violence is the only language worth speaking in these days.

The British medical journal The Lancet released the findings of an estimate on the death toll in Iraq since the US invasion began. Their estimate is 2.5% of the population – 655,000 people – has been killed. If 2.5% of our population were exterminated, we would lose 7.5 million people. North Korea tested a nuclear weapon this week and has everyone clamoring to respond. Iran keeps trying to develop its own weapon. Pakistan is talking about a nuclear test, which means India will not be far behind. We keep telling them to stop, but we lead the race. We tell them not to fight, and we invade. We tell them human rights are important, and we keep folks locked up at Guantanamo. Then, when a small plane crashes into a building, we are frightened before we are saddened.

Before anyone writes to tell me I’m being idealistic, I understand the realities of the world. One of those realities, which we are seeing lived out everyday, is violence breeds violence. Another is responding to violence with violence only destroys; it solves nothing. Then there’s this reality: since we first invaded Iraq, we have spent almost 340 billion dollars. (That number will be quickly outdated.) What if we had spent that money in nonviolent ways, eradicating disease, providing education, or building homes? Most of the world doesn’t have potable water. One in four people on the planet have never talked on a telephone, much less checked email. What if we had used that money to pay living wages to the people who make most of the stuff we use and wear?

One more question: why is that money available for war and not for these other things?

Fear makes us do foolish things. As long as we choose not to learn that lesson as a nation, the terrorists win.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

what we don't know

Today was a rather normal day at work for me except for one finger and one toe. For whatever reason, I both digits are swollen and painful. I've kept them slathered in Neosporin and covered, but nothing's changed for a couple of days. Tomorrow I'm going to the doctor to she what she can do. The unusual circumstance has been ample fuel for my imagination. I begin to think there's some sort of infection in my system that only works its way out through my fingers and toes. Ginger looked at them tonight and said, "They don't look like leprosy." I was grateful for her humor. It doesn't look like the Plague either.

But it's what we don't know that makes it difficult.

Friday night Ginger left a message at the restaurant for me to call her when I had a moment. Things slowed down around eight, so I called home. She wanted to pass on news my parents had left on my voice mail, so I didn't have to hear it by recording: my father has bladder cancer. On October 14, my dad will celebrate the tenth anniversary of his heart surgery. The big irony is my mother is a bladder cancer survivor, after having dealt with it off and on for almost fifteem years. Her experience -- and our experience with her -- helped temper the news somewhat and it's what we don't know that's difficult.

The pathology reports were supposed to come back today, but because of the holiday on Monday, it looks like we will not know the details of what is going on with my dad until Friday. What we need to know is how aggresive the cancer is, because that will have a great deal to do with the treatment options. I know they removed the tumor they found and it had not broken through the bladder wall. I know this is a treatable form of cance. I also know the treatment takes its toll. We don't know much else.

I will call on my way home from work in Friday and hope we know more.

I'm not up to being philosophical or even creative in my writing about this tonight. Thanks for your prayers.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

where the street has a name

Since Ginger and I don’t share a day off, we’re working hard to take advantage of any chance we have to hang out together. Since I was not working today, I rode into Boston with her because she had a couple of meetings to attend. We ate lunch together and I stayed in the booth at Cambridge Common while she went to her appointment. The pub brings back good memories of days at Winchester High because this was one of the watering holes we frequented after a day slaving over a hot grade book.

I miss living in the city.

Boston and Cambridge are residential and pedestrian: people live downtown and people walk from place to place. If we ever move somewhere else, I will need to learn quickly that drivers in most cities don’t stop to let people cross the street. In Dallas, they think those crossing the street are the human equivalent of ducks in a shooting gallery. You’re supposed to hit them.

Massachusetts Avenue, or Mass Ave. to the locals, is the artery that runs from the most southern part of Boston to the northern end of Cambridge, past Symphony Hall & the Berklee College of Music, between Copley and Kenmore Squares, across the Charles River, past MIT and then Harvard, through Porter Square, and on into Arlington center and beyond. It’s an important street to both cities and one that is full of landmarks for both Ginger and me.

The first summer after I started teaching, I worked for one of the other teachers who had a small business cleaning up abandoned and repossessed houses to get them ready for auction. Everyday we were in a different part of the city going through what people had left behind and putting it into garbage bags. It was hard work. One week, he had a different job for us. We were to clean around an building on the far south end of Mass Ave. that was going to be used by the city for some municipal offices. My job was to take the Weedeater That Ate Cleveland and whack down a small jungle of growth on one side of the building. By the time I was finished that afternoon, I was sweaty and covered in dust, which meant I was muddy, too. Since we were a one-car family at the time, my ride home was the T, Boston’s public transportation. I got on the 39 bus to Copley, where I could catch the Orange Line train home to Charlestown.

Since we were so far south of downtown, the bus was almost empty when I got on, so I got a seat. As the bus continued the route, the bus filled up, but no one ever sat down next to me. No one even looked at me. I was invisible. I realized I was getting a serendipitous look into what it felt like to be one of the homeless people in our city. When I got off the bus in Copley Square, I had about a five or six block walk to get to Back Bay Station to catch the train. Copley is one of the places many of the homeless folks hang out because there’s a small park there and the public library will let them use the bathrooms. I continued to remain invisible to most of the people, but every one of the street folks talked to me – not asking for anything; they talked to me. I became visible to a whole different layer of humanity.

On another day, at the other end of Mass Ave., I was in Harvard Square and passed a guy leaning up against the side of a church holding an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup.

“Got any change?” he asked.

Ginger and I made it a practice not to give cash to people on the street, but to offer food instead. So I said, “I’d be happy to buy you a coffee and a muffin.”

He paused and then replied, “Coke and a brownie?”

I thought to myself, “Everyone deserves a Coke and a brownie,” so I said I’d do it. When I got inside the coffee shop, the brownies looked so good I got two. When I delivered his order, I sat down on the curb next to him and we ate together.

Mass Ave. used to house the most wonderful Tower Records store. The Berklee Performance Center, where I got to see Emmylou Harris on my birthday is on that street. So are Pearl Art Supply, the Middle East, Daddy’s Junky Music, Mr. and Mrs. Bartley’s Hamburgers, Joie de Vivre, and Paper Source.

The B. U. Bridge takes Mass Ave. from Boston to Cambridge, and vice versa. We walk that bridge every year as part of the Walk for Hunger, Project Bread’s wonderful annual fundraiser. Walking across the bridge, you see green marks that measure the span in “Smoots.” Many years back, MIT students measured the bridge using one of their own, a guy named Smoots, as the measuring stick. Right before we moved here, the bridge was completely renovated and the original measurements were lost. They wanted to measure the new bridge, but by that time Smoots’ grandson was a student at MIT. There was some discussion about which one should be the standard. Since the old man was still living, they brought him back to do it all over again.

1369 Coffee House is on Mass Ave. So is the Harvard Coop, the Plough and Stars, and the Elephant Walk. It's where Jake, my acupuncturist, used to have his office. There’s also a Korean church I have never attended. Oh – and the Friendly Eating Establishment.

Moving up and down Mass Ave. is like moving through the layers of civilization in an archaeological dig, or moving up and down the most amazing buffet table you have ever seen trying to figure out how to taste a little of all of it. From the worn down row houses in Roxbury to the high dollar brownstones of the Back Bay, to the mixture of humanity that congregates in Central Square, to the the young people trying so hard to be alternative in Harvard Square, and the funky shops just beyond it. I have walked there, eaten there, laughed and listened and wandered there; I have shopped and sat and sojourned.

Today, I remembered.


Monday, October 09, 2006

company for dinner

It's late. Today was a long and good day at the restaurant. The weekend was busy, which meant Joe (the other cook on Monday) and I had lots of prep work to do. Since it was Columbus Day, it was also quite busy tonight, so I stayed busy all of my twelve hour shift. And I had a blast.

Some church friends came in for dinner tonight. They called earlier in the day to ask if I was cooking, which made the receptionist think I was building a following. One of the nice things about friends is they can make you appear more important than you are. When they got to the restaurant, they told the server they were friends of mine and had a Guinness sent to the kitchen, (Yet another good thing about friends.) At this point, I still didn't know who was out there. When I finished cooking their dinners, I helped the server take the plates out so I could see who was there. The Flemings were my mystery guests, along with some of their friends and relatives. I loved that they took the time to drive up from Marshfield for dinner when they knew I was cooking.

They made my day. Now I'm going to go sleep through what's left of the night.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

a little lower than the agents

Now that I'm down to one job, I'm determined to get some more writing done. On both of my days off this past week I spent a fair amount of time chasing down a couple of ideas. I also spent a fair amount of time looking at writing sites on the Web. I'm toying with the idea of National Novel Writing Month, though I'm not sure I can keep up the pace to pound out fifty thousand words in thirty days. Yet, I know I respond to a deadline and even if it got me halfway into a story, it might be worth it. On one of the sites I found a link to an agent who was interested specifically in children's literature. I've got a story I've been carrying around for a few years (and I posted it once here), so I sent a query and got back a very positive reply very quickly, which surprised me. I couldn't help myself. I was elated.

I sent back what they wanted and we did a little back and forth, until tonight when they sent me a contract along with the name of someone who will do a "literary critique," which would cost me about $70. They almost had me and then I thought I ought to see what I can find out about them. I had simply followed a link on a site that had lots of links. Sure enough, Google pointed me to several folks who had less than complimentary things to say. One guy even posted the query he sent in, using the same form I used:

Title of Work: the little poo that could

Grade Focus: High School

Synopsis: one time there was this little poo and he wanted to be liked by
everybody else so he went to this park where they made dinosaurs and then
the dinosaurs got out and all the dinosaurs started eating everybody and
then the little poo's wife gets killed by a one armed man and he gets
accused of the murder and then he becomes a fugitive and then he goes up and
blows up the death star and saved the day and then he woked up and realized
it was all a dream, and then he got flushed down the toilet

NYP-Work Been Edited: yes by my mom

NYP-Sample Illustrations: yes i drew some stuff

NYP-Bio: i am elevn years old and my language teacher says i am good so i
should write a book. please accept my work
He got the same encouraging response I did (yup -- the one about very few being chosen).

I know better and yet they almost got me to get out my checkbook. I know I'm an easy mark. When it's Girl Scout Cookie season, Ginger won't let me answer the door because she knows I'll buy whatever they're selling. But that's not the deal here. I wasn't donating to an organization I trust; I was trying to sell a book. I think I get pulled by this stuff because I don't understand why someone would intentionally deceive another, especially when it comes to what matters most to them. From what I read, these people have set up a deal intent on taking people for all they can. They aren't trying to sell books, just prey on those who are. I hate having to come to terms with that kind of intentional deceipt.

At work Saturday, one of the servers came to me and said, "I need some help with what to do." The party she had served -- who had just paid and left -- had a bill for $38 and change. On the tip line the left her $6 something, but when they totaled the ticket, they wrote $55, which was a ten dollar mistake in favor of the server. She couldn't find them and wasn't sure how to fix things. I took a pen and changed the five to a four and she put the ticket through correctly. The customers will never know what happened; neither would they have known had she taken the extra ten. That's what I expect of people.

I'm not opting for rose colored glasses here. The consequences of holding the whole world suspect seem enourmous. Ginger and I were talking today about someone we know who is incredibly cynical. They were not always so. I said, "Exhausted idealists make for harsh cynics." I'm stuggling with how to live life with trust as the default setting knowing the bastards who want to take me to the cleaners are out there hoping I will do just that. If Jesus is the model I turn to, what I see is he trusted Judas down to the Last Supper without flinching. His trust got him arrested and, ultimately, killed. What do I do with that?

As I said on Thursday, Ginger preached from Psalm 8 and Hebrews today, focusing on the language of our being created "a little lower than the angels." Several years ago, my friend Billy and I wrote a song because of a cartoon our friend David had given us. The picture showed a guy standing in a crowded subway car on his way to work. He was the only one in the scene with a smile on his face. The caption read, "At 7:01 Ernie remembered he was created a little lower than the angels." Our words said this:
lower than the angels

monica drive like a mother of two
she goes to the store she stops at the zoo
candlelight dinners of pb & j
she picks up the toys and puts them away

a little lower than the angels

she opens the letter as she closes the gate
my love to the kids the check will be late
she puts away dishes she pulls down the sheets
she picks up her novel and falls into sleep

tell her she’s higher than the monkeys and out on a limb
tell her she’s right on the money but late on the rent
tell her she’s fallen in the standings but still in the game
a little lower than the angels

now ernie gets the train about seven o one
gotta reputation that he gets things done
it isn’t really living but he can’t say no
pours another coffee as the streetlights glow

tell him he’ higher than the monkeys and under the gun
tell him he’s better than average but he ain’t the only one
tell him to raise his expectations and keep his head low
a little lower than the angels

and down around seventeen floors
some banner on an old church door says
keep watching out keep watching out for the lord

now monica drives through for something to go
she’s got errands to run she’s got noses to blow
and ernie’s in his office where he works downtown
he turns on the lights the sun’s going down

tell them their higher than the monkeys and still under fire
tell them they’re fighting for survival and it’s down to the wire
tell them that things will get better and that’s how it goes
a little lower than the angels
I sang it in church this morning between the scripture reading and Ginger's sermon. The song came flooding back in my head as I read the warnings about the agency that had inflated my hope for my story. I need to know tonight that things will get better and be reminded that that's how it goes here where we are, a little lower than the angels.

I wonder if they've had better luck selling their manuscripts.