It was a great night.
We went into Boston about two o’clock because we had to go to the doctor’s office before our evening could begin. Ginger and I are three weeks away from her sabbatical and the Trip of Our Lives to trace the steps of Paul through Greece and Turkey (thank you, Lilly Endowment). To be able to make that trip, we had to make this trip to get our vaccinations. Our nurse, Dale, was excellent both in the information he had to give and his gentle manner in giving the injections. From there we met our friends Cherry and Dell for coffee and then began our evening adventure.
In looking for somewhere fun for dinner, we happened upon Betty’s Wok and Noodle House across the street from Symphony Hall. It’s retro diner meets Asian-Latin fusion. The food was amazing (Juan-tons!) and our server, Michael, made it even more fun. We left, full and happy – they even kept our leftovers refrigerated for us until after the concert – and walked across the street to find our seats in the magnificent hall. The orchestra was tuning up.
There are a lot of great things to remember about last night, but watching and listening to Joshua Bell play the violin is at the top of the list. The piece was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D. Opus 35. (Once again, I run into my ignorance when it comes to classical music: I thought Opus was the penguin from Bloom County.) Neither he nor the conductor worked from a score. The room filled with melody as the orchestra began, and then Bell made the carved piece of wood sitting on his shoulder come to life. He stood the whole time, moving his body in sync with his bow, occasionally wiping his brow with the cloth that hung on the side of the conductor’s podium. In the sections where he was not playing, he turned to listen to the orchestra in a way that showed he was really listening and not just waiting his turn.
I don’t know how much time passed – twenty-five, thirty-five minutes. The program notes pointed out that Leopold Auer, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated the concerto when he wrote it, declared the piece “unplayable.” Though he went on to learn and perform it, Tchaikovsky carried the wound of those words for many years. I wish he could have been in the room last night to hear the artist we heard play it as if it were written for him, moving from the big forceful movements to the high, tiny, whispers of sound that even reached us on the back row of the second balcony. It was a great night.
And it had been a hard day.
Gingers father has worked hard his whole life. I love to hear her tell stories of his days as a milkman and then a route driver for Golden Flake potato chips. I can remember going to Birmingham after we first married and waiting for him to come home so we could go out and pick a snack off the truck. He retired several years ago, but got a call this week to ride a route with an old friend who is recovering from surgery and needed some help. Monday morning he left the house at 4:30 to meet the guy. A little after five, the man called wondering where Reuben was; he had not showed up. When she found him, he told her he had gotten turned around on a road he has driven most everyday of his life. Wednesday night he came in tired from work and talked about his exhaustion.
“I can’t believe I’m so tired after only one day of work,” he said.
“You’ve gone to work for three days,” Rachel replied.
“No,” he said, “today’s only Monday.”
Reuben’s work ethic, like his compassion, lies deep in his muscle memory. He is a virtuoso of daily life, a man who knows how to run the scales of existence and pull from them a melody of love and grace. He is a man who timed his delivery route so he could get to everyone of Ginger’s softball games and dance recitals, even as he made sure he kept his promises to keep the shelves full at the Piggly Wiggly. He is a man who, when asked how he is doing, answers every time with gusto, “Fine, marvelous, outstanding.” He is a man who has accumulated very little in his life and feels rich and content. He is a mountain of a man who is mostly gentle and kind stacked on top of each other. For his whole life, he has played a concerto of hope, finding ways to affirm and encourage those around him, convinced to his bones that God is holding him and will not leave him alone. He, too, plays without a score; he lives the melody.
When Rachel called the doctor to tell what had happened and to make an appointment, the doctor said, “It sounds like Alzheimer’s.”
Only a chilling silence can follow that sentence.
We don’t know, yet, exactly what is going on. Thanks to the ridiculous inefficiencies of our health care system, it will be some time before we know because they don’t have any appointments available. What I do know is I’m troubled by the strains that are beginning to break into our lives. Only last Friday I sat at the funeral of my friend’s father; today I’m worried about my father-in-law. I’m not quite prepared for this particular movement. There is no score, and I don’t know this piece by memory, or even by heart.
Living outside Boston while Rachel and Reuben are struggling in Birmingham makes it all even harder to hear. What carries this far, for the most part, is the pain. It is both a low and piercing note, full of questions and yearning. Here is a man who has composed a wonderful life; he does not deserve for it to be erased, measure by measure, in reverse. Why does it feel, sometimes if feels as though all of our lives are like Saturday Night Live skits: we don’t know how to write a decent ending.
We talked to Ginger’s mother on the way home last night. Reuben had a better day. He had already gone to sleep.
“What makes one day better than another?” Ginger asked after she hung up.
“I don’t know,” I said. And we drove home, her hand in mine.
Friday, March 31, 2006
It was a great night.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Ginger and I are going to the symphony tonight.
(Let’s see – I’ll take “Sentences that Milton Rarely Types for $200, Alex.)
One of the people in Ginger’s church was kind enough to give us her tickets since she could not use them – with a parking pass. According to the BSO web site, we will hear Emmanuel Krivine conduct Mussorgsky’s “Prelude to Khovanshchina,” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 (with Joshua Bell), and Brahms' Symphony No. 4 I have now said everything I know about what is going to happen this evening, and I have very little more to contribute when it comes to classical music in general. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that I don’t know it.
When I think of Brahms, I think of lullabies, though I am hard pressed to hum any of his at this particular moment. When I think of Tchaikovsky, I think of “The 1812 Overture,” complete with cannon that we get to hear every Fourth of July here in Beantown. What I know of Mussorgsky is from my old Emerson, Lake, & Palmer records, where they did their version of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
There. I’m done, at least for the most part. ELP’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” sent me searching for more Aaron Copland. The Elephant Man introduced me to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” through its soundtrack. But I don’t know classical music because I didn’t grow up with it; I wasn’t trained to listen for it. Part of the reason is Bulawayo, Lusaka, and Nairobi didn’t have Philharmonics in those days. Part of it is my parents’ musical tastes ran more toward hymnal than highbrow. The folks in my church joke that I don’t need a hymnal on Sunday mornings. I know them all by heart.
In first grade I took piano lessons, like many people. I went through seven teachers in a little over a year. My last teacher came out to the car one day and said to my mother, “He has musical ability, but it’s not ready to come out. Do him a favor and me a favor and let him quit taking piano. His talent will come out in good time.”
The problem (issue?) was I had too good an ear. Rather than learning how to read the notes on the page, when my teacher stopped to correct my mistakes, I would ask her to play and then repeat what she had played based on what I heard. She figured it out when she played a mistake and I repeated her error. My mother let me quit and I asked for a guitar for Christmas – my ninth grade year. I’ve always loved to sing. Since most of rock and roll exists because of three chords (G, C, D), I had all the music I needed around me. My soundtrack had six strings.
My brother, who grew up in the same house and got a guitar the same Christmas, would tell this story differently. He became a professional musician. He learned to read music, to love the symphony and the opera, he did the work of learning to read what is still a foreign language to me, other than knowing Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.In college, I was learning to play Dan Fogelberg while he was performing “De Fledermaus.” It was not a matter of what we were exposed to as children, it had to do with the ears we grew and what melodies we allowed to take root in our hearts.
I love live music. I love the idea of being in a room where a musical event occurs that cannot be replicated and was not recorded; you were either there, or you weren’t. In rock and roll, those kinds of moments come when an unexpected guest walks out on stage, or some sort of interaction with an audience member changes the set list. Live orchestra is shooting of a different kind of live experience, one where everyone has practiced individually and rehearsed together to bring the score to life by playing the score note for note. But there is no such thing as a literal playing of the score; it must be interpreted. The conductor makes decisions about tone and tempo. The players bring their own style to their craft. And then there’s the challenge of playing together.
Acoustic sets have been stylish for some time now in popular music, where a musician forsakes the band and plays solo with nothing but guitar, as if the stripped down version of the song is the truest one. I can’t imagine a violinist, a trumpeter, or a timpanist making a case for a solo version of any of the pieces they know. (“Wait for it – my drum comes in every forty-five measures!”) The composers wrote parts that could come to life only in the context of community. They had to have the band to make the whole thing work.
All of a sudden I’m talking as if I know the difference between scherzo and shinola.
I wonder what the musicians car hear when they play. Do they have a sense of the entire orchestra at work? Do the strings hear more than strings? If one sits in front of the big brass does one holy hear big brass? Does the guy playing the triangle wish he had a microphone so he could hear himself? Do they have to play the notes and trust the conductor to tell them if they are making music? Do those who play supporting notes ever really get to hear the melody?
We’re off to the symphony. I’m going to sit in an historic room and let the sounds wash over me, hoping to find resonance, to grow new ears. I’m going to find beauty in the diligent work of the players and the conductor. I’m going to be a part of an evening I usually miss, to see a side of the world I don’t usually see, to give attention to what I usually let flow by.
That’s always worth doing.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
I spent some time this morning reading Life Work by Donald Hall.
It’s not a new book to me. When I was finishing up at Winchester and preparing to move to the South Shore, my friend Jack loaned me his copy. Donald Hall was a poet who lived in and around Boston; his love for the Red Sox was as passionate as his love for words. The bookmark I keep in the copy I bought after I gave Jack’s back to him is a ticket stub from a Sox-Mariners game on Sunday, May 4, 2004. I sat in Section 27, Box 67, Row D, Seat 1. Hall was paying attention to Spring Training in the chapter I was reading today, much as I am, with the Sox just days away from opening an new season and, with it, new hope. Hall writes:
Absorbedness is the paradise of work, but what is its provenance or etiology? Surely it is an ecstasy of transport, of loss of ego; but it is also something less transcendent: To work is to please the powerful masters who are parents – who are family, who are church, who are custom or culture. Not to work is to violate the contract or to disobey the injunction and to displease the dispensers of supper and love, of praise’s reward. Not working becomes conviction of unworthiness. We prove ourselves worthy by the numbers of work . . .The numbers make a difference to me, somehow. At the end of the night, I can tell you how many burgers I cooked, how many onions we sliced for onion rings. I can also tell you my journal will be over 31,000 words after I finish today’s post. When I open my blog each morning, my first move is to click my statistics counter to see how many hits I got the day before. At least I am learning how to check it only once a day. In some way, each one of the numbers reflects some aspect of my effort, and they also have nothing to do with what I have done. If I cook forty burgers on an evening it’s because I got forty orders, not because I somehow worked harder. Whether one hundred or three hundred people come to the web site, I’m still writing a thousand words a day. Yet, Hall is right: we do prove ourselves worthy of the numbers.
As I like to say: I average four books a year – counting revised editions of old books; counting everything I can damned well count. Counting books, book reviews, notes, poems, and essays, I reckon I publish about one item a week, year-in, year-out. Were I fifteen years old, this would be the moment when I would pretend to blow on the backs of my fingernails, then rub them on my shirt.
Work, work, work.
Worthy. That’s a haunting word to me.
Worthy: having value; being suitable; desirable; meriting respect or esteem.
That takes numbers, if not to prove to other people, to prove it to myself. Five years of cobbling together a resume that includes line cook, security guard, and pastor – as well as extended segments of life where I existed as Unemployed Depressed Guy – and it takes some serious spin to make the numbers work, to make me feel like I’m pleasing the “dispensers of supper and love,” to make me feel productive.
When we first moved to Charlestown, I went looking for a job to help pay the bills. I ended up as Assistant Manager at the Blockbuster Video down the hill from our apartment. The pay wasn’t great, but we got free movies and there was always popcorn. I had fun roaming the store trying to suggest lesser-known movies to widen people’s perspective to more than the new release wall. Thanks to me, more people in Charlestown saw The Year of Living Dangerously and Eyewitness than would otherwise have done so. One night, I asked a woman if she was finding what she wanted.
“Oh!” she said with some surprise. “I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”
I went back behind the counter in an identity crisis. Growing up in a minister’s home meant not being taught much of a distinction between who you were and what you did, at least in our house. Was I the guy who handed out copies of Terminator 2, or was that just what I did? Did renting videos justify my place on the planet? Since when was I “the help”?
I learned to make a distinction. I was a person who happened to be trying to pay some of the bills by working in a video store. That wasn’t all of me. The lesson was a good one to learn and a hard one. If someone like me, who internalized early on that love was earned, figures out that what I do and who I am are not the same thing, how do I earn love? What do I have to do (be? – even the verb is an issue) to feel worthy?
Here’s one of the ways I have tried to respond:
Daily WorkIt’s one of those questions I keep asking.
In the crush of afternoon traffic I am one
Of an unending queue of cars, staring at the stoplight.
From my driver’s seat I can see the billboard:
“Come visit the New Planetarium You Insignificant
Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I cross the bridge
Over the railroad yard, then left past the donut shop,
And park the car in front of my house.
Only my schnauzers notice because
They are home alone.
I have been hard at work in my daily orbit,
But I stopped no wars, saved no lives, and I forgot
To pick up the dry cleaning. Today
Would be a good day to be Jimmy Stewart,
For some angel to show me I matter.
As I walk the puppies down to the river,
I wonder how many times have I come to the water
Hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I stand in life’s rising current only to admit,
“I am not The One You Were Looking For.”
I stand in the stream of my existence between
The banks of Blessing and Despair, convinced that
Only Messiahs matter, only heroes are worthy,
That I have been called to change the world
And I have not done my job.
Yet, if I stack up the details of my life like stones
For an altar, I see I am One In the Line of Humanity,
A Drop in the River of Love; I am a Speck
In God’s eyes, of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Call the world if you please “The vale of soul-making . . .” I say “soul-making,” soul as distinguished from intelligence. There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions, but they are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.Those were the first words I found as I sat down to lunch with Kris Kristofferson today – or, at least I sat down to read his interview in the most recent issue of No Depression magazine. The article updated the life of one who lettered in two sports in college, was a Golden Gloves boxer, both Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, won Atlantic Monthly fiction contests, was an Airborne Ranger, and turned down a job to be an English professor at West Point so he could move to Nashville and try to be a singer-songwriter.
--- John Keats, “The Vale of Soul-Making”
He is one of the best and, based on the list of things in the previous paragraph, one who left many friends, family members, and other observers confused, disappointed, and even angry at some of the choices he made. “It was a legacy,” says the interviewer, “that had to be lived down or shrugged off on occasion, or at least be put in jeopardy every now and then for it to mean or be worth anything at all.”
Kristofferson wrote it this way: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Last week, as I was walking out of Half Price Books & Records in Dallas, I over heard one guy talking to another about a book he had found, Fifty Things to do When You Turn Fifty. My ears perked up because this is the year for me. On December 12, I will mark a half a century on the planet. Needless to say, I’m among friends as I mark that milestone; several of us were 1956 babies. Since I was cutting it close to meet friends for dinner, I didn’t get to do much more than notice the title. I did think it might be interesting to come up with a list of things to mark the weeks between my fiftieth and fifty-first birthday. Doing fifty things would break down to about one new thing a week. I’ve thought about giving it a shot.
Over lunch today, I read these lyrics to “Pilgrim’s Progress”:
(You can hear it here.)
am I young enough to believe in revolutionThe lyric is full of questions, which makes me wonder if, rather than thinking of things to do, I might begin to put together a list of fifty questions to ask when I turn fifty. I’ll start with the one at the beginning of the above verse: am I young enough to believe in revolution?
am I strong enough to get down on my knees and pray
am I high enough on this chain of evolution
to respect myself and my brother and my sister
to perfect myself in my own peculiar way
Notice I didn’t say fifty questions to answer when you turn fifty.
I am one of the fortunate ones who gets to ask questions beyond where’s the next meal coming from and what will I do if Congress passes their insane immigration law. I’ve been given a sizeable helping of freedom. And it’s not just another word, as Kristofferson points out now, a long time after “Bobby McGee.” It’s an important word.
“There’s a responsibility that comes with freedom to do what’s morally right. I was always writing what I was feeling, but the stuff that I was becoming aware of in the 1980s, the things that were going on in the world, were important enough that they were something that I should be talking about.”
Freedom leads to love, which is both a promise and a burden.
“Love is the reason we happened at all,” he says. “It paid for the damage we’d done, and it bought us the freedom to fall into grace . . . The kind of love I’m talking about is the kind that you feel unconditionally for your children. And if you work at it, you can get to where it includes others too. Which isn’t as easy as it is with your children, but I think it should work there.”
Good words from the guy who wrote “Jesus was a Capricorn.”
I spent part of my morning writing letters to Nestle and M&M/Mars about their lack of initiative in making sure cocoa is fairly traded and child slaves are no longer to harvest it. I wrote about it a little over a month ago; I don’t want to let the issue fade from my consciousness. I watch people unthinkingly grab candy bars as they stand in checkout lines and I think about the children who are being crushed to make such a incidental act possible. If my godchildren were harvesting the crop, I’d be fighting like hell to get them out of there. I want to work to learn how to love others like that, too.
I want to believe in, foment, and be a part of the revolution. I don’t want to choose to let things stay like they are. I want to be strong enough both to pray and to act. I want to choose to keep asking good questions long after my fiftieth year. I want to make a nuisance of myself, make a fool of myself, make a true self of myself.
Maybe freedom is another word for nothing left to lose. Some days I think we ought to sell everything we have and join Christian Peacemaker Teams. then I wonder whether part of that pull is wanting to make a big splash. If I went there, I’d really be somebody – like Steve Martin in The Jerk. But there’s more to growing an identity than making a name for myself. I may still end up there one day, but for now I’m called to lose it all right here in my little town. Not quite as dramatic, but important nonetheless. Marshfield needs a revolution as badly as anywhere. Parker Palmer, again:
“I know God acts, “but I believe that God can only act incarnationally through the various forms of embodiment that god takes here on earth, including our own human form. There is no way for God to act if we, and other created beings, are unwilling or unable to give substance to God’s yearnings, God’s energies, God’s will.I’ll bet ol' Parker has been heard to hum at least the chorus of “Me and Bobby McGee.” I'll come in on the harmony.
Monday, March 27, 2006
In our Monday night Bible Study, we are working through the “I am” statements of Jesus as recorded in John’s gospel: I am the shepherd, the door, the bread of life, the light of the world. Tonight we were looking at John 15: “I am the vine and you are the branches,” a great metaphor, particularly because we had a roomful of gardeners. the image is comforting: Jesus is the vine – the source, the connector – and we are the branches – the outgrowth of that which is rooted in love. The metaphor rolls out pretty smoothly until you get to verse six:
“If anyone does not abide in me, he or she is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”
What I remember about growing up Southern Baptist is thinking that any verse that mentioned fire or being burned was probably about hell, which was a lot easier to end up in than most people thought. As a youth minister, some of my kids and I began to develop a sort of add-on definition of hell that included being perpetually in seventh grade, on a road with constant speed bumps driving a Chevy Vega, endless meals of liver and onions, and Celine Dion for the soundtrack. Whatever hell is, Celine Dion will be involved somehow. And probably Air Supply.
My dad tells a story about my grandfather, the First Milton, who would qualify as a fire-and-brimstone kind of preacher. When my dad was about ten, my grandfather was preaching a revival meeting in Lexington, Texas, a small town in the central part of the state. The first night of the revival the crowd was restless. It was summer, they were hot, and who knows what else, but they were not listening to my grandfather’s liking. About ten mintues into the sermon, Grandpa slammed his Bible shut and shouted, “I hope every last one of you goes straight to hell and fries like a sausage.” Then he stepped down from the pulpit, told my dad to follow him, and they walked out of the service. The next night, when they came back for the service, the crowd was so big they were leaning in the windows to hear him. By the time the revival was over, as they say, the Lord blessed, the Spirit moved, and lives were changed.
Our gardening discussion tonight took us a different direction than hell. The point of pruning, ultimately is not to trim off dead stuff, but to promote growth. What is cut away is connected to what is left behind. You trim and prune to make the vine grow the way you want it to grow, and to produce fruit. An unpruned vine will produce less fruit. The pruning image, then, can be seen as having less to do with who is going to their best Jimmy Dean impression and more to do with what it takes to grow. Pruning is an act of grace, not judgment.
From there we moved back to the heart of the passage, which has to do with how we are connected to God and, thus, to one another. I asked each person to share one way they tried to connect and then articulate one way in which they saw one of the other people in the circle connecting. As we talked we passed a string of yarn from one to another, creating a web of stories and solidarity. (The idea comes from my friend John in Mississippi who did it with his youth group for many years.)
As people talked of how they tried to connect, they told stories of how they had grown. Three or four people in the group talked about being painfully shy and making a conscious decision to learn how to speak to others and be one of those who welcomed newcomers into our church. The people who shared that were not people I would have ever guessed had gone through such an intentional and painful struggle. They had done some serious pruning over the years and, in the process, grown a great deal. I don’t mean to say that shyness is wrong. What I heard these folks say was they felt a need, even a calling, to change and they set out to answer than call. They are vibrant and growing branches who are bearing fruit they worked hard to cultivate; as a result the whole vine is stronger.
In The Active Life, Parker Palmer centers his last chapter around a poem by Julia Esquivel called “Threatened With Resurrection.” Palmer moves from her poem to talk about how the prospect of resurrection, of finding life after death and loss, is often threatening because it means growth and change, both of which are at the center of what it means to be alive. Complacency kills us. Hell is where nobody cares, or everyone seems to let things just go on like they are without thinking about it. I’ve been in some situations like that and it is Hell. Trust me.
My brother mentioned something to me he had read recently (I forget the exact reference). He said a group of buzzards is called a committee of buzzards. A group of birds who gather to feed off dead animal flesh is called a committee. On the other hand, a group of rhinos – animals that can only see about ten feet in front of them (if that far), cannot go backwards, and go barreling along at about thirty miles an hour – is called a crash of rhinos. Miller’s question was, “Why are our churches filled with so many committees and so few crashes?”
Not for nothing: a group of alligators is a congregation.
(I can’t stop; here's more: a bloat of hippos, an ambush of tigers, an intrusion of cockroaches, a coalition of cheetah, a charm of finch, a smack of jellyfish and a rookery of penguins. Rookery? That doesn’t work. I vote to change it to tuxedo.)
There should be a name – a particular name – for a group sharing stories like we did tonight, articulating how we are connected to one another.
I’ve got it: an embrace of friends.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
In the past couple of days, I’ve had a chance to see people gathered together in several different kinds of groups. Saturday afternoon, I joined Lynn and Bob at their son’s lacrosse game. He’s in seventh grade, so the bleachers were filled with pretty much only parents who see each other at every game and, I’m sure, a number of the practices. James goes to the Episcopal School of Dallas and they were playing Christ the King Catholic School.
(“What do we yell?” I asked. “Kill Christ the King? Crucify them?” – I thought it was funny.)
This morning, while I was in a packed plane congregating anonymously with people united only by a common destination, both of my churches (in Marshfield and Hanover) were gathered for worship. I landed about one o’clock and Ginger drove me to Temple Sha-aray Shalom in Hingham for the annual ADL Interfaith Seder. We were taking the youth group from our church to participate and learn from the meal. Ginger and I grabbed a quick bite of lunch together and I arrived just in time for the cantor to lead us in the opening song:
Take me out to the Seder, take me out with the crowdNeedless to say, they are a congregation with a good sense of humor. They did a great job waling us through the elements of the meal and their faith tradition, as well as inviting us to find resonance wherever we could. Afterwards, the rabbi took us into the sanctuary to explain the symbols and show us their Torah scroll. She was wonderful in the connections she made and the way she explained her faith in both its meaning and its ritual. She then invited us to come up on the platform and she took one of their three Torahs out of its protective covering.
Feed me on Matzah and chicken legs; I don’t care for the hard-boiled eggs
And it’s root, root, root for Elijah that he will soon reappear
And let’s hope, hope, hope that we’ll meet once again next year
“This is our Holocaust Torah,” she said. She went on to describe how Hitler had kept many of the things he had confiscated from the Jews he killed so he could open an museum of an extinct people after he had exterminated them. When he was defeated, this particular scroll had been recovered with many other things in a warehouse in Czechoslovakia. The congregation to which it belonged no longer existed. Over time, the scroll made its way to America. She went on to explain the scroll itself was about one hundred and fifty years old, having been copied by mystics in the mid-nineteenth century. She then had us make two lines facing each other and, starting at one end, unrolled the Torah so that it stretched from Genesis to somewhere in Leviticus. With the two wooden spools at each end, we supported the sacred ribbon of parchment by holding our hands underneath.
“Some people think those who are not Jewish should not touch the Torah because it is holy,” she said. “I think people who have a sense of faith and what is sacred can appreciate contact with what is holy, even when it is not their tradition.”
One of the things I learned growing up as a Southern Baptist was there were different approaches to the Lord’s Supper. Open Communion meant anyone who was a Christian could take part in the meal. Close Communion meant it was just for Baptists. Closed Communion meant it was only open to members of that church. Even as a kid , I wondered why we didn’t trust each other to invest ourselves in the meal as we passed the grape juice and broken Saltines. How can you participate in a meal wholeheartedly if you aren’t sure about the other folks at the table?
In most of the UCC churches I’ve been in, Communion is open to anyone who needs it.
“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” we say. Grace doesn’t need police protection. What the rabbi offered us today was no different.
My hands supported one of the seams that stitched together two pages of the parchment. I could feel the ridge and the twine or sinew that held them together. As she told the story of the scroll, I tried to imagine the mystic scribe who so copiously copied the text, knowing the flow of faith and tradition was moving through him. I tried to imagine the Czech congregation that once touched the scroll as we were doing, who carried their faith with them to concentration camps and gas chambers, even after they were separated from their precious Torah. I thought about the photo exhibit I saw in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. years ago of a Jewish town in Macedonia that was completely exterminated by Hitler, leaving only black and white pictures to chronicle their existence. They lined all four twenty-foot walls of the exhibit, hundreds of eyes looking back at me, unable to tell their stories.
I was standing between one of my junior high kids and the bus driver who brought the group over from Hanover; across from me was a woman from Baltimore who took her hands off of her walker to hold the scroll that held Moses’ articulation of the Law designed to keep both the Jewish faith and community alive for centuries to come.
And we were holding it between us.
My early Baptist roots tell me, when they opened the door and we sang for Elijah to come, I should have found a way to tell them they were waiting on the wrong guy. Jesus had already come. As the cantor sang in Hebrew and we tried to follow along, that was not what I wanted to say at all. With the scroll stretched out across my palms, I did not feel like a stranger or an evangelist; I felt like a fellow traveler. God was in the shared unrolling of that parchment just as God is in the shared meal we will serve next Sunday in our church. The love of God is wider than the measure of our minds.
One of the words I learned to day was “daiyeinu” – “it would have been enough to be grateful to God.” Each step of our story of faith is not enough to finish the story, but it is enough to respond gratefully, which is what we are called to do.
After a long and emotional weekend, after saying goodbye to my friend’s dad, after reconnecting with old friends and then leaving them again, after finding my way home to Ginger, after finding myself holding hope in my hands between a bus driver and a seventh grader, it’s a good word to bring this day to a close.
Saturday, March 25, 2006
I arrived at the church yesterday about twenty minutes before the service was to begin. I would guess close to four hundred people were already in the sanctuary. A giant blown up picture of my friend’s father was on an easel and a folded and framed American flag honoring his military service was on the table beside. Various sprays of flowers covered most of the platform. A string quartet was playing, alternating and playing with the pianist. I recognized the melody of one of the songs, “All Beautiful the March of Days,” a hymn I have come to love over our years in New England. The final verse says,
O Thou from Whose unfathomed law the year in beauty flows,The minister offered opening words and the eulogy, and then described how the service would go: each of five different speakers would share their memories of this man they loved. The first was his friend of forty-five years. The two of them had been accompanists for the church, had written software together at their job, had shared the kind of memories that bind people together. His words were both carefully chosen and unabashedly filled with emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a beautiful articulation of what it means to be friends.
Thyself the vision passing by in crystal and in rose,
Day unto day doth utter speech, and night to night proclaim,
In ever changing words of light, the wonder of Thy Name.
What followed was one of the most amazing things I have ever heard: a flute choir. My friend’s mother is the orchestra conductor at the church (it’s a big church) and has the wisdom and creativity to work with the instrumentalists she has in the congregation. There were thirteen flutists, so she created a flute choir. They played “He Shall Feed His Flock” and it was transcendent.
As a congregation, we sang,
When peace like a river attendeth my way,Then the family members spoke -- a brother-in-law, a granddaughter, a son – each one giving a different view of this man they loved, each one telling the same story of a person who loved to share of himself and what he had. Another friend spoke and then we sang,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul
Go in peace, live in grace, trust in the arms that will hold you,I’ve written before about how we measure our days. As I left the service, I couldn’t help but think of “Seasons of Love,” the song from RENT.
Go in peace, live in grace, trust God’s love.
five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutesI felt honored to have been in the room.
five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
how do you measure measure a year?
in daylights in sunsets in midnights in cups of coffee
in inches in miles in laughter in strife
five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
how do you measure measure a life
how about love
Several of us went to dinner after the service and reception, mostly to have a chance to be together. I was the only one at the table who had not lost at least one of my parents. The talk turned to what it meant to live with that loss. Each person was at a different place on that journey; each one had a different answer in that moment. I felt like the same conversation on a different night would bring different responses. I also felt comforted to know that when it’s my turn to live through a day like yesterday, I know who will gather around me.
I got home about midnight, went to sleep quickly, and woke up this morning early so I could meet my parents for breakfast in Hillsboro, about seventy miles south of Dallas. Since I was in Texas, I opted for migas, a wonderful mixture of eggs, cheese, salsa, jalapenos, onions, bell peppers, and chorizo served, of course, with tortillas. The only thing missing was a side of frijoles. Man, it was good.
My parents are just back from a week in London, where they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They had a blast seeing shows, wandering into little restaurants to eat, and – Dad’s favorite – visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral. He couldn’t say enough about the beauty of the building and the wonderful priest they talked to there.
“It’s not a museum,” he said, “It’s a functioning church.” Then he said the words I was waiting for, the superlatives he uses to describe the things that move him: “It was the most beautiful church I have ever seen.” He loves to describe whatever he is doing or seeing or tasting as the best ever, from cathedrals to cornbread. It’s part of what makes him who he is. It will be one of the things I say first when I begin to remember him after he is gone.
As I left the IHOP in Hillsboro, I tried to imagine what it would be like driving to meet just one of them, either my mom or dad, without the other. I couldn’t do it. I also can’t imagine what it feels like to be my friend’s mother, waking up today – as she has for the last week – by herself after fifty-three years of waking up together. I talked to Ginger for most of the drive to Hillsboro and half of the drive back because I miss her and I’ve only been gone a couple of days. I look at my grieving friend and I think of Ginger’s words to me as I was in the depths of my depression: “I can see you’re in pain and I’m with you; I just don’t understand.” It was profoundly enough for me that she stayed, even when she didn’t understand.
One other lyric: an old Rich Mullins song that came to mind as I sat here typing, “Hello Old Friends.”
Hello old friendsI’m off now for a drink with my friend to clear the air, tighten the bonds, and tell our stories again, even as we write new chapters remembering what cannot be taken away.
There's really nothing new to say
But the old, old story bears repeating
And the plain old truth grows dearer every day
When you find something worth believing
Well, that's a joy that nothin' could take away
Friday, March 24, 2006
What then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who does ask me, I don’t know.
Augustine of Hippo
While I was waiting to meet my brother yesterday afternoon, I sat in Starbucks and read A Matter of Time, a special edition from Scientific American. I don’t read the magazine on a regular basis, but I picked it up because time is one of the things that fascinates me most. As I began to read, I smiled at the fact that I was in a town where I don’t live, in a coffee shop where I knew no one, without a phone so no one could find me to tell me where to go next; time was of no consequence.
In one of the articles, “That Mysterious Flow,” Paul Davies writes,
Because nature abounds with irreverisible physical processes, the second law of thermodynamics plays a key role in imprinting on the world a conspicuous asymmetry between past and future directions on the time axis. By convention, the arrow of time points toward the future. This does not imply, however, that the arrow is moving toward the future, any more than a compass needle pointing north indicates that the compass is traveling north. Both arrows symbolize an asymmetry, not a movement. The arrow of time denotes an asymmetry of the world in time, not an asymmetry or flux of time. The labels “past” and “future” may legitimately be applied to temporal directions, just as “up” and “down” may be applied to spatial directions, but talk of the past or the future is as meaningless as referring to the up or the down.
(This is the place where Ginger stops reading; the time stuff makes her eyes roll back in her head.)
Davies says physicists prefer “to think of time as laid out in its entirety – a timescape, analogous to a landscape – with all past and future events located there together. They call it “block time,” where all times are equally real. One other quote:
Nothing other than the conscious observer registers the flow of time.
My brother bounded in from his meeting about the time I finished the article to say he only had forty-five minutes before he had to catch a flight back to Memphis. Our serendipitous encounter was going to be short-lived; we were now conscious observers. We made the best of what time we had. He showed me office at his new church (he’s moving to Dallas after his youngest son graduates from high school in May) and then left me there to write and make phone calls. I was once again without need of a ticking clock. I wrote, left messages, and waited for friends to call.
My friend did call to say some folks were gathering for dinner at Campisi's North. I started that direction once I had finished my journal and pulled into a Half Price Books when I hit traffic. I got to the restaurant a little before everyone else, but the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was on, so I was fine. There were eight or nine of us for dinner. We shared pizza and stories. At no particular time, we went our separate ways and I drove to Lynn and Bob’s, where we had some wine and did our own catching up. I don’t know what time I went to bed. It didn’t matter.
Davies says we miss something important in the conventional view that only the present is real. Though I have been moved by the “Carpe Diem” sentiment as much as the next person, I am also pulled by the timescape idea which says it all matters. We don’t lose the past, we are just father down the road.
I haven’t seen Lynn and Bob in over fifteen years. My friend whose father died and I have not had consistent contact for over a year. If only now mattered, we would all have some explaining to do. But there was no need. Our lives intersected once more on the landscape of life and we picked up where we had left off, past connected to present, friends no matter what time it is.
Where Davies equates time with a landscape, I want to draw an analogy of my own and create a new word: peoplescape. The best way I know to mark time – to find meaning in it – is through relational experience. What matters more than hours logged is really being together. One more extended quote – bear with me:
Sixteen years of living a long way off from many of the people I love most makes for a huge stack of wishes that we could have spent more time together. It is easy to look at life gone by and lament what we missed. I have missed some things in the lives of my friends and family I wish I had not. And, still, I am in their peoplescape and they are in mine. I’m not sure much is accomplished with beginning our conversations after long absences with either apologies or explanations. All time is equal. We are here. We are together. We have memories to share, pizza to eat, and plans to make.
The distinction between pastness and futureness and “the” past and “the” future is graphically illustrated by imagining a movie of, say, the egg being dropped on the floor and breaking. If the film were run backward through the projector, everyone would see the sequence was unreal. Now imagine if the film strip were cut up in frames and the frames shuffled randomly. It would be a straightforward task for someone to rearrange the stack of frames into a correctly ordered sequence, with the broken egg at the top of the stack and the intact egg at the bottom. . . . It is not necessary for the film actually to be run as a movie for the arrow of time to be discerned.
I look at the peoplescape of my life and I see those whom I call friends, some past, some present, and there are some still to come. Together they stack up for me into a life full of grace, love, and hope.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Today has already been a long day and it's only late afternoon.
At 3:45 this morning, Ginger and I were on the way to the airport. She drove me into Logan since leaving the car there for three days would have cost more than the plane ticket. We got to the exit for the Ted Williams Tunnel, which runs under Boston Harbor to the airport, and it was blocked. So was our second option. So, at 4:30 in the morning, we were wandering the streets of Boston, past landmarks that were once the backdrop to our daily lives, trying to find our way.
By 10:00 Central Standard Time I was getting in my rental car (a Mustang!) getting drive out of D/FW Airport. Since my cell phone fell out of my bag as I was getting out of Ginger's Jeep, I spent more time in the rental car center than I had planned trying to figure out how to use a pay phone again. My first task was to find a way to get in touch with my brother, Miller, who, it turns out, was also in Dallas today. We connected and made plans to meet later, and I drove to Waxahachie to see my grandmother and tell her goodbye.
I drove to the nursing home where she has always been, only to find "she had not been there in years." The nurse tried to tell me how to get to "Renfro," the place she moved, but her directions didn't make sense to me. Somehow I had lost my grandmother, much like I had lost my cell phone. I didn't know what to do. I drove down to the Target store nearby and called my brother from another pay phone.
"I can't find Grandma," I said.
"I thought about it after we hung up," he said, "They moved her. It's a terrible place."
"Do you know how to get there?"
He stammered, trying to think. "Gosh, Milton. We've been there a couple of times, but I don't remember how to get back, or the name. It's a terrible place."
"Renfro is what the nurse at the other place said," I offered.
"Yeah. That's right."
About that time I noticed a young couple standing behind me, looking as though they had something to add to the conversation.
"You lookin' for Renfro?" the woman asked. "I can tell you how to get there." And she did.
The sign in front of the Renfro Healthcare Center said, "History lives here." I drove around the side of the building and parked in front of a veranda peopled with four or five feeble folks sitting in wheelchairs and smoking cigarettes. I walked up to the main door, punched in the security code posted above the key pad, asked for my grandmother's room and found my way to her.
I've been trying to think of words to describe the facility where she is. The ones that keep coming to mind are "kennel for adults." The rooms were like pens; the lights were dim and yellow, like the walls; everything felt worn and designed to meet minimum requirements. My grandmother was lying on a low bed that was more like a cot, her frail body and blankets all wrinkled together. Ms. Speck is the person who has been her caregiver for years. She is wonderful and cares deeply for my grandmother. She was feeding her from a plate of pureed foods of varying shades of green and brown. She would gently call my grandmother's name and offer a spoonful, but Grandma was taking in very little.
What bothered me most was the giant purple and grey bruise that wrapped around the top of her right eye, and the two inch cut above the bruise that looked stitched, but I couldn't tell for sure because of the dried blood over it. Ms. Speck said she had fallen in the night (when she was alone) and had bruises all over her body.
I swallowed hard and called her name, but she was unresponsive and kept staring at the wall.
"Ms. Sutton," Ms. Speck said. Grandma perked up a bit, recognizing her voice. "Your grandson is here -- the one from Boston."
"It's me, Grandma. Milton," I added.
Her mouth moved in a sort of chewing motion and then she said, "I'm real sick. I'm real sick." Her voice faded, she closed her eyes, and shut down again.
"I love you, Grandma," I said, putting my hand on her arm. I stood there touching her for a few more minutes. "Goodbye." I think I said it so I could hear it as much as anything. I left her yellow room and walked down the yellow hall and back out into the gray afternoon. The wind felt colder than it had been when I entered. Only one old man was still smoking on the porch. I got in the car and headed to Dallas to meet my brother. As I drove by myself, I couldn't get past how alone my grandmother looked. Ms. Speck takes good care of her, but even she barely penetrates the distance between who is lying in that bed and who my grandmother was. To me, she is the one who could fry shrimp better than anyone, who loved to talk and tell stories of her life (and she had good ones to tell), who -- on the eve of her wedding when she was eighty -- called my mom, dad, and me into her room to show us the lingerie she had bought for her honeymoon.
I love you, Grandma. Goodbye.
I drove on to Dallas and another set of streets that had also once been the backdrop to my life. Since Texans don't know much how to leave things alone, the streets here had changed more than those in Boston, strip mall layered on strip mall, development cropping up everywhere. I ended up in a Starbucks, which made my geography relative: I could be anywhere. Miller came over to meet me after his meeting to tell me we had about a thirty minute window before he had to leave for the airport himself. We made the best of it.
By tonight, I will be at the home of Lynn and Bob, friends from my days as a hospital chaplain. I was one of the ministers who performed their wedding. I've not seen them in a long time, but they were willing to take me in when they heard I was coming for the funeral. Tomorrow afternoon, I will say my goodbye's to my friend's father at a service that will be filled with people who loved him. On Sunday, I will go home to Ginger, to the best love I know.
"Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand" says the old gospel song, "I am tired, I am weak, I am worn."
In the middle of a day of lost and found, that's how I feel.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Today is World Water Day 2006.
I woke this morning to the news that my friend's father died last night about eleven. I've spent the morning making arrangements to get to the funeral to be with my friend, which means leaning into friends and co-workers who are allowing me to inconvenience their lives so I can keep my promises.
My grandmother lives in a nursing home in Waxahachie, outside of Dallas, where the funeral is going to be. She is nearly a hundred years old and is worn out. She is my father’s stepmom, since his mother died about a month after he was born. His dad remarried with my dad was eleven. She is “Grandma” to me. Since my grandfather died before I was born, and my father is an only child, she was the family on that side.
She is also the first person I saw live through a profound depression. I was a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas when she spent a month on the psychiatric unit there, trying to climb up from the bottom. She was in her seventies then. When she began to get a little of herself back, she began writing letters to old friends, one of whom was a widower and an old friend. They began to correspond and then to date and, when my grandmother was eighty, they got married.
They were married seventeen years before he died. Ginger and I will be married sixteen years next month.
Though the story of her life is one of adventure in many ways, the last years have erased much of the joy. She has become reclusive and lonely, even though my parents are still around her. In recent days, her health has begun to fail more quickly. My trip tomorrow will give me a chance to say goodbye I didn’t think I was going to get.
My friend’s email said simply, “Dad died about 11 pm with much love around him.”
Though the circumstances of his death are tragic, he died surrounded by love – a good ending. It matters how we get to say goodbye.
In my years as a hospital chaplain, I spent many hours standing at the bedside with families as they said goodbye to those they loved. There was no right way to do it. People felt what they felt, coped as best they could, and looked for comfort and hope anywhere they could find it. I had no words to lessen the grief or to ease the pain; all I could do was stay with them. My supervisor used to quote Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
In those same years, my father and I were very distant from each other. I was an angry young man who didn’t really know how to get angry. I felt like I was not turning out the way my parents wanted and I took it personally. Though what I felt was not necessarily what they were saying, we were at a crossroads where we did not know what to do except keep banging heads with each other. I can remember driving home from the hospital on more than one occasion after I had dealt with a family around the death of a parent and praying, “God, please don’t let Dad die before we figure out how to talk to each other. I don’t want to live with that kind of regret.”
When Ginger and I married some years later, things had not progressed much. She and I packed up for New England and began to deal with how distance affects relationships of any sort. One of the decisions we made was to call my parents every Saturday morning. The purpose of the conversation was to ask what they had been up to, give a rundown of what we did during the week, and tell them we loved them. I had to trust the past would somehow figure itself out; I wanted to act myself into a new way of feeling in the present tense. After fifteen years of Saturdays, I’m not wishing for either of my parents to shuffle off this mortal coil. I know, however, when they do, that the air is clear between us.
As I prepare to say goodbye to my friend’s father, my in-laws are downstairs, back from Birmingham for another visit. My parents are in London on the trip they planned to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. The veil that hangs between the two dimensions we call life and death is gossamer-thin. Though it is probably time to just stand here, I keep looking for words of strength and meaning. I keep hearing echoes of T. S. Eliot:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,I’ve always imagined the narrator of the poem stomping emphatically – even desperately – when he said, “But set down/ this set down/ This.” He was fighting, craving, straining to articulate the change in himself: how what he had seen had transformed him and left him unable to tolerate the indifference that seemed to be the tone of most people’s lives. He had seen too much. He had stared Love in the face and come away still trying to figure out what had been born and what had died inside, all in the same moment.
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
One of the things Ginger and I talk about a lot is doing our damndest to not miss the moments that matter most, the events and experiences that call us to build altars in the field so we can remember who we are and how we are connected, the times that come when we must “set down this.”
Going to be with my friend is one of those moments. I will spend the morning asking people at church to change their schedules so they can meet the truck delivering the pizza and cookie dough from our fundraiser tomorrow; I will ask one of my youth sponsors to understand why I will not be able to co-officiate at her wedding; I will ask the folks at the restaurant to work shorthanded for our two busiest weekend shifts; I will miss the last two days of my in-laws’ visit; and I will lean into Ginger for love and support and being willing to spend money we don’t have to get me to Texas.
One day, I will call him and he will do the same for me. We are friends.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
My schedule has made it difficult to find much time to read these past few days, so I took some time this morning to listen to Parker Palmer and Madeleine L’Engle, two names you are quite familiar with by now. Palmer was talking about the temptations of Jesus as a way of looking at the temptations of an active life. He named three (borrowing from Henri Nouwen): the temptation to be relevant, to be powerful, and to be spectacular – each one tempting us to act for some other reason than answering the truth within us. All three temptations of the strong ego, Palmer said, are kith and kin to the temptation of the weak ego: to be inadequate.
[All] destroy our capacity for right action because both proceed from the same mistaken premise: the assumption that effective action requires us to be relevant, powerful, and spectacular, that only be being so can we have a real impact on the world. (114)As Bush and the Boys babble on three years after inflicting “Shock and Awe” on both the Iraqis and us, they are living proof that nothing much is solved by shows of power, attempts at relevance, or spectacular acts for their own sake.
L’Engle was talking about some of the same stuff (at least to me), but with an artist’s eye. For her, turning the world upside down is not the same thing as looking at the world upside down.
Another oddity of the brain is that our eyes see upside-down, and then our brain has to turn things right side up (and, maybe, left side up). I don’t understand why we see upside down; I know that nobody has been able to make a camera that doesn’t see upside down, and maybe there’s a message for us in that. Maybe the job of the artist is to see through all of this strangeness to what really is, and that takes a lot of courage, and a strong faith in the validity of the artistic vision even if there is not a conscious faith in God.First of all, you have to love anyone who has the word “hippo” in his name. They’re my favorite animals. I wonder how you get to put “Hippo” in your name. Can you just add it on?
My son-in-law, Alan, says in his book, Journey into Christ, "Our identity is hidden, even from ourselves. . . . the doctrine that we are made after the image of God proclaims that the human being is fundamentally a mystery, a free spirit. The creative artist is one who carries with him the wound of transcendence. He is the sign that human beings are more than they are."
And, as St. Augustine of Hippo says, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God." (128-9)
Milty of Hippo. I like it.
The upside down view for me starts with friends who are in pain. Just before I started writing this morning, I got word that my friend’s father was taken off of life support. All the family can do now is wait. We wait and pray with them.
The other person I want to mention is a kid named Thomas Bickle. Thomas is little guy who is fighting a big fight against brain cancer. His parents are also waging a battle with our inadequate health care system. A bunch of his parents’ friends organized a blog-a-thon to help raise money to help his family deal with the financial weight of life as they are living it. (You can also hit the button in the sidebar.)
The view of the world we are most fed is top down, big picture, as if history is really about bombs and press conferences to explain them. As I thought about young Thomas (who in his stocking cap looks like he could be a rapper – I want to call him T-Dawg), I thought of something I wrote in my Lenten Journal as the US invasion began three years ago:
Somewhere in Iraq there is a man like me.Peace never rides in on a bullet or a bomb.
He is in his mid-forties and carrying more weight than he should. Though Ginger and I have chosen not to have children, I think he and his wife have a couple -- perhaps teenage boys about my nephews’ ages. They live in a small two bedroom house in Baghdad. He works as a cook in a small cafe. I know nothing about Iraqi cooking, but I imagine he is much more familiar with spices like cumin and cardamon, tamarind and z’arat, just as I know more about jalapenos. We would both share a love of good olive oil, and cinnamon. He probably knows more recipes that use dates than I do. He makes one tenth of my paycheck.
He does not drive to work because he has no car. He does not come home at night and turn on the television or the computer because he has neither. He brings home what food he can because the sanctions have left the grocery shelves empty.
His house is dangerously close to a military installation, just as mine is in the flash zone of the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant in Plymouth. He knew that, but never let it bother him until the bombs began falling a week ago. The windows in his house have been broken out by the force of the explosions, leaving him to try and keep out the dust and the black smoke from burning oil with pieces of cardboard and wood.
His youngest son is frightened by the war and the impending “Battle of Baghdad.” The drone of voices coming from loudspeakers calling people to arms in support of their president has become more frequent than the calls to prayer. The boy flinches when he hears them. He has not gone outside for days. The eldest son is angry and ready to strike out. He disappears during the afternoon, and sometimes at night, leaving his father and mother to fear that he is making plans to join in the fight against the invading forces. If he fights, the man thinks, he will be killed. I am not going to fight, he follows, and I may also die.
Near his cafe is a coffee shop with a television. He has been stopping by there after work to see what is happening. The only news on the screen is about the war, as it is on mine. We do not see the same images, however. He sees pictures of the places that have been bombed, of the women and children who have been killed and wounded, of the hospital wards packed with wounded civilians. I see images of American troops moving confidently across the desert, Iraqi soldiers surrendering, Kurdish people embracing American soldiers in thanksgiving. He hears his president proclaim stiff-necked resolve in much the same way that my president does. He sees images of dead and captured American soldiers designed to make him think his government has the situation under control. I am shown different pictures by my government for the same purpose. Neither one of us has access to the other’s point of view.
He is a religious man: a Muslim. He prays during the day according to Islamic ritual, stopping in the midst of preparing meals to roll out his mat and kneel toward Mecca. His heart aches when he hears the names of the cities and towns being chewed up by the war, places whose names he first learned from the Qu’ran. He knows, as I do, that the One he calls Allah is the One those who are Christian and Jew refer to as God. He is bothered that Muslims and Christians and Jews are invoking the name of Allah when they justify their violence toward one another. He has never met a Christian or a Jew and he wonders if they are all as angry as they seem in the pictures he is shown.
Each day as he has gone to work he has seen more and more businesses shuttered up. This morning the owner of his cafe told him the restaurant was closing. The Americans are too close. He would do well to take some food from the cafe and stay with his family. He took some bread, some cheese, some yogurt, and some coffee. He heard and felt three giant explosions in the city today. News came that one of the bombs had missed its military target and landed in a marketplace. When he got home his wife was inconsolable. The eldest boy had gone after the first explosion. Someone, he said, had to fight.
Each day, he is waking to more sand, more smoke, more fear and uncertainty. I will wake in uncertainly as well, but I can say unequivocally that I will never know the level of fear and despair that he knows on a daily basis. I am an observer and he is a participant; both parts have been cast according to our addresses.
Somewhere in Iraq there is a man like me and he is a casualty of war. I think he is prpbably going to die. I will choose to let that break my heart over and over again.
Monday, March 20, 2006
Last night at youth fellowship we played board games.
We keep a big box in the closet with Boggle, Risk, Uno, Word Up, Scrabble, Mankala, and several others I can’t remember right now. From time to time I pull them out and we spend our evening playing games and talking together. I was in the group that decided to play Boggle, which is a game where you try to make words out of the letters in the cube. You credit for the words only you alone identify. We had a good time.
Inside the Boggle box is a small hourglass (minuteglass?) to time how long we look for words. I am fascinated by them: their shape, their purpose, their functionality, and their symbolism. Here’s how time passes, one moment after another.
When I checked email this morning, I had a message from a dear friend that his father had had a heart attack and is in critical condition. We have been friends for almost twenty-five years, sharing all kinds of experiences together. We have not walked this road before. As I thought about him, an evening emerged from the sands of my memory of he and I at a David Wilcox concert at the Cactus Cafe in Austin. The opening act was a guy named LJ Booth. It was the only time I’ve ever heard him. What came back to me this morning is the song he sang: “Big Hourglass.”
I remember back in collegeHow we articulate time is a continuing quest for me. Deeply moved by Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams, and Madeleine L’Engle’s musing on time, I wrote a short story called "Waiting Room" about a guy who, knowing something was severely wrong, was waiting for test results from his doctor. I described his thinking this way:
It was sometime in the fall
I was walking by a Maple tree
Flaming red and tall
And as I passed beneath it
One leaf out of that flame
Fell right into my breast pocket
And I haven't been the same
It was like the whole world
Was a big hourglass
Top is like the future, bottom like the past
And at that narrow middle part
Where only one grain can pass
Is the ever-living moment
And I want to understand
That simple grain of sand
It was somewhere in Nebraska
We'd been driving quite awhile
When I glanced over at my daughter
She had this very special smile
It had this extra little wrinkle
Like my grandma's used to do
And for a moment it was real hard
To tell the difference 'tween the two
It was like my family
Was a big hourglass
My daughter, like the future
Grandma, like the past
And at that little moment
Where only one smile can pass
The two were joined together
And I want to understand
This simple grain of sand
Spring is coming on here
There's moisture in the breeze
The river is running higher
Buds are popping in the trees
So I picked up my guitar today
I didn't really have a plan
And this song just kind of jumped right out
Buds were popping in my hands
And it's like the whole world
Is a big hourglass
Top is like the future, bottom like the past
And at that narrow middle part
Where only one grain can pass
Is the ever-living moment
And I want to understand
That simple grain of sand
Like my daughters's smile
Like that Maple leaf
I will give to you this moment
Because it's my belief
That the middle of the hourglass
Is this place where I now stand
So I'll do my best to sing
And try to understand
This simple grain of sand
Time stands on its head like a circus clown. We do not move forward, only up and down. We are every age we have ever been or will be in any and every moment, as if the moments of our lives happen simultaneously, though we experience them one by one.The mystery of a friendship is in how two people find a way to stand in the waist of each other’s hourglass. Somehow love makes it possible to ride that simple grain of sand together. It doesn’t happen in every moment. He and I have been pulled very different directions over the past couple of years. We have stayed in touch, but we have not been able to keep up on the details as we once did. That sand has already passed by. Today I’m working to be in his moment, to be by his side, even though I’m a couple thousand miles away. My friend’s father may be dying. What is more important than that right now?
I am fourteen at my brother's military funeral;
I am seven putting a tooth under my pillow;
I am twenty-eight and my son has survived the surgery;
I am sixteen pulling out of the driveway for the first time;
I am fifty-four holding my first grandchild;
I am thirty stretching to touch a name on the Wall;
I am nine going to the principal's office for cutting off Sally Jeffrey's pigtail;
I am twenty-five laying down next to my wife for the first night in our first home;
I am seventy-two being pushed down a colorless hall to a semiprivate room;
I am eighteen registering for the draft;
I am forty-five coming home with my Christmas bonus;
I am sixty-one at my wife's funeral;
I am thirty-seven waiting to hear the results of my brain scan.
I feel the full force of our friendship as it stacks up on today. Years ago I wrote a song that said:
when the snow falls on your roof and my world gets colder“We have friends,” says Martin Marty, “or we are friends, in order that we do not get killed.” One day, the last grain of sand will pass through the middle of my friend’s hourglass or mine, and we will no longer be able to stand in the moment together. For today we will stand together and try to understand this simple grain of sand.
when you know without any proof that you have my shoulder
when the fear of pain come to break us
it’s the years of strain that will make us
friends at last – friends at last
Sunday, March 19, 2006
On a normal Saturday night, I come straight home from work so I can try to sleep since Sunday morning comes early. My job at church requires I make it to an 8:30 am worship service. But last night – even though I knew I was preaching today – was not an ordinary night.
I left work and drove to Ann and Doug’s house (Doug of support group fame), having been given instructions to shower there (so I didn’t smell like food); Ginger would meet us there and lead a midnight expedition to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts (their spelling) in Dedham, a town about twenty miles away, and the closest Krispy Kreme.
We were on the road by about 10:30. I called the donut shop to see how late they were open and the recorded message said 11:30. We were golden.
If you have never had a Krispy Kreme doughnut it is truly a thing of beauty. it is shaped like any other donut, but their particular combination of flour, butter, sugar, and yeast (and whatever secret narcotic they add) is as good as it gets. The KK tradition is to make fresh doughnuts all day long in their store. The baking process is doughnut theater: you can see the whole thing. The bakers cut the dough into cute little life preservers, let them rise in clear ovens and then set them free on a river of hot oil. When they have had time to cook on one side, they are summarily flipped over and they float along until both sides are perfectly done. Then they rise from the oil on a slotted conveyor belt that allows them to drain just before they go under a rain of sugar glaze, which coats them perfectly. As they round the corner on the conveyor belt, an employee picks them up by putting a stick in the hole and gently lifting, offering the confectionary wonder to the next person standing in line.
As you can see, I was ready for a damn doughnut.
We could see the store about a block ahead of our arrival. The hot light was not on. We pulled up just to see the employees coming out of the store for the night – at 11:00. They closed at 10:30. There we were at Dedham in the middle of the night with a hankering for donuts. We did what any self-respecting New Englander would do: we headed for Dunkin’ Donuts (also their spelling), the official coffee shop of the region. Ginger had a hunch that the one in Stoughton, the next town over, would still be open. Ann, Doug, and I – who had just trusted this woman to get us to Krispy Kreme, trusted her again. At 11:20, we were sitting in the Double D with coffee and donuts. Lots of donuts. I also learned when it’s close to closing time the guy behind the counter gives you twice what you ask for.
As we drove from one donut shop to the other, Ginger said, “Don’t you just love throwing all sense of adult reason to the wind?”
“Baby,” I said, “it’s pretty much the way we live everyday.” We all laughed hard.
We drove a long way to get to the one Krispy Kreme shop in Massachusetts. When we got there and it was closed, we ended up in one of the who-knows-how-many Dunkin’ Donuts shops. Driving from Marshfield to Hanover on my way to church this morning I passed six of them – in twelve miles. We got end-of-the-day donuts for free and four cups of good coffee (always good coffee at the Double D), and we made an indelible memory even though – or perhaps because – things didn’t go as planned.
The point was going together.
My blog buddy, Mark, sent me a link to Improv Everywhere (which, when typed like a web address looks like Improve Everywhere), a group committed to creating scenes of “joy and chaos” anywhere they can. My kind of people. Their last “mission” was to organize a group of sixty people who checked their book bags at the Strand Bookstore in New York, each with a cell phone inside. Another sixty waited down the block and began dialing the numbers at a specified time and in a specified pattern to create a cell phone symphony. The writer said they got the idea when they heard a phone go off randomly in a book bag one day. Even the security guard smiled as the music began. The account of the incident shows the kind of planning and cooperation it took to create the kind of joyful chaos they were after.
Those kinds of memories don’t just happen.
We don’t usually see Ann and Doug after ten on a Saturday night. Ginger, Ann, and I all have church jobs on Sunday; Doug goes to church for free. I don’t normally think about anything other than cleaning up the kitchen after our busiest night of the week and heading home any more than most people think of a making an orchestra out of a bunch of cell phones in book bags.
Thank God for dreamers, for artists, for lovers of donuts who don’t look at the clock, or what needs to happen next, but look at the rest of us and say, “Why not?”
Thank God Ginger doesn’t just dream that way occasionally. She’s always got some crazy idea, many of which involve late night food. It’s one of the reasons I love her.
I fell asleep as we were driving home, even after I had eaten two donuts and had a medium Turbo Hot (coffee with a shot of espresso). This morning came early and I spent a lot of this afternoon taking a nap. I woke up thinking about our late night donut run.
When I lived in Dallas years ago, there was a billboard over Central Expressway that said, “People that never get carried away should be.”
Carried away. The way a coach gets carried off the field after an upset win. The way a raft is pulled down the river. The way four friends drive off into the night in search of donuts and memories.
Yeah – like that.
Saturday, March 18, 2006
Here’s what I learned yesterday: f you want to fill up your restaurant on St. Patrick’s day – at least in the Boston area – serve corned beef and cabbage (we threw in some roasted potatoes, carrot ribbons, and diced turnips) at a bargain price (all for $9.95, with dessert) and the joint will fill up.
How do we do it? Three words: volume, volume, volume.
Though I will admit to liking the taste of corned beef, I don’t really get the attraction of a boiled dinner, as they call it around here. Dropping anything, other than pasta, to cook in boiling water is my least favorite form of cooking. It’s easy, yes. As Robert said last night, you don’t really have to worry about anyone sending the plate back to see if you could boil it a little longer. Any other day of the year, we could put it on the menu and sell about two orders, but on St. Patrick’s Day that’s what everyone wants -- that and a pint o’ Guinness or green beer, answering the question: if everyone was eating a plate of boiled stuff would you do it.
I woke up before Ginger this morning and came downstairs to feed pups and read something to wake my mind up so I could come back up to my computer and write before I go back to the restaurant for a day that will involve far less water in our cooking. While the pooches were having breakfast, I picked up this month’s copy of Harper’s Magazine, one of my favorites, and turned to an article by Bill Wasik entitled, “My Crowd Or, Phase 5: A report from the inventor of the flash mob.”
A flash mob, according to the OED, is “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized via the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.” By the time the dictionary had come up with a definition, the concept was passé, at least according to Wasik. For him it was a “vacuous fad . . . intended as a metaphor for the hollow hipster culture that spawned it.”
In the short life of the Flash Mob, they did some fun things in New York. My favorite was the word went out to descend on the lobby of the FAO Schwartz toy store in Times Square and – at a designated moment – everyone was to fall to their knees before the giant Tyrannosaurus, cowering and moaning as if they were the road company for King Kong. They did if for exactly six minutes and then all got up and left the store.
I hate to tell Wasik, but my brother was way ahead of him. In 1972 or 1973, when Miller was a student at Fondren Jr. High, he organized a locker slam during passing period. The school had those old clocks where the minute had jumped from one to the next. At lunch one day, he and his friends wondered if they could organize something by word of mouth. So they started telling people to slam their lockers at 1:32, the minute in the center of the passing period. He said, at 1:31 he noticed how many people were standing at their lockers. When the clock jumped, the halls reverberated with the mob action and everyone quickly moved to class.
Miller was never particularly philosophical about the incident; Wasik is talking about these kinds of human actions as artistic in some sense. He talks about seeing his actions as being connected to the experiments of Stanley Milgram, who did sociological experiments deindividuation (people’s inhibitions melt away when we don’t stand out) in the fifties; he also talks about Milgram’s work as art:
The Milgramite tradition in art would be defined, I think, by the following premise: that man, whom we now know to respond predictably to social forces, is therefore himself the ultimate artistic medium.When he begins to think as an artist, Wasik makes an interesting claim:
It is precisely here that we who would make Milgramite art must keep vigilant: in resisting simple story lines and embracing, instead, the ambiguities in our data.Thursday night we had a dinner at church – an unboiled one – to look at data from the US Congregational Life Survey we took back in November. We have more numbers and graphs than we know what to do with. The suggested interpretation is one of appreciate inquiry, which means starting with our strengths as a way of looking at how we can grow. I was surprised to see not everyone appreciates that approach. Our default setting, it seems – at least for groups that gather as church – is to focus on what we are doing wrong and try to fix it.
That’s not the way to make art.
I got a note from a friend this week talking about her aversion to organized religion. Though I have spent a lifetime in church, I share the same aversion. Organized religion, to me, has little to do with the creative and artistic expression that comes out of a shared expression of faith as we seek to learn together how to tell our story and embrace our ambiguities. Organized anything is designed to erase, or at least ignore, anything that is the least bit ambiguous. Organized religion is not church in its truest and most creative sense.
When asked why they come to church, I have never heard anyone say, “I just love the way it’s organized.”
I’m preaching tomorrow and the story I’m telling is Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, which is his own encounter with a flash mob. The crowd kept growing and following, until he realized he needed to do something about feeding them. The disciples couldn’t see beyond organizing a meal as a logistical nightmare, as well as a budgetary crisis. Jesus saw it as a creative relational opportunity: here was a chance for everyone to see how our faith leads us to feed one another.
There were even leftovers.
At the end of “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie finishes his wonderful subversive story by encouraging a flash mob of his own:
And the only reason I'm singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there's only one thing you can do and that's walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say "Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant." And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both nuts and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three -- can you imagine -- three people walking in singing a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day -- I said fifty people a day -- walking in singing a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends, they may thinks it's a movement.I don’t want to be a part of an organization; I want to be a part of a movement, a creation, a work of art. Maybe I need to make a substitution for the first hymn in the morning. Come on, sing with me:
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.”
Friday, March 17, 2006
Today may be St. Patrick’s Day, but yesterday was the meeting of the Greater Marshfield Clergy Spousal Support Group and Book Club (with subcommittees on Fine Ales and Spicy Foods), which meets with some regularity at Namaste, a wonderful Indian restaurant in Plymouth. The group is made up of my friend Doug, whose wife is in seminary right now, and me. We also make up the subcommittees.
Doug is a great guy with a big heart, a strong sense of justice, a great sense of humor, and a desire to grow and learn. He is a surveyor by trade, but that doesn’t even come close to telling the story. He is a master of the backyard grill, a lover of Buddy Miller and other great American music, a painter, and a drummer.
Our two-hour lunches take us all around the world, starting with the Indian food we both love. Yesterday it was Lamb Samosas, Aloo Tikki (spicy potato patties), Rogan Josh (a spicy lamb dish), Malai Kofta (vegetable balls in a spicy sauce), Poori, and Nan (two types of Indian bread).
Our book discussion centered on Parker Palmer’s The Active Life, which Doug read a little while back. Doug talked about being moved by Palmer’s idea of doing what you were most passionate about, which for him is painting. He went on to talk about the creative tension in finding such joy in working with oil and canvas and wondering if it was bordering on being too self-absorbed.
He reminded me of a story I heard on All Things Considered about Joey Cheek, an American speed skater, who won a gold medal at the Olympics and donated his $25,000 award to a foundation that provided play equipment for refugee children in Darfur. Cheek talked about becoming aware of the plight of the children while he was in Athens because, he said, people outside of the United States hear about this everyday. Thanks to the self-absorption of the American media, he knew little of the genocide that is the story of the Sudan. He decided he had to do something and his medal award gave him something to do.
The story connected to what Doug was saying in two ways. One, the kind of focus it takes to become a human NASCAR vehicle on a flat ice track must border on self-absorption and, two, he gave the money to buy play equipment, not food. In the interview, Cheek responded to the second thing by saying play was an essential part of childhood development, even where people are starving and homeless.
“If you don’t help people develop normally as possible then they stand little chance of ever knowing a normal life,” he said.
One of Palmer’s emphases that speaks deeply to me is his focus on creative tension. he talks about comtemplation-and-action, not as polar opposites, but as two things inextricably connected and full of creative energy. I think of it this way: if the poles are the Arctic and Antarctica, wouldn’t it be more interesting to live at the Equator than to pick one ice floe over the other? A speed skater who pays attention to more than his skating form is now helping kids who may have never seen ice; what kind of connections can we make if we pay attention?
Somewhere in our conversations over curry, Doug and I always end up talking about music. As I said, he’s a drummer. I play guitar and sing and I never got to be in a garage band when I was a kid. I still need to get that out of my system. One of these days, we’re going to finish lunch and head back to his house to set up the drum kit and jam. And one of these days, I’m going to sing in a band just for the hell of it.
As I was driving home after lunch, I thought about the band again, even though we didn’t get to talk about it yesterday. I even have a name: Love Dogs, which comes from a Rumi poem.
One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
you express is the return message."
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
I had a dream last night that Ginger and I were standing on the side of a golf course watching two teenage boys play. They were both on the same hole, but not together, or even aware of each other. One worked hard on his form and went about each shot methodically, as if her were reading from a manual. He was dressed like he had just stepped off of the PGA tour. It was obvious he was taking lessons and was working hard to make sure his form was exactly as he had been told it should be. He swung and the ball bounced up on to the green, but he didn’t seem to find any joy in his accomplishment. His brow furrowed as he began to contemplate his next shot, even though he was still a long way from where the ball had landed.
The second kid was in jeans and a t-shirt. He was carrying his clubs. He also had good form, but it came from a different place, from a place deep inside him. His movements were organic and even joyful. He swung with ease and the ball rolled up next to the one belonging to the first boy. He smiled, picked up his bag, and looked up into the trees as he walked toward the green, thinking about nothing other than how great it felt to be outside on a beautiful day.
“They’re both good,” Ginger said in the dream, “but only one of them is enjoying it. He’ll do this the rest of his life.”
I woke up and thought, “Be a Love Dog.”
PS -- Apropos of nothing except today's date, here's an Irish soup recipe that I'm making today at the restaurant.