Thursday, May 31, 2007

superstition and substance

I didn’t write last night because it was after midnight when I finally got home. I went with some friends to Fenway Park to see our beloved Red Sox play the Cleveland Indians. The Sox have been on quite a tear so far this season and had won five games straight. Our new pitching sensation, Daisuke Matsuzaka, or Dice-K as we call him here, was on the mound, the weather for the evening was picture perfect, and there was a blue moon coming up over the stands as darkness fell (you can see it between the lights and the press box if you look hard in my camera phone pic). My friend Doug and I drove into town with the top down on the Wrangler. We left early because Boston traffic is always a dice roll and got to town early enough to hang out in the Sunset Cantina and have a couple of beers. Then we moved on and met Jay and Marc. A good time was had by all, even though we lost.

And it’s all Doug’s fault.

Somewhere around the third or fourth inning, while we were still up 2-0, Doug told us the Sox lost every time he came to a game. Our whole section took it pretty well, until the sixth inning when Dice-K rolled craps and the Indians scored six runs. Doug went down to get a beer as the Sox came to bat and the first three batters hit singles. When he came back to his seat, the bases were loaded with no outs. “Go back downstairs,” we yelled to no avail. The next three batters were retired and we lost the game 8-4.

Baseball is known for its superstitions. When Nomar Garciaparra played here, he had this ritual of tapping his fingers on his arm in three different places before he stepped into the batter’s box. Curt Schilling won’t step on the chalk lines between the dugout and the pitcher’s mound. Watch a game for long and you’ll see any number of players kiss medallions around their necks as they step up to the plate. When the bases loaded up last night, there were several in our section who put on our “rally caps,” turning our caps around or inside out, hoping to foster a change in the situation. Things weren’t going well as they were, so we were going to change what we could to see if that would make a difference. Neither turning our hats around in Section 29 or banning Doug to a beer run appeared to be either necessary or meaningful on the change meter, but it was what we could do.

I’ve been thinking this morning about what we get out of our superstitions. I’m guessing it gives Schilling a sense of preparedness. This is a guy who works hard to get ready for a game. He almost choreographs every pitch before the game begins, keeping copious notes on the hitters he faces. Stepping over the chalk on purpose maybe his way of reminding himself he’s ready. (And maybe not.) Sometimes it provides a sense of community. Whatever happened last night, we had fun together in Section 29. One thing I saw last night makes me think superstition can connect us to history and tradition. There was a father sitting with his little girl in the row behind us last night; she was probably four. He was wearing a glove. We were in seats where his catching a foul ball would have altered the laws of physics as we know them. I’ll bet he has taken a glove to every game he’s seen, regardless of where his seats were.

When we’re all bunched together in Friendly Fenway, our superstitions carry a harmless sentimentality that adds to the lure and luster of baseball on an early summer night. And they’re not true beyond the truth we choose to assign to them. Doug wasn’t the reason we lost; their manager pulled their fading pitcher faster than ours did. (Really, Doug. If I get tickets again, I’ll call. Really.)

Now I’ve got this song in my head:

very superstitious, writing's on the wall,
very superstitious, ladders bout' to fall,
thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin' glass
seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past.

when you believe in things that you don't understand,
then you suffer -- superstition ain't the way
If you read this post as I wrote it, you will sit and stare at the words to the chorus for about ten minutes. I think I’d make one change: when you believe in things you don’t understand and you suffer. Anj has an interesting post about a conversation with her sons which includes her saying, “Life is about discomfort, and one of our tasks is to learn to live graciously in the midst of that discomfort.” I’ll bet she knows the song.

I learned Hebrews 11:1 from the King James: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is believing – trusting – what I don’t understand: that God is love and grace is true and I suffer. We all do. Making meaning of what we don’t understand requires more than stepping over cracks, throwing salt over our shoulders, or sending money to televangelists. Superstition ain’t the way. It has no substance.

However fun it might be, superstition is ultimately fueled by guilt: if I do (or don’t do) this, bad things will happen. Doug came back + we lost = Doug should be banned from Fenway. When it comes to nourishing our faith, guilt is nothing but empty calories. (I think I’m mixing metaphors.) The substance of things hoped for lies in the forgiveness and community; the evidence of things not seen is in the way we love one another.

Thank God for all I don’t undestand.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

how would jesus fail?

I ate all three meals alone today.

Well, I was accompanied by the Schnauzers, so I suppose that’s not completely true. Ginger has gone to see her folks on the way to our adult mission trip to Biloxi and I had things to do around the house, so it was a fairly solitary day with the exception of my trip to Weight Watchers for the weekly meeting (I lost two and a half pounds!). As I have mentioned before, I’m close to being a serial weight watcher and my downfall the other times was deciding I didn’t need to go to the meetings to lose weight: I could do it on my own.

That has proven to be untrue over and over. I can’t lose weight alone.

On more than one occasion, I’ve thought the weekly communal weigh-ins are a pretty good metaphor for church: the accountability, the community, the shared purpose, the encouragement. Faith is not a solitary endeavor. The connection crossed my mind again today because Rita, our group leader, talked about dealing with failure, a familiar word for anyone who struggles with his or her weight. Hell, for anyone who is alive.

Part of what the pups and I did this evening was watch the Red Sox, who are playing incredibly well right now. I’ve been a Sox fan for as long as I can remember and they have taught me a great deal about failure, from waiting eighty-six years between World Series wins to just playing the game on a daily basis. Kevin Youkilis, one of my favorite players, is on a roll right now. He has hit safely in twenty-one games and had more than one hit in nine straight games. He is second in the league in batting average, hitting .358. Yet, even as well as he is hitting right now, he doesn’t get a hit almost two out of every three times he comes to bat. Most players are lucky to get a hit one out of four times at the plate. That’s not the way baseball teaches us to interpret the stats, however. They talk about what he’s accomplished, not how often he fails. There’s a metaphor the church could use more often.

Paul understood what baseball knows when he wrote in Romans, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Not hope in the sense of “I hope I do better next time,” but hope as informed confidence in our Creator for whom failure is never the last word. God is personally acquainted with failure, I think – as strange as that may sound – because of God’s relationship with us. From wondering why Adam and Eve didn’t show up for their evening walk in the garden, to see Abel’s blood in the dirt, to telling Noah to build the Ark, to the people wandering in the wilderness, to Peter’s denials and Judas’ betrayal, all the way down to some things I’d prefer not to share, I don’t think the world has gone quite the way God imagined it when God looked at things and said, “That’s good.”

God is acquainted with grief, with failure. If that were not true, the hope we’ve been promised could not hold the weight of the world. Redemption requires a Redeemer who abides on both sides of the equation.

To know God knows what failure feels like strengthens my faith because I’m reminded that what lies beyond failure is love rather than success. I’m always going to strike out more times than I hit it out of the yard. What will keep me swinging for the fences are the folks in the dugout who go out for beers after the game regardless of the score or my batting average. The meetings matter at Weight Watchers not because we all lose weight every week but because we keep showing up and pulling for each other. When you gain weight (like I did last week), the primary message is keep trying and come back next time.

Jan pointed me to this song by The Gena Rowlands Band that says what I’m chasing in both clearer and coarser terms (parental discretion advised). To live as Jesus calls doesn’t mean to live perfectly but to fail brilliantly – “lose your life to find it” is the way he said it. Then get up and go again.

No one is keeping score.


PS -- there's a new recipe.

Monday, May 28, 2007

snap shot

How I remember it is not how it happened,
I’m sure. Every time I go back to a memory
the light in the room is a bit different,
or people have changed clothes.
Most of us can’t remember our lines.
We’re like a junior high drama class
trying to fake our way through the scene
so we can go to lunch.

Memories are not photographs.
I can recall standing under the lightpost
wrapped in Christmas garland
(the lightpost, that is),
you in your big purple coat
and I with long dark hair –
even on top. It was a long time ago,
but I can still see the flash.

Yet, once my memory begins
to animate the scene, and we are
walking and talking on the streets
of Charlestown in the Christmas cold,
all the years of open invitations
I have seen in your eyes,
all the tears and conversations
and laughter add texture and tone.

We’re standing on both sides of my eyes,
but not as mirror image or still life
(life has never been still for us).
We stood there in the cold for that moment,
long enough for the camera to catch
and then release us to all the other
afternoons where we walked hand in hand,
even when no one had a camera.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

scene work

One of my quirks is I don’t like to be late to a movie, and by not being late I mean I want to be there when the previews start. I want to see the thing that tells me to turn off my cell phone and put my trash in the provided receptacles. When I have a chance to see a ball game, I want to be there not just for the first pitch but also the national anthem and the team introductions. I want to see the whole story.

Friday morning Ginger and I decided to go out for breakfast and ended up at The Mug, a Marshfield institution and a place I had never been. We were up early and walked in about 6:45. There were two other people in the place besides the cook and one waitress who looked like she was working on a goodbye poster for someone. We seated ourselves and soon she showed up with coffee and menus. She was the kind of person who made me feel like I was a part of things even though I had never been in the place. I said, “I t looks like you’re getting ready for a party.”

“Oh the party’s for me,” she said. “I’m retiring after twenty-six years. Today is my last day. My birthday is coming up and I’m turning sixty and I decided I didn’t want to wake up sixty and still a waitress.”

She was about five three and looked much younger than sixty. She had a bounce in her step – even at seven in the morning – and an infectious smile that carried a touch of mischief. As the café began to fill up, it soon became apparent that we were the only ones in the place who didn’t know her. As people trickled in they would call her name and she would name them in return saying the kind of stuff you’d expect in a small town diner: “The usual this morning, Tim?”

I graduated from seminary in Fort Worth the year she stared waiting tables at The Mug. While she was writing her story on order pads and memorizing the favorites of her regulars, I went from hospital chaplain to youth minister to church planter to video store clerk to high school teacher to concert security guard to assistant pastor to chef. While she probably parked in the same place every morning as she came to work, I moved from Fort Worth to Dallas back to Fort Worth to Boston to Marshfield. And in the six years and change I have driven by The Mug everyday on my way to breakfast somewhere else, she has measured out her life and many others in coffee spoons, French toast, and home fries.

That’s all I know about her. She has been telling the story of a lifetime and I showed up just before the credits started to roll. All I got to see was the final scene where she poured her last cup and drove off to be with her grandchildren.

Yesterday morning, I drove down to Brant Rock where our favorite breakfast place is – Cosmo’s – to find it was no longer there. It was this great little spot run by a couple: he was the cook and she waited tables. Ginger’s favorite part was they had clouds painted on the ceiling. It was the kind of place where the food was great and you had to work to spend more than five bucks. We didn’t go in everyday, but we were there enough to be recognized and for it to feel familiar. I looked through the new window, standing next to the building permit taped to the glass, to see everything was gone – including the stars. I couldn’t find any hint of what was going to take it’s place.

This time, I missed the end of the story. The last chapter is gone.

Tonight I went to a goodbye party for some folks from church who are moving to Austin. They are a really cool couple I’ve gotten to know this year and I will miss them. I had a chance to spend more time with them on this their last weekend than I ever have in the past, so we got to fill in our stories for each other a little more before they left. They’ve asked Ginger to perform their wedding in October, so we will get to see them again and they are moving on to a new chapter in their lives. This time I got to say goodbye. Even though I have no idea how much more of their story I will get to know, that we got to intentionally write the end to this chapter makes a difference somehow.

One of the staples of high school English for who knows how many years is this diagram of a short story, showing how the action moves from beginning to middle to end, from rising action to falling action, from exposition to resolution.

Stories work out that way if you’re O. Henry, Hawthorne, or Hemmingway, but the stories of our lives are not so easily categorized and are certainly not told at one sitting. Sometimes we get to share the long version of our lives with one another and other times we only get a glimpse of a scene in which we are nothing but extras.

I’ll remember being at The Mug and watching our waitress serve her friends for a long time; she probably doesn’t remember I was there even now. The folks at Cosmo’s didn’t think to call me when they closed down. I was the newest acquaintance at the party tonight. Saying goodbye to me was far from the point of the evening.

At least five days a week I try to sit down and tell my story. Tonight I’m reminded that most of the life that gets lived is not my story at all. When the credits roll, my name will show up with all the names rolling by in the small print that moves quickly up the screen as “best boy” or “key grip.” Maybe “gaffer.” Better yet: “man with food and laptop.”

I won’t need a stunt double.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

song and dance man

Today is Bob Dylan’s birthday; he’s sixty-six. Though I’m not one of those who owns every Dylan record, I am one who has been marked by his words and music. He is someone who has articulated life both personally and prophetically. I thought I would take some time to say thanks.

I got my first guitar for Christmas of my ninth grade year, which was 1970 to the rest of the world. I was lucky because I had friends who already played and so I had a chance to learn quickly. One of the first songs I learned to play was

Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin'.

I don’t remember the last time I actually played “The Times They Are A-Changin’” but I thought about one of the verses as I wrote my congressman and senators to decry the way the Democrats have capitulated on the Iraq war funding. I realize the issue is complicated and what bothers me most is I don’t see anyone in Washington who speaks and acts like a real leader. Dylan was way ahead of me. Over forty years ago he wrote:
Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled

There's a battle outside and it is ragin'.

It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin'.
There were eight or ten of us who would sit in a circle in the grass at Nairobi International School most everyday and play and sing. Even in Africa we felt the wind blowing, though the answers Dylan said were there felt elusive. I realize one of the things I learned from those days was life was fundamentally about searching for better questions. Though many of his lyrics roll out like emphatic prophetic hammers, their power is in the profound interrogative at the heart of it all. He wrote lines as full of symbolism as they were of syllables, lines that still stick in my heart and mind:
Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

An' for each an' ev'ry underdog a soldier in the night

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
His was music that made me angry and hopeful at the same time. His songs were some of what fertilized my life to help me become who I am now. Sometimes they made me scratch my head as I tried to figure out what he was saying, sometimes they connected me with those around me as we sang together, sometimes they burrowed deep into my memory and took up permanent residence.
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
"Rip down all hate," I screamed

Lies that life is black and white

Spoke from my skull. I dreamed

Romantic facts of musketeers

Foundationed deep, somehow.

Ah, but I was so much older then,

I'm younger than that now.
Alongside of the politics, Dylan’s songs were some of those that taught me about the complex continuum of personal feelings. His lyrics were both simple and impressionistic, telling a story and leaving room for us as listeners to fill in the details.
I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road, babe
Where I'm bound, I can't tell

But goodbye's too good a word, gal

So I'll just say fare thee well

I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind

You could have done better but I don't mind

You just kinda wasted my precious time

But don't think twice, it's all right
How could he write a song where the characters were both unknown and achingly familiar? And who says, “Fare thee well,” anyway?

When I was discovering his music, Dylan was thirty. Today, I’m fifty and he’s old enough to collect Social Security. Daniel Pinkwater had a piece on All Things Considered this afternoon talking about the current resurgence (insurgence?) of folk songs. His lament was the young singers covering the songs weren’t connected to the original feelings behind the songs. “They don’t know who the original singers even were and are young enough for their parents to not know either,” he said. I hear his point and I want to give the current ninth graders with guitars room “for meditations in cathedrals of [their] own,” to borrow a phrase from Billy Joel. Dylan has had the stage for a long time and, one of these days, will be as forgotten as the rest of us. Permanence is not the point. Dylan appears to know that, as evidenced in this quote from The Writer’s Almanac:
Bob Dylan was once asked if he thought of himself more as a singer or a poet. He said, "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."
The best way I know to finish my tribute is to borrow a few more words:
I'll look for you in old Honolulu,
San Francisco, Ashtabula,

Yer gonna have to leave me now, I know.

But I'll see you in the sky above,

In the tall grass, in the ones I love,

Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go.
Happy birthday, Bob.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

you had to be there

My day started with preparing breakfast for some of our church members. Ginger put out the word last week and invited anyone in the congregation born in or before 1932 to come over to our house. Five folks came and we had a great time. (I also tried a new dish that turned out to be quite good.) We ate and talked for over two hours, and most of it wasn’t about church. Between the seven of us, we can account for almost five hundred years of living – an awesome thought. As many times as we have all seen each other at church and around town, this was the first time I remember that this particular combination of people has been together.

My day ended with packaging fair trade coffee from Kiskadee Coffee Company, a local roaster, to sell to raise money at the North River Art Society Festival of the Arts this weekend as a fundraiser for our two mission trips this summer. We put a hundred pounds of coffee into twelve ounce packages – one hundred and forty of them. I think I got a caffeine rush just smelling the stuff. Derek, our coffee roaster, created a blend of Rwandan and Guatemalan coffees just for the fair so that once we’ve sold the batch that’s all there is. We’ll order more for other purposes, but this will be the one weekend and the one place where anyone can ever buy our Artist’s Blend.

In between the bookends of my day, I sat down to begin Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which chronicles her family’s choice to eat locally for a year. What they couldn’t grow or find in their area, they did without for the most part. In one of her early chapters (I’m not that far along yet), she describes “waiting for asparagus.” What we see everyday in the supermarket actually has a very short two or three week growing season in April and May (where she lives). It shows up early and disappears fast. You have to be there.

The wonder of a passing moment is one of the reasons I love hearing live music: either you were there or you weren’t. A couple of summers ago, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings toured as The Sweet Harmony Revue. Each artist took his or her turn singing their songs and the others joined in and, as the evening drew to a close, they joined together to sing “The Weight” and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” No one recorded it. There is no live album. I heard it; I was there.

Which means, of course, I was not somewhere else.

Food & Wine last month had an interesting article on “The Insidious Rise of Cosmo-Cuisine” lamenting that “the cuisines of the world are merging into one giant, amorphous mass . . . [T]oo many chefs worldwide are creating menus that flit across so many borders and reference so many traditions that they – and we – lose any sense of place” (58). We can’t be everywhere at once, nor can we experience everything at once.

When we were in Turkey, one of the dishes I loved was called Imam Bayildi, which means “the Imam cried” (because the food was so good). The dish was made up of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, flat-leafed parsley, and olive oil. At the restaurant in our hotel, they used organic produce from their own garden and our server owned the olive trees and pressed them to make our olive oil. The simplicity and the sense of place gave the dish its flavor. They didn’t need Thai chilies or truffle oil.

I also read today about a Fair Harvest Exchange Program in Nicaragua, thanks to the folks at Global Exchange. Rather than a tourist trip, the eight-day excursion is to go and work along side of a family at a coffee coop during harvest season. You stay with them, eat with them, and work with them. They want you to be there.

Sometimes I go walking down the beach near our house looking for sea glass. At low tide, the beach is fairly wide: there’s no way to walk it all. I have to pick a line to follow and let the rest go unsearched if I’m going to be able to pay attention to the stretch of sand and stones in front of me. On the way back, I can pick another line, but I never get to see it all. For every piece of glass I find, I suppose, there’s at least one that I never see. If I’m at breakfast in Green Harbor, I’m not in Green Bay. If I’m listening to Emmylou, I’m missing a lot of other songs. If I’m eating from my garden, I’m not tasting other very good things. If I go to Nicaragua, I won’t be in Nepal or Nebraska.

The choice is not between having a little or having it all; the choice is between living in the savoring the sacredness of the particular or stressing over all that I’m missing. I was at breakfast with friends this morning. Whatever else I happened, I’m thankful I didn’t miss it.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

hymn in search of a tune

Let God Be Named

Let God be named by our farthest reach,
Not by our fears, or the rules we preach,
By what unites, not what tears a breach,
Let God by named by love.

Let God be named by our deepest dream,
Our hearts’ desire, our brightest beam,
Pushing past doubts that around us teem,
Let God be named by love.

Let God be named by a faith that’s strong,
Faith that will stand in the face of wrong,
Faith bound for home though the road is long,
Let God be named by love.

So call the Name who has giv’n us light,
Who leads us on through the darkest night,
Who pours out grace and who gives us sight,
Our God, whose name is Love.


Monday, May 21, 2007

work and wait

Our garden is almost planted. The rain finally stopped some time last night so I got out this morning and put in the rest of the tomatoes and a few other things. Instead of annuals, I’ve filled most all of our containers and with various kinds of herbs. Here is the complete list (I think):

  • three kinds of lettuce
  • six kinds of tomatoes
  • white eggplant
  • four kinds of peppers
  • rainbow Swiss chard
  • Brussels sprouts
  • broccoli
  • fennel
  • green beans
  • butternut squash
  • zucchini
  • summer squash
  • garlic
  • sweet, purple, Thai, lemon, and cinnamon basil
  • chocolate, orange, and lemon mint
  • Greek oregano
  • sweet marjoram
  • arugula
  • cilantro
  • strawberries
Wow! That’s the first time I’ve written down an inventory of what is growing in our yard. Pretty cool. Now comes the hard part: waiting both to see what makes it to the bearing stage and to eat what we grow – as well as give a bunch of it away.

After I finished planting, I came in and showered and drove to Plymouth to file for unemployment compensation. The last time I was there was when The Owner laid me off in January. Since the players were still the same in today’s scene, the script, as it were, was still in the computer so my trip didn’t take long. When I was first substitute teaching in Boston I got laid off and had to file as well. They’ve done a lot of work on the “career centers” since then. The office in Plymouth is spacious and clean and the people behind the counter are friendly, at least by New England customer service standards. One side of the office is lined with cubicles where the folks who work there help you get in the system. The other side of the room has a few cubicles with computer terminals where you can go online to look for jobs or take a tutorial. There’s also a long table with newspapers and other employment circulars. There were a couple of folks ahead of me to see a counselor, so I browsed both the print and online versions of the classifieds to see what I could find. The guy who processed my form was nice and efficient and we finished quickly. As I was walking out, I saw the guy who processed me the last time with whom I made a pretty good connection. I stopped at his cubicle to say hello and was surprised at how much of my case he remembered. Then he said, “Hey, I looked at your blog and go back there from time to time.”

I needed that.

I took a back road home so I could stop and see if there were any other interesting vegetables or herbs at some of the small nurseries on Route 53 with a mind to ending up at the gym. I was determined to get there, even though I’m still learning to like it, because it helps with my depression. And it gives Ginger and I a chance to act out one of our favorite scenes from Designing Women when Mary Jo says she likes jogging because it releases endorphins and Suzanne says, “Endorphins – you mean like Flipper?” My body was ready for the exercise today and I got a good workout. Tomorrow is weigh in at Weight Watchers, so I will get to see another benefit from my time on the elliptical machine. (In related news, there’s a new recipe.)

What the three strands of my day have in common is both working and waiting: the now and the not yet, or (perhaps better) the what will be. I planted things that will take anywhere from five to ten weeks to produce what they were created to produce. I set things in motion in Plymouth that will give me some money coming in (starting in a couple of weeks) and create some possibilities for what comes next. I’m going to spend a lot more time watching Sports Center while I work the machine (let the machine work me?) to transform my image of myself both physically and mentally. It’s all good and it all takes time. When it comes to my depression, the same formula applies: work and wait.

Work and wait. The words remind me of William Carey’s words, “Attempt great things for God; expect great things from God.” He is one of my father’s heroes because of his persistence. Carey went to India as a missionary and was there for three years before anyone he met chose to follow Christ. I’m not sure I’m dealing in the Great Things department in my life right now, but I like the combination of verbs: attempt and expect -- work and wait.

What is true for great things, I trust, is true for small things.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

vive la resistance

Some days – perhaps most days – I write because I think I have something to say or I have a conversation I hope to begin. Some nights – like tonight – I write to show (myself) I can make the letters line up in words and sentences to make some sort of meaning. I write to prove to myself I can and to refuse myself the option of falling into the deep.

Today was a good day. In worship we celebrated our confirmands as they chose to become followers of Christ. I had coffee with a friend after church, a good nap in the afternoon, and Indian food with some other friends this evening. And I feel like I’m living under the weight of one of those lead blankets they put over you when you have your teeth xrayed.

Another friend sent me the link to this article by David Grossman in the New York Times where he is writing about writing and says:

It is hard to talk about yourself, and so before I describe my current writing experience, at this time in my life, I wish to make a few observations about the impact that a disaster, a traumatic situation, has on an entire society, an entire people. I immediately recall the words of the mouse in Kafka’s short story “A Little Fable.” The mouse who, as the trap closes on him, and the cat looms behind, says, “Alas . . . the world is growing narrower every day.”
Grossman is writing about the effect of living in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and (at the risk of belittling his observations by connecting them to my personal state of being) I find resonance in his quoting of Kafka. The world is growing narrower everyday for me.

I also found resonance in this paragraph:
Writers know that when we write, we feel the world move; it is flexible, crammed with possibilities. It certainly isn’t frozen. Wherever human existence permeates, there is no freezing and no paralysis, and actually, there is no status quo. Even if we sometimes err to think that there is a status quo; even if some are very keen to have us believe that a status quo exists. When I write, even now, the world is not closing in on me, and it does not grow ever so narrow: it also makes gestures of opening up toward a future prospect.
Again, he is speaking in more global terms than any individual’s psychological struggle, much less my depression, and I understand how the world can change when I put words on paper. Part of our UCC ritual at confirmation is to ask the young people if they promise, with God’s help, to resist evil and oppression in Jesus’ name. While we were getting ready for church this morning, there was a television preacher who promised a CD that would cure depression if I would just believe enough to send him some money. (His actual tone was less cynical.) Another made it sound as though it were just a matter of my strength of will: if I were sincere enough in my prayers and committed enough in my mind and heart, I would feel better.

Damn. If I’d only thought of that sooner life could’ve been so much easier.

The question to the kids did help me as I asked myself if I promised to resist.

Resist: express opposition through action or words; withstand the force of something; refuse to comply.

The image that came to mind was that of freedom fighters from World War II Europe to Mandela in South Africa looking for ways, both big and small, to keep the world from growing more narrow and to resist what was destroying their humanity. Every person that has refused to comply with whatever sought to narrow their world has gestured toward “some future prospect” that is not necessarily painless or perfect, but is something beyond the status quo. I’m not saying my personal pain is on a par with those is Gaza, Jerusalem, or Darfur. I am saying the act of resistance is a personal act regardless of the size of the oppressor.

One of the things Ginger said to the confirmands today was:
As you face the demons that accompany adolescence and adults adulthood, remember that practicing our faith and praying empowers us to live as Jesus taught refusing to nurture those inner demons who hinder us from being who God calls us to be, hinder us from wholeness, from being all that we can be, wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.
As a congregation we repeated the words, “I am wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.”

Though I feel as though I’m living a lead-plated life, I will move my hands to write and resist, looking for words to widen the way to wholeness and connectedness, harboring hope, and refusing to comply with the narrowing way. If I can write it, perhaps I can live it.


Friday, May 18, 2007

no room at the inn

Today felt more like March than May.

I drove up to the Inn about three o’clock to find The Owner and see if I couldn’t get a clearer picture of what is going on. The first person I saw was one of the other chefs I work with who was coming out of the function kitchen rather than the restaurant where he usually works. He told me he had been told I was not coming back. With that information in hand, I went inside to wait for The Owner who had gone to run an errand. When he came in, I asked for a few minutes of his time and followed him up to his office. He sat down and looked at me as though he had no idea why I was there.

Ginger and I have been rehearsing what I might say (and how I might say it – often the larger issue for me) over the last couple of days. I’m not going to recall the whole conversation because I don’t feel the need to embarrass him, but I will say I felt good about what transpired in that little room. I said what I needed to say without resorting to a personal attack or falling into a power struggle. I stood up for myself and got the money he owed me, which was not a done deal when I went in. I also got to say goodbye to the people I enjoyed working with during my eighteen months at The Inn. Then I got in the car, drove to the bank and cashed the check, and went to meet Ginger so we could go to the gym.

He never knew about the nights I drove home and talking to Ginger on the phone and telling her how much I loved my job. He never knew how much fun I had with my Brazilian buddies plating up the steaks for the functions. He never knew because he only knew me as an appliance and not a human being. At one point in our conversation today, I called him on something he had done and he snapped, “I’m the owner; I can do anything I want.”

“Actually, that’s not true,” I answered. “You can’t treat me like I don’t matter and get away with it.” Soon after that, I gave him back his key and left. I drove away both unemployed and unburdened. Whatever is next, my time with him today confirmed that it is time for me to not be there: there is no room for me at The Inn.

As I remember another story, that's not necessarily a bad thing . . . .


Thursday, May 17, 2007

advanced calculus

About a month ago, I checked in with the doctor who monitors my antidepressants feeling reasonably confident: I made it all winter without feeling seriously depressed, which is a first in the last six years. I instigated a conversation about cutting back on one of my medications to see how I would tolerate it. He remained neutral about the idea, but willing to follow my hunch, so we set up a two or three month timetable to wean me off the pill. The first step was to cut the pills in half each morning. When I opened the bottle after breakfast the next morning, I couldn’t do it. This week, I’m grateful I trusted my second hunch. The storm clouds are gathering; they don’t call them tropical depressions for nothing, I guess.

Learning about my depression meant learning that sometimes it grew out of circumstance and sometimes it ambushed me through my body chemistry. The source doesn’t necessarily make a difference in how it feels for me (in me? to me?), and part of the beginning of making some meaning out of the darkness for me is found in knowing where I am. This time I know the ambiguity of my work situation is exacerbating things. Over the past six years, the one place I have always been able to find solace is in the kitchen and I’ve been scheduled out. I haven’t helped things by allowing myself to postpone going by The Inn to find out what’s really going on. Wednesday I stayed in the garden; today my car stayed in the shop. I’m determined that tomorrow be a Day of Non-Avoidance.

Gordon posted a link to an article on depression by Norman Bendroth posted at Christian Century online, which referenced William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a book that has also been meaningful to me. Bendroth quotes Styron:

By far the great majority of the people who go through even the severest depression survive it, and live ever afterward at least as happily as their unafflicted counterparts. Save for the awfulness of certain memories it leaves, acute depression inflicts few permanent wounds.
Man, I hope that’s true. Tonight, it doesn’t feel true. Though I first found a name for it a little over six years ago, I can look back now and see a far less visible darkness present in my life for many, many years. I took the MMPI in 1987 and was on the borderline of being clinically depressed my psychologist told me. I knew nothing about depression then and couldn’t imagine that was me. To come to a place now where I can see the darkness has been a part of my life for almost half of my life compels me to see the depression as part of who I am because it has been a significant factor in the calculus of my humanity, to borrow last night’s phrase. It’s in my mind. It’s in my body. It’s in my heart, my soul. It’s not all of me – or even most of me – but it is part of who I am.

I’m six weeks into Weight Watchers and I’ve lost eighteen pounds. Going to the gym and getting on the elliptical trainer is becoming both habit and ritual for me. Though I’m not ready to claim I like working out, I’m happy to say I like the way I feel when I’m done and I can tell a difference because I’m working out. I’m figuring out how to alter my equation of body, mind, heart, and soul to come up with an answer to who I am that is something other than “the fat kid;” it’s working.

I work hard on the calculus of depression as well, but it’s advanced calculus and the truth is I suck at math. I was, however, always pretty good at the word problems because, I suppose, I always liked words better than numbers. The problem here is to figure out how to live with depression, I think, rather than how to get rid of it. When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I heard cancer patients talk about the importance of thinking of themselves as living with cancer rather than dying with cancer; the semantics changed the equation. My mother was clear of her bladder cancer for nine years – long enough to be regarded as officially cured – when it recurred. She beat it again and she lives with cancer.

I live with depression.

As I sat down to write tonight, Ginger was watching the season finale of ER in the other room. The only thing I heard were the strains of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah,” floating in to find me.
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
That’s it: “It doesn't matter which you heard/ the holy or the broken hallelujah.” In the equation of my life – advanced calculus, if you will – with garden dirt under my fingernails, vocational uncertainty unsettling my brain, the blanket of Ginger’s love surrounding me, and the gathering storm of my depression daring to deluge, holy and broken feel like the same thing.



Wednesday, May 16, 2007

the calculus of being human

I’ve been surprised with a week to myself because The Owner didn’t put me on the schedule at The Inn – and he didn’t give me any explanation. I called Sunday night to see if I was working Monday (which I have done for the last eight months) and was told they had not yet done the schedule and would call me Monday morning. No one did. I called back Tuesday evening and was told I wasn’t working this week and The Owner was not available to talk about it. I was going to drive up there today to see if this is his bizarre way of telling me I no longer have a job, but I got started spreading the mulch I ordered in the flower beds and opted for a day of feeling productive rather than one feeling frustrated and angry. I can do that tomorrow.

About three this afternoon I came in from the yard, showered, dressed, and drove over to Panera to meet Ginger and our friend Don for coffee. Our conversation lasted the rest of the afternoon and went all around the world. Part of it centered on my father-in-law’s Alzheimer’s, which is steadily worsening. As his memory becomes less accessible he doesn’t seem like the same person and yet he is, still, to his core one of the kindest, gentlest, most hopeful people I have ever known. Don talked about a swami who spoke at an interfaith gathering who talked about the essence of the soul staying the same (at least the way Don remembered it). If you cut off your arm, the swami said, your soul would still have the same essence.

As the three of us turned that over, we began to think a little differently. The relationship between heart, soul, body, and mind is complicated and multifaceted. All four are essential to our humanity and are, I suppose, part of our “essence.” When one is affected, the whole person is affected. When my father had open heart surgery a decade ago even he could see he was fundamentally changed by the experience. He was still recognizable and he was different. One of our friends was in a car accident a number of years ago that left her a paraplegic. Before the accident, most folks saw her as a carefree spirit. In the years since the accident, she has completed law school and is in private practice. She was a nurse before. Her essence has proven to be one of resolve, hope, and tenacity. Coming to terms with my depression over the past five or six years has changed me as I’ve learned to live with a disease that plagues both my mind and my body chemistry.

The picture painted in Hebrew scripture is of heart, soul, mind, and body creating a unity: they are inextricably connected. Rather than one being the essence of a person, the different aspects of our humanity – the raw materials – live in concert, in equation. There is a calculus to being human: when the variables in the equation change, we change. If we learn to think differently, more than just our minds are different. If we face some sort of physical challenge or change, our hearts, souls, and minds aren’t left unaffected. The impact of the change doesn't stop at our skins. Ginger’s parents have been married almost fifty-one years. The changes in my father-in-law also have an impact on my mother-in-law, on their daughter, on me. None of us can stay the same.

I have been changed by my time at The Inn. I’ve learned a great deal about my craft and I’m a better chef. I’ve even learned a lot about the business, coming to a better understanding of dealing with food cost ratios and other fun stuff. Because I’ve had to deal with The Owner, I’ve had to learn how to speak truth to power without getting defensive or belligerent. I’ve also had to learn how to detach from the soap opera aspect and do my job. I’ve also had to learn to live with uncertainty when it comes to my job security, regardless of my performance. Though I can’t claim to have gone all Barbara Ehrenreich on the world, I have been changed by my first hand experience in the hourly wage, no benefits, no job security world that is The Inn, if not most of the restaurant business. As my equation of heart, soul, body, and mind has changed -- so have I.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” says Deuteronomy, which I’ve always taken to mean, “Love God with all that you are.” One single aspect doesn’t hold our essence; it’s the whole intricate, complex, dynamic, amazing, and fragile package. It hurts to see my father-in-law slipping away. I hurt for my mother-in-law who is physically and emotionally present as her Loved One disappears.

The calculus of being human is hard work.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

no strings on love

I was at a Rich Mullins concert some time in the early nineties when, in the course of his concert banter, his tone took a turn that became as dangerous as it was didactic. “We should all be praying,” he said, “that Bill and Hillary Clinton would be killed in a car accident.” The words he spoke were incongruous with those he wrote and sang. I didn’t know where they came from and was both surprised and angry. Granted, my politics were then and are now closer to the Clintons than to his and I couldn’t understand how Rich could pray for God to kill someone he disagreed with.

Jerry Falwell died today.

According to the story I heard on NPR, he collapsed in his office about 11:30 this morning and could not be resuscitated. He was 73. I don’t know much, if anything, about Falwell beyond his public persona. I also don’t know of much of anything he and I agreed upon. In one article, he described God as “pro-war.” On September 13, 2001, he said, "I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians, who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who try to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

I know that’s not all he said. I also know I don’t think what I consider to be an arrogant and judgmental expression of faith does much to help anyone. Of all the times I saw him on television, I don’t remember one instance where he appeared to be willing to learn something; he was always the one with the answers.

Some years back, Billy Crockett and I wrote a song together called “No Strings on Love,” which grew out of our desire to speak to the wideness in God’s mercy. Here are the lyrics:

got to tell you what I know
there ain’t no strings on love

wherever you are wherever you go

there ain’t no strings on love

you might scream and stomp the floor

pack your bags and hit the door

God keeps coming back for more

there ain’t no strings on love

told you about the prodigal son

there ain’t no strings on love

party time when he came home

there ain’t no strings on love

you’ve been running so have I

got a few more tricks that we can try

we’ll get tired by and by and

there ain’t no strings on love

they say life is all a competition

how can you survive

without some ammunition

lose your looks your hair falls out

there ain’t no strings on love

some of you know what I’m talking about

there ain’t no strings on love

you might live on borrowed time

broken heart a troubled mind

God thinks you’re the keeping kind

there ain’t no strings on love

spend your life keeping score

there ain’t no strings on love

joneses just moved in next door

there ain’t no strings on love

what you learned on grandpa’s knee

was equal reciprocity – forget it

ally ally oxen free

there ain’t no strings on love

they say life is all a competition

how can you survive

without some ammunition

listen to me one more time
there ain’t no strings on love

sunday morning friday night

there ain’t no strings on love

sunny day pouring rain

avalanche or hurricane

God keeps calling out your name

there ain’t no strings on love
When we wrote it, the open invitation was aimed at those who were marginalized. It puts to music what is proclaimed in many UCC churches on a weekly basis: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” I was singing to the unloved, the outcast, the great unwashed, if you will – all those being kept down by The Man. I was singing to the very people Falwell was damning with his words and actions.

If grace is true and God is love, the invitation is for The Man as well. There ain’t no strings on love – even for Jerry Falwell.

That sentence is easier to write than it is to live – and it wasn’t so easy to write. The people I want most for God to judge are the people who have used or are using God like a club to beat people into submission, or at least scare the hell out of them. My righteous indignation remains intact as long as I don’t humanize the objects of my judgment. Then I read things like this:
In some ways, Falwell was an unlikely religious leader. He was born Aug. 11, 1933, and grew up in Lynchburg, the son of a one-time bootlegger who hated preachers. His grandfather was a staunch atheist.

Falwell was working out some old family stuff in the way he lived his life. I’ve done a little of that myself. (I’m not necessarily proud of that, but it’s the truth.) When I read that sentence, I realize he was probably a pretty wounded guy, just like the rest of us. I abhor that he dealt with his woundedness by inflicting pain on others. I think he was wrong – a lot. I have spent a good deal of effort reaching out to those who have been on the receiving end of his vitriol. I think he did damage to the image of Christianity in our country and around the world when he kicked into zealot-with-a-clear-conscience mode. And Jesus ate with the Pharisees just as he did with the sinners.

Sometimes, I suppose, we fall into both categories.

To me, Jerry Falwell was somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. As a member of the United Church of Christ, I’m one of those who lives in “the last house on the left” in the Christian neighborhood. The boundless, stringless love of God covers the whole map.

I trust, tonight, that God surprised Jerry Falwell when God saw him and hollered, “Ally, ally, oxen free.”


Monday, May 14, 2007

a time to plant

I got to spend a good deal of the day in the yard cleaning up, pulling weeds, and beginning to fill the various containers we have along the driveway and the fence. Over our years in Massachusetts, Memorial Day has been the beginning of the planting season for me; this year things have warmed up earlier, so I got an earlier start. I enjoyed my day outside, even with the somewhat ominous evidence of climate change. Though I’m pretty good at the flowerbeds, I suck at lawn care, mostly on purpose. I don’t really like lawns. When we moved to Marshfield, we tore up most of the grass in the front yard and created perennial beds. Last year, I filled in the gaps with herbs, a couple of pepper plants, and some arugula. This year, I’m going to do more veggies among the blooms.

I became a planter when we lived in Charlestown. Our “yard” was a two-tiered concrete slab next to our row house put in after the house that was on the lot burned many years ago. We covered it with planters – about fifty of them. A friend was visiting who was way ahead of me on the local food curve, said, “Why don’t you plant vegetables?” The simple answer was I had never thought about it. When we moved out of the city, I cleared out land behind the garage (mostly because I saw that was where my neighbors had their garden) and planted tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. The next summer, it was tomatoes and zucchini. I missed one of the squash under the leaves for several weeks and it was as big as a baseball bat by the time I picked it. Each summer I’ve added a couple of things. Last year, I learned about Square Foot Gardening and increased both my variety and my yield, adding numerous herbs, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, and Swiss chard to the mix. I may also going to try a bit of Hay Bale Gardening (which I learned about thanks to Tigre) if I get really ambitious.

What I’m learning is I can grow a lot of food if I am consistent in my intentionality and effort. One of the joys of late summer and early fall for me is giving away tomatoes (that’s when we harvest them here). I’ve also learned what it means to enjoy things seasonally. I was allergic to tomatoes until about seven years ago. Thanks to a friend introducing me to NAET, which cured my allergy (I’m telling you it really works) and, for the first time in my life I could eat tomatoes. Our first summer here I grew my own and once I tasted them fresh from the garden I knew the year round varieties they sell in the supermarkets were impostors. I’ve learned a tomato is worth both the work and the wait.

When Jesus told us to “consider the lilies,” part of the consideration had to be they only bloomed for a short time during the year. Learning to live with seasons means discovering some wonderfully temporary things, turn, turn, turn. During our time in New England, I’ve discovered the temporal joy of fiddleheads, and have a great and simple recipe as well that may not be of much use to many readers since I don’t think they get exported much. Hell, they only last a week or two around here.

One of the things that bothers me about The Owner at The Inn is he treats people as a commodity: something he can consume at will without further thought. Our 24-7-365 world has taught us to disregard the seasons and all the other signposts built into creation, which leads to our thinking of the Earth in terms of commodities and production. Most of us can’t find one constellation, much less use the stars to find our place in the world. The steak or chicken we eat comes wrapped in plastic and we know little about how the animal lived or died. Neither do we know much of the plight of the workers who picked the bananas or grapes that were then flown halfway around the world so we could get them on special for seventy-nine cents a pound. (Actually, the bananas were twenty-nine cents here last week. Tell me someone in Haiti isn’t taking in the face on that one.)

Whatever the justice issues are when it comes to food – and they are legion, my day of gardening reminds me I am closer to figuring out a way to incarnate the ethics of living and eating to which I’m attracted when I’m growing at least some of my own food. I am working to live as the folks to, as The Ethicurean says, “chew the right thing.”


Sunday, May 13, 2007

call me noah

For the past few weeks, the children’s message at church has involved the retelling of the story of Noah in different ways in preparation for our Church School switching to the Rotation Model curriculum next fall. The first week the story was told with a short drama, the second week we sang the “Arky Arky” song, and today the kids got a rainbow craft project. The woman leading the children’s time explained that when God said, “I will put my bow in the clouds,” God was taking the bow as a symbol of war (as in bow and arrow) and turning it into a promise.” My mind jumped to an alternative ending to her sentence: turning a symbol of war into a symbol of gay pride.

The idea of the Rotation Model is to speak to our multiple intelligences so we hear the story in new ways and, hopefully, in the way we can best hear it. As the ark has floated around in my head the last month, I’ve heard several things. I went back in my mind to a philosophy of religion class in seminary where the professor talked about all the flood myths in various ancient religions. “Does it bother anyone that Genesis says only Noah and his family were in the ark and yet any number of flood stories that don’t involve Noah have survived?”

It was the fact that he asked the question that bothered several of the folks in the class. To me, the variety seemed to speak to some sort of cataclysmic diluvian tragedy they all were trying to explain. That bothered some folks, too.

Noah’s Ark is one of those stories that can cause people to throw lightning bolts at one another. When I searched for web pages, I found articles and exhibits across the continuum of feasibility and belief. I found a page that lists the various flood stories, a Christian site that takes the story quite literally, an explanation at, and a BBC story about a guy who has built a replica as a way of calling people to faith. In a book I have here at home, I found this interesting comparison:

Christian and Jewish historians and theologians give slightly different interpretations to the Noah story. For Christians, Noah represents an ideal faith in God – marked by trust and obedience and for which Noah and his family were saved. For Jewish interpreters, Noah represents a reluctant faith marked by Noah being one of the last to enter the ark as a sign of reluctance. This suggests his faith may not have been so strong. (The Intellectual Devotional 14)
And I found these words from Karen Armstrong:
Religious truth does not stand or fall by the historicity of its scriptural narratives. It will survive only if it enables people to find meaning and value when they are overwhelmed by the despair that is an inescapable part of the human condition. When we are discussing the meaning of life and the death of meaning, the historicity of the flood becomes an irrelevant distraction from the main issue. We are dealing not with history or science but with myth.

Today in popular parlance, a myth is something that did not happen, so to claim that a biblical story is mythical is to deny its truth. But before the advent of our scientific modernity, myth recounted an event that had - in some sense - happened once, but which also happened all the time. It was never possible to interpret a myth in terms of objective reason.

There were two ways of arriving at truth, which Plato called mythos and logos (reason). They complemented each other and were of equal stature; both were essential. Unlike myth, logos had to relate accurately to the external world: from the very earliest days, we used it to create effective w
eapons and to run our societies efficiently.

But humans are also meaning-seeking creatures, who fall very easily into despair. When faced with tragedy, reason is silent and has nothing to say. It was mythology and its accompanying rituals that showed people how to acquire the strength to go on.
Ever since the children stood at the front of the church this morning waving their rainbows and reminding us that God keeps promises, I’ve been thinking about Noah in a different way: as a study in depression. Whether Noah was determined or clueless or both as he began to build the ark, his task was an isolating one from the first cubit. Genesis chronicles the ridicule and the questions he endured. But Noah didn’t live in isolation. As the boat came to completion and the storm clouds began to gather, Noah had to come to terms with leaving friends – all his friends – behind to drown. His daughters-in-law couldn’t bring their families. Sometimes it sucks to be the standard-bearer.

I’ve always wondered what the sanitation system was like on the ark. The rain lasted for forty days, but when you add up all the time it took for the water to dissipate, they were in the ark for nigh on half a year. Our Schnauzers can only last about ten hours inside before sanitation becomes an issue. Six months?

The last thing that crossed my mind I had never thought of until today: the ark had no means of propulsion. All it did was float. Granted, in a flood, floating is important, but it was going nowhere. Put it all together – isolated in a boat that’s not going anywhere and is filling up with crap – and you have a pretty good picture of depression. “It was mythology and its accompanying rituals that showed people how to acquire the strength to go on,” Armstrong says. So it is. I’m acquainted with both floods and rainbows in my life and to find traces of that which most haunts my existence in the stories my faith uses to make meaning of life as a whole is strangely comforting. I know of days that feel as though I’m sinking in excrement, or endless days tossing about on an endless, restless sea, and days when the clouds break, the rainbow forms, and my feet find solid ground.

I know this story; I’m living it.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

capturing light

As I was wrapping scallops in little bacon blankets this afternoon, I heard a great story on All Things Considered about plans for a new telescope to replace the Hubble Telescope, which has given us some amazing images of things we had never been able to see before. The new one, to be called the James Webb Space Telescope will be sent into orbit over a million miles away from Earth and will be able to capture light from over thirteen billion light years away, which means that light will be thirteen billion years old when we see it for the first time.

One of the most intriguing things they said in the story was when they first came up with the design for the Webb Telescope twenty years ago it required ten technologies that had not yet been invented. I love that their dream was not tethered to their sense of limitation. The story didn’t say whether the ones building the scope also invented the ten technologies they needed or if other folks did those parts. Either way, the brilliance of their dream is the first bit of light captured by the Webb Telescope, even before it is built.

One of the phrases that caught my ear was “capture the light.” The Webb will not take pictures per se, but will capture the light using infrared technology to generate images of things we would not normally be able to see. Capturing light is not an easy thing to do. The image is something I’ll take to work with me tomorrow since the orbit of the Inn might as well be taking place in a black hole. Even now, there is light to be captured somewhere in the Inn. So I keep cooking and trying to capture new light, or at least new to me.

For now, I’m going to go close my eyes and enjoy the dark.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

hopper, harare, and hot sauce

Today is Ginger’s birthday.

We drove into Boston around two because, thanks to a friend in the church, we had tickets to the Edward Hopper exhibition that just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ginger and I have different viewing practices when we go to a museum. She moves through the room intuitively and I a bit more deliberately, reading all the notes and captions in the same way I stop to read historical markers on the highway when I’m by myself. When we finish looking, we spend some time in the café comparing what we saw and felt and, I think, expanding the impact and understanding of the art work for us both.

The exhibit fell in two major groups for me: buildings and people. He also had a few landscapes, but even then he seemed more interested in how the buildings fit in the picture. There were a lot of houses. One that particularly caught my eye was “Rooms for Tourists,” which showed the house at night. The various sources of light intrigued me.

I also liked this one of pharmacy. The caption said the guy trying to sell his paintings kept trying to get Hopper to take the word “Ex-Lax” out of the picture. He didn’t.

The other one that grabbed me was “Sunday Morning,” a row of shops laying fallow on the Sabbath. It was as if all the buildings had stories to tell and had not had a chance until Hopper painted them in solitude, without the crush of humanity, so their stories could sneak out and show themselves in the silence.

His paintings of people weren’t as narrative. This one, called “Automat,” shows a woman by herself with a cup of coffee. Only the title reveals where she is. There are few details to contextualize the moment; she is simply there, in solitary.

“Nighthawks” is arguably his most well known painting, and it is equally enigmatic: one man remains faceless; the street outside is dark; and there’s no way to know how anyone got in or out of the diner.

From there we made a stop in a wonderful little coffee shop called Uptown Espresso to wait for friends – actually, better identified as our intentional family here in New England -- to join us. The folks working there were friendly and good at making coffee. From there we crossed the street to follow the recommendation of another church friend about an exhibit of sculpture by artists from Zimbabwe who call themselves Friends Forever and have joined together to figure out how to get their works to parts of the world where people can afford to buy art so they can make a living. These stones were full of stories. In fact, the man introducing the exhibit spoke of how the artists begin with a big slab of stone and “wait for it to speak to them.”

We quickly became attached to the work of one sculptor in particular, Colleen Madamombe, one of the few female artists and the creator of these wonderful stone women who told their stories through their posture. (Of course, at this point it would be great to show a picture of the piece we bought, but my camera is without batteries. Here a couple of others, though.)

From there we drove to Redbones Barbeque in Somerville where we were joined by one more family member and we continued our practice of laughing, talking, and eating together regardless of who is having the birthday. To some observer, painter or not, outside looking in, I suppose we could have been captured in a moment not unlike Hopper’s people, hanging in space without context. But the picture I see around the table with some of those I love celebrating the person I love most is too multidimensional to fit on a canvas or even a blog entry. To come to the table together reminds us there is no distance between the meals we have shared, regardless of how much time has passed. Our memories stack up like stones for an altar, one on top of the other, enabling us to live those moments in concert rather than a string of situations held together by the gossamer threads of time.

Since today really was a spring day, we took the top off of Ginger’s Jeep Wrangler. As we drove through Somerville, a car pulled up next to us and a man with a very recognizable African accent said to me, as I sat in the back seat, “I think this car is perhaps too small for you” and he smiled. The sound of his voice unlocked memories of my childhood in Africa that had been petrified like some of Hopper’s people. The melody I hear when an African speaks English sets my heart to dancing and sets the stories free.

So does celebrating Ginger’s birthday. Milestone days are stones that talk. They remind us where we have been, call us to ask where we are going, and implore us to continue to chip away at life until we can see ourselves as works of art. Though, I’ll admit, I can easily picture myself in Hopper’s diner, encapsulated in the melancholy and shadow of life as he sees it, the work of art that moves me most shared a cheese plate, a cup of coffee, and some hushpuppies with me, smiled and giggled when she opened her presents, and will lay down beside me in just a little while as she has done for almost as many nights as I can remember. I can hear the stones talking, telling me that out of these formidable rocks of remembrance as well as the sand pebbles of everyday living we are sculpting a portrait of love.


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

dining room drama

I was almost to the Inn today when my phone rang. Chef was calling to tell me he had been fired by The Owner, who appears to be clearing out employees like brush along a fence line. Last Friday he let three of our wonderful Brazilian folks go including the guy who helped me with the functions and, most notably, the woman who creates our wonderful wedding cakes and who is eight and a half months pregnant. He told her she couldn’t have her paycheck until she finished the cake for the Saturday wedding. Chef and our baker usually work the kitchen together on Tuesdays, so firing Chef today was not the most well planned move; The Owner spent a good part of the afternoon finding someone to work the line tonight. There aren’t that many of us left.

In her wonderful novel, Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel describes how the emotions of the cook are infused into the food he or she is making, thus infecting those who eat with the same feelings. In one scene, Tita is full of passion for her beloved as she cooks a meal for a large group and, by the end of the meal, everyone has paired up and run off to make love in the woods. In another, she transfers her anger and everyone is nauseated by the meal. If what Esquivel describes holds to be the least bit true, tonight was not a good night to eat at the Inn.

The rest of the week may not be so hot, either.

I have no idea what will happen in the next few days. All I know is I feel like I live in a soap opera. This is drama with a capital D. This weekend we have a wedding and three other smaller functions (50-100 people each), as well as a Mothers’ Day brunch (140 reservations so far), so I think I’m safe to assume the drama is not yet over. I’m assuming we will have some new folks join the cast, since we are incredibly short handed right now, and I also assume we have not seen the last of those, in the words of Top Chef, who will be told to “pack their knives and go.”

Even though I was only there for three hours today, I was exhausted when I got home. Ginger suggested I walk with her around the neighborhood rather than curling up on the couch and going to sleep, my escape of choice. She was right, as usual. We walked and I ranted and pounded my feelings into the pavement and came back home with a better sense of myself in the midst of the turmoil that is the Inn right now. I know who I want to be regardless of how the circumstances turn.

I also know I want to do more than use this page to vent my feelings or put the Inn on window display. Part of the reason I write is to distill the feelings and circumstances of life into something that is discernable and hopeful. I’ve been wondering all evening how it can be that the business of hospitality attracts some many volatile, if not violent people in the same way the business of faith, which is one of faith, hope, and love, attracts its fair share of power mongers and downright vindictive SOBs. I think the diagnostic clue to the primary toxin in both cases is the word business. It’s difficult to live in the creative tension of being both prophetic and profitable. Living in the midst of our dining room drama I’ve also been reminded Jesus was calling us into a dangerously creative tension when he said, “See, I send you out as sheep among wolves. Be then as wise as snakes, and as gentle as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

The question I keep asking myself is, “Who am I called to be in these days?” I’ll continue to figure that out when I play my next scene on Thursday.


Monday, May 07, 2007

how can I keep from thanking?

Last October, I wrote about what I called a “quintessential New England fall day,” which ended up with a hymn sing at church. If you will indulge me, I want to quote part of that post on my way to some new thoughts.

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.
For our anniversary, Ginger gave me a gift card to Newbury Comics, our local music store chain. I didn’t carry it for long. I got two things I really wanted: Beautiful Maladies by Tom Waits (a collection of his songs on Island Records) and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (America Land Version) by Bruce Springsteen. I learned to play guitar thanks to folk music, so the Seeger disc has been an incredible feast. And it has also held a couple of wonderful surprises, not the least of which is a cover of Seeger’s version of “How Can I Keep From Singing?”.

According to several sources, Pete Seeger learned the song from a woman named Doris Plenn who told him she had learned it from her Quaker grandmother. Seeger adapted several hymns along the way and the same with this one. Plenn wrote a new third verse to reflect the fear and passion of that time when so many artists and activists were being accused of being Communists. Here is the lyric Seeger and Springsteen (and Eva Cassidy) sing:
My life goes on in endless song
Above earth's lamentation

I hear the real though far-off hymn

That hails a new creation

Above the tumult and the strife

I hear its music ringing

It sounds an echo in my soul

How can I keep from singing?

What though the tempest loudly roars
I hear the truth it liveth

What though the darkness 'round me close

Songs in the night it giveth

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I'm clinging

Since love is Lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear

And hear their death knell ringing

When friends rejoice both far and near

How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I'm clinging

Since love is Lord in heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?
The song, on the Springsteen CD, is sung by a small choir of friends in beautiful harmony. It has become the soundtrack to my drive home from work the last couple of weeks; I keep hitting the repeat button and I’m pulled in by the very first line:
My life goes on in endless song above earth’s lamentation . . .
And I’m moved by Plenn’s courage that shows through in her verse:
When tyrants tremble sick with fear
and hear their death knell ringing;

When friends rejoice both far and near,

how can I keep from singing?
Faith oozes out of both versions – the kind of faith that frees slaves and frightens politicians; the kind that opens doors and hearts, that embraces everyone. The song certainly pulls me in, whether I’m singing Lowry’s words in church or singing along with Bruce and friends on my night ride home. To everyone who has carried this song to me – and carried me with it, consider this a thank you note.