Wednesday, February 29, 2012

lenten journal: jesus in 3/4 time

One of the classes I’m teaching this semester is European History. How that came about is a story of its own that is still unfolding, but it’s also a story for another night. When they asked (and by asked I mean told) me I was teaching the class, I fashioned the course around twentieth century Europe and then backed up to the nineteenth century to get the kids to take a look at some of the antecedents to what happened in the last millennium. And then, as a good student of my favorite professor Wallace Daniel, I set out to do more with history than give an account of who beat whom in what war. I divided the class into Team Literature, Team Art, and Team Music and set them searching for the thoughts and themes and feelings that defined Europe in the 1800s. They gave their presentations today using a very cool web site called Prezi.com.

The music group began with a Brahms waltz and my mind and heart kept swirling around the room, one-two-three, one-two-three, while I did my best to pay attention. I love a good waltz in whatever form from classical to bluegrass to, well, you name it. Somehow the rhythm of the waltz feels like a heartbeat, like the rhythm of life. J. D. Souther has a song on an album from the Seventies called, “Jesus in 3/4 Time” that isn’t his greatest song (though I love the line, “Blessed assurance is one thing to know and another to sing in a song”), but he’s on to something. One-two-three, one-two-three carries a symphony of emotion in its simple count somehow; grief and joy dance together, as do melancholy and hope. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Waltzing for Dreamers” – Richard Thompson

one step for aching
two steps for breaking
waltzings for dreamers
and losers in love
“Last Chance Waltz” – David Wilcox (this guy does a pretty good cover)
won't you please waltz me free?
the turns of our steps are untangling me,
free from some dragged around memory
and the rusty old remnants of fear
after ten years I’m melting the shackles with tears
“The Waltzing Fool” – Lyle Lovett
but the waltzing fool
he's got lights in his fingers
the waltzing fool
he just don't never say
the waltzing fool
he keeps his hands in his pockets
and waltzes the evening away
I’m not enough of a dancer or a musician to talk coherently about what is happening to both our hearing and our hearts when we move to three beats a measure, but sat in the room as the music swirled around the students even as it set my memories to moving, one-two-three, one-two-three. When the psalmist said that God would turn his mourning into dancing, he must have had a waltz in mind because it is a dance that grief can do. It is the rhythm of life, the rhythm of Lent, the rhythm of what it means to be together, perhaps (is this too much of a stretch) the rhythm of the Trinity:
one-two-three, one-two-three.
Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

lenten journal: borrowed words

Tonight, I am keeping my discipline with the help of an old friend whom I know only through his words. Still, he is one I turn to on nights like this when I can't find words of my own. These are words I have come  to before. Join me; there is comfort here.

I Am Offering this Poem
By Jimmy Santiago Baca

I am offering this poem to you,
since I have nothing else to give.
Keep it like a warm coat
when winter comes to cover you,
or like a pair of thick socks
the cold cannot bite through,
I love you,
I have nothing else to give you,
so it is a pot full of yellow corn
to warm your belly in winter,
it is a scarf for your head, to wear
over your hair, to tie up around your face,
I love you,
Keep it, treasure this as you would
if you were lost, needing direction,
in the wilderness life becomes when mature;
and in the corner of your drawer,
tucked away like a cabin or hogan
in dense trees, come knocking,
and I will answer, give you directions,
and let you warm yourself by this fire,
rest by this fire, and make you feel safe
I love you,
It’s all I have to give,
and all anyone needs to live,
and to go on living inside,
when the world outside
no longer cares if you live or die;
remember,
I love you.
Peace,
Milton

Monday, February 27, 2012

lenten journal: drawn in

I don’t remember how old I was, but I was young enough that my dad was able to beat my brother and me to the punch. “Boys,” he said with that this-is-how-it’s-going-to-be-don’t-even-think-about-it tone in his voice, “we can talk about most anything, but you can never have a motorcycle.” He gave good reasons. He had high school friends who had been killed on bikes, or at least that’s the way I remember it. As I said, we were young enough for them to feel out of reach anyway, so we agreed and adopted his fear and life went on – without motorized wheels or the future expectation thereof.

As we got into our forties, things changed. My prodigal brother began riding motorcycles while living in the far country of Tennessee and eventually got a Harley of his own, on which he still finds solace riding off across the Texas countryside. I, the dutiful older brother, still stayed away from them. I just got my ear pierced instead. Twice. The only bike I’ve ever been around much belonged to my friend Billy. In our songwriting days, I would drive down from Fort Worth to Manchaca, south of Austin, where he lived. He had a beautiful BMW motorcycle and I would climb on the back and we would ride to dinner. He’s the one who taught me to lean into the curves.

I wasn’t expecting to go motoring down this particular memory lane this Lent, but John Berger issued the invitation with this short paragraph:

For many years I’ve been fascinated by a certain parallel between the act of piloting a bike and the act of drawing. The parallel fascinates me because it may reveal a secret. About what? About displacement and vision. Looking brings closer. (111)
Part of where the passage took me was back to a conversation, or rather a host of conversations, with another old friend, Christopher, who is a graphic designer. He told me how his mentor taught him the basics of the craft. While in college, Chris approached him about being a mentor. The man agreed and asked him to come to his house for their lessons. In the backyard, the man had a tightrope a couple of feet off the ground. Christopher’s drawing lessons began with learning how to walk the tightrope. Chris didn’t understand at first.

“There are basic principles to life,” his mentor told him. “For example, learn how to walk the tightrope and you will also know how to draw a straight line freehand. Both require that you keep your eye on the end point – where you want to end up, rather than looking at what your hands and feet are doing.”

Berger agrees:
You pilot a bike with your eyes, with your wrists and with your leaning of your body. Your eyes are the most importunate of the three. The bike follows and veers towards whatever they are fixed on. It pursues your gaze, not your ideas. No four-wheeled-vehicle driver can imagine this.
If you look hard at an obstacle you want to avoid, there’s a grave risk that you’ll hit. Look calmly at a way around it and the bike will take this path. (112)
I think about the days when I have allowed myself to get caught up in a power struggle with a stubborn student. Most of the time it’s not because they were more stubborn than usual, but that I couldn’t look beyond them and set myself up for a collision. I think about how I have derailed some dreams by looking at who I am not and seeing only where I will fall short rather than keeping my eyes on where I want to end up. And I think about those times when I have been able to see beyond the chaos, beyond the obvious, beyond the obstacles and seen some dreams come true, some things change.
“I will lift my eyes up to the hills,” wrote the Psalmist.
“Come and see,” said Jesus.
“Draw me nearer, nearer, precious Lord,” says the old hymn.
“You are riding a drawing,” says John Berger (116).
I love the image. At the bottom of the page I jotted a verse from James that came to mind: “draw near to God and God will draw near to you” (6:8), and an old song floated down across the memories that seems a good benediction:
turn your eyes upon Jesus
look full in his wonderful face
and the things of earth will grow strangely dim
in the light of his glory and grace


Peace,
Milton

Sunday, February 26, 2012

lenten journal: "you are the light of the world"

Ginger preached from the lectionary passage this morning. Here's what I brought home.

“you are the light of the world”
I know were talking
about the difference
between daylight
and dark however
you of all people
ought to be able
to make room for
a little poetic license
I know about the dark
but today when I
heard your words
I thought of those
who claim to speak
for you in public
but they spew stones
and throw their weight
around to do damage
and your familiar call
had a new ring:
you didn’t call us
to be the heavy
Peace,
Milton

Saturday, February 25, 2012

lenten journal: connection

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. 
 “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter.
(Matt. 26:40)

connection

driving home from work
tonight I saw the moon –
or at least all it was
willing to show tonight
arriving late as well
almost ten o’clock and
hardly above the horizon
from my vantage point
I couldn’t tell if
it was old or new
beginning or fading
I was as tired going
to work as I was
coming home at
almost ten o’clock and
hardly above the horizon
with promises . . .
(you know the line)
on nights like these
I think about drowsy
disciples in the garden
who couldn’t stay awake
like Santiago thought about
DiMaggio’s bone spur
and I catch myself smiling
I have to be exhausted
to feel like a disciple

Peace,
Milton

Friday, February 24, 2012

lenten journal: the peripheral vision of faith

One of the benefits of my style of organization is the joy of rediscovering things. Move a pile of stuff and find a book you haven’t seen in a long time. Such was my fortune a couple of days ago. We did some rearranging here at the house which set me to cleaning up some other stuff and I came across a book that I love not only for its content but also for the memory it evoked.

In 2010, Ginger and I had a chance to go to New Orleans for our anniversary, thanks to our friend Jay. We had a wonderful time in a city we both deeply love. A Durham friend, Leonora, who had lived in the Crescent City sent us on an afternoon adventure off the beaten path and out of the Quarter, down across Frenchman Street and into a neighborhood that appeared to see few folks but those who lived and worked around it. We ended up on Chatres at the Sound CafĂ©, which was connected to Beth’s Books and newsstand. It was there, after a rich and quiet afternoon of conversation and coffee together, I found Art and Fear.

This afternoon, I perused the book, mostly rereading my margin notes and what I had underlined a couple of springs ago. Here are a couple of samples – of what the book had to say:
Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how not to quit. . . . Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again – and art is all about starting again. (9-10)
As Stanley Kunitz once commented, “The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it to language.” (17)
By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work. (26)
To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is a flawed concept. (31)
When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes. (49)
Each new piece of your art enlarges our reality. The world is not yet done. (69)
I could go on, but then I would use up too much of my quote pool for future posts. The book comes alive for me because I am working to be a better writer and I want to make art with my words and my food, among other things. The other reason is because I think art is an amazing metaphor for both life and faith. I can best make my point with a couple of paraphrases:
When you are lazy, your faith is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.
Each new act of your faith enlarges our reality. Our faith is not yet done.
As I read today, thinking about Lent and what I might make of these days, a couple of sentences I had not previously underlined found their way to the forefront:
Habits are the peripheral vision of the mind. . . . The theory is simple enough: respond automatically to the familiar, and you’re free to respond selectively to the unfamiliar. (100)
Habit is not always an easy word for me, or at least not a positive one, because I most often contrast it with ritual, particularly in matters of faith: habit is repeating things mindlessly; ritual is meaningful repetition. To keep it at church for a moment, we might pass the offering plates as habit, yet the aim is to make the familiar action of sharing Communion be ritual. With that contrast in mind, I came to this paraphrase:
Rituals are the peripheral vision of faith. . . . The theory is simple enough: respond automatically to the familiar, and you’re free to respond selectively to the unfamiliar.
The ashes are familiar, as are the days doing without or adding on as we work our way to the Cross. The road through Lent is well-worn with the steps of those who have come before us. The story is familiar to the point that we have to decide whether to be lazy or engaged. We can make a habit of our devotion and float by on our familiarity unscathed by the magnificent defeat that makes possible the empty tomb or we can make a ritual of all that has been handed down, cherishing each moment as a morsel of grace and focusing on what we know is true such that we see new things – and new people -- on the edges of the story that we have not seen before.

The first song I ever wrote with my friend Billy said:
here’s another picture of life
all of us together in Christ
it’s an open heart
it’s a work of art
it’s the basic stuff
that makes another picture of love
Our faith is not yet done.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, February 23, 2012

lenten journal: I love to tell the story

One of the things I love about the ecclesiastical calendar is it tells time by telling a story. Our story. The Story. We begin at Advent by preparing for Jesus’ birth and then move through the following weeks and months as the Incarnation unfolds and we see Jesus with people as he walks with them and talks with them, and tries to tell them about his death and resurrection. To number our days with the language of Epiphany and Pentecost, rather than January and May, is to not only tell the story but to become a part of it. I was thinking along these lines as I read again from John Berger’s wonderful new book (which has been inspiring me all winter):

When we are impressed and moved by a story, it engenders something that becomes, or may become, an essential part of us, and this part, whether it be small or extensive, is, as it were, the story’s descendent or offspring.
What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s own story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become. (84)
Katherine Hankey must have understood what Berger is talking about (though he hadn’t written it in 1866) when she wrote one of my favorite hymns:
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
In the chapter of Berger I reread yesterday, Berger told of going into a suburban Paris library to check out a copy of The Brothers Karamazov to reread. Both of the library’s copies were checked out and he began to wonder,
. . . who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they both reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it?


Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, or on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognizing it, recognize one another? (83-84)
I can remember days in the subway in Boston looking across to see the cover of a book I had read and loved and then exchanging the kind of glance Berger describes, sometimes even a word of solidarity. One of the joys of teaching is initiating students into the coteries that know Scout and Gatsby and Mary Shelley’s misunderstood creature. There is a strong connection between Those Who Know The Story and a profound sense of joy at getting to be the one who makes the introduction. Expand the definition of stories and we can include the giant families, if you will, bonded together by Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride who willing share looks and laughs and movie lines.
Anybody want a peanut?
One of my favorite books to read with students is Frankenstein. Many years ago when I was teaching at Charlestown High, a Latina student who understood all too well what it meant to feel outcast and misunderstood became particularly attached to the Creature. Reading didn’t come easily for her, but she devoured the book. The morning we were to finish the book she came by my room early. She was visibly troubled.

“Mister B-C,” she said with sadness in her voice, “the Monster died!”

She didn’t need me to explain or even to comfort; she just needed to tell the story to someone who knew what she was talking about, that could share the experience, that knew it mattered to grieve a character who had lived so vividly among us.

As Lent begins, the story we love takes an ominous turn. Not so many weeks ago we were singing of herald angels and following stars. Yet, as we get closer to Spring, the shadows grow longer and the darkness more profound. We know where the whole story is going and these are not the easy chapters. Still, we are at our best when we tell the story in all its darkness and struggle. It is our story, as Berger said. It’s in our DNA. We tell the story, and we live the story, as we seek to incarnate God’s love in a harsh and beautiful world. Because we know the story passed down to us and we know the story unfolding in our lives, we understand what makes a great story, which is to say we understand a great story takes the darkness as seriously as the light. As David Wilcox sings,
look, if someone wrote a play
just to glorify what’s stronger than hate
would they not arrange the stage
to look as though the hero came too late
it’s almost in defeat
it’s looking like the evil side will win
and on the edge of every seat
from the moment that the whole thing begins
it is love that mixed the mortar
and it’s love that stacked these stones
and it’s love that sets the stage here
though it looks like we’re alone
In the last line of his chapter on stories, Berger said:
Hope today is a contraband passed from hand to hand and from story to story. (87)
I love that sentence. Telling the story – our story – is an act of solidarity, of subversion, of community, of compassion, of revolution. Of hope. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out, neither can the cynicism shout it down.

Gather in close and listen.



Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

lenten journal: a podcast, a poem, a preposition, and a prefix

Life for me right now means I drive home from my part-time job at the computer store two or three nights a week and listen to a podocast of The State of Things on WUNC, which works out well since I was teaching during the day when it first aired. Last Thursday, Dan Ariely was interviewed. He has just published a book called The Upside of Irrationality, which is a part of his work at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. (I so want a t-shirt from that place; the name is too good.)

Ariely said his interest in the work he is doing began years ago with bandage removal. He suffered severe burns a number of years ago and was in the hospital for three years. The nurses had to remove the bandages everyday. Bandages cane be taken off either quickly or slowly. All the nurses believed ripping the bandages off quickly was the right approach to dealing with the pain. After he got out, Ariely did experiments of his own and found the “nurses were wrong in a predictable and systematic way.” They didn’t talk to each other about the various ways it could be done or compare notes. “All the nurses had the same bias and they were getting it wrong for every patient every time.”

Change the preposition and the Center of Advanced Hindsight might also serve as another name for Ash Wednesday, if I take the word center geographically rather than as a name of an organization. From that center, hear the words poet Barton Sutter shared at The Writer’s Almanac today as a part of his poem, “The Thousand-foot Ore Boat”:

To live until we die—
The job seems just impossible.
The great weight of the past
Pushing us forward, the long future
Thrust out before us, and so little room to either side!
On this day, when we seek to focus our hearts and minds toward repentance, when we seek to find deeper meaning in living by coming to terms with our dying, when we feel the push of the past and the pull of possibilities, we stand at the center of advanced hindsight, at the fulcrum of our faith, at the place where we are willing to let the Spirit show us where we have been predictable and systematic in our errors, at the place where we can repent.

Repent. When I work on vocabulary with my students, I try to get them to notice the prefix of a word as a way to begin to unpack its meaning.
re-:   1. indicating return to a previous condition, restoration, withdrawal.
         2. indicating repetition of an action.
Repent. The dictionary draws connections to regret and repair, but then draws distinctions. Regret carries the main idea of wishing I had not done something, or had done something differently, that cannot be changed. Repair focuses on making things work again. Repent carries some of both contrition for what has been done or left undone and commitment to do things differently and to make things right. Looking back, I look inward that I might look forward and live in such a way that I do not remain committed to my error.

Repentance requires community. Though it is an individual commitment, it is not done in solitary. The power of our turning round right is found in the cloud of witnesses who share in the dance because most of what needs to be made right is relational. When I look back to see I have not done justice or sought kindness or walked humbly I must circle back, retrace my steps, and do what I can to repair and heal my damage. Where I have chosen cynicism, I am called to hope. Where I have chosen to caricature, I am called to listen. Where I have chosen to dominate, I am called to include. Where I have chosen to forget, I am called to remember.

All in the context of relationships.

In his podcast, Ariely talked about one of the tasks of a society is to decide what level of inequality we are willing to live with. He said his favorite definition of a just society came from philosopher John Rawls who said a just society was one that if you knew everything about it you would be willing to enter it at a random place. I love the definition because it calls us all to live outside of ourselves, paying attention to one another’s circumstances and challenges, as well as successes. Where Rawls used the word society, I would substitute community to say that definition of justice works whether we are a city or a church, a mega gathering or a small group. To think about a just community means to remember, as Philo of Alexandria said (not to be confused with Philo of Apex), “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It also means that we are committed to including one another, rather than constructing rules and walls that divide us. “Love everyone as I have loved you,” Jesus said. That’s pretty clear.

On this Ash Wednesday, this Center of Advanced Hindsight, I look back and easily see the damage I have done. I pray these days will turn that mourning into meaning again and again and again.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, February 19, 2012

news to me

Not quite six years ago, Ginger and I got to spend a month in Greece and Turkey tracing the steps of the apostle Paul, thanks to a sabbatical grant from the Eli Lily Foundation. Greece has a burgeoning Christian tourist trade, so we traveled with a group for our time there.l In Turkey, we were on our own and found our way through that wonderful and hospitable country thanks to a Turkish travel agent I found listed in the Lonely Planet guide. When we did group things we were a part of much less homogenous groups than we had known in Greece. On a half day bus tour in Istanbul we shared the bus with people from Iran, Hungary, Kazakhstan, England, the Czech Republic, and Australia. When we had time to talk over tea, the first thing each of us said was, “We’re nothing like our government.”

We spent a week in Izmir, which is where Ephesus once was, and had a chance to get to know some of the folks in our hotel over a few days. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were both going strong and people had a lot of questions about the choices then President Bush was making. One Australian man, whose name I have since forgotten, asked with some frustration, “Why aren’t the American people speaking up?”

“They aren’t getting the same information as the rest of the world,” I answered.

That realization was one of the biggest shocks of the trip. In our hotel rooms across Greece and Turkey we were able to watch CNN International. Each day they had hour long programs that spanned the globe: an hour on Asia, then Africa, then Europe, then South America. The delved into the issues on every continent as though it mattered for everyone to be informed. There was little or no celebrity coverage or tables full of pontificating pundits that fill up American air time. And it was the same company carrying out both slates of programming.

The American media thinks the American people are stupid, was my conclusion.

I thought of those days again this evening as Ginger and I were catching up on Daily Shows we missed seeing this week and John Stewart pointed to the cover of TIME Magazine last week around the world













and the TIME cover in the United States.













Nothing much has changed. They still think we are stupid, or perhaps so clueless and privileged that we don’t have to understand what the rest of the world doing. We can be left with the fluff and the mistaken belief that everyone else in the world wishes they were us. For, as John Mayer sang so well,
when you trust your television
what you get is what you’ve got
‘cause when they own the information
they can bend it all they want.
One of my Christmas presents was a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine. In one of the articles in the last issue was this quote:
You have to put yourself in a position to discover something new.
Though the writer was not talking specifically about how we stay informed, he’s on to something. The word news is simply the plural of the word new. We do need to put ourselves in a position to discover news and not let ourselves be fed what seems most commercially viable to the media moguls, or what feels most agreeable to us. As much as I would like to blame the editors of TIME, the only reason I know they had other covers around the world is because John Stewart told me, and that’s my bad. The world deserves better from me.

TIME and CNN and Fox and the rest of them are the fast food of the news and entertainment industry. To depend on them makes as much sense as relying on Burger King or McDonalds to give me a good nutritious meal everyday. It’s up to me to feed my body food that matters; the same goes for my mind and heart. Back in my Royal Ambassador days (for you who didn’t grow up Baptist, think Southern Baptist Cub Scouts), we used to say, “As a Royal Ambassador, I will do my best to become a well informed, responsible follower of Christ . . . .”

How can I live out my calling if I don’t know what is going on around me and beyond me? The short answer is I can’t. Living out my calling means putting myself in a position to discover the news that I might do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

similes

it’s like the sand of life leaks
out from a hole in the sack
scattered then stomped
into the surface

but nothing gets lighter
the gravity of absence
crushes out the colors and
somehow grey weighs more

the shadows know things
they are not telling
now I see through a glass
darkly yes darkly

it’s like death has an echo
that bounces off shadows
reverberates in emptiness
and makes love hurt

it’s like that

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, February 09, 2012

getting ready for the goose

The second annual Wild Goose Festival will take place this summer just outside of Durham at Shakori Hills from June 21-24. Come join me for a great experience. Here's a short video from last year's gathering.



Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

allergies and acceptance

If you press me, I’ll tell you my favorite Paul Simon record is one of his least known: Hearts and Bones. I’m in the minority because it’s his least known record, I think, other than the soundtrack from his Broadway show. Nevertheless, it’s one I can listen to over and over. I thought about it today because of the opening track, “Allergies”:

allergies allergies
something’s living on my skin
doctor please doctor please
open up it’s me again
You see, today I spent the afternoon at the allergist.

I have to back up a bit for you to understand the import of that statement. I have been hounded my whole life by allergies. I have tried every antihistamine, delved into most every decongestant, tried as many treatments as I can find and, in Paul Simon’s words, still these allergies remain. In New England, winter meant a respite, but North Carolina offers nothing of the sort; I’m allergic to the state.

About ten months ago, my throat started seizing up – or, at least, that’s the best way I can describe it. I can still breathe, but I can’t swallow and my throat fills up with mucous that I have to clear rather unceremoniously. The result is I go without good sleep about every third night, which seems to be the pattern of the onslaught. I have not been able to pinpoint a direct cause of the congestion. Instead, it seems rather capricious. So I have lived on a steady diet of Benadryl, among other things, trying to find a way to survive. I talked to my doctor about it last summer and he promised to send me to an allergist, but the promise was not kept before my health insurance ran out, so I had to wait until this January to push him to keep his promise. He sent me instead to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who then sent me on to an allergist, whom I saw today. Though last night was miserable, I was somewhat happy that the “swallowing thing” was happening as I went to see him today. I also went with the expectation that he was going to do a full slate of allergy tests to try and figure out what was going on. He was a nice guy and he dealt with me well, but he said he didn’t have the equipment to look at my throat and he only tested me for dogs (not allergic) and dust mites (allergic) and offered me yet another antihistamine and told me the best thing I could do for my throat was to go see the ENT while it was going on so she could figure out what it was.

I spent over two hours in his office. At the end of the time he said, “Well, I think we have a good plan.”

“The only plan I know is for me to go see the other doctor when my throat acts up. That’s a plan?” I asked.

That was his plan. That and to write me a prescription for another antihistamine and a nasal steroid. And he wants to see me in two months. I’m not sure why. It seems actually treating allergies is not a part of the American medical system to try and figure out how to treat the symptoms of my allergies. At the end of our time, I asked him about the skin irritation I get with some regularity.

“You’re just a really allergic person,” he said without irony.

I left feeling just as allergic and a good bit more frustrated than when I arrived. I went by the church to vent to Ginger and then met some friends at Fullsteam to find a way past how pissed off I felt. The friends are folks at the heart of the Wild Goose Festival, which will happen again here in North Carolina this June. (Please come.) As I drove to meet them, I remembered one of the talks that stuck with me from last years festival. A pastor from New York named Gabriel Salguero spoke on “The Allergy to the Other.” I wish I had notes to go back to that would outline the great stuff he had to say, but all I can do is recall feeling compelled by his words about how we allow ourselves to feel “allergic” to people who aren’t like us, responding defensively in the same way our bodies produce histamines to protect us from the unknown.

I thought about his talk today because I was so taken aback by the way in which the doctor whose declared specialty was allergies had only enough imagination to deal with symptoms. His aim was to make me comfortable, period. He did talk about allergy shots, but what he offered was a five-year commitment that was only about seventy-five percent effective. Beyond that, my best choice was to mask the symptoms and act like things were OK.

Recently, Durham was recognized as The Most Tolerant City in the United States. I love that I live in a place that is recognized for its welcoming spirit and I want to be more than “tolerant,” which seems to me to be the relational equivalent of taking antihistamines and thinking you’ve dealt with your allergies. When I hear the word tolerant, I think it means learning to put up with something or someone: getting used to someone, but not really making a place for them in your life. Straight people, for example, who learn to tolerate gay and lesbian folks come to some sort of “live and let live” place, but don’t ever intend to actually be friends with them.

Toleration is not acceptance any more than what the doctor did for me today was actually deal with my allergies.

I long for another survey that measures the most accepting city. I think Durham still has a shot because we are, in large part, more than tolerant of one another. This is one of the most encouraging places I have ever lived. The task in any community is to learn how to live in such a way that we become essential to one another. That means finding a way to do more than mask our allergies and to push through our fears and prejudices to see the only way we survive is to survive together. To quote another Paul Simon song,
I’ve reason to believe
we all will be received in Graceland
Durham, too.

Peace,
Milton