Being a pastor’s wife doesn’t mean I climb mountains more than the average person, although hiking is a favorite activity in our family. The picture of our two sons was taken in the Colorado Rockies, where the five of us spent a breathtaking (sometimes literally) week the summer before last. Getting to a high place and enjoying a visual panorama is always a thrilling experience. My title here, though, refers more to the kind of expansive view I get to have from my vantage point as a clergy spouse with layers of involvement in the secular world. Sometimes there is a lovely blending of elements, and sometimes things collide in a dizzying way. More and more, I am struck by how often two contrasting experiences keep company together. And, in the same way that bugs are drawn to a light source, I find myself wanting to get closer to see what is really going on when something bumps up against something else.
This contrast is often just plain funny, and often it has nothing to do with being a pastor’s wife. Just the other day, for instance, following the freakish October snowstorm we had in this part of New England, our teenage daughter came home from a sledding expedition saying, “I still have my bathing suit on!” Turns out that following the whooshing down a hill on snow that wasn’t supposed to be there, she and her friends went to a hotel where one of the girls’ families had been staying because of the multi-day power outage. And there, of course, they went swimming in the pool. Everything got jumbled, and it was all good.
Another example, more visual: My husband painted our bedroom recently, and my favorite part is the line between the rich beige (called “Amulet”) and the white of the ceiling. Over and over, my eye is drawn to where the two colors come together…but stay separate. These places, to me, illustrate so much that is true about regular life. Sometimes we can see them, and sometimes we just feel them. An ordinary moment in the present takes us right back to a time long ago; a person who is known for behaving one way does something completely uncharacteristic; an experience we counted on to be wonderful turns out to be crushingly disappointing. We are shaken or maybe moved by the juxtaposition of things, and we try to get hold of our feelings. During the years that I worked at a tough urban high school where students’ basic needs were often unmet while my own kids were choosing among an array of extra-curricular activities, I felt that I was leading a kind of “split screen” life. It wasn’t a question of which side I was on, but rather an issue of trying to see as clearly as possible what was happening, to make out as best I could the topography of the landscape.
In some instances, blending, or perhaps equalizing, can be beautiful; but, depending on what you’re trying to merge, it might also cause a giving up of an essence. In that famous poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost begins with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” but his neighbor is adamant that “ ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ “ It is, of course, ironic that they may meet only once a year to replace the boulders that keep a line between them. Bring us together if you can, but don’t forget to respect boundaries at the same time.
On this site, I will be exploring all kinds of topics within the theme of duality, adjacency, differences finding common ground – or maybe at least meeting for a handshake and mutual recognition. I anticipate that my life as a clergy spouse (with no previous background in churchgoing) will lend a good bit of material on the secular/religious tones in the culture, but that will be just one subject of these essays. Unlike some of the other pastors’ wives whose blogs you can easily find, I won’t be writing a whole lot about parish life, my own faith or what we clergy spouses have in common. But my rich experience living alongside an Episcopal priest will, to some extent, affect my vision. Since I have spent much of the last decade raising three children and taking them to hundreds of practices and games, I have become particularly familiar with the terrain of youth sports. Indeed, some would say that a whole new kind of religion has been created in this realm. But what are we worshipping, exactly? Feeling so many, often conflicting, tugs on our time, how do we best determine what is truly worth doing?
Thanks for joining me as I try to paint the panorama that I see. I look forward to hearing your responses along the way.
It’s October, the Red Sox are in the playoffs, Big Papi is heading out in a blaze of glory. What better time to reflect on the amazing and occasionally incongruous proximity, at least some of the time, between sports and religion?
Any thinking person knows that one realm—the one containing huge stadiums, celebrity players, non-stop action, winners and losers, fans who go crazy for their teams, huge sums of money— is completely different from the other, sacred one. And yet, the similarities are equally undeniable too. They keep popping up, like fly balls.
Growing up, I knew sports a whole lot better than I knew religion. It was one of the main currencies of our family life. Once I got married to somebody “in the process” a quarter century ago, however, my learning curve about religion (the Episcopal faith, in particular) began taking an upswing. I sure have a long way to go, especially if I really want to understand the tenets of other faiths, but at least now I’m on the road towards greater understanding, if not full enlightenment. This is a little hard to admit, but any knowledge I gain about all kinds of religions gets absorbed by a mental landscape characterized, for better or worse, by a certain familiarity (distinct from skill, mind you) with all kinds of sports. Again, this is definitely NOT the same as proclaiming them in the same category.
But, the fact is, plenty of other people—especially sportswriters and coaches—do make this comparison. I once went to a hockey coaching clinic where the speaker pounded the rulebook down on his podium and said, “THIS is your Bible!”
Back in mid- February, The New York Times presented a lovely spread of photographs depicting the constancy of baseball in a particular country in the Caribbean. It caught my attention particularly because I’m working with students who have roots in this place; many of their family members go back and forth between Lawrence and their former homeland frequently.
You can see the whole feature here. It opens this way:
Baseball is beginning again in the United States, with players gathering at spring training sites in Florida and Arizona. But in the Dominican Republic, the sport never really stops. It is a year-round religion, a potential ticket out of poverty, and the result is that the country produces more major leaguers than any other nation except the United States.
How many major leaguers? The last best count I could find was 83— or around 10% of all players. This sounds pretty upbeat. Of course, for a slightly different take, you can read an NPR story, broadcast last April, called “Baseball is a Field of Dreams—And Dashed Hopes—For Dominicans” right here.
Let’s back to the element of religion.
Used in the company of sports, the word “religion” is understood very broadly to mean something like “a pastime that elicits so much devotion, it becomes more than just a pastime.” Plainly, playing baseball is different from attending church in about a thousand ways. The connecting tissue is that both bring about a kind of fervor or passion, bring some release from daily cares, help make life worth living. No matter that people sit mostly quietly in pews, gathering themselves to pray, and in ball parks we hear the constant, “Get your beer heeeah!” No matter that religions hold up the virtues of spiritual strength, while sports reward those who are physically strong and agile.
Perhaps it is the Greek concept of koinonia – meaning communion, or joint participation – which most closely explains the pervasive spirit of being fully alive that can arise from both stadiums and houses of worship.
For Ortiz, our beloved slugger and clutch hitter like none other, it’s not over til it’s over. With the playoffs just beginning, not to mention the leaves doing their best to turn despite the drought, we’re right where we want to be.
In recent interviews, David Ortiz has waxed nostalgic about the World Series championships in 2004, 2007 and 2013 and how he came to believe, with the help of Boston fans, that it really was possible to “Keep The Faith.”
Reaching further back, he also remembers his hardscrabble upbringing in the Dominican. In his autobiography with the title Big Papi (co-written with Tony Massarotti and published in 2007 by St. Martin’s Press) he recalls how one particular church figured prominently in his life story.
Many people believe that baseball is a religion in the Dominican Republic, and in some ways it was the two together that brought me where I am today. Not far from Santo Domingo, in the town of Higuey, there is a basilica known as Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia, or Our Lady of High Graces. It is the most famous church in the Dominican Republic.
He goes on to relate how his father, who had excelled in the game himself, went to this church to pray even before David was born, saying to God, “Maybe you can bless me with a boy. And maybe someday he could be a major-league player.” (p.22).
America Enrique Ortiz — champion wish maker! Little wonder that Ortiz still visits this church every winter, “to thank God for what he has given me.” And little wonder, too, that we show appreciation, even devotion, for what Ortiz has given us through the years. Especially on those evenings when we’ve come home tired and bothered and had our spirits lifted by watching him at bat, staring down those pitchers and their heat, we feel it—Boston Strong.
My husband, lucky duck, got to go to this place a few days ago. Due to an overwhelming feeling of Pride and Joy, not to mention a connection across several states states with My Guy, I’m writing an unorthodox blog this week.Wait, have I ever been orthodox?
Rob is out in Detroit with the House of Bishops for a whole week. You can read the detailed daily briefings here. My own topic, commencing shortly, will be something else entirely. I’m straying from my usual “this against that” theme, taking a new approach.
When I hear that term – “House”— it always throws me, because I imagine an actual house, maybe on a college campus, with rooms in every direction, and people coming together to sizzle up some food in the kitchen, perhaps a chore chart on the wall, and living room gatherings every when every couch seat is taken, and the floor-sitters are there with legs outstretched.
The bishops are not in an actual house, mind you (explaining that would be another story) but in a big hotel: you probably already knew that. The downtown hotel is close to the Motown Museum and “Hitsville USA” – the home and first recording studio of the amazing Berry Gordy.
I’m proud to say that I grew up on a steady diet of the Motown Sound. We didn’t attend church, but when we weren’t running around outdoors, we were usually playing soul music. Every one of my four older brothers, beginning with the eldest—14 years ahead of me — loved it, and I took it in by osmosis. So, in celebration of my husband’s visit to the famous birthplace, and in recognition of just how much this music is part of my being, I’m setting out to have a little fun.
At first, I thought I might dare to imagine the daily doings of the bishops set to a Motown soundtrack, but that would be presumptuous, especially because I’m not even there. If I were there, by the way, without needing to be in the meetings, I’d probably be tempted to Shop Around. But I get ahead of myself.
Better to stick to my own life—something within my bounds to describe. So, while I won’t pretend that all of the following happened on the same day, it either did in fact happen recently or very well could have happened. I’ll make this a kind of game: the event is provided; you fill in the Motown song that would fit that event perfectly. I’ll start by listing the choices. To help you out a little, I’ve even given you the artist for each one. Hey, this might be the first of my blogs ever to need printing out to be fully appreciated!
Choose from these songs: Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, You Keep Me Hanging On, Mustang Sally, You Beat Me To the Punch, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, How Sweet It Is, Dancing In The Street, You Really Got A Hold On Me, Ain’t That Peculiar, Reach Out I’ll Be There, Get Ready
1) Wanting to have a better-than-usual breakfast one morning, I slice into a cantaloupe. As soon as I taste that delicious fruit, I swoon; it is just so perfect.
2) That morning, my husband and I have time for only a brief conversation, about my wish to do some hiking in the White Mountains before the season gets done. He wonders how rigorous a workout I want. Asserting my own strength, I say that the small peaks don’t interest me.
Duet: Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations.
3) Glancing at the clock, I see that I’d better hurry up and get out the door and on my way to work.
4) Heading out to the driveway to fire up the car, I get into the sensible Subaru, wishing for just a moment that I could be someone else, or a racier version of myself, with a different name.
Wilson Pickett (also The Young Rascals)
5) As I drive down the highway, as usual, I see something that’s not usual at all— a big truck ahead of me apparently towing another truck behind it; but that truck looks to be heading right straight at me. Startling, for sure.
6) At work, I make some calls to supervisors at our sponsor companies. Sometimes, a busy receptionist says she’ll help me reach someone, but she must get distracted because I wait for a really long time. (Yep — two songs work here; be a bit flexible with the language.)
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles
7) At lunchtime, getting a clear lane to the microwave can be tricky. It’s not that annoying of a wait, really, but when you’re really hungry you still have to let people who get there sooner have first dibs.
8) A colleague happens to mention that, even though we badly need rain, she sees a surprising number of still good-looking lawns on her drive in; I tell her that this means nothing—the drought is still very dire.
9) In the afternoon, a math teacher whose classroom is opposite my office stops in to chat for a minute. She’d been to see Springsteen at Gillette the night before, thanks to her husband who nabbed them some tickets. “That’s it,” I think to myself, “Life’s too short. Even if my husband’s work calendar is crowded with stuff all over the place, especially on weekends, I’m going to insist, or maybe plead, that we get out and find some rock music regularly.”
10) I give a presentation at Open House, at which I let parents know that we are always available to receive questions or comments about our work program, or about how their sons and daughters are doing.
The Four Tops
11) Arriving home, I realize that, in between going to concerts, it might really be possible to liven things up right on our own turf once in a while. Since we’re on a quiet cul-de-sac, cranking up the music and inviting some people over once a year to celebrate whatever might actually do the neighborhood some good.
Martha and the Vandellas
12) Speaking to my husband that evening on the phone, I tell him that I’d left off some tomatoes at his office that morning. He says he already knew. Huh! Word travels fast. Maybe this is not so surprising, though, since the theme he chose for the Diocese of New Hampshire is “Tending the Vine.”
Ok, Ok, you’ve waited long enough. You need to hear some music, right? Here’s a site that will enable you to do just that. Think of it as a kind of harvest of Motown.
Look! Over there! It’s Mother Teresa, white robe flying, sprinting madly to get ahead of her competitors, win the race and claim the trophy.
Wait…there must be some kind of mistake. This was a woman whose life work was tending to the poor, not striving to get anything for herself. When she wasn’t helping people directly, she was praying.
Know that feeling when you see someone familiar, but out of context, and it jumbles up your brain? Like when you’re in the line at the post office and Larry, who is your go-to guy for any plumbing problems at your house, comes in, wearing plain clothes, just looking to mail a package. It can throw you, temporarily. Then you realize, kind of sheepishly—of course he doesn’t have to be a plumber 24-7.
And sometimes you are prodded to see someone you thought you knew perfectly well in a different light. This too can jumble the brain. In fact, the longer I live, the more I see how most of the solid structures we count on — and by “structures” I mean actual things like buildings as well as human beings or even any realities we think are definite and unfaltering, immune to change – can, in a flash, look suddenly different; perhaps shifting in a good way, perhaps crumbling, or even disappearing in flames.
I write this on September 11th, fifteen years after this happened quite literally, and our world was never quite the same.
But I started out with Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa, who died four years before that terrible day. Let’s look at how the language that’s used to describe her can radically change how we imagine this icon of Christian goodness.
The fact that she was “canonized” by Pope Francis last week wasn’t all that surprising, really. Back at the end of 2015, The New York Times ran a story with this headline: “Pope Francis Clears Mother Teresa’s Path to Sainthood” Doesn’t that make her sound like an airplane on a runway, and the Pope an air traffic controller? Bet you never imagined this diminutive, quiet woman with engines roaring.
As far as I can understand from this article, a person can be “beatified” once he or she has one miracle under his or her belt. That happened with Mother Teresa back in 2003, with the apparent miraculous healing of an Indian woman with a tumor who prayed to the nun; then in 2015 the Pope “recognized a second miracle” which involved the multi-faceted healing of a Brazilian man, this time after his wife had been praying to Mother Teresa for months.
Once she was deemed responsible for two miracles, she had lift-off towards the destination of sainthood.
The canonization ceremony took place amidst throngs of people in St. Peter’s Square a week ago. For everyone there, it must have been a awesome experience to witness how a plain Albanian woman — someone who spent her life in back alleys, clinics, shelters with the poor, the sick, the cast aside – was celebrated by the full, gleaming power of the Catholic Church.
Afterwards, I began hearing another jarring metaphor in various news reports. It was said repeatedly that Mother Teresa had been “on the fast track to sainthood.” This image takes her off the runway and sends her directly to the athletic complex, with a pause for putting on sneakers.
Picturing the woman who had also been called the “Saint of the Gutters” on any track at all, let alone a fast one, doesn’t jive with our usual image of her, that’s for sure.
These runners definitely belong on a fast track, and they inspire us by being there…
And these guys (could be women, too) provide a nice illustration of the definition from Google, when the term is used as a verb: “The old boys’ network fast-tracks men to the top of the corporate ladder.” Well, there’s no ladder pictured here exactly, but you get the idea.
This may be just fine for them; they look exuberant and all. But do we need to see someone like Mother Teresa as just another person who’s jostling to get ahead, in any sense of the word?
What’s not clear is whether we’re affixing language to her that changes her unfairly; or whether the surprising descriptions actually do present the possibility of startling new dimensions for this woman we thought we had already engraved just so in our minds. Going back to my plumber at the post office example, she doesn’t have to be perfect 24-7, but let’s hope we can respectfully refrain from giving her an overdose of ambition.
Furthermore, to savor many of life’s regular pleasures that aren’t about running races or speeding up for take-off, or even aspiring to sainthood for that matter, staying in the slow lane and really taking in the view keeps looking like a pretty good option.
Sometimes, when you’re solidly in the realm of Practicality, focused on getting things done in the real world and making sure others do the same, Philosophy intervenes and then you’re somewhere else entirely. One minute you’re thinking about sending an email before 10:15 a.m., for instance, and the next minute you’re wondering whether there is in fact a larger purpose– beyond all the tasks– that we’re trying to fulfill, and what might be the nature of that purpose, if it exists at all.
This happened to me a week or so ago when I was sitting in on a class during our Corporate Work Study Training Institute—a two week period during which 9th graders at our school become prepared to take on a job at a worksite, as yet unidentified, along with their regular college-prep curriculum at school. They’re teenagers about to enter a world populated mostly by unfamiliar adults who will expect a certain level of mature behavior, not to mention productivity.
The class was “Public Speaking” and students had been asked ahead of time to prepare a short – just one minute – presentation on one of three topics: 1) What is a goal you have for the future? 2) What is an important lesson that you have learned so far in life? 3) Do you have an extra-curricular interest that is very important to you? We were not expecting a whole lot in the way of content, frankly; the exercise was mostly to give the 14 and 15 year olds a chance to get up in front of a group of their peers and see how well they could express themselves.
Students came forward one by one, each giving a small slice of him or herself before sitting down again, to flutterings of applause. Most did not use their full one minute.
The teacher, my colleague, kindly offered comments afterwards that helped to connect individuals with classmates they may not yet have met: “Oh if you love to rap, you really should meet Derrick.” It was fine for what it was supposed to be.
And then, one young man I’ll call Jose changed everything in that room – at least for this listener. He told me afterwards that it was fine to share some of what he said, so here goes:
Today, I would like to tell you about the most important lesson I’ve learned in my life. At just five years old, I learned that there can’t be an answer to everything in life. When my uncle died I went up to his coffin and screamed, “Wake up!” Everyone looked at me. I felt uncomfortable. That was my first realistic encounter with death. Then, after, I tried figuring out what is the meaning of life and without success gave up. Then when I was eight years old I found out that life has no meaning. In life you make your own purpose or meaning. Like us here today, on this hot summer day (here) to achieve a bigger purpose than ourselves—the purpose of becoming successful with dreams and hopes, graduating high school and graduating college too.
I’m not sure if the other students had a chance to grab hold of what he was saying, to hear how he had taken the assignment to a whole new level. His delivery was matter-of-fact, not dramatic in the least. But how about that wonderful turn of phrase, “..and without success gave up”? Or the monumental shift in tone he makes between “life has no meaning” and “you make your own purpose and meaning”? Gloom gives way to brightness almost instantaneously, like a cloud moving across the sun. The young man hadn’t yet started his Catholic high school education, probably had no idea who Thomas Aquinas was, but he was already grappling with the Big Questions.
When he was finished, the classroom was still a classroom, with desks in neat rows and a fan whirring to beat off the heat. In my mind’s eye. however, we were transported to ancient Greece.
This is the “School of Athens” fresco, painted in the Vatican between the years 1509-1511 by the Renaissance painter, Raphael. It’s hard to make out individual identities, but all the heavy hitters from Team Philosophy are here, trying to figure things out. It doesn’t look like they’re getting a whole lot done except trying to figure things out. Not that there were a whole lot of companies employing people back in the 4th century B.C., but would anyone have wanted Plato or Aristotle to have a regular kind of job? Somebody had to get us started wondering what it means to live a good life, a life rich with meaning.
Jose and all his new classmates, on the other hand, will need to juggle school and work, not to mention family, responsibilities all year. To attain a certain kind of success down the road, they will have to gain an understanding of what the “real world” expects of them– starting now. They will need to check off many tasks and play by the rules, cheerfully. Let’s just hope that, along the way, the search for meaning won’t be squeezed out. If they acknowledge its importance, they will have a steady companion for many years.
Let’s hear it for summer, and the pleasures of leaving those pesky home chores for a while to take in some kind of elsewhere, to see how others struggle with their chores—or maybe loll on their front stoops. Just about wherever you go that’s really away, you’ll draw something from the change, see something with a new twist.
Depending on what kind of existence we’re accustomed to, each of us takes a journey with a particular slant in our vision. When a pastor’s wife hits the road, for instance, she’s apt to notice churches more than, say, fire stations or post offices. It’s how we roll.
It would be imprudent of me to speak for all pastors’ wives, and let’s not forget the growing number of pastors’ husbands, but I’m guessing that most of us, wherever we go, are pretty observant when it comes to houses of worship and other signs of religious life.
And sometimes just an actual sign along a busy road is good enough. But I get ahead of myself here.
Last July at around this time, out in Wyoming, I was taking in panoramas like this:
Except in a handful of designated spots where they congregated to feel awe, people seemed beside the point. And so, frankly, did any buildings. Nature was clearly in charge of the vast and rugged splendor, perhaps working in tandem with an Almighty. This, to me, remains one of life’s great mysteries; a place like Wyoming really paints it anew.
This summer’s road trip with my son, through a swath of the Northeast, yielded some nice rolling farmland in Ohio and long stretches of forest punctuated by small towns in central New York. For a dose of the spectacular, we peered down into the gorges that are right in the middle of the Cornell campus.
Churches there were aplenty, too, of course, in all shapes and sizes. The ones on the college campuses we visited had a kind of hushed quality, with the green lawns around them tranquil.
But somehow it was just a jumble of signs at an intersection – a place definitely lacking in natural beauty—that sticks with me the most.
My eye went first to the “Family Church” sign, which seemed to be just floating there, looking so thoroughly generic. There was no actual building anywhere around that resembled a church. I know this kind of church-anywhere phenomenon has become more common, with congregations springing up in all kinds of places. So, fine. But can this actually be the name of a distinct denomination? You’ve got to admit that “Family Church” sounds a tad, well, redundant—something like “Place-for-Learning School” or “Fish Aquarium.” Aren’t they all supposed to be for the whole family? Well, maybe not the ones on the green college campuses so much, but still.
When I landed on this website, http://fcintl.org/mission/, I found that information was spare:
Family Church International officially launched in early 2013. Our goal is to bring the Word of God to the northeast U.S. and the world.
According to the Bible, God has a blessed plan for your life.
Now, besides questioning whether there can be a pre-ordained road map for anyone’s life, I was wondering about the “international” part. It’s not so easy to see where else in the world these churches are located, but the site definitely shows a hotbed of activity in western Pennsylvania and New York. By now it was pretty clear: I was in Evangelical territory, right outside the Wegman’s Supermarket.
i could go into the derivation of the word “Evangelical” and how it’s apparently been taken over in recent years by a certain segment of the populace with a distinct political agenda. But I’m not really qualified to comment on all of that, just picking up tidbits now and again. I can say, however, that when I was gazing at that sign, the national news had just been featuring a Pew Research survey that found how Evangelicals were in fact going strongly for Trump, even though his embrace of the Bible is not among his most salient qualities. And additionally, how the percentage of the vote that will be Evangelical is likely to be about identical to the percentage of the vote that will be No-Religion—or “None.” It’s tempting to see those two segments cancelling each other out, but one never knows.
Going back to the picture, you’ll see that another faith, one that goes back well before 2013, is part of the scene, too. It turns out that the “Family Church” is actually located right in the “The Amish Buggy.” But wait, the store doesn’t actually sell buggies at all, but furniture that, according to that website, can fulfill “all your decorating needs.” Or maybe it used to, and now the Evangelicals took over, I’m not sure.
What a hodge-podge is our American life, as seen from the roads anyway, when it comes to religion and most anything else, too. And I’m not even including the other sign, the one way over on the left: “Need A New Mattress?” Since it wasn’t clear where to go for that, and we didn’t really need one anyway, we continued on, in our car that was not a buggy– mother and son, 2/5 of a family, trying to keep our own plan for at least that evening, in our own little world, as blessed as possible.
A whole lot has happened since Muhammad Ali left us. But since my particular mission here has always been illuminating and celebrating contrasts of all kinds — the “Look, there’s this but right next to it there’s that” moments — I’m sticking with the Greatest for a time.
Soon after he died, a friend of mine, in a Facebook post, said she was surprised to learn that Ali had been such a humanitarian in addition to being a boxing champion. Indeed he was both, although mostly in different chapters of his life. Tossing in his tremendous youthful braggadocio as well as the suffering from Parkinson’s that he endured during the last few decades, this is what made him so endlessly fascinating, so completely impossible to pin down. He was, as countless people have said, “transcendent.”
Quite apart from his exploits in the ring, how often has someone so completely full of himself been so thoroughly appealing in the delight he took in making poems? Here’s a classic, just to get us going, one of the many gems you may have heard re-played recently.
Don’t worry, I’m not foolish enough to attempt another tribute here, another go at capturing the essence of Ali. Call my refusal “rope-a-dope” or just plain “nope.”
What I can offer, though, is a memory of visiting a place where I’m guessing most of you haven’t had a chance to go…and that’s the Muhammad Ali Center, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
My son Henry and I spent a few hours there several summers ago, on the tail end of a southern swing. We were headed back to join my husband at the Convention of the Episcopal Church, happening that hot, dry summer in Indianapolis. Some longtime blog readers (champions of a different sort) may even recall that I wrote about this trip soon afterwards. Like it or not, though, it’s come around again. Death does that sort of thing. Am I ever glad that we took the time to stop in at this quiet but powerful place on the banks of the Ohio River, which had been founded by Ali and his wife Lonnie just a handful of years earlier, in 2005.
Why go at all? Well, I suppose that had something to do with the fact that I grew up with four older brothers who played and talked sports all the time; Ali had been a kind of mystical presence in our home. And also because, years later, my older son had recently started going to a boxing gym himself, inspired in part by the Ali story. What were the workouts like? Hard enough to be really satisfying.
At the Ali Center, there’s plenty of boxing memorabilia, stations where you can try out some moves, and on one floor a full replica of a ring. After all, boxing is what put him on top of the world, for a time.
But since the place was founded to “share the ideals” of Muhammad Ali and to raise up “a new generation of leaders” (check out a program called”Generation Ali”) the emphasis is really much more on the expanse of modern American history – the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Education, Gender Equality, Global Citizenship — the different arenas in which all kinds of people have been willing to stand up for justice.
Before coming in and getting your entry ticket, would you expect that you would be making your way through exhibits with these headings? The following descriptions come right from the Ali Center website, where there’s also a just-posted video tribute and plenty of other wandering you can do.
SIX CORE PRINCIPLES
Belief in oneself, one’s abilities, and one’s future.
A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise.
The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others
A sense of awe, reverence and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.
I don’t see anything about knocking somebody out or any kind of domination here. Ali himself apparently often said that his life in boxing was just a way for him to get to a place where he could affect lasting positive change. Did the ends justify the means? Hard to say, if you put it that way, because there was indisputably so much injury along the way. In fact, wasn’t the constant pounding a kind of evil to the brain? These questions don’t go away, and it remains to be seen whether the sport can ever become something close to “safe,” although it is definitely true that people of all ages can and do benefit from elements of a boxing workout that train the muscles as well as focus the mind.
Conflicted over, or downright opposed to boxing as many of us remain, there can be no question about the kind of tireless ambassador of goodness Ali was. Here’s a paragraph that’s been on the Center’s website for some time:
His awareness of the needs of the developing world has guided much of his good work. He has served as a symbol of hope and a catalyst for constructive international dialogue, has delivered sorely-needed medical supplies to an embargoed Cuba, provided more than 22 million meals to the world’s hungry, and helped secure the release of 15 U.S. hostages from Iraq during the first Gulf War. As testament to his work in developing nations, the United Nations named him a Messenger of Peace, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as Amnesty International’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In September 2012, he was the recipient of the prestigious National Constitution Center Liberty Medal.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the “Messenger of Peace” Ali who comes across most strongly in Louisville. Confusing? Yes, in a way. We hardly imagine a dove when we think of the slugger. Then again, maybe this larger-than-life story reminds us of the virtues of fighting off any outside attempts to limit the scope of our individual souls that are, ultimately, only in our own power to shape.
Looking on the bright side, I have to start by saying that any annoyance caused by the delay in posting this blog has got to be nothing compared to the irritation experienced recently, especially in Chicago, by thousands of travellers in airports who had to wait for hours, and sometimes miss their flights, to go through security.
Ok, so that’s probably not such a good comparison. And plus it goes without saying that there are way, way worse things than either one of these.
Actually, it’s “non-annoyances” that have been mostly on my mind.
I’ve been pretty busy not just with the daily grind but also from extra time hanging out with my friend Serendipity. Do you know him or her? S/he’s the one who pops up with surprisingly good news, a stream of sunlight, a way through a thicket– just when we were expecting things to get difficult, or even impenetrable, for about the millionth time. Often we can barely believe s/he’s appearing, because life feels more normal somehow when we’re thwarted, have to take “No” for an answer, settle. We bear up. But when Serendipity delivers, we’d be fools not to let the glow linger for a little while — or even go out dancing (never enough of that).
The point is, I believe that we are sometimes so flummoxed when things fall into place that we are not even sure how to respond, how to celebrate the absorption of goodness.
Here’s a short list of the fortunate happenstances that I’ve experienced recently. Have had a little streak going…
- Upon learning that our younger son had a command performance in a school concert on the same day that our daughter was graduating from college, campuses almost three hours apart, I assumed the worst—something would be lost. But, wonder of wonders, the graduation was at 10 a.m. and the concert was at 4 p.m. Somebody upstairs must’ve had our family in mind, seriously. I even had enough post-graduation time to sip champagne and mingle with friends before jumping in the car. About the only casualty was missing the famous Bates College lobster rolls. And the Mozart Requiem on the other end of the drive was spectacular.
- Just yesterday, we had another fortuitous thing happen involving cars, specifically car-sharing. This one is pretty simple but still worthy of gratitude. Our older son needed to get to Boston by early evening, but he had to wait for me to get back from work, for the vehicle. Usually I don’t pull in until 7:15 at earliest, but since the seniors are done going to their corporate work study jobs, there were no vans to wait for at the end of the day, allowing me to get back before 6:00.
- A small pile of clothes I vaguely recognized appeared on my bed the other day. Oh! My daughter was returning things she’d borrowed months before, or maybe just getting them down from the attic. Either way, I had a cherished pair of shorts again.
- A few minutes ago I heard the distinctive sound of the mail delivery guy, and I had just enough time to get a birthday card to my sister-in-law (which all three kids had signed) out there. Oops — forgot zip code. No problem—he’ll give me a minute by coming in driveway because we have a package anyway.
- On his first attempt at mowing our field in back, my husband was thwarted, yet again, by the fact that the tractor needed a part. But then, once refurbished, it did its job magnificently and the just-right grass is now so inviting that I bet even Walt Whitman would absolutely love loafing out there.
- Speaking of mowing, I heard on the radio the other day that compassionate farmers might consider waiting a week or so to give birds who like to nest in long grass a fighting chance. I’m crossing my fingers that our tractor didn’t displace any….and also celebrating the fact that we have discovered one, two, three nests right around our house, and all seem to be thriving. And now we’re arrived at The Most Salient Serendipity.
I found the first one, presided over by a house finch in a hanging plant on our front stoop, a couple of weeks ago; our son, working on scraping the house for new paint, just recently discovered the other two, both owned by robins and both in rhododendron bushes.
So, as I’m adjusting (still) to the new reality of my kids leaving the nest, with occasional fly-backs, I get a beautiful reminder that other mothers are still giving their all to bringing up their open-mouthed babies. I took these pictures from enough distance to keep everybody safe, I think.
It starts calmly like this…
Continues on, bringing forth more gasps of joy from beholders…
And then, creatures fully alive but at their most vulnerable..
With these, I think my job is done here now. And a good thing too, because my husband is just about to arrive home from another commencement and I’ll want to give him a proper, warm greeting and devote myself to hearing about his adventures….and caring for our own temporarily more-populated nest, naturally. Feeling the boon of so many recent treasures, it’s the very least I can do.
Déjà vu experiences, much like birds, come in a variety of plumages. They swoop in unexpectedly, often leaving you stunned, or smiling, or maybe wondering about the trajectory of your own life.
There are those magical time travel moments when— whoosh—you’re suddenly back in a previous day, and then, amazingly, even what happens after you make the connection is exactly like what it once was, down to the slightest gesture or expression, as if the same movie is playing. Your friend puts the dark blue mug on the counter while “Let It Be” plays in the background, there’s a knock at the door, and you can’t for the life of you understand how it can all happen a second time. This kind of thing I might call “déjà vu extraordinaire” – a rare bird.
And then there are moments, more common, when you catch yourself doing something that is uncannily like something you did before; the feeling comes over you in a wave, only with enough accompanying differences that you’re obviously in the “now” and not the “then.” This I’ll call ““déjà vu regular.”
Matter of fact, just as I started to write this while in a restaurant, I overheard a bartender telling his colleague that he was positive they had been in this same conversation about Shandy beer before. He wasn’t too surprised by the discovery, didn’t whack his forehead or anything in disbelief, so I’m guessing he knew that this topic might have a good chance of coming up more than once when the two of them were working.
Then, stick with me here, there is a third kind of déjà vu experience— a kind that’s almost more physical than it is mental, when you’re thrust back into a sustained activity that’s like an altered version of the one you used to do, and you start making a kind of “compare and contrast” list to get your bearings, to figure out if life has in fact gone forward, or if you’re circling back.
Until recently, I thought my van driving days were over, but it turns out they were just lying dormant, preparing to undergo a metamorphosis and burst forth again, changed.
At my new school in Lawrence, students need to be transported to jobs every day. Some go close, others pretty far. Here’s how the rotation works: Tuesday—sophomores; Wednesday – freshmen; Thursday- juniors; Friday—seniors. On Mondays, the classes alternate. We have a team of drivers that make this operation work. Occasionally, however, a regular guy takes a week of vacation and the substitute guy cannot fill in. Then we’re in a fix, and one of us has to step up. And I do mean step up, because it takes an ascent of a couple of levels to get into the seat. Not so easy if your knee is bothering you, either.
The van is bigger than the one my own kids used to pile into, but not big enough to require a special license. Last week, my colleague and I had to share the responsibility of one particular route, so each mid-afternoon off I went on my appointed rounds— clear up to Manchester, NH, as if I were heading home, except not quite as far. Although I never used a GPS back when I was rushing off to soccer and hockey games, trusting instead in printed out Map Quest directions, this time I learned to rely on the contraption to help me find the various workplaces, corporate and otherwise, with their stylish signs or perhaps no real visible markers, located down winding roads in office parks, or on main thoroughfares where pulling over briefly was the only option.
At the very first stop, when I saw a student emerge from a lobby, I’d feel palpable relief. Surely the others, wherever they were, would soon end up in the van too.
The driving to unfamiliar addresses, in traffic, brought some stress, but there were real rewards: besides seeing where they worked, at least on the outside, I had a chance to get to know a bunch of teenagers, especially once everyone had been collected and we turned back south towards school. Sure, some of them put ear buds on and disappeared into their own relaxation – who could blame them? But others were game to talk —about their other jobs, college decisions, family matters, music. I was the driver, but they didn’t mind my being an adult listener, either. On the days following, when I saw these same students in the hallways, they stood out in a certain way, almost glowed, just because I knew them better.
I’d give a nickel now to recall some of the conversations that went on in our family van on the way to practices and music lessons. They were pretty choppy, with me asking questions that my kids mostly didn’t want to answer. Occasionally one might say something like “Wanna hear what happened to Sam today during recess, Mom?” Usually, we were just going around town, and the distances were relatively short and predictable: down the hill, and then back up again. For travel sports, it was a longer haul. I don’t recall ever worrying that I wouldn’t find them, because I had usually been the one to get them wherever they were in the first place. Just about always, my van journeys of yore were for delivering kids to play, not to work.
See– I’m not going in circles after all; my current driving of young people is really a whole different species from my old driving of young people. Life is progressing, definitely. It’s OK to glance in that rear view mirror once in a while, though, isn’t it?
Life can get exciting when we burst through the restrictions of our expected identities, especially if it’s in the hot pursuit of truth, justice and the general illumination of the human soul. You and I might do this kind of thing once in a while, but it’s risky. To watch heroes boldly striving in adventures that play out in a neat hour or two, we turn to the screen. And, in the most interesting of these, the heroes themselves can sometimes completely fall apart.
No, this won’t be about Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman. I’m interested in someone less extraordinary, more of a regular guy, except he wears a clerical collar.
Sidney Chambers, the vicar (also called “canon” for some reason) of Grantchester, re-defines the role of Anglican priest, with panache, on Sunday evenings at 9 p.m. on PBS. Are you watching? We’re with him all the way, but it’s a rocky road all right, and everybody stumbles.
Last season, I was vaguely cognizant of the tall guy with sandy hair who teams up with his friend Inspector Keating to solve crimes, but now that it’s the featured show on “Masterpiece Theatre” I’m hooked. And I have a fine viewing companion, too. Well, actually two, if you count the black German shepherd who’s always by the couch. In fact, Sidney’s Labrador retriever — named Dickens — looks a bit similar.
We’ve started liking the new Hawaii 5-0 also; that’s great for the sweeping views of the islands and the intense chase scenes, not to mention the multi-racial make-up of the crime-fighting team and completely current technology. Grantchester, on the other hand, takes place in a quiet village near Cambridge, England during the mid-1950s, when post-war Brits strolled through fields a lot, stuck to their daily routines, and didn’t go around blurting out their innermost feelings to everyone.
The series is really all about probing the inner sanctum of the human psyche: trying to understand why people do the things they do, apprehending the worst offenders and reminding ourselves that we are all flawed human beings. Many key conversations happen in pubs or outdoors — rarely in churches — and the two main characters are essentially allies who can also flip to become antagonists. And they bring different things to the table.
(Bloomsbury USA, 2012)
The TV series is based on a series of books, each a collection of stories, by James Runcie, a novelist and filmmaker and more, who lives in Edinburgh. The author knows of which he writes when it comes to church life: his father was Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Check out the author’s website, and you can learn how he created Sidney to be a figure much like he imagined his father was, back in the day. They were both brave soldiers in World War II, and that experience continues to resonate, especially when it comes to trying to tell right from wrong.
In an interview originally printed in The Telegraph (10/5/2014), also posted on the website, Runcie explained that the central feature of the drama is the collision between two ways of seeing humanity:
The paradox is simple; as a clergyman, he has to think the best of people; as a detective, he must assume the worst.
That seems a little extreme, doesn’t it? But it makes for a good drama. The contrast constantly plays out in the conversations between the two men; here’s one from the first book, called Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (cover pictured above):
‘Are you sure, though, Sidney? That’s what I want you to find out. I have a feeling that you also have doubts.’
‘How did you know?’
‘I am a detective…’
‘And I am a priest. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.’
‘Well, I don’t. Perhaps that’s why we are such a good team.’ (p. 188)
And they ARE a good team, mostly. Sidney pays visits, which might seem just the regular pastoral sort at first, to key people who offer up crucial information about crimes and then Geordie – who tends to miss things—does the arresting. This might be a little creepy to people who would prefer that Religion and the Law keep themselves at a safe distance from one another. Our man Sidney just can’t resist being drawn into the cases, and for a small town, there sure are plenty of dire situations. Nobody much seems to question why he drops in without notice, asking probing questions, listening intently. Often, he sees something out of the corner of his eye and then dashes off, knowing exactly what the next step should be.
The two men are a good team, that is, until they come to blows — once even right in front of the altar of Sidney’s church. That was over a moral question: whether or not the death penalty, in the particular case of a young man who tried to help a young girl with an abortion that went wrong, is or is not the proper punishment. For the detective, it’s about answering the will of the people. For the clergyman, it’s about answering to God. This time, they don’t talk; they fight.
When we see our hero afterwards, all disheveled and with an almost crazed expression, we feel for him the most. He can’t keep it together, and we understand. Going deep, towards life’s very core, can be a costly expedition.
“Is it LIT, Miss?”
That’s how one girl at school greets me on a daily basis now, knowing that I’m trying to get a handle on some of the teenage lingo swirling around the hallways. She’s amused by the fact that I’m keen to learn how they say things, and why. Some sophomore boys, picking up on my interest, have taken it upon themselves to give me mini-lessons, stopping by my office between classes. This, needless to say, lifts the quality of my workday considerably. Whether it will also slow my aging process at all, I can’t say yet.
I like to think I’m generally a curious person, and this might be enough to explain my eagerness to tune into this facet of high school life, but it’s probably also because I’m used to knowing that, even when we speak essentially the same language, we all have our “go-to” lists of words that help us be who we are.
In a moment, I’ll provide you with a short glossary of Most Used Terms by the students in Lawrence, partly just because I can. But first — a short reflection about the process of acquiring new vocabulary in a variety of circumstances, including having the good fortune to marry someone who brought with him a whole boatload of new (to me) words which would not fit the usual definition of “lingo” because, in fact, they are mostly very old.
When two people join together in marriage, each half generally contributes his or her own furniture and all kinds of other stuff; this is widely known. In addition, though, each person brings a certain familiarity with specific terminology— and knows nothing about whole pools of other kinds of words.
In the slightly unusual case of my husband and me, I’d have to say his contribution was a whole lot more formidable than mine. After all, he was carrying the whole history of the Episcopal Church across our threshold. If you take the origin all the way back to the Reformation and ol’ Henry VIII, and beyond that back to the Apostolic Age, you can put a whole lot of language in the mix.
So, right from the beginning, I started hearing words like “chalice” and “lectionary” and “diaconate” and “polity.” It was a virtual flood of new information, and I started to swim as best I could, though I rarely felt confident enough to use the words myself. Gradually, however, they began to color in the big shape that was his faith. Heck, I had to start somewhere.
If you take a trip to the official Glossary of the Episcopal Church, you’ll be able to see an alphabetized listing of terms with definitions, including many important personages. This is a very handy thing to have, if you’re a certain kind of clergy spouse.
Meanwhile, what terms did I bring to the newlywed table? Not many, in truth. OK, maybe “red-winged blackbird” and “bareback” and “pump fake” and, to get a little high-brow, “arpeggio.” In the realm of standout people, I would have definitely delivered Gordie Howe and Marvin Gaye, not to mention all the heroines from Shakespeare’s comedies.
You get the picture. In this partnership, I was definitely the one who had a clear row to hoe when it came to vocabulary acquisition. Soon enough, I realized that this would go better if I didn’t feel that I absolutely had to get it all. Instead, I would try to learn for the pleasure of learning, expand my horizons as I chose, have a little fun even, not operate under some sense of duty. Now, on a good day, I might be able to tell you what “kononia” means, but please don’t ask me to explain “narthex.”
Back in the land of school, I try to bring the same spirit. In truth, sometimes it’s embarrassing to be so monolingual in a place where most students can flip back and forth between two languages. Maybe that’s why I’ve become eager to learn some legitimate slang (no profanity, please). This is not as time-consuming as studying Spanish grammar, and there’s a creative spark that’s alive.
Here’s my working glossary, as of now:
Lit – Really positive, or a happening scene, as in “That party is gonna be lit.” (Note: If you go to URBAN DICTIONARY, things can get a little dicier, but this is the meaning from our hallways that I’m sticking with.)
Fire– Similar to “lit,” but to a more intense degree—top of the line, as in “That song was pretty good, but this song is fire!”
No Chill – Lacking a filter for what’s said, as in “He just went up to that girl and said that he doesn’t like her hairdo…that guy has no chill!’
Daps – Kind of handshake that includes a grasp and then a mutual sliding back of the hand. Not to be used at worksites, obviously.
Dab – Move on the dance floor that’s a sudden outstretch of one arm while the other one goes by the cheek; face goes in elbow. Not to be confused with “daps.”
Millyrock – Another staple of the dance floor, with one arm going over the other, repetitively, in front of the body.
L – Abbreviation for “loss” or recognition of some kind of minor defeat, as in, after somebody says or does something ridiculous, an observer responds with, “Just go and take your L.”
Yes, I understand that I need to maintain a certain mature demeanor in keeping with my position as a working adult. At the same time, I think it’s possible to “lean in” a bit and feel my soul expand. There’s a precedent, actually.
Talk about perfect timing: David Denby, film critic of The New Yorker, just wrote a book called Lit Up (Henry Holt and Company, 2016). It has nothing to do with parties and everything to do with teenage reading, of all things. Dostoyevsky, now that guy’s books are fire.
Ever put yourself out there and then wish desperately that you hadn’t? I have, probably about a million times; such is the story of the life of an unrepentant extrovert. As my kids will attest, it’s not easy for me to head into a convenience store and refrain from initiating conversation with someone who happens to be there getting milk at the same time. Friendliness or just too much assertion of self? I’m never sure. During the past decade, though, the possibilities for a slightly different brand of over-exposure– the kind made possible through technology– have taken off exponentially. The way I think of it, the convenience store has gotten a whole lot larger.
Let’s be honest: most of us have a kind of love/hate relationship with images of ourselves. Selfies are all over the place, sure, but the whole business is still full of contradictions, hopes, fears, and pangs of guilt. And there are plenty of people—sensible people, I might add, many in my own family—who have nothing to do with it. Whatsoever.
Last weekend, in New York City, I had a rare chance to dip into the art world. It turns out that questions like “How do I want others to see me?” or “Is this really how I am?” as well as “How can I capture someone else’s essence?” remain compelling. And, even though there must still be museums everywhere with rooms of staid personages in their finery, gazing out, the whole idea of what a portrait gallery can be is surely changing.
My husband is a painter who’s drawn to Abstract Impressionism, so a sojourn at the Whitney Museum was definitely mostly for him, I thought generously. Besides producing nice, big colorful works himself, the guy really knows a Frankenthaler from a Pollock from a Rothko. And besides, we’d been to the MOMA not that long ago and had never seen the Whitney in its new location. Here’s the funny thing, though: he had the idea to go in the first place, but it turned out that the exhibit on portraits spoke exactly to my own internal condition at the time.
Just the night before, when I saw that my fiddling around with the pictures on my new Facebook site had resulted in an inadvertent re-posting of my profile shot, I felt completely ridiculous. The last, really—the last, thing I wanted to do was put an image of myself in front of everybody. It was bad enough that I did it the first time, when setting up the page, but a second time was inexcusable. I would profusely apologize, except that the whole silly thing isn’t even worth that much attention.
An episode like this sure does bring up the convoluted relationship many of us have with Facebook, and other means of self-portrayal. In a certain way, we like presenting ourselves in order to connect with others. Sometimes, though, and often quite suddenly, we can also loathe the situations we get ourselves in and shudder with embarrassment. Those of us who dare to write about our own experiences or conjure up new ones in fiction can go through this same thing with words, too.
I’m somebody who keeps at this blog based on the slightly weird premise that my own personal point of view as a “coming from the outside” clergy spouse might yield some reflections worth hearing. It’s preposterous, in a way. And yet, I get a certain fulfillment from at least trying to capture exactly what’s going on as I see and feel it—my own particular truth, or at least a representation of that truth. In a way, then, I suppose it’s kind of the verbal equivalent of drawing a portrait.
Going back to the museum, here’s a paragraph from the introductory panels we saw in the first room of the exhibit:
Once a rarefied luxury good, portraits are now ubiquitous. Readily reproducible and every-more accessible, photography has played a particularly vital role in the democratization of portraiture. Most recently, the proliferation of smartphones and the rise of social media have unleashed an unprecedented stream of portraits in the form of snapshots and selfies. Many contemporary artists confront this situation, stressing the fluidity of identity in a world where technology and the mass media are omnipresent. Through their varied takes on the portrait, the artists represented in Human Interest raise provocative questions about who we are and how we perceive and commemorate others.
They’re “provocative questions” all right, and the “unprecedented stream of portraits” we are faced with on a daily basis may in fact leave us not only feeling fluid but pretty limp, too.
We lingered for a while in this exhibit, in front of a mix of paintings and photographs that really defied characterization except that they depicted individual humans every which way. Sometimes the images were disturbing enough to make me want to turn away; the nudity wasn’t exactly depicted in a Greek god-like fashion. Others were transfixing, as I tried to figure out exactly what was the most salient feature, and how the artist tried to show that.
This one, a photograph by Cindy Sherman (called Untitled, from 2008) really held my gaze for a while.
Having lived under a rock or at least most recently surrounded by the granite of New Hampshire, I had never heard of Sherman before; but isn’t this fabulous? She made herself into a certain kind of woman who is world-weary: she remembers better days, can still turn towards the camera in a certain privileged fashion, but her life is clearly a shell of what it once was, or maybe never quite fully was.
Looking at this must have been just the tonic I needed, because by the time we left the museum and headed to the High Line, I had shed my worry about the silly picture that may have gotten in the newsfeed. A mere blip on the screen it was. What suddenly seemed much more important was the fact that I was in New York City with my husband of 25 years, we were still alive, our children were fine, and we had a free afternoon. The only identity I wanted to create at that moment was to be a person who knew how to embrace the day.
It’s after Easter now, so, being a pastor’s wife, I feel a certain degree of liberation. Not all out dancing-in-the-streets kind of liberation, mind you, but the air feels somehow lighter now. There are still sharp contrasts, lines of demarcation everywhere I look— my bread and butter, after all. This week, though, I’m freeing myself from those. In fact, giddy with spring perhaps, I’m rejoicing about things that come together in unforeseen ways. And, oddly enough, these things I’m going to rejoice about are really just words.
The other day, driving to work, I heard an NPR story that fit in perfectly with the main theme of this blog. The piece, by Nina Totenberg, was titled “Birth Control at the Supreme Court: Does Free Coverage Violate Religious Freedom?” It begins this way:
The rights of the religious and the secular clash again Wednesday at the Supreme Court, this time in the controversial context of Obamacare and birth control.
Ah, nothing new about this kind of clashing— it’s become about as common as the sound of cymbals in the back of a school orchestra. You probably heard something about this case: a place called “The Little Sisters of the Poor” – a home for the elderly in Washington D.C. which is run by an order of nuns – objects on religious grounds to having to provide birth control coverage to all of its employees. The federal government is proposing a solution that would require the management simply to fill out some kind of form stating that their institution wants to “opt out.” They would be allowed to have nothing to do with this coverage; but—and here’s the catch– something would be done, separately, so that those employees could receive the services through another insurer. The problem is, apparently, that this kind of “opt out” doesn’t have enough clout; the organization would, in their view, still be somehow complicit in the process.
All of this is definitely compelling stuff, especially for a pastor’s wife always alert to matters of religion in society, and it held my attention all the way through. But something else—a single word—suddenly propelled itself to the top of my list of what would be memorable about this case.
That word was “workaround.”
Nina Totenberg used it throughout her story, and indeed the concept was central to what the story was about. Now I’m a pretty savvy words person, but I don’t think this one has ever trotted by me in full plumage before. When I went to investigate its origin, I found that it started in the high tech world. Figures, right? Here’s the definition that Wikipedia offers:
A workaround is a bypass of a recognized problem in a system. A workaround is typically a temporary fix that implies that a genuine solution to the problem is needed. But workarounds are frequently as creative as true solutions, involving outside the box thinking in their creation.
This is pretty fabulous—a detour that’s about as good as the route you were originally going to take! The only thing is, even though this definition has a positive connotation, you’ve got to admit that the way the word sounds is a little suspect. I mean, “workaround” doesn’t exactly conjure up an image of some smart engineer type in Silicon Valley sitting up straight and fulfilling a highly technical calling. I’m more apt to hear it keeping company with “hang around” or “lie around” and envisage somebody in a dark basement doing not much of anything. In any case, I began seeing workarounds everywhere – out on the trails, while doing housework, you name it.
How about that fight in the Supreme Court over Obamacare, contraceptives and religious freedom? It’s still vitally important, absolutely. But that story, for me, was a kind of launching pad to an exploration of a bunch of other fabulous nouns in the same general family as “workaround.”
There’s the very similar “turnaround” of course:
Then, and unfortunately we have to put up with a dash here, there’s a “go-between.” I can’t easily show you a picture of someone being an intermediary for two other people, so I’ll give you this exciting one instead:
One of my personal favorites is something that’s in our own shed; my husband uses it quite a bit for outdoor work like tightening cables. How can you not absolutely love something that’s called a “come-along?”
Now, wait a minute, the computer just made me put in that hyphen! I swear the word often goes without it! In case you haven’t had the pleasure of using one, or seeing your spouse use one, it’s defined as a “hand-operated winch with a ratchet used to pull objects.” Ok, maybe this doesn’t sound very exciting, but the word itself transports me in an instant to a person walking at first alone through a field who is then glad to be joined by a companion or an eager dog.
And then there’s the word we just learned over at our neighbors’ house a couple of weeks ago. You won’t believe this one: ever heard of a “gazinta”? I didn’t think so. Sounds like something you might say after somebody sneezes. No picture available here; I’ll let you use your imagination on this one, but Urban Dictionary might help.
The current (March/April 2016) edition of the magazine Poets & Writers includes an interview with the writer Jhumpa Lahiri, mostly about why she wanted to write a book completely in Italian. At one point, she says:
Everything in my life, from the very beginning, was and is and shall be some kind of mixture, some kind of hybrid, some kind of hyphenated something. (p.40)
Well, maybe since it’s spring, we can go wild and toss out those hyphens, and let the smooshing together be complete. And that, in a certain way, could even bring us back to the Supreme Court case…
Any way you look at it, I am in the Least Religious State. Geographically, that is.
The Pew Research Center has just come out with another one of those surveys about our national religious life, and it probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that New England is last, last, last. Read all about it here. We have an impressive array of colleges and universities, but when it comes to pious people—at least in the traditional church-going sense, I hasten to add—we are at the bottom of the heap.
Good ol’ Cotton Mather, proud Puritan that he was, must be turning over in his grave.
After all, didn’t a whole lot of brave people endure seasickness (that alone would have been a deal-breaker to me) followed by all kinds of other deprivations in order to assert their freedom of religion, determined to worship in the way that made life meaningful to them even if they would have to start all over again in a new land which provided heaps of misery at first?
As I check out the rankings, I can’t help but be struck by the irony of my particular situation. According to the results, each weekday morning I leave the house that I share with a bishop who presides over an Episcopal diocese in the state ranked 50th to drive to my job in a Catholic school in the adjoining state that is also ranked 50th. Way to go, New Hampshire and Massachusetts! I’m not sure whether to feel special, out of synch, or just plain weird. Am I accepting this daily condition of moving from one religious island to another, dots on the map, without fully recognizing not only the vastness of the secular ocean around me but also how the rising level of this ocean might actually pose a threat to all of us?
To complicate matters further, I myself came from a family– in New York, just a tad higher in religiosity– that itself would have scored very low on this kind of scale. Plenty of people called up our house looking for information on voting tendencies, television watching preferences, what kind of home repairs we might need; but I never recall a voice on the other end of the line asking how often we prayed or went to services. If anyone had, it sure would have been interesting to watch my mother handle the call. Totally flummoxed, she might have said something like, “Well, no, we’re not doing those things…. but we are doing a lot of outdoor work around here!”
So I happen to be a person who emerged from a household, for better or worse, without any noticeable religious life who now finds herself, through the mystery of one thing leading to another, in the company — by day and by night — of deeply religious people, against a backdrop of life driven predominantly in the non-church lane.
What I wonder is, when you see a listing of all the states in numerical order according to “how religious” people who live there say that they are, can you infer anything else about the true character of residents within those borders? When we drove through #1 Alabama last summer, for instance, and saw church after church along the highways, were we in a territory that is demonstrably closer not only to God but also to godliness and plain old goodness than the territory of rocky New England, where houses of worship still gleam beautifully in town squares at night, telling tales of past congregations?
Surely the Pew people didn’t intend it this way, but the question “How Religious Is Your State?” is framed as a kind of challenge, similar to “How Big Is Your House?” or “How Clean Is Your Water?” or, to quote the Bee Gees, “How Deep Is Your Love?” I’m just not sure if something is implied here – about more vs. less—that we’re all supposed to agree on.
This past week, I spent early mornings in a Catholic school cafeteria, located in one of the two 50th least religious states in the country, checking in students who were about to leave on vans for work. Through a door to an adjoining room, I saw a cluster of figurines, including Jesus, watching over us. Apparently, the huge church across the street stores them there.
As the students politely greeted me, one by one, ready to do their duty for the day, I couldn’t help but conclude that, whatever their family’s particular practice of faith might or might not be, they were walking the walk at that moment. Were they still in the Least Religious State? Maybe, but I don’t think Jesus much minded.
It’s Lent again, that “Go Lean” time of year. There’s a paring down, a pulling in going on before the full flowering of Easter.
So far I’ve heard of a little girl who’s giving up broccoli, reasoning that since she can’t stand the stuff anyway, now’s a good time to banish it officially. One of my sons is giving up Facebook, no small feat for a teenager these days. His choice reminded me how accustomed many of us have become to being thrust into arenas with large groups of people, trying to absorb all kinds of experiences from every which way. Ping-pong ball balls of news fly all around us, and we’re not sure which ones to watch, which ones to play, which ones to take cover from.
There’s a lot to be gained from maintaining, at least to some degree, proximity to a whole lot of lives. On the other hand, it’s astounding how often ONE relationship between two individuals can offer the highest voltage, the most fascination of all. We experience this for ourselves, and literature so often confirms it. When you dare to zoom in and look closely, wow—the intensity can be almost blinding.
I guess I’m talking about a kind of “Go Lean” understanding of human contact. Each one of those kernels can really pack a punch.
Meanwhile, the forces in favor of spreading the news about more of our experiences to larger numbers of people, wherever they are, march on. Maybe you heard about the “Mobile World Congress” that happened in Barcelona recently? For those of us who are still using about 1/100th of the feature of our phones, this event would have sent us into Overwhelm Mode. Mark Zuckerberg showed up, and he was bubbling over about how Facebook is getting into the “virtual reality” business. Read about it here. He said, “But pretty soon we’re going to live in a world where everyone has the power to share and experience whole scenes as if you’re right there in person.”
Oh great—even though we can barely get our minds around the dramas that are happening in our little worlds, in which we are often integrally involved, we’ll soon be asked to divert our attention to events unfolding for people we barely know and for whom we probably can’t make one bit of difference. OK, I know that sounds a bit skeptical; let me try again. Sure, maybe the “Oculus Rift” headset can provide us with magic carpet rides that will be not only thrilling but have the potential to bind us humans together in a new and exciting ways.
Feeling as if we’re “hanging out in the same room” with people around the globe might be cool. I just wonder whether this or any technology can achieve the same level of power that is generated when two excellently drawn fictional characters try to sort themselves out in relationship with one another.
I just finished an astonishing book, and it’s really ONLY about such a relationship. In one way, it’s very spare; but in another, it’s a complete feast of a thriller. Written by the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo in 1987, it was first translated into English by Len Rix in 2005 and then just recently re-issued just by the New York Review of Books. Named as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, it has to be read to be believed A successful young writer, married, hires a cleaning lady named Emerence. Almost immediately, though, it’s not clear who is in charge of whom. Emerence is a woman of almost super-human fortitude with a mysterious past; and she never lets anyone beyond her door. She casts a kind of spell upon the writer, who struggles to determine, as her own public star is rising, just what her true responsibilities towards her “servant” are.
In her review of The Door in the New York Times Book Review (Feb. 6th, 2015) , Claire Messed wrote that the book is mostly about “humanity’s struggle to love fully and unconditionally.” In a kind of Lenten way, it’s lean but bountiful at the same time.
Just as I was tearing through the suspenseful final pages, I heard from my son – the one who’s recently eschewed Facebook – about the great discussion his English class had on the James Baldwin story, published originally in 1957, called “Sonny’s Blues.”
Knowing that I had the story in an old anthology from early teaching days, but it was one I never read with a class, I dug it out. And was I ever richly rewarded.
The story focuses on the life of the narrator’s younger brother—a jazz musician and heroin user. What makes it so rich is that it’s really about the relationship between the two brothers, and within that, mostly how our narrator became accustomed to feeling superior to Sonny, putting him in a certain box, without fully knowing him. Then he accompanies his little brother to a gig and sees the band leader, Creole step back to allow Sonny his own time at the piano, “filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.” It’s a thunderous moment.
So, bring on the Virtual Reality headsets if there’s no keeping them back. I’ll plunge myself into a panoply of different experiences all over the world—be surrounded by monkeys in the Amazonian jungle, giraffes on the Serengeti Plain, or thousands of people at a U2 concert. Just so long as I get to keep the special alchemy between two creatures that happens in books….or most anywhere.
It was just Presidents’ Day; so let’s toss a coin in honor of Lincoln. Heads I Win, Tails You Lose. What, you don’t like that?
Anyone who follows all this presidential campaign stuff too closely runs the risk, it seems to me, of seeing most everything in terms of Winning and Losing. Fortunately, something else— a humble chirp with a link to the vast universe—just reminded us that, when it comes to really winning, teamwork is almost always the star of the day.
Who’s up and who’s down? What’s the very latest? Wait a minute — did something just shift? Wouldn’t want to miss a beat. The morning after any debate, headlines can’t wait to dissect how the race altered itself overnight, almost as if someone came in and re-arranged your living room, very slightly. And then you’re not sure how it matters.
This conjures up good ol’ Henry David Thoreau and his disdain for needing to keep up with every incidental events in the human world, like accidents, over paying attention to the way more significant constant happenings in Nature—say the breaking of the ice each spring.
Mr. Trump makes news by constantly promising that, with him, we’ll be whole country of winners. He has an ethos based just about completely on the value of taking all the chips from everyone else in any situation. Here’s part of his New Hampshire victory speech:
We’re going to beat China, Japan. We’re going to beat Mexico with trade. We’re going to beat all of these countries that are taking so much of our money away from us on a daily basis. It’s not going to happen anymore.
Phew, that sure is a relief. Because only when we’ve successfully stomped on everyone who shares this planet with us will the earth be bathed in American Glory.
Trump may have written The Art of the Deal, but he evidently never read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey (Franklin Covey Co., New York, 1998). Talk about a chip off the ol’ block: Sean Covey is the son of Stephen R. Covey, author of the original blockbuster—The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
I don’t know if we generally go around saying, “Wow, I just met a highly effective teen.” Nonetheless, the book lays out good advice with plenty of entertaining graphics. Habit 4, wouldn’t you know, is “Think Win-Win” (p. 145). He calls this approach to life “The All-You- Can-Eat Buffet.” The three other strategies, he says, are “common but poor attitudes towards life.” And they are:
Win- Lose— The Totem Pole
Lose- Win— The Doormat
Lose- Lose—The Downward Spiral
Spirals in general can bring us to the entire cosmos; and one momentous sound.
As headlines go, this one in last Friday’s New York Times was pretty unusual: “With Faint Chirp, Scientists Prove Einstein Correct.” Apparently, as we were trudging through our daily business, most of us not giving the universe much of a thought, a contraption called LIGO was detecting gravitational waves that were, in fact, “the billion year echo” of the collision of two black holes.
Einstein may have been the first obvious winner here, but honestly 1) He doesn’t really need the accolades and 2) Did any of us really ever doubt him anyway?
No, the real news was how a whole lot of smart people can take care of business:
Members of the LIGO group, a worldwide team of scientists from a European team known as the Virgo Collaboration, published a report in Physical Review Letters on Thursday with more than 1,000 authors.
Wow, if there were that many contributors, they must have been on a slow and steady march, with arms entwined, to the finish line.
At my school, a tight group of sophomore boys who are really good friends call themselves a “squad.” When they roam the halls together, they’re proud to be “squadded up.” Most likely the LIGO scientists don’t use the same lingo, but in order to accomplish what they did, they must have roamed the vast universe together in some sense. No Physicist Who Advances the Cause Left Behind!
Just imagine, for a moment, if instead of frittering away their time looking for gravitational waves, they had adopted the Trump Way. “We’re gonna make Earth great again! And we’ll do it by beating all the other planets, and the stars too!”
Incidentally, it just so happens that a chirp has taken up residence in our household. The headline might go like this: “Persistent Chirp Alerts Homeowners to the Declining Battery Status of Smoke Alarm.” OK, I guess some chirps are more noteworthy than others.
The fact is, there will never be any shortage of messages out there about the value of winning. Increasingly, however, the culture is also coming around to the reality that effective collaboration, especially among diverse groups of people, can provide way more substantial benefits – including plain old happiness.
I’m a mentor to a 12 year old girl; a couple of weeks ago, before the New Hampshire primary, I could have brought her to see Hillary Clinton on a Saturday at her very own middle school. This event might well have been inspirational, and probably we should have tried harder to get there. It was in the realm of “historic” and also more about leadership than about winning. And there was the whole element of conveying to a girl, just beginning to get her wings, that she can rise up and do great things. I mean, really, what was not to like, except maybe the crowds?
Trouble was, it happened on the very same afternoon that we were expected at a pool party an hour away, where this particular pre-teen would be able to have a reunion with her camp friends.
Guess which option she preferred?
In electing someone for President of the United States, do we need to check off the “Got Religion” box? Does checking this box provide reassurance that this candidate will keep us close to all that is good and just and even perhaps uplifting to the soul? I doubt it.
On his 260th birthday several days ago, Mozart almost made me forget that we’re slogging through a campaign season with plenty of talk about “faith” but mostly devoid of anything we might call “beauty.”
Not that we’d ever expect politics and art to mix, really; it’s just that this particular contrast leapt right off the airwaves.
The music on the radio was so exquisite, so heavenly, that all those strivers for the White House faded away temporarily into the mist, still yapping. I don’t mean to put them all down; they work hard and all that, and some of them probably even truly aim to Do Good for our country.
But when we hear what sounds like the songs of the angels, much of the daily banter on the airwaves takes on a greater tawdriness, if that’s possible. I felt a little bit like ol’ Antonio Salieri, in the movie Amadeus, when he looks at one of Mozart’s scores featuring the oboe soaring as it’s never soared before, hears the music in his head, and lets the pages cascade all around, realizing that never in a million years will he reach that level of genius.
In case you’d like to pause for a dose of beauty, here’s a link to YouTube (get past the ad) to listen to some of the 3rd movement of the Serenade for Winds, K. 361.
While it’s true that, in this depiction at least, the composer’s hair bears a slight resemblance to Donald Trump’s bouffant, I think the similarity might stop right there.
Prompted by the magnificence of the birthday music, and how it seemed “closer to God” than anything else I’d experienced in a long while (in truth, I’m still trying to understand what that term means, but that’s a longer story) I did some delving into how our constant companions here in New Hampshire, the Presidential candidates, like to highlight their own faith journeys.
I honestly don’t understand why someone’s religion seems to matter so much, although I know it’s true that anyone aspiring for the White House has about zilch chance without being able to speak in very meaningful terms about his or her wholehearted embrace of a particular faith, which in turn is almost always some form of Christianity. Just last night, in his triumphant speech in Iowa, Ted Cruz began with something like: “Give all the Glory to God.” Sheeeesh!
Occupied as he was with composing lovely music during his short life, I doubt that Mozart took much time out to pontificate about “his faith.” In his case, and in most other cases come to think of it, I’d say actions speak louder than words. And we can even put aside the fact that history has it that he and his wife were extremely silly in person. Whether or not he was religious, or precisely which Christian denomination he fit into, didn’t matter one bit: his music forever transports our souls to the highest heights.
When it comes to the candidates who have been jetting back and forth between New Hampshire and Iowa, it turns that just about everyone’s Road of Religion has been winding if not sometimes downright confusing.
An interesting article I found was one from NEWSEEK, back in April 2015, Entitled “How the Presidential Candidates Found Their Faith,” by Matthew Cooper. In it, he gave a kind of a round-up of various candidates and their various denominations, featuring the twists and turns many of them have taken.
This year’s growing gaggle of presidential aspirants is an intriguing snarl of inconsistencies when it comes to faith—much like the rest of America.
It’s a mixed bag all right. Let’s see…Hillary, it’s true, stands by her lifelong Methodism; Bernie started out Jewish but acknowledges not really abiding by organized religion.
When it comes to the Republicans, wow, they’re all over the place— within Christianity, that is. Bush started out Episcopalian and then converted to Catholicism after he married Columba; Cruz started out Catholic but became Born Again; Rubio started out Catholic, became Mormon, then Baptist with his wife; Kasich also moved on from Catholicism to Anglicanism. What about Mr. Trump? Well, this, taken from the same article, is sure to boost your confidence in him as a moral leader. He is quoted as saying:
I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. And you know I’ve had a good relationship with the church over the years. I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.
Now if that doesn’t give you enough of a warm feeling, I can tell you what he does with all the Bibles people insist on sending his way.
No, sorry, I’m afraid all the talk about “I’m a this and I’m a that” when it comes to matters of faith mostly either rings hollow to me or seems besides the point. Of course a person’s integrity matters when we’re choosing our next leader. And his or her plans for tackling issues here and abroad to seek a better quality of life for all people— that matters too. But whether and where and how he or she goes to church or temple or mosque…I can honestly stand not to know.
Just wishful thinking, but if the celebration of Mozart’s birthday could continue just a little longer around here, we’ll have a better shot of making it through the primary.
For a girl who grew up without the regular back and forth to any house of worship, I sure do have a pretty good knack for getting really close to churches in my adult life. And the strange thing is, I haven’t even tried. It’s almost as if they found me.
I’ve just started a new chapter of proximity, and this time around I’m struck by how the very different elements of tremendous weight and airy spirituality combine in the religious realm. Think about it: the buildings are often so massive, in a completely rock-solid sort of way. Matters of the soul, on the other hand, have a kind of misty, elusive quality to them. At least mine do. You’re this way—no wait, you’re that way. This reality is actually pretty far out, but we’ve learned to take it almost for granted.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that my new job at a Catholic school in Lawrence, Massachusetts is located directly across the street from an enormous Catholic church. I mean, why wouldn’t the Sisters of Notre Dame have settled here, among many other far-flung places around the world, to do their good works? Plus, on a more personal level, maybe I can get some inkling of what my husband is dealing with in his work, particularly when it comes to the very real matters of real estate and building maintenance. In case you haven’t been married to a member of the clergy recently, you may not know that in fact large structures have a way of becoming a big part of spiritual life. This is just the kind of thing that’s pretty fascinating to someone like me, trying to get a good grasp (maybe that’s paradoxical in itself) of how the ethereal and the completely solid can interact.
St. Mary of the Assumption looks more like a cathedral, or maybe even a fortress, than a regular old church. The steeple rises over the city prominently, and the bells – the only full chime of 16 in Massachusetts — ring out as they have done for a century and a half. But the place also has a kind of somber, forbidding look; sections of the church are draped in huge pieces of cloth, evidence of ongoing renovations, and only the small chapel is open during the week. I’ve yet to see any workers over there; then again, it is steely January now.
If the place could talk, it would definitely say something like, “Immigration? Let me tell you about it, in waves, starting with the Irish. Mill workers? Have I got stories for you.” Their website, where I eagerly went to lap up any background I could find, has a long section on history which, like the church itself, is “under construction.” We’re taken through a winding story up to the early 20th century and no further. Whoever was writing it must have gotten exhausted, honestly, because the 19th century was bulging with so many details: this priest who did these remarkable things and started the parish at such-and-such location was followed by the next one who did even more remarkable things on the next site, etc. Here’s how the article begins:
The history of St. Mary of the Assumption parish developed alongside the history of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The thousands of immigrants who came to the New World in search of freedom, opportunity and a safe environment for their families also search for a church to worship their Creator.
Notice here how “search” is in the present tense; maybe that was a slip, or maybe not, because people are always and forever searching. I can’t tell you exactly the order in which groups of people came (the Irish and the Italians were early arrivals), but Dominicans—that is, people from the Dominican Republic– make up the majority of Lawrence’s population now. Unlike the Europeans, they have had to find employment in industries other than textile manufacturing. The once-booming mills are now dormant or converted to other uses. These buildings, too, could speak volumes.
Arlington Mills, Lawrence MA
But back to church history.
Archbishop John J. Williams solemnly dedicated the new St. Mary Church on September 3, 1871. Its statistics are still impressive. St. Mary Church cost over $200,000,00 to construct. It is of Gothic style architecture and it is constructed of granite brought from the quarries of Maine and New Hampshire. The dimensions of the Church are like a cathedral: The length of the building along Haverhill Street is 210 feet; it is 80 feet wide, except at transept where it is 102 feet wide. The steeple is 225 feet high. The tope (sic) of the Cross which surmounts it is 235 feet from the ground which makes it fifteen feet higher than the Bunker Hill Monument.
Solid? Definitely. Intimidating even? Yes. Elevating to the spirit? Absolutely. Needing constant maintenance at daunting costs? Well, that too.
I’m told that services are still well-attended on Sundays, with families pouring in, and I’m looking forward to going when there’s an all-school mass over there in February.
In the meantime, when I pass the 7/11 on the way back from the Post Office, this will be my view, reminding me that maybe it’s precisely that strange combination of heft and history with angels and whispering prayers floating in the air that gives this church its staying power. The future only knows how it will indeed stay.