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.
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.
Well, it’s about time I re-appeared here; after all, what’s a blog without an active blogger?
The truth is, prompted by a query from an astute subscriber, we’ve been doing a little re-tooling. I say “we” because I have been in this operation, from its beginning three years ago, with the help of a fabulous web designer who happens also to be an alpaca farmer. Couldn’t do it without her.
Anyway, noticing that subscribers get just the current post without any real visual reminder of the whole blog itself, we’re switching to a new “feeding platform” (close enough) called MailChimp.
OK, full disclosure: I learned about this service from another blog, one offering up yummy recipes and stories about food. It looks really sharp, and the heading of the blog is always displayed up top.
I’m hoping that this will be an aesthetic as well as functional improvement. One thing to keep in mind, though: in order to leave comments (please do!) I’m told you’ll need to click on the title of the essay itself, and that will take you to the full home page of the blog, where you can find a box for comments. Shouldn’t be too much trouble, right?
Oh, and when you do make it over to the full blog, you’ll also see that we’ve made a new “tab” called “Pastor’s Wife in the Press.” This is where you can find all, well just about all, of my essays that made their way into print in various publications other than this blog. This section is still under construction, but here’s hoping the links up there so far will work.
Thanks for reading this, thanks for reading all the rest of it, or dipping in and out as you please. I’d be honored to hear from you, as always!
On New Year’s Eve, I watched fireworks from the dock in my hometown’s harbor. They were bright and beautiful, and the air had just enough chill to make us believe that we were on the other end of the year from 4th of July.
Colorful explosions in a dark sky are wonderful mostly because they happen rarely. They are not the normal humdrum. Watching them in the right frame of mind, we can even feel our souls take flight. Or least not feel so bound to the plain old ground.
It wasn’t so long ago that the word “grounded” meant something almost exclusively negative – it might describe a plane, and all its passengers, that was somehow prevented from taking off; or a teenager who was being punished for misdeeds by being confined to home. In fact, these meanings still do hold true, I guess. More and more, however, to be “grounded” also means to be stable, to have a firm foundation, to be connected to Mother Earth, to be real. In this positive light, its opposite might be something like “flighty.” Of course, if you’re one of those passengers stuck in a plane on the runway, you sure might crave some flightiness.
HarperCollins, NY; 2015
In her new book with only this one word as a title, and a lovely tree depicted on the cover, the scholar Diana Butler Bass offers up a kind of sequel to her previous book that, for good reason, really got people in church circles talking: Christianity After Religion. Now, continuing to report on the revolution that has been taking place both in the pews and outside them, she explores how people everywhere are discovering that the old hierarchical view of “God up there; us down here” really doesn’t work well anymore. It’s much better, really, to feel that holiness is all around us, accessible and approachable– running right through our fingers even.
And this revolution rests upon a simple insight: God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us. We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe. This world, not heaven, is the sacred stage of our times. (p.26)
This makes perfect sense, of course, and my intention here is certainly not to give a review of this book, which has been widely acclaimed. I enjoyed reading it, found much of what I believed about the power of both Nature and Neighborhood (capitals this time, for emphasis) confirmed here, and I’m sure you would too.
There’s just one part that nagged at me throughout, and it has to do with the fact that, in my way of seeing anyway, all of the beautiful things that we perceive can be beautiful on their own, or just by our perceiving them that way. It’s pretty much the capturing of the essences around us with all of our senses, including the moments of real connectivity with others and generosity towards them, that make living worthwhile. Some of us are perpetually moved to locate, or now re-locate, God — to put him/her in the midst of everything that is most precious, or even to affirm that he/she is close during terrible tragedies, bearing it right along with us. Others, for a variety of reasons, don’t do this; partly, I think, because the moments themselves are mighty enough.
Just looking back over some images of our family’s past year, I notice
There were vegetables in the dirt…
Green fields with shadows…
There was the grandiose…
There was the small and still magnificent..
There was a boy swimming in fresh water..
Another swimming in salt water..
And a dog on a winter pond with a pink sky..
There was fire in the dark night…
A sliver of moon way up high…
And then the moments of human togetherness..
And sheer joy…
All of these were pure and sufficient alone, just in themselves. Each one, I daresay, wasn’t necessarily bursting with the religious or even the spiritual. They didn’t need to be wrapped up in that language, being fulsome in what they provided, in their particular moments. And here comes a new year unfolding, containing all varieties of bright lights, waiting to explode in their own ways and in their own times, for all of us who take them in.
It’s the Christmas countdown, and we’re trying, really trying, to focus on the most soul-filling qualities of the season. We need to stay on it, too, because the outer world keeps bombarding us with stuff that is in a whole other category. The more I hear, the more I want to head straight to my piano and play “What Child Is This?” as quietly as possible.
Take the Republican debate the other night, for example. Now that was a really cheerful bit of business. Not one among us minimizes the importance of dealing with terrorism. But somehow it wasn’t comforting to hear them all arguing about how best to close our borders, why we can’t trust the vetting process for refugees, or whether or not we should exterminate the families of suspected terrorists, too.
Ted Cruz kept referring to “the bad guys” and then “the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens” as if we can always, 100% of the time, keep a sharp line between good and bad, make no mistake about it. In my experience, especially in the gleanings from the kind of work my husband does, there are no neat stacks of human beings.
There was that weird question to Ben Carson about how willing he would be, as a mild-mannered retired neurosurgeon, to get behind a bombing campaign that might kill thousands of children in faraway lands. His answer was even weirder—something about how his young patients used to express fear before their operations at first but then, once they learned that he’d be opening up their skulls for good reason, they came around.
And if this extravaganza of hope wasn’t enough, have you been hearing those radio ads for Xfinity? It’s the cable company around here offering all kinds of “bundles” that consist of television and internet packages you can’t find brightly wrapped under the tree. Perhaps there’s an equivalent elsewhere in the country. The message is so so so Christmasy, proclaiming that we should “Tech the Halls.”
Naturally, the first thing we need to be concerned about during this special season is whether or not we have enough Wifi to accommodate all the loved ones who will be coming home to sit ‘round the fire with all their devices – some doing Instagram, some Snapchat, others streaming a no doubt wondrous video, still others just watching plain ol’ television. Amidst this technological picnic, is there apt to be much real conversation about people’s actual lives? Not likely.
I just finished a new book called Private Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson; it’s about Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin, the questions that troubled them, and how religion and science really need to figure out a way to work well together. In it, the author points to a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people, in his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up”:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
So maybe, all things considered in this particular culture of ours, we’re all asked to be pretty brilliant, especially at a time of year when we’re expected to function at a high level and stay merry, besides. Fa la la la la, indeed. How did they used to do it in the old days, anyway?
THE FIRESIDE BOOK OF FOLK TALES, orig. published 1947; Simon and Schuster, NY
More and more, experiencing the approach of this holiday – with so many competing priorities – feels much more akin to being a passenger in a bumper car at a noisy amusement park than sitting cozily bundled in a peaceful sleigh ride through the snow.
But what is there to do, really, than try to find the magic or at least the goodness wherever we can?
Just this morning, I visited an art gallery right down the hill, a place I’d been meaning to get to for a couple of years, where several horses roam in fields near various large sculptures. The woman there knows the trails around here that are good for riding, and maybe—just maybe—by forming an alliance with her I’ll work my way towards resuming a life with animals I’ve loved since childhood. This might not be magical, exactly, but it sure would be mighty fine.
Almost as fine, really, as imagining that there is someone who travels freely through the skies, all around the globe, encountering no barriers or suspicious looks, keeping to his mission of delivering gifts to children everywhere.
As Advent begins, leading to the season of Peace and Joy, I figure it’s as good a time as any to shake things up a bit.
Before Thanksgiving, I had been considering starting yoga, but on Monday I went to a “Body Combat” class instead, and now I’m hooked. Left hook, right hook, just plain hooked. Something about having the kids here for a spell and taking in all the changes happening with each one of them—well, it just makes me want to get out there and go for it rather than sit quietly and reflect. Not that yoga isn’t really demanding in its own way, of course. And besides, what I heard the instructor say during the class (how she can talk right through the exertions is amazing) exactly matched what I needed to hear, even outside the gym.
According to the exercise company called Les Mills http://www.lesmills.com/workouts/fitness-classes/bodycombat/ that designs and promotes these workouts for clubs everywhere, “BODYCOMBAT™ is the empowering cardio workout where you are totally unleashed.”
Unleashed. If it’s good for my dog, and one glimpse of him running through a field is evidence enough, then it must be good for me, too. At certain junctures in life, don’t we need to try to find out what exactly is even inside us TO unleash? I do, anyway, right now and right here.
This person isn’t me — she’s a tad younger and I don’t even have boxing gloves — but doesn’t she look cool? And fully in the moment?
Much of this workout, the one that I’m now planning on doing regularly, incorporates boxing moves, both for arms and legs. There’s no actual equipment, like heavy bags or speed bags, and — phew — no actual opponents. But you can feel like you might be in the ring, and this gets the adrenaline flowing. In a good way, I think. The fact that our older son coaches kids who are just learning to box (the moves without the actual sparring) in New York City definitely is a positive influence. He says that with a little time going to my new class, I’ll soon be ready to travel down there and try the one he does for mothers in Harlem.
So why is this just the right time to start punching and kicking while hitting no one?
Since our kids pulled out after several days at home, they’ve left everything, mostly my own mind, still vibrating. These three empty peanut butter jars on the counter are, in a way, strangely full, reminding me of what was and also what is now.
Thanksgiving is over, but the important remnants are not so much the leftovers in the fridge (gone days ago) but are more like scraps of oriental rugs, the colorful impressions each individual leaves that say, “Here’s where I am in my life; behold!”
Watching some videotape of family scenes when the kids were young, I remembered how much organizing, watching, protecting, guiding, and yes, plenty of directing we did as parents in those days. Sound familiar? We were shepherding them a whole lot of the time, often even when we were enjoying their antics. This wasn’t bad, of course; it was pretty normal and necessary. After all, they were darling, just beginning to make their way, and they needed us. They twirled and climbed and played their instruments on stage, and we beamed, ready to catch them or applaud, or both.
Now though, for many of us, a whole different tape is playing. Our kids are away from us most of the time, swooping in occasionally to resume being our kids, except they’re mostly not so much our kids as their own completely individual forces now, deciding all kinds of things on their own, choosing their paths and the people they want to be with or don’t want to be with, going forth, finding their own jars of peanut butter (or wishing they could, at a nut-free school). There’s nothing more appropriate than this, and yet sometimes it can leave parents re-defining their own directions, too.
How much engaging do we do now, how much backing off, how much diving into our very own lives, almost like—but yes, also different from– the ones we had before having kids?
And here’s why the words of wisdom from the “Body Combat” instructor the other day made so much sense, and why I’ll be sure to seek them again. Sure, she probably just tossed these lines out to provide key transitions for us laborers on the floor, but I heard more.
“Change is coming!” she warned, before the routine took us through a major shift, maybe from scissor kicks to jabs.
“You have choices!” she declared, giving us a couple of different options in the kind of push-ups we could do during a certain segment.
Talk about hitting me where I live. This unleashing business is not your typical Advent activity, doesn’t have much to do with waiting; but for this pastor’s wife anyway, it works. I can already tell that Christmas will be a whole lot more beautiful, not to mention powerful, this year.
How frequently, in married life, or non-married life for that matter, when we say to the handiest person nearby something like, “We really need to do such and such…” do we actually end up doing it and, furthermore, end up enjoying the process or the accomplishment or both? Wishes are easy; fulfillment not so much.
Nonetheless, one thing I’ll be giving thanks for this coming week is that my husband and I managed to spend some quality time with our birch trees down by the pond, correcting their posture.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “I dwell in Possibility.” For most of this fall, I dwelled partly in the possibility that we would actually follow through on this particular venture. The project hovered on the horizon right there in plain sight, waiting to be done, about to be done. But then, suddenly, tending the trees felt much more like a dream that wouldn’t come true. Who was I kidding that we would, one day, leave the regular tasks that harnessed us, look at one another and say, “OK, it’s time; the birches are calling and we must go.”
Every day for months, really ever since the heavy snow and ice of last winter, we’d been observing their glowing white trunks, dramatically curved — some of them, anyway. Others still stood straight and true. I didn’t need ol’ Robert Frost (he’s perennially hanging around our place, I swear) to tell me that they, even minus the flowing hair tossed over, resembled a gaggle of teenage girls. You can almost hear them whispering to each other. I’m not part of the clique, but I still think of them as my friends in a certain way, and I like to go down to check them out every morning, see what the buzz is, who’s in and who’s out.
I need to give a few disclaimers here. First of all, we didn’t straighten all of the leaning ones; some were taken down, and now each beautiful log will become kind of like “the gift outright” to our woodpile. Second, we didn’t actually ask the trees if they wanted to change their way of life, we just went ahead. They looked like dancers struggling to hold a too-difficult pose, and the coming winter would surely keel them over. Third, my husband did way more of the work than I did. He got the right kind of steel cable, and the little clamps that help make loops (along with pieces of hose for cushioning) with the cable; he also went up on the ladder to do the tedious attaching and then drove the tractor that pulled the other end of the cable firmly but gently, coaxing each limber individual to please point straight to the sky.
What did I do? Well, I held the ladder of course. And occasionally rummaged around in the leaves for fallen clamps and nuts. And let’s not forget, I also offered opinions about which anchor trees we should use. Oh, and of course I repeatedly threw sticks to Rocky to quell his barking. I felt a little bit like an acolyte at the altar, actually, although I’ve never actually done that.
The ladder was pretty amazing in both its lightness and its stability. I bet if he (all those straight lines, all business, no curves) could have talked, he would have told me to go find something else to do—“I got this covered; your guy is safe up there.” Once in a while, though, a strong gust of wind would come up out of nowhere and all of us would do some shaking. No way I was leaving. Besides, those moments when a tree found its way skyward were really magical. Our plain ladder didn’t look anything like the version of Jacob’s Ladder portrayed in William Blake’s painting, with luscious curves and angels everywhere, but it did the job.
Courtesy of www.william-blake.org
Each tree went through a two-cable process. Once again, physics explained everything. The first cable went from as high up the tree as the ladder-climber could get and then diagonally down to the rear end of the tractor. The tractor moved, the cable tightened, and the tree obeyed orders. Only then, with tension in place, could the second cable— this one the real McCoy, going from tree to tree – be added. Then, just as my husband predicted, the stress shifted over. After all, there’s no free lunch—when it comes to straightening trees, somebody has to bear the brunt.
Once we had a few key trees in the clump righted, it was almost a piece of cake to attach a couple of outside way-over ones to the newly supported insiders.
If I didn’t know better, I’d even say that the whole process gave some indication of how people might use the collective strength of a group to help their neighbors in need. But this might be leaning too far, so I’ll just stick to the goodness of the mix we had out there of husband, wife, dog, tractor, ladder, sky, and gleaming trees.
Some things in life come easily, slide into place, pour forth, work out.
Other things are damn stubborn and don’t want to budge no matter what you do.
This fall, apples growing on trees all over our neighborhoods have been in the former category. Have you noticed how heavy laden the branches were? I wish I’d taken more pictures to capture all that deep red color, everywhere. It was richness portrayed in fruit. Just by looking at it all, your spirit would swell.
I haven’t heard a good scientific explanation for the remarkable crop this year, have you? What I did hear is that the Farmers’ Almanac says that the more abundant the apples, the more likely we’ll have a snowy winter. Another one, I guess. Nature sure does work in mysterious ways: what could possibly be the connection?
Having noticed back in September that our tree out front was really producing, and that the apples were also delicious—firm and crisp—I collected a bunch, but just in kind of a preliminary way. Once my husband tasted one, he was enthusiastic too; soon, this enthusiasm led to ingenuity.
One afternoon when he was home alone, he figured out that his drill could do a very good job of both coring and peeling the apples (don’t ask me how he did the peeling; suddenly I forget, but he did). The guy has always been kind of clever. Anyway, he also made a good applesauce, and we were off and running with our treasures.
It was kind of like instant video replay, actually, since we’d already been hard-pressed to harvest all those tomatoes from the back yard and pack them in the freezer. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not complaining. Again, this is life at its most generous. And we all know it can be otherwise.
The thing about apple-picking is that, at least when you have a really good tree, it can go on for a while, over a span of days or even weeks. Generally, you have to do it intermittently because, well, you have other activities too. Rob had gotten a whole lot of good fruit from the branches themselves. A couple of weeks later, I realized—with some urgency– that I’d better head out to see what was still salvageable on the ground before the evening frosts came.
Wow, was I ever rewarded. Expecting to see mostly bruised fruit, I found instead almost perfection. Here’s how many I got, just in about 15 minutes.
I found out that these babies are of the Macoun variety — definitely high quality. Of course now they’re still in my garage, awaiting more attention. But I’m getting there, probably even later today.
My old New Hampshire friend Robert Frost (no relation to the ice crystals that come at night) knew a thing or two about this activity. Here’s just a section of “After Apple-Picking”:
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
What a haunting poem this is, with familiar intimations of death amidst abundance.
Wanting to learn more about the original writing of it, I went to my bookshelf and dipped into a long-trusted biography I have—Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph, 1915-1938 by Lawrance Thompson (Holt, Rinehart and Winston; 1970). Turns out, years after he wrote the poem, Frost told his friend Charles Madison that it was one that came pouring out:
My word will be more or less taken for it that I played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence: such as for example November Days, The Mountain, After Apple-Picking, The Wood-Pile, Desert Places, The Gift Outright, The Lovely Shall Be Choosers, Directive. With what pleasure I remember their tractability. They have been the experience I couldn’t help returning for more of – I trust I may say without seeming to put on inspired airs. (p. 597)
Wow, do I ever love the expression “played certain poems through without fumbling a sentence.” Can’t you just see a running back making his way down the field, ball grasped firmly in his arms, stopping at nothing? I think also of a tennis swing – all one fluid motion.
And he remembers the “tractability” of these poems. Oh yes, it’s no wonder that’s a memory to do some basking in. This word, one we don’t hear all that often nowadays, means the quality of something that’s easy to deal with, to manage or control.
Like near-perfect apples almost waiting to be picked up from the ground. Or a base-runner stealing second, beating the tag by a full second. Or falling in love with someone who’s just as much in love with you.
“Intractability”—that’s another story. For now anyway, let’s let it just stay stuck somewhere.
Hiking up Mount Osceola—one of the 4,000 footers in the White Mountains—last weekend with friends, I noticed that there were about equal numbers of men and women. We were all in our layers, climbing over the rocks, getting glimpses of a breathtaking blanket of orange amidst the first snow of the season. It was a wonderful place to be on a dramatic fall day. Our party consisted of three couples, and we merged very nicely. As far as I could tell, no men anywhere forged far ahead of women, seeing the point of the outing as staying together. There were some solo men on the trail, and some solo women too. We all went through steep sections, offering hands when needed, but — in an overall kind of way– the two genders seemed to be on even ground. When you’ve lived more than a half century with four older brothers and happen to have also gone to a mostly-male college, this kind of thing is noteworthy.
As I read up on the history of the White (the origin of that descriptor is apparently murky, but no, it probably wasn’t given in honor of the race, most common in this parts, with the same name) Mountains afterwards, however, it’s hard not to see the whole region painted with a masculine brush. Does “rugged” – a word often used to describe these peaks—always align more with the male half of the race? Back when names were being chosen, did a woman’s experience ever count?
There are lots of good guidebooks, especially from the Appalachian Mountain Club, for hikers. The one I happen to have around the house is called The White Mountains: Names, Places & Legends by John Mudge (Durand Press, 1992). Now it’s true my family and John’s family happen to go way back together, so I could be a bit biased, but this is a very engaging little book, with a beautiful oil painting on the soft cover. And it’s not John’s fault at all that, page after page, I’m reminded that just about every blasted peak bears the name of some man: there are all those presidents, of course (certainly you don’t want me to list them) but then, in addition, there’s Tuckerman, Carter, Lafayette, Clay, Hancock, Field, Stickney, and Webster—just to name some of the fellas who never occupied the White House but still are immortalized, with rocky limbs sprawled out, and up. Granted, a handful of the names aren’t people at all — Cannon, Wildcat, the Flume – and we have to be glad that at least a few of the mountains commemorate various chiefs from Native American tribes, such as Osceola and Chocorua.
Still, though, the whole place is teeming with men. Or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe. Could one whole hunk of this state really be so tilted to one gender? This must, in part, explain the origin of Julie Boardman’s book, When Women Meet Mountains (Durand Press, 2001). I haven’t read it yet, but apparently she does a good job of describing a whole range of bold and ingenious females, largely unknown, who explored these peaks, probably some in long skirts.
I suppose the number of presiding men is actually down by one since the Old Man himself fell down in May of 2003.
By Denise Ortakales, illustrated by Robert Crawford; Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, MI; 2004
Legend has it, and I got a refresher on this from a beautifully illustrated children’s book, The Old Man was actually Chief Pemigewasset. He fell in love and married the daughter of the Mohawk Chief, Minerwa; she had to travel west to bid her ailing father goodbye, however, and never returned. Pemigewasset waited endlessly for her, finally froze to death, and then after burial his body was somehow immortalized by the Great Spirit, with that famous fixed gaze. He may have been the famous one, but he was there completely because of a woman.
And then, in a kind of odd twist on this tale, there was poor Nancy Barton, a girl who did in fact have a mountain – and a brook, and a cascade—named after her. Believe me, though, you wouldn’t want to go down in history this same way. The story was a revelation to me, so I can’t help but quote the sad account I found, on Wikipedia, in its entirety. Here’s a quoted section of a book by Charles Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, which was originally written in 1896:
Another spot of interest in Crawford Notch is Nancy’s Brook. It was at the point where this stream comes foaming from Mount Nancy into the great ravine that the girl whose name is given to it was found frozen to death in a shroud of snow in the fall of 1788. She had set out alone from Jefferson in search of a young farmer who was to have married her, and walked thirty miles through trackless snow between sunset and dawn. Then her strength gave out and she sank beside the road never to rise again. Her recreant lover went mad with remorse when he learned the manner of her death and did not long survive her, and men who have traversed the savage passes of the Notch on chill nights in October have fancied that they heard, above the clash of the stream and whispering of the woods, long, shuddering groans mingled with despairing cries and gibbering laughter.”
Some women, well–men too, I guess — may know from hard experience what it is to have a “recreant lover”: if someone leaves you in the lurch, especially after promising undying devotion, it’s anything but recreational. Poor Nancy paid the ultimate price. There’s even a painting of her, looking beatific in that “shroud of snow.” I saw a photograph of it in John Mudge’s book, and he kindly sent me a scanned version:
“Nancy in the Snow” from Samuel A. Drake, via THE WHITE MOUNTAINS by John T.B. Mudge; The Durand Press, 1992
Surely, if any of us had known Nancy at the time, we would have urged her not to chase after a guy who had left her. “Come on girl, don’t you see that you can have a good life without him, that loser? You have your own skills; don’t make the mistake of depending on any man, even if it is 1788. Besides, there are other guys out here in these hills, some of them as solid as stone.” But off she went, soon to succumb.
The six of us didn’t stay up in the Whites long enough that evening to listen for her spooky groans, cries or laughter. In our little party, on an October day more than a couple of centuries later, the couples who went up all came down—still connected.
I felt grateful for that, grateful to have been there at all, with such a glorious mix of elements as far as the eye could see. And even though people long ago chose to see mostly men — some stodgy ones at that — in these mountains, we might attribute this, to use another word often bandied about these days, to something like “privilege.” Anyway, Mother Nature knows better. Minerwa never made it back to her loyal love, Nancy never recovered her lousy one; but all of us can venture up there today confident at least in the possibility of these mountains offering up beauty, and sometimes even lasting love, to each and every gender, in equal measure.
The Pope has come and gone, with countless people either seeing him for real –including two of my very best friends –or wondering what’s he’s about; we’ve watched the moon get enveloped in a red shadow and then learned that there’s likely water on Mars.
Meanwhile, I just keep trying to make sense out of, on the one hand, organized religion and the way different people depict God; and on the other hand, the vast universe and what we actually know about it. Do we have lift-off here?
I won’t say “the divide between” because there need be no inherent contradiction between the world of Faith and the world of Science. Right? And yet, there is plenty still to wonder about. What’s a curious girl – OK, a creeping towards the upper realms of middle-aged woman who also happens to be a bishop’s wife– to do but read, seeking some flashes of light if not some real answers?
Even when I go about my daily rounds not particularly thinking about these matters, which some may claim are neither here nor there, I’m apt to run into a poster like this one at the hair salon. Now you tell me if this is a reasonable claim…
Ok, so this must be a joke, and there’s not much real science in the height of hair. But maybe somewhere someone actually believes it?
These days, I’m hearing fewer Bible passages because I’m going less often to church, partly because the children have scattered and partly because the one familiar destination has turned into many far-flung ones. I am, however, travelling far (a la my mentor Emily Dickinson) by devouring books. I feel drawn to fiction and non-fiction both, but my specialty of late, strangely enough, has been anything with “God” or “Faith” or “Jesus” together with “Science” or “Nature” or perhaps “Infinity” or “Stars” in the title. Hey, nobody can accuse me of reading on the puny end of the shelf, anyway; I’m zooming in on the Big Questions.
Even the light reads often have something to do with the Universe; take The Astronaut Wives Club, for instance. I try not to be distracted by those flipped hair-dos; these women were dealing with some pretty serious distances in their marriages.
This all may have started in earnest when I sought out Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity (Alma Books, London, 2007). She is the ex-wife of the famous Stephen Hawking, and her book was the basis of the wildly popular movie The Theory of Everything. It’s a riveting story all right. You’ve really got to hand it to her: even though her own areas of expertise were languages and music, she managed to understand a whole lot about what her genius physicist husband was figuring out, too. And she followed much of his mind-voyage out into the stratosphere and into black holes while also coping with his “motor neuron disease,” dealing with all the complications when he travelled around the world to give talks, as well as caring for their three children. It was exhausting. Then, sadly, they parted.
Through it all, she maintained a steadfast belief in God, often wishing that he could make more room alongside his famous theories for the religious faith that, she believed, would help sustain him. However, according to her account, he remained standoffish and often scathingly dismissive of the Anglicanism that was part and parcel of their community.
And yet, as I discovered when I went back to look again at his blockbuster for the common folk, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1988) which was dedicated to Jane, Stephen Hawking definitely did not leave God out. True enough, most of the book sticks closely to the scientific discoveries – a good thing, too, in that there’s a whole lot to digest – but he does tip his hat to God on more than one occasion. Here, for instance:
One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? (p. 122)
Reading a passage like this, I begin to conjure an image of God and Science as dance partners. Admittedly, this could be partly because I’ve just gone to a string of events (two reunions, one wedding, one huge anniversary celebration for a school) when the much hoped-for opportunity to dance either did or did not pan out.
But, honestly, the more I read, the more I see all kinds of people depicting the interplay between these forces — the weaving in and weaving out, the constant movement, and even the sharing of who’s in the lead.
A brand new book I picked up on this topic is almost mind-blowing. There’s a kind of parallel here with the Hawkings, actually: Nancy Ellen Abrams is married to the astrophysicist Joel Primack; he studies “dark matter.” In A God That Could Be Real (Beacon Press, Boston, 2015) she’s arguing that it’s time for us to create a wholly new kind of God – to lose the old, stale ways of thinking about an omniscient/omnipotent Being and see instead an “emergent phenomenon” in keeping with what our society desperately needs to move forward, completely in tandem with the exploding knowledge we have from Science.
In his Foreward to the book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu begins this way:
I must begin by acknowledging that I do not agree with everything that Nancy Abrams says about a scientific understanding of God. (ix)
Well, phew, that’s a relief. Sure would be boring to see everybody dancing the same way out on that floor, wouldn’t it? Hey, this party is bound to go on for quite some time. If I’m patient, and the music is right, I might even persuade my husband to come on out there with me for a while…though it might have to be in the mid-week time slot.
Today we’re going to look closely at two terms with an almost automatic heartwarming quality: FAMILY and FOOD. Ah yes, I know, your whole inner being is already feeling the glow…there’s a big table, smiles and laughter, glasses clinking, sharing of tales, a high chair with a baby banging a spoon or, why not, perhaps a slightly hunched over grandparent sitting near a sullen, for the moment anyway, teenager. Disorganized, perhaps; raucous, sometimes; but generally good, right?
Except, remember, this is a blog about dissimilar entities keeping company with one another, starkly different things lying side by side, or perhaps standing up and duking it out — contrasts of all kinds, ones that might even make your jaw drop.
Welcome to my particular family of five and the range of ways we choose to eat. If you can keep it all straight, you’re a mightier person than I am. As for food groups in the pyramid, however, we got those covered.
Without naming names, let me give you some idea what I’m talking about.
1) One of us eats primarily healthy food but eschews (like that?) any strict rules. OK, since you would’ve guessed anyway, I’ll fess up. Good things like kale, grains, and nectarines are supreme; but nothing is completely out of the question, except perhaps salami, Fruit Loops, or Marshmallow Fluff. Breyers once in a while? Not a crime in my book..reminds me of my childhood when my father used to head to the big freezer after dinner, asking attentively, “A little ice cream?” But in those days it was pretty much always vanilla, from the drive-through Dairy Barn.
2) One of us eats, for dinner anyway, meat or fish and lots and lots of greens, often in a kind of colorful ratatouille that is, admittedly, out of this world. At all other times, fruits and nuts of all kinds –generally purchased in small bags –have become fundamental sources of nourishment. Yes, this is what it means to go PALEO — not to be confused with POLIO, which was in fact a disease we have tried to eradicate. Person expresses contentment with diet and maintains rigorous exercise routine, although other family members wonder about plain old hunger. Projection, no doubt.
3) One of us has gone so enthusiastically VEGAN that he/she has put that bumper sticker on the car, so no matter who is driving it, there it is. This person not only eats no meat (or fish) or eggs (!!!!) but regularly tries to persuade Person #2 that he/she really should re-examine his/his philosophy for the betterment of the planet. Fortunately, they both agree that any plate worth its salt – ok, maybe not the right term– should be overflowing with green, green, green. This person also will in fact still eat cereal, rice, and potatoes and even – gasp – BREAD –a substance considered, by other members of the family, to be part of the Evil Empire.
4) One of us, again loving all vegetables, has pretty much given up on beef as well as grains/pasta/cereal but still retains a taste for bacon and has stayed true to his/her longtime passion for fruit of all kinds. Pineapple and avocados, PLEASE! This person also shifts food preferences once in a while, keeping life interesting. Yogurt, for instance – you never know. And the former zest for certain kinds of candy (remember that word?) such as, say, Skittles — VANISHED with the teenage years.
5) One of us, with a very healthy appetite, is cooking regularly for her/himself generally after hard workouts. This presents a number of challenges, including one involving the wallet. He/she is a big fan of those cans of beans that Person #2 used to like to eat, with as many fresh veggies as available. Actually shares characteristics with both the PALEO and VEGAN diets of Persons 2 and 3, and could probably go either way. Very occasionally may eat chocolate cake, if others at the table indulge, but has no trouble staying away from cookies.
Whew — that’s a lot to swallow, no? Maybe things in your family have gone a similar route, or rather, routes. To take a tip from William James, I might call it The Varieties of Gastronomic Experiences.
I’m still trying to sort all of the changes out. It helps a bit, I guess, that very rarely are all five of us gathered around the same table. No, wait, I don’t mean that the way it sounded. All’s I know for sure is that the old days — when I, the mother of the family, used to prepare ONE main meal and serve it proudly to kids who arrived at their stools when summoned, or at the table when we were all together – those days are gone. They were sweet days, for the most part, but they couldn’t last.
A role that was once pretty well defined — a bit like how the different kinds of food stayed in their own quadrants on a plate — has morphed into something else entirely. Now, I need to do some relinquishing, go with the flow, let everyone eat what they choose to eat, and maybe even examine my own choices more thoroughly. My family is giving me food for thought.
I just need to figure out what to do with the example of my friend Lauren’s grandmother: she’s about to be 102, with mind intact, and for much of her life she’d go to the local deli and ask for, “Pastrami, with plenty of fat.”
Some things, at least, are clear. With a bumper crop of tomatoes in our raised beds out back, we can all agree on how luscious they are.
Well, actually, I take that back…one of us has never really liked them – too mushy, or too many seeds, or maybe too red. So, wait, how come watermelons are fine then?
“What brought y’all down to Alabama?” the coffee seller on a Montgomery street corner asked, as friendly as she could be. We paused. It wasn’t so easy to explain to a welcoming Southerner that we were a group from New Hampshire travelling through their state to commemorate the murder 50 years ago of a civil rights activist from our state– Jonathan Daniels.
But she didn’t flinch and, in fact, said something like, “Oh, that’s SO interesting!” Then she went on to tell us how the proceeds from her coffee stand go to support an organization working to fight human trafficking.
The March Continues, all right. In fact, all kinds of marches continue.
I’d never before fancied myself a pilgrim, but since I accompanied my husband and a youth group from Keene on a kind of civil rights commemorative tour, also called a “pilgrimage” by the organizers, I guess that’s what I was for those five days. Come to think of it, those wide hats that the original Massachusetts Pilgrims used to wear would’ve come in handy in that blazing sun.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I tried to learn something about who Jonathan Daniels was. In 1964, my own brother had participated in “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, registering voters along with a few hundred other college students from the North, so I had images from the era, even if I had just been a little kid then, safely out climbing trees. In addition to this brother, another sister-in-law introduced us to a few of her best friends who spent months working with SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. From what I could tell, lots of people of a certain age – many of them with no particular religion at all – had heard the call to help bring justice. This, for them, was a compelling moral issue.
Jonathan Daniels, though, was on the path to ordination when he took a leave from Episcopal Theological School (now called “EDS”) along with a classmate, Judith Upham, to go to Alabama. His faith was deeply embedded in who he was; he wore his collar — the student version — constantly when he was there.
Before we left, I started reading a biography of Daniels, called Outside Agitator by Charles Eagle. It didn’t take long to get absorbed by the story, which traces his roots in Keene, his process of self-discovery as a young adult, his decision to devote himself to the work in Lowndes County (notorious for its deep racism), and the series of events leading up to the day when he walked to a little store, accompanied by two black women and one white man and—while saving the life of Ruby Sales, one of the women — met his own death. The book also paints a detailed and disturbing picture of Tom Coleman, the killer who was acquitted of any crime.
It was a little eerie, frankly, to be reading about this harrowing time as we were driving on the same roads that Jonathan himself must have been on, but it sure made the whole drama come pulsing to life.
If I had to choose just two words to describe the trip, they would be 1) Powerful and 2) Hot. Indeed, I could also say it was “powerfully hot,” or even that we were “fired up.” But you get the idea.
Here’s the gist of the civil rights remembrance activities we did. I will use the present tense, just to differentiate our doings from the history that we were discovering. You can just skip over this list if you want, but I’m offering it to give you the facts – pretty much straight up.
1) Arrive in Atlanta and visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site. This area of a just a few blocks includes The King Center (displaying many personal possessions and detailed timelines), the tombs of both MLK and Coretta, King’s childhood home as well as Ebeneezer Baptist Church, where he shared the pulpit with his father and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was born. Sitting in that church, listening to King’s voice from a recording, made the whole trip worth it. And we were only in the first day.
2) Drive to Montgomery, where we live dorm-style in a building connected to Church of the Ascension. There, over the course of a few days, we visit the Rosa Parks Museum (in three parts, including a re-enactment of exactly what happened on that bus), the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church (where MLK served in the 50’s), the site of the Slave Depot, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center. We put our hands in the water that runs over the black granite memorial, designed by Maya Lin, and met the remarkable Morris Dees, one of the founders, who continues to work tirelessly against hate groups in this country. He’s the real deal. At the time, we didn’t know that just a few days later there would be a memorial service at this same spot for Julian Bond, first president of the SPLC.
We also attended a presentation at Alabama State University by several individuals who knew Jonathan and/or were deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. They gathered to speak just to us, so we felt truly honored.
3) Drive to Selma, where we visit the Interpretive Center (with huge photographs of the original marches), actually meeting James Webb, who had been a 16 year old marcher at the time and was right up front in one photograph and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Before leaving, we also drive by the Washington Carver Homes (where Jonathan Daniels stayed for a time, with the West family) and the Brown Chapel AME Church, which served as a kind of gathering place for marchers. Learn about “Bloody Sunday” and what followed, culminating in the successful 50 mile march to the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery.
4) On the way back to Montgomery, we stop at the National Park Service Interpretive Center (at the site of the former Tent City for tenant farmer families) offering more history of about the Civil Rights Trail, and then the memorial for Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights worker from Detroit, and mother of five, who was killed by Klansmen while driving back to Selma after the final march.
5) Drive to Hayneville on Saturday for the Pilgrimage and Procession for Jonathan Daniels. We walk, along with 1,500 others (including many Episcopal bishops) from the Courthouse to the Jail –where JD and others had been held, enduring terrible conditions–and then to the site of the “Cash Store” where he was gunned down, shortly after his release from jail, by Tom Coleman, on August 20th, 1965. We watch — some of us from the bit of shade we found — as the first-ever memorial marker is put on the site. Rev. Richard Morrisroe, who was also shot on that day, was with us, in his wheelchair. Then, many of us pack the courthouse for a service, at which placards with photographs of other “Alabama Martyrs” are held up. Michael Curry, the newly elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gives a fiery sermon; NH Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, my husband, also speaks about the legacy of Jonathan Daniels in New Hampshire.
The heat finally gets me, and I just can’t stand up anymore, so leave the church/courthouse and slink down on the outside porch floor to rest. But then my particular purple-shirted guy finds me to hurry back to Atlanta and the flight home. Turns out, it’s hot in New Hampshire too. And it’s still my birthday, so I celebrate with a scrumptious dessert at Uno Pizzeria.
If you’re still with me, I’ll put the present tense aside now, for the rest. Just a few days later, I got to visit with my brother Mike – the one who had served in Mississippi. I had plenty of questions to ask him, and he patiently tried to answer—remembering, for instance, that he had returned South during the Spring of 1965 and spent about a week with scores of others in some kind of Montgomery detention center, where some of them even proposed a hunger strike. “I didn’t know you were in Alabama, too!” I said, wanting to catch up on everything I had missed, which was apparently a whole lot. Going back to the time in Mississippi, he acknowledged that it had been plenty scary: he was roughed up himself and, worse even, he had been in the very same group with Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney—the three workers who disappeared and then were discovered dead. Their pictures were on the wall when we visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center, and I looked at them long and hard.
“Didn’t many of you want to leave at that point?” I asked. “What did Mom and Dad say on the phone?”
He couldn’t precisely remember, kind of shrugged even, only recalling that most everyone involved understood that there was important work still to do there, and they ought to try to stay and do it.
The fact is, it might have been my own brother who lost his life. Thank goodness we get to be with him now that he’s topped 70 years old! The guy has always had a light touch, is quick to laugh and to get others laughing, but there was a time when he was on the front lines.
Rest in peace, Jonathan Daniels. You and many others from that time, you really had what it took. Those of us who got to walk back in history and look closely at this particular place and time, just a couple of hot weeks ago, understand a little better now than we did before what real courage, in regular people, looks like. Here’s hoping we can use this light to see the needs in our own communities a little more clearly now, and go forward.