28 December 2006

Ho Ho Ho - the Joke's On Me

Well, in all honesty it was a good holiday. For me that means really quiet and uneventful. Rare is the day when I can read accumulated newspapers, listen to music, and not generally care about things. It's what's left of the old fashioned sabbath at its best.

Of course, lots of folks have an extended holiday - like my 10th grade son. I, on the other hand offered to do two weddings this week, thinking that it would be a slow week. Well, that's where my hubris got me. What was I thinking? A week before Christmas a elder member died and the widower wanted to see me. That was on the 26th. On Wednesday I did a private christening, which is is not a lot of work but not nothing either. Last Friday a marvelous retired minister here died unexpectedly and so I went to visit his widow today. This evening I did a wedding rehearsal. Tomorrow I do that wedding and the rehearsal for the second. Saturday I do the second wedding. And then, surprise, it's Sunday again.

Every seven days it comes. Damn.

Of course next week I have to officiate at the two memorials. And I am thankful the late president was not a former member here. Actually he did worship here now and then when he was younger. And he did speak here when a member of Congress. A shiver of dread spread through me at the news, but reason told me these plans have been in place for a while. I would have known by now.

I do plan to watch the cortege go by, maybe even pay my respects at the lying in repose. Not often that one can get a close look at such a notable moment. Our last day in the sun, here in GR. Then back into the murky middle that has been the world of most smaller cities in the nation.

Somewhere in the next two weeks I have to pay taxes and bills and endure what will be the real arrival of winter. I feel a little more sympathy for those folks who decamp to the south at this time. I love how winter looks. But each year the cold penetrates a bit further, the skin dries a bit more, the effort is a mite greater.

In the morning I look to see the time of sunrise and sunset. So far it is pretty much where it has been. But somewhere in the middle of the season I will see that the sun begins to shine before 8 a.m. That will be a good day.

My dear departed colleague, his memory is a blessing, was a son of Punxatawney PA, ground zero for Ground Hog's Day, the midpoint in winter. Perhaps he will bless us with a shadowless day in honor of his return there.

More later, for sure.

21 December 2006

Short Day, Long Life

Welcome winter solstice. Today, actually this evening, we reach the perigee of periodicity, with maximal dark and minimal light.

That’s only for us northerners. Lest I appear to be hemispherically chauvinist, folks in Rio and Buenos Aires and Capetown and Sydney are lolling in mid summer. I once chanced upon a poem called Christmas in Africa that noted the cultural dislocation, noting the blazing heat of the day instead of ‘earth was hard as iron, water like a stone.’ Whenever someone bemoans the lack of snow I am tempted to remind them that Bethlehem is more like Palm Springs than St. Paul. We forget how much of Christmas is really yuletide, the cultural and pagan elements that have nothing to do with the religious feast at all.

Enough pedagogy. Back to the sentiment…

… Only once in my life did we spend Christmas vacation on vacation. My memory is unsteady about some details, but somewhere are around age 13 we decided to see Williamsburg VA, which was a long day’s drive from our Baltimore home.

The story actually begins before we went, when on Christmas Day my father left with my two younger sisters to take the overnight train from Baltimore down to the colonial peninsula. I envied them, but fair being fair, my brother and I had traveled with dad another time – to Cincinnati and back. This was the balancing occasion.

That meant mom and my brother and I were by ourselves for Christmas dinner. We went out. I know it’s done more now, but back then (mid 1960s now) it was rare. The three of us got dressed up and went to a better sort of place with table cloths and stuff like that. It was odd, as we were used to the raucous gorging of years past. And of course being only half the family the usual din and uproar was gone.

The next day we tore out in our two tone 1962 VW bus with the canvas sunroof. I do not remember that journey as much as the ride home. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

We stayed at the famed inn and I remember the vast steaming breakfast tables of food at the hotel and the cold that had suddenly descended with the holiday. The visit to those restored houses and places made an indelible impression, showing me the allures of history and its proximity more than its remoteness.

Wendy and I later took the boys there over the summer, when the heat was as thick as the cold. Aaron was but a boy and Steve was a toddler requiring a stroller which does not travel well over those authentic gravel and sawdust paths. Aaron was not impressed then, but a few years later, over an election day weekend when his school was going to DC for a trip, he and I went on our own and he truly enjoyed it. So did I. Someday, before Steve is gone I should enjoy doing the same with him. But it seems less and less likely.

What I remember most of that exceptional holiday was the ride home. A storm blew up, sending ice and snow before us as we traveled north. My mother, who preferred to drive, clung to the bus-like steering wheel, peering ahead into the lowering gloom as night combined with the flakes to make the passage slow and fearful. Her cigarettes came one after the other, and her manicured nails began to dig into her hands instead of being relaxedly extended.

Then the wipers failed. This could have brought us to a crashing halt except that in the 1962 VW bus, the wiper motor was a simple affair that was accessible directly under the dashboard. Reaching under it one could manually move the blade by twisting the end of the rotor. It was hard but it could be done. I was appointed the task of sitting in the front seat and moving each wiper every few seconds. This meant bending down and twisting my shoulder a bit to get some leverage. Not a comfortable position, especially with a set belt on, but it could be done.

Some hours later, near midnight, we rolled and slid our way up our tiny inclined driveway. My hands were stiff a cold because the rotor was metal and gloves reduced my grip. All the years later, though, that hardship sharpened my memory of the whole trip.

Sometimes a difficult and even painful thing can serve as a welcome prod to good memories as well. These stories I have recalled have all had a sorrow or a pain in them, but this does make them unhappy memories at all. Far from it. Many Christmases passed without moment, indistinct one from another, the predictable pleasures and repetitive joys making them unremarkable. They might as well have never happened.

Those that stand out have a difference, be it sad or funny or odd, and so many years later I am deeply grateful to have them so keenly in my mind. So I wish you a poignance along with your peace, to seal the day and the season within you and give you cause to tell stories when the winter days grow weary and the heart droops.

20 December 2006

Da Bella Napoli, via Brooklyn

And yet another contribution. How cool is this? Like I said, memories are the coins we keep as change...

... Hi Fred,

Thanks for the clump of coal. It helped me remember a time when I could believe and see. I was maybe 5 or 6 and it was the night in which "La Befana" (Italian's version of Santa Claus is a little old lady with a broom that delivers gifts on Epiphany day, the 6th day of January).

I fell asleep that night with memories from that day in which my grandma and aunt shared stories about the Befana with me. They showed me a little miniature Befana that my grandma kept by her bedside. They told me that it's been in our family for generations and that on the night of Epiphany she comes to life and brings presents to all good children and lumps of coal to all the naughty ones, especially those who try to peek.

So I fell asleep determined not to peek. Yet something woke me up in the middle of the night and I couldn't resist. I opened just one eye very slowly and from my bed I could see the hall way entry door. Right by the key whole, 10 feet away from me I see a little old lady come right through the key whole and turn big right before my eyes. At this awesome sight I quickly closed my eye. My heart was racing and I was scared she had seen me peek. Few seconds later, I felt a knock on my head, but I wouldn't dare to open my eyes, I had to fall asleep.

Of course that morning I jumped out of bed found a lump of candy coal on my pillow and an Italian version of Easy Bake Oven on the floor of my bed. I ran to my parents bed with the candy coal in my hands and said "I saw the Befana, I saw the Befana." Up until now I've shared this story only with children because I know they can believe before they see. Most grown ups all think it's a dream. So this holiday season teach your children and the child within you to believe.

Don't stop believing! It's what dreams are made of!

Sara...

19 December 2006

Take That, Richard Dawkins!

Having mis-represented the religious bete noir du jour as David instead of Richard Dawkins in my other blog, it seems only fair to give a fellow traveler some column inches here in compensation. A dear colleague sent in her yuletide recollection to share. It seems her young son had a spiritual crisis at a very tender age. But I'll let her tell the story...

... Hi Fred,

It seemed like a long time since I had connected with you. So I search for you, find your blog--and what! you are giving me a lump of coal! Bah Humbug!

loved your sad story. I remember living through that pain of materialistic hopes dashed at Christmas, and so made the point never to ask my kids what they wanted Santa to bring them for Christmas. Santa brought them things, but as a total surprise. And I think it did help make the thing a whole lot more fun.

I have several memories to share, but I'll post this one that always makes me smile as a first offering. We were living in Chicago, and my son Peter was about 3. We lived in a tiny urban house, and certainly didn't have a fireplace, chimney or mantle. Peter was okay with hanging his stocking on the doorknob as we had done in previous years, making no comment about this 'irregularity in Christmas lore'. After he went to sleep on Christmas eve, I snuck a bright red tricycle into the house and "under" the tree.

In the morning, he was up early, eager to see what surprises Santa had brought. He raced to the living room, and shouted "A Tricycle! A tricycle! Wow! Santa brought me a tricycle!" There was a brief pause, and then I heard him call out "How'd he get THAT down the chimney!"

Happy Christmas,

Eva

18 December 2006

You're Getting a Lump of Coal!

Well, here it is but a week before Christmas and only one of you has sent in a yuletide memory. I know how hard it is to remember. All month I have been straining to recall. Most of the eyars between 1970 and 2000 just run together because they are so similar. How odd that we collectively pine for the season and lavish our time and energy and money on it but cannot recollect them - and memory is after all the only coin we get to keep as change.

For some reason the story in my heart this morning is especially sad....

... My eldest son, now a college graduate, was perhaps seven. We were living in Austin, Texas, the place we dwelled the shortest amount of time in my checkered career.

Christmas in Austin is different than in New England where we had been for ten years. The weather gets sharp so there is a taste of winter in the air; but snow is exceedingly rare. The landscape is sharper too, with lots of cedar and cactus and hard yellow soil eroded from the limestone bedrock that was a great prehistoric sea. You can feel a bit of the arid loneliness in the original Christmas story, in contrast with the snowy pagan cheer our anglo culture prefers.

And there is the Spanish influence as well, with its Catholic love of the posadas, the mariachi inflected songs, the luminarias and other folkways that feel more honest in many ways than the manufactured and marketed forms that permeate our WASP ways.

But my story has nothing to do with this at all. It is simply about the desires of a seven year old for a robot. The Saturday television shows he loved seemed all about transformers and robots and other Japanimation inspired creatures. This was all he wanted, well not all but chief. The choices, however, were sparse. Santa's helpers went high and low, far and wide, to find something that met his requriement that it actually walk.

Glorioski if we did not finally happen upon a black plastic thing about foot tall that inched along and whose eyes behind its visor blinked red and whose arm raised to fire a ray gun or some such weapon.

Here comes the sad part. I knew that he wanted something that did far more, but also knew that telling him about it would tamper with his delicate faith in the power of Santa. He had already braved the Santa skeptics on the playground and manfully retained his faith. He came home bloodied in spirit one day, asking us if it was or was not so. Shades of Virginia!

What would be the better choice - crush his spirit now or on Christmas morning when the toy he was already imagining proved to be less than marvelous. We chose the latter. I truly found the thing awful. It was cheaply made despite its elevated price, and thus would not last long. The gap between reality and hope was vast. Something about buying it made me feel tawdry and low, as if I were caving in to something less than honorable, but I saw no better course. He would see in that instant how misplaced his hopes had been.

The morning came and he tore at its glittery wrapping. We received the great benediction of his ecstatic face, realizing this was his heartfelt desire. So far he was pleased. We raced to release it from all the cardboard and clear plastic. Unable to resist, he pressed various buttons and sure enough its eyes lit up, he growled mechanically, and tried in vain because we had a plush rug, to walk in his lumbering way. His arm rose up and sparky lights appeared at the muzzle of his pistol.

He was happy as it turned out. And the toy lasted a long time. What made it sad was that its charm was short lived. It was fun for a day, and for part of a day thereafter, and by spring was gathering dust on a shelf. Now and then it came out for a moment of poignant reiteration, but the passionate hope so invested in the weeks before Christmas evaporated quickly. A few years later his younger brother discovered it and enjoyed the same brief romance with it. And then it resumed its position among the artifacts of our growing past. My curatorially gifted wife preserved it in good order for many years. It finally left us, I think, as we departed Brooklyn and both were well beyond boyhood.

What makes this sad for me is how we live in a world where children are taught to desire things to answer their needs. Few of the toys I gave or received lasted in my life or memory much beyond the week after Christmas. I was not disappointed directly, but their joy was very short lived. Somewhere in my life, somewhere around ten or eleven, I began to wonder what could possibly equal the promise of Christmas? The great build up seemed ievitably to lead to a let down.

This is what I wanted to spare my own boys, even as I knew I could not. There is a horrid despair when the world proves less marvelous than you believe it is, when the magic is shown to be a ruse after all. Must we all want the false before we want the true. Is heartbreak really the only way to wisdom?

Maybe so. That does not ease those hardest moments of life when a child discovers the brutal facts, the first of which is the scandal of Santa. I still wish the story was true, sometimes, and count among my dearest possessions the clear memory of when it was true when I was a boy. Everyone should remember a time when all things were possible.

13 December 2006

A Crack Opens

Had a whirlwind trip to NYC this last weekend to take part in a ceremony of installation. But I also had just enough time to walk the holiday sights of Gotham, including for the first time sitting through Evensong at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, a church so high that even the pope would get a nosebleed. And if it was not perfect, no mortal ear or eye could tell...

... Christmas morning 1959, maybe 1960. All my brother and I wanted this Christmas was a ge-yu-ine Steve Canyon jet pilot's helmet. For those too young or old, Steve Canyon was a character in the funny papers who was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force. He was square jawed and blond and every bit the poster boy for Aryan excellence. But we did not see that irony then. All we knew was the jet planes were cool and they were selling helmets just like his with the flip down sunvisor and other cool things.

Sure enough, there were two roundish packages under the tree. We scrambled fast to prove our hopes, and there they were.

But wait, there's a problem. The visor, the coolest part, has a crack in it. I see a note in the box. "Dear Weldon," (I was known by my first name then) "so many little boys wanted this toy that there were only just enough. One of them had a crack in the sun visor and because you were the oldest, I knew you would understand."

I did understand, but that did not make it feel better. And upon re-reading the note I saw that the writing was familiar, rather feminine, if you will forgive me for saying.

Some Christmas gifts give more than they realize. And not always what we want...

08 December 2006

Anonymous Really Was A Woman

Finally, someone sent me a lovely personal story of their own to share. It came as a comment, but instead of punoshing it as an appendage to my story, it should have its own place.

Herewith, signed "anonymous" but clearly from a woman. Thank you for sending it and may others enjoy this gift as much as I

WFW

"... Growing up in a household with a mentally ill mother did not allow for great Christmas spirit to come flowing from our family. Yes, to the outside world we appeared as the wholesome catholic family that volunteered at church, and acted as useful members of society. That being said, I can tell you of my favorite activity of the holidays.

I have worn glasses since the first grade, and I discovered soon after that I could take them off to see our christmas tree in a whole new way. Seeing the blurry, large colored lights on a dark field of green boughs was simply magical. I would stare for what seemed like ages, squinting and turning my head to get the best effect. Time seemed to have stopped while I created tiny worlds of light people at play within the tree branches.

Looking back, I can see that this was a creative coping mechanism for escaping an environment of chaos. Sounds pitiful, but wonderful all at once. I still practice this ritual every christmas, but now it is to reflect on a little girl that lived through the tough times, only to find an adult that has grown strong both mentally and spiritually. Finding the beauty in any situation is truly the meaning of holiday spirit."


(Note: I shall be away from the keyboard through the weekend. Feel free to send stuff. I would love to find my email box stuffed like a stocking with your memories. But non of them will appear until Tuesday of next week. Merry, holy, happy...)

02 December 2006

Fame Is Not What is Used To Be

Holy Mackerel?

When i checked my stats for this week 206 people had come by on Monday, yes two hundred and six.

That's the good news. The bad is news is that on Tuesday it was 20. What happened? If you know tell me. If I am going to get fifteen minutes of fame I would like to know.

The other bit of bad news is that despite all the traffic no one, not one of you, sent in your own Christmas story to share.

Come on people. I need you to make this work. Dig down and find it. We all have them. Christmas eve, Christmas morning, the day after, Advent, Hannukah, whatever stands out.

I'll do one more to keep the ball rolling.

Yuletide Story 2...

... It weas the evening of the big day, when all the gifts had been opened and the dinner cooked and served. There is something unique about Christmas evening. All the energy of the last month simply vanishes and leaves in its wake a boredom I remember from childhood. How could it not with all that intensity built up for so long and focused on such a narrow slice of time.

In my boredom I remember something going on at church. Not a church event, though. In our Brooklyn neighborhood there are many single seniors who most years would have their holiday dinner at the local senior center. But this year they were unable to provide. At a clergy meeting the month before, when we found out, my rabbinical buddy says his people would love to cook (what else is there to do for a Jew on Christmas Day?) but had no place big enough to serve. I said we had the kithcen and dining room but not enough people to serve.

Peanut Butter and Chocloate collide.

So I go over that evening to say hello and thanks. The kitchen is full of the remnants of ham (actually smoked turkey rolls) and other foods. Guests are nibbling desserts and drinking coffee while someone is playing carols on the piano. Indeed, not only is it a member of the synagogue who is playing the carols lustily, the most vigorous singing is from the other members.

I chuckle with amusement and my rabbical buddy says under his breath, shrugging, "We love Christas Carols; they're great. But tell me when we else we can sing them?"

O. Henry could not have written a better story.

01 December 2006

Close Encounters Of An Elfin Kind

Yuletide Memory 1

A water main broke last night, and so the city was out outside digging and whacking through the wee smalls. I awoke now and then when the hammering or thumping was loud enough. They were in a double hurry because we all needed our water turned back on and a storm was coming. It arrived just as they were finishing. I heard the sound of rain turning to sleet – that rat-a-tat sound of ice on windows and rooftops and falling through bare branches and landing on the cold ground. My first yuletide memory begins with that sound...

... “All is calm, all is bright.” I am awake in my bed, one of two in a room I share with my younger brother. Some sound has roused me, but in the fog of sleep I cannot tell what it is.

It is Christmas morning, but only officially. To me, at six years old, it is the middle of the night. Everyone is asleep.

Has Santa been here yet? I know I must not go downstairs. Something dreadful awaits the child who sneaks downstairs in the dark of Christmas Eve.

Suddenly cold and lonesome I creep out of my bed and into my parent’s bedroom. They are sound asleep and yet somehow rouse enough to let me slide under their warmer blankets. Mom sleeps on the doorway side of the bed, naturally. I slip in next to her.

Awake I wonder whether Santa has been here and how long it will be until morning. A window pours moonlight onto the bed. It was sleeting and snowing when we went to sleep and now the sky is clearing. Wind whistles past the house, a frightening sound any other night but this. But I am wide awake wondering if Santa has come or not.

Scratch, rattle, scrape. Something is on the roof! What else could it be?


I force my eyes to close lest I see. And then it is morning.

29 November 2006

The Goose is Getting Fat

I am a Scrooge. Odd for a clergyman you might think, but not really when you ponder it. I’ll leave that for you to figure out. I only mention it because I need help being properly merry and bright.

Last year I did it by writing a December Diary which I shared with friends and members. Ironically, that helped me deal with my seasonal affective disorder (not winter but yuletide) quite well. That was a lot of work, though, and I dare not do it again and establish a pattern. Even if I wanted to, I would run out of things worth sharing.

That’s when I had a stroke of genius. At least I think it is.

Why don’t you tell me stuff? I’ll make it easy. Write me with a memory of Christmas seasons past, a paragraph or two or three at most. I’ll post them along with some of my own memories of holidays gone by.

Let’s have a month of telling each other stories – happy, sad, young, old, family or solo, touching or cold, and make our own advent calendar of stories we all can share.

Here’s how to do it. Post a comment to this post or a succeeding one. Instead of publishing them as part of that day’s conversation I’ll reject the comment as a comment so I can post it the next day or later. If we’re lucky we’ll get lots and lots of them, making a Stone Soup of a sort, worthy not just of a blog but a book.

I’ll try to publish one a day - if there is one to print. So the more you send the more you get. It’s sort of like Christmas itself, the more you give the more you receive. I’m feeling merrier already.

So help the pastor overcome his curmudgeonly soul and send your holiday memories of all kinds. Gather round the virtual fireplace and pull up a chair.

See you there!

24 November 2006

The Real Feast of Thanksgiving

Mileposts. That’s what holidays are. We measure our days by the feasts we keep, and the trail of changes that, like time lapse photography, take a snap shot of our lives annually as we gather round the bird.

I find it hard to remember specific Thanksgivings. Those from my childhood blend together not only with each other but with similar occasions – Christmas and others. Tue, the gigantic dead bird at the table is often a clue, but memory does not locate itself around the food as much as the company.

Reason and memory tell me that we hosted more than we guested, we being six and our various greats and grands being fewer. I can place all of my departed family around the table, often at my elbow.

The strongest is my maternal great grandmother who, having given birth quite young, was younger than my paternal grandfather by a generation. I think they met less than a handful of times and being as different as sodium and water this may have been planned by my parents. We often ate at her house, but I cannot recall Thanksgiving itself.

Her daughter, my grandmother, may have been there when I was young. I feel more certain when she was older and she was less capable. It is a cinch that her sister, my great aunt, who was the family eccentric, was there. Her swain for some years, Victor, was there at least once or twice. The house swarmed when she and Victor and her mother arrived, bringing in the aroma of lavender and soap and the memory of pill box hats with fashionably small black lace veils.

When we moved from the family compound (Maryland) Thanksgiving became a nuclear thing, one of which was almost as explosive as it came soon after my dad was severed from his position in a political shuffle that left him unemployed when he was in his early fifties, younger than I am now. Good heavens.

Mom was trying hard to remain positive but was a seething cauldron of anger at the injustice done to my father and at his calm acceptance of it. I am sure a cocktail, to which my mother was habituated, lubricated her tongue even more and there was a terrific moment when she could stand the polite silence no more and demanded to know why dad just took it. He replied that he saw no reason to rail when it would do no good. A frequent point of conflict in their long and vastly more happy life together.

When I got married, my wife being an only child and I the oldest of four, we spent the bulk of our holidays with my in-laws. Within five years my father-in-law died and the gravity of mother and daughter was even more potent. Thus for the second half of my life Thanksgiving was spent in her company and assorted parts of her clan. A family devoted to tradition, those years truly do blend together, the biggest change coming when my mother-in-law ceased to host the event and it fell now her nephew who lived closer than us.

Over all, it is the memory of crowded tables with to much of everything to take in – people, silver ware, serving dishes, food, conversation. Growing up where and when we did the one distinctive feature at our family tables was sauerkraut, the vestiges of German immigrants both to the area where we grew up (Maryland) and deep inside my own family (Gminders, Brubachs, Fowbles, and more perch on my family tree). Doing without the Teutonic version of kimchee would be unthinkable, as heretical as eating something other than turkey (which we did once when I was a teenager and my mother choose to roast a goose. Memorable but not delectable.)

I noticed recently the end of mince meat pie, a staple of my youth now gone. It did not likfe it when I was young but came to treasure it. Out here in the Midwest it was less common than on my east coast, and so they hear my memories of it as idiosyncratic as the presence of sauerkraut.

This morning, the day after Thanksgiving, I officiated at a memorial service. The family chose the date because they would all be here for the holiday. Among the speakers, the daughter stood out for describing her father as the imparter of family lore. She perceived that her dad wanted bestow the family history before dying and so she took on that role. Coming at Thanksgiving made it especially apt and touching, as these are the days we expect and even need to bring out the feast of memory. I hope you will forgive me sharing mine, but feel free to share yours as well. In the end, this is the banquet to which we are all invited and from which we call can be fed without ever taking too much or running out.

Blessings!

20 November 2006

How I Became Vanna White

Speaking of life getting in the way, I got a letter from the historian of my last church. Actually it came a month ago, asking for me to correct and add to her on going history of the church. She is a very meticulous scholar, bless her, and there were but a few typos or missteps to mention. What makes it worth mentioning is that looking back conjured up lots of memories. And in those memories a pattern arose. Not the only pattern I am sure, but the one I am noticing is how often I am watching someone else. As I told a therapist some years ago, I am often not the main character in my own life.

Just to be clear, I have no need or desire to be at the center of your life. In one’s own life, though, you ought to be at the center, the main actor and actee as it were. “Who’s life is it anyway,” to quote a play of that name some years ago. Yet there in my reminiscences was a wild fact that others have been more central than me.

For example: Over ten years ago I officiated at a memorial for someone sort of famous, a poet who inspired Pete Seeger to write a song. Pete, being a New Yorker and available, sang at the service I conducted. A few years later the same thing happened when a church member who composed a hit show years before died. It had recently been revived and a young actress who made her Broadway break out in that show, Kristen Chenoweth, sang at the service. Not only would people remember their music more than my words, I remember their music more than my words.

I looked back and saw that often the dominant presence in my life at a given moment is someone else – parent, sibling, friend, teacher, sweetheart, and so on. They are the ones whom memory tells me shaped the course of my life almost as though I had delegated the task to them.

A psychologist I know observed that the Buddhist principle of extinguishing the self requires that there be a self to extinguish. Or to put it psychologically, even if we need to overcome ego centrism, the ego must first be at the center. Somewhere early in life I got the message that being self centered is bad, so I took myself out of the center, going too far I guess by deciding that it was best to let others define me. My path for the last thirty five years has been to create an ego that stands on its own rather than in response to others.


I am a slow learner it turns out.

There is a clichéd idea is that everything in life is a lesson, and we only move on to the next one once we learn the one in front of us. For lots of folks, including me, some lessons take a very long time. Here’s hoping I get to one more before class lets out.

19 November 2006

A Penny For Your Thoughts

Well it has been another long time. Gee, I used to be real regular with this posting stuff but lately have had something get in the way – life. Right after the trip north came the election, and with that some comment on the outcome on my other site. Then we had some home improvement to do - repainting a room and then (red faced embarrassment here) installing a large screen HD TV. I hasten to say I am not a football fan, or much of a TV watcher in general. My family, though (two out of three wear glasses you see) wanted one.

Was that excuse as lame as it looked writing it?

Anyway, stuff piled up, and Thanksgiving is on the way. That reminds me that I got into all this blog stuff as a result of broadcasting a "December Diary" last year. Has it really been a year? And now I wonder if I dare do something like that again. Opinions?

Well, today is the Sunday before Thanksgiving and our church annual meeting. Time to inpsire the people to do their democratic (small case!) duty. Trouble is, I really believe in all that. As I told someone at a potluck over the weekend, I never stopped being a Boy Scout. All that "trustworthy loyal helpful" stuff still makes sense to me. And yet I would never consider myself the pollyanna - babbitt - shirley temple - orphan annie sort at all. I have a good healthy dose of irony and cynicism in me.

I guess being consistent is not my fate. Hey, it would be boring at the least. But it does not make for a great leaderly personality where consistency is power.

"You say I contraidct myself. Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." - Whitman (as recollected)

Stirring no?

He went to his death hawking his book from a box while sitting on the streets of Camden New Jersey.

Gotta rethink this one.

06 November 2006

Without Apology

Sorry to have been away for so long.  

My happy duty was to focus on a milestone in the family.  Our eldest son graduated college this past weekend.  Objectively it was run of the mill, save that we all had to travel there and spend two nights so it was costly.  The ceremony was long - tedious in many respects – for the one 30 second occasion when our eldest marched across.  Going there involved driving through snow to one airport, taking two flights, crossing a national border with all the formalities of passports and customs and such.  It was colder and darker.  By itself it would not have been very grand or worth the time and money.

And yet, it was a great moment and a great weekend.  We paused in our life to notice where we were and relish that.  While my son visited with college friends and Profs the rest of us set up in a posh hotel that I have long dreamed of enjoying.  We were in one of our favorite cities and savoring the gentle difference from the US and the treat of being swells for a day or two.  We enjoyed ourselves immensely for no other reason than to enjoy ourselves.  It was an occasion to splurge because we had reached this place in our lives.  I commend self reward.  Especially when it comes in response to genuine effort and accomplishment.  

Now, we are back to regular life.  Tomorrow is Election Day.  My son is now merely unemployed.  The trees are almost entirely denuded of their leaves. My younger son faced two tests today.  A dear old church member died and needs the blessing or a memorial service.  And of course the frenzy of the holidays is rumbling on the horizon.  

“I’m so glad we had this time together,” as the Carol Burnett told us long ago.  Would that every week could in fact be like this.  In theory it can.  What makes this moment different from another in meaning or worth?  Nothing really, save that we say so.  Any day or hour can bring something majestic if we are prepared to see it.  So I wish to believe, at least.  Pray help me remember that any moment has embedded in it all the satisfaction and gratitude of those we easily recognize for such.  

28 October 2006

I Hear That Train a Coming...

It is not sunrise, and a train whistle comes up from the river where the tracks have been since they first arrived. The sound throws me backward in time, like Proust’s madeleine.

- I am eight years old and hearing the Capitol Limited coming from Union Station on its way to the impossibly remote and exciting Chicago. I hear it from my bedroom window in the dark of early winter evenings.

- I am on ten years old and on the train itself, in a Pullman roomette, heading into Pittsburgh at midnight, seeing through my window the flames of the steel mills. And the next morning, chugging through Gary, going slower than the cars on the highway alongside and panting to get there.

- I am thirteen, and on the North Coast Limited going to Missoula where we are all getting off to go on a wilderness camping adventure in the Bitterroot Mountains. The bears eat our cured meats one night and we all have to fish for our supper, great cut-throat trout draped over our broad mouthed Sierra Club cups.

- I am twenty three and married and now living in Chicago, and our apartment looks over to what was called the IC tracks, the commuter line that ran down into the south suburbs and beyond. They did not sound their horn, there being no grade crossings, but their huge mechanical whoosh came as reliably as Big Ben’s chimes. At first we despaired of ever getting to sleep, and then five years later, in the remote woods of Massachusetts where I first served we lay awake in the vast silence, needing the noise to get to sleep.

- I am thirty eight, and living in a settled suburb of Austin Texas where the Mo-Pac line carries Amtrak into town once a day. My baby boy rides on my back as I walk the neighborhood. We wave to the train as it passes.

- I am in New York City, where there are not trains except underground, but at least once a week I am standing on a subway platform – horribly hot in summer and numbingly cold in winter, waiting for the whoosh or the air that comes before and the shrill brakes that pummel the ears.

I remember so many trains – the little toys that ran under the Christmas tree and fired my imagination of power and travel, the mad dash from Grand Central to Penn to change trains on our way home from the Montreal Expo in 1967, the ceremonial trains in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Vermont meant to entertain and preserve, commuter trains into Boston, day trips to DC to see the sights, posh journeys by office car to the Canadian Rockies, being over crowded on the way to Naples, and evicting presumptuous nuns on the way to Florence, eating on a diner while climbing the Dolomites, carving mountainsides in the Austrian Alps at night, tearing across France to Geneva, lumbering to Canterbury or flying to Edinburgh.

But mostly what I remember is remembering. Trains carry me forward and backward in time, to my next destination and back to my origins. And when I hear the whistle now, it all comes back in a terrific rush of recollection. And with that recollection comes a poignance that is almost unbearable.

It is as though with each train my whole life goes tearing by as I listen or watch, and in each window sits some earlier self - a boy or a young man. They see the landscapes and cities, the horizon that betokens all adventures and dreams. They look out on a world unfolding and full of promise. And I long to be with them again, to remember with every sinew the moments when the world was new.

26 October 2006

My Dinner with Destiny

So where was I?

Yes, the anniversary. Good day that was, though it began and ended with spitting snow on the windshield. We decided to have a decent dinner out, not too late as we are not night owls. We chose a sea food restaurant, something not as preposterous as it was once in the Midwest. I had been there before for business purposes, but my wife had not.

One stark difference between restaurants here and back in NYC – size. I never liked the trop intime snugness of so many places in NYC. Elbows and knees never had a comfortable place. Neighbor diners might inadvertently drink from your water. And I still know far too much about stranger’s love lives and businesses. But eating in the Midwest feels like moving to the country. Tables are as huge as farm houses, with acres between them. The place we ate could have been five to seven separate places in NYC.

That did not stop the prices from being lush. Entrees started at 25 and ran up easily into the high forties. Starters were somewhat less but not cheap. And drinks, well, when a glass of shiraz costs as much as the bottle – true because I know the brand, and the glass is none too generous - one is my financial limit. OK, there was good bread, which here in the Midwest is important that it be ample and served warm. The service was attentive and the food was unusually and well made. Michelin? Heaven’s no, the crowd looked more like Bibendum than like those who read his commendations.

Which suited us fine. The arch smugness of NYC diners can curdle hollandaise before it reaches the table. If the bourgeois manner is far from dashing, it is at least relaxed. We were by far the most dressy people in our neck of the woods. Wedding rehearsal parties (Friday night + long tables + three generations = rehearsal dinner) were on our far flanks. One was quite religious as they sang – yes they all sang – the doxology as their grace. In NYC it would have sent a glacier of horror through the room, as though Osama Bin Laden were suddenly in their midst and yelled “Allahu Akhbar.” Here it was amiably tolerated as part of the landscape.

I had a seafood cassoulet that was very spicy and overall nicely conceived. It was a little meager in size and the sea food portions more ceremonial than substantial. Advertised as a mixture of prawns, mussels, and andouille sausage among the beans, there were three prawns (large I must admit) five small mussels and one sliver of andouille. My wife had stuffed prawns, crabmeat stuffing in this case. The prawns were complete – down to their knobby eyes and spindly legs.

We declined dessert. The drama of the anniversary dinner was actually something extraneous to it. As we arrived in the car, my wife noted a call on her cell. It was our son who left a message about wanting to spend the night with a friend. She tried to call him back so as to refuse permission. The call got cut off and so he left another message. I grew quite impatient as he would not accept our decision and called yet again to make his case. It was already 8 p.m. and we were hungry and this was not how we wished to spend the evening. I called him, leaving a message on his phone this time telling him in no uncertain terms that he could not spend the night and he was not to call back as this was our one and only 30th anniversary and we were going to have dinner alone and undisturbed.

He did not call back. I thanked him later.

21 October 2006

Details, I Want Details

Well, it has been a week without posting here. For those who keep track, I have been busy on the political side of my world, http://www.ranting-rev.blogspot.com/ because the election and other stuff is such a rich vein to mine these days.

Still, I owe you faithful onlookers a synopsis of the last week. Let me tell you about my anniversary, as that was the occasion of my tantrum in the last post.

I was miffed that morning, as the rain and snow spat down. I tried to feel flattered that the earliest snow on record came for my anniversary, but was relieved that it did not spoil our trip. We went to Chicago for the day. That’s where we were married, and there was one soul left from that day (the former wife of one of the officiants, now deceased sadly) with whom we have stayed in touch. We agreed to meet up in the afternoon, visit the chapel in the church where it all began, and have a celebrative piece of cake.

The weather got better the further from GR we got. South of Benton Harbor the sky cleared. In Chicago it was sunny but quite cold and windy. We were glad to have our winter coats on. After arriving in Hyde Park, and finding a parking place, now much harder than thirty years ago, we enjoyed a lunch at a familiar haunt from those days (actually a new location for an old haunt. The Medici brought their old booths with many a carved initial, as well as their old menu now supplemented, from a smaller place across the street from out first apartment to a digger place three blocks west.)

Then we walked for almost two hours up and down streets we knew as well as our faces back then. Mostly it was familiar, and I pondered the power of durability on our souls. Why is it that stability is so consoling, even when we know it is not ultimately so? Yet I could feel it, enjoy it, and got a sense of peace from seeing things that I remembered. Yes we walked past our old apartment house, noted that the place looked pretty good, new windows had been installed in appeared. Some things had changed of course, the Medici was elsewhere as I mentioned. A new café, the Florian was there in its stead. To balance the change, a bookstore from the block where the Medici went moved down into the block where the Medici was. That was sad as O’Gara’s was known for its corpulent long haired cat that basked in the great window among the books. We have a picture of it snoozing away back then.

Powell’s, yes, the used book dealer also in Portland, was still right across the street. Modest by comparison, it was and still is quite enormous for a local store. And it still puts useless books out to give away. Many volumes in my theological library came from that benevolence.

We passed beneath the old IC tracks, now the Metra system for trains. Old murals we knew have peeled almost beyond recognition. We noted the place where years ago we stood alone to wave at HRH Prince Charles as he came by on a tour. Trolling along we noted the 55th street Point, a promontory on the Lake Michigan where runners and sun bathers go – although it was empty in this cold. We enjoyed the familiar looks of large apartment houses (now mostly university housing) called Windermere and Flamingo and such. This area briefly approached the style of the more opulent gold coast just north of the Miracle Mile. You can see vestiges of it in the names and architectural details.

Then we strolled back under the IC/Metra, through shopping areas where we spent our meager dollars, made sure our memory was not playing false with us, and surprised that places like Mellow Yellow and Ribs & Bibs were still at it. The blight of cell phone stores was apparent here, and yet they did not significantly change the feeling. We zigged and zagged down streets, looking for homes we visited back then, appreciating the domestic building styles – shingle, queen ann, english tudor, mock wright – and ended up about four miles later at our car to retrieve our camera and other bits before heading to the chapel.

Arriving at my seminary, where we held the reception back then, much more has changed. Not just students, but the building shows evidence of new ways and means in its task. Enough, though, has stayed put that I could find the library and the washroom. We found our friend, now a staffer at the school, and after a short conversation repaired to the church and chapel.

Here I must digress a bit, despite this lengthy post. The chapel is a wing of a neo-gothic structure built as the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. The Chapel may be the oldest part, and it still serves as the convening place for seminary services each week. It can hold maybe 100 easily, more broad than wide, in the flamboyant gothic style favored by academic types. The back was open to the church which is a few steps below. Last week the carpet was being replaced so that it was less than pristine, but we did not care.

What mattered was that it was still there, and we briefly stood on the spot we stood to get married and where we had our picture taken before.


On that day two friends served as officiants, one ordained who signed the license and the other in training like me. Both named Al - Alfred and Albert respectively. Alfred is Japanese American - and serves in the clergy of a Japanese faith that grew out of Shinto, so I guess we were married by a reformed Shinto priest. Albert was a Mainiac, who when he came to Chicago came with wife, two chidlren, widowed mother and her mother as well. It was almost the northeast version of the Beverly Hillbillies, down to the rocking chair for granny. They were as out of their element as Alfred was in his. Somehow I had gotten close to both. Alfred is still thriving in LA where he came from. Albert turned up with diabetes a few eyars later and died from hypoglycemia.

On that day about 100 people, mostly seminary folks were there, as I mentioned before. Afterward, we repaired to the seminary social room, an elegant place where wine and canapes were all we served, presented by students who volunteered for the occasion. Somewhere in the midst both our fathers approachd us at the same time with a cork in hand, to remember the occasion. We still have the corks but not the fathers.

Our wededing night was a dinner at a snooty restaurant and returning to our apartment for the night. We had to leave the next day, not on a honeymoon I am afraid. That would wait for 17 years. No, we went to Kalamazoo where I would perform the ceremony for my brother and his new wife.

Back to the present now, Wendy brought the pictures from the first day with us, which our friends enjoyed very much. That she was wearing the same dress was no a small pleasure for her. I could not wear my wedding suit today, in my case because it would be too big. Age had changed us both, of course. Of the two of us, I had grown up and old the most.

Then we visited the columbarium below the sanctuary, where some old friends are now reposing – former husband and his family in the case of our friend Nan; infant daughter of her current husband, in the case of Jim; the gay black man who was the church organist and took his life back then; scholars and members and names with faces.

Finally, we sat down in a parlor now named for a man I worked for one year, a colleague and among the most interesting and difficult people I have known, and shared a sip of champagne and a slice of cake. It was perfect, as the day was crowded with memory and could not have stood a boisterous reunion with more.

We hurried back to the car to get ahead of the rush hour, almost succeeding. Our trip was slightly longer because there was traffic to contend with, but it did not last very long. North of Benton Harbor it clouded up. East of Holland it began to precipitate again. This time I felt little umbrage. We went to the restaurant we planned on, enjoyed a slightly too expensive meal, and got home by 10 p.m.

Rare is the day that is preponderantly pleasant. Most are good overall, but there are enough moments of frustration or annoyance to interrupt the flow of joy. This day, despite its cool beginning, opened into a true passage of grace. Shorn of deadlines, tasks, measurements of adequacy or the drive of urgency, it was about twelve hours of delight. I really should make sure it is not another 30 years before it happens again.

More on Saturday, the day after, next time. At this rate, though, I should never catch up.

12 October 2006

I'm Out of Fingers and Toes

It snowed today. Out came the brushes and on came the defroster. Some of the trees have yet to turn (though the big maple in my front yard loves to carpet my lawn) and now there is about an inch of snow.

It will not last. By the weekend it will be gone and seasonable temperatures resume. But I am tiny bit miffed. Tomorrow is my 30th anniversary. Initial notions of taking a weekend off and going back to Chicago where we were married withered under the facts of our chockablock life. We are not party people, at least I am not. And where is the pleasure in throwing a party for yourselves – you clean, cook, entertain, then clean up again afterward? Besides, we have already had two receptions at the house in the last weeks and another to come this Sunday afternoon.

So we settled on a day trip to Chicago, it is only 3 hours away. We are going to spend but a few hours there, including a short visit to the chapel in the church where we were hitched. Of those who were there back then there are only five or six left who can gather and so we will. Many are still alive, I would emphasize, but now scattered to several regions. Being a seminarian at the time, at a small school, there were but a 100 people there, most of them students and faculty. Our parents were there of course, and my siblings. My wife is an only child. But as small as it was, and modest in its ways (we had only a cocktail reception afterward in the school across the street) it was notable in that it included a present and two future seminary presidents, a future bishop, a passel of Ph, D.s and if I read the stars right the next president of my denomination. Hardly the Trilateral Commission, but pretty good for a young man of 23 and his fiancée of almost five years.

So it irks me, in a petty way I am so good at, that our anniversary will be cold and snowy instead of cool and colorful. Not that the universe owes me a favor. Far from it. Of all those most unlikely to succeed wildly, I have defied the odds at every turn. My career as a clergyman has been a steady march up the ladder of status and success. My marriage has had its bumps and mistakes, but they are barely potholes compared to the lives I have seen around me. My sons are healthy, decent, honorable sorts whom I now try to equal in quality of soul and character.

So why does it bother me that tomorrow will not be the perfect day? Because I want to bestow as many blessings as I can on this mate and helpmeet who has now spent more than half her life with me and, unless cruel fate overtakes us, will probably spend the rest of her life with me. I am stunned, amazed, undone by it. Until I realize I have done the same thing.


What a colossal act of faith it is to marry at all, to stay married when the gauze of romance has been blown away by reality, and when the evident demands of old age begin to appear on the horizon. If it were not so common it would be breathtaking.

Isn’t that the way of things though? The most courageous and religious acts are those we commit everyday – marriage, parenthood, friendship. Each of them can wreck the soul, even ruin our lives, but we persist in loving, mating, and trusting despite its actuarial peril.

I have just finished a little book by Matthew Perry – “Population: 485” - that records his experiences in his own small home town after he returns after a long hiatus. What he writes about is this overlooked treasure of human honor in plain places. I commend it to you. I shall never be able to do for my town or family what Perry does, lacking his gift. So my little prayer, if I am really honest is this: Holy One, help me to recognize all the blessings I truly have. And remind me to give a blessing for all those I receive.

07 October 2006

Root Root Root For the Home Team

The Yankees are about to lose. For most people this is a welcome fact, but for me it is sad. You see, I am a Yankees fan. How did that happen, not being a native?

I was born in DC and saw the Senators play once in the old field. I was very young then. We moved to Baltimore, and I spent my formative baseball years in that place, rejoicing in their rise in the 1960s and their successes (and struggles) through 70s and into the 80s. We did live briefly in Detroit in the 1970s, but I was in college then, in St. Louis, and so did not form an attachment to the Tigers (through I did see a game at old Tigers field.) In the late 70’s I was in Chicago, on the south side, so I rooted for the White Sox (but did see a few games at Wrigley including a wild blowout of the Padres.)

My first ten years in ministry was served in Massachusetts, so I fought for the Red Sox. I remember to this day the evening in 1986, after an evening meeting, lying down to bed in my rural home and barely touching the mattress when Bill Buckner let the ground ball get past him in the series and said, right there to all who would listen, “It’s over.”

Then we lived in Texas, right between Astros and Rangers. College ball was bigger for us then, and we enjoyed Rocket Roger even more, as he came from UT to the Sox. Our connection, as it were.

Anyway, we moved to NYC in 1994, and because the Mets stole it from the O’s in 1966, and again from the Sox in 1986, I could not love the Mets. So I went to the dark side, and rooted for the Yankees. I lived there longer than anywhere else. It is my home in terms of years spent.

People love to hate the Yankees, and rejoice in their downfall. I understand. They have won more series than any other team. They are almost always in contention. They spend gigabucks to steal talent away from other teams. No wonder so many people hate them. I do not begrudge them, as it is part of their baseball weltanschauung.

But there’s the secret you need to know. We Yankees fans do not hate you. Sure, we love to win, but when we lose we do not begrudge it because so often it is a team that has been away from the series for a while.

So right now, as they are on the verge of losing to the Tigers, I am sad for them but glad for the Tigers. They deserve a shot and by golly they are playing like they mean it. You go guys. And as an American league boy who lived in Detroit for a while, I will root for you to womp the pennant and lay the Nationals low in a few weeks.

That’s the advantage of being a Yankees fan. We never really lose, because whoever wins deserves it and we’ll be back in the race next year. It would take about a generation for any other team to equal that record, and only if they won most every year and the Yanks lost as many. We have nothing to prove and thus nothing to lose.

Still, another subway series would be fun to watch. Maybe next year.

30 September 2006

Now That I Have a Moment...

So I just got back from the wedding, which was wonderful.

Ordinarily I do not attend rehearsal dinners and receptions. For several reasons.

1. I rarely know anyone outside the wedding party, so at dinner or reception I have no one to talk with, and few find a clergyman their idea of a party animal.

2. If I ate all the food and drink offered, I would be ever expanding.

3. I am not a social person, really. Big informal crowds are hard for me. One or two or even a half dozen people are my idea of a good evening. Scores are overwhelming.

So why did I go tonight? It was a church family whom I respect and appreciate a lot, of whom one was a co-chair of the search committee that selected me. And it was fun, at least for my wife who is far more sociable than I, meaning gifted at it. We left before the cake, which I will miss as I have a sweet tooth. But all the other fine food was already making me feel very full indeed, so discretion trumped desire.

A friend wrote me saying that my last entry was not something that stimulated questions or conversation. I suppose not. The nature of blogs is that they capture whatever moment I have when I write it. Far from being well planned, entries are as much prompted by feeling I should write as having something to write.

This is the discipline that public utterance is about. Whether you have something planned or not, you have to say something every seven days if you are a preacher. And a blog that lies fallow for a long time loses its constituency. So I am flogging myself to sit down after the filet and the merlot to say something because, once again, I shall be away for a few days. And there will be no time until Thursday next.

Far from inspiring, this entry, but I have this habit of candor that I simply cannot shake.

By the way, Die tode Stadt, an opera by Erich W. Korngold, was lovely. That it was composed when he was 24, and was his third, was stunning. It will not be a staple in my repertory, but the lute song in the first act, reprised at the end, is worth the whole thing. Like Bizet's Pearl Fishers, it is imperfect but has moments of perfection.

And the Klimts are stunning. the five paintings I saw in Vienna and on display through this week at the neue gallerie in New York, that will be sold at auction soon, that are among the very best I have ever seen. It was great to see them again, even for $15 dollars. The Shieles and Kokoschkas were great too. But on their own, not worth $15.

There is a nearly perfect cafe there, in the Viennese tradition, which means Viennese coffees like kaiser melange, my favorite. While the Italians disdain cappucino after 10 am, Viennese drink melange into the afternoon. Korngold and Klimt and Kaiser melange took me back to Vienna five years ago and I left New York longing to return to the Cafe Drei Beisl in the St. Michaelplatz, and eat tafelspitz on cold evenings with a tall glass of Gosser beer. I could remember how it felt to ride the strassenbahn around the Ring, the windows cloudy with moisture and the recorded voice reminding us at each stop which lines converged at which stop... Umsteigen zum linea zwei und zwanzig...

Paris is more splendid. London more grand. But Vienna has a tenderness in it, a world weary resignation that is both sad and happy, something that is the heart of the Marschallin's "Ja ja" as she walks away from Octavian. I miss it very much today.

I am Not fasting, but I sure am fast.

Was it Tristram Shandy who found out that he could not both live his life and record it in his journal?  I am feeling that fact today, coming home later yesterday from a few days away, and leaving again on Monday for a few more.  

I should tell you about going to Die tode Stadt, seeing Gustav Klimpt, riding the Acela, walking the Upper West Side and Boston’s Back Bay.  Some of you may know about these things, but others might enjoy it.  I cannot tell you the pleasure of seeing old friends, but the privacy of that experience you all know as well as I.  

In a few moments I have to perform a wedding, including attending the reception this time.  It will be mid evening before we get home.  The morning will be a mad rush to prepare for all that must happen.  Maybe by 5 all will be back to the merely mad.  

Somewhere in this I have to figure out how to start my furnace (it was stopped to make a steam pipe repair), get my roof replaced and do other homeowner stuff.  

L’shana tovah, but may it be a little less wild and woolly than it started.

17 September 2006

So What Do I Owe You?

It sure is hard to post something between Thursday and Sunday. Anyway, here it is Sunday evening. Services went well – we had a great guest musician this week – and I was able to get away by 3 p.m. The afternoon was marvelously prosaic. Filled the tank, and then bought provisions for the coming week. Now that I have both sons at home, it is amazing how much more I need to buy each week.

Speaking of providing, I’m preparing for our annual stewardship campaign at church. I also spent some time this past last week updating my personal financial records in anticipation of the quarterly tax payments last Friday. Then there’s the house and yard. We need to replace the roof and repair part of the boiler system. I must have made half dozen phone calls this past week trying to get the roofer and the heating people to call me. So far they have yet to return my calls. Cold weather is coming closer every day, too.

In the larger sense of stewardship, my wedding 30th anniversary is coming up in about four weeks. In this world where half of marriages do not survive I am stunned that we have come this far. Not that it was so rocky and all. It has not been. And yet, when I weigh the fact of 30 years, over half my life, I see it is something to behold.

So what bothers me is that I cannot get an adequate observance organized. We are not party people, I should say. Just a pleasant dinner would be nice, and not necessarily out. That would mean getting dressed and making reservations and work in general. Maybe I should cater a meal at home, but I have these two boys living here, and much as I love them, this is an occasion for two only.

For a while I hoped to take us back to Chicago where we got married and spend a night. But even that is too elaborate with all the wider demands of work and school and life in general. I mope a little that other couples take cruises and weekends. Other husbands lavish great gifts and other tokens of affection. If all goes well, there will be a new roof in process, a repaired boiler by the time the great day comes. I may yet swoop her away to Chicago, but only if we can come back that night because our son has his first dance with a date the next night. We could go to lunch, see our old neighborhood (peeking at the window of our first apartment) and then go to the chapel where we got hitched. Not quite as grand as replaying our wedding night with a fine meal and then retiring to a nice room somewhere on the miracle mile.

If she needed magic and romance as much as the movies imply I would have been kicked to the curb long ago. But like I said last time, I am a blessed man.

The days slide by so quickly, and honoring them seems almost impossible. What can I do that truly reveres the gift every day offers? Wife, children, siblings, health, friends, work, food, learning, life itself. I would have to spend the whole day in gratitude to even begin to do this fortune justice.

So there is a dilemma, my friends. Thanks are due, but paying the interest alone would consume every penny. We cannot succeed, unless the debt is not actually gratitude. I’ll have to ponder that while I figure out how to be a good husband next month.

13 September 2006

The Good Night

Tired. A ferocious week and it’s only Wednesday. Not evil or mean, I should say. Just immense. Time planning and management has never been my forte. It began to take its toll with the familiar touch of insomnia. That’s my ‘wake up call’ in reverse, the signal to slow down. Only I can’t. Once the irons are in the fire you have to see them through. You would think I would learn by now. As they say about insanity…?

Thanks to the magazine that published my 9/11 thoughts, I got a bunch of blog visits on Monday and Tuesday. Thanks Chris Walton for that. And a fine note from someone using an email username, which means I have no idea who it is. But the letter was very kind, and in the curious intimate anonymity of the internet, I now know a great about this person but not a name or even a gender. O brave new world that has such creatures in it.

Death is about me this week as I attend a man and wife as he slips away, and prepare a memorial for a young man who perished a month ago. Nothing in clergy life is so affirming, oddly, than the office of the dead. We are really quite trivial to society, as the ancient reputation of priests as parasites suggests, until death comes. Then I feel useful, in a clear and firm way.

Thinking back on funerals, I remember them more than weddings. Weddings are often very similar, and frequently for people you do not know. The dead are more likely people with a connection to you. I have clear memories of my first memorial, a hot day in Chicago that demanded shirtsleeves. And one in Massachusetts that had me standing in a graveyard as the snow fell and watching the casket go into the frozen ground. There were two huge funerals I did in Texas long ago, one for an esteemed professor. So esteemed that the formidable John Silber, then president of Boston University attended. I did not know until after and was relieved not to have known. Another for a ballet dancer who perished of AIDS. He was deeply loved by student and fan. I saw them the day they died, when the shadow of death had crept into their faces.

It may seem odd, but I cherish the dead I have buried, even the ones I did not know. It taught me that even when we are gone, there are people whose lives we can affect. Mine being that affected life.

I did not know the young man I shall memorialize tomorrow, but his mother and father came to see me and I saw the awesome sorrow in them as they smiled through their tears. I do know the man who is slipping into death, sleeping more and more. What a gift I get each time; one that always humbles me and makes me tremble with unworthiness. I am blessed.

Now to bed.

07 September 2006

Go on, I dare ya!

Complicated week, as first weeks back after summer often are but this time enhanced - a death in the congregation which means a memorial service, my son applying for health insurance and getting denied, my colleague’s announced departure as of next June, getting a new tenant in my apartment and helping the homeless friend who was in it all summer find new digs. This evening, my spouse and I were guests of someone sponsoring a fundraiser for our governor, for which we will write a solid check. Ahead lies a wedding (don’t forget the rehearsal I am telling myself!) and of course the first Sunday back in our sanctuary.

I guess I am tired after all. But I tell you all this because I it has taken me a while to assemble some blogworthy thoughts. Mine is a generation that thinks writing should not be the process of thinking but the result of it.

Anyway, last night I was part of a panel on the moral and religious basis for progressive convictions and actions. I shared the dais of what was, and still for the moment is the Ladies Literary Society. It is a true auditorium in a building with a façade designed to look like a large home along the street. Something of an architectural trompe l’oeuil. (Is that the spelling?)

My comrades in discourse were a Dominican sister, a Conservative rabbi and a Muslim women scholar. We each had time to articulate our basic point of view and then answer questions. The crowd of about 150 – mostly older people - were sympathetic listeners, being part of two left of center political organizations.

Why tell you about this? Because the emerging commonality between us, overarching different confessions and scriptures, was a sense that plurality and diversity are not obstacles to morality and truth, but a means to morality and truth.

For my friends on the stage, this mostly represented a minority view from the prevailing wind of their religious community. The very nature of scriptural and confessional religions is to say “This is the truth; that is not.” Saying that is the essential act of faith – be it a book or what the book tries to say or the institution that claims to embody what a book tries to say. To equivocate on the truth value – saying there may be more or different truth out there – implicitly puts one at odds with the essential claim of the religion, I would say.

Of course, representing a single independent church, this is no problem. My problem is exactly the opposite. Without a scripture or denomination, our challenge is to legitimate ourselves at all. Far from being suspected of heresy, I am suspected of being an imposter. “That’s not a church,” or “That’s not a religion,” is what I face.


For lots of folks, including self proclaimed religious liberals (I actually think the term ought to be liberal religionists which is less economical I know but more semantically accurate) we define ourselves by the adjective not the noun. I think this is the source of our weakness, as nouns are things in themselves while adjectives are nothing without something else. What is the noun, the thing, the stuff, the guts, the core, the bit T Truth that we are about?

I think I know. Arrogant? Well even a blind man can catch a cat in the dark room if you listen really carefully. But I want to know what you think the noun part is. Be scrupulous. No neologisms here. Find a transcendental claim that unifies diversity without destroying it or demeaning it. Give the self- evident basis for morality in a pluralistic universe. Show how the parts fit into the whole, how the transient connects to the permanent, how individual life matters in a universe of indescribable immensity and silence.

Oh, and do it in a way that does not require believing in something essentially beyond the limits of reason or science.

I’ll be waiting.

05 September 2006

Another One Bites the Dust

No he did not fly an airplane.  That was Sky King.  Starr King, Thomas Starr King to be precise, was a Universalist minister serving the new Unitarian church in San Francisco at the time it was seeking to join the Union.  He is, or rather has been, one of the two personalities representing California in the national statuary hall of the US Capitol.  

Why is he there at all?  Abolitionist in his views, he stumped all over the California Republic to win its entry as a free state, working so hard that he died at the tender age of forty.  An ally and acquaintance Lincoln, it is no wonder that he was regarded, along with Father Junipero Serra, as a ‘father’ of the state.  Hence his place in the Capitol.

But that’s about to change.  According to the NYT, the state legislature has voted to replace King with a statue of…

Ronald Reagan.

I am trying to set aside my religious and political views here - being both a Unitarian Universalist and a Democrat.  King was never Governor or President of the United States.  He is largely forgotten because his work is now far in the background.  And King was a Republican, among the earliest in fact.  So it is not political equity that is at work here.  

Sadly, the reality I suspect is at work is that the national statuary hall is a place to trot out famous sons who made good.  Dwight Eisenhower replaced a national unknown recently.  I am sure more famous sons (daughters one can also hope) may be brought in by other states and their less known predecessors taken down to the minors like King, to stand in State Capitols.  

I will try to console the departure of one of my spiritual kinsfolk with the hope that maybe Georgia will send us a Martin Luther King, Jr. or New York a Susan B. Anthony.  I would be glad if states gave us their best lights and mightiest minds to admire.  

But if the standard is national success, why not Bill Clinton for Arkansas?  He was a governor who became president.  And Arkansas? If there was a state with unknowns in the hall that has to be one.  Or Bill Gates for Washington State, and Warren Buffet out in the plains of Nebraska?  Virginia must be very proud of Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell who have large national followings.  

And what about Richard Nixon?  Maybe he was never governor of California, but a native son, a member of Congress, a Senator, Vice President and President.  That’s an impressive record.  And ultimately, the current governor is a great candidate, for not only is an American success story, but no one could make a better subject for a sculptor.  

In the current world, people like Thomas Starr King, who merely gave their lives for ideas like freedom and did not have the perspicacity to become famous while they were alive, are simply not Capitol Quality.  

Cross posted on Daily Kos

01 September 2006

What Ever Happened to Class?

Splendid squalor is always news. Various sources report on a lawsuit in New York that accuses a son of neglecting his mother. That’s not news, sadly. What makes it newsworthy is who is supposedly neglecting whom. Anthony Marshall, the son, is accused of neglecting Brooke Astor his mother. Brooke is the widow of Vincent Astor, the last of the line that goes back to John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire.

You can read the history of the
Astors in lots of places. What matters here is that Brooke, though she married into the family, changed their reputation from one of fabulous but indifferent wealth to fabulous charitable wealth. According to the NYTimes, she inherited $120,000,000 in 1959 when her husband died. (Somewhere north of a $1 billion in current dollars no doubt) and over the next forty years gave away over $200 million (compound interest is a great thing, as Ben Franklin noted.)

The lawsuit (brought by Marshall's own son and Brooke’s grandson - which makes this real not just soap opera) says that Anthony has so neglected his mother that she, now 104, is barely fed and clothed. Her Park Ave duplex apartment is decaying around her. He, Anthony, on other hand is draining her bank accounts for personal gain. Exactly the sort of story Americans love to hear.

Why am I talking about this?

Because I met Mrs. Astor.

Back in 1995, my previous church was doing extensive repairs. It is very old, and thus affected by historic codes and laws. That makes repairs more expensive. Way more expensive. So the church applied to various foundations for assistance, including Mrs. Astor’s. One of the rules of her charity was that she needed to see each project she might support.

One day, pre-arranged and very quietly, her limousine pulled up in front of the church, its façade completely shrouded in scaffolding. Her driver opened the door and a very small thin woman in a wide brimmed had slowly emerged. She was then 92, mind you, and our church had a steep set of brownstone steps. She wanted to go inside. So she took my arm and we lowly mounted the steps. She then walked through the outer vestibule with its paintings of predecessors and into the sanctuary which is dominated by a tall neo-gothic pulpit shaped like itself like a cathedral façade, and then she sat down in one of the ancient pews.

There were only three of us there, a church member and Ms. Astor and I. She sat and looked and asked a few questions. Her face was quite genial and serene. After about five minutes (probably less) she began to get up and I escorted her back to her car.

We got the grant, which was only $25,000 but that was as much as she ever gave to building projects. But ever after, as I read about society balls and events, I enjoyed seeing her and reading about how she was the presiding doyenne of New York Society. I may not have met the mayor or the governor or the celebrities that are as thick as thieves in that town. But I did meet Mrs. Astor.

30 August 2006

Gee, You Shouldn't Have

If you ever meet the pope in person you are supposed to bring him a gift. The customary gift, I am told (never having met a pope directly, but knowing some who have) is a white zucchetto, the skull cap.

Why tell you this? At the risk of sounding pontifical, people do give me things from time to time. And I do wear a skull cap now and then, but as a worshipper in a synagogue not as minister of a church. So that precedent is not relevant. B
ut neither do I need the assortment of well meaning things that have come and gone over the years. So if you feel a need to bring a gift, bring reading glasses.

I lose them constantly. My first pair, prescription types that cost me upwards of $50, lasted maybe six months. I put them down somewhere and forgot where. Since then I have bought dimestore readers, ranging from $10 to $20. None have lasted more than 3 months. But my absolute personal best for forgetfulness record has been this summer, losing 3 pair in less than two months.

How does this happen? Well, I only need them when I read or do close work. Rarely does that last more than a half hour before I have to refocus at a distance. So I take them off. If I am wearing a jacket I often slip them into the outer breast pocket, but if not they generally get set down somewhere. And then it is only a matter of time before some task or distraction takes me away and I forget where the glasses are.

Get one of those cords, you say. I should. There is no good reason except pure vanity. I see that string and think of my former high school principal, Gladys Mitchell, who always had her glasses stored that way although her mountainous matronly bosom carried them almost perfectly parallel to the floor. Those strings are the hash marks of age, the proof that one is in training for dotage and decay.

I have thought seriously of pince-nez glasses, the sort TR and Woodrow Wilson wore. Somehow the cord that hooked through the lapel hole does not proclaim geezerness so loudly. And hey, Woody and I are fellow WWs (initials, his and mine). But they cost about $90 and I am not prepared to take that risk quite yet. Monocles are another choice, but unless one is a Prussian general and has a dueling scar from Heidelberg it really is silly.

No, I must either start wearing the cord or accept that I will never keep glasses for very long. And for now, the latter is more likely. As frustrating as it is, it still amounts to less than $200 a year. I spend more on lots of other things without self-recrimination. It is my karma I think. And it may also be a sort of blessing.

Let’s go back to the beginning, and the tendency of people to give gifts to pastors. It occurs to me that my losing glasses is the perfect flaw. Not only does it give everyone something they can laugh and tease me about, but it provides for the perfect thing to give, when the occasion demands. Not only is it welcome, you can sure it will get used. At least for a time. The gift for the pastor who has everything, my zucchetto.

Only make sure it is 1.50 magnification, rectangular lenses (preferably rimless) with metal frame. Or a pair of rectangular lens horn rims. They sell for $18 at Rite Aid and other fine drug stores near you.

25 August 2006

Extra extra! Read All About It!

For those who like long, complex, and arcane writing – which you do or you would not be here – check out an article I just got published in the September edition of UU World Magazine.  They asked me to do a cover story on the meaning of 9/11 five years later, especially as it affects liberal religion.  Check it out!

I would love to hear what you think.  Post a comment on “Ranting Rev” about the article or the subject at large.  If you have something longer than a comment, send me email with your stuff.  I reserve only two rights – to say no to ad hominem stuff and to respond myself.  

For another take on the future of liberal religion, you can see what my seminary Meadville Lombard in Chicago, is doing.  Go here.  This is a pdf file so you need Adobe Acrobat reader.

24 August 2006

A Time to Pray - Or Not

“How was your vacation?” people ask. They mean the vacating part, the going away to see (insert beach, lake, mountains, or in our case family and friends). The NYTimes, my source of choice, published a long article on the vanishing vacation recently. No question that vacations are harder to get and harder to take. The planning alone is work. And the cost? Well, you have to work overtime to pay for it, so why bother at all, right?

But there are other vacations I have discovered, taken a few this summer - some as little as a day, some as long as three months.

A day vacation is blowing off responsibility that does not harm others. I have a ton of work to do around the house. Always will, so last week I tossed that and took my younger son down to see the Air Zoo, a museum of aviation in Kalamazoo. It was “way fun,” but a bit overpriced for all that. Just the thing, though, a dad and fifteen year old boy can do because it has just the right amount of gee whiz goofiness. I had a blast being tossed around a jet trainer piloted by my son and shooting 1980s era video tanks on the ground. The 3D bombing run over 1944 Germany was quite good, and all the planes and stuff were also fine.

The three month vacation is that I have not been to synagogue all summer. For those who don’t know, my personal spiritual life seems best nourished through Judaism. The reasons are complicated and personal, but when people ask my short answer, a la David Letterman, is

3. Jesus never went to church
2. I am just another person there
1. It happens on Saturday.
Non Jews going to synagogue are rare, but actually quite ancient. In the first century CE many early Christians were God-fearers first, Greeks and Romans who found the ethics and theology of Judaism more respectable and compelling than their native pagan ways. But because conversion all but impossible, to say nothing of often painful, they were content to be limited to attending prayer and study and observing the Noahite covenant that the Torah says is incumbent on all people.

Anyway, most Shabbot (plural of Shabbat I believe) I am in services. In July I was not, being on the road, but I thought it would only be while. However, once back I found reasons not to go. The house, the kids, the wife, the heat. Gradually it dawned on me that I needed a vacation from spiritual practice.

Now doesn’t that sound weird? But why? The ancient reason, that we need to propitiate the gods, is certainly not true in my case. The more durable one, that the Bible says so or God will be ticked off, depends on accepting the authority of the Bible or other authority. Today we also have the AA rationale - that we need to maintain the discipline or will go soft and stray - which presumes human beings are bad or at least should not be left out of sight for too long.

Day and night alternate. The earth has seasons. Each lifetime has its chapters. Why should we not consider that spiritual life can wax and wane as well? Maybe a vacation from God is part of what we need. Did not the prodigal son only discover himself after going away?

John MacMurray, a Scottish thinker of the mid 20th century, in considering how we become individual persons with self awareness, posited that it was the rhythm of approach and withdrawal in infancy that is the beginning of personhood. As a child gradually learns that it and the mother are not one creature, because the mother is not always there as they were one in the womb, that we being to differentiate self from other.

Presence and absence desire and disdain, day and night, life and death. Taoism would call them opposites like Yin and Yang, but to me they are necessary to each other. One cannot exist without the other. So the spiritual life, to be complete must have its absence, its disdain, its night and its death, for all the other elements to be real.

So I took a vacation from worship this summer and will again next summer, unless the spirit bids me withdraw at some other time. But I will not consider this sin or flaw or apostasy. It is just the tide of the spirit, with its own lesson to teach in this all too brief voyage we are granted.

19 August 2006

I'm Drowning Here

Laid in bed to all of 6 a.m.  Early am is the slowest time in the day, and it is slowest of all on Saturday.  This morning I spent it roaming the fabled blogosphere.  By the end, I was almost shivering with an ancient fear.

Man is it noisy out there.  In an hour I had chased links and posts all over the place.  And as I did I felt a rising anxiety, the same discomfort I feel in large groups of people milling about at conventions.  People are talking a lot, they seem to be moving someplace but I cannot quite get what they are saying and where they are going.  Everything I hear feels like eavesdropping on a conversation in progress.  And when I do get the drift of their ideas I often find this is a conversation I have little stake in following or joining.  As so often happens in my demented brain, I yearn to be in the mix and yet fear drowning in it.  Here is where the fear begins.

I feel seven years old, on that summer day by the Severn River in Maryland.  The family is visiting friends in a development called “Sherwood Forest” with a dock and swimming area that is a roped off section of river near the shore.  We are all swimming and playing and having a great time with piles of other kids.  I jump off the dock a little further down than before.  But instead of hitting bottom quickly to shoot up, the river bed has dropped away here.  I plunge very deep.  

Surprised, I am now uncertain where I am.  I open my eyes and see legs above me, far above it seems.  The water is cloudy and unknown.  I can swim, but not all that well.  And my lungs are not that full to begin with.  Panic sets in fast.

I claw at the water, climbing toward the surface which seems far far away.  I can see the kids above, hear their shouting and splashing.  If only I can reach someone’s legs.  My arm reaches out and glances one.  The kid reaches down to brush me away.  Laughing continues.  They do not know I am there at all.  I reach again and fail again.  O that I could get a foot on the bottom and push back to the surface.  Pulling the water behind me like moving through tall grass, I make it to the sandy bottom and jump into the air colliding with some boy as I burst for air.

Why am I in this river – the blogosphere?  Hard to say.  I started because someone suggested it, and I do enjoy writing.  But when I think about all the other writers out there, realize how crowded the place is, I get this odd clenching in my chest.  Traveling over various blog sites I felt unpleasantly envious as I saw how various comrades in the cloth were well broadcast and highly cited and widely read but I was not.  The churlish part of me got all snarky and said “I wish I had all that time to read and comment and otherwise ‘network’ so I could get in on the action.”  But that’s cover for the childish resentment that lurks in the corner, pouting about feeling left out.

Long post.  I am not good at the brevity thing.  But at the risk of revealing more than I should, let me say that I am really struggling with my hunger for attention and approval.  It is so manifestly infantile.  But putting it out there is healthy.  As the AA folks know, telling people your struggle is part of owning it for yourself.  

I want to be noticed and quoted and listed on various blogger recommended sites, and all that stuff.  But if I try to join the movement completely, reading and commenting and posting all the time, I may find lout that in the end my triviality is not that I am not part of the network but that I have nothing anyone wants to hear.  And that fact would be a whole lot harder to accept.  Damn.