31 January 2006

I Left My Heart in a Corned Beef Sandwich

Lindy's, that's where I left off. My older son and I were going to see "Phantom," something he dearly wanted to do. Wendy and I had gone to see it during the week I was checking out my potential new job back in 1994. It was great fun and utterly New York in all its splash and overkill. We had both done lots of high school and college theater, had seen some regional stuff over the years, so we could appreciate the difference in quality. It was memorable.

"Phantom" was the hot show then, playing alongside established shows like Miss Saigon and Les Miserables and Cats. Aaron saw the ads on TV for months, knew we had seen it, knew some of his friends had seen it, and developed a desire to go. So we found a midweek matinee, perhaps even took him out of school early (I think that's where he missed multiplication tables) and went off.

Going to the show was the goal. But seeing Times Square up close was also part of it. And eating out. I had heard about Lindy's even before becoming a New Yorker, found out it was not far from the theater and so we headed there first. I told him it was a famous deli with famous New York sandwiches where even broadway stars ate sometimes.

Was I dissappointed, though. It was a bit dedraggled with harried waiters all over sixty. There was a slight film of grease on the formice surfaces, a clientele that favored VO5 and Brylcream, and a laminated menu with tired looking pictures of food at preposterous prices. The walls were filled with celebrity pictures, as I expected, but none of them were likely in attendance here. The prices, though, prevented us buying two whole sandwiches. We shared one, and a piece of cheesecake after. That's what I remember.

I felt ashamed for having brought my son here, it being far from exciting and far too expensive, but I kept my smile and pointed out the pictures of former and deceased celebrities. Aaron actually knew a couple of them - he somehow developed an officionado's knowledge of George and Gracie Allen through some casette tapes that ended up under three christmas tree - and his eyes were agog with pleasure, which I pumped up in the hope that he would not see it for what it was.

He did not. More than once in the years following he remembered out loud how great it was to go to that splendid place that glittered with fame and fortune. I would smile with deep gladness that he treasured this moment. But I also felt a profound sorrow at the same time, which as I stood there last week came and siezed me so hard that I almost wept.

It was not the sorrow of time gone, or childhood's end, or innocence remembered, though there was something of that. There was something else, something deeper of which even that experience ten years ago was an evocation.

I thought about the Christmas a few years before that lunch, when he was seven or eight and desired a real robot as a toy. Not a particular toy so much as something he imagined must exist. We searched and found something that walked and lifted its arm and made robotic noises. It was rather pitiful actually, in construction and performance. The magic he beheld that morning faded quickly.

I felt it for sure a few years after eating at Lindy's, this time with my younger son when he was about ten and desperately wanted a pet. Our apartment building did not allow dogs and we had so little room that anything more than a goldfish would be a punishment to both owner and creature. So when he saw the robotic dog - Tekno - we could not deny him. It was fun for a while, but also far from an actual dog and ultimately not much of a toy.

Each of these moments when we gave them these dearly desired but truly inadequate gifts were and are sharp pains. I remember wanting to say "No, you will not like this. It isn't what you think and truly not what you expect or want." Their wanting and loving something that was so unworthy of their hope was what broke my heart.

I wanted them not to want it, to crave the real not the phony, the deep not the shallow, the true not the false. But in their lovely, young and naive hearts the glittery, shiny, alluring thing that seems real always won. And when I gave it to them, I felt bad for giving it even as they thanked me.

Heartbreak Hotel

Five years ago, I took the family on an extended tour of Europe as a sabbatical from active ministry. I dragged my boys from church to church, castle to castle, to museum after museum until they were thoroughly sick of it all.

“Traveling is crummy,” one of them moaned well into our journey.

“Yep,” I said, “Travel is miserable. Remembering is fun.”

I spent last week in NYC, and true to my wisdom, some of it was miserable, but remembering it is wonderful. Why not tell you about it, then?

I already ruminated on the Magic Flute as a work, which performance was half of my excuse for going to NYC again. The other half was a performance of Cyrano de Bergerac by Francis Alfano, younger contemporary of Puccini who had the misfortune to be asked to finish Turandot, which is like asking someone to finish “The Unfinished Symphony.” No matter how good it is, no one will be happy. But Alfano was a considerable composer in his day, and Placido Domingo is very fond of Cyrano, and now you know why it is on the schedule at the Met. I will talk about that experience another time, so this is but a tease to keep you interested.

My secondary reasons for going were more personal. I have family there, which I did not discover until midway in my stay. There is a story there as well, and that will also wait for another entry, but I did see several of them. I know lots of other people, as you can imagine, but ethics and honor demand that I not intersect with my former church community, so I carefully maintain my distance physically and personally. But once one has lived in NYC it is hard to part with it, so my other reason for going was the city itself; to renew my connection to it for both good and ill.

It is this that I want to share now, or a piece of it.

My “hotel de semaine” was selected through American Airline Vacations which I have used before, notably for a very nice stay in Vienna some years ago. The prices were lower than using the other website services, and certainly lower than going to actual hotels. NYC is notably expensive; even the NY Athletic Club, to which I have access, was over $200 a night. I chose the Wellington, a modest place in midtown, 55th and 7th Ave. The lobby was encouragingly fresh and the help well mannered and brisk. There were bellmen and even a concierge. I knew it was not luxurious, and the other clientele, clearly tourists and students, told me it would not be lavish.

My room, though, was a disappointment. Perhaps 12 by 16, with a tiny closet and bathroom, it was almost threadbare. Many coats of paint on the old woodwork were gouged and worn. The furniture was well scraped and rickety. My window shade was too tired to spool in either direction, and the curtains hung like an arm in a sling. It was not dirty, I should say, but the overall impression was of being in a guest room in someone’s apartment, one that had been a child’s room, only with less furniture and poorer light.

It is an old hotel in design, when rooms and halls were smaller in general. And NYC is not a place that spends space willy nilly. One expects a certain compactness. Still, I had to sigh.

But that is not why I write either. What is on my mind is something I saw as I took a long walk the next morning, before the city was fully awake.

I strolled out around seven, heading for the west side where there is a long pedestrian path along the Hudson. I reached the highway and decided to walk on the city side this time, which between 55th and 45th is mostly commercial and kind of desolate. In the early morning though, the homeless sleepers and the early workers are the only pedestrians about. I enjoyed the sunshine, the familiar sights of the piers from all my journeys up the highway over the years, and even noted the runaway bagel in the street at 45th where I turned east.

Aside: Bagels are something almost sacred to me. I used to have one most every day from the place down the street where there we made around the clock. A silent pact I have is not to eat one any place other than New York. It is simply bound to be a disappointment.

I talked to Wendy on my cell phone as I walked east, and hung up when the noise got too much. I turned back north at Seventh, passing through a corner of Times Square with its perpetual light show and gawking tourists. Only at this hour the tourists are paying for their excess and looking kind of spent rather than freshly awakened. I saw the same thing in Las Vegas.

Somewhere around 53rd street I passed someplace I had not seen for at least ten years. Lindy’s restaurant. Even under the construction scaffold I was immediately struck with a powerful wave of sentiment because this is where Aaron and I (he was perhaps 11) ate on our way to seeing his first Broadway show, The Phantom of the Opera. The sensation was of overwhelming sadness that sent me on an inner journey I am still trying to fathom.

But time is short, and that journey waits the next entry.

28 January 2006

Happy Birthday JCWG

With apologies for my absence, I am now returned – both to this page and to Grand Rapids. As long planned, I spent the last five days (travel time included) in New York City where I lived for most of eleven years before coming here. My purpose was entirely personal – to see some dear friends and family, to refresh my acquaintance with the place where I have lived longest and where my sons grew up and (pertinent to this entry) see two opera.

Those who know me are already familiar with my operaphilia. It was a key reason I went to NYC in the first place, as two of the top companies in the country are there. And in indulged myself with six to eight performances a year. Yes it was expensive, but, believe it or not, it was cheaper than Broadway.

But the reason I write about it to day is that today is Mozart’s 250th birthday. A big deal to concert cans and opera fans both. In fact, as I am writing I listen to “dove sono,” a famous aria for the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro, which I regard as part of my sacred scripture. People speak so much of Bach’s celestial aspect that I fear to offend when I say that Mozart is far more heavenly to my ear. Bach is majestic, sublime, transcendent and holy I do not dispute. But what Bach gives us is a glimpse of divine glory while Mozart gives us assurance of divine love.

There is something essentially lovely in Mozart, a beauty that is present as air is always present. Not only in the limpid arias of his opera, but also in the Confutatis or Lachrymosa of the Requiem, which is as painful as any piece he ever wrote. A fundamental wholeness is everywhere. Joseph Haydn called Mozart the greatest composer he ever knew (and Haydn personally taught Beethoven) who not only had talent but taste, which is exactly the right word if we still understood it to mean aesthetic judgment not lifestyle or statement.

My observance of this anniversary started on Tuesday evening when I attended a performance of Zauberfloete, the Magic Flute. This opera is perhaps the most familiar to most people, thanks to a wonderful cinema version created by Ingmar Bergman which I still cherish. A few years ago I saw a version by the New York City Opera, but I was especially interested in seeing the new Met Production – new last year – created by the Lion King and Frida director Julie Taymor. It sounded like a sure love match, the wild fantasy forest of ideas created by Mozart and Shickaneder a natural palette for Taymor.

And in many respects it was, with dazzling effects all the way through. Taymor does lift the fantastic into high relief, using her Indonesian puppet inspired methods to great effect in giving us dragons and bears and birds in all sorts of incarnations that perfectly suit the dreamlike quality of the story. Oddly, though, all this beguiling beauty has a net diminishing effect.

Taymor’s theatrical basis is the problem I think. Broadway depends on constant stimulation to succeed. The audience must always be entranced, and the surest road to that today is by the eye. Borrowing from the power of the illusionist, modern theater is always pulling some rabbit from a hat or throwing fire. Taymor does this admirably, giving us improbably persuasive puppets and props that are extensions of human beings.

In the first scene a Chinese inspired dragon – leotard clad puppeteers under a long mock dragon chase Tamino. It is exactly right, but so large and complex and arresting that I spent more attention on the dragon than on the music. The three ladies who rescue him are distorted by African looking masks above their darkened faces, making them appear taller than they are. This too is impressive, but soon I am frustrated by not being able to see the faces that actually sing. The image is everything. People, music, plot, all point to the images much as people attending glossy Broadway shows recall sets and costumes more than the characters or story.

In the end, I found myself wanting there to be less on stage so I could listen as well as see. The six dancing bears could have been four; the five balletic birds could have been three; less would have been better.

That all said, the essential idea Taymor uses, primary colors and shapes in various permutations, is very good. Grabbing the genuine mixture of Masonic symbols and Egyptian symbols, she fashioned a rotating stage that had four different facades – a circle, a triangle, a square, and a cylinder. Each is made of clear plastic, so that the lines and shapes are all one sees. Around these platforms she places other iterations of primary shapes and colors as props and costumes, which because they never lose their origins as triangles and circles and squares make for a unified appearance to the whole.

The problem was the dominance of concept over content, which, given the cumbersome and plodding libretto is all too tempting. Taken purely as text, the libretto is ludocrous. Mozart and Shickaneder were not gifted playwrights;
and they cobbled this story together in a hurry, one story says, to get into production before a similar opera could steal their thunder (something to be called Die Zauberzither, if I recall).

It is the music, relentlessly perfect, that makes the work. Taymor tries to unify what is already united, essentially competing with the music. That is the problem. She and her marvelously creative ideas upstage Mozart. And I go to hear the music not see the sets.

Enough opera review. I will say more about my trip in another entry. But Mozart deserves undivided attention today. The conclusion of Figaro is approaching on my computer speakers and with it the moment of salvation when the Countess forgives the Count and the world is set to rights. The sun shines today. Happy birthday Wolfie.

22 January 2006

One for the Road

With all the lunacy coming from and going on about the president recently, I have gotten lots more mail about how bad he is and how he is ruining the country and all sorts of other stuff. Leaving aside how much I dissent from his policies and those of the Republican Party overall today, I am not inclined to rant because, believe or not, the president is not the problem.

The president is a symptom. The problem is much larger and more daunting. This is what bothers me about my fellow lefties ranting about impeachment and abuse of power and all that. By focusing on the man they either cannot see or refuse to see that he got there and stays there by forces that are still very much present. Even if we could wave a magic political wand and make him go away, the next one would be very like him.

“Not if the Democrats win,” But that is not going to happen. And even if it did, the congress would remain strongly Republican. And even if by some miracle the Democrats took both White House and a house of Congress, they would not last.

Why? Because the problem is in the nation itself. It is in the people who have chosen to put this ideology in charge. And I do not mean the White House, or Congress, or the Courts. It goes all the way down to state and municipal government. At our most local level, the majority of Americans define themselves as individuals united not by pragmatic values or principles, but skillful invocations of patriotism and piety.

It is a potent mixture with two effects. First is its intoxicating power to rouse emotional bonds and loyalties. Waving the flag and providing red white and blue spectacles of pride give us half-time shows about how ‘we’re number one.’ For example, patriotism is now hostage to waving the bloody shirt of Viet Nam and how we let our soldiers down back then. So we are constantly reminded to support our troops lest we let them down. But that really means to support the wars the government chooses to fight, and to indict criticism as something that discourages the troops.

Patriotism has become a form of national religion, a piety whose form grew from the revival tent and the football game and the TV screen. We listen to the national anthem instead of sing it; recite the words of the pledge of allegiance like a national creed, treat the flag like a consecrated host. But none of this is America. They are images of America; in fact they images of images – fuzzy feel good experiences that conjure up a sense of well being without any real connection to what is good about America. It is cheap patriotism, virtual patriotism, Six Flags/Disney/ball park/Bruce Willis/Lee Greenwood patriotism which is all about feeling and nothing about substance. But because we live in a world where reality is a kind of TV show, we learn the truth from a click of the remote as it blends game show and wrestling and toothpaste and soap operas and the news into one giant miasmatic storm of images.

But the second effect is even more insidious. By drinking the white lightning hooch of current patriotism we are also going blind to the America most of actually live in, which may be less splashy and splendid and full of full-color cross cut action shots, but really is reality. Seduced by the glossier images of packaged patriotism, paid for by people you don’t know and do not want to be known either, Americans look at their simple and unspectacular lives and do not see that simply having a job and caring for the kids and mowing the lawn and being a good neighbor are what America is about.

No, let me say what America really means. It is about the conviction everyone – you heard the man, everyone -is entitled (by their creator as the declaration put it) to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is what the pledge calls ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Unlike other nations that were wrapped around languages or religion or a tiny gene pool that made them all look alike; the USA says everyone is entitled to have a shot at being safe and sound and secure.

It’s not about getting rich, or coming in first, or winning in any sense - not individually, not nationally. It is about everyone, individually and nationally, being able to live safe and sound and secure, which is part of liberty and justice for all right?

So you, with your mortgage and aging car and tempestuous kids and tight budget, you are the American hero. You, with no spouse and two kids and third floor apartment, you are the American heroine. Getting a good job with good benefits; having a safe and adequate home; being able to get sick without getting poor, sending your kids to good schools no matter where they are; these are the measure of American greatness. These are what call people from across the globe to come here.

No one ever came here because they loved the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance or the American flag. They came here for the freedom to have a life and the hope that their liberty would be protected no matter who they were.

But this is not what America believes now. It defines itself as rich and powerful, holy and imposing. It prefers grandiose dreams to humble facts, indeed hungers for those dreams and rejects those facts; and in the process elects people who give them just that.

We will wake up from this patriotic bender eventually. I only hope that we do not find ourselves in a wreck with the world wrapped around our steering wheel.

21 January 2006

A Now - A Word From Our Sponsor

Mostly, I use this space for ruminations about daily life. But I ruminate so much because I am constantly seeking reliable principles of reality, the armature of existence. That Socratic prayer, that the outer man and the inner man be as one, is my rosary.

Anyway, I got up late this morning, just before 7, having been up later than usual. And it was in perusing the news on the internet and thinking over coffee that I had the following idea. It is framed as an op-ed piece, which I used to do for small newspapers in various towns I have served. (I hasten to say I was not paid, except once. So I am not a professional columnist. But I have fantasized being one. Now there's a good life.)

The right to privacy. We hear about it all the time, either with haloes of reverence or daggers of cynicism. Thanks to its invocation by Roe vs. Wade, most Americans operate on the assumption that it was ‘created’ by the court to justify their decision.

Wrong. The idea was around for most of a century beforehand, and even was part of the Supreme Court’s vocabulary as far back as 1928. What it was not, was clear as a broad doctrine with constitutional foundations. That is what Blackmun in Roe vs. Wade sought to do. He and the court wanted to codify the idea that individual citizens had a right to private life, and thus that government had no place in limiting our personal choices so long as they did not infringe on the rights of others to have or use the same.

The wisdom of that reasoning has been suborned by the passionate feelings about abortion. It is time, I think, to fish or cut bait on this as a nation. Until we have a clear position on the sovereignty of personal life, government will nibble off as much freedom as it can, using whatever rationale it finds.

Thanks to our friends at the NRA, we have vast freedoms to own firearms, certainly one area a government would be eager to control. But what about our right to move about the country, to seek employment, to leave jobs, to choose our friends, to choose our education, join or not join groups, vote or not vote - just to mention a few that are currently not protected. Governments across time and place have exercise control over these aspects life. What is to prevent government from doing so now?

Nothing, constitutionally speaking. Oh, the courts would interfere, in time. Just ask people of color how swift the courts were to enforce equality when Dred Scott sued for his freedom, or a century later as Jim Crow lingered on. And despite clear language in the 14th amendment, women needed an amendment to secure their right to vote.

So if I think it is time to make up our minds about privacy, the way to do that is propose an amendment to the Constitution to protect it explicitly not just implicitly. Here goes:

The free conscience of the citizenry being essential a democratic republic, the right of citizens and those in its jurisdiction to a private personal life shall not be infringed. Congress shall make no law or permit any government action that abridges the liberty and privacy thereof; save to preserve the same and other rights of fellow citizens as elsewhere expressed in this constitution, or the power of the republic to be its guarantor.

I have no illusions that it will succeed, but perhaps it will demonstrate that this issue is larger than abortion. Yes, larger. Hard as it is for those who feel so passionately about the issue, there are matters at least as important, and tyranny is one of them. It is, indeed, the premise of America itself. So this is the issue, finally. Is America the land of the free? If so, then let’s say so. If not, then let’s stop pretending.

18 January 2006

A Whiff of Mortality - Part 2

Since Blogger, or my computer, took a large bite out of my last post, and continued to give me fussy messages about bad HTML code, (which the Blogger itself is supplying I hasten to say) I'll create a new post to recover what I can from memory.

Memory was the whole point in fact, that scents can evoke whole states of mind, not just images like photos or sounds. The first time I noticed this was in 1971 or perhaps the summer of 1972, walking down a street in our new home of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Aside: There's a story there, but the bare facts are that the same year I finished high school we left Maryland where I grew up. Everything was new, then.


It was a warm evening and as I strolled the neighborhood, feeling lonesome as only an 18 or 19 can, I passed a magnolia tree. It's scent entered my nose and I was transported back to Silver Spring where I lived until age 9. We had a great magnolia in our front yard, you see. That experience was actually not the first time an aroma carried deep emotion, but it was the first time it led me back in time.

On the sidewalk in West Michgan now, thirty three years later (a fact that I still find startling) I caught that aroma of wet earth that is often the harbinger of spring. It is January and so a false omen, but the smell was precisely that of late March and it took me back to Baltimore where I lived for the second nine years of my life. The experience was not recalling it so much as actually being there, of what it felt like and what I felt like.

This was followed, as my nose detected other overtones, by my times in Rome, Italy. Most especially the time five years ago when we all lived there for a month. I was back there for a moment, on that first morning, when with wife and sons asleep I took myself on a long walk through the Parioli district where our apartment was. It is a hilly place full of stuccoed apartment houses about eight stories tall, with lots of pines which may account for the aroma there. It is very like San Francisco to the nose and even the eye, and I can easily see why Italians settled there in the 19th century. But for me, it was a moment of time travel, when like the magnolia tree I was transported back in time.

One more sensation came, coupled with that last one. We spent our first days on that trip that took us to Italy, with friends in the countryside of Buckinghamshire. And sure enough, that place came up in my nose too, and with it the wet lands and dappled sky and the timbered house and the peaty smell of the house, and swirl of new sensations that together are to me England.

Not long ago, I noticed my sense of smell was less acute. I remember how as a child I could taste/smell the difference between really fresh milk and stuff a day older; and how green peppers had a harsh unpelasant taste that I cannot find anymore. If scent is the royal road to the memory, then some parts of that road have been closed or decayed beyoind recognition. Or perhaps they are rooms in a old museum, still there but I cannot remember exactly how to get to them it has been so long.

Poignance is the blessing of age, and one of the few that grows with time. More and more what I see or hear or smell brings back experiences and feelings from earlier moments in my life. There is scarcely anything that is not evocative of another. I cannot tell right now if that is primarily happy or sad, which is why it is poignant. The word means both happy and sad. I do feel a certain envy of those whose whole lives take place in one place so that layer upon layer can be set down and life does not sprawl like an unkempt Louvre. It has been my nature to seek breadth more than depth. Most of the time I am content, but sometimes I am sad as well.

17 January 2006

A Whiff of Time and Mortality

I could walk this week, meaning to the gym and to work. Not too cold or windy, and even two days in a row with some sunshine.

Aside: Speaking of walking, I had my oxford loafers resoled last week; they are the shoes I use the most. I once described the difference between living in New York and anywhere else as having to resole my shoes annually but buying tires only every ten years. This pair is Florsheims, now maybe three or four years old. At fifty I deciding to buy something with a bit of quality and they have done pretty well. I was also influenced by the fact that women judge men by the quality of their shoes, and I am just vain enough to want to make a good impression.

Of course, I do not wear oxford Florsheims to the gym. Then I wear my NB crosstrainers, which are in dire need of replacing. Horrid.

But I started talking about walking to work for another reason. The smell. Within moments of getting outside yesterday, along the sidewalk, I could smell things that never get inside. You know, the land and the street and the air. Aromas are on my mind since going outside yesterday and got a tiny hint of spring in the nostrils. It is a false signal because it is January, but our warmer weather, which has led to snow melt, thus left the earth moist instead of frozen. That smell, of wet earth, is part of what spring smells like. And when I sensed it I immediately recalled what early spring felt like as a boy because I walked to and from school.

Aromas shoot right into the center of the brain. The olfactory lobe (or whatever it is called) is situated right next to the limbic center, which is the reptilian core of the brain. When I say reptilian I mean the oldest part of the brain, the part that we have in common with lizards and snakes. And we all know that reptiles negotiate the world by smell - the snake’s tongue is its nose apparently, which is why it flicks around so much. The great gobs of gray matter we call the brain, the parts that think and know they are thinking, are literally wrapped around this ur-brain, extending it but npt obliterating it. Thus scents go right into the oldest and most elemntary part of our brain.

Aside: Blogger - the site that hosts this - is flaky this morning Jan 18th, and when I tried to correct some typos and gaffes it sent an error message that ultimately shaved off the last three paragraphs of this post. I have to leave this post incomplete because I do not have the time. Be patient and I shall endeavor to reconstruct it. I am a little angry because it was pretty good and I had not backup. Damn.

13 January 2006

Dirty dancing in the Brain

Forgot to say I got a haircut at the downtown place I mentioned last month.

Aside: several friends wrote to recommend other places, with real barber poles and without the “Men’s Health” ambience, but I must say I got a good cut in December and another this week.

This time, before I knew it, I was bent backward and being shampooed by a new young lady. In addition to not having been through this sort of shampoo since I was an infant in kitchen sink, except for my parents and my wife, no one has ever danced their fingers through my hair in fifty some years. It was a new, pleasant, and unsettling experience.

Aside 2: No doubt, many people, often women, have had other people sift through their hair. There are almost as many people who have had massages and other soothing touch experiences. This is new to me.

Perhaps I am a bit more sensitive, or maybe just skittish, but I think touching is awfully powerful stuff. I remember my first open-mouthed kiss when I was sixteen, and lots of others since. The fingers of a pretty woman touching the top of my hand at a dinner years ago still lingers on. So does the one black eye I got in a fight when I was maybe thirteen. He did the only actual hitting. After he punched me I laughed, stifling tears, and did nothing else. He had no comeback to that.

Anyway, it was really curious how intimate this shampoo thing felt. The rarity must be part of it, as I touch people all the time, very innocently, with handshakes and shoulder claps and embraces. These are areas of our bodies that often touch others, mostly associated with arms it seems to me.

But intimate touch happens when any place on our person not ordinarily touched, is. Hence my response to having fingers run through my hair. Sure, there is a romantic version of this, but in this case it was no such thing. But my body, unused to it I suppose, felt it as intimate. God knows how I would feel getting an actual massage.

This made me think of other places on the body that are intimate without being private. Absent shampoo, fingers running through the hair are really intimate, as would be touching the ear or the cheek or the neck. Dancing, old fashioned dancing which suborns its sexuality a little more than contemporary forms is by contrast proper. A hand in a hand, on a shoulder, even a waist, is less electric. But maybe that is because it is dancing.

I feel a little sadness for the frankly sexual focus of contemporary dancing. My memory is populated with hands, napes, shoulders and waists. I remember mouths and eyes and ears and noses. Whole people come to mind, fragrant with allure that is acknowledged inwardly and silently and savored like we do aroma of coffee and fresh bread – a pleasure and gift in itself whether one drinks or eats.

12 January 2006

Pulpits and Poets

The spell was broken this week. The sun shines yet again, twice in one week.

Numerous folks in this region run off to Florida and Arizona part of the winter, which I now understand has less to do with warmth than light. We paused seriously at the Costco display of full-spectrum lights. Only $139. Hmmm.

I even walked to the gym today, and back. Forgotten what pleasure it is to ruminate as I go, the word meaning to chew, and it feels good. Back in Brooklyn, people reported to Wendy that they saw me on the street but hesitated to get my attention because I was so evidently engrossed in conversation with myself. Which was true. I talk as I walk, sermons and ideas churning in me all the time. Vincent “the Chin” Gigante has nothing on me.

Speaking of preaching, I am now reading a standard text on the subject. It is like going back to the piano and learning your scales all over. There is a bit of embarrassment at realizing how rusty or sloppy I have gotten over the years. I went to it, the book, because getting my feet on the ground in this new pulpit has been harder than before. This is my fifth pulpit, referring not only to the physical object but to the task of preaching in a new context. They have all been very different from each other, in both respects.

My first was a bench pulpit in the neo-classic style, a reconstruction of one actually, in a clean white meeting house on a green in a village of less than a thousand. It was a beautiful New England postcard, literally a Christmas card, of a type built over and over from about 1790 to 1840. A broad mahogany pulpit, perhaps eight feet wide, with a velvet cover and a smaller angled script rest in the middle, it was actually part of a larger structure which included a broad sofa like bench built into the wall and floor and into which one mounted from steps on either side. Facing east, the meting house had enormous plain glass windows that admitted great bales of light in summer as the sun passed along the south wall.

Most Sundays, I preached to a band of thirty , all regulars. There was not even a Christmas Eve service when I started, so that Easter Sunday was the highlight of the church year, when maybe sixty or so would come by. Our ecumenical services were blatant attempts by the UCC and RC guy and me to fill our houses once a year. I did this for five years before going to my next church which had an entirely differenbt pulpit, in every sense. But I think about that first one a lot, as one does a first love or a first car. It set the tenor, as it were.

Such a grand pulpit in a small town was sort of sad, sometimes, speaking of aspirations never met. No church in such a town could ever expect to be much more than a place where at most fifty would congregate each week. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but every town had two or three stately meeting houses, each with grand pulpits, and by the late 20th century at least one was on the verge of evaporation.

And yet, it was a splendid place to be, vivid in my memory. And despite the size of that first pulpit, which is actually largest I ever had, intimacy was immediate and unavoidable. My favorite story from that time is of the little girl (now herself a parent) who was accustomed to playing in the pew alongside her mother. She only paid slight attention to the preacher. Ducking down to color on the floor, she would pop up now and then when the music started or stopped. On this particular occasion, she noticed the silence of the prayer and looked up and around. I was now sitting on the bench, which is set back considerably so that from her place she could not see me at all. Filling the reverent quiet as only a child who has been in church often can, she asked her mother and those around her “Hey, when did Fred sneak out?” The life of a small church minister in a sentence.

By contrast, here I am in a majestic rose marble pulpit placed in a vast neo-Romansque hall that seats 1600. There are lots of stained glass windows and variable lighting, so sometimes it is hard to tell if the sun is shining or even see people clearly. It made me think of the one time I spoke at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel as a reader, a place even larger, and at the time being unable to focus on faces and feeling no connection to the people. Where intimacy is instant and assumed and even overwhelming in a small church, it is distant, protected, and slowly earned here.

My embarrassment at being off balance is tempered by the excitement of being a beginner again. Was it Thich Nhat Hanh who described Buddhism as always seeking to have "the beginner's mind," that freshness to existence that allows us to notice everything without prior judgment? This is what I love about travel, as it makes me look anew, notice what the eyes see and the ears hear and the skin touches. The freshness of the new world brings a freshness to my own being.

Of course, being new also means being lost or uncertain or confused. The gift of freshness is purchased at the price of discrimination. There is no free lunch, I guess.

On a separate note, I finished the Odyssey this week, as my beginning the preaching book implies. Another slow walk, as I turned the last pages, reluctant to bring them to a close. And oddly, it does not end completely. It merely stops, which is exactly right. Odysseus has a task ahead of him as the story ends, and my mind easily imagined him, with Telemachus and Penelope, living afterward.

But the meeting of Odysseus and Penelope, some pages before, and put off for a long time even when they had met, was a marvel. And Homer does not shy from telling us they fell into sexual embrace. And yet it was not the least prurient. It may be the best panegyric to the blessings of marriage since reading Anne Bradstreet. Why not quote them?

Homer:

Eyes full of tears, she ran to him, threw her arms around his neck, kissed his head, and said: "Don't be angry, Odysseus not with me. In all other matters you've been the cleverest of men. The gods have brought us sorrows—they were not willing the two of us should stay beside each other to enjoy our youth and reach together the threshold of old age…. Penelope spoke, and stirred in him an even more intense desire to weep. As he held his loyal and loving wife, he cried. Just as it's a welcome sight for swimmers when land appears, men whose well-constructed ship Poseidon has demolished on the sea, as winds and surging waves were driving it, and a few men have swum to shore, escaping the grey sea,their bodies thickly caked with brine, and they climb gladly up on land, evading that disaster,that is how Penelope rejoiced to see her husband. She simply couldn't stop her white arms holding him around the neck. And rose-fingered early Dawn would've appeared with them still weeping there, if goddess Athena with the gleaming eyes, had not thought of something else— she prolonged the lengthy night as it came to an end, keeping Dawn and her golden throne waiting by Ocean's stream—she would not let her harness her swift horses, who carry light to men, Lampros and Phaeton,the colts who bring on Dawn...
Resourceful Odysseus then said to his wife: “Lady, we've not yet cometo the end of all our trials. Countless tasks must still be carried out in days to come, plenty of hard work I have to finish. That's what the spirit of Teiresias prophesied to me when I descendedi nside Hades' house to ask some questions concerning our return, my companions and myself. But come, wife, let's go to bed, so we can lie down and enjoy sweet sleep."
…While they went on talking to each other in this way, Eurynome and the nurse prepared the bed with soft coverlets, by light from flaming torches. Once they'd quickly covered up the sturdy bed,the old nurse went back to her room to rest, and the bedroom servant, Eurynome, led them on their way to bed, a torch gripped in her hands. When she'd brought them to the room, then she returned. Odysseus and Penelope approached with joythe place where their bed stood from earlier days.
Odysseus and Penelope, once they'd had the full of making love, then entertained each other telling stories, in mutual conversation.

Anne Bradstreet:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let's so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

More should be said, but the Sabbath stalks me today, and with it the task it ever must demand. I shall enjoy the sun, though.

09 January 2006

Monday, Monday

We’re number 1!

We set a record – longest stretch ever without measurable sunshine in Grand Rapids. “My bosom swells with pride,” saith the song. And nature celebrated by parting the clouds yesterday. A panic set in when suddenly light came streaming in unfiltered. The old air raid siren went off and people ran through the streets, ducking into shadows and otherwise cowering lest the dreadful rays actually hit them.

OK, I am wrong. We truly loved it. A giddy smile came upon our faces. Strangers embraced, debts were forgiven, couples reunited, people sang spontaneously in heavenly tongues; they danced in frolicsome circles, leaving a heap of crutches and wheelchairs in the streets which were full of intoxicated revelers. We shed their clothes and prostrated our on the lawns to drink in the full power and glow.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But we did cancel church so we could all go out and play.
Well, I wanted to, but in fact it was still in the mid thirties (2 degrees Celsius. Why we haven’t gone metric is a mystery to me.) so we had church inside.

I did celebrate later in the day with that ritual of thanksgiving to the sun, washing the car. I was so grateful that I washed both cars. Think of it as a purification rite, related to sprinkling holy water in the presence of the sacred.

This morning the comforting clouds are back. The weather folk on our local station seem to bemoan the lack of snow and cold, but my skin and bank account are at peace with the demonic contract that demands clouds in return for moderate chill. Being over 50, I feel the dryness as never before. And being thinner than when younger, the cold gets in faster too. In some ways, I am ideally suited to San Francisco, except that earthquakes are not high on my extreme adventure list. But Rome, ah, I could get used to Rome. I lived there for a month back in 2001, and a week a few years before.

Work is back to its frantic pace, darn it all. But I am taking these few minutes to make note of the day and weather, as by the time I get to church I will be in windowless rooms for hours on end.

Am closing in on the climax of the Odyssey. I am almost unwilling to set it down, the forces set in motion are about to meet, the day of reckoning just dawning as I get close to the end of book XX. Shall I ever get to Greece? See its fabled coasts and timeless groves?

Homer conjures up aromas and sounds, sights and sensations that populate the imagination. Myrtle and laurel and barley for ritual sprinkling, burning meat and flowing wine for feasting, rags and robes and belts and sandals, birds of prey and beasts of burden, rose-fingered dawn and the sound of the sea against rocks, the smell of fire and men and leather, the clatter of swords and the groans of love. It is a world which no longer exists, but to put one’s feet upon its vestiges, see the famous wine-dark sea and taste the bread and lamb that springs from its soil – that would be wonderful.

So I think on this gray January day, when the trees are skeletal along the street, and spring is as far as away as Samothrace and the Peloponesse.

07 January 2006

Seized by Poignance

Barely 6 a.m. and that means it is still dark. A train is passing through town, its horn has sounded several times, growing more and more faint, and the rumble of its cars eases into memory. I sit at the keyboard because a dream sent me here.

I consider the place between sleep and awakeness one of the great blessings of being alive where mind and world, dream and reality, can mingle; the cream of consciousness is what I called it to a friend. This morning I came awake from a dream that kept me in bed to savor it.

I am back in Brooklyn, walking home. Of course, the landscape of dreams is never precisely that of reality. And in this case I am walking in a back alley to effect a shortcut. There are no alleys in New York, one of its most profound errors. But in my dream there is one, and it leads to the back of an apartment building through which I am passing to get home.

I am diverted from my route by repairs being done on the building which close off the underpass that is my shortcut. So I have to find an alternative, but how? A resident of the building, a young girl of perhaps twelve whose appearance is south Asian, serves as my involuntary guide. She comes from the back door of an apartment. I realize she knows how to get out, living here, and so by watching her and following I would find my way.

This involves going around a different corner of the building, also impeded by repairs that spew out lots of dust, but after clambering onto a rear walkway I duck a little into a passageway that leads me behind and beneath the building to where there is a stream running. Imagine the building cantilevered over a brook, much as a bridge does.

It is clearly a bit of wooded area, enclosed and ignored by the buildings around it, but which is crossed by narrow brown paths that are clearly well used. This the girl follows briefly before dancing down a narrow weathered log that spans the stream. I look at it, see it is precarious and decide I cannot cross without breaking it and falling in. Fear is not the hesitation so much as not wanting to get wet or destroy the bridge. I cannot go on and feel a tender sadness.

In my waking state that sadness is translated instantly into the memory of my boyhood, where there was a junction of town and country. For a year or two, ages 8 and 9, there was a wooded area near our suburban development. In the time I was there it was bulldozed and developed. But for a while I had my Hick Finn days, when I and my chums would wander the brush and trees back there. It was a place of mighty freedom and solitude, where a boy was unchanneled by order or adult oversight.

Even later, in Baltimore, there was an area along a creek, behind the school, where we boys found a bit of unbothered nature. I say unbothered meaning by adults. When I found it, there was ample evidence of children – a rope hanging from a tree with a tire on it to swing out of the stream, and footpaths with their hard brown proof of many visitors.

My sadness in the dream, and as I woke was for the end of that experience. My boys did not have it, as far as I know. Of all the times I cherish in memory, the feeling of being on my own in a world where I could set the pace and make my way and own it, came in those shambling woods inhabited by other boys over the years. It was our country, and we relished our princely status in nature, a defiance of adulthood and order and cleanliness.

When I read Huck Finn I could easily see the bowers and brambles. I remembered with clarity the feeling of uneven ground under foot, the sensation of grass flowing across ankles, and the whipping of twigs and branches across the face as you make your way through the wilderness. With no trouble whatsoever I can summon the image of water by the edge of a stream, how it ripples and gathers, the dappling of sunlight through large trees, the confidence that a path imparts, and the supremacy of knowing you are hidden from view in the fortresses of forsythia or the canopies of large pines.

Of course, my experience is a thin imitation of that my father and grandfather knew. So how should I be surprised that my own sons know even less? Nor do I proclaim the Arcadian ideal that we should defend against the corroding powers of town and city, making of boyhood a moral cause.

I am simply sad that this portion of life, which gives me such pleasure and poignance, is both gone for me and absent for them. It sometimes seems that life is one long parting, which concludes when life itself is all there is left. And then it goes too.

06 January 2006

Passing Thoughts, Like a Kidney Stone

A Hunting I Will Go

Sermon day is supposed to be Thursday. But more often it is Friday. And being Friday, here it is. Now, as I have written elsewhere, sermon writing is more like sermon hunting. The idea is out there, flitting through the overgrown forest of my mind – place bogged down in debris and detritus.

Aside: I am pondering a story, fictional story, about a feckless pair of twins – a girl named Debris and her brother Detritus. Like sermons, stories have the origins in odd phrases and curious turns of words.

So how will it go? Don’t know yet. Another image for sermon writing could be sculpture, which is to take away everything that isn’t a statue. This morning, I am also going to the PO to send packages to my new grand nephew in France and my son in Ottawa (he did not want to check bags and I agree). Then we have to go to Costco for cheap gas and cheap decaf. One fuels the car, the other my brain. Of course, we will find more. Depend on it.

So the sermon is largely an act of flushing out, sneaking up on it by pretending not to think about it. My topic is “The Problem With America.” There are a thousand problems with America, which makes it just like other countries.

Aside: The nation state is such a norm, so commonplace that we forget that it is a relatively new and thoroughly European invention, and that it was also a compromise. My elder son, bless him, reminded me of this on the way to the airport, citing the Peace of Westphalia. What father could not be proud of a son who knows of the existence of the Peace of Westphalia which ended the thirty years war of the 17th century? It established the idea of national sovereignty as the basis for international relations.

So I am pondering which problem I am going to lift up as the hinge, the crux, the keystone, to America’s future. I think I know it. And I also think I know how to open it up. You see, for me a good sermon essentially opens up the listener to hear a new thing. The best sermons make that new thing also clearly the right thing. Preachers are lucky to do the first more than once every five or six sermons. But we always try.

I am also thinking I will work without a complete manuscript for a while. I have been feeling confined in the pulpit. It could even be the pulpit itself, in some Freudian psychoanalytic sense. In fact, it is Freudian. That spot is so associated with Duncan Littlefair (whose vivid personality dominated the church for almost forty years) that everyone who stands in it is measured by that example. This part is not imaginary, as people have commented on the likeness I or Nurya had to DEL when preaching from the pulpit. To be there has some Freudian/Oedipal aspects, which must sound very odd. But it is so.

Which means I am looking back to grandpa, Alfred W. Wishart, as an alternative model. He was a peripatetic preacher – he wandered about the dais. I have done some of this, but have also been reluctant to do too much. But I have gotten inadvertent counsel from a few sources to follow my instincts and the devil take the hindmost. If not now, when?

In for a penny, as they say.

Off to the symphony tonight, with son Steve in tow. And before I give away my whole sermon ahead of time, I’ll shut up.

05 January 2006

An Epiphany!

When did I get rich?

Being the first of the year, I am thinking of money related things. The bookkeeper at my church wants to know how much to withhold. Quarterly taxes are due next week. We have bank accounts left behind from our move last summer. By the end of the day we shall have a new savings account with – good heavens! - $125,000 in it. My house is worth $450,000. Add in pension accounts, IRAs, stuff life that, and my assets top 1,000,000.

Most of this, to be honest, is the result of death. Our mothers died in 2003 and 2004, leaving assets that became ours. In my case, there is a trust now, making me, at nearly 53, a trust fund kid, a latter day Dubya. And as you can infer from my tone, this affluence is messing with my head.

I feel at least three ways about all this.

1. Lucky. For the first time in my life, I do not feel vulnerable. I can afford to go off to NYC for a few days once or twice a year. I can buy tailored shirts from Lands End. College is not a big problem for either of my kids. I stand a chance of retiring.
2. Confused. Even so, I am not completely secure. I could pay for my house out of the trust, and pay its on-going expenses from the rent my tenant pays, but the savings we have would not sustain us indefinitely. Living at half my salary would last seven years with our current assets. A million dollars ain’t what it used to be.
3. Guilty. But even then, most people in the country have not enough to live seven months, often even seven weeks, without work. Compared to most Americans we are fantastically rich. When the NY Times ran a series on class in America, the on-line version included a status calculator that reckoned in the markers of education, vocation, salary and worth. I was stunned to find myself in the 98-99 percentile in terms of class.

This past fall I finally read de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, and he spends a lot of time talking about the American obsession with money. Of course, mammon has been on the human mind forever. But getting rich is a distinctly American ideal. Not just getting enough, but getting truly rich, having more than enough, is what we dream about.

And here I’ve almost done it. Not me myself, through pluck and work and perseverance, but through the really old-fashioned way of wealth, inheritance.

One thing I have done, being rich and all, is do the rich thing of giving money away. I sat down recently (OK, I did not sit down recently, it’s a literary seque) and remembered all my charitable donations: $5000 to my two churches, $1250 to my seminary, $200 to my college, $200 to Wendy’s colleges, $250 to the Nature Conservancy, $250 to a local museum, $200 each to the local symphony and opera, $100 to the Smithsonian (my sister works for them), $100 to the Red Cross, $100 to my UU Service Committee, and a few other bits and pieces. It’s over $8000 a year, and that’s just what I remember.

That feels pretty good. Not enough yet, but we’re getting close to the 10% we want to be giving. And the best part? It balances some of the guilt. I do have more than enough. Morally I do not deserve to thrive any more than anyone else. Sure I work hard, but trash collectors work hard. I saw plenty of beggars over the last few years. There’s some hard work. The connection between work and wealth is serpentine at the least.

And in the end, it comes down to power. Money is power, the ability do to stuff or more accurately to get others to do it for you. If we all had to build our own homes, make our own clothes, raise own crops and livestock… you get the picture. The Marx guy was not all wrong.

What’s funny is that I know I am among the most fortunate people in the world and yet do not feel the imagined sense of freedom and indolence we all imagine such fortune should bring. As an article I read a bunch of years ago said, no one thinks they have enough money. If only I had another (insert figure here) I would be able to relax. Even millionaires feel they need a little more than they have.

I think that money is the real Rorschach test. You know, the ink blots that psychiatrists used to use to see what was hiding in our brain. They had no inherent meaning. It was what we imagined the shapes could be that signaled our inner reality (I remember one, having taken the test at least two times, that looks to me like two bears dancing.) Money is the same thing. It has no inherent meaning, but we sure attach a lot to it. Nothing, truly nothing, gets more of our emotional attention. How weird.

A friend wrote and said this blog feels slightly less intimate than the stuff I did in December. Good feedback. Blogging is a new venue. Should it be diaristic? I don’t know. Just have to try things out in different ways and depend on you to tell me what you think.

Tomorrow is Epiphany, if that means anything. Twelfth Night, Old Christmas, Three Kings Day. Eat cake, find the baby, smoke a rubber cigar.

03 January 2006

Already it's the same old year

January is here, and with that came the end of a December Diary I wrote for public consumption. But being a fool, I am continuing this long act of spiritual ecydysias. (The word means molt or shed, applied largely to insects but which H.L. Mencken picked up as the basis for a formal name for stripppers, to wit, ecydysiast. What better describes this exercise I have taken up?)

The obvious reasons for continuing are selflish: - I like writing. - Sermons are not the only or best way to communicate. - I like the intimacy of speaking face to anonymous face, for reading is by nature an intimate act, in which the reader is invited in and must make herself or himself present (if only in the writer's imagination. Yes, it's you I am talking to. I cannot see your face, but I know you're there.) And I can speak with a kind of frankness here that public utterance does not permit.

But there are differences. I cannot write daily. Simply not enough time. But you can write back directly. I may answer you in this blog - I love writing letters - if it stimulates me to to something I want to share. Are we clear? Great. On with our story...

The holiday came to an end at 930 this morning, when I delivered my elder son Aaron to the airport. Actually, I parked and we went in together. His flight back to Ottawa ON, where he attends school, was scheduled for 955. We arrived at GR International at 900, to behold a long line of people checking in.

I was uneasy, because this and security would mean a close call. I checked the electronic check-in kiosk, and easily enough we logged him in. But because it is an international flight, it would not print boarding passes. At least that's what it seemed to say. So back in line we go, and I resumed worrying. That's what parents do, and I am as expert as most.

Good fortune smiled when some eager attendant, with knee pads (like those roller bladers use) hollered out looking for those on his flight. Only three hands went up. It turns out most of those in line were being rebooked from and earlier flight.

In the new queue, the fellow at the front had an emormous backpack to check. The attendant with the knee pads, tearing about the place, found an enqually enormous plastic bag. The passenger struggled, vainly, to get it in. I realized that helping him would help Aaron and therefore my uneasiness. We made quick work of it and he thanked me, to which I replied merrily that I did for myself too.

Let's talk about altruism a moment, or the lack of it. As a congenital boy scout (most of the time) I long ago figured out that being good to others was enhancing my life, too. Not in some smug sense of making me good under some celestial micrcoscope, but actually making things better for me in very real terms. I drive decently, that is I keep pace and don't weave and don't tailgate, because those who do slow everyone down. They may make momentary progress, but as often as not I pass the hotshots a few minutes laters when they are stuck behind someone because they did not see the brakelights a quarter mile ahead like I did and so slowed down beforehand. In tody's instance it was clear that helping the guy ahead would get my guy to the head of the line faster. Being nice paid me as well.

What really bothers me is how often people do not see beyond their own noses. Most of us could be a lot better off if we looked ahead, down the road as it were, and saw how slowing down or helping out would ease their own estate.

So we get to the security line and wait as the checkpoint woman who examines tickets and IDs is interrupted to translate for someone who speaks only Spanish. Remember, this is Grand Rapids not Laredo or El Paso. Cool. But I also want to get Aaron on his way. He eventually trundles to the table where they do all but a strip search as he must take off his leather jacket, his fleece, his shoes and even his watch. He has an accepting posture about it all, which I watch from outside. He does not know I am still there, not even looking back. I am slightly sad he did not, but I also know his composure is carefully composed. Like me, sentiment can unravel his face very easily and at 21 being in command is more important than someone 52 like me.

A good father, I stay until I see him, and his adult body move away up the concourse. I am always stunned by his adultness, the miracle of his birth still leaving me speechless. And yet, whenever I mention that in some slightly emotional sense, he smirks or squints. And rightly so, he needs and has an absolute duty to make his life his own, and takes his existence as a given. How could he not. This is a sentiment, profound as it is, that I have to keep for myself.

I am out of the airport by 930, and after a stop at the mall to stock up on vitamins and protein bars at the GNC, I am on my way to the office. I have to spend some time at the mall, though, because mosft stores do not open until 10. There are people waiting to shop, of course, and a phalanx of walkers who use the perimeter to exercise. Mostly, no all of them, seniors as we call them. I applaud their health and lament that they do it here, or must. A shopping mall is one of the least appealing places I know. To use the time, I buy one of those fresh pretzels made on the spot. They were just opening when I arrived and so I wandered about for five minutes. By the time I get back there's a line. Buy this stock.

The GNC has my vitamins, and protein bars I favor, which are often lunch. I flash my discount card, by things already marked down and feel very cunning as I go back to the car. Something is different outside, I note inwardly. I look up and see, yes, there is a ssnatch of blue. Not very much, but very definately there. And off to the south I can see a circular outline through the misted clouds of what would be the sun. It is a banner day in West Michigan!

The office is the office, full with workers and back to the management of life in a church. Meetings, three, today, and email to answer and calls to return. Not only is it private in large measure, it is a day like so many others over the last ten months. It may be a new year, but this part feels pretty old.

I take half an hour to practice the piano, part of my pledge, interrupted by the sexton on duty to tell me it is time to close up. Then I go home, fling some supper together from leftover brisket, cold fried chicken, and a mixture of peas and couscous. Then I take Steve to rehearsal. he went back to work today as well. As I sit here, he will soon be calling for a lift home or get one.

I got a check from the family estate today. It's more than I earned a year for the first five years I worked - a comment both on the largness of the check and the smallness of the pay. Half of it is taxes on the estate I have to make pay for this past year. I also moved a chair from the family room to the living room, the last vestige of being a place of four instead of three.

Remarkable how quickly we slide back into the familiar. Must go to the bank, obviously. Snow is coming back by week's end. I think of Auden's "For the Time Being." It's not even Twelfth Night.