Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Powers of Words

The building looked like the love child of a logic problem and a crossword puzzle. Richard Powers, Orfeo

            During the summer I tend to plow through a book per week, making up for all of the months during the academic year when I do not have the time to read anything other than what I have assigned the students or have been assigned by my colleagues and superiors. Powers orfeoLast week’s book was Richard Powers’ Orfeo. Powers is one of my favorite novelists, but I don’t recall ever having a conversation with anyone about his books. He’s the sort of author whose books win awards, whose novels reviewers rave about as “brilliant,” a “tour de force,” and “his generation’s Herman Melville,” but few people read. Orfeo is his eleventh novel—I’ve read them all, but could not tell you off the top of my head the plot of any one of them. Powers is incredibly smart, knows a ton about classical music, science, philosophy, politics and a bunch of other things—and he enjoys showing off his intelligence. His books often strike me as clumps of genius loosely connected by characters and a plot. What makes me keep track of when the next Richard Powers novel is coming out and purchasing it as soon as it is released is his mastery of the English language. I can think of no author—and I’ve read many—who astounds me more often, page after page, with a phrase or descriptive sentence that makes me put the book down and simply say “Wow. That’s beautiful” (or brilliant or a tour de force). Orfeo is no exception.

And so she sat pushing her pen across the page like a pilgrim slogging to Compostela.

compostelaReplace “pushing her pen” with “clacking his laptop keys” and I know exactly what Powers is describing. I’ve never made the pilgrimage to Compostela, but have talked to a few persons who have. It takes daily preparation beforehand, but above all requires a daily commitment. Some days will be bright and beautiful, filled with great conversation and a general joie de vivre. Other days will be drizzly, cold, gloomy, and invite one to stay in bed. But getting to Compostela requires putting in the miles every day, regardless of weather and/or emotional contingencies. Writing is like that. Waiting until the stars are aligned and you have something important to say means that you will wait forever. It’s like police work—days on end of boredom punctuated by unpredictable moments of sheer terror (or inspiration or insight if one is writing—hopefully writing doesn’t always inspire terror). The immediacy of regular blog writing is helpful—committing myself to two new posts every week guarantees that I won’t wait on elusive inspiration.

Dissonance is a beauty that familiarity hasn’t yet destroyed.

one of these thingsI try to introduce my students to the important concept of cognitive dissonance all the time, usually starting with a reminder of the Sesame Street game: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.” Our natural tendency is to resolve dissonance into similarity, even if it requires forcing the issue. But part of a liberal education is a growing awareness that sometimes contradictions not only cannot be but should not be resolved. Familiarity breeds contempt, but dissonance keep us on our toes—and that’s a beautiful thing.

“Isn’t the point of music to move listeners?”

“No. The point of music is to wake listeners up. To break all our ready-made habits.”

TNelsonhe same is true of the learning process. Important thinkers from Aristotle to Simone Weil tell us that the struggle and process involved in grappling with unfamiliar ideas is often far more important than getting “the right answer.” In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Christopher Nelson (President of my alma mater St. John’s College) nails it: “A liberal education, especially, inspires students to value struggle. By grappling with authors and ideas that demand the greatest level of intellectual intensity—and this is especially true in subjects that are difficult and uncongenial—students learn that they stretch themselves more through struggle, whether or not they win the match.”

We are brought back to ourselves by solitude, and from ourselves to God is only a step.

With this I return, as I frequently do, to a phrase from an obscure medieval nun that captures the essence of what I learned on sabbatical five years ago: My deepest me is God. Using the vocabulary of Christianity, Powers is identifying the truest meaning of incarnation, the divine embedded in human form. The point is just as powerful when taken outside of a religious context. Usually what I most need and desire cannot be found by turning outward to things, persons, jobs or events. The source of everything I need is internal. EttyI spent all of last semester with a bunch of sophomores studying how various people in the worst possible circumstances time and again came to this realization. Etty Hillesum was a case in point.

Etty Hillesum has been described as “the adult counterpart to Anne Frank”; her diary and letters, published as An Interrupted Life, reveal a remarkable awareness and compassion in the midst of some of humanity’s darkest days. She died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of twenty-nine. Knowing that I taught a colloquium on various issues related to the Holocaust last semester, the President of my college recommended it to me at lunch the other day. I knew that the recommendation was a fortuitous one as soon as I read the introduction by Jan Gaarlandt. Gaarlandt writes of Hillesum’s “totally unconventional” spirituality and rejects the attempts by both Jews and Christians to claim her as typically Jewish or typically Christian as “unprofitable.” As I suspect is the case with most persons described as “religious,” Etty’s spirituality was uniquely her own; she regularly addresses God in her diary and letters as she would address herself.

I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious conversation with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God . . . I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call “God.”

This may not be “typical” in any sense, but it captures the incarnational heart of Christianity beautifully. As the medieval sister said, My deepest me is God.

The Greater Jihad

0690=690[1]Lead on King Eternal, the day of march has come

Henceforth in fields of conquest Thy tents shall be our home

Through days of preparation, Thy grace hath made us strong

And now O King Eternal we lift our battle song. 

Almost five centuries ago, as he observed his fellow French Catholic and Protestant citizens regularly kill each other in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, michel-de-montaigne-006[1]Michel de Montaigne wrote that “there is no hostility so extreme as that of the Christian.” A strange statement—hostility and bloodshed seem entirely incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount. But I learned at a very early age to ignore or set aside this contradiction. Many of the hymns of my childhood shared a common theme—we Christian believers are at war and must be prepared to do battle at any moment. From “Lead On, O King Eternal” and “Onward Christian Soldiers”onward_christian_soldiers-detail-new[1] through “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” to “Who is On the Lord’s Side?” I learned a spiritual vocabulary of aggression, violence and warfare. I was never clear about exactly who we were supposed to be fighting or how to recognize the enemy, but I knew I had been drafted into an army, whether I liked it or not. And in the more than five decades of my life, world events have regularly made it clear that religion and aggression, faith and violence, often go hand in hand.

sons%20of%20thunder[1]In the Gospel of Luke, James and John, known as “the sons of thunder,” have this sort of thing in mind when they ask Jesus for permission to call fire down from heaven to consume the Samaritan town that refuses to put Jesus up on his way to Jerusalem. It is no surprise that Samaritans would turn Jesus away, because the center of Samaritan religious worship was in Samaria, not in Jerusalem where Jesus was going, as it was for Jews. Samaritans and Jews then were as different as Catholics and Unitarians today, as different as Sunnis and Shi’ites.imagesCAON6NA5  James and John want to kick ass and take names, all in the interest of spreading the word that the Messiah has come and if you don’t like it or believe it, watch out! But Jesus won’t let them do it; he even “rebukes them” for thinking of such a thing. And the disciples, even those in his inner circle, are confused yet again. If you have the power to establish the truth and eliminate those who won’t follow it, why not use that power?

A book I recently finished reading for the second time, Stephanie Saldana’s The Bread of Angels published in 2010, places the reader in the middle of such questions. breadofangels[1]Saldana’s book is a memoir of the year that she spent from September 2004 to September 2005 on a Fulbright scholarship in Damascus, Syria studying Arabic. It would be another five or six years before the current civil war in Syria that has claimed over 100,000 lives to date would erupt, but Syria in the early years of the twenty-first century, as it had been for decades, was a place of both religious and political tension. These tensions were heightened by the fact that Stephanie’s home country, the United States, had invaded Syria’s neighbor to the east, Iraq, just a few short months prior to her arrival in Damascus.

Stephanie lives in the Christian section of the Old City of Damascus, Syriac_Catholic_Church_logo[1]surrounded by Arabs who follow the liturgical rites of the oldest known form of Christianity, but her daily walks across the city place her in contact with the predominantly Muslim working urban class. She particularly befriends Mohammed, who keeps a carpet shop and looks like Groucho Marx. Although his carpets are extraordinarily beautiful, often the product of his own painstaking restoration, business is slow and his shop is almost always empty. In response to Stephanie’s sympathetic concerns, Mohammed tells her a story.

“When the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, was returning from battle, he stopped on the top of a hill before entering the city. He turned to his companions and he said ‘Now we return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.’ Do you know what that means, Stephanie? The lesser jihad, the jihad of holy war, is simply to fight in a military battle. But the greater jihad is to work all day repairing carpets without any new business. It is to feed your family. The greater jihad, Stephanie, is just to live.”

In Arabic the word “jihad,” so frightening to many non-Muslim Westerners, simply means “struggle.” The point of Mohammed’s story—told from within the context of a religion that shares a history of violence and warfare with Christianity—is that the greatest struggle of the life of faith is not winning converts or defending one’s beliefs against those with whom one disagrees. The greater struggle of faith is worked out in the daily grind—the struggle of weaving divine threads into the often mundane tapestry of a particular human life. As a novice monk tells Stephanie toward the end of her book, “Resurrection is not an event in the past, but a concrete reality, something we look for every day.” So where is this concrete reality to be found? How are we to participate in the greater jihad of faith?

fruit-of-the-spirit[1]A familiar passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians provides a direction. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” At first read, these characteristics are not particularly remarkable, certainly not as attention-getting as the gifts of the Spirit—tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, and the like—that Paul lists elsewhere. Jeanne pointed out to me the other day that while the gifts of the Spirit direct attention to the person with the gift, the fruits of the spirit are directed outward away from the person exemplifying the fruit. Love, generosity, kindness—these are expressed toward others, channeling divine energy away from oneself into the world. And note that these are the fruits of the Spirit. A tree does not expend extraordinary effort or grit its leafy teeth or work overtime to produce fruit. A tree’s fruit is the natural result of health, growth, maturity, and time. These fruits cannot be rushed—often waiting and silence are the best incubators. jeremiah1[1]As Jeremiah, in a rare good mood, writes in Lamentations, “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” What more likely place for that to occur than in the daily routines of our lives? The greater jihad cannot be won as one might win a battle or war; 220px-Molana[1]it must be lived. As the great thirteenth-century Muslim poet and mystic Rumi wrote, “If you want to witness the resurrection, then be it.”

Yet clearly it is possible, even typical, for even those human beings most in touch with their divine nature to fail to live out these fruit. Just consider Jesus today in the gospel reading after he saves the Samaritan town from being burnt to a crisp. Is it loving, gentle, or kind to tell someone whose father just died to “let the dead bury their dead”? Is Jesus being patient or generous when he casts aspersions on the commitment of a person who just wants to be a faithful son and say goodbye to his family? Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace? One of the most attractive things about Jesus in the Gospels is also one of the most confusing—he is so recognizably human.

In Yann Martel’s award winning novel, Life of PiYann Martel holding Life of Pi[1], which was recently made into an Academy Award winning movie, Pi Patel wonders about this Jesus guy. Pi loves God and everything about God, so much so that he is trying to be a Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time. But one of the main things he doesn’t get about Christianity is Jesus, who Pi critiques by comparing him to a Hindu God who temporarily became human.

vishnu_40[1]There is the story of Vishnu incarnated as Vamana the dwarf. He asks demon king Bali for only as much land as he can cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt and his puny request, and he consents. Immediately Vishnu takes on his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth, with the second the heavens, and with the third he boots Bali into the netherworld. . . . That is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.

      This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him—what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. . . .This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god—and in a hot place at that—with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; depositphotos_5367133-Jesus-Riding-a-Donkey[1]and when he splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a God who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?

Pi has a point. And yet he admits a few pages later that “I couldn’t get him out of my head. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.”

“God on too human a scale.” For anyone imagining what God in the flesh might look and act like, Jesus is a surprise, sometimes even a disappointment. And so are we—some days will be better than others in the greater jihad. But God in human form is the whole point of the Incarnation. Energized by the fruits of the spirit, the life of faith introduces the kingdom of God into the world.

Lead on, O King Eternal, till sin’s fierce war shall cease

And holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace

For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum

But deeds of love and mercy thy heavenly kingdom comes.

Conversion

no smokingConversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.

But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a st-paul-conversionSaul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to  be seriously wanting.

I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, born againI felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my recent sabbatical residence at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.Abbey

I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of  “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, achoir stallsnd even received behind-the-scenes permission from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books.

Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when my fellow Institute resident, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, catholic_guiltand to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”

I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Protestant guiltFurthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and  soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as  a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.

But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ordain womenas well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still  believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector.

I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. indexIt had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”

A Southern Belle in the Deep North

imagesWhen we left the Bag last week, she was sitting between the captain’s chairs of a twenty-seven foot U-Haul truck with her parents headed from Memphis to Providence. She adjusted far better as a southern belle to New England than her parents from the deep north had adjusted to Memphis—but then Snow never had difficulty adjusting to anyone or anybody. Except our new landlord. For some reason, he was the one person Snow did not like; she growled at him every time he reluctantly came to take care of something after several calls. She was a good judge of character—he was definitely a dick.

Our first winter in Providence—the winter of 1995–turned out to be a record-breaker with more snow accumulated than any of the subsequent eighteen winters we have been here. The Bag had never seen snow, but it did not cramp her style in any way. Blizzard_of_96_Snow_DriftsIn early December she was on the loose again, this time in a still unfamiliar neighborhood during the first snowstorm of the season. It was snowing so hard that Jeanne and I soon gave up trying to follow The Bag’s tracks and jumped in the car to cruise the streets looking for her. We made a fine impression on our neighbors as we drove up and down the blocks with our heads hanging out the windows yelling “SNOOOOWWWWW! SNOOOOWWWW!!” at the tops of our lungs. Wait till these new folks from Tennessee have been here for a winter—they won’t be so excited about snow any more.

After a year and a half we bought our first (and hopefully last) house just a few blocks away from where we first rented in Providence and only a few blocks in a different direction from campus. The Bag continued to make friends. She became a familiar figure in the neighborhood as she found new ways, in spite of my best efforts, to escape our fenced back yard and meet new people. dog tagsShe got into the habit of going from house to house through back yards whenever possible in order to make it more difficult for me to spot her as I cruised the streets responding to the latest Missing Bag Alert. Thank goodness for identification tags. On occasion Snow would get a ride home in vehicles ranging from pickup trucks driven by strangers to the mail truck driven by her friend our mail lady. One summer afternoon when she had been gone for two or three hours and I had given up on trying to find her, an unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house. A couple from Nicaragua who had just moved into the neighborhood and spoke only broken English had come across The Bag wandering around in the middle of the street. Throwing her into the back seat, they drove her home. Upon my leaning into the back seat and saying “Come on, Snow,” she pinned herself against the opposite back door and cowered as if she expected to be beaten yet again—except that neither Jeanne nor I had eveimagesCA4F87EJr laid a hand on her in anger. She just was not ready to return to her boring life at home yet—the folks from Nicaragua apparently were far more interesting than I am. Fortunately they did not have the animal abuse hotline on speed dial.

One day we received a call from a guy who lived on a circle close by—Snow had escaped yet again and this time had showed up at Owen and Tina’s door (Owen was the guy on the phone). They invited her in and gave her something to eat. That was enough in The Bag’s mind to establish a long-lasting friendship; The Bag showed up at Owen and Tina’s so often when on the lam that I eventually stopped trying to track her down and just would give her enablers’ house a call. “Is Snow there?” I asked on the phone one day. “Yes,” Tina replied. “I’m on my way.” “Oh do you have to come so soon? She just got here!” I waited an hour or so, then drove over and retrieved The Bag.

Eventually Owen and Tina met Jeanne; one day the four of us (along with The Bag and our hosts’ dog) were conversing in their back yard over drinks. tower twoDuring the course of our conversation we learned that a fellow named Eric, just a few doors up the street from Owen and Tina, was the widower of one of the flight attendants on the second airplane that had crashed into the Twin Towers just a few months earlier. Just as two extroverted women should do, Jeanne, with Snow in tow, knocked on Eric’s door a few days later and introduced herself.  We were in Eric’s life for a short time as he worked through the early months of the tragedy that taken his wife from him and as he took tentative steps to move on with his life. Eric moved from Providence a couple of years later to start a new business and a new relationship in North Carolina. We have lost touch, but the two pieces of furniture he gave Jeanne when he moved have a prominent place in our living room. They make me think of Eric, which makes me think of who was responsible for our meeting him—The Bag.

So many vignettes bubble up from my memory banks. 500074-R1-020-8A_009The exuberant joy with which The Bag greeted Jeanne at the door every time she walked in. The disdainful manner in which she sighed and walked away when it was just me without Jeanne. How she became so deaf that she literally could not hear you walk up behind her to within a foot away, yet could instantly sense the opening of the refrigerator door from anywhere in the house. How she loved pasta so much that the mere starchy aroma of pasta boiling would send her into what Jeanne dubbed “the pasta dance.” The mountains of white fur that she shed indiscriminately regardless of the season, so abundant that it would have been suitable for ten larger dogs.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about Snow except that she was ours. When we had to have her put down a few years ago at age 17 ½, the only people who shed tears were Jeanne, my youngest son, me, and a neighbor several doors down the street. 498822-R1-010-3A_007Marcella, an older Irish woman, became so attached to Snow that for the last several years of The Bag’s life she had 24/7 access to the house in order to take Snow out walking—the same access Marcella still has to our current three dog menagerie. As we sat in a neighborhood pub after the traumatic moments at the veterinary hospital, downing numerous drinks in an impromptu Bag-wake, we recalled that Snow had a knack of connecting us to people who became important in our lives, even in the short-term. She was an agent of grace with a halo of white fur trailing behind. We planted two trees in the back yard three years ago under which Snow’s ashes reside along with those of Spooky (the Pussmeister), who outlived Snow for a year until moving on to his feline reward at age 19. Sometime soon we’ll have a memorial plaque made: Pussmeister and The Bag. The trees will live for a thousand years.500074-R1-022-9A_010

A Southern Belle in the Deep North

imagesWhen we left The Bag last week, she was sitting between the captain’s chairs of a twenty-seven foot U-Haul truck with her parents headed from Memphis to Providence. She adjusted far better as a southern belle to New England than her parents from the deep north had adjusted to Memphis—but then Snow never had difficulty adjusting to anyone or anybody. Except our new landlord. For some reason, he was the one person Snow did not like; she growled at him every time he reluctantly came to take care of something after several calls. She was a good judge of character—he was definitely a dick.

Our first winter in Providence—the winter of 1995–turned out to be a record-breaker with more snow accumulated than any of the subsequent eighteen winters we have been here. The Bag had never seen snow, but it did not cramp her style in any way. Blizzard_of_96_Snow_DriftsIn early December she was on the loose again, this time in a still unfamiliar neighborhood during the first snowstorm of the season. It was snowing so hard that Jeanne and I soon gave up trying to follow The Bag’s tracks and jumped in the car to cruise the streets looking for her. We made a fine impression on our neighbors as we drove up and down the blocks with our heads hanging out the windows yelling “SNOOOOWWWWW! SNOOOOWWWW!!” at the tops of our lungs. Wait till these new folks from Tennessee have been here for a winter—they won’t be so excited about snow any more.

After a year and a half we bought our first (and hopefully last) house just a few blocks away from where we first rented in Providence and only a few blocks in a different direction from campus. The Bag continued to make friends. She became a familiar figure in the neighborhood as she found new ways, in spite of my best efforts, to escape our fenced back yard and meet new people. dog tagsShe got into the habit of going from house to house through back yards whenever possible in order to make it more difficult for me to spot her as I cruised the streets responding to the latest Missing Bag Alert. Thank goodness for identification tags. On occasion Snow would get a ride home in vehicles ranging from pickup trucks driven by strangers to the mail truck driven by her friend our mail lady. One summer afternoon when she had been gone for two or three hours and I had given up on trying to find her, an unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house. A couple from Nicaragua who had just moved into the neighborhood and spoke only broken English had come across The Bag wandering around in the middle of the street. Throwing her into the back seat, they drove her home. Upon my leaning into the back seat and saying “Come on, Snow,” she pinned herself against the opposite back door and cowered as if she expected to be beaten yet again—except that neither Jeanne nor I had eveimagesCA4F87EJr laid a hand on her in anger. She just was not ready to return to her boring life at home yet—the folks from Nicaragua apparently were far more interesting than I am. Fortunately they did not have the animal abuse hotline on speed dial.

One day we received a call from a guy who lived on a circle close by—Snow had escaped yet again and this time had showed up at Owen and Tina’s door (Owen was the guy on the phone). They invited her in and gave her something to eat. That was enough in The Bag’s mind to establish a long-lasting friendship; The Bag showed up at Owen and Tina’s so often when on the lam that I eventually stopped trying to track her down and just would give her enablers’ house a call. “Is Snow there?” I asked on the phone one day. “Yes,” Tina replied. “I’m on my way.” “Oh do you have to come so soon? She just got here!” I waited an hour or so, then drove over and retrieved The Bag.

Eventually Owen and Tina met Jeanne; one day the four of us (along with The Bag and our hosts’ dog) were conversing in their back yard over drinks. tower twoDuring the course of our conversation we learned that a fellow named Eric, just a few doors up the street from Owen and Tina, was the widower of one of the flight attendants on the second airplane that had crashed into the Twin Towers just a few days earlier. Just as two extroverted women should do, Jeanne, with Snow in tow, knocked on Eric’s door a few days later and introduced herself.  We were in Eric’s life for a short time as he worked through the early months of the tragedy that taken his wife from him and as he took tentative steps to move on with his life. Eric moved from Providence a couple of years later to start a new business and a new relationship in North Carolina. We have lost touch, but the two pieces of furniture he gave Jeanne when he moved have a prominent place in our living room. They make me think of Eric, which makes me think of who was responsible for our meeting him—The Bag.

So many vignettes bubble up from my memory banks. 500074-R1-020-8A_009The exuberant joy with which The Bag greeted Jeanne at the door every time she walked in. The disdainful manner in which she sighed and walked away when it was just me without Jeanne. How she became so deaf that she literally could not hear you walk up behind her to within a foot away, yet could instantly sense the opening of the refrigerator door from anywhere in the house. How she loved pasta so much that the mere starchy aroma of pasta boiling would send her into what Jeanne dubbed “the pasta dance.” The mountains of white fur that she shed indiscriminately regardless of the season, so abundant that it would have been suitable for ten larger dogs.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about Snow except that she was ours. When we had to have her put down a few years ago at age 17 ½, the only people who shed tears were Jeanne, my youngest son, me, and a neighbor several doors down the street. 498822-R1-010-3A_007Marcella, an older Irish woman, became so attached to Snow that for the last several years of The Bag’s life she had 24/7 access to the house in order to take Snow out walking—the same access Marcella still has to our current three dog menagerie. As we sat in a neighborhood pub after the traumatic moments at the veterinary hospital, downing numerous drinks in an impromptu Bag-wake, we recalled that Snow had a knack of connecting us to people who became important in our lives, even in the short-term. She was an agent of grace with a halo of white fur trailing behind. We planted two trees in the back yard three years ago under which Snow’s ashes reside along with those of Spooky (the Pussmeister), who outlived Snow for a year until moving on to his feline reward at age 19. Sometime soon we’ll have a memorial plaque made: Pussmeister and The Bag. The trees will live for a thousand years.500074-R1-022-9A_010

Learning How to Read

There is a mystery in reading, a mystery which, if we contemplate it, may well help us, not to explain, but to grab hold of other mysteries in human life. Simone Weil

CB and LinusMy early years were full of apocryphal stories of how I learned to read. According to my mother, I was reading by age three without anyone having taught me how to do it. I was never without a book,  and lined up my menagerie of stuffed animals on the couch to read to them. Knowing how stories tend to take on a life of their own, I cannot attest to the accuracy of these reports (although it was my father rather than my mother who was prone to telling tall tales). I do know that my love of books extends as far back as I can remember, and that I know how to read before I could tell time or tie my shoes—perhaps my parents should have provided me with instruction manuals to read. Because I could read on a fifth grade level before starting first grade, according to the school board member who tested me at home, I went through first and second grade in one year. moving from one side of the room to the other in our little school after Christmas break. cursiveI’ve paid a lifelong price for that honor—I joined second grade when they were all the way to the letter “W” in their cursive writing studies. My “w’s.” “x’s,” “y’s” and “z’s” are fabulous, but other than that my cursive has been illegible, even to me, ever since.

Several years ago during an eye exam, my new ophthalmologist asked “do you read very much?” I laughed as I said “I read for a living!” The written word is not only the foundation of my professional life, but has also been my spiritual lifeline for most of my life. For many years all that remained of my religious upbringing was the Bible. bigstock-Holy-Bible-828340-300x235Even though I no longer believed it to be the literally inerrant word of God as I was taught, large portions of it resided in my memory, ready to be accessed in class and conversation as well as popping up even when uninvited. I memorized large portions of the Bible growing up, as all good Baptist kids should, continually reminded that “Thy Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.” We were taught that since the canon of Scripture was completed, we should not expect further communication from the divine in the form of miracles, signs and wonders, or direct communication. We already had God’s final word to us in completed form; now we just needed to obey it and hang on until the Second Coming.

I was accordingly jerked up short a few years ago when I read in a book by theologian Patrick Henry that “God died because people forgot how to read.” I don’t entirely remember the context of the claim nor Henry’s explication, but I was reminded of the phrase this past week as I read a manuscript on SimoneSimone Weil’s philosophy as an outside reader for a prestigious academic press. In her “Essay on the Concept of Reading,” she argues that we “read” everything in our environment. “The sky, the sea, the sun, the stars, human beings, everything that surrounds us is something that we read.” This is much broader understanding of “reading” than our traditional Western conception, which considers reading to be an exclusively cognitive, intellectual, and mental activity—precisely the sort of activity I’ve spent the majority of my waking hours on this planet doing. So how is it that such a crucial, human defining activity as reading could be forgotten, even to the point of emptying the divine of content? The problem is not with reading per se—it’s that we’ve forgotten that reading is not just an intellectual activity. lectioGod’s death is not due to a misuse of or over-reliance on the activity of reading. It’s due to forgetting what true reading even is.

I had heard and read about “lectio divina,” sacred reading before I went on sabbatical to a AbbeyBenedictine college campus with a large abbey on site, but it had not struck me as a particularly interesting concept. Just another skill to learn, technique to master, perhaps—but really, if there’s one thing I know how to do pretty well, its reading. But after several weeks of daily prayer with the abbey monks, it dawned on me that lectio divina isn’t about words and meaning and retention at all. I often found that I did not remember, even for the amount of time it took to walk from the choir stalls to the front of the abbey and exit, which Psalms we had read nor any of the content. Yet I had a sense that what we were doing was far more important than reading a book, marking it with highlighter and pen in my usual method, and perhaps memorizing a phrase or two for future reference in class or conversation.choir stalls

What was happening in the choir stalls was not a mind event, but a full body experience bypassing my overdeveloped mind and seeping into all the other parts of me that had been starved for years. My bodily rhythms, my intuitions, my emotions, my spirit. The Psalms speak of God’s word all the time, but almost never of thinking about God’s word. jeremiahIt’s more like what Jeremiah reports: “The words were found and I did eat them, and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” Simone Weil was channeling her internal Jeremiah when she wrote that “I only read what I am hungry for at the moment when I have an appetite for it, and then I do not read, I eat.” And like a mother bird regurgitating food for the babies, an important word or phrase would come into my consciousness later in the day, one that I didn’t remember reading but which had dripped into my soul.

In our “real world” of immediacy, getting it done, making money and a living, is there a place for what I began to absorb in a monastery abbey in the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota? Over the subsequent years I’ve seen small but important evidence of change in how I converse with people, how I approach the day, and a heightened and more immediate sense of when a layer is threatening to grow back over my divine reading space. silence-is-the-language-of-godLearning how to read differently is not just another technique; because it is a new way of being, it is transferable to everything. I went on sabbatical expecting to write about trying to sustain a life of faith when God at best is a silent partner who never writes, calls, emails, texts or tweets. Now the divine is everywhere and seems to have a lot to say. Reading the divine begins with believing that everything is sacramental, infused with the breath of God, with taking “the Word became flesh” very seriously. All of creation is a sacred text. I didn’t know it, because I didn’t know how to read.

The Little Red-Haired Girl

Today is my lovely Jeanne’s birthday–please join me in celebrating my favorite person’s natal day! This essay was first posted on our twenty-fifth anniversary last July.

A staple of my early years was the “Peanuts” comic strip. That doesn’t make me unusual—I don’t recall anyone in my circle of family and friends unaware of what Charlie Brown and company were up to on a daily or at least weekly basis. Depending on my mood and what was going on in my life, I resonated either with tumblr_l8pnbvbVeh1qdz4kto1_500[1]Linus, with whom I shared a host of insecurities; Schroeder, with whom I shared budding virtuosity on the piano; Snoopy, who was the epitome of coolness and could communicate volumes without saying a word; or Charlie Brown himself, whose endearing ineptitude in all aspects of his life was uncomfortably familiar.

I was a hopeless romantic, generally falling in love and making silent wedding plans any time a girl would make eye contact with me. Because of this, the most poignant story line in Charlie Brown’s escapades for me was his unrequited love for the never-seen little red-haired girl. nye3[1]Although she does make a couple of appearances in later, non-canonical television “Peanuts” cartoons, she is never seen in the print comic strip, nor do we learn her name. Charlie Brown most often notices the little red-haired girl while eating lunch outdoors on the playground, often trying to muster up the courage to speak to her, but always in vain. Anything touched by her or associated with her is precious to him. Many strips concerning the little red-haired girl end with a classic Charlie Brown “SIGH.”tumblr_lwy627YD7t1r1g3g0o1_500[1]

I understood Charlie’s struggles because in first and second grade there was a little red-haired girl in my class. Her name was Laura, her hair was carrot red, and since her last name also started with an “M” she sat in the seat in front of me. No one knew that I was enamored of Laura, certainly not her, but one day the secret was out. She unexpectedly handed a note back to me—it said “Can I borrow a pencil?”—someone observed the note transfer, assumptions were made, and during the next playground session it was “Vance and Laura, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” As Charlie Brown would have said, “Good Grief.” Laura set things straight from her end by pointing out that everyone knew that she liked David, not me, but my failure to immediately deny my admiration of Laura confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Word spread fast, and my brother three grades ahead of me announced at dinner that evening to my parents that I was in love with a girl who didn’t like me.

Time passed, we moved away, and the little red-haired girl faded into the mists of memory. Life happened, and I ended up getting married to the first person I had a serious relationship with, my girlfriend during my last two years of high school (she had brown hair). Over the next decade two sons were born, things fell apart, and at age thirty-one I found myself divorced, living in the same town as my ex, finishing a Master’s degree and making plans to get into a doctoral program.Trudy and Bruce June 1982 My parents invited me along with my sons—ages eight and five—to their place five hundred miles away for Thanksgiving. And oh yeah—they were inviting their friend Jeanne for Thanksgiving as well.

I had heard about Jeanne before—my parents had known her for a number of years. When she came up in conversation, my mother always mentioned her beautiful singing voice and her beautiful red hair. Jeanne and I had even talked on the phone once a couple of years earlier, when she called me out of the blue just to tell me that she had been accepted into st_johns_college_logo[1]St. John’s College, where I had done my bachelor’s degree in the seventies. Jeanne only knew about it because my parents had spoken of it in glowing terms based on my experience. She thought—correctly—that only someone who had been there would know how big a deal it was to get into St. John’s.

So now this person who I knew only through second-hand stories from my mother and a voice on the phone was going to be at my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I’m not big on meeting new people, but figured this was safe because I would have my parents as a buffer.

Those few days over Thanksgiving changed several lives. Although the last thing I was looking for was a relationship six months after my divorce had ended eleven years of unhappy marriage, it was immediately clear that there was something going on between the two of us. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn Thanksgiving morning I sat on the sofa in the small living room of my parents’ condo observing Jeanne chatting with my mother who was puttering around in her little kitchen. Leaning with her back up against the wall as she talked, Jeanne struck a seductive pose (or so it seemed to me) and I thought “she’s the little red-haired girl, all grown up!” A few days later, I inexplicably had tears in my eyes as I started the long drive home. In some deep place I knew I was driving away from my soul mate. But after a month of nightly phone calls of more than an hour each, she joined me for Christmas and we were together for good. And the rest is twenty-five years and counting of history still being written.

If being a romantic means being someone who believes that “Love is all you need” or that “Love is the answer,” I’m not a romantic any more. One thing we’ve learned over the past twenty-five years is that love is not enough. A couple of weeks ago the text at church was the fruit of the spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Gentleness, Goodness, Faith, Meekness, Temperance. We have needed every one of these many times in order to keep going, in addition to the tenth, unmentioned fruit—humor. Each of us considered and even tried walking away from the whole thing more than once. But here we are, twenty-five years in, stronger and more connected than we have ever been. Of the list above, the first three are in the ascendant. Love—because like fine wine and single malt scotch love gets better as it ages. Peace—of the sort that only comes with having spent almost half of your life in love with your best friend. And Joy–because unlike Chuck in the “Peanuts” strip, I got the little red-haired girl.The lovely couple

Memphis Belle

We didn’t want to be in Memphis, or anywhere in the South for that matter. I clearly remember the evening in the middle of a Milwaukee winter when the phone rang. Jeanne answered, then holding the receiver out to me as if it was a piece of rotting meat said christian-brothers-university_200x200“It’s Sister Ann McKean from Christian Brothers University in Memphis.” As I took the receiver, she whispered “I AM NOT GOING TO MEMPHIS” (Jeanne is very capable of whispering in capital letters). The call was actually great news—it meant that one of the dozens of resumes I had sent all over the country looking for a college teaching job in philosophy had caught someone’s eye. In the academic job market, a letter is always bad news and a phone call is always good news—unless the people who want to interview you work at a college in Memphis. memphis_sucks_organic_cotton_teeAs Jeanne paced the hall saying “I AM NOT GOING TO MEMPHIS” I set up an interview with Sr. Ann, the chair of the Religion and Philosophy department at Christian Brothers, and a few weeks later it was the best of times—I had just landed a tenure track job before actually getting my PhD diploma—and the worst of times—we were going to Memphis.

With the help of the CFO at the university, we rented a house just a short distance from campus. One afternoon a year or so in I was pulling up weeds between the paving stones in our backyard patio when a dog with lots of white fur and the body of a cinder block ran up our driveway and knocked me down. I should have known better, 500074-R1-008-2A_003but I yelled “Hey come and look at this!” to Jeanne inside the house, and we had a dog. Not that we were looking for one (although Jeanne revealed later that she had been praying for one), but she was a stray looking for some pushover humans and definitely found the right address. We did the proper things, attempting to locate her owners through the Humane Society, but no one was looking for a thirty-pound pregnant mutt with more white fur than any canine should be allowed to have, especially a shedding one in Memphis. She also had yellowish-orangey pointy ears, a slightly off-center spot of the same shade on her forehead, multi-colored toenails and a spotted tongue.

We didn’t let her in the house at first, but she greeted us on the front porch every morning as we went to work, running after the car for a couple of blocks, and was always waiting for us when we returned home. Her persistence was far stronger than our (my) resistance, and soon she moved in. Our cat Spooky, who had been allowing us to live with him for two years, was not impressed but as a feline pacifist put up with it. snowbagJeanne called our new addition “Snow,” for obvious reasons; for less obvious reasons I gave her the nickname of “Snowbag,” which before long was shortened to “The Bag,” the name by which she was known to my sons and me from then on. One would think that such naming abuse would have caused her to move out, but she stayed. I’m quite sure that Snow attached herself exclusively to Jeanne because she had little respect for anyone who would call her by such a name as “The Bag.”

We learned many things very quickly about Snow. She understood, for instance, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. She loved to be petted, but only if she was allowed to lick the petter while being the pettee. She also had an incurable wanderlust. fenceOur backyard was surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence, entirely insufficient to confine Snow when she felt like visiting the neighbors. I watched her one afternoon use all four paws to climb the fence as one would scale a rock face cliff, roll over the top, fall like a ton of bricks into the neighbor’s unfenced yard, shake herself vigorously, and trot off for an unsupervised walk. We usually could chase her down in the car, only for her to find a new way to escape the next day. We were not afraid she would not return—she had chosen us, after all—but we were very concerned that she would be run over by a car. edwinWe lived on a small residential circle that emptied into a very busy thoroughfare that fed into the center of the city, and Snow was entirely oblivious of traffic. During one of her excursions, we received a call from a stranger who had rescued Snow from wandering in the middle of three lane traffic on Hollywood Street. Retrieving our phone number from her identification tag, he gave us an address not far away where we immediately went to meet him and pick up our wayward daughter. He had thrown his own two large dogs out of the house into his fenced yard; The Bag was lounging in air-conditioned comfort (a necessity in Memphis) awaiting our arrival.

This was during the years that Jeanne, Justin, Caleb and I were struggling to make our still relatively new step-family work. Primary custody had been awarded to me in court; part of the court’s decision was that the boys would spend Christmas and summers with their mother (on Jeanne’s and my dime, of course). 220px-Memphis_International_Airport_from_outsideA couple of months after Snow arrived, it was time to put the boys on the airplane to fly to Colorado for the Christmas holidays—The Bag decided that two or three hours before we had to take the boys to the airport would be a good time to escape yet again. We made our usual drive around our circle to find her, but the time we had to leave for the airport arrived and she had not yet returned. By the time we got home and we were ready for bed, Snow was still missing. “Maybe this time she’s gone for good,” we thought, concerned that this would be just one more difficult transition to pile on the boys when they returned. But not to worry. At three or four in the morning Jeanne and I were awakened by Snow’s piercing bark at the front door—she had brought along another dog to enjoy our open-door canine policy. Snow obviously believed that it was more blessed to given and to receive. Avon ladyHer house guest stayed with us until late the next day when we finally made contact with his owner—the local Avon lady from across town who picked him up in a Cadillac.

We moved to Memphis in the summer of 1991 reluctantly, not wanting to leave our beloved Milwaukee that had been our first home as a family, where I had just finished my PhD, and my alma mater lacked the good sense to hire me. yugo-white-300x197We were driving a seventeen-foot U-Haul dragging our Yugo behind—Spooky expressed our sentiments perfectly by puking all over the cab as we crossed the line from Wisconsin into Illinois heading south. Three years later we drove a twenty-six foot U-Haul (still dragging the Yugo behind) out of Memphis heading northeast to Providence with great expectations and the southern bitch who had decided we would be her family. bobbleheadJESUSSnow spent the trip sitting on the console in between the two captain’s chairs in the cab like a shedding bobble head or dashboard Jesus, while Spooky ruled the back seat. “I still can’t figure out why we had to go to Memphis,” Jeanne said the other day; “Maybe to meet The Bag,” I replied. That’s tough duty just to get a hood ornament. To be continued . . .