Category Archives: Big Bird

I Am Not Your Friend

If it’s Friday, it’s time to think once again about interactions between various constituencies in academia. Today I am not thinking about faculty-administration relations. I’m wondering instead about the dynamic between professors and students.

One of the challenges and joys of team teaching in an interdisciplinary program—something I have been doing for twenty years—is that you get to teach with all sorts of people. Young and not so young, introvert and extrovert, high maintenance and low maintenance, mount rushmorecollegial and not-so-much, colleagues who belong on the teaching version of Mount Rushmore and others who have a difficult time avoiding embarrassment in the classroom. And everything between these various extremes. The various three- and four-person teams I have been part of have ranged from forever memorable to eminently forgettable. My team last fall was one of the most memorable, largely because one of my teammates was someone who really didn’t want to be there.

I have been directing the interdisciplinary program I teach in for the past three and a half years. Scheduling twenty three-person teams out of the rotating faculty that staff the program from four large departments from semester to semester is one of, if not the most challenging part of the job. Negotiating the time constraints while attempting to honor various faculty “requests” (I want to teach with these people, I do not want to teach with this person, I cannot teach before 9:30 or after 2:30, Rubiks cubeI cannot teach more than three days per week and definitely not on Fridays) is like trying to solve a 36-sided Rubik’s cube. The only accompanying perk is that I get to choose who I will teach with each semester. Last fall, one of my teammates was a colleague from history in his last year of teaching before retirement. J had taught in the program I direct in the past, but not for a dozen years or more. I was sure J was not thrilled to be sent back for the first semester of his last year before retirement. Known for his curmudgeonly and crusty demeanor (as well as his expertise in military history), I thought it might be a good idea to put him with me—both because we have been friends for several years (we are frequently at the gym at the same time) and because I wanted to protect unsuspecting colleagues from what J might bring to the table on a bad day.

J is in his early seventies; teamed with T, old white guysa classicist from Art History who is in his late fifties as I am, our triumvirate was the “old fart”/”old white guys” team let loose on 100 or so unsuspecting freshmen. It was a blast. It turned out that each of my teammates shared my ironic and sarcastic sense of humor, so we spent the first several weeks laughing in class at each other’s cracks and side comments while the children wrote them down dutifully in their notebooks in the off chance that such information might be on the next quiz or exam, all the time wondering what planet they had landed on.

At one of our first weekly team meetings, the topic of office hours came up. T (a complete rookie in the program) wanted to know whether there was a required amount of office hours a faculty member teaching in the program had to hold per week (there isn’t), prompting J to mention what he had told the students in each of his seminars the first time they met.

These are my office hours. If you have questions or need help, this is when I’ll be in my office. But don’t just drop in to “shoot the shit” or hang out. I am not your friend. I’m in my early seventies and all of you are eighteen years old. If someone my age wants to be your friend, you should call the police.not your friend

I wouldn’t have put my office hours policy quite that directly to my students, but I know exactly what J was talking about. There are many faculty colleagues who have students lined up outside their door every day, often just to chat or get life advice (the person whose office is next to mine is one of these people). I am not one of those faculty—nor do I want to be one.

I have written frequently about the interesting challenges and opportunities presented to an extreme introvert by the teaching life. I learned to channel what few extroverted neurons I have directly into my teaching first by treating the classroom like a stage on which I am acting (some of the best thespians I have ever met are naturally introverted). Over the years I not only have internalized these energies so that I no longer feel like I am performing, but also have become far more personal and transparent in the classroom than I used to be. I share so much about myself and my life in the classroom that in some ways my students probably know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my sons. INFJA willingness to be transparent not only breaks down the formality that is inherent in the classroom but also gives me an endless supply of illustrations for difficult philosophical concepts. I think I have become a more naturally open person over the years because of my profession, which is a good thing for a 19-1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale.

But I am still a dedicated introvert, which causes a bit of confusion when my students encounter “Out-of-class Morgan” and find him to be quite different from “In-class Morgan.” I know that almost everyone’s first impression of me before they get to know me (if they ever do) is one of formality, aloofness and perhaps superiority (none of which are actually true—it’s just how introverts are often read by non-introverts). I can live with that and actually make good use of it on occasion. But my students’ first impression of me is in the classroom, where I am extroverted, loquacious, inviting and often funny. my caveThere’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when one of them shows up in my office and finds out that my natural state of being is quite different. I never have been able to make my office an extension of the classroom—my office is first my space, a space out of which I take great pains to create a “Morgan cave.” And in that natural habitat I am my default self. An introvert. That means that my face does not necessarily light up with joy when a student or colleague pokes their head in the door—SONY DSCit often feels like an interruption.

I’m working on it. Since my office is a cave reflecting my interests, it is full of items as eclectic as the things I love, including tons of books, pictures of the family, penguin paraphernalia and a small stuffed Big Bird, a shot glass that says “I heart Jesus,” and a large coffee cup that says BFD“I’m a BIG Fucking Deal.” Come to think of it, my Morgan cave is probably a den of cognitive dissonance for the unprepared or uninitiated. Students find out very quickly that I am excellent with and often more helpful in email communication rather than face to face, which is fine with me. Email is an introverts dream; phone calls are not, and unannounced visits definitely are not.

I love my students, but I am their professor, not their friend. Some develop into friends over time—my office is full of cards and pictures of former students with whom I have a continuing friendship long after they graduated. I’m looking forward this evening to seeing two of them for the first time in a year and a half. They were students in one of my freshman classes a number of years ago, each took several more classes with me (different ones) over their four years at the college, they started dating as seniors, were married a couple of years later—a happy couple and I take full responsibility for it. bday fairyThey will be attending a dinner tonight on campus that Jeanne and I will also be attending—they call Jeanne the BCF: “The Birthday Cake Fairy.” It’s a long story and probably the centerpiece of a new post soon.

I was reminded when reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act last week that, even though I naturally keep a distance between myself and my students outside of class, I have invited them into something intimate in the classroom that I cannot ignore. McEwanA young man says to the central character in the novel that “I feel you’ve brought me close to something else, something really beautiful and deep, but I don’t really know what it is.” That’s what I love about teaching—I get to open the door to a wonderfully beautiful and profound world for my students on a regular basis. Often the person who opens the door becomes a placeholder for what lies beyond the door. I have to remember that the invitation does not end when I walk out of class—I need to keep the door of the Morgan cave open—at least a crack. Even J learned something during his semester teaching with me. At one of our last team meetings of the semester, J said “Vance, I’m really pissed!” “Why?” I wanted to know. “Because I’m really beginning to like my students.”

Love Will Win

Picture the favorite vehicle that you have ever owned. Did it look like this?imagesCAZSZF9L

Or this?imagesCATWFKR9

Or this?Corvette_Stingray_454_For_Sale[1]

Mine looked something like this.img_4135[1] (Not exactly, but close. Amazingly enough, I have no actual full pictures of the vehicle in question). On a very sad morning five years ago, the morning that my favorite vehicle ever was towed out of my driveway, I wrote the following reminiscence of how this candidate for the world’s ugliest station wagon played an important role in helping me learn to embrace my inner self.

I watched a piece of history disappear out of sight this morning, as it turned the corner at the end of my block—a piece of my history. It was perched on the back of a flatbed tow truck. As my car rounded the bend, donated to charity for a tax write-off and undoubtedly destined to be dismantled for parts, I began to wax nostalgic. Although I came of age during the turbulent sixties and early seventies, I was not your classic anti-establishment rebel. I grew up in rural northern New England, was raised in a conservative Protestant religious tradition—these are hardly contributing factors to being a masters-of-rock-issue-7-psychedelic-60s[1]60s counter-culture flower child. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to make up for lost time during my 40s and 50s. As I get older, I continue to attribute a number of my defining features—my liberalism, the delight I take in enabling young people to think for themselves, my ponytail—to the atmosphere of the Sixties that seeped into my bones unbeknownst to me as I was growing up. The vehicle in question was a significant addition to this development.

The Chairmobile was a 1991 Honda Accord station wagon—it had about 190,000 miles on it when it dropped in my lap in the summer of 2004; as it left the homestead this morning, it had 250,000. It should have looked like this:blue[1] It didn’t. The Chairmobile’s registration said it was blue, but no one who ever saw it called it blue. It looked red to me, but I’m partially color blind. It had a serious rust problem on both fenders; it was apparently in an accident before it came to me and has a gash on the driver side front door that is also rusting around the edges. It was also covered with graffiti-style yellow spray paint, making the question of its true color moot. The hood said, in large yellow letters, “Cuba Caravan 2004,” in honor of the (illegal) caravan of humanitarian aid to Cuba in which Jeanne participated in the summer of 2004. Along the two driver side doors the words “Love Will Win” are sprayed. The two doors on the other side read “Pastors For Peace,” although the fading letters are hard to read in places. The back window had some more propaganda painted on it.062904-p4pcar-rear-2-250px[1]

Around all four sides of the roof were sprayed the names of various heartland cities, from Minneapolis, MN to Wichita Falls, TX, towns it visited as it was loaded with aid to be driven to the US/Mexican border. The car was intended to go on a barge with the rest of the aid from Mexico to Cuba, but the Cubans could only take diesel fueled vehicles that summer. Jeanne had just accepted a job at a university on Long Island that started in late summer and would be taking our sole vehicle with her. The beat up, graffiti-wearing, Cuba-rejected Honda was there for the taking, so I figured I’d drive it for a few months until it croaked.

That was five years ago. I christened it “The Chairmobile” because I had just started four years as chair of the philosophy department a month earlier. It came with a bumper sticker that said “Be a real revolutionary: Practice your faith.” EB789263[1]I added a few more, such as “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bartlet,” “Dissent is Patriotic,” S460_DissentIsPatriotic[1]and the symbol for the ACLU, just in case there was any doubt about the political leanings of the Chairmobile’s owner. Every time I drove out of the driveway I was screaming to the world “I’m a fucking liberal! You want to make something of it?? What are you staring at?? You want a piece of me??” Not the best vehicle for an introvert who would just as soon be anonymous at times, but driving an extroverted car boosted my confidence level.

I have enough stories about reactions to the Chairmobile to fill dozens of essays. A local cop pulled me over in the grocery store parking lot within a week of the Chairmobile’s arrival for no reason other than that he simply could not believe such a horrible looking car could be current and legal in its insurance, registration, and inspection. More recently, as I was minding my own business loading groceries in the same parking lot, a twenty-something yelled “Hey buddy, Osama kills liberals too!” as he drove by in a BMW convertible. Another time somebody hollered imagesCASHU94X“Love sucks!” at me as I turned the corner from a stop light—obviously his girlfriend had just dumped him. My friend Montana Bob, a veteran of the Cuba caravans, reports that a few years earlier, he was driving a similarly graffitied vehicle through Colorado Springs, gathering humanitarian aid on the way to the Mexican border. Someone at a stop light asked “If you love Cuba so much, why don’t you go live there, you Communist?”, to which my friend, in the true spirit of Christian charity, asked in return “why don’t you pull over into that parking lot so I can kick your ass?” Montana Bob is a committed advocate of muscular Christianity.

But in the years I drove the Chairmobile, I received far more smiles from strangers than frowns. A woman in the neighborhood told me (in the grocery store parking lot once again) “I love it when I see your car—it always makes me feel good, especially these days.” How different would the world be if everyone wore their inner selves on the outside, in the same way as exoskeletal lobsters and crabs do?rusty_crayfish[1] For the few years that I drove the Chairmobile, I announced to the world in no uncertain terms some things about me that were both true and could no longer be hidden. Such as that what my car looks like is about 1037th on my list of priorities. That at least in theory I care more about people in need than people’s opinions. That I believe being a person of faith has little to do with church attendance. That I’m a person of faith in the first place. And that I’m living out some repressed rebellious tendencies that had no outlet in my youth while rebellion was erupting all around me.

The money required to keep the Chairmobile inspected and running finally became prohibitive; its replacement is also used (1996), has high mileage (update: 145,000 then—225,000 now, four years later. Jeanne and I like cars with more mileage on them than we have), but has no rust, no dents, and no graffiti. That worries me—I’ve become used to my car making a statement, sort of like a sandwich board advertisement for the driver. So I’ll be headed for the hardware store to get some spray paint soon.100_0876 I need some new messages, though, to reflect the new and revived me that emerged from my sabbatical months. “St. Benedict is the man.” “Monks rock.” “Big Bird is watching you.” “My dachshunds can beat up your honors student.” Stuff like that. And perhaps the opening lines from daily noon prayer: “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” It never hurts to ask—all the time.

A Visit from Big Bird

My text to Jeanne at 6:37 AM, Thursday April 25:

This is promising to be a very taxing day. Big Bird had better show up.

The people who know me best, and even those who don’t know me that well, are aware that by nature I am incurably optimistic. It takes a lot for me to go negative. I’m also not in the habit of giving the Holy Spirit ultimatums, although my father did it all the time. So what’s the deal with this text? Let me explain.

Last Thursday was day six after Freshman registration day for the fall semester. Shepherding nine hundred freshmen into eight faculty teams and sixty-four seminar sections when every student is seeking to (a) schedule every class between ten and two, (b) avoid every faculty team with a professor with the reputation of being a “hard grader” (there aren’t any such teams), and (c) understand why they can’t get exactly what they want from the relevant authority figure in the same manner as they have ever since they were born—this is not easy. Or fun. These are the days that try a program director’s soul. Hundreds of emails begging for, nay demanding, overenrollment were topped off by the most disrespectful and obnoxious email I’ve received from a student in a decade, charmingly concluded with a “Respectfully Yours”logo-nc[1] at the end. And on Thursday morning there were a dozen more to deal with by 7:00 AM.

But wait–that’s not all. Out of the blue on Wednesday night I was made aware by a member of a current faculty team teaching in my program of a problem on the team that threatened to be very volatile. Upon receiving a second email early Thursday morning from another member of the same team cryptically asking for a meeting as soon as possible, I suspected and prepared for the worst as I headed for work and separate meetings with both colleagues.

cropped-penguins1[1]But wait–that’s not all. I had decided to delay my usual Thursday morning blog post until Friday morning, because I thought my planned post was mediocre, at best. I worked on it a bit Wednesday night and scheduled it to be released at 7:00 on Friday morning, planning to squeeze in a few moments of improvement somewhere during the day on Thursday. But how was I going to do that, when I was way behind on grading a pile of thirty-eight paper because of spending so many hours dealing with crabby students wanting overenrollment? All this was weighing me down as I texted Jeanne that Big Bird had better show up.

Jeanne’s text back to me at 6:39 AM,  Thursday, April 25:

He has and will. Don’t project. Invite him into ur day now. Tell him I’ll see him later.

Whatever, I thought, as I texted back I’ll call u this evening. Forgot to charge my phone and it’simages[7] almost dead. As if to confirm my lack of conviction concerning Big Bird’s caring about my day, I opened my email to find, first, that two of the most important people intending to attend a conference on campus Friday and Saturday that I’m hosting can’t come because one of them has food poisoning; between them, these two colleagues were scheduled to comment on five of the twelve papers being presented. Second, that my mediocre post scheduled for release on Friday at 7:00 AM had just been released into the world today at 7:00 AM because I apparently did not know the difference between April 25 and April 26 when scheduling it for release last night. SHIT!! I thought (or yelled) as I prepared for a crappy day.

First up was the meeting with member number 1 of the problematic faculty team. Having already figured out what the problem almost certainly was, I prepared for the worst. As it turned out, I was completely wrong. The real problem was a serious one, but as I talked with colleague 1, followed by a conversation with colleague 2 a couple of hours later, a crystal clear path toward resolution emerged, shaped by the honesty and professionalism of my two colleagues. As I breathed a sigh of relief—“That could have been a lot worse”—I  checked my blog stats to see what damage my less-than-stellar post was causing. Imagine my surprise when, at 9:30 in IMG_8712_1[1]the morning, I already had 30 visits coming in from four different countries. 30 posts is my bottom line for a good day—to have that many hits already, especially on a post I didn’t even like very much, was an unexpected bit of light in a still gray day. Literally—I forgot to add earlier that another lovely part of the beginning of the day was gray and drizzly in the forties.

My classroom responsibilities for the day were sitting in the back in two different classes that I team-teach with two faculty pairs as one of my colleagues lectured. KingLear3[1]First I heard a colleague with whom I have taught for seven or eight years do a set-up class on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which we would be focusing on in seminars the following week. Because of my long experience with this colleague, I knew what a great teacher he is. But on Thursday he was on a roll of the sort that is rare even for the best teachers. He was funny, he was insightful, he seamlessly moved from conversation to lecture to PowerPoint to film clip in a tour de force that reminded me—since I needed reminding that day—that there is nothing better than a classroom filled with the electric energy of learning.

As I stepped out of the building after class, I was greeted by brilliant sunshine. The gray morning had turned into a cloudless midday. In the forty-five minutes between the end of that class and the beginning of the next one, I (of course) checked my blog stats again. In comparison to anything I’ve ever seen on my blog in the eight months of its existence, my mediocre post was going viral. Five new people had signed up to follow it that morning (one or two new follower in a week is normal),logo_facebook[1] the number of hits for the day was approaching 100 (already the second biggest day in the history of my blog), one of my colleagues had shared the post with her Facebook friends, opening the blog up to hundreds of people who have never seen it before—and it wasn’t even supposed to have gone public until the next day! A possibility began to slowly dawn in the back of my mind, but I had to run to my next class.

This time I was treated to a lecture by a new, young colleague in only her second year at the college. The class was focused on Juana de la Cruz,SorJuana[1] a seventeenth-century polymath Mexican nun (don’t worry—I had never heard of her either). Look her up—she’s a fascinating figure. More fascinating to me, though, was my colleague’s performance. As I appreciated the depth of the knowledge of her subject, her passion, her ability to seamlessly tie the content to my lecture two days earlier on Descartes as well as material from early in the semester, I put my notebook down and smiled. “A Mexican nun who wrote poetry, did science experiments, and was a master chef in conversation with a French philosopher and mathematician,” I thought. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”

imagesCAM825NOBack to my blog, of course, right after class. I now had 140+ hits, making Thursday the best day in the history of my blog and the week, with three days still to go, my best week ever in the blogosphere. Just six hours since going public, this mediocre post was now the most looked-at post I had every submitted. More new followers, positive comments flying everywhere—I knew for sure now what was going on. Then as I walked out of the building on the way to my other office for office hours, I heard one of my favorite sounds—a cardinal chirping. Cardinals are my favorite bird, next to penguins, and I had only heard one cardinal and seen none thus far this spring. Crossing the road in the direction of the sound, I heard another, then another. On the bottom branch of a huge oak tree were three cardinals, less than ten feet above my head, two males and a female, serenading me. I began to laugh, looked in the direction of Big Birdpenguin_crossing_2sfw[1] (usually up and to the left) and said “Okay, I get it!! You showed up big time!! Thanks!!” and off I went. I almost expected to find a dozen penguins walking down the road.

And so it goes. I ended up with 193 hits on my blog that day from eleven different countries, exceeding my previous record by more than fifty.imagesCA38T9PB My workload did not magically decrease—I’m still behind in my papers, I’m still getting requests for overenrollment, I still had a conference to run. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed because the divine broke through my very human defenses. I’ll remember April 25 as the day that Big Bird made a visit; I’ll try to remember that Big Bird actually visits every day, if I just know where to look.

A Glorious Looniness

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHI went to Minnesota five years ago to begin sabbatical in the middle of January. Throughout the winter, native Minnesotans kept promising that the ice would eventually leave Stumpf Lake and winter would give way to spring, although they didn’t say that when May began most of the tree buds still would be buds. One native added that I would know when it would not snow again when the loons returned to the lake, because theHomePage-LoonWithChick[1] loons never show up until the winter is over. Having no experience with loons, I had no idea whether this is a provable fact or yet another of the many tall tales I suspected the natives enjoy telling each new batch of outliers who live with them from semester to semester. And it isn’t just Minnesotans who enjoy doing this. In the little Wyoming town3021973954_12c545aa33_z[1] in which I lived for a short while a number of years ago, there was a local watering hole called the “Jackalope Café.” The inside of the bar was a taxidermist’s heaven, with mounted heads of buffalo, moose, bear, elk, deer, some sort of wild cat, and bighorn sheep crowding for space. Always seated at the bar was a collection of interesting human specimens, cowboys and ranchers who all were missing at least one body part—an eye, a finger, several teeth, something. CM-07-02(1)[1]Over the bar were other unusual specimens, the heads of what looked for all the world like large jackrabbits, but sporting horns. And not just any horns—they look just like the racks of pronghorn antelope.

These heads were from specimens of the West’s most mysterious and mythical animal, the jackalope.jackalope1[1] A traveler can find evidence of the jackalope throughout the West, from the café in Afton, WY to Jackalope Pottery in Santa Fe, NM. In addition to the ubiquitous mounted jackalope heads, there are jackalope books, jackalope post cards, jackalope key rings, jackalope magnets, jackalope shot glasses, jackalope t-shirts—you get the idea. The regulars in the Jackalope Cafe had an endless supply of jackalope stories–how hard it is to find one, how elusive they are, their natural viciousness when cornered—stories that ratcheted up in complexity and detail when someone obviously from out of town walked through the door.jackalope_u_shirt-500x500[1] There’s nothing a rural Westerner enjoys more than astounding an Eastern city person with jackalope tales. Because as wonderful as the stories are, jackalopes don’t exist. The heads on the wall really are jackrabbit heads with antelope horns stuck on top of them. They are the source of many laughs when yet another gullible rube from the East has been duped. But don’t be too hard on the rubes—people in England thought that the preserved bodies of platypuses brought back from Australia were beavers or muskrats with duck billsplatypus[1] sewn on them until they saw a live one. And anything that’s as lucrative and entertaining as the jackalope must have some truth to it. As one of my colleagues once said after the veracity of one of his tall tales was challenged, “Well if it isn’t true, it ought to be true.”

100_0081At least loons are real. I know they are, because they eventually returned to the lake (and it didn’t snow after that, either). They showed up on a misty April morning, the morning after Jeanne’s week-long Easter visit ended, a week during which she saw lots of little birds, a million squirrels, one eagle off in the distance, and no loons (or deer,Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH fifteen of whom had an early morning breakfast picnic on the lawn in front of my apartment just before Jeanne came to visit). The morning the loon pair arrived, I heard their famous call. Later that day, upon hearing that I had seen and heard loons, one of my friends from Washington D.C. said “I’ve never heard or seen a loon. What do they sound like?” To which I replied, “There’s a reason for the saying ‘crazy as a loon.’ They sound like an insane woman’s laugh.” To which another friend, who is a bit of a know-it-all, said “I’ve heard loons lots of times, and I don’t think they sound like that at all.” Oh well.

Loons and jackalopes. Although there’s a significant ontological difference between them, it’s probably just a quirk of natural selection that there are no horned bunnies. Maybe there were giant prehistoric carnivorous jackalopes who were the bane of the earth, who became extinct along with the dinosaurs for still unknown reasons. Why not? MV5BMTM3MzQwMDA5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTM5NTkxNA@@._V1._SX640_SY467_[1]Horned rabbits don’t strike me as any less possible than water birds with long necks who sound like the Wicked Witch of the West. Annie Dillard, one of her generation’s most astute observers of the natural world, puts it this way: “Look, in short, at practically anything—the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face,louva a deus 2[1] a banana, the human ear—and see that not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. He’ll stop at nothing.” The natural world looks less like intelligent design and more like an explosion of exuberance.

“He’ll stop at nothing”—that’s a pretty good summary of God’s dealings with us. Poet and Benedictine monk Kilian MacDonnellMcDonnell,Kilian[1] writes of “Our preposterous God with a preposterous love,” and that’s just the right word for it. In the Old Testament stories, time after time I can hear God sighing, “Okay, people, let’s try this again. Just do this handful of things, and everything will be fine.” Then, of course, it gets messed up, God tries again, gets pissed off but doesn’t give up, and so on. Then God has an idea so out of the box, so off the radar, that it’s ludicrous in its originality. “I’ll become human.” In a novel I finished recently, a character was explaining her decision not to convert from Christianity to Judaism when she married. “The great appeal of Jesus is the willingness of God to walk among the benighted creatures He just can’t seem to give up on. There is a glorious looniness to it—the magnificent eternal gesture of salvation, in the face of perennial, thick-headed human inanity! I like that in a deity.” So do I. This is one of those stories that not only should be true, it is true.1836660_604566519623279_291098012_o

Crows I Have Known

My childhood was filled with unusual characters, all products of my father’s fertile imagination. A Freudian would probably say that each was a projection of a different aspect of my father’s personality—all I know is that their appearances were both unpredictable and entertaining. The “Flying Gynzbyrd,” for instance, was a heavy bird who liked to land with a thud on the breakfast table and stomp through either my brother’s or my toast, leaving imprints the size of the tips of my dad’s index and third finger. The “Claw” was a dangerous creature who liked to be petted but would fly into a rage and attach himself without warning to your face or the top of your head if you rubbed him just slightly the wrong way. My favorite was “Pet Crow.” He was, I’m sure, a projection of my father’s affectionate and emotional side, a part of his personality that was not frequently on display in traditional forms. Pet Crow loved to sit on my shoulder, then work his way farther and farther into the crook of my neck between my clavicle and my jaw in a ticklish way that sent me into spasms of hilarity.

I included these childhood companions and several new creatures in my own parenting repertoire; I found that gynzbyrds, claws, crows, Thursday Turkey, and Friday Frog were far more successful in getting my sons up for school than yelling “get your asses out of bed NOW!” Crows are an ongoing fascination. When we moved to Providence eighteen years ago, I noticed in short order that the urban crows on our street were unusually large and noticeably louder than other crows in my experience (Pet Crow, for instance, was entirely silent). I also noticed that I never saw more than three crows at a time, so I came to the obviously logical conclusion that they were the only crows. I named them Edgar, Allen, and Poe, after the E.A.P. of “The Raven” fame who had a strong Providence connection. Jeanne once asked me how I could tell them apart—I told her that if we saw just one, it was Edgar, just two were Edgar and Allen, with Poe making it a threesome every once in a while. Jeanne, used to these sorts of insights on my part, never questioned my story. She bought me a painting a few years ago of a crow striding down a path with large galoshes-style boots on, which hangs proudly by the door in my office. It’s a very dependable conversation starter.

Not everyone is as willing to embrace my crow logic as Jeanne is. Upon seeing two crows on campus once while walking to lunch with some colleagues, I said “Hi, Edgar and Allen.” Asked for an explanation, I filled my colleagues in on my insight that there are only three crows. After an uncomfortable silence, a theology professor said tentatively “Uh, Vance, I think there are more than three crows in the world.” I responded “When have you ever seen more than three crows in one spot?” Of course, he couldn’t think of such a time. To which I responded “Q.E.D.” I wonder why I haven’t been assigned to teach logic recently. One time a while ago my smartass son and I saw what appeared to the untrained eye to be four identical crows on a lawn. My son said “So much for your three-crow theory, Dad.” To which I responded, “That’s Edgar, Allen, Poe, and a raven.”

In his later years, my Pennsylvanian-born-turned-Westerner father became interested in various Native American myths and traditions, particularly the idea that certain animals and birds have a special spiritual significance. He claimed for a while that the raven was his totemic bird, which is not a surprise since ravens make occasional appearances in the Bible, including the Noah and Elijah stories. After hearing over the phone yet another of his stories about his latest brilliant insight being confirmed by a mystical raven circling overhead, I asked Dad one day “what’s the difference between a raven and a really big crow”? After a few moments of silence, he honestly admitted “none, I guess.” The next time I heard him say anything about totemic birds, his was now the golden eagle. I think he believed his spiritual stature was a bit more exalted than could be handled by a mere crow. Raven, yes, but not a crow.

I don’t know, though—there’s something special about crows. In one of Aesop’s fables, a very thirsty crow comes across a pitcher containing a small amount of water. When the crow put its beak into the mouth of the pitcher, he found that he could not reach far enough down to get at the water. He tried and tried, but at last had to give up in despair. Then he had an Archimedes-like “Eureka!” moment about the physics of water displacement. He picked up a nearby pebble in his beak and dropped it in the pitcher. Then he dropped another pebble in the pitcher. And another one. And another one. After several hundred pebbles or more, the displaced water rose high enough in the pitcher for him to quench his thirst.

In my experience, the Holy Spirit is very much like Aesop’s crow. I’ve felt spiritually dry for a long time, and have considered the liquid faith poured into my pitcher as a child as long gone—good riddance. But the best of that liquid remained, hidden and unattended at the bottom. The Holy Spirit has been dropping pebbles and drips of water into my pitcher over my whole lifetime—an experience here, a word there, a book someplace else, a person—without my even being aware. Jeanne has told me several times that “this is your time”—all of the spiritually confusing years were actually years of pebbles collecting, one by one, in my pitcher. During my sabbatical three years ago, one of my colleagues said  “you’re not the same person you were when you came here.” She was right—I was dry, but now I’m wet and getting wetter all the time.

Big Bird

This is the first election cycle in my remembrance that, at least for a week or so, an eight-foot yellow bird has played a central role in presidential politics. When one candidate promised that his policies, if elected, will put the bird’s employment status in jeopardy, people sat up and took notice. This particular bird has played a special role in my family’s life for several decades. Strangely enough our journey with this bird began with trying to help my sons imagine what God might be like.

It’s pretty much a given that whatever God is, God transcends whatever words and pictures we use to capture the divine reality. But we have to picture what we believe, knowing that all pictures are inadequate. What gender is God, for instance? I have no reason to believe that God is a guy, but since every sacred text I was steeped in from my childhood refers to Him with mostly male nouns and pronouns, it’s been a challenge to picture God as female, a Mother, a nurturer. Old pictures fade hard. So I’ve started using words like “the transcendent,” “the divine,” “what is greater than us.” It helps to remove the picture of the old guy with a white beard, but doesn’t give me a new picture. Recently, I got a lot of help from William P. Young’s The Shack, in which God the Father is a large, robust, African-American woman called “Papa” who is a gourmet cook and generally Loves with a capital “L.”  I’m sure Young has gotten flack from all sorts of people who say “that’s not scriptural,” “that’s disrespectful of tradition,” and so on. So what? All we have is imperfect pictures, we all “see in a mirror, dimly,” and Young cleaned my mirror just a little bit.

Jesus is a guy, of course, simply because Jesus was—a guy. So what’s the Holy Spirit? To be honest, we didn’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in church when I was a kid; sure, the Spirit’s in the Bible, but that’s the only place I ever encountered him (or her, or it). People didn’t talk about the Spirit, probably because they didn’t know what to say, The Holy Spirit lived between leather covers. It wasn’t until I ran into a bunch of charismatics as a young adult that the Spirit all of a sudden became important. If forced to specify a Holy Spirit gender, I suppose I would have said “female” just to mix it up a bit. But the one visual of the Holy Spirit that stuck with me early on was the one that everybody knows from the baptism of Jesus, where God booms from heaven “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove.” The whole Trinity together at the Jordan River. Don’t get me started on the Trinity—there is no picture for that.

So the Holy Spirit is a dove (male or female doesn’t really matter, I guess). I can buy the bird part, but a dove doesn’t work for me. Doves are too close to pigeons, those rats with wings that fly only when you’re inches from them in the car, and whose heads jerk back and forth in the same way that Steve Martin’s hands do when he does his “King Tut” routine (I’m really dating myself). The prophet Hosea even refers to the northern kingdom of Israel, which has wandered from God, as “a silly dove without sense.” Enter another inspired piece of iconoclasm. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into a six and a nine-year-olds imagination, accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street, an unforgettable picture of the divine. My sons are now in their early thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves” still is Big Bird.

And it works. The image is just irreverent and crazy enough to do the job. If God the Father can be a big African-American woman named “Papa,” why can’t the Holy Spirit be an eight-foot tall, bright yellow androgynous bird with massive feet and red-and-white striped stockings? No one’s going to go to doctrinal war over whether Big Bird’s feathers are yellow or orange (I don’t think), but it’s a great place holder for one aspect of what truly transcends any human attempts to get the picture perfect. I once sent Jeanne an email with a link describing a summer writing workshop, asking for her impressions as to whether this would be a good program for me to apply to. In her return email, she wrote “I don’t need to read the description. Anything that will help you write in a non-academic way has Big Bird all over it.”

At the end of his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings.” Indeed. But Gerard Manly forget to add that the wings are bright yellow.

I Don’t Like It

A baptism was part of the morning service a few Sundays ago. Actually, there were two baptisms—ten year old Brooke and her two year old brother Jacob. Many moons ago, when I was in my twenties and considering joining the Episcopal Church, their practice of baptizing young children, even infants, gave me pause. So much about the Episcopal way of doing things was attractive and an obvious spiritual balm to the scars I carried in my twenties from my conservative, fundamentalist upbringing. Liturgy, a pipe organ, excellent music, clerical robes, a prayer-book, weekly Eucharist—if I had been aware enough to design worship that spoke to my deepest aesthetic and spiritual needs, it would have been exactly like Sunday morning at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

But they baptized infants. After finishing the baptismal liturgy, the Dean would carry the baby up and down the center aisle of the cathedral, saying “This is the brand newest Christian in the world!” as the congregation applauded. For someone taught from his earliest memory that becoming a Christian required a “born again experience,” a once for all conversion event that required a certain level of rational maturity and spiritual awareness, this business of becoming a Christian simply by some water being poured on one’s head in the manner specified by the prayer-book was jarring. My own full immersion baptism, performed by my father in a swimming pool size baptismal when I was twelve, was what a baptism is supposed to be like. I’ve always thought, despite sacred art and Hollywood depictions, that John the Baptist did not just pour a bit of water on Jesus’ head that day in the Jordan River—he dunked him.

None of this stopped me from being confirmed as an Episcopalian more than twenty-five years ago, as I chose to embrace a bit of spiritual life and comfort where I found it. Still, I am always somewhat crestfallen when on my infrequent trips to church I read in the bulletin that a baptism will be part of the morning’s festivities. My discomfort is not as crass as simple annoyance at finding out that the service will be lengthened by ten or fifteen minutes. It’s just that baptisms still confuse me. But as I watched and participated as a member of the congregation a few weeks ago, I was struck by the obvious pleasure that the young girl, dressed entirely in white, was taking in the proceedings. I heard the beautiful words toward the end of the baptismal liturgy—“You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” My doctrinal issues with baptizing children dissolved into a puddle of irrelevance.

Shortly after, as Jeanne and I were headed toward the altar for communion, the brand newest Christian in the world was making her way down the steps after having received the body and blood of Christ for the first time in her life. As she walked by us, she looked in our direction, screwed up her face, and said in a loud stage whisper “I don’t like it!” Out of the mouths of babes. “Kid, you don’t know the half of it,” I thought. There are going to be many things upcoming that you’ll dislike a lot more than a communion wafer epoxied to the roof of your mouth and the aftertaste of cheap wine. This “marked as Christ’s own forever” stuff is no picnic.

In the past, I’ve heard police and firefighter work described as 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror. That’s something like my experience over several decades of being one of “Christ’s own forever.” There have been long stretches of my life when there were no identifiable signs of such a privilege. The problem with ordinary spiritual commitment, as I’ve experienced it and heard it described by others, is that it is so ordinary as to be unnoticeable. Sure there have been some “Big Bird moments,” as Jeanne calls them, where the divine burst through so obviously that even I could not mistake it. But what about the weeks, months, and years during which those who are marked as Christ’s own forever slog through the barren desert of the everyday and mundane? Sometimes the silence is so deafening and the absence so palpable that the value of belonging to Christ escapes me. Teresa of Avila once complained to God that “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.” No kidding—I don’t like it.

In one of Iris Murdoch’s novels, a central character has a vision in which she is visited in her kitchen by Jesus. As he leaves the room after a brief conversation, Jesus touches the woman on the hand. After the vision ends, she knows that her experience was not simply imaginary because her hand is painfully burned where Jesus touched her. Although the burn heals, and the pain eventually fades over the following days, a small but permanent scar remains. For the rest of her life her scar is an indelible reminder that she is forever changed because one day she encountered Jesus.

Perhaps baptism is something like that. Somewhere in the past and continuing history of those who are scarred by the mark of Christ are events, people, decisions, and experiences that form the skeleton, the internal structure of faith. A person’s spiritual identity is shaped by this structure, fleshed out in ways unique to each individual. Some pieces of this identity come out of the blue, divinely tinged experiences that cannot be easily accommodated or dismissed. Others are deliberately chosen, such as a baptism, responding to an altar call, a choice of worship community, or turning away from what no longer gives life. As Brooke’s and Jacob’s lives as one of Christ’s own unfold, each will be able to identify their baptismal Sunday as a signpost of difference. The fact that Brooke was part of the decision-making process while Jacob’s loving family chose the time and place of his baptism for him is not crucially important. The imprint of the divine on a human life often has nothing to do with individual choice.

The beauty of the Incarnation is that each of the moments of all of our days are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur is not in the product, the greatness of what I or anyone, marked as Christ’s own, might become or achieve. The grandeur is not even in the gloriously random Big Bird experiences that leaven our lives. The grandeur is in the very idea of God in the flesh, an indwelling reality that sanctifies even our most mundane days and disturbing experiences. “Marked as Christ’s own forever”—that’s something to embrace, even when I don’t like it.