Category Archives: creativity

The Vision Thing

BushIn 1987, as Vice President George H. W. Bush prepared to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow and run for the Presidency, he was occasionally urged to step back and take a large view of the America he wanted his possible Presidency to help create. This, as it turned out, was not particularly easy for the Vice President to do. Colleagues reported then and later that while Bush understood thoroughly the complexities of issues, he did not easily or naturally fit them into larger themes or frameworks. This led to the reputation, deserved or not, that Bush lacked vision. It rankled him. At one point, the story goes, he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for the upcoming Presidential campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country, urging the VP to think about a bigger picture beyond the small pieces of his legislative agenda. vision“Oh,” said Bush in clear exasperation, “the vision thing.”

The vision thing has been front and center for me over the past few weeks. Last month I spent a day on the campus of a state university in Connecticut as one of two outside reviewers of their liberal arts core curriculum. As one of several state universities, this one’s “brand,” established more than a decade earlier, was claiming to be Connecticut’s state liberal arts university. The core curriculum, created with that vision in mind, was a rather complicated three-tiered system that all students are required to navigate through steps from familiarity to expertise in a diverse range of skills and classroom experiences. Six years after its inception, it was time for both self-study and external review.

The good will and commitment of everyone my colleague and I met on our visit, from students through faculty to administrators, was clear. It was also evident that the core was the result of a few years’ worth of debate and compromise in the early 2000s, a process of negotiation and give-and-take that I am very familiar with from my own campus. ecsuWhat was not clear in the self-study, nor in our campus visit, was the original vision behind the core program. Clearly someone, more likely several persons, originally provided the reasoning behind the core, the evidence that this new system of required courses, undoubtedly risky on a public university campus, would over time in practice embody the university’s public commitment to the liberal arts.

But no procedure for “keeping the vision alive” was established at the outset, and now several years later many of the original visionaries have retired. My colleague and I met with one of them, a professor emeritus who confided that the core curriculum as it exists not “isn’t what we had in mind.” coreProfessors hired in the last decade told us that they had received no orientation to the core curriculum upon being hired—they had just picked up what they knew about it on the fly. The students had nothing to say when asked about the value of the liberal arts education they were in the process of receiving—as far as they knew, the core so carefully planned several years ago was just a bunch of courses to “get out of the way” so they could get to the real purpose of their being at the university—their major courses which they perceived as being their direct vehicle to a good job upon graduation. There was no system for assessment in place, because no one really knew what the core was supposed to be accomplishing. And now it is just something everyone does—and no one can really explain why. The report that is due from my colleague and me in couple of days is writing itself.

As I live out the final weeks of my four-year stint directing my college’s large interdisciplinary, team-taught humanities program required of all students during their first four semesters, regardless of their major, my outside evaluator experience has been a reminder and warning. Don’t let the vision die. a classic makeoverAfter a number of years of debate, starts and stops, and hard work we are in the third year of a new core curriculum, a new core of which the program I direct—in a re-energized and exciting form—is the centerpiece. I was an active participant in the creating of the new core, but my real task has been to steer the program I direct from the old to the new, to urge, force, and seduce the faculty to “buy in” to this new thing that is replacing what we had been doing for more than thirty years. And this requires, first, knowing what the vision behind the new program is (I do) and, second and most importantly, creating systems and methods to keep that vision alive as we original establishers and keepers of the vision fade away like thecheshire cat Cheshire Cat (I’ve been working on it). I imposed the vision largely by force of my own enthusiasm for it, assisted by faculty who shared the vision and enthusiasm, in the first couple of years as director, but realized eventually that a transition had to begin that would move the program from personality to vision-driven.

If this program and the core curriculum on my campus is to avoid becoming the program I evaluated two weeks ago across the state border, succeeding waves and generations of faculty and administrators must keep the vision alive. The other day a good friend and colleague told me at lunch that the most hated colleagues on campus from the perspective of the faculty in his department are the members of the committee whose charge is to approve (or deny) courses proposed as satisfying various elements of our complicated new core curriculum.no I agreed with my friend that these committee members, all of whom are our faculty colleagues, do indeed draw the ire of many faculty on campus. Why? Because they often say “no.” They are responsible for making sure that the objectives of our new core are adhered to. They are, in other words, the committee charged with “keeping the vision alive.” And that makes them very unpopular. “Why can’t we just keep doing what we’ve always done, perhaps with a minor nod toward the new core objectives?” many faculty want to know. The answer is that there’s a new vision in town. This committee’s job is to make sure that the energy and creativity infusing the new core at its inception is not lost in the daily grind of getting shit done. It’s not an enviable task, but someone’s got to do it. Really. The alternative is to find ourselves not many years down the line just cranking out bunch of courses, organized somewhat differently than they used to be, having lost any awareness of why we made the change.

According to the Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” And so, I would add, do programs, curricula, plans, hopes and dreams. vision 2One of the most important continuing lessons I have been learning over the past few years is “Be where you are and do what you are doing.” Make a point of paying attention to the trees instead of obsessing about the forest, in other words. The vision thing is the flip side of that. I could spend so much energy and time with the trees that I might forget that there is a bigger picture. As Thoreau wrote, it would suck at the end of my life to find out that I hadn’t lived. The rather boring but absolutely true thing is that it’s a matter of balance. The vision thing helps me to remember the difference between living and living well, as Socrates described shortly before his execution. But the vision thing has to be lived out incrementally and daily. After all, this forest is made up of trees.

Spare Parts

Frieda in church 1Yesterday was Saint Francis Sunday, a celebration that rivals Easter and Christmas at the Episcopal church I attend. This is because our rector and my close friend, Marsue, is an animal fanatic and makes a big deal about the Blessing of the Animals liturgy that she does every first Sunday of October. Jeanne and I brought our three dogs for the fourth straight year; Frieda accompanied me to the lectern as I read the Old Testament reading from Judges about Balaam’s ass. But my mind wandered to another animal who I would have brought had she not died many years ago.

How can an overweight, close-to-obese cat who died almost thirty-five years ago occupy a central place in my history? Allowing for imperfect memory, by my unofficial count I have had at least a dozen cats and dogs as pets since she died, but Stokely is the center of gravity in the menagerie of four-leggers that has intersected with my life. Remembering Stokely connects me with the better parts of my youth—humor, laughter, my father at his2010_0524aprilmay20100006[1] best.  Remembering Stokely also makes me think differently about what God might be up to with us human beings. Not bad for a cat.

Stokely almost didn’t end up in my life at all. In the summer between my sixth and seventh grade years, my family was moving about 40 miles north, from a rural and isolated location to what serves in Vermont as suburbia. One of our two dogs had died during the previous year; our other dog, an elderly collie who was strongly attached to our next door neighbor, was deemed too old to make the move and stayed with the neighbor. Petless for the first time in my life, I asked for a cat. There had never been a cat in my world—I didn’t even know anyone with a cat. But I thought a cat would be cool. My father did not. He also had never had a cat, and my request struck him as another odd, peculiar request from his youngest son who would not hunt, tended to be overly emotional, and just didn’t fit the mold of a typical son. And now he wanted a cat instead of a dog, for God’s sake.

tumblr_m56qax7EIP1r8majk[1]I worked on Dad all summer, and knew I had him when he proposed one of his random, off-the-wall bargains. “We can get a cat if he’s black and if we name him Stokely after Stokely Carmichael.” This was 1967, and the civil rights movement was in full swing. In my father’s peculiar imagination, a black cat named after one of the infamous Black Panthers made sense—why he didn’t propose “H. Rap,” “Eldridge,” “Malcolm,” or even “Dr. King,” I don’t know. “Bruce!” my mother complained.Trudy and Bruce summer or fall of 1979 “Good grief,” my brother sighed. “Deal,” I said—we were going to get a cat.

A few weeks later my cousin reported that her co-worker at the local hamburger joint owned a cat that had just produced kittens. The litter had three calicos with various patterns of white, brown, and yellow and Stokely—all black except for a bit of white on his chest. Stokely’s eyes had just opened a few days earlier and he could barely walk. I deposited him in a box with a bag of dry food from my cousin’s friend, jumped in the car and my mother drove us home. Stokely was an attraction in my extended family,Cat_Scruff[1] none of whom had ever had a cat and none of whom could believe that my Dad, the unofficial patriarch of the extended family, had agreed to have one in his house. My aunt picked Stokely up by the scruff of the neck (we had heard that cats like that) and let him hang from her hand—“There’s a problem here!” she announced. “Notice anything missing?” I didn’t, but my brother did—“Stokely’s a girl!”

Not only did Stokely turn out to be a different gender than we had ordered, she turned out not even to be black. She was a calico just like her litter mates—what appeared to be solid black was predominantly dark brown, which became more and more flecked with white, cream, and yellow highlights as she grew up. Her toes were colored individually, 4jrVS5r[1]with a dark brown, light brown, yellow, and white one on each foot in no particular order. My ever observant father said that she looked like she was assembled out of spare parts. In her later years she became extraordinarily fat; in her early years she exhibited a personality that matched her appearance. Cats are supposed to be graceful—Stokely was clumsy. Cats are supposed to land on their feet when falling from heights great and small—my brother and I verified by experimentation over and over that Stokely was as likely to fall on her side or even her back as on her feet when dropped from various heights onto my bed. I saw Stokely fall down the stairs to our front door landing more than once when a too-vigorous post nap stretch unexpectedly dislodged her from her spot in the sun on the top stair. Cats are supposed to be introverts and avoid loud noises, but Stokely would run from anywhere in the house so she could ride on the Hoover while my mother vacuumed the floor.

In an email several months ago, as I considered whether to accept an invitation to take on a huge new position at the college, a trusted friend who I asked for advice wrote that t7Ycu[1]“I find it part of God’s playfulness to just put things out there for which we might be put to good use, stand back and watch how we handle what has come our way.” A playful God who might be entertained and amused by how we handle new situations is non-traditional, to say the least, but I understand the dynamic. My father, brother and I took endless delight—to my mother’s dismay—in slightly rearranging Stokely’s world to see what she would do. A piece of scotch tape on her back foot or ear, depositing her on top of the piano, putting a cat sized coat on her for the first time—imagesCAR12L79always produced gales of laughter as Stokely first gave us a “when are you bastards ever going to grow up?” look, then deliberately addressed the new problem at hand.

A good thirty-five years after her passing, my crystal clear memories of this obese, made-out-of-spare-parts animal are evidence that she had an impact on me. As I’ve thought about her this week, I’ve become more and more convinced that we are all Stokelys. Although I suspect that most of us would like to believe that we are integrated, focused and sharply defined, we really are little more than random collections of spare parts—most of which are not of our choosing. We do not choose our families, the place and time of our births, our race, our gender, and yet out of these assigned parts—along with those we do have some choice in—we are given the task of constructing a life. caution-grunge-wall1[1]And overseeing all of this is something greater than us whose idea of planning and design is apparently something like “How about if I throw a whole bunch of odds and ends together and see what happens?” Psalm 139 says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” If God takes delight in seeing what we make of the bits and pieces we have been given, perhaps we should as well.

Auras and Cats

colorblindIn a world of partial color blindness, I have to make do with the colors I can experience clearly, without confusion, and in the same way that normal people apparently do. That rules out lots of different combinations, but leaves most of the primary colors intact. I’ve always said that blue is my favorite color, which indicates that I am more similar to normal human beings than I might think—people most often identify blue as their favorite color. But yellow does something very positive to me. I find it calming and centering; I was very pleased when shades of yellow were chosen for the halls, offices and ruane hallclassrooms in the beautiful new humanities great roombuilding on campus that is the home of the interdisciplinary program I direct, just as I was pleased when a slightly different shade of yellow was chosen several years earlier as the dominant color in the renovated building the philosophy department moved into during my stint as philosophy department chair back in 2006. Somebody must have known that keeping the chair or director centered and focused is step one to avoiding academic squabbling in the ranks.

So I was not surprised when I found out from the “What Color is your Aura?” quiz on Facebook that my aura is yellow. Most of my academic readers are now sniffing in contempt—“Aura?? Now you’ve really gone to the new-agey dark side, Morgan!” reikiNot really, although truth in advertising requires revealing that I just had my first forty-five minute Reiki session a couple of weeks ago from a Reiki master who is a friend of ours from church. I haven’t detected any life-changing results, but the session relaxed me sufficiently that I slept for at least fifteen of the forty-five minutes. Regardless, taking the aura quiz is far more about my obsession with Facebook quizzes than crystals or chakras.

What Color is Your Aura?

Your aura is yellow! You are optimistic and intelligent, with a friendly, creative presence. A yellow aura signifies that you are full of life and energy, an inspiring and playful person. yellow auraYou may be on the brink of a new awakening, close to finding new meaning in your current life.

The description is only partially accurate—I’m happy to own “optimistic,” “intelligent,” “creative,” and “inspiring,” but no one has ever accused me of being “full of life and energy,” “friendly,” or “playful.” Maybe my aura is “dirty yellow,” the color my mother used to say my hair was before it started turning gray in my early twenties.

My natural way of engaging with fellow humans was described quite well when I took the “What Kind of Cat are You?” quiz a while ago. I could not resist. I am a cat person, and have been owned by several cats over the past fifty years: Stokely, Natalie, Rachel, Midnight, Express, Moses, and Spooky, just to name a few—the bookend cats on the list both lived to be eighteen. Cat personalities range as widely as human personalities do, and I was not surprised to find out that

What Kind of Cat Are You?

introvert catYou are a cat who is like, “Nope! Leave me alone.”! Everybody always wants to be all up in your business and you are like, “No thanks! I don’t really like people? Please go away and leave me alone?” But they don’t. They never go away and leave you alone.

The “leave me alone” cat sounds like a lot of my freshman students. He managed to use the word “like” both incorrectly and correctly in just a couple of lines. Let’s be clear: I do not use the word “like” improperly, have never used the phrase “all up in your business” and do not turn statements of fact into questions (that would make me sound like a Valley Girl). That said, the “leave me alone” cat’s general attitude about human beings is quite familiar. MIMAs The World’s Most Interesting Man might say, I don’t always ignore people, but when I do it’s because my available daily minutes for engaging with people have been used up. I am pretty much a leave me alone cat with relatively well-developed social skills.

Back to colors. For some strange reason Jeanne does not demonstrate the same obsession with Facebook personality quizzes that I do, but she was interested enough to take the aura quiz. Hers is blue—unfortunately we neglected to record the description, although it seemed to fit her reasonably well. So I looked elsewhere. After Googling “color moods” and randomly clicking on one of the hundreds of sites instantly available, I learned the following about the psychological properties of blue and yellow:

blueBLUE: Intellectual.

Positive: Intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, serenity, duty, logic, coolness, reflection, calm. Negative: Coldness, aloofness, lack of emotion, unfriendliness.

Blue is the color of the mind and is essentially soothing; it affects us mentally, rather than the physical reaction we have to red. Strong blues will stimulate clear thought and lighter, soft blues will calm the mind and aid concentration. Consequently it is serene and mentally calming. It is the color of clear communication.

yellowYELLOW: Emotional

Positive: Optimism, confidence, self-esteem, extraversion, emotional strength, friendliness, creativity. Negative: Irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression, anxiety, suicide.

The yellow wavelength is relatively long and essentially stimulating. In this case the stimulus is emotional, therefore yellow is the strongest color, psychologically. The right yellow will lift our spirits and our self-esteem; it is the color of confidence and optimism.

Now I’m really confused, since the description of “Blue” sounds very much like me, while “Yellow” sounds a lot like Jeanne (minus the suicide and depression). But perhaps we’ve been together long enough that our colors are beginning to mingle. And we all know what happens when you mix blue and yellow (regardless of which person is which):blue and yellow make green

GREEN: Balance

Positive: Harmony, balance, refreshment, universal love, rest, restoration, reassurance, environmental awareness, equilibrium, peace. Negative: Boredom, blandness, enervation.

Green strikes the eye in such a way as to require no adjustment whatever and is, therefore, restful. Being in the center of the spectrum, it is the color of balance – a more important concept than many people realize.

And I must say that this sounds right. Jeanne has often said that she wants our home to be a place of peace and healing—maybe we are on the way. A certain amount of blandness and boredom is a small price to pay for the privilege of creating a space of harmony, balance, rest and peace in a world that is anything but. When extreme opposites attract and mix, sometimes something cool happens.green house

Holy Manure

Last weekend I (hopefully) finished getting the yard ready for winter–raking leaves, cutting back various bushes, covering rose bush roots. While doing so I remembered the flip side of this activity, getting the yard ready for winter, and what I wrote about it last March.

Soon it will be time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite times of the year. I use the word “yard” broadly, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for seventeen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn.100_0920 Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those who know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.

What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in March and early April, watching lilies, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter.001 (2) I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front, as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and Hydrangeashydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear holocaust.

I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from 757854410188[1]Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. I’m particularly attracted to mulch, whose odor is reminiscent of either a pristine forest or an overpowering car_photo_211930_7[1]air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror in the car, depending on the quality of mulch purchased. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more bags.

I was encouraged a few Sundays ago to hear in Luke’s gospel about a land owner who had as little patience with his plants as I do.

Then he told this parable: 19cuaresmaC3[1]“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; we will discover during Holy Week that he kills a poor, random fig tree on Jesus and the Fig Tree[1]Holy Week Monday for failing to bear fruit, even though it is not even the season for fig-bearing. But I understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.

It seems to be a truism, in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth, that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel250px-Hegel_portrait_by_Schlesinger_1831[1] wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.

In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud1594489270[1] writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead.

In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, we often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.

Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree

In the house, in the house of the Lord.

I will trust in the mercies of God forever,figtree-new[1]

I will trust in the mercies of God.

It’s interesting that I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.

Well-Dressed Birds

I have two beautiful offices on campus, my permanent office in the philosophy department and an office in the brand new humanities building that I will occupy as long as I direct the large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores at my college. SONY DSCEach of these offices is filled with penguin paraphernalia. Penguin figurines, penguin calendars, penguin stuffed animals of various sizes, penguin slippers (really), a penguin tissue dispenser, penguin pictures and posters. Not long ago a student stopped by during office hours. About ten minutes into his visit, he observed “I guess you must like penguins.” “What makes you say that?” I asked.

Penguins spend a lot of time on the ice, but are sea birds as graceful in the ocean as they are clumsy on land. penguin-jump[1]Penguins have few natural predators on land, but are a favorite meal for any number of water creatures, including leopard seals and sharks. When penguins want to take a swim, they will collectively crowd toward the edge of an ice cliff overhanging the water, pushing and pushing closer to the edge, sort of like a human crowd preparing to board an approaching subway, until one or two penguins fall off the edge into the sea. If these unfortunates do not surface, it is clearly not safe to swim there. If their heads bob above the surface, a virtual waterfall of penguins follows them for a safe swimming and feeding event.

The other day a guy from Institutional Advancement, while giving himself a tour of the new building, ended up at my end of the hall. He poked his head in, we exchanged brief pleasantries, and he surveyed my office. “What’s with the penguins?” he asked. “I love penguins,” I replied. “I’ve loved penguins ever since I was a little kid. If you think this is a lot of penguins, you should see my other office in the philosophy department.” Silence for fifteen seconds. “I don’t get it,” he finally admitted. “If ‘I love penguins’ isn’t good enough for you, I’ve got nothing else,” I said rather defensively. My love of penguins is a classic example of what Aristotle means by a “first principle.” Aristotle advocates vigorous dialogue and debate, challenging everyone to support their arguments with reasons. But eventually one hits bedrock, a belief or principle that is foundational and has no deeper explanation. As I might have said, “Dude, if you don’t get my love of penguins, we’ve got nothing else to talk about.”

Emperor Penguin couples spend their lives apart from each other and meet once a year in late March, after traveling as far as 70 miles inland—on foot or sliding on their bellies—to reach the breeding site. Once there, penguins look for their mates by making a bugling call. Male penguins generally stay in one place, lower their head to their chest and call out to the females. Once they find one another, they stand breast to breast, repeatedly bow to each other and bugle penguin songs. Penguins are “serially monogamous.” Each penguin couple is an item for a single breeding season, but if they can’t find each other the next breeding season (and they usually can’t), they will hook up with someone new.

My obsession with penguins goes farther back than I can remember. I had a vast menagerie of stuffed animals as a young child ranging from bears to monkeys, but was most attached to a small penguin that eventually wore out from being carried everywhere, from bedroom to bathroom to dining room, during my waking hours. 2c8a[1]When asked by various and sundry adults why I liked penguins, I usually said “because they are always well dressed.” And they are.

Once the egg is laid, it is transferred by the female Emperor Penguin very carefully to her mate (if the egg touches the ice, it would freeze and die), who then keeps the egg warm by holding it on top of his feet and tucking it under a large fold of skin until it hatches. Penguins_Gilbert_et_al.[1]The female penguin immediately returns to the sea to feed, leaving the male without food for about two months. The male penguins huddle together in large groups to conserve body heat in the cold and harsh environment, where winds can reach up to 120 miles per hour. penguin_family[1]When the female returns, she finds her mate (and chick) by listening to one particular bugle over thousands of others.

Jeanne fully understands my penguin obsession. She should, since she has a similar obsession with Holstein cows. Our house, as well as her office at her new job, is full of Holstein reminders. Our main bathroom has white walls with black Holstein spots and a pink ceiling (for the udders). It’s a good thing we don’t ever plan to move, or some repainting of the bathroom would be in order. Once several years ago my birthday present from Jeanne was a behind-the-scenes visit to the penguin exhibit at Mystic Aquarium, forty-five minutes south of Providence. Along with a dozen or so other privileged penguin enthusiasts, I found out about the breeding and feeding habits of African penguins in captivity and actually got to touch one. My colleagues and I sat in a circle in the middle of the floor, and the penguin-meister brought in a two-foot tall penguin, setting her down in the middle of the circle. Her name was “Yellow-Yellow,” after the colors of the two identifying bands on her flipper. I swear that Yellow-Yellow liked me best. She waddled right over to me, ignoring the woman on my left and the kid on my right. Or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.penguin_encounter_4[1]

By now, regular readers of this blog are asking “Okay, what has your penguin obsession taught you about God?” Nothing, as far as I know. “How has your penguin fetish informed your teaching over the years?” Not at all. I’m sure there is something important in the facts that I am obsessed with black and white birds, Jeanne loves black and white bovines, and the official colors of the place I teach are black and white. But maybe not. Don’t tell me you don’t have at least one obsession that you can’t explain other than that you have it.  Bottom line, I love penguins because penguins are cool. It’s a first principle.

adult-and-chick_2055067i[1]

The Best Story Ever

Every year during Holy Week, even the most tepid Christian, for at least for a week or so, tracks the story that recounts the last days of Jesus, from the joyous donkey-ride on Palm Sunday through the betrayal and agony of a few days later to a cold and silent tomb. “But it’s just a story,” the skeptics say, no different than the myths and legends of Greek mythology or the tales of King Arthur, similar to the way in which those who wish to dismiss Darwin say that his theory of natural selection is “just a theory.” four h[1]But sometimes a theory is more than just an educated guess, and sometimes a story is more than an entertaining piece of fiction. This is one of those times.

Judging from the New York Times best seller list, the past ten or fifteen years have been good ones for atheists. Thanks to the “New Atheists,” from Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett to the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, it has never been trendier and more acceptable to critique all manners of religious belief and commitment, placing God in the dustbin of ideas whose time has come and gone. The word seems not to have filtered down to the rank and file in this country—the United States, according to poll after poll, remains extraordinarily religious—but for those “in the know,” certainty about God’s non-existence can be fashioned from any number of educated sources from a multitude of disciplines and interests.

Most “new atheist” tomes define “religious belief” and “God” in extraordinarily narrow and comically uninformed terms. The authors beat the crap out the strawman-demo[1]straw man they have created, and then declare that the “God myth” has been destroyed once and for all. As a colleague in the theology department once posted on Facebook, if the “new atheist” description of God is an accurate one, then she guesses she’s an atheist as well. Apparently Sam, Dan, Richard, and Christopher have never met a living, breathing person of faith, a person committed to a framework of belief that evolves, grows, and deepens in the midst of doubt, fear and uncertainty. There is no one definition of God to be proven wrong—I would go so far as to suggest that for many theists, God is more of a verb than a noun, more of an action than an object or item whose existence needs to be verified.

good-without-god-epstein[1]A few months ago, I read the first few pages of Greg Epstein’s Good without God. Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University; Jeanne gave me a heads up after she heard him being interviewed on NPR. An interesting juxtaposition—humanism and chaplaincy. I appreciated the first few pages of Epstein’s introduction, where he takes the new atheists to task for their failure to take religious belief seriously, but it was Epstein’s definition of God that fully caught my attention. “Humanists believe,” Epstein writes, “that God is the most important and influential literary character that human beings have every created.” Really. For a moment I couldn’t decide whether that was highly offensive or something worth taking seriously.

Epstein’s definition brought to mind a passage from Richard Rorty, whose work I like a great deal. Rorty was an atheist, but wrote many fascinating and insightful things about pedagogy, democracy, philosophy, religious belief, and more. philosophy-social-hope-richard-rorty-paperback-cover-art[1]About texts that inspire, Rorty wrote that “to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew;” inspired teaching “is the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the [teacher’s] conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.” With Epstein’s definition of God as a highly influential literary character in mind, this passage took on new dimensions. Recontextualizing much of I previously thought I knew—making a difference to my conception of who I am—an encounter which has rearranged my priorities and purposes—that sounds a lot like God. Not bad for an atheist, Richard. In this light, Epstein’s definition of God is not offensive at all; on the contrary, I love the idea of God as a story, as God as text. Go for it.

esther_denouncing_haman[1]Just about every religion imaginable is full of stories, and Christianity is no exception. In the stories of the Old and New Testaments, I dare you to find one character whose encounter with God did not recontextualize and rearrange (or perhaps disarrange) everything that character thought he or she knew. From Abraham, Moses, Deborah, David, and Esther to Zechariah, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, jesu21b[1]Nicodemus and Saul/Paul, the pages of the Bible and the traditions flowing from it are strewn with transformed priorities and redirected purposes. The transformation is not the result of reading a powerful book, no matter how inspired, but encountering a living, dynamic story whose primary divine character explodes expectations and dismantles assumptions at a glance.

Concerning this dynamic, annie_dillard[1]Annie Dillard with her usual bemusement and wit quotes C. S. Lewis’s remark that “a young atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Continuing in her essay “The Book of Luke,” Dillard suggests that the Bible, itself nothing but an outdated tome, again and again opens doors for the unsuspecting that, once open, can never be shut. “This Bible, this ubiquitous black chunk of a best-seller, is a chink—often the only chink—through which winds swirl . . . We crack open its pages at our peril. Many educated, urbane, and flourishing experts in every aspect of business, culture, and science have felt pulled by this anachronistic, semi-barbaric mass of antique laws and fabulous tales from far away; they entered its queer, strait gates and were lost.” From a similar religious background to mine, Dillard’s parents often sent her to img_1213715354346_301[1]Bible camp in the summer—Annie wants to know “what we they thinking?” “Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world.” If you want to have your priorities and purposes rearranged permanently, jump into the middle of this greatest story ever told and start looking for the main character. You will never be the same.

But God as a fictional character? God as a text? Don’t human beings write stories and texts? Is God just a figment of the ever-creative human imagination? That’s seems a bit “out there” even for a freelance Christian. But maybe not. Consider, for instance, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning 2001 novel Life of Pi, recently made into an Academy Award-winning movie a couple of years ago. Pi Patel, the lone survivor of a shipwrecked Japanese freighter, has just been rescued after more than two hundred days in a lifeboat. Life-of-Pi-IMAGE[1]Representatives of the insurance company arrive in Pi’s hospital room in hopes of finding out why the ship sank. Pi’s story, which forms the heart of the book, is spectacularly entertaining and completely unbelievable. In addition to the human passengers who include Pi’s father, mother and brother, the ship is carrying dozens of caged zoo animals. Pi is the only human survivor but finds himself sharing the lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a four hundred fifty pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.pi[1] Before long the hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, the tiger kills the hyena, and it is just Pi and Richard Parker. For more than seven months they share the boat, working out a tenuous survival relationship and together encountering remarkable adventures including flocks of flying fish, tiger sharks, and a carnivorous island. Upon finally washing ashore in Mexico, Richard Parker walks off into the jungle without so much as a glance back, and Pi is rescued by several conspecifics.

The story is entertaining, but entirely unacceptable for the insurance claim report.

Pi: What do you want from me?

Insurance guy: A story that won’t make us look like fools. A simpler story for our report. A story the company can understand. A story we can all believe.

Pi: A story without things you’ve never seen before?

Insurance guy: That’s right.

Pi: Without surprises, without animals or islands?

Insurance guy: The truth.

So Pi tells them another story. In this story there are no animals, but Pi is joined on the lifeboat by an injured sailor, the ship’s cook, and Pi’s mother. It is a story of violence, evil, treachery, cannibalism and murder. Eventually Pi is the only human left standing and survives alone for several months before bumping into Mexico.

Insurance guy: That’s a terrible story.

Pi: Neither story explains what happened to the ship, and no one can prove which is true and which is not. So which story do you prefer?

Insurance guy: The one with the tiger. That’s the better story.

Pi: And so it goes with God.

And so it does. We can weave the details of our lives and our reality into a story of “yeastless factuality,” as Pi would describe it, in which we allow no characters or events beyond those that we think we have already figured out. But the human heart is attuned to a different story, one in which much is uncertain, many things are unknown, a story that we are both characters in and authors of. Holy Week is a story containing at its core this same unpredictable character both human and divine, a character of infinite surprise energizing the story with boundless love and mystery. It’s a much better story. Let’s live it out.

The Dawn From On High

blockisland1[1]It has been a beautiful spring in Rhode Island (so far). After more than a week of consecutive sunny days in the fifties and sixties, followed by two or three days of the sort of showers that humans grumble about but flowers and grass love, all of the growing things in the yard were smiling when I left for campus this morning. This all reminds me of my first Minnesota spring four years ago as I entered my last few weeks of sabbatical.

Leave it to me to go on sabbatical to central Minnesota, arriving in the middle of January. But after many bone-chilling and ass-freezing weeks, spring finally arrived. Autumn has always been my favorite season and probably will remain so, but I must admit I’ve never really given spring a chance. Spring comes slowly and late to northern Vermont where I grew up (sort of like it does to Minnesota), accompanied by lots of mud.mud[1] The real problem with spring, though, is that shortly after its arrival my allergies arrive. From late April to late May, basically the amount of time it takes all of the various trees to get with it and produce some leaves, my body has a fit. I remember some Vermont springs when my eyes reacted so violently to tree pollen that the inside lining of my eyelids began to peel away. Fortunately, there are allergy medicines available now that no one had even thought of fifty years ago, medicines that make it possible for me to function reasonably well during allergy season.

The arrival of Minnesota spring coincided with my finally pulling the trigger on a purchase Jeanne and I had talked about for a while—a digital camera. We are both the world’s worst picture takers. Well I guess we can’t both be the worst—let’s just say that we are the world’s worst picture-taking couple (although we are photogenic)481938_348335001913100_1730429546_n[1]. It’s not that we take bad pictures. It’s that we don’t take any pictures at all. On many occasions we’ve at least remembered to throw a disposable camera into the car or my backpack (Jeanne doesn’t carry a purse), swearing to God that this time the trip, wedding, birthday celebration, whatever, is going to be memorialized forever with disposable camera pictures. And every time we return with the camera in the same place we originally put it, having forgotten that we had it with us. Fortunately neither of my sons has ever showed much interest in seeing pictures of what’s happened in the past twenty years, because judging from the amount of pictures recording those years, nothing happened.

Given that the St. John’s University campus where I was spending sabbatical as a supposed scholar is located in the middle of a wildlife refuge with miles of walking trailsbest_buy_store-jc-home[1], I figured that perhaps this was a good time to finally purchase a digital camera. I went into Best Buy, headed for the digital camera section, and soon was joined by a very helpful young saleswoman. She offered to help me choose between the several camera specimens priced above $500, and I cut her off short. “You’ll never meet anyone more ignorant about digital cameras,” I confessed. “I need something $150 or under, preferably something that a trained monkey could take pictures with.” She smiled as she thought “I’ve heard this one before—you can’t be that ignorant about picture-taking,” but when I added “Here’s how behind the times I am with cameras; my wife and I have been using disposable cameras,” she looked at me as if I was either from Pluto or was a well-groomed Cro-Magnon man. I walked out of Best Buy in less than fifteen minutes having spent $171 (including tax) for a camera, carrying bag, and a super-duper memory card (she even had to explain to me what that is). I spent that evening at my ecumenical institute apartment charging the camera battery, reading a bit of the user’s manual, practicing taking pictures of the TV, my foot as I reclined in my chair, and a couple of accidental ones of the ceiling, and I was all set.

100_0116The next morning, and virtually every morning for my remaining Minnesota weeks, I walked for an hour or so on one of the many hiking trails through the swamps, prairie, and forests surrounding the university with my new purchase, just to see what I could see; I also was hoping that such walks would replace my daily torture session at the gym (they didn’t—I gained weight). 100_0313And I still can’t believe what I saw, both in quantity and quality. The various living things in the area must have had a meeting and decided to have mercy on the stupid fifty-three year old guy armed with a real camera for the first time. “Let’s all go out and pose for him for a few days, just so he doesn’t get discouraged.”100_0261 In no particular order, I saw and took excellent pictures of a bald eagle, loons, wood ducks, blue herons, brown herons, egrets, various deer who posed for me as if it was Oscars night, a red-winged blackbird, and all of my institute colleagues eating split-pea soup and drinking wine at an evening get together100_0032 (just another bunch of wild animals) . One morning as I walked behind the Abbey after morning prayer, I took great pictures of Canadian geese honking in annoyance that I had discovered their secret pond, eight or nine turtles piled on top of each other on a log trying to get a tan, and a gray squirrel.100_0183 I also took pictures of the large soaring birds that always were circling over the water tower close by the Abbey, and was bummed when a monk told me that they were turkey vultures. According to the picture organizing program that came with the camera, I downloaded over 250 pictures in the past week. For a few weeks, at least, I was a picture-taking fool.100_0360

Next Sunday’s Pentecost psalm is Psalm 104, a beautiful celebration of and tribute to the incredible, out-of-control exuberance expressed by the Creator through the various living things in our world. Wild asses, storks, rock badgers, lions, Leviathan—I didn’t see any of these in Minnesota, but I did see a lot of creatures the Psalmist doesn’t mention. The Psalmist raves about the earth “with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great,” just what I’d been taking pictures of the past few days. As I read morning prayer this morning, the sun rose and cast its unique “Look at me, I just got up” dawn light on the back yard.dawn[1] The canticle for the morning, as it is for every morning prayer, was a setting of “The Song of Zechariah,” which concludes with “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break open us.” Yes, I know that Zechariah is referring to the Messiah for whom baby John the Baptist will prepare the way, but this morning I chose to take some textual license. One of the ways the Creator shows love and mercy for us is by creating over and over and over again, every morning, every season, every year, in the intricacies of all creatures small and great. And I don’t even care if my eyes are itching and my nose is running a bit.

100_0184

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