Ginger and I are about to go on the trip of our lives.
Tomorrow we leave Boston for Athens and three weeks of adventure tracing the steps of the Apostle Paul through Greece and Turkey. What I’m looking forward to most is three weeks with Ginger. Here are the places we’re going: Athens, Veroia, Thessaloniki, Philippi, Kavala, Meteora, Kalambaka, Delphi, Corinth, Istanbul, Izmir, and Kayseri (the last three are in Turkey). Most of those names are strange to me, other than the ones that have books of the New Testament named after them. I have a lot to learn.
And a lot to eat. I’m so looking forward to the food!
Trips like this couldn’t happen without friends. Our friend Eloise is staying in our house and Schnauzer sitting; our friends Jena and Marc let me borrow their laptop so I can blog along the way — or at least try — so stay tuned for words and pictures. Lots of friends have sent us off with kind words, cards, hugs, and prayers.
The next time you hear from me, I will be across the ocean; I’ve got a list of things to do between now and then, since my bags are not yet packed and I’m not ready to go.
Jay, Eloise, Ginger, and I met for Easter Brunch at Bob’s Southern Bistro. They had a sumptuous buffet including fired chicken, barbeque, red beans and rice, black-eyed peas, eggs, cheese grits, bacon, macaroni and cheese, and some serious carrot cake, cheesecake, and banana pudding. Put that together with a jazz quartet that was doing some nice covers of old jazz standards and four friends who were happy to celebrate the Resurrection and glad church was over and you have a recipe for a great time.
Between mouthfuls we talked, first about how our various services went and then moving on to other things, both casual and significant. In most UCC churches around here, Easter means adding a morning service. One is a fairly standard service and the other is a “family service,” which means there a re a lot of kids and a lot of energy. At Hanover, the family service is the early one (which is the one I went to) and at Marshfield, it’s the late one (which is the one I went to). Top that off with my starting the day helping the high school kids lead our Sunrise Service at Hanover (at 7, not sunrise, thankfully) and I was celebrated out by the time we got to lunch. But it was a good kind of tired.
When we walked into Bob’s, the band was starting to play “Take the A Train,” which is one of the jazz songs I recognize. That I, or anyone else, know the song is a cool story. Billy Strayhorn wrote the song on his way to try and get a gig with Duke Ellington. He based it on the directions to Ellington’s office that he had been given. It was still a year before the tune was recorded, and only then because Ellington needed some new material while most of his stuff was caught up in a music publishing legal fight. It became both the Duke’s theme song and biggest hit; it started out as a kind of desperate guy trying to make music out of the only directions he had.
The tune is great; the story makes it better.
Since Ginger’s sabbatical leave officially started after church today, we had a lot to get done in worship this morning: three baptisms (one baby, a twelve year-old, and a fourteen-year old), Confirmation, as well as our Easter celebration. Each family had packed their pews with everyone who wanted to be there for This Important Day. For both baptism and confirmation there are rituals – things we say and do, promises we make. The words are both familiar and important, things that have been said before, yet new because these voices have never said them quite like this.
What Ginger does best in these moments rich in tradition is infuse them with the life – the melody – of individual stories. As she baptized the infant she told of her history with the family, particularly of having stood with them not so long ago at the graveside of the grandmother of the little girl who was baptized today. She and our youth minister took time to tell us about the three ninth graders who were confirmed, affirming both who they were and their faith commitment. As the confirmands knelt, parents and mentors stood behind them, placing our hands on their shoulders (I was one of the mentors) and the rest of the congregation stood and touched the shoulder of the person in front until we were all connected in a line of faith, hope, and love. We, too, made music out of the directions we were given.
After the service my favorite thing about North Community Church happened: the Easter Egg Hunt in the cemetery. The church emptied out to watch the little ones run between the tombstones looking for brightly colored eggs filled with candy. The sun was bright today, which made it even better. Long after the eggs were found and a good portion of the chocolate consumed, we stood under the slowly budding trees and told stories of our own. I talked with one woman whose husband is twenty-eight days from leaving Iraq. He is in Mosul. When he comes home, his time in the Army will be over and they will figure out what life looks like together. I played with Mia, a new baby to our church who was quite fascinated with my big round face (our faces were the same shape), as I was with her big blue eyes. And I got to hug one who was back at church after a long hospitalization and is beginning to feel like herself in ways she has not known before. Today really was about new life for her.
If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: though we could fool each other, we should consider– lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe– should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Jay commented at lunch that he had been to see Friends With Money, a new movie. When we asked how it was, one of the things he said was, “It had a weird ending; nothing was resolved. It quit at a strange place.”
Eloise said, “Milton will like it.”
She’s right. Easter has come, Lent has ended, and thus, so does my Lenten Journal, without much resolution but with a great deal of gratitude, wonder, and – I hope – at least a little bit of music. Thanks for making the journey with me.
One of the regular joys of my life is reading Lewis Lapham’s “Notebook” each month in Harpers. Lapham announced in the May issue that he is stepping down as the editor, though he will still continue to write for the magazine six times a year. I love reading Lapham because he believes and demonstrates that words matter. He also has the ability to contextualize what is going on today with an amazing grasp of history. And he writes some amazing sentences that leave me speechless because they show what a person can really do with the English language. For example:
“In other words, a long if desultory conversation with people whom I wouldn’t recognize in a bookstore or a police lineup, but from whom I’ve learned that it is the joint venture entered into by writer and reader – the writer’s labor turned to the wheel of the reader’s imagination – that produces the energies of mind on which a society depends for its freedoms and from which it gathers the common store of its hope for a future that doesn’t look like an early Mel Gibson movie.”
He makes me believe words can change things. He starts each of his essays with a quote. This month, it was from Wallace Stevens.
They said, “You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are. The man replied, “Things as they are Are changed upon a blue guitar.
I went to the kitchen late today because I was asked to participate in an Eagle Scout ceremony for two of the kids in my youth group. Hanover is Boy Scout Central. I’ve never seen a town support scouting the way they do. They have so many guys who qualified for Eagle this year they’ve had to do the ceremonies in two. Most of the ceremony was designed to educate the audience on the basics of scouting and the amount of time, energy, and determination the two guys put in to earn their Eagle. I got the point.
As they were going through the various things a scout is (none of which I can remember right now), the scout master annotated each one. The explanation I remember related to the word “obedient.” (Not one of my favorite words.) His explanation, in part, said, “If you disagree with a law, you work to change it through the system, rather than disobeying it.”
My mind immediately jumped to a piece of an old interview with William Sloane Coffin I heard yesterday on Fresh Air, as Terry Gross’ tribute to him. He was a man who saw civil disobedience as a crucial means of protest. I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or the brave souls who sat at lunch counters knowing they would be beaten for breaking a stupid hateful law. I wanted to offer a minority report: wear your Eagle proudly and play a blue guitar. We don’t need more obedient people who wait for things to change. Life means more than, “Thank you, sir, may I have another.”
They killed Jesus for being disobedient. He just wouldn’t go along with the status quo, so they killed him. That’s the short version. Jesus played a blue guitar – on the Sabbath, no less. You don’t make the Keepers of Order happy by breaking into the guitar solo from “Free Bird” while they are forcing people into line. You don’t get a merit badge for making people uncomfortable. You go down for that. The blue guitar is part of the reason I sit here late on a Saturday night waiting for Sunday when disobedience wins and we get to believe that justice really can roll down like water.
I wish I could paint my guitar blue for the sunrise service. Our senior high group leads the worship and we do the hymns with guitar. The tradition at Hanover is to close the service with “Lord of the Dance.” It’s a zippy little song that tells the story of the Incarnation in five verses to a variation on the Shaker tune, “Simple Gifts.” The youth group loves the song and find it somewhat amusing because the rather buoyant melody doesn’t let up when the lyric turns somber, so you end up with a rather jaunty Crucifixion verse.
I danced on a Friday When the sky turned black – It’s hard to dance With the devil on your back. They buried my body And they thought I’d gone, But I am the Dance, And I still go on
We all smile at each other as we sing and, when we finish the song, for some reason we all feel compelled to talk like pirates. for a few minutes. Sydney Cater, who wrote the song, said, “I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality.” Jesus is a dancer. That makes me not so Christ like in this regard, though I do have a coffee mug, thanks to my friend Cherry, with a picture of Jesus in a t-shirt that says, “Trust me I’m a DJ.” As Coffin says, “The only security in life lies in embracing its insecurity. And faith in Jesus Christ, far from diminishing the risks, inspires the courage to take them on – all of them, including the risk of intellectual uncertainty” (Credo 144).
The two guys who got their Eagles today are our speakers at the Sunrise Service in the morning. They are both people whose faith matters deeply to them, and who know how to play on a blue guitar, their Tuesday night scout meetings notwithstanding. They did well today. They chased down a dream and caught it and got a medal for it. I’m proud of them. I’m honored that they asked me to do the benediction. As I spoke, I mentioned my favorite words about Jesus in John’s gospel: “Knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, Jesus took a towel and wrapped it around his waist and bent down to wash the feet of his disciples.” I had to at least plant the seeds of insurrection.
Jesus’ understanding of where he had come from and where he was headed gave him the courage and the compassion to break all the rules in the name of Love. Truly, things as they are are changed when they’re played on a blue guitar.
Some days on the calendar pass by as one in a succession of days. Others draw a line between before and after, leaving an indelible mark. They do not stand alone — even the most cataclysmic of events is a culmination of antecedents, but the event itself causes us to remember one day in particular as The Day. Garrison Keilor’s list of events sent me searching for what today means.
April 14, 1865 was the day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at the Ford Theater, five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appamattox. Keillor comments:
“Lincoln had received word of Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the end of the Civil War just a few days before he died. He spent his last week as president arguing with Congress about how to readmit the Southern states to the Union. He believed that there should be as little punishment for the rebels as possible.
“He had a dream that week that he was on a boat moving rapidly toward shore. It was the same dream he’d had just before every positive development since the war started. He believed it was a sign that everything was coming out right. That afternoon, at 3:00, Lincoln took a ride in an open carriage with his wife and he was the happiest she’d ever seen him. He told her, ‘I consider this day, the war, has come to a close.’”
April 14, 1912 – at 11:40 pm – was the day the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg. The “unsinkable ship” sailed on hubris as much as water. Barely two hours into the following morning, the ship had gone down killing over fifteen hundred people.
April 14, 1935, Black Sunday, was the worst of the dust storms to hit Texas and Oklahoma, which was known as the Dust Bowl. At one point, that region was the most fertile in the country, but was over cultivated to the point of exhaustion. “The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk… We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real.”
April 14, 2006 – today — is the day my cousin Ryan turns 13, which doesn’t carry the slightest hint of tragedy. His thirteen years on the planet stack up as good news. I’m grateful he’s alive and well. Today he officially becomes a teenager, a particularly significant American rite of passage.
This year, today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death, which matters to some more than others. Last night, after Maundy Thursday services at our respective churches, Ginger and I planned to meet for dinner. The place we picked had, unknown to us, gone out of business, so we ended up at Bull’s Run, a pub in our neighborhood. In a matter of about a half an hour, we went from the solemn darkness of our Tenebrae services to someone doing a horrible karaoke rendition of “Hotel California.” The bar was packed; my guess is we were the only ones in the room who had come from church.
My schedule is a bit different from most Fridays because the owner of the restaurant decided to stop serving lunch, so instead of going in at nine I’m going in at four. I had already tried to mentally prepare myself for making burgers between noon and three; now I will get to spend it quietly. I’m grateful for the gift, even if I do lose some hours. I want to take time to notice, to pay attention.
When I was in Dallas a few weeks back, my friend Lynn and I were talking about grief. She told about their dog dying and the way her three sons reacted to losing their lifelong friend. They were in the car one day when one of the boys said, “Mom, how can all these people just keep going on with their lives? Don’t they know what happened?” No, they don’t. They have too much other stuff coming at them, without much help in how to make sense of it at all. So says Robert Phillips:
War Dims Hope for Peace. Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told. Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead.
Miners Refuse to Work after Death. Include Your Children When Baking Cookies. War Dims Hope for Peace.
Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say Prostitutes Appeal to Pope. Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead.
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half. Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide. & War Dims Hope for Peace.
Stolen Painting Found by Tree. Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over. & Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead.
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms. Police Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers. War Dims Hope for Peace. Clinton Wins Budget; More Lies Ahead
How do I mark today? Though the coincidences are interesting, there must be more than the irony of a president’s death, a vicious storm, and an archetypal maritime tragedy all happening on Crucifixion Day. There has to be more to the soundtrack than Daniel Powter singing, “You’ve had a bad day.” Try as I might, I will not be able to create the despair and hopelessness of the disciples as they saw Jesus die and then ran to hide from whatever might be coming next. I know Sunday’s coming; we’ve already printed the orders of service.
Jesus’ death wasn’t big news on the day it happened, outside of his circle of friends, anymore than those who will die today in the Congo or Darfur or Baghdad or Boston. On this side of the Resurrection, his death is big news because it offers us the chance to move through despair to hope, to find some meaning in death beyond grief. And to give some meaning to life beyond making ourselves comfortable. Ginger chooses the language of “Jesus gave his life for us” rather than “Jesus died for us,” saying that all of Jesus’ earthly existence was part of the act, not just the death on the cross. He was about more than the Big Finish.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel posted a wonderful tribute to William Sloane Coffin in which she writes, “A few years ago, James Carroll wrote of Coffin’s gospel, ‘…What a gospel it was. The world he described was upside-down; the church on the side of the poor; the powerful at risk for losing everything; the disenfranchised as sole custodians of moral legitimacy. Coffin, in his passionate sermon that day, was perhaps the first person from which you heard that defining question: Whose side are you on?’”
Though it’s tempting to flee like the first disciples, or act like it’s just another day, may we be disciples who stay and give our lives, everyday.
I woke up dissatisfied with what I wrote last night. I wrote what I felt, yet I struggle with coming across as the guy who rants from his desk and then does little else. I want to be more than pissed off at our government; that doesn’t get me much of anywhere. I want to get beyond the feeling of isolation, here in my little South Shore suburb, which tempts me to buy into the lie that life is really happening somewhere else. I also woke, not planning to write this early. heck, no one will have had time to read what I wrote last night, even if it left me less than pleased.
Then I read the news that William Sloane Coffin died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He was 81. I’ve been reading articles and obituaries for the past hour or so. Coffin has been a voice of hope and encouragement for me, particularly in the last several years. Here are some of the things said about him today.
“But for Coffin, a hue and cry was confirmation that he was doing his job. When a minister once lamented to him that the press was disinterested in mainline churches, Coffin replied, ‘Do something interesting.’ Following his own advice, Coffin resigned the pastorate at Riverside in 1987 to focus on peace and nuclear disarmament, as president of SANE/Freeze, now called Peace Action. After retiring in the early 1990s, he continued to speak out and write. His most recent book was “Letters to a Young Doubter” (2005), in which he quoted Rilke’s words, “be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” for gradually, “you will live into the answers.” Turbulence and doubt were to be expected, and indeed were the genesis of Coffin’s ministry.”
“’Bill’s voice was part of a chorus of conscience for a nation dealing with issues of poverty, war, disarmament, racism and bigotry,’ the Rev. Frederick Streets, Yale’s current chaplain, said yesterday. ‘He distinguished himself by rising above and emerging out of his own background of privilege to speak on behalf of the poor.’’
“The World War II veteran and scion of a wealthy New York family travelled to North Vietnam during the war with that country and to Iran during the hostage crisis there, bringing harsh criticism from some quarters. To those who questioned his patriotism, Coffin often replied that the true patriot is one who maintains ‘a lover’s quarrel’ with his country.”
“81-year-old William Sloane Coffin’s life is the life of the second half of the 20th Century. A progressive second half, that is.
“An heir to the W & J Sloane fortune, he was a CIA agent, an organizer of the first Peace Corps trainings, the chaplain of Yale, an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. (he was a Freedom Rides organizer), president of SANE/Freeze, and opposed the Iraq War in his later years.
“He’s even got a permanent spot in the Doonesbury comics as the Rev. Sloan.
“The Presbyterian minister occupied such a vaunted place in the progressive world The Nation recently asked, as his health was failing, who the next William Sloane Coffin would be.”
I somehow think Coffin would smile at that question. I don’t think he saw himself as leaving a vacancy as much as simply living hs life.
“The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death,” he wrote in Credo, “ and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there’s no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.” (167)
I am heartened that a person can move from the CIA to the Peace Corps to being a Freedom Rider and a peace activist. If that is the arc of a faithful life, then there is hope for me, for you, for the Congo, for America. And I need the hope. What leaves me most dissatisfied – even desperate – when I think about Congo, or Darfur, or the child slaves in Ivory Coast, or the war in Iraq, is I have to deal with the part of me that doesn’t expect anything to change. I want to believe we, as human beings, can respond differently, that we can do something besides destroy one another, and that violence will not have the last word. There’s a good chunk of me that thinks the darkness is unending and so I flail at it quixotically, raging in some sort of existential temper tantrum that leaves me mostly exhausted.
“It’s comforting to be bitter about evil – not creative, but comforting,” Coffin wrote. “It’s also easy to blame everything on tragedy. But in my experience most people give up on life not because of tragedy, but because they no longer see joys worth celebrating; they do not see that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning. Tragedy offers the opportunity to find new meaning and most of all to reevaluate what’s important.” (129)
On this, the penultimate day of darkness on the Christian calendar, I realize one of the ways I am different from Jesus. (There are several, trust me.) He was willing to be fully human. I don’t want to admit that the people who inflict violence and pain around the world are people like me. I want to be different than they are. Sometimes I don’t want to be human. Then, one way or another, I’m challenged to remember that faith, hope, grace, and love are transmitted incarnationally: human to human.
Coffin was one of the voices in our time who called us to be fully human, in the truest sense. Thanks, Bill, for the continuing reminder.
The main thing I wanted to get accomplished before I went to work today was to get my car to the shop. I have been driving with one working headlight for far longer than I should and it was time for an oil change. The garage I use is next to a Dunkin’ Donuts, so I grabbed the latest issue of Harpers so I could read while Jimbo, my mechanic, worked on my car. Jimbo loves my car. I drive a 1997 Lapis Blue Jeep Cherokee Sport that has almost 160,000 miles on it. He thinks Jeeps are the best and he loves doing everything he can to keep mine in top condition. He does a good job; my car runs well.
Ginger wanted to go work out this morning, so I dropped her off, dropped the Jeep off, and sat myself down with my Turbo-Hot to read. I had time to work through a couple of articles. The first, “Congo’s Daily Blood: Ruminations From A Failed State” by Bryan Mealer, was the reason I picked up the magazine to begin with. I heard him interviewed yesterday on Here and Now (another NPR show) about his time as a journalist in Congo. In the past five years, over four million people have been murdered in the violent free for all that passes for a country. While we get news of car bombs in Baghdad and trouble in Tehran, we don’t hear from the Congo. There is a UN presence there, but not with the ability or the intent to protect the innocent from the genocide. The US government is doing nothing. After the nation is obliterated I suppose someone in the State Department will say it is a terrible thing and then go to lunch.
How can a whole nation die and no one appear to even notice?
The second article was, “The Spirit of Disobedience: An Invitation to Resistance” by Curtis White. His article is rich and challenging, leaning into Thoreau and Emerson as prophetic voices for our age. White works with the question: “What does it mean to be a human being?” He looks to Thoreau for answers.
“First, a refusal of the world as it stands. Second, a recommitment to fundamentals. What does it mean for a human being to need a house? Food? Clothing? . . . Third, an understanding that to stand before the question of these fundamentals requires spirit. Thoreau called it awareness . . . As Simone Weil wrote, echoing Thoreau’s sense of awareness: ‘The authentic and pure values — truth, beauty, and goodness — in the activity of a human being are the result of one and the same act, a certain application of the full attention to the object.’ Or, more tersely yet: ‘Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.’ It is perhaps the saddest, most hopeless thing we can say about our culture that it is a culture of distraction.”
“We need to work inventively – as Christ did, as Thoreau did – in the spirit of disobedience for the purpose of refusing the social order into which we happen to have been born and putting in its place a culture of life-giving things. In such a society, we not only could claim to be Christians; we’d actually act like Christians.”
Why is that so damn hard?
I finished the article and my coffee and walked across the parking lot to get my car. The plan was for Ginger to start walking home from the gym and I would pick her up on the way. Now home is about eight miles away. Jimbo took longer than we thought, so she had covered about six miles before she called me to meet her at Cosmo’s, one of our favorite breakfast places. After breakfast, I drove her home and we both got ready to go to work.
The news was all about the immigration debate as I drove to Cohasset. The discussion hits close to home. Let me put it this way: if congress actually voted to make entering this country illegally a felony, I will know a lot of felons. I know there are lots of layers to the issue and I also know we lose sight of the “life-giving things” when we name something a right that is no more than circumstance. I could have just as easily been born in Chiapas as in Corpus Christi, Texas. People need homes, food, clothing and we have more resources than any country in the world.
Why is this so damn hard?
But it is hard. Being committed to life-giving things means dying for them, or at least losing a lot. That’s what this week in particular is about. It’s easy for me to rage against the global capitalist machine and write about fighting for fair trade and doing something about the Congo, but I’ve not made big changes. I sing the email petitions that come around. I work hard to be informed. I try to pass on information. I dream sometimes about joining Christian Peacemaker Teams, or something like that, but I question if my motive is more about wanting to be a hero than it Is about being a better human being.
Bryan Mealer finished his article this way:
“As my plane lifted off and over the river, I looked around at the people who were leaving: the preachers and profiteers, the doom junkies and cowboys, all the people like me. I imagined we could all use the break, put the death and dying out of sight and out of mind. But I knew what we all knew, that somewhere in that plane the dead were still with us, and no matter who we were it was still up to us to sort them all out.”
The world we live in provides plenty of distractions to allow us to look at something else and take our minds off of the Congo, or Darfur, or our neighbors in pain. I don’t know what to do, but I don’t want to simply be pulled away for the next shiny thing that passes in front of my eyes. I believe that life-giving things are connected in some way. Our awareness – our prayer – is not for nothing. The cost of discipleship begins with attention. Then we go on from there.
We woke up this morning to a beautiful blue sky. Gracie woke me at 6:30 to make sure I got to see as much of the day as possible. Ginger and I ate breakfast together and then she left for work. I came upstairs to check email and could feel the gathering gloom. Sunshine or not, I was in for a dark day. If I didn’t keep moving, I knew I was going to end up on the couch doing nothing. I worked hard not to give in. I got dressed quickly, as if some sort of emergency was forcing me to evacuate the premises. I had a plan: I would run errands. The pups, however, had a plan of their own: they made it clear that a trip to the beach was in order before I did anything else. It was fun to watch them run. They were right; I needed to walk with them.
My first errand was to drive to Marshfield Town Hall and get a dump sticker – excuse me, a transfer station sticker. The town dump is a part of small town New England life. Though Marshfield does have curbside pick up, there are certain things you can’t leave on the curb. Our TV went out (several months ago) and I have been carrying it in the back of my Cherokee since before Christmas, I think. I decided getting the sticker and dumping the TV would be one thing (is that two things?) that would give me a sense of accomplishment. It did. I also learned I can go back to the dump and get all the free compost I want for my garden. The trip was both fun and educational.
My second errand was to the pharmacy and get my prescriptions refilled for our trip. Our HMO has a pharmacy in Braintree, about fifteen miles away, and the drugs are less expensive than our local CVS, so I drove there – it’s also next door to a Borders Books, which is where I went while they were filling the prescriptions. I was in search of a book I saw at the Flower Show on “Square Foot Gardening,” which looked interesting because Mel Bartholomew, the author, was talking about how to make the best of small spaces. My vegetable garden is small and I want to do more with it this year. I found the book, got a cup of coffee, and spent an hour reading and dreaming of tomatoes, zucchini, basil, and lemongrass.
I went back to the pharmacy, got my medicine, and headed for Whole Foods in Hingham to pickup the Newman’s Own peanut butter cups (fair trade, of course) for a Certain Someone who is coming off of her Lenten chocolate fast on Sunday. I was doing pretty well. As I walked to the car in the sunshine, I had visions of coming home and working in the garden a bit before staff meeting tonight, but I ran out of gas. The energy drained from me like air out of a runaway balloon. All I wanted to do was go home and sleep. I kept it at bay for the morning, but my depression was out to claim the afternoon. I then remembered the Red Sox home opener was on TV at two; I had a reason to go home to the couch other than giving into the darkness. I would not be alone; I would be a part of Red Sox Nation.
About that time, Ginger called to ask where I was and to say she had just gotten home. I really wouldn’t be alone. When I got home, we both took a little nap and then she suggested we go for a walk (the game was over: Red Sox won). Walking with her is one of my favorite things, not because I like walking that much, though. I like walking with her. I do know walking helps increase the serotonin levels in my system, thus helping me deal with my depression, but even that is not necessarily enough to get my feet on the street. But for Ginger, I’ll walk. She was right. I needed to walk with her.
We got back to the house just in time to head out to our separate meetings at our separate churches. On the way to Hanover, I heard a story on NPR about Donald Knaack, who is known as “The Junkman.” He is a classically trained percussionist who studied with John Cage and makes music from found items: saw blades, beer cans, pieces of wood, even a snowboard xylophone. He left positions in the Louisville Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic to “pursue a career in junk.” He lives in Vermont. The story focused on his “junk opera,” Odin, opening in New York this weekend. Knaack said he chose Odin because he was simultaneously the Norse god of war and the god of knowledge. Odin was credited with developing the alphabet and poetry and knew only knowledge could overcome the violence of war.
“Marcel Duchamp said, ‘Tools that are no good require more skill.’ And that’s knid of become my mantra: the idea of taking tools that are no good, in other words, taking junk – things that people have discarded and said, “that’s no longer of value to me.’ I find a whole new value for these materials in terms of making music and hopefully it’s something people want to hear,” Knaack said.
I don’t know much about Norse gods, but the myth rings true. The insidious violence of depression and the informed hope that grows out of the poetry and melody of grace are both inside of me. Most of my days are “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Whatever poetry comes grows out of the fledgling vocabulary I have developed to talk about what is happening inside of me. Whatever melody I play is banged out on the materials scattered across my life. I, too, am a junkman.
Today was not a great day. I’m having a hard time. And I did manage to make a little music. That will have to be enough.
Last night at youth group, one of the folks in the Hanover church made a special trip to the parish hall to bring me a book she thought I would like based on my last sermon: Invisible Lines of Connection by Lawrence Kushner. I sat down with it this morning and read this paragraph:
The stories in our lives are like pages of a stamp album. We find ourselves collecting and reassembling ordinary, even trivial pieces of our childhood, trying, through different rearrangements, to comprehend their meaning. Perhaps if I put these on this page and move those to another, then add one from the stock book, the page will look right an finally make sense. That’s what we do. We take memories which are only distilled stories, add new ones, and in so doing, redefine their meaning and the shape of our lives.
One of the pictures that hangs on our wall is of me as a three year old squatting in front of a bucket of painted Easter eggs. I’m in rolled up jeans and a striped t-shirt. The picture ran on the front page of the Bulawayo Chronicle, Monday, March 20, 1960. As my parents tell it, we were in the store and I found my way back behind the counter to where they were painting the eggs and helped myself. The newspaper photographer saw me, took the picture, and then told my folks where I was. I cans ee myself in the picture, but I don’t remember the moment. A forty-six year string of Mondays runs from there to here, piecing together the moments that make up my life. I’m still working with how they fit on the page. I recognize the kid in the picture; some days he feels more familiar than others.
Up in my office I have a picture of me in ninth grade between classes at Nairobi International School. Someone sent me the picture after those of us who went to school there got together a couple of years ago. I remember NIS, and I remember me – but not like I look in that picture. I remember being short and fat. Though I’m not particularly tall, I’m not heavy. Once again, I don’t remember the exact moment the picture was taken, but I do remember what it felt like to be in ninth grade, at least for me. Those were days I wanted to be anyone else but me. I didn’t feel as cool as those around me. I thought they were being kind to let me hang out with them. When we met for our reunion, I saw they remembered it differently and welcomed me warmly.
The picture posted with my profile is my favorite picture of me, even though I look like I’m the winner of the David Wells Look-a-Like Contest. Our friends Charles and Jennifer were visiting (with our godchildren Ally and Samuel) and we went to the Sox game. It was a perfect afternoon. Jennifer had her camera and snapped the picture. I do remember that moment. I was glad to be me with my wife and my friends watching the Red Sox play baseball in Fenway Park.
Across all the years, through all the inches I have grown and clothes I have outgrown, through all the places I have lived, through all the things done and left undone, I’ve been Milton. There is probably not one cell of my body today that is original equipment, but I’m still me trying to figure out what it means to be me. Keeping this journal through Lent is part of they way I keep figuring it out.
As Holy Week begins, it strikes me that the church lives out the same process of moving memories around to redefine their meaning. Every year around Easter we get hit with a bunch of new books and new discoveries related to Christianity. This year, among others, the Gospel of Judas is getting a lot of press. Though the manuscript is not a new discovery, scholars are finally to a place where they can begin to tell us what this ancient text says. Over the past couple of years we’ve also learned of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
I’m as interested in how people have responded to the news of these gospels as I am in what the gospels themselves have to say. It’s like finding a box of old photographs showing family members doing things you never thought they did. Look, here’s your macho grandfather who was always hunting in a community production of “Guys and Dolls.” The aunt you knew only as the one who was always knitting coming home from a skydiving trip. Wait – here’s one of all of us. I don’t remember ever being there.
Not one cell of the church, as it is now gathered, is original material. Two thousand years later, we have stories, memories, and surprises. We have to keep trying different rearrangements, as Kushner says, to understand what our faith means in our particular incarnation of it. The history is important: our faith is built on stories we must continue to tell even as we grow and change and learn new stories as well.
That last paragraph sounds too much like a sermon. Sorry. I’m chasing something with more heart than a teaching moment. The lives of the disciples, as they are described in the New Testament, are about as two-dimensional as the photographs of my childhood. We get some insight into those folks, but not enough to know them. What I have read about Judas’ gospel sounds as though the creators of Jesus Christ Superstar had an advance copy. I saw that musical (in a rock concert form) when I was in sixth grade. It was the first and only concert my dad ever took me to see. Since that night I’ve thought Judas was more complex than he comes across in the gospels. Maybe I want him to be because I want to find meaning and redemption in my own contradictions. If all I am can be captured in one moment – particularly my worst moment – how can Easter matter? What’s the point?
I don’t want to walk through Holy Week as though it were a trip down memory lane, or some kind of historic duty. I’m not looking to only remember resurrection; I need new life. This week matters.
When Ginger wrote for her sabbatical grant, one of the things the Lilly Endowment encouraged her to include in her budget were monies for a Send Off Party and a Welcome Back Party. I volunteered to be the chef for the gatherings. We had the first party today, even though next Sunday is her last before her sabbatical, because next Sunday is Easter. Since Friday and Saturday are my long days at the kitchen, I pulled recipes together all week (check out www.gourmed.gr) and shopped on Thursday. I started most of my cooking when I got home from work last night (after I wrote) and picked up again this morning. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to the service, but I did feel like I went to church.
One of the things I love about our church in Marshfield is the way people pull for each other. As different people came through, they asked if they could help in any way and I put them to work chopping or slicing or whatever else I could think of. Some had ten minutes, others fifteen; all of them offered what they could. Two guys, Mickey and Kevin, stayed and worked all morning. Mickey is a talented chef and owned his own restaurants before going into another business with his brother. He is one of the most giving people I know. He had sent word with Ginger for me to call if I needed help. I did need help and forgot to call. He showed up anyway. By the time Kevin walked in, Mickey and I had a sink full of dirty dishes. Kev went straight to the sink and went to work. In the course of our conversations, we learned Kevin had his own restaurant background, working his way through high school and college as a line cook. They stayed in the kitchen, helped me cook, helped me serve, and helped me clean up. They stayed until the last table was put away and the last chair stacked. I could not have done it without them.
Kevin chairs the Visioning Team at the church. He talks about how we help people “get on the bus.” I love the metaphor. In college and seminary days, I was a school bus driver. The pay was decent, the hours predictable, and I didn’t have to work nights or weekends. One of my routes in Fort Worth had two parts. First I took second graders from Western Hills (a predominantly white neighborhood) to Como Elementary and then I took sixth graders from Como (a predominantly African-American neighborhood) to Western Hills Middle School. In the morning the sixth graders made hardly a sound. in the afternoon, they made up for it. The noise was unbelievable. They had been cooped up all day long and had some stuff they had to get out of their system. One afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore. I pulled the bus over to the side of the road.
“Listen,” I said, “I know you need to blow off some steam. I know you want to talk to each other. I just need it to be quieter.”
“What if we sing?” asked the little girl who sat behind me. The rest of the kids joined in approval.
“What do you want to sing?” I asked.
“White Shadow,” she said. (That lets you know how long ago I was a school bus driver – it was a show about a high school basketball team that liked to sing in the locker room, mostly Motown.) “Start us off.”
I counted down and they chimed in,
I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day when it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May I guess you’ll say what can make me feel this way My girl – my girl —
On the last one I couldn’t help myself. “My girl,” I sang at the top of my lungs.
“Oooh,” said the girl behind me, “the bus driver knows the song.” We sang most every afternoon for the rest of the year. Get on the bus.
One of the things I’m learning from Kevin is business and creativity are not mutually exclusive terms. One of the main reasons he is excited about our church’s vision process is he has done it in his own business. He believes in dreaming, in imagination at work. Church is not “business as usual” to him (business is not “business as usual” to him). He talks a lot about goals, encouraging us to be specific in our ideas and faithful in figuring out how to make them happen. As we cooked and cleaned together, I talked about my dream for really using our church kitchen and our parish hall to feed people. Mickey shares that dream as well, along with a growing group of others.
“Now that’s a goal,” Kevin said. His eyes lit up. “We can get that going by October.”
I believe him and I’m grateful for his enthusiasm. I’m also encouraged as I watch this seedling of an idea begin to grow. Some of us have been talking and praying about this for close to a year now, trying to live in the creative tension between patience and action. We are getting closer.
For the first three years Ginger and I lived in Boston we didn’t own a car. Every month we bought T Passes and traversed the city on trains and buses. We knew the route numbers well and came pretty close to knowing the schedules for our most used routes. The Boston buses have the number and the destination on the front of the bus. When you get on, you know where you are going; you also know you are going to make a number of stops to let fellow travelers on and off before you get there. But you will get there.
On a city bus, the point is the destination. People ride out of necessity more than choice. Some read, some stare out the window, some just try to avoid as much contact as possible. The only ones who talk are those traveling together. The kind of church Kevin dreams about is not that kind of bus. He’s chartering one where we get on because we heard the singing and couldn’t wait to join in. Watching him work in the kitchen today, helping me pull off the party, I know it’s not just talk: he means it.
I got to participate in my first Portuguese pun today.
Robert, the chef, likes to say, “Obrigado too much” when he wants to thank one of the Brazilian folks for helping him with something. It caught on with all of us, so you hear it a lot in our kitchen. Thelma came up with the appropriate response: “De nada mucho.” Pedro is new to the kitchen. He was helping me out today and when he finished I said, “Obrigado too much,” but what he heard was “Obrigado tomate “(pronounced “tomach”), which meant, to him,” “Thank you, tomato.”
He answered without flinching, “De nada, cebola,” which translated means, “You’re welcome, onion.” And we all had a good laugh. Nothing like a good food pun to bring people together.
What I have done since I wrote last night is sleep, rather restlessly, and work. I nodded off on the couch downstairs shortly after I finished writing. Gracie woke me a little before seven, which gave me time to feed the pups, get dressed, and head for the kitchen, since I was supposed to be there around nine. I got the soups on the stove, set up the line, and then checked to see what needed to be made so I could put a prep list together. Before I left last night, Wesley and Wanderson cut up tomatoes for the Pomodoro sauce and onions for the French Onion Soup, so I had those to do as well.
In our jobs we all have things we do everyday that feel unusual, exotic, or even strange to people outside the field. I caramelize about ten pounds of onions every time I’m in the kitchen – more if we’re making soup. I sauté about five pounds of mushrooms, as well. Heck, I even fry pappadums on a regular basis. One of our favorite regular statements that comes up on Law and Order is when one of them says, “Check his luds.” (It means phone calls.) I may get to fry pappadums, but I never get to check anyone’s luds in my line of work.
As I was slicing the onions this morning, and in the kitchen by myself, I tried to think about why cooking is such a respite from my depression. Some of it is the task-natured focus of the work. I can get lost in slicing onions or mushrooms, in mixing sauces, or making potstickers. But it’s more than some kind of Zen focus on the moment thing. I think a big part of it is there’s always something to learn, or some discovery to be made – usually growing out of a mistake or a necessity.
I ended up making a lentil, black bean, and chorizo soup because that was what we had to work with. Eduardo and I bounced ideas back and forth until we came up with a recipe that worked. Robert asked me to make sushi today. I decided to do a tempura shrimp roll. What I could find to go inside the roll were roasted red peppers and fresh mango. And that’s what went inside. Some of the recipes are passed along (the apprenticeship side of things also speaks to me) and there’s always room to say, “What if we tried this a bit differently.” A seemingly minor change, addition, or even subtraction can make a dish a whole new experience, or at least bring new interest to something that has become too familiar.
Man, I wish the point of my food analogy was to tell you I changed a few ingredients and today was incredibly different from yesterday. It wasn’t. I pushed myself out of the house (and into the cold rain) because I just did. The sadness that rode home with me last night was still in the car this morning. I was grateful for the routine of my Saturday – get coffee, call my parents, go to work – because it helped me remember where to go next. My prep list did the same thing. Crossing things off the list did give me some hope and sense of accomplishment. The depression did not get the best of me: I made the soup, the sauces, the caramelized onions, the spiced walnuts. And I learned a pun.
I feel, with some sense of certainty, that people get tired of hearing about depression a good while before those who are depressed decide to quit talking about it. It’s not hard for me to imagine people reading about a paragraph or two into what I have written here and saying, “He’ s still depressed” and moving on to something else. I’m not sure I know where the line is between vulnerability and self-absorption. And I keep thinking if I will examine my life and talk about the details – even find new language for my experience – then things can be different.
When my mother was dealing with some difficult medical choices, she said, “I’m not naïve. I know doing this has its own set of issues. But I would rather live with that set of issues than the set I live with now.” I love the informed hope in her statement. The change doesn’t have to be of fairy tale caliber to be worth doing.
When the warden tears down the poster in Andy Dufresne’s room in The Shawshank Redemption to find an escape tunnel, part of the power was he had dug the whole thing with a rock hammer over years and years. He had gone through his prison routine day after day, making small changes where he could and carrying out a couple spoonfuls of dirt every time he went out into the yard.
Pedro works at least one other job that I know about besides working hard as a dishwasher and doing the prep jobs that are most repetitious and boring – and all for not much money. I would imagine one day looks a lot like the other to him. I don’t know any more about his life than he does mine. We each have our rock hammers, chipping away the best we can.