Saturday, January 30, 2016

5 and 1/2 stars

OK, I picked it out because of the Title: The Solace of Leaving Early, and the cover--two little girls in princess outfits against a background of leaves.

I often pick wine by the label, so don't blame me for picking a book by its cover.

Haven Kimmel is the author. She's only written one other book, a memoir called A girl named Zippy. So there is nothing to compare "The Solace..." with.

I've simply never read a book like it. And I've read a lot of books, believe me.

It was a novel I kept going back to read passages I wanted to read again. It's not long so I was 20 pages from the end after a day. I took three days to read and re-read those last 20 pages. I'll probably re-read them again before I take the book back to the library.

If you don't trust me, know this: Bern read it and it had the same effect of her. I heard her tell Josh and Cathy to read it and I know she told her women's group as well on Thursday.

And I'm telling you to read it.

For one thing, three of the characters know more about English Literature than I do (and I'm an English major!) and more about theology and philosophy than I do (and I have three degrees--count them--in theology!)

Besides that, I've never encountered characters like this in any novel of the hundreds and hundreds of novels I've read.

And I've never been so caught up in the narrative of any novel before.

So, there I've said it. The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel, is one of the best books I've ever read. Really.

Five and 1/2 stars, nearing 6 stars.

Read it. Believe me, you'll thank me.


A house is not a 'home'

I came back from Baltimore (awash with the girls and Kathy and Josh) and got home at 6 pm or so.

I made sure our cat was still alive and ate dinner--salad and mussels--and put new food out for Lukie and am getting ready to take a shower.

I'm in the house that is my 'home', but I'm not home.

I've lived here since 1989--that's 26, going on 27 years--but being here tonight with a dying cat that I love to death (but he hasn't died yet) and a parakeet named Maggie, who sings and sings, but it's not home.

Bern and Bela are missing.

Bern will be home on the Excella from Baltimore at 1:30 or so tomorrow. And I'll go get Bela from this great kennel in Wallingford at 4.

Then it will be home, this house I've lived in for over a quarter of a century.

"Home" is where those you love and share the house with are.

Tonight I am homeless--though I am warm and safe and nestled in a lovely 1850 house.

This time tomorrow--with Bern and Bela back--I'll be home.

What makes 'home' for you?

Ponder what 'home' is for a while.

It has something to do with who and what is in the house. Of that I'm convinced.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How old do you have to be?

So, I saw this article on-line that was going to reveal the original purpose for the little pocket near the belt, inside the front right pocket of your jeans. "The one you keep your tic-tacs in," was how the article described it.

How old do you have to be to know that little pocket is for the aptly named 'pocket watch'?

I know only a precious few folks still have pocket watches, but when did our collective memory forget that watches used to go in that pocket? What else could it be for? Tic-tacs, I suppose.

What else, I wonder, has slipped out of modern American consciousness while I was blissfully thinking everyone remembered things I remember?

How about shoe horns? I haven't used one for decades, preferring my shoes half-a-size too large so I can slip them on (already tied!) like a loafer. I'll have to visit a real shoe store and see if shoe horns are still around.

Potato mashers? We still have one but does everybody or do they buy their potatoes already mashed in the cooler at the store...or use a wand or their food processor?

Back scratchers? When I grew up there was one in most people's homes--at least one. Plastic or wood, about 18 inches long with a little claw on the end to reach those itchy places you can't with your hand. I itch in this cold weather and rubbing my back against a door jam, I long for a back scratcher. Are they on Amazon, I wonder?

How about metal ice cube holders with a lever to pull the loosen the ice? We have half a dozen fancy plastic ice cube makers, none of which I can free the cubes from? Wonder if I can find one of those lever holders anywhere?

I showed Bern the little pocket in my jeans after I read that ground breaking article and asked her what to put there.

A watch, she said. She remembers too, though she's never had a pocket watch in her life.

Vests, if I remember correctly, had a watch pocket too, back in the day. Do they still? Another field trip to a store with three piece suits.

I actually own a pocket watch. I'm going to find it (I see it from time to time) and put it in it's pocket in my jeans. I haven't worn a wrist watch for years, but that pocket watch....Think of all the young people who would say, "hey, your watch fits in the tic-tac pocket!"

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Going to the girls

We'll be heading to Baltimore on Friday. We haven't seen Josh and Cathy and 'the girls' (our three granddaughters: Emma, Morgan and Tegan) since Thanksgiving. They were out of the country at Christmas and we were going down last weekend--what a mess that would have been--driving into the snowstorm!

It'll be a quick trip for me since I have to be in church for an Annual Meeting on Sunday. Bern can stay through and come home on the train.

For all the bad press, Baltimore is a manageable and interesting city. Very ethnic. I can find my way around Baltimore pretty well. Lots of problems, of course, and some of them are daunting.

Unlike most places, the haves and have-nots are cheek and jowl in Baltimore. You can be in a rather high priced neighborhood and a block later half the brownstones are boarded up.

The neighborhoods are very distinct. Josh and Cathy live in Camden, which is growing by attracting young professionals. Other neighborhoods are emptying out for lack of jobs and possibilities. And yes, the most telling divides are along racial lines.

Poor Black neighborhoods almost touch the trendy area where Johns Hopkins rules.

It is a city of great and wrenching diversity and gaps.

But the girls live there, so it's one of my favorite places!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

If I can't be quarterback, I won't play!

So, Donald Trump thinks Megan Kelly "isn't fair!"

Not since I was 12 playing touch football in the vacant lot beside Mr. Martin's hardware store have I seen such a display of pique and immaturity.

When we chose up sides, Donny said he wouldn't play unless he could be quarterback. Danny was on our team and the best quarterback on the field. So Donny rended his clothing like a Biblical character, tearing his tee shirt in pieces before going home to sulk.

The rest of us had a good time playing touch football.

My grand-daughters worry overly about 'what's fair' but they aren't even 10 yet.

"Fair"and "not fair" are the most relative of terms. "Fair", most of the time, is when I get what I want! "Unfair" is when I don't. Well into my 6th decade, 'fair' just isn't a personal issue anymore. Hasn't been for most of those decades.

What grown-ups worry about is 'justice'--which has some standing in reality. "Fairness" is what each of us decides to say it is. Just us talkin'.

I hope the other Republicans just go ahead and have a good time Thursday night.

For Trump, the only worse thing he could do is show up when he said he wouldn't. And if he does, I give you my solemn word he won't apologize....

That would be too adult.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Being Church

I just listened to a Huffington Post interview with Jim Wallis, the liberal evangelical (yes. you read that right--a 'liberal evangelical) who founded the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, and has a new book called something about 'original sin'.

I've admired Jim Wallis for decades for his principles and  'stand fast' morality and his voice in the wilderness of what most people think of when they hear the term 'evangelical'.

Much of what Wallis said in the interview was akin to my contention that the church needs to 'clean the sh*t off everything'. The original sin he is talking about is that the US stole the land of the indigenous people of North America and built our economy by kidnapping Africans and using them as slaves.

"White privilege", Wallis contends, is a sin that separates white Christians from God.

Powerful and troubling words.

Until we can come face to face with our history and slavery and Jim Crow America and the plight of blacks in our culture today, we can never move forward into the future that God calls us to live into.

Cleaning the stuff off all that might take a generation--but, it needs to be done.

There was a hill we would pass driving into Waiteville, West Virginia, where the Bradley family came from, that my Uncle Russell and my father would tell me, held the graves of the Bradley slaves.

Now, the Bradley family were poor dirt farmers, but I was told they had a few slaves. And I remember that on Memorial Day, when there was a big dinner in Waiteville to support the local cemetery, my great aunt Arbana would put Confederate flags on the graves of my ancestors and Uncle Russell would pull them up.

I've never truly wrestled with all that in a meaningful way. I've never faced into my 'white privilege' in a way that makes a difference.

Before everything can be beautiful, I (and I suggest 'we') have a nasty clean up job to do.

Something to ponder about what it means to be white in America. Something worth the effort if we want to truly 'be Church' in our time....

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Snowy Sunday II

My snowy Sunday was made just a little while ago.

The Broncos beat the  New England Patriots!

What could be better?

I have a remarkable hatred of the Patriots and Bill Belechek, their coach (who deserves his name misspelled, if indeed, as I believe, I did) and most, most of all, Tom Brady.

I don't know where my hatred of all things Patriots comes from exactly. But it is, like the Jordon River, 'deep and wide'....

It all started when Bill bailed out on the Jets, where he was supposed to coach.

And it has something to do with how many people in CT just 'love' the Patriots. (Always liked to be an outsider, you know.)

And it has something to do with how 'perfect' Tom Brady seems (whining and cheating notwithstanding). I don't get 'being perfect' since Lord knows I'm not.

So watching them lose made my day!

I should probably go into therapy about my hatred of the Pats and Tom. But until I do, I'm just going to glory in their loss today....

Snowy Sunday

Parts of West Virginia got 40+ inches, just in case you needed more evidence that the Mountain state is cursed!

Church was cancelled yesterday afternoon--and a good thing too--I couldn't have gotten out of our driveway in time to make it!

Josh and Cathy in Baltimore are snowed in, as are Mimi and Tim in Brooklyn. Connecticut didn't get that much--6 inches, I'd guess--but it's still a snowy Sunday with nothing to do but get ready for the NFL division championship games.

Walking the dog was an adventure since no one had yet cleared their sidewalks (we don't have a sidewalk on our side of the street--lucky us!) We walked down snow covered Cornwall Ave. The driveway to the Congregational Church parking lot had been cleared at some point before it stopped snowing...there were only 3 inches or so. A big truck had cut a path with it's wheels and Bela and I walked in those tracks.

Bern and Mark and Naomi (our neighbors) dug out the driveway. A young woman from across the street brought over her snow blower once she'd cleared her sidewalk. Everyone on Cornwall Avenue is brought together by snow more than any other thing. All out, shouting greetings, laughing about the 'white stuff', helping each other dig out.

It is bright and sunny now--about time for lunch. The temperature will be in the 40's most of the week here, so a lot will melt.

Snowy Sundays are the best....

Friday, January 22, 2016

This could be disturbing....


I came across this tonight. It's call 'Cleaning up the SH*T'--'nough said....

You might not want to read it because it is a lot about the product of bowel movements. I'm not kidding. Abandon all hope those who enter here.

 I obviously wrote it while I was Rector of St. John's in Waterbury. I don't remember what, exactly, prompted it's writing or exactly when it was written.

I've given you fair warning. Plus, it's long.

So, decide for yourselves.

Cleaning up the sh*t

       Ever so often I have a bowel movement that simply astonishes me. Now, I know I have crossed over into Those Things No One Wants To Know About. Nevertheless, it is something that needs must be shared—as untowardly and disgusting as it is. My feces are, from time to time, a source of Wonder and Amazement to me that boarders on the holy.
          My first reaction is to ask: “How in the Lord’s Name could that have come out of me?” There aren’t many people I can have a conversation about this with—those who’ve I’ve tried to engage are generally disgusted though their disgust is often tinged with curiosity.
          “You look at your…your…you know…?” some have asked.
          “My shit?” I reply. “Yes I do.”
          It is always of interest to me that most people I’ve honored with my observations about my solid waste tend to be quite squeamish about such a natural function. It would never occur to me not to check out each wipe and then to examine the product of my alimentary canal prior to sending it on it’s way to poo-poo heaven. Yet, I’ve been severely discouraged from sharing my observations and the resulting comments and reflections prior to the Big Flush. My wife is convinced I think too much about bodily functions; however, they fascinate me in some primitive, primal way.

          (I once took part in an “ice-breaking” exercise that divided the people involved around preferences. The leader would say, for example: “Vanilla to the right, Chocolate to the left”, and we would organize ourselves by virtue of which ice-cream flavor we preferred. Or the leader might have said: “Summertime to the right and Wintertime to the left,” or “Liberals to the right and Conservatives to the left” (that would cross us up a bit!) or “Airplanes to the left and Trains to the right.” Those would divide the room around favorite seasons, political persuasions and preferred mode of long-distance transportation.
          The “divide the room” instruction that left everyone but me standing still in confusion was this: “Folders to the right and crumplers to the left.” Only I—and the leader, obviously—in a room of 25 people recognized one of the cardinal distinctions of life…the one having to do with the treatment of bathroom tissue. I moved resolutely to the left of the leader. No one else moved. And even after he explained the meaning and import of the distinction, most of the people in the room made mews of disgust and claimed to have bathroom amnesia. They didn’t know, they claimed, which way they treated toilet tissue and refused self-righteously to close their eyes, take deep, regular breaths and try to remember something so often done in the course of life.
          It was then that two things occurred to me: my wife might be right about the inordinate attention I pay to my toilet practices and the leader of the exercise might be someone to engage in that conversation so few want to have!
          I just checked my word count on this document—506 words—enough to satisfy the requirements of most high school essays. And I’ve only begun to flush out my thoughts about defecating and squeeze them into words. So, it is perhaps honorable and right to move on to why all this is so important to me and such a vital image for ministry. That’s what it is, by the way, a metaphor for ministry.

“SH*T HAPPENS”, is a favorite bumper sticker of our time. (It might be worth the money of a marketing firm to do a survey of folks who like that bumper sticker. There’s no telling what they might learn about the wants, needs and attitudes of the sub-culture who wants to proclaim that insight to those following them in traffic.  I would be tempted to have that bumper sticker myself if my car wasn’t often parked by churches. There is something both fatalistic and well-adjusted about its sentiments. Fatalists, by nature, may tend to be well-adjusted people—folks who take the inconsistencies and disappointments of life in stride, with a shrug and a barely imperceptible rolling of their eyes. Then they move on to what comes next.
I once had a priest friend who was the Rector of a historic old Anglo-Catholic parish. Don, let’s call him ‘Don’, and I were having lunch about a week before he was going to retire and totter off to live out his life on an island off of Somewhere, far away from people and crowds and the Episcopal Church. It was at that lunch that he told me the story he’d been carrying around untold for most of his life. (I’ve noticed how often people tell me really important stuff just as they’re setting off for someplace where I won’t be able to pursue them for more details. For example, people drop bomb-shells as I’m greeting them at the church door after the Eucharist. “How are you today, George?” I’ll say, innocently enough. And they’ll reply, “much better now that the surgery is over” or “not too good, but the final court date is next week” or “I’m fine but I don’t think my daughter will ever be the same.” Then, before I can react or respond, they’re through the door and on their way to their car and someone else is there, waiting to tell me something to get it off their chest and escape.)
It was like that with Don. He was packed and ready to go. We were eating crab salad and drinking a chilled white wine. He probably figured he’d never see me again—and since it’s been 15 years and I haven’t, that was a good bet. So, one foot out the door and the other on a dropped piece of seafood, Don told me this story:
“For over 45 years I prayed every day to God to grant me a wish. What I asked God for was to speak to me, out loud and in English, and tell me what to do next. It started when I was in college and deciding whether or not to go to seminary and be a priest. I prayed and prayed and prayed—with all my heart and soul—‘tell me what to do next!’ But God never answered that prayer. I muddled on through life, making some difficult choices, some painful decisions, always pleading in my prayers each day for divine guidance, for God’s direction, for some help sorting out my life.
“I even gave up on ever getting an answer to that prayer, though I prayed it every day of my life for over 45 years. But I kept praying it, even when I had despaired of an answer. I kept praying for God to speak to me out loud and in English and tell me what to do next. I simply couldn’t stop. I couldn’t appear to have lost my faith. So, on and on I prayed.”
I was making a dent in my salad and my wine since Don was doing all the talking. I was thinking how I’m not sure I ever prayed for anything for 45 days or 45 minutes, much less 45 years. Then he dropped the bomb.
“But about a year ago, my prayers were finally answered,” Don said, turning his attention to eating and leaving me, fork half-way to my mouth, staring open-mouthed at him.
After a stunned few minutes that gave Don time to ask the waiter for some more rolls—they really were quite good—I finally found my voice and said,softly: “God spoke to you?”
Don nodded as he chewed.
“Outloud?” (Softer still.)
Another nod and a sip of wine. 
  “In English….” I was whispering the way you might inside the Sistine Chapel, or at Stonehenge, or if you saw Elvis sitting across from you.
Don looked up and shook his head. “I can’t hear you,” he said, “you’re whispering.”
I felt like my throat was closing and my lungs were in my mouth. Finally, after a couple of tries, I said it loud enough for him to hear: “God spoke to you in English?”
“Yes,” Don replied, reaching over politely to take the folk from my hand and lay it on my plate. “It was most definitely English, though he had some sort of accent—Middle Eastern, I imagined, though it could have been from Baltimore.”
God with a Mid-Atlantic accent—it was all I could do to keep from leaping across the table and dragging it out of him.
“SO WHAT DID GOD SAY?” I asked, between clenched teeth, a moment from major systemic failure accompanied by spitting out my lungs on the table.
Don took a drink of wine, wiped his mouth neatly with his napkin, leaned forward across the table and said (I swear he said this!): “He did not seem pleased to be speaking with me, a tad annoyed, in fact, but he did speak out loud, in English and told me what to do next. ‘Don,’ God said, ‘do the next thing.’ Then it was over. The room smelled faintly of some spice—coriander or ginger, I’m not sure which.

          Okay, so I embellished the story a little, just a tad, as Don would say. But the essentials are there. And they are—I’m telling you this while holding my hand over my heart (which makes typing rather awkward)—just as I told them. God finally relented—like the householder awakened from his sleep—and gave Don the crumb he’d been begging for over most of his life. And what was the Revelation Don had spent 45 years prying out of the Deity? Was it some message that would bring world peace or end hunger on the planet? No! Was it the Secret to Happiness? No! Was it a message for the Ages? No, again.
          What God told Don, as near as I can tell, was simply this: “Sh*t happens, Don. Move on to the next thing.” End of transmission. God signing off.

          For about six years I went to a Jungian analyst every week. His name was Victor and he practiced in his condominium. Whenever he came to greet me and lead me to his office we would pass a bathroom. Victor would invariably say to me, “do you want to wash up?” And he said it like that—like the words wash up were in italics. I never did want to wash up, but after a couple of years I asked Victor why he always asked me that.
          “I ask everyone,” he said.
          “But why?” I asked. “The people that see you wear suits, they’re not coming from working in a garage.”
          Victor, who could talk about the most outrageous secrets of my soul with a straight face and without batting an eye, actually blushed. “Well,” he told me, shyly, “Sometimes people need to…how should I put it?...void their bowels…before a session.”
          “People need to shit before they talk to you?” I asked, a little startled.
          “Oh yes,” he told me, “sometimes the body reflects the psyche’s needs. People need to share their soul’s shit and the body shows them that truth.”
          I always thought Victor was a little weird—in a creative but dangerous way—but I knew then he was a genuine nut-case. I thought that until a day when I had secrets to share I hadn’t even told myself yet. Just as I settled into the leather armchair across from Victor’s identical chair, I felt cramps that either meant I had to “wash up” or I was having labor pains.
          “I have to wash up….” I said, leaving the room.
          When I came back, Victor said, calmly, “the plunger in under the sink if you need it….”
          “You don’t mean….” I started.
          He nodded. “Sometimes the toilet stops completely up around here.”
          I had flushed twice. It was the most painful and important 50 minutes I’d ever spent with him.
          (Actually, the “labor pain” image isn’t bad either—but now I’m writing about shit.)

          The word itself: shit, is interesting enough. It’s definitely from Old English—the most ancient form of our language. I find it fascinating that some of the most vital and basic words in the language—those “four letter words”—have survived almost intact from the earliest form of our common tongue. I guarantee you the “seven words you can’t say on television” from that old George Carlin comedy routine, are mostly from that pre-historic version of English. The funny thing is that you actually can say those words on television now!    
          And you need a word for it, after all. Besides eating and sleeping, passing food and making water are the most common of human activities. Some of the words we come up with to avoid saying “shit” are, at the very least, embarrassing. Think about it: “poo-poo”, “kai-kai”, “dukey”, “drop a load”, “take a crap”, “go poopy”, “number 2”—I mean, really, it’s hard to say any of that stuff with a straight face.
          Yet, defecating is the great leveler. Anyone you know or meet or view from afar must pause in the course of their day to do it. When people who teach public speaking advise shy students to “picture your audience in their underwear”, they aren’t going far enough. Picturing Catherine Zeta Jones or Sandra Bullock in underwear would more than likely leave me speechless rather than making me confident to talk. What really would give me courage in front of a scary audience would be to see them all on toilets, reading the paper, grunting and pushing and sighing in relief. President Lyndon Johnson may be the exception that proves the rule. It’s said that he would invite people into the Oval Office and when they arrived they would find him on the crapper with the door open. Carrying on a conversation with the most powerful man in the world while he was going poopy tended to intimidate even the most aggressive folks.

          Elephant poop, I’ve discovered, is one of the most advanced form of fertilizer. Something about what elephants eat and maybe even something about the insides of elephants—I’m not sure. But there is a farm up in Goshen that has elephants, and we have a member of the parish who will go up there with his truck and bring back a truck-load of elephant poop to put on the flower beds in the parking lot of St, John’s. Stuff does grow there like crazy, so maybe the elephant dung is the reason.
          If you own or have ever owned a dog, you know well how certainly we can get obsessed by shit. You walk your dog, a plastic bag in your pocket if you are a good citizen, and you beg the dog to squat and do his/her business so you can take it home in the bag and tell whoever you live with that Poochie has been a good dog. How crazy is that—grown up humans who build their life around the defecation habits of another species all together? But it is true—true as the day is long…shit matters.

          There’s a marvelous portion of a Robertson Davies novel—I can’t tell you which because my memory is so bad and I’m too lazy to use the Internet to find out—about a violin maker who buries his products in shit for a year to properly age them and make them sound better. Everyone in the novel agrees that this violin maker is the best in the world. Robertson Davies is, if I may slip into my old English major thinking, obviously pointing out, symbolically, just what Victor, my Jungian analyst would say—it’s in the shadow where the power of life lives, it’s in the shit of life that we find the meaning of existence. Something like that. Too long for a bumper sticker, admittedly, but there is something to it.

          It’s like the ducks my grandmother Jones owned. She always had three or four and they were her ‘pets’ since I never remember eating a duck at her house. I imagine she just liked the way they waddle around and that they can be both fierce and friendly—just like she was. Gram maw Jones didn’t have a bathroom in her little house up on the long hill outside of Conkintown. She had a two seat outdoor toilet about 50 feet up the hill from her back door. If you had to go at night, you used what we called a ‘slop bucket’, though surely there is a better name for it than that, then carried the porcelain ‘bucket’ out and poured it in the out house. I was always fascinated by the outhouse—like, why were there two openings in the wooden seat…did two people ever do #2 at the same time, reading the torn-up Sears catalog while passing the time and their bodily waste? I somehow can’t picture that. And, even though I am already judged guilty of being too, too interested in the process of elimination, the indoor thing made me anxious sitting there, over in the corner of the bedroom with a piece of wood on top to, I suppose, lessen the smell. So, even in the dead of winter, I would go out to the outhouse, galoshes over my bare feet because of the cold and snow, to use the outhouse. And when I got there, carrying an old flashlight, I’d have to shoo the ducks away from the door to get in. I was much older when I realized that the bodily waste and whatever it was we always threw a handful of onto it after #2—what was that stuff, a white powder of some kind?—produced heat. Even though the outhouse was made of wooden boards you could look between in some places, it was never as cold as the outside. The ducks were just trying to stay warm. Shit has its uses, after all.

          Since writing this has made me remember that we did, honest, sometimes use catalog paper—slick and not very effective—there was often toilet paper in the outhouse as well. A friend of mine who worked with me at St. John’s for two years before becoming a priest in New York had spend several years teaching in a school way off in the bush in western Africa. I once asked him what he missed most being so far from what we simply assume is ‘civilization’. “Toilet paper”, he replied. “Europeans who visited the village would bring rolls of toilet paper that were as valuable as money for barter.” And when he came home, he told me, he had to flee from the first American Super Market he went to because when he came to the toilet paper aisle he was simply overcome by the variety and quantity that was stacked there. “I’d remembered how much food there was in American stores,” he said, “more food than I’d seen in years, but I’d forgotten the abundance of toilet paper….”
          I neglected to ask him if he folded or crumpled.
          But there you go—that’s how important our bodily fluids and solid waste are: this brilliant man had become ‘toilet paper deprived’. Getting used to always having it was like a kind of withdrawal—one day at a time. And, remember, he had forgotten those towering shelves just chock-a-block full of the stuff though he was prepared to see the produce section and meat department without getting spooked. That’s because most of us choose not to think of bathroom things the same way we think about food—which, just to state the obvious—is where the bathroom stuff comes from in the first place.

          Here’s a really sick memory, just in case you haven’t decided I’m sick enough already. When I was in college, there was an artist who had created what he called “Auditory Sculpture”. He had a big show and it went like this—you went into a dimly lit room that was full of wooden boxes painted in pastels. On top of each box were several holes, about the size of one of those old silver dollars some of us have hidden away somewhere, and a bowl full of various sizes of steel balls—some like marbles others as large as golf-balls and everything in between. He must have gotten them from an auto supply store or something like that. So, to experience Joe Moss’s art (I still remember his name!) you dropped some of the steel balls into one or another or several of the holes. Obviously, what was inside was a system of gutters with various metal things hung above them. Each ball would create a different cacophony of dings and dongs and bangs as it traveled along the gutters. That was Joe’s art, God love him.
          So, I wrote a review of the exhibit for the student literary magazine where I reviewed, not Joe Moss’s exhibit, but the exhibit of John Algae’s ‘gastronomical art’. In that art form, people are invited to eat one or another of a wide variety of food then wait 8 to 12 hours and view the art. I thought myself quite clever and, at that time, didn’t have a high enough respect for shit and a too “English major superiority” about what was good and bad in the world. But it went on for two pages and hopefully no copy of it still exists and, I learned from friends in Joe Moss’s classes that he was sufficiently angered by my satire.
          I spend most every Tuesday morning with a group of priest, most of who are retired. We have Eucharist in St. John’s Chapel and then sit in the library and have coffee and sweet things and ‘shoot the shit’. (See how that words shows up so often and descriptively in our common language?) One day, one of the retired guys, who are worth more than gold and silver to me, told this story he swore was true though I suspect they all embellish their stories a bit. A personal friend of his was in WWII and on some farm in France, looking for Germans, when the Germans he was looking for started dropping mortar shells on the farm and the Americans. The way he tells the story goes like this: his friend was terrified (as I suspect most people are most of the time during war) and ran to jump a fence that turned out to be a pig pen. A mortar shell landed about 12 feet from him and he thought he was dead, but the shell embedded itself so deeply into pig shit that when it exploded he was covered with shit but not wounded. That man came home, my friend says, and went to seminary and became an Episcopal priest because God had saved his life with the unlikely but effective vehicle of pig shit. Shit happens, we all know, but who knew it happened like that?

          Almost to the point, beloved—we are almost to the metaphor I want to make about sh*t and the church. It starts with something Kurt Vonnegut, God rest his soul, wrote in the preface to his collection of short stories called Welcome to the Monkey House. He tells about the letters he’d gotten recently from his brother and his sister. His brother was the father of a new baby and his sister was dying from cancer. “So it goes,” as Vonnegut would say, true fatalist that he was. His brother says, “Here I am cleaning shit off of almost everything” and Vonnegut’s sister tells him, “Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.” I have always been haunted by the unfathomable irony of those two statements: a man dealing with the beginning of life is cleaning shit and a woman about to enter that lonely door thinks the world is beautiful. And those two statements pretty much sum up the work of the church in the world: the church is called to clean the shit off almost everything and to proclaim the improbable and un-provable truth that everything is beautiful.
          St. John’s practices what we have come to refer to as “the Bathroom Ministry”. Literally hundreds of people come through St. John’s every day. We have 7 bathrooms in the building though only two—the two in the hallway outside the office—are for general use. These bathrooms were installed in the 1930’s, most likely, and the sewer system from that era is antiquated and most likely damaged. (We actually have a video tape of the sewer from St. John’s to the main sewer on West Main Street—I can show it to you if you like. It shows what is some damage that makes its too small capacity even smaller.) And all the waste water from the Soup Kitchen goes into it as well as the waste from the bathrooms goes into that old and inadequate sewer. Little wonder then, that from time to time the whole thing backs up and water plus whatever is in the water starts running in the wrong direction. Plus, as if we needed more problems, some of the people who use the bathrooms during the day have bowel movements that would make a Jungian analyst rejoice. It may be something about their diet or that they don’t get to use a toilet much or that they put other things down with the shit and use too much toilet paper since we live in a culture that has more of it that anyone needs. Perhaps because I have an unhealthy relationship with my bodily waste, I am convinced that one of the great services and ministries St. John’s, as an urban church can provide is the use of bathrooms. There is really no where else down-town where someone who is basically ‘on the street’ can go to have a #2 except the library, which, I’ve been told, keeps the doors locked and is thinking of eliminating use of toilets for patrons who obviously aren’t checking out books or doing vital research.
          The big sign board with the service schedule on it also has those little international symbols of a man and a woman and a wheelchair, indicating we have bathrooms available. Waterbury is no different than most American cities—there just aren’t any free public bathrooms. Europe is different. Even Israel has lots of public bathrooms—I especially remember the one I used near the Dead Sea, which, when you think about it for a while, would obviously have trouble with gravity, being the lowest place on earth. The flushing is such a problem at the Dead Sea that you are asked not to flush any paper—even toilet paper—but to put it in a wastebasket beside the toilet. There are people whose job it is to periodically remove those baskets and empty them somewhere or another. Talk about a metaphor for the role of the church! Once, before a ‘state funeral’ for a murdered Waterbury Police Officer, I was standing out on Church Street with the last ‘beloved Rector’ before me, who had come to be a part of the funeral because the young man had been the ‘head acolyte’ when he was the Rector of St. John’s.
          Mike looked at the service board and pointed to the bathroom symbols. “That’s a remarkable ministry,” he said, sincerely. “I’m going to try to get churches in our diocese to open their bathrooms to people who need them….”
          One of the things I do around the church is plunge out the stopped up toilets when they backup from Jungian sized shits. I actually don’t mind doing it, though walking through the shit water that is running under the door and down the parish hall steps is a tad unpleasant. It’s part of my job and one of the community service people working in the soup kitchen and our sexton usually help me. The rest of the staff seems genuinely astonished at how willing I am to go use the plumber’s helper and clear the toilet. I just wish I had a handful of whatever that was we threw in Gram maw Jones’ outhouse to toss in once the water is running free again.
          But I do have limits. One day when I was in the parish office talking to Harriet and Sue, I saw a young man go by the window unzipping his pants. I went to the door and opened it and discovered he was peeing on the other of the double doors to the Close.
          “Don’t pee on the door,” I said.
          “I bet you live in a house,” he said, still peeing. “How many bathrooms are in your house? I’m homeless, I don’t have any bathrooms.”
          I was about to get hooked by Middle Class Guilt when I realized it was useless and wrong. Actually, having once built a “logic machine” for a science project in high school, I realized he had a flawed syllogism. What he was saying is: You have multiple bathrooms. I have no bathroom. Therefore I can pee on the door. Clearly a messed up attempt at logic.
          “I have three bathrooms in my house,” I told him, “and there are seven in this building. DON’T PEE ON THE FUCKIN’ DOOR!”
          Bathroom Ministry has its down moments, I must admit.
          You know what three professions I think should be the highest paid in our culture? Pre-school day care teachers, garbage collectors and aides at nursing homes, that’s who I’d lavish the big bucks on. First of all, imagine if we didn’t have dedicated people to change our children’s diapers and care for them while both mom and dad go off to work. Then imagine the chaos and collapse of the culture if the trash we put out each week wasn’t magically gathered and disposed of. Then, last of all, wrap your mind about what would happen if we had no where to send ourselves when we can’t take care of ourselves any longer and need our diapers changed again. Well, the Whole Damn Thing would fall apart, wouldn’t it? Life as we know it—and assume it will always be—would end in an instant, a moment, a heartbeat.
          From time to time, people start wondering about clergy compensation and how to evaluate what Episcopal priests and other, equally well-educated clergy should be paid. Usually we are measured against academics and public school administrators. And when we do it that way, we clergy-types end up looking woefully under compensated. Just one thing—the teachers’ union in Waterbury has a contract that allows them to accumulate sick days and personal days and get a check for them when they retire. I’ve known public school teachers who got enough money to buy a second home when they retired. Just in that way, we are radically cheated when measured against people with equivalent education and position in institutions.
          But I’m not complaining since I think we should be compared to day-care providers, garbage collectors and nursing home aides. Obviously we spent a lot more time in classrooms than most people in those positions. But I contend that what we do as priests is a lot more like what those three professions do than it is like teaching two classes a semester or being an assistant superintendent of a school system. For one thing, none of those folks ever have to plunge out the men’s toilet or fish tampex out of the women’s toilet with an unrolled coat hanger so the water will flush. And none of those folks—full professors and administrators—usually sit by death beds and hold people close whose lives are unraveling and clean the shit off almost everything and proclaim that everything is beautiful in spite of the evidence to the contrary.
          Day care providers, garbage collectors and nursing home aides do that kind of thing everyday. They are the secular and under-compensated “priests” of our culture. They are there at the beginning of life and growth. They are there to clean up life’s mess. They are there at the end of life and for death. Pretty much what I do day by day. And compared to them, I get paid a king’s ransom for my work. My cash compensation this year is only a few thousand dollars short of six figures. Add in my pension fund payment and my health/life insurance plan—none of which passes through my checkbook—not to mention my ‘continuing education allowance’ and my ‘travel reimbursement’ check each month: somebody thinks what I do is worth more than $125,000 annually. Put that kind of package together for day-care providers (who after all are caring daily for our prodigy and our ‘future’) and garbage collectors (who make the world beautiful by carrying away the mess and trash we create) and nursing home aides (who, by the way, are usually the ones who wish us bon voyage as we sail off into that good night—offer that kind of pay and our children and parents (who we would claim are the lights of our lives) would have impeccable, remarkable care and love and the garbage collectors would come every fall to rake the leaves and be more than happy to shovel the snow away in winter. “Worth”, like ‘beauty’, is in the eye of the beholder and in the amount of the pay check. As my dear dead mentor, Kurt Vonnegut would say: So it goes….
          Why is it a surprise that people who have to deal with the shit of our lives are so undervalued when most of us are squeamish about revealing, or even remembering, whether we ‘fold’ or ‘crumple’ toilet paper? Shit is so elemental, so much a part of living, it just seems we’d be more willing to take a look at it once in a while and acknowledge what a significant role it plays in our existence. Pig shit and chicken shit have become big problems for the water table and public health in places where pigs and chickens are raised commercially. Some scientists (God love ‘em for their irony!) suggest that the flatulence of cows has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer. Lord, help us, shit happens and shit matters. Sanitation engineers probably describe their job as something esoteric to people at cocktail parties, a bit ashamed of what they actually do. Truth is, they are the demigods of our sanity and lives. Someone, after all, has to deal with all the waste we produce. There aren’t any other options I can see, unless we all decide to quit eating….

          I really mean it when I say the role of a priest is to clean the shit off almost everything. The metaphorical and psychological shit in peoples’ lives often shows up running under the door in our work as priests. Being as low-church as I tend to be, I used to devalue the confessional. Not any more. It’s like Victor asking me if I need to ‘wash up’ before one of our sessions. We all need to ‘wash up’ and drop a load most every day. And I blame the church for creating the aversion to shit that makes most people have to come to a point in life when the cramps are about to kill them before they come to me. The church has spent most of the run of Christendom providing people with all kinds of reasons to ‘feel like shit’. The stupid rules and outrageous canons and absolutely irrational sins the church made up in order to ‘control’ people have left their marks on all of our psyches and hearts.
          (Here’s where I lose folks, I know. I want to suggest that most of the ‘stuff’ that we have all come to accept as ‘Truth’ is simply things the church made up to control people. I’m going to be unreasonably compassionate and imagine that when the church made that stuff up they did so with good intentions. It just didn’t turn out that way. I tend to start blaming the church for messing with people’s minds and hearts in a bad way around the time of the Council of Nicea. When we, as Christians, moved from the catacombs to the cathedrals we mostly lost touch with being “Jesus” people and began being “Company men” (and ‘men’ is literal, by the way). It started before that, surely, when more time was spent on ferreting out heretics than with living into ‘the new commandment’—but there’s nothing like being awarded the prize of “Official Religion” to jump-start the nonsense.)
          Here’s my whole theology and understanding about Jesus: Jesus went around for a few years ‘cleaning shit off almost everything’ and proclaiming clearly that ‘everything is beautiful and nothing hurts’. The only people he ever bitch-slapped (oh, that is politically incorrect!) were the stuck up Pharisees and the obsessive compulsive Sadducees. The priests and the scribes—those folks who were trying to control people with rules instead of love, with tradition instead of compassion, with limits instead of possibilities. Jesus hung out with the dregs of society, would have probably paid day-care providers, garbage collectors and nursing home aides a couple of million denarii’s a year and wouldn’t have hesitated to grab the plunger when the plunger was needed.
          Someone once said to me, “I wouldn’t feel worthy to do what you do. I couldn’t be a priest.”
          I almost lost it…I said, stammering, bereft of logic or rationality, “Worthy? Worthy? You don’t feel ‘worthy’! None of us are ‘worthy’ and ALL OF US ARE!!!”
          It didn’t make much sense, but I believe it. I believe that the two contradictory statements: “none of us are worthy” and “all of us are worthy” are, combined and shaken together, exactly right. The church has been too long in the ‘giving shit’ to people business. We need to be in the ‘you are worthy’ business. We don’t need—“we” meaning the church—to control people. What we need to do is liberate them to be the shining children of God that they are, each of them, all of them. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees and the church, God help us, decided to become the Pharisees and Sadducees all over again. None of us are worthy and all of us are.
          That’s both parts of the work the church is called to do in this period of irrelevancy. We must clean the shit and unworthiness off everyone and we must proclaim—in word and deed and liturgy and sacraments—that everyone is beautiful and nothing hurts.
          Big job—we need to get busy…. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Growing up

My post about filling my Dad's car with gas at Uncle Del's Esso station pulled my back to my childhood and where I grew up.

Anawalt, WV, was one square block--or oblong block as it were. Front Street and Back Street (what we called them) were much longer than the two sides that completed the block. Side Street was the shorter of the two with only Flake Martin's Gulf station, a bridge over the Tug Fork River and an empty lot. The fourth street was usually referred to an Jenkinjones Road, since that where it eventually led.

There were some 400 citizens of Anawalt--about 55/45 white to black. And half a mile in most any direction--there were only 3 ways to go--brought you to mostly nothing, though if you kept going you'd come to some other places.

Anawalt was a flat space--maybe the size of two football fields--with the Tug Fork running through it and steep mountains on all sides. The sun rose late and sat early and we heard airplanes every week or two, but seldom saw one.

The first time I drove to the Mid-west, I got really anxious about all the open space. Growing up in Southern West Virginia was an experience of mountains and a small sky.

I've talked to lots of folks who grew up in small towns and some of the experiences are shared. But they tend to get a blank look on their faces when I bring in the mountains. You had to grow up in the mountains to understand what it was like living in hollows and narrow valleys all the time.

Bern grew up 12 miles or so from me. Where she lived was like this:

A mountain--a house--a barely two lane road--a house--a stream and a mountain. Maybe a hundred feet wide for miles and miles around there.

Closed in is one way to think about it. Held in the hollow of a hand is another.

The first is annoying. The second comforting.

I think I felt comfort most of the time down there in Appalachia.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Not since I was 20

This morning I filled my car up with gas for 99 cents a gallon (when did they take the 'cents' symbol off the keyboard? I looked and looked.)

I'm not sure when the last time I did that was. A long time ago. I remember when gas was 37 cents (need that symbol!) at my Uncle Del's Esso station when Exxon was still Esso.

So, I used my Stop and Shop card and got 90@ (pretend that's the 'cents' symbol) a gallon off. But still, just seeing the pump read less than a dollar was like being in a time warp.

I don't understand economics at all. I don't get what makes gas so cheap these days when it was over $3 (still a dollar symbol, thank the Lord!) just a summer or so ago. And I don't understand the remarkable damage low gas prices are doing to the fuel industry--though I hear it's significant.

All I know is filling up my tank today made me feel like a teenager, standing at Uncle Del's Esso station, filling up my father's Ford.

What a trip that was!

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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.