Saturday, May 29, 2010

Alas, the dream and romance sometimes goes awry

The robins have abandoned their nest on our front porch.

I haven't seen the female for two days. Bern tells me she saw the male in the yard yesterday but he isn't standing guard any more. Tomorrow, if she's not back, I'm going to take out the ladder and look in the nest. I haven't done it yet because I still hope she'll return. There are certainly no baby robins and I want to see if there were any eggs.

I wonder what happened. Did something happen to her? Did she realize her eggs, if there are any, weren't going to hatch? I have no idea about the nesting habits of robins, but something happened, something went wrong. I know just this week she was stoically on her nest and he was guarding it from the tree nearest the porch. He even buzzed me, about a yard above my head one day this week--a warning because I was looking at the nest and Mama bird too long.

I really was rooting for them. I was terrified that babies would be born and fall out onto our porch. I'd already planned to put cushions on the floor of the porch to protect them when they fell. I was already looking forward to the little noises the chicks would make and watching them be fed and waiting until they began to fly.

I don't think that will happen now and it crushes me. Something so hopeful that didn't come to fruition. How much hope we put into HOPE and the truth is this: lots of hopeful, romantic, lovely things end like this.

Something to ponder under your personal Castor oil tree--before Yahweh sends the worm to kill it and you have to wonder and ponder in the heat of the sun: how and when and why did hopeful things come to naught in your life?

I'm reminded of sitting by my mother's hospital bed when I was 25, praying in hope for her to wake up and live. And she didn't. And that was that.

It seems to me that hope is a vain and fragile thing, something as ephemeral as a feather, as light and fleeting as a breath, as difficult to hold on to as that dream you had a few nights ago that faded into nothingness when you woke up, as hard as you tried to keep it near.

And there is this: Hope and dream and romance are the meat and drink of our souls. We are waiting for the meal we imagined and longed for and thought we might have. And often it disappoints and fails us. Just like that.

But what else is there to feed us but Hope?

When we cease to cling to Hope, all is vanity and the world implodes and our lives are meaningless.

So, even as the robins leave, I cling to Hope. It is the only thing that keeps me above the waters of despair. Some would call it madness or self-deception. But without Hope, what is there?



There was a Nancy cartoon in my youth. Do you remember it--Nancy and Sluggo? If you remember you are 'of an age', if not, still this will make sense.

Nancy and Sluggo are outside in the snow. Sluggo says he loves winter because there are no bugs. "No gnats, no flies, no bees, no mosquitoes" he says.

Then the snow slips of the roof above him and he is covered.

"And no Sluggo," Nancy says....

I am afraid of the little moths we grew up calling 'millers'. They're the little brown ones, not the big ones, not the white Mayflies, not the Luna moths, none of those. I don't know their real name but I was taught to call them Millers. They flit and swoop and dive at your face if you are sitting in light. And they scare me so much I'll go inside.

I don't know why, they just do.

I should ponder that fear, wonder about it, and ponder the other things that frighten me.

Knowing what frightens you and, in some way, 'why', is a cool breeze on a hot day, a calming silence, something profound.

Ponder this: what frightens you...and why....

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

waiting up....

Tonight I was out on our deck, watching the heat lightening from the north, hoping that's moving south and the heat will break.

A few nights ago, I was out on our deck, in much milder temperatures, waiting for my son to come home.

I was never able to sleep before my daughter and son came home from wherever they were. They owe me hundreds of hours of sleep over their lives--though I'm not sure how you pay sleep back....

And my son was out and I was waiting for him to come home.

He isn't 17. In fact, he is 34 (only a year older than Jesus when our Savior died...) and has taken care of himself for a decade or more now. But I was still waiting up for him to come home.

He had taken a train from DC, passing his family in Baltimore, to come to CT for the wake of one of his best friends. My son has had several good friends die already. I'm 28 years older than he is and have had fewer friends die. Perhaps he just has more friends, but I don't think it is an 'average' kind of thing.

I remember when a friend of his committed suicide. He flew to the West Coast from Williamsburg VA on St. Patrick's day, took a taxi to the Golden Gate and jumped off. A dramatic statement if there ever was one. Josh and some of his friends, coming home from their colleges, were at our house getting ready for the wake. There were all these young men--gifted and skilled--who couldn't remember how to tie their ties and hardly knew how to button their shirts. They were like people in walking comas. It was too young to stare into the very face of Death. It stunned them.

Josh arrived in his lawyer suit and dropped off his bags. Another good friend had picked him up in Southport and drove him to Cheshire. He dropped the bags on the floor, went to the bathroom and headed back to his friend's car.

Since we knew his friend over the years--he was even in England with us when we visited Josh there the year after college--we were going to the wake. Josh said, "I'll pretend not to know you," and winked. This new death had regressed him--and all of those 30-something people who were at the wake. Josh was the best dressed--still wearing his Baltimore lawyer outfit--but they were all much younger again, staring Death in the face.

When we got there and were in line to speak to the parents and wife and such, with photo boards everywhere and a slide show running on a TV, Bern suddenly couldn't do it. We didn't know his parents much at all, but we'd known their son and wanted to tell them how much we liked him and how much we'd miss him and how terribly sorry we were...all of that. But Bern broke down and had to leave. I asked her later what had caused it and she didn't answer, knowing I knew--that could have been our son, our Josh, our Bonny Bobby Shaftoe in that urn. It is hard, hard for us all to stare into the Face of Death--especially about young men in their 30's.

I waited up and Josh came home much earlier than he would have at 17. Three friends came with him and stood on our front porch with him and had a beer. Josh had played pool with his friend's 10 year old son, probably back at the parents' house. He talked about that.

I talked with them for a while, but our dog was making a fuss and I knew he's stop if I came inside, so I did that. And sat on the deck with the dog for a while and then went to bed.

Waiting up for children is just something a father does. Josh has three daughters--all of whom will be lovely and bright and much wooed. He'll learn. Maybe that's how he'll pay me back the lost sleep--with his own for Morgan and Emma and Tegan.

And may he and Cathy, his wife, the mother of my grandchildren, be as lucky as we have been and only have to deal with the deaths of your children's friends.

Staring into the Face of Death is a profound and transforming thing.

I am sorry my son has done it as much as he has.

I am thankful I've been spared much of that--besides parents and in-laws who died in the scheme of things.

Somehow, the death of the young is so much harder to manage, reconcile, include in a World View, understand, deal with.

34. He died at 34. When I was 34 I'd been married over a decade, my children were 6 and 3. I was in my prime, full of hope and expected joy.

I WILL miss him, though I hadn't seen him since the baptism of Josh and Cathy's twins 3 1/2 years ago. I remember his smile, his sweet good humor...and I think that 'was him', not just what he put on for the father of his friend. And I weep for his friends--especially Josh, of course--for having to stare into the Face of Death and having to have a father waiting up for them to come home....

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A poem

I don't think of myself as a poet--much less a good poet--but I do write them from time to time.

It's quite odd what prompts a poem. For this one it was a phrase that came to my mind a week or so ago and I wondered how to make it part of something I wrote. Here is the phrase: "It was not so much what they didn't say, as how they chose not to say it."

That phrase has haunted me somehow. So I wrote this poem so I could use it.

A fiat--this, like all poetry, all fiction, is NOT TRUE. It never really happened. And there were things in my memory that prompted the setting and the characters and the story. This is a narrative poem, a poem with a story. I call it,


Love is like that, from time to time, I suppose.
The unspoken part is what I mean.

A lunch with my friend and parishioner,
to talk about the marriage
collapsing around him.

How complicated to be both a friend and a priest.

We ate at a place near the church.
They do the best fried calamari
I've ever eaten
in a restaurant not near the coast.

So I had that with a salad and blue cheese on the side.
He had the Sole Florentine.

We both had three glasses of Pino Grigio.

He told me how profoundly
he loved his wife.
His eyes were glazed with wine and passion.

"I'd do anything," he told me,
a piece of whitefish on his chin,
"anything to have her back."
And I believed him.

A good meal is an odd confessional,
though we were in one of the booths
against the wall,
with photos of city landmarks
on the wall.

Sealed as I was,
I could not tell him it was
the self-same booth where
his wife had told me,
a week before,
the same things in the same way.
Longing to have him back.
Loving him greatly.

I told him exactly what I had told her,
seven days before:
"Speak it aloud. Tell of your love...."

We left after coffee.
It was a deja vu
of my lunch with her, down to the instistance
that he pay, just as she had.

The same words were spoken exactly:
"For your ear, Padre."

Both of them said precisely that,
being friends deep enough to call me "Padre",
a sort of in-joke of good friends.

Credit Card and signature exchanged,
We stepped into the September sun
and literally, literally,
bumped into his wife
and her friend from work
coming for a late lunch.

We all knew each other.
I embraced the two women
in a priestly way,
he shook their hands.

I'd seen them both
in a place of longing and hope.

I thought of breaking my vow of silence,
of telling them each what the other felt.
And I could not,
though perhaps I should have.

They were polite and cool--
I longed for them to fall
into each other's arms,
weeping and speaking the Truth.

But Truth was not spoken.
Instead, they smiled awkwardly,
were distant,
agreed without details
'to get together'
and moved away,
one full and both hungry.

Sometimes love is like that, I suppose.

It was not so much
what they didn't say
as how they chose
not to say it.

(Sorry I posted an unfinished version earlier. Too may keys on the keyboard that do things mysterious to me....)

Christ Church and Cracker Barrel

I went to Christ Church, New Haven this morning with my friend John for the solemn high mass of Pentecost. If you've never been to Christ Church you probably should go some day. It is simply the most elegant, lovely expression of High Church Episcopal worship around. You'd have to go to New York or Boston to come close to matching it. Lots of smoke and chanting and beautiful music (the best choir money can buy--mostly grad students in music from Yale). And not a sound system to be had. That and the haunting acoustics add to the mystery of it all.

I once took a friend of mine, years ago, to Christ Church for a special mass. At the door she said to the Rector, who celbrates 60 or 70 feet from the nearest chair with his back to the congregation, "I couldn't hear a word you sang." He replied, with a gentle smile, "I wasn't singing to you...."

I counted 7 folks in collars in the congregation, plus one other priest, who like me, didn't wear one. Plus the five priests in the service. I don't understand the collar fetish--of course since I haven't worn one for 6 years or so, I wouldn't. Like St. John's, Waterbury--but for vastly different reasons--Christ Church is a priest magnet. And being in New Haven there are a lot more priests around who aren't busy on Sunday morning and come for the show. However, "show" is the wrong word for it--it truly is beautiful and holy. It would drive me crazy on a regular basis--the Mass lasted an hour and a half and there were 7 hymns along with 4 pieces for the choir. But once in a while, it is a real richness that I profoundly enjoy.

Then, after talking to some of the people, John and I went to Cracker Barrel in Milford for breakfast--at about 12:30 pm!

Cracker Barrel is a cultural link to the past for people who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line (John grew up in Grantstown, WV and we both went to WVU). And breakfast--which is why we go--is just the way it should be. You could get better biscuits and gravy at almost any restaurant in North Carolina but there is almost no where in New England besides Cracker Barrel that you can get it at all. (I did find a place in rural New Hampshire once that had great biscuits and it might be you have to get into the 'country' in New England to find a country breakfast.)

John had pancakes, sausage, eggs and the home fry casserole. I had biscuits and gravy, grits (the best salt and butter delivery device I know of), eggs and sausage and the h'f casserole. We both ate so much we felt a tad ill and a lot full. We sort of rolled out of the place and were so disoriented by carbohydrates and fat that we had trouble finding John's car.

During the meal, John said, "You know we both know people who would make us feel uncomfortable eating this much of this stuff...."

"They're just in denial of their Inner Grease-Eater," I opined.

Christ Church and Cracker Barrel are a bit alike in that they are almost too much of a good thing. The Anglo-Catholic liturgy is bordering on 'precious'--just the way the celebrant, deacon and sub-deacon move around in such precise choreography and how they hold back his cope as he prepares the altar, like pages holding the robes of the King. And Cracker Barrel is ruled over by highly trained acolytes as waiters and waitresses. Everything precise and too much food no matter what you order.

I said to John as we sat in the dimly lit sanctuary (even the lighting is dramatic) "I don't suppose there's any chance they'll hand out red balloons during the service." He replied, "there is even less than 'no chance' of that...." I am a devotee of balloon liturgies and I normally eat cereal and fruit for breakfast. But once in a while, Christ Church and Cracker Barrel simply hit the spot that is longing to be hit....Really.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Retirement thoughts

It will be three weeks tomorrow since I stopped going to St. John's every day. I've only gone to Waterbury a couple of times--found a new movie theatre in Wallingford that's only five miles away.

A friend asked me what it was like. I told him so far it was like being on vacation. It feels that way. I take long walks. I cook more than I did. I read a book a day on average. So, so far, it's fine.

I do miss the people I worked with profoundly. Being with people most days followed by not being with them at all is strange.

And it is strange not to talk much. I once told someone my job was 'to walk around and talk a lot'. There was something to that. Now, except for Bern, I don't talk to many people where before I would talk to dozens and dozens of people a day. It's not bad. I'm discovering my introverted side. And since I enjoy my own company greatly and honor silence as 'the heart of God', it's going well.

But the people....Lordy, lordy, I do miss the people....

Packaging (cont....)

And have you tried to open a kid's toy yesterday? When we were young parents you had to stay up late to assemble things. Now you'd have to stay up into the wee hours taking things out of their boxes--otherwise the kids will have a fit waiting to hold their doll.

I can't even open the Greek yogurt my wife buys. The pull tab is useless and I end up using a steak knife to cut the top.

Remember how cereal boxes used to come open neatly and the tab slipped into the slot to keep the box closed? Remember? Now I put the cereal into big baggies with the little ridges that supposedly seal when you press them together. I say 'supposedly' since they seldom work for me--so not only are things impossible to open, there is an issue for me in closing some things these days.

But then, perhaps all this is just me....


We were worried today because we hadn't seen the male, who usually doesn't stray far, and the female wasn't on the nest. Maybe it's warm enough to go get a decent meal. But late this afternoon I saw Papa Robin flying the perimeter of our front porch, yelling like crazy. Then I noticed he was keeping himself between the nest and another circling bird. And Mama was back on the nest.

I still think this will probably end badly, but I truly am catching hold of their outrageous hope that a nest on a former siren on our front porch will turn out well...I'm really entralled with this close encounter of a Robin kind....

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


I have discovered as I grow older that there are more and more things I can't seem to open properly or easily. Am I simply getting feeble or is packaging getting more 'person proof'?

I take a allergy pill once in a while. They come on a sheet in little bubbles. You tear one of the pills away from the sheet and it helpfully says on the back--"bend here and open". I dutifully bend down that corner and the corner breaks off, leaving me with no way to seperate the rest of the backing from the pill. I try to push the pill through the back and invariably break the pill without pushing it free. Recently I've been taking a pair of fingernail clippers and with three clips cut into the bubble where the broken pill is still encased. Then I use my teeth to bite the bubble and finally get the pill--in two or three pieces, free.

Lots of stuff comes with a foil covered piece of cardboard and a handy-dandy pull tag. I'm thinking of plastic quarts of milk and salad dressings in particular. After having cramped my hand to break the seal of the top of the salad dressing or using my teeth again to bite away the red top of the milk since the little 'pull' strip breaks off before freeing it, I clinch the pull tag between my thumb and index finger and it tears clear off the cover. I try to edge the cardboard off and break a nail and finally am reduced to taking a steak knife to cut through it and peal it away in tiny pieces.

Never mind anything that comes packaged inside a large plastic bubble. I go straight to a knife with that and usually slice a finger trying to cut through it so I can get to the shoe strings. Why on earth would shoestrings have to come in tamper proof packaging?

Recently someone gave me a CD of some gospel music. It took me a broken nail, an almost chipped tooth, a steak knife and my wife just to get the plastic wrap off the CD holder. Then I broke the hinges off that trying to open it and flipped the CD out onto the floor trying to prise it out of its holder. The music ewas good though....

Is this all because of that nut job who put poison in Advil years ago?

I appreciate being made safer--but what is a nut job going to put into a CD? Anthrax? Why--to wipe out fans of Lady Ga-Ga...? Well, that might not be a bad idea....

And cheese slices that come in zip lock bags. First I have to chew off the plastic down to the zip lock and then often I can't get that open without my faithful steak knife. I'm considering getting a little holder I can attach to my belt to carry a steak knife with me in case I have to open stuff.

If we can make packaging this effective, why can't we make batteries that never loose their charge (try to get AA's out of their package lately?) and cars that run on water? To much Research and Design genius has gone into perfecting packaging and not enough into how to cure cancer or repair the ozone layer, so far as I can tell.

Or maybe it's that the technology of secure packaging has been improved but the technology of "tear here" has been sorely neglected.

I'm just not sure anymore...But then, maybe it's just me....

Monday, May 17, 2010

Preaching--if anyone cares....

I went to church Sunday. It was because of my theory that church is habitual and that the habit takes 6 months to form and 3 weeks to break. This would have been my third I went to church.

It isn't a busman's holiday for me, going to church. I like to 'do' church rather than 'go' to church. So, I tried to clear my mind and not be so hyper-critical.

It was actually fine--except that it was an early service that they somehow managed to drag into over an hour. I alway shot for between 40-45 minutes. 90% of the time we met that goal, so maybe I caught them on one of their 10% sundays.

The sermon was pretty good. In fact, there were probably 2 'pretty good' sermons in there--humor, personal reflection, story telling, connection to the gospel--but it did go on and on.

The preacher, I know, doesn't preach much...he's not the Rector. So he fell foul of that--"I'd better tell them good!" syndrome. Seminarians I have known have tried to review their whole theological education in a single sermon. And then there are simply long-winded people and people fascinated by the sound of their own voice. (I might fall into that last category from time to time...)

But brevity is best. And that requires that the preacher 'trusts' the people to 'get it'. You don't have to tell them everything....Most of the people in church on Sunday have heard more sermons than any of us have preached--though after35 years of preaching most Sundays and perhaps one other time a week, I probably don't find many people listening who've heard more than I've preached. But I do trust them. They aren't neophytes to the church or theology or the Bible. Lay people are a lot smarter and more savvy than most priests give them credit for.

I, unlike most regular church goers, don't hear many sermons since I'm usually preaching. But lots of them that I hear really underestimate the theological IQ of the laity. I've been privileged to serve three churches where that IQ was quite high--which is what told me that it is better to say too little than too much. A preacher shouldn't 'explain' very much. If it has to be minutely 'explained' leave it out, I would say. That kind of thing is the thing of education, not preaching.

The pretty good sermon I heard on Sunday could have been quite good, maybe even 'very good', if the preacher had ended it sooner. I counted 4 places where I thought he had concluded and yet he went on, trying, each time, to 'explain' what would have been a fine place to end.

I think most everyone would have 'gotten it' had he ended at that first point. Or, if they didn't, they might have engaged him in conversation later. Or, they might have left a bit perplexed and mystified--not a bad place to leave people, by the way. Mike Nichols, the writer/actor/director, once said he wanted people to leave the theatre thinking about something besides where they'd parked their car.

That wouldn't be a bad way to leave church. That, in fact, would be better, for sure, than leaving looking at your watch....

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Winged Hope Revisited

It's been nearly two weeks since I wrote about the pair of robins who built a nest on our front porch. When we were away last week, I worried about them because of the cowbirds.

The day before we left for Vermont I noticed a pair of cowbirds in the trees near our front porch. My wife was impressed that I knew what they were and I looked them up on the Internet to make sure I was right. I knew from experience that cowbirds will lay their eggs in another bird's nest and I was afraid these two were up to no good.

What I learned from Google is that that practice--laying eggs in another's nest--is called being a 'brood parasite'. What an apt but strange description. It seems the cowbird got its name because they tend to eat the insects that gather on cattle. And since cattle used to be driven to market, the birds learned to follow them. Cowbirds don't stay put and rely on other birds to hatch and raise their young. A really strange practice. And they stick around only long enough to see if the mother bird throws the strange eggs out of the nest. If they do, the cowbirds destroy the nest and the real nesting bird's eggs. Like I said, weird.

But when we got back, the nest was still there and the mama Robin was sitting tight. Before we left she would fly over to the nearest tree when we came out or went in the door. Now she sits stoically and unmoving. And the male, who is a really large bird, sits on a nearby tree and keeps watch. When we're out on the back deck, he fly into the low branches of the trees back there and watch us for a while. Sometimes he sings and sometimes not. It's like he's evaluating if we are in any way a danger.

There must be eggs because she is so committed to the nest. She turns her head and watches us as we come and go, but never flies now.

Now that the cowbird crisis has passed--the pair of them are probably somewhere with some cows--I'm worried about the babies. I may put cushions under the nest in case they fall out. And if they do, can we put them back? Is it the truth or an old wive's tale (why are there no old husband's tales?) that human touch will taint the baby birds and the mother won't feed them anymore? Should I get some falconer gloves or something?

Having robins to worry about is almost a full time job....

Friday, May 14, 2010

paternal feelings

The older I get, the more I think about my father. It's odd to me because when my mother died, just after my 25th birthday, I had wished she had lived instead of him.

And now, in the year of my life she was in when she died--63--I can barely remember her face and certainly not her voice. But I remember almost everything about my father.

Because the place in Vermont where we spent a week was so much like West Virginia--Bern said it was like being in WV in a 'nice house'--I thought a lot about my father.

His name was Virgil Hoyt. He lived to see my children, unlike my mother, who missed all that. And my third granddaughter's name is Tegan HOYT Bradley. What a hoot.

One of the poems I wrote in Vermont was about him. Here it is:


I wish I could remember
the things my father knew.
(How could I? And I wish it devoutly.)

He could go walking in the woods
and meadows and come home with wild greens
that my mother would wilt
with rendered pork fat
and we would eat gladly.

Here for a week in Vermont,
there are dandelions everywhere.
Those were the major greens
my father harvested from Nature.
The others I forget--
though I knew them once--
and wish I could remember.

I do know a lot about birds
that he taught me.
My wife is amazed at how many I know
by song and sight.
I pointed out a pair of cowbirds
last week.
She was astonished.

The Legacy of my father
is the songs of birds,
the knowing of trees,
and the incomplete list
of wild things you can
pour pork fat over and eat.


a week away

we were in Vermont for a week, living in a good friend's house in Rochester, which will never be accused of being urban or even suburban. Rochester is barely rural. Being in Vermont's rural areas reminds both of us of growing up in southern West Virginia. There are no strip mines, that I know of, in Vermont, but the mountains are very similar and 'rural' is 'rural'--hence the remarkable success of Garrison Keeler and "Prairie Home Companion". Rural is simply Rural--the ethnicity might differ from place to place (there were no Scandinavians in Southern West Virginia but lots of Hungarians, Italians and Polish folks, plus the then dominant Scots Irish and African Americans.

If two guys hadn't been working on a house down the road where I walked our dog and if I hadn't, one time, drove into Rochester to get a few provisions, we wouldn't have seen another human being for a week! And there weren't many 'creatures' either. There are more birds and creatures in my back yard than on that mountain, so far as I could tell. Maybe it was too cold. It did snow in May one day and the temperature was in the 20's a few nights--but the house was cosy and wonderful--comfortable and artistic and sweet. So we read books: I read 9 books, Bern probably read more since I walked the dog exclusively. So we ate and ate well--good food and good wine. And we slept a lot. I took a nap most days and slept 9 hours each night. And it was so quiet. The house was as sound proof as anywhere I've ever been. Our dog, who barks at every little noise at home, had nothing to bark at. He was strangely silent and content to walk a few times a day, eat and sleep. To my knowledge, he read no books.

It was a quiet and dear time. My retirement has been a worry for both Bern and me--not knowing if I could be around so much and not be annoying to her. Well, there we were for a week with no other company or outlet and we didn't come to blows, in fact, we enjoyed being in each other's nearly silent company. That's good to know.

I wrote some too. Here's a poem I wrote in Vermont.


We are on a mountain top in Tennessee
(Actually, Vermont, but the birth
of Davie Crockett--king of the wild frontier--
is never far from my mind....)

You can see the roof of one other house
from the deck of my friend's home.
But mostly, all you see are trees
and, in the distance, a dozen other mountains.
That's all. And yet there are few birds.

The name of this colony is "something Hawk",
(I forget exactly....)
And not a hawk in sight.
No bird songs, though I heard the distant caw
of a crow once.

Our house down south in Connecticut
(at least south of Vermont,
not nearly Tennessee or West Virginia,
where we both grew up, Bern and I)
is surrounded by birds.
There is even a pair of robins
nesting on our front porch in Cheshire.

They practically--all those birds--
sing from the dusty pre-dawn
until full darkness every day.
And our parakeets call out,
from captivity,
to the free birds outside.

So where are the birds on this Vermont mountain?
Maybe it is still too cold--in the 20's last night,
snow one day we were here...and this is May!

Or maybe they flew to Connecticut,
having heard we were gone,
to join the raucous chorus there. (jgb--5/10/10)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

my dogs-final

Call it misplaced nostalgia. Call it 'seeking our youth'. Call it simply crazy...A year or so after Sadie died, we decided to get another Puli.

We talked about a Labra-Doodle--we've never really had a 'big' dog...or a lab...or another mutt. All would have been well but somehow we got enamored of another dog like Finney. So we found a breeder up near Syracuse, asked for a girl, thinking a female would be easier, but the litter only had one female and it was promised. So we drove to Syracuse, spent a night in a motel and went to see the puppies.

Puli puppies look the same coming or going. It's hard to tell which end is which. And they move like little dervishes and are hard to catch, even in a contained space. We spent a long time with the five boys and finally Bern picked up the one...the One...Bad Dog Bela.

Bela is a bad dog. He bit a good friend and we don't trust him half as far as we could throw him. He gets consigned to the car when guests come unless they are on the Bela List.

Once you are on the Bela List you will be welcomed raucously and be assured he would lay down his life for you--which he would. But the Bela List is short and it is hard to get on it.

Part of it is genetics--remember Atilla bred these dogs to be guards and alarms and to give up their lives for the sheep. On a leash with me Bela is hyper-protective. He is so adorable looking that people want to pet him but I say, "Oh please don't try". He is better with Bern. She walks him on the Canal almost everyday for a mile or so and tells me he is not nearly so aggressive as he is with me walking him.

We took him to training and had the trainer come to our house. That trainer, when we told him on the phone we had a Puli, said, simply, "Why?" They have a reputation. At one of the training sessions Bela, who performed beautifully, was sitting like the other dogs--or some of them--and watching everything very intently. There were 20 dogs or so--huge to tiny--in the room and the trainer said, "there is more DOG in that Puli than in any of your dogs. Pulis are really DOGS."

I'm not sure what that meant, but Bela seemed pleased.

He is not affectionate. Oh, when we come home he leaps and yips and goes nearly crazy--but that's because he thinks a lost sheep has returned to the fold. And when people on the Bela List try to leave he is inconsolable. He's not doing his job. When the granddaughters are here--Top of the Bela List--he stays between them and the nearest door lest a lion or tiger or bear appear unexpectedly. He is not overtly friendly to the twins, but he guards them like his life depended on it. Genetics--thousands of years of them.

He is Finney on steroids. Bern's long walks have calmed him some and he's on drugs to calm him some and calming him a lot seems to require general anesthetics.

And Bern loves him--loves him like a rock. She is much more realistic about how bad he is than I am. She is more cautious with him around strangers than I am. She's the one who locks him in the car when people are around while I'd like to see if they could make Bela's List. She knows him through and through and knows he's bad and loves him devoutly. He's seen 3 of our 4 cats die since he's been with us--he's 5 1/2 or so. His only companion feline now is Luke, our yellow cat, who, like most yellow cats is a dear. Bela tries to herd him and when Luke jumps up on something we can hear Bela barking like crazy, trying to make Luke behave. (Luke has the same name as Luke the dog who prompted these reflections and is the same color Luke the Dog was and I call him the puppy-cat because he comes when you call him--unlike bad dog Bela, who considers coming for a while--and is as loving as a dog usually is. He was our favorite of our four cats and the other three have died one after another, of natural causes. Sometimes you get lucky....The cat lovers will get on me for such an observation!)

Bela loves to sleep on 'the big bed'. That's the one thing he always reacts to. "Let's go to the big bed" one of us can say and before we get there he's on someone's pillow sound asleep.

As bad as he is, he is our companion and we love him, love him like a rock. So, we'll keep him away from people he might bite and put up with his barking--we were on the deck and there was a line of traffic, unusual enough, on Cornwall, and Bela was barking at the cars. Two turned around and went to find a better way to Route 10 and he laid down, satisfied he'd gotten rid of those Lions and Tigers and Bears.

When he's in the car with me he jumps and barks and turns off the radio and sometimes knocks the car out of gear at stop lights. Bern tells me that in her truck he sits patiently and doesn't bark. I'm not sure whether to believe her, but, hey, why not. She seems to have the nack with him that I don't.

And she loves him so, bad as he is....

my dogs-part four

I got the name of a woman who did work for a rescue group and called her about a dog. She had a thick german accent and invited me to come see some puppies that would be ready to adopt in a few weeks.

They were Lab/Cocker Spaniel pups (imagine that mating in either direction!) Mimi and I went and when we got to her house and rang the bell there were cats and dogs coming up the steps from the basement and down the steps from the living area of the raised ranch house. Dozens of them...dozens. There were cats in the kitchen sink and one sleeping in the open microwave. She must have had 40 or 50 creatures and in a crate with the Cocker mother--that was the mating, by the way) we found Sadie.

She looked like a Lab puppy til her dying day...and acted like one too! A clown and goof-ball, so happy to see anyone that she would pee when guests arrived. She never met a stranger and the only proof that she was her mother's daughter was some Cocker curly hair on her chest and ears that didn't look quite right.

She was my favorite dog of all of them--so loving and needful. (Bern's favorite is our current dog, Bela, another Puli, who tolerates affection and is a bit aloof. Obviously I like 'needful' and bern likes Independence. Go figure.

She was with us for 11 years, I think though linear time always confounds me. Our kids grew up and went to college and then went away while she was here. She was a constant companion, a wondrous healer, a dear and joyous dog. I would walk her several days a week down at Hillside Cemetery, letting her off lead since she never ventured far. We explored that cemetery hundreds of times. It was her favorite walk.

Once we had someone working in the house while we were gone. When Bern got home, Sadie was gone. A neighbor dropped by to say she thought the animal control people had picked her up for her own good--she was wandering around aimlessly (another characteristic I liked since I am prone to aimless wandering...) and the dog warden probably saved her life. Bern went down to the dog jail and found her in a cage in the dark area. Sadie was so happy she peed. Of course, she was often that happy.

We had lots of cats then, and a rat for a while, and Sadie loved them all. Of course, she loved everything and everyone though she once bit my son's nose when he snuck up on her sleeping and startled her. He never quite forgave her but there is that thing about letting sleeping dogs, well you know it....

A month or so before her death, she fell off the deck onto a concrete cover over an old well. She was getting a bit addled and that addled her more. We were watching TV one night and she had a seizure. I wrapped her in her blanket and Bern drove to the Vet hospital. A kind young vet told us--'we can stop this seizure, but we can't stop what's causing it and it will happen closer and closer now."

Will she suffer, I asked.
The Vet nodded her head, I'm afraid so, she said.
So it might be best....
It would be best, but it is your decision.

Had I loved her less I would have chosen to have her longer, for my needs, not hers. I didn't want her to go even though the damage in her head was severe. Had I loved her less, I would have made her live on...That is the awful thing about dogs, we are like gods to them, we make god-like decisions. And had I loved her less I would have put her through what the vet said couldn't be more than a few months of pain and seizures and late night trips to the hospital to stop one more seizure until the one that killed her.

I held her as they gave her a shot to stop the seizure. She was calm and sweet and licked the tears from our faces. Then they gave her the shot to stop her heart. She didn't flinch at all. The young vet closed her eyes and left us with us for a while. I was sobbing like a child. It is that exquisite, razor sharp pain--a deep, clean wound--that people feel when they lose a dog to the inevitability of eternity.

When her ashes came--I still have the simple wooden box they came in--I took the plastic bag to Hillside cemetery, made a small hole in it and walked the walk to our favorite haunts. I take Bela there sometimes, but avoid the paths I walked only with Sadie and walk still in my heart....

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

my dogs-part three

Little Annie

Our life was complicated for a few years after Finney. The kids asks for a dog but we hadn't the heart for it until one night Bern came home with Little Annie.

Annie was a Brezon Frize (totally misspelled) that Bern and her friend found wandering lost in Edgewood Park in New Haven. Sherry already had two dogs, so Bern brought her home to our house on Everitt Street in New Haven. She had been lost for a long time because when we cut away her terribly matted hair we found a harness under all the mats. We had no idea how old she was but she was so scared we couldn't let her go. We called her Annie--like little orphan Annie--and she loved us so.

It is a mistake to apply human feelings to dogs--they are dogs and we are humans, after all--but Annie was, I think, so 'grateful' to have been rescued from whatever it felt like to be alone and abandoned that she was endlessly showing gratitude. She seldom got out of accidental 'kicking distance' from one of us. She wanted to be up against our bodies all the time. She adored our children and even though she would hide when Josh's teenage friends came over (I'm convinced her 'days on the street' were made worse by adolescent boys) she never stopped saying 'thank you' to us.

I've never much liked little dogs, but Annie broke the mold. She had this ribbon like tongue that was always flashing out to lick a hand, a face, any part of us. She was a clown after she got used to not being on the street. We spoiled her terribly and she responded in kind--loving us beyond measure.

She moved with us to Cheshire and was so good about staying near that we, foolishly, would let her out to go to the bathroom, believing she'd never venture far enough away to be in danger. But one day she wandered into Cornwall Avenue and was hit by a car. Josh was in high school and there when it happened and almost beat up the poor man who hit her. I wasn't home so Bern took her to the Vet and the Dr. there rubbed her as he told Bern she was most certainly dead. She brought Annie home so I could touch her a last time and help bury her in our Pet Cemetery just past our deck. Cats and dogs and Guinea pigs aplenty and a rat to boot--about a dozen loved creatures rest there, near us.

The man who hit Annie was so upset he called Animal Control who came to see us a few days later with all the regulations about how to bury a dog--who knew there were such things? Or should be?--wanting to know if I'd done it right.

I offered to dig Annie up and show them and they left me alone. We buried her with her blanket and her bowl and one of her toys and wept and wept.

Sometimes the best things that happen in life are things you didn't expect--a strange little dog, lost and alone, who gave us the joy and pleasure and priviledge to give her a home where she was safe and loved....What a gift little Annie was. And that ribbon tongue...nothing like it on your nose and face....

At least we gave her four years of comfort and belonging. But she gave us much more, so much more. That's the way it is with dogs--no matter how good you are to them, they are better to you. I assure you of that.

Little Orphan Annie--a gift from God...

(The problem all these memories brings out is that dogs don't live nearly as long as you and I. So we have to know we'll lose them to that magic door of death, most likely. And probably it is better for them than to have their humans die on them....So we run through them over our lifetime and their ghosts hover round us, sniffing and licking and barking and playing...maybe we should have parrots or turtles--both of which live 40 years or so. But, seriously, is there a parrot or turtle who can nose your arm when you are busy and make you melt and you touch their loving face and let them kiss you and realize they are calling you to be a better person than you are????)

Two left: Sadie and Bela. That's coming....What a joy to remember these creatures who shared my life and made me better than I am....Dogs....

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My dogs-part two

3. Templomkerti Paloc Suba (aka Finney and Louie)

I didn't get another dog (since I was all over going to school and such) until after Bern and I were married.

One cold day in Cambridge, my wedding band came off and disappeared into the snow. A guy with a big white dog came by and saw me searching. He showed his dog his wedding ring and the dog snuffled in the snow and found mine! I asked what kind of dog it was and he told me it was a Hungarian Sheep Dog. So when we moved back to Morgantown we happened upon a Hungarian Veterinarian who referred us to a woman in Pittsburgh named Magna Vudi. We called her and after several conversations decided we might be worthy to own a Puli. A few months later a litter arrived from Budapest, bred by a Jesuit priest (Templomkerti means 'church yard' in Hungarian) and we were invited to have one.

What neither the guy with the dog in Cambridge or Magna Vudi shared with us is that there are two distinct breeds called "Hungarian Sheep Dogs". One is the Komadore which is large, white and practically mute for all they bark. The other is a Pulik which is smaller, black and capable of barking for hours if need be. The Puli came from Asia with Atila the Hun and is one of the oldest breeds in the world. The Komadore is native to Hungary. The Pulik (the k is silent and seldom even used in writing the breed's name) herds the sheep and alerts the presence of Lions and Tigers and Bears. The Komadore drives the Lions and Tigers and Bears away. Until we climbed the stairs to Magna Vudi's apartment and heard 6 dogs barking like we were Lions and Tigers and Bears, we had been expecting a Komadore. Instead we got a Puli.

All the way back from pittsburgh he pushed himself up under the driver's seat--what he did most every time he was in a car and then enjoyed the ride--and bern and I agreed to never let him on our bed. When we got home bern ran up the steps before me, ran in our bed room and dropped him on the bed. He'd won from the beginning.... He liked riding in the car so much that when we lived in Charleston we'd let him sit in the car while we were in the back yard. One day he knocked the car out of gear and drifted backward through the driveway gate. I swear he was trying to steer and get away....

I was reading a dog book at Barnes and Noble the other day and of the Puli it said "most Puli's own people rather than the other way around." They are smarter than whips, stubborn as a winter storm and as loyal to their people as Kamikaze pilots were to the Emperor. And, they are a pain in the ass.

How smart was Finney? I used to show off by saying to him, "go get your ball and put it in your bowl". He'd look at me like I was an idiot but off he'd run and find his ball and come drop it in his food bowl and then look at me like I was an idiot.

How stubborn was he? When we brought Josh home from the hospital he tried to climb up into my arms to see him and wouldn't leave him alone. I thought we'd have to get rid of him because he would hurt our baby. I took him in the basement and wept. But Bern put Josh on the floor so Finney could smell him up and down and from that moment on he would have killed Lions and Tigers and Bears for Josh.

How loyal was he? We'd take Finney and the kids to Wooster Park and let the kids go wild and Finney would circle them like his little lambs the whole time we were there and park himself between any human or dog that came near them with his fierce teeth showing until we called him off. A Puli is a bit aloof and not good with strangers--but the people the dog knows need not fear lions or tigers or bears when he's around.

He lived with us in Morgantown, Alexandria, Charleston and New Haven. He was a pain in the ass but we loved him and he never failed to be unerringly loyal. He was smarter than we were by half, but we were young and up to challenging his dominance.

He was 12 or 14 when we left him with a house sitter to go to the beach. He hated the beach. His hair and disposition didn't take well to sand and heat and crowds of strangers on the beach. He was the talk of Wooster Square because he'd go up to the park by himself each day. But while we were gone, his unerring sense of knowing how to cross Chapel street let him down and he was killed by a car. Coming home to an empty house was one of the most painful days of my life.

I could tell you a thousand stories about him, even now, some 25 years later. You never forget a dog that smart, independent and loyal. Never. I still miss him.

Oh, his name....He was Finney after Albert Finney the actor and became Louie because we called him 'goofball Louie' so many times it stuck.

Monday, May 3, 2010

my dogs-part one

Since Luke died (I wrote about it a few days ago) I've been thinking of dogs--my dogs.

1. Blackie: Blackie was really never named until he died. My pet duck had died--that's a whole other story!--and my father brought home this black cocker spaniel for me. It was a total surprize. I must have been 6 or 7 and my father thought a dog to take care of would keep me from being such a strange, dreamy kid. I took him out on the porch and gave him a bowl of food and ran in to get my parents to watch him eat and when we got back, he was dead.
Why would I make this up?
My father buried him down near the creek and asked me what to scratch on the rock he was going to put on the grave. "Blackie", I said.
That was my first dog. 15 minutes worth.

2. Fatzo was really never fat. He was a beagle and mostly black and white with a little brown. He lived a long time--all through my childhood and into my teens. He lived in a pen and house my father built on the little hill beyond our yard, but he came inside a lot during the day and followed me around town all the time like a kid and a dog in a '50's movie. Anawalt was tiny and a car or two an hour came by so he wandered a lot by himself as well. Everyone knew him and would send him home if he walked into one of the stores or someone else's house--most doors were open from spring through fall in the WV mountains. I believe in the winter he came in and slept by my bed.
Fatzo never asked for much and seemed perfectly satisfied with his life. He didn't like Gene Kelly though.
Gene Kelly was a black man who worked in my uncle's store and since I worked there after school and during the summer from 11 until I went to college, Gene and I worked together. We brought up boxes and stocked the shelves of the H&S Grocery--five aisles and a good butcher shop. We checked the produce and chucked bad stuff. Gene always found one bag in a box of candy--like malted milk balls or something--that was damaged. He'd dutifully show it to my uncle and then Gene and I would eat it. I knew he was the one who damaged it and my uncle did too. And Gene knew where the key was to the Coke Machine so we'd have a Coke every once in a while as well. Gene was a good worker. He was a drinker and a womanizer (breaking the heart of his wife, Geraldine, who was my uncle's housekeeper) but I always loved him.
We all thought Geraldine would kill him someday and my uncle said it would be 'justifiable homicide' but she never did.
Fatzo hated Gene, mostly because Gene was afraid of dogs and would stop and yell and wave his arms when Fatzo was around...which Fatzo was a lot, wandering the streets, poking his head into the open door of the H&S from time to time.
Fatzo and I would go into the woods and climb the mountains. Some of my best days as a kid were spent with just Fatzo as company.
He'd go to the bus stop with me when I was in high school and be there waiting for me when I came home. I know he couldn't tell time, but folks around town would see him a half-hour or so before my bus came laying on the sidewalk on the corner, waiting.
He died my senior year of High School. I'm sure he knew I was about to go away. And one day he wasn't there when I got to the bus stop so I ran up the street and found my dad and my uncle and several other people waiting for me in front of the H&S. They'd put him in a Campbell's Soup Box with a blanket.
Gene Kelly was there, tears running down his face and smelling of cheap whisky.

Winged hope

A pair of robins have built a nest on this little box on the side of the front porch. The box is maybe a foot long and 6 inches wide. It was once an outside alarm for the alarm system the house used to have. We have a keypad so there was an alarm and the box, made out of metal, could only be a siren of somekind.

The two of them are always around. The male is huge--one of the biggest robins I've ever seen--and the female isn't petite. So the nest, as carefully crafted as it is--and it is that--seems precarious to me, especially since the prototype fell off and they had to totally rebuild.

She sits on the nest and he is in a tree where he can watch her. She used to fly away whenever we came out the front door--but now she mostly peers over the nest at us and he starts yelling until we walk away or go inside.

I admire their hopefulness greatly, though I think chances are the nest will be blown off again. And what did they think, building so close to people and a dog? They fly right above the deck on the way to the front porch and their song fills the hours.

It is touching to be so close to them. I anthropomorphize and begin to think we'll be friends!

I fear for them and their brood--there must be eggs or she wouldn't always be there. But there is something both noble and sweet about their presence so near to ours....

Sunday, May 2, 2010

not going to church

My first Sunday of retirement and I didn't go to church. I didn't feel guilty in the least. (That, by the way, is one of the problems Episcopalians have--we've lost the capacity to feel guilty about not going to church!!!)

I did wonder what was going on at St. John's, but not as much as I thought I would.

Someone asked me the other day, "Where will you be going to church?"

I responded, "That implies I will be..."

I've told people who asked me why I pursued ordination that "I want to make sure I go to church...."

I actually like 'doing church' a lot, lot better than 'going'. I love preaching and liturgy and I know I'll be doing more of that in the future--supply priest, part-time in some large parish or priest in charge in a small one. Filling in. Stuff like that. Someone at the Diocese suggested I let it be known I'd be glad to fill in for people on Sabbatical. That would mean I'd go to the same parish for a month or two. I thought that was a great idea.

Then she said, "You do take some getting used to...." A compliment of sorts, I guess.

Or not.

I'm still on the email list for various meetings at St. John's. They should probably take me off so I won't just abscent-mindedly show up and because I really am going to try to 'vacate' myself from the inner workings of the place. It's none of my business any more.

I was going to go to church at the local parish--St. Peter's--but I only wanted to go to the 8 a.m. service and I couldn't remember when it was. (That's not a joke--I know it isn't at's 7:45 or 8:15. There was an Episcopal Church in West Virginia that had on it's display board:

8 a.m.-------8:15
Holy Eucharist---10 a.m.
I couldn't make that up. Episcopalians simply believe the early service is the 8 a.m. Service.

And I won't go next week, most likely, since we'll be in Vermont.

My theory has always been that church attendance is 'habitual'. You don't do it out of the goodness of your heart or because you want to but because it is a habit...much akin to brushing your teeth before bed. Your mouth just doesn't feel right if you don't....

I've told people the 'habit of church' takes at least 3 months to form...if not more given modern attention spans...and about 3 weeks to break. We'll see about me....

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Luke Plunski--Luke the dog--died today.

He was Michael's dog first...saved Mike's life once and made Mike's life so much finer, brighter, happier. Then, after Michael died Luke became JoAnn's dog, saved her life in a different way, making it possible to move on after her son's death.

I'll never forget how someone with great good sense allowed Luke to be in Michael's hospital room during his last illness--even in Intensive Care. Mike had lost both his legs to his disease and Luke was his legs for him. Mike didn't take up the whole bed, so Luke would lay where Mike's legs should have been had the world been kinder. Sometimes a medical person would come in and be horrified to see a dog in a hospital bed. Luke would just look at them with those endlessly deep brown eyes and most of the time, the person would just melt.

Luke made you melt. He was a Golden Retriever and a beauty of one. How could you resist that look that said--"I'm laying here where I belong, next to my human...."

Luke became a therapy dog after Michael died and brought joy to hundreds and hundreds of people in hospitals and nursing homes. He was never assertive, always patient, always waiting for the human to make the first advance. And as gentle as a spring breeze, as sweet as the smell of honeysuckle, as healing as magic chicken soup.

He always came up to communion with Jo, mostly because he knew his job was to be near her always and he did his job to perfection. And one day, his great head leaning against the altar rail, I simply gave him communion--just a wafer like everyone else. After that, he was my great, good friend. If I'd forget and someone else gave out the bread on that side of the altar rail, I'd glace over and he'd be looking at me with those eyes that made me melt and I'd feel like I'd been rude to the Christ Child...which isn't far from true. Luke was about as Christ-like as any creature I've known.

I suppose some people might have objected to my giving him communion--but I never asked and, most likely, wouldn't have cared. It was only right and proper and in good order.

When Jo and Luke got into the library on Sunday mornings for the adult forum--they were there almost every week for years--he'd want to come greet me. Jo would give him his short little leash which he would carry in his mouth and he'd come to say hello. (He'd also take the chance to roll on the Library rug, but who can blame him for that?) It was one of the highlights of every Sunday, that little lick and rubbing against me.

My grandmother divided the world into two distinct groups "church people" and people who, well, were not 'church people'. I tend to divide the world into 'dog people' and everyone else. Loving a dog is like holding your heart in your hand and feeling it beat for a while. You all know the "DOG"/"GOD" stuff...well, I'm not sure it isn't true.

Lord I will miss him....

Jo held him as he died. I've held dogs as they've died and there is very little more profound and humbling than that. The pain of a dog's death is sharper and cleaner than even the deaths of people you love. I don't know anyone who, when someone they love dies, doesn't have some unfinished business or some guilt or some unanswered questions...mixed up stuff. With a dog, it's just pain. You know they never blamed you for anything, were never disappointed in you, never thought you should change your ways....they simply, purely loved you. Just like you are. Just like that. That's a Dog/God thing--there is no other creature besides a dog who can find that Agape Love, that redemptive Love, that Love that knows no bounds, that love that mimics God's love for each of us.

I weep for Luke tonight...but more for Jo. I know the pain she feels. I've been blessed and privileged and made a better person by the love of dogs....

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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.