Friday, January 31, 2014

Food and Hope

I went to a pot luck in one of the Cluster Churches tonight. About as many people showed up as on a good Sunday morning and the food was abundant, delicious and the conversation was positive, enlivening and hopeful.

Food and hope just go together.

Perhaps that's why the liturgy of our church always includes a ritual meal. Food and hope just go together.

I remember a story my old friend Jim Lewis from West Virginia told me. He knew a new priest was  having his first ever service in a tiny church about 12 miles from Charleston. Jim did the 8 o'clock Eucharist at St. John's, the big, downtown parish, but had his assistant do the 10 o'clock so Jim could go to this first ever service in this tiny church.

Well, Jim got lost and didn't get there until 10:30 and pulled into a parking lot where there was only one other car.

He got out and met the priest coming out of the church with a bag of coffee beans and a package of Oreo's. No one, not one person, had come to his first service. So Jim makes him go back inside and makes him give Jim communion and then they drank coffee and ate Oreo's.

Eating together, in the ritual meal and in the cookies dunked in coffee, gave hope to the young priest. The next week a few people showed up. The next week a few more. And over time, that tiny parish took on a level of aliveness that fostered hope.

And their coffee hours and pot lucks gave them hope.

Food and Hope go together somehow, in the economy of God.

I always tell people I can tell how healthy a congregation is by two measures--how they do the Peace and how they do Food.

St. James' Peace lasts almost forever. Everyone greets everyone else. And tonight's pot luck went over the top for quality and quantity.

Food and Hope. That's what I believe in, whatever anyone else has to say.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ring around the roses, pocket full of posies...

(I've kept reading the old 'View from above the Close' collection I found. This one is from March of 1993--over 20 years ago when we knew much less about HIV-AIDS than we know now. It is about two men who died from AIDS who would probably live today. I share it with you in their memories.)

...Ashes, ashes, all fall down.

This is a love letter. It is to Bill and to Ray.

"Ring around the Roses, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down."

That carefree children's nursery rhyme that we all remember singing came into being during one of the plagues that ravaged Europe, leaving hundreds of thousands dead. One of the plagues manifestations was dark red rings on the body. "Ring around the roses." Posies were the most common flowers at funerals and their scent could lesson the smell of death's decomposition.. "Pocket full of posies." In the end, there was death...and more death.

"Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."

Bill and Ray have each enriched our lives as a parish and as individuals. Both of them, in their own way, have been 'holy examples' to us. They have lived out their deaths in our midst. They have taught us how to die. And in that, they have taught us how to live.

AIDS is a new plague. It robs us of some of the brightest and best in our midst. It takes away life too soon, too brutally.

Ray has been with us for a decade. He was sexton of St. John's and signed the service for the deaf for years. Ray--like all of us--had rough edges. His capacity for anger always showed me how angry I could be. His outrageousness often offended me and always reminded me how outrageous I could be and how I could offend.

But Ray was full of mischief and joy and wonder about life. He knows how to party. And he has, beneath his rough edges, a capacity for gentleness and insight and acceptance that is a model for us all.

Ray reveled in telling off-color jokes to people who would be shocked. He wore tee-shirts to work that always offended me with their slogans and invariably made me laugh. I often didn't like Ray--and I always loved him.

Ray gifted us by re-involving himself in the life of St. John's when he knew his life was slipping away. I will never forget how thankful I was to Ray that he gave me 'another chance' to know and love him in his vulnerability.


Bill just showed up here. For the life of me, I don't remember when it happened. And, for the life of me, I can't remember St. John's without him.

He became a regular at the Wednesday healing service. On good days and bad, he was there, reminding us all how fragile and how precious, life is.

His gift was even more than himself. He brought Jim and Lou with him. Jim is the Hospice volunteer who would drive Bill to church and eventually joined him in the pew. And Lou is Jim's life-partner--they've shared a life since they were both 18 and now share a hospitable home. Because Bill was accepted and loves here at St. John's, Jim and Lou felt it was safe to join us as well.

What a gift. Praise God.

I will never forget watching people hug Bill as they passed the peace to him. Lives were transformed--minds changed--hearts turned around. People who might have feared or hated Bill's sexual orientation--or certainly his disease--embraced him without fear and in a great love because he had insinuated himself into their lives.

Ray and Bill both became active in the Wednesday night Meditation Group and through their presence there gave gifts beyond imagining.


This is a love letter to Bill and Ray.

It is probable that before Easter both Bill and Ray will be dead. Ray is in Massachusetts, in a hospital waiting for a bed in a Hospice. Bill in in the Hospice in Branford. I see him weekly.

I don't mention their impending deaths to be sentimental. I mention it only because I love both Ray and Bill and it is important for me to mark the remaining days of their lives with thanks to God for each of them.

They have taught me how to die. And, in that, they have given me invaluable lessons in how to live. Lessons like dignity and integrity and honesty and good humor and fear and anger and confusion.

And though neither of them will ever again be physically present at the Table with us, their spirit and gifts will honor us. Their spirit and gifts will honor us each time we break the bread and share the wine.

We are better, more whole, deeper, more open, enriched, inspired, more complete for having Bill and Ray among us.

Ashes, ashes, all fall down.
Praise God for the lives and ministries of Ray Nole and Bill Heller.
Praise God.
Praise God, indeed.

OK, I'm a liberal but....

I am, in principle opposed to the death penalty. First of all, I don't think it is a deterrent to violent crime and secondly, I don't want the government which represents me to kill people.

But I realize that 'in principle' doesn't cover all cases. Eric Holder's decision to seek the death penalty for the surviving Boston Marathon bomber troubles me, but given the amount of suffering and trauma caused by that action, I can intellectually understand the Attorney General's decision. Emotionally, in this case, I can regret the decision but I won't be standing in front of the prison protesting if a jury determines the death penalty should be enforced.

There are those for whom I would both intellectually and emotionally be ok with them dying--Hitler, for example, or the Newtown shooter for killing innocent children. Luckily, most of the people in that category kill themselves before some authority can kill them....

And there are those who emotionally I would like to see strapped to a gurney and injected, or shot or hung or eaten by wild beasts.

Intellectually, I know it would be rather inconsistent to be against executing someone for a crime of passion and yet wanting people who abuse animals to die a horrible death. But that's what I feel about people who mistreat animals on purpose. It's the only case in which I would probably be willing to drop the floor, insert the needle or flip the switch.

I worked as a Social Worker in West Virginia for a few years and was a Child Protection Specialist. I saw abuse of children that made me physically ill, but I also could understand the extremes of life that could end in a person abusing a child they love. (I did believe, in almost every case, that the parent abusing the child did, in fact, love them.) I would punish those people severely, but I wouldn't kill them. (Anyone who has had children can remember a few times when if it hadn't been for economic stability, trust in love and hope, that little shake you gave them could have gotten out of control....)

But those folks who abuse, starve, mistreat, purposefully hurt innocent my heart, they don't deserve to live. I can't even watch the ASPCA TV commercials. I just switch channels and write a check....

Domesticated creatures like dogs and cats  give us unconditional positive regard in a way that rivals my theological understanding of the Love of God for us. Purposefully abusing an animal is much like purposefully doing harm to God (if you could!).

When animals get involved, my well meaning Liberal principles and my Left-Wing Belief System goes out the window.

Hurt a dog or a cat and I'm suddenly turned into a judge from Texas, where they kill people, as Lear observed, seemingly, 'for their sport'.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Memo from CT to Atlanta

Snow happens.

It happens here a lot more than there.

Cold weather happens--again, more here than there.

But, from a place that knows more about snow and freezing temperature than you do, and a place that has hundreds of plows and snow moving stuff where you have almost none: a tad of advice.

If you can't remove snow, don't let anyone go out in it. Cancel school and send workers home and close major highways.

Don't dare give me the sh*t I heard from your mayor and governor about 'can't fight Mother Nature'--you can't, that's true, but even in a place that has lots of snow and temperatures in the teens, we know that since you 'can't', you have to have good sense.

You knew on Sunday that this Tuesday storm was coming. Cancel school and tell workers not to show up on Tuesday. Don't have everyone go to work and school and then send them all home at the same time and create absolute logjams on major highways where people spend the night in their cars trying to get to the school to pick up their kids and their kids spend the night in the school because their parents are in a frozen road with frozen traffic overnight.

For God's sake, Atlanta, you don't know nuttin' about snow. Listen to the Weather Channel and shut the whole thing down when you're getting 4 inches.

Four inches in Connecticut is a 'dusting', but you have snow in Atlanta, what, every 20 years or so? So don't pretend you know what you're doing.

1200 traffic accidents reported within 8 hours. People in Georgia should lock themselves in their rooms when every 240 months, it snows.

What a nightmare you guys created.

Someone please say, "I'm sorry" to those tens of thousands of people who would have been fine watching TV and eating popcorn if you'd only shut down the state on Monday like you should have since you know diddly squat about snow and cold weather.

Give us a call next time and we'll tell you how to handle snow and ice.

Have a great deserve one.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Church Time re-visited

I read that unread post myself and I realize that 'church time' no longer is a part of my life now that I'm retired.

I now read 4 or 6 books a week. Given that I've been retired since April of 2010, I've read over 165 books since I've been retired. I've always read a lot, but when I was a full-time priest I usually read 1 or 2 books a week. But now, I live in fiction rather than 'church time'.

I also appreciate how devoted and committed lay folks are than I did when I was on Church Time. My God, lay folks ARE The Church--not the clergy! That's just the truth and working with three churches 10-12 hours a week who practice 'Total Common Ministry' it becomes more obvious that the 99.9% of the church that are lay folks truly are the church.

And another thing--I love the church more now than I did back then. And I'm much more optimistic about the future than I ever was when I was a full time priest.

"Church time" is way out of touch with "Real Time". Real time is about church, surely, for many people, but Real Time is about family and work and friends and figuring out life.

I'm happy not to live in "Church Time" any more.

Real Time is much more fun.....

One that noone read...

The  5th anniversary of this blog is coming up in March and I've been going back, looking for the most read blogs to repost in March and I found one NO ONE read. It was only a few days after I started pondering, but the one above it was read 33 times, so I'm wondering why this was never read.

I'm going to try to copy it here so at last, nearly 5 years later, someone might read it....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Church Time

I want to write about my concept of 'church time'. This concept and belief comes from over 30 years of being a parish priest. This is what I notice when I seek to explain 'church time' to people: most clergy acknowledge it as vaguely interesting but bogus. Most people just don't get it because in our culture 'time' is an absolute: an hour is like every other hour, a day just one more day, and months--except for February of course--are equal opportunity time measurements. However, some lay people--most of whom are very involved and committed to the parish--really get it and it gives them comfort as well as understanding.

Here's Church Time in introductory fashion: Most church going folks, even if they are very committed might spend two hours a week in church--one for a Eucharist and one for a coffee hour, an adult ed class, a committee meeting. So, at two hours a week, people spend 104 hours a year in church. That is the equivalant of 13 8-hour work days spread over a year. Imagine having an 8 hr a day job which you only went to one a month or so. I would content that you wouldn't accomplish much because the memory and learning curve would be so compromised and when you showed up for your day of work you would have missed almost a month of what your company was doing. No way to catch up or stay even.

Church Time is like that. I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday, but because I was back at church today, it began to come back and I could move on and make progress. A week has 148 hours (those reliable measures of time). If two or even three of them are spent 'thinking about or participating' in church, that's barely 2% of the weeks hours. Next to nothing. You might expect to spend that much time stuck in traffic in a week--and how much of the stuck in traffic time do you retain to build upon so you might progress and grow and expand????

However, 'church professionals', like me--I sometimes tell people who ask me what I do for a living is that I am paid to be religious--spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about church stuff--worship, music, education, outreach, program, evangelism...on and on. We have, at the least 50 hours a week to obsess on church stuff. Most clergy spend more time than that, let me tell you, because we clergy are so anxious to justify our very existence and being paid to be religious...which we--and most people--would think a silly thing to make a living doing. That's another post right there...But consider this: the 'professionals' spend at least 1/3 of every week thinking about church while even active members spend 2% or so. So, should we be surprised that most church folks don't seem to understand, appreciate, respond to 'church stuff' the way the clergy and staff do? If you spent 1/3 of your time obsessing on cacti and succulents and I spent, at best--who could imagine it--2% of my time in the same study, would you expect me to appreciate the subtleties and wonder of those plants?

"Church Time" requires those of us who get paid to do it to realize that those we work with, serve and minister to simply don't have the 'connection' to the issues we worry and fret and plan and scheme about. Their learning curve is very slow rising--it looks mostly like a straight line! And that is as it should be. So when they forget a meeting or say, "I meant to come to that class but just forgot" we should realize why. Lay folks are wonderful and profound and loving and truly committed to the parish. They simply have other lives, as they should, and don't live, breath, sweat and digest church stuff.

I'll leave it at that until later. But 'church time' helps explain why clergy misinterpret lay folks so profoundly and don't recognize the beauty and grace of their contributions. It also explains why clergy are almost continually frustrated because the enormous amount of time they spend wishing, hoping and dreaming about all the church could do is totally lost on lay folks because they really don't spend much time at all worrying about that stuff.

More later about church time, okay?

No comments:

Monday, January 27, 2014

From long ago...

I was looking through a file of old "Views from Above the Close" that I wrote back when I was Rector of St. John's in Waterbury. My office on the second floor looked out on the Close of the church--the 'backyard' in 'real language'--so I called the essay I wrote each month "The View from Above the Close".

I found this from November of 1993, which I liked a lot, so I share it with you to ponder. As the Africans say, "If my words give you a blessing, let it stay with you; but if they bless you not, send my words back to me with you blessing.".


You're probably tired of hearing what happens on our back porch. Our back porch, after all, is only 3 feet by 10 feet. it leads to a deck that is much larger, bu the back porch itself is what's been consuming me of late.

You're probably tired of hearing what happens on our back porch, such a small, insignificant space. And yet, as I understand God, encounters with the Holy can happen almost anywhere. In fact, if I were to give you advice (and I don't 'give advice' as a rule, and you should beware of anyone who does), my advice would be: pay attention to the back porches of your life--the little, insignificant places, the spots where you'd least expect God to be. God, so far as I can tell, often shows up in places like that. (But that's not 'advice'...I don't give 'advice'.)

Having said all that, the other night, when I was talking on the kitchen phone, I noticed a large moth between the door and the storm door to our back porch. The porch light was on the the moth was straining to get to it.

So, still talking on the phone, I opened the door and then the storm door to let the moth out. I went back to my phone call. Our back porch storm door has one of those closing devices on it, and that particular closing device is quite slow. I could fix that with a screwdriver and often think I should. But I haven't yet.

When I turned around, the moth was back between the doors, beating on the storm door again.  The door closed so slowly the the moth had returned to captivity. So, I opened the door again and let the moth out.

By the time I'd finished my phone call, because the storm door closes so slowly, the moth was once more trapped. The moth had twice chosen slavery and confinement over chill freedom.

I understood the moth's dilemma. It is my dilemma as well. The choice is difficult, perplexing. Freedom with great risk versus safe, warmer captivity. 

Isn't it alway so?

Freedom, creativity, vision, hope--they all have a cost. To step out into that Place requires leaving the safety and warmth of the storm door--the Known, the Familiar, the Comfortable.

More often than not, I choose as the moth chose. I opt for the familiar and the safe and the warmer against danger and chill and the unknown.

God calls us to leave our home and go to a new land--like Abraham. God calls us to leave Egypt and journey into the wilderness--like Moses. God calls us to step out of the boat and walk on water, like Peter. God calls us always to "take the risk" and "leave the familiar" and "step out".

More often than not, we choose to stay home, to remain in the familiar, to keep to the boat.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's only human. God understands.

But it is not what we were 'made for'.

"Ships in a harbor are safe", a poster I once had said. It went on to say: "But that's not what ships are made for."

I stood a long time by the storm door, watching the moth beat against it. I was conflicted, undecided.

If the creature preferred warmth and safety, who was I to decide otherwise? I know that decision well. Yet the moth longed for freedom, in spite of freedom's danger. So, I opened the storm door for a third time.

The hardest thing for me was shutting that storm door quickly, so the moth would have no choice. I could pull it shut and the moth would have no choice. I could pull it shut and let that moth go free. It may have died in the cold, but it would have died free.

I resisted and let the door shut on its own. The moth hovered around the light and then flitted back inside the door.

"Just like me," I thought sadly.

But that door closes really slowly, and at the last moment, the moth chose the chill freedom.

I feared from my friend, the moth, as the door shut. But as it shut, I was joyous. It is finally correct and holy to leave behind the comfortable to encounter the Wilderness, to step out of the boat onto the waves.

I only pray I have the courage of that small moth. And I pray for you as well.

God calls us from the warmth on the inside of the storm door. God calls us to step out into the new, the unexpected, the unknown.

God will not judge us for choosing safety. But the Adventure and the Journey is 'out there'.

Listen....God is calling us beyond the storm doors of our lives.....


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Just when I thought I was over it...

I've been reading online stuff--Rand Paul dragging up Monica Lewenski one more time, Nadal losing but being 'stand up' by playing hurt, Usher going to Panama (Panama!!) to have an intervention of sorts for my man, Justin Bieber, an adorable video of an owl trying to make friends with a shaggy dog, Mitch McConnell saying something intolerably stupid, more super-cold weather for the Midwest, a story about a galaxy that is on course to collide with ours (4 billion years from now so I'm not really worried), Rush Limbaugh saying horribly sexist and nasty things about Wendy Davis (the woman running for Governor in Texas), Ellen Degeneris' best dance moves in 60 seconds (she turns 56 this week--sounds young to me these days....), stuff about security at the Winter Olympics (about 60 Russian Security guys for each athlete who will be there) and then, a story about the Governor of West Virginia.

The governor of West Virginia's name is, by the way, Earl Ray Tomblin. People in West Virginia almost invariably have two names--Bobby Joe, Lou Ann, Alice Mae, Howard Ray (all people I knew)--I was even called 'Jimmy Gordon' by lots of people for more years than I care to remember. I can guarantee you, being an expert on West Virginia accents, that the governor's name to 90% of the people in the state is "rlrA" with the accent on the last syllable as most sentences in the mountain state have. Every declarative sentence in West Virginia sounds like a question.

Rl-rA has decided to make the company that poisoned the water in 14 counties, take down the storage tanks that contained the poison.

This is, in my mind, a great leap forward--a Governor of West Virginia actually acknowledging and doing something about the vast amount of poison companies in the state have setting close to rivers, streams and wetlands. In my mind, the state government from top to bottom has been complicit in the poisoning of the water, the air, the very 'being' of the state.

So, thank god for Rl-rA for saying the stuff that poisoned the water for 300,000 people shouldn't be there at all.

There's lots of other poison in the coal mines and strip mines and chemical companies that, in essence, run the state and always have.

I'll be waiting for Gov. Tomblin to start doing something about all that.

I am, by the way, not holding my breath....

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stay away from Osage County in August....

Osage was the name of the little town next to Morgantown, WV, where I went to college. It was a blue collar place and the Town and Gown stuff went off the tracks when students from the University thought a little slumming in Osage might be fun. Fun it was not.

Osage is also the name of a county in Oklahoma (fictional or otherwise, I didn't look it up) for the movie, "August: Osage County". Having a colon in the title should have been a give-away. Such a harsh punctuation, ripping apart what came before from what comes after but keeping both in the same sentence.

It was a wondrous movie, but not for the faint of heart or those who believe 'family' is a holy thing.

The funniest thing for me (and it is screamingly funny in parts--the kind of humor you use to discuss a particularly unfortunate episode in the proctologist's office) was the two proper little ladies behind me who were horrified by the language coming from the mouths of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. "Did she really say that?" was a question they asked each other over and again between audibly gasping (I kid you not) at the stuff you couldn't really wonder if they  had said.

It was amazing to me to see two such consummate actresses work so hard to out awful themselves. The folks in the movie, all wonderful talents, would actually require a term far beyond 'disfunctional family' to describe them. The cursing and incredible disrespect for each other is one thing--the breaking of things and the physical confrontations are quite another.

At least Julia Roberts' character does love one of her sisters and her 14 year old. Meryl loves no one, not even herself, which may be the dramatic problem.

Well worth seeing for lots of reasons (astonishing cinematography among other things) but don't expect to come out of it whistling the sound track...or whistling at all....The pain of these characters is global in so many ways that I left full of gratefulness for my experiences with 'family'--even at the worse in my life--made all my family seem like Ozzie and Harriet moments compared to this painfully flawed group of Okies....

Friday, January 24, 2014


Sitting here typing, I just realized how many layers I have on my body.

I have a bluish, short sleeve tee shirt on the bottom.

On top of that I have a collared shirt, white with pale blue stripes.

Over that, I have a navy blue, long sleeved tee shirt.

Then a salmon colored Block Island sweat shirt which is the fourth layer.

And finally one of the five blue sweaters I own (being a sucker for blue anything...) which is very old and has holes everywhere and frayed cuffs and which Bern told me I should throw away when she looked at it today. But I won't because I love it and love it because of the holes and frayed cuffs because we've been through the wars together, this sweater and me.

Five layers in all. And when I go out I either wear a thigh length down coat that is so warm, so very warm but the right side pocket is almost torn off or a West Virginia University waist length jacket which a guy from the Soup Kitchen obviously stole from the Burlington Coat Factory but told me he bought it for me and I gave him $15 for it, gladly, stolen or not because he remembered I was from West Virginia and I found that precious.

Let the winds howl and the temperature drop, I'll be warm because I'll have 5 layers and a coat with a torn pocket or a jacket that tells people where I'm from.

Often, in stores, people mention my West Virginia jacket. I get to talk to a lot of people that way. No one, by the way, asks me about my down coat with the torn pocket. Perhaps torn pockets are not conducive to conversation.....I'm not sure.....

Once softly, October

(I've probably posted this before but years ago. This is the first short story I ever wrote and though I didn't write it as young as Richard--my alterego in my writings--wrote his first poem, it was the first and is therefore dear to me. I share it with you in the way some African tribes share things, by saying this: "If it blesses you, keep the blessing; if not, send it back to me with your blessing....")

Once Softly, October

THE FATHER: My father was tall and thin and smoked cigars. He was also a Republican and a Yankee fan and always smoked cigars when he talked politics or watched baseball on television. My mother always wanted him to smoke a pipe.

“They look so nice, Vern,” my mother always told him. “They really do. And smell so much better, so manly.”

“But they take patience,” my father always replied. “Patience is what you need to smoke a pipe and you know I don't have any patience. They go out too much.”

My father was impatient and bossed section on the hoot-owl shift at French # 2 mine and voted straight Republican in every election. Somehow it all went well together in my father: the cigars and Republicans and Yankees and bossing section—went well much as the meeting of bat and ball went will with a soft, October afternoon and the taste of peanuts. There is a certain repressed dignity in voting for Eisenhower and wanting Mickey Mantle to hit a home run—a faith, perhaps, in a power just out of our control.

THE GAME: Whitey Ford was my father's hero—along with Richard Nixon. Whitey Ford was the only one who could stop the Pirates and Richard Nixon was the only one who could stop the Communists and the Catholics and they all, according to my father, had to be stopped. But that day, in the seventh game of all games, it was Bob Turley who had to top the Pirates and he had to do it that day and no other, because, as I was putting on my sneakers to go to the filling station, I heard Linsey Nelson say: “This is it, Law against Turley. There is no tomorrow for these teams.”

There had always been no tomorrow for the Yankees—every year the day came when there was no tomorrow—and most of the time, to my father's delight, the Yankees had no need for a tomorrow, much less a next week. But this time, I thought, putting on my tennis shoes, it may be different because it wasn't Whitey Ford or even Ralph Terry who would try to stop the Pirates, but Bob Turley, who looked overweight as he warmed up.

THE CAR: The car was a 1959 black Ford with a Richard Nixon sticker on the right side of the back bumper. All the sticker said was NIXON/LODGE in red, white and blue. It was covered by a film of coal dust from being on the bumper of a car that sat by the portal of French #2 mine every night from 11:45 until 8:15 the next morning. The ash tray was full of cigar ashes and though the car was less than a year old, the smell of cigar smoke had soaked into the upholstery. With the windows up, the smell almost made my mother sick, so I was going to the filling station for her to get a spruce scented pine tree to hang from the rear view mirror.

“Winter's coming and I can't ride in that car with the windows up, Vern,” my mother had said. “I'll have Richie get one of the air fresheners I saw at Poppy's.”

Mel Allen was telling how Bobby Richardson was breaking all the records for hitting in a World Series and my father just nodded to my mother. I had finished tying my shoes and was looking at the hole in my left sneaker, right where the sole met the canvas in front, about where my third toe was when my mother said, “Come here, Richard,” and gave me two quarters and a penny to get the air freshener.

I dropped the money in my pocket and walked to the door.

“And don't get one with a girl on it,” she said. “I saw those and I don't want one in our car.”

I nodded and turned the knob.
“Don't be too long,” she said. As I left, the Star Spangled Banner was playing.

THE PLAY: ACT ONE: French, West Virginia, where I have lived all of my thirteen years, is a coal mining camp in a valley of the Appalachians near the Virginia border. All the mountains around French, my father once told me, have thick veins of coal running through them. Mr. Krolling, our next door neighbor, who runs a machine on the second shift at French #2, laughed when I told him our science book said coal used to be ferns and palm trees that were buried for millions of years and turned to carbon. He said coal was coal and God put it there and that was that. At any rate, whether ferns or God put it there, the coal was all around French.

From our front yard, I could see three strip mines high up on the mountains around French. Herbie Lowman and I would climb up to them on summer Saturdays to look for fossils and throw rocks. From the strip mines French looked like a toy village with its two rows of houses, all painted the same shade of pale yellow U.S. Steel used to paint all the houses in all the coal camps and all covered with a thin layer of coal dust. The coal cars behind the houses on our side of the street and the people in their yards looked small enough to reach down and pick up—small enough to move from place to place and make them do whatever you wanted.

“That doesn't make any sense,” Herbie said when I told him how I felt I could reach down and move the coal cars and people around. We squatted near the edge of the leveled mountain top and he twisted his face into a frown. “It looks just the same to me.”

“When you're up here, don't you feel like you're bigger than all that—bigger than French and the houses and the people?” I asked. “Just look how small they are.”

Herbie stared down for a while. “They aren't small,” he said, “they just look small.”

“But can't you forget that for a minute and pretend that they're really that small?”

I waited for him to answer, but he just squinted his eyes and stared silently into the valley.

The day of the seventh game was clear and soft with just a hint of coming cold. Tonight, I thought, will be crisp and very October. I looked at our grass, that was already turning brown and turned the words over in my mind.

“Tonight will be crisp and very October,” I said aloud.

“What's that?” Mr. Krolling said. He was leaning on the fence between our yards. I hadn't noticed him there and when I looked over he smiled.

“What did you say, Rich?”

“I said it might be cold tonight.”

He shook his head slowly and his glasses slipped down on his nose. He was short and fat and his thin nose seemed out of place on his face.

“Yep,” he said, chuckling, “might just be.”

“Going to watch the game?”

“Yessir, soon as I get back from Poppy's.”

“Should be a very game.”

I opened the gate walked past his house. He was still chuckling.

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO: The Lowmans lived four houses down, so I stopped on the way to Poppy's and watched the first four innings of the game with Herbie. Mrs. Lowman gave me a cup of hot chocolate and I was still waiting for it to cool when Rocky Nelson hit a home run for Pittsburgh. As I watched him run around the bases, I wondered what my father had said. He always got very angry when something bad happened to the Yankees and he couldn't help but say, “God-damn!” My mother disliked that more than anything—more than the cigar smoke and the ashes on the rug. When he said, “God-damn!” she would get a hurt look on her face and lower her head and he'd have to put down his King Edward to kiss her on the cheek and apologize. I guess they both know that the very next time Rocky Nelson or somebody hit a home run against the Yankees he'd say it again, but they went through the whole thing just the same.

“Listen,” Herbie whispered in the third inning while his mother went out to the kitchen, “there's something I've got to tell you later.”

Vern Law looked like he was going to be hard to beat and Herbie kept saying he had something to tell me later, so when the Pirates were ahead 4-0, we left. He was silent until we came to the Lodge Hall half-way between his house and Poppy's and then he took my jacket sleeve and led me up on the porch.

“Listen,” he whispered looking around nervously, “you've got to hurry back here.”


“They're going to show us,” he said, glancing around nervously.

“What are you talking about?”

“Jeri and Donna are going to show us.”

I looked at him, wondering what he was talking about.

“Jeri and Donna...they're going to meet us here in a few minutes. I told them to come after the fifth inning. They said so yesterday after school. I wanted to tell you last....”

“But, Herbie....”

“Listen now, they leave the back door of the Lodge unlocked and they're going to meet us inside. It's all planned.” He narrowed his eyes into slits and watched me carefully. “You're not scared...are you?”

I shook my head mechanically and turned to go.
“Hurry,” he said.

I didn't.

THE STATION: Poppy's Esso station always smelled of coal-dust and chewing tobacco. Poppy kept a fire in the uncovered stove in the middle of the station and their were usually a few men sitting on upturned pop crates watching television and talking. They were old men on miner's pensions and young men with families on their way to work or home and they talked about whatever happened to be on television at the time and about the mines.

When I got there Moose Skowron had hit a home run for the Yankees and the score was 4-1. I sat down on a Coke crate that was on its end and watched a Gillette commercial. You could get a World Series book with a razor for a limited time but one of the men said the book was no good.

“I didn't even need the damn razor, but I wanted to see the book. It ain't worth a damn.” He was a man in clean work clothes. He was chewing Red Man and spitting at the stove. When he hit it on the side there was a loud hiss.

“Why the hell you got a fire in that thing, Poppy?” he asked. “It's not cold outside yet.”
“Like to have a fire all the time,” Poppy said. He was sitting behind a cluttered desk near the back of the station beside the Coke machine. “I like it nice and warm.”

The only other person in the station besides the young man in work clothes and Poppy and me was Sam, an old crippled Negro who was sitting on a Coke crate beside me. “Warm!” Sam said, picking up his home-made cane and looking around at Poppy. “Why it's hot as hell in here! Man might suffocate smelling himself sweat.”

The young man—I think he was one of Dane Spencer's boys—laughed and then the four of us sat in silence and listened to the Gillette jingle: “to look sharp and to be sharp too....”

The Pirates were out in no time and between innings I squeezed through two piles of old tires and went into Poppy's tiny bathroom. The dark green wall paint was peeling off and the whole room smelled of stale urine and motor oil. I looked at the writing on the wall and the dim light that illuminated the windowless room and wondered why I had come in there. I turned to leave and saw someone had scrawled on the door in pencil--”Stop! Have you washed your Cock?”

I sat on the Coke crate and watched Yogi Berra hit a home run and before the inning was over the Yankees had gone ahead 5-4. After the Pirates batted in the sixth I got up and walked over to the place where the air fresheners were. There were five pine trees and two girls in red bathing suits left. The girls were lemon scented and had a tag around their legs that said: MADE IN THE USA.

“I want one of these, Poppy,” I said.

He straightened his dirty plastic rain hat with a VFW Buddy Poppy in the band and got up. “Which kind?” he said, walking over to me.
“He wants one of them girls,” Sam said, smiling and winking at the young Spencer boy.

“No, I want a tree,” I said quickly.
“Hell, boy,” Same said, “take a girl. Look nice in your old man's Ford.”

The young man spit at the stove and made it hissed. I looked at the air fresheners and felt the cellophane that covered one of the trees. “Sure boy,” Rand Spencer said (in that moment I remembered his name), “get the girl.”

Poppy smiled and showed his gold capped front tooth. I handed him the fifty-one cents. “Which one?” he asked.

“The girl.”

He tore it off and handed it to me. “Take good care of her now,” he said. I held the cellophane bag in my hand and could smell the lemon plainly as I left the station. The three men were smiling at me.

THE PLAY, ACT TWO: French # 2 was one long street that intersected the main road to Welch right in front of Poppy's station. The houses on one side were right next to the creek that was black from the waste from the tipple and behind the houses on the other side, the side our house was on, were four parallel railroad tracks with long lines of coal cars, half empty and half full. From the Esso station I could see straight down the street to the end where our car was parked. It was too far away to see the Nixon sticker and it would have been covered with coal dust if it could be seen, but I knew it was there. I put the air freshener in my jacket pocket and walked up the main road to where the tracks crossed it on the way to the # 2 tipple. I scuffed the cinders as I walked between the tracks and the houses.

The houses were on my right and the yellow paint was even dirtier from the back than it was in front. The coal cars were always parked there for as soon as some left—for Pittsburgh where steel was made and Whitey Ford would not pitch that day—more were put in their place. I had counted seventy nine, four deep, by the time I came to the back of the Masonic Lodge and saw the back door was standing about half open.

I squeezed through without touching the door and walked through the Lodge kitchen into the main room where the Masons met every Thursday. The venetian blinds over the windows were half closed and the October sun creased the floor with small strips of light. Herbie was standing on the elevated platform where the officers must have sat at the meetings. He was sitting in one of the seven chairs arranged in a semi-circle there. They looked like kitchen chairs from seven different kitchens, almost as if those who sat in them brought their own chair from home. When I came in Herbie got up slowly and waked behind the speaker's stand that stared out at the empty folding chairs a level below him.
“They said they'd come,” he said nervously, wrinkling his forehead and clinching his lips together tightly. “I don't know what happened. They promised they'd come.”

The folding chairs before him were in neat rows—five rows of seven each with a break between the fourth and fifth chair of each row for an aisle. I wondered where my father sat. He had to wear his work clothes to the meeting when he worked hoot-owl. I tried to picture him there but the chairs were too neatly arranged and the venetian blinds made the room too dark.

“Do you want to wait?” Herbie asked, glancing over at me from the speaker's platform. “I mean, if you want to go watch the rest of the game we could tell them...when we see them...that we waited a long time.”

The air freshener was making me smell like lemons so I sat down on one of the folding chairs near the kitchen door and put the girl on the chair beside me.

“I don't care,” I said.

Herbie leaned on the speaker's podium and we waited in silence. I found myself humming the Gillette jingle and looking at the podium Herbie was leaning on. On the side of the podium there was a small sign with three letters on it—JFK. I thought about his mysterious little half-smile in all the picture I had seen of him and of the coal dust on NIXON/LODGE on our Ford's bumper. “If Kennedy gets elected,” I had heard my father tell Mr. Krolling, “he'll freeze holy water and make Pope-cicles.”

“You know will happen if Kennedy gets elected, Herbie?”

Herbie paced back and forth slowly in front of the seven chairs. “I don't know why they didn't come.”

“Maybe they were scared,” I said. “Maybe we were.”

He stopped and stared at me. His face was in a hard frown. “I wasn't scared. I wanted to see them. I wanted to feel what they have between their legs.”

I thought for a long time about what Jeri and Donna had between their legs. I knew what I imagined was there was probably wrong and I really couldn't decide if I wanted to see or not.
Herbie walked over to the window nearest me and peeked out the venetian blind. “You can see a strip mine from here.”

“You can see a strip mind from anywhere.”

He stood silently looking out the windows and my nostrils were beginning to burn from the smell of lemons.

{THE BOY: For some reason, despite the constant smell of cigar smoke and the sight of all those coal cars, seven days a week, every day, and the men who st in the station and spit at the stove—despite all that, and despite the hiss when the men's aim was right, the boy always thought of himself as a poet. He had known nothing in his life but French, West Virginia and he had never written a poem until that day. He had walked the mountains in Springtime but couldn't forget that the flowers—yellow and pink and purple and red—were growing from the coal deep down inside.

“Once you get that coal dust in your blood,” his father once told him as they drove across the mountain in the 1957 black Ford they had before they got the new one, “once it gets there, there's no getting it out—and I don't want you to get it in your blood.”

But his father was too late—it was already there. For all the boy knew it had always been there. He could not remember a time when the coal wasn't in his mind and his heart and under his nails unless it was when he stood on the strip mine and looked down. He had never been inside a mine—perhaps he never would be, but he couldn't get rid of the coal dust and he couldn't remember it not being there.

Across the snow he raced, leaving tracks behind—he was no more than four and it was the earliest thing he could remember. When he dug down the snow was white—clean and white—but across the top where it had been exposed for a few hours, there was a thin, almost imperceptible layer of coal dust. The coal was a pale yellow on top—not yet gray—but it wasn't white and he couldn't forget it.

When that October day ended, after the game and after the smell of lemon was gone and after his sure knowledge that Nixon would lose—after that long day he would climb the stairs to his room, close the window and sit at his desk to write a poem. It was his first poem—he always thought of himself as a poet—but it was not until that October night at thirteen, in the circle of light from his desk lamp, that he wrote his first poem.

I am afraid of winter
The snow is yellow in my
I have not yet known it
but it is ahead, forbidding.

Just once before the cold
once before the yellow
once for strength
once for hope
be soft, oh world!

Before November and December
once softly,

After he wrote it he folded it carefully and placed it under the newspaper lining his mother kept on the bottom of his sock drawer. He wondered if it meant anything and knew somehow that he would have to find a shoe box to hold all the poems he would write before the Spring.}

THE PLAY, ACT THREE: As I walked slowly home from the Lodge, I saw Mr. Krolling in his yard. He smiled as I passed.

“Tied up again,” he said, “nine to nine.”

I nodded and walked up our walk.

He moved over to the fence and leaned over it. “It's going to be very October, Richard, don't you think,” he said and began to chuckle.

I glanced back and fumbled with the door knob. As I walked into the house my eyes stung and I could hear Mel Allen's voice.

“Terry's first pitch. Ball, high outside.”
“He's got to keep the ball low,” my father said, chewing on his cigar.
I stared blankly at the television set. Terry stared down at Elston Howard. My mother looked up from where she was sitting on the couch and asked if I'd gotten the air freshener.

“Yes,” I said, watching Terry wind up, “I got the girl.”

My mother made a little gasp and my father glanced over at us just as Mazeroski hit the ball.

“That one is gone!” Mel Allen said, excitedly, futilely.
His words drew all eyes to the screen. Yogi Berra, inexplicably playing left field, waddled back a few steps and watched the ball disappear over the scoreboard. Pittsburgh, where the coal went, exploded.

“Why did you get the.....” my mother began.

“God-damn it! God-damn it!” my father muttered, slouching back in his chair, biting his cigar.

“Vern....” my mother said, looking hurt.

“I can't help it.”

“Vern,” my mother said sadly, “please don't say that.”

He put down his cigar, got up slowly and walked over to kiss her softly on the cheek. The election was less than a month away. Kennedy would win. My father had one good 'God-damn' left.

It's just not fair...

Whenever one of my granddaughters says of something: "That's not fair!" I unerringly, reply, as gently as I can, "life isn't Fair...."

Better that they hear it from someone who loves them more than air than from the mean, bad, unfair world out there.

But somethings aren't 'fair'--like how well Alice Hoffman can write.

I thought I had read all her 20+ novels but she was the featured writer at Cheshire's library last week, with a dozen or so titles displayed and I casually picked up one called The River King and discovered when I started it that I hadn't read it before.

I don't think I could read two of Alice Hoffman's books in a row--they are just too lyrical and rich and buoyantly beautiful to long endure. But I have decided now to read one a week until I've devoured them all again. (I read 4 or 5 novels a week--hey, I'm retired!)

I had taken The River King to lunch before going to a movie. My lunch was gone and I kept reading, putting off "August, Osage County" to another day. I finished reading it sitting in my car in Stop and Shops parking lot before going in to get something for our dinner.

There are 5 amazing characters in the book: Able, a drop-dead handsome small town police officer with life-long commitment issues; Mrs. Davis, an elderly, bitter History teacher who finds forgiveness as sweet as Spring in the end; Betsy, a photographer who is engaged to a boring man; and Gus and Calin, two star-crossed 14 year olds. Each of them are so full-blown and complete that they constantly surprise the reader,  just as real people are surprising.

I won't tell you any more about The River King in case you want to read it. But be ready for intense sadness and heart-wringing grief and surprise and breath-stopping joy and not a little inexplicable magic.

She's just too good. And her books endure beyond those of the person I think of as my favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut. Maybe Kurt will have to be #2 after I re-read the Hoffman treasures. I'll let you know.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

I'm Biebered out...

OK, to my knowledge, I've never heard a Justin Bieber song (is that  even how you spell his last name?) I never listen to Top 40 radio and am confident I've never seen him in a video or on TV.

So, why in God's name do I have to know so much about the little Canuk?

I know he has legions of Tweeny Girl fans and was born in Canada. I know he had a girlfriend who is some kind of celebrity (singer/model, I don't know) who he doesn't have any more. I know, at 19, he runs up $50K tabs at bars, buying for his bros. I know he infamously had a monkey that he didn't keep up with or treat well. I know he peed in a bucket in some public place. I know he egged his neighbor's house and when the police came there was a rapper in Bieber's home who was arrested for possession of drugs. I know he changed his signature hair style recently. And most recently, I know he was arrested for DUI/resisting arrest without violence/driving on a suspended Driver's license, hired the most famous lawyer in Florida to represent him and is smiling in his mug shot like it's all a big joke.

I know all that about him and have no opinion on his musical talent, having never, to my knowledge, heard him sing. My question is, why, in God's name, do I have to know any of this?

He sounds like a rich brat and I have no patience with rich brats or 'bad boy' Rappers or spoiled children. He should go to college and leave people like me alone. Or, maybe we could deport him back to Canada and make Florida a better place to live (though we'd have to deport Rick Scott and Marco Rubio as well to truly make Florida better).

Enough already!

Justin, sober up, shut up, grow up...quit throwing eggs, quick making 12 year old girls pass out with lust, enroll in college, study history and stop making a laughing stock of yourself. You're only 19 for Christ's sake...join a monastery, devote yourself to eliminating poverty, give your money to someone with some sense and, please, please, leave me out of your teenage melodrama, ok?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Muskrat love, alas

I just found out that The Captain and Tennille are getting divorced.

Muskrats everywhere will be in mourning, wearing sack cloth and ashes. How can this be.

If you don't know who The Captain and Tennille are, you must be under 50 and diminished because they were one of the great soft rock duos of all time--along with Simon and Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers and people like that.

Toni Tennille and The Captain (whose real name I've never known) were married for 39 years and had half a dozen #1 hits, the greatest of which was 'Muskrat Love'. If you've never heard it, Google it or UTube it and you'll find a dozen or so versions, I'd say.

The Captain has Parkinson's Disease, the article I read told me, and the divorce papers are very specific about Health Insurance issues. Maybe Tennille is divorcing him so he can have better care though I have no idea what that would look like.

The Captain and Tennille have been married 4 years less than Bern and me. And I shake a bit. I hope that's not a precursor of  things to come for us. But my health coverage wouldn't change in any way. But if I start shaking so bad I spill coffee and wine everywhere and knock food off my plate, Bern will be stern with me, but I can't see her filing for divorce.

I probably haven't thought of The Captain and Tennille for a decade or more, but hearing of their pain brought them back fully. Thanks, guys, for music from 30 years, or 40 years, ago. And I'm sorry to hear you are parting.

Be well, Captain and Tennille, and stay well.....

Cold...and Colder

It's 4:36 p.m. and the temperature never got above 8 F today, according to the thermometer on our back porch. My computer tells me it's 13 F but my computer isn't on my back porch.

While I walked the dog (begging him to poop!) Bern cleaned off the cars and cleared our walkways. The cotton candy snow was easy to move but when she came in she felt faint for 5 minutes or so and kept her head down. Since you don't breathe as deeply when it's this cold, I think she got a little oxygen depleted from working outside.

It's really cold, but not nearly so Cold as Joshua Black, a man running for the Florida State Senate who, in a Tweet, said that President Obama should be 'tried for treason and hanged....' Black is a Republican (bet you guessed!) and a black man (did you see that coming?)

The Secret Service has had words with Black and though they didn't believe he posed a physical threat to the President, they probably came away wondering how anyone that crazy could be running for political office. (Just check out the Congress to see that brilliance isn't a requirement for being elected....)

Obviously, given my Luddite nature, I don't tweet or read them. But it seems to me that Twitter encourages rash, can't-take-it-back stupidity even more than e-mail. Type it on your phone and hit SEND and it is out there for all the world to see. I've never typed on a phone (bet that's not surprising to you) but I imagine it is a one or two finger exercise that doesn't require sitting down or taking out a laptop or even thinking. 140 characters and the Secret Service is on your doorstep.

There are understandable calls from even Florida Republicans for Black to withdraw from the election but he's standing firm. He is in a crowded primary field and most likely will lose but the comedic element he would bring to office ('comedic' but a tad terrifying too) might make it worthwhile to elect him.

I probably have wished some people dead. But I don't think I've ever said it out loud and certainly not on social media of any sort. And to anyone who is on Twitter (Lord help you) always make Sweet Tweets...OK?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Snow Angels

Cathy Chen, our daughter-in-law, emailed a picture of 'the girls' (Morgan and Emma 7 and Tegan 4) standing in the middle of a normally busy street in the snow that blanketed Baltimore this morning and afternoon. They are my snow angels.

It started here just before noon and has been falling for over 6 hours.

It is a strange snow--like spun sugar and full of ice sparkles. Certainly not snowball or snowman snow but beautiful and ethereal. Our Puli, Bela, loves the snow--frolics through it and eats copious amounts of it. When he comes in, his mouth coated in white, his black hair (Puli's actually have 'hair' rather than 'fur' and continually grows like our hair) sparkles with the ice crystals.

The Estimates of the final amount keep fluctuating on the radio and TV--anywhere from 6 inches to over a foot. And the temperature plummets.

The next week promises to stay below freezing for most of the time.

There is a sense in me of being 'snowed-in'. I have books to read and Hearts to play on my computer and food enough and more and a good supply of wine.

So, let it snow...

I wish 'the girls' were here to frolic in the back yard with Bela and come in exhausted and chilled to the bone for hot chocolate and hugs....

Gotta go fix dinner....later....

Monday, January 20, 2014

Stuff that weirds me out and then enlivens me....

I noticed that several times this weekend in conversations with folks I remarked on 'things that weirds me me out' often come back to enrich or enliven me.

Like saints, for example.

With Mastery Foundation workshops and stuff we often find ourselves in Roman Catholic retreat centers with lots of Madonnas and Bleeding Hearts and Crucifixes and stuff almost everywhere. Having grown up Pilgrim Holiness in the mountains of West Virgina and then becoming a Methodist after that and then an Episcopalian in college, Madonnas and Bleeding Hearts and Crucifixes and Saints and all that tend to weird me out.

Episcopalians have a Saints-Lite view of it all. Our "Book of Saints" is called "Holy Men/Holy Women". I mean their are hundreds of them, including writers and poets and musicians and folks like that who aren't necessarily 'religious folk' in the traditional sense. From Bach to Mary Magdalene to Space Explorers to Francis of Assissi to James Weldon Johnson to St. Peter to Martin Luther King, we Episcopalians love to celebrate Holy Men and Holy Women. We just don't have a process to go through or require verifiable miracles. We even have a Feast Day for the Book of Common Prayer, the only Holy Day I know of that celebrates a book!

But Roman Catholic saints are writ large. There was a half-life-size statue of St. Roco (or Rock or Rocco) in the place we were this weekend.

He's the patron saint of dogs, not because he healed them but because he had a wound on his leg healed by a dog licking it. More than a tad 'weird', but astonishingly compelling. He, along with St. Amand, the patron of beer and wine makers (Bern gave me a statue of him for Christmas holding a bunch of grapes and hops and looking about the third-quarter into the Super Bowl) God love him. Bless me St. Rocco and St. Amand and thank you for the endlessly wondrous gift of dogs and wine and beer.

That's all pretty weird in some way--but it enlivens me in many ways.

(When I used to do pre-baptism classes for 6 to 12 families at a time, I would give them each one of the symbols of baptism--water, oil, bread, a scallop shell, wine--and ask them to talk about the symbol and tell me why it is vital to baptism. Not once did the group with wine come back and say, "it makes you feel really good". Our culture, even among Episcopalians, is so Puritan about wine.

It's not an accident they call alcohol "spirits"--the Spirit can be called forth with wine.

I believe you can tell the ultimate Value of something by how badly it can be abused. By that distinction 'religion' and 'alcohol' are of profound and Holy Value since they can be so horribly and murderously abused.)

Bless us St. Amand to know the wonders of 'spirits' and avoid the dangers....

Home from 'home'

I spent the last three days in California at the Mastery Foundation Board Meeting.

Going to Mastery Board Meetings reminds me of how I used to feel about going 3 times a month to do Eucharists in three different nursing homes--I really don't want to go, but once I'm there it's full of joy and wonder!

The meeting was in Menlo Park, 15 or so miles south of the San Francisco Airport, at a Retreat Center called Vallombrosa Center, ran by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I've been to lots of retreat centers and Vallombrosa is in the upper half (the top 5 are all in Ireland!) It was a good place made special by the fact that they have tame bunnies on the grounds that you can walk right up to and pet. A drawback for me (though not for most people) is the smoking area is in the parking lot near the trash dumpsters. A hike from either my room or where we met.

(Imagine this: what if a retreat center made any other group: women, blacks, gays, Hispanics, Asians--take their breaks only in a small area in the parking lot near the trash dumpsters. There would be insurrection and federal discrimination suits against the place!)

People, as you might think--and 'as you might...', give me great grief about smoking at all. But it doesn't faze me. I have developed high-minded 'moral' reasons and human rights and egalitarian reasons for smoking even if I hated it (which I don't). First of all, I am a priest of the Church, called to stand with the 'oppressed' of the planet and few groups are as 'oppressed' as smokers. Secondly, by smoking, I call into question the whole liberal/progressive commitment to 'equality'. There's nothing remotely 'equal' about being shamed to the parking lot near the trash dumpsters (even if their are two chairs and a shaded table beside the Grecian Urn sized ash tray). Finally, smoking keeps me in touch with 'the real people' instead of hiding out in the midst of the privileged and well-off. In the three days I was there the only person I ever smoked with that wasn't one of the mostly Hispanic and Black kitchen and cleaning staff was Alan, who joined me twice to have one of his little Cubans. If Jesus came again and, as he did the first time round, mixed with the marginalized and the outcasts, one of the places he would be in Menlo Park was in the parking lot of the Vallombrosa Center with the cooks and waiters and cleaners and me and Alan.

So, don't go trying to make me feel bad about smoking! (Plus, I really enjoy it....)

There are two things about Mastery Board Meetings that make them joyful and wondrous. First and foremost are the people on the Board: the Board is made up of a dozen or so extremely gifted, humorous and smart people and me. (That's my only use in this post of the "Appalachian Pity Party" stance....) They are an incredible group and I've known and loved many of them for years. I met two I'd never met before and after three days I felt like I'd known and loved them for years!

Secondly, it is an opportunity to be immersed for a few days in a life-giving and transforming conversation. The vehicle of the Foundations work is 'conversation' that empowers and transforms. Hanging around that--as odd as the 'language-ing' of the conversation is (and it IS odd by most any standard)--is exhilarating.

I've written before and doubtless will again about 'the work of Being' that Mastery is (to throw out a little piece of odd language-ing). I just wanted to ponder for a few moments how few things in my life form who I 'be' more than that conversation.

We went to dinner together in a private dining room of a local restaurant on Saturday night. Ann, the executive director of the Foundation had invited us to bring a poem to share at dinner (that, in and of itself, is a rather odd thing to do at dinner!) I planned to read a poem by Billy Collins but forgot to take the book and don't own (or want to) a smart phone, which was the page from which most people read.

So, Saturday morning, I wrote a poem before breakfast to share with those dear friends of mine. I'll share it with you as well.


    {Epiphany: a sudden, intuitive insight into the deep down meaning of things, usually caused by what is ordinary, common place and day-to-day)

Once, years ago,
I was wandering around
the grounds
of a huge convent
in Holyoke, Massachuttes.

(As professions came fewer
and farther between,
the convent became
a conference center and
a home for aging nuns.)

I happened on the Convent's

Simple to the extreme,
the grave stones
said only three things:
the nun's chosen name,
the date of her final vows
and the date of  her death.

Yet, I couldn't help notice
how many years
those nuns had been
in religious life.
I lost count at around 2064.

Two millennia of service
to their God
buried on a 
New England hillside.

For days, I pondered
the wonder of those centuries.
I stared, open-eyed,
into the deep-down meaning
of loving your God.

Last night, sitting at those tables,
listening to the dozen or so of you
that sudden, intuitive insight
came flooding back.

All the decades of commitment
in that room
opened my eyes
to this:
  how many years altogether,
  we, seated there--
  just ordinary people--
  had spent longing 
  to create a future
  where everyone
  (not just us but 'everyone')
  can BE....

I thank you so much for that.

Blog Archive

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.