Thursday, January 31, 2019

I know, I know, I said I wouldn't

I promised a while ago that I would stop writing about the cold.

But, after today.....

I had to go see Bishop Laura about her visit to St. James the second Sunday of Feb. I started the car half-an-hour before I left and got to Meridian early--which was good since somehow I wasn't on her schedule for one pm, so we talked while she ate lunch.

It was only about 50 feet to my car, but I got such a chill I came home and piled up blankets and dozed for two hours. I even felt nauseous and gagged on my English muffin.

After the doze I felt some better and was able get down soup and a boiled egg and toast.

Don't feel 100% yet but I will before bad.

On our back porch it was 10 below this morning and hardly got about 0 all day and is dropping now.

Things will be better each day for a while.

At least we're not in Chicago or Minneapolis or Detroit. I really don't know if I could get out of bed in the polar vortex.

OK, I will stop about the cold....

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Tuner

I'm working on a revision of what I think is the best short story I ever wrote.

It's called "The Tuner" and is about a recently widowed, retired lawyer named George, who is trying to deal with his loneliness when a deaf piano tuner changes his heart and life.

When I'm finished with it, I'll share it with you.

Lots better to work on a short story than to deal with the high drama of a president who belittles, undermines and insults the security workers who keep us safe.

For a man who has bankrupted several businesses and neglected to pay workers and hired illegal aliens for his golf  course while railing about illegal aliens to criticize and demean the heads of the FBI, CIA and other security groups because they told the truth to Congress about Iran, ISIS, North Korea and other security concerns that contradicted the presidents statements is beyond unforgivable.

And those guys before congress were not what the president calls 'the deep state'. They are all people he has appointed who are truly trying to keep our country safe.

Much less stressful to revise a short story.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

lunch with Nora

I had a long lunch today with Nora Ryan who was once. as a teen, Nora Gagliardi, and was the baby sitter and friend of our children when Mimi was 2 and Josh was five for several years.

I swear she doesn't look all that different from the teen I knew and who went on vacation with us several times.

She now has to be 50 or more, but she is still the bubbly, funny, caring person she was for our kids.

It was nostalgia time.

When she saw a picture of our grandchildren, she pointed to Eleanor and said, "I know who that one's mother is", because Eleanor looks so much like the child she baby-sat so many years ago.

There is something wondrous and even sacred about connecting to someone from almost four decades in your past.

She is back in CT and I'm going to keep in touch--something I'm not good about--but I am this time.

And when either of our children are here, I'm going to get Nora here too, to see what time has wrought.....

Monday, January 28, 2019

my day

It started weird enough.

Bern always gets up first,. except on the Sundays I go to Higganum for church, since they start at 9 a.m. I'm usually awake but I stay in bed, lazing, knowing that Bern wants coffee before encountering human beings. So she takes Bridget out and gives her breakfast. Bridget usually comes back to get in bed with me after that.

All that happened this morning, but when Bridget came back to bed, she whined at me and then threw up her breakfast beside my face.

I got it cleaned up pretty quickly with the help of wipes and the hair dryer. But it was an odd beginning to my day.

At 2, I went to see my allergist who I only see every six months since this miracle drug in a shot called Zollair has kept me mostly allergy and totally asthma free for three years. We talked mostly about the President and what a total idiot he is, rather than about my health. My doctor's wife and mother are supporters of the President and I wondered if Bern and I could stay together if we disagreed about that.

Bern made stuffed red peppers for dinner, with a salad and some broccoli. It was delicious.

Then, just before I wrote this, the dogs of our two west side, next door neighbors were out at the same time and barking like crazy which made me so thankful we have silent Bridget, who hasn't barked since we've had her as part of our family.

(We have two west side next-door neighbors since we share a long driveway with Mark and Naomi and their house is actually behind ours meaning Scott and Linda are just across the driveway. A tall fence divides their back yards so the two dogs from each house never see each other but go to the fence and bark like crazy dogs.)

Maybe if the President got his wall, we could stand at it and bark at Mexico and they could bark back.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Kierkegaard's no fool

A quote from my quote box by Soren Kierkegaard:

"Repetition is reality, and it is the seriousness of life...repetition is the daily bread which satisfies with benediction."

Think about the things you do every single day: brush your teeth, wash your face, cook something to eat, go to the bathroom, daydream, sleep, put stuff away, take stuff out from where you put it away, walk, talk, breathe, blink, straighten things up, mess up things you then need to straighten up, listen, think....

Repetition is reality!

When something unusual happens--hearing from an old friend, getting an unexpected check (or bill!), something wrong with your health, having an accident, tripping and falling down, almost being hit by a car as you cross a street, going to a new movie, hearing good (or bad) news about someone you care about, having the electricity go off, buying something you've wanted for a long time, on and on, stuff like that--you have something new to talk about.

New stuff happens, but repetition is always there. I just rinsed off the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. I do that all the time. I'm writing on my blog (which I plan to do every day now, in spite of the president), NPR is on the radio downstairs and in my car whenever I turn the motor on, night has fallen, the dog will need to go out in half-an-hour, then I'll read and go to bed....

Those are the things that are the 'daily bread which satisfies with benediction'.

I often tell people I don't know what it means to be 'bored'.

I've always thought it was because I was an only child of older parents and learned to entertain myself.

But Kierkegaard might be right--I find the seriousness of life in repetition.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Brigit's Diary

This is what I wrote to Bern this Christmas--about our new dog.

She gave me a wondrous piece of art she created out of words and paper and pictures, about our old dog, Bela.

Dogs were the theme of our Christmas this year.

Brigit’s “Diary”
So, they took me, these people who have cared for me since my long trip from wherever I was to wherever I am now, to somewhere else.  It was a scary place, with lots of people and lots of cars, which I fear greatly. People came and took me on a leash to walk around. Young people bathed me and I hated it and I saw a man watching me be bathed and hating it. He looked at me softly and I wondered who he was, but then was distracted by the water and the young people and forgot about it because I was unhappy.
Then that man and a woman took me for a walk. The woman walked me and the man stayed just behind, watching. I was very hesitant to be involved with them. Then they took me back and I went in a cage—I know cages well. The woman walked my ‘kennel-mate’, a rowdy black dog, but the man stayed mostly around my cage. Very few people walked me and I remember seeing the man and woman go to their car and sit there for a while.
Then they came back and talked to the head woman of the people who had been caring for me and did some other things and then I got a new collar and lead and my picture taken and the man and woman put me in their car. The woman sat in back with me and we drove. They talked softly on the trip and then she helped me out of the car and we went into a building like nothing I’ve ever seen. Stairs on both ends and lots of rooms. They fed me and took me outside and told me it was alright to be on what they called ‘the big bed’ and then, besides rubs, left me mostly alone.
I couldn’t quite understand what this was all about. I’ve been moved around to different places with different people for a long time and this just seemed to be the ‘next place’ before whatever the ‘next place’ will be.
They’d take me down both stairs on my lead. They were very quiet and gentle. The house has a yard in back. I looked around for a way to get out of the yard and the woman spent two days making sure there was no way out. I had no idea where I would run away to, since I don’t know where I am, but ‘running’ is what I’ve had to do a lot. Running is what kept me safe.
            I’ve been here in this place for a long time now. I mostly stay upstairs—on the ‘big bed’ or on a couch—except when they take me outside to ‘do my business’. Someone in the past called it that, I don’t remember who or where, but ‘my business’ is what I do outside.
They talk to each other, these people. I can understand enough that I know they want to know what my life has been like. If I could talk, I would tell them, though I wouldn’t get it straight and they could never understand. They wonder why loud noises and cars and doors scare me. They wonder why I move away from my bowl if they move toward me. They wonder why I stay upstairs instead of being with them. If I could talk, they still wouldn’t understand. I’m just waiting for the ‘next place’. This is the nicest ‘place’ I’ve been—so quiet and still—except for the box the people watch and I’ve learned to watch—I’m a quick learner. But there must be something, some place that is ‘next’. Next place has been the story of my life.
Soon, it will be time to go there.
The food is good here and the people are kind and rub me a lot and talk softly to me.
But. I know, the ‘next place’ is waiting for me.
 That’s just the way it is. The people here are trying hard—but I’ve known that before and it never lasts. Not once. Not ever. So, I’ll just wait for the ‘next place’.
Nothing else will do.
            The people keep telling me that ‘this is your home’. I don’t know what ‘home’ means. I’ve started really enjoying my time here—however long it will be before the ‘next place’, but I know better than to become too accustomed to it.
            Besides, I smell another dog here.
            The people call me “Brigit”, though my name, I thought was Annie. But they noticed how I reacted to “Annie” and call me “Brigit” now. I might get used to it except I don’t know what I’ll be called in the next place. Sometimes, obviously by mistake, the man starts to say “Bel…” but doesn’t finish and says “Brigit” instead. “Bel…” must be the name of the other dog I smell in this place and in the yard. I can smell better than I do anything. I smell the creatures with long, fluffy tails all the time, and the tiny dogs on each side of the yard, and the food the man eats during the day. The woman eats upstairs with me, but the man eats downstairs twice a day. I may go down and see what he’s eating soon, but not yet. I’m not ready yet.
            But I smell that other dog, a ‘he’ dog, I’m sure, in the house and the yard. I’ll never understand who that dog is—I’ll be gone before I know, I’m sure—but he was here. That I know and I will wonder about him until I stop wondering. Which won’t be long from now. And by then I’ll be at the ‘next place’.
            The Man especially worries about my fears. He walks me at night. We usually go down the steps near the big bed and out and across the street. I ‘do my business’ because I know I must, but the cars passing frighten me and I cower. He says, “everything is alright, Bel…Brigit”, and gives me a rub, but that doesn’t make it okay for me. When I first came to this place, he’d walk me when it wasn’t quite dark, but something happened and it is darker each day. The cars have their lights on and the lights startle me, and the noise they make.
            The Man’s worry should make me feel better. But I know not to get to attached to the Man and the Woman, as good as they are to me. “Getting attached” is a mistake. I did it before and then went to ‘the next place’. I know better now. But I do appreciate the rubs he gives me when he tells me ‘everything is alright’.
            OK, the longer I’m here, in this place, the less I think about the ‘next place’ I will be. I haven’t forgotten yet that there will be a ‘next place’, I just don’t think about it as much.
            And then, new people showed up. A big man and a big woman have been the only other people besides the Man and the Woman who have been in this house. The big man was loud and laughed a lot and the big woman tried to make me her friend but I wasn’t buying it.
            Then, today a man and a little person came. The little person was smaller than me and the man was a bit scary. I stayed away from them, but the Man brought the little person into the big bed to see me from time to time. She was very kind and rubbed me, mostly in the wrong direction, but I knew she was trying to be kind.
            Her voice was very sweet and she seemed to like me a great deal. I was very still with her—I still don’t always trust the humans—but she meant me no harm.
            The man went away the next day, but the little person stayed the night. It meant that the Woman slept with her in another room and I shared the big bed with the Man. I missed the Woman, but I understood.
            What was amazing to me was being in the back yard with the little person—her name, if I heard it correctly, was El-e-a-nor. She laughed and laughed when I ran in the yard. I had almost forgotten running and how wondrous it feels, until I ran with El-e-a-nor. My body remembered running, even though I had mostly forgotten about it. And the laugher of the little person—a she, I think, gave me a joy I had almost forgotten.
            Plus, she would rub me, softly and in much the wrong way, and call me “Sweet-heart”. I don’t know if that’s my new name or just something she heard from the Woman, but she called me that. Whenever she saw me, though, she would squeal, softly, “Brigit”, so I knew that was still my for now name.
            The little one’s man came back and they stayed another night and the Woman was back in the big bed and I felt glad—though I should know better than to ‘feel glad’, since this is just the ‘place’ before the ‘next place’.
            But the running and the little human’s laughter and being called ‘Sweet-heart’…I may remember that too long, so long that I will miss it in the ‘next place’ after this place. That will not, finally, be good.
            I need to forget good things quickly or they will make me sad in the next place.
11/ 1/2018
            I don’t stay upstairs as much as I did. I’m not with the Man and the Woman all the time but I go down to look for them every once in a while. And when they watch the big, noisy box, I stay in the room with them. I used to lay on a funny couch but now I get on the couch where the woman sits. When she leaves the room, I sometimes move to where she sits, then she comes back and makes me move back—but always gently and smiling, not like other people have made me move in my life before this place.
            I also go down twice a day when the man is eating alone, to see what he has and to wonder if he might share some with me. The woman eats from time to time, but mostly upstairs in the room where the big, noisy box is. I stay close when she does because I can usually expect a little bite. Then when it is dark, they both eat in that room and I’m bound to get some!
            And at night, in the big bed, I dream different dreams than I dreamed before this place. I dream of running with El-e-a-nor in the back yard and making her laugh. I dream of my meals and the treats for doing my business. I dream of being outside and running, running, running like I’ve never ran before. And sometimes I dream of just being with man and woman in the big bed. I sometimes whine in my sleep because I wish the dream were real and the woman touches me and I wake up. She thinks my dreams must be bad dreams, but they aren’t. Maybe I whine because I know all this won’t last. The Next Place is waiting, I know.
            I wish I could stop having these dreams so I won’t miss them in the Next Place. I’ve learned over my life not to risk being secure or happy because it won’t last.
            It won’t be like this in the Next Place, so I shouldn’t relax and pretend this will last.
            But no matter how hard I try not to, I find myself liking being in this place more than I should dare.
            I go much of each day in this place before the next place not thinking about the Next Place. I have let me guard down too low. I am in danger of having the Next Place rob me of all my joy.
            I have to spend more time thinking of the Next Place and let go of what I’m feeling in this place.
            And, that is getting harder and harder. These people are still so kind and good and sweet to me. Which is what they say to me about me!
            They tell me, over and again, that Brigit is a ‘good girl’, ‘best girl’, “sweet girl,” “sweetest girl”, “kind girl”, “wondrous girl”.
            It is harder and harder not to believe them. Is it possible I am all that, even after all the Last Places I have been? And what will it cost me in the Next Place to believe them?
            I am still frightened by so much: opening doors, loud or strange noises, unusual noises, people carrying things, people coming near me when I eat, taking something from the Man or Woman’s hand.
            But the fear is so much less from when these people first took me to This Place. I have begun to trust them more and more though my thoughts tell me not to.
            I follow the Woman downstairs in the morning and she feeds me and takes me out and I run like I did for the little person. I can tell from what I hear when the Man is fixing my food in the afternoon and go down and try to show him how happy I am and how thankful for the food.
            “Happy” and “Thankful” are new ideas for me. I am what I am not because I mean to be ‘good’ and ‘sweet’, but because I have learned how to be to avoid bad things happening as much as I can. Yet those words are meaning things to me.
            “Happy” to be in This Place for as long as it lasts.
            “Thankful” for the silence and the peace and the kindness of the Man and the Woman.
            I am in danger now, I know, for the Next Place won’t be like this.
            But it is so hard now not to let the thanks and the happiness be enough. Just enough. Just what is right and good. Just what my life is.
            How wrong can that be?

            Today was another mystery of all the mysteries of this place.
            The Man took me outside this morning and there was cold, white stuff everywhere. I’d never seen anything like it before. My feet disappeared in it and though it was cold, there was something wild and good about it.
            The Man told me it was ‘snow’ and though I don’t know what that means, I will try, in my dog brain, to remember the name. ‘Snow’ is cold like the air in this place. Where I came from, I can’t remember ever any ‘snow’ and very little cold. But this is just one more thing different about “this place”.
            I wonder what the ‘next place’ will be like? Will there be ‘snow’ and ‘cold’ or not? And will I ever know a Man and Woman like this again?
            I don’t expect so.
            The Man and Woman are recovering from the last few days. I am too! I’ve never been around so many people at one time. Little El-e-a-nor was back with her man and a sweet, gentle woman I hadn’t seen before. That was good. Everything was quiet and calm. But then, the next day, the big, loud man was back and the air was full to bursting with the smells of food. Then another group—a man and a woman and three little girl humans, though not nearly as little as El-e-a-nor. And they made almost as much noise as the big, loud man, plus they had a big girl dog I wasn’t sure of. I growled once when she came to close and she mostly left me alone after that—but I had to eat in the big bed room because of her and whenever I was on the big bed the door was closed and I couldn’t come out. Somehow, that was alright with me for a while—quiet and alone is something I do well.
            But once, the littlest of the new girls startled me and I did my business inside!
            It’s the only time that’s happened in this place and I was sure I’d get sent to the next place or be punished, but neither happened. The Man took me out and cleaned up my water and spoke gently to me about it all, telling me, “you couldn’t help it, Brigit”. Nothing like that has ever happened before. As kind and good as the Man and Woman are, I was sure I’d crossed a line and would have to pay in some way that would hurt.
            (All ‘hurt’ is not pain, sometimes it’s rejection or shaming or not being fed. I’ve known all those things and expected some of them to happen. I lay on the Big Bed and thought about that. How nothing bad had happened though I’d been bad. It made me think it was safe to be out of that room with the people a bit more.)
            But then, just as everyone seemed to be ready to eat, the Woman came to the Big Bed room and laid down. I was with her much of the rest of the day. I could tell she wanted to be with the people but felt very sick, so I mostly stayed with her. She would look at the things they hold a lot and then listen to the other people in the house and smile sadly. I wondered what she was thinking about as we laid there in that dim, sad room. But I learned long ago that there is no way for me to understand what people are thinking and it is sometimes a big mistake to think you know
            The next day the big group and the loud man were gone for a while.  And so were my Man and Woman before the other’s left. But the dog stayed. I let her smell me outside and even smelled her too. I began to think she wouldn’t hurt me, but I was cautious.
            (I realize I just thought of the Man and Woman as “mine”! I shouldn’t do that! It will make going to the next place even harder. I have to be more cautious….)
            Then everyone but the loud man was back and I went into the big box room with them all for what seemed like a long time. The little one who startled me into doing my business inside is named something like Tee-an and she rubbed me on the funny couch for a long time. Everyone rubbed me and were kind and I almost didn’t mind the noise they all made. And the Woman didn’t seem as sick anymore. That made me happy. Sickness is not good, not good at all.
            El-e-a-nor’s man had left that day some time but El-e-a-nor and her woman stayed another night. The next morning the big group with the dog all left. But El-e-a-nor and her woman stayed a little longer. El-e-a-nor never stopped being good to me and calling me ‘sweetheart’ and her woman was gentle and good as well.
            After they were all gone, it was just me and the Woman and Man again. We were all tired from all that had gone on and the woman still wasn’t feeling as good as she has always been around me, but things were back to normal.
            I never thought I’d admit anything like this, but I missed the people and, a little bit, the dog. I’ve never found groups of people or many dogs that I didn’t find threatening or scary, but this was different.
            So much is different from all that was before this place. I should guard against liking it too much—but that is getting harder and harder. I’m too used to ‘enduring’ to find ‘liking’ easy. But ‘liking’ is becoming easier to feel. That’s probably dangerous to do, but I’m doing it.
            I find myself not thinking about ‘the next place’ nearly as much as I used to. And I no longer feel nearly as bad about that. Some days come and go and the ‘next place’ doesn’t occur to me. I should be more cautious, but I haven’t been. Not for days and days.
            Then, this morning, the Woman woke up and held me and rubbed me and kissed me for a long time. Then the Man rolled over and joined her in all that.
            The Woman went into the little room off the Big Bed room like she does ever morning and the Man kept holding me (with this thing that sometimes whines like I do over his face) until the woman went downstairs and I followed.
            Today the woman was gone for a long while and then the man. But they both came back and when they took me out when there was still light, I did both my businesses—which I never do then, not once before—and I ran and ran with them in the back yard and came back and sat on my rug and could hardly contain myself until the woman gave me my treat.  Waiting for my treat I put my front leg up and the woman said, “shake hands with me”. I didn’t know what that meant, but I’ll try to find out, try to understand because the Woman wants me to.
            Today I realized for the first time that the ‘next place’ I’ve been dreading is never going to happen.
            “This place” is the “only place” I need to think about.  There is no “next place”.
            I am here. I am in “my place”.
            I am—what is that word I’ve heard but never understood?  Home. HOME. HOME!!!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Over at last....

The parts of the government that have been closed reopen tomorrow. The president agreed to re-open for three weeks and then negotiate about boarder security.

No one disagrees that our boarders should be secure, but the president is obsessed with his promise to 'build a wall' and the country suffered for 36 days because of that.

Those on the right wing are already breaking with him--claiming 'he's a wimp' and 'he's worse than Bush' and 'Jeb must be laughing'.

Three weeks to do what? And then what?

Hopefully Congress will agree to something in such a majority that the president can't reject it without having his veto over-ridden. Real politicians (unlike the president) know what a disaster this longest ever shut down has been. Well, he may know, but just doesn't care. As a businessman he never cared about the workers in his organization (outside his family) and trashes former confidants daily if they dare disagree in the least with him.

But Congress know better and this three weeks are their chance to stand up to the Bully-in-Chief and do the right thing.

At least I hope and pray so....

Back to the beginning

Over the years I've share my first post Under the Castor Oil tree, just to let new readers know where this whole thing came from. So, here it is again.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My first post

Sitting under the Castor Oil Tree (March 7, 2009)

The character in the Bible I have always been drawn to in Jonah. I identify with his story. Like Jonah, I have experienced being taken where I didn't want to go by God and I've been disgruntled with the way things went. The belly of a big old fish isn't a pleasant means of travel either!

The story ends (in case you don't know it) with Jonah upset and complaining on a hillside over the city of Nineva, which God has saved through Jonah. Jonah didn't want to go there to start with--hence the ride in the fish stomach--and predicted that God would save the city though it should have been destroyed for its wickedness. "You dragged me half way around the world," he tells God, "and didn't destroy the city....I knew it would turn out this way. I'm angry, so angry I could die!"

God causes a tree to grow to shade Jonah from the sun (scholars think it might have been a castor oil tree--the impications are astonishing!). Then God sends a worm to kill the tree. Well, that sets Jonah off! "How dare you kill my tree?" he challanges the creator. "I'm so angry I could die...."

God simply reminds him that he is upset at the death of a tree he didn't plant or nurture and yet he doesn't see the value of saving all the people of the great city Ninivah...along with their cattle and beasts.

And the story ends. No resolution. Jonah simply left to ponder all that. There's no sequel either--no "Jonah II" or "Jonah: the next chapter", nothing like that. It's just Jonah, sitting under the bare branches of the dead tree, pondering.

What I want to do is use this blog to do simply that, ponder about things. I've been an Episcopal priest for over 30 years. I'm approaching a time to retire and I've got a lot of pondering left to do--about God, about the church, about religion, about life and death and everything involved in that. Before the big fish swallowed me up and carried me to my own Nineva (ordination in the Episcopal Church) I had intended a vastly different life. I was going to write "The Great American Novel" for starters and get a Ph.D. in American Literature and disappear into some small liberal arts college, most likely in the Mid-Atlantic states and teach people like me--rural people, Appalachians and southerners, simple people, deep thinkers though slow talkers...lovely for all that--to love words and write words themselves.

God (I suppose, though I even ponder that...) had other ideas and I ended up spending the lion's share of my priesthood in the wilds of two cities in Connecticut (of all places) among tribes so foreign to me I scarcly understood their language and whose customs confounded me. And I found myself often among people (The Episcopal Cult) who made me axious by their very being. Which is why I stuck to urban churches, I suppose--being a priest in Greenwich would have sent me into some form of I would have driven them to hypertension at the least.

I am one who 'ponders' quite a bit and hoped this might be a way to 'ponder in print' for anyone else who might be leaning in that direction to read.

Ever so often, someone calls my bluff when I go into my "I'm just a boy from the mountains of West Virginia" persona. And I know they're right. I've lived too long among the heathens of New England to be able to avoid absorbing some of their alien customs and ways of thinking. Plus, I've been involved in too much education to pretend to be a rube from the hills. But I do, from time to time, miss that boy who grew up in a part of the world as foreign as Albania to most people, where the lush and endless mountains pressed down so majestically that there were few places, where I lived, that were flat in an area wider than a football field. That boy knew secrets I am only beginning, having entered my sixth decade of the journey toward the Lover of Souls, to remember and cherish.

My maternal grandmother, who had as much influence on me as anyone I know, used to say--"Jimmy, don't get above your raisin'". I probably have done that, in more ways that I'm able to recognize, but I ponder that part of me--buried deeply below layer after layer of living (as the mountains were layer after layer of long-ago life).

Sometimes I get a fleeting glimpse of him, running madly into the woods that surrounded him on all sides, spending hours seeking paths through the deep tangles of forest, climbing upward, ever upward until he found a place to sit and look down on the little town where he lived--spread out like a toy village to him--so he could ponder, alone and undisturbed, for a while.

When I was in high school, I wrote a regular colemn for the school newspaper call "The Outsider". As I ponder my life, I realize that has been a constant: I've always felt just beyond the fringe wherever I was. I've watched much more than I've participated. And I've pondered many things.

So, what I've decided to do is sit here on the hillside for a while, beneath the ruins of the castor oil tree and ponder somemore. And, if you wish, share my ponderings with you--whoever you are out there in cyber-Land.

Two caveates: I'm pretty much a Luddite when it comes to technology--probably smart enough to learn about it but never very interested, so this blog is an adventure for me. My friend Sandy is helping me so it shouldn't be too much of a mess. Secondly, I've realized writing this that there is no 'spell check' on the blog. Either I can get a dictionary or ask your forgiveness for my spelling. I'm a magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa ENGLISH major (WVU '69) who never could conquer spelling all the words I longed to write.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

some people (i)

I know I've shared this before, but there are new people that haven't seen it. I was looking for a story on my computer called 'The Tuner' and found this instead. Some remarkable people.

          SOME PEOPLE (i)

          There was a wonderful newspaper cartoon called “Kudzu” by Doug Marlette (also an award-winning political cartoonist) that featured, as one of the main characters, a rotund preacher who always dressed in black, with a string tie and a huge hat reminiscent of Mexican padres. He was a cynical, self-serving minister who developed what he called “a ministry to the fabulously wealthy” and pandered himself to a rich Southern bigot. Of course this cartoon took place in the south where such characters as The Rev. Will B. Dunn are in large supply. Rev. Dunn and the strip’s title character, an angst ridden teenager named Kudzu Dubose, often had philosophical and psychological discussions while walking down a dusty country road. Kudzu would sometimes tell the pastor deep secrets, looking for guidance. Once Will B. Dunn responded by saying, “Son, don’t ever tell that to another living soul!” In spite of his unorthodox counseling advice, Rev. Dunn often said, “Human Relations is my field….”
          In a way, Human Relations is the only ‘specialty’ of the last generalists we call “parish priests.” Once, when a friend, surprised to know I worked more than one day a week, asked me what I did on days other than Sunday, I told him, “I walk around and talk a lot.”
          In fact, I walk around and ‘listen’ a lot too. Language and presence are the only real tools of parish ministry, so far as I can see. And it is the involvement in people’s lives that defines the role of a priest. A cynical way of putting it that I’ve heard too many times is this: “Hatch ‘em, match ‘em and dispatch ‘em.” Baptism, marriage and funerals are the statistics I can count for what I do, but it possibly just ‘being there’ that matters most, if it matters much. When I’m not being skeptical, I imagine ‘being there’ in people’s lives matters a great deal. The rest of the time I wonder….

          Howard and Lee-Ann showed up one day for the Eucharist. I knew Howard because he frequented the Soup Kitchen from time to time and though he didn’t see like the typical guest, he was on a margin somewhere. From time to time he’s help out the Sexton or work in the parking-lot for big services, telling the overflow cars where they might go. He’s a big man who’s partial to wearing faintly western clothes—cowboy boots and hat, a fringed leather jacket, little boa-ties with a skeleton steer’s head as the clasp to hold the string together. He was an affable and humorous man without a steady job: one of the wanderers on the earth that pass through St. John’s. But I couldn’t, for the longest time, figure out why he wandered.
          I found out from someone that he had once worked in construction, high up stuff on bridges and buildings that paid a handsome salary. I asked him about it and he told me that no one would hire him any more.
          “How come?” I asked.
          He smiled, “I tend to fall too much….”
          It seems that he had fallen several stories twice, a couple of years apart, and ended up unconscious for a few days the first time and a few weeks the second time.
          “I guess they thought the medical costs were too big a risk,” he told me. “Bosses don’t like paying for intensive care.”
          Some time later, I asked him about his comas, which is what they were, after the falls. He was a bit vague about it all, but told me something remarkable. “I guess I wasn’t through with the work after the first time,” he said, growing uncharacteristically somber, “so they needed me to fall again so I could finish it.”
          Question him as I might, he couldn’t tell me who “they” were or what the details of the “work” of being unconscious was all about. However, he was adamant that a coma is a place where things go on in a different sphere, a different level of existence that being awake and walking around. And it wasn’t like dreams—after his falls his dreams became more and more vivid, but ‘the work’ wasn’t dreamlike, it was ‘real’ in a way as real as being conscious is. I’ve tried to imagine all that in a dozen ways. Sometimes I’d come up with a new metaphor and check it with him.
          “Was it ‘work’ like physical work?” I asked once. “Did you have to ‘do’ things? Who told you what to do?”
          He grinned a crooked grin that by then I realized was most likely the result of brain trauma, and shook his head. “Not exactly,” he said, closing his eyes and trying to picture it in his mind. “Something like that, but not exactly. And they never told me who they were….”
          I imagined them as angels who met him on some plain between existences and encouraged him to finish something he needed to do in his mind or his heart. That made Howard laugh until he had to wipe his eyes. “It sure wasn’t heaven,” he finally told me, “or very holy at all.”
          So, I went away to think about it some more. At least I had a reason why Howard didn’t seem inclined to hold jobs and sought out the soup kitchen from time to time. Falling 40 feet or so and landing on your head once, much less twice, must have jumbled things up pretty well. He would never discuss the medical procedures he underwent. Either he was embarrassed about how much his brain had been tampered with by surgeons or he honestly had no idea what they had done to him while he was doing his coma work. Once I knew the story, I did notice suspicious scars and indentations on his head and places where hair hadn’t grown back. And I began to suspect that his craggy, just out of line face hadn’t always looked that way but was the best the doctors could do with what the falls had given them to work with.
          I never thought of Howard as an ‘unfortunate’. He seemed to have a sunny and optimistic disposition and genuinely enjoyed his life, such as it was. I’d occasionally see him in the back of the church on Sundays and I could tell when he reached out for the bread that his hands were the hands of someone who had done a great deal of physical labor. He almost always had tears in his eyes when he received the sacrament and would grip my hand with both his when I laid the wafer on his palm. His hands were huge and powerful. I didn’t feel sorry for Howard at all. Then Lee-Ann showed up and I came to almost envy him.
          Lee-Ann was from a whole different world than Howard. She was a teacher, obviously smart, very well-spoken and dressed like a middle-class woman of 40 something. When they came to communion that first day she was in church with Howard, his eyes were brimming over and he was smiling like a crazy man, beaming, radiant. “The look of love” was all over him, breaking out from deep within and almost illuminating him. Howard was in his 40’s as well and had never married or, to my knowledge, ever been serious with women. But that day, kneeling beside her, glancing at me and then at her, he was like a child who had discovered something wondrous beyond compare, like a man who found a treasure in a field or a pearl of great worth. Everything about him spoke loudly. “Look what I found!” he was saying, without speaking a word.
          Interestingly enough, that first Sunday I saw them together, there was an interment of ashes in the Close. When St. John’s congregation approved the idea of burying ashes in our court yard, after a loud and unexpected debate, a committee laid out a parcel of ground where the ashes would go. It is discretely marked off with four stone markers that create a rectangle 6 feet by 15 feet or so. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d never find that burial plot—that was one of the stipulations of the committee. Since St. John’s is in the middle of a city and the Close is a place of heavy traffic, the committee didn’t want people to be able to find the burial spots lest they do something untowardly or disrespectful to them. So, the rule was: “all ashes interred will be interred in the designated area.”
          That Sunday I was breaking the rule, much to the chagrin of some folks, and interring some ashes next to the church, under a Tiffany stained glass window that depicted an angel choir. I’ll get to ‘why’ I broke that rule somewhere else—suffice it to say that Howard and Lee-Ann witnessed the interment in a place it wasn’t supposed to happen.
          When Howard introduced me to Lee-Ann, after the cremains were poured and the prayers uttered, she was wiping away tears and told me how moving she thought the interment had been. We talked for a while and then they went off, hand in hand like two teenagers, down the sidewalk to Lee-Ann’s car. They became regulars at church after that and got involved in things Howard had never considered doing before Lee-Ann. They were fixtures after only a month or so. I can see them at the coffee hour in my mind’s eye, leaning against each other, talking to people. Howard bloomed in the wonder of his great good luck and in a few months they came to me wanting to be married.
          All during their pre-marriage sessions, I couldn’t keep a smile off my face as I asked the questions I ask and encouraged them to talk about their lives and their relationship. I don’t think I’ve been, before or since, in the presence of a couple whose devotion was so palpable. It wasn’t just Howard who had found a treasure in an unexpected field and was willing to give everything he had to that treasure. Lee-Ann was no less smitten. During the months I knew her she seemed to grow 10 years younger—her middle aged good looks transforming into an ageless beauty. And I had no doubt that it was love that did the wonders for both of them.
          Usually, when I ask a couple at the first session, why they want to get married, I tell them there is only one ‘wrong answer’. And when they say, “we’re in love” I tell them that is the one wrong answer because love will go away. I don’t do that in a crass or cruel way, but it is important to me that people realize that like any ‘emotion’, love comes and goes. My skeptical assertion is only to lay the foundation for suggesting that marriage requires “commitment” more than love—so that when those bad times come, times romantic love can’t manage alone, there is something else to rely on. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” is, after all, what the vows say. And I just want to be sure that the couple understands that romanticism and infatuation and sexual attraction might not be enough to manage that without something nearer the bone, something like ‘a choice’ you make rather than what you ‘feel’.
          I’ve had lots of couples balk at my suggestion that love might not be enough to forge bonds to withstand the realities of life. And, at least I don’t go as far as my friend, John, a psychologist who tells people in pre-marriage counseling that the moment will come when they realize it “would all be better if the other one would die right now.” I suspect that moment occasionally shows up in the course of a life-long relationship, but I soft-peddle it by telling couples that love comes and love goes and love comes again and that it is in those times when love seems to be on vacation that they must reach down and let the choice of being committed take over.
          Howard and Lee-Ann smiled broadly at my assertion about ‘love’ not being the right answer. They looked at each other and glowed. “Don’t worry,” Lee Ann said, “we’ve got it handled.” And I must admit that I believed them completely.
Lee-Ann’s teenage daughter from a previous, unfortunate marriage started coming with them to church. It was obvious that she was as taken with Howard and her mother was. The three of them struck me as a remarkable “fit’—perfectly at ease with each other, gently teasing and totally committed. Lee-Ann, I decided, was absolutely correct: the three of them had it handled.
The celebrations of a marriage tend to run together over time, but I remember clearly the exchange of vows between Howard and Lee-Ann because they were both crying and laughing at the same time as they tried to repeat what I told them. And everyone in the church that day was crying and laughing as well. I don’t remember anything quite like it.
So, you obviously realize by now that something as astonishing as the way these two star struck lovers had found each other (when neither of them had any intention of stumbling across such joy) must end in profound tragedy and loss. We are all skeptical enough to imagine the falling of ‘the other shoe’ and cynical enough not to believe in Fairy Tales with “happily ever after” conclusions. And so it did.
On their honeymoon, Howard and Lee-Ann were white water canoeing when their canoe capsized. It took Howard a few minutes to find his feet since the water was rushing and the rocks were slippery beneath him. But he came up, sputtering and laughing, realizing he was in less than three feet of water. He told me much later that he looked down stream first, thinking he probably regained his footing before Lee-Ann, knowing in so little water he could see her orange life-jacket and her golden hair. He waited for a few moments and then began to call to her, and look at the banks of the river—only 12 feet wide or so at that point—expecting to see her bruised but laughing, soaking wet, waving from on the shore. When he didn’t find her there and realized the other canoes in their group had negotiated the spot they had capsized in and were almost out of sight downstream, a terror--made worse by its unexpectedness--suddenly gripped his heart and he started running upstream, as best he could, slipping and falling and swallowing considerable quantities of the roiling stream because he kept yelling, “O God! O God! O God!” over and over again, reverting to that most simple and primal of prayer forms that disaster drives us to pray.
When the others realized Howard and Lee-Ann were no longer with them, they pulled into the bank of the river and rushed through the woods back up stream. I was told, not by Howard but by someone who claimed to have heard the story from another of the white-water group, that it took three men to drag him off her, on the side of the river where he had dragged her limp body and tried everything to revive her. Howard broke one of the men’s jaw and did damage to them all until he collapsed in a shattered heap that the EMT’s carried out on a stretcher and delivered the two of them—one dead, one praying for death—to the nearest hospital.
Two legends persist: Either Lee-Ann struck her head and was knocked unconscious, face down, or somehow her life jacket tangled on the rocks and held her under until she drowned. I can only pray it was the former and she did not have to experience the unrelenting terror of being underwater and aware. Which ever really happened, she died in water not much deeper than a bathtub and much of Howard died with her.
I do more funerals than weddings, so they blur in my memory even more than the joyful celebrations. And I don’t remember much about Lee-Ann’s memorial service, not because it was just one of hundreds, but because it was one of those truly rare funerals when I was so grieved that I hardly remember being there, much less presiding. I believe that a priest develops a sixth-sense about joy and sorrow so that he/she can begin to evaluate the mood of the moment. And that day, the day of Lee-Ann’s service, was off the Richter Scale of mourning. It was like walking into the looking glass—the joy of the wedding was cruelly reflected in the stone-cold mourning and suffering of the funeral. And so close together as to make your head swim with incongruity, like being caught in the death grip of a rushing stream.

There was no interment of Lee-Ann’s ashes that day. Howard carried them with him and put them in the front seat of his car. When he got home he put the box in his bed. He took her cremains wherever he went for several months. He stopped shaving and mostly stopped bathing and nearly stopped eating. He grew gaunt with grief and disheveled by disaster. His smile disappeared and so did he for a long time, after finally bringing me the ashes to inter.
I had promised solemnly to God and the Close Committee to never venture outside the designated burial grounds after interring Sonja beneath the Angel Choir window. But when Howard finally brought Lee-Ann’s ashes to me he reminded me that their first Sunday together at St. John’s had been the time of Sonja’s burial.
“Lee-Ann told me over and over,” he said, between shuttering sobs, “that she wanted to be buried under a window too. She said it so much I told her to ‘shut up’ about dying.” He paused for a long time before continuing. “It was the only time I was ever angry with her. I just couldn’t stand hearing her talk about dying….I couldn’t stand it.”
So, for the second time I broke the rule. Lee-Ann’s remains are under the window next to the one where Sonja’s ashes abide. For several Christmas’ someone always put a poinsettia there and a lily at Easter. I wasn’t sure if it was Howard or Lee-Ann’s family. Her family took Lee-Ann’s death almost as hard as Howard did. Like him, they disappeared, until one November day, near Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, Lee-Ann’s mother called to ask if I had seen Howard, knew how he was, where he was….My answer was ‘no’, three times ‘no’. She was disappointed and concerned. “I worry about him now,” she told me. “For the first couple of years I didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to be reminded of the sorrow…or the joy. But now I’m ready. If you see him make him call me….”
One of the things we tell ourselves when people die is that at least we have the happy memories. But sometimes remembered happiness is as sharp a pain as remembered loss—especially when the joy was so complete and so short-lived. Mourning is a complicated enterprise—much like doing work unconscious, not quite understanding the task or how to complete it, not knowing who or what is making you work, knowing it is as necessary as it is difficult.
I have seen Howard several times in the past year or so. Suddenly he’ll show up in the back of the church and bring himself, weeping, to the altar rail. Lee-Ann’s family found him first. On rare occasions they will track him down and come to church with him—her mother, her sister, even her daughter once. It is excruciating to see them, but better to see them together, still broken in remarkable ways, but standing up and moving on, trying to smile, full of memories that ache with the heights of joy and depths of despair.
The last time they were there, I snuck out of coffee hour into the Close to smoke one of the cigarettes that drive most of the parish crazy. Those I serve and am served by have become “the tobacco police” for me, trying shame and fear to make me stop. I should, maybe I will. But that cigarette took me out where I saw Howard and Lee-Ann’s mother and sister draped around each other looking down at the little piece of earth beneath the Presentation in the Temple where Lee-Ann rests. There was nothing to say but I stood with them for a while, embraced each one and slipped silently away as they presented their tears and longing and, by this time in the process of loss, their thanksgiving for Lee-Ann’s life at the Temple of our achingly sad and beautiful humanity.   

When the idea of interring ashes in the Close first arose from a group of parishioners who wanted to find their final rest on the grounds of St. John’s, I thought it was a slam-dunk, an idea whose time had not only come but who no one could possibly object to. After all, weren’t church burial ground a fixture in many places and didn’t the cathedrals of Europe serve as crypts as naturally as they served as places of worship? A no-brainer of an idea that was brought to the Annual Meeting of the parish as an afait comple—right? Oh, no, beloved, not so fast.
Dr. Sweeny, a retired physcian, one of the sweetest men I ever met, got up and started asking questions I could not only not answer, I could not exactly understand. He wanted to know about health codes and what if the church closed some day and a court house was built where the Close was now and about other laws we hadn’t considered or looked into. By reputation alone, he threw the meeting into chaos. Others were coming to the floor micraphone to display their insights into a subject they had never considered before the previous five minutes. Motions were made and amended and voted down. Other motions were made, amended and tabled. Finally a motion for a full report on all the issues be prepared and a special Parish Meeting called to make the decision.
The whole experience reminded me that there’s no such thing as an ‘obvious answer’ to a bunch of Episcopalians with a micraphone. It also convinced me of the existence of my guardian angel, who blocked, during the debate and vote, the thought I had as soon as it was over, saving me from my poor impulse control. After the motion passed and someone got up to give a report, I turned to the Senior Warden and whispered, “That an awfully long discussion over a few ash holes!” She laughed and whispered back, “Thank God you didn’t say that out loud!” And thank God I did…and my better angel.
At any rate, what was proposed and passed unanimously a few weeks later, was, I must admit, a lot more ‘put together’ than the original proposal. Lots of details—like how to keep track of whose ashes are where and some simple paperwork to be files and the rule about only interring in the designated spot came out of the extra time for thought. It was that last thing—the rule about not just burying ashes hither and yon but in a marked off spot—was the rule I violated when I buried Sonja underneath the Angel Choir window.
When I first met Sonja, already a member of the parish for over 85 years, she was in her early 90’s and spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings serving lunch to elders in St. John’s auditorium. It was an outreach ministry done with the Commission on Aging. Sonja was, in many cases, 25 or 30 years older than the people whose plates she carried to their tables. She called them, “the old folks” and sometimes, “the old farts” because Sonja had a mouth on her that would make a sailor, or most anyone, blush. She once told me that when “you’re as damn old as I am, you can say anything you please.” Then she winked through and over the coke-bottle-bottom glasses she wore and pinched me. When you were as damn old as Sonja, you could also pinch and poke and kiss anyone you damn-well pleased too.
She had come to this country from Sweden when she was three with her two-year old brother, whom she adored, and her parents. She claimed to remember the voyage and coming through Ellis Island. And she certainly remembered having broken her leg when she was 8 or so and sitting on a wall in front of her house with her leg in a cast. Along came, John Lewis, the venerable Rector of St. John’s from 1900-1940, in the first years of that long incumbency, out doing house calls, and he told her she was a pretty girl and asked if she went to church. She told him no and he went right in her house and signed the family up for St. John’s. He baptized her and welcomed her family and sat with them when the news came that her brother, who was a soldier in WW I, had been killed in action. She always carried a picture of her brother with her and her eyes would well up behind her thick glasses whenever she showed it to you. He was a handsome man in a uniform. It always struck me as remarkable that I knew someone whose younger brother had died in WW I. To hear Sonja tell it, he signed up the day he was old enough. She was just out of high school and working. And his death broke her heart.
She worked for one of the clock makers in Waterbury for 50 or more years. During much of that time, because she was small and agile, with supple fingers, she was one of the women who painted the luminescent radium-filled paint on the hands and numbers of the clocks so they would glow in the dark. She worked with tiny, delicate brushes that she kept pointed by placing them between her teeth and pulling them out, ingesting, over the years, more radioactive material than is good for you. Yale University did a long study of all the women who had painted the clocks. Many of them died young of bizarre diseases—mouth cancer and such. Sonja was the last member of the study group, living to be 103 and was hardly sick a day in her life. “I shine in the dark,” she told me, more than once. As Vonnegut was accurate in saying, “So it goes….”
          (If anyone ever asks me what I think is the secret of longevity I will tell them, “be skinny and never marry.” Sonja was not the only long-lived spinster lady I’ve encountered along the way. Just recently I visited Gladys in the hospital the night before massive surgery for colon cancer. She’s 93 and weighed 85 pounds before the surgery. She, like Sonja, could be considered eccentric and a tad crotchety. For example, he nephew told me Gladys and one of her brothers didn’t speak to each other for over 40 years due to some oversight neither of them could remember. But, also like Sonja, Gladys has a quick and acrid wit. When a nurse came in and said, “Miss Lancaster, your chart isn’t complete. We don’t have a list of the medications you take.”
          Gladys gave him a withering look. She’d already made it clear she didn’t think male nurses should care for “aging women.” She said, her voice dripping with insult, “there’s a reason for that, young man, I don’t take any.”
He looked at her for a moment, slapped her chart shut and replied, “I guess that’s the way to do it.”
Three days after the surgery she was in a nursing home, eating solid food, fully dressed and ready to go home. “I’ve gained five pounds in three days,” she told me.
“Better be careful,” I told her, “your weight might catch up with you age….” I love these tough old women.)
Sonja would talk about the indignities the researchers from Yale put her through over the years. “But,” she always added, “they give me a check for each check up. I’m going to outlive them all.”
As irascible and opinionated as Sonja could be (and she had an opinion about every thing and everyone) she was fun to be around, partly because of her cantankerousness and sardonic opinions. She had a little fan club among the faithful at St. John’s who always made sure she had somewhere to go for Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas. One Thanksgiving, a few years before she died, still a hale and hearty 100, everyone in her ad hoc support group was going to be out of town. One of them called me, frantic, and told me Sonja didn’t have an invitation for Thanksgiving dinner. I told them I’d be honored to have her and after some arguing about her not wanting ‘to be a bother’, she accepted graciously. My children, who were in their teens, were horrified by the news that someone 100 years old was coming to dinner. They already thought the collection of friends we generally have over on Thanksgiving were hopelessly senile and embarrassing—like me and their mother. But once Sonja got there, seated by the fireplace in the kitchen while dinner was being cooked, she somehow charmed them (or pinched and poked them, I’m not sure which) into sitting “for a minute”, she said, “to talk to an old woman.”
Sonja became the center of attention for the day (a role she relished in her own quirky way) and she regaled our children and our guests with stories galore and risqué comments and remarkable puns about what others said. She ate everything on her plate and after I’d taken her home with a plate for the next day and come back, my son—a hard sell at any age, but especially back then—told me, his face and voice full of astonishment, “Do you realize she’s lived the whole 20th century and more?” I did, of course, realize that, not nearly so brain-dead as a teen imagines their father to be. He shook his head and went on, “Imagine what changes she’s seen,” he said, almost dreamily. Then after a moments reflection, he concluded with a smile of admiration: “That is one classy old broad….”
And she was—profanity and pinching and poking aside: Sonja was a classy old broad. And as full of salt and vinegar as most people half her age. She had outlived most of her friends and all of her family since just her parents and brother left Sweden. St. John’s had become her family—the only one she had except for the people who lived around her in the elderly high rise just across the Green from the church. Most of them she considered ‘old farts’ or worse. It was the bosom of the church that nurtured her in her aloneness (I’m not sure she was ever ‘lonely’) and her stubbornness. Some of the Guardians of Sonja at the parish would become enraged at her unwillingness to accept the level of help and assistance they wanted to give. She would steadfastly refuse rides to church in almost any weather. “It’s just across the Green,” she’d say, “a person needs some exercise.”
She was a musician and played the piano at 90 and 100 as well as most folks who say they play the piano. Her voice had abandoned her so she resigned from the choir at St. John’s in her late 90’s. But she loved music, loved it profoundly. Her radio was always tuned to the classical station and, in her last few years, so loud that I’m surprised the old farts in her building didn’t complain—but then, their hearing was probably much worse than hers. That’s where the offense I committed about the burial of her ashes came in. One day she came to see me about her funeral. She was probably 99 or so, but she wanted to make the arrangements, “just in case”. She picked the hymns for her service and said, “I’ll leave the readings to you, I just care about the music.” Then she gave me that patented wink.
“One last thing,” she told me, “I want you to bury my ashes under that window with the Angels making music. There’s one playing a piano—I imagine that is me.”
I told her the rule about where ashes could be interred and even walked her out to show her where the spot was, right in front of a marble bench beside the walkway on the outside of the Close. She stood with me, letting me hold her elbow for support, and shook her head. “Some street person will piss on me if I’m there. I want to be over under my window.”
Maybe it was the audacity of taking personal possession of a priceless and irreplaceable Tiffany window that impressed me. “MY window,” she said, just like that. Or maybe it was wanting to fulfill the longings of a woman who had lived almost a century by then. Or, most likely, it was because I was afraid to cross Sonja on anything, much less something so final as that. At any rate, I told her I would bury her ashes where she wanted.
“Promise?” she asked.
“I promise,” I told her.
“Cross your heart and hope to die?” she said.
I crossed my heart, then she winked and pinched me and refused a ride home and set off down the sidewalk around the south side of the Green. I watched her all the way to the door. She stopped several times to talk to people and almost smacked someone who tried to help her at the cross walk. One classy old broad…with an edge to her.
I remember ferrying Sonja to the doctor one day and then back home. It wasn’t a long trip, but as we were driving, she kept pointing out ‘landmarks’ that weren’t there anymore. She was able to remember where businesses out of business for 50 years had been, where homes of her friends and members of the church—long since replaced by different buildings—had sat, she pointed out restaurants and schools and factories, long gone, but not forgotten by Sonja. I asked her to ride around with me for a while and she demurred, never minding spending time with a younger man, which included almost all the men on the planet. She had macular degeneration, but I knew from experiencing my father with the same condition, that periphery vision improved as it became harder to look ‘right at’ something. For an hour or more I traveled the main streets of Waterbury and more than a few of the almost forgotten streets—but Sonja remembered and told me the history of the city for the past century in one short ride. Her mind never dimmed—God bless her—and she went into that mysterious darkness (finally!) with her brain still working. Sometimes she attributed her memory to sucking on radium for all those years or to her Swedish genes or to just paying attention for so long.
Sonja liked a glass of wine and she liked music and she always wore a wig, sort of a Mamie Eisenhower looking haircut, mostly gray as befitted her age. I never knew it was a wig, being genetically impaired in noticing such things, until I saw her in the hospital during the last days of her life. I walked into her room and saw this woman with snow white hair, thin and reaching nearly to her waist, lying in the bed. Her hair was so white it almost disappeared into the sheets and pillow. I was reminded of the shock I had visiting my grandmother Jones in the nursing home and seeing her hair down. She wore it always in a tight little bun on the back of her head since Pilgrim Holiness people thought a woman’s hair was too erotic to display to the world. Orthodox Jews believe the same thing and their women wear wigs as dowdy as Sonja’s once they are married. Muslim women wear the head scarf. Hair IS erotic and as shocking as it was to me, seeing Sonja with her hair down, spread out around her in the hospital bed made me want to weep with wonder. It was beautiful—that century old hair—fine as stands of silk and white as the hair of Scandinavian fashion models. “My God, Sonja,” I said, not practicing impulse control very well, “you’re a toe-head!”
She winked and I saw it clearly because the hospital had taken her glasses as well as her wig and said, “pretty snazzy, huh?” Sonja, I suddenly realized, had been alive when ‘snazzy’ became a noun. She had lived through and outlasted over a century of language shifts. It was an odd thing to reflect on, but my mind was throwing up thoughts from the sub-conscious level to distract me from the certain fact that when you’re 103 and in the hospital, all is most likely not well. I sat with her for a long time, not saying much and she, for a change, wasn’t chatty. I just held her hand, astonished by how strong it still was—the better to pinch and poke with—and wondered what she was thinking.
A few days later, I visited her in another room. She had a roommate who seemed to be comatose and was hooked up to all sorts of medical gadgets that sighed and whimpered and ticked. The woman looked terribly familiar to me, but then, I told myself, old people all look alike.
Sonja was sitting up in a chair, covered with sheets and gadget free. She smiled at me when she saw me out of the corner of her eye, which was, after all, the only way she could see me, or much of anything. “How are you doing, Sonja?” I asked kissing her cheek having her almost crush my hand as she took it.
“I’m in a damn hospital,” she said, “how well can I be doing?” Then she winked.
It turned out that she was ready to leave the hospital, according to the doctors. She told me a social worker was imminently coming to talk with her. “They want to send me to a nursing home,” she whispered, almost conspiratorially, “but I’m not going.”
I tried to be rational and honest and explained to her that she couldn’t imagine she was well enough to go back to her apartment. She listened with impatience and then said, “I’m not going to a nursing home, mark my word….”
So we spoke of other things and I gave her communion and kissed her before leaving. She grabbed my neck with her strong right arm and squeezed until I thought I would cry. “Did you see, my friend next door?” she asked, finally releasing me. I thought she meant next door at her apartment house and was trying to explain I didn’t even know who lived next door to her when she interrupted, rolling her cloudy eyes at my stupidity and said, “no, I mean in the bed ‘next door’.” It turns out that it was another member of St. John’s, a woman in her 90’s—another skinny, unmarried woman in her 90’s—who had been in a nursing home for as long as I’d been at St. John’s. That’s why she looked so familiar to me, but my ageist prejudice had kept me from recognizing her myself. When she died, a few days later, it was discovered that she had left her estate to St. John’s, nearly a million dollars she and her unmarried brother. who had died two years before, had saved up over the years they lived together in skinny, unmarried bliss. Nobody imagined such a bequest from her. But when I turned back toward Sonja, surprise on my face, she told me, “I knew her and her brother well. They both worked for the phone company. She’s got money, you know….”
I anointed that parishioner, but not Sonja, because I knew Sonja would relent and go to a nursing home and alternatively drive the staff crazy and seduce them into loving her. Frieda, beside her in the next bed, was not long for this world, I could tell, so I gave her the last rites of the church and prayed for a speedy release for her from earthly bonds. And I was struck later by what odds were against two women of such ages who had known each other half-a-century before and gone to the same church would end up in the same room in a hospital. Just my sub-conscious mind working full time again, I believe. As I was finally leaving the room I met the social worker coming in to talk with Sonja. “You’ve got your work cut out for you,” I told her, “Sonja’s not going to a nursing home….”
I said it light-heartedly, figuring that Sonja would relent finally, after an extended bout of stubbornness. I also thought I’d better come back tomorrow to see Frieda, if she lived that long. But, like she always did, Sonja surprised me and Frieda outlived her. After her contentious conversation with the social worker and assurance that she would never go to a nursing home, Sonja asked to be put back in bed where—either out of an act of will or ultimate stubbornness—she died within the hour.
Her funeral was one of those rare occasions where all the tears—and there were plenty of them—were out of relief that Sonja hadn’t had to suffer greatly and out of joy and thanksgiving for having had the pleasure of her company on this odd journey from cradle to grave that we are all on.
(After that service, an elegantly dressed man with a Spanish accent came up to me and hugged me. His cologne was both expensive—at least to my smell—and perfectly applied. He was like a gentleman just arrived from the Pampas or from old Spain. He told me how much he had loved Sonja—he and his ‘friend’—and that he was so moved by her funeral that he wanted to join the church. I thanked him, asked his name and decided I probably wouldn’t see him again. Lots of people tell me after weddings and funerals that they want to join the church—I chalk it up to emotions that will soon fade. But they don’t always and he’s been there ever since. He’s aging poorly but is still elegant and a lovely man who always hugs me and whose cologne is never overdone or something you can buy in a drug store. He was one more gift, out of the multitude, that Sonja gave to St. John’s.)
Sonja had, of course, made arrangements for her funeral with a mortician. She came to church in a casket and then was cremated. That’s why her interment beneath ‘her window’ was on a Sunday. We kept her in the vault for a few days. There are often some cremains in St. John’s vault awaiting disposition. Sometimes they are there for quite a while, until the family can get everyone assembled from across the country. It may seem a little macabre, but I actually feel good about having folks around, living in the vault (well, not “living” living) but resting there for a time. Like Frieda, Sonja had no family and so St. John’s inherited all her worldly possessions. There wasn’t a lot of them and most of them—pots and pans, furniture, clothes, towels and such—we gave away to various agencies who could pass them on to someone. We kept her upright piano and it still resides in the Guild Hall on the third floor of the parish house. It’s probably terribly out of tune—but the new Church School Coordinator wants more music so I’ll get the piano tuner to go check it out next time he’s around. And someone should tell the children the story of that piano—not special in and of itself—but special in who owned it and who gave it to the church. History, after all, is a much neglected conversation these days.
Two of Sonja’s church family and I were the ones who cleaned out her apartment. Among some very fetching photos of Sonja’s life we found a lot of her with another woman. As we passed them around, one of the people with her said, “this must be the woman she always called ‘my friend’, don’t you think?” I had heard her say it only a few times, but I remembered her talking about “my friend and I used to…” (fill in the blank) and “when my friend died.” Then I remembered the words of the elegant Hispanic at her funeral: “My friend and I loved Sonja….”
I am almost devoid of any trace of ‘gaydar’. I know people for years before I find out, in some off handed way, that they are gay or lesbian. We all sat there and looked at photos of Sonja and her friend through the years. No one said it out loud, but we all knew we’d tripped over the obvious. Those two women in dozens of poses…joyful, solemn, teasing, smirking, laughing…all the while growing older. I don’t know about the other two people, but I had a rush of happiness. Sonja hadn’t spent her life ‘alone’. She had ‘a friend’. She just happened to outlive her by 40 years.
The other thing we found was a lot of literature from the group called the Rosicrucian Order. That group, an esoteric cult from the 17th century, mostly Germany, claimed connections to the first century CE. The whole mess is too complicated to explain simply, so let it go at this: Rosicrucian (“The Rose Cross”) philosophy posits a ‘college of Invisibles’ from inner worlds, composed an individuals who were ‘Adepts’ who were to aid in the spiritual development of humanity. Rosicrucian literature is a mish-mash of hermetic philosophy, alchemy, connections with the Sufi sect of Islam and an influence on Free Masonry. People like Francis Bacon are suspected of being members of the orders and Adepts. It is Christian occult raised to the highest level. Where was The Da Vinci Code when we needed it? Lordy, lordy, Sonja was an Adept! Who knew? Who could know? It is a secret society, after all.
Surprises emerge when people sift through what you leave behind after entering that mysterious door to whatever comes next. Be careful what you leave behind, unless your purpose is to leave behind a few choice bits for people to chew over. Which wouldn’t surprise me at all where Sonja (God bless her soul) was concerned.
So we interred her ashes one fine Sunday morning after the 10 a.m. Eucharist, on the very day that Lee-Ann decided to come to church with Howard. The rest you already know.

          Before Sonja died and Lee-Ann died, Jonah died.
          Jonah isn’t his real name, of course. I haven’t been using anyone’s real name though those who knew them will recognize them no matter how I change the names to protect the innocent. But I call him Jonah since the Biblical Jonah was swallowed by a fish and the Jonah I knew was swallowed up whole by life.
          Funny thing about my life at St. John’s, I was there before I was ‘there’. I was the part time supply priest for four months until they called a full-time interim priest to be there until they called a Rector a year or so later, which was me again. One of the first Sundays as supply priest, I was in the middle of my sermon this man came down the side aisle, dressed in tattered clothes with a sock hat on his head that had ear flaps, carrying a broom and shouting what appeared to be a mixture of light profanity and quotes from the Bible. This happened at the 8 a.m. service with only 20 or so people there. I was in the pulpit, four feet or so off the floor of the nave, and Jonah (as I learned he was called) stopped right before me and looked up at me, respectfully removing his hat. He addressed me as “preacher” and launched into a series of questions about ‘webs’ and ‘the fucking Virgin Mary’ and ‘why won’t the Lord leave me alone?’ as prominent parts of his tirade. Since he never paused to offer me a chance to answer, I waited until he stopped for a breath and said, “Tell me, sir, what is your name?”
          “Jonah,” he said, seeming suddenly quiet and almost sane.
          “Jonah,” I said sincerely, hoping to hell it worked, “I want to thank you for all you’ve said and told me. I want to thank you, Jonah.”
          He looked at me for a long moment. Then he put his hat back on and said, “You’re welcomed, preacher”, then left with his broom.
          After the service, the congregation was almost giddy and surrounded me, smiling broadly, all of them.
          “That was just right, Fr. Bradley,” they said.
          “The last Rector didn’t know how to deal with Jonah,” they told me.
          “Wanted to have him thrown out when he came in,” someone interjected.
          “But you did the right thing,” another added.
          “He’s harmless, you see,” one more suggested.
          “And we don’t mind him at all,” was the penultimate statement.
          “Not at all. We rather like him,” somebody said, and they all were silent, smiling.
          I had passed the Jonah test—a pop quiz I’d never expected.
          Here’s the story in short-hand that it took me several years to learn: Jonah had come from a good family in Woodbury, a upscale suburb of the city. He had inherited and improved his father’s general contracting business. Jonah built houses and office buildings and strip malls all over central Connecticut and had a beautiful house and a lovely family—two daughters who were 9 and 11 when he lost them. He was a pillar of the community and obsessed with making money to add to the money he already had, obviously to his own peril. One day he came home from work, late of course, after dinner and just before the girl’s bedtime to find a darkened house and a note from his family that they were gone…gone….
          His wife had—at least the story goes that I pieced together over the years—cleaned out their bank accounts and most of their investments and simply disappeared with the two girls that were the love of his over-worked, money grubbing, there is never enough security life. Such as it was. And when they disappeared, I mean they disappeared. None of the private detectives he hired or the relatives of his wife he contacted could find her. Not for years. By the time I knew him he had somehow found her and carried a phone number with a Florida exchange on a slip of paper in his shirt pocket at all times. A couple of times I called her—and his brothers—for him, but they never wanted to talk to Jonah—by then the bridges had burned and collapsed into a river that washed them to the sea.
          He walked out on his business—leaving houses and strip malls half-built and involving him in law suits that became frivolous when he came back from wherever he went…Nineveh or Denver or someplace…because when he came back he was a consummately broken man—financially, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. Six months after his family disappeared (and I’m making this up from gossip and conjecture) Jonah disappeared as well. And he was gone for a long time. The fish of life swallowed him up and spit him out on some foreign and punishing shore. I tried to decipher the stories he told me when I talked with him, and I talked with him a lot. But part of it was gibberish and part was mental illness and all of it was in a code that only Jonah possessed the key for, and he wasn’t telling.
          Colorado figured prominently in his ramblings, and trains, and a ‘she devil’ somewhere, and the webs the Virgin Mary spun to ensnare him and the not so beatific vision of a Lord who wouldn’t leave him alone or release him from his punishment. So, to appease the Lord who bedeviled him, he swept the streets of Waterbury and fed the pigeons on the Green. I often watched him feed the pigeons. He would somehow come up with loaves and loaves of day-old bread—the kind just perfect for French toast—and he would sit on one of the benches on the Green and begin scattering the bread for the birds. After a while, because there were so many pigeons and so much bread, Jonah would disappear, swallowed up in the soft, feathery belly of a whale sized flock of pigeons. I often worried about him, surrounded like that by a hundred birds or more—but then I’m of the generation that grew up having nightmares over Alfred Hitchcock’s movie. Jonah was older than that and, if I’m not projecting too much, was most likely comforted by the blanket of birds that eventually covered him, by the sweet down feel of their bodies, their weight against him, the cooing noise they make. The worse he ever experienced were some peck marks on his hands and claw wounds on his shoulders. He didn’t seem to mind.
          He was always there. He did the circuit every day from Immaculate Conception church, where he left flowers or a box of Russell Stover’s candy before the statue of the Virgin; to St. John’s where we would talk; to the grocery stores that would give him a loaf of bread until he had enough; to the pigeons on the Green and to his primary job of sweeping the streets. I would give him money on occasion and at the first of the month he would bring it back two-fold, saying, “I need to give you something for trusting me, preacher.” Once on Good Friday, during the interminable three hour service we Episcopalians have, he came up to me during one of the extended silences. I was sitting in my black cassock in the chancel and he came right up and said, “Preacher, can I have $10?” I could reach my pocket through the convenient slit in the garment and gave him the money.
          Twenty minutes later, Jonah was back with a $10 box of candy. He came up to the cancel and gave it to Mary Ann Logue, the Curate of St. John’s at the time, a woman in her 60’s who Jonah always called, “the white haired woman preacher with nice breasts.” Mary Ann had learned “Jonah Control” by that time, so she thanked him and asked him to please leave. After the service I told her, “The next time I see him I’m going to give you $10 and cut out the middle-man.” But that would have ruined the fun and my continuing adventure in trying to figure out “Jonah World.”
          For a couple of years I kept notes on what Jonah told me each day, but after a time I realized I was collecting code and gibberish on paper so I gave it up. I visited him once in the boarding house where he lived for years. His room was surprisingly orderly and spotless. He gave me a warm Coke in the can and a cookie he found in a drawer. He continued the tale he always told and I left both astonished by the contrast of his room’s neatness and his appearance and more confused than ever.
          (My  older cousin, Marlin Pugh, once took me into his room that he had painted black and gave me two packs of Dentine gum when Dentine was smaller and more potent that today. He insisted I chew them all while  he told me this strange and wondrous story:
          “One dark and stormy night, three tramps sat around a fire. One said, ‘Antonio, tell us a tale’, so Antonio began….’One DARK and stormy night, three tramps sat around a fire, one said Antonio, tell us a tale,’ so Antonio began, One dark and stormy NIGHT, three tramps sat around a fire. One said, ‘Antonio, tell us a tale.’ So Antonio began: ONE DARK AND STORMY NIGHT…….”)

          I realized as I was writing it that there is no way, even for an old English major, to figure out how to punctuate the story of Antonio and his two fellow tramps. There aren’t enough ways to distinguish between quote marks, for one thing, and, for another, the whole story, which Marlin carried on for 10 minutes or so, is utter nonsense raised to the level of the sublime. And that was Jonah’s story as well. No way to punctuate it or understand it or decipher the code. All that lay deep in the profoundly damaged mind of Jonah, who showed up back in Waterbury after three years of disappearance during which he experience God knows what, wandering the country in search of his daughters…and when he reappeared he wasn’t the successful, canny business man he had been. He was a crazy man with a broom.
          Early in January of 1992, after I’d know Jonah for two and a half years (nearly four if you count the time I knew him when I was the supply priest), he came to my office as discouraged and frustrated as I’d ever seen him. Discouragement and frustration increased his powers of profanity, so excuse this memory of what he said.
          “God-damn the Lord, preacher,” he began, “I’ve been sweeping the streets for years now to set those fucking people free and I set them free and the damn Lord and the fucking Virgin Mary still won’t let me stop sweeping. I’m supposed to go and fucking sweep the God-damned snow today on this mother-fucking cold day. Why won’t they let me be…?”
          Jonah literally collapsed into a chair in my office and his worn, wet broom fell to the floor. While he rested I had a remarkable realization. During the end of December 1991, the Soviet Union had imploded in on itself and the former satellite nations had declared independence. In some convoluted way, Jonah believed he had swept the Soviet Union away by sweeping the streets of Waterbury. Or else, that’s what ‘the Lord’ told him: “Sweep these streets until the Soviet Union is free and you will be free as well.” Or what the Virgin Mary told him: “I must keep you in my webs until you bring me enough candy and flowers and set those people free to worship me.” Hell if I know, but I know he believed it and I know he believed he had accomplished his Herculean task and deserved to be set free of his madness, his compulsions, his jabbering and his pain.
          I felt like I had found the lost chord or the missing link…and yet, I was no closer to Jonah without his madness than ever, I simply understood a tiny part of what was surely a harmless kind of psychosis. He was as crazy and tormented as ever…perhaps even more so since the voices he heard always—the Virgin and the Lord—had lied to him, misled him, used him horribly for what purpose?  What purpose indeed?
          Some fire-fighter who deserves to be knighted if not made a saint, took Jonah in for the last year or so of his life. I visited them in the fire-fighters neat little ranch style house. Jonah was suffering from heart disease, little wonder, and never got over the betrayal of the Lord and the Virgin Mary and never escaped the Lord’s command to sweep and feed the pigeons or the Virgin’s webs that kept him from being free.
          He died, I’m told, on the Green, feeding the pigeons. I was on vacation when it happed. That tale, though, is as much hearsay as all of Jonah’s biography I’ve tried to piece together. But when I came back and heard he was dead, his body whisked away by his sane and successful brothers for some private burial, I was sadden greatly that we never said goodbye. It’s only a tale I heard around a fire about his death, but I’d finally like to imagine he didn’t so much die as he was ultimately swallowed up by the whale that haunted him all the latter years of his life, turned him upside down and inside out with grief and loss, left him in a small boat on a large and angry sea that gave him no rest.
I wonder about his daughters—they are grown by now, perhaps with children of their own. What stories do they tell of their father? And how could they know what a tattered and broom carrying prophet he became: a prophet of the way life can be so tragic and messy and unfathomable and crazy that it will finally swallow you whole.
          I wonder if the pigeons on the Green ever missed him—which makes me wonder about the life-span of a pigeon and whether memory can be passed on through the DNA of their species.
          It all comes down to this, after all—for Jonah and Sonja and Lee-Ann and me and ultimately you: it all comes down to living and dying and being astonished by the cast of characters we meet along the way. The final choice is simple: despair or hope. Human relations boils down to that in the end, and little more.
          I miss Jonah and I live with the hope that somehow in this life or the next or somewhere in between we all get repaired, renewed, filled up with life.
          Who knows? Who could know?  

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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.