Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.

Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?

Put a cup of guac in this guy’s left hand and you get the idea. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.

Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.

Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.

Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.

My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.

If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.

Dick Proenneke, the Guardian of Twin Lakes (Credit: Wikipedia)

One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.

He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.

No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.

Killian, Grandma Kathy and Cole. Pay attention, Pastor Coleman. This is life.

Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.

If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.

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Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

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Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

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Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

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Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

“How do you perform an intervention for an entire society?”Author and film critic Marshall Fine asks this astute question in his essay “Fighting Our Addiction to Empty Stimulation.” He refers mostly to the way electronic devices compromise users’ ability to focus and concentrate, and “addiction” is the perfect descriptor. We’re hooked. Technology developed to simplify and enrich life dims our wits like an opiate.

Of course, some folks are clean. Many of my Oniontown parishioners couldn’t send a text message even if it meant saving the Titanic. In their landline-blessed homes, conversations complete with uninterrupted eye contact occur every day. Amazing!

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A field in Oniontown, right behind St. John’s Lutheran Church, that deserves undivided attention

Personally, I’m not guiltless. My addiction is mild, yet active enough that judgment from me would be hypocritical. Any societal invention getting my vote would have to show understanding and compassion and resist browbeating.

Why? Because addictions won’t be shamed away and don’t surrender to good sense. Smokers with pneumonia still light up. Slack-jawed drivers gaze at screens the size of playing cards while zigzagging through traffic. That’s being hooked—repeatedly engaging in a practice you pretend can’t get you killed.

Distraction isn’t as lethal as some drugs, but the contest is just getting started.

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts cocaine’s death count for 2014 at around 5,500, but distracted driving wants to catch up. According to the CDC, approximately 3000 Americans, many of them teenagers, die each year as a result of drivers texting, grooming, or eating hoagies. 423,765 get injured—a trifle which I say gives distraction the edge.
  • “At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010” (Distraction.gov).
  • “75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this ‘inattentional blindness,’ saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains” (health.com).

This last figure sounds benign, but it provides the central insight about our societal addiction: You really cannot do two things at the same time.

Okay, chewing gum while walking is possible, but trying to watch the news and listen to your wife talk about her day insures you’ll do both tasks poorly. Read a text message as well, and you’ve hit a trifecta: flummoxed mind, angry spouse, and bad manners.

The trouble is, technology, especially the mighty capabilities of smart phones, has conned us into acting like just about anything is more needful than chatting with the friends across the table from us or noticing how a field of oats and the clear sky can put a gorgeous frame around the road.

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Framing the road to Oniontown

Our adrenal glands go wild over everything but the plain old here and now, where loved ones need to bend an ear and clowns on unicycles offer us a laugh.

Joan Chittister writes in Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life about a disciple who asks an elder, “Where shall I look for enlightenment?”

The elder explains that the disciple needs simply to look.

“But what do I need to look for?” he asks.

“Nothing,” the elders says, “just look.”

Finally the elder shares the reality that escapes not only the exasperated disciple but also many of us over-stimulated pilgrims these days: “To look you must be here. You are mostly somewhere else.”

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Dear Dr. Quraishi-Landes:

My hometown newspaper, the Erie Times-News, trumpets harsh headlines today: Muslims face threats: U.S. WOMEN WARNED TO STOP WEARING SCARVES, VEILS. “On the night of the California shootings,” the Associated Press article begins, “Asiha Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.”

Although I read on, the image of you in your home, troubled at the prospect of you and your Muslim sisters being harassed or worse will be plenty to think about for one day.

I know what it’s like to sit with my face in my hands, but not out of fear for my safety. As a white man in the United States, I’m mostly to blame for my own bouts of suffering—poor decisions, personal weakness. I didn’t think twice about heading out the front door this morning and relaxing here at Starbucks with a tall Americano. Nobody cares what is on my head.

But you do have to consider scarfs and veils. “To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,” you wrote on Facebook, “If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress.”

The compassion of that last sentence is the fragrance of my Christian-Lutheran faith. In the end, I have to look up from my sacred pages and into the eyes of fellow pilgrims, whose lives call me to study with my heart. As a parish pastor I’ve taught for years that I can’t obey God with rancor strangling my mind and fear torching my soul. The letter of any law is brittle without mercy.

Do we speak these same thoughts in our own ways? I’m guessing we do. And we’ve felt the rancor, fear, and merciless convictions of our most troubled brothers and sisters take our breath away. These are jolting times. Like you, I hold my face and read sadness behind closed eyes.

But you looked up and wrote mindful words to an anxious world. Thank you. I look up with you and remember what the Gospel of John says about losing hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A few weeks ago at another Starbucks I caught some light, and it had to do with hijab. A young woman was waiting for her companion to doctor his coffee. Holding her scarf in place was a pin, a striking burst of gold. I thought at once of a monstrance, which holds the host in Roman Catholic practice.

I walked over to her and said, “I’m not a creep, I promise. I just wanted to say I love that pin you’re wearing.”

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I can’t tell you how much the woman’s pin resembled this monstrance. (Credit: Wikipedia)

She responded with an oh, thank you and a smile. I probably could have skipped the creep preface, since I was sitting with my wife. Anyway, I returned to my table, where I looked up after a few seconds. She was still offering me her smile. I gave her another one of mine for the road. In our small pocket of the United States, two believers exchanged mercy.

This is my reason for writing, actually: I wanted to return to you a mercy. You told your sisters, “Your life is more important than your dress.” I say to you, “Your life is important to me, yours and those in your Muslim family, no matter what you wear. If we should happen to meet, I’ll recognize in your eyes my own spirit, longing for a world of welcoming arms and kind voices.”

Your brother,

John Coleman

Ciao to Convention

I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.

It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.

Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.

Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”

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The United States Capitol: a setting that should inspire honor, or at least passable manners. (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.

The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.

When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”

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The Great Conciliator in 1984 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.

Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essayThomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.comthe estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.

I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)

Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.

This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”

Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!

Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.

  • My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
  • I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
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Congratulations?

The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”

 

A Case for Human Beings

A couple weeks ago an email from Mount Saint Benedict Monastery landed in the morning:

Sister Phyllis Weaver went to her Eternal Reward last night (Monday) around 9:00PM following a very brief illness. She was surrounded by her family and a number of Community members. S. Phyllis touched the lives and hearts of many through her years of ministry in education and hospitality.

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Posted on the wall of my room in the monastery’s guest wing.

Until a few years ago, Phyllis was the sister I called to reserve a room or hermitage. When my daughter and son, now grown, were going through terrible times, I crawled to the Mount for sanity. The place was—and still is—life! Phyllis was at the center for me, greeting me when I arrived and checking on me unobtrusively when we saw each other after worship or lunch. Near the end of her call as Hospitality Coordinator, Phyllis’ shuffle gave way to an electric scooter—no padding left on the soles of her feet, she explained, just bone and skin.

In retirement, Phyllis’ prayed for retreatants. I needed her petitions for their intention if nothing else and appreciated them as I rested like a crimson bruise in the light of the chapel’s stained-glass windows.

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A lamp in the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Kids often outgrow problems. Most bruises fade. But Phyllis’ and her sisters’ gift during some raw years has grown in me and taken on more color than I can say: “Let my life be about loving people, one brother or sister at a time, moment by moment.”

If only I could be my own answer to this prayer. The best I can do some days is draw a meager smile from the deep well of mercy I’ve been granted. Still, Phyllis extended to me love based on the conviction that the Creator’s Spirit dwells within all people and nothing in daily life is more sacred than that moment when a person needs love in one of its countless forms and another person provides love gladly. “Let me recognize the Ultimate in you,” I say, “and may you find love in my eyes.” My namaste is ragged. If it gives warmth, it comes from a cold and broken hallelujah.

I do trust the Divine Mystery to lead us to security eventually, but for now, I feel the cold of a world order in which being human doesn’t count for much. As massacres and fiascos make a disturbing media racket, people–individual dwellings for the Ultimate–lose life quietly, invisibly. Society’s eye evaluates humans, and, increasingly, we are expected to defend our personal cog on the rim of an imposing, impersonal wheel.

I’m talking about progress. E. B. White first drew my attention to the crooked assumption that the best way to improve life is to nudge human beings out of the picture. In a 1955 New Yorker essay, White grumbled that the telephone company “saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators, who used to know where everybody was and just what to do about everything.” Good thing he passed in 1985, before call waiting and voice mail joined our cultural lexicon.

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E. B. White holding his dachshund Minnie (Credit: Wikipedia).

I don’t think there was a religious bone in White’s body, but he and Sister Phyllis probably would have hit it off. She was all about taking care of pilgrims, and he wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” You can’t read one paragraph of E. B. White without recognizing that his world was human beings and animals. He was against whatever threatened either one.

In the last month I’ve heard stories that worry me. Andy, as White’s friends called him, would bristle. And I’m not sure, but Phyllis might have just shaken her head and returned to praying for retreatants.

–A December 14, 2014, New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller opens with a troubling trinity: “A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.” If somebody is going to sedate me, I want to look ‘em in the eye. And some of my friends are print journalists, a profession already in decline. I’m not sure what an algorithm is, but it’s a scab compared to Jennie, Gerry, and Erica.  

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A robot or young bellhop Vince Plover? I prefer the kid, even if I have to tip him. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

–Also from Miller’s article: “Ad sales agents and pilots are two jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will decline in number over the next decade. Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so.” As a jittery flyer, I don’t want my plane piloted entirely by computers. They fail without warning, constantly leave the backdoor unlocked, and refuse to accept reason.

–NPR ran a story about computer chips being implanted in grape vines. This technology can take the guesswork—or artistry, depending on your point of view—out of watering and harvesting. When a commentator claimed that the chips’ grapes made better wine than the winemaker’s, I thought of poor Paul Bunyan being surpassed by a chainsaw.

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Cabernet Sauvignon at the Coleman dining room table: I would love to meet the winemaker.

–A couple of weeks ago NPR’s Marketplace reported on the sale of PetSmart to a private-equity firm. Amidst the chatter somebody commented that Walmart-type stores cut into PetSmart’s business by carrying lots of pet supplies. At once my White-ian fears took hold. How long will it be before you can accommodate all of life’s needs at a single destination? Get your Airedale bathed and groomed while your SUV gets snow tires put on. Pick up General Tso’s chicken for supper. Have cataracts removed and touch base with your life coach. Yes, I’m being silly, but a voice in the ear of my heart warns me that herding every specialty under one roof managed by one entity could make transactions more uniform and less personal.

Maybe I’m wrong, but for fun I just Googled “shoe repair erie pennsylvania” and discovered that in my hometown proper, one shoe repair shop survives. The idea to check came when I saw that Dom Bruno’s Shoe Repair in Little Italy had closed. Ten years ago I took a pair of black wingtips to Dom, who resoled them for $45. Sounds like a lot, but those refreshed throwbacks remain my only pair of black dress shoes.

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“Where have all Dom Brunos gone, long time passing?” The thin, corner shoe repair shop that healed my wingtips.

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The only grainy evidence that Dom Bruno ever had a shop on Brown Avenue–a cardboard poster.

According to Google, M. A. Krug and Son is now my only option, unless I want to drive fifteen miles west to Nick’s Shoe Repair in Girard. My wingtips need attention, and I wish for a redundancy of shoe repair shops in Erie, Pennsylvania–and at least one mom-and-pop corner store in every neighborhood.

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Good and faithful servants: seams splitting in a few places, soles wearing, gnarly inserts

On the way to Sister Phyllis’ viewing, I made a sad discovery. Unless somebody is tending shoes beneath an inconspicuous shingle, Erie, home of around 200,000 feet, is bereft of cobblers.

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Google is wrong. Mr. Krug no longer repairs shoes. Stereo equipment, old albums, and silly signs now fill his shop.

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Posted by the entrance: Mr. Krug had a gruff sense of humor?

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Across Peach Street from Krug’s place, another dead shoe repair shop. Seriously?

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How long had the business been closed? Long enough for ink to run.

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Matt’s machinery sleeps behind dusty windows. Goodbye to a vocation.

Actually, I’m not all that bugged about my wingtips being S.O.L. I’ll get a new pair. The trouble is, I’ve lost track of Dom Bruno, and it might have been nice to meet Mr. Krug and ask which kin started the shop in 1895. And anybody who makes a sign like Matt’s is bound to be good for a laugh or two.

Bottom line: the world’s best hope for health and gladness isn’t the robot, but the bellhop. There’s no way the former can look into a stranger’s eyes and recognize that a special word of kindness is needed. The latter not only carries luggage, but can also lighten a burden.

I might not be able to tell which wine was made by person or machine or which news story was written by an algorithm or a friend, but none of that matters. I want to be a Sister Phyllis receiving flawed, unpredictable, expensive human guests into the safety of my presence. I want to be an Andy White, betting my money and heart on women and men creating and mending the world over and over, messing up and starting again.

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Sanity: a nap in a monastery room as Sister Phyllis prays for you

When I reached the Mount and looked down at Phyllis, I was sobered. She didn’t look herself at all. Her face was oddly tanned, her hair flattened. But I’ve seen enough dear ones in coffins to give an interior shrug.

Before long Prioress Anne Wambach said hello and took my hand. At once I understood that my reason for paying respects to Phyllis wasn’t to honor the dead, but to receive life. Our conversation took less than a minute. I don’t remember what I said, but the idea was that Phyllis made me feel welcome. Clearly, Anne had heard this dozens of times already. She told me that Phyllis had done well until the end: a couple of falls, morphine, and confusion. Death came within a week.

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No Benedictine is forgotten. Every single sister matters.

Phyllis hadn’t suffered long; this gave me comfort. Anne took my hand and looked into my eyes; this gave me not only comfort, but a truth to live by. No software can estimate the value of a handshake or predict what healing and wisdom can result when two persons look into each others’ eyes.

Thanks, Anne. Thanks, Phyllis and Andy. I have my personal orders within the world order. I’m bound to mess it up, but I’ll try: take strangers by the hand, John, and see the Great Mystery in their eyes.

 

 

 

 

Humility Needed as the New Millennium Clears Its Throat

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It’s chili. You eat it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”

This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.

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Ahhh. In the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.

In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.

The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:

In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.

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Beloved wife Kathy is still in touch with the power of play. This is our front yard on Halloween. The trick-or-treaters were slack-jawed with wonder.

I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.

One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.

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Micah in, what, kindergarten? His first grade teacher didn’t have much use for him, with his silly heart.

It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.

I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.

We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.

I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)

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How sad: a “really inhumane” recipe. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.

My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .

a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building. 

Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.

Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.

I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.

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A painting by the late, self-educated Milton Sontheimer, whose work helps me to center myself

As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.

We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.

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Our opulent enemy? Why? (Credit: Saberhagen on Wikimedia Commons)

We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:

His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”

My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.

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A three-hour nap in a monastery guest room–a remarkable blessing

Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.

Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.

Beholding Maine

A week ago wife Kathy and I returned home to Erie, Pennsylvania, after nine days in Maine. A few thunder storms in no way choked the cleansing breath of such a generous stretch of open time. We floated from attraction to junk shop. Sometimes we held hands, in what poet Galway Kinnell called the “familiar touch of the long married.” We celebrated our thirty-first wedding anniversary on board the Victory Chimes, a three-masted schooner sailing out of Rockland. And not once in well over thirty hours of driving did we turn on the radio or pop in a CD. We either talked or kept silent. Riding along with each other was music enough. I did snip at my wife over the Internet, know it all that I can be, but the moment passed like a few drops from the sky that never really turn to rain.

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The Victory Chimes at anchor, waiting for us to return from an island walk

Vacation in beautiful Maine is an eye of the beholder situation. Did you ever ask a friend, “So how was your vacation?” And did you ever regret that question after sixty seconds? After five minutes, as your friend gushed about the charming print on the sheets at a bed and breakfast, did you ever watch her or his mouth, know sound was coming out but could no longer make out words, and think to yourself, “I’m turning to stone”? Me, too. But luckily, you can walk away now, before I get started. If you decide to stay, I’ll offer this concise observation about Maine: “Boy, I sure can be a bummer.” Do you suppose I could go on vacation and just experience the thrill of seeing whales? Or just sit on a ship deck in a quiet cove, watching the sunset with my arm around my wife? Or just take in the stunning Maine countryside from a slow chugging train?

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Kathy, watching for whales, dolphins, and seals, hair at the mercy of ocean breezes

In other words, could I just have uncomplicated, $#%&! fun? Ah . . . no! I have to notice that what disappears from the earth shines before it goes black and that death often makes me grateful—or at least gets my mind going. Still, sumus quod sumus. We are what we are. I am what I am. And I see what I see, think what I think. In Maine, a healing tension had me by the heart and head over and over. Of course, the worthy stock images—sun touching the waves, layer upon layer of hills and islands, an eagle perched hundreds of yards away on a dead tree—made the trip a bargain at any price, but what echoed in my chest’s sacred cavern and invited me to stop and breathe was the long goodbyes of beauty shining before it goes out.

Our first mission in Maine was a stop at L. L. Bean, where Kathy had already picked out binoculars from a catalog. As she waffled and kibitzed and tested at the counter with the clerk, I browsed. Anybody who has been to Freeport’s L. L. Bean knows how massive the store is; that is, stores. Lots of merchandise! We were in the hunting and fishing department. I was interested in none of it, though a slim old guy in a gabardine suit and fedora caught my attention as he studied a .20 gauge shotgun by waving its business end in every face around him. Obviously, he never took a hunter safety course as I did forty years ago: NEVER POINT A GUN, EVEN AN EMPTY GUN, AT A PERSON! Once the mindless gun handling subsided, my eyes wandered. And when I survey any setting, a bummer can’t be far away. At L. L. Bean, it was taxidermy—stuffed death. Kathy wasn’t about to drop $160.00 on binoculars without a leisurely test drive, so I took pictures.

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Varnish on the bear’s nose?

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This javalina would have been fun to pal around with–an India pale ale, Calamata olives, summer sausage, and a few bawdy jokes!

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L. L. Bean’s instruction to taxidermist: “Playful! Playful! Give us frolicking raccoons!”

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A couple of old moose at L. L. Bean, one stuffed by the taxidermist, the other by himself.

Hunting isn’t for me, but I have nothing against it. Displaying dead game is okay, too. As I wandered among the trophies, though, I hoped that the tremendous moose and white tail buck had been granted the dignity of landing on a dinner plate before assuming their position and the tribe of raccoons was on display not simply because somebody thought shooting them would be fun.

On the long-married’s first full day in Maine, we rode the aforementioned train from Brunswick to Rockland and back, two hours each way. Yes, by the fourth hour I was bored, but for most of the trip I appreciated sitting next to Kathy, sharing a turkey sandwich with avocado, and watching small towns, swamps, inlets, and green hills go by. Lining the track for miles at a time were telegraph poles in various stages of decay. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Some were in decent shape, others were listing badly, still others were in repose. All of them were pencils that outlived their language. “How long will it be,” I wondered, “before train tracks join telegraph poles?” We’re talking about patient transportation in an inpatient land. Amtrak is supposedly making a comeback, but I’ll wager by the time grandson Cole is my age, all people riding the rails will do so out of nostalgia.

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Telegraph pole: a pencil that outlived its language

My thoughts were sad, but wistful. It’s too bad that our current perception of time is pressurized, that unless movement from where we are to where we want to be involves g-forces, useable life is being wasted. Fortunately, despite my regrets about our cultural stampede, my spirit was light. I was, and am, glad that taking twenty-four hours to get from Pittsburgh to Orlando—as I did a couple of times on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and Silver Bullet—was once acceptable. And those wireless poles gave me hope that maybe one day the messages people take trouble to post won’t be insulting, combative, or bullying.

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Beloved Kathy and I shared lunch on a car bearing our hometown’s name as a younger couple a few rows up alternated between tonsil hockey and cuddling.

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Buddha at the Monroe Inn bed and breakfast.

Far from dying out, bed and breakfasts in Maine are like corner bars in Erie. What’s curious is the idea behind a bed and breakfast: sleep the night in a beautiful old house and wake up for a meal prepared by one or two people in an actual kitchen; or let’s pretend it’s 1900—up to a point. Kathy’s favorite B&B was Auburn’s the Munroe Inn, where we stayed in the Noble Suite. “I could live in this house,” she kept saying. “I love this house.” Well, sure, you could be skanky after a day’s travel, have breath sour enough, as George Carlin once said, to “knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” but walk around the spacious living and dining rooms, and you feel stately and elegant. If you’ve been saying for years, “Oh, my life, I’ll tell you what, I could write a book,” the handsome roll-top desk in our suite would have given you the urge—by Jove!—to dip your pen in an inkwell and tell your story. Titles would run through your head: My Way (no wait, that’s been used); The Road Less Traveled (dang it, that’s taken, too; Frost, some guy named Peck; can’t remember). Your musings would be interrupted because you have to use the bathroom, where old-style faucets and goats-milk hand soap make what goes on in that euphemism of a room seem dignified.

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The roll top desk was a great place to get a few words down, though not with a dip pen and inkwell. The framed print above is a Picasso.

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Stately mantle and hearth

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We slept deeply, as if embraced by a sane and gentle past.

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We awoke to sun translated by stained-glass windows.

In short, B&Bs are great because they offer something that doesn’t exist anymore. And if guests had to pump their own water and use chamber pots, I bet Super 8 and Motel 6 would smile broadly. Whatever. I loved the Munroe Inn and took more pictures there than at Sabbathday Lake, the Shaker village (stay tuned). It was a special treat to meet the owner, Olga, originally from Russia, who spent years in New York City before doing something her friends considered kooky: move to Maine and run a B&B. But she has got a fantastic gig going, made distinctive by eclectic choices in art.

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For some reason, old and dignified marry contemporary and playful with pleasing results at the Munroe Inn.

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This faces guests as they descend a spacious staircase. Where, I would like to know, did Olga find this recent photograph of me naked on a rock, throwing a discus?

       Still savoring Olga’s inn, Kathy and I headed to Sabbathday Lake, 1800 acres of woods and rolling fields, free-ranging livestock, a dozen or so buildings, a faithful support crew of paid staff and devoted volunteers, a rich history in art and architecture, several reliable sources of income, and . . . three Shakers. A baseball enthusiast would immediately diagnose at least one reason for the shortage: no farm system for developing new talent. Shakers are celibate.

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The Shaker herb garden, which provides income for the community, is managed by a paid staff member. I brought home for daughter Elena a dried flower sometimes called “poor man’s saffron.”

A month ago I met the last two monks at a Byzantine monastery near Butler, Pennsylvania. I thought of them, Fathers Michael and Leo, as Kathy and I walked around the Shaker village in the rain. There are still Byzantine Fathers in other monasteries, but the trinity at Sabbathday Lake is it. At best, all other Shaker communities are museums or libraries. At worst, they’re malls or tumbleweed. Sister Francis (the community’s mother), Sister June, and Brother Arnold are a religion of three, with a great cloud of witnesses. I may have glimpsed Arnold as Kathy and I were hopping on a wagon for a hayride. Wayne, a brother until 2006, left Sabbathday Lake after falling in love with a reporter who visited to write a story–with, in my opinion, a faithful and glad ending. I didn’t see Francis and June.

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“Tis a gift to be simple.” The Shaker Meeting House, where Francis, June, and Arnold worship, along with visitors. Women enter through one door, men through the other. I peeked in. The inside is as plain as the outside.

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The Meeting House’s wooden siding: how much longer will fresh paint make the sacred dwelling “come round right”?

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These rules were posted in a barn where Shaker-friendly items were being sold. An exacting way that embraces goodness may die, but let’s hope its fervor lives.

Short of a miracle, the Shakers will be no more during this century—that is unless Arnold, fifty-seven, breaks longevity records. Francis is eighty-seven, June seventy-six. The likelihood of their extinction made me feel blue, but also grateful. The Shaker practice isn’t for me, but I admire their devotion to a life centered in goodness. The article by the reporter Wayne eventually married noted that after the American Civil War the Shakers numbered about 5000. At Sabbathday Lake, where visitors are asked not to take photographs inside the buildings, I learned that Shaker communities were once de facto orphanages and foster homes. Poor folks turned their children over to the Shakers rather than let them starve. (Francis arrived at Sabbathday Lake at age ten.) In old portraits Shakers often wore severe expressions, but underneath their regimentation and austerity was a well of radical love.

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Over 150 graves, but only one marker. With Shakers, I read somewhere, there is no “mine” or “yours”; only “ours.”

As much as anything, I appreciate not only Shaker history, but also Francis, June, and Arnold for carrying on a practice that seems right to them and for making heroic sacrifices to be the last of a family that still has much to teach the world.

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The Victory Chimes (Credit: Wikipedia)

The official reason for our Maine trip was to sail on the Victory Chimes. If you’re not for sailing on mostly calm waters, taking naps whenever you please, going for walks on islands and in small coastal towns, and winding down by watching darkness descend on a horizon of pine trees, don’t board this vessel. And the food! Chef Pammy is phenomenal—a word I use sparingly—especially when you consider that she cooks on a propane stove that has two settings: simmer or hell. She makes the best chili and macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted, though these dishes don’t represent the menu. Think lobster with drawn butter, haddock in a dill sauce, curried greens soup, and smoked salmon with capers. Kathy and I were fortunate to sail this season with Pammy, since 2014 is her last. When we return, we’ll miss her presence even more than her spatula. She shares stories generously and listens without interrupting. I’ll consider myself blessed if we can catch up with her some day near her winter job at Sugarloaf Ski Resort.

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Relaxing after a day of sailing: Margaret, bridge expert from Ohio; chef Pammy; Kathy

There are a couple of minor drawbacks: the cabins are tight, and the heads are communal. I slept the hell out of my bunk and have no complaints. And about sharing three toilets amongst twenty or so passengers—some sprang for a cabin upgrade that includes a private privy—my attitude was, “Aw, look, get over it.” If there were a way of transporting the Victory Chimes routine to Erie, Pennsylvania, I’d vote for it. Breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at 12:00 p.m., appetizers on deck at 5:00, and supper at 6:00. Between food, I wrote in the salon (mess hall), napped myself delirious, enjoyed deep draughts of prayer/meditation, and read. Nearly every day the boat anchored somewhere and conveyed passengers to shore for an hour or so. Of course, this is a vacation schedule, not to be expected when you’re back on company time.

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From the yawl boat Enoch, returning us to the ship after an hour on North Haven

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The Stonington Opera House. A little cultural venue on North Haven–who’d have thought?

Lots of travelers share Kathy’s and my love for a Victory Chimes cruise. Profitable as the enterprise is, Captains Kip and Paul have been hoping to sell the schooner for years. During sailing season, the work is consuming, and they purchased the vessel mainly to prevent it being sold to a Japanese interest that intended to transport it overseas and convert it into a restaurant. The last of her generation of Maine schooners, the Victory Chimes has the distinction of gracing the tails side of the Maine quarter.

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Congratulations, Victory Chimes! You know you’ve made it when you’re on currency. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The problem is, buyers aren’t coming forward. When Kip and Paul need to call it a career, I can only hope that somebody has the means and skill to take the helm. For now, the Victory Chimes is shining and delicious, and there’s no reason to assume that someone with a thick wallet and a spacious heart won’t make sure the Maine quarter doesn’t need to be revised. A final note on the boat: sailing with strangers for a few days has a way of inviting human authenticity. Kathy and I offered and received some personal stories that the waves and wind held in holiness, as if the water and air made themselves a cathedral. We told one couple a few years our senior about son Micah’s struggles with addiction and they responded with the wrenching account of their own daughter’s passing at twenty-six from the same lying thief. There was no judgment, no idiotic fixing. Just humans meeting each other in a nave and breathing in and out what is and what has been.

       A walk with Kathy on North Haven included two surprises. First, I’m pretty sure we saw author Susan Minot—no biggie, but neat. Second, we passed Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church, which is for sale, a sign that the pews are anything but full on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. I took pictures of the exterior and was joined by two other Victory Chimes passengers, all of us staring up at the rust and rot. On a whim, I tried the door. Surprise! Unlocked.

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Our Lady of Peace

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I don’t imagine Our Lady of Peace will have a forwarding address.

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The nave from the balcony

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Organ in the balcony–an instrument deprived of its liturgy?

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One of the Stations of the Cross, hanging on an uninsulated wall.

This may sound odd coming from a Lutheran pastor, but I don’t particularly care if individuals go to church. Non-churchgoers meet me, look at the ground, and get stumbly and awkward. My attitude: I’m in no position to judge your beliefs. I do admit to being concerned, though. If human beings lose the longing to know the Ultimate and the impulse to gather with other pilgrims for adoration—of anything!—our race has a collective case of spiritual anemia. Of all the lights shining before going out in Maine, the rusty lamp of Our Lady of Peace on North Haven left me with a simple prayer.

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“Lamps will rust. Please don’t let the flame go out.”

       Some goodbyes, while serious, are also funny. On the way home, Kathy took a picture at a rest area on I-90 west in New York State, not far from home.

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Observation of an novice curmudgeon: Why not, “No littering”?

       I’m confident the written word has a few more generations of vitality before it takes on the shine of a long goodbye. That possibility is so far off that I laughed in our tune-less truck at the drawing of an arm hanging out a car window, its hand letting go of litter. Even a bummer has to lighten up once in a while.

Misgivings of a Cosmos Hugger

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Carl Sagan, who had “billions and billions” of fans. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old Wikipedia tells me that “tree hugger may refer to a slang, sometimes derogatory, term for environmentalists.” If people consumed with ecosystems are dismissed as tree huggers, then you can write me off as a cosmos hugger. I’m in love with and worried about our whole existential collect: ginkgo bilobas, Carl Sagan, black dogs, harvest moons, avocados, even my neighbor who scraped his shovel as loudly as possible across the street in front of his house to clear 1/8 inch of snow—at 6:40 this morning, while I was enjoying in-breaths and out-breaths in the Ultimate Presence. Breathing in, I hear my neighbor shoveling. Breathing out, I smile at my $%#@ neighbor.

Because of my cosmos-huggerly love for neighbors of all shapes and sizes, all animals, vegetables, and minerals, all solar flares and black holes, I’ve had misgivings about the implications of several news stories in recent years. The following goodbyes and greetings have me stroking my beard and raising a cautionary finger.

Pluto Is No Longer a Planet.

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Computer-generated impression of the Plutonian surface. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The demotion of our distant neighbor Pluto is actually old news, but I still haven’t accepted it. Back in 2006, news.nationalgeographic.com reported that “the distant, ice-covered world is no longer a true planet, according to a new definition of the term voted on by scientists.” And what is a planet? “A full-fledged planet is an object that orbits the sun and is large enough to have become round due to the force of its own gravity. In addition, a planet has to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit.” Pluto, it turns out, is a scrawny hunk of ice with an “untidy” orbit.

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Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The scientists’ definition is based on buff rather than character. The report notes the trouble ahead—I’m not sure how/when it was handled. Now a dwarf plant, Pluto will have to be written out of textbooks, an expensive proposition. I’m ambivalent about other important, but cheap problems. 1.) We can no longer remember the planets in order by saying, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.” Now we’ll have to go with the same sentence with nachos or nectarines at the end. Either option is feeble. And 2.) What are we to do with Mickey Mouse’s English Pointer? Call him Neptune? Harrumph. So if the eighth planet is exiled, we’ll have a dog named Uranus? Imagine children at Disney Land pointing and shouting that. I vote we consider Pluto at least an honorary member of our solar system.

Okay, Who Made Off with My Cents Symbol?

I’m not such a grump as to expect to find the cents symbol, ¢, on my MacBook Air keyboard. There’s not much use for it anymore. Charlie Anderson offers on his website a detailed explanation for ¢’s disappearance—too detailed for this appreciation. In short, with the advent of computers in the 1960’s, engineers started fussing with keyboards, and pennies weren’t the only layoffs: “Three handy fractions were [also] cut: ¼  ½  ¾. This makes sense, especially when you consider that the ASCII [the American Standard Code for Information Interchange] committee was composed of engineers. I’m sure they thought, in their engineer’s way, ‘Why have ¼ but not 1/3?  And if we have 1/3, then why not 1/5?  Or 3/32?’ Similarly, the committee apparently found $0.19 an acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, way of expressing the price of a Bic pen. At any rate, the popular and useful cent sign didn’t make it.”

I have two kvetches about the ¢ issue. First, including “¢” in this text required over ten minutes of noodling around on the Internet for instructions. Yes, there is a generic cent symbol, but it’s clunky; it fits in like a welder’s mask with a prom gown.

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Rolling into the sunset. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My second misgiving hasn’t come to pass, but it’s inevitable. Now that ¢ is becoming obscure, its main tenant faces eviction. RetireThePenny.org is leading the charge. MIT Professor and site founder Jeff Gore says, “The penny has outlived its usefulness. Let’s retire it.” His suggestion deserves consideration. If, as Gore argues, a penny actually costs 2.4¢ to produce, and if, all angles considered, “the penny drains almost $900 million from the national economy every year,” then, well, points taken. Here are my cautionary fingers: 1.) Any time financial decisions get made in the land of the free, the wealthy seem to benefit. Just saying. 2.) This may be quack economic theory, but if the penny disappears, I bet nearly all costs will be rounded up to the nearest nickel, dime, quarter, or dollar. Price tags won’t get rounded down. Watch and see. And 3.) Penny wise and pound foolish would slide into oblivion along with a penny saved is a penny earned and other useful expressions. So let’s keep the penny, even if children born today won’t learn what ¢ means in grammar school.

Goodbye to John Hancock?

“Is Cursive Writing Dead?” So barks cbsnews.com, and with good reason. “The recently established Common Core State Standards, the standardized educational benchmarks for U.S. public schools, omit cursive as a requirement. Some states, including Indiana and Hawaii, had dropped cursive from their curricula in favor of keyboard proficiency as early as 2011.”

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“I don’t read cursive.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

I get this decision and can go with it, but my cosmic Spidey sense tingles. Yes, handwriting as a whole is diminishing, while cents-less keyboards take over. And I admit, writing with a pen or pencil for any length of time now hurts. Still, consider a devil’s advocate. At the trial of the neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman, witness Rachel Jeantel was asked to read a letter. With “her head bowed, [she] murmured with embarrassment, “I don’t read cursive.” So when we no longer teach cursive in schools, we’re leaving behind not only writing in that script, but also reading it. Someday, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address will be as accessible as cuneiform—sad. Also, learning cursive may nurture patience and attention to detail in young, attention-strapped minds.

Starbucks friend John disagrees with me on cursive, and he’s usually right. We’ll all just read translations. I won’t go down swinging on teaching curls and loops.

Name Public Places That Are Quiet.

The first place that comes to mind is the library, right? Not anymore, at least at my beloved local library. Ed Palattella of the Erie Times-News is only the messenger, so he’s not in my crosshairs. As he reports, because “it often does seem quite noisy and loud in Blasco Library,” Mary Rennie, the Erie County Public Library’s director, is “looking to set a little bit of ambience.” We’re talking “mostly ‘soft classical’ and jazz” over “the library’s overhead speaker system.”

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Shh! Burlingame Library, Burlingame, San Mateo, California (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rennie is probably a bright, thoughtful person, but noooooooo! True, libraries tend to be soaring spaces in which sound echoes, but for once in my life, I’m in favor of stern figures with furrowed brows and zero tolerance. Palattella ends his short piece with this surrender: “Music at Blasco. It is a tune of the times.” I’m going to the mat on this one—not that it matters. In monasteries and libraries, silence is foundational. Posses of inflexible librarians should be sent as missionaries to convert the rude and blathering with tough love. Shhh!

Glassholes, Glassholes Everywhere?

Good Lord, if the Google Glass site I’m checking out right now is legit, residents of the First World are either doomed or blessed. You probably already know the idea: put on a pair of these techno-glasses and “Say ‘take a picture’ to take a picture.” Or “Record what you see. Hands free.” Or “Speak to send a message.” Or “Ask whatever’s on your mind.” Want to know how to say “half a pound” in Chinese? You’re covered.

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Please look at me when I’m talking to you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m all for immediate access to information, but my cautionary finger points down another path. Google warns us not to be glassholes: in other words, with wondrous technology propped on our noses, remember to “respect others” and “be polite.” Yeah, right. With the cosmos’ current text-messaging drunkenness, can we really expect ourselves to pay attention to our fellow human beings when the next message or the latest swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated pops up in our face?

Could any technological advance be harder to manage? Well, yes. Consider the smart contact lens currently in development. “Imagine texting while driving,” writes Brian Snyder of Reuters, “or placing a call while showering, without holding your phone in your hands. It’s not sci-fi any more – a new technology allows information like text messages and driving directions to be projected onto a contact lens.”

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Bionic contact lens. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine what’s next. (Warning: I’m pushing the envelope!) You and I are making love, and I’m looking into your eyes. Only I’m looking into someone else’s eyes, a projection. And I look down and see another body. It’s flawless. Each mole and stretch mark is gone. Wow!

Enough. You get the idea and might call me a worrywart. Maybe so. But this cosmos hugger has misgivings. In a universe where the humble ¢ and icy Pluto are unworthy, where music passes for silence, are scarlet scars—they’re lovely, actually—on mothers’ bellies sacred? Won’t it be irresistible to eliminate saddle bags by seeing them with artificial eyes?

What good is the cosmos when we can see constellations without looking up at the sky?

Micro-Post: The World Is Pulling My Leg

At the Millcreek Mall, Micah and I pass the Food Court and a pet store on the way to the E-cig kiosk. Smells: from Subway to General Tso’s chicken to pizza to a chemical cleaner that’s no match for pet poo.

A couple of kids play with a pup–maybe a Weimaraner, not sure–through the glass. The transaction seems friendly. The kids aren’t taunting; the dog’s having fun, spinning, reaching its paws toward them.

As I wait for Micah to pick up his cappuccino-flavored liquid tobacco, I begin to feel as though I’m from another world. Earth is pulling my leg.

In front of me is an establishment devoted mostly to eyebrows and eyelashes.

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“Oh,” I think, “you can get some kind of fabric woven into your eyebrows if you want them darker or you can make a weak mustache sturdy with facial threading.” But an eye-hair business? In this world, gracious, what you can buy!

After Micah pays, we head back the way we came. “Can you believe it,” I say, “a place where all they do is weave fake hair into your eyebrows and grow your lashes?”

“Uh, Dad,” Micah says, “I think with threading they roll thread over your hair to pull it out.”

Ah. Duly noted.

Back by the pet store, the kids are gone. The dog is lying in its cage–looking for more kids?

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In this world, animals that we consider friends are for sale. Dozens here alone, like sofas or flat screen televisions.

We sell what can love, fear, even save. And we micro-manage our eyebrows.

Dear World, please stop fooling around. Some of these jokes make me tired and sad.