Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That

Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That

I am pleased to report that two horses have recently joined the faculty of animals in the fields surrounding Oniontown. They have signed on with those who endure the frustrating job of teaching the Reverend John Coleman a remedial course, Life 101.

I’m as eager a student as you’ll find in the great class of spiritual seekers in northwestern Pennsylvania and beyond, but one thorn sticks in my flesh: forgetfulness.

The same lessons present themselves to me “ad nauseam,” and each time a bashful idea arises: “Oh yeah, I used to know that.”

By way of set up for my latest epiphany, I should note that some little spitballs stick to my mental chalkboard. In 1956, before my time, E. B. White considered old versus new in his essay “Coon Tree”: “We have two stoves in our kitchen here in Maine–a big black iron stove that burns wood and a small white electric stove that draws its strength from the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company. We use both. One represents the past, the other represents the future. If we had to give up one in favor of the other and cook on just one, there isn’t the slightest question in anybody’s mind in my household which one we’d keep. It would be the big black Home Crawford 8-20, made by Walker & Pratt, with its woodbox that has to be filled with wood, its ashpan that has to be emptied of ashes, its flue pipe that has to be renewed when it gets rusty, its grates that need freeing when they get clogged, and all its other foibles and deficiencies.”

White’s dedication to the old and simple and tried and tested has made a lasting impression on me. His reservations about progress–everything from nuclear power to telephone systems unsupervised by operators–might seem curmudgeonly to contemporary eyes, but current research is rising up to prove how right he was in many of his disputations. (More on that another time.)

His words have never been wasted on me. I’ve been guided, for example, by his devotion to simplicity and common sense. Wife Kathy and I have lately cut our square footage in half and relieved ourselves of possessions by the hundreds. Thanks in part to the writer his friends knew as “Andy,” I’m not defeated by a big house to clean or smothered by what Kathy loves to call “items.”

And now, thanks to two lovely horses on District Road near St. John’s, a joyful thought has returned, something I used to know and hope never to forget again.

Round bales disappearing into a cold, damp field on District Road

Those horses, then, were up to nothing whatsoever. As I drove past, they stood close together, noses almost touching as they bent to meager fare on the winter ground. An impression came to me immediately like a kiss on the cheek: “They look happy.”

If you know me personally or by words alone, you know that it doesn’t take much wind to set my soul sailing. As I imagined over and over that pair of professors grazing, a glad possibility stayed with me for the rest of that day and hasn’t disappeared yet.

In the midst of delightful travels on Route 19 and District Road, one cloud has darkened my sky. “What a boring life those animals must lead,” I’ve speculated. Through no neglect or fault of their owners, the hours and afternoons must stretch out in front of the cows and horses—cold, snowy, damp, muddy and endless.

Go ahead, have a good laugh at my foolishness, but I’m telling the truth. Pastor John has been nursing a genuine, though ignorant, pity for Oniontown’s teachers of Life 101.

It’s a relief to realize that animals don’t need entertainment or diversions. Neither do they speak in sentences or contemplate mortality. They’re fine—thank you very much—just being together, breathing, dining on corral salad and rubbing noses now and then.

They don’t obsess over ambitions and failures or fret about risky investments or an oncologist’s diagnosis. In the end, animals probably don’t require a neurotic fifty-something’s sympathy.

Funny thing, I have a ceramic plaque hanging under a cross at home in the den. The words from Abraham Joshua Heschel are three feet from my nose: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

In their own way, cows and horses understand the great rabbi’s philosophy. So did I, not too long ago. I’m indebted to them for the gentle reminder.

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Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour

Oniontown Pastoral: A County Tour

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Prescription for discouragement: a look out at the soybean field behind St. John’s Lutheran Church and a dose of E. B. White’s wisdom

When I get discouraged about the civilized world, I often turn to E. B. “Andy” White, essayist for The New Yorker and Harper’s and author of Charlotte’s Web. White was not only a great prose stylist, but the last century’s most devoted naysayer to change.

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E. B. White at his Maine farm in 1977 (Credit: Getty Images)

He frowned upon atomic energy: “I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority.”

He rejected conventional wisdom: “Many of the commonest assumptions, it seems to me, are arbitrary ones: that the new is better than the old, the untried superior to the tried, the complex more advantageous than the simple, the fast quicker than the slow, [and] the big greater than the small.”

And he challenged orthodoxy—and got my mind working just the other day: “Our whole economy hangs precariously on the assumption that the higher you go the better off you are, and that unless more stuff is produced in 1958 than was produced in 1957, . . . you are headed for trouble, living in danger and maybe in squalor.”

I agree, but wondered, “Is growth necessary for a healthy United States economy?” Actually, I hoped the investigation might lead to existential insights—my habitual trajectory of thought.

The Internet ambushed me with economic principles. Turns out experts disagree so diametrically that Andy could be heard laughing from the curmudgeons’ bleachers in heaven.

I also received a wave of nausea for my research efforts. In 2014, Forbes printed Peter Ferrara’s “Why Economic Growth Is Exponentially More Important Than Income Inequality,” which presents dizzying statistics and a blueprint for our technological future.

The author rhapsodizes over futuristic physicist Michio Kaku, who claims, “When you need to see a doctor, you’ll talk to a wall in your home, and an animated artificially intelligent doctor will appear. You’ll scan your body with a hand-held MRI machine, the ‘Robodoc’ will analyze the results, and you’ll receive a diagnosis that is 99% accurate.”

My AI doc better be more skillful than my smart phone. Siri, my allegedly intelligent assistant, can’t locate a Dunkin Donuts. Why should I trust a virtual endocrinologist with my pancreas?

More to the point, why would I ever confide in a wall? In 1955, White grumbled at his telephone company “for having saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators.” My misgivings about healthcare via hologram will seem similarly quaint in eighty years.

Still, I have a quick response for Ferrara and Kaku: “I’ll pass!”

Give me Andy instead. He was never a churchgoer, but he held a divining rod for the sacred. And he would have delighted in the county tour parishioner Dave, a retired cow veterinarian, took me on last week.

We wandered a 4-H Club show, where I visited Jocelyn and her prize-winning cows and greeted pigs, goats, a llama and an alpaca.

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St. John’s Lutheran Church’s very own Jocelyn with Dilly and Luci

We browsed at McCartney’s Feed and Hardware, which is packed with implements exotic to my city eyes and operates without cash registers. The clerks make change directly out of their pockets.

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Exotic to my eyes, anyway: a “boot jack”

And Dave took me to the farmland he owns with wife Anne, where I got a primer on round bales and found out that cows can sleep out under the stars.

Andy would have pronounced the tour medicinal. Even now, his commentary on the wondrous land and skepticism about progress persist in my imagination. “A 99% accurate Robodoc might increase longevity,” he might ask, “but will the extra years hold any savor?”

While pastoring in my beloved Oniontown, I’ll honor E. B. White’s words and devote myself to “living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

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