Friday, December 9, 2016

Sitting in the dark, talkin' 'bout the light


Growing up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, during the 1950's, the Christmas season began when the Sears Christmas Catalog arrived. It was the liturgical book of the season without peer. We pored over its pages and then wrote our prayers to Santa Claus, who knew when we were sleeping, knew when we were awake, but who still relied on the USPS to receive our prayers.  In the Baptist church, Christmas was the birthday of Jesus. There was no christology that I ever noticed. There was a cantata and a pageant. I had my first beard as Joseph in the pageant one year. It was glued on. 

Over the years I sort of forgot about the church and such things. Christmas was still a lot of fun. Trees and music and gifts. When I was married, we always had a life tree which we put up on Santa Lucia's Day, because it was also my wife's birthday, and planted on Christmas day. Everyone else slept while I took down the decorations as I watched a ballet on NBC. Then we planted it.

Later, I discovered that there was more to Christianity than Jezebel and Ahab, who had been the subject of nearly all the sermons of my youth, and that there was more to prayer than sending a wish list off to an old man, wherever he lived. I discovered other liturgical books than the Sears Christmas Catalogue. And I discovered Anglicanism, which has had about the best prayers one can find. I use the past perfect tense intentionally. One of the best is this jewel:

'ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.'

That prayer is the Anglican collect for the First Sunday in Advent, 'to be said throughout Advent'. It was newly written by Thomas Cranmer to replace the Sarum Collect, which had been one of the 'Stir up's':

'Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy power, and come, that we may be accounted worthy to be rescued by thy protection from the threatening dangers of our sins to be set free by Thy deliverance'

The changes are not, I think, insignificant. I think it shows Cranmer in a quite anti-Lutheran mood. Our rising to immortality needs us to do things. But even more important is that it seems to recognize that things in this mortal life are not only not as they seem, but not as they should be. The Sarum collect suggests that things are not as they seem, but that the Lord will come and see them rightly, 

Both recognize a significant awareness that had been dawning on the church of a very long time. The Christ had not restored everything to any easily recognized good and perfect order, and that he didn't seem to be coming back soon.

Cranmer was writing at a time when the even the idea of Christendom, headed in the west by the Pope of Rome, was crumbling. He published his first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. Ninety-nine years later, at Utrecht, the crumbs would be sorted out. 

Advent has pretty well fallen out of the public consciousness, even though many DIY churches are beginning to 'observe' it again. The Roman  church no longer even has standards for Advent fasting. Only the Orthodox, with St. Phillip's Fast, or the old hold outs for St. Martin's Fast in the West keep the fast that traditionally was the precursor to a feast. 

But I think it is worth considering what Advent suggests, even though we might not like it. It suggests that the Nativity was a failure. Yup. We will sing Watt's big hymn, 'Joy to the World', and talk about the 'real meaning of Christmas'. This is of course bullshit. The real meaning of Christmas is buying stuff at Macy's. We might keep the pretence until the 2ND of January, the conclusion of one of the few Octaves left on our calendar. But, sins and sorrows will once more grow, thorns will infest the ground, and the idea that 'the nations prove the glories of his righteousness' is a joke at best, despite the best efforts of Cranmer and the Twdors, even despite the best efforts of Elizabeth of Windsor.

This Advent, do we, do the church, do anyone, really believe that Christ will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead. I seriously doubt it. So, we play at Christmas. Which has some problems. If we take it seriously as history, as the story is told, Jesus came to accomplish a bunch of stuff which he mostly doesn't accomplish--I mean, 500 or 5000 people being fed once hasn't much helped the folks who have starved since. Then he scoots back up into the sky and sits down a the right hand of the Father.  

Playing at Christmas probably isn't such a bad thing if one thinks of the whole cycle of the 
Christian year and its many feasts and symbolisms, but we threw that away when we left the farm. Having a yearly cycle is just that. A cycle. Shit happens. It gets cleaned up. But we can't rest, because it will happen again. 



The Second Advent is a different sort of thing entirely. It is a deus ex machina about which we have little control. Cranmer's collect suggested a way of preparing for it that had been missing in the previous collect. But it is still beyond our control. Jesus knew this when he refused to be played with the crowd in Jerusalem who wanted him to be their king. His idea of a kingdom was famously within, independent of Jerusalem. But ideas about Jesus have always been more central to Christianity than has Jesus. 

Unfortunately, there have been plenty of men much less wise than Jesus who have been quite happy to play the role of deus ex machina, to be king. 

I can, I think, do no better than to quote Yeats:

'Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart' the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

'Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty century of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'

And, being an old jouster with windmills, I will conclude with the short form of Cranmer's collect, with the caveat that one should always be careful what one prays for:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life.






Sunday, October 23, 2016

Childhoods' ends


It's nearly November, the Month of the Dead in some calendars, and therefore it seems a good time to ponder the meaning of life and everything.

When I was a very young child, I was a cowboy. I wore cowboy boots, and carried a six gun. It was a cap pistol six gun, of course. The best one I ever had I was given for my fourth birthday, because it came with chaps and a vest. Indeed, my fourth birthday may have been the best ever. We lived next door to Mrs. Dodson, the world's greatest cake maker, and she made me a birthday cake with a cowboy whose lariat spelled out happy birthday before circling my name.

That cap pistol was probably the most effective I ever had, as well as being my favorite. Just like I had seen Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers do on my grandparent' TV, I jumped out of a tree and hit another cowboy, one of the Barkley boys, whose grandmother lived across the street, on the head, knocking him out cold. Cool. Of course, none of the mothers agreed.

Alas, the cap gun of the four-year-old me, despite being my favorite, was not entirely satisfactory. As often as possible I compared the cap guns and archery sets--I liked being an Indian, too; young boys often have multiple personalities--at the dime stores. We were blessed with both a Woolworth's and a McCrory's. My first allowance was 25 cents, and that introduced me to the difficult first world problem of choosing how to dispose one's disposable income. Twenty-five cents would buy both a movie ticket and popcorn or Jujubes, or it could be saved to buy some truly wonderful new kit for the wild west at one of the dime stores.

The ultimate cap gun technology, which required quite a lot of savings, even when my allowance was increased to 75 cents a week, was the Mattel Fanner Fifty. At first, it was just a legend, advertised on television. Then one of the boys who occasionally met up at the Donut Shop on Flint Street actually had one. I don't remember now who it was, but he let us touch it. I had to have one. The Fanner Fifty was much more realistic than the run-of-the-mill pistols that used roll caps, because it had a revolving magazine with six shots, just like real revolvers. Then you had to reload. Now every shot had to count.

The limits of my imaginary west came each day when, alas, my mother would call me in for the night. She frowned on cap guns being fired in the house.

Over the years, my favourite imaginary personhood would evolve. The young cowboy was replaced by the young scientist. One of the big advantages of that persona was that after a day of making field trips to Christian Creek or neighbors' gardens, I could then do experiments until that terrible time when my mother made me turn out the lights.

Over the years I have been a historian, an amateur mechanic, a potter, a priest, a kayaker, a hiker, a monk a physicist, all of whom have collected the ephemera of their trades. Untold trips to the stores that replaced Woolworth's and McCrory's have again and again forced me to make hard choices. Even though the amount of money I have allowed myself to spend on new toys has varied from time to time from $10 a week to $100 a week or $1000 a week, there have always been new wonders to peak my interests. Often I have had to decide whether I would prefer a new toy and making coffee at home, or waiting a week or a month and having coffee at the cafe.

Although I have had many collections over the years, I have never considered myself a very serious collector. When my interests have moved on, I have found it easy to disperse one collection to make room for another, usually selling things cheaply or giving them away rather than taking the trouble to realize a profit or even minimize my losses. It's never been the cap gun or the microscope or the snow shoes that I have valued, but the experiences they have allowed me to enjoy.


Now that I am old, the world I enjoy exploring is rather different from the muddy banks of Christian Creek, and some would argue is less real. I don't think it's any less real at all. The Christian Creek of my imagination was much more important to me than the red clay and sewage of reality. The world of the internet lets me explore much more widely than I ever was allowed to do as a child. In junior high, the boys in the two houses to the east of ours and I tried to dig to China. We failed. Now I have friends in China who send me photographs of their adventures there every day.

Still, I like the toys that allow me those adventures. BestBuy and Amazon have replaced Woolworth's and McCrory's, but the fun of exploring, of trying to decide how to spend my 25 cents, has not diminished. I still have to choose from the bounty that seems renewed every week. But in my seventy-first year, it seems November comes around more quickly than ever before, and I am aware that all one's childhoods do end. My mother will not call me in, or tell me to turn out the light, but death will. I do not think it is the one who dies with the most toys who wins, but the one who enjoys his toys the most.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Running away again, always Wanted to. What Am I To Do? Can't Help it.



I first ran away from home when I was nearly five. It was a classic trip. I gathered my belongings in a red bandana, tied them to a short bamboo pole, and started out, heading west. Southwest, actually. I got to two blocks south and five blocks west and decided that by then I must have been missed enough at home that my mother would properly appreciate me. (I was suffering from the coming of a baby brother.) When I returned home, I had not been missed at all. She had assumed I had been playing behind the garage, which was where I often hung out to make bombs to prepare for the defense against the coming invasion of Jefferson Avenue by the Soviets.

In those days Jonesboro, Arkansas, was called by the Chamber of Commerce 'The City Ready for Tomorrow'. It may have been ready for tomorrow, but it never seemed to me quite ready for today, so much of my life would be spent leaving and coming back tomorrow to see if it were ready. First I left for Memphis and Chicago and Memphis, to attend school and to teach school. But I was stricken with parenthood, and returned to Jonesboro so the offspring could enjoy being grandchildren. The grass, however, remained greener on the other side of the Mississippi. I returned to Memphis for more education and more teaching. From Memphis I would venture forth to Santa Fe and then to Charleston, both of which I enjoyed very much. (I just realized I have not discussed my Charleston sojourn in this little narrative, an omission I shall try to correct.) I would return to Jonesboro yet again, in episodes described in this blog as 'Hills of Home 1 &2'.

In 2001 I would run away from Jonesboro yet again, this time to the Northwest, and much farther than two blocks and five. As I was packing to depart for an undecided destination, which needed to have water and mountains, I received a letter from a friend I had met in Santa Fe who was now living in Seattle.  Come to Seattle, he said. I would like it, he said. There are water and mountains in one convenient location, he said. I did. He was right. Some of my adventures in the Great Northwest are described in a blog bit I wrote a while ago. It is not, however, the adventure of coming up here to Washington State but the complex feelings I have come to have of home since moving here.

I have been an inconsistent Cascadian. When people ask me how long I have been in Port Townsend, my current home address, I can truthfully say 'since 2001', since that was when I first washed up upon these shores. But, even though I have come to love this area, I am an inconstant lover. I have twice gone back to the Ozarks for visits that always turn out to be longer than expected. Sometimes I say that the Ozarks are my wife and Cascadia is my mistress. Both are beautiful. The truth is, however, that the Ozarks are a little too torrid for me in my old age. The temperatures there in the summer often rise to levels at which old people are advised to stay inside. I have become old people.

The most significant difference in my old age running away from home from my four year old's running away is the method I now use. In my romantic view of myself, I am about to run away on my bicycle.


Or perhaps I will take the wheel of a dragon boat, and go forth once more upon the seas.



But the reality is that more often than not, except for a few excursions by bicycle, usually day trips, my window on the world has become a screen connected by long strings of binary numbers to a universe far bigger than the 2x5 grid of my childhood or the longest trips of my adulthood.


It is true that I conceive of that screen as the ship of a space pirate At one time I would have--indeed did--dismiss such conceptions as falling short of reality, of being delusional. But it also true that my web surfing has taken me to experiences at least as profound as any I have had on mountains or the sea. (I called my previous Chromebook the Silver Surfer.)  

There is, I suspect, a very valid reason that all of the people with whom I was sharing the beach yesterday were holding a small screen in their hand. Were they running away? Perhaps. Perhaps some of them were unhappy at home, feeling as unappreciated as I did when I was four and had to share my mother with a new brother. But it seems just as likely that they were running towards a bigger world, a world that is not ready for tomorrow but is tomorrow, ready or not. 

What I am pretty sure of is that I do enjoy the varieties of ways I now have of exploring the world. I'm not ready to give up my bicycle, and I am considering buying another kayak. But I also enjoy wandering around in Google Earth, and playing a sea farer in The Legend of Zelda Windwaker, and I ain't ashamed to say so.



Friday, March 25, 2016

I'm Voting Red (at least this week)



I'm voting red this week, not in the sense of republican rather than democrat, but in the sense of LG rather than Samsung. This little essay is an amplification of a response I posted on an old friend's Facebook page. She asked, 'Where's the real presidential candidates?' I said, 'Doing more important things than circus acts'. I thought I might explain.

First, the context of red versus blue. I once was a serious Samsung fanboy. I more or less accidentally replaced my ancient Nokia flip phone (you remember Nokia, the not socialist company in not socialist Osmoo,Finland), with a Samsung phone which had some features I wanted.  It was a great device. Since it ran Android, I called it R2D3, and it served me faithfully for years. I bought all sorts of other Samsung devices, talked friends into buying Samsung devices, and gave lots of Samsung devices to kids for Pangur Ban Learners. I jokingly said that I was sending Samsung so much money because I wanted them to be big enough to buy North Korea.

Then one spring day, I accidentally drowned my second Samsung phone. AT that time, I still liked Samsung hardware, I was ready to ditch Touchwiz. I bought a LG Nexus 5, and peripherals. I bought a NVIDIA tablet because I was by then hooked on pure Android. A few months ago, I gave away my last Samsung device, a really great little camera, to a good home because I wasn't using it.

I have devoted two paragraphs to my conversion from blue to red to illustrate how painlessly and peacefully change can happen. I had voluntarily joined team blue, but they didn't try to shame me when I went to team red. Two clicks got me off the Samsung mailing list. I voluntarily gave money to two giant Korean corporations, who in return provided me goods and services. They are two of the giant pan-national corporations that have changed the way I interact with the world every day, and which I see condemned in a lot of my friends' posts every day.

Compare this situation to the present american presidential campaign, the circus acts.

In ring one, the leader 'republican' candidate is accusing the second place dude, the son of a Cuban, but born in Canada, of not being a real American, and therefore not really eligible to be president. I am writing this essay on a Chromebook that I purchased from a corporation of which you may have heard. It was founded by the son of a Cuban. It is called Amazon. I have spent a few hundred dollars with Amazon this past week, because Amazon allow me  access to goods that are not sold in small sea-side artsy fartsy towns catering to tourists.

In ring two, the democratic president has just ended a trip to Cuba, for which the republican congress has criticized him not just for talking to communists but for not worrying enough about ISIL, which some consider a byproduct of one of their own programs.  Although the trade embargo against Cuba has long outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any, the congress is not likely to end it any time soon. Meanwhile, two friends from college, one of them a son of Michigan, one of them a son of godless Russia (you know: Russia before Putin but after Nicholas) are looking for ways their corporation might bring real connectivity with the outside world to Cubans. Don't know their company? Google it.

In ring three, the democratic candidates for president are using all the doublespeak they can muster to pretend to be in favor of privacy while still letting the government snoops know everything about any of us at any time. While they posture as protectors of the people, and while they are even mouthing good things about gay rights, the gay ceo of the first or second most valuable corporation in the world is actually standing up to the government about privacy: Apple's Tim Cook, who someone called yesterday 'the president of the world'.

I think there is real change happening, and it is happening because people are cooperating to work with each other. They work in corporations, so they can have enough concerted money and minds to effect those changes. But our participation in those changes, despite what we may claim on Facebook, is voluntary. Samsung don't require me each year to pay them any percentage of my income at all. That is a monopoly reserved to the governments of the world. I don't have to use a smart phone. I could write this essay on the back of a napkin with a pencil and mail it to the local newspaper.

An example, perhaps, of a sideshow, but one I, as someone who has been involved off and on over the past seven decades in efforts to educate myself and help others educate themselves, is how corporations' efforts to improve education compared to government programs, a topic that is a big part of some of the candidates rhetoric. Both Bill and Melinda Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are heavily involved in trying to figure out how to improve education. Consider, for a moment, the Zuckerberg/Chan approach. They fund experiments which may be adopted by a school system if they desire. Rather than legislate what must be done by everyone, they suggest programs that might be expected to work. It's easy to abandon what doesn't, and try something else. It's pragmatic and flexible, and I suspect much more likely to be helpful than massive reorganizations like'No Child Left Behind' or 'STEM'.

I will conclude by suggesting that the world is in a situation as crucial as any since the Thirty Years War. I see Citizens United v. FEC as parallel to, if not Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, then the Augsburg Confession. We tend to forget that it was only four hundred and fifty years ago that the Peace of Westphalia forced acceptance of the concept of national sovereignty that is now being challenged by corporate sovereignty. It is of course really too early to predict the outcome of the current struggle, although I firmly believe the forces of history are on the side of the corporations, and that rather than lament change, we try to understand it. In that sense, I am voting with those who want to see outsiders in power, with those who are bring about real change, and  I am quite happy to see them remain outside the government.