— “Morning Mist Over the Creek” by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL Feb. 6, 2013
Steve Shoemaker (RIP) was the Views from the Edge colleague whose verses and poems, written in the middle of the night, were sent to “his publisher” from his iPhone before dawn. Five of Steve’s verses/poems are republished in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. At six-feet eight inches, he towered above the crowd. In this photo, his 6’8″ frame rests on a 1,000+ year-old Bristlecone Pine above the tree line. – GCS
“Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.” –Maxwell Bodenheim, quoted in Ben Hecht’s play Winkelberg (1958).
North American culture of 2019 is like a house on fire. Words like ‘holy’ and holiness’ are . . . well… relics of tradition. We’re free thinkers, not … not like that!
It was, I suppose, a coincidence that this post caught my eye while reading G.K. Chesterton’s view of democracy and tradition, yet the two readings strike me leading upstream to the same source.
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead,” wrote 34 year-old Chesterton nearly a century ago in a book with an arcane title (Orthodoxy) that sends us free thinkers running from a house fire.
Although it seemed outdated at the time, I now remember with nostalgia the rest I knew as a child on Sundays when the noise and distractions were stilled. We opened the windows, breathed fresh air, gave thanks we were still breathing, and went down for a long afternoon nap.
When my most intimate companion failed to respond as normal, I feared she had suffered a stroke like the cerebral hemorrhage that took Uncle Bob years ago. Uncle Bob was the smartest guy in South Paris, the Harvard Law valedictorian who, against all expectation, had made South Paris his home until he suddently dropped dead leading the Congregational Church’s Annual Meeting. He had shown no signs of stress during worship, directing the Choir from the organ bench as he had for 25 years. Church meetings are like that — they often raise a leader’s blood pressure — but this was different! All of a sudden he was gone.
Like Uncle Bob, she showed no signs of stress before retiring last night. She is the one who has done the most of anyone to encourage my writing and publishing — filing things away until I needed them, flagging a mis-spelled word or correcting faulty grammar. I’ve depended on her every day for the past six years. She is more than an assistant. Since the day we met, I’ve turned her on. This morning is different. Nothing turns her on.
I gently carry her to the garage, cover her with a blanket, and drive to the Urgent Care at the Southdale Mall. They admit her for tests and suggest I return in an hour in an hour or so.
“Do you have the time?” I ask.
He gives me a strange look and checks his iPhone. “It’s 10:30. We’ll text you when we’re done. Where can I reach you? What’s your number?”
“I don’t have a number.”
“Okay, how about an email?”
“I don’t have a mobile phone. You know, there are no public clocks anywhere anymore. Everybody’s in a bubble.”
He pauses and looks up. “Hmmm. You know . . .I hadn’t thought about that! Come to think of it, I guess you’re right. “Okay . . .well, just be back by 11:30.”
Anxious and alone with an hour to kill, I wander the corridor from shop to shop before going into Macy’s. It’s easy to distract yourself shopping, and Macy’s is just the place. You can find anything at Macy’s…except a clock. “Excuse me, do you have the time?” I ask the clerk in the men’s shoe department. It’s not a question he gets anymore. He glances at his iPhone, looks up, and, with a strange look, gives me the time: “10:45.”
With forty-five minutes to spare, I remember Macy’s famous Lakeside Grille and follow the confusing signs to catch a late breakfast or early lunch. I tell the waitperson I have an important appointment at 11:30 and ask for the time. “10:50,” he says. “I don’t have a phone. Would you be so kind as to give me a heads up when it’s 11:15?” He takes my order and agrees to notify me. I scarf down the Oktoberfest special of pork schnitzel, spaetzl, and green beans, wondering what time it is. The waitperson is nowhere to be seen. I ask another waitperson, “I’m sorry. Do you have the time?”
I rush back to Urgent Care, anxious about the test results. “Mr. Stewart,” says the neurologist, “I’m sorry. We ran all the tests and the news is not good, but it’s not beyond hope.” I breathe a sigh of relief, waiting for what comes next. “She’s still alive, but she needs immediate surgery. We have a neurologist standing by.” “What’s the cost,” I ask, knowing she has no insurance. “We can replace her keyboard for $485 so you can turn her on again, but she’s old. It’s only a matter of time before she goes. Or you can buy a new one for an additional six-hundred dollars or so. Your call.”
End of life decisions, like putting down my canine companion after fourteen years– are harder than others. For months after Maggie’s death, I swore I’d never get another dog. There’d never be another Maggie. I couldn’t bear the thought of holding another Maggie in my arms when her time would come.
“I’m a writer,” I say. “Like lots of other writers, I have ADHD and sometimes, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I drink too much. I’m completely dependent on her for filing and saving my work. She keeps it all in her head. Besides she’s the only one I’ve ever turned on.”
“Not to worry, Mr. Stewart. If you leave her with us for 24 hours, we’ll be glad to download her memory to the new MacBook Air. We’ll treat her with great respect. We’ll take good care of things. We’ll be glad to recycle her free of charge. As Hemingway said, ‘Time is the last thing we have.'”
I leave her behind to be downloaded and recycled, grieving my loss, but consoled by the knowledge that, life Uncle Bob and Maggie, she will be in a safe place.
It’s four o’clock in the morning. He’s wide awake, his mind swirling. He puts on the hoodie disguise to walk from his white house to the tenement in the ‘hood’ he’s visited before. He avoids the Secret Service and television cameras. He enters the building, takes a deep breath, and lowers himself to climb the rusting metal stairs to the fifth floor walk-up apartment in hopes no one will recognize him.
The tenement-dweller has been waiting for him since their last visit months before. The door is ajar. The tenement-dweller never locks the door. No one needs to knock. The homeless, “women of the night”, pimps, people on the other side of the law, and cops who enforce it, alcoholics and drug addicts, the opioid and heroin dealers, and people in high white places are always welcome here.
The Tenement-Dweller: the Man in the Hood
“Welcome, friend,” says the tenement-dweller. “I’ve wondered when you might come for another visit.” He points to the dumpster chairs — the folding wood chair with the missing slat and the torn red leather wingback to the left and right of the small cardboard box end table. The night visitor chooses the high wingback.
“Can I get you something to drink?” asks the tenement dweller. “I have a nice variety of perfectly good teas. Not to worry; they’re from the dumpster, but they’re still in their wrappers,” he says with a smile. “Camomile is good for a restless night.” The night visitor nods his assent and watches his counselor walk past the rat traps to the Coleman stove and return with the kettle, an assortment of tea bags, two chipped cups, and a small plate of ginger snaps he’d put together for whatever guest might come that morning.
“There’s not much room on this table,” says the tenement dweller, pointing to the cardboard box with the small lamp between the chairs. “Would you mind removing that book to make room for the tray?” The tenement dweller pours the hot water into the cups, and, with a warm smile, gestures toward the tea bags and ginger snaps.
A Privileged Conversation
“Things haven’t gone so well for you since our last visit. You’re still wearing that hoodie! I like that! So … what brings you this morning?”
The night visitor removes his hood.
“I’m a stranger in my own house. I’m more alone than ever. My beautiful wife and beautiful daughter are upset about the thing at the border, and now the Epstein thing. And . . . yesterday the Scaramucci thing. And who knows what’s going to come out of Michael’s big mouth! I can’t even trust FOX any more.”
There is a silence before the tenement-dweller responds.
“Well, that’s a lot to carry.”
“It is. I’m weary and heavy-laden.That’s why I’m here. I’m taking you at your word.”
“I see. I’m glad you remembered, and I’m glad you came back to lay your burden down. But first, I need to clear the air a bit. You hurt my feelings when you attacked Elijah Cummings with those tweets about his district and his character. You called his district a rat and rodent-infested mess. Take a look around, Donald. What do you see? That’s where you are. Take a look at me. What color do you think I am?
“And all those people in concentration camps at the border, the wink-winks toward the gun lobby after all these mass shootings, and the cruelty of calling poor people fleeing for their lives ‘invaders.’ You know as well as I do that there is no invasion at the border. The people in those camps and the people in my neighborhood are as dear to me as you are. And now this thing with Israel and two Muslim congresswomen. It’s off the rails, Donald. If I didn’t know your need, I would have assumed you’d never put on the hoodie again.
The Book on the Box
“That book from the table, the one on your lap, I got just for you, Donald. I want you to take it home and read it.”
“I don’t read much. I’m a slow reader.”
“I know, and you hide it. You’re embarrassed by it. But it’s just the two of us here. So, let’s do this. You don’t have to read the whole book. Just turn to the bookmarked page and read the highlighted sections I marked for you after our last visit. Read it out loud while we’re still together.”
Donald opens the book and reads aloud:
“The more insecure, doubtful, and lonely we are, the greater our need for popularity and praise. Sadly … the more praise we receive, the more we desire. The hunger for human acceptance is like a bottomless barrel….The search for spectacular glitter is an expression of doubt in God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It is, indeed, putting God to the test. It is saying, ‘I am not sure that you really care, that you really love me, that you really consider me worthwhile. I will give you a chance to show it by soothing my fears with human praise and by alleviating my sense of worthlessness by human applause….’ The….experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others. This new freedom in Christ allows us to move in the world uninhibited by our compulsions….”
Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life
“You got this thinking of me? You think I’m insecure? You think I’m moving in the world compulsively? I don’t need praise, but look at the applause! They love me. They support me. I could shoot somebody in broad daylight standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they’d still love me. I can do whatever I want.”
“Take the book with you, Donald. What I know that you don’t yet know is in the other sections I highlighted just for you. Applause is not love. If applause were love, you wouldn’t have disguised yourself. You wouldn’t have risked coming here. Love is something else. In the end, love is all there is. Think about that on your walk back, and read those pages over and over. Read them every morning before you think about tweeting. Only then will you not feel homeless.”
— Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, MN, August 16, 2019.
How and why the mind works the way it does came to mind these past few days. My mind has been like a river pouring over rapids and waterfalls, splitting into two or three paths around the islets that still rise from the riverbed, and then returning from two or three to one river with a single flow.
Integrating one’s plunges over the falls, side trips around the islets, and tumbling over rapids is what the mind does as it looks back upstream from down river. More often than not, one’s life is a blur. We move with the flow downstream. But once in while, what happened upstream invites or demands reflection.
No moment in the river’s journey is superfluous. Daily routines in periods of calm dull our awareness of the river itself and lay aside questions of its whence and whither until another event, or a memory, moves us to clear the blur. One event or memory leads to others we thought we had forgotten, pushed aside, or left behind.
The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.
Richard Rohr, Yes
Think a moment of all the events and encounters that have shaped you most deeply and lastingly. How many did you see coming? How many did you engineer, manufacture, chase down? How many were interruptions? . . . The span between life as we intend it and life as we receive it is vast. Our true purpose is worked out in that gap. It is fashioned in the crucible of interruptions.
Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath.
All moments are part of the river of whence that flows over rocks and waterfalls, splits, and returns to one on its way to a whither beyond our knowing.
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, August 12, 2019.
“…Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” — Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
Watching BBC/Netflix series The Fall — all three seasons in one huge gulp — led me to recall Arthur Miller’s play by the same title, the Genesis story, and the works of Herman Melville, William Golding … or even John Calvin. The brief appearance mid-way through the series of a 20£ bill with a note scrawled across it in red ink — He who does not love abides in death — and its unanticipated re-appearance in the series’ final scene seemed to this Presbyterian preacher like the subtext from which Allan Cubitt create The Fall.
Great literature likeMoby Dick, and insightful sermons, films and television series are sometimes rooted in, and explicate, a text, a line, an aphorism. Allan Cubitt’s choice of the series’ title calls to mind Arthur Miller’s The Fall and the Hebraic biblical story of humankind’s attempt to master paradise by the raid on what belongs to the Creator alone — the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-8) — that quickly results in fratricide between humankind’s first children.
Cain murders his brother Abel. Abel is blown away. Only Cain remains. But the echo of Abel’s horror remains to spoil the good earth: “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10). Allan Cubbit’s title points to the Genesis story. Likewise, his work, The Pool of Bethesda, is taken from Christian scripture.
Film critic reviews like Sophie Gilbert’s “Netflix’s ‘The Fall’ Comes to a Maddening End in its Third Season” (Nov. 5, 2016) in The Atlantic — express disappointment that The Fall “forgot” to answer “the questions [The Fall] raises about misogyny, madness, and obsession.” They see the bill as a glimpse into the deranged mind of Paul Spector, the serial killer, but nothing more.
The final scene of the final episode of the series begs for more. Stella, the detective who has cracked the case, has returned to solitude in her bloodless London flat. She pours herself a glass of red wine and reads again the red ink message: ”He who does not love abides in death,” the verbatim biblical quotation carefully plucked from the New Testament epistle that focuses on love as life itself, and lovelessness as death (I John 3:14). The note’s reappearance is more than a reminder of the bloody horror Stella seems to have escaped, or a return to the vexing inner workings of Paul Spector’s lethal psyche. It serves a larger purpose: to expose the series’ subtext, throwing a light backward on the inexplicable darkness and obsession with death and raising the question of Stella’s own loveless psyche and future, leaving the viewers to ponder for ourselves the complexities of love and life, lovelessness and death.
Works of art do not give answers. Neither does Cubitt’s The Fall. They do not explain reality; they describe it — the mystifying entanglement of lovelessness and love, of evil and goodness, the inexplainable complexity of all the sisters and brothers of Cain. Cubitt’s own reflection on the BBC calls attention to another scene midway through the series in which the serial killer’s Intensive Care nurse, Sheridan, tells him she will pray for him. “My idea is that the line ‘I will pray for you’ is provocative,” said the author. “Surely he is beyond redemption? It seems Sheridan [Spector’s ICU nurse] doesn’t think so. Has anyone ever prayed for Spector before?”
This and other scenes are, by design, “subtle and nuanced and ambiguous, open to all kinds of interpretations, replete with possibilities.”
“…and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” ― Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
— Gordon C. Stewart, a Presbyterian cracked head, Chaska, MN, April 15, 2019.
David Kanigan’s Monday Morning Wake-Up Call popped up this morning while pondering a reference to Jacques Ellul’s “meditation on inutility” cited in a footnote of Walter Brueggemann’s The Psalms and the Life of Faith. The sentence which leads the reader to the Ellul footnote on inutility reads, “In the end — not before, but in the end — praise is a useless act.” (p.122, footnote 21)
Thank you, David for drawing attention to this current meditation in praise of inutility by Kevin Roose in the New York Times. Jacques Ellul and Walter Brueggemann would call it an act of praise.
For the rest of the week, I became acutely aware of the bizarre phone habits I’d developed. I noticed that I reach for my phone every time I brush my teeth or step outside the front door of my apartment building, and that, for some pathological reason, I always check my email during the three-second window between when I insert my credit card into a chip reader at a store and when the card is accepted.
Mostly, I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness. For years, I’ve used my phone every time I’ve had a spare moment in an elevator or a boring meeting. I listen to podcasts and write emails on the subway. I watch YouTube videos while folding laundry. I even use an app to pretend to meditate.
If I was going to repair my brain, I needed to practice doing nothing…
“Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.
“For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.
“So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.
“Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.
“I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.
“But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.
Trump is a troll
And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.
And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.
There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.
Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.
Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.
And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.
Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.
He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.
He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.
And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.
That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.
There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.
So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.
This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.
After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form;
he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit
His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.
God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.
He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart
In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.
And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:
‘My God… what… have… I… created?
If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.
Psalm 46 tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Gordon C. Stewart, in his collection of essays entitled Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, meditates on what this means. Is this quietism and withdrawal from the world? Possibly sometimes. But if Jesus bestirred Himself to drive moneylenders from the Temple, how still was He? What consequences would have been inflicted on the sneering Goldman Sachs representatives testifying about their role in the Great Recession described in “American Oligarchy – 4/29/10”? Are stillness and engagement mutually exclusive?
Reverend Stewart did summer internships as a street outreach worker in Philadelphia, worked with a poverty law firm in Minneapolis, and has served in seven congregations and ecumenical campus ministries. Anyone who contributes to Sojourners’ “God’s Politics: Blogging with Jim Wallis and Friends” fits the category of liberal Christian. He recognizes the common ground in the gun debate of fear of the threats of chaos and insecurity and that guns are different realities for rural and urban populations, “The Common Ground Beneath the Gun Debate” and “Reframing the Gun Debate.” However, a description of a call for support from the National Rifle Association indicates he sees the threat from guns, not gun control, “Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel.”
Essays reflect views to be expected from someone with Stewart’s background. He celebrates nature and deplores those who threaten the environment, “Stillness at Blue Spring”, “The World in an Oyster,” and “Climate Change and the Nations.” He deplores a criminal justice system and attitudes which send minorities to prison and death row and makes existing while black perilous, “The Execution of Troy Davis,” “Hands Up! Don’t Carve!” and “Homeland Militarization.” Islamic and other fundamentalisms are seen as evil but the bombings and other military action in retaliation are condemned as, well, “Being Human”, “Creating Hell in the Name of Heaven,” and “Losing Our Heads.” The many sins of capitalism are seen in the context of its victims and protesters, “The Wall Street Tattler”, “American Oligarchy—4/29/”.
The best essays highlight voices of stillness and moments of reflection. Friend Dr. Kosuke Koyama, to whom the book is dedicated, speaks at commemoration of Hiroshima about how the sin of exceptionalism led Japan to self-destruction and threatens the world today, “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism.” Sitting in an Amish rocking chair, Stewart reflects on the forgiveness and kindness extended to the family of a man who murdered Amish school children, “Jacob Miller’s Amish Rocking Chair.” He faces the death of a friend and asks Muslims for prayers and sees that death can be a mercy, “The Waiting Room” and “When Breath Flies Away.” An Airbnb rental in Paris is the apartment of a late Tunisian Sufi poet and novelist whose rooms are filled with books, “The Anguished Heart of God.” He imagines Jesus healing a madman in a Capernaum synagogue in a time too early to have heard the advice that “worshippers should wear crash helmets,” “The Man Who Knew.”
Multiple essays reflect on Stewart’s heritage, especially the coffin makers and others of South Paris, Maine, a town where one is known in relation to the relatives who remain. He sees the tension in St. Augustine, Florida between the local civil rights activists and the celebrities like Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) who drew more attention. Is it possible to have two Freedom Trails? And is the Civil Rights struggle something historical which happened in the distant past and no longer relevant to later generations?
The essays are preceded by quotes and poems illustrating the theme of the entry. Some of the quoted are well known like Henry David Thoreau, Arnold Toynbee, Wendell Berry, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Camus, and Matthew Arnold. Others are welcome discoveries such as Willem Zuurdeeg, a Dutch writer whose parents fought in the Resistance trying to make sense of the fact that civilized Germany could have produced the Nazis,and Stewart’s friend, Steve Shoemaker. The quoteshelp frame efforts to make sense of the world and extract truth from the chaotic events of life.
A collection of essays will, by its nature, be episodic and even disjointed. It is a series of snapshots not a continuous film. Otherwise, it would be a treatise on philosophy or theology. It would be less like life. Although reasoned, the vignettes appeal to emotion which is our ultimate decision-maker. It is a worthwhile work. One may quibble here and there as one will in a conversation, but there are profound truths throughout the work.
As a Baha’i who believes in the oneness of religion, I was hooked at the first essay, “Tide Pools and the Ocean.” Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, it is easy to mistake one’s tide pool for the ocean, fail to celebrate each tide pool’s unique features, and not see what each really has in common. A good collection of meditations will have something for everyone.
~Steven Miller, President of Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum and participant in a, perhaps, unhealthy number of discussion groups, is a sole practitioner attorney practicing labor and employment for management. He has a B.A. and M.A. from George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
The Minnesota Scholar, Volume 13, Number 2, Dec. 2018.
“All authors want their names to go down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.” — Mickey Spillane.
Thanks to Steven Miller and Minnesota Scholar editor Evelyn Klein for the smoke from the chimney two years after Be Still!’s publication.