Four and two fifths make seven

Featured

SLEEPOVERS? REALLY?

Guys don’t do sleepovers. Or so I thought reading A Plan this morning . . . until I stopped to think.

Four (4) ‘Old Dogs’ (seminary classmates who have maintained friendship through the years) do five-night sleepovers every year. Once there were seven (7). Now there are four (4).

Photograph of four 'Old Dogs' with holding a picture of Wayne Boulton.
Four ‘Old Dogs’ (L to R): Harry, Gordon, Don, Bob, with photograph of Wayne (RIP).

THE ‘GATHERINGS’

We arrive at the annual ‘Gatherings’ limping on replaced knees with hips and memories in need of repair, bearing matches to light the fire, a Book of Common Prayer, and a Fifth or two . . . to make four equal seven again.

There’s nothing like a sleepover celebration with old friends. Some are confident that the departed — Wayne, Steve, and Dale — are still with us around the fire. Others need the help of a Fifth or a few Seven-and-Sevens to get four to equal seven.

Original ‘Chicago Seven’ Gathering (L to R): Old Dogs Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Yours Truly, Steve Shoemaker, Dale Hartwig, Don Dempsey, Bob Young.

What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the [GATHERING]’s true being, you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the [Gathering] was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears.

Wendell Berry, “A Gathering,” Jayber Crow, p. 205-206.

Thanks to Beth of ‘I didn’t get my glasses on‘ for turning Gatherings into sleepover celebrations.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 23, 2019.

Startled and Startling

The deer is lost – out of place – in the civilized world of pavement and traffic beyond the woods. It runs past us at break-neck speed, capturing the attention of customers in the coffee shop.

Such primal fear invokes a hush. Everyone is standing at attention now, hoping against hope that the beautiful frightened animal will make it across the bridge over the divided highway to the woods on the other side.

As it reaches the overpass, a car approaches from the opposite direction, startling the deer. With high wire fences on each side of the overpass, it races toward the car and then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it jumps 10 to 15 feet into the air, over the fence, plunging headlong to the berm of the highway 30 feet below. It gathers itself for a moment, wobbling up the hill to its right, and collapses on the entrance ramp like a lump of warm putty.

Fear is a deadly thing. The deer had lost its bearings in the man-made world where natural landmarks get displaced by bridges, and unnatural cliffs take the place of natural terrain.

The picture is etched in my mind. It wake me up early this morning thinking about mortality. The mortal vulnerability of a thing so beautiful and precious as a deer — the beauty and preciousness of all mortal life.

Death is the limit that binds together the viewers in the coffee shop with all other creatures. Fear is the acolyte of death – the unconscious or unconscious knowledge of our fragility, our ultimate dependence, our vulnerability to forces we cannot control, the reminder of our own ticking clocks, our time-bound nature within nature itself.
I’m sad for the deer. Sad for a civilized world that displaced it, confused it, frightened it to death. Sad over the sight of something so beautiful leaping so gracefully into the air, leaping into open space into the nothingness of death. Sad that something so lovely experiences such terror. Sad that it not know better; sad it did not take a breath and think before letting fear control its course.

Something in all of us at the coffee shop stood still for a moment at the Caribou — made us put down our coffee and touch this deeper place of vulnerability, watching this pantomime of our own inner lives, the too real to face reality of our struggles with anxiety, with fear, with death, with sudden and final extinction.

When the dear leaped from the overpass, Katie, my adult stepdaughter, put her face in her hands. Others of us could not take our eyes away, too stunned not to watch, staring in stunned silence in hope, at first, that the poor thing would get up and walk away from it all, that it hadn’t happened the way we’d seen it, plunged into the reality that the deer couldn’t just get up and walk away to safety.

Wendell Berry reminds us that we Americans are the descendants of the road builders — the placeless people who cut the forests, leveled the trees, and bulldozed their way to their ideas of what the world should be. says Wendell Berry in “The Native Hill.” Our European ancestors fled their familiar places to escape them. To build something better. Something freer perhaps, less restricted not only by law and custom but, more fundamentally, by the limits of creaturely life: time and space. They landed on the soil of the path walkers, the indigenous people whose foot paths wound their way harmlessly following the contours of the hills, rivers, streams and valleys.

Today is Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday, the day after the deer leaped into the air to its death, and the day Jesus walked the road-builders road in humility on a donkey. The liturgy reminds the worshipers that the grandest leaps — personal or collective —lead to tragic ends, but an essential goodness greater than ourselves surrounds every leap and every plunge.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2016

When the Breath flies away

It takes only a moment to see oneself in the experience of Andy Catlett in Wendell Berry’s story, “Fly Away, Breath!” Our experience is of time flown away and flying away.

Most of us, most of the time, think mostly of the past. Even when we say, “We are living now,” we can only mean that we were living a moment ago.

Nevertheless, in this sometimes horrifying, sometimes satisfying, never-sufficiently-noticed present, between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled.

Wendell Berry, “Fly Away, Breath (1907),” A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port Williams Membership,” Counterpoint Press, 2012.

We are creatures of a specific time and place — and relationships with loved ones, friends, and enemies, a plot of land, a town or city we call home, a state, a nation, a world in time sandwiched between past and future that we call the present.

A ghost town is a reminder of time. Southern Cross stands on the mountain high above Georgetown Lake, Montana, where the vistas are breathtaking, and the past is barely remembered except for the abandoned miners’ quarters and mine shafts below the surface of the place that remind the visitor of the fickleness of time.

“All flesh is grass” and yet, despite our intuitive awareness of it, we unconsciously pretend most days it is not true that “the grass withers, the flower fades….” [Isaiah 40:8].

“Nevertheless,” says Wendell Berry, “… between a past mostly forgotten and a future that we deserve to fear but cannot predict, some few things can be recalled” — things like my friendship with Phil, now ended unexpectedly by a rare nearly undiagnosable lymphoma in his spleen. Hours before his death, the interventionist ICU doctor described Phil’s case and his 10 days in the ICU as “a real shit storm” because of the many ongoing complications that mystified the medical staff. In all of medical history only 10-15 cases have been reported where lymphoma originated in the spleen. By the time it was discovered in Phil, other organs had begun to shut down. The first organ to go was the gallbladder, which was already abscessed when they operated to remove the spleen.

Medical professionals are no different from the rest of us, except for their skill and training in how to treat illness and preserve life. Despite every effort to keep the present from slipping into the past, against every attempt to retain some kind of future, the breath always flies away.

Phil’s death, as I had come to see it days before he passed, came as an act of mercy, a release from the torturous interventions of advanced medical technology that asks the question ‘How?’ without first asking ‘Why?”

I’m increasingly convinced that the denial of death (mortality) and the search for immorality are the opposites of the Christian faith in God – on Hebrew YHWH (“I am Who I Am/ I will Be Who I will be”) who alone is Eternal. All else is species hubris, the refusal to live thankfully, graciously and peacefully within the limits of finite, mortal goodness.

We are all standing in line, not knowing at what time or place our time will come. We’re all headed for the ghost town, thinking of the past or dreading the future we deserve, but also, in moments of grace, remembering with thanksgiving the tender mercies along the way that cannot be denied.

I do not know what of Phil or any of us may lie beyond the grave, an odd thing to say for a minister of the gospel whose faith lives out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing my unknowing, my best friend reminded me of “Jesus’s question to Nicodemus at night about the not entirely unrelated matter of being born of the Spirit: ‘You are the teacher of God’s people, and don’t know these things?’”

I confess to knowing very little, especially when what Chaim Potok calls the four-o’clock-in-the-morning-questions wake me in the middle of the night between a present now gone and a future that remains inscrutable. However that may be, what I do know is that bodily life — mortal life in space and time in the midst of Eternity — is what we have and it is to be cherished. Bound to the limits of time and place, it is God’s good creation.  Yet only God is the Eternal One.

Whatever lies on the other side of my years is beyond my mortal knowing. But I can and do affirm the Eternity of God and the scriptural point of view that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. “All flesh is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God [YHWH, the Eternal] shall last forever.” Right now, in good conscience, that’s enough bread to live on today as I recall the blessing of Phil to our lives and pray for all who loved him.

– Gordon C. Stewart, written at Georgetown Lake, Montana, July 26, 2015.

Friends

Those who have lived their lives in one place are blessed with enduring friendships over time. The schoolmates who stayed in my home town see each other all the time. They still bump into each other at Vince’s Barber Shop where Vince gave us Kindergartners crew cuts while the older men leafed through the stack of Playboys. The Playboys aren’t there anymore, but the little boys are, complete with oxygen tanks. Vince and his brother Tony, now in their 90s, are still behind the chairs telling stories that recall their relationships over time.

On my way to the 50th high school class reunion back in Broomall, the question occurred whether Vince’s Barber Shop was still there. It was. I walked in and began to introduce myself. “You’re Ken Stewart’s son.” I was a Kindergartner, a sixth-grader, a ninth-grader, and a senior all over again – a boy-turned-man who had been known over time once upon a time.

There are the friendships that date back to childhood, and there are the friendships that come by choice for those of us who left home for various parts of the world. These friendships also come by mutual bonds of affection that date themselves to different times and locate themselves in definable places. Like the hometown friendships that fell into our laps by birth, these later friendships endure by virtue of shared experience. If the early friendships are sustained by common memories of being called into Pop Werfel’s principal’s office for shooting spit balls in class or getting into a fight at recess, afternoons playing hide-and-seek or capture the flag in each other’s backyard, catching fire flies at dusk, or playing in the school band or on a school team, the friendships that come later happen because some spark of commonality draws us to each other.

Old dogs at The Gathering

Old dogs at The Gathering

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between the later friendships and those early one. I’m thinking now of my friend Steve Shoemaker from Urbana, Illinois. Although we were in graduate school at the same time, we barely knew each other. Steve was married and lived in the married student apartments. I was single, living in the singles dorm. Each had a job that diminished our free time. We rarely took the same classes. We barely knew each other except by sight and name until 12 years ago when our mutual friend Wayne brought seven kindred spirits together once a year for renewal, friendship, and theology. In jest we called ourselves “The Chicago Seven” until Dale died earlier this past year. (Views from the Edge published “The Surrogate’s Voice” following Dale’s last time the group.) Now we’re just The Gathering.

Steve and Nadja were guests these last two nights here in Minnesota. Steve drove 11 hours to do a program of poetry and reflection on Becoming Free: Go Fly a Kite. When I presented him with the honorarium for Shepherd of the Hill’s Dialogue program, he refused it… on the basis of friendship. “Besides,” he said, “You’re my publisher!” I insisted. So did he. Friendship prevailed.

During last night’s poetry reading Steve was asked how his poems come to be. He often writes in the middle of night, lying in bed, composing on his iPhone, like the other night when a combination of three compound words came to mind: “sleepy-head, lazy-bones, slug-a-bed.”

Then, early this morning in the night following his presentation, the egg was hatched.

Verse – Missing Sunrise

Sleeply-head, lazy-bones, slug-a-bed,
where were you when the sun raised its head?
Purple and violet, rosy-red:
you lie there like you’re already dead…
Get up and greet the day! Live instead
of hiding – cat and dog must be fed!
Alarm dinging, birds are singing, led
by sunlight bringing New Love ahead.

Steve’s verse reminded me of a few lines from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crown: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership as Written by Himself:

“What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the place’s true being, its presence you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, expect that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the place was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears. This would come over you and then pass away, as fragile as a moment of light.”

Two barber shops. Two barbers. Two places. One story. Don’t “lie there like you’re already dead! Get up and greet the day… led by sunlight bringing New Love ahead.”

Thank you, Steve.

The Path Walker and the Road Builder

It’s 5th period in the Advanced Placement Art Class at the high school of an up-scale Minnesota suburb.

The African visitor who grew up walking the paths in Chad has been invited by the art teacher and the staff person whose job is to generate multicultural and cross-cultural consciousness. Koffi is standing in front of the Advanced Placement Art Class. The high-tech classroom with wi-fi displays the visiting artist’s Flicker portfolio on the large screen, reducing his art, it seems to me, to just one or two more commodities for sale, quickly deleted by the pressing of a key on the keypad. This is the world of the road builders…on the way to some advanced place.

The pitch-black, slender, physically fit path-walking landscape artist from Africa speaks in his third language to the privileged, mostly white, mostly single-language college-bound American students in the Advanced Placement Art Class of the road-builder society.

The road builders, says Wendell Berry (“The Native Hill”, The Art if the Common-Place), are the descendants of the placeless people who cut the forests, leveled the trees, and bulldozed their way to their ideas of what the world should be. They are the ancestors of Europeans who fled their familiar places to escape them. To build something better. Something freer perhaps, less restricted not only by law and custom but, more fundamentally, by the limits of creaturely life: time and space. They landed on the soil of the path walkers, the indigenous people whose foot paths wound their way harmlessly following the contours of the hills, rivers, streams and valleys. The artist from Chad, who represents the spirituality of the harmless foot paths and natural contours our road builder ancestors have disdained is standing before the Western Advanced Placement Art  Class.

“The road builders…were placeless people. That is why they ‘knew but little’. Having left Europe far behind” says Berry, “they had not yet in any meaningful sense arrived in America, not yet having devoted themselves to any part of it in a way that would produce the intricate knowledge of it necessary to live in it without destroying it. Because they belonged to no place, it was almost inevitable that they should behave violently toward the places they came to. We still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America. And in spite of our great reservoir of facts and methods, in comparison to the deep earthly wisdom of established peoples we still know but little.”

The Advanced Placement students watch the paintings flash across the screen in the school the road builders have built, but they show little interest or curiosity. They ask no questions of the flesh and blood African path walker whose paintings are of the natural habitat and his sisters and brothers, the elephants, lions, tigers, zebras, and giraffes,  who are disappearing because of poachers who profit from the ivory tusks of the elephants and the rhinos.

“I’m surprised and more than a little disappointed,” I say to Koffi after that class.

“Many Americans think we’re stupid. We’re from Africa. They think Africans are uncivilized,” he replies in the least preferred of the three languages he speaks fluently.

Who and what is more civil and civilized, I wonder. Many of us know that something has been lost. Something is dreadfully wrong. The students in the class and their generation are likely “greener” than my generation. But they also have drunk the poison of a linear view of history as advancement and progress. They are advancing…a step above the rest…in the Advanced Placement Class on their way to the prestigious universities that will induct them into the road builders society.

I am increasingly drawn to the simple insight of the Genesis writer who calls the prototypes of humanity “Earthlings” (the literal English rendering of the original Hebrew text) meant to delight within the limits of time and space. We are of the earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes creatures who live in one time and one place at one time, not in every place all the time, and not all the time forever nowhere.

…..

I am on vacation…in a pool…in the Florida sun… where I dreamed of being five days ago in the Advanced Placement Art class back in  frigid Minnesota. The place is Orlando, the quintessential city of the road builders. The time is 10:00 a.m. EST. The date is January 16, 2013.

I am thinking about the path man and the students back in Minnesota when it suddenly dawns on me that even here…on vacation with no obligations, no goals to meet, no deadlines, nothing to do… I am acting like a road builder.

I alone…in the pool…doing my prescribed water exercises for my back and neck. “Lift left leg. Extend both arms. Pull arms to side as left leg goes down and right leg lifts. Keep abdomen tight. Keep neck and upper back muscles relaxed.”

Doing these exercises does not require movement from one side of the pool to the other. But I am making a highway in the water, always moving forward, advancing to the other side. ”One, two, three steps…nine, ten, eleven.” Turn. Repeat trip to other side. Repeat until the counting of strokes reaches 100. And I ask why.

I get out of the pool, dry off, and have trouble just being here…alone…in the Florida sun…by a pool surrounded by palm trees and tropical birds. I turn on the MacBook Air and, as I do, I realize that I have no good reason to turn on the MacBook Air other than to be somewhere else than where I really AM… right now, in this place…I’ve entered the world of the Flicker screen. My spirit never settles anywhere except during my afternoon nap with my two furry friends back home when the warmth of their bodies calms my spirit into a kind of joyful resting place. My dogs are not here. They’re at home in Minnesota wondering where the not-so-furry member of the pack is.

I turn of off the MacBook Air and reach over for the hard copy of The Art of the Common-Place, a book meant precisely for a reflective moment like this.

“Novalis, the German romantic poet and philosopher, once remarked that all proper philosophizing is driven instinctively by the longing to be at home in the world, by the desire to bring to peace the restlessness that pervades much of human life,” writes Norman Wirzba in the Introduction to the book

“Our failure – as evidenced in flights to virtual worlds and the growing reliance on ‘life enhancing’ drugs, antidepressants, antacids, and stress management techniques – suggest a pervasive unwillingness or inability to make this world a home, to find in our places and communities, our bodies and our work, a joyful resting place.”

A tiny lizard that has lost its tail scampers up to the arm of the lounge chair next to mine. I stay still. We look at each other…the lizard looks into the eyes of the road builder whose ancestors paved over his natural habitat; the road builder stares into the eyes of the lizard.

The lizard senses the threat…his chest and throat blow up like an orange balloon to camouflage itself into safety, then sucks the balloon back in just as quickly as the road builder moves. The lizard runs scampers back into the green foliage planted poolside by the resort’s developers, the “superior” species, the road builders of Western culture who were not content with the more humble paths that followed the natural contours and limits of time and place here in Orlando.

Here in the Florida sun by the pool it is as though a tiny ancestor of the serpent in the Garden story of Genesis 3 has returned with an altogether different question. If in the Genesis myth the serpent seduces the Earthlings into believing that they will be “like God,” the lizard now returns to the despoiled garden to ask the suddenly alert but still- advancing, far from home, restless, pool road-building vacationer in the lizard’s home:

“Do you still really think you’re God?”

A Joyful Resting Place in Time

I am on vacation…in a pool…in the Florida sun… where I wished to be several days ago back in frigid Minnesota.  I am here…but…not quite here. I am moving forward to something even in the water…not standing still in this pool. I am doing my prescribed water exercises. “Lift left knee. Extend arms. Pull arms to side as left knee goes down and right leg lifts. Keep abdomen tight. Keep neck and upper back muscles relaxed. Repeat.”

I’m doing the exercises, but even in this pool, I think I have to be moving forward, advancing to the other side. One, two, three steps. Eleven. Turn, repeat to other side. Count steps to give sense of progress.

Even in the Florida sun in this quiet pool with no distractions, I seem to feel I must accomplish something. Be on my way to something. If I’m in the middle of the pool, I’m working to get to the other side. When I reach the far side, I turn and start pulling for the opposite side. Until the counting of strokes reaches 100.  Then I change the exercise routine…and repeat…one, two, three, four, five, eleven, reach goal, turn, repeat until I count 100 strokes.

I get out of the pool, dry off, take my place in the lounge chair. I’m having trouble just being here…alone…in the Florida sun…by a pool surrounded by palm trees and tropical birds. I turn on the MacBook Air and, as I do, I recall that I am refusing to be here…where I really AM…right now. My spirit is placeless.

A tiny lizard perches on the arm of the lounge chair next to mine. I look at it; it stares at me. The lizard throat blows up like an orange balloon bigger than its head. I move. The lizard scampers away. This is the place where the lizard lives. I do not. I am human, able to be everywhere at any time, but homeless, scurrying like the lizard for a resting place.

I put down my passenger ticket to everywhere and nowhere…the MacBook Air… and reach over for the hard copy of The Art of the Common-Place: the Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry I’ve brought for a quiet moment like this…a time to think….a time to dig deeper to get some perspective on life and the world. I open to the Introduction.

“Novalis, the German romantic poet and philosopher, once remarked that all proper philosophizing is driven instinctively by the longing to be at home in the world, by the desire to bring to peace the restlessness that pervades much of human life,” writes Norman Wirzba.

“Our failure – as evidenced in flights to virtual worlds and the growing reliance on ‘life enhancing’ drugs, antidepressants, antacids, and stress management techniques – suggests a pervasive unwillingness or inability to make this world a home, to find in our places and communities, our bodies and our work, a joyful resting place.”

The closest I get to that resting place is my daily afternoon nap back in Minnesota. I am not alone in the nap. Maggie and Sebastian join me in the siesta. Maggie cuddles up close to my head; Sebastian rests against my thigh, reminding their cerebral, restless friend, though without intention, that I really am in one place…at home…in the same time and space with them. If I am distracted when the time comes for the daily nap, Sebastian comes to get me and herds me up upstairs. “Come on, Dad, it’s nap time.” He and Maggie are attuned to time and place, the angle of the sun, the rhythms of day and night and our location in space while Dad is racing around the world and the universe on his MacBook Air looking for a resting place when the resting place is right upstairs in Chaska, Minnesota.

We humans think we are superior to the lizard who scampers down from the lounge chair, a superior species to the West Highland White Terrier and the Shitzu-Bichon Frise, yet we are less at home within the limits of creation itself…the limits of time and place…here in the Garden…where we are restless until we are timeless and spaceless…erasing all limits on the MacBook Air or the iPad…until we become…like God.

Discontent with embodied existence and valuing little, we scurry away, not seeing, not touching, not hearing, not feeling anything much but one, two, three, four…eleven on our way to nowhere in particular where perhaps the MacBook Air will take us vicariously to a joyful resting place…outside the Garden of time-bound lizards and dogs and human beings…a delusional placeless place beyond dust to dust, ashes to ashes… and we miss the whole experience…on the way to some place which is no place.

I want to learn to be in one place at one time. I want to live less anxiously. More present, one might say, to embodied life in this one spot where I really am…this one place… and find within it a joyful resting place.

Exhaustion

I’m exhausted…spiritually exhaused. They’re exhausting me…all the emails…and the voice mails telling me that if I don’t give one more dime one more time…my candidate is going to lose…and the world will come to an end…and it’s going to be… my fault.

Anyone else feeling that way?

I’m also torn up inside. I’m trying to be civil…trying to understand why this election is even close…and trying not to be haughty and naughty.

I’m missing my afternoon nap. I love my afternoon nap with Maggie and Sebastian, my buddies here at home. They still sleep like logs…the way I used to…before the Presidential debates and emails that clog my inbox and the phone calls from chummy best friends I’ve never met who want just one more donation of “just $5” so so-and-so knows s/he can count on me.

It’s an illusion. Anyone else feeling that way?

Meantwhile…between the emails and the phone calls…I visit the dying…in hospice care…who live on the edge of existence itself…who sip comfort from the deeper wells. My spirit is strangely quieted. Strangely calmed.  We sit in silence. I read a psalm or two. We…the dying…and I are refreshed. Ready for a nap.

I go home and stumble upon a prayer by Wendell Berry “To the Holy Spirit”:

O Thou, far off and here, whole and broken,

Who in necessity and in bounty wait,

Whose truth is light and dark, mute though spoken,

By Thy wide grace show me Thy narrow gate.”

 

Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, North Point Press, 1964.