February 26, 2007

Reading Deliberately

I have always imagined myself as someone who travels light and fast, unencumbered by things, unmoored from the passion for possessions. Following the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau, I tried to simplify, to live life deliberately, to cut my own path. As Thoreau says in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Yet as I prepare to move from one house into another I discover to my dismay that I have accumulated a great number of things that I could just as easily live without. Spartan-like I am not. Clothes I don’t wear, music I don’t listen to, things that once had some meaning or struck some emotional chord that are now just useless, meaningless clutter. Boxes and boxes of stuff that move with me from one spot to the next. Much more than enough to fill up the small cabin Thoreau built and inhabited at Walden Pond.

One thing I never really mind toting from place to place are my books. Books are to me what wine is to the oenophile. I could live without them, but what would be the point? They are always the first thing to be packed and one of the first things to be unpacked. Even though last year we got rid of probably 500 or so (donated to the local library), I still packed up 19 boxes worth in the past week. Most are novels (especially Southern literature), some poetry and a few history and mythology books. I have even managed to acquire a few Orthodox texts.

I know many people who don’t do a lot of reading and I wonder how they manage to muddle through. Books are to me mother’s milk. I even had one woman tell me she had never read a book cover to cover. I can’t imagine such an existence. Thoreau said this about books: “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

To me books are very much alive, silent companions waiting to share their wealth, to give up their secrets. Books are treasured memories, points of reference, a source of solidity and stability in a chaotic creation. As I loaded box after box I suddenly felt like a hoarder, like I was jealously keeping them all for myself. Briefly I thought I might donate the rest of them to the local library, perhaps in the hands of others they would live more fully, would more readily release their mysteries. But then I came to my senses.

Either way, books enrich my life immeasurably. As I get older what I read has changed a great deal, but the joy, the pure pleasure of reading will never diminish. I may not be traveling as light or as fast, but I am living deeper. Instead of sailing over the sea of life, I am gladly languishing in the pools.

February 13, 2007

I Am My Father's Keeper

I am posting this essay because I was thinking about my father whose birthday would be February 22, if he were alive. It was originally written for an assignment in college, but with some modifications it seemed appropriate.

I never really knew my father, I am not sure that anyone ever could, and yet he is as real and vital to my life as the invisible air that I breathe. I have few memories and few mementos to guide me on the twisted path to understanding. Most of the memories are too violent (I saw him die when I was eleven) and the mementos too fragmented to allow any even handed assessment of his life or his relationship to me. The only tangible thing left is, appropriately enough, a bookshelf. Somehow it survived the last 35 years and still has the place of honor in my sister’s home.

Our father was a journeyman carpenter and a cabinet maker with the soul of an artist. In high school he showed potential as a painter. For many years a small icon-like painting of Christ survived as testimony to his talent. The painting was ugly and awkward, but I remember that it captured some inherent sense of the suffering. The face was battered and scarred but still noble, still unbroken.

The bookshelf is now battered but whole. Somehow it weathered the storms. I think that after it left my mother's possession (I'm not sure how) it went to my stepfather's brother, then to my older sister and then to me and now back to her. It had been in my possession for at least ten years. Somewhere along the way someone sawed off the top part of the top shelf. The shelf is still nearly seven feet high so this was probably done to fit it into an old small house. It survived the decapitation but looks awkward as all the other shelves are tall and deep while the top shelf is barely three inches high. The color is not what it first was, darker, stained by exposure, age and nicotine. There are numerous nicks, scratches and scrapes but the shelf is sound. The battering years have only served to point out the sense of utility and artistic integrity inherent in the homemade design.

He probably originally set out to build the bookshelf as a gift of atonement to my mother as he frequently erred in judgment, but the artist in him would not let him do any less than his best. The quality is evident everywhere from the tongue in groove design of the individual shelves to the beautiful but functional trim. Simple form allowing complexity in function. In this complexity I see not only my father, I see myself. I see my own obsession with details and worrying about every one no matter how small. I see my own need to do a thing well, to make a thing of beauty and of quality, to show the world my own sense of value through what I create.

The shelf was originally to hold my mother's whatnots but has since held nearly everything imaginable. I am a bibliophile by nature and I valued the shelf as a way of displaying my treasures. But the real value is in how and why it was built. It was built by a man in love with his wife, a man who was trying to smooth out a constantly rough relationship. A man engulfed by a marriage that yielded five children by the age of 28. He was a troubled man who led a troubled life, but despite the adversity the artist in him survived. In these tight fitting joints I see the tight embraces of a man's love. In this battered shelf I see the life of a man trying to survive, trying to build a thing of beauty, a thing that would last. Here is that creation, here is that art, here is his immortality. This is the solace found by a man who drank too much and had the weight heavy on him, the terrible burden of being unfulfilled. This is the manifestation of his joy and the triumph of his spirit. It was and is a gift of love.

February 5, 2007

Instrument Of Grace

How I found myself standing in the Holiness Church of Deliverance during a Wednesday night prayer meeting pointing a loaded pistol at Bob is a short story with long term consequences. It started the week prior when Bob asked me to come to church. Bob is Pentecostal and I am strictly part-time high church so that puts us at odds theologically speaking, he’s dancing in the basement and I’m sleeping in the attic. In his own not so subtle way I know he is trying to proselytize me (I am long since immune), but we grew up together and he has been a good if somewhat too enthusiastic friend. So I agreed.

I found the pistol in Bob’s car on the way to the service. Small and compact it easily disappeared when I closed my fist. Without being too consciously aware of it, I slipped the pistol into my coat pocket.

As Pastor Wayne Mueller pulled the service along to it’s crescendo I felt the pistol warming in my hand. It was not premeditated, but during the altar call, with every head bowed and every eye closed (except mine) I discretely took aim directly at Bob. I unlocked and unloaded and in the last microsecond, I swear the water was en route, he leaned back and threw his arms up like a funnel to catch the Holy Ghost. Problem was, he ruined my shot.

The squirt went between Bob’s right arm and his head, through the Holy Ghost and hit a small, elderly woman whom I did not recognize more or less between the eyes. She fell/dropped like one of the little plastic parachute men children get out of the quarter vending machines at the entrances to restaurants. This was not a choreographed collapse like you see on TV when the so-called faith healer slaps people between the eyes with the palm of his hand and yells out, “In the name of Jesus be healed,” and the so-called healee falls gracefully into the arms of a waiting usher. This was a genuine, honest to God collapse. Slowly, first forward, then back, she threw over her aluminum walker, succumbed to gravity and crumpled to the carpet with her white beehive coiffeur still intact, water running out of her left eye like a dirty tear.

When she hit the ground it started a ruckus that I thought would never end, I’m not so sure it has, at least for me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Her husband knelt beside her calling, “Grace, Grace” as he lightly chafed her cheek. Needless to say I did not ‘fess up. The last thing I wanted was to be known/thought of as a man who would engage in such tomfoolery during a Holy Ghost meeting. Everyone in the place congregated in a large circle around Grace gawking, unsure if she was dead or just dying. Even for a Pentecostal meeting this was something to see.

Pastor Mueller began braying, telling everyone to step back, to give the woman some air. Grace opened her eyes and looked straight at me. Or more accurately she looked through me or maybe didn’t even see me. Our eyes locked but there was no acknowledgement on her part, we were on different frequencies.

Just then the paramedics arrived, bundled Grace up and took her away, her frightened husband in tow. While waiting to clear out with Bob and bring this nightmare to an end, I heard several people say Grace was in the very last stage of inoperable, incurable cancer. The consensus seemed to be that at least she died in church.

Now I was really feeling poorly. I had scared an old woman to death, pushed her down the stairs of life. Outside, in the cool Arkansas evening while Bob smoked and talked tractor repair with one of his business/church cronies I dropped the pistol into the unshorn grass and ground it underfoot.

Bob was strangely quiet on the drive home. I thought for sure I was busted. He seemed to be struggling with something he couldn’t name.

“I just cain’t believe she died in church,” he finally said.

Despite my best efforts the truth was knocking hard, pressing to be let out. I started to mutter.

“I just cain’t believe she died in church,” Bob said again, relieving me of the burden. “I know you don’t know her but she is one of the sweetest souls you could ever meet. Would do anything in the world for ya. Her only daughter died a year ago in a car wreck, then about six months ago she found out she was eat up with the cancer. We were surprised she lasted this long. Wow. Dying in church. Now I seen it all.”

Bob reverted back to his reverie, aiming the car toward home, the headlights parting the curtain of darkness which cascaded shut in our wake.

I told no one and for a few days my life continued unabated on its long slow slide to senility. But ours is a nosy newspaper, rife with gossip and not immune to innuendo, to flights of fancy and spells of speculation. True to form there was the headline: Holy Healing At Holiness

Halleluiah, I was off the hook. Hot damn. The story said the old woman did not die but rose from her bed, claiming to have been healed in church. She would tell what happened from the pulpit Sunday morning.

I called Bob.

“She didn’t die?”

“Naw man, she just got the Holy Ghost. Ain’t that great. We have witnessed us a genuine miracle.”

Bob and I were back at Holiness Church of Deliverance Sunday morning. It was as crowded as Easter Sunday when all the backsliders slink in. Nothing like a miracle to titillate the masses. Only it wasn’t. It was just me and a squirt gun.

The old woman, there was no frailty in her, ascended to the pulpit.

“I feel led to talk this morning because of what God has done done in my life. Most of ya’ll knows I been real sick, ate up with the cancer. Most of ya’ll also know I fell out during the Wednesday night meeting. I’m truly sorry for causing so much commotion. But what ya’ll don’t know is that right before I passed out, while Pastor was praying for the Holy Ghost, I felt the Spirit come upon me. It felt like warm water on my face, then I was taken up into the heavenly places.”

Grace stopped to wipe the tears of joy from her face.

“Lord it was purdy, shining so bright and I didn’t never want to leave. I saw Jesus and he looks just like His picture. He told me I was healed.”

He was telling me I was a heel for letting this go on. It was time for confession, time to set the record straight.

“That’s not right. She doesn’t know what really happened.”

I found myself standing amidst the stupefied stares. Grace stood stunned, my words had pierced like an accusation.

“Continue, Brother,” said Pastor Mueller. “Give us the word of the Lord.”

“I know what happened.”

For the second time I met Grace’s eyes. This time she was not looking through me, but in me. Expectantly. Trying to find my frequency.

Bob nudged me out into the aisle.

“What you think happened is not what really happened. It was me. I had a squirt gun in my pocket. I aimed it at Bob. I was messin’ with him during the prayer. Lord knows I know it was wrong and I never meant for any of this to happen. I had no intention of hurting anyone, especially you Grace. I mean, you seem like a decent woman and I know you think you’re healed, but it was just water.”

I stood, ashamed.

“Brothers and sisters,” Pastor Wayne said, “This man is a healer sent into our midst by a providential God, the God of Abraham and Isaac.”


“God has taken this unbeliever unto Himself and through him has revealed Himself to us.”


“We are all instruments of grace in the hands of the Lord.”

Lord no. No.

“Brothers and sisters the Lord is telling me that we need to lay hands on this young man, to share in his power.”

I fell into the dark embrace.

© Copyright 2007

February 1, 2007

Lost In Translation

If you have read this blog for any length of time you know more about me than many people who have known me (in my fleshly manifestation) for many years.
Yet they will know many things about me that are lost in the translation to the blogosphere, dry skin, long fingers, blue eyes, mild scoliosis, ever-encroaching baldness, a tendency to talk way too fast.

I am more open here because most of you don’t know who I am, what my status is in the community, who my family is. You don’t have any preconceived ideas about how I should act or what I should write. I get to start with a clean slate. It may be that I have crafted the persona I want you to see. There is much on this blog about Orthodoxy, yet most of the people I interact with every day would not be familiar. I’m not sure if this is a comment about how much I want you to think I am pious or about how incompletely I live my faith among those around me. Maybe I am crafting what I want to be, or who I wish to be.

I suppose that we are all in a very real ways several different people. Not a split personality but adaptations to different situations and relationships. I am certainly not the same person to my seven-year-old daughter as I am to one of the reporters with whom I frequently interact or to the waitress at my favorite restaurant. The first probably sees me as larger than life and all-knowing, the second as kind of shifty and the third as fairly generous. These perceptions are all wrong, or at least incomplete.

I perceive myself as a very serious person yet in a recent discussion with my wife about this very topic she used the word silly to describe me (I have realized in recent years that I do joke around with people quite a bit). I believe that anyone reading this blog would find it a stretch to call me silly, yet indeed I am.

Sometimes the “real” world and the blogosphere collide in unexpected ways. This week I was at a high school basketball game with my daughter when we were approached by a very respectable looking young man. He had read this blog and suspected that I was the ghost in the machine. It’s a complex story, but basically he wanted to tell me how much he liked the writing here on NIMS. He was more than generous and I was of course flattered, but even more it was this roundabout way of meeting that intrigued me. I believe he found this blog by reading this blog which is the stomping ground of a friend of mine. The young man who approached me has his own blog. He gave up a very promising secular career to go into ministry. We all live in the same community, we are all members of different faith persuasions yet we found common ground here.

I also realize that the mental image I have of the authors of the blogs I read is very different from reality (whatever that is). One example is this blog. Reading it you would never realize how bright and funny Fr. Frank is in real life or how well known and respected he is in our community (maybe he doesn’t even know). He is very adept at using technology to assist him in his ministry, but the real joy is meeting him face to face.

Blogs are a wonderful way to let hack writers like myself speak our minds. But they are at best just that, tools, vehicles for an always incomplete expression of an idea or a person. They let us be who we want to be, not necessarily who we are.