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Archive for August, 2019

Obligation

What I must do puts me inside

a bubble of obligation.

The orb contains me, constrains me.

It intimidates me with its fixity of shape,

its featureless opacity. 

I can’t see beyond the seamless spherical capsule

that wraps my arc of thought

into a hoop of requirement,

a snake metaphorically munching its tail.

I touch the wall.  It is firm, not supple.

There is no give, no happy pop

like collapse of iridescent soap bubble

delighting eye and mind.

I can’t fly in here.

It is the sphere, not I, that defines what is real.

As I sit, my familiar weight anchoring the base

of this pure system of concept,

there is nowhere to proceed, no direction but out.

Knees to chest, heels to butt, I wait,

for what I can’t imagine. 

I twist my hair, rub my nose,

wipe my eyes, scratch my bum. 

Nothing changes.  I think about sucking my thumb,

but that’s ridiculous.

No.  This is a task for a grown up.

This is a real bubble.  It has measurable size.

It is knowable and definable.  That’s a plus.

I jiggle, bounce, rock.  The sphere reacts. 

It moves when I move and in correct proportion.

I roll back; the bubble tips back.

I lean forward; the bubble rolls away from me. 

I reach straight above my head; nothing happens.

There are rules for this engagement,

the physics of gravity a comforting familiar. 

OK!  There is something I can do even inside. 

I reach out,

place my hands against

the up-curving wall before me

and lean forward.  The ball tips.

Rising, I respond,

feet following the ball’s redefinition of base.

My hands walk up the wall to catch my falling-forward self. 

Before I realize what is happening, I’m walking. 

The ball is just the right size

for my outstretched hands

to follow its falling forward arch

that precedes me as I move. 

This is the ultimate cool.

But how do we stop? 

Of course!  I plop down and become pure weight. 

The ball stops. 

I do have a modicum of control,

even bubble-bound.

Cross-legged, manifesting the beginning point

of an infinitude of arcs of possibility, I think. 

What is it that I want?

Wanting is power.

I want to redefine this abstraction of obligation

into a joyful rite of determination.

As I breathe the air of purpose into the orb,

it grows and expands.

It creaks and shudders, and finally it shatters! 

The world outside is still there,

just like it always was,

but I am changed, charged, and challenged.

I embody meaning—purpose—action.


During my years in aerospace engineering, I routinely accepted design assignments.  The requirements were predetermined.  The specifications were what they were.  There was no opportunity to breach the barrier thwarting creative will given military as customer.  On the average it took me two or three days to relate to each task entrepreneurially.  As I sat and read the specs, mulled the possibilities, and toyed with what might be acceptable to the real world of design reviews, I was stymied by the sheer inertia of the system.  Then out of the proverbial blue, an idea would trickle into thought.  From then on the dream would create itself.  The idea had a life of its own.  I could only hang on for the ride through untold hours of nose to screen, hand to mouse, bum to chair.  Finally the grand payoff: it worked!  Of course, the final comeuppance was handing it over to manufacturing.  Those guys were short on imagination but long on doing.  Would my high-flying idea be broken on the back of actuality?  Sometimes.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes I got to see it work, hold it in my hands, feel its smooth hard metal cold in my grasp.  It was then that I loved those hard-headed, be-muscled brutes, who could bring my dream to life.  Bless them!  We do not create alone.  I owe them.  My primary obligation is to my own integrity, but after that, these induced obligations spring up on every hand like eager dandelions, weaving a lovely tapestry of trust and purpose.

I see this same process playing out even in retirement.  At church I was given the task of transporting a nonagenarian Emeritus Professor of Geographical Science, to Sunday services.  There I was, in the bubble again.  I refused to just drudge-like alter my route so as to shift physical location of the frail body and cane from his front steps to the church building and back, once in every seven days passing.  Such plodding routine is soul numbing.  I mulled the situation for several days, pondered the dreary possibility of being harnessed to that quotidian task, trips taken out of requirement, of obligation, of organizational expectation.  It is death to merely embody others’ expectations.  Energy is generated by defining our own expectation, visioning our own expedition, becoming our own true North, and—heading out! 

Then suddenly it occurred to me that I might really like to know the old man.  He undoubtedly had and still has a life.  He wasn’t always a stooped and limping codger.  Then there were the inevitable “what if’s.”  What if he didn’t want to be known?  What if we couldn’t think of anything to say?  What if he were actually losing it, as younger people tend so readily to aver?  What if I were actually losing it, dashing off on some wild-assed adventure of “love thy neighbor?”  What would people say?  But then, what do I care what people say?  What people will say foments a cumulonimbus cloud, a complex aggregation of permutations and combinations over which I have no control.  Listening to that play in my head will only steal my happiness and shove it retching and reverberating down a rat hole.  What’s needed is to call up and harness will.  A plan of action is always a recipe for generating energy, so yesterday I “vvvroooomed” over to his house, banged “shave and a hair-cut six bits” on his door, and hollered, “Would you like to go for a ride?”  He grabbed his hat, snagged his cane, and we were off in a cloud of geezer dust. 

We spent the afternoon in animated discourse, hatching plans to make sure he gets involved in church doings on a meaningful, not perfunctory, basis.  He would love to present a forum on the fascinating world of Geography as it affects absolutely everything, and to share his fascinating collection of English words appropriated from the Arabic.  Then I whipped up my signature miso soup, augmented with garden greens, shiitake mushrooms, wakame, tofu, and Basmati rice.  Dessert was monster strawberries on the stem.  It was a small delight to watch him bite into their flesh, drawing life from each berry, appropriating their Force as his own.  What more eloquent metaphor for, even at ninety, still being alive in the world?  The payoff for me is that on Sunday mornings I am not encapsulated by an obligation; I am anticipating another getting-to-know-you wild ride to church with my neighbor strapped in riding shotgun.  He is creaky, sometimes crochety, but alive and lively, and I am determined to help him stay that way.

Applying this concept to the knotty problem of church stewardship, I despise those little envelopes that slither into my mailbox, right into the sacred refuge of my domicile, reminding me of my Obligation.  Judaism makes “servicing” the wife on the eve of Shabbat into a sacred duty.  Only religion could so nimbly change a garden of earthly delights into a grinding requirement.  No wonder there’s money to be made selling Viagra.  Such interchanges spiral out, demonstrating how obligation weaves throughout a connected culture.  If we are to be part of humanity, obligation is the substrate.  We may resent it and delight in ways to circumvent it, but it is real.  Take marriage, for instance, the most basic of contentious commitments.  In an ideal world, no one would marry.  I would awake snug in a warm bed, sheets tangled and moist from last night’s passion, and ask myself, “Do I want to be with this man yet another night?  I would reply, “Of course!  I love him, and he loves me.”  But life is not perfect.  It’s complicated.  On mornings when I awake with resentment for what he did yesterday and just might do the day after tomorrow, I ask myself, “Do I want to be with this man—next year?”  Marriage serves up the requisite obligation.  It is the reliable substrate supporting things when they aren’t perfect, until another morning dawns bright with the assurance of things too wonderful to throw away in a fit of pique.  Like good arguments and shiny coins, this one has two sides.  With this insight and certainty, I programmed my bank account to send a check to my church every month no matter what.  Obligation is annoying but it just might be a dear and necessary evil.

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Homeless

When it becomes dangerous to live in your own home it is time to leave, and leave I did, taking with me my cat, my Collie dog, and my Sig Sauer P239.  Yes, I had a permit to carry, so I was legal in case it might have become an issue.  It was early October in Roanoke, Virginia.  The weather was seasonably delightful, and my green tent blended well with the autumn color at the local campground nestled in the foliage alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I should have left years before, but had nowhere else to go.  I had no savings since my retirement income always got sucked up into the expense of running house and horse farm.  The bruises got worse.  I was fed up with being slammed against walls.  That hurts. 

My ’89 Acura Legend had a capacious trunk with a small seat-back door that folded down to allow access to the main interior.  It was designed to provide for carrying 2×4’s home from Lowe’s,  but I used it as a cat door for Espresso, my black Domestic Shorthair, so he could visit his litter box in the trunk.  He loved to ride shotgun with his front paws on the dashboard so he could see with those lovely golden eyes where we were going.  Maggie, his canine counterpart, preferred lounging in the back seat on top of all the pillows, blankets, clothing, camping gear, food, and water.  She had a twelve hour bladder, so I only needed to walk her morning and evening.  We managed.

My YMCA membership provided exercise, a hot shower every day, and a place to change clothes,  which I kept clean at a Franklin Road laundromat.  It should have been doable, but things kept happening.  First somebody stole my tent while I was on my daily rounds.  At least I had the foresight to empty it every day, stowing sleeping bag and other gear in the car.  That theft forced me to sleep in the car, not nearly so comfortable but doable, tucked into my sleeping bag, a hefty Slumberjack.  My ex-husband and I had always enjoyed winter camping (no tourists,  no bugs) so my sleeping bag was certified down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

October gave way to November, then December.  The campground closed for the winter, and I was on my own to find a place to park every night for shuteye.  First there was the requisite stop at Mill Mountain Coffee to slip in through the back door and fill my hot water bottle, preventive for icy feet syndrome.

My State Farm Insurance agent had a back-of-the-office covered carport; I began appropriating it nightly, especially on stormy ones.  One bitter cold evening, after pulling into my spot, I ran across the street to a Seven/Eleven to pick up breakfast makings.  I left the car running to keep it extra warm to start the night off right.   Of course Maggie had to protest.  She wanted to go, too.  Barking and pawing at the window, she managed to step on the back door lock, which on the Acura automatically locked all four doors.  Now I had a car parked and running with a cat and a dog inside.  What to do?  Again I ran across the street, this time to ask for help. 

There are times when I suspect God is watching out for me.  The local emergency squad team had also stopped there to coffee-up, and they came to assist.  One of the team was a young very thin woman who was able to slip an arm through the narrow opening I had left to provide fresh air for Maggie and Espresso.   She reached in,  pulled up the slick knobless locking mechanism, and all was saved.  What luck!

I managed to live through a bout of food poisoning and was feeling pretty puny, having also run out of vitamins.  Christmas was the loneliest ever, and in January the jet stream conspired to send sub-zero weather.  One bitter night, as I lay trying to fall asleep, the Slumberjack bag failed me.  I began to shake, and my teeth commenced chattering.   It was then that my sweet dog Maggie, rose from her accustomed place in the back seat and carefully climbed to the passenger seat where I had been spending my nights with the seat-back fully reclined.  She placed her paws carefully as she crawled forward, careful not to hurt me.  When she was satisfied she had just the right spot, she covered me with her hairy body and remained there the entire night, while slowly I warmed and slept. 

Another January morning I awoke locked in the deposit of an ice storm.  We were frozen in all day waiting for the parking lot, where I had parked for the night, to be cleared.  There comes a time to admit when you are beaten.  It was time to go home.  Some beatings are worse than others.  Knowing the difference leans toward wisdom.

In retrospect I realize that was only one of many periods of homelessness.  No wonder it felt like something that could be challenged and overcome.  When in 1949 my Dad departed, family home foreclosed, mother carted off to asylum, that was homelessness of the nth degree.  Being sent away to boarding school where nuns stood in for otherwise occupied mothers and fathers, being sent on countless airplane rides between Dallas and Boston that attempted settlement with a mother who wanted to, tried o-so-hard to, but just couldn’t make a home for a misplaced and misappropriated daughter.  Choosing an ill-advised marriage that created a home where all else had disintegrated, with the predictable sad ending, all presaged that so predictable leave-taking through the Virginia countryside.  Giving up on the possibility of home is the bleakest homelessness of all.

Perhaps it is a blessing that as such days are lived into, there is no way to give attention to what is sure to come.  How then could we manage to place one foot before the other to grace an uncertain future?  But then, isn’t future by definition the very kernel of uncertainty?  That’s what makes the adventure so exciting—the possibility—the hope so satisfying.  Hope is the antidote to homelessness of heart, even through long hard winters of grumbling discontent.  Home must be where the heart is, homeless a non-sequitur.

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1.This is a true and accurate rendering of this sinner’s faith in God the Universal Intelligence, in my understanding of Christ the Incarnate, and in the faithful Spirit of the Holy, the third triune arm of Merciful Reality that never abandoned me, ever, through a lifetime adrift, awash, afloat.  Blessed tides of Assurance kept company with me, like swaths of sentient seaweed sharing my journey through Living Water.

2. Of parents we all have two.  My mother, Mary Opal, was the daughter of an itinerate hellfire preacher, Baptist by affiliation; my father Kelsey, a clear eyed youth who found himself at that magic intersection of technology and humanities, where renaissance personalities are made.  He was a poet, instrumentalist, singer, inventor, mathematician and scholar.  He discovered religion and found a wife the way most sociable young people did those days at the frontier’s rough edge; he went to church.

3. Ash Creek Church, a few miles west of Ft. Worth, Texas started out Baptist and spun off daughter churches that competed and cooperated inter-denomenationally like mushrooms dotting the fertile prairie.  They swapped members back and forth as the wild frontier civilized itself into cities, towns, and suburbs.  Methodists made a reputation for themselves as “Baptists with a high school diploma.”  It was the Methodist sect that attracted my dad, and he determined to become a preacher/orator.  It was in Weatherford at the Methodist church while attending college that he met my mother, Mary Opal Tyson, another poet, singer and church pianist.  They married and produced a daughter, Dorothy Jeanette.  That paired excess of artistic sensibility combined to make a lively and complex child of the female persuasion.  She was and is me. 

4. I can thank my mother, Mary Opal, for teaching me to love music.  She demonstrated for me the possibility of spirit as vehicle of expression.  I saw her as a living goddess of music, of beauty, of art, of everything filled with light and lust for life.  When I was still a toddler, she constituted and began directing a community chorus called the Glad Girls Glee Club. 

5. It was a gaggle of neighborhood urchins who agreed to come to our house, learn to sing as a harmonious group, and perform at public venues throughout the Ft. Worth area.  The girls experienced the excitement of performance art, doing the hard work of learning, practicing, and disciplining their little-girl selves into a veritable choir. 

6. They learned the fun of authentic formal dress-up; wearing “little ladies” white gloves and pearls to set off their long gowns.  The whole endeavor was a celebration of spirit, and Mary’s personality breathed it into fire.  It was an authentic example of 1940’s post-depression glee.  At that time, I had passed birthday number two and was full of myself as I headed for number three.  Mother installed me as official mascot for the group.  I was handed from lap to lap, soaking up more than my fair share of the happiness.  Every group photo shows me in matching dress and hair-ribbons, situated in one of the many singers’ arms.  That was the start of my career as amateur musician.  It continued in the Baptist Church, Southern Baptist Convention style.  My early memories are of pulpit-shaking sermons, emotional responses, altar-calls where hands were laid-on, and where prayers were long and formulaic.  Tent-revivals were a big draw, well-attended as Barnum’s traveling circus and almost as exciting.  I cried along with everybody else, but sensed from the beginning a frisson of incredulity.

7. In most things intellectual and spiritual I leaned toward my father.  He had abandoned his call to ministry in favor of electrical engineering, and was eventually lured into the defense industry as Raytheon’s part of the Manhattan Project.  He invented the actuation mechanism (radar  altimeter) for the Hiroshima bomb that assured it would explode at the precise elevation for maximum kill, but he refused to discuss it no matter who was doing the asking.  His marriage to my mother, Mary, was part of a religious and romantic world view that faded after his involvement in the war effort.  Mary, sensing his emotional withdrawal, and forced to accept his very physical desertion, shattered into pieces of herself.  Kelsey, ever non-confrontational, quietly departed, abandoning me, his own little daughter, to her care.   When our paths again converged many years later, he called himself a non-believer, while my mother held fast to her early fundamentalism.  Left to integrate the two radically opposed views, I was bereft of direction, a boat afloat without a compass.  Visualization of this concept sees me a single drop of purest water beaded on an impossibly green leaf, its edges curled prettily and floating, safely floating on the Living Water.

8. My mother had lost her way when left with a child to rear and no skills beyond poetry and piano playing.  Her sister, my Aunt Judy, rescued me as Guardian ad litem.  Suddenly I was again living in safety and luxury.  Daddy’s Packard had been swapped for Judy’s Cadillac.  Judy’s colored maid, Lilly-Mae, became my nanny, and I felt doubly cherished, carrying my love for her into a lifetime of general affection for black people.  Judy had returned from a singing career in early Hollywood and was settling down to make some serious money.  She had managed to twice choose abusive husbands, the first causing her to miscarry and become barren, the second pillow-smothering her to death at fifty-five during an event of emphysema.  She had never demonstrated any interest in religion but she loved me, perhaps as the child she had lost and now found; I was on my own to attend church, or not, as I chose.  The music kept me spiritually engaged, and I attended whatever protestant church offered convenience.  Judy trained my voice and paid for piano lessons.  Singing kept me in church choirs during that desert of religious affiliation.  Her husband didn’t want a child in their household, (His favorite salvo blasted “You think you’re so special, Little Miss Priss; nobody thinks you’re worth anything but your crazy mother!) so several times I was sent to live somehow with my mother in her Watertown, Massachusetts rooming house.  Each attempt failed and I was loaded onto an American Airlines turbo-prop with a note pinned to my chest and returned to Judy and her aggressively unfriendly husband.

9. Judy’s failing health and the onset of my puberty prompted her to send me away to Catholic boarding school in Sherman, Texas.  There I learned to appreciate the beauty and power of Catholic ritual.  The nuns amazed me with their quiet, rational concern and encouragement of their newest marginally-civilized pupil.  After a year I determined to convert to Catholicism.  Aunt Judy’s response to that announcement was to jerk me out of school and send me to live with my father’s parents in the farm country west of Ft. Worth.  In no time at all it seemed, my father was located, and I went north to live with him and his new family on Long Island. The Martin family of East-Northport was sterilely non-religious; it was up to me to ride the lively tides of music that kept me on track with affiliations religious.  Wherever we lived there was a church with a choir; I joined it.

 10. This love of music hearkens back to my early relationship with my happy, healthy, mother before she was abandoned to the vagaries of Texas’ early mental health system.  She must have been used as a guinea pig for whatever treatment was in vogue at any given time.  By the time I was old enough to sign her out of the Texas State Asylum at Terrell, she had undergone psychoanalysis, insulin shock treatments, electroshock therapy, and had been virtually poisoned with Big Pharma’s first wonder-drug Thorazine for year after miserable year.   By that time I had found a happy home at SMU’s Highland Park Methodist Church where I sought assistance from the pastor in rehabilitating my mother.  We found a doctor who helped her through Thorazine withdrawal, arranged for nurses-aid training, and found a job for her in a home for the elderly.  We prayed for, searched for, and found her very own apartment.  My mom was again a viable human being.

11. She had lost her fundamentalist zeal and was content to stay home on Sunday mornings watching television preachers.  I couldn’t bear to witness those charlatans work their wiles begging for prayer offerings to keep themselves in luxury conveyances.  Early television did much to create the cynicism that has grown up around all of religion.  Sadly, most people now declare themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Being spiritual is part of being a human animal; it is a Darwinian gift to our species.  Religion embraces that spirituality and gives it a structure, grounding it to rationality, morality, and ethical behavior.  This is a “baby and bathwater” quandary.

12. As a young adult, helping my mother marked a turning for me as a practicing Methodist, giving muscle to my meaning.  I was then myself a single mother, working to survive, but learning that paucity of means need not dictate scarcity of spirit.  Since I was single but definitely not “swinging,” I joined the Singles Sunday School class at Highland Park Methodist.  This huge congregation supported equally sizeable “small” groups; my class alone numbered over 200.  Soon I was acting out my new-launched confidence in leadership.  Elected as Social Chairman, I planned wildly creative monthly events that swelled our number to unwieldy proportions.  We soon were pulling in the unchurched with zeal and were accused of too much success, i.e.  fomenting a “meat-market.” Soon we earned a new sponsor whose quiet agenda was to quell the spirit in the interest of propriety.

13. I had been completing my education that had suffered a hiatus while I was a freshman at Carnegie Institute of Technology and my father’s divorce and bankruptcy had again thrown me onto the generosity of relatives.  I did what women did in those days: I married and started my own family, hoping to do better than my parents.  We joined the Methodist church in Pennsboro, West Virginia and fit right in, being the young family so prized by religious organizations of any and all stripes.  The new pastor, a blind but brilliant scholar, was determined to make grand changes.  He passed out written exams to the entire congregation to decide how best to utilize individual strengths.  I was only 24, but earned the congregation’s highest score.  Pastor assigned me to teach the adult women’s class.  It was awkward, but we all ended up enjoying it.  I was at that time finishing up my degree program in science at a local teacher’s college where I chose several electives in religious subjects.  That scholarly approach to religion spilled over into our class and made for some excitement all around.

14. On the marriage front, I proved to be no better than my parents.  Under pressure I had chosen hastily, and as it turns out, unwisely.  Separation became imperative.  Suddenly a single mother, a student, living on alimony and child support, I earned my BS degree, but not without cost.  My husband and I had joined Trinity Methodist Church with one son and one daughter.  While a member, I delivered another son and soon thereafter lost my only daughter to a tragic auto incident.  It was from the Methodist church that I buried my daughter, Melanie.  It was then that I returned to Texas, home, where Highland Park Methodist became so much a solid rock.

I went to work for Texas Instruments in Dallas, the logistics making the Highland Park affiliation possible.  Time passed, and climbing the industrial-aerospace career ladder led to multiple physical relocations.  I remarried, a good man and talented engineer I had met while working for Varo Engineering.  Our two careers hop-scotched each other to Sherman, Texas, where we looked diligently for a church home.  Larry was a life-long Missouri-Synod Lutheran, while I was a mongrel mix of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and wannabe Catholic.  We finally lit at a Congregational Church on the North Texas State campus and bought an old house next door to the Dean of Students.  We joined the choir and performed soprano/tenor duets.  Life was good. 

15. But then, a new pastor arrived.  The sermons became boring and simplistic.  We stayed home for a while, and I stewed on religion as “problem.”  My inner cosmology could visualize God, but Jesus seemed a stretch as “true” God.  I had long been irritated with the Baptists’ penchant for claiming, index fingers aloft, that they were the “One Way.”  Maybe the Jews, His own people, were the answer.  1970 Sherman was too small for individual temples.  All they had was a single Jewish Community Center.  I visited there and instantly resonated with the people.  These were the People of the Book.  It’s as if they worshiped the God of the Torah, who had led them, not only through the desert, but in developing their intellectual selves.  I, who had all my life adored books, was a perfect match.  I was beginning to understand the interplay of myth, metaphor and meaning in religion.  I brought my Missouri Synod Lutheran husband and our three-year-old son, Kurt, to Friday night services, and we embarked on the road to Judaic conversion.  After many months of supervised study and attendance, the good Jews of Sherman, (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed) cooperatively imported a Rabbi from Dallas to perform the service, and we became a Jewish family.  Kurt was very cute in his little yarmulke, while I was called to read from scripture, not the Torah, but probably the Talmud.  It was no Bat-Mitsva, but I felt loved and very much accepted. 

16.We were Texas Jews for a year until career moves led us to California, where we sought out a Reformed Temple.  We appeared, nicely dressed, the attractive, young, affluent family, and applied for membership.  Mostly we were ignored, but finally one of the women explained that conversion to Judaism for philosophical reasons just wasn’t done.  “If you had married a Jew,” she sniffed, “then it would have been appropriate for you to convert as a requirement of the marriage.”  In one haughty sentence she had discarded all those hours of dedication and study.  Mortified, Larry and I crept away and gave up on being Jewish.  I still have my certificate of conversion.  I guess I am a Jew, but it means nothing without acceptance from the People of the Book.  I swallowed the rebuff with some bitterness, but to this very day I enjoy Jewish people, their savvy edge, lively intelligence, and commitment to learning.  Larry, on the contrary, began having panic attacks.  They stopped after he gave up trying to be an observant Jew.  Months later, after we had split, he claimed an appearance of Jesus in his bedroom one night, which led him to join a very noisy fundamentalist mega-sect called Melodyland.

17. I remarried, this time a biochemistry professor/researcher and Dean at UC Irvine Medical School, Kenneth H. Ibsen, PhD.  We constituted a family, Kurt then a bumptious eight-year-old, and we wanted a church family to raise him in.  I was ecstatically happy, having finally found the perfect husband.  Ken, 100% Dane, had fond memories of Danish Reformed Lutheranism, a very practical, sane branch of the Lutheran tradition.  Serendipity provided just such a church mere blocks from our lovely town-home on Irvine’s Woodbridge Lake.  We joined, and Kurt was put to the task of learning to become a Lutheran in the spirit of his biological father.  It didn’t take.  Kurt, it seemed, had inherited my right brain way of seeing the world as integrations of visions, not disambiguated progressions of abstractions.  He flunked Lutheran prep classes, and we allowed him to withdraw from a left-brain stressor that clearly had no meaning for him.  I, personally, was relieved to leave a group of otherwise good people who were obsessed with correctness of belief as deterrence from eternal damnation.  What kind of church fails a child in Communion-Prep?  Harrumph.

18. There was a long period of no religion, a pity since it might have helped carry a good marriage through a tortuous time.  I studied the varieties of Eastern religions, and teased from each of them useful understandings but could not see myself as a Tibetan meditating on a Himalayan hilltop.  I admired Buddhism, but it wasn’t for me.  I can’t wait for enlightenment; I’ve got to track it down and capture it.  My only contiguity of spirit was my music, singing in community choruses and civic-light-opera, but circumventing church choirs.  I didn’t get involved again with the world of religion until a major career move to Ohio where a friend agreed to mentor me through my childhood wish to join the Mother Church.  At OU’s Newman Center, I attended RCIA and fulfilled that long-ago dream to ally myself with Peter’s rock.  I had for many years admired gravitas as the most attractive of personal attributes.  The relationship took me to Roanoke where, as a legitimate practicing Catholic, I sang in St. Andrew’s Chancel Choir.  I joined the Roanoke Choral Society as well as the Roanoke Symphony Chorus, where I sang like one of Heaven’s angels for nine wonderful years.  Then in 2005 a cervical fusion, accessed from the front, stopped the music.

19. Coincidentally retired from that last post-retirement career, I undertook a journey of exploration, the goal to determine where best to settle down and get old, and on some future day to hang it up.  My eldest son is still in West Virginia, married, and now a grandpa and a competitive bass-fisher; Cincinnati is home to son number two, post marriage and with two sons newly fledged; Richmond is home to my youngest, delighting in marriage and fatherhood, with a girl nine and a boy twelve.  It’s a new experience having a front row seat watching them become.

20. I considered West Virginia, but had learned many years ago that I wanted more, both culturally and intellectually.  It’s great for a visit, since that society excels in friendliness.  There is never a need for an invitation; it’s always assumed, and the door is perpetually open.  I spent two years in Cincy, where I might have renewed my Catholicism, but the years spent allied with the Papacy had been an education in organizational misogyny, priestly child abuse, and encouragement of abject murder in support of Pro-Life activism.  I wallowed in my disappointment.  It was a good time to check out the Unitarians; they’ll let anybody in.

21. Unitarian Universalists were a delightful mix of over-educated progressives, politically active, and happy to welcome newcomers and put them to work.  There were several churches to choose from, and I let music make the choice.  The music director at St. John’s Unitarian was a choral personality of world renown who had energy left over for singing groups in local prisons and running Muse, a local woman’s choir dedicated to tolerance.  One woman was blind, one had MS; all ages and sexual proclivities were represented.  I would have auditioned, but my problematical vocal apparatus would have disqualified me.  I did join Muse’s auxiliary, a coup that earned me free tickets for helping out.  Singing in the church choir helped to somewhat rehabilitate my crippled voice.

22. I could have been a good Unitarian, except that I really do believe in God.  I cringed at scrambling beautiful lyrics to avoid singing the word “God.”  Enough said.  They are good people, and I do love them.  But the sun is hanging low in my sky; it’s getting late, the long journey of exploration complete. Cincy is a good place, where a lifetime of longing and learning has led me.  I am impatient with retirement and need a new career.  Maybe someone will put me to work.  Some people say that on the way to my dotage I have become a writer.

23. One thing I have done continuously, no matter what, has been to read…widely and deeply.  My favorite subjects have forever been spirituality and science.  Small wonder that I should have followed those two rabbit holes to where they join in the lovely burrow of quantum physics.  Of course there is a God; how could there not be?  The Kingdom of Heaven is most assuredly at hand, and in each of us, and popping into and out of existence along with Schrodinger’s Cat.  Why should it be a stretch for Lazarus to be dead and not-dead?  Jesus’ sleight of body could be similarly construed.

24. All the physics and cognitive games are fun and exciting when applied metaphorically to Biblical texts, but the core issue is that we love one another as God has loved us, and to take that love to practical “help thy neighbor” proportions.  Faith without works is indeed dead.  My Highlander All Wheeler runs great; who needs a ride to church?  I’m a trained and experienced hospice volunteer; you needn’t die alone.  Occasionally a serendipitous string of events happens, so statistically improbable that it could only be God giving me a kick in the pants.  There’s surely more to life than mind can understand.  Trading gnosis for faith, maybe there’s a place for me to be me after all.  Maybe it’s at Cincinnati’s Redeemer Episcopal Church.  The sermons are the best.  The choir is a delight, and they let me sing.  They seem to like my writing.  Hope springs eternal.

25.  All I had, all those years, was faith and an abundance of hope.  Giving myself to a serial progression of religious affiliations was educational but didn’t find me a home.  I was looking for a place where my own brand of fractured could be accepted as normative.  Everything about me was wrong.  The southern upbringing, the broken home, too many school dislocations, three misconceived marriages resolved in divorce court, a child killed and mourned as eternal remorse. 

26.  Any community I could admire would be peopled with smarter better members who would have skirted such pits of despond.  Of course none of my relocations led me to people who could mirror my expression of the Christ.  They had lived different lives.  I, too, was a good person.  I would surely fit somewhere.  So predictably and repeatedly, I left—sure that God would lead me somewhere that I meshed. That was the error that Rev. DeVaul asked me to correct.  “Don’t leave,” he urged.  “You have to stay to make a home.”  Nobody ever suggested that to me before.  I stayed, and I wrote about staying, in spite of not fitting in, not being good enough.  Writing as my prayer and singing in the choir were my best medicine.

27.  I admired Redeemer and the beautiful hearts of the people I learned to sit beside, stand and pray with, share bread and wine next to.  I stayed long enough to accept the quiet solace of being part of a beloved community.  I don’t fit, but maybe nobody does.  We just love each other anyway.

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Stand Up Straight

It’s all about posture—and about communication.  Your body and your mind are in a nonstop palaver about what’s happening, what used to happen long ago, and what is sure to happen who knows how far down the road.  And how does that affect how I hold my head?  Or swing my hips?  Or pace my gait?  Everything!

This monumentous discovery cracked the light of day during the year I turned eighty.  That was the year I finally admitted to the possibility of mortality.  Until then I was operating under the fixed delusion that I could never grow old—never die.  That year was a cosmic comeuppance.  I have been dying, slowly, imperceptibly, ever since I cleared the womb.  Telomeres were losing tails.  Sunlight has long been jousting with molecules that lost the good fight, rearranging to form new and different ways to live in the biome.

That discovery suggested a better way to analyze the situation.  Reducing everything to constituents made it more accessible—friendlier—so to speak.  Of course analysis strips even the most formidable problem down to size.  Reductionism works!

When I found myself scuffing around in my apartment like some old person, I demanded a re-take.  What had gone wrong?  I began watching.  Every step was fodder for the reductionist mill.  Gait was circumspect all day—every day.  Time of day was surely a factor.  Level of fatigue played a part.  Setting was all-important.  What was going on at the time inserted itself.  Yesterday’s activity might induce residual soreness.  Diet must surely be a factor.  We are, of course, what we eat.  How about costume?  What to wear has always influenced how we are seen and even how we see ourselves, as perception becomes part of the equation.  What we have been up to this hour matters more than any of us might have suspected.  Who informs our self-definition—past and present?  Other people stir the soup.  Complicate it.  Make it fun or doom it to despair.  Just like my Mother said, “It matters what other people think!”

Just watching all this play out increased sensitivity to what’s happening.  I recall Bugs Bunny’s repeated question, “Eh-eh-eh-eh.  What’s up doc?”  Was that a commentary on the happenstance of my inquisition?  Methinks we are on to something.

Notice that I didn’t mention age or physical debilitation as a contributing factor.  Everybody jumps to those assumptions and gives up.  Don’t!  How can I lose my keys when I hang them every time from the helpful front doorknob?  I am in control of every moment as it plays itself out.  The inevitable loss of memory need not incite panic.  Who needs memory when we have an endless supply of clever devices to extrapolate our humanity?  Maps?  Forget them!  I have Siri.  She’s a constant companion.  In 2011, I thought it was soon to be over, but then I bought an IPhone.  The rest is a history I share with a planet full of cohorts.  We will die, but we’ll have a helluva wild ride getting there!

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