Surface Tension

Montclair, New Jersey, is distinguished by having two bookstores. On Saturdays when my wife has to work there, I sometimes come along. Apart from the pleasant company, it isn’t every day that one can visit two bookstores. By supporting such shops, I am protesting the ignorance rampant in this nation. One, the Montclair Book Center, specializes in used books. Not always competitively priced, I nevertheless seldom leave empty-handed. It’s a healthy walk from there to Watchung Booksellers, a compact indie up by the train station. For a small store they always have an intriguing selection and I’ve never seen it empty on a Saturday. As I was walking the distance between the two, I noticed that Montclair’s downtown (and I’m not picking on Montclair, which I love) focuses on appearances. This is true of almost all shopping malls as well. Salons, clothing stores, eating places, tattoo parlors, health clubs. Places you go to help hone your image. Where are the stores catering to the mind?

Don’t get me wrong, I also have a body. I like to keep healthy too. I jog when I can, and I’m a vegetarian of nearly twenty years. Yes, there are the necessary places like drug stores and specialty shops where you can get your vacuum cleaner repaired, but few places to go explicitly to encourage mental growth. Hot, I stopped into a coffee shop for a bottle of juice. Patrons were busy at their phones and laptops. I recalled how there was a time when intellectuals hung out and conversed in coffee shops, exchanging ideas over mugs long grown cold. Even those sitting outside on the sociable, colorful chairs were busy texting, Instagramming, or tweeting away their weekends. I closed my book and walked on. I felt a vague but pressing need for intellectual engagement. I headed to the second bookstore.

On the way home one of those industrial-sized lawn-care vendors cut us off on the highway. Lawn-care is big business around here. It’s all about appearances. What has happened to the life of the mind? Allow me my curmudgeonly years—I recall walking downtown as a child and seeing the office supply store with actual paper, smoke-shops with their abundant magazines and wire spinner racks full of questionable paperbacks, and even the Christian bookstore with its tracts and Bibles. I didn’t have the benefit of living in a university town, but people I saw were talking to one another. Exchanging ideas with someone actually present. Self-consciously I look down. I’ve had these cargo pants for many years. This shirt I’m wearing I purchased in Wisconsin in another decade. Even these shoes haven’t been replaced after all these miles. This hat on my head is almost older than my college-graduate child. I can’t be bothered with my appearance right now, though, because there’s another bookstore just ahead.

Eclipse 2017

It’s the day after the eclipse. Perhaps it’s because of the internet, but the excitement about this somewhat common event reached a fever pitch. Maybe it was because we all wanted something other than Donald Trump to talk about. Maybe it was because we hoped that the eclipse might have brought about some profound change. In the days before science was a thing, eclipses were divine events. The sky doesn’t darken at noon. It is an uncanny, an eerie thing. The last eclipse—alas, only partial—that I experienced was at Nashotah House. My wife was still a student in Illinois at the time, and without her to remind me, I went about my classes as usual. When I stepped outside the eclipse was already in progress. Nashotah’s quite rural, but the birds and insects were silent. The light was weird. The shadows of the leaves were scooped crescents on the ground. I could understand why pre-scientific people trembled.

These days we know there’s nothing more to life than scientific formulas and a bit of sloppy chemistry. So why do we bother getting bothered about eclipses? The fact is they remain religious in our minds. This is nature acting in a way not normal. Apocalypses generally include the sky growing dark. One of the plagues of Egypt was darkness. In the ancient mind the sun did not so much cause light (the moon could give light too) but it lived in the realm of light. If something blocked the sun that was one thing. If something invaded the realm of light, that was another. An eclipse was such an invasion. Even as monotheism began to take hold, people thought of the sun as a deity. It, after all, directs our lives.

In New York City I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went to street level with a couple of colleagues about 10 minutes before maximum coverage (about 71%) began. Knots of people stood on the corners on the eastern side of Madison Avenue—those who build skyscrapers don’t think of eclipse viewing on the streets below. What struck me most, however, was a kind of peace and awe. Strangers sharing various viewing devices with each other and looking up expectantly. Clouds had begun to move in, and I found myself talking to complete strangers, sharing out the eclipse-viewing glasses my wife had given me. We were participating in a moment of transcendence. Such moments are rare today. No, an eclipse is more than simply the moon moving in front of the sun. It is a human event as well. And one which, in the absence of the sun, brings out the best in us.

Celestial Happenings

Science fiction used to be the mainstay of my reading. Unlike a true fan, I was never exclusively devoted to it—my tastes are far too eclectic to be contained by any genre. Nevertheless, at a used book sale, on a whim, I picked up Frederik Pohl’s The Day the Martians Came. It had a cool looking spaceship on the cover, and I recognized his name from my childhood reading. I prepared myself for an adventure. Instead I found a disillusioned tale of humans and their foibles, many of them religious. Many tales, in fact. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised to find out that this was originally a set of discrete short stories later laced together into a novel. The point, it seems, would be appropriate to Qohelet. Human beings run around doing their pointless things and failing to communicate with one another. That much was true to life.

The Martians, who are more evolved and intelligent than humans, but who appear to be mere docile animals, are discovered near Christmas. Much is made of the fact that humans still celebrate Christmas on Mars. And, if you can cut through all of the snark, there’s also a message that we like to live out our prejudices whenever possible. So the humans, excited about Martians being transported back to earth, try to take advantage of each other any way they can. Some of the most complex of the stories involve religious leaders who dismiss science and assert mystical knowledge of these extraterrestrials. These leaders, of course, are only after the money of the gullible. They’re playing the popularity circuit, or running cults, and the clueless are drawn to them. And so the book isn’t really about Martians at all, but about human folly. Mainly religion.

Science fiction means different things to different people. In a used bookstore I noticed Neil Gaiman under science fiction. As much as I enjoy his work, I’d classify it as general literature instead. Genres are there to help us find related material. The name Frederik Pohl and the word “Martians” in the title suggest science fiction, but the book itself doesn’t really meet the criteria. At least for me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve landed rovers on Mars and are now talking about a human expedition. Mars has become somewhat less exotic. Religion, meanwhile, continues to churn and muddy the waters. Not always as cynical as the leaders seem to be in this book, nevertheless they are part of the discussion since once we get off this planet we’re going to have foreign deities with which to deal. Whether we respond with snark or science fiction is entirely up to us.

Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Creative Religion

If you ignore common sense and read this blog, you know that I try to be creative in my approach to the world. It’s bold, in my way of thinking, to claim the mantle of creativity since there are so many people out there that the world has already decided are creative enough, thank you. Who has time to visit all the world’s museums, read all the world’s novels, or watch all the world’s films? Why contribute to the clutter? The answer—in as far as there is an answer—is that creativity is a way of being. My wife sent me a piece by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings. It is about the creative life. I’m reluctant to claim the title for myself, but the essay does match the description of what I’d like life to be.

Writing about religion daily requires a certain amount of creativity. If you think about it, it does make sense. Religion deals with intangibles. “Things not seen.” It also delves into that deep place called meaning and wrestles with issues we all have to face in our lives. It’s really a shame when religion becomes ossified into a system with no creativity or humor. One might make the case that it ceases to be religion then. The other day I was recalling just how powerful a high mass can be. Even now, if the mood is right, the memory of my first experience of it can bring tears to my eyes. It is a pageant of mystery and power. And creativity. The colors, the sounds, the scent of incense, the pressure of the kneeler on your knees, the sharp bite of flame tokay. It may not be the worship the way the disciples did it, but it sure has a creative genius.

When, however, worship became a daily requirement—when the majesty became mandatory—something was lost. Creativity means being willing to try something different. As much as we creative types cherish our friends, we need time alone with our Muses. And when we come back together with those friends, it is all the more pleasant for having been away. Creative people do not control their creativity. It clearly works the other way around. We can’t stop being creative, even if—and I can’t imagine why—we’d ever want not to be. Religion, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in some awkward places. If only it could be brought together with an open creativity without becoming trite it might find a place in a world too busy to take time simply to be.

Fall of the Titanosaurs

If I had it all to do over again, I might well have gone into paleontology. Like most kids, I grew up fascinated with dinosaurs. Then “real life” got in the way and you need to get a job since you can’t spend your time playing with your cheap plastic toys and dreaming Triassic dreams. There’s no future in the past. So I decided to study dead languages instead. Still, the recent discovery of Patagotitan mayorum is exciting. Titanosaurs—the really big dinosaurs—were not even known when I was a child. What we used to call “brontosaurus” was about as big as they got, but we did know that diplodocus was out there somewhere, even a bit longer. We didn’t have to worry about ark space in those days because we knew that extinction happens.

The current evangelical flavor of the day takes a hard line on evolution. Since it absolutely can’t happen and since there’s no denying dinosaurs, they must’ve crowded onto old Noah’s floating hotel along with everybody else. The problem is we keep discovering more and more large dinosaurs. Patagotitan was 122 feet long, without skin. It weighed more than ten elephants, making me wonder about water displacement ratios. Depending on your definition of that fuzzy measure of the cubit, the ark was only 450 feet long. And Patagotitan is only one of the titanosaurs that dwarf the already huge apatosaurus (the correct form of brontosaurus) and brachiosaurus. Even if they hibernated the sheer mass of reptilian tonnage wouldn’t leave much room for the latter ascendant mammals. That is, if mammals had come later and ascended.

Noah, despite being a traveler, never made it to Patagonia. In fact, the ark pretty much stayed still during the flood, coming to rest in Turkey after having been constructed somewhere just east of Eden. And since the Bible doesn’t mention continental drift we can’t even rely on Pangea to have gotten all the beasties to ark central on time. I’m guessing that Patagotitan was probably a slow walker. Since the continents were just like they are today, it must’ve been a fair swimmer as well. And it didn’t mind quarters just a touch claustrophobic for such a massive monster. What with all the home improvement shows these days, Noah might have considered an addition to the ark. But the Bible says God gave him the plan and one thing we know about the Almighty is that what he says he means literally. Dinosaurs or no.

The Way

Part of the problem is that I’ve never been fortunate enough to learn Chinese. You see, scholars of religion are often insistent on reading scriptures in their original languages. It has been a long time since I’ve picked up the Daodejing, one of the formative scriptures of Daoism, and I was struck by a number of things. First (and I have the confirmation of Sinologists on this), the Daodejing is difficult to understand. This isn’t just a translation issue. Nor is it an issue of Chinese thinking. All world scriptures are difficult to understand. One of the major problems with the Bible is that it has been translated into English for so long that many assume the language concerns are negligible. They’re not. The Bible has many obscure parts. Also it’s worth noting that the Daodejing has been translated nearly as much as, if not more than, the Bible. It is a very influential text, in part, I’m sure, because it’s not easy to understand.

Paradox isn’t within the comfort zone of many western religions. We like our belief structure to be (mostly) rational and believable. In fact, to start an argument just point out the fact that the Bible has contradictions. (It does, for the record.) The point being that a westerner will want to believe it is consistent and coherent throughout. If they can’t have that in English then they’ll say it’s inerrant in the original languages (it’s not). Religions shouldn’t make your brain hurt. Paradoxes, however, require deep thought. They can’t be read quickly to be stored away as factual information. They do, however, constitute a large part of life. Look at Washington and meditate. Daoism, the religion that generally follows the teachings of Lao Tzu (the putative author of the Daodejing), finds truth in contemplating opposites which are both simultaneously true. And not true. Interestingly, many of the sayings in the Daodejing are similar to ideas attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Dao is often translated “way.” One of the striking things about Edmund Ryden’s translation is his choice to use the feminine pronoun for “the way.” This is motivated, as I read it, out of concern to do justice to the presentation of the dao in the Daodejing itself. While the dao is not god, nor personal, it is powerful. The recognition of feminine power is clear in many aspects of the Daodejing. That’s not to say that the culture wasn’t patriarchal, but merely that it recognized balance—the famous yin and yang—as being inherent in the way the universe works. If such an idea could truly take hold the world might be a better place even today.