Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.

Making Monsters

It’s not so much I’ve been away from monsters lately, but that life has intervened between them and me.  Life can be scarier than monsters sometimes.  In any case, the summer is when my mind turns back to haunting even as on the breaks during heat waves a whiff of autumn can be caught on the air of a July morning.  Yes, we’ve past the solstice and days are getting shorter.  Slowly, of course, but that’s what builds suspense.  And there are local signs that I need to get my haunting in gear.  It is finally time to get Holy Horror out of wraps and give the book a proper launch.  Being published around Christmas last year was poor timing for a subject so readily coded for fall.

I received the welcome news this week that the Moravian Book Shop—the oldest continually operating bookstore in the country—will be hosting a book signing for Holy Horror in October.  This is a fortuitous turn of events because when I first approached them with the idea the price of the book made the idea look unrealistic.  But we’re now thinking of autumn, and with autumn comes Halloween.  There have been a spate of horror films this summer, all of which I’ve unfortunately missed.  Time, as Morpheus notes, is always against us.  There does, however, seem to be a lively interest in the genre and the curious wonder what it has to say about what we believe.  Horror loves religion, and indeed, thrives on it.  So it’s been from the beginning.

October will also see the Easton Book Festival in this area.  I will be on the program for that as well.  While none of this is earth-shattering, these events represent the first successes in trying to build awareness of Holy Horror.  This was a book written for a general readership, but not priced for one.  Working in the academic publishing world, this is a phenomenon with which I’m all too familiar.  Many colleagues offer to read and spread news about your book.  It seldom happens, though.  Academic presses can’t afford book tours (especially if they have to price books at $45), but these self-driven presentations are opportunities to spread the interest in ideas.  That’s what those of us who write really want—to be part of the conversation.  We’re in the midst of a heat wave here.  It’s the height of summer.  Even so, those who know about monsters can feel them coming, even from here.

Freedom’s Price Tag

Independence Day makes me feel conflicted.  Jingoism seems to be an international problem, and although patriotism is deemed next to saintliness, I have my doubts.  No nation is perfect *gasp!* and we would all do well to learn from others.  America is a nation in love with money and that affair has serious consequences.  One is our medical care system.  We’re one of the very few (if not only) “advanced” nations without universal medical coverage.  In fact, people routinely suffer because they lack insurance or their coverage doesn’t provide for what their physicians think is best.  This came home to me while staying with a family member who was hospitalized recently.  On the television the GOP was sponsoring ads against universal health care.  The irony was thick enough to be sickening.

Highly touted as the most affluent nation in the world, we refuse to take care of our own.  How am I supposed to get into the mood for Independence Day?  In Britain (as in most other places) they have universal health care.  I lived there for three years and knew that I could get treatment without emptying out the bank.  Here, in my native country, we have less care.  Someone might make a few dollars less, and that, we’re told, is unacceptable.  Anyone who’s experienced the illness of a family member knows the old one-two.  The treatment itself and the bills that come after.  Lately I’ve just been throwing up my hands and opening up my wallet.  It’s Independence Day.

Not that I’d expected much to change, but my first inkling of being a writer was winning a state-wide essay contest right here in Pennsylvania.  I wrote an essay on “Americanism” back in 1980.  It noted the false sense of righteousness that accompanied the notion.  I was an evangelical Christian then, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t cynical.  In my small town I’d seen John Cougar Mellencamp-level suffering.  I saw unemployment, drug use, and desperation.  I saw politicians saying everything was great and would be even better if we had more guns.  I saw trickle-down economics stemmed at the source.  I knew we were being lied to.  I did hope that things would get better, but now with the GOP fully behind 45 the true ugliness of jingoism has become clear.  It’s Independence Day and I feel sick.  I look across the ocean and see the nation from which we declared said independence suffering from a similar backlash.  But at least they can afford to go to the doctor.

Weathering the Sun

I may have given up on Weathering the Psalms a bit prematurely.  Those who know me know that the weather impacts my mood.  Now that I have a yard to mow that feeling has grown exponentially since perpetually wet grass is happy grass and is impossible to cut with a reel mower.  Today, while those of pagan inclinations celebrate the sun, there’s more rain in the forecast.  As there has been since Sunday.  If Yahweh’s the God of the sun, then Baal’s had the upper hand for some time now.  As an article on Gizmodo has pointed out, this has been the rainiest twelve months on record for the United States.  And we’re largely to blame.  We’ve known we’ve been warming the globe since the 1980s, at least.  Yet we do nothing about it.  You can’t stop the rain. 

Our species occupies that odd role of predator and prey.  Most predators, actually, are prey to somebody else.  Not being nocturnal by nature, we fear the dark when we feel more like prey.  Since we’re visually oriented, we crave the light.  Today, when the conditions are right, we have it abundantly.  Ironically, of the seasonal celebrations, the summer solstice is the only one with no notable holidays.  Easter and a host of May Day-like holidays welcome spring and Halloween and Thanksgiving settle us into fall.  December holidays around the other solstice are the most intense, but summer, with its abundant light and warmth, is perhaps celebration enough.  Or maybe we know that marking the longest day is a transition point, since now we’ve reached a natural turning point.

So, it’s the solstice.  From here on out the days start getting shorter and we slowly move toward the time of year when horror becomes fashionable again.  The light that we crave now ebbs slowly to the dark we fear.  There should be a holiday around here somewhere, for those of us outside academia continuing working right on through.  The problem is western religions, especially Christianity, place no especially memorable events here.  Resurrection’s a hard act to follow.  Calendars, apart from telling us when to plant and harvest, are primarily religious tools in origin.  When things are their darkest, six months from now, the church moved the likely spring birthday of Jesus to counteract pagan festivals encouraging the return of the light.  I, for one, would like to see a day to commemorate it, even if it’s raining again.

Time Off

Perhaps you’ve noticed it too.  Time away from work has an utterly different feel from time on the job.  Those rare individuals who really love their professions probably feel differently about it, but a timid free spirit since childhood, I’ve always noticed a difference.  And it has become more pronounced as time’s gone on.  Recently I cashed in a vacation day near a national holiday (Memorial Day) so that I could drive across the state to see my mother without feeling utterly wiped out from a twelve-hour drive on a regular weekend.  As I slipped back into work mode on Tuesday the change was palpable.  Time was no longer my own.  I tend to work well over eight hours daily—the telecommuter must prove his/her worth—and something about the quality of the time itself was decidedly unlike that of the previous four days (two of which had been spent driving).

That quality, of which we’re not encouraged to speak, is the feeling of freedom.  More precisely, auto-determination.  Okay, I’ve read enough philosophy to know this is just an illusion, but work with me here.  Few and exceptionally fortunate are those who find careers they love.  What the rest of us love is time off work.  Time when we can decide what to do.  How long to sleep.  When to cut the grass rather than waiting until the bell rings at 5 p.m. and the inevitable afternoon rain begins.  Perhaps best of all is going to bed knowing that the next day you don’t have to get up and report for duty.  I’m not dissing employment here, I’m just noticing something.  What I’m reaching toward is a concept of sacred time.  Unstructured time in which creative types thrive.

Early in life the concept of summer was instilled in my soft and malleable psyche.  It said once May was over you have three months to do whatever before facing regimentation again.  I grew to appreciate this schedule.  To love it, in fact.  It was part of why I decided higher education was the best vocational fit for someone of my particular disposition.  Every year when June rolls around I still feel it, like a migratory bird.  The reality, however, is the quality of time changes on Monday morning.  It slows down and feels more like sandpaper than silk.  I can see there’s a holiday just a month away, if I can only reach it.  And it is, perhaps with a dose of unintentional irony, call Independence Day.

World Environment Day

Do you like where you’re living?  Planet earth, I mean.  Today is World Environment Day.  It’s not enough of a holiday to score time off of work, but it is well worth observing nevertheless.  More than that, it’s vital.  Other holidays tend to be the decaying remains of religiously appointed observances or sops thrown to the Cerberus of patriotism, but World Environment Day impacts every one of us, all of the time.  Whether sleeping, waking, working, or playing, it’s in the context of the one planet we have.  Even those in space have to check in here to survive.  We might try to make World Environment Day an international holiday, but I’m sure we could never all agree to it.  Business would collapse if everyone took the same day off, all at the same time.  Instead we’re left to dream.

I recently watched The Lego Movie.  Although released in 2014 it perfectly anticipated 45 with “President Business.”  Overlooking for a moment that Legos represent big business, the film underscored the problem: the only thing hard enough to cut a diamond is another diamond.  And the only way to fight business is with business.  Perhaps there aren’t enough people to envision what life could be like without the constant stress of having to make more money.  It’s a sickness, really.  But it’s a pathology we worship.  There are some abysses, it seems, into which nobody dares peer.  Who doesn’t want to be in charge?  And those in charge care nothing for Mother Earth.

We have spent the past two-plus years watching helplessly as the Republican Party has done its level best to lay waste the planet.  Rolling back and abolishing environmental initiatives deemed detrimental to “business,” these are folks who need to feel what it’s like to lose a job or two and have to reinvent themselves.  Not that long ago, most of the humans on this planet lived on farms or supported those who did.  Daily in touch with the planet in a literal way that those who mow with industrial, sit-down lawn helicopters can never be—how can you be in touch when your feet never even meet the ground?—they knew that paying attention to the planet is crucial.  But that’ll have to wait.  It’s a work day, after all.  And a Wednesday, no less.  In the middle of the week-long worship at the altar of Mammon.  Still, I urge you to take a moment or two today to consider how to save the only planet we’ve got.  It’s worth celebrating.

Iron Ages

I find myself in Pittsburgh again.  We set out from the former steel city of Bethlehem and ended up in the former steel city on the other side of the state.  I’m not here for the metal, of course, but to visit family.  Making our way over the great eroded spine of the ancient Appalachians, I was thinking of how cities often take on the identity of their industries.  Pittsburgh and Bethlehem vied with each other for their facility with unyielding iron—one of the technologies so important to human history that we still use the Iron Age as a marker of advancing technology.  Pittsburgh’s now a tech city, much reduced in size from its heyday when only fifteen cities in the country were larger.  Bethlehem, it seems, is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Back in college, I used to work in a church in the south hills.  I haven’t been to Windover Hills United Methodist Church since those days.  I was weighing my future then, deciding to attend Boston University School of Theology—the seminary the pastor had attended—and exposing myself to liberal thinking rather than more of the conservative milquetoast that was mistaken for milk and honey at Grove City College.  The memories that attended the drive were powerful and poignant.  I only lived in Pittsburgh two summers—the second working as a bagger at a grocery store (I should’ve known then where a college degree in religious studies might lead, even if summa cum laude).  As iron sharpens iron, so the Good Book says.

Recently I tried to recall all the addresses at which I’ve lived.  This seems particularly important because many of the buildings no longer stand and I greatly fear being erased.  Those of us who write often do.  I can recall the cities and even a few of the streets.  Numbers often escape me, for they seem to be mere place holders.  My days in Pittsburgh were decades ago, when life was really only just beginning.  Now I drive these hills with memories my only maps, wondering if I can find the place I’m seeking.  This place is part of me, even as Bethlehem is now becoming such a piece.  Cities change depending on the laws of supply and demand that can, as we know, even break iron.  And those of us who live in such places know that any industry is subject to memory, whether of God or of steel.