Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

March On

The day after the government shutdown, Women’s Marches were held across the country. Unlike the shutdown, these marches had been planned and anticipated in advance. They marked the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that spurred millions of people across the world into action just last year. I count it as a privilege to have been able to march with my sisters in DC last year, and yesterday again, in New York City. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but one of its truest aspects is that it invites you to participate in something greater than yourself. These marches are like that. They are all about social justice of the most basic kind. Not what divides us, but what brings us together. There may be historical reasons that women were kept from positions of leadership, but if we learn nothing from history’s mistakes we can call nothing we do progress.

It takes a lot to get me back to New York City when it’s not a work day. Nevertheless, the anticipation built along the way. Waiting for the train in Newark, we started to see pink hats at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. At Penn Station in New York they were everywhere. Strangers on the subway started conversations about the march, whether they were going or not. As usual, the program ran a little long and those who were near the stage grew impatient as they’d been on their feet for a couple of hours. Still, the messages were important to hear. Whoopi Goldberg was the star of the show this time, some might say, but all who stood up outside Central Park and gave voice to equality were stars.

The march itself lasted only a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, but the crowds were enormous. Although I held no clever sign, I knew that simply by being a body to march was significant. You see, the Women’s Movement isn’t about excluding anybody. It’s all about redressing institutionalized wrongs that insist “somebody else” is of less value than a white man who’s been able to exploit his way to the top. This system is corrupt and dehumanizing to all. Women see that. Woman say something about it. Women march. Yesterday thousands across the country marched for equal rights. Our government, controlled by one party—the white men’s party—couldn’t even figure out how to keep itself open. The differences between these two views of the world couldn’t be more obvious. I’m humbled and honored to be included on the women’s side.

Street Clearing

Not driving to work definitely has its advantages. Although studies suggest commuting takes a great toll on hapless riders, the stress of driving in traffic—more often just sitting in traffic—also takes its pound of flesh, and more. A recent snowstorm had me reflecting on this. Once in a while I like to demonstrate that the male of the species is worth keeping around, so after the Bomb Cyclone that closed schools and offices in the trial-state area a couple weeks back, I went out to brush off and start the cars. It’s not that women can’t do this, but it’s more the fact that nobody wants to do it that motivated me. Besides, I have a secretly fond memory of the years of enforced, Dr. Zhivago-esque labor on our Lake Erie snow-belt blessed driveway. My stepfather’s shack sat atop a long, unpaved driveway. Ironically, although he drove the borough snow plow, he insisted that we boys do the shoveling at home. Maybe that’s where I get it. A poor family, our winter coats were substandard and aching fingers and toes, not to mention frozen faces, were pretty typical. I hated every minute of it. Or did I?

Bundled up against the arctic winds that had brushed a noticeable breeze past my face the night before (in the present-day) when I climbed into bed, I stepped out in first light. Immediately the cold found the small gap between my gloves and sleeves and began to work it’s chilling magic. Before the powdery snow was even off the car my fingers were numb and painful, reminding me of an unfortunate frostbite episode as a child. Unconsciously I found myself smiling. I’m no longer forced to do this. Kindness is a far better motivator than hate. At least as a renter I didn’t have to shovel the drive.

Afterwards, inside an apartment that we all habitually decry as too cold, I quickly warmed up. There’s a pleasure in doing something so that someone else doesn’t have to. I miss that, working in New York City. Focused on getting to work, it’s far too easy to step past those for whom even a glance is a blessing. Those who sleep in cardboard boxes on nights like that through which I felt an annoying draft, although secure inside. I see the police “evicting” tenants of paperboard towns even as I glimpse Trump Tower in the distance. The storm they called a Bomb Cyclone. We clear the streets quickly so that we might get back to work and make more money for the one percent. Studies show commuting is killing us. It seems the cold is doing so as well.

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Science and

Do science and religion have to fight? It’s not evident that they do, but some on each side of this divide like to keep the conflict going. Many religious believers feel threatened by the incredible success of scientific explanations. The gods who used to explain everything are now responsible for so little that it’s easy to feel foolish for believing. It doesn’t help that the most vocal scientists have made religion their personal court jester, adding ridicule to the mix. Krista Tippett’s book of interviews with scientists, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit, is a refreshing counter to this trend. Although it’s a few years old now, the book just landed under my tree, so I started off the new year with it.

A blend of interviews with scientists, quotes from their books, and personal observations, Einstein’s God is a fascinating and quick read. Covering topics from the wonder many scientists feel about their discoveries to medical understandings of how spirit effects healing to the ongoing debates about evolution, this book looks at the big picture. The scientists Tippett interviews, although some are atheists, don’t dismiss religion. In fact, many of them suggest religion in some form is necessary for healthy human living. As scientists they don’t dismiss science either. It’s refreshing to read about how those with scientific bona fides sometimes come to the same conclusions that those of us without the credits have surmised.

Once I began working at age 14, one of my earliest purchases was a subscription to Discover magazine. I was a charter subscriber. I was also a Fundamentalist. Not realizing that science and religion should be squabbling, I read science that could be digested by someone without professional training. Until I felt the tug of the ministry, I had intended to be a scientist. The only professional religionist interviewed in Tippett’s book is John Polkinghorne. A physicist cum priest, Polkinghorne has come to prominence among those involved in the debate between how we know what we know (the fancy term is epistemology). I wondered as I read this how it might differ from the other direction. Some of the interviewees were raised religious—Jewish and Hindu, notably—but none started out as professional religionists who went into science. That, I learned after college, is a much harder transition. Perhaps it says something about the nature of reality that to move into science as a career you must start with the undergrad prereqs if you ever hope to make the switch. Otherwise, those who start out with A’s in high school physics end up watching from the sidelines while others set the terms of the conversation.

Gaston Avenue Freeze-Out

I was not, as yesterday’s post indicated, looking forward to the renewed commute into New York City. We’ve been having a cold snap here in the Northeast, and although it’s nothing by Midwest standards, standing in it waiting for a bus isn’t the most comfortable of situations. It was cold enough that I didn’t dare take my gloves off to check the time, but my body clock told me the bus was late. The cold was creeping through all my layers and the thermometer said it was in the single digits, and breezy. I’d been a human popsicle for about a quarter of an hour when a pair of headlights pulled in the parking space nearest me. The driver got out—one of the regular commuters on my line—came over and said, “The bus is running late, won’t you sit in my car?” I was truly touched.

It’s easy to think people just don’t care. Those of us on the early morning commute know each other by sight, but not by name. We all awake far too early and put up with expensive, but unreliable bus service. We don’t talk on the bus, each of us using the time as we see fit. It feels like being alone. This offer of kindness was a welcome start to 2018. Many women would be rightfully leery of letting a man they don’t know sit in their car in the dark. Human kindness, however, is a quality that overlooks differences in times of need. She asked what line of work I was in. When I said “publishing” she replied “Ah, so that’s why you read all the time!” I was surprised she even knew that about me. Commuters touch only at the edges, like marbles in a jar.

In the Middle Eastern desert regions there’s a law of hospitality. If you find anyone lost in the wilderness, you help them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a friend, enemy, or stranger. Knowing that anyone might find themselves in such a hostile environment needing help, the tradition is to give assistance. You give water to the person in need. In these days of foreigner-bashing, I feel compelled to note that this woman is not a native-born American. Standing in the exposed cold of my shelterless bus stop I was at the mercy of the weather and human kindness. In a nation bent on expelling “the other” I could’ve had an even more uncomfortable long wait for an expensive government service for which I handsomely pay and which often doesn’t deliver. There are parables everywhere for those with eyes to see.

The Grind

I’m headed back to New York City after a staycation of almost two weeks. Even shifting standard arising time back only an hour from 4:00 a.m. seems cruel and unusual punishment this morning. New York is a very different place to go for work than it is for play. Serious New Yorkers, of which I am not one, tend to avoid the fun places visitors go. Times Square is simply a venue from which the hike to work begins. Most of the buildings are gray and dedicated to the making of money. My thoughts go back to my one transgressive trip in over the holidays to see a show. How different New York was then! Ethereal lights, sublime music, and the magic of story. Today it will be unsmiling crowds surly to make cash flow again. The concrete underfoot today will be much harder.

When I come in with family I feel less cold. New York can be very lonely for such a crowded place. Indeed, it isn’t unusual for me to go for days with no one at the office saying a single word to me. That’s the kind of place Manhattan is. Too many humans to be humane. Unless you’re here to play. Such play is, however, costly. Magic never comes for free. The holiday lights will still be up here and there. Warm memories of the past few days will linger for a little while. Soon the steel and cement will be the only realities once again. Soft skills meet the cold razor of cash with predictable results.

It seems to me that I’m yearning for boyhood once again. Those first tentative years of learning about life are all misleading. Suddenly it dawns on you that good will is reserved for the holidays and the remainder of the year is dedicated to money and things others deem as important. The bus is approaching, but the last time I was in the city was for fun. Today I won’t even glance at the theater district as I dodge cars to get out of Times Square as quickly as possible. There will be the all-too-familiar lines at the Port Authority during rush hour this afternoon. I’ll leave work wondering how a city can possibly be so schizophrenic. Yes, I’ve been profoundly happy in New York City. I’ve also been ground down to the very nub by the exact same place. Such is the nature of a world where money reigns.