Ode to Auld Reekie

Edinburgh is a sizable city, although not large like New York, more like Boston, but smaller.  Like Boston, it has had an outsized influence globally, even apart from its world-class research university.  I think of the creatives that are from, or spent considerable time there (J. K. Rowling, take a bow) and the many great thinkers who’ve called it home.  Our three years there went by too quickly, but money being what it was (and is) and laws dictating how long we could linger, we had to leave it in 1992.  If you’d have asked us when we were there we’d have told you we’d’ve stay if we could’ve.  We had no money, no car, no television, but we had Edinburgh.  Somehow that seemed to be enough.

Places have great significance to people, but it’s not reciprocal.  I occasionally find out a famous person was from Edinburgh and say “I didn’t know that.”  Having spent three years and the cost of a doctorate there, I was a mere drop in the Firth of Forth.  I’m frequently in contact with faculty members at the Divinity School for work.  None know that I studied there—I suspect most university folk don’t sit around talking about long-ago post-grads.  Indeed, there may be no faculty left from the time I was there.  New names, new faces, new research agendas appear.  Indeed, you wouldn’t choose Edinburgh as a place to study Ugaritic now, even though there was once an “Edinburgh school” of thought in the discipline (and I can footnote that).

Still, when I hear “Edinburgh” my ears prick up like those of a dog who’s been called.  It is a part of me.  I’ve only been able to return once since our original stint there.  It was a strange sort of homecoming.  Familiar and foreign all at the same time.  Some shops were right where we’d left them, others now merely ghosts in our memories.  Fortunately Edinburgh hasn’t had the building mania that often causes old cities to try to reinvent themselves.  It was already great to begin with.  More and more I hear about the Edinburgh Festival, and the Fringe.  People are starting to notice this jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom.  On a molecular level there may still be a little bit of me there.  We’re constantly shedding, I suppose.  And someday perhaps we’ll be able to return.  It may not remember me, but I can’t forget her.


Flower Power

Why do we find flowers so attractive?  Often what separates weeds from desired plants are the flowers.  (Not always, though, as the much maligned dandelion can attest.)  The bright colors clearly help.  Intended to entice pollinators, flowers offer many natural attractants—nectar, intricate patterns, stunning colors—that draw both insects and humans to them.  Summer is the time for weekend festivals, and thus we found ourselves at Yenser’s Tree Farm for their Sunflower Festival.  Located near Lehighton, it’s in some pretty territory.  At this time of year it’s dedicated to sunflowers.  Perhaps all the more poignant this particular year, given that the sunflower in a national symbol of Ukraine, lots of people were there a warm Saturday afternoon.

The Helianthus genus is actually part of the daisy family.  What we call the “flower” is what botanists call a “false flower” because the head of a sunflower consists of many tiny flowers surrounded by a fringe that has petals like other flowers.  In other words, a sunflower is a cooperative venture.  The name “sunflower” either derives from the disc head looking like the sun, or by their trait of heliotropism.  The buds, before blooming, track the sun across the sky.  Most remarkably, at night, typically between three and six a.m., they turn back east anticipating the sunrise.  This speaks of an intelligence in nature.  There is a scientific explanation, of course, having to do with changing growth rates in the stems that allow a kind of swiveling effect.  To me it seems to indicate plants are smarter than we give them credit for being.  Not having a brain doesn’t mean you can’t be amazing.

The tiny flowers in the head are arranged in a spiral that follows a Fibonacci sequence.  I can’t even follow a Fibonacci sequence, so I’m glad to cede intelligence to our plant friends.  How can they anticipate where the sun will rise?  It’s the anticipation that’s heavy with significance.  Sure, using the word “anticipate” is to ignore the garden sprinkler analogy of snapping back once you’ve reached the end of your trajectory, but even so, when a seed bursts from its pod it has to figure out which way is up.  Plants move, to give themselves the advantage of sunshine.  We plant flowers because we want to be near them, admire them.  Plants provide food and oxygen, and we offer nutrients, at least in theory, when we decompose.  We’re all part of an intricate system, and we benefit when we turn to face the sun.


Twisted in Knots

Our staycation at the Red Caboose in Ronks brought to mind the Weird Al Yankovic parody of “Amish Paradise.”  Bored-looking tourists in Lancaster County can’t find anything to do.  While it may be true that many big city entertainments are lacking, we had no trouble filling up a day.  We discovered the little town of Lititz.  Just north of the city of Lancaster, it retains several buildings from the eighteenth century along its main street, and the same quaint, boutique feel of Lancaster itself continues.  I have to admire the creativity of shop owners who have to appeal to the varied tastes of the tourist crowd.  Of course there was a bookstore—there are several in this area—and we long ago discovered the dual value of books as souvenirs.

The reason we were in Lititz, however, was the pretzels.  The Julius Sturgis Pretzel House makes the claim of being the oldest commercial pretzel bakery in North America.  Built in 1784, this is one of the early buildings still standing, and they offer brief tours where you’re taught to roll  and knot a pretzel.  Pretzels are, of course, a European invention.  Since they were an avocation of monks, their shapes became imbued with religious symbolism.  The initial U shape was, like a gothic spire, intended to point thoughts upward, toward God.  As I learned, the twist (which was an indication of a handmade pretzel) was symbolic of marriage and “tying the knot.”  This leaves a fish-like shape, and the Icthys moniker for Jesus would’ve been known to monks.  The folding the knot onto the outer loop symbolizes the arms across the chest used in Catholic prayer as a way of embracing the cross.  The resulting twisted breadstick has three holes for the Trinity.

The real innovation in Lititz, however, was the hard pretzel.  If I heard correctly, Julius Sturgis was working at a pretzel bakery in town where he had the duty of cleaning out the ovens.  The hard bits could be used for animal food, but they gave Sturgis the idea of intentionally baking hard pretzels.  This is the most common commercial form sold today, but southeastern Pennsylvania, which produces eighty percent of the pretzels sold in the United States, is still a soft pretzel paradise.  Radiating out from Philadelphia to locations like Lancaster, Reading, and Allentown, pretzels are eaten more frequently in Pennsylvania than elsewhere.  The religious aspect of pilgrimage still exists for those who venture to Lititz to find the birthplace of the hard pretzel, and the opportunity to stick your fingers in the dough.


The Magic of Cairns

They’re one of those things, my daughter explained, that people do that make them so likable.  She was talking about building cairns.  Cairns are piles of stones, but not exactly the kind a farmer might make at the edge of a rocky field.  Cairns are intentionally built.  And they have been for millennia.  The thing is, while people could choose to knock them over, instead most people add to them.  When we’re out hiking we add rocks to cairns, and we’ve started our own from time to time.  I first became conscious of them in Scotland.  While out with some friends we spied a carefully stacked pile of rocks—I think it was at some remote location on the northern Scottish coast—and they told of of the tradition of adding to them.

While recounting this, I also recall seeing a pile of rocks—it wasn’t called a cairn at the time—at Walden Pond.  Some friends from seminary and I went to visit Thoreau’s famous site and although his cabin hadn’t survived, other pilgrims had started a rock pile.  It was, if I correctly recall, conical because the stones weren’t flat.  Most cairns involve the flat kinds of rocks that break off of bedding planes.  They are fairly easily stackable and they quite often tumble due to the forces of nature.  I recall building or adding to cairns in Ithaca, near Ithaca Falls.  Such cairns would be fortunate to survive the harsh winter and torrents of the spring thaw.  And yet still we build them.

While on the red trail at Bushkill Falls, where picking and taking items is forbidden, we found cairns.  There were isolated stacks along the river, dotted here and there.  Then, at about the halfway point we came across a field of cairns.  Alongside the trail, cairn builders had obviously seen the beauty of repeated patterns.  Other hikers were snapping pictures there as well.  It was clear that this was a joint venture that had spanned years of cooperating with strangers.  Nobody asks your race or gender or orientation when you add to a cairn.  In fact, those who start them are unknown and leave them for other strangers to carry on the work.  This is frequently the case with human ventures, but when they involve money we become very specific about who might be considered a proper owner.  Stones are common, and although useful are generally not valuable.  Make them into a stack and they become a symbol.  And that symbol can be a guidepost for future travelers, left in the spirit of cooperation of those we don’t know.


Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel isn’t exactly a household name.  I never heard of him until a visit to Ephrata Cloister during a Lancaster staycation.  My wife knew about the Ephrata Cloister due to a music course she took at the University of Michigan; he was influential in developing a distinctive musical style.  Since we were in the area we stopped in for the tour.  Beissel was banished from what would become Germany in the early eighteenth century.  He made his way to America where he established a kind of monastery in south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.  Not Catholic, he was inspired by German Pietists, the Anabaptists, and Christian Mysticism.  Not ordained, he established what became a Seventh-Day Baptist association because whenever he tried to settle as a hermit others came to him.

Celibacy has always been a hard sell for religions.  Once his Camp for the Solitary was established, it grew to about 300 members, with only some 80 celibates, or solitaries.  This 80 was half men and half women.  They built around 40 buildings in what was then the frontier and they couldn’t have survived without the 120 or so married people who joined the church but continued to live at home with their families.  Like many separatist groups, the Seventh-Day Baptists were expecting Jesus’ return at any day and lived their lives accordingly.  Not strict about others joining him in this, Beissel was an early vegetarian, eventually becoming primarily a vegan (although that name wouldn’t develop for a couple centuries).  They had midnight worship services since they believed Jesus would return in the middle of the night.  They were, with the supportive families, self-sufficient.  The group established a printing press, and at one time it was possibly the largest printing operation in the colonies.

After Beissel died, the community continued.  They realized that, like all celibate communities, it would be difficult to survive and the celibacy rule was dropped.  The last celibate member died in 1813.  The community by then had taken on the form of an independent church and it survived until the 1930s.  The remaining land—some of it had been sold off over the years as the community shrank—was bought in the early forties to be preserved by the state.  Theirs was never a very large group, but it was significant enough that their memory was felt to be important enough to preserve.  Beissel wasn’t alone in establishing such sects here in Pennsylvania.  The tradition is, interestingly, part of the American heritage and demonstrates how the religious, ordained or not, live in their own worlds.


Odd Getaway

It’s small.  Almost cramped, you might say.  But then again, a Pennsylvania Railroad caboose wasn’t really designed to be a two-bedroom apartment with en suite bath.  Why the Gideon Bible was laid open to Ezra 2.62–4.19 I couldn’t fathom.  I suppose the story begins in Wisconsin, and ends up with me deep in Trump territory for an overnight getaway.  Let’s start at the Badger State.  I’ve always been a sucker for the unusual.  In that regard, I suppose getting a job at Nashotah House was inevitable.  When I spied Weird Wisconsin in Books & Company in Oconomowoc, it became an obvious birthday ask.  When we moved to New Jersey I learned that Weird NJ was a magazine as well as a book, and I bought, and read, every issue.  I also bought both volumes of the book and those of nearby New York and Pennsylvania.  It was in the latter that I first read about it.

The Red Caboose Motel began as a kind of a lark in the late sixties.  A Lancaster county man bought a bunch of cabooses at an auction and then had to figure out what to do with these tons of steel.  He settled on refurbishing them as individual hotel rooms.  I read about them in Weird Pennsylvania and hoped that someday I might stay in one.  My family, feeling restless after more than two years of pandemic isolation, wanted a short staycation.  Hotels involve corridors and breakfast rooms, often tiny, and too many Americans just won’t get vaccinated.  This seemed an ideal opportunity to spend a night in a discrete, self-contained caboose.  And, I admit, to tick something off my bucket list.

Driving behind Amish buggies to get there after a hot day on the streets of Lancaster—a surprisingly busy and loud city—the Red Caboose felt like a good getaway.  Given the number of cars parked outside cabooses, we weren’t the only ones with this idea.  Lancaster is more than just Witness territory.  Known for its boutique shops and pretzels, as well as its thriving Central Market, it’s a busy place in July.  Bumper stickers and loud, aggressively roaring pickup trucks indicate that outside the city the Trump myth reigns supreme.  In town we visited two independent bookstores, one of them quite large.  With at least seven to choose from, Lancaster feels like a readerly place.  Indeed, I could, had I the money and time, envision renting a caboose for a month or two to do nothing but write.  Why they wanted me to read about rebuilding the Jerusalem temple I just don’t know.  I’ll chalk it up to being weird in Pennsylvania.


Stay Safe

I’m not an impulse buyer.  Having grown up poor, I tend to walk into stores with a list firmly in hand and I don’t deviate from it.  Advertising has virtually no impact.  I don’t pay attention to ads unless they’re for things I know I need, and even then I shut them out most of the time.  I do let my guard down in independent bookstores, however.  So it was that I found in Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Your Guide To Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village.  It was totally an impulse buy, easily read in a sunny afternoon in a caboose motel.  Or a rainy afternoon in an English manor house.  Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper have produced a wonderfully witty illustrated guide here.  It helps to have lived in the United Kingdom for a few years.

Shelved face out in the thriller section, it’s a great opportunity for murder-mystery, gothic literature, horror movie fan types to laugh at themselves.  Some parts are snort out loud funny.  Okay, so I was on staycation and being a bit free with cash for a change, but I’m sure I will keep this one near my desk and turn back to it from time to time.  Maureen Johnson is known for her young adult novels and Jay Cooper is a children’s book illustrator.  Their talents, however, work together incredibly well for this slightly naughty guilty pleasure read.  The Wicker Man even gets a nod or two.  Something that those who disdain horror don’t often realize is that it quite frequently has its own sense of humor.  It’s an intelligent genre that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  At times it does, of course, but those of us who are fans can tell fantasy from real life.  Maybe.

Independent bookstores are starting to make a comeback.  A significant part of our population isn’t on board with retailers trying to convert everyday life to the metaverse.  We want to hear our music with the occasional pop and microphone hiss.  We want to drive our own cars.  We want to browse in actual bookstores.  Given my buying record online, I have to laugh every time I look at the recommendations.  The electronic world brain doesn’t know me very well at all.  It assumes it knows why I bought that ladder or that round blank four-inch stamped electrical cover.  Some of us play in nontraditional ways with such things.  And we get ideas from wandering into independent bookstores.  As long as they’re not in quaint English villages.


Time Well Spent

If you want a bookstore mostly to yourself, go on a fine, sunny summer weekend.  There will always be those with reading on their minds, of course, but since we’re still dealing with a pandemic, going when it’s quiet feels right.  Having to drop someone off for an event in rural New Jersey, I found myself with a couple of hours and the prospect of sitting in a hot car and trying to read or to find another way to use time productively.  It was a fine, sunny summer weekend day.  I realized the event wasn’t far from Frenchtown.  Now, I’d been through Frenchtown several times, often with my wife on her way to a weekend stint at work.  I’d noticed Frenchtown Bookshop, but since we were always on our way somewhere, we could never stop.

Public parking in Frenchtown is difficult on a fine, sunny summer weekend.  There is a bike and hike trail that passes near the Delaware there, and there’s also the river itself.  Kayaking and rafting on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania are popular pastimes.  The mercury was creeping up to 90, so people were out, either sweating on the trail or cooling their heels in the water.  Both public lots in town were full, as was all the on street parking I could find.  A bank tow-away lot—the bank was closed—seemed like the only option.  Independent bookstores are national treasures.  I always carry a list with me since it’s too easy to lose my head when surrounded by print.  If my specialized tastes aren’t represented, I can always find something.

Books are one of the great achievements of humankind.  Although circumstances may have prevented many women from making careers in writing early on—Enheduanna proved even among the Sumerians that women had wisdom to convey.  Once novels came to be written, the form was well populated with female sages.  Reading and writing were kept from slaves for fear of what might happen could they see what the knowledge of humanity really said.  The internet has, of course, become the great democratizer of writing, but has made it more difficult to get a publisher’s attention.  Apart from all that, books laid out on a table, or stacked neatly on shelves, are one of the simple, usually inexpensive, joys of life.  For about the price of a movie you can stretch that entertainment dollar out over several days.  Even when they’re fine, sunny summer weekend days.


Bushkill

Waterfalls are fairly plentiful in this part of the country.  Although they’re not the Rockies, the Appalachians are mountains, and mountains lead to waterfalls.  Niagara is an outlier, of course, where one great lake drains into another.  In the area around Ithaca and Watkins Glen, in New York, there are great falls where the water, through the eons, has eroded the softer rock to flow down to sea level.  While most of the waterfalls in Ithaca are free, you have to pay to get into Watkins Glen.  The waterfalls cascade down into Pennsylvania as well, where the geology is similar, where the bedding planes of ancient seas left layer after layer of rock washed away by yet more water millions of years later.

Bushkill Falls, like Watkins Glen, is privately owned.  Deep in the Poconos, it offers a shaded walk around what has been called “the Niagara of Pennsylvania.”  When we went, it had been mostly a dry summer.  Still, there’s a draw to all that water.  Like Watkins Glen, there are stairways to ease the access among tourists; there are those who might be inclined to sue should they lose their footing.  There were lots of others there the day we went.  Many speaking languages other than English, deep in Trumpian, xenophobic territory.  In nature we’re all just human.  Water washes and water erodes.  Water smooths out rough edges.  There are many parables in water.  It makes life as we know it possible.  It flows to the lowest point, creating incredible beauty as it tumbles over many different types of rock that make up the crust of the earth.  There’s a wisdom in water.

The red trail, around the outline of the several waterfalls, has 1276 steps to descend and climb.  Going down the stairs at the start of your journey assures that you will need to climb at the end.  The air is full of negative ions around breaking water.  Positive feelings are created.  Perhaps people should live near waterfalls.  It’s difficult to imagine hatred thriving in such a place.  I recall a family walk, back in some troubled times, when my older brother led us all to a waterfall hidden deep in the western Pennsylvania woods.  The tension and strife melted away.  We probably all knew that it wouldn’t last, but at the time the present was all that mattered.  Water is so basic, but so unbelievably wise.  Paying attention to such things is worth the price of admission.


Celebrating Folk

The whole ox on a spit was kind of disturbing, but there’s nothing artificial about folk tradition.  We’d come to take in a bit of the Kutztown Folk Festival.  The crowds weren’t excessive, and we wore masks if the conditions warranted it.  The oldest continually operated folk festival in the country, this July event is a celebration of Pennsylvania German heritage.  In addition to the usual kinds of festival vendors were a number of specifically folk artists—quilters and hex sign painters prominent among them.  It’s difficult to find a good sarsaparilla anywhere else these days.  We wandered around, watching an old-fashioned hay bailer at work, appreciating the time various craftspeople put into their art, taking in a quilt auction.  (I can’t even imagine having a spare few thousand on hand to buy a quilt, but obviously others can.)

Although mostly white—those of us with blue eyes may have been in the majority here—there were those of various ethnic backgrounds around, enjoying the ethos.  What struck me upon hearing one of the singing, folklore groups telling about Pennsylvania German (commonly called Pennsylvania Dutch) traditions is that this may be one reason people fear the current emphasis on multiculturalism.  It’s fairly rare to hear anyone speaking proudly of being a German, even though Germany seems to be one of the least fascistly inclined countries these days.  Even a dominant culture is afraid of losing a sense of self.  It seems to be a uniquely human problem.  That ox on a spit really bothered me.

While I’m an American mutt, about half of my DNA is fairly solidly teutonic.  Although I was born in Pennsylvania and my grandmother still spoke German, we weren’t Pennsylvania Dutch.  A second-generation American, my grandmother was from Washington, DC.  My germanic grandfather was from upstate New York.  They just happened to settle in Pennsylvania late in their lives.  Still, I felt a strange kind of kinship to those explaining German food—heavily meat-based—and hex signs on barns.  I grew up seeing the latter, and it never occurred to me that while living in the Midwest they simply weren’t there.  I didn’t grow up on a farm—we lived in a cheap apartment—and we never talked of German tradition at home.  No, like the blacks, and south Asians, and those, like me, of clearly mixed descent, that I saw there, we were all simply Americans.  That’s what folk festivals are all about—celebrating who we are.


Boone to Some

Folk heroes sometimes put us in compromising positions.  We appreciate their importance for where we are and yet we recognize that where we are came at a tremendous cost for those who lived here first.  Still, I was somewhat surprised to learn that Daniel Boone was born right here in Pennsylvania.  Like most people my age, I learned of Boone primarily through the television series that aired in the 1960s.  In other words, I learned the commercial Boone.  In reality he was a fascinating individual who preferred outdoors living to the comforts of home.  His prominence meant that he would meet and know such figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  He was largely responsible for US westward expansion, leading the first Europeans into the territory of Kentucky.  His association with the south is so pronounced that I was surprised to learn he was born in a homestead, that is today, less than an hour north of Philadelphia.

Of course, the land settled by the Boone family was stolen from American Indians.  The story might be somewhat easier to appreciate if we treated Indians better today, but our culture still insists on repressing them.  Racism runs deep, it seems.  Boone himself seems mainly to have gotten along with the Indians he knew.  The fact is his story is exciting to hear.  He was an able negotiator and both Indians and other settlers respected his position.  When tales of his adventures were written down he became famous, if not wealthy.  What seems to have really struck those who heard his story is that he continued his outdoor existence into his eighties.  At an age when many have become frail, he continued to spend months of the year living outdoors in the wilderness.

Being there where he was born felt like a revelation.  Of course the docent was a gifted storyteller, and she told his story with humor and an obvious pride in the man who’s responsible for her living.  I reflected how television once again had shaped my childhood.  Fess Parker’s portrayal of Boone was among the most popular prime-time shows of the mid-sixties to 1970.  I had no idea that I was consuming pop culture in such quantities as I watched it, along with other staples such as Dark Shadows, Gilligan’s Island, Scooby-Doo, and the Brady Bunch.  Some people worry that the rising generation “learns” its narratives from the internet, but my generation learned them from television.  Daniel Boone would have, and indeed did, learned from the outdoors.


Places and Books

I recently had the opportunity to travel to a new town and spend the night there.  This is a rarity in the days of pandemic and I’d forgotten the magic of waking early in a new place and looking out the windows at the deserted, artificially lit streets.  It’s so peaceful and full of wonder.  The place we were staying was next to a public library and I noticed that there was a light on in the cupola in the pre-dawn hours.  I like the idea of books watching over us in the night.  Often when I’ve traveled to conferences I’ll arise early and look out on that orangey, artificial light while most other people are still asleep.  Even the city in pre-dawn can be a peaceful place.  This is a pleasant displacement since it’s only temporary.

One of the things about the pandemic is that it has accustomed us to life just so.  The controlled environment of home.  There’s a comfort to routine, but there’s wonder in breaking it as well.  When it’s not a conference and still a new city, I begin to look for a bookstore.  One of the common misconceptions—perhaps bolstered by the cookie-cutter experience that has been Barnes and Noble—is that bookstores are all the same.  They aren’t.  Each reflects the minds of the owners.  They reflect their knowledge of their public.  New ways of looking at things.  I suppose this fascination with books has been enhanced by my starting to read some Jorge Luis Borges again.  Those of us who read for pleasure are in the minority and we find the open book to be open arms welcoming us in.  Welcoming us home.

I always travel with books.  My travel bag carries my laptop and my reading.  New technology having to learn to adjust to the old.  I’m not a particular fan of technocracy.  I’ve always preferred paper to plastic.  In a new town I look for authenticity.  We lived for many years in Somerville, New Jersey and one of my concerns was that it couldn’t seem able to support a bookstore in the shadow of that equalizing Barnes and Noble.  The new owner, James Daunt, believes that bookstores should reflect local interests.  His own stores in Britain are cathedrals to books.  Unlike other industries, bookselling isn’t all about the business.  Much of it is about the place.  We travel to see new places, and we read to visit them as well.  And perhaps to reflect in the artificial orange glow before the city awakes.


Sacred Sites

The sacred is hard to define.  Calling it “holy”is only to pass the buck, and I can’t get beyond the feeling that we need something more up-to-date than Rudolf Otto.  Something that takes into account what the religious world looks like in the next century.  No matter which direction we turn we run into undefinable words—numinous, heightened, transcendent.  Wonderful words that fail to capture the essence of the experience.  This has been on my mind because I’ve been thinking about sacred spaces.  No matter how secular we may be, we all know such places exist.  They may be places significant to large numbers of people, or to a set of one.  Perhaps there are many kinds of sacred spaces and many ways that they may be made so.

The place where a significant event in life took place, for good, is recorded in that way our brains have of switching into slow-motion, high-attention mode.  Were we not so secular we might say something spiritual was going on.  Pilgrimage sites worldwide are often associated with what’s interpreted as a religious event.  Those of us who weren’t there at the time feel compelled to visit.  To breathe the air of that place.  To linger in wonder.  Is there something still there?  I tried desperately to feel this when I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  It was difficult with so very many other people there.  I went alone and I was thinking maybe something might happen.  Like what happened to me at the Church of All Nations next to Gethsemane.

As I was pondering this, many such sites came to mind.  The birthplaces or living spaces of great writers have always drawn me into such a reverie.  Standing in Poe’s house in Philadelphia, knowing that one of the world’s iconic writers saw these same walls, walked these same floors, but for him it was likely ordinary.  For the rest of us it’s something more.  Yet I’m no closer to defining it.  Thinkers like Otto had professions that included unstructured thinking time.  Many of us don’t have that luxury.  We feel the urge but the clock for our 925 keeps inexorably ticking, like the beating of the heart beneath the floorboards that make a place sacred.  Many of these places are far too personal to write about in a public place.  They await someone with the time and inclination to think on these things to give us to words to define them.


Masking Identity

Who am I, really?  Identity has been on my mind quite a bit during this pandemic.  With millions dying I suppose it’s important that “the officials” know who we are.  At the same time I don’t feel comfortable taking my mask off in front of strangers.  It’s kind of like a facial striptease that puts you at risk for some communicable disease.  Because I had to fly for Thanksgiving this year I got to put my Real ID to the test.  I removed my mask for the photo—at the DMV, of all places—so there was risk involved to prove that I am who I’ve always been.  When I went to get a Pennsylvania license three years ago, the system remembered me from when I got my permit and asked if I still lived in the county where that had occurred.  They seem to know a lot about me.

At the airport the TSA guy told me to take off my mask.  He had to confirm that I was the same person my Real ID stated I was.  I wish our government would tell me who I am.  And of course my passport decided to expire also during this pandemic.  I went to a local pharmacy to get my passport photo taken.  (I know you can do this at home, but you need a printer that handles photo paper.)  Then you can send the application in by mail.  How do they know it’s really me in the photo?  I had an uncanny experience many years ago when a visiting team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) visited Nashotah House for an accreditation visit.  One of the inspectors looked very like me.  I think we both noticed the resemblance immediately.  It was like we were twins.  Later I found his photo on the school website and asked my pre-literate daughter who it was.  She said “Daddy.”

Who is that masked man?

So I’m standing here with my mask off in a store for confirmation that I am who I claim to be.  I wonder if this other guy’s photo were sent in would they know the difference?  In fact I’ve had the experience I suspect many people have had of being mistaken for someone else.  Helping a friend move to Kentucky after college, I had several people in a small town I’d never visited before identify me as Joe’s son.  I looked just like him.  Of course, that was way before the pandemic when our faces were public property.  Now I just wish I could put my mask back on so that I could feel a little less naked.


Not Shopping

Santa Claus arrived at the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday.  I actually began seeing Christmas paraphernalia in stores before Halloween.  It feels like we could really use Christmas this year.  We all thought 2020 was a difficult year and 2021 hasn’t been much easier.  The capitalist response—so shallow, but it’s all we’re left with—is to shop to make yourself feel better.  Sometimes it’s the simple things: time off work, time with family, time for reading, time itself.  Time heals most things.  People, however, aren’t the most patient of creatures.  Our desires seem so urgent and cash or credit seems to offer a way of achieving them.  Black Friday is entirely from the business perspective.  A day off work to get people out and spending.  Outspending.

Black Friday has traditionally been one of my favorite days for staying home, reading and writing.  Indeed, Thanksgiving is the only annual four-day weekend most of us are given.  I haven’t used this day for shopping.  Crowds are about and so is an insidious virus that we can’t seem to contain.  It feels more comfy and secure to stay in my drafty house and use the time to recover from the capitalism that dominates the rest of my days.  A day to not shop.  A day to think.  The idea of having quiet holidays to ground oneself seems like a progressive idea.  We all find our own ways of centering, even if we don’t call it that.  For some I suppose that’s shopping, but that’s just not me.

This year I’m spending the day with extended family in Iowa.  I flew out on the busiest travel day of the year to ground myself in the heartland.  It’s a day I need not work and I need not shop.  I find my meaning elsewhere this Black Friday.  The term began with a negative connotation, referring to workers in the early fifties calling in sick that day in order to get a four-day weekend.  It was also used in the next decade to describe the traffic congestion as people went out to start their shopping.  It was really only in the eighties that the term took on its current meaning of a day when retailers go into the black by earning profits from the influx of cash the day brings.  Santa had come the previous day and wallets were open and those with the day off work wanted to spend it spending.  I’m here in Iowa, glad to be avoiding the stores and the contagion, and enjoying the quiet of not having to clock in.