The Rules of Waiting

Tom Petty must’ve been a commuter.  On a winter’s morning after switching to Daylight Saving Time, waiting is the indeed the hardest part.  For a bus, that is.  In the dark.  The saving grace is that humans are rule-makers.  Before I even began commuting into New York I’d been instructed in the etiquette.  Those who get there first leave some kind of avatar—a briefcase, an umbrella, a lunch box—in their place in line and then sit in their cars.  Being the paranoid sort, and also thinking myself tough, I’ve always just stood at my place as the chill wind finds its way down my collar and then buffets me almost off of my feet.  With the time-change, however, I decided to do like the commuters do.  I walked out to the line of objects to find one widely separated from the others.  Being a law-abider, I put my lunch down after the errant water bottle.

“Hey,” a stranger called me on my way back to my car.  “Somebody just left that water bottle—you should move your bag up next to the backpack.”  Thanking him, I did so.  Not only was this person I didn’t know watching me in the dark, but he was also keeping the rules.  Indeed, when the bus crested the hill and commuters lined up next to their possessions, the water bottle remained unclaimed.  It was still there fourteen hours later when I got off the returning bus.  Now, I’m not a big fan of anarchy, but this incident demonstrates just how inclined we are toward civil behavior.  There’s no bus stop police force to ensure nobody jumps line.  Even at the Port Authority waiting in the queue at the end of the day the rules are mostly self-governing.  Those who don’t obey are scolded by their peers and generally comply.

There’s a natural sort of ethic among those who catch the bus before 5 a.m.  We’ve all been awake earlier than nature would seem to dictate.  We’re in a dark, isolated location outside town.  We look out for one another, realizing that any one of us might easily lose our place in line should the rules break down.  I was struck by the kindness of this caliginous stranger.  Or perhaps it was just his love of order.  Had my representation been out of place, other commuters might’ve grown confused.  The system might’ve broken down.  The last thing anyone wants is chaos before cock-crow.  I decided to interpret it as kindness, however, as I made my way back to my car to put on Tom Petty to face the hardest part.

Symbolic Delays

Weather affects more than the Psalms, of course.  With all the hype of the latest winter storm things were closed or delayed before any accumulation even started.  Now I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of snow days; we dutifully trudge to our desk jobs as if we’re doing something vital when many of us are really just trying to make money for the man.  A snow day’s a little unplanned levity in our lives when staying off the roads seems like a good idea.  It’s one of life’s guilty pleasures.  Of course, the dreaded delayed opening brings its own set of issues.  You can’t sleep in unless it’s announced the night before, and once you’re up your mind heads to work anyway.  Working remotely, alas, means you have no excuse, no matter what the weather.

Snow is a great symbol.  I don’t mean its whiteness and purity—there are plenty of white things that aren’t pure.  No, I mean it’s a great symbol in its ability to control people.  We don’t like rain, although we understand its necessity.  Snow, however, fills us with a childlike wonder.  Anticipation.  Unlike a winter rain, it can be fun to play in.  It covers everything.  The suggestion of a blanket ironically makes us feel warm, even as the temperature dips below freezing.  But for me the most potent symbol is light.  I awake early, even on snow days.  As I make my way downstairs in the dark, it’s immediately evident when snow covers everything because the sky is lighter than it should be this time of day.  Whatever light’s trapped below the clouds reflects off the snow creating a luminosity that’s almost otherworldly in its calm.  It doesn’t last too long for the sun is rising earlier, at least it is until our pointless time change, but for a few hours we’re in the midst of an unnatural light.

Darkness is far too prevalent.  We know that someday even our mighty sun will use up all its fuel.  We crave the light for it’s limited.  Days are noticeably longer now than they were at the start of December.  Those few moments of serenity before the sun comes up, when the snow produces what seems like its own light, are among the most tranquil of life.  Before the plows begin scraping metal against asphalt, hoping for a snow day while wrapped in a fleece throw, face clouding the chilly window before it.  Yes, it’s a powerful symbol.  Even if the internet means work awaits just as usual.  

Tempestuous Wind

There was quite a windstorm that blew through here yesterday.  It reminded me rather forcefully of Weathering the Psalms.  Firstly, it blew loudly enough to wake me up a few times in the night.  When I finally climbed out of bed, listening to the blustery concussions beating the house, I remembered that the first chapter of Weathering was about the willful wind.  That’s not just a poetic phrase—according to the Psalter, the wind does the will of God.  Like much of the weather, it’s weaponized by the Bible.  Seeing what the wind can do, the reasons for this should be obvious.  Hurricanes are tremendous windstorms (although unknown in the land of the Bible), but they are also known for their tremendous rain.  Tornadoes, however, are pure wind and are among the most destructive forces on the planet.  (Before people came along, anyway.)  Wind commands respect.  We’re a very long way from taming it.

When thinking of meteorology, it’s easy to forget wind.  Rain and snow are pretty obvious.  Even desert heat is impossible to ignore.  The wind, invisible and powerful, is perhaps the most godlike of weather’s many features.  To the ancient way of thought, it was also inexplicable.  We understand the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials between water and land and the uneven heating between the surface of the ground and air aloft.  The ancients understood it more to be a pure act of God.  The wind certainly can seem spiteful.  It’s not difficult to attribute agency to it.  Such things go through my mind when the howling is loud enough to wake me.

Invisibility suggests power.  It wasn’t so much the “monotheism” of Israel that made it distinctive as it was the inability to see its deity.  That lack of visual confirmation not only necessitates a kind of faith, but it also veils a threat.  We humans tend to be visually focused.  We fear the dark.  Foggy, misty settings can give a story an atmosphere of foreboding.  Placing the divine out of site only enhances supernatural powers.  So it is with the wind.  As is to be expected, the windstorm has mostly blown itself out by now—moving on to another location until the temperature differentials even out and its howl becomes more of a whimper.  It will have done its work, however, for even as it passed through it brought to mind the proper respect for that which cannot be seen.  

Goliath and Company

First UltraViolet.  Then Google +.  Well, actually neither of these was first—tech initiatives cease to exist all the time.  Giants aren’t immune to extinction, it seems.  I’ve got to be careful with my confessions toward Luddite sympathies since, as it turns out, tech is king.  Emperor, in fact.  But since tech only works as long as society holds together, I still want paper knowledge in my library.  I don’t own a Kindle and despite what visitors say, I don’t want to “save room” by getting rid of books.  I like books.  I wink at them from across the room.  Sidle up to them when in private.  Get to know them intimately.  Books are a way of life.  If the grid breaks down, I’ll have books to read and candles to do it by.  For a while there I even made my own candles, although most of those were used up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Just sayin’

You see, my hairs bristle when I hear tech experts complain that “authors should be taught to write in XML.”  Said techies have apparently never written a book.  Ideas, you see, flow.  When you’re in the zone, there’s no stopping to mark-up your text.  In fact, the best, purest kind comes in scribbles on paper with misspelled words and all.  You can hold it in your hands and remember the Muse who had you at the time.  For me the hours of inspiration are before dawn.  I mostly use a computer now, but I can still find myself typing too slow to keep up with manic inspiration, desperate to record my ideas before paid work starts.  Work is the Medea of creativity—both mother and slayer.  Once I login I check out.  I need to wait for another day to dawn.

We’ve invested heavily in technology.  The internet is largely responsible for the globalization against which the world has recently rebelled.  No matter how many times people like me say we love books somebody will say, “Have you considered a Kindle?”  Why?  I bought a house as a place to keep my books.  These little bricks are bits of my mind.  Pieces of my soul!  What we read makes us who we are.  The last person who said the remark about authors learning XML literally sighed with disgust as he said it.  How could, you could feel him thinking, anyone be so backward as to think this is a problem?  I recall Hurricane Sandy.  Sitting in an apartment lit by candles we’d made ourselves, we read old-fashioned books and were eerily content.

Nature’s Bible

When you’re writing a book, many strands in your mind are weaving their way into what you hope will be whole cloth.  Well, at least if you write books the way that I do.  In writing Weathering the Psalms, for instance, one of the threads was the question of science and religion.  I was teaching at Nashotah House at the time, and I read a lot of science.  As I told colleagues at the time, if science is how we know things, shouldn’t what we know of the natural world apply to the Bible?  I don’t claim to be the first to ask that question—back in the days of exploration there were many people (mostly the genus “white men” of the “clergy” species) who went to what is now and had used to be Israel, to find out what the world of the Bible was actually like.  Their books still make interesting reading.

Quite unexpectedly a colleague, Dalit Rom-Shiloni of Tel Aviv University, told me she’d just ordered my book.  She’s leading up a project called the Dictionary of Nature Imagery of the Bible (DNI).  Over a decade after my teaching career ended, someone had deemed my work relevant.  Dr. Rom-Shiloni recently sent me the link to the project website where there is a video of her interviewing three Israeli scientists about the possibility of lions, leopards, and bears living in Israel.  They’re all mentioned in the Bible and no longer exist in the area.  The video is on this link and won’t take half an hour of your time.  It’s quite interesting.

One of the surprising facts to emerge is that leopards, in small numbers, may still exist in Israel.  This assertion is based on lay observation.  I contrasted this with the United States where, no matter how often a cougar (aka mountain lion, puma) is spotted in a state where it’s “known” to be extinct, it is claimed to be mistaken observation.  A departed friend and mentor of mine once saw a mountain lion in West Virginia.  I’d grown up in neighboring Pennsylvania where they are officially extinct, so I wondered if said beasts knew to observe the Mason-Dixon line.  The fact is, despite all our best efforts to destroy our environment, animals often find a way to survive.  Growing up, one of my cousins in Pennsylvania (now also unfortunately deceased) showed me a puma print in the snow behind his rural house.  Now Pennsylvania is a long way from Israel, and this topic is a long way from the DNI, but remember what I just said about how my books are written.  Tapestries only make sense from a distance.

The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

January 2019

When January starts grinding you down you have to find something to hang onto.  See, I even ended a sentence with a preposition.  January.  If I’m not careful I can find myself getting quite depressed, so a bit of self-induced music therapy helps.  Although I hate to admit it, I am a bit of a fussy person when it comes to my likes.  My music tastes are quite personal and I mourn when a performer I like retires or dies.  There’s not a ton of stuff that I enjoy and I don’t listen to music as often as I should.  I work from home most days so I could have music on, but I find it hard to read (which is much of my job) with music playing.  Like I said, fussy.

The other day—a weekend—I pulled out John Cale’s Paris 1919.  John Cale is an underrated member of the Velvet Underground.  Okay, with Lou Reed in the lead it’s gonna be tough to stand out.  Cale, who suffers from competing with J. J. Cale (who was actually John Cale too; I empathize!), is a very thoughtful lyricist.  Despite having been abused by a priest in his youth, he sprinkles his songs with religious references.  “Andalucia” is a haunting single with the words “castles and Christians” hanging there for anyone to interpret.  And “Hanky Panky Nohow” has an intriguing line about nothing being more frightening than religion at one’s door.  There’s something profound here.

I grew up listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico when my older brother played it and the curtain door between our rooms didn’t block any sound.  The only performer I could name was Reed.  Years later, when the music of my young, virginal ears started in with a longing I couldn’t explain, I bought the album and learned of John Cale.  I have to confess that I first encountered his name as the performer of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Shrek.  It drove me nuts when ill-informed students used to say it was Rufus Wainwright; yes, he performed it on the CD, but not in the movie.  John Cale is one of those somewhat offbeat singers, who, like Nick Cave, salts his songs with images of a Christian upbringing that show a grown man clinging to something to which he somehow can’t fully commit.  It makes us who we are and then leaves us wondering.  It must be January.