Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.

King’s Highway

Sometimes I forget the beauty of the Bible. With its constant current of misuse in our society, it is sometimes easy to forget that, like an abused child, the Bible is not to be blamed for being the victim. As a civilization we owe a great deal to it, and even on its own, when we overlook the insensitive and sexist parts, it remains a literary masterpiece. Just over a year ago I visited a true friend I’ve known since high school. He is not a religious man, but in his living room, on a stand, stood open the Bible. It is more than a jingoistic symbol. Even the more we become aware of other great spiritual writings: the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Gilgamesh Epic, we shouldn’t let the sublime messages from the Bible escape our notice. Even in this secular, workaday world, the words of the Sermon on the Mount often come to me, grand and resplendent. Parts of Isaiah still bring tears to my eyes. Writers from Shakespeare to Bradbury drew on its noble sentiments.

The Bible comes to mind when thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Our chronological spans overlapped by just five and a half years, but I followed him to Boston University School of Theology, walked the same corridors he did, meditated in the same chapel. Even then, some two decades after his martyrdom, his vision had not been fully realized. It still remains unfulfilled. At Brown University in May of last year, I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when John Lewis received an honorary doctorate. His remarks to the crowd were humble, few, and profound. He said he never thought of the civil rights movement as a way to greatness. He was only trying to help. He admonished the affluent, the comfortable sitting on a hot Ivy League green, “Find a way to get in the way.” Injustice must come to end. The color, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth or financial status of no person should ever be used to judge her or him. With remarks I’ve heard about President Obama, most vulgarly on Facebook, we still have a long, long journey ahead of us.

In a day when the internet weaves millions of people into a fabric that should remind us we are all part of a whole, some still insist that their shading, location, or special pedigree make their part of the cloth the most valuable. Even as revolutions against injustice—something with which Americans especially should sympathize—take place in “backward” nations by using social media, we in the “first world” still judge one another by the origins of our ancestry and the mythical superiority of our skin tones. The greatest asset the United States offers to the world is its unique blend of people from everywhere. Our country demonstrates what can happen when people from every continent put their minds and wills together to work for the common good. This clashes with the biblical brand of separatism, I know. But even Isaiah, even if it is in his third incarnation, reminds us, “Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.”



Providence has been on my mind lately. Most obviously, traveling to Providence for my niece’s graduation from Brown brought the city back to mind.  A book I’ve been reading has been referencing H. P. Lovecraft, a person readily associated with Providence as well.  And who can forget the Baptists?  While in Providence we visited First Baptist Church, widely considered to be the actual first Baptist church in America.  Portions of the commencement ceremony are held here, but between times it was open for the curious.  I guess I qualify.

Baptists are a widely diverse group.  In the United States they are often guilty by association with the shenanigans of the Southern Baptist Convention, and given the numeric force of the Baptist Church that can appear a little intimidating.  Nevertheless, Baptists were (and generally are) great defenders of religious tolerance.  Their own non-hierarchical tradition allows considerable freedom within the denomination itself.  Houses of worship (originally meeting houses, not churches) were plain and devoid of symbolism.  That is still a hallmark of most Baptists today.  Inside First Baptist, I was surprised to see a symbol.  A chunk of rock, an Ebenezer, rested on the table at the back of the meeting house.  The origin of a “stone of help” (an adequate translation of “ebenezer’) is certainly biblical-the reference goes back to the story of Israelite victory over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7.  Samuel is reputed to have set up the stone as a memorial of the unanticipated victory.  After that story, the stone never reappears in the Bible.

The Baptists have always been concerned with idolatry. They do make a point that some Christian traditions rely very heavily on trappings to get the message across.  They are also correct in that early Christianity was a much simpler faith than the densely layered, extremely complex, imperfectly blended varieties of religion that today claim the title “Christian.”  It isn’t a copyright-protected brand and there is little that all Christians could be said to have in common.  As I touched the stone of help, I realized not even all Baptists share the stringent standards of no symbolism in their churches.  That is probably a good thing, because that, in itself, is symbolic.


Providence is not always as assured as the divine aid its name suggests. Rhode Island’s capital, like most cities, hosts significant dualities—people who have more than an abundance and those who struggle to get by. There are also those who don’t. In an effort to revitalize the downtown, artists have created WaterFire—an organic sculpture bringing together the pre-Socratic four elements, but focusing on the two encompassed in its name. Great braziers are dot the middle of Providence’s rivers and WaterFire is a new performance art that suggests a religious underpinning. On Saturday, during Brown University’s commencement exercises, WaterFire was performed. Watching fire erupting in the iron braziers as the fire dancer twirled flaming sphere in intricate and dangerous patterns, I felt a primal sense of awe. Indeed, the fire dancer’s motions would be classified as religious by anthropologists in an unfamiliar context.

Religion is generally a response to that which we cannot control. Conscious beings like to think they have some measure of control over their destinies—indeed, people behave that way constantly. It doesn’t take much, however, to demonstrate that our sphere of control is actually miniscule and tenuous. Religions assure us that some cosmic older sibling (whether deity or force or principle) is on our side, watching our backs. Ceremonies propitiate any angry being and bring us back into the graces of elements beyond our control. Is this not the very meaning of the name Providence?

Watching the blazing bonfires tracing the contours of the river, lit by a dancer in time to moving music, WaterFire felt like more than simple performance. Fire is a powerful element, necessary and dangerous to our existence. Water too is crucial, but threatens to overwhelm us as our planet is mostly covered in it. Earth and air often seem the more comfortable elements, often inert and unconsidered. We never confront fire or water in the natural world without giving pause to consider their significance. Whether it is crossing a river or opening an umbrella, water forces itself onto our consciousness. Fire even more so. WaterFire taps into something vital and may just be the real divine guidance that Providence requires at this time.

Brown Out

Brown University’s commencement ceremonies include a deluge of academic mythology. The curse of my chosen field of academic study is the tendency to see mythology everywhere. Some individuals see dead people, others see myths. I always feel an inordinate sense of pride in the graduates, especially those who are related to me, but the whole arrangement takes part in the mythology of higher education. Who wouldn’t feel awe in the presence of the illustrious recipients of honorary degrees? There on the Jumbotron, Viola Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Diane Sawyer, and John Lewis. In the program book the seemingly arcane symbols of academia are explained. These are the scriptures backing the mythology. I always wondered why some old professor always carried a mace in academic processions.

But the mythology of higher education runs deeper than the symbols and ceremonial. Education itself is under intense fire for participating in the realm of finance that it helped to create. Despite constant affidavits to the opposite effect, there is more to life than money. The cost in educating our young requires a greater input than becomes obvious in the immediate return on the investment. Often I hear concerns expressed over the cost of higher education, and there are certainly excesses that must be addressed. The real profit in this transaction, however, is our future. Who can look at the ocean of mortarboarded potential and not feel, deep down, a sense of optimism, no matter how guarded?

The mace is a symbol of violence. Education, if done right, is violence against ignorance and ossified old ways of prejudice, discrimination, and selfishness. For those of us who have tried—and some of us have not been successful—to shed some light on future generations, commencement is a humbling experience. While at Nashotah House I sat through many of them, and sometimes the mythology mingled with hypocrisy as I saw raw hunger for power and the lust to control the lives of others. It was refreshing to experience the mythology anew in a setting where genuine hope seemed to linger among faces full of optimism and pride of achievement. Perhaps it was the obvious inclusiveness instilled by outgoing president Ruth J. Simmons, but prayers by women clergy, and honorary degrees conferred across the spectrum of humanity are signs of hope. The mythology of academia is one myth worth believing in, if it is truly a commencement.

Higher Ethics

As a part-time public servant (I teach part-time at two state schools, Rutgers and Montclair State) I am required to sit myself in front of the computer for over an hour each year to watch a slide show on the ethics expected of public servants. Probably the first time this was a good thing since I had seriously been considering taking a tip-jar to class with me to help meet the costs of living in New Jersey. You see, part-timers do not get benefits. Some, like me, teach twice as many courses as their “full-time” colleagues and get paid less than half of what their betters do. I am a bargain-basement public servant. I figured a tip-jar might just help to cover mileage (not reimbursed). As I listen to the stern-voiced lady spilling out all the unethical practices (like tip-jars) that can lead to the dismissal of bad public servants, my mind can’t help but to wander to what Bruce Springsteen famously called “the mansion on the hill.”

Froma Harrop, a journalist in Providence, wrote an op-ed piece on higher education that appeared in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. After surveying the situation at her local Brown University, Ms. Harrop laments the seemingly endlessly escalating costs of higher education. In the past four decades tuition has increased an average of 15 percent, whereas incomes (at least some) increased at an average of 6.5 percent. She notes, however, that the money is not going to professors or academic programs. The lion’s share of university money goes to sports teams. Students who often have trouble passing my admittedly easy introductory-level courses are pampered, petted, and preened by the university. The average undergrad has plenty of stories to tell of how they have been forbidden goods and services that the university reserves for its sports stars. Ms. Harrop also cites the fact that the number of administrators has nearly doubled in the last 30 years. For all that, the schools haven’t become more efficient, just top-heavy.

So as I waste an evening looking blankly at my computer screen, I realize that I am a public servant. Strictly part-time. I also realize that many public servants – those who hold high political office come to mind – earn far more than they strictly need. In fact, the benefits package alone of some of these “servants” would easily support a family of three mere mortals. And they don’t even have to make their own car payments. As an undergrad I took enough courses in ethics to officially declare it a minor. I have studied religion, a discipline akin to ethics, all my life. As the stern-voiced lady tells me all the bad things I cannot do with state money, I wonder what the top public servants are doing tonight.