Toilet Paper Redux

So we find ourselves needing to clean up again.  Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  Since the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak has wiped across the nation toilet paper has once again become a hot commodity.  Not finding a single roll in Target, I decided to test the waters on Amazon.  Sure enough, many brands are now listed as “out of stock.”  Could it be a coincidence that Trump will be leaving office and we need a lot of toilet paper right now?  Inquiring minds want to know!  Capitalism is like that.  Supply (or lack thereof) and demand.  Instead of making sure people have access to the basic necessities, we would rather have panicky citizens with soiled underwear looking for leadership where none exists.  And voting for lack of leadership yet again.  Flush!

Still, you’ve got to wonder—why toilet paper?  What is it about thin paper on a roll that presses the fear factor?  If people can know to avoid embarrassing smells, why haven’t they plugged their noses when the breeze blows across Pennsylvania Avenue?  Logic fails here.  Have we educated a nation to fear for their backsides but not to see clear and president danger in front of them?  Now that we’re nearing two weeks since the results were announced, we have had nothing but pouting from the Oval Office.  That, and drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.  Seems like we’ve got to be dirtying the world somehow.  We could use some toilet paper.  Maybe America needs more fiber in its diet.

Those who still support Trump don’t seem to realize that his response (or lack thereof) is the main reason a quarter-million people have died in this country and the virus is completely out of control.  I guess it’s that way with messianic figures.  Ironically the Bible (printed on thin paper itself) warns of someone who acts messianic while lying all the time.  He’s called the Antichrist.  You can tell him because just about everything Jesus did, he does the opposite.  Welcome the foreigner?  Feed the hungry?  Heal the sick?  Talk about God and how to deepen your relationship with the divine all the time?  Have you got any boxes checked yet?  Or are you waiting for the Charmin supply truck to go rolling on by?  Perhaps it’s time to invest in paper.  We print our money on it and hope somehow it will save us.

White gold or pay dirt?

Music Time

Although I love music I rarely have time to listen to it.  My work demands concentration and if I have music on I have trouble paying attention to the task before me.  I awake early to write, and if I try to listen to music while expressing my thoughts through my fingers I find myself conflicted.  I work until supper and the debriefing time that follows work is often fraught—we’re all experiencing frustrations with our new, pandemic reality.  By the time supper’s over, I’m ready for sleep and one of the things that can keep me awake is an ear-worm.  Awake predawn the next day and repeat.  On rare occasions when I have a thoughtless task to complete on my job, I’ll be able to put on some tunes.

Photo credit: Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun, from Wikimedia Commons

When that rare syzygy came the other day I put on MCR, or, for those who like to spell things out (such as me), My Chemical Romance.  Every time I listen to MCR I wonder why I don’t do it more.  I suppose it’s because I have only two of their albums and I don’t want to wear them out.  What struck me as I listened to The Black Parade was how religious language sometimes creeps in, even when the band is secular.  This is important because rationalists have long been trying to dismantle religious thinking, falsely associating it with only certain amorphous groups such as “Fundamentalists” or “extremists.”  Religion, however, is very much a part of being human.  If we deny it, it simply crops up in another form.  It may take some time for the new shape to be recognized, but when it is it’ll be called religious.

I often wonder why universities, which are supposed to be such curious places, tend to show so little interest in religion.  It’s like that embarrassing uncle at a family gathering—the one everyone else avoids.  Still, our political system is run by religious ideology—take a look at the Supreme Court and try to deny it.  Our daily life is suffused with it like the air in a room with a scented oil diffuser.  Religion is all around us and the academic response tends to be “meh.”  I might be less distressed by this lack if it could be demonstrated that people are becoming less religious, but they’re not.  MCR doesn’t (in the albums I have) exude religious thoughts often, but they are there.  They also appear in other secular music, almost as often as sex and drugs.  If only I had more time I might be able to listen for more examples.  Right now, however, it is time to get to work.

State of the Nation

It has been a long week.  With an incumbent who refuses to tell the truth, we’ve faced three days of knuckle-biting so far and each day stirs up the butterflies of election day.  How we could’ve become a nation that is so easily duped into following a man who’s told a record number of bald-faced lies in the West Wing (and anywhere he appears, in fact) is an inscrutable mystery.  I guess many people don’t read.  Or think critically.  This should’ve been barely a contest at all.  The Associated Press national map is seared into my eyeballs like a computer monitor left on the same page too long without a screen saver.  Going back every few minutes to check for a touch more blue.  A sign of hope.  Meanwhile, 45 is doing his best to prevent votes already cast from being counted.

We’re a nation under extreme stress.  Whoever wins will need to bring deeply divided people back together, but here’s the rub.  We know from four years of terrible first-hand experience that Trump can’t do it.  Won’t even try.  He’s already compared himself to the greatest leaders we’ve ever had.  He has no reason, and no capacity to change.  Joe Biden is about as mild a Democrat as they come.  In saner times he’d likely have been considered a closet Republican.  Still, 45’s supporters rail as if he’s some socialist seeking to overturn the American system.  Excuse me, but look at the past four years—what precisely do you think was overturned during them?  The coronavirus rages, hitting record numbers.  The response from the White House?  Absolutely nothing.

Even with this there’s uncertainty in the air.  I wonder what America’s collective blood pressure is right now?  I know my systolic doesn’t feel too good.  Any legitimate leader would never fear an honest election.  One who tries to tamper with the results has already shown his true character.  And priorities.  And so we wait.  Yesterday the lines from V kept going through my head—“Remember, remember, the fifth of November.”  I finished the poem somewhat differently but the word “treason” remained.  I could use a little fantasy just about now.  As I write this the counters are all asleep.  Biden leads in the popular vote by almost four million, a greater lead than Hillary had just four years ago.  And it is now November 6, but just barely.  At least it’s Friday.  We need to appreciate the small things as they come.

Please Vote

If you haven’t done so already, please vote.  This day has never felt so portentous before.  I’ve been voting since the 1980s and we’ve had some real unsavory choices in some past years.  Never had we had a monstrous incumbent set on destroying the very nation that made him what he is.  Those who don’t, or won’t read the facts haven’t learned what’s obvious even to lifelong Republicans I know—Trump cares only for himself.  His family confirms it.  His policies, such as they are, show it.  He provides lip service to anti-abortion while using stem cells from fetuses to cure his own case of Covid-19 that he caught only by ignoring the science that tells us masks and distancing are necessary.  Even as our infection rates pass what they’ve ever been before, he fiddles while America burns.

Some of us have noticed a profound quiet for the past week or so.  It’s like the country’s running a low-grade fever.  Republicans have been attempting to prevent people from voting, wanting a country more like them, mean and unforgiving, that they can call “Christian.”  To me this feels like 9-11 did, only we have known the plot all along and have been too stunned to do anything about it.  Democracies are founded on the principle of the choice of the electorate.  The only way that we can make that choice known is to vote.  It’s the only way left to be a patriot.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with a similar situation in his native Germany.  An evangelical Christian, he didn’t acquiesce to Hitler, glorying in the rush of power.  He wrote that when a madman is driving the wheel must be wrenched from his hands.  Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis he tried to displace, but his spiritual eyesight was clear.  Faith can blind believers to the truth.  We’ve seen this happen time and time and time again.  Instead of condemning we need to help them since they cannot help themselves.  This is the truest form of what Jesus stood for.  Read the gospels if you doubt.  This year the decision isn’t for Democrat or Republican, it’s for clear-eyed assessment or self-adoring narcissism.  If a mirror’s held too close, we can’t see what’s truly reflected.  We must vote today to show what we want America to be.  The eyes of both the past and the future are upon us.  How will we want them to be remembered?

Dreamland

I don’t keep a dream journal, but with my odd sleeping habits I’m thinking maybe I should.  You see, waking in the middle of a dream is a good way to remember it.  Often I bolt awake in the middle of the action.  Well, I assume it’s the middle of the action, but how would I know?  Dreams are that way.  Whether in the middle or at the end, I wake up able to remember them in some detail for a few hours.  I have noticed a pattern over the past several months.  Not surprisingly, the characters in my dream worlds know about the pandemic.  It often plays a role in the story.  I have yet to remember a dream where the people are wearing masks, however.  They sometimes talk about it, but never do it.

The subconscious is a slippery place.  Although psychologists are often fascinated by dreams, nobody can say for sure what they mean.  One class of dream that I often have on an annual basis is the AAR/SBL anxiety dream.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting has been a fixture throughout my professional life.  Usually I have a dream where I’ve forgotten something important for the conference, such as forgetting to stop in the exhibit hall to see the new books.  I recently had my annual conference anxiety dream.  This year the conference is virtual so I’m not actually going anywhere.  In the dream I did.  And nobody was wearing masks.  The dream, however, was mainly about keeping my boss happy.  That’s simple enough to understand.

Most years I get several blog posts out of the conference (which takes place in November).  The virtual conference has been postponed until after Thanksgiving, and lengthened out by over a week.  Accommodating all those papers (thousands of them) via Zoom must be a logistical nightmare.  Since editors go to these for meeting people, there’s no reason for me to sign up.  Instead, I’ll be right here in eastern Pennsylvania, huddled down waiting for the pandemic to be over.  I’ll be wearing a mask whenever I venture off my own property.  It is my hope that others might do the same.  I read of covid-weary people burning their masks, putting themselves at risk as the number of infections continue to rise.  In my subconscious mind I’m somewhere else.  Perhaps I can convince them to wear masks in my imaginary world.  After all, anything is possible in dreams.

Is It Really Saving?

Daylight Saving Time has begun.  Or ended, I can never keep track of which.  All I know is that when I’m supposed to being enjoying another hour abed my mind wakes up at the usual time on a weekend only to find it’s even earlier than I’m accustomed to.  I ceased being able to sleep in when the commuting life began.  From where we lived in New Jersey I had to catch a bus well before 6 a.m. daily to get to New York.  Doing this for seven years set a pattern that I still find impossible to break and so I keep apologizing to my associates that no, I can’t attend evening meetings.  The morning after I can’t sleep in.  And then we change the clocks.

Many of us are creatures of habit.  Twice a year we needlessly disrupt our routines so we can “save daylight.”  What difference does it make when you’re staring at a screen all the time anyway?  Now it gets dark even earlier in the evening.  Well, that part I don’t mind so much.  I feel less abnormal when it’s dark as I get ready for bed.  An hour isn’t enough, however, to make it light when I awake.  The daylight will now last about as long as work does.  We’ve entered the darker half of the year.  Of course, yesterday was Halloween and we’re now facing All Saints and All Souls and el Día de los Muertos.  These are not all the same thing, for religion is very good at parsing things.  Still, who can help but suppress a yawn?

We’re supposed to be well rested but in reality we’re disoriented.  I’ve read that congress has been trying for years to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.  This has bipartisan support, but politicians, being what they are, keep on inserting riders that the other side doesn’t like so we continue the pointless ritual.  I know writers who stay up late to dedicate time to their craft.  Since I’m awake early I guess I’m simply picking up where they’re leaving off.  There are few interruptions at 2:00 a.m.  Soon, I know, I’ll get back into the swing of things and I’ll eventually be able to sleep in to three.  Then when March rolls around the gatekeeper will demand toll.  We’ll lose that hour we were so freely given last night.  But some of us will be tired all the time anyway.

The Halloween

Halloween seems especially portentous this year.  Some of us thrive in this introduction to what was a major set of Christian holidays that encompassed many pagan traditions.  The lynchpin was All Saints Day (All Hallows), which in good Christian fashion upheld its favorite sons (and a few daughters) to remind the rest of us what a sorry lot of humanity we are.  Followed by the more democratic All Souls Day where the vestments went from white to black, it was preceded by Halloween.  Through mostly Celtic additions from Samhain, the first of the three days became decidedly spooky and came to be a commercial holiday.  There’s more to it than that, of course, but we all know Halloween.

This year a number of other phenomena are converging on today.  Not only is it a full moon, but a famed blue moon—the second full moon this month.  It feel like something could happen.  And if that weren’t exciting enough the powers that be have decided to end Daylight Saving Time tonight (well, technically tomorrow morning).  And Tuesday is the most importation election day in the history of our nation, when we decide whether to retain democracy or become a monarchy.  Seems like a strange confluence of phenomena.  Meanwhile, outdoors a pandemic rages and some locations have had early snowfalls.  The last of what had been Hurricane Zeta blew through here yesterday.  Who needs Halloween to be scared?

For some years I’ve been contemplating the spirituality of Halloween.  We live in a death-denying culture while knowing full well we all die.  Halloween has become a holiday when we can think about it openly.  Pretend we’re someone/something we’re not.  Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we might learn something from it.  It has become a boon for horror films, but they’ve been successfully spread through the rest of the year as well.  There’s plenty to be frightened of in July and January too.  Still, there’s something about Halloween.  Some of my earliest memories are of this particular holiday.  Poor as we were, we always had costumes for the day.  I remember sitting on the school bus, wearing a mask, thinking that nobody knew who I was, and I could really be the hero or villain that my costume suggested that year.  Now we wear masks all the time and we’re frightened every day.  Halloween is coming along with a blue moon this year.  There must be some significance to that.

Wild God

Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is one of those books I wanted to put down gently after reading it, for fear that it might explode.  Or maybe it was my head I feared might combust.  Describing it is difficult because it is so wide-ranging.  On the one hand it is an atheist’s view of religion.  On the other hand it is a spiritual biography.  On a third hand it is coming to terms with having had a profound mystical experience.  It is one of those books where, knowing my life has been so very different, yet I feel that Ehrenreich and I have had so much in common that we’d be friends if we ever met.  It is also the work of a woman who is scary smart and whose teenage thoughts were so intense that my own seem puerile by comparison.

But that mystical experience!  I’ve had many of them in my life, but I don’t know you well enough to share them here.  They’ve been recorded in an unfinished book that I may or may not try to publish some day.  (Ehrenreich was smart and took a job as a journalist, which means others assume you know how to write.  Even those of us in publishing have trouble convincing agents and others who hold the keys to non-academic pricing that we understand the craft.)  Mysticism quickly becomes a staid discipline, not at all like the life-directing experiences such encounters themselves actually are.  It’s difficult to explain without sitting down and talking to you.  It’s something academics tend to avoid like Covid-19.

The books that mean most to me are like conversations with an absent author.  Drawn in by an openness, or perhaps by the fact that we’ve lived in a few of the same places over the years, perhaps passed one another unknowingly on the street, you feel that they’ve invited you into their very head.  What you find there has a strange similarity to what is in your own head, while being completely different at the same time.  We should all strive for such honesty in our writing.  In the end Ehrenreich, with a doctorate in science, suggests we need to be open.  That kind of validation is important for those of us who’ve poured our lives into the study of religion.  She was drawn in from atheism, and I have been trying to escape from literalism all my adult life.  We have ended up in places not dissimilar from each other and I’m glad to have met her through this profound book.

Keep It Covered

I’ve seen it at last.  The cover concept for my book.  I’ve been manicly checking the Rowman and Littlefield (parent company of Lexington/Fortress Academic—a roadmap would be useful) webpage to see what it might look like.  I’ve “seen a sighting” at last.  Nightmares with the Bible seems to be actually happening.  As a writer there’s always some doubt involved with your book.  You wonder, will it really come out?  Will someone pull the plug at the last minute?  Is any of this real at all?  Those kinds of things.  I’ve mentioned before that waiting is a very large part of the process.  Publishing is a slow business and the world changes so fast.  I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever leave books behind.

My waiting hasn’t been idle, of course.  My next nonfiction book is well underway but I’m focusing on fiction at the moment.  I had two short stories published within the last month and I’m inclined to follow where some success shows itself.  Besides, fiction and nonfiction aren’t as far apart as is often claimed.  Seeing the cover of the book, however, nudges me back towards nonfiction a bit.  Since I’m no longer an academic it’s a toss-up.  A few colleagues like what I’m doing, but my fiction work is secret.  So the process continues, waffling back and forth.  It’s all in service of learning how the publishing industry works.  That’s one of the many things they don’t teach you in graduate school.

It’s October and I should be thinking about monsters.  Although I’ve gone through my closet of DVDs, there are many that bear watching again.  If only I could fabricate time!  One of the things I’ve noticed about this pandemic—and I know it’s not just me—is that time seems to have been swallowed up.  A simple walk down the local biking trail now requires masking up before and washing hands after.  Less than a minute of time, for sure, but it adds up.  And if you go after work there’s not enough light left to paint the porch by when you get back.  Such are the contradictions of this wonderful season.  You really can’t pin anything down.  The colorful trees put you into rapture then they’re bare.  The bright blue sky looms under relentless clouds.  You throw off your jacket one day and it snows the next.  And there might just be monsters lurking out there.  One of them, it’s said, will be released in November.  Given the nature of this season we’ll just have to wait and see.

October Reflections

The people are dressed in their finest.  The best food and drink available are spread on white tablecloths while rats scurry underfoot.  The feasters invite Lucy to join them.  “It’s the last supper,” they say, hoisting a glass, knowing that they will soon die of the plague.  This is one of the most powerful scenes in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.  It’s October and we’re in the midst of a plague.  The wealthy retain their fortunes while the poor die in the streets.  Do I really need to explain why someone so focused on religion and social justice finds horror films as able conversation partners?  My two books that relate to the topics don’t come outright and say it, but there are spiritual lessons to be learned here.

Genre is a convenient, perhaps even necessary, means of making sense of the vast creative output of humankind.  We write fiction, poems, and songs.  We film movies.  We produce these forms of entertainment at a stunning rate, especially when we consider the large number of pieces made that never find official publication.  Genre helps us sort through—this is like that, etc.  Still, some of my favorite pieces of literature, and movies, don’t really fit into neat genre divisions.  Take Herzog’s Nosferatu.  There are definitely horror elements here, but it is also an art film.  Some scenes, like that described above, are suffused with religious meaning.  When circumstances align correctly we can see it and say, “ah, now I understand.”  That was what came to me recently.  I haven’t seen the movie for years, but circumstances with Covid-19 brought it to mind.

October is a month of poetry and transitions.  We turned the furnace on only to find ourselves in the midst of a string of days reaching near 70.  The cerulean sky which looks so different this time of year suddenly disappeared with nearly a week of heavy cloud cover.  There’s beauty in the daytime and monsters in the night.  Outside lurks a plague.  Lacking the willpower to overcome it, people are growing weary of the restrictions.  We’re not used to being locked up.  The thing about the last supper is that life goes on even after it’s over.  Changed, yes, but October is all about change.  We’re anxious, wondering if it was indeed a vampire that bit us.  Meanwhile the leaves continue their journey from green to yellow, orange, and red, their litter becoming the food for next year’s growth.  Yes, there are spiritual lessons here.

Moral Imperative

It was a walk up a long, steep hill, but it was worth it.  Last Saturday my wife and I voted.  It had the feeling of accomplishment.  The long, steep hill was also a symbol.  Wearing masks, sucking breath in through fabric in the single nation hardest hit—this great rudderless ship—we went to say “enough.”  The clearest indication of evil in the present administration (and here we’re starved for choices) is the open attempt to sabotage voting.  Some GOPers are placing fake ballot boxes in public locations while the pretender-in-chief has encouraged his followers to vote twice and has tried to prevent his “fellow Americans” from having their legitimate say.  Sometimes you have to climb a high hill, but the view from the top may just be worth all that effort.

We are a suffering nation.  Not only have we become divided, that division has been stirred, and prodded, and poked by a man who knows the only way to win is to divide and conquer.  Untie what used to be the United States for personal aggrandizement.  Voting is more than a right, it’s an absolute duty.  All who do it are patriots.  In this we can be united.  Perhaps a bit winded, stop to take a look at the trees on the hills showing their true colors.  We woke up stuck in a nightmare four years ago.  We’ve lost four years of our lives.  We’ve climbed so many hills and sunk into dark, deep valleys.  Does that flag look a little tattered to you?

Back in high school we all wondered how autocrats like Hitler and Mussolini came to power.  We’ve watched it happen in a nation that was the avowed enemy of fascism within living memory.  And for what?  The right to wear red baseball caps that claim our nation wasn’t great to begin with?  Great is not the same as perfect, to be sure.  We were producing the technology (that is by definition “progressive”) that the world craved.  We were ensuring the rights of all people.  We were cleaning the environment.  What within all of this isn’t great?  How has it become better in these four misspent years of worry and weariness, bringing us to the brink of nuclear war without a thought of the incredible effort it took to build all of this.  Or the effort it took to walk up this long, steep hill.

Ode to Bookstores

The pandemic has changed everything.  You knew that, of course.  Like many people in fields of regular job uncertainty, we’ve curtailed spending as much as we can.  Never very securely established after Nashotah House, we’ve managed to get by by not thinking too far ahead.  I can’t imagine retirement (if there’s still a job left to report to).  Even more, I can’t imagine a life without books.  The only way I get through each day is by trying not to think about it.  Still, I miss bookstores.  Pre-pandemic, when jobs at least felt somewhat secure, we’d often nip into one of the many local independents of a weekend.  Missing browsing shelves sorely, we stopped into Book and Puppet over in Easton, when on a trip to buy produce at the outdoor farmer’s market.

It felt strange, the thought of going into a store that wasn’t dedicated to groceries or hardware.  Masked, of course, but would there be lots of people there, crowding the air with germs?  No.  There was maybe one other customer in the place.  I have to admit that I was a bit disoriented, trying to read over spines on a shelf, not wanting to touch anything.  I’ve tried hard to curb any spending during these highly uncertain times, but could I imagine a world with no bookstores?  Would I even want to?  Books, you see, give me hope.  My vision of heaven is October and a never-ending stack of books (and, of course, friends).  Books allow for escape and exploration.  Life will continue after the pandemic in books.

The fear has gripped many of us, I suspect.  I’m old enough to retire, but not well-off enough to do so.  Our house requires a two-person income at our level (highly educated, under-employed), and the pandemic rolls on.  I think of the Black Death—I’ve read about that too—and how history changed because of it.  In this pandemic we’re dying (all but the wealthiest) piece by piece.  The most vulnerable first, of course, but the middle class may well be in the sights.  The owner of the bookstore said he wasn’t sure how long he could hold out.  Just last year at this time I was participating in the Easton Book Festival that he’d organized.  I had a book-signing at the nearby Moravian Bookshop.  I can’t remember a time I felt so hopeful, knowing I had another book coming out, and if we survive long enough, another after that.  I really shouldn’t, but I’m in a bookstore.  I’ll buy one in hope that the future may just offer a place to keep it.

The End of Snow Days

It’s a chilling thought.  An article in the New York Times said it, but we were all thinking it.  Snow days may well have become another victim of Covid-19.  No, it’s not snowing yet (but give climate change a chance!), but New York City schools have figured out that if students can learn from home then one of the truly treasured memories of our youth may no longer be necessary.  In fact, snow days ended for me when I began working remotely.  My supervisor had suggested, even before that, that I take my company laptop home daily, in case of inclement weather.  The idea of awaking, wonder-eyed, at the world covered in white—that cozy feeling of knowing you had no obligations for the day but to enjoy the pristine world out your window—is a thing of the past.

Technology has changed our lives, and some of it is even for the better.  It hasn’t made work easier for some of us, but has made it longer.  We used to talk about kids and their continuous partial attention, but now work is always at home with you and that time signature on your email says something about your work habits.  As the days are now shorter than the nights, as they will be for six more months, finding the time to do what you must outdoors (it may be cooler, but lawns still insist on growing) is always a bit more of a challenge.  And when the snow does fall you’ll still have to shovel the walk.  All time has become company time for a truly linked-in world.

The real victim here, it seems to me, is childhood.  Snow days were a reminder that no matter how strict, how Calvinistic our administrators wanted to be, the weather could still give us a smile now and then.  A legitimate excuse not to have to go to school and, if parents couldn’t get you to daycare, a day off for everyone.  The strict number of limited holidays allotted by HR had limited power in those days.  Although we all know that well-rested, happy workers tend to do better jobs than those who are constantly stressed out and who have trouble sleeping, we’ve now got the means to make the sameness of pandemic life the ennui of everyday life, in saecula saeculorum.  Thanks, internet.  At least now we work where we have a window and can look out on nature and can see what we’re missing.

The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons

Hypersensitivity

Tell people you’re hypersensitive and the first thing they’ll say is “I’m sorry.”  The way I use the term is, however, somewhat literal.  Some of us experience sensory input in especially intensive ways.  Psychologists say that those of us who do often stop and assess in new situations.  We can become overstimulated and sometimes “shut down” if too much is going on.  It doesn’t mean I’m going to burst into tears if you insult my haircut.  (It’s homemade, we’re in a pandemic, after all.)  The reason I bring hypersensitivity up at this point is two-fold.  The first fold has to do with the fact that I no longer get out much, which means much of the “ordinary” now seems new.  The second fold is that I wonder if hypersensitivity had a role in leading medieval people into monasteries and convents.

Back to point one.  If sensory stimuli can overwhelm one, going back into TMI territory can be almost traumatic.  I commuted into New York City for about seven years.  Manhattan is difficult for a hypersensitive person to take.  Over time I became accustomed to it, and familiar environments are more easily navigated.  The pandemic, however, has me spending about nine or ten hours a day in the same small room at home.  Actually, working remotely had already done that, but I used to get out on weekends.  We recently took a safe weekend trip, stopping only at places with few people and staying with family.  Less than 24-hours out from home I realized I was feeling overwhelmed.  Too much interaction.  We had stopped at a town I’d never visited before.  The trees were spectacular.  I soon regained my bearings, because no matter how late I stay up, I still awake early to write.

This leads to the second point.  I suspect things moved much more slowly in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but I can see why certain individuals might like to cloister themselves.  While I disagreed with the theology, I taught for fourteen years at Nashotah House, a cloistered seminary.  You saw the same people day in and day out.  The campus was suspicious about this thing called “the internet” for quite a long time.  You ordered books through the mail and waited a month or more for it to arrive.  In some ways this was a comfortable existence.  Of course, it blocked me from much of what was happening in the wider world.  The pandemic has, in some measure, brought me back to that space.  I wonder if, historically, they might be connected.  But right now it’s time to get to my ten-hour room and work.