Pandemic Thoughts

Waiting for rescue.  For many years now, I’ve been hoping for it.  It goes back to my first professional job at Nashotah House, perhaps earlier.  Particularly late in the game, I found myself wondering when I might be rescued from that difficult situation.  The teaching and research I loved, but the context was brutal.  The hoped for salvation never came.  Since those days the wishes have swung around to a steady job in a field I love.  One for which I trained.  The feeling arises particularly on weekends.  Often busier than even workdays, I nevertheless sense an almost gothic freedom to them, and Monday rolls around again reminding me that salvation never came.  Things are still the same.  Now, I don’t just sit around waiting for rescue.  I throw out all kinds of lines.  I shout and squirm and try to make myself known.  The ocean is large, however, and my voice is small.  

Perhaps this sense is a natural outgrowth of being raised in a religion that emphasized personal salvation.  The sudden conversion experience.  It was easy to believe things could change rapidly for the better.  Science, particularly uniformitarianism, tells us that the same slow processes always hold.  Solomon was right after all—there’s nothing new under the sun.  At least nothing that we couldn’t see coming for a good, long time.  Out here the horizon stretches ever so far in every direction.  Religions realize the problems with this sameness.  They give us sacred times and sacred spaces.  (The latter of which, however, the pandemic has forced online.)

Rescues that evolve can take many years to reach effective strength.  As a child I recall anticipating the rescue of adult respectability.  When I grew up people would listen to me because I was an adult.  For a brief while that was the case when I stood in the classroom and some students came because they wanted to learn.  I learned from them, and they, I hope, learned from me.  Perhaps this situation arises less among those raised in stable, middle-class families.  Perhaps they don’t sense the constant wolf pacing outside the door.  Maybe salvation is primarily for the poor.  Whoever it’s for and whencever it comes, the feeling has been with me for decades.  Rescue, it seems, is a construct we badly need.  At least on a philosophical level.  The pandemic has leveled our concept of time to a stifling sameness.  I’m prepared.  I’ve been waiting for rescue for as long as I can remember.  Then Monday rolls around again.


Love or Saints?

One of the many oddities of life at Nashotah House was that we never celebrated St. Valentine.  I wouldn’t expect a mostly male and neurotically homophobic community to mark Valentine’s Day as for lovers (most of the faculty and many students were married, however), but the saint’s name wasn’t uttered in my years there.  Of course, commercialization of holidays does taint them somewhat.  It’s difficult to take a day seriously when you’re being told that how much you spend will be the sign of how special it will be.  With St. Valentine’s Day, however, I believe the topic was much too close to something the church had long feared—sexuality.  I’ve often pondered how this strange obsession evolved.  Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, isn’t the origin of this antipathy to being fully human.

The trouble likely starts in the Bible.  The New Testament, in particular.  No mention is made of Jesus having been married.  Paul, in his usual way, made it an issue but fell short of outright condemning it.  His words would help convince the Roman Catholic Church that mandated celibacy was a good idea.  Clearly, however, Augustine of Hippo, who lived after Valentine (depending on which one you elect to follow) saw the whole enterprise as flawed.  Making up the concept of original sin and tying it in with sexuality was a certain means of creating a problem.  Not that Christianity is the only religion that promotes celibacy, of course.  But when it came to Nashotah House there was really no concern about what other religions taught.  Even on February 14 no collects were recited mentioning the saint who must not be named.

The history of saints’ days is a fascinating one.  A few of them made it into pop culture—after Presidents’ Day there’s no national holiday until Memorial Day in May, so who can blame people for looking for reasons to celebrate while still waiting for spring?  Saint Patrick wasn’t similarly given the cold shoulder at Nashotah in my years there.  And although it moved around quite a bit, you could usually count on April for delivering Easter.  We didn’t celebrate Presidents’ Day.  Nor Martin Luther King Day—not being Catholic his canonization process was a non-starter.  The long, cold stretch between Epiphany (now Insurrection Day) and Lent was one devoid of popular holidays.  I suspect that despite the number of saints (and there are lots of them) the singling out of Valentine was considered to be asking for trouble.  That was many years ago.  Oddities, however, have a way of remaining in long-term memory.


Mittens and Circuses

Bernie Sanders, since we’re now making up our own facts, clearly won this election.  Or at least the inauguration.  An inescapable meme of Sanders, bundled up with his notable mittens, has made major media as well as pedantic punters on the web.  Thanks in part to an app created to allow users to place Bernie anywhere, I’ve seen him at all kinds of places from Oxford University Press to Dirty Dancing to the exhibit halls at the AAR/SBL annual meeting.  As someone who suffers from the cold I was initially concerned that he must feel laughed at by it all, but Bernie seems to be taking it in good humor.  The only reason I bring it up here is a meme (I think) that my wife pointed out to me of Bernie among the Fond du Lac Circus.  I can’t find any credit for the creator, but it appeared on the Episcopalians on Facebook group.  (I don’t know how Facebook works, checking above the fold once a day only.)

I’ve actually posted on the Fond du Lac Circus before.  The photo was extremely popular at Nashotah House when I taught there.  The diocese of Fond du Lac (in which I once preached) is just north a bit in Wisconsin.  The photo was a celebration of the installation of a bishop with ecclesiastical haberdashery at its finest on display.  In my mind, Nashotah House stands for all that’s conservative.  I’m certain a great deal of the population supported Trump.  A former dean had a shrine to George W. Bush in the deanery.  I kid you not.  So seeing the most progressive senator amid that crowd of backward-looking clergy, apart from being unspeakably funny, made me reflective.

Many years of my life were spent among the Episcopalians.  Too many of those years consisted of feeling oppressed by the interpretation of “orthodoxy” held at Nashotah House.  The hubris of “the only right teaching” has haunted me ever since.  Faith can be a good thing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  The greatest danger is when it ceases to be reflective.  Faith must involve constant thought and assessment to be honest.  Unthinking compliance was something Jesus, for one, simply didn’t accept.  Challenging the way it’s always been done is a venerable part of the agenda for those who start new religions, Jesus included.  When that religion becomes ossified (or too obsessed with appearances) isn’t it time to start looking toward the future?  Bernie Sanders is popular with the young.  They have little patience for the selfishness that’s been on display in American culture for far too many decades.  Would that he really attended the Fond du Lac Circus!  Perhaps a grassroots movement to improve conditions for all might’ve actually emerged long ago.


Home Alone

Due to circumstances beyond my control (and what other kind of circumstances are there, anyway?), I recently had to spend a few days alone.  Even as an introvert I’ve never enjoyed “batching it” for long, perhaps because my imagination is so untamed as to belong in a zoo.  Nevertheless, you learn things with time alone.  Particularly in a pandemic.  I’m not inclined to seek the company of strangers, and I don’t know many people here in town yet.  So I introspect.  Of course, Zoom and FaceTime keep me in touch with others, but I can’t help remembering a PBS special I saw about Admiral Richard Byrd.  Byrd famously self-isolated himself in a one-room shack in Antartica for five months when weather made travel impossible.  His contact with the outside world was limited to electronic communication.

Photo credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

Byrd had been seeking the ultimate isolation.  It turned out to be psychological torture.  Even those of us who are introverts are social creatures.  We just need smaller doses than most.  I can’t recall the name of the PBS series that Byrd was part of, but I do recall the profound impact it made on me.  I was teaching at the time and there was another series on PBS that I was discussing with my fellow professors and it was because of this other series that I had the television on at all.  The Byrd program came next and eclipsed the former.  (We essentially lived without television in our Nashotah House days.  Cable wasn’t available and trying to get reception with an inadequate aerial antenna led to frustratingly snowy, dizzying reception.)

We like to have other people around.  I grew up with siblings and time alone was a rare commodity.  I left home to live in a dorm with roommates for four years.  After that apartments in the Boston area often felt isolating, even with housemates.  It was a time for introspection.  By the time I moved to Edinburgh I was married and I’ve not really looked forward to my time alone since then.  November typically brings AAR/SBL with it’s five nights alone in a hotel room.  I get by because I’m so exhausted by the  event.  Nevertheless I often think of Admiral Byrd and how this mentally strong man began to break down under the strain of not seeing another person for five months.  We need each other.  The pandemic has been teaching us lessons of self-reliance, but hopefully it’s also teaching us to reach out to others.  Even America can feel like Antartica sometimes. 


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.


Holy Smoke

I’m not inclined to read news about drug use, and, to be honest, I barely have time to read about the culture of ancient Israel any more.  I very occasionally hear from people who find out that my book on Asherah is free on Academia.edu (it is) that tell me how they plan to use the information.  It’s gratifying, but as with anything put out there for public consumption, you never know which direction it’s going to go.  Thus I found myself on Lucid News’ website.  With the tagline “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness,” ideas begin to form in the mind.  But a citation is a citation, and so I read the opinion piece “Drugs, the Israelites and the Emergence of Patriarchy,” by Danny Nemu.

The story follows on the announcement from some time ago that chemical analysis of an interior altar of an ancient temple at Arad (from ancient Israelite times) revealed that it had been used to burn cannabis.  The biblical story—now questioned by archaeology—is that there was only one official temple and that was the one in Jerusalem.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and then again by the Romans in the first century CE.  We have no access to the altars that stood in the temple, but we do know that incense, particularly frankincense, was valued for its pleasant smell.  According to the article in Lucid, a second altar in Arad showed residue of frankincense.  Both altars were in a small, enclosed room—the bong of the Lord, as it were—and that together the two forms of smoke would’ve created an intense religious experience for a priest in there for any length of time.  Although the article doesn’t suggest this, it could also explain why animal sacrifices were going on in the courtyard, I guess.

You might be wondering about Asherah.  While the jury’s out on her actual worship and what it entailed, the academic establishment has decided that she was Yahweh’s spouse and was worshipped together with him in the ceremonies that have been forgotten to time.  With all that heavy substance burning I guess it’s not surprising that some things might’ve been forgotten.  I don’t really advocate the use of drugs, but the science behind archaeology shows us that religions have used them for centuries and centuries to reach other levels of consciousness.  I was in chapel services at Nashotah House where the incense was so thick you could barely breathe.  Did such circumstances play a role in the religion that now identifies itself as white-shirted evangelicals?  It boggles the mind.


Bonded

It happened this way.  When my daughter was young she was interested in dinosaurs.  Most kids are.  In fact, my wife and I went to a public lecture by a paleontologist in Edinburgh where he pointed out that the real experts on the subject in the audience were generally twelve or younger.  I took an interest in what my daughter found fascinating, and you can’t study dinosaurs without knowing a bit of geology.  Now, the professor’s lifestyle is a thing of wonder.  You may have a heavy teaching and publication load, but the freedom to spend your unstructured summer time pure learning was (still is) a huge draw.  I began studying geology.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I was even made an officer.  My, a biblical studies professor.

At one point I bought a jeweler’s loupe.  Many geologists have them.  To get down to the level of the crystalline structure of most rocks you’ll need something more powerful, but for fieldwork (and I’ve got a garage full of rocks to prove it) your average loupe will do.  When Nashotah House decided I should no longer be a professor (and the rest of academe acquiesced) I seriously considered going back to school to study geology.  Time was against me, however.  I had to find a job with a family needing support, and so here I am in publishing instead.  And not only that, but I’m a Bibles editor.  Most people have no idea what that means.  Some days even I don’t.  But one thing I have learned is that you’ve got to know your leather.

This is a bit uncomfortable to me as a vegan, but I have learned that many people want their Bibles wrapped up in animal sacrifice.  I’ve also learned there are many different kinds of leather.  The typical leather Bible is pigskin.  Yes, that’s right.  In the trade you can call a Bible with any animal hide leather.  Bonded leather means that it’s pieces glued together.  The most expensive Good Books are “genuine leather.”  Cut from whole cloth, as it were.  I keep my jeweler’s loupe in my work desk.  Sometimes I need to look at something closely, off screen.  My loupe came in a leather case.  One of the sides peeled off during our move and I could see clearly what bonded leather means.  In fact, the “nded” part of “bonded” is clearly visible like a secret Bible code on the underlayer of my case.  Nothing, it seems, is ever wasted.


Gratefully

I confess.  I read acknowledgements.  Part of it is the vanity of finding someone’s name I know.  Or the worse vanity of finding my own name.  Acknowledgements, however, reveal quite a lot about the book you’re about to read, or have just read.  Not all books have them, of course.  Most academic books do.  A recurring theme occurs in the acknowledgements I read: privilege.  Many academics are feted and pampered and their institutions pour money on their desks.  Often they show a nonchalance about it all.  ‘Tweren’t nothin’.  What seems to be missing to me is the struggle.  Anything worth having, in the experience of many, is something for which sacrifice was required.  Hard work, long hours, and nobody pouring money on your desk.

Privilege breeds a strange kind of entitlement.  Many academics complain of how difficult they’ve got it.  (The stories I could tell!)  Now, I haven’t walked in their loafers so I can’t say if the personal circumstances of others are trying or not.  My own experience at Nashotah House—how good I had it!—wasn’t exactly pristine.  Conflicts between dean and faculty.  Required chapel twice a day whether you needed it or not.  Your every move watched for any indication of heresy or disloyalty (that’s not limited to the Oval Office).  And yet, those days were much better than I realized at the time.  Once in a while you have to crawl up next to Job on his ash heap to get an idea of what you simply couldn’t see before.

Acknowledgements are often like mini biographies.  You try to make sure you don’t leave out anyone that helped you along the way.  Books, particularly academic books, are the product of many people, not just the author.  Sure, the author’s the star of the show, but if the support staff wasn’t there, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  Book making is incredibly complex, which is why self-publishing, while sometimes necessary, often shows in the end results.  Editors come in many flavors: acquisitions editors, copyeditors, line editors, production editors, and more.  Sometimes there’s overlap between positions, but even books that barely get read have plenty of sets of eyes upon them before they come to the public.  Acknowledgments don’t always name everyone.  In fact, they simply can’t.  It takes a village to publish a book.  Instead of feeling entitled,   I find acknowledgements always instill a sense of humility.  It’s an honor to be part of bringing a book to birth, even if your contribution is hidden away in unread pages.


Temple Mysteries

Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  If you read the Bible, rather than just pose with it, you’ll wonder what went on in the temple when you’re done.  Yes, it’s obvious there would be the bleeting of sheep followed by an eerie silence, and that “that Burger King smell” would be pervasive, but what of the interior of the temple itself?  The Good Book says next to nothing about what happened inside.  We do know that going to temple wasn’t the same as going to synagogue or church.  The laity, for one thing, weren’t allowed inside.  Although the temple in Jerusalem can’t be excavated, many ancient temples have been found and archaeologists have the ability to analyze residues found on altars and that tells us something at least.  A story on Artnet News publicizes an archaeological report that rests behind a paywall, so I’ll use Artnet’s headline: “Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did.”

The story explains that chemical analysis of the famous Arad temple from ancient Judah shows that one of the altars was used to burn cannabis.  I guess that could help explain all the animal sacrifices.  Like most religions, that of ancient Israel kept much in the dark (literally).  Read the biblical account again.  The temple had no windows.  The holy place was illuminated by the menorah, so there was light.  The holy of holies was completely dark.  Other than the rituals of the Day of Atonement, we’re not given much information on what the priests and levites did for the rest of the year.  They may or may not have burnt cannabis.  It might be that what happened in Arad stayed in Arad.  What hath Arad to do with Jerusalem?  We simply don’t know.

Another altar in Arad, according to the story by Sarah Cascone, burned frankincense.  That sounds much more biblical.  I’ve never been a smoker and I’ve never smoked anything in my life.  I did, however, attend many services at Nashotah House where the small space of St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with so much incense that I wondered about its health affects.  I’m not sure if others felt they were getting lightheaded from all the fumes or not.  Incense, to be used effectively should be handled sparingly.  Its purpose was, theologically, to cloud the air in case God decided to show up.  You weren’t allowed to see him.  If he did show up, though, maybe it was party time.  And there’s bread and wine just out in the vestibule.  Some mysteries will never be fully explained.


Learning To Shift

Beliefs have a way of shifting with time and learning.  A regular part of my job is to spend time on college, university, and seminary websites.  Indeed, an editor in my field has to know quite a bit about institutional affiliations.  No matter how much secularists dislike it, our institutions of higher education tended, historically, to be founded by religious organizations.  That’s not unexpected since the very idea of higher education grew organically from the concept of monasteries as the places that preserved learning.  Many, if not most, universities have grown away from their founders’ faiths.  Harvard University, for example, was founded largely for the supply of Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Not officially affiliated, it nevertheless owed its founding vision to religious needs in the colony.  The fact of moving away from religious traditions is understandable in the cases of universities because learning is essentially a secular enterprise now.

Seminaries are a little different.  When searching for my first (and, to date only) full-time teaching job, I was acquired by Nashotah House because I was Episcopalian.  All the faculty were.  I’ve been turned down for a good many jobs over the years by seminaries silently stating that I wasn’t Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Ironically, as I’ve come to know many seminary faculty members through work, most of them are not of the same denomination as their institution.  Quite often they are Bible faculty, which, when you think about it, is pretty surprising.  Denominations, especially Protestant ones, draw their lines in the sand over their interpretation of Scripture.  

All of this leaves me wondering what it really means to belong to a religious body.  After Nashotah House sympathetic Episcopalians were difficult to locate.  Even those in the academy seemed to accept my sudden disappearance with a studied lack of curiosity.  I’ve sat on the sidelines for a decade and a half now, watching others play the game.  Some win.  Many do not.  Some have denominations that open up for them.  Others do not.  Looking back at the origins of higher education, those of us who studied the original academic field are now considered non-essential even among the non-essentials.  And yet society feels like it’s reeling because of its lack of understanding regarding what religion is.  There are few places to go to learn what your particular brand teaches.  But then again, beliefs do have a way of shifting over time.


Ancient Technology

The pandemic, like any news event these days, has generated a whole new vocabulary.  I had to look up PPE on Google (Personal Protective Equipment, if you live in a cave like me).  I want to help with the effort to curb the coronavirus, but being a non-essential worker, I’m not sure what I can do.  Then my wife found an organization making PPEs.  In this case the equipment they make is face-shields.  And they were looking for, believe it or not, transparency paper.  Well, it’s really not paper, but acetate.  Although we’ve had to move several times since being pushed out of the Nashotah House nest, when I went looking for that box of transparency film that I paid for out of my own pocket in the PPPD (Pre-PowerPoint Days), I found it without too much trouble.  We still had 25 unused sheets left, and we donated them to the cause.

Nashotah House used to have one semester of required Hebrew and one semester of Greek.  Since the curriculum was highly regulated in those days, there was no opportunity for further courses in either language.  If you teach Hebrew you know that no textbook assumes just fourteen to sixteen weeks to learn it.  I quickly gave up using textbooks and had students begin translating as I walked them through it.  I had to use an overhead projector since Nashotah had no internet connection until the turn of the millennium.  It was such a small account that the cable companies didn’t want to go all the way out there to lay the physical lines then necessary for connectivity.  So I bought transparency film.  I even learned how to run it through my printer which, thankfully, wasn’t dot-matrix.

Over the years I bought quite a few boxes of the stuff.  Then the Enlightenment.  Let there be PowerPoint.  I converted all my teaching to PowerPoint slides while others made fun.  When my services were no longer required, I had to purchase a projector so that I could continue to teach on a freelance basis.  But I kept that expensive transparency film.  Now it is out there covering faces, and hopefully, unlike seminary education, saving lives.  As an erstwhile teacher of Greek and Hebrew I’ve found myself having to make some flashcards to learn the new words the crisis is giving us.  It’s a good thing, then, that when I was looking for transparency film I also found a couple packs of unopened index cards.  Sometimes antiquated pedagogy is commodious after all.


Quiet Quarantine

I’m an introvert.  I require quiet time—quite a lot of it—to recharge and prepare myself to be social.  Some people think introverts don’t want to be around others.  That’s not true.  The fact is being with other people is enjoyable, but it requires a special kind of energy that introverts don’t have in great reserve.  When the COVID-19 outbreak began introverts collectively (yes!) felt a need to help their extroverted friends and colleagues deal with the “new normal” of isolation.  Now that we’ve been in the situation for over a month, I have seen a different pattern emerging.  Extroverts are now taking over the quiet space and trying to make it noisy.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but I do think that introverts may be the ones most stressed out by this situation.

Here’s an experiment.  Put an extrovert in self-isolation with a room full of communication devices.  What do you think will happen?  If you’re on the introverted receiving end, you already know.  Days interrupted by cheeps, dings, and chimes as someone needs to talk to you.  Why you?  You’re quiet, you know how to listen.  The extraverts can’t become quiet, and of quiet and noise the same one is always on the receiving end of violence.  Quiet shatters, noise doesn’t.  Five weeks into this and the introverts have bags under their eyes and the extroverts are exclaiming “It’s not half so bad!”

While Nashotah House ruined it for me, for many years I had considered whether I shouldn’t join a monastic community.  I need quiet as much as I need air, and although I can be outgoing when I have to, I need quiet at the end of the day to make up for it.  My case is somewhat mild.  I know introverts who truly struggle when they have to spend a lot of time in a crowded place.  The internet, my friends, is a crowded place.  It took these weeks for me to figure out why I have so much less time now than I used to.  The demand of making noise has been upped.

Sitting at home with quiet streets outside can be eerie.  It can also be rejuvenating.  Embracing the silence isn’t a bad practice.  One of the reasons, I suspect, that I still awake around 3:00 a.m. is that it is quiet.  Very seldom am I interrupted then.  Work will have its pound of flesh, of course, and from there on my day descends, or ascends, back towards quiet.  It’s not a bad way to live.  It just takes practice.


Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.


Who’s To Blame?

Back at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, we were a closed community.  Well, not completely closed, as much as some may have desired it.  When a communicable illness came to campus it quickly spread.  No wonder—we were required to all gather twice daily in the chapel, and there was the passing of the peace during mass.  And the sharing of a common chalice.  The germs of the Lord were readily spread.  One of the faculty members would refer to the vector of the illness as “Typhoid Mary,” a rather sexist remark in the mostly male environment.  Still, Mary Mallon came to mind as the current crises has settled in.  “Typhoid Mary” was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.  A working-class girl from Ireland, outbreaks of typhoid followed her in the various houses in New York City where she worked.

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

The current coronavirus outbreak in New York City seems strangely similar in some regards.  Although COVID-19 is less likely passed by asymptomatic carriers, according to what I’ve read from the World Health Organization, it is still a possible vector.  While out getting necessary supplies in the area I recently noticed store employees without gloves or masks, both of which I had on.  One of us was underdressed.  I went home, washed my hands thoroughly, and pulled my copy of The Andromeda Strain from the bookshelf.  Self-medication can come in several forms.  Some people still look at me funny for wearing a mask, but many other customers are now doing the same.  The Center for Disease Control recommends it.

Before I’d ever heard of Nashotah House, I worked in a grocery store.  I was a college graduate with facial hair that had to be removed.  “Customers don’t trust a man with a beard,” I was told.  Back then if you walked into a store with a mask on there would’ve been trouble.  Contagion can drive you crazy.  Nobody wants to be a “Typhoid Mary,” and yet it’s difficult to be out in public with a mask on.  “Who was that masked man?” they used to ask of the Lone Ranger.  From the theater and psychology I’ve studied, I know that hiding behind a mask can be a liberating experience.  Aware that nobody knows who you are, you are free to act most any way you please.  But this is different.  Maybe it’s because my mask is made of a paisley-ish bandana,  the kind old westerns show outlaws wearing.  Or maybe it’s because of the guilt a religious upbringing so generously left with me.  After all these years the old cliches are coming back to life.


Holiday Complex

Now that we’re in the midst of a complex of Judeo-Christian holidays (Passover, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, as well as other spring rites), I’ve been thinking of obligations.  I’ve had people introduce themselves to me as “Chri-easters.”  This isn’t a new form of religion, but rather a way of indicating that they attend services on Christmas and Easter only.  For others of us it’s never been so easy.  I was raised with the stern belief that Sundays in church were a matter of absolute obligation.  Serious illness was the only reason to miss.  If you were traveling (which was rare for us, being not terribly affluent), you found a local church to attend.  Never mind that you’ll look like strangers and won’t know how it’s done (unless you’re in one of the “liturgical” denominations, where variations are minimal).  Every Sunday was an obligation.

The minister at our church has been offering virtual holy week services.  The idea haunts me.  You see, back in Nashotah House days the sternness of days of obligation was palpable.  Yes, you had to attend chapel twice daily, but there were still days of obligation.  At this time of year we’d have had long rehearsals already for “the Great Three Days.”  Forsaking family and fellowship, we’d be forced to be together for long hours while the dreary events of two millennia ago were replayed.  Of course they were reinterpreted as well.  Made more Episcopalian—even a crucifixion should be done properly and in good order.  Knowing they had to get to their own churches on Sunday, students were kept up until about two a.m. for the Great Vigil and First Mass of Easter.  Obligation, not love, drove all this.

Coronavirus has us separated, of course.  Some of us are daily seeking coping techniques to help us get through a crisis that throws off schedules and sets new priorities.  To have someone suggest in the midst of all this that we could “come to church” (virtually) transports me to those fearful days of obligation.  As a teen I sought them out.  I’d ask to be driven to a different town on Good Friday so that I could spend it in church, hoping to be in connection with the tragic events.  I’d curse the sunshine when I stepped back out after three p.m., if it was shining.  This was supposed to be a dark and dreary day.  Nature, however, had its own ideas.  Spring was in full swing.  It was time to be thinking about life, not death.