Tag Archives: New Jersey

Guns and Ghosts

The irony of a nation that has gun laws made by those with body guards is especially cruel in the shadow of Sutherland Springs. Just a month after the worst mass shooting in United States history, another cohort of corpses receives only empty answers from DC. The solution to all the shooting deaths, 45 asserts, is more guns. This from the same White House that can find no credible alternative explanations for global warming, yet continues to break down any emissions barriers it can. The real noxious emissions are coming from the greedy mouths of the chicks in the feathered GOP nest. What is the word for what lies beyond insanity? We need it now.

Like many thinking people I’m very pleased with the results of the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. It seems, temporarily, as if reason has found its voice. The mistake at this point would be to relax and feel as if the job were done. We have raving lunacy at the national level, gun violence out of control, and politicians who just can’t live without NRA blood money. The story of Sarah Winchester’s ghosts may not be true, but it doesn’t have to be. We have a nation full of ghosts. Barely elected candidates claim a mandate to destroy the infrastructure that has allowed them to become rich. The wealthy, you’ll notice, are those who want to take all the marbles and go home. And they live in houses with guards to protect them from all the firearms they’re handing out like candy on Halloween.

Stop and think about this. The White House admits that climate change is human caused. The conclusions are quite dire for those who own property in New York City, let alone entire nations that will be underwater in a few years’ time. The response? Ignore the facts. Boast a bit more about how great we are. Give tax cuts to the wealthy and guns to the poor. Why doesn’t this equation add up? Pardon my jeremiad on what is the first hopeful morning a reasonable person has had in a long time. We have to start taking back local politics and let the national government know that it no longer speaks for the people that somewhat giddily gave it power just a year ago. Otherwise there are bound to be many more ghosts about. And one thing we know for certain, Washington doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Not Devil’s Tower

The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.

The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.

“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.

Surface Tension

Montclair, New Jersey, is distinguished by having two bookstores. On Saturdays when my wife has to work there, I sometimes come along. Apart from the pleasant company, it isn’t every day that one can visit two bookstores. By supporting such shops, I am protesting the ignorance rampant in this nation. One, the Montclair Book Center, specializes in used books. Not always competitively priced, I nevertheless seldom leave empty-handed. It’s a healthy walk from there to Watchung Booksellers, a compact indie up by the train station. For a small store they always have an intriguing selection and I’ve never seen it empty on a Saturday. As I was walking the distance between the two, I noticed that Montclair’s downtown (and I’m not picking on Montclair, which I love) focuses on appearances. This is true of almost all shopping malls as well. Salons, clothing stores, eating places, tattoo parlors, health clubs. Places you go to help hone your image. Where are the stores catering to the mind?

Don’t get me wrong, I also have a body. I like to keep healthy too. I jog when I can, and I’m a vegetarian of nearly twenty years. Yes, there are the necessary places like drug stores and specialty shops where you can get your vacuum cleaner repaired, but few places to go explicitly to encourage mental growth. Hot, I stopped into a coffee shop for a bottle of juice. Patrons were busy at their phones and laptops. I recalled how there was a time when intellectuals hung out and conversed in coffee shops, exchanging ideas over mugs long grown cold. Even those sitting outside on the sociable, colorful chairs were busy texting, Instagramming, or tweeting away their weekends. I closed my book and walked on. I felt a vague but pressing need for intellectual engagement. I headed to the second bookstore.

On the way home one of those industrial-sized lawn-care vendors cut us off on the highway. Lawn-care is big business around here. It’s all about appearances. What has happened to the life of the mind? Allow me my curmudgeonly years—I recall walking downtown as a child and seeing the office supply store with actual paper, smoke-shops with their abundant magazines and wire spinner racks full of questionable paperbacks, and even the Christian bookstore with its tracts and Bibles. I didn’t have the benefit of living in a university town, but people I saw were talking to one another. Exchanging ideas with someone actually present. Self-consciously I look down. I’ve had these cargo pants for many years. This shirt I’m wearing I purchased in Wisconsin in another decade. Even these shoes haven’t been replaced after all these miles. This hat on my head is almost older than my college-graduate child. I can’t be bothered with my appearance right now, though, because there’s another bookstore just ahead.

Fishers of Cars

The car was drunkenly weaving across lanes in substantial traffic along Interstate 80. Erratic driving that, although not breathalyzer confirmed, suggested impaired operating. It’s something you never like to see. We stayed behind the vehicle, knowing that it was safer to keep such a car in view rather than attempting to overtake it when the driver veered into the left lane. Since the same muted colors recur on vehicles these days, we needed a quick way to identify this driver at a glance. The Jesus fish on the rear served the purpose well. This situation struck me as a kind of parable, although it really did happen. One of my brothers is a driver by profession. He often tells me that if someone cuts him off in heavy New Jersey traffic, more often than not the car bears a Jesus fish. WWFD?

The ostensible purpose of the Jesus fish is to witness to the world “here is what a true Christian does.” While the New Testament, if I recall, indicates that the true believer puts others before him or herself, the rule of the road is somewhat less spiritual than that. None of us are saints when we get behind the wheel. We’ve got places to go and the drive isn’t really much fun with thousands of other cars bunging things up constantly. Still, if you take the extra effort to put that Jesus fish on your car, aren’t you signaling that this driver holds her or himself to a higher standard? Or maybe the fish is a talisman, like “Baby on Board,” that will somehow protect from the careless, aggressive driver thinking only of self.

The irony here is not that the driver is making poor, or aggressive decisions behind the wheel—let the one without sin cast the first stone—but rather that s/he implicates Jesus in the act. There’s a ready, steady market in evangelical paraphernalia. The WWJD bracelet keeps the question within sight much of the time—but keep your eyes on the road! One of the main problems with the Ichthys symbol is that it is generally on the rump of your car. Out of sight, out of mind. As you finish that last drink before climbing in behind the wheel, the fact that your personal Lord and Savior is being announced to the world may just slip your sodden mind momentarily. The real question is whether a car is the best place to announce your religious commitments. It was the the man in front of the fish, after all, who said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Except in heavy traffic, of course.

Weather Vain

The other day I was awakened by a severe thunderstorm. It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Unlike when we lived in the Midwest, thunderstorms in New Jersey tend to be widely scattered and somewhat uncommon. (It’s all a matter of perspective, I know.) My basis of comparison is how often I notice such storms. I’ve never been able to sleep through one. Thankfully this one came at around 4:30 a.m., past when I’m usually awake on a weekend. I’d forgotten the raw power of just how loud and bright such a storm can be. Danger seems all around. The feeling is primal and urgent. As I got out of bed and walked into the dark kitchen, windows filled with electric blue followed by and tremendous blast, I thought once again of Weathering the Psalms and the story behind it.

By the way, when I speak to young scholars about publishing I tell them this isn’t the way to go about finding a topic. That having been said, my book was born in the Midwest. Life at Nashotah House revolves around required chapel twice daily. Weather does not stop it. In fact, holding the daily office by candlelight because a storm had knocked out the power was not uncommon. Morning and evening prayer—indeed, all of the canonical offices—are built around the recitation of the Psalms. Reading the Psalter in slow, stately tones while thunder raged outside, rattling the ill-fitting stained-glass windows, left an indelible impression. It was only natural in such circumstances to notice how often the Psalms mention the weather. Thus a book was born.

I’m currently at work on a new book. I can’t say the topic just yet because someone might be able to beat me to it. (Knowing the way I come up with book ideas, however, I doubt it.) Sitting in my darkened living room, in my writing chair with the fury just outside, I was strangely inspired by the storm. Then it was over. Silence followed by birds singing, just like in Beethoven’s sixth symphony. The thunderstorm is one of nature’s psalms. As at Nashotah House, in the Midwest we had perhaps too many of that particular kind of psalm. Nevertheless, in the silence that followed I was left strongly in touch with my muse. These are the states that lead to poetry and song. Every great once in a while they might even lead to a book idea. As I tell students, just don’t expect that anyone else will get it.

The Big Chill

It’s cold. It may not be Alaska, or even Wisconsin, but I can’t feel my fingers and the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day. New Jersey doesn’t get the incredible chills we used to experience in Wisconsin, but I’ve been outside going on two hours and I really need some warmth. And it’s not just me. At least a couple hundred of us are out here and it’s not for the Super Bowl. It’s for justice. We’re rallying at the beautiful courthouse of Somerset County, in solidarity with our Muslim Americans, protesting the latest actions of our own government. Some of the people here are old enough to remember Hitler. Others are young enough that they have to be held. We are from countries all over the world. We are saying “No!” to the evil that is coming out of Washington.

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Those who voted for Trump out of a sense of fiscal conservatism were sorely misguided. This was a hostile takeover of what used to be a democracy by people who rely daily on alternative facts. Who make up massacres that never happened. Who claim that their personal billions have made them victims. Who believe that men have a God-given right to determine what women can do with their bodies. Who state that men who aren’t attracted to women or women to men are somehow deviant. Who openly mock the disabled. Who resist Black Lives Matter. Who can’t tell you one of the five pillars of Islam but can tell you that they’re all wrong. A government that’s over the people, despite the people, and against the people. Self-serving, self-enriching, and self-satisfied. A government where party has become more important than the welfare of the nation. A government that lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and those were only the ones who bothered to get out to vote. A government that lays its hand on the Bible and lies. That prays for itself, not for the good of its people.

That’s why I’m out here in the cold. I’m standing in a crowd that, like those who gather at airports, courthouses, and city streets, is saying “Enough!” The abuse of power is taking advantage of what you can “legally” claim without regard for the will of those you represent. Representative government fails when it fails to represent the people. We don’t want to be out here freezing our fingers, noses, and toes. We’d rather be comfortable and warm at home. As chilly as it may be in New Jersey tonight, it’s colder in the heart of this country and unless we the people do something, Hell itself is in real danger of freezing over.

Giving Trees

They’re not exactly worshipping the tree, but the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church is holding a memorial service for the old oak tree. I’ve written about the Basking Ridge oak before. I learned about it only in January, and I visited it this summer. Some say it’s the oldest tree in the state, while others make that claim for the Great Swamp oak, which isn’t too far away. The climate change we’ve introduced, as well as natural aging, appear to have doomed the tree. It had leaves this summer, but not in the profusion that signals health to botanists. The decision has been made to take the tree down before any massive branches fall and cause injury or damage. In the light of these sad developments, holding a service seems perfectly natural. The tree is older than the church over which it presides, after all. It’s even older than John Calvin who started the Presbyterian tradition.

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My first book was on Asherah, the goddess often associated with trees by scholars. As those who’ve read my book will know, I’m a bit skeptical, on the basis of the actual evidence, that Asherah was a “tree goddess,” but it is also clear that trees are ancient objects of veneration. From the human perspective, they can live a very long time. There is a bristlecone pine in this country that dates back to before Noah’s flood (something the creationists conveniently ignore). With that much life-force, which, we’re told, is really a fiction, these trees deserve special respect. After all, they were in the neighborhood long before we got here. Still, the Basking Ridge oak has been artificially preserved before. It’s been on life support for years. Concrete was poured to support the massive trunk, and many ponderous branches are shored up by support rods. We respect our elders.

Maybe it’s not tree worship. Maybe it’s worship beside a tree instead of worship of a tree. Prepositions can make all of the difference. Nevertheless, it’s an occasion to stop and consider our place on the planet. The fear many of us feel regarding this week’s election is a mere second in arboreal memory. The independence of this country came after the oak had been here centuries already. It may not be tree worship, but we should respect the memories of such a tree. A country young and optimistic rather than old and jaded. Maybe this tree knows a secret that it’s willing to bequeath to those of us whose lives are but a few leafing seasons in length. Good-bye, Basking Ridge Oak. It was a pleasure to meet you.