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.

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.

Green Dilemma

It’s a dilemma.  I face it every year.  I don’t have green to wear and it’s St. Patrick’s Day.  For your average run-of-the-mill citizen, this might not be an issue—but I do have an Irish heritage (in part), and so it’s a heartfelt concern.  The reason I don’t have green has less to do with fashion (consider the source!) than with my clothing purchasing practices.  First of all, I like to make my clothes last.  Fabrics can be quite durable.  They aren’t mechanical and therefore don’t break down often.  I don’t live a rough-and-tumble life, so tears aren’t really a problem.  The end result is that I keep my clothes as long as they’re functional.  When they begin to wear out I go to the store and examine the clearance racks until I find something in my size.  That means color selection is often a matter of very limited options.

Once in a great while I have landed something green.  I still remember a green shirt I had in college.  It served me well for more than four St. Patrick’s Days.  It long ago succumbed to overuse, however, because I wore it on other days as well.  And let’s face it, when I make one of those infrequent trips to the clothiers’ shops, this particular holiday’s not on my mind.  Unless, of course, I go shopping in March.  Back when I lived in Boston it was easy to get your Irish on.  I bought a bright green silky (I don’t know if it was real silk) tie with white shamrocks on it.  It was probably down at Faneuil Hall.  It had been a bit outlandish to wear to work in New York City, though.  Indeed, at work staid dress was by far the most common code.  Consequently it hung unused in my closet for years.

When we moved a couple summers back, I noticed my green tie had faded to bronze.  I thought it went the other way around.  In any case, my last truly green clothing article was no longer green.  Yes, it still has shamrocks, but I’d feel even more ridiculous trying to rock a bronze tie and pass myself off as Irish.  It won’t even pass for gold.  Of course, I work from home.  I’ve practiced social distancing long before it was a trend or a government mandate, whichever it is.  The only people to see my lack of green would be my wife and daughter, and perhaps a Jehovah’s Witnesses that might stop by.  But still, even minor celebrations are anticipated at times such as this.  Although I won’t be going out today I’ll probably be spending some time in my closet and reflecting on the true heritage of my Irish forebears.

Perhaps St. Pat shops like I do?

Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

Early Light

There are times when the Internet’s asleep.  Okay, well, so maybe that’s overstated, but if you have my hours you’ll quickly find the things you can’t do online well before 9 a.m.  For example, just the other day I wanted to check out one of my accounts that I only vaguely understand.  It’s with a company my employer contracts with, and it has an innocuous name that tells you nothing about what it really does.  Still, I had to check in.  After looking up the password, and going through the usual 18-step confirmation of my identity (it didn’t recognize my laptop), I landed on a page stating that it was the routine maintenance period for the website, and would I be so kind as to check back in later.  This is not an isolated incident.  In fact, I often awake around 3 a.m. to find that my laptop’s also doing routine maintenance, although I’m using it nearly every day at that time.  Smart tech, indeed.

You see, the ultra-early riser has a different view of time than the rest of the world.  After about 4 p.m. I don’t have the sharpness that was evident twelve hours before.  Oh, I can still function, but it’s on auxiliary power.  No warp drive that late in the day.  I realize I’m the weird one here.  After visiting friends and family and staying up to the obscenely late hour of 10 p.m., I’ll take an entire week to get back on track with days passing in a fuzzy haze of timely confusion.  I’ve been trying to break the habit for over a year now, but I still occasionally have to go into New York City, and those days require ultra-early awakening.  Knowing such a day is coming up, my body doesn’t want to be vulnerable to that shift.  So I wake up naturally when many others are just getting to bed.

This is mid-day for some of us.

The problem with this is that if you have to get some business done before work hours, many websites are undergoing their maintenance.  They don’t want to be interrupted when I’m actually alert.  There’s a lot of talk about diversity these days, but the person trapped in the early rising net is not a protected category.  It is frustrating to have people say “why don’t you just go back to sleep?” when you can’t.  I’ve gotten used to all that.  The early bird, they say, gets the worm.  That depends, however, whether the worm is on the Internet or not because, believe it or not, the Internet slumbers in the middle of the night.

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Whose Bus? Omnibus!

The long-distant commute is an extended social experiment.  Although some of the people on the bus know each other—from overheard conversations while in line it’s clear that many of these commuters go to New York daily—they want to sit alone.  The idea behind a bus, short for omnibus (Latin, “for all”), is essential equality.  When I commuted daily from central New Jersey, I was a passenger from the originating city on the route.  By the time New Jersey Transit buses got to New York it was rare for a seat to be empty.  Now I take TransBridge, a bus line that operates out of Bethlehem.  The buses are much nicer, but I’m no longer from the originating town.  By the time the bus arrives at 4:30 a.m., it’s already half-full.  (Half-empty if you’re an optimist.)  That’s not a problem, of course, but the way people claim territory is.

Typically those who get on at the initial stop sit in the aisle seat, place their bag in the window seat, and do their best to fall asleep before reaching my stop, which is only 15 minutes away.  When you go to get on, in other words, there are almost no seats and the happy, dreaming commuter knows you don’t want to wake him or her to get them to move their bag and let you in.  Like most people I’d like to have two seats to myself—who wouldn’t?  But the fact is the bus will be full and these people who do this every day should know that.  But still they try to block others out.  As a social experiment, it is worth some consideration.  If you put your bag in the aisle seat it’s easier to accommodate the person who’ll inevitably sit next to you.  But this is Trump’s America—everyone for himself.

I’m a fairly quiet person, and I don’t want to disturb anyone’s slumber.  Many people not only sprawl out like they’re in bed at home, but they wear dark glasses and headphones so that you have to nudge them to get their attention.  Then they act as if you’ve insulted them.  Or they’re doing you a favor by letting you sit in “their” seat.  I suspect the fact is that none of us wants to have to go so far to work.  And I know that sitting next to a stranger can be less than ideal.  When I buy my ticket, however, I know that I’m opting for an omnibus, and those who do so should be clear on the concept before handing over their money.  Or maybe I’m just dreaming.

 

Night of the Living

The New Yorker view of the world, so the joke goes, sees the five boroughs in great details, then a very thin New Jersey across the Hudson with a vague California somewhere out west.  Having worked in New York City for nearly a decade now, I know that such a view is exaggerated, but has a small glimmer of the truth.  We can only pay attention to so much and things are constantly coming at you in Gotham.  I sometimes forget, now that I’m in Pennsylvania again, just how diverse my home state is.  I’m not from old Pennsylvania stock—neither of my parents were born here and neither of my mother’s parents were born in the same state she was.  Still, when you’re born in a place it’s natural to feel that’s where you belong.  You inherit the outlook.  I inherited Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a bit unusual in being a commonwealth divided in two by a mountain range.  Laid out with an horizontal orientation, it’s about 280 miles across, and once you’re over the Appalachians, you’re into a different subculture.  On our way into Pittsburgh, signs for Evans City reminded me that among its many contributions to American culture, the Steel City also gave us zombies.  Now from a history of religions point of view, zombies came from Caribbean religions that fused indigenous African beliefs with Catholicism.  A religion that arose among people commodified as slaves.  A zombie was a body with no will.  It took George Romero, living in Pittsburgh, to give us the movie zombie with The Night of the Living Dead.  Pittsburgh, among some, is glad to claim the title of zombie capital of the world.  Its zombie walk is a thing of legend.

Ironically, the western end of the state, beyond the mountains, tends to be more conservative than the side closer to the seaboard.  (Pennsylvania is the only of the original thirteen colonies not to have direct Atlantic Ocean water frontage.)  Yet it has adopted the most egalitarian of monsters—the living dead.  Romero tapped into the universal fear of unsettled death to make what were later to appear as “zombies” the unnamed monsters of his most famous film.  Everyone has to die, and no matter our religious outlook (or lack thereof) the question of what comes after is asked on both sides of the Appalachians.  And even by those across the Hudson in New York City.  There may be even something between the two.

Truth Is Marching On

A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.  They begin thinking collectively.  We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.  Maybe we’re afraid to.  Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.  Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worries  about getting home provided a convenient excuse.  My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.  You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”  The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.  Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.  And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.

Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.  Scientists know this happens in nature.  Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.  Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.  If only we could teach Republicans to do that.  In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.  The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.

Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.  The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.  It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.  Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.  We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.  There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.  Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.  I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory.  Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.

Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.

Not so New

I remember it clearly.  The ubiquity of technology robs me of the memory of how I knew about it, but there was plenty of pre-internet buzz.  A new Bible translation was being published and people were very excited.  Including me.  By the time the New International Version (NIV) was set to appear, I had read every translation of the Good Book I knew, cover-to-cover.  Being a good evangelical, I started with the King James.  I’d read it a time or two, then moved on to the Revised Standard Version.  As you might guess, with my interests I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I do recall people complaining that it wasn’t literal enough.  I’d read the Living Bible, and the Good News Bible.  My favorite was probably the New American Standard Bible, though, because it was as close to languages I then didn’t know as I could get.

We didn’t have much money in my family, and since my summer jobs covered the cost of my school clothes, disposable income was fairly rare.  But then a miracle.  Christmas morning I opened my “big gift”—a brand new NIV.  In a way that is somehow difficult to recapture these days, I was absurdly happy getting a new Bible.  I started reading it right away.  Little did I know it would become the best-selling modern English translation of all time.  And that’s saying something—Bibles are big business.  The reason for the NIV’s appeal was that it was Evangelical-friendly.  No awkward issues like inclusive language, and, to be honest, a nicely rendered English.

Being in the Bibles business I decided to read about who was behind the NIV and found an unexpected connection with Rutgers University, where I used to teach.  The owner of the NIV translation is Biblica.  Biblica is the name of the International Bible Society, initially founded in 1809 as the New York Bible Society.  In a way that’s hard to imagine in today’s New York City, that’s where the group formed.  One of its founders?  Henry Rutgers.  Eventually the New York Bible Society became international, and like many good evangelicals, moved to Colorado Springs.  The money from continuing sales of the NIV must contribute to their somewhat posh-looking campus.  Meanwhile, Rutgers University has moved in quite a different direction.

Connections like this have always fascinated me.  Although much detritus has flowed under the bridge with all that water, I can still feel that brief, sharp release of endorphins when I pick up my well-used NIV.  I think of days of naive faith and all that has come after.  Yes, Bibles are big business, and yet somehow so very small.

Museum Monsters

Timing has never been my strong suit.  As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.”  To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters.  Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking.  Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation.  Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion.  Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time.  We’ll take whatever validation we can get.

Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters.  Even the Bible, after all, has them.  They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world.  A world of hurricanes and Trump.  A world lacking compassion and sense.  Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands.  Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless.  Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close.  Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving?  When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world.  Monsters have their practical uses indeed.

If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing.  Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house.  Moving is chaos embodied.  Like monsters, it’s best left to the young.  It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town.  I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty.  Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful.  Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone.  Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums.  They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever.  It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily.  If you happen to miss it, don’t worry.  It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.

Museum Haven

At various points of my career I’ve applied for museum curator positions.  Since those who actually land those jobs have degrees in museum studies, I’ve never gotten as far as an interview.  Still, I like to think I’d be good at it.  I spend time in museums and I’ve been told I have an okay eye for design.  And I recently read that museums are educational institutions.  That makes sense since people tend to be visual learners.  (This is something I took into account in my classes as well, illustrating lectures to make a point.  The traditional academic feels that pictures are somehow “soft” learning as opposed to the harsh realities of text and word-based instruction, but I beg to differ.)  We see things and they stick with us.

On a visit to the New York Historical Society museum I once looked at their somewhat abbreviated sculpture collection.  This isn’t the Met, after all.  One of the tricks I’ve learned about museum displays is that some curators place subtle humor in their framing of objects.  For example, my gaze was drawn to a figure of a pilgrim.  A stern-looking fellow, he’s captured in full stride, massive Bible tucked under his arm, determined frown on his face.  This is a man trying to create Heaven on earth, dour though it may be.  Taking a step back, my camera found a smile in this image.  On either side of this angry Christian were two naked women: one was apparently Artemis with her bow, the other perhaps a Muse.  The lines of the display draw attention to this juxtaposition.  There’s some humor here, intentional or not.

This also takes me back to yesterday’s post about Heaven.  Perceptions of what it is differ.  There’s a mindset like the pilgrim that sees a life of suffering being rewarded in the hereafter with endless bliss.  I do have to wonder whether too much hardship down here might not make one forget how to enjoy oneself.   It’s difficult to picture a Puritan in rapture.  It’s as if the journey—the hard road—is the real source of enjoyment here.  Each of us, I suppose, has her or his own view of Heaven.  Mine’s kind of like a library with all the time in the world without end to read.  Others, I suspect, would find paradise as a garden.  Yet others would see Heaven as a kind of museum, but it would be one where laughing out loud was okay, for the Curator definitely has a sense of humor.

Slow to Travel

A family friend recently died.  I was in New York City when I received the news, and I mused how recent a phenomenon this speed of information is.  The news wasn’t necessarily a shock—this friend had been experiencing failing health, he was a close friend of my grandfather—but for some reason Samuel F. B. Morse came to mind.  The story goes that Morse invented the telegraph because of his experience of being away from home when his wife died.  By the time he received the news and was able to get home by the conveyance of the day, she’s already been buried.  He set his inventive mind to improving the speed of communication over a distance.  In these days of receiving texts mere seconds after something momentous happens, it’s difficult to imagine that for the vast majority of human existence, personal news traveled slowly.

Feeling in a reflective mood I recalled how when I was in college I wrote letters home.  Yes, the telephone existed by then—don’t be so cynical!—but long distance bore a cost and college students find ways to save their money for girlfriends or spending a weekend in Pittsburgh.  News traveled more slowly.  Back before Morse, the swiftest option was the letter.  The death of a friend might take days or weeks to reach those close.  Distance in time, as well as space, may not have lessened the shock, but the immediacy of a text wasn’t there.  The death had occurred days or weeks ago.  There was nothing left to do but grieve and get on with life.  Like Samuel Morse—perhaps the only point of comparison between us—I was unable to get away immediately.  New York City isn’t easy to escape quickly.

We move swiftly and slowly at the same time.  I know news moments from the event, but this physical mass I inhabit is sluggish takes some time to get around.  Manhattan’s an island, and although it’s not Styx we’re crossing, the Hudson creates barriers enough.  Now my journey includes crossing the entire state of New Jersey before I can even reach home.  Were I to drive back to my original home, it would add another five hours at least in the car.  Sometimes I wonder if the immediacy of knowing is a blessing or a curse.  The shock is immediate and visceral.  But like an injection, the sharpness is quickly over and the dull ache sets in.  Our family friend had been suffering for some time.  Now he’s at peace.  I like to think he’s with my granddad, and that the two of them together won’t judge me too harshly for moving so slowly.