Tag Archives: New York

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

A Glimpse at the Future

Last month one of the three remaining Shakers died. In this era of religion unawareness, not many Americans, I expect, could identify this dying religion. The Shakers aren’t the Quakers—we like to give religions we don’t understand pejorative monikers—they are a group that grew out of the Friends but that had important differences. Shakers believe, especially, in celibacy. It had to grow through conversion since Shakers could not reproduce biologically. At their height there were about 6000 of them—the number of Twitter followers of a fairly successful humanities professor, I suspect. They were hard-working and their brand of furniture endures beyond the life of the sect. The official count of Shakers worldwide now stands at two.

This little bit of news saddened me. Not that I’ve ever been tempted to join the Shakers—it would be a bit of a stretch for a family man—but I’ve always admired countercultural groups. Like many religious sects of the late eighteenth century, the Shakers were millenarians. That is, they believed in the imminent second coming of Christ. Given this belief, biological reproduction wasn’t really necessary. In fact, it was counter-productive. Like so many of the slumberers of the Great Awakening, the Shakers eventually settled in upstate New York. Since their lifestyle was different, they had to form their own communities. The last community is in Maine. When the last two Shakers go to their reward, barring a miracle, the denomination will be extinct.

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The Shakers were distinctive for yet another reason as well. They were open to, and often defined by, female leadership. This might be expected in a world where men have difficulty controlling themselves in mixed company. Catholic monasteries locked men in without women. To agree to live in a mixed gendered community but without mixed gendered relations took a dose of will power that borders on the saintly. The Shakers won’t be the only religion to have gone extinct, when that happens. Religions, like organisms, grow, thrive, and die. This little group had a disproportionate impact on society. Those who watched Michael Flatley throwing his body across the stage to the haunting joyfulness of the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” likely had no idea that the world owed one of its most beautiful melodies to a group of people living celibate lives in the woods of Maine. The Shakers’ unique contributions to the weird and wonderful world of religion will be missed by at least one.

Alas, Binghamton

“Store Closing” the signs veritably shout. “Everything Must Go.” It’s something I hate to see in an economically depressed town. The tragedy is redoubled when it’s an independent bookstore. While undergoing the ritual of returning our daughter to college after the holiday break, we were driving through Binghamton, appropriately enough, at twilight. In that first, lonely freshman year we’d discovered River Read books in downtown. Like many indies, it was small. Intimate even. I never walked out, however, without some treasure that I wouldn’t have found in a larger store. River Read eventually became an irregular habit based on parents’ weekends and academic breaks, and I’ve come to depend on it after a long drive across three state lines. Once again, however, the lack of concern regarding reading takes another victim.

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In the ancient world there was a poetic genre scholars now call the lament for a fallen city. I’m that way about bookstores. Amazon has proven wonderfully capable of getting things to me quickly. Obscure tomes, sometimes. Since our nearest independent is a 25-minute drive, this is often a necessity—I can spare 25 minutes only on a weekend, and then, only select ones. Ironically, just on the way to Binghamton we stopped at the Bookworm in Bernardsville, New Jersey. We try to help them survive. My mind goes back to fond occasions outside the home and how often they involve bookstores. Finding a new one. Returning to one already well loved. Even, back in the day, Borders. In a pique of nostalgia I starting searching the web pages of past favorites. Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Farley’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Pages for All Ages in Savoy, Illinois. Ah, alas, the latter has also closed its doors forever. The store I’d visit after a long commute to Nashotah House and back, looking for something I really want to read.

The neon after dark is like an alien invader in my car. River Read is closing. The liquor stores and “gentlemen’s clubs” seem to be fine. The cars up here sure weave around on the road a lot after 9 p.m. on a Saturday. It’s not just here, I’m sure. I’m seldom out this late any more. Perhaps, even likely, this has been a long time coming. Civilization unable to support its foundation. Literacy, after all, spread the common ideals we used to share. Presidents united us and we were eager to read and every town wore its own bookstore like a badge of honor. I’ve seen the signs and I lament the fall of yet another fondly recalled city.

Personal Heroes

I’m not inclined toward hero worship. Sometimes I think it must be a personality flaw on my part. The cult of celebrity is so pervasive that I feel desperately behind the times when I read what web-savvy authors write. Or maybe the truth is that my heroes live closer to home. Or lived. I grew up in a small town as the child of a working-class couple, both of whose sets of parents were not educated beyond high school. We were simple folk. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have elaborate demands. My mother put up with an alcoholic and then absentee father, raising three children largely on her own for the better part of a decade. (She eventually remarried and the three became four, but I want to focus on the early part of the story today.) She had a rough life. Her hero, not surprising for an only girl with four brothers, was her father. Her admiration for him, whether genetic or via learning, passed on to me. I can’t claim to remember him since my grandfather died just before I turned two and just before he turned 75. As I grew up, however, he became my hero.

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Today would have been his birthday, and I’m thinking about Homer Sitterley, my hero. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York and tried to better his circumstances. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse, which you could do in those days without a college degree. He also met my grandmother in that schoolhouse, which you could also do in those days. He had to change careers and became a civil engineer—still with no degree. He started and supported a family of five and moved around the country trying to keep his spouse happy. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s they moved from Virginia to Montana and back to the east, eventually settling in New Jersey, where my mother was born. They finally moved to Pennsylvania where my three brothers and I were born. He died there in August of 1964.

Homer Sitterley may have never worn a cape like one of his silly grandsons did in college. He didn’t have any super powers beyond the strong will to survive in a hostile and thankless world. He never grew rich despite hard work and few outside his family knew his name. He is a hero nevertheless. His kids were upstanding people: religious, polite, and kind. Their children—my many cousins—are good people. In a world where superheroes are shown increasingly as flawed, the real heroes are simply human. And my personal hero, although he never knew he was—and is—was a man who cared for his family to the very end. He was only human. And all the more heroic for being so.

Holy Girdles

Religions, it seems, come in belts. Or at least elements of religions do. Although we may not all agree on what constitutes the “Bible Belt” we all have a pretty good idea that it includes several southern states, and parts of the Midwest. It doesn’t really resemble a belt that I can tell, but its convenience and assonance keep the phrase alive. Over this past weekend I was in the “Borscht Belt.” I’d heard the term before, but had no idea where this supposed belt was, or, indeed, why it was called this. Historically, three counties in the southern Catskills, so I learned, were attractive locations for summer homes for Jewish families from New York City. All within a easy day’s drive of Gotham, they provided the low mountain, resort feel of much of New York State and Pennsylvania. According to Wikipedia (surprisingly, I had no books on the Borscht Belt in my library) this designation is less descriptive now than it had been, back in the day.

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One of the immediately obvious features of the region, at least as recently as last weekend, were the number of orthodox Jews walking beside the roadways throughout these counties. I’m using “orthodox” here not as a technical term since I have difficulty identifying the different brands of conservative Jewish belief (there I go again!). Another obvious indicator was the number of billboards written in Hebrew. Just a hundred miles down the road west and these markers tend to disappear. By the time you reach the central part of “the southern tier” you come back to what was once called “the Burnt Over District” from the “Second Great Awakening.” Distinctively Christian in orientation. Religion is endemic in these hills.

The internet tells me that the Borscht Belt began to unbuckle with the relative ease of air travel. I have many Jewish colleagues who pop over to Israel on a fairly frequent basis. I suppose the Catskills just don’t compare with the Holy Land. Further south, along this same rocky spine, you come to the Poconos. I grew up hearing about this vacation paradise in my own state, but, like the Catskills, the region has been largely abandoned for higher mountains, bigger thrills. Having grown up in the foothills to the Appalachians, I learned in school that these are ancient mountains. Old ways are naturally preserved here. The religion I grew up in was old-time, for sure. There’s an agelessness to these weathered hills that seems to invite those with old religions to form enclaves and imagine that little has changed, despite what Wikipedia might say. And maybe it’s time to get a bigger belt, since conservative religion seems to be growing rather than shrinking.

Things Remembered

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Freedom. Independence Day is our celebration of liberty. Yesterday I happened to find myself at Bethel Woods, the out-of-the-way location in New York where Woodstock was held. Probably no one in 1969 realized just how formative Woodstock and its message of peace, love, and music would become for American culture. Those of us who came of age in the ‘70s learned about it as recent history (I was only seven at the time and, I’m sure, would’ve found the whole thing somewhat unChristian had I been here then). Much has changed in the intervening years. Not many peaceful events get so much airtime any more. Upwards of 400,000, basically unpoliced, youth, gathered in Bethel, New York, for three days of music, chaos, and peace. The Vietnam War was still draining our nation of its youth and murdering its idealism. Fear of the other, racial inequality, and male superiority were part of the context that led to the need for Woodstock. Freedom was free.

Often on this blog I reflect on the sacredness of place. Events that take place in a location leave their impression on the land. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the current administrators of the property, have left the field largely intact. As my wife and I stood at the top of the hill and tried to imagine almost half-a-million people here, it was strangely quiet. The nearby museum had plenty of music playing, but standing where it actually happened, there were only ghosts of an event studied in school and which, even today, kids can generally identify. I couldn’t have named every act that played the concert and, although the music was clearly important, it was the gathering that is most remembered. Self-governing youth getting along in an area so remote that still today you have to drive a couple miles to find even basic necessities, sent a powerful message. It was an event that, I fear, can never be replicated. The snake has spoken.

Nearing fifty years later, we’ve become so paranoid that anyone who looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion. Guns, which children of the sixties shunned, have proliferated and may now be carried, wild-west style, in many states. A fear-mongering candidate bellows fascism before the Grand Old Party. Remember, Nixon was president during Woodstock. I may have lived hundreds of miles from here, occupying myself with the matters that seven-year-olds find so pressing. But Woodstock happened. By the time I got to Woodstock, everybody else had gone. I see others milling about the museum, slightly older than me. Perhaps some of them were here for the event itself. We all seem to be searching for something here. The festival had its problems, for sure, but with a sincere belief in freedom, it makes the pre-seventies United States feel like a strangely foreign county. How do we get back to the garden?

Measuring Religion

How do you measure the religiosity of a people? While the boundaries of the United States are somewhat porous, internally, we nevertheless still consist of somewhat self-governing states. One measure of religious belief is to take your metrics by state. Of course, some people—perhaps many—owe their state of residence to their work and not their natural choice. You’re judged by the company you keep, regardless. So when the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a front page piece about religion in the Garden State last week, I was intrigued. I do spend quite a few of my waking hours in the neighboring New York, but for statistical purposes (and taxes and tuition) I’m considered a New Jerseyan. So what’s the damage?

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The story is actually about a Pew survey undertaken last year. New Jersey, it seems, ranks 19th from the top when it comes to religious states. Ranging from Alabama as the most religious to New Hampshire as the least, the measures of devotion are four: do you attend worship, do you pray frequently, do you believe in God, and do you profess yourself religious? Each of these questions provides its own set of problems when it comes to being an actual measure of someone’s commitment to religion. I maintain, as I often declare on this blog, that religion is one of those non-quantifiable aspects of life. It cannot be measured accurately because the tangibles are immeasurable. Deep commitment may be found among those who don’t frequently attend worship. What if your religion is a very private affair? And besides, doesn’t all of this measuring sound like a locker room contest?

As a nation, we spend a lot of time worrying about how religious we are or aren’t. Since such events as presidential elections have hinged on candidates’ piety since I’ve been old enough to vote, that’s understandable, I suppose. Nevertheless, such surveys are about surface belief. I recall in college being told that if your living space didn’t have enough evidence to convict you, you weren’t really religious at all. I know I’ve got quite a few Bibles laying around, and although we rent, we do have some religious artwork on our walls and mantle. I blog about religion daily. Still, I wonder where I might fall on some survey designed to tell me how religious I am. Such things can’t be measured with surveys, but in situations where the stakes are so high, we will do what we can to understand the imponderable.