It’s Thorpe, Jim

On a rainy fall day we found ourselves in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  We’d been through the touristy town before, but had never had any luck finding parking so getting out to explore was problematic.  Named after perhaps the greatest all-round athlete America has ever produced, the town bore the American Indian name of Mauch Chunk prior to the communal name change.  Once the greatest eastern vacation attraction after Niagara Falls, it’s now a town that caters to a regular stream of tourists and supports the small, boutique shops that thrive in such an environment.  Whenever I’m in a new place, I look for books.  Perhaps an illness, it is one I have no wish to cure.  Sellers Books is small but I didn’t walk out empty-handed.

A few yards later a sign at Emporium of Curious Goods caught my eye.  A store of mystical, magical whimsy, it had a posted note saying the owner had been friends with Ed and Lorraine Warren.  I hadn’t anticipated such a thing—we were here with friends and really just expecting to enjoy the quaint ambiance.  Being October, nearly every house and shop on Broad Street was decorated for Halloween, creating that frisson that only this time of year offers.  I stepped inside the shop and looked around.  I asked the owner how he’d met the Warrens.  He said that many years ago they’d lectured at East Stroudsburg University.  Introducing himself, he’d invited them over to his place and soon they became long-time friends.  They agreed to do a talk there in Jim Thorpe.

The brief conversation made me aware that as much as reading reveals, it never conveys the full story.  The store advertised having all the Warrens’ books.  I have all of them myself, but I had never seen all of them together in a single store before.  I wished I had something magical or mystical to buy to support the owner so willing to share information, but I had little time to look around with friends waiting outside, probably wondering what I was doing in such a place to begin with.  The Warrens are both deceased but their legacy lives on through the Conjuring movies.  More than that, in the lives they’ve influenced.  Yes, they may have been using their fame as a way of making living, but many celebrities do that.  It doesn’t mean they were any less sincere in attempting to help people with their ghosts and demons.  A rainy day in October reveals so much.


Festive Books

The Book and Puppet Company, a small independent bookstore in Easton, Pennsylvania is unique.  Other bookstores may have puppet shows and other forms of theater.  Others may have the obviously tasteful and intelligent selection of books.  Others offer items other than books.  Book and Puppet is unique in at least three ways.  First, and most (I promise) self-serving, it is the only bookstore in the world with Holy Horror on its shelves.  I know how it got there, which ties into the second unique feature—the Easton Book Festival.  The Easton Book Festival is the brainchild of the third unique element, the store’s owners—Andrew Laties and Rebecca Migdal.  

So let’s piece this all together.  The Easton Book Festival launched in 2019.  Being local to the event, I volunteered to present because Holy Horror had missed Halloween in 2018 when it came out, and it was still technically a front list book.  As with any event that wishes to grow, the Festival was extremely inclusive.  Despite its price point Andy had ordered copies to have on hand to sell.  He assigned me to a panel discussion and even gave me a time slot to talk about the book.  The event was one of the highlights of my true calling—being a writer of books.  Weathering the Psalms was less expensive but more technical.  Holy Horror is for a general readership, although the publisher sees it differently and prices it accordingly.  You have to start somewhere.  In any case,  it was part of a book festival that contains memories that still make me glow.

his year, like many events, the Easton Book Festival (October 16-24) is going hybrid.  As we start to regather, is there any better place to coalesce than around books?  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if that were true?  A recent visit to the shop led to a conversation that seems likely to result in a chance to plug Nightmares with the Bible, the more expensive sequel to Holy Horror.  Well into the writing of my next book, my attention has momentarily turned from demons to more human horrors.  Nevertheless, books are what my lifelong goal has always been.  I thought that I would be writing as a professor, but even editors can make some modest contributions, I hope.  Regardless, since much of the Festival will be online, it’s accessible from the comfort of your chair.  Why not tune in?   In any case, supporting your local bookstore will do nothing but improve society.


Seedy Delivery

Call it a weird indulgence, for that it surely is.  I’ve been slowly re-collecting childhood books—really what we call “tween books” these days, but there were no tweens back then.  Since these are out of print and somewhat difficult to find, I order them when I can afford to, and have been doing so for over a decade now.  The latest one shipped from Minnesota, via the US Postal Service.  Since these are not easily replaced, I follow the tracking.  The seller indicated a delivery date of September 16-18, only to send an early delivery notice when it was mailed.  Indeed, I’d ordered this on the 8th and by the 10th it was in Pittsburgh.  In case you’re not familiar with Pennsylvania geography, I’ve sketched a map.

Pittsburgh is about 6 hours away from where I live.  It was now scheduled for delivery on the 11th.  I had my doubts.  I awoke on the eleventh to find that it had overshot and was now in Baltimore.  Baltimore is only about two-and-a-half hours away, but still, the thought that it could reach the local post office and get out for delivery that same day seemed slim.  The next day was Sunday, so I figured maybe Monday.  Sure enough, on Saturday the 11th it had reached the dreaded Lehigh Valley Distribution Center, in Allentown.  Allentown is only ten miles from here, within actual walking distance.  The tracking site said it would be delayed.  On the 14th it had been shipped back to Pittsburgh (where it had been less than a week before), from there to Warrendale (which I had to look up on a map), and from there to Johnstown.  Barring another flood, it was due here on the 16th.  Of course, it may have to go through the horror-inducing Lehigh Valley Distribution Center again.

That same center had shipped a package to East Stroudsburg, over thirty miles away, just the week before and had sent a notice that it had reached its final destination.  I’m not one for squandering money, but I would gladly buy the Lehigh Valley Distribution Center a map.  They could look and see that Bethlehem is a mere 20-minute drive to the east.  That could prove useful information.  The package arrived the 15th.  The next day I received a status update alert that it was out for delivery and would arrive that day.  I’m a Post Office booster.  I believe the government should fund the postal service adequately and quit trying to win elections by cheating.  And maybe they could throw in a map while they’re at it.  I’ve got one they can have for free.


Friendly Food

The rain felt like relief after the most recent heat wave.  We’d long planned to attend the Easton VegFest regardless.  Summer is the season for street festivals and it’s always a strange kind of affirmation to find one dedicated to vegans.  And to see so many people at it.  The cities of the Lehigh Valley have quite a few animal-friendly options for eating, and although the VegFest isn’t huge it’s a good place to find others who realize that our food choices matter.  So it was that we came upon the booth for NoPigNeva.  Now, if you’ve ever tried to shop for vegan food—I know there must be a few of you out there—you know how catch-as-catch-can it is.  Around here lots of grocery stores carry vegan items, but what you’re looking for may not be there.  Even WholeFoods in Allentown has a limited selection.

NoPigNeva is a supply company run by black women.  It supports worthy causes.  And it makes finding what you’re looking for essentially one-stop.  I’m no businessman, but I do wonder why, when they keep selling out of vegan stock, stores don’t get their orders refilled right away.  It’s almost as if we don’t want to believe people will buy it.  Vegan food has come a long way even in just the last five years.  I know that when I became a vegetarian almost two decades ago now I felt there was no way to get enough to eat as a vegan.  Options seemed so limited.  That’s no longer the case.  I’m guessing the success of the Impossible Whopper caught everyone (except consumers) by surprise.  Even now, if you order one (hold the mayo, please) you’re pretty much guaranteed it won’t have been sitting on the warming shelf.

There’s big money in the food industry.  I’m not a foodie, although it’s become fashionable to be one.  I do, however, think about whether my food is causing harm.  There is, I realize, no way not to impact the environment or other living creatures when eating.  Lessening that impact, however, and supporting historically oppressed groups feels good.  There is a morality to mastication.  Most animals, it seems, have evolved a fear of being eaten.  Perhaps we’re only starting to understand that breaking chains might have to begin with us.  Any industry (big agriculture) that tries to make it illegal to see where your food comes from is hardly to be trusted.  I trust more those willing to come to a street fair on a rainy Saturday afternoon to show that there is a better way.


Scary States

You can usually tell, if you look close, when I’m on the trail of a new project.  This blog ranges fairly widely at times, but when lots of posts concentrate in a single area it’s likely something much larger is going on behind the scenes.  I’ve been writing quite a bit about horror lately.  Quite apart from the Republican Party, scary things are on my mind often.  I recently came across an article on KillTheCableBill that made me feel less weird.  It’s a story covering a survey showing the favorite horror movie per state.  Now, I won’t be able to fit all fifty into my usual daily word limit (wouldn’t want to arouse the word count police), so I’ll just add a few words about some of the interesting connections I noticed.  As in my books, if you see something, say something, right?

It’s kind of embarrassing that I haven’t seen the movie most often mentioned: The Devil’s Backbone.  I have to admit falling behind on my Guillermo del Toro movies.  I was surprised at the number of states’ favorites that I hadn’t seen.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately: if you have a full-time job which doesn’t include movie watching, it can be pretty difficult to make the time.  A number of classics don’t show up on the list, while some states have somewhat obvious favorites: Massachusetts’ Jaws, Colorado’s The Shining (it was filmed there), New Mexico’s Alien (think about it), and Maine’s The Lighthouse all fit into state self image in some way.  Horror preferences, in other words, may reflect who we are.  

A number of states, more conservative ones mostly, favor older films.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Pennsylvania’s favorite, I haven’t seen.  Like most aspects of my home state it’s a mix of things.  It comes from the early seventies, just as modern horror was getting started, but not too far into it.  Studies like this end up giving me homework.  When I can find the time I have a lot of viewing to do to catch up with my fellow Americans. I was surprised that The Exorcist isn’t on anybody’s list of favorites, not even Washington, DC’s.  It may be that films that are too real are too scary for many people.  Another finding, as noted in the article, is that the southeast states like horror the least.  I can’t help but wonder if things would be better, politically, if more people there watched horror and pondered the implications.  


It Happened on Epiphany

Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you spell treason?  It does begin with the letters “T-R-.”  The events of yesterday made it difficult to sleep securely in “the land of the free” as thugs took over the capitol building in Washington, and even after that Republicans still contested the electoral votes from Pennsylvania, preferring a treasonous president to a democratically elected Joe Biden.  As all of this was playing out, Georgia gave control of the senate to the Democratic Party.  Like many Americans born in a democracy, I stared at the news aghast yesterday as Republicans, fully in the public eye, tried to dismantle the very system by which they themselves were elected and even went so far as to claim they were patriots for doing so.  They draw the evil courage to do this from their “Christian” faith.

Yesterday was Epiphany, a Christian holiday.  To see Republicans—claiming the name Christian—attempting to overturn democracy on that very day was sickening.  To my mind it will live on like 9/11 as one of the most dangerous days in US history.  When asked to get the crowds that he personally incited to disperse, Trump released a video on Twitter telling his followers that the election was stolen and fraudulent but they should go home.  Pouring gasoline on a fire he himself lit, sending both houses of congress into hiding, his snakes-in-the-grass continued to support the myth that Trump hadn’t been defeated.  When the smoke clears this American thinks it’s time to dust off laws about treason and start applying them again.

Congressional leaders, and the president, swear to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible.  In the most closely watched election in history, with no evidence of fraud, when the loser wouldn’t concede his party backed him.  The Republican party has been infected with evil, I fear.  Even after seeing the turmoil that their posturing caused, they tried to discount the votes from my state just to keep a very dangerous man in power.  Our democracy didn’t die yesterday.  It died four years ago.  Claiming the name “Christian” without ever reading the Bible or attending church or caring about their fellow human beings, the Republican party has gone down in infamy on the feast of Epiphany.  The electoral vote count by congress is a mere formality, and I, a native and resident of Pennsylvania, am outraged that anyone claiming the power of a democratically elected office—disputing the very process that gave them any influence at all—questions my right to vote.  Why hasn’t treason been invoked?  Four years under the influence of the Evil One has shown its effects, and it happened on Epiphany.


Bookselling 101

My wife and I have sometimes toyed with the idea of running a mom and pop bookstore.  Our combined lack of business sense (and capital) have always prevented us, but dreams can be comforting and persistent.  I met Andrew Laties at his bookstore Book & Puppet Company in Easton.  His neighbor, a professional colleague, introduced us just as things were gearing up for the first Easton Book Festival, back in pre-Covid 2019.  It was a big event, and Andrew surprised me by remembering my name when we ran into each other at one of the many presentations held that weekend.  It was there that I picked up a copy of his acclaimed Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight for—From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities.  Although the subtitle is lengthy, it encapsulates what the book is about.

A true liberal, Laties is also a savvy businessman.  Rebel Bookseller is the one book you want to be sure to have on hand if you ever dream of starting an indie.  Independent bookstores stand for so much of what liberals value—helping local communities, free expression of ideas, education.  Indeed, one of the draws of the Lehigh Valley is its ability to support several independent bookstores.  We lived for years in an affluent (yours truly excepted) community in New Jersey.  It had a small indie that closed after just a few years.  The nearby mall (which draws employees a nearly two-hour commute from New York City, I kid you not) was a better measure of the local mindset.  We had to drive to Bernardsville or Princeton to find indies, or perhaps all the way to New Hope or Montclair.  Communities that support bookstores are great places to live.

The acquisition of knowledge is, according to a most rudimentary understanding of human civilization, our most basic need.  The invention of writing is what set us on the track to true progress.  Anyone who has benefitted from modern medicine, technology, or the rule of law, has writing to thank.  Books represent the surest way to keep knowledge alive.  Rebel Bookseller moves beyond the sobriquet of knowledge into wisdom.  This is a very well-informed book.  Laties knows the realities of how publishing works and the real costs involved with big box corporations deciding what people will read.  For anyone who wants to think independently, a local bookstore is an essential business.  My wife and I will likely never be able to run our own little indie, but we both reaped the rewards of reading, and dreaming, about the possibilities.


Bethlehem’s Grinch

We’ve got a Grinch around Bethlehem, according to Nextdoor.com.  A guy driving around stealing boxes from porches, in broad daylight.  According to home security cams, he wears a mask (which is more than many Republicans do).  The understandable outrage in the comments is at least partially justified.  A Covid-ridden populace is reluctant to go into shops, and shipping is easy.  You pay for a gift for someone you love and a stranger steals it with impunity.  There is anger there.  It’s also troubling to me, however, how people react.

One commenter claimed this guy was stealing from working people instead of getting a job.  Anger often speaks rashly, I know, but I had to exegete this a bit.  Without knowing this masked man, how are we to judge his employment status?  I mean people like Donald Trump have made entire careers of cheating other people for their own personal gain.  Isn’t this the way of capitalism?  And perhaps this man has a job and thieving is simply moonlighting.  Or, more seriously, perhaps he had a job that was taken away when the Republican-controlled White House and Senate refused to do anything about the pandemic and can’t even agree on a deal to help working people out?  Who’s the real Grinch here?  Theft can take many forms, some of them perfectly legal.

This holiday news, of course, makes people paranoid.  With many vendors trying to compete with Amazon’s (generally) first-class delivery system, packages are left on porches past bedtime.  Even without a Grinch about, that makes me nervous.  Just last night an Amazon package listed as “delivered” didn’t show up.  I found myself on the customer service chat pouring out my soul to a stranger halfway across the world.  Knowing my carefully chosen gift might be stolen to be resold by a faceless thief made for an anxious evening.  Amazon assured me it would be replaced if it really wasn’t delivered after all.

So I’d be upset too, if my orders were actually stolen.  Some people have medications or other necessities shipped, regardless of holiday seasons.  Stealing boxes is wrong.  It may not be the only thing wrong, however.  Isn’t a system that forces people to desperation inherently wrong?  A system that makes getting ahead almost impossible for most people so that a very few can control nearly all the wealth is hardly one that doesn’t involve theft.  Those stolen from are rightfully upset.  But who is really doing the stealing in the first place?


Bethlehem

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I guess it’s okay to post about the upcoming.  It’s actually pretty hard to avoid, living so near Bethlehem.  While Easton claims the first Christmas tree in America, Bethlehem was settled on Christmas Eve and named accordingly by the Moravians.  It’s a tourist destination for Christmas aficionados everywhere, and, as my wife quotes about 2020, “we could use a little Christmas.”  So we headed to the Christkindlmarkt over the weekend.  Apart from an abundance of consonants, Christkindlmarkt is a chance for vendors to bring their wares to where tightly shut pandemic wallets are willing to open up a bit.  This year, however, the “markt” was completely outdoors rather than under the usual four large tents with heaters running.

It was an enjoyable morning out, with temperatures near sixty—certainly not something you can count on for late November.  There were fewer vendors here for a variety of reasons.  You get a boost, for example, by getting people gathered together.  Our herd instincts kick in.  Seeing others spending, we decide to take our chances.  Outside the great rusting behemoth of Bethlehem Steel’s famed stacks stands sentinel.  This year, however, socially distanced tents and booths meant having to walk and stay back while others browsed, all while wearing masks so that smiles could not be seen.  Gathering without gathering.  With no interest in leading a charge against the disease on a national level, we’re all left to muddle through.

Several of the vendors had novelties portraying the year 2020 as the disaster that it’s been.  Instead of ending it with wishes for national peace, the incumbent is trying useless lawsuits to prevent the voices of voters from being heard.  Stirring up his followers to protest against frauds that never happened, while having hundreds of lawsuits awaiting outside his own door as his actual deeds have been examined seriously for the first time.  Bethlehem reminds us that peace and hope ought to be in the air at this time of year.  Thinking of others rather than ourselves.  Do we see that being modeled by 45 and his ilk?  Instead I’m standing here outside where there used to be a warm gathering tent.  A place where we each donate our body heat to help keep everyone warm.  Giving, even as the Republican-controlled senate withholds any stimulus package they think is too generous.  Yes, we could use a little Christmas right about now.


Kind Animals

How many people could it be?  That’s the question a pandemic naturally raises.  Last weekend my wife and I ventured to a Vegan Festival in Easton.  Since we vegans are a rare bunch anyway, and since we tend to be socially conscious, there wasn’t likely to be any dangerous behavior.  That, and how many people would actually show up for what is often considered a somewhat wobbly crowd who don’t like to “rise, kill, and eat.”  It felt like a safe place to be with socially distanced kindred spirits.  Everyone was wearing masks and there was no Trump bravado going on.  For a moment it reminded me of the kind of accepting country the United States used to be.

Veganism, you see, isn’t just about not eating and not exploiting animals.  It’s about honoring the wonder of life in all creatures.  I realize some of the issues—believe me, I try to think things through thoroughly.  It’s all about consciousness.  We’re still a considerable distance from being able to define it, and some people, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, believe it might go all the way down and through the plant kingdom as well.  Consciousness is one of the great mysteries of science.  We hardly know what it is, and how are we to know where it stops?  If we assume other people are conscious (with a few notable exceptions) based on their words and actions, might we not suppose at least some of the “higher” animals are as well?  Or are you just being a fool when you talk to your dog?

You see how this naturally suggests consciousness may lessen by matters of degree, but then we learn that even some insects know how to count and can understand a concept of zero (beyond most Republicans).  We like to put insects down at the bottom because we’re bigger and therefore more important.  Veganism suggests that we stop and think about these things.  We don’t necessarily take everything for granted.  It is clear that the largest polluter and environmental problem is industrial animal farming.  Rainforests are cleared for grazing land.  Profits from big agra are staggering.  Wandering through the stalls, keeping our distance from others who perhaps think too much, we partook of the counterculture in our own quiet way.  The street festival was small this year, but I do have hopes that it might grow, along with some serious thinking about the consequences of our actions.  


A Walk in the Park

About five years ago my wife and I took a drive along the infamous Shades of Death road in Warren County, New Jersey.  Urban legend has all kinds of creepiness associated with it.  It was a pleasant enough autumn drive for us, and we didn’t see any ominous signs.  History has moved on since the road had been named and, as is typical, the origins had been lost to time.  Something I’ve noticed in moving from east to midwest back to east and a little further west again is that names tend to travel with westward expansion.  I haven’t read enough local history to gain a good sense of this, but we noticed that if New Jersey has a “Devil’s Half Acre,” so does eastern Pennsylvania.  

Yearning to get outdoors for a bit—it’s been rainy here and the pandemic limits options for seeing much of anything—we decided to visit Hickory Run State Park in Carbon County.  Not a bad drive from where we live, we decided to pick out a hiking trail before making the trip.  With over forty miles of trails, your choice of parking depends on which one you want.  We found that there was a Shades of Death trail.  The website tries to dispel the fear factor of the name, noting that early settlers referred to heavy woods and rocky terrain when they named the area.  It is some of the more challenging hiking offered in the park, with passages over small boulder fields and some slippery rocks.  It also turned out to have some wonderful scenery.  We’d arrived early enough to avoid the crowds that’ve made walks in the woods less pleasant in pandemic times.

Indeed, as we finished our hike near noon, families with kids excitedly shouting “Shades of Death” were making their way along the at times narrow path.  I couldn’t help but think how our lives have become so much easier, at least with physical challenges, than those of the original settlers who named these once treacherous places.  We find the names quaint and a little amusing.  Indeed, at the visitor center, the outdoor art emphasizes that particular trail, demonstrating its popularity.  Part of the draw of horror is, of course, reading or watching it from a safe location.  On a sunny morning with modern conveniences never far away, the name gives a little thrill even as it reminds us that a walk in the woods once held a peril difficult to imagine when you can drive right up to the trailhead for a walk in the park.


Hurricane Isaias

People have been debating how to pronounce Hurricane “Isaias,” an hispanic name based on Isaiah.  Pennsylvania, which has few distinguishing features, is generally well enough inland not to have too much hurricane damage.  Isaias, however you pronounce it, dumped over five inches of rain in the small town in which we live.  Multiple roof leaks sprang up in our house and a small part of the ceiling in one room came down.  Not exactly wrath of God level treatment, but unwelcome nevertheless.  The real problem was the short amount of time in which the rain fell.  Averaging about an inch per hour, the water simply overwhelmed the devices put in place to keep it outside.  Being of my particular disposition I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah.

Not a classical prophet of doom per se, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.  He is remembered for “predictions” and soaring rhetoric that promises deliverance.  He’s also a prophet known for his woe declarations, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.  This storm, I suspect, has delivered more of the woe than of the hope.  Streets were flooded as the local creek burst its banks.  Our own street was closed as I called our roofer who, I’m sure, had more than wanted popularity in one day.  Being a homeowner, I quickly discovered, is largely a matter of trying to keep the water out.  Our sump pump was working overtime and still the rain came.

My book Weathering the Psalms was intended to be the first in a series of volumes exploring meteorotheology in several books of the Bible.  The weather, you see, is a popular topic of discussion since in ancient times their meteorology was theology.  After the Psalms my exploration was intended to move toward the prophets.  There are dramatic events where these saintly folk were able to bring down rain, or withhold it.  Israel never experienced hurricanes because they don’t form in the Mediterranean.  Meteorological terms, however, shift over time just as by the time Isaias reached us it was a tropical storm.  The wind buffeted us a bit, but it was mainly a rain event.  I thought at first that I would look at weather terminology in Isaiah and see what I could find there.  I don’t know what my conclusions would have been since I was cut off before I could get that far.  Like those who cast their bread upon the waters, after many days it came back, ironically in the form of Isaias.


Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons


Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.


Keystone

I don’t carry many keys.  Working at home has that distinct advantage, and combination/electronic locks of various kinds are becoming pretty standard.  I do wonder about the impact this has on the keyring industry, though.  Not a fan of bulky rings of keys and fobs in my pocket I tend to stick to novelty keyrings for entertainment purposes only.  A few years back, before we’d considered moving to Pennsylvania, we picked one up that was shaped like, well, the Keystone State.  Laid out like a tiny, very large scale map, it lists the big cities and some tourist sites.  Since you seldom hear people say, “I’m going to Pennsylvania for vacation” you might well wonder about the latter.  The reason that we bought this novelty was one of the places listed: Oil City.

Currently around the 82nd most populous city in the commonwealth, Oil City isn’t a place most folks would look for.  It is near the birthplace of the oil industry, thus its name, but it doesn’t seem to have the tourist draw to merit a keyring fob.  I grew up very near Oil City, and I attended Oil City High School.  It’s a pleasant enough town, although it has been ravaged by big box stores that left its downtown the haunt of ghost store fronts.  Many of the big boxes then left because the area has been economically depressed for decades.  It’s an example of the kind of victims that capitalism tends to leave behind.  The fob on which this “map” is printed is plastic, likely a byproduct of petroleum.  That industry had its start in this area and when larger oil fields were found elsewhere it simply moved on.

The keyring had been stuffed into a box within a box, well forgotten before we moved to Pennsylvania.  While going through some things the other day, it surfaced once again.  I had a key needing a ring, so it was put to use in its native state.  Often I ponder how oil has played into my life.  Pennzoil still had a headquarters in the area, and refineries dotted the river valleys, but larger fields with bigger payoffs lay to the south.  My gypsy-like family didn’t settle in the region because of oil.  Not part of the petroleum industry, we simply lived in its shadow.  I haven’t visited the area for a few years now, at least not to appreciate the life of a town that helped initiate the modern world, but then was quickly forgotten.  Even keyrings can tell a story.