Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Giving a Hand

A friend sent me a news story that really spoke to me.  A bookstore in England, forced to move because of rent, asked for volunteers to help move their stock to a new storefront.  The response?  They had to start turning people away after 250.  A human chain was formed to pass books down by hand to their new home.  Book people, it seems to me, are like that.  I spent a recent weekend looking at downtown Easton—one of the triplet cities that make up “the Valley” (Allentown and Bethlehem being the other two).  Surprisingly, I found two used book stores within blocks of each other.  The proprietors (especially of the first) were friendly and helpful.  They were book people.

I mentioned to said first proprietor that two of the books I was buying were to replace copies ruined during our move.  The look of alarm and sympathy on her face was genuine.  Book people know that look.  They can feel each other’s pain.  They will freely give of their time to hold knowledge in their hands, if only briefly, to pass it along to others.  Now, like most bookish people, I’m aware that I’m considered odd by the average guy who enjoys sports, mechanical stuff, and money.  I’m content with a book, either reading or writing, and the occasional foray out among the more active and boisterous.  I like to think that if I lived in Southampton I’d have given up a vacation day to help out.  Saving books is saving civilization.

Book people know there’s more to life than themselves.  Ironically, such readers are often quiet and sometimes thought to be stuck up.  If you go to help move books by hand, I suspect that gives the lie to feeling above other people.  Reading is thought of as a passive activity, but it makes the mind more active.  There’s a reason our species have large brains.  It’s not that all books are for everyone—I’ve had plenty of disappointments in my reading life—but the unread book is full of potential energy.  And often that already read rewards us when we turn back to it.  Books, you see, are the ultimate givers.  Those who sell them may make a profit, but the return on investment tends to be quite high for the buyer.  If you have to move and you hire a moving company chances are they’ll complain about your books.  You’re better off asking book people for an unstinting hand.

Whelmed Over

I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task.  You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none.  Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count.  One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair.  Now I live in a region with many bookstores.  I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability.  It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish.  I’m not complaining, you understand.  I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed.  That, and Banned Books Week.

I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem.  Twice already.  But there are many more within an easy drive from here.  “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge.  Home owning is expensive.  There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all.  And time for reading is scarce.  Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows.  You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult.  They are few and far between.  It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.

My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey.  They were looking for new owners.  We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing.  Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard.  The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing.  (You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books.  Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.)  To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance.  As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying.  After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.

A Kind of Happening

The roofers were here.  One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information.  Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks.  And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head.  Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office.  I figured it was an opportunity to learn.  As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another.  Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.

It’s a matter of framing, I suppose.  I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device.  This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film.  (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.)  Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact.  If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin.  And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it.  This is Bucks County territory, after all.  Another frame of reference, mediated by media.

As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame.  Like a camera lens, it limits my view.  At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business.   Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever.  I was completely cut off from the outside.  (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.)  Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing.  At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial.  You couldn’t see individuals down on the street.  The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame.  Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well.  I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much.  There’s work to do because there are bills to pay.  And horror films prepared me for that as well.  It’s the ultimate framing device.

Away and a Stranger

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.”  Strangely enough, the great physician (although we know nothing of his medical practice) Luke was writing about a place an ocean and a sea away from here.  The place names of eastern Pennsylvania demonstrate the religious awareness of the early colonial Europeans who brought their Bibles and diseases to this nation.  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was known more for being a house of steel than being a house of bread.  It’s just down the road from the little town of Nazareth, made famous by The Band’s classic hit, “The Weight.”  The road to Emmaus is nearby.  And the major medical facility is, you guessed it, St. Luke’s.

The Band had an influence somewhat surprising for those who may have trouble recalling their nondescript name.  “The Weight” is a story of a traveler coming to, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  So taken by the song was a Scottish band that they adopted the name Nazareth before informing us that “Love Hurts.”  This is something the evangelist and purported doctor Luke presumably knew.  If you go down from Nazareth even unto Bethlehem, you’ll find the steel city recast as the Christmas city.  For those of us who grew up in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh was the real steel city anyway.  When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was the 16th largest city in the country.  It now sits at 65th, because, like Bethlehem it had trouble drawing people without the natural hardness that is Pennsylvania.  There’s a parable in a city transforming from a heavy metal to a holiday.  There’s no Pittsburgh in the Bible.

When Luke begins his Christmas narrative (think of this as one of those “Christmas in July,” or August things), quoted above, he ironically leaves Mary until the next verse.  Joseph, whom later tradition will say had nothing to do with the conception anyway, still gets first billing.  One wonders what might’ve been different had Mary led the way.  It was much later, after the gruesome crucifixion account, that Emmaus came into the picture.  Two unnamed disciples were walking along that road and didn’t recognize who Jesus was.  Had they kept walking, I wonder if they might’ve ended up in Pittsburgh, for the biblical names soon give way to places like Kutztown and Fleetwood, the latter of which, I have to admit, I never got into.  Had Mary taken a load off in Nazareth, this story would’ve been completely different.  Thus saith The Band.

Temporary Id

Who am I, really?  I can’t help but ponder this whenever I apply for a new form of identification.  While at the Department of Motor Vehicles I observed a room full of strangers—if there’s a melting pot in the United States, it’s the DMV.  Outside those cloistered in the major cities, you must drive to survive in this country (or at least to thrive) and the ritual of waiting your turn by number at the DMV is part of it.  I glanced at my application while waiting.  I’ve held drivers’ licenses in at least four states, but I’ve lived in at least six—how do you count where you live, really?  I think I must’ve had an Illinois license at some point, but I could find no record of it.  Who am I?  Are the Illinois years lost?  Big brother will find out, no doubt.

To apply for a license in Pennsylvania, as in most states, you have to prove you are who you say you are.  Swapping in your old license just doesn’t work any more.  While the actual “who” depends on government-issue documents (social security, birth certificates, or passports) the where question is more financial.  To prove your residence you must present bills with your name and current address.  You’re defined by your money.  Bills demonstrate that you’re integrated into the system, the matrix.  I spent one day, as a temp with Manpower, working for Detroit Electric (no, I didn’t have a Michigan license; I kept the Massachusetts one), processing requests for new service.  Despite not being asked back because they had expected a woman (really!), I learned that to get service you had to prove you were part of this matrix, with a history of paying your bills.

None of these agencies ask the deeper, more philosophical questions of identity.  None seem to care that each day is a struggle to define our spiritual selves in a world hopelessly secular and financial.  Yes, my birth certificate “proves” I was born in Pennsylvania.  The DMV records “prove” I learned to drive here and had my first license in this state.  They show nothing of the real question of who I am.  A reasonable facsimile of my visage appears on the plastic card that certifies my citizenship within these artificial borders.  But now my home state stamps “Temporary” on the card so that a security check can be run.  They want to discover if I am who my records say I am.  What the powers that be don’t seem to recognize is that although where we are born influences us every day for the rest of our lives, no little plastic card, despite the amount of information it conveys, can say who it is I really am.  “Temporary” may be the truest word on it.