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.

Officially Broken

Now that democracy is officially broken, it was with some poignancy that I stumbled upon a piece of ancient history.  Everyone has a box that contains their past life.  It used to be a physical box with papers in it, and in mine (which still has actual papers), I stumbled across a letter yellowed with age, dated 1980 from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.  In an ill-fated career as a teenage journalist, I reported in the results of the presidential election from one of the polling places in Oil City, Pennsylvania.  The envelope held a serious letter from a state official letting me know how important my duty was.  As I looked at my teenage scrawl two things became clear: the Democrats had won in what is now a deeply red zone, and even when democracy worked it didn’t work well.  

You see, I had a number to call to report the results.  Since toll-free numbers hadn’t proliferated at that time in history, I was to make a collect call.  And since I lived in Rouseville, some three or four miles away, I couldn’t get the results in immediately.  On my way home, before making the collect call, it was announced that Reagan had won.  The ballot results, still tucked away in my envelope, hadn’t been reported, and obviously they weren’t important.  It was the first election in which I voted and I learned then that the system didn’t take all votes into account.  Now that Trump is firing those who managed to testify at his impeachment Republican senators reply, “Yes, that’s good, that’s right.  It’s as it should be.”  Democracy is dead.

These United Orwellian States displayed their predilections long ago.  I’d read 1984 about that time, before the eponymous year of the title.  I’d been deputized to report on an election whose results were declared before every vote was counted, and I lived in the Eastern Time Zone.  I didn’t vote in elections for several years after that.  When politically conscious friends asked why not, I said “what’s the point?”  You see, the reporting assignment was part of a current issues class in high school.  It was to teach us how government worked.  My teacher’s signature still graces the form inside.  As one political party has embodied massive dereliction of duty, we limp along toward November.  I don’t know if my vote will count or not, but I will be at the polls again.  Anyone who believes in democracy will have to be.  And perhaps, just perhaps, all the pre-planned cheating won’t work this time around.  Eric Arthur Blair, it is said, died a paranoid man.

All in This Together

The rain falling from the dark sky is barely liquid.  The thermometer reads 33 as we step out into the early evening—this is not the kind of night I’d want to be outside, but this is important.  When we arrive in Bethlehem there are already maybe a couple hundred people lining Rose Garden Park with signs.  We park and join them.   Many of the signs are clever and to the point: “I shouldn’t have to miss Nixon,” and “Vichy Republicans—shame on you!”  This winter of discontent, crumbling democracy, we are here as warm bodies on a cold night to protest what has gone on far too long.  The impeachment vote is scheduled for today and across the country people have come out—supper hastily eaten or yet to be started when they get home—to say enough is enough.

Now Pennsylvania isn’t the bluest of states.  I wasn’t sure of what our reception would be on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and Union.  I was amazed.  Large numbers of cars, and even some commercial trucks, honked their horns in support as they drove by.  Thumbs up out windows in the cold air.  Long blasts on horns.  For sure, many drivers remained silent, but only three that I counted bothered to roll down their windows and shout support for Trump.  They were treated respectfully and cordially by the protesters, many of whom were considerably older than my wife and me.  I listened to snatches of conversations as my fingers and toes grew numb.  Vietnam vets, and even one from the Second World War.  Retirees who should be spending December nights in their warm homes.  We all had something important to do.  We had to stand and be counted.

Because of a childhood incident, I suffered mild frostbite on my fingers and toes.  It is excessively painful for me to be out in the cold to this day.  We could only stay for about an hour and a half.  It was a work night after all.  There were many stalwarts still holding signs and chanting as we headed back to our car.  Around a sign for the park where other, more temporary signs stood, a protester said, “Someday maybe we won’t have to do this anymore.”  A younger man corrected him.  This happened because we failed to be vigilant.  Vichy Republicans are a real thing and although the elections are about eleven months away, we need to get ready.  We need to get everyone out to vote.  If the signs of support we saw last night reflect the feelings of Americans, it’s time for us to become a democracy again.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Read a Book

A huge shout-out to Andrew Laties for conceiving and organizing the Easton Book Festival!  Easton may not be the largest city in the state, but the Lehigh Valley is Pennsylvania’s fastest growing area.  As we discovered when we moved here almost a year-and-a-half ago, it is a region that supports bookstores.  Even before the Festival we’d explored some six or seven and after moving from central New Jersey—where keeping a small shop or two open was a struggle.  We’ve become spoiled for choice.  Writers may not be the easiest people to herd—many of us are quiet and tend to live in our own heads quite a bit—but the festival has brought some 200 of us together, and we write on all kinds of things.

Although the panel on which I participated had religion as one of its themes, my wife and I noticed that at each session we attended religion was mentioned.  Either it was in an author’s background, or it figured into their writing, or most embarrassingly, it objected to and tried to silence them through censorship.  Although my book’s subtitled The Bible and Fear in Movies, it was evident that I wasn’t the only person who found the Bible’s effect on people scary.  And the theme continued into the evening as I attended the author’s banquet solo.  Many of the people I met had religion in their background or in their present motivations for writing, and not one of them was judgmental toward a guy like myself who’s trying to find his way.

The Easton Book Festival is in its first year.  Although by late afternoon the weather had deteriorated into the rain we can’t seem to shake around here, it was wonderful to see people walking around with festival booklets (there are enough events to warrant one) and not bothering to conceal and carry.  Books, that is.  For a moment, they were cool.  My second session is this afternoon.  As I learned both last weekend at my book signing and at sessions yesterday, a sell-out crowd is unlikely.  This is a free event and even authors who had more fingers than attendees were gracious and glad for the opportunity to explain what they were trying to do with their writing.  And they unstintingly shared what they’d learned with one another.  This was community, centered around books.  It was a small slice of what Heaven could be like, if we’d all just take an interest in each other.  Even if we’re shy and secretly would rather be home writing.

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.