Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.

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.

Iron Ages

I find myself in Pittsburgh again.  We set out from the former steel city of Bethlehem and ended up in the former steel city on the other side of the state.  I’m not here for the metal, of course, but to visit family.  Making our way over the great eroded spine of the ancient Appalachians, I was thinking of how cities often take on the identity of their industries.  Pittsburgh and Bethlehem vied with each other for their facility with unyielding iron—one of the technologies so important to human history that we still use the Iron Age as a marker of advancing technology.  Pittsburgh’s now a tech city, much reduced in size from its heyday when only fifteen cities in the country were larger.  Bethlehem, it seems, is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Back in college, I used to work in a church in the south hills.  I haven’t been to Windover Hills United Methodist Church since those days.  I was weighing my future then, deciding to attend Boston University School of Theology—the seminary the pastor had attended—and exposing myself to liberal thinking rather than more of the conservative milquetoast that was mistaken for milk and honey at Grove City College.  The memories that attended the drive were powerful and poignant.  I only lived in Pittsburgh two summers—the second working as a bagger at a grocery store (I should’ve known then where a college degree in religious studies might lead, even if summa cum laude).  As iron sharpens iron, so the Good Book says.

Recently I tried to recall all the addresses at which I’ve lived.  This seems particularly important because many of the buildings no longer stand and I greatly fear being erased.  Those of us who write often do.  I can recall the cities and even a few of the streets.  Numbers often escape me, for they seem to be mere place holders.  My days in Pittsburgh were decades ago, when life was really only just beginning.  Now I drive these hills with memories my only maps, wondering if I can find the place I’m seeking.  This place is part of me, even as Bethlehem is now becoming such a piece.  Cities change depending on the laws of supply and demand that can, as we know, even break iron.  And those of us who live in such places know that any industry is subject to memory, whether of God or of steel.

Edifices

In a process that’s been going on for decades, church buildings have been sold and repurposed.  Part of the reason is the fact that spirituality has come to resemble a free market and there’s increasing competition from the Nones.  Thinking back over a lifetime of attending various services, many of which seemed to do nothing more than demand I pull out my wallet, I can understand this lack of public engagement with established religions.  At the same time the rather shallow, but emotionally based evangelical tradition continues to grow, largely based on the emotional payoff it gives.  Ironically, it makes the claim that it’s the doctrine responsible for this appeal, but it seems more likely that it’s the way the doctrine allows you to feel about yourself that’s the key.  And still the wallet comes out as the mega-churches grow.

There’s a profound beauty in dereliction.  Some of the more solidly built structures—for even the way a church was constructed was a theological statement—have lent themselves to creative reuses.  I’ve visited churches converted to used bookstores, and this seems fitting.  The trade-off of doctrine for knowledge is appropriate.  In Pittsburgh, years ago, I was intrigued by the Church Brew Works.  Occupying a closed Roman Catholic Church, the brew pub is a trendy gathering place and the titillation of drinking in a once hallowed location is part of the draw.  People find such irony irresistible, it seems.  Better than letting an abandoned building simply fall to ruin.  When it first opened some were scandalized—a lingering belief in sacred places may account for this.  People were married here.  Baptized.  Funerals were held.

While walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood recently I found a church building that has been converted to a spa.  The idea struck me as so counterintuitive that I had to think through the implications.  Churches, for all their faults, are places advocating spiritual growth.  Whether or not it takes place is quite a different question, of course, but this is all about interior life.  Spas are about the surface, physical beautification.  Indeed, often personal pampering.  This is building space come half circle.   An edifice built of heavy stone, implying the gravity of the business inside might have eternal consequences is now a place to beautify the body.  Perhaps the building itself has gone through a similar process.  What used to advertise to the world that depth could be found  here has now become merely an exterior.  Market forces dictate what it will become on the inside.

Like One of Us

Some envision America as a nation of—God help them!—only people like themselves.  This is Trump’s America, and therefore, the America of the Republican Party.  We can’t quite say it’s a white male America because there are many white males who simply don’t share that vision, but it is hate-filled enough to rouse bombers and shooters and Mitch McConnell.  American terrorists, in a word.  Yesterday, the Sabbath, saw a shooter in my familiar city of Pittsburgh who left 11 dead.  The response of Trump?  The synagogue should’ve had armed guards.  I propose that we ought to put walk-through metal detectors outside churches—better yet, full body scanners like they use at airports.  Might as well see everything the faithful bring with them.

Apart from the obvious tragedy of the innocent victims, another disturbing element of this horrific event is that Trump can’t see that his own rhetoric encourages it.  His mouth may say we shouldn’t hate, but his mouth says a lot of things.  Most of them lies.  His public posturing as the angry white man, the “Christian” bully, the Rambo of the Lord, has jarred people across the world.  When you rail against the media daily from the highest position in the land, you’ve got to expect sycophants (e.g. Republicans) to try to please you with their own acts of outrage.  What more cowardly way can one devise than to shoot those at worship?  Does 45 not understand that armed guards would make a very mockery of what goes on inside?  What do they teach at his church?

Coming up on two years ago, after election day, many people warned that just this sort of thing would happen.  Knowing that the Manchurian candidate they’d nominated couldn’t think for himself, the GOP decided it was a good time to polish up their hit-list.  Those who don’t belong in their white bread, white face, white male country.  This is evangelicalism gone wild, no, Rev. Graham?  Those who can think for themselves are not welcome in a party run by hatred so pure and rife that decent people feel they must take a shower after they leave its presence.  And what of the dead?  For the “party of Lincoln” they have died in vain.  They should’ve had armed guards, as if worship were some kind of dangerous, subversive activity.  The party of the NRA, formerly known as the GOP, has never watched The Witness.  It has never shed a tear for the dead.  And it most assuredly has never been to church, or synagogue.

Image credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, via Wikimedia Commons

A Star in the East

The times they are a, well, you know—nobody wants to violate copyright.  In any case, nothing stays the same for long.  New York, for example, is a city in a constant state of transformation.  Fully grown buildings now stand where there were literally holes in the ground when I began working there.  One building near Times Square recently had a facelift that revealed the steel girders beneath.  On the I-beam were the words “Bethlehem Steel.”  And it’s not just New York.  Our cultural transformation has been taking place over the last few centuries as populations have moved to urban areas, abandoning farming to the few who remember how.  Being from western Pennsylvania, I pretty much thought the eastern part of the state was Philadelphia.  I’d heard of other urban regions, of course, such as Scranton and Allentown, but they were well outside my experience.  We didn’t get out much.

Now that I’m here in the eastern part of the state, I’m begun to explore the ever-changing micropolitan area of Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton.  The three cities blend at the edges, and this region is the third largest population zone in the state, after Philly and Pittsburgh.  It’s also the fastest growing region in the commonwealth.  I suppose we might’ve helped with that statistic.  The other day I had to run an errand in Bethlehem.  I pulled over to marvel at the hulk of what had once been Bethlehem Steel.  Now, I grew up in a town with an active steel mill, and Pittsburgh grew to fame for the same metal, but this was a behemoth of a plant.  Subdivided and open to development, it now houses a casino, in part, and an arts center.  And still there’s more space.

Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Perhaps appropriate for a town trying to resurrect itself, Bethlehem calls itself the Christmas City.  Star imagery abounds, and many businesses name themselves with this Christian symbol.  The image is quite different from that of a steel city with hard-working men on the shift.  The grime and din of industry.  Bethlehem, like many places in the state, was named for its biblical forebear.  On my visit to the original Bethlehem many years ago I was, like many tourists, disappointed that it isn’t “O little town of” anymore.  There were people everywhere and it was difficult to imagine a quiet stable inside a noisy stone church thronging with the faithful.  Clearly things don’t remain unchanged for long, even in towns famous for their remoteness.  Although far from New York, they share a common heritage of people everywhere, and that heritage could bring us peace if only we would allow it.  The answer, it seems, is blowin’ in the, well, you know.

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.