JOY TO THE WORLD

The history of salvation is not a small event, on a poor planet, in the immensity of the universe. It is not a minimal thing which happens by chance on a lost planet. It is the motive for everything, the motive for creation.

Everything is created so that this story can exist, the encounter between God and his creature.

Pope Benedict XVI, address at the opening of the 12 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 6, 2008

Fifteen days until Christmas.

DECEMBER MELODY

So, the shadows of November, cast by thinning winter clouds, have moved off, and, here on the west coast of Florida, December 1st is bringing bright sunlight and, finally, welcomed chilly temperatures.

In the north, I know you’ve already had snow; I’ve seen those November Facebook p0sts of people sweeping the powdery coating off their cars a couple of weeks back. I remember the ritual and — forgive me Florida for my lack of gratitude — I miss it at this state of my life, feeling so adrift. Things always look better to a restless soul in that proverbial rearview mirror. And burdensome weather-related, cold country tasks seem, in retrospect, more like the small price of salvation, whether human or divine.

We are at the start of the month that, in twenty-one days, will give us the shortest, darkest day of the year that we enlivened with the lights of Christmas….It is no accident that we mark the birth of a savior at the nadir of a celestial cycle that puts the sun farthest from the earth — far from spring, or those lazy, hazy days of summer.

This date, December 1st, would have been my sister Anne’s 82nd birthday. It did not seem too much to hope for — that this beautiful, guiding presence in our lives could have lived at least that long, or much longer. Our mother died at 82. And just having turned 74 and finding that a very jarring state of being, I’m forced to realize that the actuarial table begins to work against us, body and soul — that we make plans, dream dreams — but can’t totally outrun the averages — or God’s plan for us.

Rest in peace, Anne. I’m praying for you today. We used to have such long, wonderful, helpful, loving phone conversations. I need to recall those — recall everything about you. (One of these days, I’ll get around to posting pictures with this blog, but, in many ways, words are better. Pictures just let us form the words. They really aren’t always worth a thousand of those words.)

That old thing about time — how it rushes, marches on, passes quickly. All of us feel it at this point in the year. Yet it seems like everybody knows that song, “Unchained Melody” — especially since the Righteous Brothers covered it — and that line, “time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much.” Indeed it can. It can bear down on us, make us lose interest, lose our love, our memories, even turn love to hate as horrible as that seems. Yes, time can drag.

But now it’s time to keep in mind that that song was written for a long forgotten made-for-TV movie of the fifties — called “Unchained” — about men in a low-security, “experimental” prison who were even given instructions on how to get over the barbed wire fence if they really wanted to go. They were rightful prisoners of their consciences (speaking of The Righteous Brothers), basically choosing confinement on the honor system; choosing to stay confined, pay their debt to society, even if they “hunger for your touch a long, lonely time.” Go forth thereafter as solid citizens.

I imagine your hunger tempts you all the more if you know the object of your desire can be had by merely climbing a fence. But, of course, you’d sate your desire at the expense of a total loss of freedom. I’m sure that’s how the arrangement in the movie worked. It’s how supernatural life works, if you believe in heaven, hell and the freedom to choose one or the other — as many of us do, inexplicably, in life. We choose hell on earth. We only seem to be rational creatures sometimes.

Funny how I’m remembering that movie; it was decades ago that I saw it and I was a child who knew little about hungering for anyone’s touch — and assumed I’d have all the time in the world to live a life and do everything I wanted — unchained.

The movie concludes with the protagonist, finally frustrated with his circumstances, going to the fence to escape, lingering on the brink of his undeserved freedom, then climbing down again and walking back toward his prison for as long as it would take to remove the weight of his crime; his sins, if you will. Roll credits, as the music rises…”oh, my love, my darling…”

I may have been a child — but I realized at that and many future moments what it meant to be an adult: to be unhappy, but to know I had to stay with the unpleasant, imprisoning matter at hand. The only thing like that in my life then was school, and there’d already been days I wanted to quit that.

We’ll call this, then, the December Melody — hungering, for what? Love, loved ones, health, the end to the pandemic? For your touch? All at the ragged end of this wild year.

Oh, the freedom to touch; to have and to hold. The thing that, beginning back in the chill month of March, we began to lose, never imagining what this year would bring when the ball dropped in Time Square and the new year, with the symmetry of two wide eyes flashed open on the world — 2020.

Are ours would be opened, alright, and a vision of just how life could turn on us would be sharper ever after — 20/20.

It was also the beginning of a new and, so far, very fraught decade.

I’ve trusted my memory to recall that movie, by the way — and had not planned to use it as a last-month-of-the-difficult-year jumping off point for this rumination. But it fits. We always say, time flies. Time DOESN’T go by so slowly when we have our freedom. It goes too fast. I my case, because I waste so much of it.

So, I need to make time go slowly — struggle to make each moment count in this December; be aware of each second, each inner conflict, each sorrow, every grief, every joy if I can find it. Every failure to love. It is the Christmas season, yes, but it is also Advent — those four penitential weeks during which we light four candles, counting the days to the Coming of the Light, moving toward Bethlehem. Agaiin, we submit to the cycle of trepidation, anxiety and hope tas we traverse the hours — as if we are crossing a desert, like three, long-suffering magi on camels, or a million souls longingly walking down a long barely illumined city street.

That’s us, December pilgrims. Longing for the light, and a new beginning.

AUTUMN, PEACE, SOLITUDE

Autumn has come to the north in this year of pandemic. It will be an memorable years; immemorable, actually. And it is winding down. It is autumn. Thanksgiving is coming, a constricted Thanksgiving. I will drive from Florida to Atlanta. I don’t really want to go that far at a time like this — or be on the road. But I agreed to do so to get people of one family together.

To mark autumn, though I am currently living in Florida, the sub-tropics, I would like to bring you something very brief from the late Henry Beston, the writer/naturalist who lived of an on for a couple of years in the mid-1920 in a 16×20 wooden dwelling he called Outermost House, two miles north of the Nauset Coast Guard Station, in Eastham on Cape Cod.

Beston escaped to his little retreat for peace and solitude, spiritually shaken by his experiences serving as an ambulance driver and in other roles during World War I.

This is how the chapter begins that’s called AUTUMN, OCEAN, AND BIRDS

There is a new sound on the beach, and a greater sound. Slowly, and day by day, the surf grows heavier, and down the long miles of the beach, at the lonely stations, men hear the coming winter in the roar. Mornings and evenings grow cold, the northwest wind grows cold; the last crescent of the month’s moon, discovered by chance in a pale morning sky, stands north of the sun. Autumn ripens faster on the beach than on the marshes and the dunes. Westward and landward there is color; sea-sky, the dying grasses on the dune tops’ rim tremble and lean seaward in the wind, wraiths of sand course flat along the beach, the hiss of sand mingles its thin stridency with the new thunder of the sea.

I have been spending my afternoons gathering driftwood and observing the birds.

May we, like Henry Beston, find peace and perhaps some valuable solitude in this late autumn of a difficult year.

LIKE CHILL, WET LEAVES

I woke around 3:30 a.m.. It is 4:44 a.m. now. I walked last night in the still, muggy atmosphere through the silent, sleeping tin and vinyl dwellings of the faux tropical estate know as Paradise Island in the heart of a most busy and unedifying industrial sprawl. I loved the silence, at least.

A vehicle passes now on the street called Caribbean Way. Where might they be going at this hour?

Mid-November. Start of another week. Hours into Monday, November 16, 2020. I should have made these notations before midnight, for then it would truly have been exactly mid-November. I shall have a procedure on my teeth tomorrow (meaning Tuesday). Deep gum or deep route cleaning. It’s recommended. The insurance company will pay for it, apparently. They must, for why else would I do it? Why am I thinking of this now? Stupid. I’d just as soon leave my teeth alone. What marks life’s most drab and anxious obligations than trips to the dentist?

But then, I have needed my teeth this year, so I could grind them, or they could be on edge through this unwonted time of the plague.

This awkward, wee hour digression — about teeth, of all things — detracts from what had been a worthy rumination at mid-autumn, if it could be said that there is an autumn in Florida.

Another vehicle passes. I have not seen any red flashing lights on the blinds, so, for once, it is not an ambulance. I guess it is just the hour when some people in this aggregate of tin and vinyl go to work, at least those who still work and do not endure in various states of euphoria or oblivion the long, enervating skulk toward our earthly terminus in this, the month we honor the departed.

This all seems rather cynical and beyond sad. I did not mean it to be such. It lacks — something. Hope! That’s it. And gratitude for life’s coming glory and mystery. Make it a prayer!

It is probably a bit of a despairing screed against the fact that it should still be muggy in mid-November. There are mild days in northern climes — Indian Summer, or those frequent days in a Boston November when it is suddenly mild. I described November 9th, 1960 to be such a day….

Imagine that day, the first day of the the march into the Kennedy mystique, for JFK had been elected, however, barely, the day before. However honorably. And now we are approaching the end of the Trump Presidency, though not, probably, the end of the Trump Era. And let it be known, I am not altogether fond — in fact, am deeply distressed, at so much that the Great Disrupter has brought into our cooperate lives as Americans. Shall we ever recover? Was it all this fault? (Not likely.) What did it all mean? What will it go on meaning, and will he fight to the end, and to what end? Let the Phonies enter and replace the merely Crass, and we shall, as January advances as — and here’s hoping January comes — we try to see where we are as a people.

The blaze of the sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot, sweet, tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his head like chill, wet leaves.

William Peter Blatty

Opening lines of The Exorcist

What premonition? An evil one — that evil was near….

The clock outside my door has just rung out the Westminster chime for five o’clock but, being defective, did not strike the five gongs. The world and the clock are out of order and it is that dark hour before the dawn in the steamy, disordered southern place to which I have escaped for now for unknown, or unremembered reasons that were probably not sufficient for such a relocation, or dislocation. But we learn from everything if we are wise. Seeming mistakes can actually be moments of grace. That’s been my experience. I’ve made many mistakes and therefore experienced much grace.

But, as the astute and sensitive religiously-oriented writer Anthony Esolen has written in his book Nostalgia, published fortuitously this year, we are all homeless in a homeless world. And, as Augustine told us, “the heart is restless until it rests in thee.”

But let there be no facile escape from the jarring realities that, though jarring, kindly eased me awake in darkness from dreams in which I had been moving through a jumble of half remembered stairwells, doors and corridors, as in some parking garage of howling, familiar voices ( you know how dreams are).

We are trekking slowly toward the conclusion of this darkly memorable annus mirabilis. We are still getting sick. The fear remains. The uncouth President will, in all liklihood, cling to his Office “like chill, wet leaves.”

Chill, wet leaves. Blatty’s Exorcist was exploring hot, ancient excavations for signs of darkness visible, yet he had a sensation, in the author’s imaging, like “chill, wet leaves.” November is the season, at least near my former home, of sodden, chill, wet leaves that cling to the paved path of cemeteries and sidewalks in cool weather and Melville could write, at the middle of the 19th Century, of those moods in which it is “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” But outside my vinyl walls, are the twin pair of Roebelini palms, like sentries, armed under their burst of draping green fronds with spikes that can painfully prick and penetrate the flesh of the unwary and careless. I know. I’ve encountered that harsh, hidden sub-tropical reality along with the hideous palmetto bugs that emerge now and then indoors and out.

And there is that couple that has already festooned their modular home with every cheerful manner of Christmas light and interior-lighted plastic image. I walked by their place last night in the dank, still darkness — and welcomed the warm, consoling sight. Christmas lights are going up early everywhere in this season when the Yuletide is bound to be muted or, as one overhears spoken everywhere through masks, “not the same.” A Pandemic Christmas before the letdown of January and the prospective inauguration of the phony and the bigot.(I must cease to be so hateful of that pair — trading my hate for all the hate for hateful Trump — and simply retire, as much as possible, from any thought of politics. Endure. We are still a free nation; all in this together. And, as endlessly noted, I could not truly call myself a fan of the crude man leaving — if he ever leaves — the White House, except to the extent that he protected, most unexpectedly, the social, spiritual, essential traditions I believe to be our bulwark, whether we realize or accept it. I speak of conscience rights, religious freedom — yes, Trump was an unlikely soul to have ended up drawing so straight with his crooked lines, at least in that department. For we are now in a world deeply hostile to such things, as the author of The Exorcist knew and stated before his death.

Chill, wet leaves. They cling. I miss them.

It will be daylight soon. Thank God for daylight. Time for my morning prayers. There shall eventually be cold and snow to the north. What’s weather? It’s not everything….just life….Thank God for weather, be it muggy or chill. Thank God for life.

But I do miss those leaves, including the stubborn oak leaves that fall only reluctantly and lay scattered over the snow well into spring….

Have a good mid-November day, everyone. It’s 5:44 a.m..

WAITING, WANTING PEACE

I’ve had it. I need a quiet place, and this is good as any. Here in this room, at this keyboard.

I understand they’ve had a little snow up north, gone now, certainly. The birds, certain species, will wing their way MY way soon. I will watch for them. I will go out through the kitchen and the Florida room and the shed and stand in the backyard and watch the telephone wire for those friends. I will not, if I can help it, pay much of any attention to the painful spectacle unfolding in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. It all comes under the heading: ELECTION AFTERMATH.

The hopes of millions dashed. The hopes of the other millions enflamed, aroused. Will there be blood? They will — those who hate him — be done with the President they hate. The President they hate will not go quietly (why should he? The whole ballot box fandango is unfolding at this moment exactly two decades into the 21st Century. It’s for the birds. It’s medieval. Everything, as far as I’m concerned, is for the birds at this time.

I shall wade out into the mists. I shall wait for the tide. I shall walk a forest path. I will sit in a cabin and listen to music on some little machine. I shall cease to think about politics. Somewhere the smoke is coiling up from some village where war and politics are unknown….no there is no such place. Shangri-la, maybe. No…real….place.

And though I have no particular need to engage on these matters, hell, I’m an American. It’s there, like Everest.

The other night, just driving to dinner in the stalled fury of a Pinellas County late rush hour, shortly before dark descended ( and it was coming fast) I did a needless and impetuous things. Stopped in a line of traffic at a light at a massively and constantly busy intersection, seeing there was maybe just enough space for me to squeeze into the long left-turn jug handle in time to catch the left turn light, I commenced to edge forward to squeeze through, but, seeing there was not enough space made the wise decision to –wait. Just wait. Waiting is good. Patience is good. I’ve done it for a million hours for sixty years at thousands of intersections….

So – what got into me? I thought, no, I don’t want to wait. And, probably only seconds before the light ahead would change and I would be free — I pulled left and bumped over the little curb and into the lane, free, and drove toward the changing left turn light.

Then noticed that a Largo, Florida police cruiser had been right behind me. Oh, God! Will he come after me? No, he hasn’t moved.

The light changed, he fell in behind me…..and in the middle of the intersection his red and blue lights went on. It has been years since I’ve seen that in my rear view mirror. I was simply on the way to dinner with Diane. Why did I do this stupid thing?

I pulled off into the gas station. The cruiser stopped behind me…there was that awful pause and anticipation for the approach by the officer. I had my license out. I was seeing a big fine, an increase in my insurance rate — just because of a stupid bump over a curb at an intersection where I’ve seen maniacal offenses by fellow drivers, such as running red lights and illegal turns.

Then,there was the hatless man in blue, smiling, a my driver’s window. Genuinely and benignly smiling, as if, the creased of that smile, to say, ‘why on earth did you ever want to do that with me right behind you?’

“Where are you going? What’s the hurry?”

Oh, how I needed to be able to tell him — chest pains — in me or my passenger. Agony from a kidney stone. Lady having a baby. So glad to see you officer, just the guy I need right now.,,…

But no! I had to say I was just going to dinner — to spend my hard earned money during Civid 19 indoors, risking the virus, spending money needlessly. The light was really fading now. And now– I couldn’t find my registration.

“Okay, well just look for your registration and proof of insurance. I’ll be right back.” And he was gone with my license, calling in, making sure I wasn’t a fugitive or driving a stolen car or in any of a million other ways on the wrong side of the law as well as, recently, on the wrong side of a five-inch barrier.

I had a long time to think about my life — in Florida for a year, in the middle of a Cold Civil War, in the middle of a pandemic, in limbo for all intents and purposes. But deep in Trump country and therefore in a good position to judge the earnest political desires of the people in those trucks and vehicles that had been streaming by me every day with those TRUMP banners fluttering.

Finally, the officer was back — to hand a very official looking WARNING. Then came a very human moment between the lawman and me. “You know,” he said, “you put me a very bad position back there.” (Yes, I had — doing a stupid thing he could not, in public, ignore). I then handed him my registration (which I’d found, Thank God) and an insurance card he told me was outdated. He instructed me how to get an up-to-date one. Then he said, “I don’t know how much you were going to spend on dinner, but this could have cost you $166.”

“Thank you so much,” I said. But in coming days, I would still obsess about my stupid, near costly move. And hopefully the insurance company will take no note of a traffic warning — involving so minor an offense. (And maybe part of me was thinking, ungratefully, that this could have been a less-official, ‘hey don’t do that again,” and “have a good night.”)

The officer wished us a good night with the routine verbal warning always to slow down, be safe. (I think I drive like an old lady. But a similar moment like this, and a failure to react quickly and move over for a stopped police vehicle cost me an excessive and thoroughly unreasonable $400 that I’ve never stopped resenting.

The officer might have envisioned a luxurious dinner plan on our part, but we were merely searching for a Mexican restaurant to satisfy Diane’s craving for that manner of cuisine. (Why, I’m thinking, am I out here in this traffic, risking a ticket, rattled and a little angry and not especially desirous of tacos etc.?)

It was completely dark now, and dangerous. And we wound up at a dumpy, brightly little, small little Mexican joint attached to a convenience store where virus infection seemed imminently possible and the food was — okay. But I had no traffic citation, no reason to be other than grateful and reminded of the virtues of common sense and patience — in traffic and in life.

So — birds, country lanes, snow on late fall foliage, silence, no cars, no intersections, no need for warnings.

That’s what I want. No election recount. I pray for you, Donald Trump, shorn of a second term by inches, detested by much of the multitude. But I’m sure you’ll remain in our public life. And — you haven’t lost yet. You’re — waiting.

I didn’t get the officer’s name. It on the warning in the trash next to me. I think I’ll just think of him as Officer Thank You.

LAKE NO ONE: A FABLE

(Musings inspired by a frequently observed curbside marker along a busy Florida road.)

Imagine this. You see a signpost that says, Lake No One.

You think, how strange!

It is night. You are driving outside the heart of a city. You’d been approaching two small granite post on either side of the entrance to a narrow road. And a signpost by the granite posts, when you can finally read it — sure enough — tells you that this is, indeed, the entrance to Lake No One.

You see dwellings beyond the entrance. This is obviously a housing development around lakes, mostly man-made, that you know have proliferated around housing developments in this area. You wonder, is there no one in those houses? Nobody? No person? Is there a great dark emptiness around Lake No One?

And just what kind of a body of water might Lake No One be? Who’d want to live near it? No one, obviously. Hence, it was called Lake No One. Dark waters, no doubt, giving no reflection of sun or moon. Poisoned, perhaps. A lake of absence, named for no one.

After passing the sign, you continue to envision Lake No One somewhere at the end of that road, surrounded by bare trees typical of a landscape no one would want to visit in a place no one would want to live.

You think of the Beatles Song, “Nowhere Man.” Maybe you’d find Nowhere Man by Lake No One, “making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” Maybe you could talk to him; ask him why he didn’t aspire to be Somewhere Man. But you suspect he’d tell me he was happy being Nowhere, planning for Nobody. And you’d have to ask yourself, along with the Beatles, “isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

Nonetheless, in the spirit of exploration, you think: I must turn around and go back and drive down that road and explore Lake No One. It must be quite a place. Or, rather, quite a non-place.

But before you can turn, you find yourself approaching, after a short distance, yet another set of granite posts marked by yet another signpost marking a road into yet another neighborhood complex where there is apparently yet another lake.

The signpost say, Lake No Two.

It is followed by another entrance and another signpost that reads, Lake No Three.

Then comes, Lake No Four.

Crestfallen, you drive on, wondering why those who erect signposts would omit the period from their abbreviations. Unhappily, they’d succeeded in putting a period on your sense of intrigue –not to mention your hope that a visit to this Lake No One, if it truly existed, might, paradoxically, bolster your God-given need to be — Someone.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

T.S. Eliot from East Coker (in Four Quartets)

Not a real estate report — just a bit of poetry that, at this midnight moment, seems to fit the beginnings and endings and falling, crumbling world of this late October, 2020. Let’s all take the by-pass.

AND SO IT BEGINS….

The spectacle is underway as I write — the confirmation hearings for Trump’s high court nominee. I feel I must listening and watch.

But….

It is so awful. And the vetting is not over yet, the cross examination not begun. The nominees sits masked, listening. Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse is giving a timely civic lesson. Good idea, based on what I’ve heard from the Democrats. Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, in a long, angry peroration, essentially called the nominee a “torpedo” aimed at the Affordable Care Act.

On and on. Later.

FURIOUS SEASON

It is so easy, so cheap and easy to ridicule our enemies, political or otherwise, when they have an embarrassing moment beyond their control. During the televised Vice Presidential debate, viewed by millions, in this fraught and consequential political season, a common house fly found its way out of the Salt Lake City night and into the debate hall on the campus of the University of Utah. It then found its way into the brilliantly lit halo of studio lighting and decided, following a fly’s mysterious mental logic, to wing its way in front of the cameras that are electronically conveying images across the continent and into the homes of millions of Americans– and lands on the hair of the gentlemanly Vice President of the United States who, as it happens, is Vice President to the most polarizing President ever to sit in the White House. Michael Pence has generated some hate of his own. I hated him constantly talking over the moderator and wondered why the Trump/Pence team had not learned its lesson from the spectacle that was the Presidential Debate. I say that unreservedly. When I saw it land, I thought, “here will begin the easy ridicule.” I half-hoped the moderator could see it and, seeing it, seized the moment to clear away this distraction in jocular fashion. I knew if the insect landed on Senator Harris, nothing would be made of it – or, if so, only by the cheapest of cheap Trump/Pence supporters. Of course, it showed up brilliantly on Pence’s snow white hair.

Odd thing about flies. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s retelling of the Electra myth, the flies are The Furies. Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote a book of poetry entitled, Seasons of Fury about the troubled world outside his monastery’s walls.

It is, indeed, a troubled season. The monastery beckons.