It was the eve of Thanksgiving was still in the hospital. I was drugged still to stop the pain of the operation. In my bed I suddenly see my doctor in jeans and no lab coat. He looks at no charts which I thought was peculiar. He spoke to no staff but headed straight to my bedside. After the preliminaries he stopped and looked me straight in the eye he said the biopsy for the tonsils had come back negative but, he stopped something was stirring inside him, but I found a mass behind the adenoids and its biopsy was malignant.
He had struggled but the words had come. I sat up in my bed in my drugged stage and slowly let the awareness of what he said wash over me. He fretted out loud I do not think I could have caught it sooner. I have been over and over it in my mind. I started asking questions. At the moment his questioning of himself was not necessary. I needed understanding. But he had given me the information that was known more tests would reveal more. We sat there in brief silence he not knowing much else to say. Me I did not know what question to ask. Finally, he said he wanted to tell me before he left town for Thanksgiving. I thanked him for coming by. He left. His responsibility being completed. I sat up in the bed slowly pondering his words . I thought of my family and how I did not want to ruin their Thanksgiving.
When one hears information like this or bodies and minds do not know what to do next. What do you do when time may have been stolen from you. Every conversation and deed would now have to have an asterisk beside it. Yes, we will have to do that if I am here. If I am not here where will I be. I wanted to grow old with my family. I want and almost need to see who my children became, to hold my wife’s hand as we watched the final sunset pass over our lives, to have crochety old man lunches with my friends, to learn and live a little more on this planet.
Of course, all of this was a bit premature. After all we knew I had cancer but not the seriousness of it. This news would come later T-3 0 is what he said. The cancer was larger than four centimeters making it a stage 3 but it had not spread to other parts of the body making it a 0. The survival rate is well above fifty percent for five years.
Now how do you tell the various groups of people the news. You are reminded of how your life is interweaved through so many others. Book club friends, work friends, places you volunteer, family, personal friends, your wife’s friends, old friends you have not seen in a while, church friends, facebook friends, blog readers, making up your life. Who needs to know and who can find out through the grape vine. It seems immense and constant yet also small and fleeting. The thoughts will I be missed are interwoven with will my life have made a difference in the big scale of things.
You remember the teachings that life is impermanent. You have intellectually always accepted this but now that it is in your face you struggle with this. I do mind dying if that is the course I am to take but I am not necessarily afraid to die. Oh hell who am I kidding I am a little afraid to die. I mean not the peeing in your pants fear but that nagging what the hell comes after this. And hopefully not hell.
I have read hundreds of historical biographies and I have said they all start with a spoiler alert they all die in the end. No matter how great or good the person in the end they have died. And in a sense reading these biographies have impacted the way I view the flow of of life. I do not think it is my time but others who have died have thought this too. I still have projects, goals, dreams and hopes. I have plenty of living yet to do. But as everyone else who has drawn a breath on this sphere I am at the whim of the gods and always have been.
But I now more than ever need to live in each moment. The clock that is always running in the attic of our lives is now obvious to me. A Stoic once said ‘Life is Long if you Know How to use it.’ So my readers let us take a glass of wine and make a toast to living our lives usefully, passionately, and exuberantly.
Okay entrepreneurs, there is a fortune to be made in the medical field. Recently I had an MRI. The machine is much like a coffin only it is shaped in a cylindric style. They give you ear plugs and in my case a face mask to hold my head in place. You lie flat on your back and given a panic button to press and they will come running. At least they say they will come running. I did not know them so how reliable and truthful they are I do not know. Because once the machine slides you into the cylinder you have lost contact with the outside world. In my fertile imagination for the over thirty minutes I was in the machine they were having a toga party. The technician an older woman with a mask on was reassuring me all along the way how everything was going to be all right. It was like the masked bandit robbing the bank who assures you if you are good everything will be fine. Once in the machine you are to stay still and even if you wanted to roam there is no room to. And then the earplugs are found to be necessary. As the machine begins to make noises straight from Star Wars or some other science fiction B movie reality. But what would you expect from a machine called the Tesla MRI. I ask you to think Tesla with his electrical show only this one is with magnets. Maybe to make the machine less threatening they could add a laser show coordinated with the sounds.
I have recently been reading a book on Benjamin Rush, America’s first great physician. Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, reformer for good of mental health hospitals, abolitionist society leader, the promoter of healthy sewage and baths, and many other things. Yet, Rush, to the horror of the modern mind, used a primitive treatment called bloodletting. He swore by it and taught it at the University of Pennsylvania. It was believed that to cure disease you must replace the old blood. The process was to cut the patient so they would bleed to release the infected blood. Eventually when you had bled the patient enough the new good blood would overwhelm the leftover old bad blood. It is said during one of the yellow fever epidemics of Philadelphia Rush would exit the house covered with blood much as you might imagine the Demon Barber of Fleet Street would look after giving a close shave. We would think this tactic very primitive and in fact harmful to the patient. We of course would be right.
It was in this context I started laughing aloud at me in this machine making loud noises from another world. I also began to pick up a rhythm from one of the magnetic noises. It was a definite sound of a zip. So quite naturally I would sing to the zips: zip dee do dah zip dee day. I can only imagine this disturbed the MRI technician. The reason I can only imagine this is the older woman was not there when I exited the machine. Instead a strong young strapping man helped me out of the machine. The older woman was nowhere to be seen.
I am quite sure there is money in them thar hills for someone to make the machine a bit less claustrophobic and a little more appealing to the modern human. Of course someone has tried, there is what they call the open MRI machine. Which you still lie on your back but there is no cylinder to enter. The problem is the images are not as good because the machine is open and the magnetic resonance is not as strong. For now we are stuck with a Tesla MRI and Tesla electrical cars.
The radiation and chemotherapy used to treat cancer will one day seem as primitive as bloodletting. The whole concept is to poison the cancer with radiation and select chemicals. This is a slow poisoning of your body to kill the enemy cancer in your body. The idea is if you can withstand the poisoning of your body longer than the cancer cells you are declared the winner. The person who can find a way to kill cancer cells without poisoning the body will of course be lining their pockets with millions.
I could of course go on but my doctors may accidently read this and be left with a bad taste in their mouths. But the truth is we have come a long way from the Dr. Rush era but we are not quite as far away as we might think.
I was told all systems were go. My sleep apnea surgery was a go. The Monday before Thanksgiving I would be operated on. My favorite minister and good friend in town told me when he heard “Oh wow that is one of the most horrible surgeries to have.’ I now knew why he was such a respected minister; his bedside manner.
I awoke from surgery in a daze. My wife was present and I was told I was in a different wing from the one I was told I would be in. That night I began to choke or so I thought. I politely push the nurse button. No one came. I could see the nurses’ station from my room; I began to scream but I could not. I decided to bang on the mobile tray. I terrified the nurses. Finally, my nurse came. But I knew the nurses at the station would be of no help the rest of the night. Thank god my nurse was there after that incident.
The next day I was feeling a little better but as I laid in my bed I suddenly could hear over the intercom system the hospital staff having a party. You could hear about their dating lives and occasionally talk about patients. I hit the nurses’ button to inform them they were on the intercom. I could hear the nurses talking about me and the call button. It’s probably nothing more than a mistake, do not worry about it. I pushed the call button again. Finally, a nun came. Is there something you need she asked me? I explained that you could hear the staff’s conversations on the intercom. She said if you do not have anything wrong do not hit the call button. The staff were making fun of another patient on the intercom. I waited for the nun to respond but she would not abandon the thin white line. I thought is she the chaplain? My nurse came into the room. I told her what was happening. The nun said he will not quit hitting the call button. My nurse who realized suddenly they were on the intercom looking chagrined started trying to turn off the intercom. After a few minutes she succeeded. I was ready to be at home.
When I arrived home, I asked the girls if they could prepare the bedroom for my needs. Maya (who loves these kind of chores) and Dorothy went at the chore full force. They vacuumed, washed linens, dusted, set up humidifiers, bought Kleenex, scrubbed walls, rearranged furniture, and anything and everything else that could possibly be done. Including two glasses of ice water one by the bed and one by the chair. It was the most love I had felt in a while.
On Thanksgiving Day for the first time in the history of our family my two daughters decided they would do all the cooking. Setting aside their mother in another room and turning the music up they began. And before I knew it they had finished. They had dragged my pain ridden body to the dinner table for the Thanksgiving feast. The spread was glorious sweet potato casserole, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, broccoli casserole, rolls, and stuffed tempeh. It was all there for the taking except I was on a non-solid diet and my throat was in excruciating pain.
As I watched them load their plates with large helpings of a panoply of food I placed two spoonful’s of mashed potatoes, three spoonfuls of sweet potato (not casserole) they had set aside for me, and two microscopic broccoli spears which I mashed up with my fork. I ate slowly and with a baby spoon. Their mmms and how delicious were heard. They taunted me with their huge bites of food and the foods I could not eat. Thirty minutes later when we all had given our thanks for the gifts of last year and they had finished their food, I still ate slowly with my baby spoon.
I added another chapter to my legend as a card player. Drugged out and falling asleep mid-deal I played. They would have to wake me every hand saying Dad your turn to play. I became aware that I was even snoring and the occasionally drool was falling down my chin. About half way through the game in my sleep I became aware of a growing frustration among my fellow card players. They began to make faces and call me names. I was too sleepy to make them stop. I was only aware of my oldest and most competitive daughter throwing her cards down in disgust after each hand.
The problem for them was that although I was a drooling, snoring, mess I was wiping the floor with them, I was inexplicably winning. When this news reached into my semi-conscious state. I awoke enough between snores to ridicule them for letting someone asleep beat them. The tension grew in the room. They tried harder. My lead grew. Until at last I had won. I looked at them with a huge smile on my face rose up form the table and said, ”Pitiful!’. And with the youngest saying that is not nice, I crawled into bed and with a victor’s smile on my face fell asleep.
This Thanksgiving is now in the books. It is probably not the best I have ever had but it may be one of the most memorable.
It was a dry time in my life. I had recently left or was laid off from my workplace of over a decade. All I ever wanted to do in life was to lift up the disenfranchised in our world. This was being taken away from me if I was going to stay in Savannah. There were few agencies that worked with the poor in a way that I could tolerate and I was growing long in the tooth in Savannah. Everyone thought they knew me and saw me as a wide-eyed impractical social worker and advocate. In other words I had pushed a few too many buttons.
So my dream of working with the poor was disappearing. I could not believe fate was begrudging me this one thing I wanted to do. I had led by anyone’s measure successful programs that could measure up to anyone else’s. I did not need a lot of money to make it happen either. Yet there I was left standing with hat in hand and no one interested in my unique calling.
Or course there were reasons for this. Social work was becoming more and more a profession and therefore social work degrees became more and more necessary. I also had chosen not to be ordained because churches were and many still are not ordaining women and gays. So my Master of Divinity was confusing to many without the minister’s club stamp of approval. I was too far outside the box. Even though my box was not too outside. I probably was not the best applicant because up to this point I had always been recruited for my jobs. And the jobs I was recruited for were always exactly what I wanted at that time. Four times I had been recruited. Another issue was I had never wanted to be top dog. I never wanted to be too removed from the poor. It was the only way to keep myself honest and actually in touch with their needs. So I enjoyed the middle management jobs. I was fine managing staff or boards but not at the expense of serving the poor directly. So on one level I became too qualified for the jobs I wanted and the other hand I had done the lateral move too much.
I also was recently divorced and had watched the church I had been president, chairs of committees, and spoke on Sundays crash and burn over control and power. I was not burned out but nothing was on fire for me at the time. So I did what everyone does in their existential crises I went to Boston. Yes that Boston. I spent ten days alone walking the streets, going to museums, and pondering the ways of the world.
One of the reasons I chose Boston was it was the home of the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists Church. The denomination I had been in since I left the Southern Baptists. I had recently found them to have too much Baptist in them. They were in no way theologically alike. But they both lacked love when dealing with each other sometimes. But they did ordain women and gays. Maybe I should join the club and some new doors would be open to me. But one day of emailing and talking made me realize I was not a minister’s club person. I had the qualifications educationally and experientially, but I balked at language that sounded too much like the good old boys club I had resisted my whole life. This was not the way for me.
So who was I, where was I, how was I, and when would I come back. These questions all came rushing forward to me. I had never lacked self-confidence, but I wondered what was the purpose of self-confidence or did it matter I had self confidence in who I was? No one else seemed to care. My values were at once too old fashioned and too radical. I was a conundrum to the world. Maybe I should be to myself.
I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I love arts which for some reason confuses people when I tell them that. But my life has been filled with spending time to myself lost in an art museum looking for answers or new insight. There was an exhibit on Claude Monet’s Haystacks. Now this particular exhibit did not seem to offer much. But I took my zen mode into it and was determined to find the mind of Monet and suddenly I found my own. Monet painted haystacks why? Why not? He could communicate even with haystacks. He did not let the world determine what he painted or ever painted to please the world alone. His haystacks were painted at different times of the day and different seasons of the year. He was showing in plain sight that in each moment there are small often overlooked changes. But even though the haystacks changed they never lost the essence of a haystack. People might not see the differences or even appreciate the nature of haystacks but they still were there for anyone to notice if they were only willing to stop and appreciate them. Haystacks are beautiful and no haystack is exactly like another or the same the next day. Monet was saying there is such beauty we miss because we look in the familiar places which may be all the wrong places. Change your perspectives and you discover something new. Haystacks come and go and yet some stay on walls not only changing from painting to painting but offering change to the person who stands before them.
Even though I had three more days in Boston the spiritual quest I searched for was over. I breathed deeply. I was ready for re-entry to the world even if it did not care. It took awhile to find my footing and I am still never far from the abyss but I am what I am. Even when I am not eating spinach currently.
The world had literally changed. The coastlines of ten years ago were gone as the tide rose. The houses built on the coast had been submerged. Yes even the coastal homes of the rich were no longer there. Thirty percent of Habitable Property had disappeared in ten years as the waters rose. Property values went in reverse. Property on the beach were of no value as they would disappear in a few years and the interior properties that had been more traditionally for the poor were now the most expensive. The poor were now granted the property on the beach. As a matter of fact they were to remain there during the evenings. The rich, afraid of theft and violence, wanted the poor vagabonds to be fenced off from them. A huge debate had ensued when the fence was first proposed. In the end the rich had what they wanted. During the day if you had a worker’s permit you could leave the coastal lands to go into the interior land but must be out before sunset.
The climate change deniers continued. In the end it was the rich who were the climate dangers. The poor had seen their lives dramatically changed and grew to understand that the cause of the change was climate change. The rich because the proposals to stem the tide meant sacrifice and a lower standard of living for them insisted climate change was exaggerated.
Most of the poor did not bother to try to build permanent structures. Instead they would build makeshift homes of driftwood or trash they found on the beach. The more fortunate had sturdy tents. Every night the crowds of poor would jockey for position along the fence. The closer to the fence the less likely when the tide came in they would, in their nomenclature, be ‘sleeping wet’. But always at high tide the water would come rushing on the inhabitants of the beach. So according to how close to the fence you were determined your sleeping position. The farther from the fence the more erect you would remain—standing sometimes in water all night unable to lie down and sleep. The next day a few bodies would be found of those who gave in to the cold water or no longer could stand and drowned. The fortunate were those who slept against the fence in a sitting position. Everyone on the beach prayed for low tide.
Ariel’s life went on this way for five years. Her family had drowned when the hurricanes wiped out two-thirds of the population. After this the outcry had been so great they evacuated the poor to emergency prisons designed to hold the poor. The prisons and their bare minimal offerings helped the rich sleep better at night. But however minimal the prisons they were better than life on the sea. In a social reform moment in the country a lottery program was started to decide which of the beachcombers would be allowed to move to the prisons.
Ariel’s family had won the lottery the day after the hurricane had taken everyone’s life but her. There was a great legal battle whether a five year old could ‘win’ the lottery. Who would take care of her? And was this the best use of a prison home? After all the elite wanted to do the right thing. The wise decision was made and she would be ‘adopted’ by people chosen from another lottery draw.
Now she was never treated as bad as Cinderella but there was neither the warm fuzzies either. And definitely no Prince for her. But when she became of childbearing age she was taken and groomed for these purposes. The population control was important as the land had become so scarce around the world. So, in the more sophisticated countries breeding had become severely monitored and planned. The rich thought this was a benevolent activity as it kept the poor on the coast from overloading the beaches.
Ariel the child who had been removed from the oceanside had her life changed. She had moved to a prison and been chosen to have a child. She was now a mother but one whose child had been adopted from her. The day after birth the newborn was delivered to the infertile couple who lived on the right side of the fence.
She had never been allowed to marry herself because of the fears that if the underclass coupled they would eventually desire to give birth. And this would make for an unnecessary expense and effort for the government to monitor their lives. So, she lived with three other women in a special prison. When she grew past childbearing age she was allowed twenty more years to enjoy life. These twenty years were called the gift years. She was allowed more time and freedom to travel. This was the more than fair award the government gave for use of their wombs all those years.
Usually in their sixties sometimes seventies they were carted away with much secrecy. You see no one knew what happened to the elderly poor. But God was good, and they all eventually learned. They were taken to barren lands where the soil was not good and their bodies were used to fertilize and enrich the soil. They were given the honor to even after death to provide the elite with nourishment as they had in their younger days. It was the full cycle of life.
It is said that because of climate change by the year 2100 Venice could be under water. This is the timeframe in which we have to prevent ‘sleeping wet’.
I have always been amused by people who do not have a sense of direction. My mother was notorious; she once got lost on a trail that was a loop. We found her at last in the middle of the trail. Apparently, she would start one way and would find it unfamiliar and turn back only to turn back again when she found the ground unfamiliar. She had traveled back and forth over the same quarter of the mile path for over an hour. You would have thought by that time something in that quarter mile would have seemed familiar. And it did as several people in our rather large group passed her.
My wife is another one with a terrible sense of direction. I was tired, and she was driving. I told her to wake me up before we enter Macon and I would guide her through the highway connections to get us to Atlanta. From Savannah to Macon is only one highway: I 16. So it was with confidence that I went to sleep. And I did sleep for about forty-five minutes. When I awoke nothing seemed right. I asked her if she had gotten off I 16. And she said with a question in her voice ‘I do not think so’. Finally, a highway sign appeared and indeed she had managed to exit I 16 going west and was on I 95 going north. We were not headed to Macon but instead Walterboro.
Of course I have my own story of losing my sense of direction and showing I have no sense at all. My brother and sister-in-law had been married ten years, this I knew. But what I did not know was that my nephew was coming up on his eleventh birthday. So I in total confidence told my sister-in-law she must be mistaken and they had been either married twelve years or my nephew was only ten. I saw no other way forward. My sister-in-law looked at me totally bemused and said no what she said was right. As I continued to argue my case she gave me looks of befuddlement, bewilderment, puzzlement and bafflement as I continue to declare her wrong. My older brother, her husband who was in the room the whole time but watching a football game, turned and looked at me with total disgust in his eyes and his words dripping with disdain said, “Shut up Mike and think real hard how that could be.”
I stopped and thought very carefully about the birth of my nephew and the wedding of my brother. I remembered my father said it was not a shotgun wedding but might as well have been. And then gradually the light of truth fell upon me. I looked at the two of them. My face was red. I bowed my head down and looked at the floor. I was a freaking seminary student in my twenties and could not figure this puzzle out. My older brother shook his head and puffed out a sigh of dismay. My sister-in-law was looking over at my nephew to see if he had been listening. He had not.
I started to explain myself and realized this was not the time. I apologized meekly and left the room. Some people have no sense of direction and others of us have no sense at all. I leave it to you to decide which category I fell in that day.
Seminary for me was a spiritual journey. It led me deeper into my faith to see what I believe and what really mattered to believe. Seminary was also a place for pious people although I saw few. There were a lot of folk talking the language but it was as much about gaining power as it was anything. The times were changing and the once proud highly regarded academic institution was being challenged by the fundamentalist takeover. Within five years after I graduated only one professor would be left standing and the institution had flipped to a fundamentalist bastion. Gone were the female professors, gone were the suspected departments of arts and theology and the social work department, gone were the conservative professors who did not toe the fundamentalists’ line.
I knew the liberals would lose the struggle when I went to the student-led evangelical forum. It was a lively meeting with singing, amening, backslapping, and fervent prayers and energy like nothing I had ever seen. They also had a big budget since they brought in the biggest names in Baptist life. When I went to the more liberal ethics forum the energy was not present. The singing was absent. The speakers talked to the heads and not the hearts. They were every bit as fervent but very low key about it.
Although it was a conservative seminary back in the good old days they taught all the views. So even though the professors were conservative for the most part I could discover and chase the more radical theologians. This was what I thought learning was about. Not to give a formula but information for you to build your own faith with fear and trembling.
I had one class called Church Planting in which the professor proclaimed that birds of a feather flocked together. Meaning you should target a group that had similarities to each other. Middle class whites would not want to do church with blacks, or lower income whites. He said he would not hear any arguments counter to this. I wrote him a note after class and said my theology and experience with church was not analogous with this way of thinking. I would continue in the class but would not do assignments that said target a group and plan the services and programming accordingly. I said I would rather fail then participate in such. During the rest of the class I would challenge him with notes on the test about questions and their validity. I would always write something challenging the mantra of the class. Most of the tests were about nomenclature and what authors said so I always made good grades. It was the final assignment, the one mentioned above, which counted for fifty percent of the grade that I refused to do. So I wrote a one page note saying why I could not entertain doing something I felt was unbiblical and even heretical. This would be one grade I did not want to see. To my surprise when I got my grade back I received an A. There was no explanation just the grade. One encounter we had may have explained the grade. I once said in class birds of a feather may flock together but immune systems are healthiest when they have contact with all species. He looked at me and smiled and said, “maybe so but this is what is required of me to teach.”
Probably the highlight of my seminary career was in a Modern Theology class, which for the fundamentalist was a subject that was questionable on the surface. All we needed was that old-time religion and no modern thought. So, of course instead of avoiding it fundamentalists flocked to the class. They were always looking for a fight. They were taking over the denomination and the seminary. They were cocky and sure of themselves. One of the class assignments was to pick a modern theologian, present the views and debate with the other three students who had their own theologian. I chose Rudolf Bultmann the most liberal of the four not because of that but no one else wanted to do him. So I made the sacrificial choice.
To my surprise I enjoyed Bultmann. He was part of the Confessing Church. The Confessing Churches were the few churches that resisted Nazism in Germany. They opposed the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and the setting up of Anglos as the master class. He in my opinion had earned the right to be heard. His controversial teachings were to declare the Bible full of myths and that to fully understand the Bible it must be demythologized. Myths had meanings but not the surface meaning too many clung to. Now this did and does create quite the stir in many churches. But he wanted the modern church to not feel removed from the church of the apostles where miracles happened. The Spirit of God was still alive and accessible to us just like the apostles of old.
The other three students and myself made our presentations and debated each other. I think I took it more seriously than they did, because I was beating them in the debate rather easily which should not have been the case. The professor then turned to the other students in the class and allowed them to ask us questions. Because Bultmann was anathema in their eyes and I was winning the debate they circled around me.
They challenged Bultmann’s demythologizing of the Bible. After a while I asked everyone if they really believed that at Jesus’ death the day went to night, an earthquake happened, the curtain that separated the tabernacle tore in half and that the dead rose and walked among the living. The dead walked around and we hear nothing about it but in this one gospel.
‘Do you not find it strange, I said, ‘The dead rising would not have been recorded anywhere else but Matthew. I personally find this hard to believe.’ Not one hand came up to say they believed this. Except for an older man who was a Church of God pastor almost reluctantly put his hand up. I felt sorry for him he was already in enemy territory because Baptists did not have a lot of respect for the Church of God.
I then proceeded, 'Isn’t it a more important message that we each can have the same spirit come to us of the man who died on the cross. We do not have to pine “Give me that old time religion” longing for something that will never be but we can belt out of tune ‘he lives within me.” The doubters who had felt uncomfortable with raising their hands to believing the dead rose and only one person talked about it were relieved. I gave them a message they could amen and move quickly away from their doubting.
After this several professors would greet me in the hall with “Good Morning Professor Bultmann.” Of course this may have been because they could not remember my name. But this experience taught me something that sometimes in the midst of life if we let our guard down and can show our doubts. And in this we all could find grace together even if we have vast theological differences. I also will always remember the brave old outcast Church of God minister who despite the feared ostracization spoke out. It was clear to me of all of us he would have been the most likely member of the Confessing Church who spoke out against Hitler.
I have recently watched two good movies about Christopher Robin of Winnie the Pooh fame. Both were about the loss of wonder, time, and innocence and a need to find them again. And it reminded me that although not as bucolic as Christopher Robin’s woods I had my own 100 acre wood growing up in a small town. My 100 acre woods was in Boaz, Alabama; it consisted of a vacant lot next door with weeds three foot high. A drainage creek behind the house. A bridge across the creek that led to a big backyard that while mowed did not have an obvious owner. A huge maple tree in the front yard. The big pipes the creek flowed through that went under the road that led to the other side of the road I was not to cross. The store at the end of the block. Football field across the street.
In the middle of the weeded lot my friend and I had dug a hole that literally was neck deep and wide enough to hold four people. It was our fort. When we first started digging we did think we might hit China but eventually we decided it must be further down than we knew. When we were in our fort (or as some might call it: hole) we could not be seen by anyone. Although there were a few trails through the weeds, we were pretty much the only ones who would bother to go into the three foot high weeds. Our parents would stand at the edge of the lot and yell it was supper time but they would never venture in to the weeds.
Our favorite exit from the weeded lot was a path we had created next to the drainage ditch or creek as we called it. When the water was shallow we could walk on the slope that led down to the water. This enabled us to not be viewed. We could hide from friends and families for hours without anyone knowing how close we were to them. After you came to the end of the path you would have my backyard which I thought was huge. In our backyard we had a basketball goal and a slab of pavement to play. Our dog was usually tied to a long chain next to his doghouse. And there was the old truck that was one day going to be repaired. This was the part of the 100 acre woods where if we were not quick or lingered we could be spotted and the demands of chores would come crushing forth. But if we hurried past and went back into the ditch three houses down was the bridge to cross the creek. Once you cross the creek we were in a neighbor’s backyard but they had subdivided their yard with a fence leaving an area that no one used where we could set up camp where we were almost invisible.
Because the bridge was not known, we could avoid even friends who knew of our fort and paths in the weeds. We became experts in stealth. On days we were more adventuresome we could go in the opposite direction from the house. The weeds would carry you all the way to the street we were not supposed to cross because it was ‘busy’. Two cars passed every half hour. But we did not have to cross the road because the creek had huge drainage pipes we could crawl or walk under the road. The only problem was we never knew if we would encounter a rat, raccoon, or dog. On occasion we were stuck on the wrong side of the street and needed to be home but our path was blocked by a territorial animal who thought we had no business in their cave. This led to us arming ourselves with sticks and stones and rushing at the animals but on two occasions the animals did not run but held their ground and we had to retreat. One time a dog charged us and we found out quickly that although we were loyal friends there were times when it was every boy for himself.
It was with fear and trembling that we would cross the forbidden road rather than go back through the cave. We knew if a grown-up or other family member saw us we were doomed. The caves were saved for exceptionally boring days.
There were two other parts of the woods. There was the huge maple tree that stood in the front of our house. It was an extension of the woods. I climbed high into the tree seeing the whole of my domain. But here you constantly were obliged to interact with family and friends as they passed. The other extension was the store at the end of our street. It was there we kept up our supply of baseball cards, army men, balls, and ice cream. To be granted the right and money to cross the road and buy anything we wanted was the thrill of a lifetime.
I sometimes dream of my 100 acre wood. Always upon waking I feel a joy. It was a mysterious time full of wonders. It was a break before the onset of responsibility and young adulthood. I know people say I still stay in the weeds and never come out. They also say that I can make drainage ditches into creeks. And some say that I like keeping out of sight too much. But no matter what may be said, that place that time shaped me.
I have not been feeling well since the great swelling of face incident (see blog entry 2-10-2018) so the doctor is running tests of all kinds to find the ailment to address. So first up was allergy tests in four basic allergy groups. Of these groups they would test for 39 items in these groups. So first they prick with a needle with elements from each of the four groups to see which groups you are impacted by. I had the pleasure of being impacted with all four groups. Thus I had 39 needle pricks to endure. During this time the first nurse I had contact with comes in the room and looks at the thirty nine pricks on my arm and goes oh my with big eyes. Yes as usual I tested near perfect with 38 of the 39 being positive.
The message to me is I am allergic to the world. The nurse tells me I can be impacted by these allergens if I am within twenty miles of them. I am allergic to dogs, cats, and horses. And the one I would never have guessed oak trees. I scrunched up my nose and said, ‘How am I going to find twenty degrees of separation from an oak tree in Savannah? Am I never to see the outside again?’. She shrugged and did not answer.
They have declared the world a threat to me. Which I knew. The world is dangerous; Donald Trump is president after all. But no that is not what they mean. I am to believe Trump is not a threat but oak trees are. I beg to differ.
Next up is sleep apnea tests. Let me describe how they set up the sleeping tests. First they apply electrodes to your head, chest, arms, legs, and all over your face. You have dozens of wires connected to you. Basically the test is how many electrodes can you place on one human being. They also have chest and waist belts to hold the wires together of the connected electrodes. But of course they start with telling you to walk down long abandoned halls. Until you come to a place you have never been before in a room moved far away from anyone and sleep. And yes there will be a stranger there watching you as you sleep. And yes he is in control of all the electrodes connected to your body. This procedure could not have been better designed than a Wes Craven horror movie. Sleep tight and the bed bugs biting will be the least of your problems
I have not been assigned treatment for the apneas yet. I hear it may involve slicing my throat and placing a mask on my face. This is not a joke, it is a real possibility they have suggested. They have also suggested I have a deviated septum. I will have them know my septum is not the only deviated part of me. My mind is full of all sorts of deviant thoughts especially after my apnea and allergy tests. Maybe like cancer my deviated septum has spread to my mind.
So what does this all mean to me. I am determined to stay in this world but only as a hermit in a hermetically sealed room with rubber walls. So if in the future you wonder ‘Where has Michael gotten himself off to?’ Just know I have gone away that I may prepare a room for you.
I sometimes revert to my Seminary self and write stories of John the Baptist and Jesus growing up together. Afterall they were cousins and we have little of their stories before they are grown men.
The summer had been a long hot one. John and Jesus had played, worked, prayed, argued, and stayed in each other’s company for most of it. Elizabeth and Zechariah had felt John would do well to spend time in the country. He was becoming a leader already and he was too young for that. Besides Jesus could use some help running his father’s carpentry shop. It was Sabbath and they were returning from a most uneventful synagogue service. They were grateful to be out in the open air sitting in a shade tree next to a small creek. Occasionally they would skip rocks but mostly they lounged in the shade.
“John, I am no good at being religious. I am too poor to buy myself into spiritual respectability. My heart is not in the ceremonial laws of washing and cleansing. The only reason I do them is the hassle I would receive if I did not. I appreciate the laws that are about interactions with others and the world but the rest of it does not mean much.” John laughed,” Now you know Jesus my father is a Levite. I have been trained all my life to be a priest and here you go making light of it”
‘No John. I would never make fun of our religion.’ Jesus said with shocked dismay.’ You are such a devotee to our faith. You never roll your eyes at the rabbis or say they are full of camel dung. Not you John you take it hook, line, and sinker. Why they even call you John the Devout” They laugh.
Jesus in a more solemn voice announced, ” The most religious person I ever met was a prostitute.” John gasped,” Now I know people who claim they have glory hallelujah moments when they visit prostitutes but I have never heard anyone say they are the righteous of Israel. You need to explain yourself brother.”
Jesus paused and began with a serious tone, ” You remember when I was sixteen and my father died? It really hurt inside. there wasn’t a better man than him. You know people are always calling me the bastard of Nazareth, that didn’t matter because Joseph was always there and such a good father to me. The day I found him in the carpenter’s shop about where you are he was slumped over his work table. I held him in my arms for at least an hour crying before I told anyone I had found him dead. When word got out that my father died, the professional mourners came but when they realized we could not pay they soon left. A priest came but when he realized I had touched a dead body and had not made myself ceremoniously clean he refused to talk to me. I needed a word from that priest but he was more concerned about ceremony than the hurting child I was. I could not take it anymore.
Mary was sad but her friends had gathered around her to support her. I was now the man of the house; I needed to act it. Yet I felt like a child. I wanted air to breathe to be away from all of this death. I left the house and I wandered aimlessly through Nazareth. I searched for something or someone to console me until I was exhausted. Tired I flopped on the ground and cried in the middle of Nazareth. People passed me and stared but did not stop. Finally, a good neighbor woman sat down beside me and asked if she could help. When I looked up I saw someone whom everyone proclaimed a prostitute.
We sat there for maybe ten minutes before I started talking. I told her of my father, the mourners, the priest, the bastard of Nazareth (which she told me was mild to what she had been called). We laughed. A part of me said I should not be speaking to this woman because of her reputation but she was being kind when no one else was. She did not care I had no money or was unclean. She saw a hurting boy and she held him in her arms. She held me by the face and said, ”Tell the priest to go to hell. I tell you he has spent many an unclean night with me. He cannot counsel you about life because from what I know he is pretty lifeless in the netherworld. Honey I know how it is to be dead and how it is to be alive. I know when you feel dead inside you need someone to wrap their arms around you and whisper sweet nothings in your ear. But I have also found if you go home, lock yourself in a room with God sometimes God speaks. God will hold your deadness and your good father will hold you tight in his arms for good people always are there in the shadows holding us in our time of need. Your relationship will be different with your father but not lost.’
So that is what I did, John. I locked myself in my room and cried all night until I passed out. When I woke up I do not know how to explain it but I realized I had a new father and he would never be taken away from me. That was the day I realized all our ceremonies, our right words, our right theology, our rightness did not matter. If our rightness prevents us from holding people in need in our arms our religion is dead.”
A silence followed. John finally broke the silence,’ I agree but I still am not going to hug you,” he said as he slapped Jesus hard on the back. ‘Now come along Mr. Morose and see if you can beat my ten skips across the pond.’ “It was eight,” Jesus replied. “What a shame you seem to have so much soul and yet you cannot count.” They ran to the lake and skipped stones across the lake but they knew their faith was changing them in ways that left them fearful and hopeful.