Been there

Overheard in LaGuardia Airport in the United terminal; woman on cellphone:


“New York is frickin’ insane!  Crowded…noisy… Oh, and we went to the Museum of Modern Art – the ‘MahMA’ – and saw a Picasso…and an original Monet.”


Coulda been a fish fry

Walking into Cartier to order invitations for a work dinner to be held in London, I immediately felt more important than I really was or am.


I was directed through the main room, up the three stairs to the right, and to a small elevator that held approximately two people:  the young man in a grey suit who ran the elevator, and moi.  I really did feel important.  “Second floor, please.”  (It only went to the second floor.)


Off on Floor Two – “premier étage” – I found my way to a room where it was all about stationery.  A Japanese lady who was about 7 feet tall with blonde highlights came in and asked how I could be helped.  Then…my hoity-toity started…


“Well, we’re doing a dinner…in London…,” I began.  Like the location really mattered to her.  It could as well have been a fish fry at the Cracker Barrel in Passaic, New Jersey.


The invitations were still going to cost $55 for a box of 10.





photo:  photografee

They were better than the poodle

After church last night we went to Big Nick’s for dinner.  Found a table outside that happened to be next to a woman who told us that she had three daughters and three grandsons.  She said, as we were ordering our food, that our boys were very well behaved.


“I have a little house,” she told me, aside, “up near the Berkshires.  There was a lady out walking her poodle, you know, the larger kind, a standard.  Well, it was racing up to me and she called its name and it just…stopped.  Right there.  In front of me.”  She paused and looked at me.  “I’m not drawing comparisons between the poodle and your sons, but…” and she let me fill in the blank.  I spent the rest of the meal making sure the boys behaved as well as the standard poodle of her story.


Her hair was close-cropped and gray, like I imagine Nero’s was, but she was a lot friendlier than Nero was supposed to have been.  Her food came:  a gigantic roast beef contraption on a hoagie roll.  She must have ordered it so there’d be leftovers.





photo:  wEnDaLicious

Floating next to Dad

Trust has been on my mind lately.  I had to trust Dad once during a segment of my sailing test out at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.  To avoid wearing a life preserver during sailing class – and wearing one of these during the summer when you are 12 and around girls in bikinis is essentially like wearing an adult diaper…same result and social-life-ending event – part of the swim test was to tread water for 30 minutes.


I failed the first time.


Then Dad, who must have spoken with the Yacht Club captain, offered to do the test alongside me – nay, coaxed me, goading me perhaps in my adolescent vanity, but achieving the desired effect.


We jumped off the end of the berm inside the boat basin, a rectangle that jutted north about one hundred yards into the Great South Bay and about 75 wide, with a 12-foot opening for the blue and white ferry that left from Bay Shore to bring us to this idyllic Atlantic setting.


Dad had always been a good floater, which was somewhat extraordinary for his body type:  essentially a thin man in the arms and legs, neck and chest, with a pot belly borne of years of hors d’oeuvres and no formal exercise regimen.  He told me more than once that as a child he often dreamed of being locked not in a candy store at night, but a delicatessen.  Simply loved pickles from a barrel.  Odd guy.


He reminded me to do the dead man float – on your stomach, lifting your head to the side for breath at regular intervals – and tried to get me to float on my back.  Alas, I had not had the stuffed mushroom caps he had had over the years, and I was quite the wrestler, skateboarder and ocean lover, so floating on my back was a bit like placing a paperclip on the surface of the water.


You weren’t allowed to swim, as I recall, just float.  But we talked, or rather he talked and I mainly listened and, I’m sure, complained, if I remember being a 12-year-old at all.  Through it, he encouraged me, didn’t let me quit.  He checked his watch for me every five minutes.  I wanted to quit constantly.  He didn’t let me.


It was not the biggest test or grandest victory I have had in my life.  But it was one of the few that my father actually participated in that I still recall today.  It was one of the longest activities that we did together.  Other than walking me to pre-school when I was five, when I remember mainly taking two steps to his one, down the 12 blocks from 96th and Madison to 84th and Park, family dinners, and his lectures, which seemed to extend into a measurement of hours or perhaps weeks, I cannot recall any activities – any one-on-one events – that took 30 minutes or longer.


What stands out in my memory is not so much that I passed the test – for I ultimately did not marry any of the girls I was trying not to let see me in an adult diaper, and I am still friends to this day with the guys among my group who might have laughed at a life preserver – but rather that Dad was with me.


He went through exactly what I did, though it was probably not all fun for him, and though as a self-conscious and self-absorbed boy I probably did not heap praise and thanks on him that day or in any day to come.  No, he did it out of love, expecting nothing in return from me.  He did it for me and with me.


He gained little to nothing.



photo:  (nz)dave

like his Camel filterless cigarette

There is a smell I don’t smell anymore since moving to New York, and I miss it.

It was the decades-old mahogany wood paneling of a foyer in a building at the school I used to work at.  The “Retreat House” was the president’s home and student residence on the campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary that was used half a century ago by groups of Catholics enjoying spiritual retreats.  The 117-acre property and its facilities, including Retreat House, were purchased by the current school’s trustees in 1969.

Whenever I walked into Retreat House, I smelled the entrance of my grandparents’ house in Warwick, Rhode Island.  It was a “spitting-image” likeness, and I found myself relaxing as I walked into work-related events there, even if I dreaded the actual event, because that smell was so evocative.  It was a smell that spoke of love around the corner, coming out of the library to the right, a wrist jangling with gold bracelets and a grandmother smile, a two-week summer vacation filled with swimming in pools, fishing for rainbow trout but letting Poppa do the work while Jim and I ate all the Dunkin Donuts we’d bought, and going to my grandfather’s chicken farm to feed and weigh them, and perhaps watch him shoot an egg-stealing rat with his .22.

Smells like that can’t be kept and stored for future enjoyment.  They diminish and then fade – like the vocabulary of a foreign language you learn and forget – and only resurface when you least expect it.  It is a gift of remembrance.


Bootless cries

I cried out to God this morning and was surprised to hear not a thunderous response, nor a stern rebuke, nor a gentle cooing, but rather a velvet hush.  No, “hush” is too soothing, and “velvet” is too luxuriant.  It was more like a Mona-Lisa-smile of a sound.  No judgment, one way or the other.  Ambivalent.  Not uncertain but, rather, indiscernible.  Known by the other, hidden from the viewer.  Or perhaps it was like the sound of a kindly older relative, tapping her finger on the armrest of an oak rocking chair.  Not clearly directed at her audience, perhaps in response to some other thought, or memory, or hope, she happens to be considering at that same moment.  Not negligent in the strict sense.  Just otherwise engaged.


This made me quite angry.


I kept praying, waiting for something…anything.  I was in pain and I thought I had come to my Father in heaven and would get…comfort? ease?  lightness of spirit?  peace?  Yes, peace.  Peace is what I see promised all over Scripture.  And I also read about how if we come near to God, he will come near to us.  And how Jesus stands at the door knocking and if we answer he will come in and dine with us.  Sit down at the table and feast, convivially, joyfully.


But here I experienced none of that.


Rather, I completed my time, pried away from where I sat by the clock and not sated by any consummation, feeling like the writer of the 88th psalm, in which the closing line reads “…and darkness is my closest friend.”  This is actually one of my favorite psalms if not my favorite, since it aptly describes these times best, when after all my pleading and crying and begging, I face only…that ambivalent stare, that finger-tapping, from heaven.  It also reminds me that I’m not completely crazy.  Someone else – yes, even if it’s only one other human in history, who happened to have pen and paper – experienced what I am experiencing.


Shakespeare once lamented that he would “trouble deaf heaven with [his] bootless cries.”  I don’t claim heaven – or God – is deaf.  No, but on days like today it becomes even more painful to know that God hears – God hears, knows, sees everything; of that I have no doubt – and does not answer me clearly.  How dare he.  He owes me something.  Anything.  He owes me, his child, an answer.  Or so this mad rage reasons in my mind.


Usually the tears themselves are cleansing.


But this morning, they were just the precursor to the tapping, the stare.  I wept and wept for a few minutes, feeling like my tears themselves would melt his heart, that certainly now I would have some answer that eluded me moments before.  After all, didn’t my own sons get results when they turned on the waterworks and asked for dessert?…another two minutes at video games?…to stay up five minutes longer before lights out?  (And the truth is, to my shame, they too often do get results this way.)


I wanted a word…anything.  A simple word.


And there, in the tapping, I didn’t get a word but rather a reminder.  The writer of Psalm 88 acknowledges at the beginning that the Lord is the “God who saves” him.


The psalmist gave me the vine that was draped over the edge of the cliff I felt I was hanging from.  There was no doubt in there being a cliff, or that I was hanging, or that if I let go, I would fall.  But the vine was rooted in something I could trust.  The vine would hold, whether I believed it would or not.  So long as I held on to it, it would hold me up.


This God, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it…this God who was silent before me, by his own choosing, expressed his Being-ness to me.  His certainty.  His absolute reality.


This was the great “I AM” who held me up.  Here was the greatest of all realities, who created all the realities I trusted implicitly around me – air, carpet, coffee and pajamas – and who was pointing to his presence as enough for me.  And by no means was it a ponderous wave of knowledge that came over me.  It was more like a stubborn fact.


In that moment and the moments following, even to the moment now as I write, he did not give me a word but rather gave me himself to rely on.  The faith he was calling me to have as I wiped useless tears from my cheeks was to believe in him as enough, his reality as true, his completeness and his goodness and his ultimate control, as sufficient to carry me through.  No word about me or for me, no gentle breeze blowing in my ear with a reminder about some verse or doctrine, no vague sense of peace and well-being.  Only a pointer to himself.  A picture of One who is.  One who is, regardless of my belief or doubt in his Is-ness.


There is much more to say about him – what he gave up because of his love for me and others – but that’s not what’s in question here.  His love is not in question, his love is not on trial.


I was looking for an answer, a response, a sign, a signal, a knowing look, a comforting…feeling.  What I received was:  I AM.


It was enough for today.



photo:  Myles Smith; Clickr Clickr

“One small step for man…”

She always said, “Don’t walk out five minutes before the miracle happens.”  Harriett (not her real name) was morbidly obese, probably around 300, 350, and she drove a yellow Pinto station wagon she’d bought for $200 from a friend in her AA meeting group.  Her husband, after they had divorced, had been executed for a capital crime.  But Harriett loved Jesus and had built her life around him, convinced that even though she lived in public housing and her washer kept overflowing and her car listed along State Route 1632 in Morrow, Georgia, she was bound for glory and nothing could get her down.


Don’t walk out…


She had told me this sitting in Riverwoods, a private hospital behind what is now Southern Regional Medical Center and which caters to those about to walk out early.  I had lapsed quickly into a manic state, March 1995, not ten days after being released from that same hospital, after the minivan that she and I were passengers in, and driven by an AA friend, backed into a metal stanchion in a McDonald’s parking lot.  For some reason, that jarring, though it did little damage to the car’s fender, pushed me over the edge.  So much so that five minutes later I thought I saw my parents’ deceased cat, Pippin, sitting on a car hood in front of a house.  It was an altogether different breed as it turned out, which I learned only after stepping out of the minivan door to inspect it more closely while saying, with a straight face, “One small step for man…”, and believing I was entering a new universe that had different air quality and chemical composition.


Harriett and I sat in an examination room at Riverwoods and she spoke to me about God.  She told me what it was like to have God’s arms wrapped around you.  To hear his voice.  To know his love.  I looked at her, wrapped in excess flesh, and saw a splendid soul peering back.  While I’m sure she had a cross word for her enemies – for none of us are without sin, I’m to understand – I for one never heard her say anything harsh about anyone.


I often hear this remark of hers – “Don’t walk out…” – reverberating in my mind during hard times like late last week, when I had the first bout of depression since this new doc increased one of my medications, allowing me six weeks of depression-free living, a first since moving back to the city in December of last year.  Before mid-July, every two weeks or so I’d feel like my mind was walking out, even if my body and soul were staying put.


Harriett laughed well, and when she did, she revealed corroding teeth, all of them present, but yellowed, usually caked in food particles.  Her gums extended down, it seemed, so you saw more pink than enamel.  Or maybe it was that her lips curled back more than most people’s.




photo:  fdecomite