The Sweet Shoppe

“Take off this stuff about writing poetry, and add in something about church,” he said, handing me my résumé across his desk.

I had graduated with an English degree and was spiritually curious but decidedly agnostic, despite the president’s popular far-right stances and his wife’s naïve “Just Say No” campaign, both wrapped in an understanding of religion like an assassin in a monk’s habit.

“That doesn’t matter,” he retorted, referring to my spiritual state. “They’ll look for some kind of church involvement.”

ice cream - Peggy CollinsHe was a fellow surfer, whom I’d known for a few years during high school and then college, and now I was turning to him for job-seeking advice. He later suggested to several of us one Saturday afternoon—all much younger than he—that we consider sinking a few old boats offshore from our shared beach community in order to create a reef, which would trap and build up the sand and result in year-round waves. As a 20-something party boy, I didn’t bother to wonder whether this was legal. I cared only if he had enough money to do it.

It never happened.

To my knowledge.

There in his office, floor to ceiling glass behind me but still feeling like a cage, he told me to lie while not one hair of his slicked-back sandy blonde hair moved. His midnight blue shirt had thin white stripes; his yellow tie was fastened tight up to a starched white collar, and a silver collar bar restrained the knot.

Years later, having had a spiritual conversion to Christianity, I and my wife decided we wanted to purchase pew Bibles for the beach community’s quaint church, which had worship services from the last Sunday in June through Labor Day. Visiting ministers would preach one, two or even three Sundays, as in the case of the well-known former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who always packed the house. Later these ministers might be seen on the cocktail party circuit, or in Bermuda shorts at the club, which perpetually was threatened or washed away in hurricanes and nor’easters over the decades of this century-old community.

One minister would perform baptisms in the ocean; he had a handlebar mustache and an infectious smile. Another looked like Santa Claus. I asked him prior to my senior year of college, “Why don’t you tell everyone what you really believe?”

“Because,” he answered slowly, “if I did, they wouldn’t invite me back, and I want to be able to minister to them over the long haul.”

I sang in the children’s choir at this summer community, and the organist and choir director taught all twenty or so of us kids to have all forty or so eyes trained on her at all times. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem” and other anthems, and after Friday afternoon rehearsals we’d each get a ticket for a free ice cream at the Candy Store—or the “sweet shoppe,” as my friend’s British nanny would call it. Mary—“Mother Mary,” as those of us who went on to sing in the adult choir would call her—taught us to hear our singing from where the congregation sat. From the pews.

Annunciate the “t” at the end of words. Soften or drop the “s” at the end, so that we don’t have mass hissing. Drop our jaws when singing “slumbers” (“not, nor sleeps”) and gloss over the “l.”

Thursday night rehearsal was worship in itself.

And in those pews there were hymnals but no Bibles. So it seemed fitting that a useful gift to the church would be enough copies of that tool, so that people hearing the sermon, and especially those preached by Mary’s husband, now deceased, but who came closest to telling me those truths I needed to hear but didn’t want to hear, could follow along. These were, after all, highly educated and literate folk. You’d imagine that the corporate attorneys in the room—there were not a few—would want to cross-reference the source if they heard something they might object to.

To discuss the gift, I called the Church Committee Chairperson, who at the time was the wife of the fellow surfer in the slick-backed hair, the man in the glass cage, the man with the restrained yellow tie who wanted to sink ships to get consistent waves and who told me to lie about my salvation. I told her over the phone about the gift, and that we wanted to memorialize the man who told me Truth.

There was a pause on her end.

“Now… ‘pew bibles,’” she started. “Are these associated with some kind of denomination?”

I told her that they were not, and described that they could be any one of a number of modern translations. That they typically sat in shelves behind the pews or could be stacked at the ends of the pews.

She needed time to figure out how this could work.

A week later she called and said that, unfortunately, it would cost too much money to retrofit the shelves to hold the Bibles. As to my alternate suggestion for stowage, neither was there enough room at the end of each pew to stack them.

The man who told me the truth that crushed me to life had died, and others who had sprinkled it on my tongue to make me thirsty had retired, but others—including Bishop Spong for at least a few more years—continued to come and offer their messages, which were ravenously consumed week after week. Hurricanes and nor’easters continued to ravage the beach and reclaim the dunes and toy with the houses as though they were made of Lego, and the men continued to come and preach their messages to the smiling women and men who packed the pews.

The service would end promptly at eleven.

Many would shake hands quickly on their way out, because they were due at the courts and needed time to bike home first and change into tennis whites.

photo: Peggy Collins

Don’t stare…

On Singing Beach today, apparently there was an eight-year-old boy running around who was … under-clothed.  Grossly under-clothed.  As in, wearing his birthday suit.  The Lovely K, who tonight reported this at dinner, said she saw the father and that he didn’t seem to care.  She said he looked … European.

I declared that any kid over two, or at least three, should wear a bathing suit on the beach.  This was my Puritan Mean Streak coming out and, dadgum it all, I want the beach to be free of all naked third graders.

My brother Jim and I happened upon a beach in Nice in 1985 where we were staying with a family whose matron was in 100607rebeka303.jpgmy college speech class and whose husband had been reassigned to IBM’s Raleigh, North Carolina office for four years.  At the end of the course, the woman invited any and all comers to join her if any of us found ourselves on the Riviera.  One year later, I had graduated, and the gift from my parents for successfully applying their tuition funds against documentable coursework was a trip to Europe for six weeks, where I would join Jim in Rome, where he was for a semester, and we’d take the “Grand Tour” (as WASPs call it) up through Europe, terminating in London.

The beach in Nice was basically every American young man’s dream, with all females over a certain age grossly under-clothed, even partaking in windsurfing while grossly under-clothed.  It was enough to make any Puritan become a French existentialist.  It was at these times when I guess it was okay for Europeans to be Europeans.

There was also the time in 1990 when I was on the Costa del Sol near Fuengirola, Spain, and there was rare surf.  I, anticipating my time with the Europeans would call for a change in beach couture, had packed only a speedo, thinking this was de rigueur.  Wearing this, I got the courage to ask a local surfer – who, with his friends, were all wearing classic, baggy, Californian-style surf trunks – whether I could rent his board for an hour for a few pesetas (this is pre-euro).

I thought I had learned my lesson and from then on wore my speedo only when I swam laps.  Then, two summers ago, I was at the local pool in Texas near my in-laws’ house, and my father-in-law had invited me to go work out with the after-school team.  I was, of course, wearing the speedo.  All the young boys were wearing the knee-length suits, a la Michael Phelps.  They were gathering in small groups, staring at me, and snickering.

Whether it’s Manchester-by-the-Sea, Nice, Fuengirola or Kerrville, I seem to be out of rhythm with beachwear.  I think I will stick to indoor activities when in doubt.

photo:  rebeka303

Yankee times

Now with 11 days remaining until I start the new job in NYC, I have started a list of “Things I will remember about New England”:

1. Practicing koine Greek vocabulary for class while sitting on Singing Beach in Manchester, with Carter as an infant in his car seat under a multi-colored umbrella.

2. Apple picking with Carter and Bennett at Honeypot Hill Orchards in Stow, where they also sell pumpkins and cider donuts, and where I discovered Empire 090607a-kartha.jpgapples.

3. Buying groceries from Crosby’s in Manchester, where each Friday afternoon there is a harpist playing, whose harp amazingly stays in tune though there’s a draft from the refrigerated area of the produce section.

4. Watching a red-tailed hawk go after a seagull on an open field.  Perhaps you think this a bit of morbid fascination, but for a city kid, this was a pretty awesome sight.

5. Eating fried clams at Woodman’s.

6. Surfing at Good Harbor Beach with Scott.

7. Having a 6-minute commute from our side of town to work over at the seminary, 8 minutes if the train comes through as I cross Route 1-A.

8. Watching Fourth of July fireworks with the boys and Karen out in Pepperell and being in a crowd that feels more like an entire town rather than an angry mob.

9. Going to Fenway Park.

10.  Driving to Cambridge one winter night to attend my cousin Rob’s film opening at Harvard and noticing the snow on the wrought iron streetlamps that looked like cake icing.  Sensing the history of the place. Loving Boston for being Boston, not a miniature New York.

11.  Going on a family hike in Bradley Palmer State Park and having to put Teak on my shoulders for the way back to the car.  Needing a back/shoulder rub later from Karen, even though I hate back rubs.

12.  Having two children born at Beverly Hospital.

13. Watching the twin towers fall on TV on September 11, 2001, and feeling a million miles away from home, and having my heart break.

14. Eating ice cream at Captain Dusty’s and watching the ducks in the harbor in downtown Manchester.

15. Owning our first home.

16. Cutting the grass.

17. Assembling a gas grill and feeling like a suburbanite.

18. Being surprised at how much love I feel toward the Christ Church family and wondering how any church in the future can be as dear to us.

19. Enjoying each season in New England to the fullest.

20. Leaving one season of our lives together to enter another season, together.

photo:  a kartha

Way better than Hot Wheels

Surfing is better than the Hot Wheels track and cars I played with when I was seven.

Jim and I used to set up the long orange track from the radiator cover – which was four feet high – in the living room at 50 East 96th Street, and run it down the length of the 60-foot hall.  We’d race our best cars against each other.  We spent hours doing it and looked forward to it whenever we could.

082507hotwheelsmiklosz.jpgIt was like heaven.

Then, when I was 16 – after some years of no Hot Wheels, mind you – there came surfing.  And it was like a way of life.  I mean, we did it, talked about it, dreamed about it, bragged about it, pretended we were cool in front of the girls because of it…we were surfers, it was our identity.  As far as I recall, Hot Wheels never had that spell – of determining identity.

So moving to New York City, my surfing days will become…few.  If any.  I suppose I could take the A train out to Rockaway Beach the way I did once.  But there are skyscrapers in front of you as you drop in on that mushy left break, and you always worry that someone’s going to swipe your bag on the beach, so you hide it behind a trash bin somewhere.  Not the same as Good Harbor Beach.

So I’m sad about that.

But then I think of heaven.

Because of Jesus, we are promised something even better than surfing, and perhaps even way better than Hot Wheels.

That’s kind of what I’m hanging my hat on.

photo:  miklosz

נְשָׁמָה

There was a time when, as a five-year-old, I would make mud pies in Central Park for the two old Jewish men who used to sit on the rotting green park bench and kvetch and feed the pigeons with dried bread crumbs, and I made one once with pieces of colored glass sticking out of the top because they made my creations sparkle and was running to show my elder friends, tripped and fell on the sidewalk, slicing my left hand open on a glass piece right where the thumb connects with the palm and was taken across Fifth Avenue to Mt. Sinai Hospital, and the nurse soaked my hand in white soapy disinfectant solution which to this day I have no recollection of hurting, and afterwards they sewed me up with Mom there.  And there was the time on the uptown #6 train when I faced the gang of black teenagers who were fixing to beat up the Hispanic man, and I declared “Jesus” this and “Jesus” that, because that was the only word I figured would scare off those scumbags, and they backed down and went on to the next subway car, whether to find another would-be victim or to repent, I did not know and still do not, only God knows.

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