Looking for the poetry? The poetry did not enjoy living with the essays, so I got them their own house. Go knock on their door.
This site will remain essays from Ashfield News, etc.
Looking for the poetry? The poetry did not enjoy living with the essays, so I got them their own house. Go knock on their door.
This site will remain essays from Ashfield News, etc.
In an attempt to help my ESOL students master the pronunciation of the past tense, I explain the difference between “voiced” and “unvoiced” sounds. I put my hand on my throat to show them how to feel for the vibrations. I will carry the looks on their faces forever. I think I can sum up the look as: “You English speakers are weird.” Which is, of course, true.
Which brings me to the Bible. When I was a child I thought God spoke a special God-language, similar to English, but using words like “Thou,” and “Thee” and “Hail” and Shalt,” and that most intriguing of Biblical words: “begot.” Jesus certainly spoke that way. When I was in college, The Good News for Modern Man was published, revealing that Jesus spoke in language as cool as yours and mine. I admit to a vague disappointment.
During the “English-Only” in schools debate, Ma Ferguson, governor of Texas, was reputed to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” Which brings up the disturbing audio image of Jesus speaking with a Texas accent. Everyone knows he spoke with a New York accent; I heard it myself every Sunday.
Mark Roberts of Beliefnet.com says: …I do think the language of Jesus matters. Knowing which language or languages Jesus spoke helps us understand his teaching with greater accuracy. Moreover, it reminds us of one salient fact that almost everyone affirms: Jesus did not speak English. [Note: almost everyone.]
Fine, but what did it sound like?
Jews and Hindus regard the sound of words as sacred, or more sacred, than the meaning. The sound of the word is the life of the word. After chanting a Hindi chant, the worshiper apologizes to God for any mispronunciation.
Our chance to hear Jesus or Isaiah is long gone. We must make due with the written word. A poor substitute for hearing, but we work with what we’ve got.
For audio Bibles, James Earl Jones is by far the most popular God-voice. His voice is deep, rich and resonant, with a Mid-West accent. Cary Grant just wouldn’t cut it. Claire Bloom does the voice-over for the Old Testament for BBC. Her English pronunciation is impeccable, but strangely detached.
For other female voices, I vote for either Emma Thompson or Maya Angelou. Should the Bible be read with a crisp, open voice, with subtle intonations and all the t’s distinct, a la Thompson? Or the lower, smoother, melodious voice of Angelou? How differently we would hear the words.
Which would you take more seriously:
Jones intoning the King James version: “Thou Shalt Not Kill” or
Thompson reading a modern translation: “Don’t murder anyone” ?
What about, “He maketh me lie down in green pastures…” I’d prefer Thompson with her controlled emotion savoring the poetry…Wait a minute. Am I doing auditions for the voice of God?
Did Jesus pronounce his t’s (or the Aramaic equivalent)? Was his voice high or low, smooth or crisp? What were the intonations? Was his voice fire-and-brimstone or gentle, sarcastic or straight-forward? Was he smothering a laugh when he said some things? Did his voice crack with grief? All of the above? How do we know? We don’t.
Years ago, my cousin was struggling with mental illness. On his closet door he had a sketch of Jesus with his head thrown back, laughing. Now that’s a laugh I’d like to have heard. I’ll have to settle for listening for it in the laughter I hear around me.
For me, the most memorable sentence in the New Testament is, “Jesus wept.” No words spoken, no “Thou” or “Thee” or “Thine,” no Texas or New York accent. Jesus wept.
Maybe it’s the coming Christmas season, but if you ask me, God speaks in words of the King James Bible with an 18th century British accent and Handel’s music as score. The voiced sounds of “Messiah” fill us with joy and sorrow and calls for justice. After the last note, we are left in the unvoiced silence of God’s true voice.
This week I attempted to write down what I’d learned about Life and God and Stuff from my brushes with death this past year. I wrote meaningful, deep thoughts. Reviewing them I realized I could make a killing as a writer for Hallmark cards.
As I was writing, I watched a a gull trying to fly into the wind, flapping forward, gliding back. That’s what it feels like trying to describe what I learned about God. So I guess the answer to the question is, “Not too much.”
However, during my attempt to write about God, I realized why writers writing about God often end up writing about their gardens and plants and nature. And mountains, seashores, sunsets, aging, forest trails, their dogs, and sunrises. Deep thoughts are chimeric, God is not.
Now religion, religion I love writing about. I relate to those clusters of people who see Mary’s image or Jesus’ face in unexpected places. Conventions of born-again christians and churches of atheists are fascinating. As are the people we make into messiahs: Ayn Rand, Jim Jones, Steve Jobs, pre-election Barak Obama…people whose ideas excite us and we follow them happily into the future. Religion is our Play-dough of Meaning.
But God? Sitting here on Back Cove in Maine, I find I cannot distinguish the sound of wind in the trees from the sound of the tide coming in. The squat arborvitae next to the porch is doing a bizarre dance, but is not quite keeping time with the wind’s pulsations. Does arborvitae have its own internal rhythms? Yesterday, Jeannine did a charcoal sketch of me, but must have changed her mind; she sketched an old lady. I wonder why. This morning I read about 65 things I didn’t know before about growing potatoes. I often wonder why Ace can race through our forest leaping over fallen trees, winding through underbrush, but cannot figure out how to unwind his leash from a lamppost. Is it true puzzlement or passive-aggressive protest against leashes? And right now, across the water, little dots of people are quahoging. Which, I am told, is different from clamming.
See how much I still have to learn about God?
! A car accident left me close to death last spring. During that time I gave some thought to the question: Death. Then what? Some flowers triggered an answer. While recuperating, I’d stare out the window at yellow flowers growing in front of the rehab building. They were thriving there because just the right soil conditions, sunlight, rainfall, temperatures, surrounding vegetation made them possible. What are the chances of that happening in the afterlife? Or the sound of rain on leaves, or smell of turned dirt? Pretty slim. That’s why it’s called after life.
! What about life here on Earth after I really do go?
! This week I learned that, because of logging and clearing, the most ancient of Earth’s trees all over the world are disappearing. !
! The sense of loss I experienced surprised me. I’ve never met a polar bear and I’ve glimpsed a few whales; all face extinction. But big old trees disappearing? I fell out of one when I was about 10. My cousins and I built a tree house in the woods behind our house. I loved “The Davy Crockett Show” and had a “coonskin” hat made with fake fur and plastic.
! When looking for a house to buy, Jeannine and I passed under a canopy of yellow autumn leaves coming up the hill. Our house is surrounded by trees, so many that we’ve cut some down so we can grow vegetables. During the last ice storm, the tree branches glistened like a forest of jewels.
! Now the Earth is going bald. Humans are supposed to go bald, not the Earth. Earth was designed to be self-replenishing. Ancient trees are sacred. But in Scandinavia at least, those are the trees targeted by logging companies.
! Jasper Fforde referred to 1847 as Earth’s “Best if used by…” date. He is right. Humans could have used a little thinning out about then, or at least some spacing.
! In Rikuzentaka, Japan, a centuries- old pine forest of about 70,00 trees was swept away by a tsunami. Except for one pine. The “Miracle Pine” became a symbol of hope for the survivors. However, the salt sea water saturating the soil began to slowly kill it. The city decided to cut the tree down in sections, treat the wood, fill it with a
carbon core, reconstruct it and replace its branches with plastic ones. It will then be put back in the place the tree stood. As a memorial to the tree. Hmmm….
! ! What will happen after I’m gone? A bald Earth peppered with memorials to trees? I admit that a world without polar bears horrifies me much less than a world without trees. !
! Before the government could cut down the Miracle Pine, people in the area gathered the tree’s cones to plant seeds in good soil. Many seedlings from one old tree. Life giving new life. Ahhh..That’s better.!
! Against all odds, I survived my injuries. I was helped by the miracles of modern medicine, a bevy of health professionals, family, friends and strangers. Maybe I don’t have to worry about the trees. Maybe I should trust. After all, I survived. With help, trees will too. There isn’t an afterlife. After me, life will continue to begin.
Early last fall I was sitting on my front porch enjoying being home from a long stint in the hospital. The sun was out and hummingbirds hummed in the vines on either side of the the stairs. One of the hummingbirds flicked in front of my face and stopped mid-air, wings buzzing. He hovered there for a while. I looked at him, one of his eyes stared at me. He seemed to hover a long time. He looked at me; I looked at him. He was welcoming me back to life. I was happy. Then he flicked over to a red flower.
After I’d soaked up the fresh air I went inside to find out the name of the bird. He was either a Ruby-throated hummingbird or a nano AeroVironment spy drone. DARPA (don’t ask me) spent $4 million dollars and eleven years developing a drone that looks and flies like a hummingbird with a camera behind its eye.
Now I wondered if my insurance company was checking that I wasn’t training for a marathon instead of just getting back on my feet. I wouldn’t feel as bad if drones were used to save lives during war, but how many Ruby-throated hummingbirds are in Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip? One commentator noted that if they flew one in New York City, people would stop and point, “Oh my god! Look! A hummingbird!” Not very stealth.
There’s something about taking one of the most fragile, luminescent and magical animals and using it to spy on us. Another crack between the worlds of war and nature.
I was so moved by that moment on the porch that I needle-worked a hummingbird pillow and ordered a small bag from the Nature Conservancy with a hummingbird on it. That moment was a sacred moment. Death had been close that year. It was pushed away so I could take in sacred moments with birds and trees and neighbors a while longer.
Damn (or thankfully) I still can’t think of a hummingbird without thinking of that drone.
Last May (2012) I was hit by a car while crossing a street in Holyoke. I’m just starting to shake my brain awake and do some writing. My blog shall awaken!
Emotion Wrapped in a Veil of Reason
“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
― Dorothy Day
A woman comes home early from work and finds her husband in bed with another woman. She stabs him. Later he dies of his wounds. At her defense hearing, she says she remembers nothing after seeing them in bed together. What punishment should she get?
I present this case for debate in every cycle of my adult ESOL class (English for Speakers of Other Languages, previously known as ESL, English as a Second Language, previously known as “learning English”). Of all the suggestions in all the ESOL conversation books, this story is the best. It gives me a chance to teach words and phrases connected to the law, including death penalty, life sentence, ten-year sentence, probation, acquittal. That’s my excuse. In reality these discussions are the most entertaining classes of the year.
The class divides into two or three teams. Each team is supposed to come to an agreement and explain their decision to the other teams.
No matter how I divide the class, the judgment splits clearly and without exception along a gender line. The men are on the severe end of the spectrum; the women are heatedly on the lenient end: often acquittal, sometimes probation. On rare occasion a woman or two would send the killer to a light sentence in jail.
Aside from helping with English, my biggest challenge is to keep the debaters calm enough to speak only in English. I don’t guide the discussion. No matter how the teams are broken up, the discussion ends up men vs. women.
Try the scenario as a party game. Don’t give away the plot ahead of time. Give the guests a little more distance than the murderous wife and the stabbed husband had, but not the distance of a sequestered jury. Limit the punishment options to four or five, include acquittal and death penalty (if you live in Massachusetts, make it life imprisonment). See what happens.
On the other hand, when I present a discussion about the death penalty, there is general agreement that the penalty is wrong. Few believe that the death penalty deters crime. Even fewer believe that it is morally right. I’ve never taught in Texas.
Punishment may be one of the most subjective moral decisions we make. It is much more complex than deciding whether something is okay, bad, really bad, or evil.
A friend of mine who is a lawyer insists that all law-breakers should be punished the same: death penalty. Murder or jaywalking, the death penalty would keep society in line. A planet in a Star Trek episode had that law. I don’t think it was called Texas.
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That quote from Shakespeare describes the first step necessary in establishing a totalitarian regime. We need lawyers because we decide punishment with emotion wrapped in a veil of reason. That’s also why we hate lawyers. Pity the poor lawyers who would face the anger of the women in my class and the shock of the stunned men.
When my niece was a toddler, sometimes I had to use my stern voice. One afternoon she insisted on crawling up onto the tabletop which was set for dinner, complete with knives and forks. Finally I gave her a bop on the bottom of her diaper. She turned and looked at me with incredulous horror. I’d imposed the toddler’s equivalent of the death penalty! She sulked for a good five minutes until Telly Tubbies came on.
“Turning the other cheek” is the hardest test of Jesus’ followers. Or for me anyway. When a person harms someone, either physically or emotionally, whom we love deeply, it is difficult not to harbor a lust for revenge. The only reason I’d turn the other cheek is so I could get in a sucker punch.
One man wrote that he was a Christian except that he was an “eye for an eye” kind of guy. Like I’m a Leonardo Da Vinci except I can’t draw.
The people I’d love to get my hands on are long dead. My only comfort is in believing that, should they rise from the dead and stand before me, I’d trust the teaching, change my heart…. and only give them a ten-year sentence.
All is impermanence. Thus says the Buddha. All things change, all is movement. We sort of get it. We pick and chose what we believe is impermanent and what isn’t. But we live such a short amount of time that we witness the life cycle of only the most fragile things: tomato plants, kale, butterflies, crayons, chocolate cake, ourselves.
While our bodies and souls love the rhythms of nature’s constant changes, such as the ocean waves, our minds have a more difficult time with the concept. After all, its job is to snatch those random bits of sensory input and organize them to make some sort of sense. How is it supposed to do that with all the data changing constantly? Simple. By pretending that things don’t change. Or at least that they stay still long enough to put them in some kind of order before they get scrambled up again. Once my mind catches hold of a really good thought, it hangs onto it for dear life. It takes a lot of effort to make it loosen up and let go. No wonder I’m exhausted.
I asked my meditation students to imagine that we lived for two-thousand years. Instead of taking a week’s vacation to sit by the ocean and watch the beauty of its changes, we could take a three hundred year vacation to sit by Route 91 and watch it crumble. We could enjoy the impermanence of concrete. How relaxing that would be!
But what about poor God? Is God the only unchanging person/place/thing in the entire universe? Some of us believe so… rock of ages and so on. But happily, God cannot be stopped, halted, tripped up or frozen in time.
However, until we get with the impermanence program, we’ll keep trying to freeze-dry God. We waste a lot of energy trying to ignore the infinite mysteries of our friends and enemies, even more so with the Infinite. In general, pretending our spouses and siblings are permanent, unchanging beings screws up our relationships. And relating to God is like standing knee-deep in the ocean, feeling the sensation of the ground moving under us, unable to take in the whole thing, unable to predict the next motion. Oh happy impermanence!
I came to these thoughts while digging rocks that Earth keeps burping up into the garden. What is the purpose of these damned rocks? What the hell can the purpose of one billion of them be in our little garden. I held a heavy rock in my hand, tired of being cranky, and watched it. And watched it. Until I recognized it. That rock is a clod of slowly composting soil. And I do mean slowly. In a few thousand years that rock will compost completely into dirt. It will release the minerals we need to eat and send them up into carrots and beets. If I can wait for peanut shells to decompose, surely I can wait for a rock to disintegrate. What’s the rush?
So I threw it onto one of our many rock piles. They are now officially ”rock compost.” In a few thousand years someone will dig into a tiny mound of dirt to plant carrots and wonder at how smooth and fine the dirt in in that mound is. That gardener will be so happy to find a mound of rock-less soil.
I can hear God laughing.
After a year or so of writing a column for the 1st Congregational Church in Ashfield, I decided to write virtually….which is not the same as virtually writing since I think that means that you, the reader, could read whatever you wanted regardless of what I had written. Though I may be wrong about that.
I tried Facebook, twice, but still don’t quite get the concept. A blog seems less immediate and more writing-like. If you’ve enjoyed the articles, subscribe. If you didn’t, subscribe anyway. You never know when I may come up with something you’ll like. Comments welcome. I will be posting more than once a month and may feel freer to be disrespectful on my own. Please subscribe to the Ashfield News as well. Lots of good reading there.