More than just a memory…

Sydney begins her summer project, May 2014

“Wherever I am, you’ll always be

More than just a memory

If I ever leave this world alive”

– Flogging Molly

How long does it take to paint a garage?

Answer: Somewhere between five years and what feels like forever.

Given that life – and death – intervened in that span of time maybe five-and-a-half years isn’t all that long.

My daughter, Sydney, having returned home from a school year at Indiana University agreed to take on the project for the summer of 2014. I think I agreed to pay her $10 an hour. The summer before I painted the house proper so I was excited to think that the entire manse at 1358 Maple Avenue would be “Daisy Spell” yellow with white trim by the time Sydney returned to IU for her next school year.

How does the saying begin? “The best of intentions…” Sydney painted one garage door that summer…then returned to school. I think I painted the other garage door that fall. Where Sydney had taken the time to edge around the windows on her door, I did not, preferring the “scrape later” method of edging a window.

The following summer I think I got a coat or two of yellow on the front of the garage. And for the next couple of years that’s how the garage stayed. Yellow and white on the front, though the eaves were still the same grey as the other three sides.

I found some energy to start the 2018 painting season. I finished painting one side and had moved on to the back alley-side. May 25 was a beautiful early summer day. Perfect for painting. I spent the morning going up and down the ladder and progressing across the back of the garage, turning grey into a bright, happy yellow, when sirens started zipping by on Connor Street (one street north of where I live) followed by helicopters and then more sirens heading west across the White River.

My neighbor came out to tell me that there had been a shooting at the West Middle School. Oh, God. Then the sirens and helicopters came back towards me. I went inside to learn that there were active shooters at the high school as well. Good God!

Thankfully, there were no fatalities at West Middle School and the High School shooters turned out to be a prankster’s hoax but the trauma for all those involved was no less.

Two weeks passed.  On June 6 I had just cleaned up from an afternoon of painting the garage when I received the telephone call about Sydney in Africa.  Twelve hours later I was on a plane heading across the Atlantic.

I never thought that courage and fortitude and deep breaths would be necessary to complete a painting project.  (I never would have thought that the same would be needed for my brother to sing “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” at a recent concert his band performed.  We have played that song together for years only to have it’s meaning radically altered with Sydney’s death.)

This 2019 Summer I managed to finish painting the garage; actually finished today, September 28, so a bit into the Fall of 2019.  I did so in two-hour fits and spurts because two hours is about all I could manage at a time being unable to breathe filled with memory and fear and sadness and loss that had been wrapped around this project.

The garage has been painted.

Sydney, your painting project is complete.

Again…

Jesus depicted as the Phoenix in the Priscilla Catacombs in Rome…

In his beautiful novel that brought him international attention, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czech-born writer, Milan Kundera, writes, “While pondering the infinity of the stars, we ignore the infinity of our father.”

Americans resisted the proposal in the early-1900’s to set a day aside to honor fathers fearing such a day would become over-commercialized. I guess President Wilson’s sanctification of Mother’s Day gave a glimpse of what could happen when corporations began to work their magic. It’s not without trying. Wilson tried to get a Father’s Day but the official pronouncement didn’t happen until President Nixon. Quite the trick to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and Father’s Day in the span of one administration.

But enough distracted pondering of politics. I am grateful I do not need a new-fangled tool or another Jerry Garcia tie or a new set of golf shoes or barbecue tools despite Corporatacracy’s efforts to define the father-role as best-served with a particular set of gizmos and gadgets. (Surely I am not the only father who would cherish a good novel as a gift? Where are those advertisements?) On this day I am simply thankful to be a father and to have a father.

It is obvious to me, and to those who know my life’s circumstances, what I would like as a Father’s Day gift. In addition to being Jesus’s good friend, I hope Lazarus was one helluva father. Promises aside, all I am saying is that if it can happen once, why not again? And again and again? Would the Gift of Again provide consolation to all those who “father” or were “fathered” and are honored on this day? To those who choose to recline and watch the finish of the U.S. Open at Pebble? To those who might do a bit of yard work and then sit down with a good read? Or to those who work today – like me – for a dollar and to pass this special time in laboring …because Grief is easier to bear moving trailers around a truck yard earning Amazon’s dime than it is by pushing a lawn mower or turning the pages of a novel, say, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being?

College Bound…

Solve each equation for the name of the university…

If I were to tell a child, for instance my child, how to select a college, what would I say? Sure, there are the usual parental statements. Go to a good school. Go where you can see yourself being a part of something larger than yourself. Stay in-state because of tuition costs. Go out-of-state so you’re not too close to home. Go to Harvard because any student in her/his right mind should go to Harvard if accepted because, well, it’s Harvard. Go to a big school where opportunities multiply. Go to a small school where the faculty know your name. Go to MY alma mater, DePauw University.

OR…perhaps the parent should let those out-of-the-blue, one sentence observations spoken at the various campuses while visiting speak about this college or that university.

Take the following…

While eating lunch at Johns Hopkins University: “People over there are telling jokes about dark matter.  I love this place.”

A couple of powerful observations at Columbia University: “These buildings aren’t consistent and it’s bothering me.” And, “You don’t want to go to a school where the parents ask all the questions during an orientation tour.”

And on to Brown University: “I wish we hadn’t started with Johns Hopkins University.” And, “The windows of the chemistry building look heavy duty and bolted as if to contain an explosion.”

In Cambridge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or M.I.T.: “Look. There is the Plasma Fusion Center.  And a nuclear reactor! This place is amazing.  I’m so happy.” And from the ONLY student tour guide to mention volleyball, “I play intramural on my sorority team.  I’m not very good. But I have a great time.”

And at Harvard University: “Hey. It’s the Harvard Mariachi Band!”

The Spring Break East Coast College Trip 2019 that I have just returned from was fantastic! At each visit I looked through two sets of eyes. The first set of eyes were those I used after having removed 35 years. Oh, to be young and college bound again! (Uhm, not really, but an interesting thought experiment.) Here’s how I would rank the schools visited: M.I.T., M.I.T, M.I.T., then Johns Hopkins, then Brown, then Harvard and then Columbia. However, if I got into Harvard I would go to Harvard because any student in her/his right mind should go to Harvard if accepted because, well, it’s Harvard. And, come to think of it, Columbia should be removed from the list altogether; even if Alexander Hamilton was an alum.

And the second set of eyes I used was looking at each college through the eyes of my daughter. I am a lucky father. It was a joy to share her joy. A disappointment when she was disappointed. I did my best to not project my inner 18-year-old on to her. When I did she kindly reminded me to chill and to remember that I was NOT the prospective student. “BUT…!” Dad, chill.

The Window of the Soul

The Rose Window in the Hall of Remembrance at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The beauty of the Cherry Blossom Season in Washington, D.C., rivals the season of showy dogwoods and redbuds in Indiana. Bursts of color in stately lines along formal paths or placed here and there between buildings.

Look through the beauty and you see that, as my daughter noted so eloquently, “Every government building needs new windows.” (The windows of the Department of Energy building were particularly awful. Perhaps it should take advantage of a tax break and install new energy-efficient windows?) A great deal of symbolism in the old, broken and inefficient “windows” of Washington.

I am not sure of the state of the windows of the White House as security has extended the buffer zone around the President’s residence. My body chilled to see it and my mind went immediately back to the time I cruised into the port of Leningrad in the late-1970’s. Armed sentries standing stiffly every fifty feet, some carrying heavy automatic weapons, some visible on many rooftops. I know that the physical environment of a people and of a culture, especially in the center of power, reflects the soul of the people.

I am sad. Our soul does not reflect the beauty of the cherry blossoms. I have hope that this winter season of our nation will come to an end with the buds of Spring growth. New political voices are being heard. Our youth sound energetic and bright. Two men walked hand-in-hand on the Washington Mall in the midst of thousands. And thousands and thousands of people, perhaps the majority of people, did not look like me. The chatter of the different dialects of our country and of the countless dialects of countless other languages. I have hope.

My hope for the ascendance – perhaps at some future time in my daughter’s lives the transcendence – of peace and understanding rose so high on seeing the faces of people in the Hall of Remembrance. (The Hall of Remembrance lies at the end of the permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) I saw evidence of a recognition of our common humanity and that hate in any form, virulently physical or spiritual or cultural or the even more dangerous form, apathy, will not prevail.

Walking into the Hall brought me to the edge of tears. Lighted candles. Spare stone. A rose window above. The names of the places on the surrounding walls where human beings practiced the ways of death-dealing.

The Hall of Remembrance Rose Window is a different kind of a window – a response to the windows of power outside it’s walls along Independence Avenue.

I close with the three biblical inscriptions etched into the stone of the Hall with the hope for humanity to re-member Life…

“What have you done? Hark, thy brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! – Genesis 4:10

“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants might live!” – Deuteronomy 30:19

“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children, and your children’s children.” – Deuteronomy 4:9

Forever Neverness

Foreverness…

It appears to be a fact, unavoidable, hard and sharp, that grief, the intimate and ever-present dull throb that is a song’s note or a spoken word’s or a who-knows-what-the-next-trigger-will-be-moment away from pouring out as tears, is deeper and more difficult in the second year. It has been nine months since Sydney’s death. I guess I am three month’s ahead of schedule.

The tears of sadness that have fallen since June 9, 2018 appear to have worn away, drip by drip by each slow roll down my face, a lining that wrapped – and maybe protected – my sense of self in the midst of All That Is, like the dripping of water over stone. The image presents itself as a dark comedy with the demonic chortling gleefully and saying, “Funny how you thought your sense of self, the I that looks out from behind yourself, your very consciousness, could be the most fundamental part of who you are, inviolate.” An absurd notion which took only tears to erode.

Love has been unable to protect me from Loss. The idea that deep sadness is the result of a great and abiding love is troubling, false in my mind, and ultimately, is an overly simplistic consolation. “You grieve deeply because you loved deeply, Eric.” Oh, that explains it! NOT…

Just wait until those tears wear through the Grief of Loss so that the Grief of Neverness lays bare and throbbing and so painfully dull.

In his profoundly deep and moving Lament For A Son Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “It’s the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us – never to sit with us at table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to cry with us, never to embrace us…never to see…(a) sister marry. All the rest of our lives we must live without him (her). Only our death can stop the pain of his (her) death. A month, a year, five years – with that I could live. But not this forever….One small misstep and now this endless neverness.”

I will never share a donut in the morning with Sydney again. Yes, I have the memory of Sydney’s early childhood donut-eating technique where she would face plant and eat the donut from icing on down. Should a Memory of the Past be enough to buttress me against the Neverness of the Future? Sydney, Corinne and I used to chant “Donuts! Donuts! Donuts!” on our frequent trips to Marsh Supermarket to start our daily adventures. Though the memory of those moments is strong, the joyful, expectant and hungry cry is faint now.

The neverness of ever eating donuts with Syd again even pulls up a chair at the kitchen table this morning while Bay and I enjoy the latest and greatest yeast donut to show up in the Noblesville area courtesy of Rebellion Donuts. Balyn. Me. Neverness. I did buy four donuts this morning, initially thinking, two for Bay and two for me. Now, though, four has a different meaning. One for me. One for Bay. One for Corinne. And one for the Neverness of Sydney.

Wolterstorff writes, “When we gather now there’s always someone missing, his (her) absence as present as our presence…When we’re all together, we’re not all together.”

Welcome to Forever Neverness-Land! Where tears are always welcome and donuts are always eaten…

Do You Know the Muffin Man?

This morning’s Chocolate Chip Muffins…

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. The beginning of the Season of Lent. Forty days to Easter Sunday – not counting Sundays.

I am glad Ash Wednesday (and Lent) is making a comeback in the Protestant world after being neglected, disabused and condemned by our Protesting and Reforming Foreparents some 500 years ago. I have written many Ash Wednesday reflections, preached a few sermons and conducted numerous Lenten Season Studies. In this thread I am going to do something a bit different than offer up a scripture passage and encourage believers to repent – whatever that may look like.

Instead, three things…

What is the hardest part of preparing for the evening’s Ash Wednesday service as a pastor? Remembering where you stored the few palm fronds you saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. Why? The ashes that are placed on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday are traditionally made from the palms of last year’s Palm Sunday. I remember one cold Ash Wednesday morning outside the office door of the church warming my hands over a little fire of dried palm leaves burning in a coffee can. Add a little olive oil to the crushed ashes created with a mortar and pestle and, ta da, ash soup for application on foreheads.

This Ash Wednesday morning I have no service to prepare for as I am not in the church business at this time. Rather, I will be a participant at a service tonight at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Carmel. I find myself remembering the act of the imposition of ashes on countless foreheads. It is a simple ritual. Dip the side of my thumb in a little bowl that contains the ashes. Draw a cross with my thumb on the forehead of the person before me. Speak the words. “Repent and be made whole” or “Remember that you are from dust and to dust you will return.” So many upturned faces. Faces serious. With tears. A bit of a smile. Some fear. Friends. Strangers. It is quite a privilege. To touch a person in a worship setting. Remind her or him that she or he is going to die.

To celebrate Ash Wednesday this year I made Chocolate Chip Muffins early in the morning! For my birthday last week one of my thoughtful and gracious co-workers gave me 750 best muffin recipes by Camilla V. Saulsbury. (He did so because every week for the last few years I have been making and bringing in to work my now famous Blueberry or Banana Nut Muffins.) I have never made Chocolate Chip Muffins because I never really cared for them – preferring instead that those ingredients be delivered to my mouth through a cookie. Now, though, I have an interesting recipe. What better muffin to make for the day that begins the Season of Lent? Give up chocolate!?!

When Wealth – in $’s – Is Not Enough…

Yes, change…

Is it possible to hold together in the same place, i.e. in my mind, the abhorrence of wealth with the dreams of how I might spend the $350,000,000 that I am going to win tonight at 10:59 EST? Closely related to this conundrum is the question, How much is too much?

I scratch my head when economists, politicians and others proclaim that all persons should make a living wage of $15 an hour when they themselves make far more than that and can make very comfortable declarations from very comfortable surroundings about an issue where they would never make any sacrifice of ANY of their comfort to have such an economic boon to many come to pass. While I am glad my employer took the step to encourage the rest of the business world to move to a starting wage of $15 an hour, I know that this publicity stunt didn’t cost Amazon.com much at all. Human Resources got together with Accounting in order to rob Peter to pay Paul. And I am Peter, having lost my annual stock options and my monthly bonus opportunities. I personally lost about $1,800 a year or $150 a month. A drop in the bucket when you make $17 an hour. Just 5% of my annual income. No big deal.

But, hey, now I am making the big bucks ($20.25 an hour) after the compensation “adjustments” and I guess I can pat myself on the back as I step along Moral High Road as it was ME who actually DID sacrifice so another person can make $15 an hour.

The real issue, though, is not hourly wages. The real issue is how much stuff costs. My $20.25 that I earned from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. yesterday buys less than what it could buy in 1973. And, seriously, how many of a particular subset of my larger set of friends and acquaintances has tried to make do on $31,200 a year ($15 times 2,080 hours)? Good luck. Some callous folks might say, “Get a better job.” My reply is, “It already is a good job.” Remember when hourly wage folks in good jobs could have a house, a car, two kids, one dog and one cat and still hope to pay for medical bills and college tuition? (Hmmm. What were the marginal tax rates at that time, a time when roads and bridges weren’t crumbling and a human being stepped out onto the moon?)

I am one of the lucky ones. I can “live” off what I make because some big expenses are covered. I pretty much own my home. I have no debt. My daughter, like her two older sisters, has a chunk of change already devoted to her college expenses. My healthcare costs are ridiculously low thanks to working for a company where the average age of employees is pre-teen and therefore the pre-teens basically subsidize my more expensive getting older health care costs with their, “What’s a primary care physician?”, healthcare costs. AND, my life is made far more richer through the generosity of my parents. (Had to get that plug in…)

I can look at my economic situation and think pretty good about where I am at, though, in the following sense: I am doing what any loving parent would do for her/his children by going down the road of making less than my parents, before my children walk/work down that road. In other words, my daughters are of the generation that will be the first generation in our great America to make less than their parents, i.e. the generation that includes me. (Well, not me, because I don’t have a good job and really shouldn’t be thrown into the same strata as my socio-economic peers.) Like any good parent would, I am trailblazing and getting a sense of what The Land of Less looks like so that I will be able to more effectively help them through it. Of course that help will be more of the moral support help and not include much economic help.

And since I am on the topic of parental economic support, I will share why I have the antipathy I do towards wealth. My first job out of an elite university at an elite financial institution on LaSalle Street in Chicago was doing the investment accounting for a new subset of elite clients, the super-wealthy. Individuals and families with less than $250,000,000 need not apply. One of our accounts was a large set of family trusts where the beneficiaries of those trusts received their economic welcome into the family when they reached a particular age. There was quite a stir in the office in the time leading up to The Birthday Party as the family had quite a reputation for silly extravagance. We all wondered what would be splattered on the front cover of People Magazine and The National Enquirer as Junior began spending his money to celebrate his birthday at The Plaza Hotel in New York. There was no inexpensive game like Pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at Junior’s party. And, as I accounted for one 7-figure wire after another to fund Junior’s lifestyle, my dislike and horror and outright loathing of wealth grew greater. Since that time I have held to the position that a 100% tax on estates over a certain dollar amount is the only way to counter this kind of obscenity (and economic power and control) that results from the pure luck of birth.

I DO recognize as a parent, though, that if I only dwell in the Land of Less I may be short-changing my daughters some important part of the human experience that could contribute to their development as loving and gracious human beings. Therefore, of the $350,000,000 that I win tonight, I pledge to pass along $174,500,000 to each daughter. What a party!

There’s no place like…

Maple Avenue and Noyes Street, Evanston, Illinois (February 2019)

Fifty-four years old. Fifty-four years of being one of the lucky ones to call a particular address “Home.” Fifty-four years of memory…

I was born at 2560 Ridge Avenue in an Evanston Hospital delivery room. I have been told there was a snow event that day. A few days later I took my first car ride south down Ridge Avenue to an apartment building at the corner of Maple Avenue and Noyes Street – right next to the Noyes Station on Chicago’s ‘L’ (Elevated) Purple Line. I don’t remember my first home nor do I remember the sound of the L right outside my bedroom. Development psychologists would say that the sounds reverberating through my first home as L cars went by shaped my sense of wonder and the peace that I feel when I hear a train. (Just this past weekend I waited for sleep lying in my boyhood bed while visiting my brother and heard the sounds of a train whistle and the roll of its wheels in the distance. I fell immediately to sleep.)

A year later I moved (or, rather, was moved by my parents) to my next home on Michigan Avenue on the border of Evanston and Chicago. My first memory comes from my time at this apartment building. It is a very strong memory, probably because it involves four of my five senses: sight, sound, touch and smell. I sat on the stairs between two floors of the apartment building just high enough where I could see through the transom window over the front door of the apartment below. Out of the transom window came light from within, the sounds of a party (laughter and conversation), the smells of cooking (chicken?) while my butt was keenly aware that it was on the hard wood of the steps. I felt intense sadness at being outside while the party went on inside. I felt excluded and uninvited. The laughter that came out the transom seemed directed at me. I remember standing, placing a hand on the wooden railing as I turned to walk up the stairs. End of memory.

Just as trains bring me peace I have no doubt that my dis-ease and discomfort with parties starts with this memory. I am also aware that my strong sense of justice (and injustice), particularly when it comes to inclusion and exclusion, begins on those steps. Is it possible for a two-year-old to form at that early stage of being human a life’s call to purpose and mission where no human being should feel what I felt on those hard steps?

More home addresses followed. Buffalo Grove. Back to Evanston. Arthur, Illinois. Topeka, Kansas. Flossmoor, Illinois. Greencastle, Indiana. Logan Square, Chicago. Indianapolis. Martinsville, Indiana. Irvington, Indiana. Kalamazoo. Back to Irvington. Noblesville, Indiana.

So many memories. Beginning at home on Maple Avenue in Evanston. Continuing at my current home on Maple Avenue in Noblesville. More, I am sure, to come…

In the Eye of the Beholder…

Nude Under a Pine Tree, Pablo Picasso

“Many things that come into the world are not looked into. The individual says, ‘My crowd doesn’t run that way.’ I say, don’t run with crowds.”
― Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

I have stood before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam mesmerized by the immensity of the painting (12’ by 14’) and by the striding almost life-sized figures in black and white.

I have stood in front of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg not knowing what an impact it would have on my spirituality at seminary four decades later.

I contemplated Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre Museum wondering why this was such a famous painting.

I have stood before da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan imagining for myself what Jesus’ last meal with his disciples might have looked like.

Twice I have stood below Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City looking upward trying to imagine how Charlton Heston created such a wonder – in agony and in ecstasy.

In the late-1980’s when I was a banker in downtown Chicago I would take advantage of admission-free Thursdays at The Art Institute of Chicago and pay a lunchtime visit. I could walk out the front entrance to my place of work at the corner of Adams Street and Wacker Drive, pick up a toasted everything bagel with cream cheese along the eight-block walk down Adams and enter straight into the front entrance of the AIC. As my lunch hour was limited to sixty-ish minutes I did not have the luxury to take on the museum stroll for very long. Thankfully my favorite room was the room at the top of the first flight of stairs after coming in the front doors off of Michigan Avenue between the famous lions.

Yesterday, twenty-nine years after my last visit, I made that same entrance and climbed the same first flight of stairs delighted that my Impressionists were still located in the very same room.

My tastes have changed. Whereas on my Thursday lunchtime visits I could sit and easily pass the time noting the differences in palette between Monet’s Haystacks, yesterday I was moved by Chagall, Dove and Picasso, and was fairly indifferent to the work of my beloved Cezanne.

There is so much beauty in the world; not just in the world of art. It is humanly impossible, for this human in particular, to see ALL as beautiful all the time. And yet, Picasso’s Nude Under a Pine Tree is not an object of beauty until I turn a corner and go, “Wow!”

“Beauty is no material thing. Beauty cannot be copied. Beauty is the sensation of pleasure on the mind of the seer. No thing is beautiful. But all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at the sight of them. This is beauty.”
― Robert Henri, The Art Spirit