Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Psalm 27
Journal entry dated March 22, 2005

"to feast my eyes on the beauty of the Lord"

Like Psalm 23, Psalm 27 identifies dwelling in the house of the Lord with freedom from fear. But there is an additional element: beauty. We are the creators of so much ugliness: war, environmental devastation, senseless violence, poverty that breeds despair and endemic hopelessness. And beauty, on the other hand, has become largely a prerogative of the bourgeoisie, a luxury for those who can afford it. We spend so much on imperial Byzantine churches and iconography projects that we have nothing to give to those in need.

What is the beauty of the Lord?

Spontaneous and simple. Unanticipated. It is an act of kindness when you least expect it, restoring hope. Beauty is a healing event. Beauty is fearlessly fragile and vulnerable. Like kindness, beauty is a concept not easily commodified as an instrument of control. Beauty is free.

A single act of beauty is like a seed that has the power to save the world.

The Selah Project

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Feast of the Holy Ghost

The following is a guest post by Johanna, a regular reader. She sent it to me and I loved it, and asked if I could put it up on the blog. Another guest post by Johanna, "The Lover of Truth," can be found here.

I grew up in a tiny coastal fishing village in southeastern Connecticut. When my parents moved there in 1962 it was inhabited by an interesting cross-section of humanity: primarily poor working-class Portuguese fishermen and their families, a few lower-middle class Navy families (like mine), a healthy dose of eccentric artists and writers from many different places, a few wealthy year-round families involved in local businesses, and a trickle of summer folks who came up from New York City and Washington DC. You could walk to anything you needed. There were five little local markets, a few package stores, a lumberyard, two hardware stores, a gas station, a few bars, three churches, a post office, a drugstore, a few gift shops, a small department store, a few restaurants, a dry cleaner, and of course, you could buy fresh fish and lobster right off the boats. The school was within walking distance. You didn't really need a car for much. There were lots of things to do all the time; it was a great place to grow up. I went to school with mostly second-generation Portuguese kids; they were the "blacks" of our community. I remember in the summers we would go for walks around the village after dinner and a lot of (the Portuguese) people down by the Point would sit out on their front stoops, enjoying a sunset, visiting with people walking by, and the atmosphere was lively, congenial, interesting and vital. It sure wasn't boring.

Every year on Labor Day Weekend, the local Portuguese community celebrates The Feast of The Holy Ghost. The Portuguese Holy Ghost Society owns a big Greek Revival three-story building whose side yard backs right up onto the back of our house. The feast commemorates a miracle of faith and unconditional giving: in the midst of a great famine and flood, Queen Isabella of Portugal sold her crown jewels to buy food for her starving people, and the flood waters receded. There are parades, band music, feasting, and a lively Portuguese sweetbread auction all weekend. Because we're perhaps the most intimate of their neighbors to this whole scene, we have been a part of it from the very first year we lived there. We've always loved it and looked forward to it.

One of the highlights of the weekend is "the feeding of the masses." The Daughters of Isabella prepare a huge meal of traditional Portuguese "sopas," a heavenly broth, with bread in it, and beef, potatoes, chorizo, cabbage, roasted onions and fresh mint. They feed everyone and anyone who walks through the door, all without charge. For a long time when I was a kid, we were too afraid to go wait in line and go into that big hall on the second floor and find out what all of this was about. So we just enjoyed the wacky, ethnic festival atmosphere that prevailed in the neighborhood all weekend. But when I was 15, one of our neighbors, who was Greek and felt like he fit in anywhere said, "Hey, let's just go." So we braved the long line stretching out the front door, down the steps and way down the block to Wall Street, went inside, and had our first meal of sopas. Believe me, it was totally incredible, not just the food, but the whole experience: of going even though we are not Portuguese, of being welcomed and embraced into this cacophonous joyous community as one of their own, of tasting the outpouring of service and unstinting, unconditional giving that this meal is... we ARE a part of this, because we dared to cross the boundary of our fear and to mingle as equals.

I make it a point to be there every year for this weekend. I am happy that even though it is 2005 and the once very strong traditions are fading somewhat from the years of my childhood, that this at least still exists in some form, and I am happy that this diversity still exists. It makes life so much more real and interesting.

But Stonington has changed a great deal in 40 years. In the renovation boom of the 70's, most of the poorer fishing families down at the Point sold their homes to wealthier out-of-towners who were looking for idyllic second homes by the sea. The village is now too expensive a place for my husband and I to own a home in, let alone even rent a modest apartment. At least my mother owns her house and can still afford to pay the taxes. It is now a wealthy bedroom community, with little diversity with which to recommend itself.

And, there are a lot of new residents to the village who try to make life difficult for the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society because they consider their festivals and feasts to be neighborhood annoyances that disturb their expectations of a perfectly noiseless, tranquil life in their expensive real estate, and which threaten "the value" of said property.

If they could just have the humility to be ordinary for a few hours, and go stand in that jostling line with all the other human bodies, and go inside and sit at large tables with neighbors they haven't met yet and eat this wonderful meal, to accept the gift, then they too could realize that they are totally a part of the community and would appreciate a depth and breadth to this place that perhaps they have not yet been able to connect with.

I think essentially this is the same issue at work in all of these things. We make barriers out of our fears. We keep ourselves separated from others. We often want our own way in things rather than having the willingness to consider life from the perspective of someone very different from ourselves.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A dollar for a cup of coffee

Tonight, when I went down to the corner to get some plain yogurt from the organic market, Milton was there talking to his friend Bernice and a guy named Mike whom I've only met once before. Mike looks like Johnny Cash, with salt and pepper hair pulled back into a long ponytail. He sounds a bit like Johnny Cash, too, with a deep smoker's rasp. The last time I saw Mike, he was sitting on the corner running a sign, "Homeless, please help," and he had an old comic book, a real collector's item, sitting on top of his pack. I mentioned that I had a friend who collects comic books, and offered him some dinner. He accepted, but it took longer than I thought to get the food ready, and by the time I got back to the corner, he was gone. But he'd left the comic book with somebody else to give to me.

I went to shake Mike's hand, and he reached out gingerly, saying he'd hurt his hand a few days ago. I sat down on the little brick wall in front of the library, with the sun setting and a cool breeze blowing, and we talked. Mike told me about how he likes to feed the birds in the morning. He gets day-old bread from the local café and scatters it for the pigeons. Years ago, he found a baby pigeon that had fallen out of the nest prematurely, and raised it till it was old enough to fly, then released it. He named it Sammy. Mike said that he could recognize Sammy out of all the other birds, but that last year Sammy stopped coming around, and he figures a hawk probably got him. He said that a song he once heard by Celine Dion made him think that maybe he would see Sammy again "up there." I told him that I thought that an act of kindness is never lost, that one day every generous act would come back to us. So maybe he's right.

Mike told me he has a learning disability; it doesn't really show, except that he talks slowly and deliberately. He strikes me as kind and peaceful. He is a musician; he has a one-man-band act that he puts on for the tourists in town, with a guitar and a harmonica and bells on his legs. He's even recorded a CD with a man he met who has recording equipment. One of his songs, a gospel/blues number, is called "Hear the Beggerman Cry."

A few weeks ago, Mike was walking his bike across a crosswalk, and a woman hit him with her car. She hit him pretty hard, hard enough to knock him down and break his bike. He was lying on the street, and she pulled up next to him, rolled down her window, and asked if he was hurt. He said, in his slow way, "I don't know. I don't think so." He stood up, and she told him she was in a hurry; she had her nephew in the car and had to get him to school. "Can I give you a dollar for a cup of coffee?" Mike said no, he didn't think so, and bent over to pick up his ruined bike.

When he looked up, she was driving away.

Mike was hurt in the accident, though he didn't feel it right away; his hand was injured, and he was unable to urinate for over two days. He got down on his knees and tried and tried. His abdomen distended. Finally he went to the hospital. They told him he had internal injuries, possibly a hernia. His ureter was blocked. They catheterized him and drained 1,000 cc's of urine, gave him a leg bag, and released him back to the street. He told me that now there's a discharge of pus from around the catheter.

I brought him down some dinner: spicy cucumber salad with yogurt, tofu with peanut topping, brown rice, and orange juice, with lemon meltaway cookies for dessert. I told him I thought he should go to the hospital. He said he was thinking about it, but he wasn't sure he would. He didn't want to get an infection. He looked over at Milton, who got a staph infection while he was in the hospital for a broken leg, and ended up losing the use of his leg and being confined permanently to a wheelchair.

People on the street know all too well that they don't get the same care as everybody else.

My wife checked out a book from the library over the weekend called Disposable People, about slavery in the modern world. I couldn't help thinking about Mike when I looked at the title. Here is a musician, a songwriter, a guy who feeds the birds like St. Francis, peaceful, generous with day-old-bread and antique comic books. A kind person. In my mind's eye, I see him walking across the street, see the car coming up and striking him, see the window rolling down, see the face of the person inside, saying "can I give you a dollar for a cup of coffee?"

It's my face.

I'm just as guilty. I see someone hurt, someone in whose injury I am complicit on some level, and I offer just a little bit of help, a quick and easy fix, something small and manageable and noncommittal, and then drive away. I'm in a hurry, after all. Places to go, things to do. I'm an important person. One of the non-disposable people.

"A dollar for a cup of coffee" is what passes for compassion in our world.

Fortunately, shame gets smaller and smaller as it recedes in the rear-view mirror.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Two new CDs

I am currently listening to two terrific CDs that I recommend highly. The first is Rarities by the Indigo Girls, my absolute favorite musicians in the world. Rarities is a B-side release, a bunch of songs that never made it out of the studio, together with some remixes and tribute album pieces. I never thought I would hear a collaborative effort between IGs and Rage Against the Machine, but there it was on the album. The second-to-last song, "It Won't Take Long," made me weep, because I want so much to believe that a day could come when, "as we let outselves be bought, we're gonna let ourselves be free."

The second CD is 40 Days by the Wailin' Jennys. We heard them on A Prairie Home Companion, and checked out a CD. Gorgeous folk music. Painfully beautiful, if you know what I mean.

Check 'em out.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Train my hands

Psalm 144
Journal entry dated September 15, 2005

"A blessing for the Lord, who trains my arms for war, my hands for battle"

This psalm begins as the song of the well-trained warrior. Yet it ends with a vision of a world beyond war and the threat of war, a world where children grow up to take their places in society, where there is plenty of food and animals are well-cared for, where there is no breach in the wall, no terror in the streets, no captives being led away to exile.

The great lure of war has always been the false promise of building a better world through violence. But if it is true that we cannot build a new world through war, which seems more apparent every day, it is equally true that we will not build it through inactivity, by sitting in our homes and watching television or by talking about it. We have to build it with our hands.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that if you look into your hands, you will see all the past and all the future of the world. It's a shock for someone like me, a wordsmith by trade, to realize that the New City will be built, not with words, but with our two good hands. I say to the she-guerilla from time to time that I am jealous of her. She works with her hands, produces something real, tangible. She makes handmade soap, artisan breads, delicious meals from organic ingredients. At the end of the day, I am left with nothing but words on paper.

"A blessing for the Lord, who trains my hands for..." what? It's not enough to say "peace;" this is far too abstract.

Train my hands for art, for music, for cooking, for kneading bread. Train my hands for building homes for those who have none; shape my fingers to the hammer and the nail. Train my hands for gardening, to feel the richness of the soil. Train my hands to plant, to build, to create, to heal.

If ever we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, it will not be with our words, but with our own hands.

The future of the world is literally in our hands.

At noon on one day coming,
Human strength will fill the streets
Of every city on our planet,
Hear the sound of angry feet
With business freezed up in the harbor,
The kings will pull upon their hair
And the banks will shudder to a halt,
And the artists will be there

'Cause it won't take long,
It won't take too long at all,
It won't take long, and you may say,
"I don't think I can be a part of that,"
And it makes me want to say,
"Don't you want to see yourself that strong?"

"It Won't Take Long," by Ferron
as performed by the Indigo Girls

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A world without violence

Psalm 140
Journal entry dated September 11, 2005

"Rescue me, Lord, from evil men; from the violent keep me safe"

In this psalm, the psalmist appeals to God for mercy, meaning protection from the plots and evil intent of violent people. The violent will suffer what they planned for others, and will be ultimately cleansed from the earth: "let evil hound the violent man to his death."

On this day, our nation remembers 9/11, but for the most part, it is an evil memory, not a transformative one. We have dashed their infants against the rock, rocked the nations of our foes with shock and awe, killed our enemies, their children, and their children's children.

Is there less violence in the world as a result?

Hurricane Katrina came as a massive embarrassment to us, because it showed us that, despite our efforts to rid the world of evil, evil remains in our midst in the form of poverty, racism, and utter selfishness. We quickly lowered the curtain, cut the microphones of those who said it openly, but the damage was done. The world saw the ugliness, the evil of our doings.

The times are calling us to broaden our appeal for mercy. Like the psalmist, we pray that we may not suffer violence. But we must also learn to pray this on behalf of our enemies, or better, "on behalf of all, and for all." If we seek a world without violence, as the psalmist does at some level, then we must have the courage to create a world without violence. A world without violence only for a few is a world perpetually at war. A green zone of safety within a world of violence is a bubble waiting to burst.

The bubble burst on 9/11, and we responded, at best, with immaturity. Perhaps the close coincidence of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina may lead us as a nation this year to a deeper reflection as to how we might create a world without violence.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Gone fishin'

Well, not really, since we're vegetarians, but we have gone camping for the next week, where there in no internet access. So see y'all next week!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

God's a-gonna trouble the water

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s a-gonna trouble the water

This is the first song we sang in church this morning. On almost any Sunday, I am to be found in the Orthodox Church. But this Sunday, my family and I went to the local African Methodist Episcopal church. On this Sunday, we wanted to stand in solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters, some of whom grew up in New Orleans, many of whom have friends and relatives who have been affected by this tragedy.

As we sang, a projector flashed slides on the back wall: pictures of people walking in the water. People being rescued, pulled into boats and helicopters. Houses half-submerged in the flood. Black faces. White faces. Faces so covered with grime it was hard to tell what color they were.

I wept as I sang, tears sliding down my face while the ushers handed out fans and tissues.

Wade in the water

The service was not somber or subdued, but joyous. It was a celebration, an affirmation of life. I sensed within these people the indomitable spirit of those who have suffered. I noticed that those who were weeping, like me, were mostly the white folks. The black faces were set with a kind of fierce joy; they had seen this bad and worse before, and they had survived. They summoned a courage and dignity from deep within to which I did not have access, a strength that belongs to those who know what it means to patiently endure.

The last scene that flashed on the screen was a picture of New Orleans with a rainbow over it. Devastation and promise. “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Wade in the water, children

There is an Orthodox blogger who calls me his “leftist counterpart.” He wrote a piece critical of my post about looting. He claimed that the minority poor of New Orleans are suffering, not because they had no transportation to get out of the city, but because they are evil people, lazy and incorrigible, “a community which has so embraced a culture of crime, laziness, contempt for the general social order, abuse, drugs, sexual promiscuity, and lawlessness that it is past the point of no return and cannot be helped for the foreseeable future.” Unlike, apparently, all those good and virtuous white people who cruised out of the city in their air-conditioned SUV’s.

Wade in the water

I wrote a post full of white-hot rage when I read what he had written, in which I inveighed bitterly against a “racist worldview of post-Confederate fantasies.” I’m still angry. But after today’s service, I feel something else.

I feel pity.

Barricade yourself in your house. Lock your doors. Load your guns. Defend yourself and your stuff against those you fear. Choose to believe that some people are not worth the effort to save.

It sounds to me like a foretaste of hell.

God’s a-gonna trouble the water

I learned this from my black brothers and sisters: that the proper response to tragedy is to celebrate life, to affirm it as God’s gift, not to surrender to bitterness or anger. In their midst, I did not see “a spirit of blame and hostility.” I saw a river of joy to wash away a river of pain, and an ocean of love to wash away an ocean of tears. I saw strength, and dignity, and above all, a deep faith that we shall overcome.

A beautiful rendition by Eva Cassidy of "Wade in the Water," a slave spiritual, is available for free and legal download at WashingtonPost.com: http://mp3.washingtonpost.com/bands/eva_cassidy.shtml.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The storm after the storm

Here's an interesting article from the New York Times to follow our discussion on looting and human behavior.

"Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities..."