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Even before reading any articles recounting Senator Kennedy’s life and accomplishments I was able to paint the smallest picture from my own memories. My thoughts show gaping holes, and could not begin to serve as a eulogy for the man, but, they rose quickly to the surface when he died.
During the Camelot years, when Jack was President, and Robert Attorney General, I thought of Ted as the ‘other brother.’ Ted was the one who didn’t make it all the way to the top of the ladder. And, then he was the only brother alive to carry on the political aspirations of the Kennedy clan.
The bridge at Chappaquiddick came to mind. I remembered the lingering questions: Was Ted Kennedy driving drunk? Did Kennedy family money influence the findings? I also remembered the name of the young woman who died that night forty years ago: Mary Jo Kopechne.
Living and voting in Massachusetts for many years, I was one of the people who returned Ted Kennedy to the Senate time and time again. The Senator was a proponent of health care reform decades before the current debate. Sitting alone, a sadness swept into me, and I felt the loss of a Senator who held a true course in liberal, democratic action. It seemed doubly sad to know Senator Kennedy wouldn’t see how this year’s attempt at reform will end.
Sketchy as my recollections are they led me to reflect that we all carry our past actions with us, in some form or other. Some have lives troubled by scandal and doubt. Yet, the past doesn’t fully determine the present; and all of us can take up the work of justice together.
I erroneously reported that the woman who called 911 reporting a break in at the home of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identified two black men. This was not the case, even though the police officer on the scene recorded that mistake in his report. One never likes to be the bearer of bad news, and even worse the bearer of the wrong news. With apologies to all who were concerned by the spread of this misinformation, I stand corrected by a thoughtful reader.
Francis Bacon opined that imagination was given to humanity to
compensate us for what we are not; and a sense of humor to
console us for what we are. Humor might be that which gives us
solace for the limitations of our human condition. It compensates
for our inability to soar the heavens, to create perfect lives, to make
of our talents an inexhaustible resource for good works. Humor
allows us to laugh at ourselves as human beings.
It also allows us to laugh at other human beings whether their
actions were intended to provoke mirth or not. Consider the antics
of any comic actor at the height of his or her slapstick prowess.
Jerry Lewis stumbling and rubber-legged. Chevy Chase falling flat
on his face. Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates in every available
orifice and pocket. Jim Carey doing all of the above all at the same
time. All of their actions provoke laughter not just because we
know it’s an ‘act’, but, because we would laugh at the very same
action – if only for a shocked instant – were it a real-life event.
Laughter can sneak up on us, and though we are not callous or
cold, it may give away our mirth in a spurt of loud guffaws before. If you’ve ever laughed at the wrong time…when a pratfall really hurt, or a friend ended up in a tangle on ice skates…you are not alone.
Seeing humor in an unexpected situation might provide a moment
of social embarrassment now and then. But, the same laughter, applied to one’s own difficulties can be a saving grace. You may have had this kind of
experience, too. An argument turns to shared laughter when you
realize the spat is too silly to be taken seriously. A low moment
becomes uproariously funny as you realize it could have been
much worse. Joyful laughter bubbles up as you realize a fall left
you unmarked and unhurt.
Here we come to another perspective on humor…that offered by
Arland Ussher, who saw humor (as)…’despair refusing to take
itself seriously.’ The ability to laugh at ourselves, and others, to take playful
mirth from play-acting, to revise serious and sad moments
with chuckles and hearty ha-ha’s — this is the serious
business of laughter.
Perhaps it is a knitter’s disease, or something stirred up by the breeze of shuttled needles, but, like every knitter I know I have three or more unfinished projects at all times. These past few weeks I’ve been making a concerted effort to put the final stitches on the incomplete socks, coat, pillow covers and sweaters spilling out of the basket. Despite such industry, I suspect I will never get ahead of the future projects waiting on an overstuffed shelf. Balls of yarn beckon, and I yearn to start something new.
What is it that makes me turn from one project to another leaving dangling threads? It might be some deep-seated wish to deny the possibility that life itself will ever end. All those partial projects waiting for an uncertain completion date might also indicate a temperament inclined to boredom, or alternately a short attention span. Or, they might indicate that I’m inclined to take on more than I can accomplish. Women, they say, tend to multi-task, and I confess to finding a certain satisfaction in moving from sock to sweater and back again in just one evening.
My knitting habits might willfully be exchanged for a more linear approach. But, I don’t think I’ll ever make the switch. Each project holds dozens of tomorrows woven into its fabric. Tomorrows linked not by a failure to finish, but, by the promise of accomplishments yet to come.
When Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home for disorderly conduct, I wasn’t surprised. More than twenty years ago, in a suburb south of Boston, a black man was arrested as an intruder while sitting in his car in his own driveway. Last week, the ‘profiling’ that made national news began when someone called the police to report black men breaking into a house. Separated by twenty years, the incidents reveal something about harbored fear and prejudice that extend into the heart of American thinking.
I had a friend who called a medical hotline to discuss his emotional state. Al was at times diagnosed as bipolar or schizophrenic, and on this day he felt the need of some advice. Deciding that this man was a ‘danger to himself or others’ the responder called in the police without informing him. Al’s agitation increased when the police arrived at his door. At one point an officer drew his gun, and despite this man’s efforts to assure the police that he was going to be okay, they took him off to a psychiatric institution.
My friend is white, but, his emotional issues presented the police with a problem they couldn’t resolve. When police officers don’t know how to de-escalate a situation they arrest someone or drag them off to a treatment facility. Sometimes, what should be the last resort becomes a knee-jerk response when an officer lacks the right training or temperament. And, yes, police officers are just as likely to act out of prejudice as the rest of us. Angry black men, and ‘mentally unbalanced’ white men raise specters of fear they don’t deserve and haven’t earned.
Traveling through a small town in Massachusetts, I was stopped and issued a speeding ticket. I tried to reason with the officer, but, my entreaties met with the response, “Officer’s discretion.” What an arresting thought, that police officers should use discretion, not to invoke their power to arrest, but, to gain sufficient distance from an unarmed man who is using only enflaming words to express his anger and shame to choose between arrest and quiet resolution.
This week is the fortieth anniversary of the lunar landing. The blast off was in 1969, but the mission took off in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy challenged the legislature and the people to put a person on the moon before the end of the decade.
The President spoke, and it was done. Of course the fact that Americans saw themselves competing in a race for space prominence with the Soviet Union helped to spur the project. It was also a challenge that met the self-perception of Americans as a ‘can-do’ people who could outstrip the technological abilities of anyone, anywhere, anytime.
When will that ‘can-do’ attitude bring health-enchancing, preventative, chronic and acute medical care to every citizen? Picture the outcome. No more families brought to their knees by medical bills. No more young adults refusing to buy health insurance so they can pay the rent or meet school bills. No more elders paying for health insurance instead of eating. No more maladies unexamined because it costs too much to even visit the ‘doc in a box.’ Imagine earlier intervention for diabetes, chronic heart problems and cancer.
Repeated attempts to reform health care have failed. The recent move toward reform is being opposed by many. Where’s that ‘can do’ spirit of the ’60′s? Why aren’t we eager to outstrip countries that have national health care with a bigger and better program? Where are the dreamers?
Calling all dreamers and doers. It’s time for us to speak out, to help our country to take a giant leap into the brave new world of health care rights for all Americans.
Though this question might well be confused with a inquiry after the state of your loss of height or even girth, it is an inquiry after the state of your spiritual health. The ancient meaning of ‘shrive’ is to hear someone’s sins and to respond with an assurance of grace and spiritual advice as required. It is the action that lies behind Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins.
Next Tuesday, February 25th, could be a good day to ask yourself where you have fallen short in your striving to be a person who gives no offense. For those who experience a divine presence in their lives their desire not to offend includes both deity and humanity. For those whose sole focus is in the human realm, there still remains a need to own up to offenses one may have given. The range of offenses we can offer are almost too numerous to mention. A short list would include: unwarranted anger, intentional slights, corners cut too sharply, offering cold legalism where warm empathy was needed, pursuing desires to own or possess beyond need or reason, choosing the easy out when forgiving self, and choosing harsh standards when called upon to forgive others.
Before you even begin to catalogue the offenses you have given, I can offer one piece of advice good for both your spiritual health and your relationships on the mortal plane. It is not enough to catalogue those faults, or even to share the fact of your failings with counselors. You will need to take the next step and work at making amends with those you have offended. Sometimes apologies can suffice, at other times reparations will need to be offered. Occasionally you may find your offense went unnoticed and your contrition seems unnecessary. From time to time you will learn that apologies and reparations cannot undo the damage done. In that instance, in particular, you will find this spiritual advice more than cumbersome. Yet, it is for those times when forgiveness may not be readily forthcoming that we need an extra measure of grace. The grace that allows us to keep on reviewing our offenses, even though we might never be fully ‘shriven’ – heard, given the grace of forgiveness, and readmitted to a relationship unmarred by memories that bring pain.
It must have been 2001 still, not so long after the tragedies of 9/11, and I was at the mercy of my then hairdresser who was regaling me with a story. Brandishing sharp scissors she said, “You are a minister aren’t you? You’ll love this then. I just tear up every time I think of it. Have you heard about the man who was in World Trade Center and when the buildings collapsed he found himself straddling a girder? He rode that girder all the way to the ground, and survived! God saved him! What a miracle!”
A born skeptic, I muttered my doubts about the veracity of that account, keeping my wholly incredulous response to myself. What, I wondered, did God have against the three thousand who didn’t ride girders to safety? Didn’t they deserve miracles, too?
I read recently of an indigenous woman who was captured by Coronado on his march through Mexico into what became the southern states. In a stroke of luck, she escaped her captors. Unfortunately, she ran smack dab into Hernando de Soto who was trekking across from the Florida peninsula. Coronado and de Soto never encountered each other, but, one very unlucky woman managed to cross paths with both slave-hungry explorers. Was that a miracle?
The exclamation “What a miracle!” is reserved for extraordinary events we consider good news. Turning a blind eye to all coincidences that cause misery, we focus on stories of unlikely events that might serve the idea that some ‘good intentions’ undergird life on earth. Even more, it seems that people like to recount tales that suggest divine forces will single them out for special notice in times of need.
How might we live if we weren’t waiting for God to thrust a girder under us at just the right moment? I hope we would live in expectation of the little miracles, like the dedication of rescue workers who refused to give up looking for one more person trapped under the rubble, or the compassion that turns us aside from enslaving our sisters and brothers, and the hope that human hands outstretched in love will be miracle enough to elicit our praise and thanksgiving.
We strode into the service with one short rehearsal behind us. The congregation watched with a bit of skepticism as five people fumbled with microphones and chairs at the front of the sanctuary. We sat in our ragged semi-circle, and the narrator began to read. We all read and a story took center stage. Some of us mugged and mimed, and some simply read with feeling, The children moved to the front of the room or stood on their parent’s laps to see this minor gaggle of readers as they told the story of La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch.
Reader’s Theatre is a very low-tech, low budget technology for story-telling. It requires a nicely developed script, a few props, willing readers, and an investment in rehearsal time. It’s that simple, almost too simple to work. But, it does work. We all love to hear a story. Our very brains are designed to follow a plot, to anticipate twists and turns, to dash ahead to our own imagined ending and back again to hear what is really happening.
After the service, one member commented that his son had a book about the holidays, and in a pictorial representation he’d noticed a witch on a broom. He said he’s always imagined the Italians had some special Halloween celebration, and now he’d connected that picture with the legend of Befana, the woman who refused to follow a shepherd to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus.
We are all driven to made connections, even between a child’s picture book and a story told at church. We can’t help but gather all the bits of information at our disposal and make something out of them. That is how stories of every kind came to be in the first place. A good story satisfies something deep within. In the story of La Befana, the message of hope the story conveyed was a bonus, a pleasant connection with our first foray in the simple world of Reader’s Theatre.
The universe wants to be heard on the topic of synchronicity. Last week I complained that ‘miracles’ were few and far between in my life, even the narrowly defined miracles of Littlewood’s Law.
I was leaving the hospital when I almost stumbled on the machine that exchanges dollar bills for the special coins that guarantee an exit from the parking garage. While it is hard to miss the big signs that herald a $1 parking fee at the entrance of the garage, I often drive around with nothing more than a credit card in my pocket. Confronting a machine that dispensed tokens, and having not one, but two, $1 bills in my possession I decided to purchase two tokens.
I approached the automated booth behind a small red truck. A few moments passed and truck didn’t move on. I watched then as the driver tried to insert a $1 bill into the machine, time and time again, with no success. He carefully smoothed the bill out and re-entered it. The machine spewed the bill back at him every time like a belligerent child sticking out a thin, green tongue. The line of cars behind us grew. Remembering that I had a token to spare, I walked to the head of the line and asked the gentlemen if I could try a token in the defiant machine. Even while he asked if I really had a token to spare, I dropped it in the proper slot, and the gate responded. He stuffed the useless $1 bill in my hand with thanks, and drove off, unblocking our mini-traffic-jam.
The first time I ever bought tokens, I bought two, and both were needed that very day. But, I’d already had one miracle this month, so now I’ve exceeded the limit of ‘one in a million’ exceptional experiences of note. Yet, we live in a random universe. Random events, even Littlewood’s miracles, can cluster in twos or threes, spread themselves out evenly in thirty day cycles, or go into hiding for years. The folks at MacIntosh learned that most people don’t appreciate the truth about random events when they programmed the first iPods. So many people complained about the same song showing up two times in a row that the inventors had to reinvent ‘random’ to prevent a truly random repetition.
We may not like it, but, all signs point to a random universe that disregards our need for an orderly progression of events, and likely doesn’t care about the meanings we attach to simple events. But, that makes us the meaning-makers, doesn’t it? It gives us the power to define ourselves and our lives even in the random intersection of tokens and bills, to make a memorable moment in an otherwise ordinary exchange with machines.