Life Is so Peculiar

I was recently blocked from the Far Side (Gary Larson) FB page, dedicated to the great cartoonist’s wit, as well as other like-minded cartoonists. I had made what I thought was an apposite comment about a cartoon. The cartoon in question was of a black swan (not an “ugly duckling“) looking into a pond and seeing itself as a white swan. I simply commented that “in these days of Black Lives Matter (and they do), this cartoon might not be found very amusing/endearing.” Boom! I was shut out and told, in a private email, not to post political statements and “Don’t be a dick.” Since when is racial sensitivity itself a political statement? Oh I know, race has been politicized for years–but sensitivity? I guess it’s okay to be abusive in a private email…kinda surprised I wasn’t called a ‘N-lover’! I would sincerely like to hear from any readers of this blog as to what you think about this (minor) situation. Is it just another example of unconscious racism/white privilege?

By the way, I remain a big Gary Larson fan. I love his off-beat sense of humour and I love the way he parodies human creatures vs. four-legged and other creatures. Would he post such a cartoon today? I honestly don’t think so. A lot of us white folk have had to re-evaluate our positions of privilege and the many expressions and assumptions we have taken for granted, e.g. black sheep of the family, black mark against someone, Devil’s food cake (dark) vs. Angel food cake (white), etc, etc. In any case, being closed out of a Facebook page is no great problem for me, given the world’s problems, and I would certainly make the comment again. Let me hear what you think.

The Way of All Flesh

My fourth novel is now ready for publication and is totally unlike the previous three. This book is a farce set in an enchanted retirement community, called Carolina Woods. I have described the community as a blend of Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology’s Hades, as people fully become what they were all along, but generally hid from public view. Their fully realized personae are both mirthful and tragic. Writing the book was both a way of coping with the second Covid lockdown as well as dealing with my own aging. I am writing this in the wake of my youngest first-cousin’s death–he leaves a wife and two teenaged children. He also leaves a positive legacy as a man, husband and father. He was far too young to die, but then death nearly always comes as an inconvenience.

The trick to dealing with death is first, to accept that we all I have to die–yes, you too! And second, to live one’s life well and fully in the face of one’s mortality. There, that’s my summary of 69 years’ existence and 40+ years as an ordained minister. A third strategy–if you need one–is to befriend each stage of life. I have a progressive-degenerative disease which has reduced my life considerably, but this is my reality. There are no brakes; and kicking and screaming will not help one iota.

As an early 30-something pastor, I remember an old codger who used to stop by the church office about every 2-3 weeks. As soon as he was spotted, the secretaries would literally run and hide in the loos. He was an unhappy man and gladly shared his misery with all and sundry. I remember remarking to a church volunteer one day that I hoped never to become such a miserable old fart as he. I have never forgotten her reply: “Jack, you don’t suddenly become like that at a certain age; it takes a lifetime of practice. You have nothing to fear.”

As a writer I would be remiss not to urge you to buy and read The Woods when it appears later this year. I hope it makes you laugh out loud, but I also hope it gives you pause to consider who you are and how/if you are becoming the person you want to be. After all, we are all in the process of becoming forever what we are freely choosing and loving most right now.

Live as Though You Did Not Exist

The title of this blog comes from Meister Eckhart, a 13th/14th century theologian and mystic. That quotation has remained with me since I first read it years ago. For me it simply made sense. After having made my fifth–and final–trans-Atlantic move last year, it makes even more sense. Unlike the bar in “Cheers”, I live in a place where nobody knows my name. And I feel quite at home that way. I live in a village in rural Normandie–hamlet really–which is so small, it doesn’t even have a shop of any kind. My neighbours are farmers and their animals. The animals are friendly–and so are the people, but not intrusive. The countryside impacts my life, but not the reverse. I like being encompassed by it.

“Where is this going?”, you ask yourself. Just to this point: I recently finished a novel (The Woods) which deals with the “third stage of life”–if you like such demarcations. The action is set in a mythical retirement community in North Carolina. And it’s not your ordinary retirement community, this one is enchanted. I liken it to a blend on Dante’s Inferno and Greek mythology’s Hades. In this place people’s alter egos come out to play. There is no hiding from themselves. As a baby boomer who came of age in the 1960s and who has seen many relatives and friends age–well or badly–and die, this book is an exploration of how we might, if so inclined, dance towards our final exit. It also examines the culture-collision between parents, who no longer have anything to prove, and their adult children, for whom everything is a stress-filled challenge.

As a former pastor, I have had the awesome privilege of accompanying people to their deaths. Each death was as individual as the person. Some have incorporated me into their lives as a friend, relative or colleague from the past. I sat patiently with a dying Welsh academic, 40 years my senior, who talked about “our” Sunday evening dinners at the college where “we” taught. He then asked me to sing the song we sang together in the evenings. He told me it was based on a German poem–where to start? Call it inspiration–or die Heilige Geist–I started singing, “Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten,” and he joined in, “Dass ich so traurig bin…” It was Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. It was a sacred moment.

And then there was another academic I knew–a combination of Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracy–a tall, striking man. As he edged towards death, he thought I was his father and thanked me “for letting him come here.” “Here” was a hospice room, but for him, it seemed to be a delightful summer camp! As I left, he would come to the door and call after me, “Thanks dad! Thanks for letting me come here!” That was heart-piercing for me, in a sweet and poignant way–and I admit I cried. But it was wonderful that, in both of those moments, it didn’t matter who I was. It simply matter that I was and that I was present. Live as though you did not exist.

Well Reader, we’re all heading in the same direction. Can we finally live into who we are and were created to be, with joy and excitement? Or do we go out kicking and screaming? Will death be for us a dreaded enemy or a welcoming friend? Give it some consideration while there’s time–and take a look at The Woods when it comes out later this year.

A Proustian Moment

On this snowy day in Orne, Normandie, I have been given to reflection on times past. For some reason I thought about the most joyful eucharist I ever attended…and it was years before I was ordained. It happened when I was hitchhiking back from Canada where I had spent a short time in a hospice for young Americans opposed to the Vietnam war. Among the chief reasons I did not stay there was this: it was overcrowded, there were no spare beds, sheets or blankets and sleeping on a cold, hard floor in winter just proved to be too much. I decided to take my chances with Uncle Sam. (I had lost my 2-S, but you can get a flavour of that in my second novel, No Good Deed: https://jacknlawson.com/no-good-deed/)

On the way back to my college in North Carolina, I stopped over in Harrisburg, PA where the trial of Fr. Daniel Berrigan and others was taking place. Considering it was Berrigan who convinced me to burn my draft card a year or so before, I thought I would return the favour by turning up at the courthouse to show my support. He and the other defendants were on trial for destroying government property: namely draft records, which they had pilfered and burnt– not seeking to escape, by the way. Incidentally, they did not hurt or threaten anyone. They simply wanted to interrupt the paperwork which was sending so many of my generation to kill or be killed in Southeast Asia.

One evening there was an ecumenical service officiated by Fr. Philip Berrigan (Daniel’s older brother), Rev. Prof. Harvey Cox and, I think, Rev. Ralph Abernathy (above). The church was so packed, it was standing room only–a real fire marshal’s nightmare. When it came time for communion, there was no way people could move either to go to the altar rail, Roman Catholic-style or to serve one another, Protestant-style. So the clergy gave the prayer of thanksgiving, blessing the sacraments, and began throwing huge chunks of bread to the gathered throng. Wine was then passed around by the bottle! (The doctrinally inclined would not have approved!) There was a real sense of hope and purpose to that eucharist–as well as palpable joy.

Fifty years later, I have to admit to never having experienced that same joy again during communion. Sad, ain’t it? Most communion services I have attended or officiated felt more like funerals, amongst God’s ‘frozen chosen’ rather than the expression of joy at Christ’s resurrection and God’s all-encompassing and forgiving love. Goodness knows I did my best to make the eucharist experiential, real, urgent and joyful; but alas, cultural Christianity resisted.

Postscript

I later studied with Harvey Cox at Harvard Divinity School (1976), and in 2013 was able to coax him to travel to England to give lectures and seminars at the Norwich Centre for Christian Education, which I had helped found. We both reminisced and laughed about that eucharist in Harrisburg–as well as recalled the urgency of those times. We even compared our experiences in Southern jails! Only eight years after my reunion with Cox, I have the same sense of urgency about the US. But now, sadly, too many Christian denominations ally themselves with the powers of hate and darkness, seeking–like the German National Church of the 1930s and 40s–to limit and define God’s activity to white, Protestant culture. Would that American Christianity again had the beacons of light and hope that we had in Abernathy, ML King, William Sloane Coffin, the Berrigans and so many others. King had his dream; and I have my memories.

The Browning of America as its Salvation

Deputy Inspector James F. Kobel

NYPD Officer James Kobel (above), Deputy Inspector responsible for combatting discrimination and harassment in the workplace, has jumped before he was pushed. Despite his progressive-sounding title, it turns out that he is yet another white supremacist in humanitarian clothing. Despite his day job, Kobel had been posting racially, ethnically and religiously insulting messages on white rant sites.

This sort of revelation–the numbers hastened of late by the events in Washington, DC–are almost becoming hum-drummingly regular. “Oh, there’s another one.” Not so long ago, before I lost him as a friend, I had an online argument about whether or not there is systemic racism in America. My ex-friend said there was a dearth of real evidence. I replied, “apart from the lucrative business in slavery for 2.5 centuries, what about the Three-fifths compromise during the Constitutional convention of 1787/8?” Racism was enshrined in US law from the beginning. I never heard from him again. (“Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind–or better, my prejudice–is made up!”

As an ex-pat American, and having spent most of my adult life abroad, my wife and I tried living in the US again from late 2016 until July 2020. I was aghast at the number of confederate flags I saw flying wherever we went. I was even more bothered by the sort of racist talk I heard from idiots who thought that all white-skinned people felt like they did. I sometimes felt like I was in a seedy re-make of “Gone with the Wind”, particularly the scene wherein war had been announced after the shelling of Ft. Sumter and all the young beaux were getting excited at the prospect of engaging and defeating the United States. That didn’t go to plan.

So here we are again. Back to the future to the past to…well, you get it. We human beings really don’t learn from our mistakes–not collectively anyway. Some individuals do learn–once they have been burned by their zealous desire for violence, or have been injured, or lie dying, maybe thinking, “I really screwed up!” But no, this life is not a rehearsal. It’s all we get. And for all the shit we humans bring to life, I still believe it is sacred. But right now, my sole thought about the future of the US is that–if it doesn’t totally tear itself apart–its salvation may very well lie in its ‘browning.’ In other words, in the reduction of the white majority to just another racial/ethnic group among others, with no claims of ‘majority’ to justify its supposed ‘right to rule’. God hasten the day!

America’s Cult(ure) of Anger and Blame

Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with a very wise rabbi (H.C. Brichto, z”l). Of his many quotes I can remember, this seems to be the most fitting for what underlies recent events in America: “Most people live as though their lives are determined, but it’s the other guy who has free will.” Take some time to let that sink in. read it again. Perhaps you have seen your life through such lenses–I know I have, when younger. To tell yourself that you didn’t have a choice for the way life has gone, job opportunities missed, relationships gone sour, etc. is a way of taking no responsibility for yourself, your choices and motives. This, in turn, can lead to anger: “I’ve been cheated!” “Life isn’t fair, to me.” And anger leads to blame.

Take Dylann Root, the shooter at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. He said he killed those church members because “N—-rs were gettin’ everything.” You see, it had nothing to do with his being an uneducated, drug-taking drop-out. No, black people were getting what should have been his by right. The fact that they were all well-educated and hard-working had nothing to do with what they had gained in life–including a welcoming attitude to their murderer. Therefore Dylann didn’t have to take the blame and his anger had just cause–“N—-rs were getting’ everything.”

Jump forward five years, and many African-American deaths later, and nothing has really changed. We have the same anger and blame cult all around us. Why? Because white shit-for-brains supremacists won’t do the HARD WORK of self-examination. That’s too goddamn scary for them. It is far, far easier to blame others: Blacks, immigrants, Hispanics, educated people, Democrats, liberals, Jews, gays–and they have unlimited blanks to fill in. It is ALWAYS someone else’s fault. Thus their feeding frenzy on any and every conspiracy theory that appears. “It ain’t us, it’s them!” Maybe now that the King of Conspiracists has turned on them, a few might actually examine what led them to follow him in the first place.

Rats leaving a sinking RAT

Oh the pixels and ink that will be consumed over the coming days at the demise of the King Rat presidency. Like so many people across the globe, this writer is amazed at how many Republican legislators are expressing surprise and dismay at how Trump’s…excuse me, King Rat’s presidency is coming to a close. Why? He is no different now than when elected and the Republican party were gloating in their victory. “Who cares that we have a narcissist lunatic as our party leader? At least he’s one of us.” And King Rat has been calling on his cult followers to come to DC and disrupt, if not take over, the government for the last few weeks. Now they are all trying to appear rational (finally!) and morally outraged (finally!), but that train has long left the station. Trump is behaving no differently now than he has done all along. Had he lost in 2016–and he was preparing for that by calling the election “rigged”–we would have seen his scumbag army in the streets of DC at that time.

So here we are over a month after the most scrupulous election ever, with King Rat crying foul and telling others to do what he hasn’t the balls to do for himself. In that way, he is the same as all other dictators and bullies–they cajole others to do their dirty work. And all of a sudden Mitch McConnel is saying “Enough!” and Lindsey “Captain Chameleon” Graham is saying “Enough!” And even defeated Georgian senator, Kelly Loeffler, has joined in the public display of moral outrage, along with numerous others. Yes, they are that grasping and so wanting to shine as leaders of what will be left of the Republican party that they will parrot the words of saner, more honest people with the hope of saving their political careers. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project put out ads calling on Republicans to “remember their names” and sadly Republican voters did just that–they remembered their names and voted for them again–except Loeffler lost. But the rest of Trump’s enablers remain in the House and the Senate, still ready to derail the constitution of the United States.

There’s nothing new in the loyal soldiers of a failed leader distancing themselves from their once-adored commander-in-chief. But they are just as susceptible to follow another King Rat. As a resident of France, I have to ask, “Where is Robespierre when we really need him?!”

Of Butch Cassidy and Covid Sceptics

At the beginning of the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, the Sundance Kid is playing poker with a man who accuses him of cheating. They are about to settle it with guns when Butch leans over and whispers a ‘warning’ to Sundance, but deliberately using his moniker. The gambler is noticeably disturbed and says, “I didn’t know you were the Sundance Kid when I accused you of cheating. If I draw on you, you’ll kill me.” At that point Butch says to the man, “No. You’d be killing yourself!”

Having just learned of the death of another friend in this year of Covid, I will be totally honest and say that this badass minister has lost both patience and sympathy for those who have opened their arms, hands, nostrils and mouths to Covid-19. The latest to hit the news is newly elected representative for Louisiana, Luke Letlow, pictured below with the Great Spreader himself, Donald J. Trump–neither man wearing a mask.

Having read the tributes to Letlow and the calls by the governor of Louisiana for prayers and sympathy and for flags to fly at half-mast, I have to ask myself: “Would they be doing this if he’d blown his brains out?” I seriously doubt it. The articles I have read thus far describe his death in the old-fashioned style of: ‘death came and swept him away before his time.’ In other words, he was a passive victim. But considering Letlow placed himself among the science-doubting, non-mask-wearing crowd, this writer believes he killed himself–like so many before him. The English word ‘science’ is rooted in the Latin word ‘scientia‘, meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘knowing.’ Latin has another word that is appropriate for our times: ignoramus, meaning ‘we do not know.’ This should be the fitting epitaph for many a witless Republican.

The Al Capone Presidency?

In 1931 Alphonse Gabriel Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison. Gang leader, murderer, bootlegger and more, Capone could only be safely convicted for tax evasion. At this point in time I wonder whether the American public of 1931 would have tolerated such a man as president. Given the fact that he was not a media personality and that Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the year after Capone’s imprisonment, I suspect not.

Yet here we are in the waning days of 2020, and we have a man of Capone’s ilk as the sitting president–threatening marshal law, imprisonment for his enemies–oh, I meant political opponents–and more. And like Capone’s style of leadership Trump brooks no disagreement from his underlings. And what sort of people has Trump pardoned? Well, Roger Stone, who lied to Congress, Paul Manafort, fraudster, Charles Kushner, tax evader/blackmailer, the Blackwater murderers, Michael Flynn, Russian interference finagler who lied to the FBI and so many other sordid pardons. Meanwhile Trump is fast-tracking the execution of federal prisoners–his own version of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre? Who knows, had Capone been born in the 1940s, he might well have become president of the United States. God help the USA.

A Short Christmas/New Year Thought

It has been a lovely, chilly Christmas day in our part of France. We’ve spoken to our sons and families; and we’ve enjoyed a delicious meal. As I watched the sun set over our little hamlet (left), my mind drifted back to Christmases past. Many of us look back as we approach the end of another year–and what a year it has been: more ups and down that any other year I can remember. Yet it’s too easy to start into the ‘if only’ type of thinking…particularly after our year of Covid. If I may add my attempt at wisdom, learned at the often hard hand of experience, the problem with worrying about the past is that there is no future in it.