Of Witches, Walburga, and Welcoming Spring

We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.
~ C.S. Lewis

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My Finest Hour in New York

Let me see new ones every day! let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
~ Walt Whitman

It’s complicated, but decades ago I lived in Manhattan with a bunch of Mennonites. I had a room in their Gramercy Park townhouse for a few months, and the rent was cheap-cheap-cheap. The room was no bigger than a closet – actually, it originally had been a closet – but I only slept there, so it didn’t matter.

The rest of the time I wandered around the city, taking the subway here and there, bebopping and cavorting, looking, listening, checking things out. Up to the Cloisters, down to the Battery, Columbia and the Village, St. Pat’s and St. John the Divine, riding, walking, drinking it all in. Sometimes I’d pick a random neighborhood I hadn’t been to, find it on my map – a physical map, a paper map with lots of creases and impossible to refold – then head out on bus and train to find it. Other times (my favorite times) I’d dip into Dorothy Day’s autobiography and locate the sites she mentions like they were hallowed shrines – which they were because she’d been there, because she’d taken note of them. Dorothy was my lodestar in New York, a mentor as I stumbled my way into the practice of the Faith and adult freedoms.

So that’s how I spend most of my time in Manhattan, but I still had to pay my cheap-cheap rent, so I worked at a bookstore. Logos Bookstore of Midtown, on Madison Avenue, between 43rd and 44th (I think). It subsequently moved further north, but at the time it was definitely in the thick of urban things, at least from my suburban perspective. Grand Central Station was my subway stop; Times Square right down the street.

What happened was this. I was working the counter, ringing up books and magazines, answering questions, and Dan, the manager, took over. “Time for lunch,” he said – gladly. I hit the street, did a brief wander in the general vicinity, and settled on some eatery around the corner from the store and across the street. When it was time to head back to work, I maneuvered through the traffic, crossed back over 43rd and I noticed something in the gutter. It was a wallet – an oblong, brown wallet. I picked it up and looked around: nobody close by, nobody looking for it.

“It’s already been rifled,” I thought to myself. “Probably empty.”

It wasn’t.

I could feel through the leather that there was something inside. I undid the snap, and there were credit cards and pictures, a woman’s driver’s license and…cash! Maybe thirty, maybe forty bucks. I looked up again, sharply, glancing left and right – nobody around, no one near. Glory! A fortuitous moment – a serendipity; grace! I was in the right place at the right time, and I rescued this woman’s wallet from oblivion!

When I got back to the store, I showed off the wallet to my coworkers. “Can you believe it still has everything in it?” They couldn’t believe it either.

“Should I mail it to her?”

“Call information and get the phone number,” said Dan, “and call her.” Obviously. I gave the operator the address listed on the card and she gave me the number.

I dialed; a woman answered: “Hello?” I asked if I had the correct person. Pause – “Yes.” Pause – “Who is this?”

“I work at a bookstore in Midtown and I found your wallet today – on the street, on 43rd near Madison.” There was silence, another pause. “It was in the gutter – everything’s still in it.”

Again, another pause as she took in my outlandish claim. “You have my wallet?”

I assured her I did. “I’ll hold it here behind the counter for you.” I gave her the address and my name. “You can pick it up next time you’re in town.” We hung up.

She appeared the next day, accompanied by her brother, I think, or maybe a boyfriend. He hung back, but she inched up to the counter and identified herself, brow furrowed. I’m not sure what she expected – it was just a bookstore, after all, and a religious bookstore at that. Of course, these was the wild days of Mayor Koch’s New York, and I suppose it made sense that she took precautions. Perhaps she imagined a set-up for some kind of elaborate con, a rip-off in the spirit of The Sting, with Scot Joplin melodies tinkling in the background.

Nope. Just ordinary small-town decency. “Here it is,” I said, handing over the wallet. She immediately unsnapped the cover and looked inside: Cards, cash, license, all there. She glanced up at me through the furrows. Without a word she removed a bill – a ten spot maybe? – and held it out.

“That’s not necessary,” I said with a wave. She put away her money – it was an awkward moment. “Thanks,” she uttered as she turned to go. Her man-friend lingered, perhaps out of an abundance of caution, but eventually he exited as well.

That’s it. So simple, so straightforward, it wouldn’t even rate a second thought in the Midwest – in Dubuque, for instance, or Wichita.

But in Manhattan? I know I would’ve been shocked if a stranger had contacted me about a missing wallet, and even more shocked when he restored it to me intact. The whole episode would’ve entered my lexicon of family lore, a story told over and over whenever New York came up in conversation.

Which is why I call my own part in a surprise wallet recovery my finest hour: not because my actions were particularly meritorious, not because I did the bare minimum that most folks would do, especially those that aspire to be Christians. Frankly, if I’d been a real Christian, I would’ve hopped in a cab and delivered the wallet in person, on the spot.

No, I call it my finest hour because the unusual circumstances allowed me to become, just that one time, a bit player, an active player, in someone else’s New York sojourn. That lucky, that providential wallet find made me a character in a stranger’s memorable Manhattan moment that’ll stand out into her dotage, a story that her kids and grandkids will hear over and over, a command performance at Thanksgivings and other family gatherings. “Tell the one about losing your wallet in New York, grandma!”

And she’ll tell it with pleasure. “It was the strangest thing,” she’ll say. “I knew it was gone, and I was making plans to get a new license when I got this odd phone call….” And that’s me, in her New York story! What a gift, what a gift to add to her story, the city’s story, after having received so much.

She might’ve even told our story today, who knows? Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?
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The Bishop Next Door

Be shepherds: with the ‘odor of the sheep,’ make it real….
~ Pope Francis

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Of Down Syndrome, Anne of Green Gables, and Van the Man

You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t stop us ’cause our eyes can see.
Men with insight, men in granite,
Knights in armor bent on chivalry.
~ Van Morrison

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Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion: A Tribute to Robert Pirsig

A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.
~ Robert Pirsig

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Emmaus, Eucharist, and Emma Thompson: The Hidden Mass in ‘Wit’

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
~ William Shakespeare

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The Three Books I’m Going to Read Next

The medium is the message.
~ Marshall McLuhan

I toss that McLuhan quotation up there as if I understood what it means, but I’m no better off than the poor schlemiel in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that receives a severe public drubbing from McLuhan himself. “You know nothing of my work,” McLuhan tells the pedantic blowhard, and I’m just as guilty.

Still, I’m going out on a limb to draw on McLuhan’s famous line nonetheless because it relates to the series of events I’m about to lay out here.

It all started back in March when I came across a MercatorNet essay by Philip Reed, a professor of philosophy at Buffalo’s Canisius College. “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone” was the title, and, if you’re like me, you can pretty much predict what follows – no? Flummoxed? Here’s a hint in Reed’s sub-title: “Why should I be tethered to the rest of the world 24/7?” Ah, yes, my thoughts exactly – indeed, my words exactly, since I’ve said virtually the same thing to my family and friends, students and colleagues for years. The convenience and wired capabilities that make cellphones so attractive to the whole planet are the very characteristics that make the infernal devices abhorrent to me. “The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere,” Reed writes, and I frankly enjoy being in one place at one time. Present realities are plenty for my fractious brain to deal with; I’ve no desire to be constantly pulled in a myriad cyber directions.

After finishing Reed’s online essay, I acclaimed “Hear, hear!” to my computer, and I immediately posted the article to my Facebook feed.

Wait – Facebook feed, you ask? Computer? “Ah, yes,” you might be thinking, “another pseudo-Luddite hypocrite.”

I don’t think so, because I have no objection to making use of the internet and high tech as tools. In fact, as a nurse and nursing instructor, I’m required to be familiar with electronic medical records, and I depend on email as a primary means of communication. That’s what I especially appreciate about Reed’s piece: He wasn’t eschewing technology as such, but extreme iMobility. With the advent of smart phones, our use of technology is swiftly morphing into a dependency, and universal Wi-Fi connectivity is essentially becoming a necessity for day to day existence.

The same day I was pondering Reed’s essay, I read a book review by Stefan Beck in the Wall Street Journal that offered an alternative perspective on technology. The book is The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel, and it traces the real-life story of one Christopher Knight who disappeared into the wilderness of Maine for some 30 years. He lived a jerry-rigged life of isolation – part recluse, part scavenger – and somehow he survived. Why, you ask? Here’s how Beck gets at the question: “For some, the temptation to cast off the strictures of civilization by fleeing indefinitely into the woods, the desert or the mountains is intoxicating.” Right – cast off the smart phones, tablet, and other assorted gizmos! Be free, be free! We have nothing to lose, as Marx and Co. might put it, but our electronic chains!

Later in Beck’s review, he notes that Christopher Knight’s story is also, “unexpectedly, a tribute to the joys of reading,” and that the de facto hermit “read everything he could get his hands on.” OK, I’m not ready to jettison all of Western civilization and decent brewed coffee, but I’m all about books and reading. I clicked on my local library’s website, found The Stranger in the Woods listing, and clicked the Reserve button. “Top of the ‘to read next’ pile,” I thought – check!

Then I noticed that my friend Shawn had responded to my Philip Reed anti-cellphone post with a follow-up: A New York Review of Books link to Bill McKibben’s review of David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The title alone was enough to return to my library’s website and click that Reserve button again. (“This’ll be number two on the pile” – check, check!) Sax provides a guide to the throwback underbelly of our hyper-digitalized Zeitgeist, describing, for instance, the appeal of such quaint relics as vinyl LPs, old-fashioned board games, and actual paper-filled notebooks – the kind you write on with actual pens and pencils. He also talks about e-commerce vs. brick-and-mortar stores, e-learning vs. face-to-face instruction, and even virtual vs. manual labor.

Of course, Sax also addresses books in his book, along with bookstores, and he predicts a rosy future for the book trade. Plus, he delineates his own flirtation with e-books and his retreat back to a preference for the printed page. “I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print,” Sax writes, “but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger.” It’s the testimony of a rehabilitated tech enthusiast – just one of many scattered through Sax’s work. That’s why it’s so curious that McKibben’s review of The Revenge of Analog begins with this depressing avowal:

Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

Nonsense, and that leads me to the third book atop my “to-read” pile (check, check, check!) which I spotted when I made my way to library to pick up the other two: Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Again, the title alone was enough for me to grab it, but Gavin Francis’s review in The Guardian confirmed my choice. “Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University,” Francis writes, “and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in.” All I could think of was Russell Crowe’s riveting portrayal of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in the movie The Insider. Alter’s revelations won’t have nearly the same impact I’m afraid, but maybe they should.

Anyway, I scurried home from the library with my three books and plopped them in a pile next to my bed. I was anxious to read them in hopes they’d enhance and expand my outlook on their common theme: The modern dilemma of coping with the avalanche of digital information and stimulation. Yes, the medium is the message, and it’s a disembodying, anti-incarnational message these days, and that by design it seems.

Such were my thoughts as I tuned into WSND on our analog radio with its bobby pin replacement antenna. Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” came on. “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,” goes the dominant melody line toward the end, echoing the old Shaker hymn and its promotion of downward mobility, lower tech, and simpler ways. It was a heartening moment of serendipity – I couldn’t have planned it better; the felicity was almost divine. After a succession of dire digital deliberations, the music’s message was heartening. “To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.”
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Easter Meditation on a Suicide Averted

Look, here’s a true story. It’s a bit raw, but maybe it’ll help.

I was living in Chicago when I got depressed. Not the bluesy kind of depressed, but the heavy, can’t-shake-it, “drenched wool blanket draped over your thoughts around the clock” kind of depressed.

Sure, I sought out counseling; sure, I attended group therapy sessions and read books for adult children of alcoholics. Nothing was helping, though, and I spent a lot of time going to movies.

By myself.

I was like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, but without the sexual dalliances, and without the admirable existential yearnings of Percy’s Kierkegaardian hero. I was a kid in his twenties from the Colorado burbs, newly Catholic, and living among do-gooders in gritty Uptown. In fact, the do-gooders were my heroes, and I was trying to become a do-gooder myself.

That’s why the depression was so bewildering. God, went my prayer, over and over again, God, why are you doing this to me?

Maybe you’ve prayed that prayer yourself, and maybe your prayer met with cosmic stonewalling like mine did – or at least that’s how it felt. Regardless, I prayed and prayed, and then I self-medicated by going to movies – lots of movies. Going to movies distracted me from the pain and the endless loops of irrational, self-destructive thoughts, and it was better than drinking – or worse.

One night, I ended up in Water Tower Place. There used to be theater there on the second or third floor – maybe it’s still there. I forget what the first show was, but I recall sticking around for a second because it was too early to go home – too early, that is, to land home and crash without feeling compelled to talk with my roommates. I do remember that second show: Gardens of Stone, Francis Ford Coppola’s other Vietnam film, a stateside gut-wrencher that revolves around the Arlington National Cemetery. It was probably not the best film for me to be watching at the time – hardly the diverting entertainment I was groping for. The film’s bleak fatalism accentuated my despair and underscored my emotional isolation.

After it ended, I trudged over to the Chicago subway stop on the CTA’s Red Line. It was late enough that the platform was sparsely populated – just as well. I didn’t want to talk with anybody; I didn’t want to interact. I was tired and miserable and anxious to get home to bed. My mind was racing with dark thoughts. Sleep, at least, offered the prospect of temporary mental relief.

Relief, I thought – and the thought morphed into a prayer: Please, God, grant me some relief. I was standing at the edge of the platform and looking down the tunnel for the ‘L’ train. There are no guardrails or barriers on the edge of subway platforms. There’s just air – just a drop-off to the rails and rats below. As I heard the rumble of the arriving train and saw its lights, I had another thought: If I just fall forward as the train arrives, I’ll get that relief. A pause – the lights got closer. Just a bit of courage, just a shift of weight, and I’ll fall forward, fall in, fall down. I vacillated at the last moment. No more pain…

Terrified, I wrenched myself away from the platform’s edge, and the train rolled in. I shuddered, backed up, and turned to the pay phone on the wall – no cell phones back then, no universal and immediate connectivity. Instead, my bridge back to safety was mediated by an anonymous operator. “Collect call,” I told her, and she punched in my parents’ Colorado number. One ring, two – then my mom’s voice. She accepted the charges and ventured, “Hello?”

“Mom, it’s me,” I said. “I need to come home. I need help and I need to come home.”

I did move home soon after, started regular counseling, and got on meds. The meds were like a temporary chemical brace for my wobbly thinking, and the counseling offered me long-term mental guardrails to lean on going forward – and here I am, decades later, guardrails in place, and alive.

That night on the subway platform I stared down death, stared it full in the face and slapped it away. In that split second, I was granted a choice – and a clear vision. With God’s grace, no doubt with God’s grace, I looked at self-annihilation straight on, considered it, toyed with it, and sent it packing. “Not tonight, you bastard,” my platform retreat declaimed. “Not tonight, you lousy bastard. Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.” In that moment of crisis, I clung to the grace and gave in to its tidal sweep. It wasn’t the end of something, but a beginning. There’d be no quick cures, but only daily surrenders. Daily willful surrenders, with no guarantees, and yet each surrender meant living for another day.

And where’s there’s life, there’s hope – the Easter message in a nutshell. He is risen, dammit – risen! He’s alive, and where’s there’s life there’s hope. Hold onto life, no matter what – hold on to life, hold onto hope.

I’m telling you, when your platform moments come, you must back away. Your twisted thoughts will deny your infinite worth as a human being, your ineffable value to the world, to the universe, to those who love you – to us, to me. At those moments – if they come at all, God forbid, and if they do, let them be few – hear my words, let my words ring in your head: Your life is worth living; you will get through this; and don’t you dare, don’t you dare do anything to snuff it out. Don’t you dare.

Back away, and let the metal carnage pass. If I can do it, so can you. We can both refuse annihilation this day, this day! Alleluia.
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For immediate help, call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Discovering Good Friday on Queen Anne Hill

God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.
~ from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

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Things Fall Apart: Of Aging, Angst, and Anticipating Holy Week

The liturgy must be understood.
For, day by day, it is our duty to live within it and by means of it.
~ Theodore Klauser

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