Monday, September 08, 2014

Learning to Walk in the Dark

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 200 pages

The title of this book intrigued me.  I have long been a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor and have read most everything she's published.  An Altar in the World  and When God is Silent are favorites and I have recommended and lent these two volumes to many people.  Back in the 90s, I was blessed to have been spent a week in San Francisco with a small group led by Taylor and came to admire not only her careful use of language but also her love of the natural world.  When I saw she'd written a book about darkness, I ordered it and immediately started reading, sitting aside other books that I was already reading. 

Taylor describes her book as a journal instead of a "how-to" manual.  She begins her book with a phrase most of us who grew up in an age when kids played outside all day have heard: our mom's calling us, saying, "Come inside now, it's getting dark."  From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark.  Darkness also becomes a metaphor for all that is bad, which is seen through the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Yet, as Taylor points out, the God of the Scriptures is responsible for the darkness, too, having separated day from night.  And besides, there are many good things that happen at night in Scripture (44f). She also raises questions about our "full solar spirituality" which only focuses on the light, the pleasant, the sunny.  Such spirituality sees everything as positive and upbeat, but such theologies fail to provide support when things fall apart.   Quoting theologians and others who have written on darkness and what we might learn from such experiences, she sets off on her journey.  Along the way, she ponders the idea of restaurants where one eats in the dark.  As you are served, you are told where your food is at on your plate (93ff). She goes through a "blind exhibit" where she gets to experience what's it like to move through the world without sight (96ff).  She crawls through a cave in West Virginia.  And she spends the night alone in a cabin in the words, experiencing night in a new way (153ff).

By exploring darkness, Taylor has an opportunity to explore an overlooked branch of theology that expresses what God isn't, instead of what God is.  There is an ancient root to this.  Augustine, in the 4th Century, said, "If you have understood, what you have understood is not God" (144).  She spends time with the writings of John of the Cross who believed "positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing."  By teaching what God is not, John attempts "to convince his readers that their images and ideas about 'God' are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing" (38).

The lunar cycle provides the structure for the book.  She recalls the parallel between the three days separating the old (waning) moon and the new (waxing) moon to the death and resurrection of Jesus (108).   At the end of Taylor's journey, she experiences a moonrise, a new experience for her (166ff).  I was shocked at this, perhaps because I grew up close to the ocean and have experienced many moonrises, especially in the fall of the year while surf fishing at night.  Before the moon appears, there is a light on the distant horizon, and when it rises, it appears to be much larger than it does when overhead, and its rays seem to shimmer across the water as if they were directed at you.   Taylor's moonrise was moving enough that she decided to make a point to experience more such events.   I also found myself wishing that she had experienced a night sleeping under the stars in the desert or high in the mountains, where you wake and gauge the time by how far the stars appear to have moved across the heavenly sphere. 

Although the book may fail to teach us to walk in the dark, it does help us appreciate what we gain from the absence of light.  Quoting Carl Jung, we're reminded that "one does not become more enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious." (86)  There is much we might learn from the darkness and Taylor's book is a beginning guide to help us see when the lights dim and the shadows overtake us.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Paddle to Wassaw Island

That's me and I can't seem to get upright...
It’s going to be a hot day, temperatures nearing triple digits and high humidity making the heat index of around 110.  Just to be on the safe side, I pack four water bottles, a full gallon of water along with a sunscreen, insect repellant, lunch, a towel, and a beach tarp in which to retreat during the searing midday sun.  A few minutes after nine, I arrived at the Delegal Marina where I met eight other kayakers for the trip to Wassaw Island.  Although we were supposed to start at 9:30, most of the others already had their boats in the water when I arrived a few minutes after nine.  I stuffed everything in my boat and joined them and soon we were paddling east, out of the marina and toward the mouth of Delegal Creek.   It’s not a long trip, five miles one way, but one that has to be carefully planned with the tides and involves some open water much of the Ossabaw Sound is open to the ocean.  We paddled out on the falling tide.  Leaving the safety of Delegal Creek, we merged with the Vernon River which opened to Green Island Sound, passing Raccoon Key to the south.  It was an enjoyable paddle on calm waters.  We passed the mouth of Adam’s Creek, then Curtis Creek and Pine Island.  You could see a clump of trees in the distance, our destination, but straight ahead was the wide open Atlantic.  As I didn’t know any of the paddlers before this morning, I first spent time paddling next to Rudy, who moved to Savannah from New York but is originally from Belgium.   We paddle a ways out from land in order to avoid sandbars, but even here in places, the water is shallow enough that I hit bottom with my paddle.  In other places it is very deep.  As we paddle I get to meet many of the other paddlers:  Bob, Dave, Ruth, John and three other guys whose names I forgotten.
Arriving on Wassaw

The dunes by the ocean
another "portrait" photo that blogger won't let me turn...
the forest of Wassaw
A calm day by the Atlantic Ocean

We arrive on Wassaw around 10:30 AM, beaching our boats on the safety of the sound side, at a site tucked away behind the inlet.  After pulling our boats out of the water, we hike north, along the sound, to a trail that cuts across the island.  The interior is heavily wooded, mostly pines with palms and other bushes growing underneath.  The soil is sandy.  We hike out to the beach.  It is two hours from low tide, but the water is already calm.  There are only small waves. Most of us swim and cool off, even though the water is warm.  Afterwards, we hike on the beach around the inlet and back to our boats.  Umbrellas open and I pop up my sun shade and we all retreat from the intense rays as we eat lunch.  I make a few notes in my journal and the close my eyes and nap.  I don’t sleep very long as soon others are packing up.  Rudi suggests we wait till 1:30, to catch the incoming tide, but by 1 PM, we’re on the water, paddling back. 
Preparing to leave Wassaw
Curtis Creek
On the way back, the wind is still off the land and is in our faces making the paddling more difficult.  When the tide turns and begins to push against the wind, choppy waves form and occasionally break over the bow of my kayak.  I am glad I have a spray skirt to shed the water.  After forty-five minutes of paddling, we stop near the mouth of Curtis Creek and to rest and explore inland a bit, before paddling back to the marina.  Although it is hot, the wind and water keeps us cool.  We arrive back at Delegal at 3 PM.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A few photos...

It's going to be a hot one today, but in an hour I'm meeting folks for a paddle to Wassaw Island.  Here are a few photos from my new home.  Interestingly, with the moving van, the two pair of skis I kept came off first (I did get rid of two pair, but figure I will be make a sojourn back to snow country during the winter...
Moving van arrives in Savannah
The sailing is on the Wilmington River.  Unfortunately, we were third in this race.  The boat was a Rhodes 19.
 I don't think one could make up a better name for a street.

 Evening at Delegal Creek with the tide running out...

Friday, August 15, 2014

Goodbye Hastings...

Early this month, after a nearly 3 decade exile, I moved back South.  More about my new home later.  This is my reflection of my last walk through Hastings, taken on August 4, 2014.  I had lived in Hastings for a little over ten years 

The Old Presbyterian Church, now a community center.
This photo was taken in late April.
The air is notably cooler following the earlier thunderstorm.  There is no wind and the humidity is high and the air heavy.  I walk down Green Street toward town.  In the past decade, I've walked down this street a thousand times.  I've covered this mile in the snow, in the fog, at night, in the sun and occasionally (by accident or lack of foresight) in the rain.  This will be my last walk, least as a resident of this town. Next time, I'll be a visitor.  Wednesday morning, I'll be on the road with my dog, heading south. 

 Tomorrow is the primary election in Michigan and signs clutter many yards.  Most are for Hoot or Jerry, who are squaring off for a slot as a county commissioner.  On a personal level, I like them both.  A few people weigh in for Justin Amash, our current congressman who has managed to piss-off everyone in politics, especially his fellow Republicans.  Brian Ellis is running against him and is being supported by the establishment that once seated Gerald Ford in the House of Representatives.  As I won't be a resident in November, I've decided to sit out the primary election.  I'd feel bad voting for someone right before driving out-to-town for the final time.  Mixed in with the campaign signs are a few "no fracking" and a handful of real estate signs.  There are fewer of the latter than they were four or five years ago when the economy was really bad.  Fracking, a method of harvesting natural gas, is still a hot topic.

I've crossed Cass, Benton, and Young Streets, which I've been told were named for our town fathers.  I know many of the people on this street.  I pass Don's house.  He's a hard worker, often holding down a couple of part-time jobs in addition to his primary work at Flexfab.  Currently, he is preparing for another sale of collected antiques.  At Market, where Steve, a retired dentist lives, Green Street turns almost 35 degrees to the right and heads into town due east.  The homes here are older; some sport a detached garage with a hayloft above that remains as a reminder of a by-gone era.  In one older home, made into apartments, Sue lives with her daughter.  She'd escaped an abusive relationship in Tennessee and moved back to her home in Hastings and is now in college.  The other apartment is empty, but the woman who used to live here had a boxer that always barked when I walked by with my dog. 

Catty-cornered across the intersection with Washington is the Goodyear house, named from an early merchant family in town.  Most all houses in Hastings are known by their former tenants!  This home has a large porch with a flat roof.  When my daughter was young and they still had teenagers at home, they were a special stop on Halloween.  These kids (and a few adults) would set up as a rock band on the roof of the porch and pantomime to music blasting out of speakers, acting as if they were KISS or Motley Crew.   Halloween was always a big night on Green Street as hundreds of kids roamed around and everyone decorating their yards and handing out tons of candy.  One Halloween, a kid ahead of me darted across the street in front of a car.  Luckily, the driver was going slow and watching carefully and screeched to a stop as did my heart.  In the last few years, the police closed off the street, creating a safer environment for kids wandering around in the dark extorting candy.

A ways down on the north side of the street is Amy and Brian's.  She's a judge and he retired early and now runs a window cleaning business.  Then there's Lori's home with her Nantucket sign on a front porch, perhaps as a reminder of her hopes and dreams of where she'd like to be.  Back on the south side of the street in one of the many beautifully restored homes resides Dave, my pharmacist.  When I walk downtown early in the morning, I often see him walking into town to Bosley's Pharmacy.  As I approach the light at Broadway, I see that the huge house on the rise to the south has a new labyrinth, laid out in stone in the yard beside the project house in which the owners have been working on for the past ten years.  When I moved to town, the place was falling down and looked haunted or at least like a movie set for an episode of the Adam's Family.  Although it still isn't fully restored, they've done a remarkable amount of work on it.

As I wait for the light to change, before crossing Green Street and heading north on Broadway, I scope out the landscape on last time.  The next block to the south is Central School.  My daughter started attending there at the middle of her kindergarten year.  We could have sent her to the newer school, as many parents did, but were charmed with the old school (the main building was built in the 1930s).  Her kindergarten class had a fireplace and an in-floor goldfish pond.  That was pretty neat and overall the school was a good experience for her. She had wonderful teachers and a very caring principal.  Although John has retired as principal, hes still a good friend, and I will be ever in debt to Jean, her first grade teacher.   I'm going to miss those class field trips!   When I worked in town, I would walk up Broadway to school and my daughter would come running out into my arms to be picked up and swung around.  We'd walk back to my office, often hand-in-hand, where she'd hang around until it was time to head home. 

 I turn south on Broadway, walking in front of Girrbach's, one of two funeral homes in the town.  I'd been there many times to say goodbye to those no longer with us and to comfort friends.   At the next corner is Emmanuel Episcopal Church, a lovely brick chapel-looking church.  Across the street is the old Presbyterian Church with its slightly tipped steeple and huge white columns.  The old church building is looking nice as it is now the home of the Barry Community Resource Center, which is a wonderful use of the building that dates to the 1850s.  It houses a number of non-profit organizations and the sanctuary has been refurbished to a performing arts center.  The Presbyterians, of which I was a part, moved outside of town in 2010, onto a 34 acre tract of land next to the main highway heading toward Grand Rapids.  As a community center, the building continues to serve the town well and the new site has allowed the congregation to spread their wings. 

 In the next block, on the left side is the Adrounie House, a wonderful Bed and Breakfast run by Don and April.  I stayed there my first visit to this town, back in 2003.   Next to the Adrounie House is a parking lot.  Once Dr. Upjohns house sat there, but the home is now preserved at Charlton Park.  Upjohn started his drug business in Hastings.  Local legend has it that his machine to make capsules was so loud he was ordered to remove it out of town.  He did, to Kalamazoo and they enjoyed the success of his company (now a part of Pfizer).  Across the street from the Adrounie House is the stately courthouse, built in the 1890s.  I head over at Court Street and cross the front yard of the courthouse to State Street (not to be confused with State Road which is on the other side of the river).  I walk down State Street (which most people call Main Street as it is the business district), passing the movie theater and a host of other businesses and restaurants. On the east end, there is the town hall and the library.  They were raising money to build the latter when I arrived and it opened a few years later.  To the community's credit, all the money for the construction of the library came from the community.  Somewhere in there is a brick we purchased that has my daughter's name engraved on it.

I walk behind the library and across the footbridge over the Thornapple River, where I pause and look around and to listen to the water.  This bridge is one of the few remaining structures of the old CK&S (Chicago, Kalamazoo and Saginaw) Railroad which never made it to Chicago or Saginaw (it ran between Kalamazoo and Woodlawn), and went defunct in 1938.  At the time, the Michigan Central railroad, whose tracks paralleled the river as it ran from Jackson to Grand Rapids, acquired the trestle and used it to access the factories on the other side of the river.  The Michigan Central pulled up tracks in the early 1980s, at which time the trestle was made into a walking bridge. 
Old CK&S trestle.  This photo was taken by Vickie, a friend who paddled
the river yesterday, August 14, 2014

Darkness is descending and bats dart around scooping up mosquitoes and other insects.   Yesterday, I paddled under this bridge for the last time.  At the time, the airspace above the river seemed to be dominated by Cedar Waxwings, darting around doing their part at harvesting the insects that like to feast on human blood.   The trip was bittersweet as I haven't done much paddling of this section in the summer in recent years (I have tended to sail instead of paddle during the warmer months).  The local canoe livery has now started renting rubber tubes and the section closest to town was filled with tubers with their coolers and ubiquitous beer cans.  Cigarette smoke fouled the air and boom boxes drowned the sounds of the river and the birds.  Now it is quiet, except for the low roar where Fall Creek enters the river.  The last couple hundred yards of the creek has long been underground, as parking lots and buildings sit above it.  The huge culvert in which the creek flows into the river emits the roar as air blows through it.

 Leaving the trestle on the north side of town, I walk between buildings owned by Hastings Manufacturing, the maker of Hastings Piston Rings.   At one time they employed thousands, but today only a little over a hundred.  Many of the buildings are empty, as the company which had been locally owned for three generations went bankrupt a year or so after my arrival.  There was fear the company would cease operations, but a group of investors purchased it and it continues to chug along making high quality rings (they are an inclusive supplier to Harley Davidson).  Others of the buildings were the former home of Viking, a manufacturer of fire suppression sprinklers.  Long before I moved here, Viking moved across the river and on the west side of town.  I walk east on Mill Street, back into a residential community with houses built on a steep bank above the river, and turn left at Michigan Street, crossing the Thornapple again on the new bridge.  Below me in the water, a family of mallards preen themselves in preparation for the night.

A block ahead, behind City Hall, I stop to admire the bronze sculpture of a young girl exploring a garden.  Flowers are all around her now.  She was created by Ruth, a local artist who has lately taken hundreds of photos of me in order to paint my portrait.  Although I may leave this town, a part of me will remain.  But before she can work on the portrait, she has a couple of other statues to finish, so it won't be ready until sometime next year.  The original will hang in the Presbyterian Church and I will receive a copy.  This will do nothing to ease my struggle with vainglory.  

I stop for a beer at Vinnies Woodfired Saloon, a new restaurant and bar in town, and watch the Tigers lose to the Yankees as I admire the craftsmanship of the establishment.  The owner, a carpenter, used lots of wood and the establishment has a warm feeling about it.  Finishing my beer, I head home, taking Jefferson Street, passing the Olde Towne Tavern (known for good burgers) and the boarded up Fall Creek Restaurant. This was a favorite restaurant, but the owner, Jeff, got cancer and it closed last summer, just weeks before his death.  I miss him and his subtle humor, and his love for Santana.  His funeral ended with some musically talented friends playing Europa.  The song has a subtitle, “Earth Cries, Heaven Smiles,” which seemed to be appropriate as there were lots of tears on earth that day.  At the other end of the block is Brian's Tire, ran by Jeff's brother.  They have serviced my vehicles since I arrived in town and I have always felt that they were honest and fair and will miss doing business with them.  At Green Street, there is the Thomas Jefferson Hall, which used to be the Methodist Church.  The building is now owned by the County Democratic Party, which rents it out for auctions and antique sales as well as occasionally holding a meeting there.  On the next block stands the new Methodist Church, with its huge dome.  Last year they celebrated their 100th anniversary of the "new building."  When I re-cross Broadway, I retrace my steps toward the house that will be my home for one more night.  The movers will finish up in the morning… 

For those interested, Amash and Hoot won the primary elections.  Soon, I'll have to do a post on my new home and the salt marsh that surrounds it...

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East (and a catch-up note)

June started out so promising: four blog post in the first two weeks!  But then life got busy.  I am now down near Savannah searching for a place to live as I am moving back (after nearly 3 decades) to the land of heat and humid and sand gnats, but also some of the most beautiful low country marsh you can imagine!  And I'm excited about the new opportunity.

Tiziano Terzari, A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East  (Nook Edition, English translation 1997)

     In 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon, Terzari, the late an Italian journalist who lived much of his adult life in Asia, was told by a fortune-teller that he should not fly during the year 1993.  Although he didn't believe in fortune-telling, the specific warning stayed with him and as 1993 began to draw near, he decided to spend the year traveling on the ground.  This book tells of his journeys that year as well as bringing to life the richness and the challenges of Asia as the 20th century drew to a close.  Having travelled along many of the same paths two decades later, I was fascinated with Terzaris insight, saddened by some of his findings, and amused by his humor.  
     Terzari experience in Asia as a journalist included being one of the few Westerners to have experienced both the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam.  His life almost ended at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  He was being set against a wall in Poipet to be shoot and it was only at the last minute, through his basic knowledge of Chinese, that his life was spared.  In 1993, at the time of elections in Cambodia, he once again visited that wall. (275)  Terzari began his year on the ground in Cambodia reporting on the United Nation's investigation of Khmer war crimes.  Having stopped flying, he was replaced with another correspondent who was in a helicopter crash.  Luckily, no one was killed, but the news of the crash gave Terzari a moment to reflect on the possibility.
     I was drawn to Terzaris idea of traveling on the ground for so long, especially after having travelled overland in Southeast Asia in 2011.  However, at first, I was taken back when Terzari seemed to build his trip around visits to fortune-tellers in Asia.  Every place he visited, he sought out a fortune-teller and began to compare notes and fortunes.  Unlike the West, Terzari says, Asia remained superstitious long after the West.  Communistic governments often tried to stamp out foretelling, even though as Terzari notes, many top officials even consulted foretellers before making major decisions.(85)  He even suggested one of the West's failure in its counter-espionage efforts in Southeastern Asia came from its lack of understanding the role astrology plays in Asian decision-making.(87)  From my own experience, I remember being shocked of Korean Christians consulting shamans for the best date to get married (although such a practice may not be any worse than picking your date based on the availability of the best banquet hall). 
     Terzari, I should note, outside of not flying in 1993, doesn't put much stock in the advice he receives. "One shouldn't put too much faith in fortune-tellers, at least not where details are concerned," he writes. (331)  He is interested in the different ways the art is practiced which makes his travels informative.
     Terzari spent most of 1993 traveling from his home in Bangkok.  He headed down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore, wandered his way around in Miramar/Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, China.  He then took a train from Asia to Europe to visit his home in Italy and took a freighter back to Asia.  Along the way he gains a renewed appreciation for travel:

Insights into travel; Travel is an art; and one must practice it in a relaxed way, with passion, with love.  I realized that after years of going about in airplanes I had unlearned the art-the only one I care about. (123).

Ironically I read the above quote while on an airplane!  Along the way, he often laments the changes going on in this part of the world.

Tibet, to protect its spirituality, for centuries forbade anyone to cross its borders; that is how it preserved its very special aura.  There it was the Chinese invasion that broke the spell; in the name of moderation, of course.  One of the most disturbing bits of news I have read in recent years is that he Chinese, to facilitate (what else?) tourist access, have decided to "modernize" the lighting of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's palace-temple, and have installed neon lights.  This is no accident: neon kills everything, even the gods.  And as they die, the Tibetan identity gradually dies with them.  (31)

While traveling on a container ship, he laments the lost of ships shapely elegance, and how technology has stolen poetry from a life at sea. (366, 368)
     He often employs a dry sarcastic humor.  Reporting on the work of the United Nations in Cambodia, he speaks of the various nations with troops there and their own baggage: "Indonesians responsible for massacres in Timor, Thais who have murdered unarmed protesters in Bangkok, and the police from various African dictators. (262)
     Terzani appears concern that the Chinese are dominating much of Asia (it's an age old battle as Chinese have outposts all over the region).  When visiting a Malay fortune-teller, the man told of his past life.  When asking for details, the man said:
That I do not see...  The great majority of my clients are Chinese, and if I started talking about their previous lives I would go bankrupt.  The Chinese do not care about past lives, only this life; they are interested in making money, and what they want to know is how far they can go in cheating their customers and deceiving their friends." (347)

Terzani suggested his fortune-teller friend was "another victim of the prosaic character of the times, and of the diaspora Chinese!" (347) I wondered if Terzani bias had something to do with having once been expelled from China.  Yet, in Malaysia I did see how the local Malay people were fearful of the Chinese as they tended to be the minority with the money and influence.
     Another change he finds troubling is how Western Capitalism is changing the culture.

Projecting itself as the only true model of human progress, the West has managed to give a massive inferiority complex to those who are not 'modern' in its imagenot even Christianity accomplished this, and now dumping all that is unknown in order to adopt all that is Western...  (64-65)

At another place, he laments finding karaoke (Japanese capitalism is essentially western capitalism) in the middle of a Burmese jungle and I was reminded of my own experiences in a karaoke bar in Mongolia. (366)  Terzani also calls Singapore the "Bethlehem of the great new religion of consumerism." (171)          Although Terzani explores religious beliefs along the way and compares them to the faith of his childhood, he never seems interested in religion even though he does end his question with a boot-camp on mediation that was taught by an ex-CIA American Buddhist. (376)  He seems to have a great appreciation for Buddhism and likes how the faith tradition prohibits bragging about one's progress in mediation. (384) 
     I enjoyed this book and (although a bit dated and at times Terzani can be a little condescending) recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Southeast Asia and the role various forms of fortune-telling plays within society there.