December 25, 2021

“It is a time for joy.”

The words echoed from the timeless hymn, even while today prompting disbelief, scorn. The world is ravaged by pandemic disease, starvation, violent political extremism. Refugees freeze in cruel camps. Russian divisions are massed on the Ukraine border. In the U.S., attempts to fight the latest covid surge collide with ignorance and propaganda. Civil war is not unimaginable.

But the Season returned. The past few weeks have seen the decorative lights go on at homes, businesses, churches, brilliant reds and greens, soft whites and blues. They’re laid out by people, not only Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, Hindus, who stand up to the indifference, cynicism, hostility that confront the confluence of ideas and emotions for centuries called the spirit of the Season. People sent greeting cards. Airports and highways were jammed. A few lonely journalists reflected on the happiness of their Christmas memories.

We managed to gather our family from distant states for a few days around Christmas, the first time in three years. Those hectic hours were filled with hugs, meals, gift-giving. We tramped around downtown, looked in the shops, and snapped photos of the beautiful trees in the Hyatt Regency lobby, donated by businesses and decorated by schoolkids. We were careful to wear masks.

Even for those who take pleasure in giving, December has been transformed by commercial huckstering into a retail torture chamber. Then, when exhausted by shopping, millions watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” either warmed or baffled by the mawkish lessons it tries to teach. A few weeks ago The Washington Post ran a piece about Karolyn Grimes, the now-81-year-old lady who played George Bailey’s daughter Zuzu and spoke the immortal line, “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” She endured stunning personal tragedy, yet perseveres.

The “Wonderful Life” sentiments echo the words of priests, rabbis, and ministers: suffering is not our permanent condition; redemption and joy, the gifts of Christmas, are promised to every man and woman. The story of the Christ child born in a freezing stable draws snickers and laughter yet resonates today as it has through centuries.

The words about joy came from an elderly priest at an early morning Mass as he surveyed the poinsettas and fir trees set up around the altars. A couple of dozen folks sat in the nearly empty church on that dark, freezing morning. He spoke wearily, hinting of many Christmases past and the experience of many trials and tragedies, his own, but also of the human experience. We know that the bleeding crowd is always with us, as Christ said when the apostles wanted to give to the poor the coins they had collected.

The listeners sat in silence that morning, they didn’t have to be there. They know joy is not always with us, it is elusive, mysterious, yet transcendent. Those who endure the cacophony of the shopping season appreciate that all of us, even those who have little or nothing, are swept up. The memories of Christmas magic remain indelible: the anticipation, the tree, the lights, the bright colors, the special treats, the greetings, the grandeur and wonder of Christmas eve and Christmas morning. Those are the things we have always passed to the children, the children who now are the old-timers, the middle-aged, the parents of the youngest.

We do that today only by herculean effort. The cynics are louder because the reminders of the world’s failures are more explicit, more vivid, thanks to the unstoppable march of technology and self-awareness. The world is not the place of the Christmas message; at this moment in 2021 we see neither peace nor goodwill. We are turned inward, oblivious to the march of history through certain other late-December moments, to name only a few, those in 1861-1865, 1914-1917, and 1939-1945, when this country and the world suffered vast spasms of cruelty and unspeakable suffering.

Yet through those times men and women found within their souls the strength, the courage, the willingness to sacrifice and deny themselves, to mark the mysterious season of Christmas for the sake of the children, the elderly, the men and women at war far from home. From them and countless others before them we learn of and then witness the Christmas message.

So today in the face of the chaos of the packed shopping mall parking lots, the blaring nonstop commercial messages, the canned 24-hour broadcasts of carols, we can, if we try, understand that there still is a Christmas message, told in the Gospel of Luke: “And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem—because he was of the house and lineage of David—to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child.

“While they were there the days of her confinement were completed. She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.” (Luke 2:4-7).

Herein begins the message that foretold the vast shuddering of the history of the world caused by the birth of the Christian religion, even while animating the mystery (virgin birth? shepherds? angels?). But remaining is the lasting faith that called believers through the sweep of the centuries, the millennia, through cataclysms of suffering and reaffirmation that bring us to this moment, a moment of joy, Christmas, for men and women, and boys and girls, in our time.                    

The Change

December 20, 2021

I sometimes make the effort to confront my dark moods. Really. About eighteen months ago we went to Mass at Prince of Peace parish in Taylors, S.C., not far from our new neighborhood in Greer. We were visiting our kids and grandkids, and at the time had not thought of moving, here or anywhere.

If you’re Catholic, it doesn’t matter where you go to Mass. A Mass off the back of a truck in a Southeast Asian jungle is equal to Solemn High Mass celebrated by the Pope in Saint Peter’s in Rome, surrounded by cardinals in red hats and a thousand choirboys. Apart from the hoopla, or lack of it, the miracle and the mystery of the Eucharist is the same: the replication of the First Mass, the Last Supper on Holy Thursday (or whatever day it was) 2,000 years ago. 

By that Sunday, covid had slowed enough to allow most Catholic churches to reopen, with safeguards like mask-wearing and alternate pews off-limits. The diocese of Arlington, Va., kept it strict: masks and social distancing required, warnings to sick people to stay home.

Not here. Although the virus still raged in the Southland, at Prince of Peace people were crammed in every pew. Hardly anyone, including the old folks, wore masks. The priest distributing communion didn’t wear one. People around us coughed and wheezed. I shuddered. We bolted out of there. I sent an email to the pastor asking why the indifference? He wrote back: “We’re doing what the bishop directed us to do, no more.”

After landing here we watched Mass “online” for months. We then joined a parish ten miles away that resembled the one we came from.  For no reason, I assumed they’d be careful. I hoped they’d be careful. We went to the early Mass, it seemed more people wore masks. The priests wore them while distributing communion—until they didn’t. Over time, maybe numbed by bad news, people quit worrying. Indoor church functions without masks came back, as businesses reopened here and elsewhere.  

In September the Bishop of Charleston, the one who apparently told parishes to make covid precautions optional, released a letter defending people who claim their consciences told them not to get the covid vaccination. He dragged in some out-of-context quotes from Saint Paul VI about man bound to “follow his conscience” such that we’re to believe it’s okay not to get vaccinated if you really don’t want to, even at risk of endangering others. He wrote: “The State of South Carolina protects the right of any parent to refuse a vaccine for a child based on religious exemptions. The Diocese … affirms that all private and governmental organizations maintain the same protections of individual conscience and personal freedom.”

Still grumpy, I wrote him to complain. He wrote back: “there may be many reasons for someone to reject vaccinations, and it is not my place to judge those reasons.”

We watched the state’s statistics on covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths soar. We went on some trips. Masks were nearly invisible. We got our boosters. Then a few weeks ago we went back to Prince of Peace. We sat up front, away from the crowd. Then we noticed the masks. Not many, but more than on that first Sunday. The priests, or at least some of them, and some of the altar servers wore masks. I wondered if they had read up on delta and omicron.

The priests’ homilies were low-key, sticking to their reading of the Gospel and the lessons therein that come to us about belief, forbearance, compassion. We were in a place where the practice of faith is orthodox, traditional, the faith of those who remember the Latin Mass. I slipped into a couple of the early weekday Masses. “Today is the feast of St. Lucy,” the priest announced on Monday. He said a few words about Lucy, a third-century martyr under Roman Emperor Diocletian.  On Tuesday it was St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic-author of The Dark Night of the Soul.

I recalled St. John’s words. “Into this dark night,” he wrote, “souls begin to enter when God draws them forth … to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God.”

We thought, about then, this is where we should be. I know something about those dark nights.

In front of the church is a giant statue of the Angel Gabriel thrusting a huge sword into a satanic figure. In the back there’s a portrait of Saint Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, a secretive Catholic organization. No multi-lingual banners here, the missals are in English, the only other language used is Latin. The liturgy is the pre-Sixties rite: the priest faces away from the congregation. I winced when one priest asked for prayers for “free and fair elections,” revealing himself as a disciple of Bishop Trump. The hard-right Republican gospel echoes loudly in these parts.

We set that aside. Folks were friendly, I set that aside, too. Folks are friendly all over this town. It’s the South and, after all, I’ve lived in the South, with a single year back in Yankeedom, since 1975. The attitude is, we’re in this together, here in Dixie. Those Democrats can stay in Washington.

Maybe that’s unfair. Meanwhile, we persevere. At 6:30 Saturday morning, at the end of the third week of Advent, we attended the Latin Rorate Mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin, the church lit only by candles. The life of the spirit often seems elusive, but it seeks us more urgently, lately, and now in this unique place.

We stopped at the parish office and filled out the form to register as members of the parish. The receptionist was friendly. She said the pastor wants to know who’s actually coming to Mass, not just who’s signed up and sending in a check.

That’s OK with me. I’m also generally OK with what the pastor, in his first homily after a six-month sabbatical in Rome, Turkey, and England, referred to fondly as the “church militant.” The receptionist said she’s a greeter, who holds the door open at the 8:00 AM Mass. We said we’d see her there. “Welcome, again,” she said, smiling.      

The Deck

December 13, 2021

Landing in this place, and it could have been anywhere else, brought along all those grown-up decisions about what’s next. The move to an apartment, the house hunt, then the mortgage, the move-in, left us dazed. We made our truce with the hard-right South Carolina politics and the “Lost Cause” culture that sometimes drags us back a century. We live in a state of perpetual amazement.

We knew the house needed work. We made that decision nervous homebuyers often make, look at the positives, stack them against the negatives. The quiet street, no stairs, gas heat, small, level yard, sold us. We met a couple of neighbors, they seemed friendly. Apartment life, after six months, was getting old.

In the first week we got a painter to cover up the odd mix of brown and pink that the previous owner, Miss Jean, had lived with for years. Then the place needed a new water heater. In stifling August heat we replaced the furnace/air-conditioning system.

At some point Miss Jean, or maybe the owner before her, had a small deck built outside the back door. Over time the paint chipped, the handrails cracked and loosened. At our Virginia place I built a brick patio. Eventually some of the bricks shifted, water pooled in spots after a heavy rain. But it was permanent, indestructible. Our deck now is on its way to splinters and sawdust.

We sat on the deck on mild evenings, but couldn’t turn away from the decrepit wood and popped nails. We laid down an all-weather carpet, trying to spruce it up. I guessed I could strip the paint and repair the railings. Really, no I couldn’t. I’ve acknowledged my minimal carpentry skills. Something about settling in a new home shouts, “Call a professional.”

Beyond the picket fence that marks the boundary of our modest lot and the broad expanse—close to an acre—of the lot on the next street, we could see, in the distance, the neighbor’s beautifully stained deck. Why didn’t we buy that house, I asked myself. Probably because it wasn’t for sale, and if it were we couldn’t afford it. So we looked sadly at our deck. It had to go.

The next step up from the deck would be a screened-in porch. But we guessed screens alone wouldn’t keep the rain out. Then too, I like the idea of an enclosed space that could be used year-round, with wide windows to admit plenty of light. We decided to go bigger: a “sunroom.”

We learned the difference between “four season” and “three season” spaces. Four-season means a new room. Three-season is screened in and popular in these parts. Do we need an expensive four-season room? The overnight temperature may drop to the thirties in winter, but it usually warms up by noon. Still, I don’t want to sit outside in a heavy sweater just because I could.

We called a contractor we found on the internet. The fellow showed up maskless, we asked him to put one on. He stared at us, we gave him one.  

We sat at the kitchen table, he talked about his company’s experience and gave us a brochure. We described our idea. He noticed Sandy was wearing a “UT” shirt. “Are you from Tennessee?” he asked. “I lived in Cookeville for a while. Great area.” I paused, thrown off by this. “Did you go to Tennessee Tech?” I asked, a tad impatiently. “No. I was working there. Several years. Liked it a lot.”

I steered him back to the project. He talked about designs and materials, then we went outside. He produced an expensive-looking tape measure, took some measurements and photos. We gave him our email address. “I’ll send you an estimate,” he said. He waved and left, leaving his tape measure on the table. We waited a week, then called him. The receptionist transferred us to his line, no answer. We left a message, when can we expect the design and estimate? No return call.

We called again a few days later. Nothing. Weeks went by, we threw the brochure out. We found another contractor through “Next Door,” the neighborhood gossip site. A young fellow came by. He said he was with a family company but now is on his own. He showed us dozens of photos of projects. We showed him the deck. He said he’d come by Friday with an estimate.

Around noon Friday I called him. “I’ll be there Friday,” he said. “Today is Friday,” I answered. “Goodness gracious,” he said. “I’ll get there 4:30.” He got here at 5:00. He brought a one-page description of the job, including double-hung windows, and a faint drawing. “My printer’s giving me problems,” he said. We squinted. But the price seemed reasonable.

He leaned forward. “You’re better off with E-Z Breeze vinyl windows than glass,” he said. “We’d have to put in studs for windows. E-Z Breeze is a lot easier to install.” We had asked for windows, his design included windows. “Maybe,” I said. “I’ll email you a new design tomorrow,” he said. The next day passed, no email.

I never heard of E-Z Breeze. We visited a local showroom. The material gives to the touch, like plastic you use to wrap leftovers, although stronger. The salesman rapped it with his fist. “It’s tough,” he promised.

Five days later we got the email, revised to include E-Z Breeze windows: $3,000 higher. I wondered why the first estimate, with double-hung windows, was lower. Does that make sense? He wrote back, yes, the E-Z Breeze windows are more expensive, plus the door would be $925.

We called another company, a big outfit with an impressive website. Their guy looked at the deck and off the top of his head quoted $45,000. “You’d save a little with E-Z Breeze, but an E-Z Breeze space is just that, a space. It won’t add value to the house.”

I thought I got it. The vinyl windows are more expensive than glass but easier to install—no studs, no sheetrock work needed. Adding value won’t be priority here until after we’re gone.

He took some photos, as the two previous guys had. We sat inside, he gabbed about local real estate. I sensed he lost interest in our project when he saw me go numb at the $45,000 quote, almost a quarter of the sales price of the entire house.

“Whatever you do, don’t hire a guy with two helpers and a truck who says he’ll finish in two weeks,” he warned.

He was describing the last guy we talked to. I looked outside at the deck. The railing nearest the house had split, part of it curled upward. I imagined a sunroom, then the E-Z Breeze room. Then I thought about what else we could do with $45,000. I’m still thinking.


December 6, 2021

In January 1977, Jimmy Carter became president. Two months later “Rocky” won the Best Picture academy award. Elvis Presley died in August. The Yankees won the World Series. Sandy and I met on December 4th at a church Christmas party in Nashville. It’s been 44 years.

It was a cold, drizzly day. I went to a movie with a friend that afternoon, just to get out of my apartment. The story is that I went to the party, hosted by a young-adult group at a nearby parish, because my sister wanted to introduce me to someone else. That didn’t work out. The rest is history.

Some memories fade and slip away, others never die, as in the Marty Robbins tune. We’re left with one choice: move ahead and find joy in the world left to us. We set aside the nightmares, the covid onslaught, the school shootings, the Trump cult’s assault on the Constitution. What’s left is to recognize our place in God’s creation, that is, the intense and graceful complexity of the natural world in which all of us, even the cultists, participate. The joy comes in setting aside our knowledge of evil and understanding our connections, the connections of humanity, with every component of life, which is nature, its scintillating beauty and danger.

I thought of all this when I recalled the work of an odd lot of great men, some famous, others now obscure:  Alexander Humboldt, the German biologist and philosopher, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins, Ernst Haeckel, and John Muir, laid out in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature.

Humboldt led the way. His research in the first decade of the nineteenth century after five years of travel across Venezuela, the Andes, Mexico, and the U.S., led him to recognize the subtle connectedness of all of nature. In his 1808 essay “Views of Nature,” he described nature as a “web of life,” describing the interdependence of all living things, plants, animals, mankind. Darwin, in Origin of Species, went farther and shattered myths and superstitions about creation as he documented nature’s relentless pace of change.

Their work stunned the contemporary scientific world, and in Darwin’s case outraged religious authorities. Haeckel, Thoreau, Perkins, Muir carried Humboldt’s and Darwin’s teaching forward.  Haeckel, a disciple of Humboldt and Darwin, in 1866 invented the word “ecology.” Together they and others inspired the birth of the modern environmental movement. Perkins, in Man and Nature, and Thoreau’s Walden and The Maine Woods crusaded for protection of wilderness. Thanks to Muir’s nearly singlehanded campaigning, Congress created Yosemite National Park in 1890. They push forward, slowly, against ferocious opposition, awareness of the miracle of the world around us.

Humboldt, the obsessive, driven intellectual, made no allowance in his universe for mystery, for a reality beyond his calculations. Darwin struggled through life with faith, eventually rejecting Christianity and calling himself an agnostic. Thoreau believed in God but was indifferent to organized religion. These groundbreaking crusaders for understanding of the miracles of the natural world left no room for miracles.   

All this occurred to me as our life here along the southern Blue Ridge sped forward to that 44-year milestone. We resolved to think of it as one more starting point into the future. Then too, to see ourselves within the natural world around us, a world of forests, mountains, rushing streams and thundering waterfalls, small towns, and winding country roads. We see the elements of life in this place as Humboldt and his followers saw nature, linked not by accident but by mystery, the mystery of God’s work. So we took Saturday the 4th as a reminder that we’re moving forward, always, seeking joy in the world we see.

Changing scenery, even in small ways and even for a short while, shocks the system. Three years ago we camped at little Red Hills State Park in southern Illinois and at Twin Bridges State Park in northern Oklahoma, where the muddy Neosho River meets the equally brown Spring River. We spent one night in dusty Shamrock, Texas, another in desert just outside Eloy, Arizona. We got a hurried glimpse at newness and strangeness that somehow must fit the world we know.

We find good news. Jimmy Carter, still among us after all these years, elevated the nation’s moral stature, now under attack by enemies of science. We dodged bullets en route to the 44-year mark, like any other couple who gets there and moves beyond it. We looked back at a wild ride: along with four energetic kids, three moves to new states, hundreds of doctor’s appointments, job changes and layoffs, the passing of parents, the loss of siblings before their time.

We didn’t do anything special to mark the date last year. Restaurants were out because of covid. Two days earlier I had an MRI. That followed a CT in mid-November that confirmed the carcinoma found in a CT in October, just before we pulled up stakes in Virginia. Two weeks after the MRI I was in the OR at Greenville Memorial.

So Saturday, to celebrate, we stayed in downtown Greenville. That afternoon we walked around, bought some gifts, watched the Christmas parade, and looked at the lights and decorations. We had a nice dinner, enjoyed the evening and early morning, went to Mass, then headed home.