Men, food, good writing and hanging the moon

Over two nights dreams came of Bob Yutze, Mike Thompson, Penn Dameron and Scott Hollifield, four friends from a time in life when everything was falling apart and everything was coming together. It was a time to fear death and a time to dance with life like I had never danced before. In fact, after a party at Mike’s house, when he was married to my dear friend, Martha, he said, “I would drive 30 miles to watch Pat Jobe dance.”
(Hearing me read this aloud, my son, Luke, said, “30 miles isn’t that far.”)
Fritz Perls tells us our dreams are fragments of ourselves fighting to get back in, so I’m wondering what parts of me are like these four fabulous men, but also feeling ignored or displaced or out of sorts. All four have wonderful senses of humor, enjoy music, love to think about things in creative and engaging ways. Dameron introduced me to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” and the other books in that series by Douglas Adams, some of the funniest and most engaging writing I’ve experienced. Yutze was a favorite teacher to my two oldest sons, Pepper and P.J. and offered a line that often gets repeated, “You can learn something every day if you pay attention, but what a price to pay.” Yutze is also the first Buddhist I knew in real life, a fascinating man to talk with.
Hollifield is the Mark Twain of Marion, N.C., the town were I spent many years with all four of these men. His original songs and newspaper columns would have made a famous man in a fairer world. And of course, Mike Thompson, hung the moon, or I could say that if I had not already told many people that Luke Jobe hung the moon. To avoid creating confusion around the moon hangers, let me just say that Thompson convinced me that academics had value, loved me at a time in my life when I was pretty unlovable; and gave me hope that the world is worth saving despite all evidence to the contrary.
The dreams were about loving writing and wandering the streets of Marion looking for something to eat. At 57, living in a home and office full of books, and spending a lot of my time looking for something to eat, it is not hard to see that these dreams may have come from that nagging question all of us must face from time to time, “What are you doing? Is it enough? Is it the best you can do? If it isn’t the best you can do, what is and how do you get about the business of doing that?”
I ate a delicious breakfast while writing this and thought about four men who live good lives in a world that is hungry for that.

We By Stuff

The sign on the side of the road read, “We By Stuff.” Doubtless it meant, “We Buy Stuff,” but as so often happens with misspellings, a little prophecy bubbled through. “We By Stuff,” spoke of the stuff by which we define ourselves. So many poor people are defined by stuff they stuff into every nook and cranny, not all, but some. So many middle class people are defined by slightly nicer stuff that they hide with more skill than poor people who line every room with boxes and piles of stuff. Middle class people use garages and attics and storage buildings. Do you ever wonder what is in all those storage buildings and what did we do with all that stuff before storage buildings were invented?
Rich people are most certainly defined by an upgrade of stuff, nicer stuff, better looking stuff, certainly stuff that costs more, but still stuff. Rolling stuff, stuff in the mountains and down by the sea, stuff in their airplanes and stuff in the hangers where they keep their airplanes, but still stuff. They would sooner die than line a living room with cardboard boxes, but the really nice stuff in their living rooms came in those boxes that they got rid of so poor people could line their living rooms with those boxes and stacks and bags of stuff.
But the sign by the side of the road struck an even deeper chord. That simple, two-letter word, “by” evokes one of the shortest but most powerful of our historical documents, the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s brilliant tribute to the fallen soldiers ended up being a cry for the most basic of democratic urges, that we might end up with government, “Of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Few observers of our current federal shadow boxing can genuinely affirm we are a government by the people. Would the people have given 700 billion to banks which ended up paying many of their disgraced executives million-dollar bonuses? Would the people have borrowed trillions from the Chinese to finance questionable tax breaks for oil companies which make billions in profits? This list could go on and on.
Questionable wars, frauds, manipulations of the process leave those who are not vested in the outcomes of the next elections, those with even a casual distance from the madness, those who read the headlines scratching our heads and affirming that the people would be doing a better job if the people were, in fact, in charge. This might have the sound of hopeless idealism, but surely, surely those with any distance from the mayhem must be saying there has to be a better way.
One way in which we have let ourselves get in an awful, almost unimaginable mess is by stuff. We have stuffed ourselves to the point that obesity may well be the primary factor in most of our cancer and heart disease. We stuff ourselves with chemicals and additives and processed flours and sugars that our grandparents never heard of and certainly never grew in their gardens.
And we stuff our balance sheets with debt. No, don’t look at the national debt. Look at your own debt. Credit card, finance company, pay day lender, and other forms of consumer debt are so rampant that tens of millions of Americans are literally borrowing money to pay for money they borrowed last year, last month, and last week.
George Carlin did a hilarious routine about the boxes we move to carry our stuff around years ago. It’s getting harder to laugh. The phrase “by faith,” used to define practice and principles in a bygone era of better behavior. Our government is no longer by the people. Our religion is no longer by faith. Our lives seem to be more and more to be defined by stuff.
The sign on the side of the road said, “We by stuff.” Yes, it looks as though we are.

After “Capitalism, A Love Affair”

Yes, Michael Moore is a master of hyperbole.

No, there is nothing about his work that would pass for objective, but having spent ten years in journalism I genuinely believe objectivity is a myth, and not a very helpful one at that.

See the movie, “Capitalism, A Love Affair,” and decide for yourself.  Research the story from other sources, and still you will not be able to argue much against the general notion that our 700 billion dollar bail out of Wall Street banks has been the grandest larceny in world history.  When Senator Paul Simon ran for president in 1984 he called the financing of the national debt to pay for Reagan’s war build up, “The largest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy in world history.”  This last boondoggle is far worse, far more criminal, for less documented in anything like what would pass for accepted accounting practices.

But beyond exposing the grand thefts of the Reagan and Bush presidencies, Moore has clobbered us again with the not so subtle ideal that our lives should be about what we do for the common good rather than what we own.  My cousin, Pat Hunt, wrote her column for the Waynesboro News Virginian just last week about the corrupting influence of a culture that judges us by what we wear, drive, and the houses we live in.

My response to experiences like seeing Moore’s film is always to wonder what can I do?  What should I encourage my friends to do?  How can we organize, work, promote, talk to each other, urge, plot, do something!  But my experience tells me I will do the best I can to write another blog, another newspaper column, another note on facebook, and preach as passionately as I can on Sunday morning at the Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and let the chips fall where they may.  I’m not much of an organizer, worker, promoter, urger, plotter or doer beyond my writing and preaching.  I write and preach what I can.  The rest of you let me know how you are stepping up to the plate.

More on this later.  I promise.

Never Losing Sight

F. Scott Fitzgerald told his daughter, Scotty, “Never lose sight of what you’re aiming at.” The target looks like an interaction in which one person, or a bunch of people, feel valued, validated, loved, encouraged, empowered, and as though they understand what is really going on. What is really going on? The universe is a conspiracy in our favor. We’re all in this together. Life is good, not a dirty trick being played by an old man and a devil cutting cards over whether we live or die. Love makes the world go round. Good guys don’t just make it in the movies. Love is all we need. Children, old people. dogs and cats are all highly underrated. We’re not all that bad. The best we ever do is who we really are. That last one hangs on Tommy Hicks’s wall. If you don’t believe it’s true, then get to know Thomas Mcbrayer Hicks. He’s on facebook. He’s been in a battle with Muscular Dystrophy since he was seven years old. That was 48 years ago. Kennedy was president. Even after 48 years of the toughest wrestling match you can imagine, he still loves football, poker, women, and Jesus, maybe not in that order. Not losing sight of what you’re aiming at has a lot to do with that cross stitch, which his mom did for him, hanging on his wall, “The best you ever did is who you really are.” Babe Zaharias also said, “A single moment of joy is a lifetime.” That one’s on the money, too.

Are We Capable Of Love? For Mary John

 

Is love hard?

Must be, according to popular culture, songs, movies, the like. Here find two stories about the difficulties of love, the kind of love that heals, connects, helps the world get what it “needs now,” according to an old Burt Bacharach song.

In 1993, I worked for an organization that provided services to women who were victims of family violence, and to men who committed violent acts. Most of the men in the program were ordered there by judges who hoped our program would teach them about violence and how to avoid it in their relationships with women.

Yes, I know there are women who beat men, and there is some violence in same-sex relationships, but most of the family violence in this country is committed by men against women, so these were the folks I was dealing with. We had a pretty strict curriculum examining family systems, power, money, relationships with children, extended family, all kinds of past and present stuff that might trigger violence. But sometimes we just talked. One night the subject was love: love from our parents or caregivers as youngsters, love among family members, spiritual love.

Suddenly the conversation derailed. A torturer, a man who been convicted of sexually torturing a woman, called a halt to the discussion. He started waving his hands. “Wait a minute,” he repeated several times, and when he had everyone’s attention, he asked me, “You think everyone’s capable of love?” I said I thought so, sure. He looked at me with the coldest eyes and said with the calmest voice, “I’m not sure you’re right about that.”

That was 16 years ago. You don’t soon forget a moment like that.

Which brings me to story number two. A group of Methodist preachers gathered in Myrtle Beach for training. The entire group was comprised of ministers and their spouses, so they let their hair down a little. The question came up, “Are churches capable of love?” There’s that phrase again, that phrase that came from that torturer so many years ago. Are we capable of love? For several minutes the clearly beat up and tired clergy folk sat around and considered the question. They had known some hard knocks, cruelty at the hands of the church folk they sought to serve, betrayal, back-stabbing, nit-picking to the point that a heaviness took over the room.

Finally my dear friend, the Rev. Dr. Mary John Dye spoke up. Mary John has been a major leader in the United Methodist world and currently serves as a district superintendent in the Western North Carolina conference. She is smart and edgy and funny and has a heart like a lion. She could not believe we were even considering the question.

“Capable of love?” she asked in disbelief. “Of course, our church folks are capable of love.” She agreed that they may screw it up from time to time, lose their cool, attack when they’d do better to consider the consequences of their actions, but surely, surely they are capable of the kind of selflessness, affirmation, support, caring, patience, kindness, and hard work that comes of love, that all of us recognize as love.

There is a lot of pain in the world caused by the failures of love, but obviously we know it when we see it. Since time began we have been taught that to find it, we must first learn to give it away. My bet is on Mary John. That man who ran his own torture chamber is wrong. We are all capable of love. It may be hard. But we can do it.

A question of service

Gary Phillips asked me to suggest some things to say to 30 or so gathered young people about the question of service.

Some famous psychologist was once asked what he would do if brought the most psychotic patient he had ever treated. He said he would take him to find somebody worse off. Anne Wilson Schaef says the central lie of our contemporary culture is the lie of powerlessness. We all have power to do something. Gandhi said, “It doesn’t matter what you do. It matters that you do it.” Service is also about forming an alliance or a partnership, not coming from a position of big power to offer service to someone with less power. We should always look over at those we seek to serve, never down. Because good service is perfected in the heart and the mind of the servant, offering more than it requires, we should approach it as a gift, never a chore. Despite the hungers of our ego, it is always more fun to serve than to be served, although there are times when both can be a blast. Always do it out of a sense of fun, never make it a chore.  Blessings on the 30 or so gathered. Kiss them all.

Synchronicity Points To The Right Path

 

I’m working on yet another book, but I’m painfully aware there are already many wonderful books in the world.

 Let me tell you a story about two of those wonderful books, and something that happened to me and my true love, Gabriele, just this afternoon. We sat on Folly Beach near Charleston, SC and read. She read from Sue Monk Kidd’s “Dance Of The Dissident Daughter,” and I read from Jack Kornfield’s “A Path With Heart.”

For the 11 months we have been in love, I have been talking with her about the concept of nothingness or nonexistence, that fact that when you get to the core of the matter, life is an illusion that plays out in divine consciousness and none of us really exist separate from that which basically flows out of the nothingness at the center of the universe.

She has always told me, as only a lover girl can, that makes absolutely makes no sense.

So today, we’re sitting on the beach reading and I come across this passage in Kornfield’s book, and I read it to her, “You live in a illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality, but you do not know this. When you understand this, you will see that you are nothing, and being nothing you are everything. And that is all.”

Kornfield was quoting a Tibetan teacher, Kalu Rinpoche.

She looked at me as she often does when we speak of nonexistence, then returned to her book. Seconds later she said, “Oh my God.”

She read to me from page 28 of Kidd’s book, “The feminist theologian, Carol P. Christ, states that a woman’s awakening begins with an ‘experience of nothingness.’ It comes as she experiences emptiness, self-negation, disillusionment, a deep-felt recognition of the limitations placed on women’s lives, especially her own.”

While these are radically different views of nothingness, they do have something in common. Both the Tibetan teacher in Kornfield’s book and the feminist theologian in Kidd’s book are dealing with limitation once recognized that leads to oneness with everything. Gabriele still casts a sidelong glance at it, as though it might be snake oil or some concoction of my traveling medicine show, but it is striking to me that we would both be sitting on a beach reading about nothingness.

And here is something even a tad more freaky.

About four years ago, Sue Monk Kidd lead a writing workshop in Charleston. I was waiting on the workshop to start and wrote in my journal, “Jung says synchronicity is a sign you are on the right path.” I have had many synchronistic happenings in my life, and I often think about this Jung idea. Sue Monk Kidd stood up and opened her talk by saying, “Jung says synchronicity is a sign you are on the right path.”

Folks, if I’m lying I’m dying. I turned to the woman sitting next to me and said, “You have got to read what I just wrote in my journal.” She did and smiled and scooted just a little ways away from me.

So, maybe I shouldn’t write another book, but this one keeps knocking at my door, begging me to say to you, “Life will be better if we figure out our connections to each other and everything else.”

Economic Tremors Not All Bad

Here is my first column in The Greenville Journal

 

In 1985, the stock market crashed. The value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 500 points in a single day. People felt very panicky and a fairly serious recession followed.

The day after the crash I was in Annie Lee Epley’s office. Annie Lee ran the local branch of Asheville Federal Savings and Loan, the company that held the mortgage on my home. It was also the company with whom I kept my checking and savings accounts in Marion, N.C.

I loved Annie Lee because she had helped me survive one of my business failures in 1981 and ’82, during which I had gone ten weeks without a pay check and our company had piled up $60,000 in debt.

This was her reaction to the stock market crash. “The value of those companies has not changed. They have the same number of employees they had yesterday, the same cash, the same factories and equipment, the same trucks and company cars. Things may get bad for a while, but this country has a good economic system. We will be all right.”

Nobody knows less about money, economics, and what works in these systems than I. Well, maybe a bunch of fourth graders know less, but don’t put me up against your smarter fifth graders.

So rather than offering up my ignorance, let me must ask you to consider Annie Lee’s reaction to the 1985 crash, and also consider some questions that I genuinely can’t answer.

When the stock market loses a third of its value, where does the money go? In the exchange of stocks, is there not always a winner and a loser? What do the winners do with that money when they take it out of the market?

Is the rough ride we are experiencing right now more than a pulling back in consumer spending and the collapse of certain credit instruments? Could it also be a fundamental realignment in cultural values? Could it be we are healing from our national obsession with buying any dad gum object off the shelf of a big box store? Are Americans saying with our lack of spending that we are tired of being defined by our spending?

Almost everything I know about anything I know from listening to National Public Radio, and NPR has yet to explain to me what has happened to our economy, except this: massive foreclosures have led to a virtual freeze in lending, which has led to a serious downturn in stock prices, which has convinced most of us that we should cut spending, which has cost lots of jobs in just the past few weeks.

But NPR hints at another idea, this idea of a basic shift in cultural values, that we are not going to buy cars from either domestic or foreign companies until they prove their ability to run on alternative fuels or use less fuel. We are going to buy products that come to market through fair trade. We are going to recycle, reuse, and reduce consumption, even if it cuts into the profits of major retailers. Of course, these trends are not universal or even popular among a majority of Americans. These practices would only have to be used by ten or twelve percent to rock the world’s economies and change everything. And the examples I gave are only the tip of the iceberg. Doubtless many of you can think of dozens of other examples of how this recession is a shift in values and not just an economic adjustment. The earth is shifting under our feet.

It can’t be all bad. Let me know what you think.

Is It Pride? Part Two

Bill talked to me while he fixed the door handle.  He never looked at the outside handle, inside handle, button, post, or spring.  My 86-tear-old daddy, Allen Jobe, found the spring I had spent 15 minutes on my hands and knees looking for.  He said, “It was just sitting there in the kitchen floor.”

Bill says he can do this kind of stuff without looking, because, “I don’t know how many of these I have put on.”  But it doesn’t satisfy.  How hard can it be to do the first time?  Why would it be complicated to hold four pieces of a door handle and thread two screws?  Why?  How?  I am flummoxed.  I feel adrift, like a piece of broken styrofoam floating on the surface of a pool nobody uses anymore.  I am undone, by this defeat and the multitude of others in my life.  In the process of being hired by the Greenville Unitarian Universalist Felloowship, the board talked to over 20 people who have known me.  They said nice things, but I’m sure there are more than 20 who could talk about my foibles, weaknesses, failures, crimes, sins, and failures to yield.

That phrase, “failure to yield,” has always been catchy.  When do we yield?  When do we fail to yield?  Kenny Rogers sang, “Know when to hold ‘em.  Know when to fold ‘em,”  Clearly these are critical pieces of information to accrue, but how, when, where does do such knowledge come from, and is there not always the danger that such knowledge will come too late, just as the train is passing, just after they drew yours and your brother’s birth numbers in the lottery.  And would we do good by that mountain of cash, anyway?

The door handle has been installed.  Bill did it without looking.  Daddy found the lost spring.

Is It Pride?

 

The Proverbs tell us pride goes before a fall.  I fell all over myself this afternoon.

I was so proud to have taken the door handle off the storm door at my dad’s house.  The wind or years of use, something had bent the tongue that holds the door shut.  I loosened two screws, dropped the old handle by Alexander Hardware.  The great Tom Gray, a good friend and good guy, ordered me a new door handle, and I picked it up today.

I asked Debbie, the wonderful hardware genius in Tom’s store, to come home with me and put the handle on.  I told her I wasn’t sure I could get the new handle installed.  She said, oh so sweetly, she would be delighted if she were not already obligated elsewhere.

I got to my dad’s house swollen with confidence.  The swelling soon went down.  The handle is comprised of seven parts: a spring (I immediately lost the spring,) a button on the handle, the outside handle, two screws, a post that goes from the inside handle to the outside handle, and the inside handle.  I spent about 15 minutes looking for the lost spring.

How does one lose a spring walking from the kitchen to the front door.? I stopped to turn the AC on.  My dad has a habit of turning the heat on instead of ajusting the AC to run at a higher temperature.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t do it on purpose.  He just wants the AC to stop and turning the heat on seems to work pretty well.  By the time I got back to the front door, the spring was gone.  I got down on my hands and knees in the kitchen, the hallway where the thermostat lives, and around the front door, both inside and outside on the porch.  After 15 minutes on my hands and knees there is no pride or swelling left.   Everything turns flat and desperate.

The spring was gone.  I decided to mount the handle, the button, the post and the other handle without the spring, thinking that it might make getting into the house difficult, but not getting out.  My dad rarely comes in that door, but he often leaves by that door.

In order to mount all four pieces and install two screws, I had to be able to hold all four simultaneously and thread in a screw.  The first three times I tried, I dropped all four pieces and was a tad embarrassed at how they crashed and clanged all over the front porch.  I tried maybe three or four more times.  This is the kind of thing my brother, Bill can do without thinking.  He might lock his jaw a few times in frustration, but he would not lose the spring, would not drop the four pieces three or four or five or six times, and would not conclude the entire process as I did.

I left out the button and the post and simply screwed the two handles together.  My dad can now lock his storm door, exit his storm door, and nobody on the face of the earth can enter from the outside.

If you want in, ring the doorbell.