My Toilet Runneth Over

Ok, so I lived around Harvard Square for thirty years and bounced through several apartments over that time, and not just because I was staying one step ahead of the constabulary.  Those were some good years, so let me deflect your course with some life-changing details…

First, my buddy Dave and I had the apartment on Beacon Street in Somerville (SUMmuh-vull **), right across from Star Market and the laundromat.  He had encamped there before I showed up, and through a series of coincidental or God events we made contact, I jumped into his car and said “hey”, and we hit it off immediately.  We lived on cornmeal pancakes, linguini with clam sauce, and generic green beans.  And we washed our dishes in the shower until the kitchen faucet got fixed.  (Remember…  you repair a faucet with O-rings, not O-varies.  We’ll cover that another time…)  And early in the mornings when we ventured out we would look for cheap entertainment in the form of unsuspecting pedestrian commuters.  Because as Dave’s car, Danny Datsun, was warming up you could accelerate down the street, shove in the clutch at the peak RPM, and produce the most exquisite of backfires.  I mean, it was like you’d been shot.  And those pedestrians would squirt their pants.  I kid you not.  God, it was great to be twenty-something and alive.

Then it was on to a room-for-service apartment for a year in the home of my boss and good friend, Dean of Freshmen, Hank Moses (may he rest in peace).  That apartment was sweet.  It was upstairs in a beautiful 3-story Greek Revival, on Dunster Street right in Harvard Square, and it had an interior spiral staircase that emptied into the main kitchen downstairs through a very nondescript wooden door.  Hence, my lengthy moniker, The Guy Who Lives in the Cupboard.

Are you with me?  Then, on to the flat on Harvard Street.  Some good times there with Rick and George, so thanks for the memories fellas.  That was another “guy” apartment complex, but it was also close to Harvard Square and was perfectly fine, as long as you didn’t mind 70’s multi-colored striped carpeting in the hallway and the sixty-four mystery smells.  And you never knew who you were going to meet in a laundry room in this Ivy League town.  Bob, for example.  To this day one of my best friends.  Now a State Department attorney, who at the moment is taking care of business with a stint in the White House.  Wanna see my POTUS ball markers?  (“I beg your pardon?”…).

And I think George forgave me when I suddenly bolted from that apartment to grab one that came up through Harvard Housing, for which I’d been on a wait list a long time.  It was just around the corner on Ware Street, and was a marvelous spacious studio that I lived in for ten years.  And because it was Harvard owned there was no last month’s rent or deposit up front.  Just pay your first month’s rent and off we go.  And yes, “I’m sorry Mr. Wigdahl, but that will be…    $205.”  I swear.  Ahh, the days of Cambridge rent control.  And my daily commute of fifty yards.  Bliss.

But the citizens of the Commonwealth had the good or poor sense to vote out rent control in 1997, so my studio edged up toward market rate.  Time to go.  So one night I had dinner with my buddy Pete.  I laid out the situation and he responded (and I paraphrase), “Wig, why are you being such a moron?  I’ve got a spare bedroom at Blakeslee Street.  Why don’t you just move in?”  So there it was, another complicated life decision — Done.  And good stories there with Pete.  That house was and is a rickety old structure, but if you occasionally added water to the boiler you could fetch up some steam into the radiators, and we had our spaghetti and microwaved frozen veggies, so don’t cry for us.  And get this…     who lived across the street?  Well, I’ll tell you who lived across the street.  John Malkovich lived across the street, that’s who.  And get oudda here, I am not making this up.  “And what on earth is John Malkovich doing living across the street from you in West Cambridge?”  Well that’s another excellent major life question for which I have no decent answer.  I never spoke to him, but truth be told I actually saw him carrying bags of groceries home from Formaggio’s.  And I don’t know how you view that, but in my world that makes me famous.

(Maybe now you’d like to get up and grab a beer or make some tea or just opt for something more productive?  Perhaps you should take out the trash, or clean your lint filter, or stare out the window for a bit?)

During my Being John Malkovich days I had also stepped away from working at Harvard and money had gotten tight.  Let it be known that I have my dear friend and roommate Pete to thank for getting me through that desert stretch.  And then I was grateful to be offered a job again at the Big H, which had been a wonderful world of employment for me for eighteen years.  So, now I’m back after a couple years away, and I’m working in the Admissions Office.  Sitting at my desk.  And the receptionist calls me.  “Jim, there is a Jeffrey _____ on the phone for you.”  This friend proceeded to take me out to lunch that day and then over the next couple months altered my life with two extraordinarily generous gifts that allowed me to buy a place of my own.  I will be forever grateful to Jeffrey.  A bona fide scholar.  True gentleman.  Man of mystery.  Sporting angelic roles.

So I bought the micro-condo on Mass Ave in Porter Square.  All 314 square feet of it.  It was a gift from God, and I loved it from the moment I walked into it.  It became my refuge, my private world, my hideaway, my man cave.  And to it I would retreat to rest and recharge, and from it I would daily slip back out again and up the stairs and onto Mass Ave and into the mix.

Since by the way, it was a Garden Level unit.  Which of course meant there was no garden, but at least it was in the basement.  And yes, it had windows.  And they offered a panoramic view of a paved alley, passersby from the knees down, a white cinder block building next door, and the recycling bins for our building.  Into which empty wine bottles could be dropped very early in the morning or very late at night to assist one in establishing what time it might actually be as one is slapped back into consciousness.  I loved it.  And it was mine.  All mine…          On top of that, a couple years into this I was able to make a huge hit on my mortgage because of yet another monetary gift from the estate of my uncle.  Uncle Gene resembled and had the mannerisms of Johnny Carson, and though at times there was a great sadness about him he was one of the most generous people I will ever know.

So, here I am in my condo.  And I’m “all set.”  I have plans.  I’m going to work at Harvard for X more years, pay off the condo entirely, and then settle in to the life of a North Cambridge bachelor in complete control of his time, his money, his talents, his priorities, his travels, and maybe even his health.  I’ll be able to come and go as I please, connect with friends easily because of my open calendar, and picture perfectly what I’m sure will be “God’s Will” for me for the rest of my life.  At last by my reasonable calculations I had achieved my managed environment and secured my tidy ambitions.

Then I went to Colorado for a reunion of friends.  And there I reconnected with Cyndi.  And two months later we were married.  And we moved into the garden level condo after I had purged it of basically everything I owned to make room for this new life.  And we used a Crate and Barrel box as our first dinner table.  And my bride made it the most beautiful and cozy nest you can imagine.  And we watched movies and Foyle’s War on a laptop in bed and ate Peppermint Patties.  And I would leave every morning for my job at Harvard, and my dear one would walk down to Starbucks to work on her memoir of Betty.  And we made a newlywed life in that little place.  And marrying Cyndi was the best decision I had ever arrived at in fifty-two years of life on earth.  And we were very happy.  And then the toilet flooded.

I don’t know if there had ever been this kind of flood in Cambridge.  There was some bizarre confluence of elements, and maybe the moon was in the seventh house or something, I dunno.  But the rain just hammered the area, and we were told the manhole covers in Harvard Square were rising up as the sewers were heaving under the load, and the Taza Chocolate factory in Somerville was flooded too, just so you know.

And we were making dinner in the micro-condo.  Remember, we were in the basement…       and there was this sound from the bathroom.  The sound you would make if you were made of porcelain and were about to puke.  So I ran in there and made eye contact with the toilet just as it called out, “I think I’m going to be sick!”  Then I grabbed a saucepan (not the one holding our dinner) and positioned myself as I had been trained…(?).  And suddenly the toilet bowl started to fill with water.  In a hurry.  I mean, like it had dreamed its whole life of becoming a geyser.  So before the water could start pouring out onto our floor I started bailing with the saucepan and pitching the water into the bathtub, hoping that the flood would play out before I managed to fill the tub.  And then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.

Ivy, our next door neighbor, had water all over her carpet.  And the woman down the hall who had just purchased that unit would show up a few days later to discover that her brand new condo had flooded and all of the floor boards had warped.  I’m not sure she could even open the door into the place.  Lots of damage everywhere.  Except in our unit.  We were lucky.  We were home when it happened.  And we were spared.

And I never thought of that condo in the same way ever again.

Maybe Providence allows our settled routines and our securities and our perfect habitats to be touched toward a greater good — an assist in not returning to the familiar and comfortable.  Because, you see, at times I wanted to go back.  I wanted to go back to being “all set.”  I wanted to go back from marriage to my crisp, clean solo existence.  There was that particular elasticity — I launched out into our marriage adventure, but often wanted to snap back into the contours of those gentle rolling slopes of bachelor life.  I didn’t like that marriage was wonderful but also at times a lot of work.  And great, now everything conspired to complicate my life in all the ways I had not bargained for.  Because marriage ruined my self-constructed utopian world, even as it set me on a road of great discovery, slow as I may have been to realize it.  Of course I always knew precisely the rationale for what God was doing in my life at any given moment (ha)…   but this boot camp wasn’t on the itinerary.  Certainly not on my radar.

My wife Cyndi is an extraordinary woman of substance and grace.  Her own life shaped by provision and loss.  Beautiful inside and out.  One in a million.  And I love her madly.  And yet, even many years into our marriage I still look back on the micro-condo with a yearning.  It was a gift to me, if also an idyllic expression of the contained life.  I just didn’t know its future, being now also a symbol of the former.  And I’ve been able to release it into the past.  Because since the flood many things have changed.  Including the size of my God.

I had polished my little subterranean citadel.  My fortress of limited engagement with the world.  Presumably living on God's terms, but strangely and increasingly on my own.  What I imagined as expanding intention became in fact a shrinking into a self-defined space.  And what I thought to be a center for moving out into the world was becoming instead for me a walled city to keep that same world out. 

As I look back and imagine it, I do fear as well what may have occurred if I had remained single and never left that place.  I picture increasingly frequent disappearances into the garden level unit.  As I stepped off Mass Ave and fell below the street I would be funneled down into my little stronghold, only to be tethered by bits and bytes to 13-inch virtual realities rinsed with cheap Cabernet.  An invitation to privacy and dissolution and implosion.  And if I had stayed there I might have RSVP’d yes.  After all, who would know?  Have you noticed that we are most fully ourselves when no one else is around?  Scary, huh?

I’m persuaded that there was a God trajectory to my long single life, even as it was wonderfully interrupted at mid-life.  But segments of those years were also reflective of the modern American single man in his 40s/50s/60s, who has so long been at the helm of his solo life that love’s project must be to pry his fingers from the ship’s wheel so he can go sit in the front of the boat, and wonder at sunsets, and dolphins that surf the bow wave, and taste the spray, and peer into the abyss, and feel his craft plying the waters toward where he freely would not have allowed it.  A fresh story.  A new historical novel written and illustrated in the reverse negative images of his settled course.  A new voyage, now perfectly unpredictable.  And I submit to you that this is a marvelous thing.

So, watch your step my friend.  Love lurks.  And floods alter the landscape.

And beware the sizable God who messes with the size of your God.

 

**  For your information, you can never claim to have a Boston accent until you can convincingly offer, “I cahn’t take a bahth in hahf an houah.”  So get started…

Intermission: Showing My Cards

Is that a question?

I’ve done very little research for this ongoing series of questions.  (You’ve noticed?)  I figured that, if you can’t drag a dredge through a life in its late fifties and scrape up at least a little content then, good grief, what were all those miles for?  And besides, I don’t really know how to handle quotations and attributions.  To say nothing of the semi-colon; someday I should learn.

Twice the Gospels record a curious statement from Jesus, which I take to mean that ultimate things are “hidden from the wise and understanding and revealed to babes.”  Heaven knows I am not among the “wise and understanding,” and though I hope there is nothing juvenile in my probings, I do aspire to the childlike in my questions and explorations.  And, as with a kid, may those questions be with few inhibitions.  And may they be thoughtfully and kindly relentless.  What the world needs now, it seems to me.

Perhaps only at the end of this world will there finally be the proper orientation of all things.  Maybe our souls, if we have them, long for that consummation above all other yearnings, even as we fear the day.  As a kid I wondered why anyone would avoid a search for God if there is possibly a God to be discovered.  Why would one choose to live independently of that consideration?  Made no sense to me.  And so I dig around.  And maybe in the process grace makes its way toward me.  And perhaps this is the most marvelous thing.

What do I believe?  I believe in the historic Christian message.  I believe in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, Savior of the world.  I believe that this believing is a placement of trust, rather than a mere assent to what may be the facts surrounding his existence two thousand years ago.  It is a throwing in of one’s lot.  A hoping and a confessing and a grasping and a cherishing.  And I have trusted this Jesus, not because it brings me peace, which it does.  And not because it can carry difficulty and sometimes permit confusion, which it does and will.  And not because there are not dark nights of the soul, because there are.  And not because I receive forgiveness, which I believe I have received and do receive.  And not because in a walk with Jesus there is embedded purpose, which I’m persuaded there is.  

No, in the end I believe in the Christian message because I'm convinced that what it claims about Jesus in time, space, dimension, history is actually so — that the message is in fact true.  And wouldn't that be something?  Yes, it seems to me that when all is said and done the problem with the Christian message is that it’s true.  And therefore, for any person, it becomes the most wonderful of troubles with which to cope.

I have been a believing person since my youth.  And though I have never suffered from chronic happiness, a full body scan would likely reveal deep veins of contentment and deposits of joy.  To say nothing of laugh lines.  But my writing here tends to express my specifically Catholic journey, which for me emerged in earnest at mid-life.  My itinerary developed over time, and I suggest it, or something similar.  In the end you may arrive at another destination, but I think I can promise that you will unearth considerations that had not occurred to you.  There’s a danger in that of course.  But, as you and I have always said, since when has a truth seeker ever needed to be afraid?

Here’s what I did, and I recommend it — search “Catholic conversion stories.”  You’ll find months of stuff to poke around in.  And give the personal stories themselves room to be important in this process.  Beyond that, follow the links and threads and references.  There will be plenty to sit with and walk with and argue with and consider.  Not surprisingly I also read a lot of Catholic writers, many themselves converts.  Authors whom one doesn’t normally encounter as a Protestant, only because they’re not usually part of the conversation.  Some of the writers who influenced me were Thomas Howard, Richard John Neuhaus, G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, Romano Guardini, Walker Percy, Hilaire Belloc, and James V. Schall (born in Pocahontas, Iowa, so what’s not to like?).

And please, Flannery O’Connor is reason enough to become a Catholic.

What I came in touch with increasingly satisfied my mind and moved my heart, seeming both of reason and mystery.  History unfolding, bearing the marks of the promised keeping of God.  A place of rest and substance, offered even to me as a gift, a grace only to be received.

In the early days of my journey toward the Catholic Church I would attend Mass at St. Paul Church, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I sat in the back, on the right, near the confessional.  Wouldn’t want to be too close to the front.  Me and some homeless guys.  A little chilly, wearing my jacket, with a rack of dog-eared song books and missals in front of me.  Sitting and standing and kneeling through what can seem the perfunctory readings and movements of the Mass.  I felt as a stranger, yet oddly at home.

And then during the Liturgy of the Eucharist we arrived at the Agnus Dei — “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…”

And I stood there and wept.

Can you tell me why?

Question Fifteen

Isn't it exciting to know that in the end the stakes could be very high?

How is it that in popular thinking we always take a step up in the next life?  A curious assumption that we’ll come back as an Olympian, a film star, or the doctor who finds a cure for everything.  How come it’s never an option that I’ll come back as a retriever or a rodent?  But I’m not going to think about it.  At least not right now.  I’m young and vigorous.  And maybe even immortal on my own terms.

And then there’s the whole problem that in the end the natural world might view its own eschatology as Christocentric.  And where does that leave us?  But we know that couldn’t be true if we don’t want it to be true.  This talk of Yeshua being the Logos and the Lion, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  And the Cross, the crux of a spinning universe.

But even more interesting at the moment, what about our security of ambivalence in such things?  Why does a man not press into it?  Why doesn’t he sell everything he has to investigate last things for the world and last things for himself?  What’s he waiting for, his ninety-ninth birthday or a terminal illness?  And even then will he probe to discern if there is a God who might be saying something to him?  On a scale of one to ten, how hard can a man’s heart become in these things?  Or is it purely a matter of the mind, coming to terms with the expiration date on his animal life, as he attempts to suppress the musings of his spirit and his hopes for more?  How exactly did he gain this permission to establish his own ultimate outcome, to say nothing of his casual anticipation of it?

Do you listen to the conversations around you, and to the words that come out of your own mouth?  Have you noticed how often our focus is “he” or “she” or “they”, followed by our litany of offenses borne?  Or how much of conversation is dominated by the lifeless, the meaningless, and the pointless?  Extremely white bread in a world starving for whole grain content.  We rush quietly to the end of our lives, putting up little fuss that no one has challenged our beige convictions and our spiritual inertia.  What if it turns out that our choices in this life actually matter in a next?

And if so, what am I to make of the hard sayings of Jesus?  This stuff about the end of all things.  I mean, I liked Jesus a lot when he was talking about loving everybody.  Not judging other people or throwing the first rock, doing unto others as I would have them do to me.  Good, acceptable, inclusive teachings about playing well with others and helping the less fortunate.  What’s not to like about an agreeable Jesus?  Can we get him on our corporate payroll and our softball team?

If only he had kept his big mouth shut on hell.  And on the divisiveness of his own person.  Why would Jesus even ask, “Who do you say that I am?”, as though he imagines himself to be the focus of his teaching rather than those virtues to which he would have us aspire?  Enough of that.  This talk of sorting people out in the end.  Wide roads versus narrow roads with not many travelers.  Sheep and goats.  That he himself would be the judge of all people, holding the keys of Death and of Hades.  The one whose return coincides with the end and the beginning of all things.  And depending on one’s trajectory in life, is it simply our greatest hope that what he has promised will never come to pass?

Houston, We Have a Problem

Go ahead, name ‘em.  I’ll wait.  The original seven Mercury astronauts.  You should know this.  Come on, you can do it.  And while you’re at it, give me the names of the Russian Five from the ’97 Detroit Red Wings.  And no, Vladimir Sputnik was not one of the defensemen.

The 1960s.  Ahh, that decade that just keeps giving (alas).  But there was also the Space Race, and of that generation I am an injection molded product.  Coming of age with Geritol, powdered coffee creamer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and Herman’s Hermits.  And yes, I assembled a bunch of plastic models and sniffed a lot of airplane glue, which of course explains a great deal.

My old friend Wernher von Braun would be pleased to hear about the model rockets that I assembled from paper tubes and balsa wood.  Gorgeous vehicles.  A lot of work.  But, live and learn.  There was the one that was unstable — bright white, with gleaming yellow fins, which I apparently placed a bit too far forward on the body.  It came off the launch pad, hollered “wait a minute, something’s terribly wrong!”, and immediately did a U-Turn and started smacking itself on the ground repeatedly.  I dove for cover, like Wile E. Coyote about to be charred by an ACME missile, while the rocket flailed around until the engine was spent, it spun on the ground, and fell silent.  Then…  “pfooot!”…   out came the Looney Tunes parachute.  A failed mission that we chalked up to R&D.

Which leads me to a second failed experiment and some advice.  Whatever you do, don’t be a knucklehead and paint your model rocket sky blue and white.  It will get ten feet off the pad and that will be it, you’ll never see it again.  Unless you get lucky and it takes down a Cessna or you see the parachute pop out.  You’ll be left there staring up into the sky like you’re attending the Ascension.  You can kiss it goodbye, just like those high altitude dreams of this young boy, with his low altitude eyesight and black plastic-rimmed glasses.

But, as with most of my astronaut training I have Maytag to thank.  In particular, the boxes — the large cartons the washing machines come in, which can be retrofitted to create a fine land-based Gemini simulator which easily installs in your basement and can be used for endurance experiments and COG (center of gravity) tests.

For the latter, place the empty Maytag box on its side at the top of your stairs and release it.  Notice how it floats effortlessly down the steps and gently deposits itself in the living room.  Now, return the box to the top of the stairs and place your little brother in the box.  Once again release it down the steps.  You may notice, as our experiments revealed, that the ensuing COG shift will destabilize the carton in such a manner as to promote catching the front corner of the box on the steps, which then initiates an end-over-end movement, what we call in the space business an uncontrolled orbital roll.  And really, all you can do is let gravity take charge and be grateful that little brothers are pliable and probably won’t hold it against you that the test somersaulted and plastered him against the Baldwin Acrosonic organ.  And all of that for a glass of Tang.

The Mercury flights of Shepard and Glenn… the Gemini missions, with Ed White and his space walk…  the Apollo missions…   the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in which we lost Grissom, White, and Chaffee…   the Apollo 8 Genesis reading…  the Apollo 10 “dress rehearsal” that took the lunar module achingly close to landing on the surface of the moon…   and Apollo 11, with the “one giant leap for mankind” broadcast from the surface of the moon on live black & white TV.  And Walter Cronkite there to hold our hand through it all.

Did you know, that in terms of overall performance, your iPhone 6 is 120,000,000 times faster than the computer used aboard the Apollo spacecraft?  And that therefore, theoretically, your iPhone 6 could guide 120 million Apollo rockets at the same time?  Amazing, huh?  And yet, why does it sometimes feel like we’re going backwards?  

I’m not questioning the desires or resolve of modern space explorers, nor am I suggesting that present day space exploration is uninteresting or unimpressive from a technical standpoint.  I only ask why it is that I am left unmoved by it.  The talk of Martian soil and evidence of water.  The dream of human colonies on our moon or on other planets in our solar system.  Why the pursuit?  Is it something that we long for?  Is it that as a “species” we somehow need to push out into space?  For what purpose and to what end?  Has it become an obligatory exploration of the unknown that now rarely inspires us, having become a thinly technical human exploit?   Why does the adventure in it seem oddly played out?  Can it have anything to do with the fractured nature of contemporary human life, with our seemingly irresolvable human problems?  Will we pin our hopes on colonizing the lunar landscape, or moving to Mars and growing broccoli in our own waste?  Will we explore the universe even as we fail to (my beef) explore the human heart?  Will we just take our problems with us to another planet?  But, listen to me…  I’ve shuffled off the raw spirit of youth and have too soon become a curmudgeon.  And yet, whence the wistful?  Can you tell me, young man?

Certainly we have jettisoned any inclinations or attributions demonstrated in the Apollo 8 Genesis reading.  I’ll hear that again when I see them erect another statue of a Puritan on the Cambridge Common.  We’ve moved on.  But to where?  Probes and dyes and radioactive tracers that reveal particular brain activities on scanners, and yet before us remains the Hard Problem of human consciousness.  Our own in particular.

Maybe my problem is the simple contrast between ambitions outward and those inward.  Or, as Walker Percy noted in Lost in the Cosmos, “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life?”

Why preserve and extend the human story onto other spheres?  We know that one day our sun will become a red giant and we’ll all perish anyway.  The end of the human drama, full stop.  And the encore, only vast emptiness.  Are you telling me it’s that scenario that gets you out of bed in the morning?  And yet we speak of love and meaning and purpose.  Do we mean chemicals in the brain that create love and meaning and purpose, or is there possibly more going on?  We say we’re made to explore.  But made by what?  Made by whom?

Curious that as I write this it is Wednesday of the Second Week of Easter.  The Gospel reading for the day is from John 3, and includes: 

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world,

but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light,

so that his works might not be exposed.  But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,

so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

I love space travel.  Through various spaces.  Even through the hidden considerations of thought.  Moving out into the darkness and into the light.  Space travel whose genesis is a journey through the human experience and maybe even the human soul.  Unless the scanners can’t trace that.  Supernova grand adventures, inches and light years away.  

And perhaps, as Walter said, “that’s the way it is”…

Question Fourteen

How to be with a dying man?

That’s a question.

We had a new minister come to our Lutheran church when I was a kid, and I remember his first meeting with our youth group.  He was half-sitting on a table up front, and we noticed he had a pronounced limp in his gait when he walked.  I recall the first question he asked us.  "Do you notice anything different about me?"  There was silence for a while, and some mild fidgeting among us, and then I replied, "You've got a bad leg."  He went on to explain that he had contracted polio as a boy, and his leg was part of the fallout.  He kindly wanted that fact to be out there for us, and now we could move on.  It was a very small but profound teaching moment for me.  It set me to thinking — Why are we afraid to ask the obvious, when often the person being asked has already experienced the depths of the question?

Who are we and what is the nature of our “presence” when we are, or one day will be with a dying person?  Do we set the parameters of the moment, or does that dying woman or man or child?  Why is there, for us the visitor, that anxiety of the visit, so much so that if possible we will avoid the encounter entirely?  We are both strangely drawn to and repelled by the circumstances, and by the silence and the search for words.  Why do we sense it to be a holy moment and yet one so full of fear, as we imagine we have nothing to bring, and may even feel as an intruder?  Who are we in those minutes, extracted from the manageable routines of our daily lives only to be inserted into a place where all management fails?  Is it about the dying person, and also very much about ourselves?

What will we do?  Perhaps more appropriately, what will we be?  What will we bring, or what will we receive?  Will we rush to fill the space with that unique burden of small-talk — that groping awkwardness that presses in on each chest?  We search for air.  And what does it reveal about a man that he must talk this very instant?  What is it about men who never shut up?  What are they afraid of?  I wonder if it is a gift that we don’t say a damn thing.  Will we let a dying man speak, or might we simply sit alongside with tubes and trays when the room is wordless?  Perhaps then the questions emerge.  Simple and candid, with resignation or hope, touching unknowns, even offered by the one who is navigating what we all some day must.

I think of handshakes I’ve received over the years.  Some of the dead fish type.  But the finest are those full-grip, firm and lingering, the other hand cupping the tricep, with a bit of eye contact and turn of the mouth.  The handshake that says all that need be said.  No words suffice.  A full and complete moment.  Here I am.  And I love that a man’s handshake used to be his word.  Oh, for those days.  Human contact and presence that no legal document or infusion pump can touch.

How to be with a dying man?

Question Thirteen

Do you study religion in order to remain irreligious?

When growing up maybe your experience of religious training was a snore at best or an offense at worst.  Perhaps you had your fill of droning Sunday School teachers, lime Kool-Aid, and pat answers.  (I love lime Kool-Aid…).  Or maybe one of the nuns managed to smack you around occasionally (assuming you didn’t have it coming).  And it’s also possible you had great teachers but you were happy to block that out as you got older.  You and I both know it’s always someone else’s fault when we’re not receptive.  And so you were vaccinated with low-dose indifference toward religion that developed into a nearly militant disregard, and have ever since pursued a study of religion with the implicit or stated goal of remaining irreligious.  Seriously?

I live to locate the trouble outside of myself.  And speaking of training, I’ve also learned this from others (not that I needed help).  And I love that in this regard religion is such an easy target.  Broader than a barn door.  I can fire away, cook down some episodes from history, point out a few scoundrels, and assemble a fine little accusational stew that serves up well at parties.  I can highlight abuses, spin a few wars, and play the witch-hunt game with reasonable facility, until someone begins to peel my own onion, and I am faced with the reality that history also includes me and my broken story of hidden vice.  But that’s getting too close.

I see a lever — a toggle.  And often my energies snap the lever in one direction only, that of self-protection.  Does this have more to do with inclination than information?  More to do with exposure than argument?  Might something be and remain True whether any man believes it, or if men associated with that Truth are themselves willful and blemished, as I know myself to be?  Is it then the fault of the Truth or of the man?  And if there be a transcendent Truth, might there be a transcendent opposition to it that is playing out before our eyes and even within us?  And is that opposition possibly represented in my toggle position?  Will I take the risk of turning the lever back on myself and go inside to see what I have left unattended and unexamined?  Or will I stiff-arm my way into a posture of perspective that excludes me from the society which the sociologist studies?  A physician who will not allow himself to be doctored?  A chef who never eats?  A mortician who doesn’t plan for his own death? 

But, you say, you’re spiritual but not religious, having depersonalized God into “The Universe,” and having assigned to that Universe powers and limitations of your own choosing.  This close but not too close.  How convenient.  But didn’t you tell me you were counter-cultural?

Marvin A. Wigdahl

‘A’ for Augustine.  Although Dad told me one time he thought Augustine was a character in the Bible.  But I'll cut him some slack on that one, as we Lutherans didn't hang out with the Saints much.  Years later when I entered the Catholic Church I took Augustine as my confirmation name.  And if Dad were still around, and wasn’t entirely miffed that I’d swum the Tiber, I think he would smile at that.  Not sure though if he would smile about my other new name, “Jimmy Confirmande”, which was given to me by my friend and sponsor, Anthony.  “Hey Jim, this is great!  Not only are you becoming a Catholic, you’re becoming an Italian!”  (Spoken with proper Italian-American inflection.  And yes, he talks with his hands.)

Twice in my life I saw my dad cry.  The first time was when my brother Dave died.  We were in Valley City, North Dakota, where Dave had lived for many years, and we were meeting with the local pastor about the funeral service.  Dave had said one time that his friends there in North Dakota were like family to him, and while we were sitting with the pastor that somehow slammed into my dad.  And he cried there at the table, wondering out loud if we had not been enough of a family for Dave.  The second time I saw Dad cry was when he was dying.  He was in the local nursing home and he knew his time was short.  We were sitting together, and at one point his good friend and Marine Corps buddy Rod came to mind, and with tears running down his face all he said was, “Semper Fi, Rod…   Semper Fi”… 

Dad was the guy in my hometown you would call if you didn’t know what else to do.  He had this gift for receiving and stabilizing the tumultuous moment.  He could absorb the fear and uncertainty of the situation, and then parcel out the necessary constructive steps to go forward.  Always with tact, and never without compassion.  He was by blood and tradition a stoic, being of fine Norwegian stock.

Definition of a Norwegian:  

A Norwegian is a shy, generous, and thoughtful person, who will kick your ass on skis.

Dad would always cut to the chase, after all he was a hardware store guy, but had also been a mortician, and wasn’t keen on beating around the bush.  I remember one day our distant relative Lenora dropped dead, up on the north side of town.  And whoever it was who found her called my dad at the store, which was my town’s version of dialing 911.  People liked and respected my dad.  Fair to say he was the unofficial mayor of Ruthven.  And as I said, he always knew what to do, whether your furnace had gone out, your Maytag wasn’t being so dependable after all, or you just found a dead person on your porch.  “Better call Marv.”  

Anyway, back to Lenora…   Dad got the news and shortly after that picked up the phone to call Lenora’s brother to let him know.  “Hi Ron, it’s Marv Wigdahl.  Yeah, Ron, Lenora’s dead…      yeah, we just found her on the porch.   Yeah…   I’m sorry, Ron…        Yeah, why don’t you give me a call later.”  Dad was thoughtful and caring, while not really emotional or sentimental.  He was very strong and direct, and people appreciated that and leaned on it.

And just to continue the death and dying theme, there was the time when Dad was a funeral director and he and his partner Bud drove a long distance to make a “delivery.”  Dad drove over and Bud drove back, so on the return trip Dad rolled a sleeping bag out in the back of the hearse to take a nap.  Then at some point he woke up, realizing the hearse had come to a stop.  So he reached over and pulled back the curtain on the side of the hearse to see where they were.  And there was this guy, standing there pumping the gas.  Dad said later they almost had to make another delivery.     Classic.

(Viewer Alert…   you might want to skip this).  And years later when Dad died at the nursing home in Ruthven I stayed in his room when the guys from the funeral home arrived to pick him up.  They kindly asked me, “Jim, are you ok with being in here for this?”  And I said, “I am, thanks.  Dad would want me to be here.”  So they lifted him off the bed and slipped him into a body bag right there in front of me.  Zipped it up, and off he went.  

My siblings and I discuss the many ways our parents should have done things differently.  And maybe they should have.  I certainly should have.  But they also played the cards they were dealt, and did the best they could.  And so shall we.  The baton has been passed.  I go forward with the stoicism of my father and the tears of my mother.  And for these twin gifts I am eternally grateful.