Question Sixteen

If you’re an agnostic is your agnosticism a place of movement or a destination?

In an increasingly fractured world do you occasionally need a safe space?  "No, Mr. Wigdahl, never..."  Bludgeoned by information, opinions, and website "comments" in our age, our collective cry of "enough!" seems reasonable to me.  Please, a quiet space where I can be alone with my comforts, thoughts, and convictions, however vetted they may be.  And yet for me that safe space soon becomes my preferred destination, and I add it to my GPS so it can easily be located.  Take me to it.  And to it I make haste.  Of course then I wonder if safety has betrayed me and maybe even turned on me.  Has my protected space acquired that hard shell that blunts the approach of perhaps both loving and pointed thoughts — considerations that may disturb my private world, even for my good?  And when is my undoing in fact a good?

It occurs to me that being an agnostic is perhaps like being registered as an independent voter.  Having a preference for and embracing life down the middle, as though that were actually possible.  Is it?  But if the pendulum is stopped in the middle does time stop?  Granted, life is messy and clarity seems rarely achieved, but when does the middle of the road become a commitment to non-commitment, if not to safety?  To become comfortable with not knowing.  And more fascinating still is what agnosticism reveals to us about our willingness to go forward into any new territory.  Yikes.

And so we come to the dangers of movement.  Grow or die, they say.  Explore or be left behind.  But what if there is actually a freedom of movement offered to us?  A full freedom, but it has to occur within a culture and a world view that believes movement will only constrict you further.  Is my world asking me to receive, even by faith, an understanding of itself that claims breadth, depth, and openness, but actually forces me into a tight and closely monitored corner of acceptable viewpoints where I am then expected to happily live out my days?  Is this regard is there in play a new spirit of conformity (Question Three)?

So, rather than agnosticism, why not a full, spoken commitment to atheism?  To be all-in.  Perhaps one would rather hedge bets and remain in a fluid center.  And yet, does the posturing center eventually reveal itself as a place of despair?  We know something is wrong, maybe even within us, but achieving escape velocity seems too much to ask, so we ratchet back, center up, and hope that in the end we won’t be disappointed that we didn’t ask more questions of the world and of ourselves.  And isn’t it interesting that in this zone it becomes critical that we surround ourselves with “like-minded” companions?  Those who “love” us enough to stabilize and nurture our center, our indecision, our unquestioned unknowing.  Ahh, friendship at its best.

What say we bust out a bit?  Let’s launch into a no-holds-barred life of graciously…   I repeat, graciously…  interrogating ourselves and the world views around us, entertaining both religious and irreligious impropriety in the process.  Gasp.  Sticking a boot in our spiritual complacencies.  Let’s go down swinging, carving out a memory of ourselves in the world that at least leaves fellow travelers with nothing more to say than, “Wow, what the hell was he thinking?”

So, with your next cup of coffee:  If your agnosticism is a destination, does that say more about you than it says about God?

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?