Saturday, February 26, 2011

Catching the Wind

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after the wind. ~ the Preacher, Ecclesiastes 2:17.

Last Saturday was terribly windy. As I looked out the window of my house at the waving branches and tumbling tumbleweed, I remembered—as I have so often—an afternoon I spent as a child out in the wind. Now, you’re going to think this is silly, but I’m going to tell it anyway.

I was 8 years old. We lived in a housing development in a lower middle-class neighborhood. These were the years my parents were down on their luck. My Dad lived away that year, participating in a study at a national laboratory for which, I suppose, we were given a stipend. We were on welfare, too. I remember going with my mother to get food, waiting on line for hours.

Anyway, every house in this depressed area was the same split level model with asbestos siding, concrete driveway and an obligatory lone maple sapling in the center of the front yard.

As a child, I often played outdoors alone. I had three younger siblings and all the neighbors had children our ages, but I guess I sought the outdoors—and solitude—more than most. The only open space there was the empty corner lot next to our house, where I spent many happy hours rapt in a world my sister called Lala Land.

So one windy day I was strolling around the lot when I spotted a large, clear plastic bag fluttering in the wind, the upper part of it wound around the end of a long stick. I picked up the stick and, behold, the bag filled with wind. The force of it pulled me and, rather than resist, I let myself go.

As the wind had its way with the bag, I ran, leaped, twirled, danced … flew! I laughed out loud and shouted, caught up in joy, pure joy.

I’d caught the wind and the wind caught me. I must have spent several hours at this. I even named the bag-stick toy, Tippy.

It was one of the happiest days of my life.

So last Saturday, nearly a half-century after that happy day, I bundled up, grabbed a plastic grocery bag from the pantry and went outdoors to find a stick. I wound the bag’s two handles around the tip and lifted it to catch the wind. Instant joy!

I was out there only a few minutes when Scarlett and Sydney—my three- and four-year-old granddaughters—arrived. I jumped up and down and showed them my … Tippy. Of course, they each wanted one, so in short order I rigged up two more. As the wind filled the bags, their faces lit up with happiness!

We ran out to the back hill and skipped and swirled and smiled around that acre for a time apart from time. We laughed out loud and shouted, caught up in the joy.

The wind. Growing up on an island, I spent a lot of time on boats: cabin cruisers, ferries, rowboats, speedboats, clamming boats, canoes. I love sitting or standing alone in the bow, out front, the wind and salt water in my face.

However, I’ve never been on a sailboat. I can only imagine what it must be like to hoist the sails and see them, feel them, fill with wind. The power.

The above-quoted Preacher equates the inability to catch the wind with vanity.

“Vanity: excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.; character or quality of being vain; conceit.”
Our culture is based on vanity: the attainment of stuff, status and celebrity, to be seen by others as prosperous, pretty and pampered.

“[Egoism] is the most intangible and the most intolerable. … It is that condition in which the victim does a thousand varying things from one unvarying motive of a devouring vanity; and sulks or smiles, slanders or praises, conspires and intrigues or sits still and does nothing, all in one unsleeping vigilance over the social effect of one single person,” writes G.K. Chesteron.

It is a striving after the wind.

Wind is the first image the Bible gives us of God: Ruach Elohim (Wind God). “The earth was without form and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2).

RUACH ELOHIM, the breathing, blowing, surging phenomenon, is neither natural (wind) nor spiritual (spirit) but both in one; it is the creative breathing that brings both nature and the spirit into one being. … Here at the beginning of the Bible, RUACH ELOHIM stands as a great, unformulated, latent theological principle, expressed only by implication.—Martin Buber

So Preacher, Mr. All-Is-Vanity, what if … what if you actually catch the wind?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Getting Lost is the Fun of Travel

Time to renew the passport. Hard to believe it’s been 10 years since I first left the shores of America to travel over seas to foreign lands.

The passport application provides a box to note your travel plans. Where are you going?

Good question.

When I worked downtown I often saw tourists strolling the sidewalks. They proceeded slowly in a sort of meandering way, gazing up at street signs, scanning the storefronts, peering into windows. They seemed a bit lost.

The streets so familiar to me were to them quite strange. As Ray Bradbury says, “Half the fun of travel is the esthetic of lostness.”

Like motorcycling. My favorite way is just to turn onto any road that looks intriguing. Like that back road in West Virginia with the river on our right and sheer cliffs to our left. The smell of pine needles, the scent of water, the aroma of rhododendrons. The cool and warm spots in the air.

We stop at a rickety roadside store and sit on the porch drinking Pepsi and iced tea. This is Frost, we discover.

Frost. I pull out the map, unfold it and lay it on the gas tank. My finger follows the last road I know to where we turned off. Trace it through the mountain pass. Ah, there’s Frost. And there’s that sense of satisfaction of discovering where I am.

On my bicycle, as an adolescent on suburban Long Island, I often rode out of my neighborhood and away away. I loved getting lost, the adventure of it. One day I followed a creek through several housing developments—it was not easy to keep it in view, turning up and down streets to do so—to a small woods. I leaned my bicycle on a tree, walked along the grassy bank and sat down.

What a wonderful place. I had no idea where it was.

On my feet, the last time I was in Northern Ireland, I walked the towpath for several miles along the River Lagan. I’ve been to that area enough times to know my way around, yet experiencing it from the river transformed it into a new and strange to me place.

In a canoe on the Shenandoah River, I had this same experience just paddling from Elkton to Shenandoah. I lived in that area for 15 years, yet traveling on the river gave me a whole ‘nother view of fields and forest. I could not tell where I was or even when I was, a delightful feeling. River travel, of course, was the norm at one time, evidenced by the occasional old house that fronts the Shenandoah.

By train a familiar place feels strange, too. This summer, I took the Long Island Railroad from my hometown in Suffolk County into the city. When I was young this is how I always traveled to NYC, but I’d not done it for many years. Passenger railroads tend to run through the poorer sections of towns—having pre-dated much of the highway system—and so the tracks are a bit distant from the shopping malls, tall office buildings and better residential areas.

Lost has many definitions. I am referring to “unable to find the way,” yet it is not a permanent state. Apparently I was able in all these cases to find the way, else I’d not be here to write about it.

Lostness is a feeling. It can be panicky or it can be supremely peaceful, exhilarating.

Faith is like that. You set out, not sure of the path, yet knowing it will take you somewhere. In the meantime, the journey takes you through unfamiliar territory. You have the feeling of lostness: “For we walk by faith, not by sight …,” writes Paul in 1 Cor. 5:7.

My life feels like that right now. With the economic upheaval, it seems in a larger sense to be happening to many other people, too. Where are we going?

We’re in the same place, the USA, but we’ve gotten off the familiar highways. We’re seeing it all from a different view. It’s an adventure!

“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door,” said Bilbo Baggins. “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

Where am I going? I don’t know, but that road there with the trees leading into a cool forest? I think I’ll turn there and see where it takes me.

Friday, February 04, 2011

How to Help the Jobless? Do the Math

John (not his real name) worked in construction all his adult life, making plenty of money to support himself. But when the recession hit, like many others in his field, he was laid off. For months, he looked for work in construction. Nothing. So he took a job in the poultry industry.

“I’ve never done work like this,” he said. His paycheck is not enough to cover his living expenses.

Our church co-hosted the Harrisonburg and Rockingham Thermal Shelter (HARTS) the week our jobless benefits expired. Was that ever sobering. The stories of the people seeking shelter made me realize that homelessness can happen to any of us.

Some expressed shock that this was happening to them. Them.

We knew the unemployment checks would stop in the middle of January. The husband had been through Tiers I, II and III, and extended benefits. Still, it was jarring to get the Notice of Exhaustion: Your final benefit on your State Extended Benefits (EB) claim has been processed.

For 18 months, every Wednesday this money materialized in our checking account. The week after it expired, I looked online at our statement. The husband had filed anyway. After all, he was still unemployed. But there was no deposit. I checked again on Thursday. And Friday.

Dudes, I was in denial.

In the meantime, I’m doing math. Even though I’ve always excelled at English, history and philosophy, I can also actually do math. And let me tell you, this is no time for algebra, geometry or trigonometry. What we all need is simple addition and subtraction. If only our elected representatives and corporate billionaires would pay attention to simple adding and subtracting, like me.

(Note: If you read my column every week, you know in the fall I hired a cleaning woman. I did that in anticipation of a job that was to start within weeks. Because of the economy, the job itself ceased to exist and I subsequently let the cleaning woman go. Simple subtraction.)

The week our check stopped, I walked over to the bookstore during my lunch break to buy a book, “Five Acres and Independence,” for the husband. He spent most of his adult life working in manufacturing supervision. Now in his late 50s, he does not think he’ll work in that field again. After all, he’s been looking for nearly two years now.

Just last night he talked about how well the stock market is doing. The rich are getting richer and the manufacturing is all overseas.

However, the husband’s first love is the land. Since losing his job, he’s been happily planting and growing stuff, fixing and building things. Because of this, we have food in the freezer, in the cabinets, in the cold storage. In a day or two, we’ll order seeds for this spring’s planting. When he finishes building the greenhouse, that will assure fresh vegetables next winter.

He’s not a bit worried.

So when someone recommended this inexpensive, practical little book, I figured it was right up his alley.

While in the bookstore, I spotted the New Yorker calendar, on sale for half-price. This daily tear-off calendar is often pretty funny and I need to laugh, I thought, justifying the small expense. What sold me was the sample page on the back.

A man dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase opens the front door of his house and shouts to his wife, “Honey! We’re homeless!”

The 2011 daily planners were also half price. I picked up a tooled leather one, just my style. I turned it over. “Made in China.” I set it down and picked up one with a black-and-tan plaid cover for the same price. “Handcrafted in Maine.”

I thought about some of the towns I visited in Maine as a child. I envisioned a roomful of people in Maine cutting the fabric, inserting the pages, gluing these planners together.

I bought the planner with the belief that I was helping someone in Maine keep their job. It was an investment in an American company.

I may not have much to spend these days, but the money I do spend—as long as it’s in my power and even if it costs a few dollars more—will be an investment for America, for Virginia, for Harrisonburg.

Please multiply.