Joy of the Ordinary

 

The review of One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle was more of a notice than a review,  but it was enough for me. I immediately ordered it, and since I have read and re-read and pondered Doyle’s joy. Until this encounter I had never heard of Doyle, a prolific writer who shares the wonder and beauty in what he experiences. Doyle, who died of brain cancer way too soon, shares life’s joys found in a Memorial Day parade, a youth soccer game, birds, pants, Jones Beach, a song for nurses, his first kiss, a bullet, and more experiences that we all know and have experienced. That is the beauty of his book: He takes us inside ourselves through the common experiences we all share and peels back the worry and anxiety to show the joy.

One Long River of Song is a needed read today. Published one year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Doyle tells us how to manage this unknown time we face. In A Song for Nurses he writes: “And let us pray not only for the extraordinary smiling armies of nurses among us; let us pray to be like them, sinewy and tender, gracious and honest, avatars of love.” Are there any better words telling us how to be in May 2020? I don’t know any.

In the essay “Memorial Day” he remembers a Memorial Day parade from his youth and how his father, a veteran of WW II, always “declines politely every year when he is asked [to walk in the parade wearing his uniform]. Doyle goes on to write that his father says that “uniforms can easily confer false authority and encourage hollow bravado….” Like General Lee, Doyle’s father knew the horror of war and knew to put the uniform away after it had been worn “because the job had to be done.”

Any parent who has stood on the sidelines of a youth soccer game, watching the herd of five-year-old children move along like gazing gazelles with the slowly moving ball, will identify with The Praying Mantis Moment. Doyle shares how during a game in which his six-year-old twins were playing on a golden October afternoon, all the three-foot-tall players on the field formed a circle on the field. The ball rolled away, the teenage referee and some parents hurried to the circle for fear of an injury. But, the crowd of players began walking with a girl who, while holding a praying mantis in her hands escorted the insect to a safer place. Doyle writes of this October moment as one of the most genuine he had ever experienced in watching sports.

In Illuminos Doyle writes “It seems to me that angels and bodhisattvas are everywhere available for consultation if only we can them  clear; they are unadorned, and joyous, and patient, and radiant, and luminous, and not disguised or hidden or filtered in any way whatsoever, so that if you see them clearly, which happens occasionally even to the most blinkered and frightened of us, you realize immediately who they are, beings of great and humble illumination dressed in the skins of new and dewy beings, and you realize, with a catch in your throat, that they are your teachers and they are agents of an unimaginable love, and they are your cousins and companions in awe, …”

The long quotation above from Illuminos is not as much as I want to quote, but it is  important, especially in our climate today, to read Brian Doyle and live the joy he shares in so much of the ordinary we live each day. When we refuse to look and hear the glory of God’s world, we become one of the “blinkered and frightened” that Doyle writes about. Read the words of one man, who knew sorrow personally, but chose not to be blinkered or frightened by what he had to cross. Read this book and “be blessed beyond the reach of language.”

Student Athletes

 

Sport fans who value honesty view the phrase “student athlete” with, at best, humor. Perhaps scorn is a better adjective because a fan who follows college, and even some high school sports, knows that the influence of money, not scholarship or enjoyment, rule. Two recent news articles support my opinion.

According to the Associated Press, the Power Five conferences spent a combined $350,000 to lobby Congress during the first three months of 2020. The biggest spender, the SEC, spent $140,000 with three lobbying firms. Every Power Five school hired the same two firms that state as their objective a “national solution to preserve the unique model of American college athletics” while allowing players to earn money through their names, images, and such [NIL]. According to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, It’s “important for the  SEC to have a voice in this national dialogue” concerning compensation for its student athletes. If the reader worries, ACC Commissioner John Swofford offered this rationale for the combined effort: “In this particular case, the [Power Five] conferences are working together on this so that there’s less confusion, not more, in terms of the messaging to congressional leaders that helps explain NIL and what the concerns are, and how it might work.” One of the core principles of the Power Five for athlete compensation include a requirement for “one term of academic progress” before he or she can sign any endorsement deal and “a ban on athlete deals with ‘advertising categories inconsistent with higher education.’” These words support the colleges “investment”, not the student-athletes interest. Just one “core” of the Power Five demonstrates the shame of this entire mess: “one term of academic progress” is as hollow as a rotten log.

Zion Williamson entered Duke in the fall of 2019. He was named the student athlete for the year by the ACC Conference and was the number one pick in the 2020 NBA draft and now plays for New Orleans. He is now again in the news because he signed a contract in April 2019 with a sports agent, but his attorney has asked a federal judge to void that contract. At the center of this muddle sits about $100 million.

Now, forget all the accusations from both sides concerning trips, gifts to parents and coaches, and all the other important  details. Instead, ponder this possibility: A 19-year-old goes to college to play basketball for a year, tuning up for the NBA; For the first semester at his or her college he or she attends enough classes to garner enough academic credits (9-12?) to be eligible for the second semester; He or she plays well on a nationally recognized team and in the spring of the second semester is offered a contract by an agent. Another example of a young person being used by a system way over his or her head, and the head of his or her parents. Yes, big money is involved, but look at the price paid.

Just the fact that the Power Five conferences now lobby Congress shows the hypocrisy of the phrase “student athlete.” Let’s cut to the cold, hard truth: Some college sport programs are now big business and its employees must be fairly compensated. Perhaps the Power Five will leave the NCAA and form a corporation where they will be free to make all the money they can while getting out of the “student” part of secondary education.

Ownership

 

Several years ago when I worked in Oxford during a July program for high school students, one of my co-workers was a first generation Greek who lived in Manhattan. The program took students to many museums and exhibits. One favorite was the British Museum, and one particular July it had an exhibit of Greek gems. Aphrodite, my co-worker, convinced me to go with her to see the exhibit of gems, as she said, “From my homeland.” While we marveled at the vastness and beauty of the collection, a young couple were next to us. The young woman said something to her companion in a non-English language, and Aphrodite quickly looked toward her—their eyes met, and the young woman hurriedly walked away with her friend. On the ride back to Oxford I asked Aphrodite if she had understood what the young woman had said and she told me how the other woman said to her companion in Greek, “Just think! All of this used to belong to us.” She obviously had been surprised that someone besides her companion understood her words and their criticism.

I recalled this experience recently when I read two magazine articles centered around Dirk Obbink and his work for the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) collection in the Sackler Library at Oxford. Obbink, a highly regarded scholar, helped oversee the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection,  named after the Egyptian city which trash heaps held the throve of ancient literature  excavated by Bernard Pune Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Eventually over 500,000 fragments of literary, biblical, and documentary texts would find its way to Oxford from Egypt.

Obbink sold some of the papyri to Steven Green, the wealthy American zealot behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Obbink may have taken up to 120 pieces of papyrus from the collection, including one fragment from the Gospel of Mark dating to the first century, which he sold to Green for his museum. He also sold other fragments to the Museum of the Bible and may have pocketed up to 1.5 million. Now Green is forced to return the stolen fragments and several others to the EES.

All of this is good, but not just. This thievery is why Aphrodite’s explanation of the young woman’s comment matters so much. All the Greek gems we saw on display that day in the British Museum had been taken—stolen—“From my homeland” as she said. While Grenfell and Hunt did a valuable service to the world’s scholarship of  ancient literature by saving the fragments from obvious harm, the fragments were found on Egyptian soil, thus they belong to Egypt. Perhaps more of us are like Steve Green– parties in the buying of stolen property for our own desires than we admit.

 

Tradition

 

 

Recently a nationally published columnist wrote a thoughtful article concerning commencements, the COVID-19 virus, and the importance of tradition. The article reminded readers of the importance of traditions, such as commencements, because they connect the past, present, and future. While all that was written  is correct, tradition, like many things of life,  carries its own danger.

Having spent forty years working in independent and Catholic schools, I have a thorough understanding of tradition. I appreciate, as the columnist wrote, how it connects generations. However, I also have experienced the downward side of tradition.

During the mid-1990’s I became an administrator in a suburban New Orleans independent school. A new chaplain had also been appointed at the same time, and over the two years he and  I shared in the school, his first lesson for me is the one I  most remember: “Is it tradition or unexamined habit?”

Whenever I would suggest a new way of doing or change a way of doing something at the school, a teacher would say, “But it’s the way we’ve always done it,” or a student would say, “But it’s our tradition, Mr. Barbee.” As soon as possible after being given this excuse, John the chaplain would say to me, “Tradition or unexamined habit?” The school had some great traditions, but some were awful, especially the supposed ones concerning “rite of passage.” If those were not out and out dangerous, they were sexist, racist, or just hurtful.

Another school in Washington, DC carried the tradition of white dresses, long-stemmed roses, and more for its awards ceremony the day before commencement. Fine. But one part of that day seemed so silly to me. The tradition of white dresses began with the first graduation when about twenty-five students were honored, and a class photograph was taken with all the graduates standing on the south steps leading into the, at that time, only school building. When I arrived as an administrator about one hundred years after the school was founded,  it had grown and the graduating classes numbered about eighty. Imagine trying to squeeze that many white dresses into the same space that so easily had framed twenty-five. My suggestion of finding a new site for the photograph was viewed as blasphemy, and I was no better off when for the  following year’s photograph, I had the two huge bushes flanking the steps severely trimmed back.

One summer while at Oxford University, the  program I worked for needed a large room for a meeting. I asked for and was granted permission to use the SCR (Senior Common Room).  To facilitate the meeting’s needs, I slid a  large, oak table about six inches closer to a wall. After the meeting, I replaced the table in its original position. The next day when I thanked the Head Porter for the use of the room, I told him about moving the  table. He, by good friend Brian, rose out of his chair and said, “But, Roger, that table not’s ever been moved.” I could only answer, “Well, it has been now, Brian.”

Please do not misunderstand me. I value tradition and have been responsible for two traditions in a school in which I worked. Both involve the same school: One is the awards ceremony for the middle school and the citizenship award being named after a dear teacher and administrator; The other is for the upper school that a fellow administrator and I began almost by accident. It seems that we needed a way to bond the boys and girls of our newly merged school, so retreats seemed a sensible way to do bring the high schoolers together. I am pleased that both traditions continue.

But none of that justifies a habit of repeating something just because. Because is a dangerous conjunction when it is used to explain a lazy, poorly thought out manner of doing. It is  unjust when used as an excuse for repeating what was done to us as a rite of passage. Most of all, it is  dangerous when used to excuse our same old way of doing anything.

A connection with those who came before us and after us will be accomplished by traditions. However, when we become hidebound we will soon sink into unexamined habit. And a habit likely will corrupt our actions because instead of appreciating and enjoying  what we are doing, we are like the lemming that just follows.

 

The Eye of the Storm

 

All around me the COVID-19 storm swirls, and disagreement concerning it seems to grow more each day. The ordeal tries us. But during this morning’s ride, I found myself in what appeared to be the eye of this raging storm.

A heavy, dark cloud cover floated in over my right shoulder from the west. It calmed the morning breeze and everything else. But for the birdsong: The brown thrasher talked from the holly hedgerow to anyone who was interested; A bluebird chattered as it flew to rest on the roof of an abandoned titmouse nesting box; One robin called to anyone listening while gathering morsels from the drainage ditch out front; And a water scattering of splashing from the birdbath told of a cleaner cardinal; A clamoring from above the tall pine trees revealed a chasing away of an intruder by the vigilant crows.

The sweet aroma from the privet across the road covered the scene like a mother’s blanket  spread over her child. Its sweetness floated to the pine tops, lay across the ground, and wafted through the air giving me cause to inhale deeply its strong, yet relaxing scent.

Riding into this calm of the storm, I hand-cranked vigorously and maintained, at least on my odometer, 16 miles per hour. Listening and seeing and smelling it all, I rode into the power of this moment, applauding its grace.

Thirty minutes later, the ride finished, I knew something special had occurred. Yes, I ride my stationary handcycle here next to my shop each morning. I see the coming of day, greet walking neighbors, compliment their dogs and children, and manage to break a bit of a sweat while exercising arms and lungs. But this morning’s ride was more than mere exercising on a stationary handcycle. A gifted grace of peace had happened there beneath the thirty-nine mature pines. A calm after the first onslaught from the COVID-19 and a calm before its next; a moment of nature’s balm; a gift from God far from the turmoil raging outside.

Church

 

The May 10, 2020 Charlotte Observer printed a story about churches in Gaston County, NC being eager to re-open for worship. In fact, many churches across America share the same desire. The article quotes Rev. Austin Rammell of Venture Church in Dallas, NC: “The worship of Jesus  is a community event, and when that’s restricted it creates a burden on their [worshipers] very spirituality. The very word ‘church’ means ‘a gathering.’

Citizens protest the restrictions being placed on our population by governments, and some state governors have acquiesced to the protestors and begun opening businesses. Some governors, like NC Governor Cooper are following a detailed re-opening based on data from health officials. Folks in Gaston County find his approach too slow and are expressing angst at his plan. We can debate the merits of being closed or re-opened or whatever but will only know if a particular state’s plan is sound or not by the rise or fall of the COVID-19 virus. However, what I disagree with in the article are the words of Rev. Austin Rammell.

I offer him that no Christ follower needs a building to worship Jesus. In fact, we are told by Jesus that prayer offers meaningful worship. I also argue against Rev. Rammel who thinks that any government can restrict any worship of Jesus. That’s impossible, and certainly no government is powerful enough to create a burden on the spirituality of any Christ follower. Only in succumbing to Satan, can a burden be created on spirituality. Lastly, Rev. Rammell is wrong when he says that the word church means a gathering. Church is a building, a place. It is not needed in order to worship. Worship of Jesus can take place anywhere and anytime. The word also is used in designating a body of believers, but the body is not required for individual worship of Jesus.

As a Christ follower, Sunday School teacher, and deacon in my church, I long to gather once again with fellow believers for many reasons. However, I support and will follow Governor Cooper’s guidelines because I believe it important to do so as a citizen. This plague causes many hardships. I suspect that Rev. Rammell, who has had a church member die from the virus, knows too well its danger. So I ask him and all others who feel the inconveniences we face to think of their own well-being and the well-being of others. After all, Christianity began in the homes of believers. Small groups. Remember that He is with us even if only two or three.

 

 

The Unknown Number

 

One day recently a number with a 202 area code appeared on my cell phone screen. Since I had taught in several schools in the Washington, DC area, I felt comfortable in answering the call from the DC area code.

The caller was a past student of mine, and we spent twenty-eight, delightful minutes “catching up.” We discussed her work at NIH under, her mother, her school classmates that we know, her family in New Orleans, and much more. During the chat, I asked her how old she now was, and when I guessed that she and her classmates would be about twenty-five or so, she laughed and responded, “I wish! I’ll soon be thirty-one.” She then went on and said, “Barbs, [my nickname with them]] “it [life] goes so fast.” She then added, “And its [life]so hard.”

Her pronouncements about life engendered a discussion concerning her present situation and what she desired. She assured me that she was pleased with where she was, and I felt happy that she realized these two truths about life, but sad that she, a graduate of a prestigious prep school and university was just now learning these lessons. We continued to share how well her high school had prepared her for the coming academics of university, but had ignored some of the ways she and all the other girls of her school could have be better tempered for life outside  the “golden ghetto” of her high school.

This past student is, by all measures of society, a success–sound education, good employment, and financial security. And all of this during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she is now learning what I think are some of life’s most valuable lessons and ones that perhaps her school could have helped her with before entering university.

As we talked, I recalled how teachers would always praise the students in our school. Expressions like, “She is so talented.” “She’s got it all.” “A superb student.” “One of the best.” were uttered in faculty meetings, at teacher lunch tables, and at other times and places. Those words expressed an almost worshipful attitude of students and their various skills in academics, arts, and athletics. That deep-felt awe of how well  students did in the bubble of our elite preparatory school life presented itself later as a large hurdle for some of our students.

In 2001 Wendy Mogel wrote a book titled, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee. As can be surmised from the title, the book is a guide for any adult who cares about children and how they are reared. Following the publication of her book, Dr. Mogel became a much sought-after speaker to groups, especially those in schools.  However, it seems to me that her message, while applauded for a while, has been forgotten. It now needs to have a Lazarus-like revival.

Parents are, I know, the primary teachers of their children, or they should be. But our culture has parents who, while present, are not teaching their children lessons needed for ethical lives. In Flint, Michigan, a mother, her husband, and son confronted a store guard because he had earlier “disrespected” the mother. Her twenty-three-year-old son shot the guard in the back of the head, killing the father of eight children. A lesson taught well, if the son is graded by his action of not allowing anyone to “disrespect” his mother.  My past student was admitting difficulty with the “hard” parts of life, the parts like sharing an apartment, managing finances, being joyful, seeing the possibilities of life, all of that. While her mother taught her as did her school, she now needed the skills to manage equations much more difficult than those of calculus.

Every railroad track needs to be graded. It needs curves and grades to be softened as much as possible. Tunnels need to be created through tall mountains. Bridges built over long expanses. Parents and schools need to be like those builders of a railroad track, but we should not remove all obstacles nor make grades too level. A bit of difficulty is good for our children. My high school mentor and wrestling coach Bob Mauldin shared at a gathering how he had flunked 7th grade. He used that word-flunked– to share with the group attending his being awarded North Carolina’s highest civilian award. It seems he had not given an oral book report, so he flunked. Such consequences are not allowed in today’s educational system.

My past student is still learning and that gives me joy. I know that she will be, in the larger scheme, fine. And I am glad that she has learned those two lessons. I just wish we all had helped her to be better prepared. We made too much of her and her classmates. That fact came forward later in her life when she encountered those situations where her intelligence or skills or looks or whatever were no better than everyone else’s. She soon realized that she was, like us all, one of many.

The COVID-19 virus gives every parent an opportunity to teach children that life is not fair, it is not even just. Life is hard at times. Life goes quickly, no matter how it seems while living with the virus. Those, and more are good lessons to teach. But so are the lessons of joy, fun, integrity, respect, and more. After all, the pain of a skinned knee will fade into the lesson learned. That’s a well-lived life.