The introspective humdrum life of an eccentric hexagenarian.

Visit my other blogs: "Elderberry Bike Rides of Delaware
," organized bicycle rides for families, senior citizens, and anyone interested in getting back into biking; and "Cloister Voices," the collected thoughts of modern and ancient hermits, eccentrics, solitaires, wanderers, mystics, and others who inhabit the monastery within.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Photographing Angels – Part II

Once the brisk dawn air, still damp from a sudden shower, touched Geneva's face, all tiredness evaporated and she reached for her Nikon Coolpix digital camera in her messenger bag and set out for the Reading Terminal Market where she was assured of finding tasty food, a diversity of people and objects to photograph, and more importantly, the favorite diversion spot she looked forward to each time she returned to Philadelphia, the placed that served as an anchor, as "home".

Reading Terminal was not officially open for business yet, but regulars knew the Arch street door was unlocked for deliveries and several of the food vendors would already have fresh coffee and tea and pastries on display. She sat down at a Formica-topped table at Nunzio's Nook, a 1950's retro diner that anchored the enclosed farmer's market western wall. It was the best place on the planet for fresh "never frozen" juicy hamburgers and thick, intensely chocolate milkshakes.

Rows and rows of family-run stalls stretched before her with farm produce, bakery goods, flowers, arts and crafts, specialty food vendors, Pennsylvania Dutch meats and poultry, and dairy and cheese markets that took up an entire city block. Chefs from the finest local restaurants were already scouring today's offering for the freshest meats and produce before the doors officially opened to the general public.

She settled down for a relaxing cup of chamomile tea and allowed her mind to wander, a delicious freedom she rarely had time to enjoy. Resting her chin in the cup of her palm, she closed her eyes and felt the bone-weary tiredness overtake her again. She felt herself falling without the energy to stop the descent and then was startled awake when a crate of oranges fell to the floor sending a gunshot sound through the aisles of stalls now bustling with customers.


Geneva stretched and raised her camera and focused the lens on a five star local celebrity chef from Le Beq Fin carefully smelling tomatoes and juggling lemons in the air. She panned the camera lens to follow the arc of the lemons and found herself staring into the lens of another camera apparently focusing on her. She lowered her camera and looked at the teenage boy in a wheelchair. He panned his camera left and right, stopped to smack the top of the camera with his right hand and then panned the camera again. Finally he dropped the camera in his lap and lowered his head. The man and woman on either side of the boy's wheelchair leaned into him. The woman stroked his hair while the man picked up the camera and fidgeted with the buttons. He noticed Geneva watching him, noticed her camera and immediately crossed the twenty steps separating them. The woman, pushing the wheelchair followed him.

"Excuse me, Ma'am. Darin plans to be a famous photographer someday but right now we are having trouble with his new digital camera. Do you know anything about digital cameras?"

"A little," she said, studying the vacant stare in the boy's eyes. "Good, we are in luck. He's using the same model camera as mine."

The boy looked up and stated, "Nikon Rocks!"

Geneva laughed and leaned into the man so that only he could hear her words. "Is your son blind?"

"Yes, as of six months ago." He looked into Geneva's eyes as so many other parents had when seeking understanding more than her help. "It must seem ridiculous to you…. A blind boy with a camera."

"Unusual, yes," Geneva replied.

We gave him a camera for his sixteenth birthday six months ago. He was fooling around with his friends and trying to take pictures of his friends doing motor-bike jumps over a stack of logs. Billy, his best friend, miscalculated his jump and plowed right into Darin. He fell back into the logs…."

"I'm sorry," Geneva said.

"It really threw Darin for a loop. He isn't snapping out of his depression and just seems shut down. I found this new camera with automatic focusing and metering. So he could still take pictures even though he couldn't see. It's the first thing to interest him since the accident. Now he seems obsessed with trying to capture a photograph of these strange lights that he sees.

"He was so active before," the boy's mother added.. Now all he can see is dim light and blurred shapes."

"And flashes of color now and then," the father added. "Though we don't know if he is really seeing color or just remembering it."

"Maybe the color is an artifact of brain function, not something actually visually perceived," Geneva said. "Neurochemical color."

The boys' parents stared at her. She could see their ease with her slipping away on the heels of her technical words.

"But then what do I know?" she said. "I read a lot and sometimes think I know more than other people. It's a bad habit." She studied the camera. "But I have good news about the camera. There's nothing wrong with it that a new lithium battery won't fix." She reached into her messenger bag and extracted a spare camera battery and installed into the boy's camera. "There, she said. It will work now." She scrolled though the digital photographs stored on the camera's memory card.

Geneva expected to see blurred images without form or artistic composition but was surprised to find subjects caught in sharp focus yet skewed in a fascinating manner from a different perspective that gave them new meaning. "Darin, these are very interesting," she said as she stepped over to the wheelchair and kneeled down beside him.

The boy smiled and raised his head. "You like them? Really?"

"Oh yes." She continued to scroll to the end of the images. "I especially like the ones of the beagle. Is that your dog?"

"Those I just took for fun. Did you see the one of him wearing the antlers at Christmas? Did I really get the antlers in the picture too? Mom and Dad says all my pictures are good but you know how parents are."

"Indeed I can see the antlers," Geneva said. "There almost as big as the dog."

She scanned through the photos for a second time and caught her breath at a picture of an older woman eating grapes from a nearby fruit stand. The photograph was of herself. But that was impossible! She had not yet ventured on her tour of the stalls that would take up the remainder of the morning and end with several bags of fruit, vegetables and cheeses to take home to her apartment.

"You even caught a photo of me," she said dismissing thoughts of the improbability, impossibility of the photo. She must have simply forgotten stopping by the fruit stall on the way into Reading Terminal. "I look older than I realized," she said. "And far pudgier than I want." The boy laughed.

"You do seem to be having some trouble with your ISO setting in some of the photographs. Some of them are a little blurred with flashes of light. Almost like a double exposure. I can reset the ISO value to a lower number. That might take care of it."

He smiled and took the camera from her, fingered it until he found what he was looking for and then pushed the shutter release button. This time it snapped as it should. "Blurring?" he said as his eyebrows arched in thought. "Oh, you mean the angels?"

"Angels?" Geneva asked with her eyebrows arched to match his.

"At first, I thought it was just strange lights that I was seeing. Especially right after the accident. But then I figured it out. It's angels. They are like hummingbirds. Hard to photograph no matter what film speed you use."


Long after the boy and his parents left, Geneva pondered the thought of photographing angels. It was remarkable how people coped with crushing adversity. Who was she to try and dissuade a young boy from his thoughts and images of angels. To a cold impartial scientific mind, his "angels" were nothing more than symptoms of detached retinas. But as she finally opened and read the results of her MRI scan and other test results sent by her doctor, Geneva wondered if their couldn't be room for other ways of diagnosing reality.

"Bad news?" a voice said from behind her.

She turned to face a tall, lanky middle-aged man dressed in jeans, black turtleneck sweater and wearing sandals. Benjamin Bernard, a friendly, capable man who filled in for Penn's chaplain when the chaplain was away on vacation or attending meetings. She'd only met him a dozen times or so at the hospital but each time had been thoroughly positive with the way he ministered to families in time of crisis.

"Bernard," she said. "How nice to see you again."

"Likewise," he replied and motioned again to the file she was reading. "Bad news about a friend…someone you care about? It must be, from the expression on your face."

Geneva nodded. "Confirmed Alzheimer's," she said. "Progressing at an accelerated rate. Memory loss, intermittent amnesia. Neurological manifestations. All leading to total disability in the near future."

"There aren't any treatment options?" Bernard asked.

"Oh sure," she said. "Some aspects of the disease can be mediated but the progressive cognitive loss can't be stopped." She closed the folder. "In six months this person will not remember their name on infrequent bad days. And on good days, they won't be able to work or balance a check book, or follow the plot of a movie. And worst of all, they will know that things are only going to get worse."

"I'm sorry," Bernard said. Dementia is the hardest thing to counsel a family about."

"There is no family in this case," Geneva said.

Bernard shook his head.

"But please, Bernard, let's think of happier things. Tell me of your newest plot to convert the citizens of Philadelphia."

Bernard winced. "When I turned forty, I realized how smug I used to be, how I force fed the Gospel to anyone I could button-hole. Though I thought otherwise at the time, there wasn't much difference between me and the dogmatic teachers of the tradition that I abandoned. I just packaged the message differently, adorned it with New Age garlands, though at the heart of it, it was still involved in forcing others to agree with me."

"Bernard, I'm sorry. I wasn't implying that you aren't genuine, In fact, you are one of the most genuine people I know."

"Thanks," Bernard said. "I didn't take offense."

"So tell me what's happening at the mission you opened last year. It's just down Arch Street, isn't it? The storefront next to the Chinese take-out restaurant?"

"Yes, I'm still there. I thought it was going to be a matter of ministering mostly to the homeless. A soup kitchen, AA meetings, a stopping place for the mobile health clinic, that kind of thing. But it's turned into something quite different."


"Yes, I seem to be dealing more with those who are just a paycheck or two away from homelessness. Those who are just barely holding on. Where even the slightest adversity will push them over the edge. A lot of seniors. A lot of single mothers. And quite a few from nearby businesses who stop by on their way home from work."

"What is it that you actually do there? Hold church services and bible study?"

"Well, there is a chapel and I do have a regular service twice a week, but mostly I just prop the door open in the morning and see what happens."


Well what?"

"What happens?"

"Okay, take yesterday for instance. Juanita Garcia stopped by on her way to work with her three-month old baby. She chatted for a moment, changed the baby's diaper and left."

"And?" Geneva prompted.

"She works across the street as a seamstress for the laundry and drops her baby at the subsidized Episcopal Church daycare down the street. At noon, she stopped by with her baby again for her thirty-minute lunch break, fed and changed the baby's diaper and returned the baby to the daycare center and then went back to work." Bernard paused again, obviously enjoying Geneva's frustration at him for not getting to the point.

Geneva drummed her fingers on the table.

"And then, since Juanita works twelve hour days at the laundry, her husband Jose, who can only find day work now and then, picks up the baby from daycare and then he stops by to give the baby its bottle and change the diaper again. He talks about his family back in Mexico, how he misses them. And then he takes the baby home,"

"And the point to this story is what?" Geneva asked.

"It took me a couple of weeks to figure it out. I keep disposable diapers in the bathroom for emergencies when parents forget to bring them. Do you know how much disposable diapers cost?"

Geneva shook her head.

"Well it's more than Juanita and Jose have to spend. How are they supposed to make the choice between buying baby formula or disposable diapers? The choice between buying a bag of rice for their dinner or buying disposable diapers." He shook his head. "I never realized the choices some people are forced to make, day in, day out, the kind of choices that wear down your humanity and self-respect, inch by inch. So now I stock disposable diapers in every size in the bathroom. I keep formula powder in the kitchen along with bags of nuts and fresh fruit and nutritional snacks. And then people don't have to make those choices. At least for today. And sometimes they sit down and talk about their day, about their lives while eating a handful of nuts or munching on an apple and they don't feel ashamed or worn down anymore. It's about offering only what is needed, not as a handout but just as something a friend might have on hand when you drop by for a visit. That and nothing more.

"A mission in the wilderness, indeed," Geneva said.

Bernard pulled a folded flyer from his pocket. "And on the lighter side, we have this for another population, the employees of nearby businesses who have plenty of disposable income but who seem to be empty otherwise. And searching. I started a series of workshops on subjects of general interest. The Arts Council thankfully has picked up the tab for supplies." He unfolded the flyer and slid it across the table to Geneva. "We've done Zen meditation, watercolor classes, even had a local astrologer come in and give readings. It has drawn together such an interesting community of neighborhood residents, day workers, and now there is always one or two of them hanging out to chat together at any time of the day or night."

Geneva unfolded the fluorescent fuchsia flyer and smiled at the contents.

"Remote Viewing for Dummies" Workshop

October 8, 2008

Sponsored by

The Philadelphia Arts

Council Neighborhood

Enrichment Series

Location: Wilderness Within Mission

Arch Street & Linden Avenue

Tuition fee: Free to neighborhood residents

All others - $5

Instructor: Brother Benjamin Bernard;

Founder, Wilderness Within Mission

The textbook, "Remote Viewing for Dummies," and the blank journal provided by the Philadelphia Arts Council are an invitation to suspend your disbelief, uncover your hidden creativity, share an evening with friends, and exercise your sense of adventure as well as your sense of humor.

The instructions are simple. After our centering and relaxation exercises we will concentrate on a specific geographic location identified only by its' GPS location. As a group, in stillness and quietude, we will hold this location in our imagination. In your journal, make notes of any images, feelings, or thoughts that come to mind. There are no right or wrong answers or time limits. Over the next few days or weeks, you may want to add additional notes or images for a particular location. During the next twelve weeks of this series, we will visit some of these locations in person or through photographs and compare what is there with what we recorded in our journals.

"What fun!" Geneva said. "Even if Remote Viewing is a crock. Say, you didn't happen to have a workshop on photographing angels, did you?"


"Just a joke," Geneva said. She raised her camera and focused on Bernard's amber-green eyes. She wondered if she could capture the required number of pixels to convey his compassion and the willingness of his open heart to make room for everyone. "Clearly an angel unaware," she said as she snapped the photo.

"Say, you wouldn't be interested in leading a photography workshop at the mission, would you?" He immediately shook his head. "But I suppose you are too busy…."

"No," Geneva replied. "I didn't realize it at the time. But something has come up." She slid the letter from her doctor across the table to Bernard. "I wandered away from myself today. Right here in Reading Terminal. And I didn't even realize it until a blind boy saw me and pointed it out."

As serene as Bernard projected himself in other troubling circumstances, this time he could not cover his confusion and anxiety. "Dear God in Heaven," he said looking down at the letter. "You are the Alzheimer's patient."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Afternoon

I couldn't help but notice the footsteps in the snow winding around the tree. Two sets of them. I am always curious about footsteps left behind and wonder who made them and what they were thinking about as they passed by.

These footsteps are ephemeral and will be gone within a day or even a few hours if more surprise snow arrives unlike the splayed footprints of a prehistoric bird I found imprinted inside a broken rock when I was ten.

The first mark we leave on the world is a set of inked footprints when we are only minutes old. Before we bear the weight of gravity on our first step to begin our lifetime path, we have a record imprinted on paper of our entry into the world. Will we lead or follow? Will our steps advance or retreat? Will others even notice our passing?

But these prints in the snow were not made by a bird or a baby. They are clearly the leavings of a bipedal being with enough excess weight on them to sink deep into the snow. They were not made in haste but by someone thoughtfully walking a slow pace and stopping frequently to what? Think? Listen to the wind? Share a word with their companion leaving similar steps beside them? Stop for a frosty kiss as they ponder the sunset, hand in hand?

It was then that I noticed them in the distance in the space between the two trees and now turning a pale rosy color from the last rays of the sun slipping behind Chatham hill.

Snowmen! Or was it a snow couple? Yes, I think that was the case although it's hard to determine the gender of snow people from such a distance.

For a wonderful split second, reality was suspended and I was certain they were the ones who left the footprints behind for me to discover and to share the secret that all things are sentient and willing to meet us halfway to share their journey.

Friday, December 28, 2007

PaRDeS, The Mystical Garden

"The purpose of mankind
is to increase and maximize
his potential for transcendence."
Shael Siegel

I'm captivated by a few subjects where their intensity rises and falls to meet the vagaries of my life. Puppies, anything poignant from a perfect bowl of crab soup to that iridescent Naples yellow color of a harvest moon, researching early American immigrants to Pennsylvania and Delaware, photography, writing, and the esoteric PaRDeS.

The story goes: "Four entered the Orchard (Pardes): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Aqiva. One peeked and died; one peeked and was smitten; one peeked and cut down the shoots; one ascended safely and descended safely."

It's a deceivingly simple story that begs the exploration of the meaning of transcendence. Next stop, Mishnah references that fuzzed over my brain only to be refreshed by hints in the Zohar of secret knowledge that could light a dark room. The scholarly pursuits ran out of steam after filing hundreds of reference and discovering I was no closer to understanding either Pardes or transcendence.

Sidney Jourard, my Humanistic Psychology professor at the University of Florida in the early 1970's claimed that "Disclosure begets disclosure." It may be one of the most useful things I learned in college.

I see the power of the phrase exemplified in the lives of the four rabbis of the Pardes story. They told simple stories that revealed their complex depth. And in turn the revelation of their complex depth revealed the fact that all of us have stories to tell that reveal our complex depth.

The stories we tell each other are the steppingstones of our journey home to the Garden.


Photographing Angels – Part I

The old man stood under the shelter of his stadium-sized rainbow umbrella and counted and recounted the children under his charge. "Five...six..... Elliott? Baruch HaShem! There you are, Elliott! Seven!" Two groups of other children were sheltered under the umbrellas of mothers as impatient as the children for the daycare bus to arrive. His fur-trimmed hat was unseasonable and out of place in the suburbs of Philadelphia on a early Autumn morning misted with a gentle rain. The Hassidic Jew bowed as a third mother arrived with twin girls dressed in pink with their almond eyes and olive skin set off by their silky ebony hair. There was nothing as fresh and innocent as toddlers in his eyes. His own children had once been that innocent, unselfconscious and unconcerned with a world spiraling out of control.

"Samuel, what would we do without you," Mrs. Fioravanti asked. "Keeping them occupied until the bus arrives is like herding cats! They love to see you arrive every morning from your walk and they especially love your stories!"

Samuel shrugged. "The feeling is mutual."

"Well, I think it's a crying shame," Mrs. Robbins interjected. "Our children aren't even safe at a school bus stop. What is the world coming to that we have to come out in force just to keep them safe.... And I wanna know, safe from whom? Pedophiles? Terrorists? We don't even know anymore. Maybe that crazy doomsday cult, CROMAAT, is right. It's all going to collapse. The world. Everything." She smiled weakly in apology for her outburst that startled the children into silence.

Samuel nodded. He had once stood in a gentle mist with his own children waiting to be taken away. He had only a few minutes to tell them everything a father, an observant Jew, is supposed to pass onto his children. He had been negligent in their infancy and spent more time simply loving them rather than preparing them for their role as Chosen ones. And in those last moments before they were wrenched from his arms, he knew that simply loving them was not enough.

He pushed the thoughts from his mind as Elliott pulled on his black topcoat and peeked out from under the rainbow umbrella that left reflections of blue and orange and purple across his face.

"Samuel, where does rain come from?"

"From the Master of the Universe," Samuel replied. He took the apple from Elliott's tiny hand. "For your teacher?" Samuel asked.

Elliott nodded. "Miss Reynolds."

"Is she a good teacher?"

Elliott nodded again. Vigorously. His cheeks were flushed with the surprised and potent love that a first teacher inspires.

"She will be pleased," Samuel said as he passed the apple back to Elliott. "My first teacher, Rebbe Goldman, was particularly fond of apples but what he loved best was sitting in his orchard and telling stories."

Several small heads turned to Samuel at the mention of the word, "story." Samuel leaned forward and scanned the street for the bus that was now ten minutes late. "In fact, my favorite story of his was about an orchard called PaRDeS and four very wise teachers."

Like a magnet drawing wisps of iron to itself, the three other umbrellas gravitated closer to the rainbow umbrella that was now beginning to gently twirl.

"A very very long time ago, four wise teachers, Ben Azzai, Ben Joma, Akher, and Rabbi Akiva, decided they must know everything there was to know about everything. They decided to go on a long and dangerous journey. They were frightened of course, but knew it would be worth it to bring back every answer to every question. And off they went on their adventure to see what lies on the other side of the rainbow. One peeked and was smitten, one peeked and died, one peeked and cut down the shoots, and one ascended safely and returned.....


Geneva woke every weekday morning to the laughter of children; children not of her own making but other women's toddlers waiting impatiently in front of her condo apartment complex for the daycare bus to spirit them away to finger-painting, naps, and a visit to the local apple orchard or the zoo. She pulled back the curtain of her bedroom window to see a collection of brightly-colored umbrellas gathered together like a flush of sudden psychedelic toadstools rising from the softened ground to meet the morning rain.

As the chartreuse school bus arrived, umbrellas were snapped shut and she smiled at the sight of her dear friend, Samuel, standing by himself, waving and watching the bus disappear around the corner. She thought of him as a dear friend, yet knew almost nothing about his life, his past. He lived three doors down from her, spent nearly every morning with her in the Condo Cool Water Cafe, but aside from that they never imposed the remainder of their lives upon each other.


"I need to know what matters," Geneva said as she sat down across the table from Samuel. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, feigning indifference to the old man's answers she hoped would ease the tension gathering around her heart.

"Does what you are reading really matter?" she asked.

Samuel stopped his gentle rocking and passed the book to Geneva. "Everything matters."

Geneva felt a chill go up her spine as her fingers closed on the book. Now she would know what had captivated this man for weeks, what kept him silent and occupied each morning long after he had finished his kosher breakfast prepared by a café owner ready to go to any lengths to suit the tastes and needs of his clientele. She savored the moment of expectancy before she would finally share his secret.

The book was small and thin with a frayed cover that spoke of many openings and closing. Probably one of his mysterious Kaballah books that he once talked about as they watched a summer storm through the café windows. Geneva was a better listener than most other people were. She would never forget the odor of fresh rain washing over dahlia, hollyhock and aster blossoms as he told of his father's magnificent library of books that he took for granted as a child until it was too late and they were destroyed by a vigilante group who burned them near a flaming cross in the front yard of their home.

He had spoken often of a slim volume of his father's, "A Book of Lights" he had called it and claimed that it held the secret of everyone's life. Now it appeared that she might be holding the very same book in her hands.

She took a deep breath and opened the cover of the book hoping it wasn't written in Hebrew and found the title, "Citrus Tree Cultivation for the Small Farm." She leafed through the out-of-date book with its yellowing pages and black and white photos that had oxidized to a metallic sheen depicting a small boy in a straw hat holding a large grapefruit and standing next to a man in bib overalls.

"The Author loves his subject, his creation," Samuel said softly. "HaShem shines through even a book about raising citrus trees. How could it be otherwise?"

Geneva sighed as elusive answers not only escaped her again but in the nicotine-stained hands of this quiet man with frayed cuffs on his sleeves and a threadbare long black topcoat, the elusive answers she sought seemed to mock her efforts. "Oh well," she said without an ounce of bitterness or embarrassment, "Perhaps tomorrow it will come."

"Indeed," Samuel said. I've been saying much the same thing all my life, just as my father before me." He winked conspiratorially and bowed toward Geneva. "How very nice that we can wait together."

Before she had time to reply, Samuel once again held the citrus cultivation book like a schoolboy during a recitation and began rocking back and forth with his eyes half closed and his lips forming soft guttural sounds that blended harmoniously with the morning sounds of the large coffee urn slowly beginning its yield of aromatic coffee and the gentle rattling of thick pottery dishes as the Cool Water Café opened for business.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Will you marry me, OneNote?

I've only been using OneNote for less than a week and I wish I could marry it!

I've been nuts trying to figure out how to organize our Forensic Lab to prepare for another ISO Accreditation Surveillance review in March. There are thousands of files to keep track of (both active and inactive) and all have to be reviewed, updated, signed sealed and delivered, kissed on the forehead and sent on their way to the current Quality Manual.

I'm only one person with little administrative assistance and was tearing my hair out and darkly contemplating the doom of failure.

Enter OneNote. (imagine a little Vivaldi Spring music here)

I've mastered sections, subsections, pages, and subpages and created a notebook that you can zip around in a flash. I've flagged to my heart's content and sent task lists and emails to most of the English-speaking world. My To Do Lists do not fall into the cracks of a forgetful, over-taxed brain but eagerly, and very politely wave to me to be noticed. Who would have thought software could be so unconditionally supportive?

Being a bit obsessive compulsive, I am reminded of the scene in "Paper Chase" where the nerdy law student began worshipping his "notes" rather than studying them, learning from them, and applying the information.

But not me! Once you create such a thing of beauty, you can't help but want to spend time with it. The dogs (Magdalene and Luna) are extremely jealous of OneNote. Magdalene sat her little mini Dachshund butt on the laptop keyboard last night and demanded some quality time. Laptop Lapdog extraordinaire.

In less than three days of work, I've hyperlinked every pesky little puppy file into tables for organized review and updating. I've organized every scientific article reference, every brainstorm idea so that they are at my fingertips in a instant. All my personnel files jump to front and center when bidden. My but this makes me feel very powerful and extremely organized.

Will you marry me, OneNote? (Imagine Lohengrin Bridal March music here)

I don't have a ring to offer you but I am considering buying you a digital pen....


Monday, December 17, 2007

Dual Citizenship

Norm is living a dual citizenship as a Computer Information System Architectural Consultant and a "Head of Area Pastors" for a Virginia evangelical church; and he's doing very well at both.

At an Information Management System meeting, I asked him for his business card in return for mine. He sorted through his pocket and offered it up with the caveat, "I have one for my church too."

I believe that many people would reply, "No, thanks" in a manner that closed the door to further conversation to such a troubling subject as religion in a business, down-time social setting; but I am not most people. The churched fascinate me in all respects.

"Oh, please," I replied and studied the card bearing a clever wave logo that was remarkable in the fact that it bore no visual association with religious symbols. I was doubly intrigued.

"What flavor religion is it?" I asked.

Norm knitted his brow and studied my face. I could see my own reflection in his glasses while he hesitated.

"I mean," I continued. "Are you Evangelical like Pat Robertson….."

"Oh yes..." he replied with slow emphasis on each word that spoke less of the evangelical nature, or association with any religious celebrity, and spoke more of an embracing of something that obviously pleased him very much.

"I see," I replied, not knowing quite where to take the conversation from there. With my ancestral Dutch roots that went the way of childhood Methodism to teenage Southern fundamentalism and then tore through the 1960's rage of "make love, not war" nondenominationalism and then by-passed through mid-life Catholicism with a short diversionary stop at Zen Buddhism and finally landed in a formless and exceedingly pleasing state of inner peace and reverie with an ever-present and responsive creation and creator, both of which are less concerned with names and forms…..well, needless to say I was intrigued to mine the mind of someone who appeared to have the same sense of peace found in quite different circumstances.

I was about to speak again when he finished his sentence. "Yes, evangelical. But it's not a religion; it's a relationship."

He offered no dogma, no prescriptions, and no instructions in how to take the "true path." He just smiled and said, "I am seeing great things…"

I believe I clapped my hands in response. And smiled. A phrase came back to me from hot summer nights in a stuffy rural southern church with honey-coated vowel singing, "By your fruits, He will know you…."

Most people interpret fruits as tangible items, deeds of attainment, direct evidence in the form of accomplishments. As an impressionable teenager looking at the radiant faces of every member of a congregation who sang from their hearts, I saw their fruit, sweet plucked wild strawberries still warm from the sun: their fruit, with a price far above rubies, was their utter and complete peace and contentment.

"It's not a religion. It's a relationship." What a wonderful phrase that closes diverse gaps and brings things together in clarity.

As a scientist, I have offered the similar line of thinking that paraphrases, "It's not a science; it's a relationship."

As an artist, "It's not an art; it's a relationship."

Disciplines of every kind often try to coalesce themselves into separateness: art, science, religion, politics, philosophy, etc. As if the separateness makes them more valuable, important, distinctive, impartial, or meaningful.

Instead, of separateness, I recommend dual citizenship to everyone.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

OCD Meets Microsoft OneNote

Who would have thought that as I got older my lack of obsessive behavior would flower into sixty-two year old 'elder'berries, most notably Microsoft OneNote and as a vehicle to carry this mania over the edge, a laboratory manager job that like a poem, is never finished, only abandoned. It's a fatal combination.

Microsoft OneNote is advertised as an "add-in" for the brain. Add to that a healthy dose of OCD and you find yourself spending untold hours downloading add-ins for the "add-in." If you keep telling yourself, "you are crazy," can you really be crazy?

Let me work over a few thousand OneOne Section, page, and subpage notes and I'll get back to you on that.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Trucker's Radar

Just a few miles from my home, at any time of the day or night, you can find decent food, good company, and share a slice of life with a wide variety of people at The Iron Skillet Truck Stop. In one of his incarnations, my father was a trucker in the 1950's before his health began to fail.

The roaming spirit of trucking never left him and when the urge to wander overtook him, we'd sneak away (just the two of us) in the tank-sized Chrysler and drive to the nearest truck stop. He'd order me a bowl of vegetable soup, poppy-seed rolls and a cup of hot chocolate and without exchanging a word, just coded nods, sooner or later a trucker would sit down at our booth and ask my father, "How long since you hauled a rig?"

I'd be long asleep beside him in the booth under his tan workmen's jacket he wore summer and winter before the two trucker's had traded all their stories of blizzards and runaway trucks barreling down a narrow road in the Poconos. After all these years, I still wander into truck stops and order vegetable soup, poppy-seed rolls and hot chocolate. It never tastes quite a good as I remember but somehow, perhaps by osmosis, I learned to speak the coded trucker language with a nod or a smile, and sooner or later a trucker would pause at my booth, motion to the book I was reading, and politely inquire, "Good book? I'm always looking for something new to read."

The best books I've ever read have been recommended by truckers from "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg," to "The Grapes of Wrath," down to my most recent find of "An Hour Before Daylight." And I ponder with great amusement the mental image of a trucker taking a break in some Midwest truck stop and pulling out my recommendations over the years of "Our Bodies, Our Selves," "Wake up, Stupid," and "Rabbit Hill."

Too sick to cook for the past few days, and tired of microwaving scrambled eggs, I drag myself out of bed and head for The Iron Skillet Truck Stop where I tell the beefy-forearmed waitress to line up six glasses of tomato juice with a grapefruit chaser and then follow that with steak and eggs. Within minutes, the truckers assess the situation and one or two wander by with advice for those suffering from a cold.

With so many trucking companies now requiring urine drug testing, most truckers have steered away from over the counter pharmaceuticals that can give a false positive for opiates or amphetamines, they've ventured into anahcronistic herbal treatments that hearken back to the days of Vick's Vaporub, flannel shirts hosed down with camphorated oil, and my favorite, an electric blanket that plugs into your cigarette lighter to "stave off the chattering teeth of chills on those days when you gotta drive, gotta make up time, gotta keep going down the road."

With my newly-purchased electric blanket trailing its cord, a pint-sized cobalt blue jar of Vick's Vaporub, a "guaranteed not to spill - no matter what!" quart-sized insulated Mack Truck coffee mug filled with honey-horehound tea (made by Ralph from dissolving Ricola herbal cough drops in boiling water), I leave The Iron Skillet Truck Stop feeling a great deal better.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Living behind the grille

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A dozen blocks or so from where I work there used to be a cloistered monastery of the Sisters of the Visitation encased behind a nine-foot brick wall that circled an entire city block comprised of their convent, gardens, and graves of the Sisters who "died in Office."

I used to stop by now and then after work to listen to the Sisters sing the Office. The Office, a flowing combination of psalms, prayers, and inner celebration chanted by women answering a call of the "still small voice," was a transcendental experience. Visitors were welcome to sit and listen or join in and chant in harmony from the small visitor's chapel on the other side of the mahogany lattice grille through which you could watch the Sisters rise and kneel in their stalls. Nothing was asked of you. No one bothered you. There was no sense of separation. The grille did not divide us; it joined us.

They came to the city in 1893 when the area was a reclusive forest leading down a high ridge to the Brandywine river. Within a decade or two they were surrounded by the large colonial homes that bragged of their owner's prosperity and sat on opposite sides of Bancroft parkway.

In 1993, one hundred years after the sisters arrived, needing more space and far more quiet, the Sisters moved to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. I had only visited them a dozen times or so and didn't realize how much I would miss the peaceful oasis in the midst of a harried life. But the loss, nameless and poignant, still lingers.

The Sisters had hoped that the property of their century-old granite convent would be converted into a museum or a retirement home but the developer claimed that renovations on two million dollar deal would be too costly. Everything but sections of the nine-foot stone wall was demolished to make room for multiple upscale semi-detached homes.

The Sisters were disappointed that the convent would be destroyed but are at peace with what they can't control. They've had a long history of decisions outside of their control since their founding in France in the town of Annecy in 1610 by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jeanne de Chantal. As the 1993 demolition began, in silence, in peace, they packed their French 16th century religious books and made their way to Massachusetts.

I frequently drive by what remains of the monastery walls and consider that our city lost an anchor of peace when they left. The double-score quarter of a million dollar multiple homes that are now sandwiched together and squeezed within the confines of the wall still look like an afterthought. A mistake. An original gate door from the monastery was salvaged and stands unmoveable on the south side of the property next to a modern light-grained gate door without a window.

The score of cloistered nuns vowed to silence and a physical withdrawing from the world invited the very same world to visit them while the current residents, without a single song in their heart or on their lips added a windowless wooden gate that does not open, does not move, is merely decorative, and only serves the purpose of keeping the world at bay. I wonder on moonless nights if the new residents behind the wall hear eerie cloister voices of the nuns who have passed on, some to Massachusettes, others to their Bridegroom.

A transcendental singing into the night.

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Saints, Sinners, Mystics, and Madmen

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I pass by this statue of St. Francis several times a week and although his demeanor appears to be one of intense hell and brimstone madness, if you study his life, it was always from positive energy of being a fool for God, a lover of nature, and the epitome of a friend.

Voltaire claimed he was a savage madman who ran naked, spoke to animals, gave religious instruction to a wolf and built himself a wife out of snow. I'm drawn to saints, sinners, mystics, and madmen. They are the spice of life. And they seem to be drawn to me.

One arrived at the lab holding a paper bag like a baby and claimed it was evidence of a homicide in progress and could I analyze the evidence. I peered inside the bag to see a very large zucchini.

"They tried to poison me, but I was too smart for them. Brought it here for you to analyze."

We were drawing quite a crowd in the reception room of the morgue so I guided my almost homicide victim to a quiet place in our library. A long sad story of a long sad life unfolded and in the end, it was no longer a near homicide victim who left still holding a poisoned zucchini like a baby but someone who had been heard. Perhaps not always believed, but heard.

I explained that we really couldn't analyze victimless crimes perpetrated by alleged homicidal vegetables without the proper chain of custody and a police report; but she might consider planting the zucchini and seeing what sprouted both in her garden and in her life.

I never heard what happened to the woman but she left with a smile on her face. And a plan.

Who can be sure who is a saint, a mystic, or a madman? I never know, so I generally treat them all the same and in return, I'm treated the same way.

On my way out of the lab, the Director, (one of my favorite saints, sinners, mystics, and madmen) stopped me to tell me of a phone call he had just received. Someone had called him to ask how low your blood sugar had to go before you went blind, or died, or both. He hedged the question and turned it back on the caller in true Socratic style.

It seems this person had felt near death with a blood sugar measuring 30 and had gone to Mass, taken the Host upon her tongue without swallowing it and walked home and checked their blood sugar again, but this time it was 90 and she felt much better. "Was I healed?"

The Director has a razor wit and a sense of humor as dry as the Sahara, and claimed he offered a few great one-liners about this miracle elevating Padre Pio over the hump to sainthood; but in the way he told me the story, what came across more clearly was how touched he was by the poignancy of this person seeking validation of being alive from another human being, and wanting desperately to feel even more alive.

I do not know who are saints, or sinners, or mystics, or madmen, but it's impossible not to love them all.

Shades of Christmas Past (from February 2007)

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The weather finally broke enough to be able to walk during my lunch hour around the Polish and Hispanic neighborhood that surround the Medical Examiner's office where I work. Both neighborhoods are mildly depressed and passed by; but certain sections of streets still speak of first generation immigrants who worked in the tanning factories and proudly sent their children to school in plaid uniforms to nuns who would iron out the accents from their speech.

I've noticed many Christmas decoration still up this year as if people aren't ready to let go of the magic of Christmas and trade it for the reality of slushy February; but this window has had the same decorations in it for the 22 years I've worked in this area. The same kitchy Santa praying before the same manager. The same family trapped in the purity of black and white, still with flushed cheeks from sledding down the slope to the Christiana River, the same dog still barking at their heels.

Many of these row houses were built with simultaneous living and business in mind. Living rooms of homes doubled as storefronts for sub shops, baked goods sales, seamstress alterations. The window of this row house has never changed for as long as I can remember. I've never seen anyone come or go or sit on the stoop or sweep the steps. Yet Santa keeps his vigil all these years for children long grown and I'm certain that a mother is still bent over a crystal rosary for their safety as they travel light years away from the fires of home.

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Historic Delaware
In these historic places,
there are spirits everywhere--
those we discover
looking back at us
through a window
and those we bring with us.
It's our choice
whether that will be
a haunting
or a blessing.

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