Doubting Thomas's Book of Common Prayers book cover

Doubting Thomas's Book of Common Prayers

Authorized Prose Edition

By Thomas Burton

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

—In Memoriam XCVI


Human limitation coupled with apparent abandonment has not been more dramatically expressed than by the words of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

But the feeling is common to most of us. We find ourselves in circumstances similar to an incident told me of a handicapped student at Baylor University. When this young man went out with his buddies, they’d often joke with him about being too slow or awkward on his crutches. His characteristic response was, “That’s okay, I’m really Captain Marvel, Jr.” One evening when horsing around in a dorm room with his friends, he attempted a headstand on the bed and became helplessly wedged against the wall. Completely frustrated, he yelled out—perhaps for us all—“Shazam, dammit, Shazam!”

Frustrations with self, with personal beliefs, with relationships human and spiritual, with the nature of things—all seem like Samuel Johnson’s apprehensions, beasts we never slay, only continually beat back to their dens.  Even the poets seem to have no adequate response.  Their bootless cries as well as ours often “trouble deaf heaven” with “no language but a cry,” even though they—as we must—challenge monsters of the dark and deep with heroic fortitude in overcoming doubt and despair.

Some of these common frustrations without the security of a net or golden chain from heaven are the inspiration of these prayers.


Part One

1. On being a Little Mad

2. On There Being No One Else

3. On Someone to Work Things Out

4. On When There’s Nobody

5. On Coded Behavior

6. On Dealing with Reality

7. On Disunity

8. On the Cruelest Month

9. On Fixing It

10. On Washing Away Stress

11. On the Roughest Day

12. On Giving Up the Faith

13. On When They Muck Up

14. On Personal Chaos

15. On Rocky Ground

16. On Moisture

17. On Detachment

18. On Waste

19. On the Creative Force

20. On Being Alone

21. On Stimulation of Consciousness

22. On Being a Little Tired

23. On Mucking Through

24. On Being Human

25. On Slack

26. On Starting Over

27. On the Groaning Spirit

28. On Garbage

29. On Talking Things Out

30. On Opening Up

31. On Rednecks

32. On a Soulguard

33. On Human Beans

34. On Tides

35. On Help

36. On Knights of the Holy Grail

37. On Being World Class

38. On Dancing

39. On Enjoying a Sunny Day

40. On Dying

41. On Needing a Little Help

42. On a Disease

43. On Christmas

44. On a Touch

45. On a Heaven

46. On Running to a Woman

47. On Hugs

48. On Gratitude

49. On Dark Clouds

50. On a Voice

51. On the Need of a Temple

52. On Human Contact

53. On Breaking the Hedge

54. On a Dilemma

55. On Serving Only God

56. On Two Masters

57. On a Person in Need

58. On Feelings

59. On Plurality

60. On Compartmentalizing

61. On Duality

62. On Commitment

63. On Independence

64. On Being Out of the Ashes

Part Two

1. On Needing to Talk Again

2. On thinking the Bases Are Covered

3. On a Person in a Hollow Tree

4. On Drifting

5. On Beginnings

6. On Relationships

7. On Lancelot and Guinevere

8. On Being a Contender

9. On Batman and Bruce Wayne

10. On Admiration

11. On a Son

12. On Pride

13. On Servitude to Work

14. On a Reunion

15. On Cremation

16. On a Suicide

17. Of a Sibling’s Death

18. On What Dreams May Come

19. On a National Treasure

20. On a Server

21. On Outsiders

22. On Checking Out

23. On Your Being Only in My Head

24. On a Coach

25. On an Alter Ego

26. On a High Church

27. On a Pentecostal Church

28. On the Via Media

29. On Day-to-day Morality

30. On a Decent Conversation

31. On Going Home

32. On Pardons and Paroles

33. On Belief

Part One

1. On Being a Little Mad

Lord, admittedly I’m a little mad. Maybe I’ve got the crazies as well. But I’m not really mad at you, just kind of mad at everything. What can I say? Everyone has their own point of view. Everyone has their own right and is right. Everybody’s going their own way. No one owes me anything. So to hell with it. Isn’t that what you say?

And if I feel this way, it really doesn’t matter if I’m justified or not—does it?

What I need is vision. I’m down here mucking around and don’t know what in hell I’m doing.

By the way, I don’t buy your zapping Uzzah for trying to hold the ark when the dumb oxen stumbled.

2. On There Being No One Else

Lord, you don’t talk to me. But since there’s really no one else I can express my feelings to, I’ll talk up to you. At least I won’t have to mince words as though you were human—or at least I hope not, unless you play Browning’s Setebos to my Caliban.

If you were a human (even if you were one of the few who are in tune with what I try to say) and you and I were exploring the mixing of our atoms or anatomies, we would be on guard lest our capabilities of accepting reality were exceeded. We would note harmonies, not cacophonies. We wouldn’t want to know what’s out of joint, but what dovetails in—not scratches and knots, but exotic smoothness. Who wants to hear, “Here you miss, or there exceed the mark”?

With people everything must be parceled out: lovers, this; friends, that; associates, audiences, and strangers, the rest—sometimes “I must hold my tongue” and “sometimes I am whipt for holding my peace.”

Come to think, however, you’re not stone deaf to critique yourself; but, as it is written, take Horebal exception.

3. On Someone to Work Things Out

Lord, I understand why people believe in you. It would be great to have someone directing everything toward good regardless of how things appear. It would be great to have someone forgive all of one’s mistakes and say, “That’s okay—you’ve done the best you could, so now I’ll take over and do the rest. Not only do I forgive all of your blunders, but I’m also going to make everything turn out right in the end. Moreover, all this muck won’t matter any longer because the life you’ve mucked up is going to be converted into another one where there is no muck.”

God, I want to be good, as well as what I do to be good—at least okay. I want things for others to be good too. And to believe in someone you knew could work all that out would be good. Great if someone would.

4. On When There’s Nobody

Lord, David had to be a stand-up kind of guy. Yet when he was down and out and needed a little help, he often went to you. And there were times when he went to others, like Bathsheba. Guess he didn’t feel that you were enough. He needed flesh and blood, although he (like all heroes) probably thought he should have been completely self-sufficient. You shouldn’t have felt rejected, however, because you’re the one who made him that way.

But what did David do when he didn’t have Bathsheba? A man who shouldn’t show any fissures or signs of weakness. And what about anybody when there’s nobody, but who needs somebody?

Let’s face it. A god is a little abstract. I look unto the hills, and I see a lot of trees.

5. On Coded Behavior

Lord, this woman—a proper lady—came right up to me, somewhat in my air space. She had gotten a divorce recently; and as we talked, she darted a glance to determine if I were wearing a ring on my left hand, which however was in my pocket.

I mentioned one of my sons out west, but realized that the circumlocution didn’t really tell her anything. It seemed too obvious to drop a marker like “my wife and I,” although I did keep saying “we” like some candidate, which I wasn’t, nor intended to be.

If I’d been off somewhere on a meeting, I would’ve suspected my motives in all the unintentional equivocation. But I had no design, except not to embarrass her by making her think I thought she was thinking what she probably was thinking. All the same, I noticed her pretty eyes, but not-so-pretty mouth, and the “W” her cleavage made at the top of her low-cut sweater.

And she kept yanking up the sleeve of the sweater, which would promptly slide off her nicely rounded shoulder, and scotching the neck of the sweater under the strap of her purse as though to say she wasn’t trying to pull anything. Then she’d stretch the bodice of the sweater down, as if not to cover up prudishly. Believe me, the bouncing back and forth made it rather difficult to concentrate on the conversation.

But I talked playfully on and kept my left hand in my pocket since it sported no golden round. But then I felt kind of silly with it there like some adolescent’s attempt in concealment at a dance. So I pulled my hand out and stuck my thumb in over my belt, but I wasn’t at ease with that either. And she was doing practically the same thing, it seemed. She crossed her arms in a fold across her chest, revealing her naked manicured fingers. Then just before I left, she said, “What’s your name again?  Mine’s . . .” A come-on, I wondered? Women deal with this sort of thing from the time they’re little girls, but I was way over my head.

A wedding ring for married folks is probably a good thing. It may or may not mean anything to the wearer, but it might to an observer: “Oh, I see you’re married.”

Unmarried folks who have other types of meaningful relationships don’t have such symbols. Even if they did, there would need to be color coding. Say, blue (level one), green (level two), and red (level three). Then others could note, “Oh, you’d like a blue involvement, I notice.” And the response could be simply, “Yes.” Or perhaps, “Yes, but I’d really be interested in at least a nice green.”

6. On Dealing with Reality

Lord, why do two people get angry and turn away from each other? When things aren’t right, that’s the time they need each other the most, to say the least. You certainly should know a lot about that. You had one of the very best in heaven say, “To hell with it all” and then run out on you.

The story goes you threw him out, but I don’t believe that. I think he caused all that disorder and got out of there. Not because you forced him out and not because you were intolerable and not because something was so bad in itself. I think he got mad and opposed you because it was too hard for him to deal with the reality of things. He couldn’t cope with the truth, so he flew the coop. It was too much for him to expose the real reasons he wasn’t happy and then go to you and say:

“Look, this isn’t working out the way it was supposed to.  I think I’m changing even if you’re not. Our spirits aren’t fusing. This just isn’t doing it for me. This isn’t heavenly bliss. I’m miserable as hell. I’m a certain way, it seems, and you’re another.  I’m not fitting in here anymore. Let’s do or change something about it. I’m not blaming you—maybe it’s just your nature. And, for heaven sakes, you shouldn’t blame me for mine.

“But I’m not alone in this. Others feel the same as I do. So if we can’t work out something here, I’ll work out something somewhere else. There are other spheres, you know. Of course, I can’t immediately make a heaven of hell. But with some help from you (which I think we’d both agree I deserve) I can create something better than what we’ll have here when all chaos breaks loose.”

But he didn’t do that. That takes some stooping. But if he’d been able to deal with the truth (even if you hadn’t been perfect, and he certainly wasn’t) there would have been no war in heaven. Apparently his angelic nature had too much darkness in it to perceive, accept, and deal with light. Instead he obfuscated it: “I’m tired of being kicked in the teeth [the head or however the text goes]. I’m tired of always being considered second. I’m not going to be treated this way because I don’t deserve it. You might enjoy playing God, but not me. You’ve even gone out and created someone else to take my place. Now, by damn, you’ll pay for it. I’m going to give you hell.”

That’s, no doubt, when he gathered up his forces, caused all that trouble for everybody, and went away mad—making you look pretty bad too. Of course he sweated for it as well.

If in fact he did love you, and you were good and he was good, it seems you could have worked out something for good. At least for better than all that worse, all that hurt and suffering and isolation.

Why do two beings not do that? Why can’t they deal with the truth? Are they too demonic?

7. On Disunity

Lord, how do you cope with a dearly beloved’s becoming more and more less one with you? How long do you continue partaking of whatever’s left to share and overlooking the rest? What’s your cutting-off point, “This far and no more”?

I know your flaming sword has cut off quite a few. Yet the son of man seems more long-suffering than you.

How much disunity then can humans sustain? One way to endure would be to care less, if we could. For by caring too much, we—like your son—are pulled out of joint.

8. On the Cruelest Month

To some, April is the cruelest month, not this one with grayness everywhere—to Eliot with that. For now there is the stench of a strange cologne diffusing throughout the temple that I would enter as a holy place.

9. On Fixing It

Lord, I don’t like this stuff one bit. Fix it. I can’t or I would. If you can, do it, for the love of god. I don’t know if I can stand it or not.

This may be just more reality that I’m supposed to face, but I don’t care if it is. I’m coming apart at the seams.

Damn it, do something good for pity sakes. That’s your job. It’s not that I deserve it. I just need it. Please.

10. On Washing Away Stress

Lord, women are allowed tears to wash away their stress. Time was, men could fight and bleed. What’s a man to do when the natural self is denied, curbed by custom and reason? Just fight the inner fight and bleed within?

11. On the Roughest Day

Lord, I know that “come what come may” you say that there’s a season for everything. What’s this one for? To pluck up, tear down, cast away, rail against, keep silent, strike back, turn from, run to, wade on, seek within, or weep?

I guess the time is to love through the roughest day and look to the morrow.

12. On Giving Up the Faith

Lord, I know you sometimes forgive a misdeed or failure in judgment. Even entering into Astarte’s tent, if a person is still yours in heart. But what about when one gives up the faith, treading the pearl underfoot?

13. On When They Muck Up

Lord, it must have confused the hell out of you when all those angels cleared out of heaven. And you must have felt pretty discouraged when Solomon followed after false gods, and David was unfaithful—one after your very own heart.

Bet you were really disappointed when the children of Israel messed up your plan of the promised land. Maybe as much for that as for simple infidelity. You had it all worked out. They were chosen people. Things were going pretty well. Then they mucked it up. Got to you, didn’t it? Well, how in hell do you think I feel?

You just can’t control where a person’s feelings go, can you? But when it’s someone you least expect, of all the people in the world, that one—if I had a sanctum sanctorum, I’d hide in there too.

14. On Personal Chaos

Lord, how comes such personal chaos? What quirk in your brain? What divine design? Is my outcast state given that I should reckon with reality or mark my mortality? It’s seemingly senseless, no rhyme or reason. I can’t fathom it.

Must I fall back on the poet’s word, “Patience her injury a mockery makes”? or yours, “All things work together for good”? There’s as little balm in “once, at least, it was Elysium.”

15. On Rocky Ground

Why so steep and rocky, Lord? What is the reason?

Sorry, I can’t accept that tale of a garden cankered with Adam’s blowing it and, consequently, his seed’s growing among weeds. Why not fertile ground, bathed by gentle western breezes and sweet-showering skies?

Self-pitying questions, no doubt. And, agreed, from no sterile wasteland on my part. But why such wind and rain—produces character and wisdom? That’s the nature of things: rose and briar? I should be happy a daisy touched, though soon plucked from reach?

Even forgetting about the reason, what else is better forgot—if, that is, a tiny wit can separate mental tares from wheat?

Has all the field been gleaned and this present shade a shadow of that boastful final swath?

These questions take the consideration of a Solomon, my having known a lily of the field.

16. On Moisture

Lord, I don’t expect a spring, especially from you. But what about a few drops from one who knows dryness first hand? It’s not a stream out of a rock I’m talking about, more just a little moisture to slack my thirst.

17. On Detachment

Lord, I know that since there is a time for everything, there is a time to keep and a time to cast away. A time for jessing a hawk to nurture it, and a time for loosing one “to prey at fortune.”

A time to quit deep emotions of despised love that murders sleep, sleep that could knit up the golden, airy thread unraveling. A time to relinquish longing for another, who is shuffling off to be free and whose closeness lessens ipso facto.

Yet detachment seems like giving up. Or is choice that which freedom is all about? The sine qua non?

18. On Waste

Haven’t talked to you in some time, Lord. My voltage has been a little low for transmission. But I must say, I could have used more than a little help, a quick charge at least.

I might add that there is certainly a lot of waste with what I’ve recently gone through. All that stuff I learned over the years–what programs to watch, which kind of flowers to buy, when to order anchovies, where to stack the picnic plates, how much cream to put in the cup of coffee. Completely useless now.

I guess it’s best just to forget all that—if I could.

19. On the Creative Force

Lord, I’ve been told that when you created heaven and earth out of nothing, love was the creative force.

It seems to me that when humans love one another, they engage in that same cosmic force and bring forth being. Loving creates a love, which not only has existence, but also can have life. And similar to everything that has life, it continues to survive as long as certain factors exist. Love, like a puny or vital seedling, can be denied water and consequently die, or be nurtured and grow into a towering strength—even if the axe is laid at the root, and the tree fruitless is cut down, it has been. When love comes into being—like a child, even though stillborn or destroyed by some defect of nature—it can continue to be, if only in memory.

Lord, can you uncreate? Can you revert something into absolute nothing? I can’t.

20. On Being Alone

Everybody’s coming to you saying, “Save me, Lord. Heal me, Lord. Help me carry my load.” But whom seek ye when it’s lonely as a tomb after they’ve come and gone? An angel?

Guess you just go on alone because that goes with the territory.

21. On Stimulation of Consciousness

Lord, I need something to stimulate my consciousness, to wake me out of my sleep, my drowsiness of existence. A book, a poem, a song, a conversation.

Yet, sometimes I don’t talk with you because your being silent makes my talking seem useless. If there were anybody else, I wouldn’t bother now.

But I need someone to think with. Ideas bounce around the walls of my head like a racket ball or a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil. And even if I forge a thought, I can’t tell if it will ring true unless I sound it out.

I just can’t seem to reason in isolation. Talking with someone, though, I can slice off a thought and see if I can swallow it.

Guess I’m using you like an old friend. I lay all my cards on the table, and it’s all right whether or not you pick any up. But there’s a difference. A friend has a certain slant of mind that knows what I’m talking about and generally responds. With you, I have to assume everything.

I wonder if you’re like the one I once knew and considered more than friend. I felt we were “one another’s best” and empathized with each other’s every thought. God, was I ever wrong! But that’s done and gone. And I don’t really know about you.

22. On Being a Little Tired

Lord, I just get a little tired of trying. Not just one thing in particular, but a bunch of things. If I discussed them with you, you’d no doubt have the right things to say, “Lay aside every weight which doth so easily beset you and run with patience. . . .”  I’ve heard all that stuff, and I’d probably even agree with you, although I’m not so sure.

However, like most everybody else, I keep trying. And, intellectually, I think that’s good enough. Not winning, just trying. Yet if just trying were all that’s required, then I ought to be feel satisfied. But I don’t. Even when I try hard, I don’t feel good enough—not good enough by others’ standards, not good enough by my own.

If I could snub my nose and say, “My soul, be satisfied with weeds even,” then I wouldn’t care if I were good enough for others, including you. But I can’t seem to steel myself not to care. And I don’t seem to be able to do any better. Even if I gather a flower here and there, what difference does it make? Like in a mile run. If my time were below four minutes, a few seconds would be great and might achieve a first. But since my time is eight minutes at best, what difference do a few seconds make? Not any, except to me. And since firsts win the day, I’m a little tired of seconds.

I’m sure all this is probably a little tiring to you as well.

23. On Mucking Through

Lord, it seems like a lot of living is just mucking through. We want, need, can’t fulfill or be fulfilled. We can’t escape hurting or hurting someone else. Imperfection to the core.

Some, like you, create their own world, a pantheon, and Elysian fields. They claim their wiles to be willed. It gives them means to make it—so what’s a heaven for?

Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Just mucking through the best one can. And that’s good enough. Better than freezing up or melting into a dew.

24. On Being Human

One problem, Lord, is your making humans feel that we can do something. That even lower than angels, we can be godlike in some respect—help a few others not to feel so bad, help them along their way. But you know we’ll screw up somewhere. And then chances are those few will feel as bad as before, if not worse.

25. On Slack

Lord, you may have given me lots of slack a bunch of times. Like all those passing trucks I’ve almost pulled out in front of, but didn’t.

Often, however, when I’m trying to do the best I can for everybody concerned—really trying—it’s only after messing up that it becomes clearer what the better choice might have been. Then it’s too late. The other options no longer exist. And things have become such a gaum, as folks used to say, that there doesn’t appear to be any solution.

If I choose on the basis of reason, I don’t have enough data or can’t compute what I have. I say to myself that I should just go with my feelings. But experience tells me that then all bedlam can break out and chaos come again.

God, give me a break. The options have too many variables. They’re too complicated. If you want to prove I don’t have godlike omniscience, forget it. That’s about the only thing I do know.

How about when I get to the next fork in the road and count “eeny, meeny, miney, mo,” you tell me something besides “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin”? Even computers beep errors—couldn’t you beam me down an icon next time before my world crashes. I’m trying, for pity sakes. I need a little slack.

26. On Starting Over

Lord, how long do I have to pay for my mistakes? I acknowledge them and confess. Okay? Can’t we just start all over—return to Go? You’re supposed to have all that power, why don’t you do it?

Someone told a story about a minister who preached one Sunday morning on the subject “the Lord will provide.” Going home from church, the preacher was attacked by a bear. After fighting it off, the minister returned to his congregation that evening and told them that he wished to qualify what he had previously preached. He said that although it was true you would help out in most things, that when it came to a bear fight, you really weren’t worth a damn.

It seems to me like you’re barely helping me out at all. And since things aren’t fixed, I guess I’ll have to make do, in spite of everything, with my own “will, and strength, and means”—even forgive myself.

27. On the Groaning Spirit

The spirit groans, Lord. Is that because you groaned when you breathed your spirit into us? Must life begin and end with a groan? How much groaning will remove its edge? Wanting and trying to do good doesn’t seem to be good enough. It is for me with my children—why not for you with yours?

Why does your spirit in us groan? Or is it really your spirit that causes us to want to be more than we are, understand more than we do, have more power to create, have more control of life? Can our flesh just not match your spirit, or is your expelled breath deficient in some vital oxygenic substance?

Or does a person have a human spirit, apart from any godly inspiration? We aren’t gods, but we have that breath which makes us more than dog or cat. Breath that allows us see the possibilities and limitations of dog and cat, as well as of human. And we certainly see with godlike vision how limited human is. Is it then our own weak human spirit that groans?

Caring, feeling, loving—are these godly, or are they human?  Is being more human, really being more godlike or less? Does it even matter which?

Is our groaning simply the result of misinterpreting the possibilities of spirit, human or divine? And living, caring, trying—breathing deep and into others—after all, are enough?

28. On Garbage

Okay, God, here I am again. Not particularly depressed, but certainly not elated. Mainly tired, and a little frustrated that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on garbage. Stuff that’s got to be done, but doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. And when it’s finished, there’s just more. And the important things go untouched. I need to talk to someone who will be a little more than casually concerned. Maybe have a cup of tea and laugh a little before I return to the junk.

It helps somewhat to say this to you, but you don’t drink tea or ever say anything for Christ’s sake.

But I don’t know if it’d do any good to talk with anyone else. Seems like when I do, I just get more stuff stirred up without any release—and waste all that time.

29. On Talking Things Out

Lord, I know that the Apostle Paul recommended confessing one to the other. And everybody knows that it’s a good thing to talk things out between two people.

However, if somebody I care about upsets me or gets on my nerves in some way, but they don’t mean to, and they don’t always feel too good themselves, and if I did say anything to them, they’d get depressed, and it wouldn’t change what they had said or done or probably wouldn’t correct anything in the future either—what would be the sense in talking about it?

30. On Opening Up

Since I haven’t been talking with you as much lately, Lord, I’ve tried to talk more with others. That’s supposed to be good. “Open up,” they say.

There are some advantages, I suppose. But if I talk with a know-it-all, I resent what they say. If the person’s someone who simply assents to everything I say, it doesn’t help. If the individual hasn’t the same slant of mind, it’s frustrating. If it’s a female with sympathetic understanding, I’m asking for trouble. And if I’m really trying to track out the caverns of my mind to their “inmost cell,” it’s too much for anyone’s stamina.

Truth is, generally no one really cares that much. So I’m right back where I started—solo.

Then there’s you, Lord. Are you listening and do you empathize? Or am I just whistling in the wind?

31. On Rednecks

Lord, have you ever noticed the rednecks in a beer joint? I don’t mean the regular delivery-truck drivers and construction workers who come in on their way home for a few brews with George Jones. I mean rednecks—drinking, chewing, beer-bellied, coarse low-lifes who are arrogant in ignorance and don’t give a damn about anything or anybody except themselves. Not your common fishes-and-loaves folks, but your longneck trash, hitting on the Marthas and Marys—who will kill even their buddies for nothing if it comes to that.

Come to think about it, however, Rednecks are classless. Take Othello for example.

32. On a Soulguard

God, I don’t have anyone to tell me how I do. Whether it’s in a small group or large assembly. Sometimes, a smirk tells me, or a hush at the right moment. But often it’s like calling out in an empty hall—no response but my own. And I don’t have a clue of anything else.

Never mind the body, I need a soulguard. Whenever I say or do anything, I need an empathetic companion. Not a cheerleader, but someone whose opinion I respect—who won’t be quick to judge, but who’ll be honest without being disparaging? An angel would be nice.

Even those who think they’re led by your Spirit don’t have a soulguard. What they have is certainly great—confidence. Confidence that they are right since “by faith” it’s you speaking through them. And if they happen to be wrong, they’ve simply misinterpreted divine will. But the “Spirit Led” don’t have the kind of complement I’m talking about—a companion whose eyes and ears see and hear for them, shaping strengths and honing values.

Pride might substitute, but that can be tragic. Believing compliments is deceptive. Indifference is arrogance. Obliviousness is stupid.

Why don’t you just give me something within to know.

33. On Human Beans

Lord, why do I have to work so hard for such little yield? Did Adam or I sin so? Must I labor by the sweat of my brow even in the dark?

I don’t mean to complain, but my lot seems poorly, whereas some folks have such rich estates. I know I sound like the Israelites murmuring in the wilderness. But my state is different, at least to me. For one thing, they wanted it easy without paying the price. I’ve paid my dues. For another—unlike them—no one’s granting me a promised land if I just continue to plow through.

Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this work at all. Maybe I just haven’t got the feel for it or the tools. Maybe I should go into the market place. Maybe I’m even working against your will, and your sign to me is my scrimpy yield.

On the other hand, maybe this is my row to hoe. And I must take my stand on the only ground I have.

After all, as a child said, we’re just human “beans.” We sprout, grow in the light, or get stomped on. Some are half-runners. Others reach realms of giants. But all just human beans.

34. On Tides

Lord, I guess those tides of yours that lead to success or shallows and miseries are diurnal. Some just recede farther. And missing the right tide can make all the difference, leaving us high and dry on the bar. But sometimes if we’re lucky, a later one will take us moaning off the edge and out into the deep.

35. On Help

Since you’re apparently not going to come down in some machine to save the day, who’s supposed to help?

“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” you’d probably say. Thank you very much.

When Saul couldn’t help David fight Goliath—even the king’s armor wouldn’t fit—David reached down for a rock. But what if we’re not as smooth as David? Maybe we reach way down deep, and the bag’s empty, or there’s a toad in it we’re supposed to eat?

Right now my aim’s a little blurred, and it looks like the Philistines are upon me. Still again, it would be great to go out and slay single-handedly a Gath-damned giant.

36. On Knights of the Holy Grail

Lord, there are several things about the knights of the Holy Grail that I really envy. First, they were highly skilled and thoroughly fit. Some were better than others, but all of the very best. Another thing, they were bound together by great faith and high calling. Just imagine riding out with Perceval and the other Grail knights, seeking the ideal!

But perhaps even more important to me is that the Grail knights had the possibility of personal confirmation in the present. If they persevered, they could see the Grail—besides receive its spiritual benefits. Those who did achieve the quest would know absolutely, “Our faith was true and we failed not.”

It’s not the same, Lord, for you to hold out a heaven somewhere in the future. That’s little help. If I make it to a heaven, I’ll know everything for eternity anyway and won’t need any affirmation.

It’s now I need the Grail.

37. On Being World Class

Lord, I’d like to be world-class in something. I’m not sure it would matter in what so much, although there are some preferences. (Not a world-class failure, if you please.) It wouldn’t have to be the best of anything. It wouldn’t have to be your gift to the world in whatever, but be world class in something.

Intellect would be nice, or artist or master craftsman. Solomon was world class in wisdom, Samson in strength, and David in sanguinity. For pity sake, I’d take any one of the three. How about categories of mentor, lover, or friend? You’ve surely done more for less deserving, and (admittedly) less for more talented.

I would make us both proud. I’d be no Achilles in his tent—sorry—no Elijah oblivious of his peers. And if you wanted to go big time, you could put me in the Archangel Michael’s class. Not even the Arch-enemy could touch Michael. How about a world-class human Michael?

Anyone who says, “Oh, you can be anything you want to be, a human Michael if you want to be” is full of teufelsdrockh. Approach the status of a Michael, who is like unto God? who intuits the mind of God? leads the seraphim? and wields that terrible sword? No way.

The only chance I see is a world-class human. Though no Michael-man, still boggling.

38. On Dancing

The Wu Li Masters say that the main thing in life is the dance, the process. Even though one person may say their pursuit is reality in philosophy, another, truth in religion—both are dancers, and what’s important to each is the dance. It’s not what people do that’s mainly important to them, it’s the doing.

I don’t think that you’d go along with all of that completely. I don’t think I would either, although there’s a lot of truth in what they’re saying. I would agree that the process (the manner, the style) is important. But what I do (the matter, the content) is of prime importance to me. And it’s not that only one course is the best to take or that there is an absolute hierarchy. But I think some things matter and others don’t very much.

Survival is of primal importance to many. It’s about all they do—bread on the table, roof over head, and very little else. How they conduct themselves, how they dance that limited tune, is of course important to them too—with strength and fortitude. But it’s not the dancing that’s primarily important—it’s surviving. And beyond survival, there are lots of choices of matter that matter to me.

As a matter of fact, I think your light-under-a-bushel metaphor contrasts the Wu Li Masters. It was always made clear to me: “Choose some meaningful goal and make the world a better place.”

But when one has pressed toward that goal over a long haul, what then? Can one choose another meaningful one?  If so, meaningful to whom? To the world, to others, to oneself? How meaningful? How much light must a person produce? All the candlepower they can? Or may they shed light that is less intense, more mellow, more an aesthetic glow?

What about, just learn more? Too often learning is for some limited purpose at the expense of general personal enlightenment. Shouldn’t there be a time to catch up? Can one never enter the Palace of Art and learn for the sake of learning, not for the sake of anything or anybody else? Or is that dancing under a bushel?

39. On Enjoying a Sunny Day

Lord, I need your thoughts on something. You see, I have trouble enjoying this sunny day because I saw the forecast.  Even if I hadn’t, I’d think it’s bound to change. I’ve seen dark days. I don’t want to miss out on any bright, blue sky, but when one knows the weather’s going to break, it seems already changing. And a person doesn’t have to be a god to judge seasons longer than diurnal. It’s almost fooling myself to say, “Oh, what a pretty day,” if I know a storm is on its way.

Or is it just perspective? Should I say: “I’m going to soak up every ray I can, but keep my windbreaker handy”? Will basking in the present balminess warm me in the impending wind and rain, and save this day as well?

40. On Dying

Lord, yesterday morning I felt ready to die if necessary. Not that I was elated. It was just that simply living seemed enough. I could have “gone on,” feeling pretty good about everything.

Don’t know what I would’ve gone on to. Probably nothing for a while.  Used to be that used-up people would go on to dirt and grass and flowers, but now a person doesn’t replenish the earth. They fill a body full of spirits that would turn stones brown and then seal it up in a vault. I’ve been thinking about being turned to ashes. But dust to dust might be best unless it were on a pyre in a way that meant something—with locks of hair, salt, and wine.

I don’t feel, however, the same today as I did yesterday; but I’ve got to go on anyway, some way. My god, how things change, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye.

41. On Needing a Little Help

Lord, it appears to me that the strong need help as well as the weak. The difference is that the strong don’t often get it, yet survive anyway. Whereas the weak usually get a hand or they falter.

I like the idea of being the one giving, rather than receiving.  Maybe just so I’ll feel superior or in control, but I don’t think so. Yet, sometimes I need a little help too.

42. On a Disease

Lord, I saw Jeanie recently. Her body was swinging around like a child’s Appalachian limberjack to a wild, cacophonous tune unheard by me. Parkinson’s—”It’s a sorry disease,” she said. “It doesn’t give you a chance.”

I don’t know whether to feel mainly resentful toward you or grateful for me. Neither she nor I deserve what we have. Deserve is really neither here nor there.  But generally all of us humans feel like we should get what we deserve, that is, receive results in our favor and “escape whipping.”

A lot of those people who call themselves yours believe we’re all in a hothouse of some gardener with a mighty green thumb. I think rather we’re like seeds that fall sometimes along the wayside, sometimes on fertile ground.  And the answers of why sometimes given don’t for me “assert Eternal Providence.” Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense: what happens is all in the nature of things—neither good nor bad, but simply that which is.  Jesus posed about the same thing, don’t you agree, in his rhetorical question about the eighteen men in Siloam crushed by a fallen tower?  “Think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem?  I tell you, Nay.” I’d go with him.

Still, a sorry disease—Marcus and Jesus notwithstanding.

43. On Christmas

Lord, it’s the holiday season.  But though I hardly feel like joining the crowd standing, around in stores like dumb oxen, I muse:

On Christmas Eve, on Christmas Eve,
Looking o’er the reality
Of all the change that has come to be,
I turn to thoughts of a mother and her baby.

44. On a Touch

Sorry I haven’t talked with you in a while. My word-hoard has been locked. As when I called someone to talk about what I couldn’t somehow say—instead, rattling on about something else. Underlying the call was the consciousness of a loving touch that had almost gone out of memory. A consciousness fading in mists of fantasy mixed with reality, in memories of unrealized dreams and ghosts of former selves, of tented strength and Grecian faithlessness, concoctions in the brain of abler souls and beasts with two backs, of Roxanne and Christian with Lazarus at the feast of love.

A loving touch—and a mute, imprisoned prince aroused, reaching out in the dark.

45. On a Heaven

Lord, I wish there were indeed a heaven. There are so many people I’d like to tell some things that just can’t be said here, or at least there never seems to be the opportunity.

There was Jo Ann in the third grade. She’s the one who won me over from the blonde-haired girl who jumped on my back. I painted her initials, JAM, on the stern of my little battery-powered motorboat. I can only hope she knows that when we went to the afternoon movie—which my grandmother didn’t approve of on Sunday—she didn’t have to place the dime admission in my hand on the way down the aisle. Come to think about it, since then I’ve always paid when I’ve gone down the aisle.

And that summer when I stayed with my country kin working in the wheat. What a harvest. The box supper seemed innocuous enough. And it would have been, if I hadn’t elicited the help of one cousin in outbidding another for his girl’s prize basket. A few hours eating and another one in the cool of the following evening, when she brought some homemade ice cream over after I’d worked all day, may have lost her a suitor and me might near a cousin. In a few days, however, I was back in the city. I don’t have a clue if she knows what it meant for her to have leaked the description of her basket over the eight-party telephone line, or what those two days mean to me.

And there was Cathy, the older of the two sisters who lived over near the canal. She used to get cramps in her calves, and she would rub her legs with Sea Breeze while mine set up with rigor mortis. Lord, your ritual with the anointing oil can’t hold a candle to that. I remember dancing with her in gym class once when it was hot, and she unmercifully kept wiping the perspiration from her upper lip. She didn’t seem to be too much interested in me though. Later on I dated her sister, who was actually prettier but who had no muscle problems. I never had the courage to ask Cathy if I could take care of the messages. But if she and I make it to heaven, I hope you have some Sea Breeze.

There was that girl, younger than I, who went to the state meet, I think, just to see me perform. God, what provocative lips.  I did get to kiss them a few times, but I didn’t tell her that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” I moved away soon after that, and she disappeared I know not where.

And there was another girl way back in the sixth grade at the class pool party. The teacher—the one who sent me to the office because her dress got caught accidentally on my crossed foot as she passed down the row—kicked both the girl and me out of the pool for kissing under the water. So we just went down to the ocean. Neptune didn’t seem to mind. I saw her years after when she was selling jewelry in a department store, and I wanted to tell her then that I’d never forget that pool party. She was the sixth grade’s Sophia Loren, the same complexion and potential—really out of my class. She certainly inspired my seeing a lot of Italian movies.

Speaking of movies. Romy Schneider was in the first art film I ever saw. I was in college. She was on the screen in a little theater in Nashville. I don’t know if you look in on art films or not. You may like Cecil B. De Mille. Anyway, her husband, as I remember, had mistreated her in some way. And she was despondently disrobing in a luxurious bathroom. That was my first consciousness of the difference between eroticism and aesthetics. The luxury of Romy’s bath contributed, I’m sure, to the consummate beauty of the scene. Yet I’ve had the same impression often in much different contexts, once looking through the rods of a brass bed at a work of art, not in a spacious bathroom, but in a cramped block shower stall. Would Romy, I wonder, even in heaven be interested in my response? Or would I have to be a movie star as well? I used to think painters were sex fiends, but once you become aware of a living Rubins, you understand their fascination. And poets also marvel: “Two hundred years to adore each breast.” Absolute beauty, idea stamped on space—overwhelming. The best thing, I’m told, you ever created. Yummy as well.

It took me a long time to be conscious of a lot of things. For example, in Tennyson’s “Oenone,” why would Paris run off and leave his lovely Oenone for Aphrodite’s promise of the most fair and loving wife in Greece? Then I was studying the poem in a class with Rita, a queen of beauty if ever there was one. And I knew.  Though I never really knew Rita. But I didn’t get to tell her that she was the best critique of a poem I ever saw. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”—and for that Antony willingly traded Rome.

Yes, and Jack’s neighbor, whom I met when I stayed overnight in his house at end of term. I never had the chance to respond to what she said after the movie and smooching in the car parked under all that Spanish moss. Inside her back porch screen, the curfew met, the last time I’d ever see her, the final words from her foam-born form: “Thank you for not taking advantage of me tonight.”

I’d also like to tell that first girl I ever touched how I really felt. It was that time I went home with Billy for Thanksgiving. You can believe that I was the most thankful pilgrim a New World had ever seen. What a marvelous gift. She was gentle, quiet, sweet smelling—oh so sweet smelling. I didn’t want to go to sleep that night for fear I’d forget that sweetness.

Who knows what if things had been in sync or I’d had a chance to say some of those things? Who knows where the wind blows?

46. On Running to a Woman

Lord, I seem to run to a woman when I feel down and out, lonely, hurt, or tired—wanting to be held, loved, understood.  Just to rest or find relief.

Makes me wonder about my running now to you when I don’t have anyone else to talk to. Since I don’t seem to receive what I’m searching for from you, maybe you really are our Father.

47. On Hugs

It’s too bad I don’t know if I believe in you, Lord. If I did, when I sought your help, I’d feel at least you’d give it, whether you did or not.

Actually I could use a little today, and that’s no joke. I could ask someone else for help, but a person’s got to watch what they ask for. One can get all screwed up and screw up others as well. Screwed up or nailed, it’s about the same thing.

You see, lots of people are going around needing help—good people—maybe just the least little hug. A person begins to think they should give one or accept one, but that sometimes leads to hugger-mugger.

Some might ask why a person “fully growed” would need a hug anyway? Especially if they had their own good hugger. “Isn’t that like preying on innocent people? How’d you like your hugger, even needing hugs, hugging another?” I can’t easily answer that, but I do know that humans need about all the hugs they can get. And it seems to me to be more like innocent praying.

Why don’t you, Lord, take on the responsibility of giving hugs?

48. On Gratitude

Yes, Lord!  Thank you, Lord.

49. On Dark Clouds

Lord, it seems our weather comes from the west. When it’s stormy there, here at least it’s gray. Pressure zones in the flat lands and the mountains aren’t exactly alike, but truth is, wind and rain are much the same both here and there. And Zephyrus moves those dark clouds across the plains to these green heights.

50. On a Voice

Lord, sometimes I get a little sad, not melancholy, not really down, not despairing—just a little sad. There are a lot of reasons to feel that way—no need to go into that. And there are a lot of reasons not to feel that way, but those don’t count for much when one gets a little sad. What I need then is a voice, not to say, “Poor, sweet Baby” or speak truths or say anything particularly. Just a voice, a special voice, one that sinks into crevices deep down to where the brain will know, know that everything is really okay.

5l. On the Need of a Temple

Lord, I’ve been thinking about the design you had for the Temple. First, an enclosure for a courtyard, allowing your people to mingle with each other apart from the world in the marketplace. Then within the courtyard, the Temple itself where higher things were to be observed. You separated it into two parts: the Sanctum, where the lower priests performed their rites, and the Sanctum Sanctorum, where the ark was kept.

That’s just the sort of structure I would like in my life. I need an enclosure to escape from the marketplace. I need to mingle with those who are concerned with refinement of the human spirit. I need to talk with those who can sympathetically respond to what I think and say, who can understand really what it is I’m all about. Not necessarily the smartest people in the world or the best, but those of a certain slant of mind. I need to mingle with my kind of people. I admit it’s a pretty restricted group, but so was yours.

And Lord, I also need a Sanctum where holy vessels are lifted up with dignity and respect. A chamber to celebrate the sacraments of the temple, where I might seek a cleansing of spirit on the altar of flesh.

Then of course a Holy of Holies, a place where spirits fuse and godly unity is attained. Where the spiritual partakes of and has insights into the divine. Where only those of the high priesthood enter, and the covenant is reaffirmed. I seek that epiphany, Lord.

But if I were of the Order of Melchizedek and worshiped in the Holy of Holies, would I even need the Sanctum? Or might I still justifiably descend there to assuage conflicts and frustrations issuing from the limited self?

Should I make my Temple, enclosed by its courtyard, solely a Sanctum Sanctorum? Or does that depend on how much of the common priest I am?

52. On Human Contact

It’s human contact that I want, Lord, human contact. Some mutual recognition with another person that we’re both trying to make it through. Dispense with the competition and acquisition and all that other stuff, and just establish contact. That we’re not aliens on a strange planet, but just strangers alienated. Don’t people know that their tickets, whether first class or tourist, are restricted? They’re flying high and low or taxiing on the ground for a very short time? Then all their baggage is unloaded and their tickets are voided?

Just saw a girls’ softball team in a yogurt shop. They were laughing and jostling: “Thanks, coach, for the yogurt.” Their coach looked at me and grinned. She asked me how I would like to corral her bunch of girls for a season, which she was only just three hours into. How would I like to put up with, for example, that one in front of me? At which point the girl, a third my age, said, “You’d like me—I have a good sense of humor. But you might be too old for me.” “Oh,” I replied, “I was thinking the same thing about you!” It was fun, and we went on our way smiling to ourselves.

Sometimes, however, the need for human contact is a problem for me. Especially when it’s a female who’s not just a person, but a real human being. I guess the ultimate human contact is consummation. And that’s really nice, but it can get awfully complicated. Psyches are too fragile, too needy to be fulfilled by occasional physical infusions. We all want to be the one, not one of the ones. And once two people are one, they’re off and running.

It’s great to have a special person for whom special things are saved. To go away, come back, and there they are with a smile. That’s really something.

But what about those times when I just want a decent conversation, empathy—human contact—and not really anything else? And the other person has more interests, more needs, more desire than that, or thinks I do? Then what do I do?

53. On Breaking the Hedge

Lord, there shouldn’t be any problem with letting good people know they’re appreciated. That seems to be something that should be done, right? But when it’s a person of the opposite sex, then the hedge can be broken and the serpent bite. Intimacy with his little pin bores in, and farewell castle walls.

No harm done by one human spirit touching another, creating a new realm. But that nouveau state offers little jurisdiction. And the iron gates once torn reveal what it is that the court inside really wants, what everybody needs—realization of the soul. “The sting’s in that.” Makes me wonder if I should just hold my peace.

Still, good people need to be told that they are. And I needs must tell them. Haven’t you said that one’s wickedness is great who withholds bread from the hungry? I’m sorry to say, but you’re not too good about reassuring the unspotted, though great in illuminating the stains on their whitened robes.

Your mirror is certainly not soft-lit. On occasion you might provide a reflection of a person’s worth, but the image is quickly dashed since one isn’t confident of the comeliness they see. They think instead it’s something that probably should be repressed, knowing pride goeth before a fall. God forbid that they should think well of themselves!

The good are quick to see the best in others and pride in those who act like they’re god. But those who would be godly don’t believe that they themselves might be, lest they won’t be.

I think the good should be told. How can I hold my tongue when for many “the nerves prick, and the heart is sick, and all the wheels of being slow”? Aye, there’s the rub, “when the nerves prick and tingle.”

54. On a Dilemma

Lord, excuse me for belaboring the subject, but I can’t get this particular dilemma out of mind—and there’s no one else I know to go to. There are lots of folks who would eagerly listen, but not for the right reasons.

As I’ve said to you before, there’s no problem when someone of the same gender comes up to me needing a kind word. I think it pretty mean spirited not to give it to them. Of course, I know from the beginning that they need more than words. They need someone to appreciate them, to lift their spirits. And I think I can do that and be helping myself as well. Grow, feel deeper, learn more what things are about, without hurting anyone or taking from anybody—doing something good for a change.

But god, seems like it doesn’t ever work out right when that person is of the opposite gender. I give more, receive more, and that’s really nice even if the time is short—except often there’s at least one other person who doesn’t want all that to be going on. And I understand the point of view, because I wouldn’t want any serious thing going on with a special person of mine either. I accept that I have somewhat of a double standard here—physically, but not in theory, not spiritually.

So, do I give the kind word or not? I guess gods don’t have that kind of dilemma, but what’s a human supposed to do?

55. On Serving Only God

You say, “Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” Well, what about the Egyptian gods? They were pretty cool in a lot of ways. I don’t know if they could renew life annually or not, but they were responsible for a lot of great sculpture and architecture. The sphinx alone is something else.

That’s not even to mention the Olympian crowd. Would you have me overlook Venus Aphrodite? There’s one you could write home or virtually anywhere about.

Then there’s that Germanic bunch: Odin, Thor, and Freya, just in terms of wisdom, strength, and love.

Why “and him only shalt thou serve”?  Do you mean by “only” that you want to possess us, or do you command us thus for our own good? Does the commandment state an immutability, the best way? Or is it given because of our limitations? Or was it simply to give order to some murmuring sheep in Sinai?

Why not delete the second clause about serving and keep just that first part about loving. If you are love, isn’t everything that’s good and loved well, you yourself? Maybe I should ask if I could love even one god. Regardless, however, I am to love you. And, my god, what does “thy God” mean—you are mine? Moreover, I am to serve you. Is service the realization of loving? Meanwhile, you love the whole world, and they serve you. Gods have it really nice.

56. On Two Masters

Lord, I think I do know why you demand that those who love you, love only you. It’s not really that you are a jealous god enraged by infidelity. It’s that plurality is too much strain.

It’s a lot easier on you and everybody if a person loves only one. You don’t have to cope with other feelings that have meaning and purpose, other duties and responsibilities. You don’t have to deal with moral dilemmas. It’s easier to have simply even a mediocre love solely than a devoted one divided.

I am aware of your conundrum, “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” A provocative metaphor that might work as a hyperbole for God and mammon, but not for all that I know, spirit made flesh.

What if for opening I moved, “Either he will hate the father and love the mother; or he will hold to the sister, and despise the brother”? You would counter, “That’s different; there’s no conflict because they’re different kinds of love.” Then you would have moved into check—of course, that’s the point: all loves are different, each a different mixture of agape, eros, charity, fidelity, etc.

To prolong the play, you might add, “Yes, but those loves are not physically consummated.” Checked again—absurdity, that all that matters is matter. You above all shouldn’t let the question ride on flesh. Surely, you wouldn’t deny the very realization of the soul because of deference to anything about the body. How could a function of the body damn the ideal quest of the soul? Everybody that’s anybody’s aware that spirit, not matter, heads the hierarchy. In your words, “God is a spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

We could continue to a stalemate, yet for Christ’s sake, how can you, for the ease of it, answer those that hunger and thirst, “If you refuse to eat only my manna, then starve!”? Or “Since you eat pigs, no fatted calf for you”?

A son of God can feed multitudes. Surely a son of man, provide for more than one. Even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, as is written, goes not without its reward. But you who move upon the face of the deep know only too well that the waters get muddy and that if you don’t want to swim, you’d better not get wet.

57. On a Person in Need

Lord, there is this person who needs me. She doesn’t have me at night or at suppertime or Sunday afternoon. Just a call when I can take it or a tea now and then. She needs more than that. And it seems like I should be able to give more, ease her mind in some way. I try, yet it isn’t enough. That’s why I’m sad today. But my sadness doesn’t match her loneliness.

58. On Feelings

Lord, things are no good unless they involve the feelings. But when the feelings are involved, things get so complicated that I don’t  know if they’re good or bad. If you have given me emotions as well as reason, who’s to blame here, Lord, you or me?

59. On Plurality

Lord, sometimes situations are simultaneously good on the one hand and bad on the other. Like all the people who fall in love with each other, but whose love can’t be reciprocated meaningfully without causing pain to others, who may also be loved—a good/bad situation. It doesn’t seem right to say that such a case is bad and that any good, therefore, is negated—or vice versa. I guess your point of view again would be that a person has to make a choice of primary good because no one “can serve two masters.” I still think there’s something skewed in that argument.

60. On Compartmentalizing

Lord, something’s wrong with the scheme of things in my personal relationships. It seems right, logical, and modeled on the ideal. But maybe that’s what’s wrong. It’s ideal, and I’m not.

I realize that I have compartmentalized. But I’ve always thought that if I gave everything I could in each slot, things would work. And when my procedure involves others who also compartmentalize, things do function moderately well. However, people who are placed in compartments normally feel confined, “cabin’d, cribb’d”—not good enough for the whole pie, just a slice. A love segmented can feel like an illegitimate child—a lovely being, but liable to feeling sinister reproach.

One has only so much emotional and physical energy—so much time. At first the drain from each enclosure is slight, more power coming in than going out. But as the draw increases, the allocation becomes increasingly difficult. Overloads, shortages, and burnouts. Frustration everywhere.

Much more is needed than can be generated. The alarm is sounded: “There’s a deluge in B; no light in A—don’t know what in the hell is going on in C. More power—increase the power. They’re drowning, hungering and thirsting, suffering. More, more.”

I try, but still, “It’s not enough.”

What to do? It’s clear enough to B, “Help me or I sink.” But that’s to the detriment of A and C.

When I was a kid vacationing at the beach, I was deliberately dropped from the arms of my uncle as a big wave crested so he could pick up my sister. I didn’t drown, of course, but it was scary being under water before I could catch my breath. No one wants to be sacrificed. And sacrificing someone else, as you know, is sometimes much harder than sacrificing oneself. But it seems that in failing to choose, I fail everybody, allowing all “in Tiber melt.”

61. On Duality

Lord, a person can love two people, but an individual can’t very well live two lives. Even a “twin,” as I am—for although I’m just another John Doe, my name is Thomas. A good one for me, considering its implications of doubting, poking into, and duality.

62. On Commitment

Lord, I don’t know what all I do believe in. But I know that I am a part of more than I comprehend. Maybe that more is you.

Also, I’m not sure how I really fit in with everything that is. But here I am with a brain and some feelings—both limited—and with the sense that I’m to make the best of it. Yet to make it at all, I think I have to find something or someone I can commit to. Without that I’m just wandering between worlds with no fixed star. Maybe commitment is belief. Maybe I shouldn’t even worry about what I believe in, rather just determine what I can commit to. Be dedicated to it as long as I can, then turn to something else. And let it go at that.

What I do commit to will help determine what I am and give me meaning. I don’t know whether there is a fixed order of meaningful choices, but I think I have the ability to choose. To choose things that are good or at least less bad than others—things better than the limited self. Giving to the needy, for example, is better than hoarding, though something even that simple isn’t an absolute and involves all kinds of dilemmas. But as far as I’m concerned, the idea of giving to the needy is still a truth, a reality, a good. And committing to what seems good is the best I can do, whether it has ultimate meaning or not.

It’s easy, I think, for some to be committed to a Miltonic vision of sorts, everything justified and providential. Fair enough. But they would have me accept it too. Sorry. However, I do like Dore’s illustrations of Satan.

No one else can dictate what or whom I must be committed to. Even when I know, I must feel it feel it as well. And although I can’t really delineate knowing and feeling—both might be chemical—it doesn’t matter to me. I sense a difference.

I do know that commitments like other plans oft go awry, especially when two humans are involved. Things can get screwed up—promises broken, as well as hearts. But even muddled, fidelity exists as long as commitment survives. Giving up on commitment,  one generally denies the faith.

True minds unified never give up. They bear it out “to the edge of doom.” But all true minds aren’t truly unified, nor all unified minds true. Thus, time may tell the dauntless to tear through the gates of dark towers, though tyrants sling their outrageous arrows: “Infidelity, recreant.”

63. On Independence

Lord, I don’t want to sound like the Israelites murmuring in the wilderness. But from your perspective I probably do. Actually, I don’t feel too good myself about complaining. I certainly don’t want to be an infant crying in the night, especially over spilt milk. (No wonder the Hebrews were called the children of Israel.)

Come to think about it, you’re not doing anything about my bootless cries may be exactly what I need. Perhaps you’re avoiding the mistake my father made in not letting me do much myself while working with him. Oh, I got to do a lot of holding tools and following directions. But not much just on my own. You know, make something, even a mistake, without any backup.

My father, who’s now in “heaven,” was a man—take him for whatever else he was. Did most everything he set out to do by himself. He’d have made a great frontiersman, like a lot of other farm boys—my neighbor, for example, from down in the country on the river. He hardly ever comes to me for anything, though I’m always running to him. And when I goof up, he says, “Just take out your little black book and write that down as education.” Seems like agrarian folk lost a lot when they formed towns and became dependent on help.

I appreciate that even Ulysses was a part of all he met, but like all heroes he was mostly on his own. As was Jesus on the cross, not forsaken, but alone.

Guess that’s what it’s all about. Like the song says, “You got to walk that lonesome valley; you got to walk it by yourself.” And not murmuring, even walking through a wilderness. And not with the language of an infant crying. But with the spirited voice of an epic hero: “The time is not to sit upon the ground and mourn all the might-of-been’s and the if-only’s, all the slings and arrows of fortune, the soiled plumes, and the milk of human kindness spilt—what was not, nothing is. “Now’s the day, and now’s the hour” to lay on till damned despair itself cries out, ‘Hold, enough.’”

64. On Being Out of the Ashes

Lord, I haven’t needed to talk with you lately. For a time I seemed smothered in a bed of ashes, flame licked, but no breath nourishing the coals. But now I have a commitment—worthy of belief—and I feel ignited, alive, burning.

So feel free to call me. And if need be, I’ll call on you.

Part Two

1. On Needing to Talk Again

Well, God, here I am again. I tried talking with a couple of others, but it’s not working. You probably knew I’d be back. I really don’t know what to say. I just don’t feel right. I don’t expect things to be perfect, far from it. But I do want to feel okay so that I can deal with everything. The outside stuff, however, is undermining the inner. What I’d hope would complement my strength and my will is opening up my veins. I know I’ve got to do something on my own to purge these sickly feelings and to stop the bleeding. Frankly, though, I’m not sure what to do.

2. On Thinking the Bases Are Covered

How can you think you know someone so well you’d bet your life on it and do—then discover when you’re down to the nitty-gritty, you don’t have a clue? Oh, in many ways you do, yet there’s something down deep that’s eluded you. Not a tragic flaw, but a fly in the ointment that spoils it all. The rest doesn’t seem to matter—it’s rancid.

You know what the person likes and dislikes: the food they’ll eat or not, the friends they’ll make or won’t tolerate, the music that stirs their heart or sets their teeth on edge. And you even think you complement all that. Not expecting things to be perfect or satisfying every need. But feeling all the bases are covered—and certainly home plate.

Then in the final innings you stand in the box with a good stance to hit away, but you’re given nothing in the zone and strike out every time. In the ninth, you throw your best—your slider works, your curve breaks, and your fastball’s down the pike. But nothing looks good at the plate, and all are let by. Perhaps you could accept the batter’s calling every pitch, or just lob them in and go as many outs as wished. But that’s not a game to play.

3. On a Person in a Hollow Tree

You know, Lord, I’ve been thinking about Merlin. He could see a bunch of stuff, and, of course, his vision caused him a bunch of problems. But his problems really started when he got involved with Vivian. He talked with her a lot and got to feeling that she was of his mind, as well as magical and pretty sexy too. I think he also felt he needed to do something for somebody special, rather than just for the kingdom in general. When she finally wrapped herself around him, he did everything in his power for her, even sharing all his secrets. Yet, no matter what he did, it was never enough—like the song says, he gave her his heart, but she wanted his soul. After she got everything but that, she enclosed Merlin within a hollow tree, shutting him completely out of the world she lived in.

Merlin reminds me of a Norman Rockwell drawing of a fisherman carrying a big lobster trap across his back. The fisherman had caught a mermaid. Or so he thought! What he didn’t realize was that he was the one who was caught.

Odysseus could have told the fisherman that mermaids and their songs are beautifully seductive, but that they are also controllingly destructive. The wily Odysseus knew to tie himself to the mast of his boat lest he be drawn to the sirens and dashed against the rocks. He might well have warned Rockwell’s fisherman to get that mermaid off his back by releasing her to the sea. She wouldn’t be satisfied in the fisherman’s world, although it would never be the same—and she wouldn’t or couldn’t take any man into hers.

Lord, what do you think about Merlin? What happened to the magic? How does one get out of a hollow tree and back to use?

4. On Drifting

The record says that after creating the heavens and earth for six days, you rested on the seventh and declared all of it good. But what did you do on the eighth? Did you just drift a little, not really create or rest, just kind of float? I feel a little like that now.

When I finally get down to something, say splitting wood, I can go like the devil. But after bolting out enough to burn a while, I’ll quit, soak the handle head, or spend time mulling over what the next chore should be—all of which are worth the doing. But I feel like I’m tooling around when I should be getting back into the swing of things.

Right now, for example, I think it’s good for me to try working through this thought with you, but a cup of tea would be nice before getting on with it. So, I think I’ll float a teabag, if you’ll please excuse me—then again, maybe you won’t.

5. On Beginnings

For me the New Year is a good time to refocus on where I think I should be headed. Even though most of my New Year’s resolutions are simply repetitions of past ones, it still seems good to have the sense of a fresh start. I know you have had some new beginnings yourself—some pretty spectacular ones. That flood thing, for example, was a doozy. I’m glad you didn’t have to repeat that one.

A friend of mine had a good idea about making new starts. She had a summer solstice party with a few close friends. And all of us brought several items that represented things we wanted to rid ourselves of. Then we all sat in front of the fireplace and took turns burning up our items. If we didn’t have an appropriate representation, we could write the topic down on a slip of paper. Some of us gave hints about what we were throwing in the fireplace, while others burned away silently.

I think it would have been better if everyone had felt at ease to say outright what was being thrown into the fire. One of your own writers says that there’s healing in confessing one’s faults—that’s true. Of course these weren’t necessarily “faults” that we were burning. In some cases, they were just things we wanted to let go of—you know, putting our hands to the plow and not looking back.

At least for me there are times when I need to take stock of where and what I am,  and accept the purification of whatever fire I’ve gone through—and not turn to a pillar of salt either by looking back.

6. On Relationships

You know, I’m thinking about a particular couple that I know pretty well, and I can’t picture what attracted them to each other or why they stay together. I wonder what a gal like her sees in him, and what a guy like him sees in her? Does the relationship in fact work? It doesn’t seem to. I’m in no position to sit in on judgment, but I can’t see it. Sure, each one of them has admirable qualities, but they don’t seem to mix. And I guess whether or not the couple will make it very long is yet to be seen.

I shouldn’t care very much one way or the other, but I do a fair bit. I even wonder why I’m concerned at all. Maybe I’m actually questioning myself, “There must be something wrong with me—if that guy can stick it out, then I should be willing to in a similar situation.” No, I think I could, but wouldn’t because doing so would just be a lie. Maybe my concern about the couple is purely academic, an observation that the relationship is merely one of many that shouldn’t be, and probably won’t for very long.

On the other hand, the couple may be one of numerous relationships that hang on incomprehensibly forever because one or both parties involved receive something vital, or termination is simply too complicated.

Yet, I must say about a few such relationships—if I could exchange places with the guys, I would create something really good, appreciate the untouched, and thrive on bread cast upon the waters.

But then, what do I know?

7. On Lancelot and Guinevere

Lord, I’ve been thinking about asking you for a favor. Could you see your way clear to grant me a liaison, an affair? This may come as a shock to you, but I’m serious. My life seems stagnant, routine, zestless. I need a boost to pump a little vitality into it, some new blood.

I could handle this adventure on my own, but I know what the outcome would be. In a short while it’d be like Lancelot and Guinevere: “Twice as much grief, twice the strain for us, as we had known before”—and Lancelot riding off to war within and without, Guinevere going to a convent.

That’s the way it goes. At first: excitement, exhilaration—life! All you can see is Aphrodite, the foam-born, standing in a shell ready to be swallowed like a raw oyster. But all too soon, you come to where two roads cross. One, the other person’s not too neat, or you bore her. The other, she’s really neat and she really needs you. If you’re one-and-twenty, you bugger off or run away and get married. But if you’re farther on down the road, you hear a voice: “She has commitments, and you both have lots of baggage.” Still you see Aphrodite, her smile beguiling even amidst a turbulent surf that’s ready to engulf you.

But, Lord, if you bequeathed a tryst, you could compose the plot—Lancelot inspired to greater glory, Guinevere to enhanced realization.

How about it? A boon, my lord.

8. On Being a Contender

Lord, I’ve been wondering a lot lately, Could I have been a contender—could I “have been somebody”? That’s not to say I’ve always taken the count or become a bum. And I’ve had a shot or two at a title. But there are “titles” and there are “titles.” I know you’re credited with “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Yet that decision rings clearer at the bell if you’ll be wearing the belt.

It’s written, you’re pretty tough on those who take a dive, burying their talent. But what about us who use whatever we have and only win a few? Have we misjudged and trained for the wrong game—and that made all the difference? I thought I’d gone through all the right ropes. Was I fooling myself, avoiding or being oblivious to the big bouts, and boxed myself in?

How am I supposed to know? Is your answer, “When you don’t win”? Or, “No, you’ve talent for the game and you’re a pretty good slugger who can take a punch—I’ll give you that—but you were never meant to be a contender”?

One time when I was a kid, we strung a rope for a ring, and my cousin helped me train by holding up a pillow, then refereed a match with me and another kid in the neighborhood. It wasn’t much of a contest and didn’t last very long—the best that can be said is I was brought on too fast.

But what about now? I’ve trained hard, I don’t have a glass jaw, and I believe I can go the distance. Also, I’m willing to enter arenas that once seemed secondary. And, Lord, if indeed you are our father, you should or could look out for me. I see others

who’ve had less promise, yet wear a crown—and admittedly some, who’ve had more, that remain unknowns. Should I forget all that and simply “fight the good fight”?

Even then, there’s still the question, Could I have been—or be—a contender? A yes would have a nice ring to it.

9. On Batman and Bruce Wayne

Lord, there’s this former NFLer who works out in the gym where I occasionally go. When we’re both there, I sometimes catch our reflections in the wall mirror. And I can hardly reconcile the images. He looks like an economy-size Batman; whereas, beside him, I look like a pint-size Robin. If we were on Star Trek, you’d say that both of us were humanoids, but that he was from the planet Krypton or something.

In the catalogue of dogs, there are big ones, little ones, skinny ones—and I don’t think too much about the differences. But I just can’t master all the shapes and sizes of people. The ubiquitous fast-food sows, the utterly incredible Holstein cows, the slinky minks, and the rest of the menagerie.

I can’t quite get a handle on what could be called “physical profiling.” Some people look intelligent, whereas others just don’t. Yet some of those who appear dumb as rocks glisten when held up to light. Others seem coarse by voice and skin alone. Then there are those who have the unmistakable look of privilege—it’s more than cheekbone, hair, or Land’s End. It’s the sum of all that and more, something I don’t have and never will. Maybe it’s the way they feel about themselves because of what’s been given them—not consciously, but innately acquired. Like Bruce Wayne.

Sometimes I’m quite content with the way I am. But sometimes I wish I looked like Batman or Bruce.

10. On Admiration

Don’t know if you are interested in old movies or not, but I am. One I recently watched is about a dozen felons in the army selected for a mission into Germany. The mission is all hush-hush, and in the training process, one of the guys is beaten up rather than spill the beans. Later, the same guy is responsible for the mission’s not being scuttled. I really admire that character in the film. And the actor who portrayed him is so convincing that I tend to admire him as well. Then I saw the same actor in a similar part, a street boxer who staked his winnings and himself, when he wasn’t obliged to, on a match to save a foolish comrade’s neck. As in the other movie the boxer had what it took to get the job done, and he did it. Wow, that’s neat. I love it.

Traditional epics, I think, are basically the same as these old movies. They are exciting stories about guys who are strong, guys with character, guys who are the kind you’d like to be—guys you admire.

But of course there are admirable people all around. For me, teachers head the list. There are a number of teachers over the years I really admire. Teachers who really knew their subjects and were committed to expanding the appreciations of their students. Teachers who wore the mantle of their discipline with pride, and who didn’t care how smart you were—only if you were a disciple of truth and beauty, and if you aspired to touch at least the hem of the garment.

Another group I admire is café waitresses who know their stuff. You know, the ones who know how to help you enjoy your meal, whether it’s soup beans or steak. They get up every day—”to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow”—and give a hard day’s honest work. Their grammar might not be too good, and they might squander too much of their tips on a jukebox or lottery ticket. But while you’re in their café, you’re treated as a human being and served well.

I’m sorry to say I don’t generally admire politicians, although undoubtedly there must be some good ones. I do, however, appreciate some of them for being real professionals, people who are highly skilled and committed. Politicians are good at juggling power and popularity, even though they consistently drop principle—they’re politically sagacious and committed to being elected. A few are as slick as Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, and sometimes when you see them in action, you can’t help but stand back in wonder—“Ain’t he a sight, now?”

But what I appreciate is one thing, and what I admire, another. I suppose what it all comes down to is that I admire really good people who are really good at what they do. They’re basically Platonists. They perceive the ideal and seek to give it substance. They see little difference between who they are and what they do. And they range from those with years and years of training, and salaries out the wazoo, to those traditionally trained with years of experience, and earnings on the margin. But they all say the same thing, “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right.”

“Really good people who are really good at what they do” . . . that gets us back to heroes—movie, epic, and otherwise. Would like to be one.

11. On a Son

I met a friend of mine whose son was a friend of my son. I hadn’t seen him in some time, so naturally we asked each other about our boys. His son had followed his own profession and was now practicing medicine. I had plenty to brag about on mine, but tried not to be chauvinistic. In reality, each of us was a jock’s dad on the sidelines yelling, “That’s my boy!”

Weird, isn’t it? As though whatever was favorable about our sons proved something positive about us, that is, the horses confirming the studs. Of course the foals could have been plugs—at least his—then our conversation would have turned on the weather. But fortunately, our young stallions were winners, and we proudly led them around the ring.

The encounter smacks somewhat of one I recently had at an art exhibit. A man who has never been associated with any art, other than seduction, arrived with what appeared to be an escort (paid for in one way or another), a real model type, if you know what I mean. I don’t think his date made him cool except to himself, although the two seemed pretty cool to each other. With some guys like him, if it’s not glamorous women, it’s cars or boats or houses. With my friend and me, it was our sons’ accomplishments.

I suppose we think that all those material things will impress others because we’re impressed by them, knowing even at the time that they have little or nothing to do with personal quality. But the worldview, the con of others, out-cons us.

Come to think about it, Lord, what about you and all that Old Testament bunch? Weren’t you a little chauvinistic about the “children of God,” like Joshua and David? What about Jesus? . . . and what about us?—perhaps you’d rather talk about the weather.

12. On Pride

Lord, my take on what really bothers you is “rejection”—your people turning to other gods. That smarts. Like the time on Mount Sinai when they made the golden calf, you were ready to nuke ’em. On the other hand, you gave King David all kinds of slack because he hung in there with you. Not so for his son Solomon because he built all those strange temples for his wives. Maybe your demand of singular service was necessary to control a people in a land full of seductive gods.

Now, with the Greek gods it was different. What really raised their hackles was not rejection, but hubris. Zeus and his bunch didn’t cut any slack for anybody, man or woman, whose excessive pride stood up in their face. A king or whomever, the Olympians would cut them off at the knees or poke their eyes out.

I think I’d go with the Greeks on this one. I react more to arrogance than to rejection, although I’m pretty used to both.

I wonder why arrogant people trouble me so. Maybe because they make me feel inferior. But, if they’re really as good as they think they are, know as much as they say they do, and are as clearly superior as they pose—they shouldn’t have to flaunt it. They should see the complexity, the uncertainty, the multiplicity of things. They should appreciate the essential worth of others and the ultimate inadequacy of themselves.

I know the arrogance of others threatens to outcast me, but certainly it should be different with the pantheon of gods. Their state should be unshakable. Maybe it’s more elemental with them—maybe it’s just bad form, the denial of order, rude behavior, and they won’t tolerate it.

13. On Servitude to Work

One of your writers has that wonderful statement about there being a time for planting and a time for reaping, a time for this and a time for that. Well, there seems to be a time when you have to give up almost everything in order to achieve a particular goal. Sacrifice everything working toward that end if you’re going to make it—recreation, family, friends, everything. And if you’re not willing to make the sacrifice, then forget about the goal. Of course you’ve got to decide if the goal is worth all that work. But if it is, then everything else has got to go. Work and work alone lives within the volume of your brain.

Of course, once the goal is achieved, the mind’s at liberty to compensate all those other things. “Ay, there’s the rub”—the mind’s not at liberty. Rather, Work—“scourge and minister”—refuses to release the promise of servitude. All other service has only relative merit and is acknowledged minimally at best. Strict accounts must be made, schedules kept. Time must be scrupulously accounted for, scrutinized, and evaluated. One item, and only one, set down as credit in the tables—work. “O cursed spite.”

I accept that there is a time for this mind-set. But “How long, Oh Lord, how long?” During one period in my life I had to charge groceries because there wasn’t enough check each month to go around. Now I buy whatever groceries I want. Once there wasn’t enough time to go around for a number of important things. Now there is, if I could get my niggardly mind to spend it. But work has become a habit that o’er-leavens my staff of life and seeks to burn all other virtues.

How then can I compensate for those things sacrificed? Recreation has atrophied for lack of developed hobbies. Golf, tennis, and all the rest being long since neglected.  As a fisherman, for example, I’m like a fellow I overheard at a rest stop who bragged about always catching something when he went fishing, and whose buddy said, “Yeah, a damn cold.”

Family have grow up and apart, changed, and left for different reasons.

Friends—now there’s perhaps the best bet for compensation. Perhaps with friends I might break Work’s chains, regain my freedom, discharge the ghost that haunts me. Yes, troops of friends (realistically, single files) shoulder-companions, soul mates, pals, loving companions, good neighbors, and the salt of the earth—all who exchange with me the name of  friend and are worn “in my heart of heart.” With them I could toast the chimes at midnight or sit upon the ground and tell tales. Commune with and serve one another before “night comes and no man can work,” when all “the rest is silence.”

14. On a Reunion

Lord, I just went to a high school reunion. In some ways it’s funny to refer to the event as a reunion, as though the class was ever united. Moreover, some of those I had once felt close to greeted me casually as merely an acquaintance. What does that mean?  That I never mattered to them in any special way? That I chose the wrong “friends” by making selections on foam that has since blown away?

I hate to confess it, but at the end of the day I felt there weren’t many I’d want to spend much time with now. I wonder if they viewed me the same? Yet, what I wanted to feel over that space of several hours was a sense of unity by recapturing lots of mutually warm and personal moments. On the other hand, maybe I was not being completely honest about the depth of my own feelings. Maybe I had created a fanciful notion and was in reality deceiving myself as well as others. Perhaps none of us had ever been more than travelers of sorts who stopped briefly in a certain place before continuing on down the road. Simply pilgrims who paired off and consorted in groups to wile the time away.

However, it does say something that a goodly number showed up for the reunion. High and low churchmen, doctors, lawyers, and merchants. The well- and pretty-well-to-do were there, but not the socially down-and-outs. I wonder if they—the ones who hadn’t “made” it—stayed away to conceal the marks Fortune had placed on their foreheads. Maybe they knew all along who their friends were.

Lord, am I looking at things askew? What do you think? That a few of us were in fact true friends, and all have shared in different ways a meaningful part of our lives? I’d have to agree. But what would have been really good is a reunion in deed—the kind there wasn’t time for. Time to look at our scars beneath the makeup and starched shirts. Time to tell of our deepest dreams disturbed, of our steps on the ladder slipped, and of all our losses cut by force. Time to sit upon the floor and tell stories of our dead and dying. And clear the impending fog from our throats.

15. On Cremation

Lord, the Greeks had a pretty good concept in the funeral pyre. Stack up some wood, then chuck on a little salt and wine, maybe a lock of hair or two, and, of course, the guest of honor—and you’ve got a nifty bone fire.

You can no longer get laid to rest for a dollar or two. You’re often screwed before you’re chewed. Time you pay the fee for a bed of clay, you’ve put out a pretty penny just to push up daisies. (Actually, “your whoreson dead body” wouldn’t fertilize anything in a vault, and if it could, its embalming fluid would be deflowering.)

Yep, the way to go is cremation. There’s no question about it. That’s why I taking out a contract. Once you’re signed up, you’re basically locked in—you’re paid for. Of course the Middle East situation might drive up the price of crude oil. But, baring that, you’re home free.

16. On a Suicide

You know, Lord, the reunion I told you about? Well, on that Saturday night an old friend and I had our picture taken together. On Sunday, I left for home. On Monday he left for some untraveled bourn, I know not where—he killed himself.

Shock is the word everybody uses about it. That’s a good word in the attempt to diminish death. Of course, no word is good enough when “a part of the main” slips off into the sea.

Something that really bothers me is that we didn’t know anything. I stood right there and didn’t have a clue. He appeared to have been one of those who made it—money, success, the whole bit. For all I knew he could have been leaving the next day to start a new life with some beautiful woman, or to become the CEO of some mega firm, or to sell off everything and sail around the Caribbean. No doubt many of us were thinking, “Wish I had done as well”—and didn’t have a clue.

He joins another alum who took the same journey years back soon after he began college. He was one of the rich kids too. As a high schooler, he was driving around in his parents’ four-door caddy. Like his successor, he was smart, a class officer, and one in truth most likely to succeed—a really good guy and friend. Didn’t matter to him that my folks had radio instead of TV.

Why would either one launch himself out to where “no traveller returns”? Was it “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”? Or only one or two? Just the right one would do it. I wonder, Was it cowardice to be or cowardice not to be? And is your cannon leveled “’gainst self-slaughter”? Puzzling questions.

O answer me, Lord, Father, royal king —or at least defend me from these shocks.

17. On a Sibling’s Death

So you sent down an angel to take my sister, did you? A little early, don’t you think? Besides her own agenda, I personally wasn’t finished. We had just begun to really talk. Like about our father. About how she felt as the firstborn being the first to feel the wrath as well as the rod—while I cowered until the storm passed. No spoiling of her, I can guarantee you. There were so many different things for us to sort out.

The other sibling is six rungs down, under a new dispensation. You know all about that—changing with time. The baby girl of the family would never know what it had been like in the hands of an angry god-like man.

I always felt that, as the only son, I should have been the one to bear the heat and receive the blessing as well. But I wasn’t, and I don’t even know if I would have been suited for it or if I could have cut the muster as well as she. (I was never like my uncle, a burly, hairy man.) Being the one in the middle, I wasn’t to be the hunter or the herdsman. I was to stay in the tents and tend the fields, lend a hand to a sickly mother. They say that’s the way with the via media.

But I was the one who got to hear all the stories. Tales my mother told of her grandparents in the South—defense of honor, flight west, abandonment of land to an unscrupulous kinsman, loss, loss, and more loss. Tales she heard from her father in Missouri—Frank and Jessie saving the widow’s mortgage, Frank later becoming a circus celebrity. And lots of stories on the radio—all of the best of Oxidol, Lux, Shredded Ralston, Wheaties, Merita Bread: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear . . .” And although you can’t buy Lifeboy, the fragrance hasn’t completely washed off, or the grit of Death Valley Days’ Twenty-mule Team Borax.

Not that my portion was a mess of pottage, but my big sister would never have changed her birthright for anything. Anyway, as I said, there was a lot more to talk about, and I wasn’t finished—or so I thought.

18. On What Dreams May Come

Mother used to recognize me, Lord, but now she just mainly sleeps. She’s not in any pain, and she eats pretty well when they get her up. But then it’s back to bed and sleep.

I wonder what dreams may come to her while she sleeps. Are they of joining Daddy, whose name she no longer recognizes? Or are they just of you? She’s always had the “substance of things hoped for,” and Mother knows not “seems.”

Does she dream of Granddaddy—her father, who at times would take her as a child to the train station where he worked, and set her on the ticket counter so all his friends could see what a fine daughter he had? I think he also set her on the bar when he had that drink some days before going home to Grandmother, who wasn’t supposed to know, but did. He was proud of his little girl, who grew to be a strong-willed woman, though never more than four feet eight in her silk stockings. He would have been even more proud if he knew that she always talked about him as long as she could form thoughts into words.

She used to dream of being a painter and a writer, and after college going to some island to pursue her art. Maybe that’s what she was daydreaming when she was silent, walking me as a child along the beach with the surf up to the hem of her dress. Has she given up on that dream?

Maybe she dreams dreams that no one except you has ever known. I wonder and presume to ask what they are. Answer me, and I will swear on my grandfather’s Knight Templar sword never to speak of it. Then again, I should be content that she is as restful as angel songs in flight.

19. On a National Treasure

Lord, Ray’s a friend of mine, I’m happy to say. He’s a mountain man for real. Has lived his whole life on land belonging to his forefathers. He tells of one ancestor’s buying it for a hog rifle, a hound dog, and a sheep hide. He has electricity now that his folks didn’t have, but not much more. Water from the spring, heat from the wood fire, money from off the land—herbs and such. But he’s “about had it,” he says. Cancer’s got him. He’s worked hard “to keep Ole Pete from off the table.” And he, his wife, and five children have made it through a lot of winters, warm and with something to eat.

He’s quite a philosopher: “You got to keep a willin’ mind and take the bitter with the sweet. You can’t die as easy as you think you can. And like Mama always said, ‘You got to cheery on.’”

For a while Ray was known as a cradle reaper, reaping buckwheat and oats. His long frame and strong back got his name out, he says, all the way to Vilas and Valle Crucis—fifteen or so miles away. Growing up, he’d go and listened at night to his grandfather tell about the adventures of Jack and Jack’s brothers, Will and Tom. Later on, other folks wanted to hear those tales—folklorists came to record Ray, and organizers to put him on the festival stage. Then he was known internationally as a traditional storyteller and was recognized as a national treasure. But he still lived in the house built by his father and grandfather, still dipped water from the spring, and still cut fuel from the woods.

I hesitate to invade his privacy any further by asking him what he thinks about his life, but I can’t help but think about it and to compare his with mine. Stuff he’ll never have, I’ve always had, education, security, and promise of more. Likely, he’s never read a single book completely —whereas I’ve read many—but there are more than one written about him. He’s never been to the Big Apple, as I have; but he was featured in The New Yorker. He’s never been in an airplane, but I’ve read an article on Ray in a flight magazine on the way across the Atlantic.

I wonder if Ray is content with what he’s done, or wouldn’t have done if he hadn’t loved those old tales. At any rate he’s taken so little from the world, but given back so much. On the other hand, I’ve received so much; yet, it seems to me, returned so little. Should I be depressed that my fruits are so limited, or joyful that my store is so abundant without them?

I know that regardless of what we achieve, most of us are never content. Even Shakespeare desired “this man’s art and that man’s scope,” and was “contented least” with what he most enjoyed. And Alexander the Great wept over there being no more worlds to conquer. Yet I also know that regardless of art or scope, even Alexander like Caesar, “dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”

These thoughts, Lord, turn me back to Ray, whose life seems to say, as perhaps you would agree, “Cradle reaper or celebrity, rich in talents or poor indeed, nothing staves off the grimness save to have a willing mind and to cheery on.”

20. On a Server

Lord, I’ve got to tell you about what happened this morning when I was having breakfast at the Southern Café. My friend Ben and I try to go there pretty often, mainly to keep in touch. Usually there are the same two waitresses, Maggie and Sharon, who work the morning shift. The last time I went, however, Maggie wasn’t there. When I asked where she was, her cousin who was substituting said Maggie was staying two or three days with her granny in the hospital.     Today, Maggie was there, and Sharon as well. Sharon seemed the same, but Maggie had lightly bleached her hair, which formerly was slightly scarlet.

I was running a little late because I had stopped on the way at a gas station to use the restroom. I don’t like having to use the restroom at the café. It’s tidy enough, but I hate walking through the kitchen past the link sausages and other food on the steam table to get to it.

When I got to the Southern, Ben was already seated in a booth with his back to the street drinking a cup of coffee. I sat down opposite him facing the plate glass at the front. I was glad I was on that side because from there I could see the hill that overlooks the town. And framed perfectly in the upper portion of the window were the three crosses that crown the hill with the sign below them in large red letters, “Jesus Saves.”

Maggie came up and started talking while writing my order down from memory: “Pork tenderloin, two eggs over medium, biscuits, hash browns, and a glass of water.”

“Grits,” I said.

“Missed that one, didn’t I?”

I answered, “Yeah, and I’ve missed seeing you.” And she responded that she had missed me too. Then unexpectedly she sat down beside me and put her arm across my back. I kind of cuddled in. And instantly she said, “Shoulder, honey, shoulder—no pillow this morning!”

Well, that just cracked me up, and Ben too. Sharon heard the laughter and wanted to know what was going on. So Maggie repeated the whole thing for her.

Then a frail little lady in her eighties came in the door and was making her way toward a table. Maggie jumped up and was immediately at her side giving a hand, a strong meaty one with the skin tone reddish from being burned more than once.

After a while Ben and I went up to pay. Sharon was at the register, but Maggie noticed our leaving and waved. And a thought struck me. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a snapshot of her next to the window at this moment, a photo to hang in the middle of all those other photographs tacked on the wall—with an inscription: A Hand Sanguine on a Field of Crosses.

Lord, you’d like Maggie. “She’s a nice-un,” as they say. She made my morning for sure. In fact she saved my whole day.

21. On Outsiders

I’m upset, Lord. But I don’t mean simply angry. Something has unsettled me, turned me inside out. I can’t get it off my mind. And each time I think about it, I get in a funk.

I don’t know if you know what happened or not, but I would imagine that your son, if he knew, might have felt like cleansing a temple or a plow or two.

What occurred was at this little clapboard “sign-following” church out in the middle of nowhere called “The Church on the Rock.” I was visiting some friends who were members. Anyway, there was this guy on the front pew, obviously an outsider like me, who was clapping his hands and singing big time. He repeatedly wound his arm around the pastor’s wizened mother as he whispered beguilingly in her ear.

Turns out the guy, ironically named Peter, was a Hollywood actor who flew in from the coast the week before with another guy, a writer, who had gone forward one night to have a demon cast out of him. They say he fell to the floor in a “trance” and slithered on his back until believers reached down and took him up. On this night, however, the writer was subtilely taking a back seat while the actor requested divine healing by the laying on of hands. In simple faith, a couple of my friends and a dozen or so others encircled him—hands raised or placed on his head and back—pitching their voices high for one of the nine spiritual gifts, the power of healing.

Turns out, these two guys have joined up to produce a movie version of the folks at this little church.

I’m certainly in no position to cast stones and can’t claim the gift of “discernment of spirits,” but seems like it would have been a great time for you to give a sign of warning— perhaps the stones crying out or a few falling down from the sky. You wouldn’t have had to zap anyone, but a thunderbolt would have been a nice touch.

22. On Checking Out

Lord, I was going to a piano concert the other night, so I decided to “clean up” as they say around here. Got out the blue blazer and the monogrammed French-blue shirt. I felt pretty sharp, as well as cultured. The Rachmaninoff was familiar, but I hadn’t heard the Prokofiev—it wasn’t the “Romeo and Juliet.”

After the concert, I thought I would take advantage of already being out by running to the video shop for a movie, and the grocery store for some bread.

Since it was late, I was able to get the movie quickly and then next door to the grocery. In the checkout line there was only one person, a guy in a bill cap trying to get his food-stamps card to register in the automatic debit meter. The card was broken, although not across the magnetic stripe, and was still held together by the thin plastic coating. His right arm was in a brace. The left had a wide, unsutured slash on the forearm. What first caught my attention was the scattered red, chickenpoxey marks on his face, and his stringy moustache. He was having no success with his card, and the checkout lady kept saying, “Okay, try again.” She had already sacked his few items, including a small opened bag of chips she hadn’t charged him for, even though he had insisted: “No, run that through—I was a little hungry, so I just ate a few.”

Something about the system wasn’t working. The screen kept repeating, “Please insert card.” He tried again—punched several buttons at the top, swiped the card, and entered his pin number. He did everything he knew, but with no luck. As the cashier attempted to complete the sale, he turned to me with apologies and small talk. “How are you doing tonight, sir? Sorry to hold you up.”

I answered, “I’m doing fine, no problem.” And I added, “That’s a pretty nasty cut on your arm.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but it’s healing up pretty good. I put some Neosporin on it. I keep some in my kit. They call me Doc. I was a corpsman and keep a few things like that to fix up the guys at camp when they get banged up. So they call me Doc.”

The system still wasn’t working, so I tried his card for him with a little help from the young woman who had come up in back of me, “Push debit, then swipe the card,” she said. I tried that and a couple of other combinations, but something wasn’t right.

While the cashier went over to the assistant manager for some help, the guy said, “Yeah, I just got the cast off this leg. It was killing me. These fingers on my right hand are getting so I can move them, but these on this hand are crooked and won’t bend.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“A fella came into camp and really worked me over. But I finally laid him out with my stick, that one right over there”—pointing toward a six-foot pole leaning against the wall near the door.

The assistant manager came over and, knowing the system, punched the right buttons, and—voilà—was successful. The guy saluted us and left the store.

I looked at the woman behind me, and we both shrugged our shoulders. She muttered that she wished she had one of the store’s “savings card” so she could take advantage of the offer of two bottles of grape juice for the price of one. “Here, you can use mine,” I said. She ran back for the other bottle while the cashier ran up my groceries. “Is this pretty good bread?” she asked, passing the bar code across the sensor. I replied, “The staff of life.”

I had better luck than the guy before me. I punched in “credit,” swiped my Visa, signed my receipt, and made for my car. As I walked past the video store, there stood the guy who had been in line with me. He had his pack and cudgel, which was adorned with several feathers, Indian style.

I waved as I veered to avoid coming up to him, but yelled, “Have a good night.” He responded, “Are you going down that-a-way?” and pointed towards town. “No,” I said, pressing toward my car on the other side of the handicap spaces. “Well,” he said, “I’m gonna go in the liquor store here and call a cab. I just don’t feel up to walking down the hill. Hope we get to talk again sometime.” He turned towards the door of the store.

I seemed compelled to say, “How far are you going?”

“Just down to the bottom of the hill, near the station next to the Mexican store and the Chinese restaurant”—it was no more than four or five blocks away.

“Come on, I’ll take you,” I said, somewhat hesitatingly.

“Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.”

The distance was not a factor. The guy seemed high on something, alcohol, perhaps, or drugs, and it was the middle of the night. On the other hand, he had been respectful to the cashier and friendly to the rest of us in the grocery—and honest about those chips. But was this safe, was this rational? Would I live to regret it? Would I live? At that point, however, none of that mattered. I had committed myself, and there was no turning back.

Since my car has only two bucket seats, I opened the hatch, put my bag in and his, including the staff, which was hewn from a hardwood sapling. Then I unlocked the doors, and we got in.

We went straight down the road to the station, made a turn left, and drove another block. He said he was staying at a halfway house on the right, but not to stop there. I asked where he wanted out, and he said anywhere along where we were. I pulled over into a cleaner’s parking lot. By this time I had forgotten about his stuff. But remembering, I got out, raised the hatch, and unloaded his gear.

I asked about the guy who beat him up. Had he been a former enemy? He said, “He was bad, man, big—over six feet, 200 pounds.” He had come into the camp, was obnoxious, and wouldn’t leave for three days. “He came back while I was asleep, pulled me out feet first, and beat me half to death.”

I asked about the camp. It was out a ways from the back gate of the V. A. Hospital, along the rail track, past the overpass. He said he had lived in the woods most of the winter, and he kind of liked it. But finally he couldn’t take the bitter cold, and they took him in. I presumed “they” were the V.A. Hospital. He said he had been sick, but was better now.

I held out my hand to say goodbye. And when we clasped hands, he stretched his forefinger up my wrist and said, “I’m checking your pulse. I was a corpsman. I’m checking your heartbeat.” Then he lifted my hand up and kissed it—took several steps backwards and gave me a proper military salute before turning and walking off. I got in my car and drove home.

The first thing I did was guiltily wash my hands with antibacterial soap. Then I sat down to justify myself with a bottle of single malt.

So, Lord, just how do you check it all out—as star-crossed . . . Eternal Providence?

23. On Your Being Only in My Head

Lord, it seems that sometimes you’re my best and only friend. But if you should not really be out there somewhere and only in my head, I’m just talking to myself. Ergo, it would actually be me that would sometimes be my best and only friend. That’s a little lonely, but at least I’d know whom I could count on.

That would also mean I am my own god. What then? Lay down my own commandments for my behavior, and reward or punish myself accordingly? Make my own heaven or hell? Rule in the nutshell of my skull?

That’s all right with me—most of the time. But I’d rather have someone else to have a decent conversation with and to count on for reinforcement. If you’re only in my head, I have no one ultimately to complain to and no one else to blame—I’m just one of a pantheon of individuals contending with one another over personal domains. I’d rather have someone to share the responsibility, as well as someone in charge who had some real control.

If you’re only in my head, all I have is just a wait for the Götterdämmerung, at least a long one I hope.

24. On a Coach

Lord, how do you like being a “coach”—you know, the “coach in the sky” that I’m always hearing about?

I know a guy who used to play for the pros, but who’s now a football coach. He’s a nice fella; and unlike some coaches I know, he’ll speak to you. In fact we’ve had some pretty decent talks. The other day we got on the topic of losing.

He told me that one of the problems about losing is that the guys in the locker room start projecting blame—looking around and pointing fingers at the mistakes of others. “And,” he said, “when that starts, the team really falls apart.”

He coaches offensive line. But this year he has all freshmen starters. “Sometimes,” he said, “they really try my patience. They haven’t learned what it is to be a college football player. They don’t have discipline, the mind-set that keeps focus when they’re beaten down. Boys right out of high school come up against bigger, stronger, faster players—and they quit, they give in. They don’t have the discipline that comes with experience. I coached at a military school before coming here, and I try to teach these kids that kind of discipline.

“But you’ve got to know when to ‘rip’ ’em, and when to pat ’em on the shoulder. I’ve had some of the best offensive coaches in the world, and I’ve modeled my coaching after theirs. Still, I’ve had to change with the times. If I coached like I did years ago, the guys would quit. You’ve got to know when to rip ’em and when not to. But I never go at a guy on a personal level, like call him a pussy or stupid or something like that. I rip ’em for mistakes. That’s all—like I was ripped for mine.

“And they make mistakes. That’s for sure. When you’ve got some real talent in the quarterbacks and receivers, you can get by with a lot of mistakes. But when you don’t, the line can’t get away with anything. And if you can’t get it right in practice, it ’s not going to happen in a game.

“I like to win as much as the next guy,” he said. “Winning helps to solve a lot of problems. But losing, particularly having a losing season, will tell you what kind of coach you really are. It’s tough. But winning is not what it’s all about with me. What I most want to see is the guys improve. That’s what I want more than winning—see ’em improve.”

I was pretty impressed with what he said, Lord. Now, what kind of coach are you? And what kind of players do you have? Do you have any real talent or discipline on your team? Or do they just sit around blaming others because they’re losers? Do they get it right in practice? Or is winning what it’s all about—going to the Super Bowl in the sky? Have you changed any with the times? And are you really interested in helping us to improve or just in ripping us?

25. On an Alter Ego

Someone told me that one meaning of “alter ego” is a trusted friend. It is that unarticulated voice within which encourages and cautions. You know, “Sure, you have the ability—just do it,” and “Whoa, you’re better than that—don’t go there.” I know a lot of your people who say you speak to them in that way all the time.

The voice within me, though friendly, is often paradoxical. It says, “You’re obsessive about work and overlook many of the joys of life. You should live a little. Sit back and smell the roses. Spend more time with other people, more time relaxing and revitalizing. Enjoy yourself. You’re going to get to the station and feel you missed the train.”

On the other hand, when I take this advice, the voice tells me that I’m wasting time and that time will soon waste me. I’m indulging myself and not getting anything done. “You’ll have nothing to show for light granted when the night cometh. The fields are white unto harvest, and you’re still in your pallet. A reckoning will soon be made of your empty ledger. Sloth is a deadly sin, and idleness is the Devil’s workshop.”

Anyway, I checked the word out, and found that “alter ego” literally means the “second self.” And instead of the other self’s being a friend, it can be the opposite side of your personality. If you take the view that human nature is good and that you should attempt to fulfil that view—then your alter ego would say that human nature is basically evil and that you should just “go for it.” On the other hand, if you were a petty, self-serving, cruel person, your alter ego might haunt you in a nagging voice of guilt. The voices: a “spirit of health,” encouraging and cautioning as a trusted friend—and a “goblin damn’d,” gleefully lending a helping hand down the primrose path.

At this point I’m wondering, is my alter ego completely my own voice within me, (with or without a second self)? Or is it entirely your voice within me? and if so, would that mean you have an alter ego?

26. On a High Church

Well, Lord, I thought I’d try out what I’d call a High Church for lack of a better term. This particular church has been around for a long time. And its services are pretty regimented. At the one I attended, you really had to have a program how to follow it in order to enjoy the game. There were a lot of directed standings and sittings—and respondings in unison. There were vessels, standards, books, candles, and a lot of hand motions. Actually, I had a little trouble following who had the ball, but it didn’t seem to bother anybody else. They mainly watched the guy in the robe who was calling the plays. One advantage or disadvantage of this kind of service, according to my perspective, is that there wasn’t much chance of going to sleep or into overtime, as there was in the church where I went growing up.

Ritual gave this service a sense of dignity and security. (I think your people in the Temple had a lot of ritual, but I must say it is also foreign to me.) Even though everyone at this service got to participate in some way, things were in control. No one had to get worked up to participate—didn’t have to worry about what to say or do. Just listen and read the correct lines at the right time. Everything was controlled, but also a little impersonal. I guess all formality is. And you can understand why some people like it and some don’t.

I guess it’s all a matter of taste—like religion itself maybe?

27. On a Pentecostal Church

After going to a high church service, I thought I would try something entirely different—a Pentecostal congregation, one principally of Black membership. I have gone to lots of services at Pentecostal churches where some of my friends are members, but they’re all white folks.

I know the politically correct term for some is “African-American,” but that sounds foreign to me, and these folks aren’t foreigners. And if I used “African-American” for their church, I would have to call my White friends’ church “Scotch Irish,” or something more nearly accurate like “Scotch-Irish-English-German-French-Cherokee-Melungeon.” That’s what most of them are. And since Blacks are as mixed blood as the rest of us, blood designations seem a little ridiculous anyway. As one of my Black friends said, she probably had more Scotch-Irish blood in her veins than I had in mine. A designation by one’s predominant race doesn’t seem bad, but “Negroid” and “Caucasian” are awkward, to say the least. I kind of like “Red, Yellow, Black, and White, all are children in His sight.”

Anyway, I went to this Pentecostal church where a few members were White, but where most were Black. And I found that there seemed to be some significant differences between this church and that of my White friends.

First off, I noticed that they dressed better. They “cleaned up good” as the saying goes. And they seemed happier to be there. Then when they got “in the Spirit,” they were really happy—smiling, clapping, shouting. “Oh, how good the Lord’s been to us—he’s so good!” The White Pentecostals “in the Spirit” will also clap, dance, and shout, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord.” And the White folks talk about “joy unspeakable.” But to an outsider not in the Spirit, it doesn’t appear to be joy. Their faces will often be distorted as in pain, and they’ll be literally crying. That’s not the same as what I witnessed at this church, where they said: “How many of you are having a good time in the Lord? Hold up your hands. Yes, we’re having a good time in the Lord. We love you, Jesus, because you first loved us.”

They were having a big time, feeling really good. And the drums, the piano, the organ, and the choirs—not just one choir—all got really cranked up. And then, by god, even I was feeling good.

28. On the Via Media

Well, I tried out the Pentecostal and the high church services, so I thought I might as well try out the middle way. I methodically chose one right in town, a big congregation. It was a service where you could join in the singing, but if you wanted to, you could just sit back, relax, and let everything be done for you. The minister would do the talking and praying, the choir the singing, the pianist and organist the playing, and the ushers passing the collection plates. You could drop in a dollar, wait for the closing prayer, and be out of there in time for lunch.

Would anyone but you have guessed that the services of this denomination a hundred years or so ago were close to what the Pentecostal ones are today—an expressive, emotional display by the immediate and direct spiritual experience of the preacher and other worshippers? That’s changed for sure. Everything at this church was dignified. The sermon, delivered by a Doctor of Divinity, appealed not to emotions, but to reason. There were lots of stained windows, red carpets, and cushioned pews. Very respectable and upmarket. Very comfortable.

There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable. I guess it’s a matter of what it is you’re comfortable with—or should I say more nearly acceptably, a matter of that with which it is you are comfortable?

Anyway, is the via media, among churches, the way to go? Or is there a middle way, even in each of the other individual churches, a golden mean between extremes?

29. On Day-to-day Morality

Lord, all the day-to-day moral decisions can really puzzle the mind. There’s no easy ruler you can whip out to check if something measures up to standard. Just the other day I was in a grill having lunch with a couple of friends who had done some work for me. And there was this guy at one of the tables with several boxes of binoculars who was offering them for twenty bucks a pair. My friends knew him and went over to speak. When they came back and sat down, I asked them how the guy came by the binoculars. They said that he had bought them off someone alongside the road who had probably stolen them. One of my friends said, “I wouldn’t normally buy stolen goods, but I would buy a pair of night-vision binoculars for twenty dollars, wouldn’t you?”

Well, I kind of hemmed and hawed without really answering. First off, if I had said No, I might appear self-righteously responding: “Look, what do you take me for—a dope who hasn’t been around the block? I wouldn’t dirty my hands with that creep or touch those glasses with a ten-foot pole.” On the other hand, I didn’t want to say Yes, because I didn’t know for sure if the binocs were hot or not. I did think that it wouldn’t be as though I’d be acting as a fence if I made a purchase. And after all, wouldn’t there be some tolerance for uncertainty?

In truth, a light didn’t immediately go on in my head to reveal that the deal would have been definitely wrong or, conversely, that there wasn’t a significant moral issue involved in a case so cloudy. I have to confess, though, that my judgment was party eclipsed by the thought that kept circling in my mind, “Wow, night binoculars for twenty bucks—that would be a great gift.” But since I just couldn’t see myself clear to buy one, I didn’t pursue it.

After that incident, I was hurrying late to meet someone at a prescribed time about fifteen miles away. I was distracted in thought, but noticed, just as I passed on the other side of the road, someone pushing a pickup truck off the pavement. I didn’t get a good look, but I thought the person was a female. Now, as you know, there’s nothing I enjoy more than rescuing fair maidens. But in this case I calculated (customarily slowly) as I drove on, that the truck was already off the road and that I didn’t have a towrope in the car, or a cell phone—and that there was a string of cars behind me. Then I began asking myself, Should I find a good place to turn around and go back? . . . Won’t she get a ride easily with someone else at this time of day? . . . What about my obligation to the person who’s waiting on me?

But by that time and distance, these were moot questions. The only reasonable thing to do was settle down in my bucket seat and continue flying down the road. I kept thinking as I drove that I wouldn’t be a very good pilot: “Fuel leak in the right wing engine . . . Two seconds before it blows . . . Switch off toggle 50-80 . . . Too slow . . . Close, but no cigar . . . Boom!”

Soon after the incident of the stalled pickup, I was faced with another conflict. It occurred one evening late as I was coming out of the restroom at a convenience store. When I had gone into the store, there was no one present except the cashier. When I came out of the restroom, the first thing I saw was a gun holster on the hip of a rough-looking guy with a scraggly ponytail. I wasn’t scared or alarmed. I wasn’t anything. My brain simply failed to go into emergency mode and tell me something like: “Continue nonchalantly out the door without establishing any eye contact. Get in the car and scope out the situation. If warranted, immediately call 911.” Instead, I went out the door somewhat unconscious and was almost to my car before my brain finally relayed the need for a response. Once my brain did kick in, it started computing that the holster was not a modern one, nor the bloused cotton shirt, or the floppy hat perched on top of the man’s scraggy head—he was merely a reenactment soldier.

What I’m trying to say, Lord, is that I could use a little assistance in these day-to-day moral decisions. If you could help me be a little more perceptive and help me make decisions a little more decisively and quickly, I think I could really improve my peace of mind, as well as my percentage of admirable conduct. How about it?

30. On a Decent Conversation

I’ve told you lots of times, Lord, that it’s good to talk with you even though it’s one-sided. It’s good as far as it goes, but sometimes I need a little feedback. I need a decent conversation.

You know how it is when you just crave a steak or something salty to eat? (Perhaps you don’t actually experience that sort of thing.) Anyway, I can eat a ton of other stuff and not be satisfied until I get that steak or french fries. Well, sometimes I’m that way about a decent conversation. I can work, read, watch TV, piddle around—but nothing satisfies. I need to talk with somebody, somebody on the same wavelength.

The talk can be about feelings or ideas, but it’s got to be like in tennis, volleying, just hitting with a good partner. It’s not like a match, so you’re not trying to make points. You’re keeping the ball in the court and giving your partner something solid to return while, at the same time, trying to stroke the ball well yourself. If the other person tries to slam everything out of your reach or to show off or not give you thumbs-up for a nice forehand, then it’s no good. You might as well quit and go have a beer.

Sometimes I crave a decent conversation in the worst way. It’s almost like I need a fix. Absurdities may be engulfing me, or despair sucking the ground from out my feet, or the crazies having me by the throat, or whatever—and I’ll need a talk.

There are times when you can get the same effect almost from just being with somebody—the right person, a really good companion. Someone who knows what you’re feeling and whose feelings you know. Someone who responds to the same things you do in the same way.

Still, sometimes, you need words—partly because you may not know what it is you do think or feel until you try to express it. But in that attempt, whatever it is begins to take shape. And the right person can help flesh it out or smooth off the rough edges. Then you might simply respond, “Yeah, that’s it.” Or you might burst out laughing because what has emerged is so absolutely true.

But a decent conversation is hard to come by, and most of the time I’m stuck with you, not even on a court, but at a practice wall.

31. On Going Home

Lord, you know my friend Ray who was in the hospital with cancer—he’s been transferred to a health-care center. Although he’s tough and keeps hanging on, I don’t think he’ll make it much longer or go home again.

As a real mountain man, he’s about as close to a frontiersman as you can get. His life has been pretty much that of his father and grandfather, raising almost everything his family has to eat—corn, tatters, cabbage, apples, and little else.

If Ray were to get out of the health center, I can’t imagine how it would be for him now, living at his house in the dead of winter. I spent a few hours there recently so that his son could go visit him. Since the fire was low and it was after sunset, I never took my jacket off, kept close to the wood stove, and nearly froze to death anyway. There are so many cracks and crannies in and around the walls, doors, and windows that during this time of year the cold wind comes inside at will. The family can stoke that big potbellied stove so it’ll really put out the heat, but then it consumes a lot of wood. (Their stove is much better though than my freestanding fireplace, which is like a lot of people—high maintenance but little warmth.)

I know Ray wants to be at home. He likes being in his chair near the stove, occasionally throwing in a stick of wood and poking the coals to keep them alive on the bed of ashes. But I think he knew last week when he said, “I’m a-goin’ home,” that he wasn’t goin’ back to the mountain.

32. On Pardons and Paroles

Lord, this older Black guy in the restroom at the Board of Pardons and Paroles said to me, “Whether you’re Black or White, rich or poor, I think you ought to get a second chance.” Then he said something about his son and repeated, “I think you ought to get a second chance.” This guy and I had sat in the Waiting Room all morning long to be called in for the scheduled hearing on the petition of our respective inmate.

The hearing itself wasn’t like in the movies—a defiant prisoner in chains escorted by a couple of cops into a small room to make his plea, and his aging mother crying out for mercy before a white-haired man and several stone-faced women seated at a table. Instead, the scene started with a multitude of people who arrived as early as possible in order to sign up at 6:30 a.m. when the doors of the building opened, and who then waited for hours to be herded by groups into the Board Room like sheep or goats.

The casting of the Board, however, was spot on. The only difference was that the white-haired man was an African-American and that he and the two women, as well as a secretary, were seated in positions of power on a raised dais. The inmate wasn’t present. Neither was the “mother.” In our group, the attendants consisted of about a dozen members of family and friends, only two of whom could address the Board and for no longer than five minutes each. After the two speakers of our group had made their ineffectual, rather feeble statements, the Board conferred for a couple of minutes, the secretary read the negative decision, and we exited by a door in the rear of the room.

More interesting and less predictable in some ways than the action in the Board Room was the scene in the Waiting Room. It was somewhat like a company of sondry folk at the Tabard Inn, although with no knights or prominent pilgrims. In fact, there were perhaps only four men in suits throughout the entire crowded room, one a young handsomely dressed Black preacher with a fashionable pair of wire-rimmed, small, round, thick glasses. Another man suited for the occasion was a graying-templed one in pinstripes, who was attended by his stylish wife and daughter. Other than those two ladies with him, there were no other apparently wealthy women. The female most noticeably dressed was a Black woman who was seated and wearing a black tailored dress with a low-cut square bodice, revealing lots of cleavage. She looked to be a corporate businesswoman. And standing above her was a corpulent, leering lawyer.

One of the men in the room seemed almost a specter. A metal pin stretched across his skull where his nose had been, and not much of his face had been left by some deadly disease or accident. There were two young guys who stood together and talked, the teeth of one rotted down to the gum line, the facial skin of the other swarthy and pocked. One of the few White women present had a blue tattoo on her upper arm and was rather shapely in tight jeans, certainly not obese as many of the other females were. Another woman had large scars on her shins as though both legs had been badly broken. One woman was crippled and clutched her side, but managed to shuffle across the floor with a walker. Overall, the room was a harrowed mass of humanity appalled by doomsday gloom.

I could have used a drink, but there was only a coke machine in the room that wouldn’t take dollar bills. Other than that, there were no concessions to be had. Upstairs there was a snack bar, where I was able to get a fish sandwich on plain bread that wasn’t too bad.

I must say that the whole event was quite a dramatic experience, yet one which I do not wish to take part in again, at least not soon. And I don’t know, Lord—your judgment might be different—but I feel that at the end of the day we all need more than one second chance.

33. On Belief

Okay, Lord, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Do I believe in you? Do I disbelieve in you? Do I simply not believe in you? Pretty tough questions. Let’s see . . . what do I believe?

Well, first off I believe that belief is important. I know some religious folks who do some pretty amazing things through their belief in you. They handle fire, they take up serpents, they drink deadly poisons, and they heal the sick. Now, some of the results of these practices are not verifiable one way or the other. But some are evidently efficacious or without bodily harm—and undeniably remarkable. Their belief is a powerful force for them physically—they don’t get burned, for example, when they handle fire. But there is also a powerful force for good in their everyday lives, in their mental and social well-being. It changes some of these folks dramatically, and without the power of their belief, they would likely continue to wallow in the sloughs of desperation.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that I believe that this power comes directly from you. It could, or it could come from within—from just believing. Of course, if you created the believers, you could justifiably take credit for any effect of their belief, direct or indirect. But then, I can’t prove you created them, can I? Still, I do know that belief is a great power.

I also believe that there is something more than I am. At least part of that “more” is a power of creation. There’s all that creativity going on out there in space—among the stars. Then there’s all the creativity going on here in our own little world. There seems to be some force outside us, as well as within, that demands manifestation in some form—in leaves of grass, babies, ideas, objects, art, or whatever. Nature and mankind—all needs must create. Perhaps you do too—hence the “billions and billions” of stars. Here again, I don’t know if the creative force within and without comes from you. But even though “my wit is short,” I have enough sense not to deny the possibility of something that I don’t know or understand. Yet I could easily believe that the creative force is you.

Now back to the initial question, “Do I believe in you?” I guess I’d have to answer that I believe as much as I can. That’s about as far as I can go. I hope that’s enough. Regardless of whether it is or not, I needs must express these prayers.

Copyright © Thomas G. Burton 2021

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