With family home for Passover, our house life has more commotion and, pleasantly, excitement. I made breakfast for my son, which meant that Bear and I did not get to our walk until after eight o'clock. We arrived at the park after school children and their parents had crossed it on their way to school; but now the park had many joggers, park workers, and even a young Latino man walking a leashed German Shepard puppy. Several women joggers had young children along with them. I could not let Bear off the leash for long. I took her to a secluded section of the park to play fetch the ball. But as soon as a jogger with children got near our section, Bear-Bear would take the ball up to the child. Of course, the little children were confused and frightened by the black dog running up to them - they didn't see the wiggling, tail wagging, and submissive behavior. So I put Bear back on the leash. We have been unable to train Bear away from this behavior of going to little children. It is deeply embedded in her character. We think it is partly because of the way she was treated by her owners before we received her and the way those previous owners abandoned her. Of course, part of it is her Labrador nature. Labs are friendly family pets with long-lived puppy-like behavior. Bear's original owners, who received her as a puppy, let her live indoors with their young children. When the school-age children came home from school, Bear was their playmate and guardian. So she was very close to children. Then her owners abandoned her. They put Bear into a wire cage and left her in the orange groves on the edge of Sprawling Suburb. (In an earlier post, I explained how friends of my wife found Bear in the cage when they were riding horses in the groves.) The abandonment must have been terribly frightening to Bear. She was removed from her family and especially from her young charges, the children. We believe that Bear goes, whenever she can, to children, where she submits to them, as an act of ritual, a symbolic reunion with the children from whom she was torn. She will run a hundred yards, ears flapping, tail wagging, to the children. As she gets fifteen feet or so near to the child, she will drop to the ground and crawl, wiggling, toward the child. Once at the child's feet, she will flip over and take the position of complete submission, belly up, throat exposed. She holds her ball in her mouth, hopeful, up to the hand of the child. She abases herself, placing her life and everything about her life in total supplication and offering to the child. In her mind, she must be completing the reunion for which she yearned during those long hours she was imprisoned in the wire cage, lost, starving, frightened, in the dark, lonely orange groves. Is this not how we all should approach God?
I was close to my uncle, C_, when I grew up in my rural New England village. He was my mother's younger brother. He never married and lived his entire life with my grandparents. Their home was the small, twenty-room inn they owned. I too lived in this inn for several years as a young child. When my father was drafted in 1944 and left, in September, for his 2-year tour of duty, my mother moved with me into the inn for the duration. I was two years of age at the time. We lived in the hotel until I was four years old. My grandmother's two brothers also lived at the inn. I knew them mainly as the old men, whom I called uncles, who sat quietly all day in large, stuffed leather chairs in the lobby, dressed in suits. I loved the hotel. I spent much time in the lobby. I loved meeting the dozens of strangers and visitors who passed through it daily. The village's Union Telegraph office was in the room that had once been luggage storage, off the lobby, for the hotel. The Telegraph office also brought people into the hotel. I was oblivious to the sadness that often issued from the Telegraph office. I thrived as the center of attention of all the regulars and guests. The inn was its own universe. I was at its center. Even after my father returned from the war, in late 1946, I spent much time at the hotel, visiting my grandparents and uncle. My uncle C_ doted on me. He was one of many aunts, uncles, and cousins among whom I grew up, as my father's family - even larger than my mother's - also lived in this village. I knew I was special in a way that is impossible for someone who has not grown up in a large family, with loving kin all around, to know.
My mother's family belonged to the Episcopal Church. In my village, the Church was too small to support its own pastor and operated as a mission church. As a marriage compromise, the Episcopal Church became my mother's and father's church. This decision disappointed my father's mother, who belonged to the Congregational Church, the historical church of New England. As a result, I grew up amidst the rich liturgy of the Anglicized Roman Catholic Church, learned its catechism, participated in its choir, learned about Christianity in its Sunday School, and became an acolyte. I never attended a service in the sparse, bare hall of the Congregational Church sanctuary.
My uncle, C_, was the mainstay of the Episcopal Church. He had a wonderful baritone and nearly alone carried the choir. C_ was deeply religious. The name of Jesus Christ and Christ's religious message were never far from my uncle's mind. He always sought new confirmation of his faith. For several summers (this would be the late 1940s), C_ took me and several of my cousins each week for revival meetings to a Southern Baptist camp located at the edge of the national forest near the village. The camp consisted of cabins sprinkled through the forest, a large chapel, recreation buildings, pool, and playing fields. Families rented the cabins and participated in the evening revivals. Though the summer's evening light lasted long in this northern latitude, the revivals lasted even longer. The temperatures would drop into the fifties, the dew would fall on the grass, and the pine needle carpet on the floor of the pine tree grove would become moist. Inside the revival meeting, the temperature would rise. The ministers would take turns trying to get members of the congregations to confess their sins and turn to Jesus Christ. Later, I learned that the revival techniques had not changed much since Grandison Finney. Men and women, and occasionally young persons, would leave their pews, walk to the front bench, and take their seats. The minister would stand by them. He would preach directly to them, calling upon them to accept Jesus Christ. The congregation shouted out encouragement, sang, and cried. The pressure on the sinner to confess was intense. Few could withstand it. Collapse, confession, conversion, and saving would follow, accompanied by further loud shouting out by the congregation.
I was bewildered by the excitement of the revival. Meeting after meeting, summer after summer, the shouting, the intensity, and the individual displays of fervor, stunned me, embarrassed me, so in contrast were they to the organized decorum and sheltering formality of my little Episcopal Church. My uncle was eager that I should confess and convert. He would urge me to go to the sinner's bench. I could not do this. Over the years, I accumulated a deep sense of my inadequacy as a Christian. I did not believe. I did not understand why I did not believe, seemingly could not believe, when believing was all around me. I loved the social setting, the families I knew, the ceremony, the music and singing, the reading of the Holy Bible from the pulpit, the costumes of the choir and procession of Episcopal Church services; but I did not love them as religious experience. The words of creeds and prayers, which I learned and recited regularly, were completely foreign to me. I had no idea what they meant and felt nothing in response to them.
Jesus Christ was not my savior. My uncles, aunts, grandparents, and family were my saviors. They saved me literally. I was epileptic. I had numerous petit mal seizures and occasionally, when I forgot to take the three medicines that calmed my brain, grand mal seizures. I have precious memories of being rescued, exhausted after my seizures, by my uncles. When I lay crumbled on some floor or ground, crushed like a paper cup under the heavy tread of electrical insurgency in my brain, they would appear unbidden, loom over me, seeming huge, simultaneously near and distant as I faded in and out of consciousness. They picked me up and carried me home to treatment by a doctor or rushed me by ambulance to a hospital. In the face of this, who was Jesus Christ? But, C_, I would plead with my uncle with a frightened child's earnestness, I don't feel like I want to confess. I don't want to go up front. Who were these strangers who would watch me faint, convulse, foam, die?
Eventually, the revival would end, the singing and shouting cease. The chaotic sounds captured in the drum of the revival hall faded away. We shuffled across the wood decks of the chapel, out to the hushed pine floor of the New England forest. I would gaze up at the enormous cathedral of the night sky, held above the towering pines, and the stars - ordered, predictable, calm - beyond. I put on a sweatshirt against the clear chill of the bright air. Uncle C_, I would ask, can we stop at the canteen before we go? Can I have an ice cream? My cousins agree. We were an irresistible force in the love of our uncle. We would have ice cream.
Yesterday, Easter morning, Bear and I were at Sprawling Suburb's park early in the morning. Yet, even at eight o'clock, most of the picnic tables and shaded grassy spots were occupied by families. It would be a busy day at the park. We have gotten to calling our dog "Bear-Bear", and calling to her, "honey, dear, sweet," in public, so that people will be less intimidated by this little female Lab, whose only desire is to submit, please, and be petted. Bear-Bear immediately lost interest in returning her ball to me; instead, she went from family to family, offering the ball to anyone who took interest in her, and from table to table searching out scraps. My wife said Bear is a "food slut". I prefer "party girl". At one point, Bear-Bear bounded happily into a small tent put up to shelter several young children. They were delighted, squealing and laughing at this happy dog who wanted to play with them. Their parents laughed. Alas, Bear-Bear's enthusiastic tail-wagging beat the sides of the tent, threatening to up-end it. I had to drag her away from her new playmates. We did not see our regular crew jogging and walking. Finally, I decided that it was best if I cut short Bear's morning play, because she was interrupting too many people.
Today, when we were at the park today, there was abundant evidence that Easter day had seen an enormous crowd at the park. All the many trash barrels were filled to overflowing. There was some garbage and other debris scattered around on the grass; but it is possible that it was distributed by dogs scavenging. Bear was reluctant to be pulled away from investigating each cache of spoils. The park was, as normal on non-holidays, mostly empty of visitors. A half-dozen park maintenance workers were cleaning the park. Bear likes to visit the workers, because they are always obviously delighted to see her, sometimes throwing her ball for her.
As we walked along the sidewalks away from the park this morning, we encountered a Black man, my age, walking toward us. He carried a fancy walking stick, probably for protection from loose dogs, as I have so often carried one for the same purpose. We had not met him before. I did not recognize him. He was obviously nervous about Bear, leashed at my side; so he moved to the street before he passed us. I was upset that Bear might frighten him. To reassure him, I called out, I hope you had a good Easter. He relaxed and smiled. I did, sir, he responded, I hope you did, too. I said, we did indeed. We were both smiling in greeting now. As we passed, he said, quietly but clearly to me, pausing briefly, new dreams.
It is my observation that few persons have many friends. I think a fortunate person has perhaps three or four friends. This observation is at odds with the testimony of everyone. Everyone says they have many friends; and they do not mean superficial friends, they mean deep friends. Clearly, something is going on in social processes that let's people think they have many friends. I think the fundamental process shaping friendship is mobility. I mean geographical, residential, and social mobilities. People move so frequently from one home to another, from one location to another, and up and down the ladder of social classes, that they are continually meeting new persons and dropping out of touch with known persons. The average home owner moves once every seven years. The average renter moves annually. People move across town, across states, across continents. Children go from school grade and class to another grade and class. Adults take a new job and will devote much time to learning new faces and stories; then a few years later, another new job. As a result of this mobility, most of their friendships do not have opportunity to be tested. So perhaps we should distinguish between tested and untested friendship. When persons say they have many friendships, they mean without realizing it - I believe - untested friendships. When you get them to talk about their life histories, and study whom they know, how long they have known persons, and what they have done together, it turns out that they have few friendships whose active cultivation has lasted long enough to be tested and found true. So much of life is about convenience, convenience can fool us. Convenience can fool us into thinking that we are living in greater moral - social - spiritual depth than we are. I think that this is why married couples often identify their spouses as their best friends. A long running marriage has encountered and surmounted worlds of woe; if the marriage has produced children, it has been tested daily to the limits of endurance. A couple that freely maintains their relationship through such travail (and not to omit all that is wonderful in successfully loving and living with someone and raising children) thereby creates a bond that is, in a way, deeper than marriage itself. It is the bond of tested friendship.
Friend and friendship are among the most commonly used words in our society. Barely a day goes by that we do not use the words. They are probably as frequently spoken as the word relationship. That is certainly true of me and of persons whom I know. At the same time, nearly as often, we say that friendship is betrayed, or let-down, or strained, or not returned. My daughter is betrayed by a guy friend, in a particularly ugly way. (He's a turd, I told my daughter. Record the sound of a toilet flushing. Play the recording into his message machine; then tell him, bye bye turd.) My son is broken by his girl friend. My wife is let down by a friend to whom she has devoted herself. I have failed to maintain contact with a friend, once close, who betrayed his family with drugs. Other friends have not returned my attention. At the same time, I say that my wife is my best friend. I know that my experience is not unusual.
I have been told by others that when they were divorced, they lost half their friends. Women friends whom they met frequently, suddenly dropped them and refused to return phone calls. When my first marriage ended, the frequent entertaining my wife and I did ended; then, my ex-wife got invited to dinner parties, I did not. I was stunned by this ostracism. A man out of work spoke of the social isolation he instantly suffered. A male friend of mine lost his job, at a time when I kept mine at the same employer. We had been very close friends. He was a minister and wed my second wife and me. After he lost his job, he started making cutting, subtly hostile comments to me and drifted away. My wife gave a friend in dire need a significant amount of money, and then loaned her some more; her friend became cool to her after this generosity.
On the other hand, many persons have said that suffering and injury brought friends to them they did not know they had. A woman friend, who suffered with breast cancer, said that she gained many friends, who supported her at considerable inconvenience to themselves and kept up that friendship forever after. I have read and heard many testimonials by cancer sufferers to know that this is a common experience.
Perhaps the word, friend, is misleading. I think the most misleading hidden assumption about friendship is the notion that it is free. That is, friendship is freely given. We also say that being a friend means putting the other person ahead of yourself, at least sometimes. If we examine friendships objectively, we will observe, not freely given attention. Obligation and reciprocity are always present somehow. We recognize this fact when we say that a "friend" who does not feel obligated when their friend is in need is, as the saying goes, not a friend in deed. To find that obligation and reciprocity are characteristic of friendship is significant, I think, because these qualities are also present when we talk about networks of persons with whom we share economic and social resources. Here we are dropping into the sterile language of social science, but maybe that is appropriate. Maybe "friendship" is just a position in the network of resources by which we survive.
This Sunday morning, early as yesterday, Saturday, girls' softball teams competed in the park. Two teams played today, while two teams warmed up nearby the softball field. Both were Latino teams. The girls were ten to twelve years old. Fathers coached and refereed. Mothers sat on blankets and in aluminum chairs unfolded on the grass. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. It will be warm later, but now it was but 65 degrees farenheit, perfect for strenous playing. I walked my lab around the park, throwing a ball for her to retrieve. She raced to exhaustion, retrieving five times, then ten times, then fifteen times, skidding onto the ball, scooping it into her mouth, raising a spray of water from the green grass damp from overnight sprinkling.
Woodpeckers assaulted the trunks of palms, high in the trees, rousing the crows to a clamor of protest. The crows flocked to an old pecan tree. They dived onto branches, shaking off ripe pecans. Then they flapped onto the ground, chopping at the nuts, retrieving the pecan meats.
Two runners, one who looked to be teenaged, and the other a middle aged man, jogged the perimeter of the park like boxers, sweat bands over their foreheads and tape wrapped around their hands.
At the softball field, all four of the girls' teams had black swashbuckling trousers and were distinguished by the colors of their shirts and shirt trim. Black with red trim. White with black trim. Red with black trim. Black with white trim. They shouted encouragements to each other. Alternate pitchers practiced with their coaches; their fathers? Several family dogs barked excitedly, tethered to park benches.
One test of our society, raised by Nine-Eleven, is whether we can create safe neighborhoods where we can raise brave and active daughters and sons. Both of my children were at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on the morning of Nine-Eleven. My son attended college with a dormitory at the Center. He was evacuated by police shortly after the North Tower was struck. The attack on Jews, which had been a published motive of the airborne Jihad, pushed him into Jewish activism. He responded by informing us that he was leaving college to go to Israel and join the IDF. Only hours of frightened pleading from his mother got him to agree to postpone this action until after he would graduate from college.
His sister lived in Brooklyn, in an apartment just off the Brooklyn Bridge, and worked in a bank in Midtown. Every morning, before going to work, she jogged over the Bridge into the World Trade Center, around the concourse, then back over the Bridge to get ready for work. So she did on the morning of Nine-Eleven, jogging around the Concourse, at seven oclock, at the same time that her brother was getting out of bed and heading for the dormitory wash room.
My daughter broke up with a boy friend of long standing on the evening of nine-ten. She explained later that she would have to take care of him, that he did not seem as if he would be of much help to her. She is a feminist, who graduated from UC Berkeley with honors in economics and women's studies. She was working her way toward a vice-presidency at her bank. She was proud of her independence.
Nine-Eleven destroyed the world in which my children could go jogging in the morning and prepare for school classes without fearing for their safety. My daughter was deeply affected by the attack on her world. Her apartment was a block from a fire station in Brooklyn that lost a half dozen of its firemen in the collapse of the Towers. For the following week, each evening, she walked to the firehouse with her neighbors. They laid flowers by the fire station, donated food, sang hymns, prayed, wept, and stood vigils to late in the night for the memory of the men who lost their lives.
What kind of a man did my independent, hard-working, achieving feminist daughter want, I asked some time later. I want, she said, a man who will rush into a burning building for me.
The LA Times story, earlier this week, about the failure of South Central LA's Drew/King hospital is brilliant investigative journalism. The facts reveal much about corruption in the Black community. Most Black crime is Black on Black. Black gangs prey mainly on Black neighborhoods. Alas, at Drew/King, Black professionals also prey on the Black community. I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that none of the Black medical doctors, nurses, and administrators who have let down their patients, bilked the hospital, and stolen from the public purse live in South Central among the people their hospital serves. The crime and moral failure at Drew/King indicates strongly that a community that is healthy - socially as well as medically - cannot be created politically from the top down. Community has to be built from family and neighborhood up. All social classes must be present, participate voluntarily in the community, and be morally and practically committed to it. Local assets must be integrated with local resource networks. A community requires an ethical agreement that is clearly lacking in South Central.
I thought of women continually on my morning walk. Three point six miles, fifty-three minutes; but lifetimes of reflection. A bright, cool, sunny day in late fall in Sprawling Suburb, here in Inland Southern California. At the park, two girls' softball teams were playing. One team's uniform was gray with black trim; the other team's uniform was white with black trim. The game must have started about nine o'clock; they were well into it, playing with energy. Fathers and men were everywhere, as umpires and coaches, supporting their daughters. One father pitched balls to a bench for batting practice; another was encouraging the players on the field to chatter and talk up each other during play. The teams were a mix of white and Latino girls. Mothers, sisters, brothers, and other family members - perhaps two dozen - sat in the small stands, shouting their support. The girls beamed with pleasure, pride, and excitement.
I thought of my daughter. She left late last night to fly to New York, to be with her close friend, a young woman fighting breast cancer and lung cancer. My daughter learned two days ago that her friend was put into intensive care. When I left my daughter at the airport, she said her stomach was tied in knots from anxiety. This is a difficult journey, longer than the walking journey my daughter took down the length of Britain several months ago; perhaps to say goodbye to her friend.
This week, my wife sheparded her 78-year-old mother to a hospital for eye surgery. This is the second surgery her mother has had this year. Last night, talking to her closest woman friend - an old friend from law school - my wife learned that her friend has been taking care of her own mother. A large aneurysm threatened her mother's life. There was surgery on Thanksgiving Day. Her mother came through alright; but, the surgeon said, just in time. My wife's friend told no one outside the family of this close call; so we could only, after the event, express our concern and our relief at the way it turned out.
My wife has a genius for organizing resources and making plans on the spur of the moment to solve crises. I learned years ago that my role, at such moments, would be to provide a clearing for her to spring into action. I would take care of everything else, so that she could do her thing. Lately, these dramatic moments of action have carried a heavy burden of sorrow. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the burden women carry. Fifteen years ago, I learned that three women friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer that week. On that Friday evening, after dinner, I sat at the dining room table and cried for two hours. A residual of my sorrow has stayed with me. Breast cancer is the plague of our times. I felt that God must have singled women out for some special punishment for reasons I could not understand.
But then there are moments like the girls' softball game this morning. It is as if God had created the world all over again at that very moment, filling it with promise and hope, to balance the burdens and sorrows he has also placed on women.
Think about this social comparison. For 14 years, we lived in an upper-middle class white neighborhood - a 94 unit condominium development. It had the highest burglary rate in Sprawling Suburb City. Criminals crawled in through windows to rob, while people were at home. There were two murders. Drug addiction and drug dealing and alcoholism were common. Drunk middle-aged women wandered the development. Graffiti - even between neighbors - was a continuing problem. Feuds, sometimes erupting in law suit, afflicted the association board. Minor vandalism erupted sporatically (the favorite vandalism was egging houses). Over the years, the neighborhood went from child-centered to domination by single, middle-aged and elderly, retired women and childless couples. Antagonism toward children led to social ugliness between neighbors. Lying and manipulation of the association for personal gain were common.
For the last 14 years years, we have lived in a middle-class black neighborhood, that borders on a large, historically black-Mexican ghetto. The neighborhood is integrated with a small number of white families. Of the seven houses immediately next to our home, two are occupied by white families (one by a single mother and daughter in a rental, one by a disabled single man with a live-in assistant), five by black families. The families have teenagers and younger children and grandchildren. There are new families, mid-career families, and retired families. There are new Latino families. Most of the black families have been in Sprawling Suburb City or the region for generations and are embedded in large, rich social networks. Half of them are devout church-goers. There have been no murders, no robberies, no graffiti, no gangs, no drug or alcohol crimes. The homes are in good repair. I have never known of unkindness toward children. Our neighbors extended themselves to us when we needed help. We have reached out to our neighbors when they needed aid.
After we had lived in our present neighborhood for several years, one evening at supper, my wife were talking about the improved circumstances of our lives. We looked at each other across the table with dawning awareness. I verbalized the realization. We aren't going to live among white people ever again.