On Deep Waters

I first encountered Bob in junior high. He was an English teacher, and, although I never had him in class, I distinctly recall his smile. I would discover that his wife had been my first grade teacher, and, in later years, I would occasionally encounter Bob and his wife at my best friend’s house, as the families were close. I always enjoyed seeing them, and I always noted his smile. He always struck me as a jolly fellow. And, so, when I learned a few days ago that he had taken his own life after suffering from severe depression, the reality stood in stark contrast to my image of him.


When the Chief Judge asked me to stop by his office before I left for the day, I didn’t think anything of it. I worked closely with him, and I knew he respected my work. It was 2007, and, while things at home had been utterly abysmal, my career was beginning to take off. When I stopped by on my way out, though, the look on his face betrayed that it wasn’t a work matter. “I have to ask; if I didn’t, I’d kick myself,” he started. “Is everything okay? You really haven’t been yourself lately.”

Inside the following seconds, I realized that my home life drama was unintentionally spilling over into my work life. My months-long effort to hide any trace of the fact that I was dealing with my then-partner’s confession of a lengthy affair had been far less successful than I had imagined. Who else knew? How does he know? What have I done wrong at work? I wrestled with those questions and more, all while trying to maintain a blank expression that wouldn’t further confess my suffering. “Really? Huh. Everything’s fine. Maybe I’ve been going at it too hard. Sorry about that,” I replied, or something to that effect. Honestly, he didn’t seem too convinced, but I think he was wise enough to play along, knowing he had expressed his concern and opened a door that I could walk through anytime I wanted. We exchanged some more pleasantries, surely, and I walked out to my car, upset at myself for not being able to handle everything privately and even more upset that my partner had caused yet more disturbance in my life.


Seven years after that moment in the Chief Judge’s office (and six years after I transferred out of that office), I stood at the end of a long hallway in a conference hotel. There to present on some legal issue or another, I found myself frozen, as I spied the Chief Judge twenty yards from me, his unmistakable silver hair and trademark plaid shirt giving himself away. He couldn’t see me, but I was instantly transported back in time to that moment in his office. The moment he had seen right through me and reached out in concern. My instinct was to go up to him and admit my subterfuge, to tell him that he had been right, to let him know that I was dealing was some really awful stuff all those years ago, and to acknowledge that his small kindness of checking on me had always stayed with me. For him, perhaps, it had simply been a friendly inquiry. For me, I would tell him, it was a wake up call, as well as a reminder of the power of simply caring enough to ask, genuinely, how someone is doing. I wanted to say all that to him, right there in the conference hotel, between the long lectures, complimentary hotel mints, and bored attendees. But I couldn’t. Despite my best intentions to come clean, I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to go back to that time and place, even it was just to acknowledge it. I took the easy way out, lurked in the shadows behind him, and dodged any interaction. He deserved more.


In partial repayment for the Chief Judge’s kindness, I’ve found myself relaying that story more than once to colleagues and subordinates over the years, as we chat across my desk. That brief moment taught me that I want to be the kind of coworker that genuinely cares about the folks that work with him. More importantly, though, it taught me that everyone carries around their pain, no matter how well they hide it. It’s made me more sympathetic and empathetic when I encounter folks in my life that are, obviously, having a bad day. A bad week. A bad month. I’ve been there, and I know that, try as we might, we can’t always slap on a happy face and pretend bad stuff isn’t happening.

Over the past few days, I’ve come back to those lessons as I think about Bob. This jovial, gregarious person in my mind, gripped by something unreachable, despite all the Chief Judges in the world.  We never truly know the burdens those around us carry; our snap judgements, for good and ill, can’t do justice to the deeper waters running through all of us. It’s a reality that counsels love, kindness, and forgiveness, not in a sappy greeting card way, but rather with the wisdom and humility to recognize the complex fragility of life.

On Barbie and Ken

In comedian Sarah Silverman’s hilarious new special, she riffs on the unattainable example of Barbie’s body and the impact on the little girls who play with Barbie dolls. It’s not a new criticism of the dolls, but it is interesting (and funny) to consider that Barbie is unable to wear anything but high-heeled shoes, along with myriad other body-morphing proportions. It certainly isn’t unreasonable to assert that a barrage of such images throughout a young girl’s childhood communicates a message that, at minimum, isn’t body-positive.

But what about Ken?

I never played with Ken dolls, although I’m sure my sister had a few. My toy chest contained an assortment of GI Joes, Star Wars figurines, and He-Man action figures. Come to think of it, despite my efforts to exercise several times per week, my body isn’t even close to resembling the buff, chiseled figure that He-Man himself cut. No one is confusing me for a military assassin, ala GI Joe. I’m certainly no Star Wars Jedi, although perhaps a little more back hair would allow me to pass as Chewbacca. The point is: my toys presented a version of masculinity that I have, on almost every conceivable level, failed to attain. Sure, memory fades, but I know none of my toys resembled the stocky, 41 year old, orthotic-wearing, hair-thinning “specimen” I’ve grown (devolved) into today.

Taking my head out of my toy chest, my failures only multiply. My childhood room was wall-papered with posters of Michael Jordan, but my lone year of organized basketball in 5th grade stands as a sad testimonial to the fact that the power of positive thinking isn’t always that powerful. As I grew older, my bookshelves contained examples of great minds, but my pedestrian intellect once again falls short.

At almost every turn, I’ve fallen short of the toys, heroes, and role models I surrounded myself with. Way short. And that’s not a rebuke to those that level fair criticism at Barbie dolls. It’s true that women have lived and to a very large degree still live in a sexist culture where their looks are prized over their intellect, character, achievement, and spirit. That is wrong, and it makes the criticism of Barbie dolls an important point to make. That said, it’s also important to point out that things, be they dolls or action figures or sports heroes, only have the power that we grant them. Try as I might, I was most likely genetically predestined to fall very short of Michael Jordan’s basketball example, but my fascination with his athleticism and will to win opened up a sport to me that at every stage of my life, whether playing or not, has brought me joy.

I imagine most of us, especially when we are young, wile away the hours dreaming of being beautiful or brilliant or strong or funny or adventurous to such a degree that the world has never known, yet all but the most lucky few never reach those great heights. In fact, it’s been said that it is that very instinct — to be more than we are — that is the essence of humanity. These dreams, these fantasies, can inspire and animate our lives, but they can also teach us the hard but valuable lesson that falling short, but not being defeated in the process, is an essential part of the human condition.

On a Maiden’s Mother’s Day

“Good morning,” Pastor Don beamed. “God bless us as we gather this beautiful May day.”

Sarah Jennings sat in her usual row at Second Calvary Church in Stop, Colorado. She wore a blue dress with roses sewn around the collar. Close inspection of the roses would have revealed she had worn the dress many Sundays over the years, but, at a distance, Sarah was prim, pressed, and presentable. Her matching purse and red leather Bible sat comfortably at her side.

The congregation at Second Calvary Church always seemed a little brighter, a little cheerier on Mother’s Day, eager to witness the traditional bestowing of lilies on the oldest mother, the youngest mother, the mother of the most children, and the mother that had traveled the farthest to church that day. In Stop, Colorado, population 10,000, there was rarely a surprise winner, and this year would be no different.

Sarah smiled as Ms. Fanny Lucille claimed her now annual lilies for oldest mother. At 91, Ms. Lucille had claimed the title of oldest mother for ten years in a row, and absent another pneumonia scare, she had little competition. Ms. Lucille grabbed her lilies so eagerly it would have surprised many in the congregation, including Sarah, that Ms. Lucille had not seen her children for over a decade.

Sarah watched with obvious interest as her friend Betsy Pluff stood up as the youngest mother in the congregation. At just five weeks old, Betsy’s daughter was the newest addition to Second Calvary Church. Sarah noted the obvious fatigue in her friend’s face, and she accurately surmised that Betsy’s daughter was not allowing her to get much sleep. Sarah could not have imagined, though, that Betsy’s restlessness was, in part, guilt over the knowledge that she despised everything about motherhood, as well as her husband.

Trudy Caruthers smoothed her wool skirt purposefully, before she stood to accept her lilies as the mother of the most children. Sarah Jennings could only sit in amazement, wondering how the pint-sized dynamo of Trudy Caruthers had given birth to 14 children before age 35. To Sarah, it was an embarrassment of riches; riches that needed no lilies to announce to the world the cascade of blessings that had been bestowed on Trudy Caruthers’ home. A future look back at the weekly bulletins from Second Calvary Church would never record, however, that Trudy Caruthers cared far more for the attention for birthing children than for the task of actually raising or loving them.

It was the story of Kim Su that touched Sarah the most, though. Sitting in her pew, listening to how Kim had flown from South Korea that week to visit her daughter, that was when Sarah felt the emptiness. The longing that, most of her days, consumed her thoughts and animated her fervent prayers. Why had she never been allowed to experience the love that was so obviously all around her? Where was her child? Sarah Jennings ached to feel a connection so strong that it would take someone halfway around the globe just to be in the presence of a loved one. She did not, however, contemplate the strength of the need to apologize for years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a spouse that went unstopped by a helpless mother, as Kim Su did.

As the last of the lilies was passed down the aisle, passing from hand to hand, past Sarah Jennings, the congregation bowed in prayer. Pastor Don prattled on, the organ accompanied him, and the congregation smiled. Fanny Lucille, Betsy Pluff, Trudy Caruthers, and Kim Su’s hands clutched their flowers.

Sarah Jennings’ flowerless hands clung to her red leather Bible, praying for forgiveness of the sins that made her unworthy to be a mother.

On That Last Voicemail

The voicemail is dated September 24, 2016. It’s exactly thirty-three seconds long, and it’s from my grandmother. She died in January. I still haven’t listened to it.

And I’m not sure why.

I don’t mourn my grandmother with weepy emotion. Her death has not caused me great anxiety or to lose sleep. Yet she flits around the margins of my thoughts frequently. I wonder how my mom is doing. I guess as to what will become of her home. I ponder what my grandmother really thought of her life, and I hope she thought I was a good grandson.

Listening to her voicemail won’t answer any of those questions, though. I am entirely certain the message is a “thank you” for some flowers or card I sent. A routine call from my grandmother. So routine that, for all my care and concern, I felt safe not listening to it. I’d be embarrassed if she knew that. That I could take it for granted so easily.

Perhaps a part of me fears that the message will be a request to call her back. Maybe she wanted to hear the voice of one of her grandchildren, scattered away from her hometown as they were. And maybe, just maybe, that sweet request will cut right through me. Maybe I had to charge my iPod. Or watch a funny youtube video. Or organize my socks. I was just too busy to answer the phone that day. It’s typical and innocent and awful and ugly and sad, all rolled into one.

Then again, maybe my grandmother had the wisdom to not read too much into any one thing. Maybe that’s the great gift of the accumulation of years, to understand that our love is not measured in the moment but over time. Maybe she knew that. And maybe her call was just the slow, steady paddling of her love, always rowing in my direction. Doing her best, the best she knew how.

I know I’m making something out of nothing. A moment can be just that: a moment. Not imbued with high import or meaning. It’s just a voicemail. Of my grandmother’s voice.  Sitting on my iPhone. Waiting. And whatever she says, only my heart will be affected. She’s not there to call back.

I’m not waiting for some special moment to listen to it. I don’t feel like I’m keeping her spirit alive by not listening to it. It’s not some B-movie plot, a MacGuffin to spur blog entries. But, whatever it is and for whatever reason I’m keeping it, I can’t manage to hit play. It doesn’t feel like denial. It just…is.

If we knew with scientific accuracy how love and death work, life would be the poorer for it. I think both scramble up our hearts, and we spend years trying to make sense of it all. And maybe I’m just not ready to make sense of my grandmother just yet. Maybe I’m not ready to solve the puzzle, to finalize my theory on how and why she lived. Maybe keeping the final piece just out of reach, as benign as it may be, relieves me from having to do that. Not denial per se, but a prolonged break from the task of figuring out what the hell it all means in the end.

It will be a random Thursday afternoon. I’ll probably have just enjoyed a snack, maybe I’ll be watching rain clouds out my office window. I’ll look at my phone, see the voicemail, and hit play. Thirty-three seconds will pass. Tucked away far in the back of my heart, in a private chamber, a tiny tumbler will drop one last time. I won’t have solved the riddle of love or life and death in that moment, but it’ll be enough to just cherish the memories of her.

A Eulogy For My Grandmother

[Author’s Note: Following are the remarks I made at my grandmother’s funeral.]

When I think of my grandmother, “B,” I think of many things:

  • Her home’s green shag carpet that’s been around so long it’s actually back in style,
  • Family dinners that always came with sides of deviled eggs and rolled bananas, and
  • Christmas ornaments that may or may not have been around at the founding of our country.

Over the last few days, though, my mind keeps pulling back to a random day in high school when I wandered into Lic’s Ice Cream. B worked there for a few years. That day, when I walked in, she saw me, gave me a great big smile, and, without asking, went about getting me a bowl of chili and a pimento cheese sandwich. She got me seated at the counter, made sure my lunch was just right, kept checking on me while she worked, and paid for my meal. Now, if you knew my grandmother, you know she did not spend money at restaurants easily, so it was no small thing for her to buy my meal. I’m sure I got a big hug and kiss before I left.

A grandmother showing love, caring, and kindness to a grandson is not big news. Maybe it’s even pretty ordinary. But I keep coming back to the simplicity of that moment, and its lessons, and I wonder if something essential about B is locked inside.

Fifty years ago, my grandmother lost the love of her life much too soon. The loss was profound and obviously permanent; an event that even those that would come along years later, like myself, would understand echoed through the decades.

Life carried on, though. Her three children grew and thrived, four grandchildren followed, and now five great-grandchildren. She worked outside of the home, was active in church and social groups, and had wonderful friends, many of whom are here today. Still, I always knew that the script my grandmother had written for her life had been changed, and dealing with that loss was the great test of my grandmother’s life.

In our society, we talk a lot about love: great romances, dream weddings, the love of a child, but we don’t spend much time acknowledging that, to love someone, to truly love someone, you open yourself up to great loss and hurt. For the lucky, those great losses and hurts are few and far between and come after many decades of happiness. My grandmother’s life stands as evidence that those great losses and hurts can come much sooner than expected.  More importantly, though, her life stands for carrying on, in the best way that we can, finding and sharing happiness when and where we can.

In her own way, to the best of her ability, my grandmother did that. And that is what I will remember about her life. The love she planned on did not last as many days as she wanted, but she still found ways to touch the lives of so many people, in so many different ways. Even in the simple act of making sure her grandson had a good meal.

The last time I shared a meal with my grandmother was this past summer. I left our breakfast together that June morning to attend a wedding. It was not lost on me as I drove away that I was going to celebrate a love that B didn’t get to enjoy for as many years as she surely wanted. I’m not sure if my grandfather is waiting for her on some ethereal plane, but, for her strength to carry on as she did, for the small but wonderful acts of love she shared, I certainly hope he is.

On Photosynthesis

Mr. Smith’s seventh grade biology classroom was pregnant with the smell of rats, snakes, and fish, but surely the worst odor emanated from the dozens of adolescents in plastic, multicolor chairs. The floor was institutional grey tile, and the pale green walls did little to jazz up the look or add pizzazz to Mr. Smith’s lectures. Still, I remember finding the salamanders enchanting and the thrilling prickliness of the tarantula’s legs as it would slowly walk up and over your nervous hands.

As a school building of some age, my junior high enjoyed old, plate glass windows, and, while Mr. Smith droned on about the beauty of photosynthesis, I often found myself gazing out the window to the local cemetery that abutted the school’s property. In almost every way, the cemetery was unremarkable: a tidy small town cemetery with gently rolling hills, grey headstones for Smith, Thomas, and Johnson, and a smattering of flowers and other tokens of affection. As a 13 year old, I didn’t understand death or really have any conception of it, but, in hindsight, I enjoy the irony that my distraction from learning about life in biology class was to tombstone watch the local graveyard.

A little more than a quarter century later, I found myself in that graveyard, looking up at my seventh grade biology classroom window, listening to a minister drone on about life and death and God and other bromides that were reaching me with the impact of Mr. Smith’s photosynthesis lectures. Now, the prickly tarantula’s legs were replaced with the softly stinging realization that I was studying death. And it wasn’t a gaggle of pimply teens staring at a spotted salamander in a stinky aquarium, but a gathering of friends and family around my grandmother’s casket.

I’d like to imagine that the 13-year-old me could look out that classroom window and see the 40-year-old me, in some weird and wonderful disturbance in the fabric of space and time. If I could see him, and if I could talk to him, I’d tell him that Mr. Smith has more to offer than he realizes, but, every time he says the word “sun,” replace it with the word “love.” And, when my 13-year-old self laughed or made a sarcastic remark, I would tell him that, one day, as you stand in the back of the funeral home and see friends and family and strangers and neighbors from thirty years ago walk in, you will understand that love is the light that makes everything grow.

On a Kick to the Confidence

At six years old, I wasn’t fascinated with Little League, and I wiled away the hours during soccers games, stuck in the goal as the goalie. I like to think it was because I was tall with a decent wingspan for a kindergartner, but I probably wasn’t athletic enough at that point to hold my own in the scrum at midfield.

When I wasn’t playing half-heartedly on the soccer team, my childhood years were largely spent trying to find time to hang out with my uncle. At only thirteen years older than me, he wasn’t quite the adult Mom and Dad were. He could drive, enjoyed eating pizza, and played boardgames; he was the complete package in my book. Hence my proclamation that, like him, I would one day become a bagger at a grocery store. Given that level of idolization, it’s no surprise that I followed him into martial arts.

My Tae-Kwon-Do classes were held in a cinderblock building where big mice/small rats ran across the ducts in the ceiling. After my first class, I smarted off to the instructor, and he made me drop and give him ten push-ups right then and there. He was, obviously, not familiar with my very sarcastic whit, but the discipline and respect were probably just what I needed. I’m sure I started the classes to be just like my uncle; I stuck around because I enjoyed it. In three short years, I was a nine-year-old black belt.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I attended practice regularly, and, by the time I was in high school and college, I was attending when I could, relishing the sparring (fighting) aspects of the sport. I was big, strong, and not afraid to take a punch or kick. What I lacked in technical skill (or grace) I made up for in brute strength and determination. At my dojo, I fought anyone and everyone, confident I could hold my own, even against my long-time instructor. The fighting, even within the rules and discipline of the sport, reaches something primal, and I wasn’t the first to love that feeling. I won’t be the last. The sport had given me discipline that touched all aspects of my life, enhanced my athleticism to something only slightly below average, and built in me a confidence that served me well. Almost always.

My high school and college days took me away from the dojo for long stretches, but my old instructor was always indulgent of my random, occasional drop-ins to work out and spar. After my sophomore year in college, I heard of a kickboxing tournament in southern Indiana that summer. I entered on a lark with no preparation but a head full of confidence. I loved sparring, was in decent shape, and was as strong as I ever had been. What could possibly go wrong?

I entered the ring to blaring music as about a thousand spectators cheered me on. My opponent bounced in the opposite corner. A 6’5″ Indiana state trooper. A little taller than me, but I wasn’t intimidated. I had in my corner my uncle and my old instructor. The bell rung, and the rest is a little hazy. I’d like to describe the fight as the duel of two kick boxers at the pinnacle of their powers. In reality, we were two lugs whaling away at each other with little poetry or even science in our attacks. As the bell signaled the end of the first round, I shuffled back to my corner. My instructor gave me some advice, my uncle gave me some encouragement, and I kept wanting more oxygen to come into my lungs.

The second round is even more of a blur. Kicks landed, punches careened, people yelled, and I did what I had to do to survive. After the bell to end the second round, I returned to my corner gasping for air. For all the confidence I had gained fighting in the controlled environment of the dojo, I had not gained the experience of taking blow after blow from a bigger opponent wearing weighted gloves. I had not gained the experience of giving maximum effort. I had not, truly, kick boxed. I had done something very close, but not quite the same. Just like the end of my first ever martial arts class, someone needed to tell me to drop and give them ten push-ups when I arrogantly decided to enter a kickboxing tournament without ever, you know, kickboxing.

I leaned against the ropes gasping for air, listened to my instructor give me tips for the next round, and then proclaimed, “Darryl, I’m done.” It was the first and only time in 15 years I had ever called him by his first name. That and surely the look of exhaustion in my face conveyed the message. He said no more and informed the referee I was retiring. I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed, I was too exhausted to process those feelings. I shook my opponents hand and limped to the locker room. The spry young thing that had entered the ring to rock music and the shouts of a thousand just minutes earlier was a distant memory.

Thirty minutes later, I sprawled along the locker room floor, dizzy with what was probably a concussion. I had only the energy to make my way to the toilet to throw up. My uncle, ever the wonderful uncle, was there with me. Admittedly, I felt better when he told me that he was sure I was winning on points after two rounds and could’ve won if I had held on. Whether it was his positivity or my vomit, or a combination of the two, I held my head a little higher and managed to change and leave under my own power. The Booneville Bash was my first and last kickboxing match. Five years later, when I shattered my knee training in a dojo in Jacksonville, Florida, my martial arts career came to an ignominious end.

Nearly 20 years after that kickboxing tournament, I still have the medal I “won” for participating in the tournament. The ribbon is stained with blood, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what part of me was bleeding. What I lost in blood was surely only exceeded by what I lost in confidence. Or cockiness. Or arrogance. And gained in wisdom and humility and appreciation for non-contact sports.

On Counting Time

The Christmas tower of candies, pretzels, and chocolates I ordered arrived at my grandmother’s house today. Nestled at the end of Arlington Drive, she lived in the house for over fifty years, with very few nights not spent in her bedroom at the end of the hall. But, yesterday, the day before my Christmas gift arrived, she moved to a nursing home to receive the level of care she now needs. Pick any one of the last 18,000+ days, and she would have been there to receive the gift. You almost have to try to have timing that terrible!

This time of year, timing is a big thing. Kids are counting down the days to Santa’s arrival. It’s an agonizing count. I can still recall feigning illness one Christmas Eve as a child, hoping, somehow, that it would make the day go faster. I’m sure I learned that, whether you’re participating or not, time does not sympathize.

It’s not just kids counting days or this time of year, though. Adulthood is all about counting the days. Hubby and I watch the calendar as we prepare to move and wonder how many days until our adoption finally materializes. My sister wakes each day, closer to ending the chapter of her marriage and striking out, single, soon. Mom tarries over her mother and an impending goodbye, while Dad acclimates to his new cashier job at the local retail store during the holiday rush. My brother- and sister-in-law count the days to their baby’s first birthday, as well as the days to their next baby’s birth, while my mother-in-law juggles an impressive social calendar with the responsibilities of a family matriarch. My best friend frets his next court date with the ol’ ex-, while my aunt spends her time in Escher-like administrative litigation.  Coming full circle, my older nephews plead with me for hints about their Christmas gifts, unable to bear the nearly infinite amount of time before they can open them.

We’re all a day or two away from the next big thing, biding our time until we can cross it off the list. It may be wonderful, it may be awful, but, regardless, it’s the rhythm and order of our lives. It’s the foreseeable and unforeseeable sequence of future events that give such meaning to our current selves. And it’s such a cliche to ruminate about “living in the moment,” especially when so many of our moments find our minds trying to make sense of the past or to give order and meaning to the future.

The cookie company e-mailed me to say that my grandmother’s gift had been delivered “on schedule,” but I knew it was one day late. Most definitely, one day late.


On Prayers Over Pastrami

My neighborhood sandwich shop is a great place to people watch. On any given day, you can witness hungover college students gulping down giant sandwiches, priests and nuns passionately debating the latest Catholic news, neighborhood kids ordering milkshakes they can barely carry, beggars shuffling through the store asking for money, pamphleteers taking a break from changing the world one leaflet at a time to chug a soda, and local beauty school attendees nervously studying up on the latest hair-dos (and hair-dont’s, for that matter). I never know what I’ll encounter, and I guess that’s half the fun of walking down a few blocks for my usual ham sandwich and chips.

Yesterday, as I waited patiently in an unusually short lunch line, an older woman pushing a wheelchair caught my eye as she approached a monk quietly enjoying his lunch in a sunny part of the shop. I could not hear what was said, but the body language, the eyes, the mouthed words indicated to me that these two people did not know each other. I wondered, with at most half-interest, if she was asking for directions, or inquiring as to his funny-looking robe. Then, among the crying baby, the teenage girls on their cell phones, and the panicked clerk floundering behind the counter to make change, my world slowed down as I watched the lady reach out to hold the monk’s hand and bow her head as he said a prayer.

It’s not unusual to see someone pray in public. Although I will always maintain that Jesus does not want any soul to invoke his name over a plate of McNuggets, I grew up seeing families bow their heads before a meal, teammates take a knee after a hard-fought game, and students gather around flag poles to join hands in prayer. Despite being a faithful churchgoer all throughout my childhood and youth, these displays always seemed a little showy to me, almost profane to make something so personal so public. As I got older, grew into myself, and abandoned the orthodoxy if not the lessons of the church, the call to prayer, faint as it had ever been, left permanently. Over time, I viewed these public prayers with bemusement and perhaps a little self-satisfied indignation.

The woman holding the monk’s hand in the sandwich shop was different, though. She wasn’t putting on a show, waiting to be seen, or going through the motions. I don’t know what compelled her to approach the monk. She was pushing a wheelchair carrying a man I presume was her husband. Maybe she was praying for a miracle that he would walk again. Maybe she was simply tired. Maybe anything. Who knows?  It doesn’t really matter, and it’s none of my business. The sincerity of her approach, the respect she held for the monk was evident, though. That level of faith and belief is simply inaccessible to me.

I don’t know why people pray or believe in God or attend church. As someone rejected by the larger institutional church, it’s all a little hocus-pocus to me. Perhaps a sincere hocus-pocus, but a hocus-pocus nonetheless. Magical spell or no, the lady in the sandwich shop was a believer, and her humble exchange with the monk transcended the precision of science and rejected my smug certainty. I doubt I’ll ever approach a stranger in public for a prayer, but I will admit to a little jealousy, for I find something beautiful about this woman’s world. A world where, among sandwiches and soda pop, strangers can transcend the known world, invoke all-knowing and all-loving power, and comfort each other with their faith. True or not, in its sincerest form, it has a poetry. Even over pastrami.

On Weightless Things

In eleven days, we will welcome the end of a presidential political campaign that, regardless of the outcome, will leave our national psyche bruised and battered. The rhetoric has been occasionally tawdry, frequently nonsensical, and almost universally devoid of substance. The idea of a vigorous contest of ideas seems as far away as it ever has been in American political history, replaced instead with a funhouse mirror distorting any semblance of maturity, seriousness, or sophistication. It’s downright depressing.

As beleaguered as I feel after unsuccessfully avoiding most of the news coverage for the past year, I have enough spirit left to make the obvious point that beyond the brutish nastiness of the campaign has been the jaw-dropping realization that one of the political candidates is fundamentally unfit for not just the highest office in the land but perhaps any office, anywhere, anytime. The childish, moronic, boorish behavior is so prevalent that a single example would do a grave injustice to this candidate’s near savant-like capacity to offend, to distract, and to pulverize any pervading sense of national decency. To entertain a notion of equivalency of the candidates is to render one’s self untethered to reality. To endorse this candidate is not to express a coherent political opinion, or to make a statement against the other party or candidate, but, rather, it is a wholesale abdication of the responsibility every citizen should feel. It is an investment in nihilism.

Flexing moral outrage (dare I say moral superiority) can feel good, but the day after the election will be no party. We will wake up to the politics of division. We will wake up to a country seemingly unmoored to common ground. And we will wake up to the dawning reality that the previous 12 months have revealed more than the triumph of scorched earth politics. Rather, we have witnessed a perhaps unparalleled expression from millions of American citizens that they feel so abused by an indifferent political class, so marginalized by a changing economy, and so broken by the combined might of poverty, lack of education, and drug abuse, among others, that the empty promises of a demagogue speak to them on a profound level, despite such promises being obviously contrary to fundamental American values, the very values in which they drape themselves.

The candidate is not the problem, and the election won’t provide the solution. Our national political paralysis comes at the hands of snotty children the size and shape of adults, free to pillage national character while representing districts where diverse electorates that would hold some semblance of balance and moderation have been conveniently gerrymandered out of existence. Our collection of adult children, nary a statesman to be seen, largely answer to plutocrats and pollsters, and, while self-preservation has been at the top of a politician’s priorities since the beginning of time, the national interest seems to have completely fallen off the list. At least it seems that way.

It would be a somewhat comforting thought to take solace in our national inertness if we could explain the stalemate as the byproduct of a healthy equipoise, a reflection of well-balanced forces rightly aligned to best serve a polity ready to take great steps, even leaps, in the areas of economics, eduction, the arts, science, and on and on. While strides are certainly being made, it doesn’t feel like we’re fighting because it’s so good. Instead, it feels like we’re fighting and falling behind in many important areas. Again, at least it feels that way.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not moving to Rwanda anytime soon.  But to say we deserve better is an understatement. Our political dialogue should be sharp and it should be passionate, for it is important. When our political life leaves behind spirited debate and transforms into a vulgar carnival that misleads the masses and distorts American values to the point of unrecognizability, however, we find ourselves much less than we can be. Less than we should be.

The lack of substance of this campaign and the lack of heft in our current political life has one redeeming quality: like all weightless things, it is swept aside relatively easily. Perhaps that unifying event or force, that thing that reasserts our common American purpose, is right around the corner. Of course, the problem with things easily swept aside is you’re never guaranteed it will be replaced by something better.