Seeing Colors

I find being colorblind at times annoying, but rarely does my disability seriously affect my functioning.  I learned early in life that certain careers were closed to me — electrician, pilot, interior designer — but colorblindness largely makes itself known in mismatched clothing and the inability to see numbers among the dots.

But, one time I do miss the ability to discern colors better is walking among nature.  I often cannot see certain creatures because they blend too well into the background.  And I often cannot determine species of birds or insects because their color scheme eludes me.  I imagine, however, that I compensate by perhaps seeing motion better than most, or that I can more frequently detect specific shapes in the mosaic of life (I have an uncanny eye for spotting coins in the dirt).  I also have a deep fondness for brilliant colors, the bright yellows, oranges, and purples that stand out so magnificently among the green leaves.

Today, I wandered down along the railroad tracks, unaware that I was about to be ambushed by all manner of life.  For one, I am not alone in noticing the abundant varieties of butterflies in the area this year.  In just 30 minutes or so, I spied a Red-Spotted Purple,  Silver-Bordered Fritillary, a Mourning Cloak, a Red Admiral and the ever-present Woollybear Moths, often dancing in pairs among the wild daisies.

As I took my usual place on the switchman’s shed platform, I saw an old friend – a big Mallard – standing guard at his usual post at the end of the sand spit in the middle of the river.  Suddenly, a goose or heron of some kind swooped over to the island from the other side of the river and I quickly lost it in the foliage.

Motion in my lower field of vision brought a young groundhog to my attention, just 20 feet or so below the platform.  He kept eying me suspiciously and I tried not to move and startle him.  Of course, behind it all was the constant droning of crickets and the deafening buzzing of male cicadas looking for a mate.

As I continued my journey along the tracks, a brilliant goldfinch darted by.  I felt something on my arm.  Looking down, I examined a bright red Ladybug with no spots.  Now, depending on what culture I choose to acknowledge, that means that I will have no children (sorry Ashley and Tyler!), will soon get a pair of gloves, whatever ailment I have flew away with it (wouldn’t that be nice), my crops will be good, or that fair weather is ahead. 

Who knows what other critters busily went about their business as I walked along the tracks?  Some I will always have difficulty seeing.  Some may forever elude my observation, no matter how diligently I hone my visual skills.  But, many of them lie within my ability to perceive them if I will only take the time to look.

The Transient and the Permanent

I just learned that a small piece of my personal history was no more. The old South Hills movie theatre in Dormont has been demolished. Now, obviously, I am not the first middle-aged person to see his childhood movie house torn down, nor will I be the last. Nevertheless, I will mourn this passing and commemorate the place that the South Hills Theatre will always occupy in my heart.

Before being carved up into four ridiculously sized “cinemas,” the South Hills Theatre was a cavernous place with a huge balcony. In the old days, the place had hosted all sorts of performances, such as organ concerts, before becoming predominately a movie house. But, I wouldn’t know about the rest of the building because I sat in the same seat every time I visited.

It began in the summer of 1972 or 1973, when the theatre ran a promotion, showing a different classic film every night for $1.00 admission. My best friend Frank and I must have seen at least 30 movies that summer, mostly old black and white films like they would later show on AMC and Turner Classics. But, of course, this was before cable TV took over our leisure time. Frank and I would sit in the same two seats, about three or four rows from the front, on the right aisle. We often joked that we would someday buy those seats and have them bronzed in memorial of our loyalty.

Of course, summer came to an end as it always does. After high school, I found less reason and time to visit the South Hills. Like little jackie paper, I left my magic dragon behind and over time its scales fell off as well. I remember returning some years ago and feeling great sadness for its dilapidated condition. I suppose that the place (now renamed Cinema 4) actually died for me that day.

So, now the South Hills Theatre is irretrievably gone forever. Gone are those fantasies of hitting the lottery and buying the place on a lark. Gone are those dreams of reliving that wonderful summer of discovering a new classic every night in my personal seat. Like my youth, those wonderful times of learning to drive and eating Mineo’s pizza with high school friends, live only in my memories.

But, while the bricks and mortar may no longer retain their solid configuration in the real world, the South Hills Theatre stands unmolested in my mind. My love of films engendered by that wonderful place lives on strong. My appreciation of classics stands strong against the wrecking balls of unimaginative writing and needless remakes. The body of the South Hills Theatre may be dead, but its soul lives on with every film I recommend to a young person who thinks that CGI can substitute for good acting. Rest in Peace, South Hills Theatre!

Perspectives

I walked home from church along the railroad tracks. I had heard two whistles and hoped that the busy late afternoon would reward me with a third. The Chessie system did not disappoint. This time, an empty line of coal tipples flew by from the south. Oddly, it seems that empty cars make more noise that those laden with cargo.

Afterwards, I stood on the grate of a service box, looking out into the waters of the Yough. The level of the current now flows much lower than just a few weeks ago and I could clearly see the muddy bottom for a good ten or fifteen feet. My eye caught the gracefully clumsy antics of a painted turtle, paddling upstream and bobbing up for air every 30 seconds or so. It would gulp a breath and then quickly dive down to the silty bottom, becoming almost invisible. Then, the disk of its body would rise again and the little head break the surface.\

Suddenly, I saw what seemed in comparison a massive shape also coming upstream against the current. At first, I thought it was a piece of tarp and quickly realized that the shape was moving in a coordinated manner. To my surprise, it was a snapping turtle, easily five or six times longer than its little cousin (which had suddenly disappeared).

The snapping turtle showed no hurry, as it slowly paddled (can one lumber under water?) through the water. Its shape reminded me a of dinosaur compared to the almost balletic streamline of the first turtle. I watched its spikey shell with huge protruding head and tail glide for 30 feet or so on a straight path along the shore. It never rose for air, or deviated along its path, until the sun’s glare and overhanging branches obstructed my view.

I couldn’t help but think of my strolls along the tracks, occasionally interrupted by the behemoth trains. I wondered if the painted turtle looked in awe at his massive relative from the sandy river bottom. Or does instinct simply take over when senses detect a larger and more powerful creature closing in? Maybe I will contemplate this further the next time I bob and glide my carefree way along the tracks.

Buzz

Intangibles. Intangibles pack our lives, from the depth of love that causes us to weep to the collective exultation of thousands as their home team scores winning points.

After the worship service today, the buzz in the coffee hour lived. The energy of those present flowed like current through a hot wire and filled the kitchen with the vibrant sound of excitement. Conversations rose and crashed like waves across the tables and you could sense the ideas flickering across the room like the light bulbs of an old-time theatre marquee.

I couldn’t be happier. When we write sermons, we can never be sure how congregants will receive them. What will people take from our talk? Will people hear the message we intended to transmit? Did the service we designed give people the opportunity to be with each other in spiritual communion; to connect with something beyond our mundane experience; perhaps even to glimpse that nanosecond of ecstasy?

The buzz today gave me my answer, at least for this week. When you look for that intangibles, keeping your senses attuned to the vibrations around you, you never know what impact they can have.

Back in the Kennel

Well, dear readers, I have been on hiatus for some time as life has intervened. I completed my ministerial internship in New York, moved back to Pittsburgh, spent January in Chicago finishing my last seminary classes, and started my new job as the Consulting Minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton. I am thrilled to be at the helm of this intrepid little church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary in June.

A great irony in all of these massive changes is moving from our wealthiest congregation back to the real world — a church building with no computer, no DVD player, and no photocopy machine. But, we’ve got a wonderful structure, complete with a working bell in the tower, and a feisty group of folks who very much want this congregation to grow and have pinned a large lot of their hopes on my ideas and energy to help them make it happen.

It is a daunting task. Smithton is a town of 400, with one grocery store, one bank, and four bars. But, it also has a tiny public library (the volunteer librarian is a former Lutheran minister) and, the town’s pizza shop serves amazing food. I find both of these auspicious coincidences.

So, stayed tuned as I expect my muse will be keeping me very busy in the coming months. And, if you ever find yourself on Interstate 70 south of Pittsburgh, take a one mile detour at exit 49 and stop in for a visit.

Happy National Record Store Day!

After my recent excursion in the hospital (see my post from April 16), I’ve thought a lot about self-care. Frankly, that is an area I have not excelled at in recent years. I love ministry, but I do occasionally need someone to tell me to go home and enjoy the sunshine – which is what happened when I went into work the day after being released from the hospital.

Then, I heard about National Record Store Day – a celebration of independent music retailers. I am a vinyl fan, and saw this as a great opportunity to make a date with myself. There are several record stores in Greenwich Village and the weather forecast was fantastic. So, this morning, I set out for a day of wandering and spending copious amounts of money that I don’t have without caring.
My day started with two discoveries I had not expected. One was to finally find a coffee importer that would spare me from drinking grocery store drek, and the other was a marvelous little book store called Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books. The owner was a delightful woman and she had an amazingly good selection of books for even more incredible prices. My son has suggested that I read On the Road for some time, so I decided to buy the new edition that is the original scroll that Kerouac created for his first draft.
Then, it was off to the quest of the day – records! First stop was House of Oldies (Petula Clark’s Downtown and the 2-LP Doobie Brothers Farewell Tour). The owner told me that he had been in business for 40 years. I can only imagine the changes he has seen in that neighborhood since the Summer of Love. Next came Bleecker Street Records (Theolonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Stephen Stills’ Just Roll Tape April 26, 1968, and The Young Rascals). I also picked up The Pretenders’ special 7″ red vinyl disk made for National Record Store Day.
Next, I stumbled across Strider Records. The owner, another long-time retailer, presided over a crowded space packed with 45’s and LP’s of all types. I relieved him of two original John Coltrane albums (Crescent and Sun Ship). Then lunch at The Slaughtered Lamb Pub. I had been sitting for some time, enjoying the open window and my shepherd’s pie before I even noticed the life-sized sculpture of the werewolf and his bride, pictured to the left. In a gaudy, Madame Tussaud’s way, it was actually kind of cool. Speaking of food, I forgot to mention the insanely decadent chocolate concoction I ate with my morning coffee. I honestly felt sorry for the other people sitting in the park, watching me caress the delightful dessert.
Last was Generation Records. Although here I was interested in CD’s, since these groups (Evanescence, Lacuna Coil, Sirenia, and Epica) do not produce vinyl releases. My bundle grew heavy as I strolled through Washington Square Park (which BTW has the cutest little dog park I’ve ever seen). I figured that I had pushed my body about as far as I could and headed for the subway home.
This week, I looked at my life through a different lens. My goals remain the same. I want to become a minister, a great preacher, someone who inspires and rocks proverbial boats. I want to be a cool grandfather someday. And, whatever form it takes, I want to love greatly. National Record Store Day let me declare that I will not allow money or any other trivial reservations keep me from being happy and from living life.

Visual Displays

About 25 years ago, I attended a talk at a conference by a man named Edward Tufte. He had just written a book titled The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. His talk and the focus of his book was on what makes a good graph, or visual display of information, as well as what qualifies as a poor graphic.

I loved the presentation and immediately purchased the book (which I still recommend highly). One of the most memorable parts of the book is his presentation of a classic chart by Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), showing the fate of Napoleon’s army during its invasion of and subsequent retreat from Russia. Drawn in 1861, the plot displays six variables: the size of the army; its location on a two-dimensional surface; the direction of the army’s movement; and the temperature on various dates during the retreat. Tufte suggests that it may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn, and I agree.

I have had a copy of this graphic posted by my desk ever since, which has followed me from office to office. Minard’s map is a constant reminder to me of excellence. Every time I look at this graphic, I imagine how I can strive to work to produce something outstanding, either in its impact or in its effectiveness. This graph also reminds me daily that our lives are endless visual displays to those around us and to the world of what humans can accomplish if they put their minds and their hearts to a commitment.

Will I ever produce anything as elegant and memorable as Minard’s graphic? Who knows? Perhaps I already have and do not even realize it. Regardless, I find that a worthy goal every day, applied to my work, my interactions with people, or just how I live my life.

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead

George Romero’s latest film offering is getting limited distribution, and I recommend that you catch it quickly. As the latest in his Living Dead movies (following Night, Dawn, Day, and Land), Romero offers us yet another entertaining, yet meaningful glipse into horror. Here are a few comments without spoilers.

Night of the Living Dead is an American classic. Other directors have tried to copy it a hundred times, mostly failing miserably. In Diary, Romero returns to the events of the original Night and tries to copy his own masterpiece, updating to modern times and with a different perspective. I think he achieves this goal. He pays due homage to the original without simply xeroxing its formula, succeeding in creating a whole different story with different people that is engaging and meaningful.

As in most of his work, Romero succeeds in horrifying us not with a monster, but with the monster represented by humankind. In Diary, Romero is no longer subtle about this message, putting into the narrative “movie within the movie” the voice of judgment, ending with a powerful ultimate question. What other director indicts our society this forcefully while still entertaining and thrilling audiences?

Fans of horror films walk into a new Romero movie expecting excellence because he generally delivers it. That’s why, when he tries something new, we have to roll with the punches of a master at work and try to go with his flow. The vehicle of this film, of film students chronicling the events, succeeds where Cloverfield perhaps failed in that these are purpose-driven people acting in ways that even they have troubling articulating. Jason is not a cardboard hero. He has trouble at times explaining his muse and why he is doing what he is doing. The characters are conflicted, which is of course trademark Romero. He never gives you an easo hero or heroine and never hands it to you on a plate. You, the viewer, will be entertained, but he also wants you to think and to leave the theater mad and frustrated by the world.

And, of course, the fanboy in me wants great special effects and he delivers again. There are a couple of memorable dispatchings of zombies and some subtly creepy images. The video taping was effective without the jarring quality of other films (like Blair Witch Project) that have used this vehicle. So, my recommendation is “Don’t miss it.” Diary is an admirable addition to the Living Dead lexicon and deserves our praise. This is the work of a master craftsman in his prime, challenging us the way all great artists do.

Reaching Across the Generations

I have been enormously tardy posting lately as life has been intervening. Between searching for an internship site, preparing for classes, leading two worship services this week, and actually working at my University job, things have been hectic. I’ve also spent a good deal of time lately talking with my 21-year-old son. Probably the hardest part about parenting is watching your children struggle to find their way in the world. I just want to swoop down and solve every problem and provide every answer. But, I know those are the worst things to do if you want your children to become mature and responsible adults, fully equipped to explore the joy, the angst, and the fulfillment of life.

Like many young adults his age, he is searching for a life path and a career that matches his talents and desires with at least the ability to keep himself reasonably fed and sheltered. One thing he enjoys is poetry. Now, this is one area that I am particularly inept at providing much assistance. I have never been much of a poetry fan – “The Cremation of Sam Magee” is a personal favorite – so I feel relatively useless providing him with much in the way of support. Like me, though, he thinks big and likes to envision art in large scope. His ideas for novels start out as trilogies and his film ideas are 24-hour marathons.

But, I had an idea that combined my love of sermon writing with his poetic muse. I though it would be interesting if we exchanged pieces of our work and then wrote accompanying pieces – he would give me a poem and I would write a homily, and I would give him a sermon and he would write a poem. If we could put together enough examples, I even imagined that this might be something that Skinner House might consider publishing.

So, here is our first crack at this project. We would love to hear any feedback. What did it make you think? Do you like the format? Would you read more?
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My Brother’s Dreams
Tyler and Jeff Liebmann

The smooth penetrating glow of your radiant smile
A toothy grin of ambivalence and naivety
I dreamt of you abbreviated brother, pervading my eyes,
shining through the cloudy maze of my thoughts
You hadn’t aged, brown slivery locks danced above your
lids, constantly peering, laughing
Visits have slowed over the years, with each rustling
autumn I wonder, have you forgotten me?
How do you pass the days, slumbering in dark corners
of my mind, tucked away from the harsh reality that
stains the memories
Words spill from your rounded lips, half-phrases of
inequity and longing, muted words of love and
abandonment, long forgotten, dust in a desert wind.

Growing up, I never heard of Unitarian Universalism. And yet, my parents possessed a streak of religious nonconformity we often brandish with great pride. My parents were Christian, but they each assumed that label on their own terms.

For instance, my mother was raised Methodist in Moundsville, West Virginia – named for a large Adina Indian burial mound in the middle of the town. As a young girl, she once told her minister how she looked forward to going to Heaven so that she could be reunited with her deceased pet dog. The minister informed her (I always imagined in a rather patronizing tone) that her dog would not be waiting for her because there are no animals in Heaven. Without missing a beat, my mother told her minister that if her dog was not in Heaven, then she had no interest in going herself.

When I knew her as an adult, my mother was no shrinking violet. Many was the time she left some store clerk, teacher, or anonymous bureaucrat quaking in their officious shoes. But, I have to really admire the courage of a little girl to challenge the senior ecclesiastical authority in her life on an important point of theology. I take some measure of delight in her raw chutzpah, risking her minister’s vision of eternal hell fire over her love for the family pet. With genes like hers, I suppose it is little wonder that I eventually took the path toward Unitarian Universalist ministry.

This relatively harmless, amusing anecdote lived in our family’s history for decades and, obviously, made an impression on me as well. My mother has been gone for many years now, but her telling of that story lives clearly in my memory. An interesting question, however, is that of all the memories of childhood she could have retained, why would my mother, who lived into her 70’s, remember that brief exchange? Of all the folksy wisdom she could pass on to her children, why would that conversation rate consideration?

I believe my mother clung to that story because it represented her most primary belief in the nature of the human soul. My mother clearly felt that Heaven was not merely a Shangri-La of limitless joy and boundless serenity. No, she obviously felt that Heaven is a very personalized paradise populated by all of the dearly departed in a sort of mirror of our Earthly world. To her, Heaven would not be heavenly without her beloved pet, because her dog was an essential component of her life – a life that had earned selection into the Kingdom of God.

Let me carry the Gospel According to Helen one step further. My mother believed that her soul, once shed of its mortal body, would live for eternity in Heaven. Now, animals are not baptized, nor do they make any conscious choice to accept Jesus into their lives. I doubt that she believed animals have souls, per se, so one might ask how her dog would earn entry into the hereafter. Certainly not all animals would be there. If there is a Heaven at all, then surely it is devoid of rats and roaches and rattlesnakes, since they would evoke memories of fear and danger. So, for a particular animal to earn ascension, they must do so by displaying a humanlike devotion, living on even after death as part of the loving memory of the soul of a human being. I imagine that my mother would have agreed that as long as that dog lived on in her memory, even subconsciously, then her Heaven must include that dog.

My mother was no theologian. I am not sure that she could have given you much of an answer if asked to define the human soul. But, she knew what the concept meant to her and that was sufficient. To her, the soul was the immortal essence of each human being. The mind is the seat of thought and reason, but the soul is the seat of understanding and compassion. The mind may be the end result of neural synapses and biochemical reactions. To my mother, the soul was the vessel of the spirit, that divine spark, that piece of God within us. And, upon death, that piece of spirit reunites with God in Heaven.

But, not all of us are so fortunate, as my mother was, to have an unambiguous faith. Very few Unitarian Universalists believe in a continuing, individualized existence after physical death. Even fewer believe in the material existence of places called heaven or hell where one goes after dying. If we believe in the concept at all, we believe that immortality manifests itself in the lives of those we affect during our lifetime and in the legacy we leave when we die.

So what do Unitarian Universalists believe about the human soul? I somehow doubt that you can find any two Unitarian Universalists who will answer that question in quite the same way. To even begin would require a month of Sundays to simply lay the philosophical groundwork. Thinkers of distinguished pedigree have considered the nature of the soul to be one of the most fundamental notions of human existence, worthy of entire careers of contemplation and learned writing.

My mother lives on in my memory. I do not remember her as she would be today, in her mid-80’s. I do not remember her as she was when she died, after fighting liver cancer for a year. I remember her mostly as she was during my adolescence, when we talked for hours after school, over the dinner table, or during summer vacations. Ageless. Divorced of static from the distractions of life. She lives in a corner of my mind, tucked away from the harsh reality that stains the memories.

Does some measurable aspect of her actually live on in some tangible way? I doubt it. But, until science determines the nature of memory, how do we define the ripples left in the universal pool by the skipping of our mortal lives? Until science unlocks the mysteries of time and space, who is to say that some flicker of our life light does not continue on in the cloudy maze of thought, perhaps even retaining some mote of consciousness?

I do not believe in heaven or hell, but do take comfort in knowing that my life matters and will matter, even in a small way, after I die. I do not believe that a god imbued me with any special essence. I do think, however, that there exists something more to us than the sum of our molecular composition and collected energies. For now, I am willing to accept the uncertainty of soul and embrace the undetectable influence of others’ souls on my life.

Tilting Your Perspectives

I believe that we all have a muse. A sad reality of “civilized” life, however, is that few of us are ever empowered to embrace our muse and allow its fullest expression. Many people spend their entire lives with their muse locked away in a dusty attic, or secured with heavy chains in a dank basement. But, the funny thing about muses — no matter how hard we try to suppress them, they still find little ways to make their presence known. One goal of my muse kennel is to bring together those creative forces in all of us that resist the leash and provide a space for them to play.

This week, I worked with the Director of Religious Education at our church on our intergenerational Thanksgiving service coming up in three weeks. I have known Jen for many years and consider her a dear friend. The funny thing is that we have worked together on religious education and youth events for 10 years. We have supported each other as colleagues with a common commitment and passion for Unitarian Universalist children and youth programming. But, I do not recall the two of us ever really creating anything together.

We met a couple of times over meals (muses aren’t alone in needing food), hashing ideas back and forth, and generally just letting our muses romp. What a joy! A couple of times, I sat back in my chair and told her just how much fun I was having writing this service together. What happens, of course, is that the more freedom you give your muse, the more energetic it becomes. I left our last meeting buzzing with words and ideas begging to be typed into the computer. I was amazed at how just a slight change in my view of our professional relationship resulted in such a fresh approach to our artistic and spiritual expression.

I am a huge fan of paradigm shifts. But, revolution is not always the answer. We don’t always need to tilt at windmills. Sometimes, all our muses ask of us is to tilt our perspectives just a little and approach projects from a different point of view.