The Question Is A Prison. The Answer Is Another Shackle.

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I came with lots of questions. Some were pretty mundane: am I doing this right, and why does my side hurt, and is that fucking bell ever going to ring? I’m certain I still have these. But I have larger questions, too. Who am I? Will I ever be happy again? Why did this thing happen to me? I came hoping to find answers to these.

When I studied philosophy, I knew I’d never come up with the answers for life’s biggest questions. My professors actively discouraged their students from attempting that. They encouraged asking better questions. If we could ask better questions, then maybe we could get closer—a smidge closer—to the finding the answer. What does it mean to ask a better question?

Well, when I think of what makes a bad question, I think of what Stephen Colbert used to do on “The Colbert Show” when he’d ask his guest something like, “George W. Bush: great President or greatest President?” or, conversely, “Barak Obama: is he a terrible President or the worst President?” He already knew the answer, so he phrased the question to get that answer. A bad question sets limits on an answer.

One of the most famous examples of a bad question in Zen literature comes from this koan: “A monk asked Joshu, ‘does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ Joshu replied ‘MU!” The monk set up the question as: does it have a) Buddha nature or b) no Buddha nature. And Joshu, the Zen master, ignores the multiple choice part of the question and answers, no or MU. He doesn’t say yes to a or b. He doesn’t say, well on the one hand or on the other hand. He says no to the whole mindset of the question. He says no to the expectations set up by the question.

Who knows how long that monk spent weeks and months and years struggling with the question of a Dog’s nature? I imagine him sitting with this question of does a dog have a) Buddha Nature or b) no Buddha nature, over and over and over and over and over and over. How many nights had he lost sleep over it? How many nights did he wake up with sweat drenching the bed? So, he finally works up the guts to ask the Master about it and the Master simply says, MU. He simply says, no.

And this MU—there has been lots written about it—undercuts the assumptions of the question. This Mu says the question isn’t big enough. This Mu says you’re going about this all the wrong way. This Mu says you’ve been limiting the answers. This Mu says you’ve already backed yourself into a corner with this question. This Mu says the questions you ask have become a prison. You’ve locked yourself away and pitched the key. Mu, Mu, Mu.

Unfortunately, the answers I find come from the questions I ask. And if my questions are so limiting, so will my answers be. If my questions are a prison, then my answers will be just another shackle. Even good questions will give good answers, but they’re still limited by the question. Maybe there is no such thing as a good question? Perhaps all of my questions are just expectations hiding behind question marks.

I become a dog chasing his tail day after day after day after day. Always doing the same thing, asking the same questions—but expecting different answers. It’s as if I went to the well for the water, but the rope isn’t long enough to reach the depths. I came away thirsty. I suffer because of the questions I ask and the answers I seek. I suffer because I expect an answer will end my suffering.

But, anymore, I do nothing. I ask nothing. I just sit. I let the questions, the expectations, the answers all fall away as I focus on my breaths: one, two, three. I expect nothing. And as the questions drop away, as these answers drop away, my little, rabid doggie mind starts to fall away—or, at least slow down—and I begin to experience now. This now. Just this.

This now.

But the problem with saying “now,” or “just this” is by the time my vocal cords form the sound and it vibrates the air, then the vibrations hit your inner ear and your brain registers the words, that now has already past. Just by milliseconds, but it has past. So, there is no “now”. There is no “just this”. Plus, the same mind that becomes addicted to the past can also be addicted to the present. There is no now. There is no just this.

My questions cannot penetrate this silence. My answers, even my best answers, cannot explain it. But it is there in that silence, beyond does a dog have Buddha nature or not, beyond great president or greatest president, beyond Christian or Buddhist, beyond any question or answer, there I must go.

But it’s not that I go there. It’s that I’ve always been there. I just didn’t realize it.

In this silence, there is no prison, there is no freedom. In this silence, there is nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do. In this silence there is no self or no non-self, no master or no student, no questioner or answerers. There are no questions and no answers. In this silence, there isn’t even nothing.

So, maybe the best question is no question. Maybe the best answer is no answer.

Writing writes; Yada & yada.

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I’ve never been much of a goal-setter. Goals, it seems, are for the gym fanatics and Facebook warriors, the entrepreneurs. Set a goal and reach it. This is our definition of success. Perhaps it’s because the things that interested me—the creative things, that is—always had some kind of vague movable goal post out on the far end-zone of a late autumn’s foggy morning.

One of my music teachers always said she was in pursuit of the “perfect” recital where nary a mistake is made. Not just sans mistakes but where even every chord is voiced equally, the pedaling is precise and everything is just-so. She tells her students she hasn’t experienced it yet—but, it’s a firm goal, a clear direction, nevertheless.

Perfection, though, is never what drew me to creativity, to the piano or the page. I always preferred expressing a thing over perfecting a thing. How can I express what is inside me—what bubbles up in the middle of the night—I try to do it as clearly as I can, but there are times (lots of times) where being unclear or ambiguous is the best clarity for expressing what is unclear or ambiguous.

I’m more interested in what I don’t know.

To use that old dichotomy, over Toscanini’s over-rehearsed mechanisms, I prefer the vague smoke of Furtwängler. His “vagueness” is anything but vague—in fact, it’s very clear what he’s having the orchestra to express. Which makes me think that sometimes—to switch mediums—you just got to fling the paint on the canvas. You just got to put the words on the page or get the sounds in the room, no matter how unsure or imprecise they are. Some days you’ve just got to quit giving a shit and bark a barbaric YAWP in the ears of the critics (especially the one inside).

(A Brief Aside: I’ve always been a better YAWPer  than a whisperer.
Although, I do hope one do to master the subtle whisper.
But that might only happen when my voice finally goes hoarse.
By the way, did you know that whispering is one of
worst things you can do when you lose your voice?
Comprehend that and you’ll understand
everything it means to be human.)

I express. I need to express. I need to do that more than I need to communicate clearly or cajole or awake or destroy or create. It’s shut up in my bones, yada, yada. This is not about you.

(A short list of things about which I am unclear: 1) If we’re all in debt to each other, why does debt exist? 2) Why do I have the “American Dad” theme song stuck in my head? I don’t even like that show. 3) Why is everything about class in our proclaimed classless society? Not to blog like a Marxist, but he had some points. 4) A prison and a fortress are nearly indistinguishable. Blah, blah, blah.)

I write everyday. But I do not share it every day. You are my guest here. This is my table. My words are food. My overused em dash is drink. I’m sorry I haven’t shared much, but there’s not been much to share. I like silence more. The front and back door are unlocked—you’re welcome to come and go as you please. Let me recommend Reddit.

My goal is to have no goals. My aim is to have no aim. I expect nothing. Yes, that means there is no conventional “success”, but it also means there is no “failure”. If you quit grading students, it doesn’t imply that everyone passes anymore than it implies that everyone fails. It just means nobody gets a grade. I don’t give myself grades anymore. If there are no grades, then there are no grads or dropouts. No goals means no goals.

One of the worst things you can do is accomplish a goal. It becomes a narrow prison of self-congratulation. Plus, imagine everything you missed on your way to that jail: the way the full moon scatters disparate shadows over brick walkways, watching a pissed-off bluejay fight a crow twice her size, or the immense pleasure of a boring Saturday on the couch with nothing to read and nothing on Netlfix.

Set a goal, get a goal. Set for nothing and get everything. After all, only Protestants beat themselves over their work ethic. How sad.

Thinking thinks.
Seeing sees.
Hearing hears.
Writing writes.

I believe this is what St. Teresa of Avila was getting at in her Autobiography when she said that she hated editing. She wanted to write. So, she wrote.

Faking It in F Major

jesuslovesme2Last night, I dreamt of my childhood church. At the last minute, I was asked to play piano for VBS. While someone was preaching, I sat on the bench flipping through the hymnal, trying to find the music for “Jesus Loves Me.” I flip back to the index and run my index finger down the H, I & J hymns until I find the number. I start turning pages to where it should be in the hymnal, except instead there are dozens of magazine-style ads—just page after page of full color advertisements published in the middle of the hymnal.

That can’t be right, I think. So, I’m in the index checking the number again. Flip to where “Jesus Loves Me” should be. I’m back in the ads. I start earlier in the hymnal where there are proper hymns and begin counting up. 350, 365, 410, 449. Once I near the number, there they are again: cologne ads, plumber ads, magazine ads—one after another. The whole center of the hymnal is just advertisements. It was printed this way. Nowhere is a sign of “Jesus Loves Me.”

Of course, it’s time for the kids to sing. Sadly, one of the major downfalls of being only classically-trained is you never learn to play by ear. So, I just start faking it in F major. As I’m playing, I start throwing in some “crunchy” chords not because I’m intending to, but because I don’t know what I’m doing. An augmented fifth here, a diminished chord here, a rippling arpeggio to the ceiling and a few rumbling bass notes. But the kids keep singing and singing strong while I accidentally turn “Jesus Loves Me” into Tristan und Isolde. I hear an adult say behind me in the pews, “Wow! This must be Jazz!” After, a grandfather—who looked just like John McCain (but wasn’t John McCain)—told me how impressed he was with my playing. He said he’d never heard anything like it before.

My subconscious has never been subtle. Hell, subtlety is not a gift of my conscious mind, either. So, there’s that. It’s a bit over the top.

But, if I were the author of my life, writing myself as the main character, I would look also at the introduction of zazen this year as too heavy-handed of a metaphor. After years of running bloodied broken-nose into this wall or that wall, our hero sits in front of one, counting his breaths and starts over again. At least once a day he does it, but sometimes more. I’d circle these paragraphs with a red pen and write, “O RLY?” in the margin.

They lack subtlety. Instead of the triumphant singing procession around Jericho, it is just a silent sit-in, like these walls themselves will teach him everything.

Hath Found Her An House: A Rude Little Story of Rocky Knob

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I pray you never know the loneliness of my girlhood. So terrible you never realize it settle deep until a voice spoke that ain’t your own. And your mind hunger for those words. It could have been the dumbest farmer but you soak up his complaints about bushel prices just to look him in the eyes, feel him in the room. His pettiness became salve to an ache you didn’t even know you had. You was just glad to hear a voice other than yourself.

My father welcome strangers because the Bible say it entertain angels unawares. Not that we got many visitors, but they come and my father set them all down. He’d say, Do you have an hour to spare? A few bird and plant fellows, a preacher or three, or a young man sick with love were offered fine hospitality. But not all men told tales, just set quietly. My father watch these with care until with them they together walk to off our land.

This one say he a wanderer with an itch to see this blessed nation. Ask my father if he’d ever read this Emerson right here. My father say he didn’t see much need of reading outside scriptures. He say That’s alright the Bible says it too. Well sir, I just believe a man should at one time or another step outside himself meeting his mettle. Devour himself in the wilderness to live authentic and true. My father say nothing, but lean in his chair as my mother serve bitter coffee from the fire. Like David, sir, he say, playing his harp and singing Psalms with sheep. David the true man I try to be.

My father say Yes but shouldn’t a man leave his father and cleave unto his wife? A tree grow in the wilderness, yes, but only because its roots cling to the earth. It grow slow, yes, but deeper, wider before taller. What of a wife? Or family, friends? Anybody to care you on the backside of nowheres, yes? The freeze come along soon and your metal be frozen in the earth.

The wanderer say back Sir, I tell you the truth. I used to be a college man. And, yes, I had a bride for after graduation when I’d put out my sign. But I had no patience for law. Sir, I mean no disrespect but it seemed like a fairy tale. Laws exist only for we all agree they do. No sir, it wasn’t real. Just a dream. Just a silly expensive dream.

My father say There be something in your ruddy complexion that speaks of my grandfather. They all crazy, our grandfathers. Leaving their homes for some mountain in the new land. Fight off Indians and bears. He carry all that old world in his spit and sweat right to this spot and built himself this house, the house where we sit. Scraped, sorrowed, laughed and spent nights keeping to himself under the stars while my father as a boy sat vigil on the porch with fear his daddy been gorged out there. Until my grandfather come back at sunrise with tears in his eyes. Crazy. They were all crazy.

This is a mighty fine house, sir, built on the fine foundation of exertion and spittle with four stout walls rising up to the Almighty’s face up here on this gorgeous mountain. You and your family are caretakers and inhabitors of his spirit, this fine abode. In truth, I envy men like your grandfather for no such journeys exist for the brave and fearless, if such men be had in our days.

Winter come early that year, just as father say. It was unseemly, of course, for the young man to stay in the house my Grandfather built on account of my sisters and me, so he slept in the barn after sharing our table each night. My father permit him a small fire on the account he watch after it. By the time the snow start falling, he was glad for it, too. The snow come first at night in big wet smears shake from the sky. Later when the sun rose in the valley, one flake become two and two flakes were many. As the day wore and we did our chores, it continue to fall. The second day was much the same as the first.

On the third night of snow, momma bid me run some more wood for the young man’s fire with warnings I stick close to the fence. I argue with her—doesn’t every daughter at that age argue with her mother?—but she say Fine. Freeze to death. We’ll bury you in the spring when you thaw. I carry the wood and high-step it along the fence to the barn. I see why momma say stay with the fence. I couldn’t see much in front or behind me, all I see was knee-deep snow.

I drop wood in front of him and turn go when he say Little girl, dost thou know who made thee? I must confess I never heard anyone speak like that, at least not in those days. He say Never the mind and come sit a moment by the fire. I watch him.

The young man say Do you hear that? Shh, listen. Do you hear that? He was right. A bird scoot and coo somewheres up in the roof. But the fire was dim so I see not the roof of the barn. If I raise my arms—those gangly arms of my girlhood—the blackness swallow them.

450px-Campfire_PineconeHe say he hear that bird every night. Up in the eaves the sparrow hath found her an house, he say. Where she comes, I do not know. Where she goes, I can only imagine. If I’m still, she’ll flutter to the other side of the barn and I might glimpse her belly during her short trek. That little bird, he say, a mystery on both ends with confusion in the middle.

He ask me What do you know, little girl? But I look at my wet boots and puddles by the fire in silence. After a time, he say That’s alright. Everybody knows what they know. Not me, though. No, little girl, I’m just like you. I don’t know anything. My only concern is what I don’t know. I wanna go beyond, go beyond what I know. I wanna go beyond the going beyond. I always wanna know what lies after.

I ask if he means heaven.

No not at all, he say, When I decided to leave my home and my learning and my fiance, I was so sad. And it sat in me deep, taking root and spreading tendrils, choking everything. All I knew was this deep pain. I even walked to a creek to kill myself. Slice my throat with a knife right there in the waters because if you meet yourself on the path to truth and you stand in your own way, you gotta. I realize I want to know what was beyond this sadness—

While he spin this sad tale, the sparrow stir a racket. When out of the vast beyond it flew down between us, me and the young man, and dip right into the small fire. With her wings alight, she fly away to the far corner. A little ball of flame floating up to the ceiling higher and higher. Naturally, the young man’s story trail off the way we do when stupefied and we both crane our necks up to the ceiling to watch the flapping fire hidden under far eaves.

Hell fire the young man say You better go wake your daddy. I was confused and kept looking to the ceiling, not understanding his meaning. Run as quick as you can, little girl, he shout, Run, now! By this point I smell smoke. So, I run through the door of the barn, high-step it through the snow by the fenceline yelling for my father.

By the time we make it back, my father and me and my older brothers, we see the walls turn into consuming fire. You damn fool my father shout with all manner of insults with his breath puffing out of his mouth. I said you could have a small fire but you careless bastard didn’t care and so on he went yelling at the young man in front of the barn burning like a candle while the snow kept drop dropping from heaven. The young man try explain the bird but my father ain’t listen. My father tell one of my brothers to take me back to the house right now. We turn go.

I seen their shadows in front of the inferno from a distance. I seen them scuffle and my brothers throw punches at the young man. Then, the shadow of the young man disappear and moments later his scream reaches my ears and echoes the valley. My brother say Come on, sister, we gotta go back. Nothing to see. That man ain’t bothering us no more.

But a queerest wind blew up from behind my brother and me. We turn to watch the flames from the barn start to lick the thickset clouds above. And the wind blew and blew and blew until the fire move from the barn to the clouds. The sky itself was aflame, rolling hot with rage. When I say this to the men later they don’t believe me, but I see it to this day. The heavy snowclouds caught fire. This is gospel truth I tell till I die.

Well, the snow melt from the heat and the great field quickly turn into water rushing here and there in little rivulets down the mountain. My brothers and father and me all run back to the house through mud up to our shins as the earth gave up her hardness. The sky billow.

The light from the sky’s fire reveal all as we ran. The house great-grandfather built had a sagging roof and chipped paint. The upstairs windows been long broken so my father place a piece of wood in their place. The left side of the house look as if was about to collapse since fore I born. My father say all get inside but I stand watch the sky. My father say from the porch that I be safe and this all over in the morning. They ran into the house.

But the wind blow once more and the flames go overhead until the little tongues from the skyfire lick the broken windowpane and slide down the the back of the house until roaring. I hear my family shout terrors. They burn alive in the house great-grandfather built.

I scream running down the mountain, heaven’s fire lighting my way. I slip and fall so many times in the mud and muck. My boots cake with mud, my mouth taste of mud, my hair mat with mud as the rushing waters of thawed snow dig deep channels down. It was quite a time.

Near the road, though, a man step out of the woods. Even though I’m seventy-two, I see him in my dreams and I wake up sweating. He show up often. But near the road at the edge of our property a man step out of the woods. His face is fire and his hands is fire. And the fire man look just like my wanderer, the young man. But I don’t think it’s him. His face was much older and the clothes were funny. But his face is familiar. He glare and seethe at me while I stumble and fall out onto the road. As I walk to the neighbors, I turn. I seen the fire man walk back and forth, back and forth, just pacing the entrance of our mountain, spitting despair and sadness. He walk alone on his mountain.

But morning was all ash in the wind as the snow fall.

Unraveling Knots: One, Two, Three

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In Slavoj Žižek’s “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” the Slovenian philosopher lisps about Americans’ love of disaster films. We think, Žižek says, the world is so beyond redemption that the only way we can psychologically deal with it is by blowing it up. So we watch all manner of aliens and terrorists destroying the White House over and over again. We cannot imagine a future other than an orgy of destruction of Wagnerian proportions.

This kept coming to mind when writing “National Apostasy: Disaster Capitalism and the Episcopal Church” about our own ongoing denominational disaster porn. My thesis was the Episcopal Church isn’t actually dying, but is only being reported as dying so power and money could be consolidated in few hands. Yet, I have been wondering if these power-hungry money-grubbers (pardon the technical term) only succeed because their lies are lies we already believe. Like Žižek said, maybe we listen to and read their disaster porn because we cannot imagine the Episcopal Church changing. Maybe even because we don’t think it should change. Maybe we all just want it to die.

Every day I researched that essay, I kept asking myself,  “Why do you care?” Most days, I didn’t have an answer. I had no clue why I kept researching and reading the litigation documents (if you ever want to ruin your soul, spend an hour with these). But the writing was a turning cog in the working of my salvation. Only a thunderstorm of an eight-page polemic could clear the foul air in my head. Old misdeeds could be examined, forgiven; unintentional transgressions could be overlooked. I cared because I wanted to think clearly about the issue. I wrote it for myself.

But, outside my window is autumn with golden leaves fallen from a backyard tree. Nearby, I sit on my office floor. I face an unadorned wall with my legs like a lotus. I stare open-eyed. One, two, three: I count my breaths until the timer dings and my feet are asleep. I read the Daily Office when I feel up to it. I go to a Mass when I muster the strength. I must admit, I like the Latin ones best. These you can watch/listen and “not participate”—in fact, that’s what I like about them the most. You can really contemplate and the sermons are so terrible they barely interrupt your thoughts.

I used to make fun of people like me, you know the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. The ones who take a little of this and a little of that. They’ll sit zazen like me, and pray the rosary like me, and read the Tao te Ching like me, and maybe show up in the house of the Lord every once in awhile like me. Just look up when the bell rings to see the miracle, then back on our way to pick-and-choose land. I don’t have any Buddha statues yet, but I haven’t ruled it out, though.

I learned in the last ten months not everybody who is “spiritual but not religious” chose it. Not all of these are lazy or lacking in love. Some of these are cast-offs from an institutional religion hell-bent on preserving itself. Some of these are victims of bad pastoral care. Some of these were ignored by good church folk who never understood them. Some of them have been vomited out by the behemoth with the “bullshit jobs.” They left the institutional Church because their lives were better for it.

Ten months ago, I was a victim of shockingly bad pastoral care. And then around Easter, some more shockingly bad pastoral care. During attempts at reconciliation, I was insulted and had my motives questioned. In fact, the motives for my entire participation in the Episcopal Church were questioned. Then, I was just expected to just get over all of it. Some day, I’ll write about this chapter of my life, but it’s still too soon, too fresh, too raw for me to have any kind of perspective. Suffice to say, in the weeks that followed, the knots tying me to the local Episcopal Church unraveled one by one by one. So, I sit facing a wall, counting my breaths: one, two, three.

I had about a half-dozen conversations over the last week with various people. Some are in active ministry, some are musicians, some are laypersons. All were shocked by the recent events at General Theological Seminary, TREC and the direction of the Episcopal Church. All of them have this urge to retire to a mountain to watch the Episcopal Church destroy herself. Watch her go up in flames like a scene from Götterdämmerung. As BLS wrote, the Episcopal Church is drunk and we’re all just waiting for rock bottom. All this denominational disaster porn is right: maybe we all do want want her to die. I’m not convinced anyone thinks the Episcopal Church should survive.

I think it should, though. I don’t write this because I am worried about job security—after all, I’m not a priest. I don’t write this because I’m trying to sell you anything (I don’t even have Powerpoints prepared!). No, I think the Episcopal Church should survive because she has the means of grace for reuniting broken hearts with a loving God. But she has to remember the means of grace and her hope of glory. She’s got to stop crucifying her people. She has to stop breaking hearts.

She’s gotta stop breaking my heart.

A Roadkill Kind of Grace

all_soulsI joke about a pale acolyte dangling the burning cup near my bedside in the curtain-pulled darkness. A stink bug flies like a zephyr for a moment above the window. The held candles light downcast faces and mouths mumbling the ora pro nobis with the priest. In penumbras of hallway light, a little girl beckons with tentative movements, afraid of disturbing the heavy room. I cough, too tired to follow. It is dangerous to follow such a maiden. I haven’t much time left and she knows it. She gestures again.

With legs akimbo, a squirrel lies on the road like an angel fallen from a great height. Did I not just see that squirrel a few days ago chattering up a tree? It probably ruined the day of whoever ran over him. She probably went to her job with tears. “OMG,” she texts her best-guy-friend, “just ran over a squirrel.”—not realizing she was turning to him for emotional support—not realizing he’s madly in love with her—not realizing he’s always there because he wants to be—and not realizing the day was far more ruined for the squirrel, who just yesterday was chattering up a tree—”1st the squirrel then a funeral. What a day!! FML.”

What’s the price of a runned-over squirrel? The little girl stands on the sidewalk’s shadows under a clear umbrella, waiting for the traffic to pass. She walks into the street. She picks up the dead squirrel. She cradles it like baby. She pets it. She talks to it. Such a maiden is dangerous to follow. She disappears in the rain.

His thumbs are lightning: “That’s terrible! R U OK? U need anything?” He is ready to ditch his books and his lunch to be with her. He needs to hold her (spiritually), feel his (metaphorical) shoulder wet with her tears, and feel her (hypothetical) shaking back in his (emotional) arm. He doesn’t realize he just wants to be wanted, and she scratched this needing-to-be-needed itch very well. If he can’t have the ecstasy of her body, he could have her in the communion of her friendship. The longing gave him meaning—not realizing the the squirrel, who just yesterday was chattering up a tree, had no meaning (anymore).

On the way to the church, she talks about a date, or at least he thinks it was a date. She’d met this guy online or on Tinder—something like that, he couldn’t tell. Either way, this guy had come over to hang out or whatever. She discovered by looking through the peep hole of her front door that this guy was one of the teachers from the High School when she was a student there. She never had the teacher, though, but she knew about him. She knew he had a wife and kids. So, from behind the closed door, she tells him to go away. She said she just lay on the floor of her living room, laughing and laughing. “Really? That guy trying to get with me? It feels good,” she said, “to think about laughing on a day like today—what with the squirrel and all.”

in_requiem_aeternamLegs straight like a felled tree, I lay in the closed casket. For years, I joked about hiring a dozen Italian Widow Mourners to wail under their mantillas at all the right times. Today, they do not disappoint. I hear them from my box. Plus, a female friend of mine agreed to wear a red dress just so everyone at the Requiem would say “Wait. I thought he was—that sly dog! The bastard really was Byronic!” She’ll confuse my former lovers the most. This pleases me greatly. My friend doesn’t disappoint in her crimson gown of sin. I giggle in my casket.

She and he, though, sit towards the back, watching the ceremony of the frowning priest and eternally circumabulating pale acolyte as a choir sings Latin chants & Elizabethan dirges. He thinks it’s like watching slow-moving planets, the spheres in orbit. A reader mounts the lectern and says, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.” Leaning forward with her face in her hands, she cries.

He feels it happening, his body becoming porous and his soul sliding out. His hand reaches up to her shoulders. A gesture of comfort, he thinks, but his reddening face betrays his hands. One of his friends had a serious conversation: said he couldn’t talk about her anymore around them on Friday nights because it bummed them out. Because, they said, he deserved better. But, this girl gives him a little attention and emotionally needs him although she goes to others for the desires of the body.

He tells his friends she can’t be taking what I’m freely giving. His face is hot with shame as he touches her friendly. He can hear her laughing beneath the tears, giggling in that locked room deep inside her, “Him? Get with me?” One day he should let her go, he knows this, but today is not that day. Tomorrow won’t be, either. So, quietly, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving as he becomes again and again what she needs him to be. As he becomes what he wants to become.

They all file past me under the pall to receive the sacrament. The priest got a little shaky and almost drops the chalice. I roll my eyes in the casket. Jesus, hasn’t this guy said the Mass before? I guess not much changes—even in death. I’m still the same old Andy—just, well, you know, dead. The ad hoc choir and musicians made up of my friends does a pretty good job. No Bruckner or Berlioz, but that’s alright. They knew not to do any Fanny Crosby or “How Great Thou Art,” so I won’t haunt ’em. The Italian widow-mourners wail.

The little girl stands at the door of the church—the door leading out to the parking lot—and gestures to me. It’s a little motion, like she’s afraid of being seen. Plus, she’s still holding that dead, runned-over squirrel like a doll baby. I laugh. The Little Lady of the Roadkill praying for me. She grabs my hand and leads me out into the rain as they say, “Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” Such a maiden is dangerous to follow. [Exit]

As he drives her home, he & she pass a runned-over cat with wet, matted hair. The cat’s face is disfigured, frightening. That night, he couldn’t sleep. He had uneasy dreams of her (inflamed by her tears and the closeness of her body), that cat’s face, and, in shadows of rain, the little girl looking both ways before crossing the street.

National Apostasy: Disaster Capitalism and the Episcopal Church

JohnIn the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. On a tree the Word was exalted in death, and in life emerged from a three-day tomb. Proclaimed first by the Jews, then the Gentiles, the Word reached disparate lands. He was preached in wide fields, in marketplaces, in churches—anywhere an ear was to hear. The Word was lifted high in spite of flame, dismemberment and drowning; then enthroned in cathedrals rising, in chants of high thanksgiving, and in myriad hearts yearning. Women preached, too, along with anyone who was called to give the Word, regardless of sexuality. In our day, though, the Church sits behind a nameplate, reads blogs and worries about the future.

A foregone conclusion: the Episcopal Church is dying. I need not give you numbers because you can recite them like creeds. It is the one paradigm uniting conservative and liberals, high and low church. We will die, or are dying, or have recently died.

Yet, it is important to remember no matter how many statistical soothsayers gaze into their PowerPoints, no one can predict the future. This is because the future does not exist. The only time existing is now—this very now as your eyes pass over these words. This is all there is. Before and after only exist in the mind of the present, in the heart of now.

Because of this, data and projections tell us nothing of tomorrow, but do tell us much of today. Into this made-up future, we project all our current feelings and longings. Odds are, if we’re feeling good today, the future looks bright; if we’re feeling bad, everything will be terrible. We bend numbers—the most malleable things in creation—to suit our current disposition. In the same way, numbers can also be manipulated to create current dispositions. A predicted future can be used to shape the present.

gen conThe 2012 General Convention asked the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies appoint twenty-four members to form the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). Specifically, they were charged with contemplation of administrative and governance structures. General Convention resolved that TREC be diverse and “include some persons with critical distance from the Church’s institutional leadership.” After several months of meeting, they began publishing their thoughts for comment from the wider church.

In their most recent letter from September 2014, TREC shared some of what they’d been ruminating. Corporate language frames nearly all their suggestions. For example, TREC suggests at the churchwide level, leadership should be empowered to pursue “bold and disruptive ideas” and staff should work “as network catalysts and network builders.” The Presiding Bishop is “retained as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)”; the President of the House Deputies is “retained as Vice President”; the Executive Council would be “similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees”; along with new positions, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Legal Officer.

Amidst all this corporate jargon is the sharp knife to many existing structures. The Executive Council—the voice of General Convention between General Conventions—should be reduced from forty to twenty-one members, and the various Provinces are no longer guaranteed membership. The committees of General Convention (CCABs) should be reduced. Those three new chiefs “would serve at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop” and could be fired without anyone’s approval. Staff of the DFMS should be reduced to a “contractor-only model” and these will be judged by the Executive Council “against a set of pre-agreed metrics.”

This is surprising after the calls for change at the last General Convention. But one should realize TREC was criticized from the beginning for being full of insiders without the prerequisite “critical distance”. Or that TREC themselves were appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies.  Should it really be a surprise that they nearly conclude new expanded powers for both positions and less input from marginalized voices?

But, what’s hiding behind all of these recommendations is the expectation that they will stave off disaster. That, as TREC wrote in their September letter, we are like Lazarus who was held back from his bindings and if we just fix “the old ways of working,” we can save ourselves from future death.

kjsAs it is well known, several dioceses and congregations left the Episcopal Church after the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. Yet, less known is three years into Schori’s term, Mary E. Kostel was named “Special Counsel to the Presiding Bishop for Property Litigation and Discipline” in order to assist with these property disputes. She still holds this position in the Presiding Bishop’s Office. This is nearly unprecedented, by the way, for as far as I know, even the Roman Catholic Church with its various pedophilia lawsuits does not retain special counsel in this way.  In a memo shared with the Executive Council—the body TREC suggests a reduction of members—Mary Kostel wrote, “[the legal team] typically has counseled in favor of forbearance from dramatic or inflammatory action, on the view that the disputes over parish property will ultimately be resolved in court.”

Eric Bonetti—himself a self-described nonprofit professional—wrote an essay in the Episcopal Cafe defending these litigations. He writes, “Indeed, if there is any fault to be found in the church’s handling of the dissidents, it was in trying too hard to find a workable compromise.” The New York Times reported it was this kind of pressure to never compromise which Bishop Johnston felt during his amicable negotiations with his friend, the conservative rector of Truro Church. As The Vice President of the Virginia Theological Seminary commented, “The extreme on the right and the extreme on the left have much to lose if they give an inch.” As Kostel wrote, everything should be and “will ultimately be” settled in court.

This pressure seldom produces amicable results as in Truro. Consider The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York. Before 2007, breakaways could often work out solutions with their former dioceses. The congregation offered the diocese $150,000 for the building. The initial conversations were promising, but eventually they were sued by the Episcopal Church. After removing the congregation, the Diocese sold the building for $50,000 to an Islamic community center.

The Presiding Bishop defended this policy of settling everything in court to USA Today. She did not think it “was a faithful thing” to let the breakaway parishes keep their buildings. She said, “In a sense it’s related to the old ecclesiastical behavior toward child abuse. . . Bad behavior must be confronted.” Confronting this bad behavior has been very expensive for the Episcopal Church. Although a number is hard to estimate, one totals at $34.5 million over the last decade. As of 2014, there are over eighty cases being argued in courts over property disputes.  

The September TREC Letter does not mention these eighty litigations nor $34.5 million cost. Of course, it does specifically mention legal staff would not be impacted by the slimming for “efficiency” or “effectiveness”. TREC also suggests the addition of a Chief Legal Officer—one of those three Chiefs serving “at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop”. Ostensibly, this is an expansion of what has been called “the scorched earth” litigation policy. Katie Sherrod, one of Fort Worth’s faithful Episcopalians, argues the TREC letter is reminiscent of the power grabs by conservative bishops.

Strike magazineIn 2013 American anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for Strike! Magazine. In it, Graeber examines the rise of “professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service workers,” or the salaried paper-pushers. These are not doctors, but hospital administrators; not the violinists, but the managers of the orchestranot the professors, but the Dean. These people don’t actually produce anything. They judge and manage the people who do produce. And, very often, are convinced that their jobs have no meaning. Yet, as Graeber writes, through “some strange alchemy” as corporations downsize and exploit workers, these “bullshit jobs” continue to grow. Today, the Episcopal Church is run by people with “bullshit jobs.”

In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, the mission of the Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” I submit that any “bullshit job” in the Episcopal Church is anyone we are paying who doesn’t do this mission directly. These would be the Social Media Coordinators, the Marketing Gurus, the lawyers, etc. A pretty good bet of a “bullshit job” is anything having the title of “consultant.” You may find the likes of these padding the budget of most every diocese (and even a few parishes).

On top of this, consider how much of a “bullshit job” the role of Presiding Bishop has become. Originally, the Presiding Bishop was the senior-most diocesan bishop who presided over the House of Bishops. Back then, the Presiding Bishop still had all the apostolic duties of a bishop: tending the spiritual care of God’s priests, confirming, and ensuring decency and good order. Back then, a Presiding Bishop still did useful things that impacted the lives of those in their care. Over time, however, the Presiding Bishop garnered more national responsibilities and by the 1940s, it was expected a Presiding Bishop resign his or her diocese. Thus, we have a Bishop without a See. This is odd in Christendom, as even the Bishop of Rome is, well, the Bishop of Rome along with being the Pope. It is the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the months leading up to the formation of TREC, there were several calls to return the Presiding Bishop to the older formula of the senior-most diocesan bishop. Interestingly enough, the group picked by the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies didn’t think this was a good idea. In fact, TREC went the complete opposite way. TREC saw the future death of the Episcopal Church as a corporate problem with a corporate solution of greatly expanding the powers of a “bullshit job.” Under TREC’s recommendations, once elected, a Presiding Bishop would almost be removed from accountability to the wider church.

I’ve been a well-informed Episcopalian for nearly a decade and I still have no real clue what the Presiding Bishop does other than collect a paycheck, anger conservatives, pursue “scorched-earth” litigations, and not talk about Jesus. Even though we’ve been calling the Presiding Bishop our Primate since 1982, it seems the position is nothing more than a very powerful administrator, or as Graeber might call it, a very powerful “bullshit job”—or as TREC stylizes the position, a CEO.

kebleJohn Keble preached against a similar problem when he famously mounted the pulpit in St. Mary’s, Oxford in 1833. In his time, the Church of Ireland had too many bishops and not enough people. So, moved by efficiency and effectiveness, Parliament sought to amalgamate the dioceses. Few saw this as a crisis because in the mindset of the time, the Church was considered a ward of the State. Keble, however, preached this is a sign of apostasy. It was a power-play of the State over the apostolic authority of the Church. No one fought it, because as he likened the Church of England to the children of Israel crying out for Samuel to anoint a king, everyone in the Church of England wanted to be like the other nations.

It was clear enough for Israel, though: the Ammonites were at the gates, threatening annihilation, so a king would be effective and efficient to destroy the enemy. Likewise, for the Church of England to give up her own authority and be lead into bondage to the State, Keble theorized there must be some kind of threat. If not a threat, then at least a pretense of a threat. And these “Pretenses will never be hard to find.” Israel wanted to be like every other nation. The Church of England, Keble preached, would frighten themselves in order to become like everybody else, so they could be safe from these pretenses of a threat.

Interestingly enough, corporate America does this all the time. Naomi Klein describes this in detail in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008). If you keep telling everyone that everything is terrible, if you keep shocking the system with manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis, then, of course, people will give up their freedom in order to be saved. They will give up their voice. They will go gladly into bondage for safety. Are these not the trumped-up pretenses of threat Keble preached against?

Therefore, whenever I hear anyone prophesying the imminent downfall of the Episcopal Church, I consider the source. Typically, it’s not a priest or a deacon or a bishop. Usually, it’s a consultant or someone else with a “bullshit job.” Usually, it’s someone in power. Usually, they’re using this forecasted future (that doesn’t exist) to give their “bullshit job” meaning.  They’ll use these threats of a forecasted future to give themselves more authority. Make a CEO, TREC says, and you’ll keep the Church from dying. We only want to be like everybody else.

Once I consider the source, then I consider the other narrative no one mentions: if we can defend (and celebrate) $34.5 million spent over a decade in over eighty lawsuits, surely we can afford to pay staff; if we can (presumably) expand our litigations through a Chief Legal Officer, surely it’s not all terrible; if we can sue to get a building and then sell it for a third the price, then surely we’ll make it; if we can afford the $11 million facility at 815, surely we’re not in such dire straits to ask for a CEO; if we can afford to send the House of Bishops (whom TREC mentions no restrictions) to Taiwan, then maybe we’re not headed for the ash heap; if we can keep and expand (as TREC suggests) all these “bullshit jobs,” then surely it’s not too bad.

Once I consider the source and consider this other narrative, my mind is clear: I am no longer motivated by fear.

So, please pardon my incredulity when I hear the leadership of the Episcopal Church speak about mission and social justice and growing the church in the name of “efficiency” and “effectiveness.” After all, none of our leaders—even those in “bullshit jobs”—tell us not to be afraid. On the contrary, they tell us over and over and over to be very afraid. Thus, this oft-prophesized future has nothing to do with tomorrow, but has everything to do with today. This fear of the future is a powerful tool.

And so, the poor go unfed and songs go unsung. Souls go without the gospel while we go about in litigation against our brothers and sisters. And so, in our day, the Episcopal Church sits behind a very expensive desk, reads blogs and wrings her hands about the future, convincing herself day after day that she is not really the bride of the incarnate Word who was, and is, and will be God forever, world without end. She loses the moment for the future. She loses the moment for her materialism. She convinces herself deliverance is not at hand. And she will sell herself into corporate prostitution.

But, I say to you: do not be afraid.

Hoosier Memories

Warren_G_Harding-Harris_&_Ewing-cropI have seen miles of corn upon corn, waving in noonday’s light as if plucked by child’s finger on her way to school. I have seen great swaths of shade roam freely as finger-painted clouds processed the firmament: rising before falling as rain. I read once that the ancient men of great wisdom rode on these when women held stars in their hands and strode upon the moon at night. I have heard the sound of creation in the silence of dirt roads, in forearm sobs, in looks around the kitchen table. I have seen bending trees dip ecstasy in their leaves and fling it into the sky. Under the shelter of May Hydrangeas, resting in shadow’s dirt, I dwelt secure.

I have heard a president stopped here once, riding a whistle through his land, surrounded by crimson and ivory bunting. He spoke, then flew into memories as a pigeon under an overpass. Warren G. Harding, I think.  A lesser light, but a light still the same. 

A Rude Little Story of Boone Lake

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I overheard this recently in a truck stop bathroom on I-26 near Grey, Tennessee. Two men walk into the bathroom and carried on this conversation to their separate stalls:

“No, man. He’s got to be making this shit up. Every day?” His friend asks.

“Yeah, every day. At least, that’s what my buddy said.”

He scoffs. “Every day?”

“Yeah, man. This guy went out to his dock in the morning—every day—with a thick rope and throws it into Boone Lake. Then, he sat at the edge of his dock and watched the rope in the water. But it’s not that he’s just watching it. It’s like he’s studied it, watching the way the frays of the rope float. The guy did this for like hours on end, very intense and everything.”

“Bro, I think your buddy’s pulling your leg.”

“Naw, man. I trust this guy. He lived in the same neighborhood. He’d wake up and start drinking his coffee, and this guy would be out there in rain or shine watching his rope in the water, every single morning.”

“What was he doing?”

“Well, that’s the thing, man. My buddy never knew. Last Fourth of July, he was invited to another neighbor’s house for a cookout. So, he asks around at the party, ‘Hey y’all seen this guy out on his dock with his rope?’ They all nod. He’s just like a feature of the neighborhood, you know. He’s harmless and everything. All they know is he lives alone and keeps to himself. And every morning he’s out on the dock. It’s like in the South, man, you let your crazies out.”

His friend said, “Oh man, it’s like my Mamaw was telling me when she was growing up, she had a crazy auntie who would sit on her front porch and hiss like a cat at everyone who would walk by. I was like, damn, Mamaw, why didn’t they lock her up? My Memaw’s all like, she didn’t hurt nothing. My Mamaw said everyone in the town was like, oh, it’s just crazy Mildred, don’t mind her and they’d bring their out-of-town friends and relatives to walk by their house just so hissin’ Mildred would do her thing.” 

He continues: “Exactly. So, my buddy asks all these people at this cookout if they know why he does it. And you know what’s crazy, it never even occurred to nobody to ask. They’re all like, nope, sure don’t, and they all chuckle and eat their burgers. And the kids run around with their sparklers and shit. But they all know who he is. They all watch him from their windows, too.”

SPARKLERS_-_sparklers_5-9-09_white_bursting_LARGE“Well, curiosity gets the best of my buddy. A few days later, he’s drinking his coffee at the window and sees the man come out of his house with the rope over his shoulder. He walks down to the dock, gathers some of it in his hands, starts lassoing it above his head, and throws it in. He sits on the edge of the dock and starts to study it. And my buddy is like, well hell, ain’t no time like the present and walks over to the dock.

“When he gets closer, my buddy sees the guy’s face. He’s like way more intense than my buddy could see from his house. Furrowed brow, lots of tilting of his head, some hms and hrms and all that scratching his head and stuff. And my buddy’s real tentative and is like, pardon me, mister, but every mornin’, I sees you throw out this rope and I was a’wonderin’ if you could tell me what yer’ doing. The guy just keeps sitting there like my buddy didn’t even exist. So, my buddy slowly starts backing away because this is some weird shit. And the guy just sits there watching the rope in the water. My buddy’s like, alright, what the fuck?”

“What the fuck, man. That’s some creepy shit,” his friend says. They flush their respective toilets and move to the sinks. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever heard men wash their hands in a public restroom.

He continues: “Yeah, but you don’t know my buddy. He lives for creepy shit. So, every other day, he starts going over to the man’s house and just stands near him. Each day he gets closer. Finally, he’s sitting next to the rope guy on the edge of his dock. They never breathe a word to each other. Until three days later, my buddy is like, I am with you every morning, sir, and I ain’t got no clue what yer doing. The man turned to him real slow. He said, I’m trying to gather the lake in this rope. I know if I watch it closely enough and the sunlight glints just right and the humidity and the twelve vectors are in alignment, I will pull this lake to the shore.”

“I know, I know. So, my buddy’s trying real hard not to laugh. He’s like, but why do you want to catch Boone Lake? The man turned back to his rope and said, because it’s like fire shut up in my bones if I don’t try. But my buddy can’t hold his laughter in anymore. He’s like, hey, guy, whatever floats your boat but that’s some fucked up shit right there. My buddy gets up and walks home, chuckling.”

TN01lk001“A few weeks ago, my buddy had his nephews staying with him. These guys are around, I don’t know, twelve or thirteen. So, my buddy is like, hey fellas you wanna see something weird? And, you know what it is being that age, they’re hoping it’s a stack of titty mags or a new video game. So, that next morning, he wakes these guys up and gets them to the window.”

“Sure enough, there he is with the rope around his arm, walking down from his house. He twirls it above his head and throws it into the lake. But, then after a few minutes, the rope guy starts swearing. He’s yelling about how he ain’t got nothing but a wet rope. He pulls it back in and marches over to a really tall tree on the edge of his land, right by the waters. He climbs the tree and starts tying the rope to one of these big limbs. My buddy’s like, oh hell no. He tells his nephews to go to their rooms and not come out until he gets back. He runs over to the guy’s place, to the tree. But, by the time he gets there, he can hear the sound of the wet rope creaking. My buddy sees the man’s feet dangling moving back and forth, back and forth in the wind.”

“My buddy runs back to his place and gets a machete from the garage and his nephews. Figured they’d wanna see a dead body. Hell, when I was twelve, I would have loved to see a dead body. So, he cuts the man down. But, then he starts cleaning the rope guy like a deer. His daddy taught him how to field dress when he was just a little kid. He figures It was past time for his nephews to learn, too. So, my buddy starts showing them how to take out the intestines and everything. One of the little nephews would take the organs and drop them in the lake. Then, after the field dressing, my buddy starts hacking the guy into pieces: feet, shins, knees and so on. Both nephews just taking the pieces and dumping them in the lake. It was very efficient until there was nothing left. Finally, they take a large rock and tie the wet rope around it. My buddy coils the rope with the rock over his shoulder and walks to the dock. He lassos it over his head. They watch as it uncoils into the calm waters, before disappearing to the bottom, man.”

“You know what’s really fucked up? My buddy said they looked up from the dock and saw one of the neighbors they met at the Fourth of July party standing at their window, drinking coffee and watching them. The neighbor waves. The nephews raise hands red-soaked to wave back. My buddy said there were like at least a dozen faces in the windows all around the lake, all watching them . . .” their voices trail off in the hallway as the door closes behind them. 

 

For Now, A Rude Little Story of Carter County

netnmapOnce upon a time in the southern wastes of Carter County, where the eastern winds blow westerly from North Carolina, there is an immense tree in a forgotten valley. The tree is so large that a thousand Cadillacs could be parked three deep in its shade. The branches extend so far that they scrape the surrounding mountain paths. Under its canopy, the roots bulge the dark earth in alien formations for miles. Herds of deer and all manner of foxes and even bears find respite from the summer heat there. It has been so for thousands of years. 

In the course of time when spring gives way to years and decades give way to stories, the surrounding land was purchased by the Dunn family of coastal Virginia. Old Colonel Dunn had a limp from when he fought alongside General Washington in the French & Indian War. But, by the time he purchased the land, he was a man advance in years and frail in health. It was during the War for Independence that he sent his son to survey. The Young Mr. Dunn was to take notes of his journey.

One unbelievably hot August day, the young Mr. Dunn asked his Cherokee guide to show him something most magnificent—some vista or mountain so beautiful to take away his breath—in short, something interesting for the old Colonel. Over their months together of exploration in the dense forests, young Mr. Dunn and his guide became quite close, like brothers. The Cherokee mulled it over. He then told young Mr. Dunn to stay put. The guide had to consult his elders and his ancestors. In the meantime, the young Mr. Dunn should fast and pray; more importantly, though, he should listen to the wind. The Cherokee offered no explanation before disappearing into the woods.

For six days and six nights, the young Mr. Dunn read his prayers, fasted a little and lay on a rocky outcropping nearby to hear the wind. He didn’t know exactly what he was supposed to hear, but the wind roared up in these mountains. It moved from far to near, and then out along the way in one fluid motion as if crafted by a hand dipping in water. If he listened closely enough, it overwhelmed him. On the fourth afternoon, he spontaneously sang a Te Deum. He forgot some of the words, but the young Mr. Dunn had never been so moved. The wind blew his tears across his face.

True to his promise, though, his friend returned from the woods without warning on the morning of the seventh day. He asked if young Mr. Dunn was ready. Young Mr. Dunn claimed he was as they set out on a hike of three days. The Cherokee never asked what he heard in the wind or if he even fasted. Whenever he thought about that Te Deum, though, young Mr. Dunn blushed.

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The third morning, they came to the trail descending to the base of the tree. From the ridges above, the expansive foliage of the tree hid the valley beneath it. Young Mr. Dunn had no clue what lay ahead. As they began to descend, they came across a shaman sitting in deep contemplation around a smoky fire. The dense woods were dark, even at noon. When he was roused, the shaman’s lazy eye never left Mr. Dunn. The shaman wiped them with ash and purged them with burning sage. The other eye, the good one, never left the distant woods behind them.

Like they were descending the edge of some great bowl, the path kept curving to the right. At each successive turn, the temperature dropped. By the time they neared the bottom, the Cherokee covered himself with a great skin and Mr. Dunn’s breath puffed out. By Mr. Dunn’s estimation, it was only two-thirty in the afternoon. Yet, here they were freezing in the Appalachian wilderness, hidden from the sun.

Like colonnades, the trees opened to an immense clearing surrounding the tree. The tree itself was nearly a mile away, but could be clearly discerned due to its size. The roots ribbed and jumbled the barren earth in a thousand ways for as far as he could see. In their stationary positions, the substructure pulsated, appearing to twist one on top of another like the weave of a basket. Off to the right, Young Mr. Dunn could see a herd of white stag bounding the roots with ease. The men, however, had to climb and manage carefully.

When they neared the tree, it took up their entire field of vision. They circumambulated it. Then, circumambulated it again, both heading in different directions. It took the friends the span of a cat’s nap to reach each other. The wood itself was like nothing Mr. Dunn had ever seen. He took careful drawings and notated this in his leather book.

I have seen this book, by the way, in a small library in Carter County, where I was commanded to handle it with gloves. The drawings of young Mr. Dunn show a knotted and gnarled tree, looking so brittle as to break. Most historians believe the young Mr. Dunn had an active imagination. Even a team of Botanists and Dendrologists from the North could not identify the drawing of the tree with anything in the known world.

After careful study, young Mr. Dunn turned to his guide and said with visible breath in the cold, “Friend, this tree is useless. I cannot make a house from its wood, nor warship, nor anything for that matter. No man can make art or utility of this wood. Which is just as well since it is out here next to nothing. What can my father do with it?” The teeth of the Cherokee chattered.

Three_CherokeeThey ascended back to the known. When they passed the shaman’s spot, he was not there nor was there any sign of his fire. By now, though, it was late in the day and they were tired. They lie down and slept. The wind blew in the night.

In a dream, the tree appeared in the form of a bent old man to the young Mr. Dunn. “You, my boy, are stupid,” the tree said. “You are useful to your fathers. And you will die being useful to your sons. But you will never grow past that. I grew because I am useless. Any fire started with my wood turns immediately to ash. Any house built of my ugly bones falls at first gust. Dinner on a table of me would be puked immediately. Yet, I am beauty. Beauty is useless.”

The young Mr. Dunn awoke and continued his travels with his friend, notating in his little book. By the time he returned to Virginia, the Colonel had died. Mr. Dunn told no one of the tree. Which is just as well, since it still stands out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in the southern wastes of Carter County.

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